Professor Robert Lightowlers

Professor of Molecular Neuroscience


I was awarded my B.Sc (Hons) in Biological Sciences from the University of East Anglia in 1983. I moved to the Australian National University in Canberra to study for a Ph.D in Microbial Genetics (and learn to surf) under the supervision of Professors Frank Gibson and Graeme Cox, graduating in 1988. Following a postdoctoral position with Professor Rod Capaldi at the Institute of Molecular Biology in Eugene Oregon USA, where I gained my lifelong interest in mitochondria and mitochondrial disease, I successfully applied for a Lister Institute Fellowship in 1990. This allowed me to return to the UK, where I established my laboratory at Newcastle University to study the molecular mechanisms of mitochondrial gene expression and disease. I have been employed by Newcastle University since that date, being awarded a Personal Chair in 2000. From my close interaction with Professor Turnbull, the Mitochondrial Research Group was initiated. This has expanded enormously and led to formation of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Mitochondrial Research in 2012. I was appointed Director of the Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences in 2012.

Research Focus

My postgraduate studies were on the function of the ATP synthase in eubacteria. It was therefore not such a large step to studying oxidative phosphorylation in man, which I started in the US in 1988. Mutations of the mitochondrial genome (mtDNA) were shown to cause disease and my main research topic since this time has been into determining the molecular mechanisms that underlie expression of this genome in man and searching for a cure for these disorders. This has proved to be particularly complicated, as it is not yet possible to transfect mammalian mitochondria in intact cells and there is no faithful reconstituted system for studying mitochondrial protein synthesis. The multi-copy nature of mtDNA has also led to a fascination with mitochondrial genetics and transmission. Studying pathogenic mutations, both in the nucleus and in mtDNA, that result in defects of mitochondrial gene expression, has helped us understand far more about these complex mechanisms and through these insights we hope to be able to offer treatments that are currently not available for the majority of patients with mitochondrial disease.

  • 998 Ph.D John Curtin School of Medical Research, Australian National University
  • 1996-present Member of the Lister Institute of Preventive Medicine
  • 1997 Henry Wellcome Commemorative Award for Innovative Research
  • 1998-present Member, Biochemical Society
  • 1997 Member, Advisory panel to the French Government on use of nucleoside analogues in AIDS research
  • 1998 Erskine Prize, University of Canterbury, Christchurch New Zealand
  • 2000 Professor of Molecular Neuroscience, Newcastle University
  • 2001-2012 Scientific advisory panel for Ataxia UK
  • 2005-2009 MRC College of Experts
  • 2008-2011  BBSRC Pool of Experts
  • 2011-present Finnish Academy of Science Scientific Review Board 2011-present
  • 2012 Director, Institute for Cell and Molecular Biosciences, Newcastle University
  • 2012 Royal Swedish Academy of Science Evaluation for Goran Gustafsson Prize
  • 2013 -Research Council of Norway Scientific Review Board 2013
  • 2013-2018 Agence National de la Recherche, France, Grant Selection Committee member
  • 2013-2020 Chair Scientific Advisory Committee, LabEX Mitocross (Univ of Strasbourg)
  • 2015–2019 Foundation for Polish Science, Scientific Advisory Board
  • 2019 Joint Canada-Israel Health Advisory Board