Discovered: A cluster of 60 proteins that help cells move and feel

Faculty scientists have discovered a cluster of 60 proteins that allow the body’s cells to react to their environment and communicate with each other.

Professor Martin Humphries, who led the research team said:

Our findings on how cells sense their environment have unlocked an important key to understanding how we can persuade cells to form different tissues and how we might stop cell movement in diseases such as cancer.

Cells react differently to materials that are hard or soft, rigid or elastic. For example, stem cells on a hard surface develop into bone cells, while the same cells on a very soft surface make nerve cells.

word cloud
Word cloud art work which shows all the proteins identified by the analysis. They have been scaled by the number of times they were observed in the analysis so that the larger text indicates the 60 proteins highlighted by the paper.

Similarly, cells, including tumour cells, tend to move more rapidly on hard surfaces compared to soft surfaces. The ways in which cells sense this difference in their environment remains a mystery.

The research revolves around integrins -– a family of proteins that were discovered in the 1980s and are essential for cell growth and function.

Integrins, which are a building block of complex life, are found at the outer edge of cells and encourage proteins to assemble around them when they interact with the outside environment.

The team carried out complex experiments to understand the workings of the integrin protein clusters using mass spectrometry, and assembled a list of all the proteins in the system.

One member of the team, Dr Adam Byron, assembled similar data from across the world and distilled it into a list of 60 proteins that cluster around integrins.

Another member of the research team, Ed Horton, said:

After assimilating all the complex data which was available, we were surprised that only 60 proteins were the essential mediators of the information exchange between integrins and the outside world.

So there is now a consensus view: integrins work closely with at least 60 proteins to coordinate many functions including cancer cell migration.

And fellow researcher Dr Jon Humphries said:

Understanding how cells sense their environment is an important step in understanding how, for example, cancer cells move or how stem cells take on different jobs.

An electronic copy of the paper, Definition of a consensus integrin adhesome and its dynamics during adhesion complex assembly and disassembly, is available on request.

Henry’s Placement Year Blog

Manchester Life Scientists

Hello everyone!

My name is Henry and I’m a third year Neuroscience student on placement in the USA! I’m lucky enough to be working in the University of Nevada Reno’s Physiology and Cell Biology department, looking at energy utilisation in a giant synapse called ‘the calyx of held’. So far it’s been an absolutely invaluable (and all-round-incredible) experience and the three months have already transformed me from a bumbling undergraduate into a (mostly) competent lab worker!

 “But what actually happens on placement?” is the question that I think crosses most people’s mind when they sign up for industrial experience. Sure, you know you’ll have to do ‘a project’ which you’ll have to write up to earn those sweet, sweet percentage points towards your final grade. But beyond that is kind of a mystery, right? Now, I won’t pretend that I have all the answers, but I can at least give…

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Tuesday Feature Episode 30: Adam Hugill

This week we are speaking to the employability intern Adam about his role here in the Faculty. You can follow their twitter account @employabilityLS


Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

My role in the Faculty involves making sure that all of our students graduate with the skills they need to go into their first job.  The majority of my work is running events where I have to coordinate closely with the University careers service and outside organisations. The events vary from our big meet the professionals event through to the regular CV surgery workshops, which take place every week.

How does this benefit the students?

We aim to make our students aware of the different career paths that are available to them, this is especially true for events like ‘meet the professionals’. This event gives students the chance to meet our alumni and to find out more about the career paths that the alumni have taken.

How did you first become interested in Life Sciences and your role here in the Faculty?

From a really young age I was really into scuba diving, being under the sea, I couldn’t help but be absolutely fascinated by everything that was going on and all the life you could see. My love of life sciences grew from there and I was always the annoying kid at school that would ask questions of the teacher. Through my zoology degree here, in Manchester, my confidence and my knowledge of life sciences really grew.

I became interested in the employability role because during my degree I did a placement year in New Zealand. Although I really enjoyed my year and the research that I did, I found that research really wasn’t for me. Despite deciding not to continue with research, I really enjoyed working within the University environment, so I started looking for roles that weren’t specifically research based and I stumbled upon my current position. I felt that this job looked like something that I could do and something that I would really enjoy doing.

Did you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I wouldn’t say that I have any particular heroes, but I think a lot of zoologists grew up watching a lot of David Attenborough. Shows like Blue Planet and the Discovery Channel really got my interest in life sciences going from a young age.

How has studying and working in Manchester helped you?

My course was especially good at preparing me for coming into the workplace, my placement year gave me some work experience that made sure I had   skills that I needed to go into a job. I worked for a year  in London and when I came back to Manchester, it seemed like a much friendlier atmosphere and the student life in Fallowfield really helped me get the most out of my degree.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m a big cricketer and play a lot of the time. Through the winter I play a lot of 5 a side football and other sports but the problem is that I generally think I’m like Cristiano Ronaldo and go on to injure myself!


Madagascar Medical Expedition 2015

This year a team of students went on a life changing trip to Madagascar to help educate and treat Schistosomiasis in the area. Here’s an account of their adventures.


What is Schistosomiasis and why did MADEX do this project?

Madagascar Medical Expedition 2015 was a student-led research expedition, which set out to screen school children for schistosomiasis in one of Madagascar’s most remote and isolated areas.  We wanted to treat those with the disease and run health education programmes to teach the children ways of preventing re-infection.

Schistosomiasis is a parasitic disease caused by the Schistosoma fluke which is the second most important parasite-born disease after malaria. It is found in tropical, humid climates. People become infected through contact with water infested with the parasite larvae. There are three main species that infect people: Schistosoma haematobium which causes urinary schistosomiasis, and S. mansoni and S. japonicum which causes intestinal schistosomiasis.

The World Health Organisation (WHO) considers schistosomiasis to be the second most important parasite-born disease, second only to malaria in terms of global socio-economic impact. Approximately 166 million people are infected worldwide across 78 endemic countries and it is thought it causes around 20,000 to 200,000 deaths/year. The disease has a particularly serious impact on children as they become too ill to go to school. This impact on education has a major impact on the economy. For this reason the reduction of schistosomiasis is in line with the Millennium 2020 objectives for global health set out by the WHO. Control of schistosomiasis is based on treatment with Praziquantal (an anti-helminthic drug), improved sanitation and health education.

In Madagascar in 1987, approximately 16 million people were thought to be infected in a total population of 24 million. The WHO advises treatment via Mass Drug Administration every 6 months to any population which has greater than 50% prevalence; however in 2009 approximately just 20% of the population in Madagascar had received treatment.

Planning the expedition, and collaboration

This was the first ever student-led medical research expedition from The University of Manchester (UoM), and took over two years of planning. With the backing of The Ministry of Health Madagascar, we put together a proposal, and negotiated with Manchester Medical School to let us use the project for part of our university course. We organised training in microscopy and schistosomiasis identification with Professor Andrew MacDonald’s team and were supplied with brilliant education resources from Dr Sheena Cruickshank in the Manchester Immunology Group.

Four UoM students went to Madagascar: Stephen Spencer (Founder, Head and Lead Coordinator of the team), Anthony Howe (logistics and finances), Hannah Russell (medical, health and safety officer) and James Penney (research lead, and as a French speaker, in charge of international communications)

We also nurtured a collaborative link between UoM and The University of Antananarivo. We selected two recent medical graduates to join the field team: Daniel and Anjara. As well as being an extra pair of hands, they translated, took over the health education programme, and conducted interviews with local health workers, headteachers and village chiefs to investigate the health burden and health beliefs of the area, and so were absolutely crucial to the success of the expedition.

The research

The research was based in the district of Marolambo, one of Madagascar’s most remote locations, situated in central East. We screened six schools from six villages in this district.  This involved hiking between villages, sometimes up to 24km, through forested areas with nearly a quarter of a tonne of equipment.

We screened a total of 399 children from 6 schools, across 6 villages in the district. We looked for schistosomiasis by three different methods: 1) looking for eggs in stool samples 2) looking for eggs in urine samples and 3) using CCA antigen testing, to test for presence of the CCA antigen (given off by all schistosome species) in urine samples. In this way we tested for both urinary and intestinal schistosomiasis.

We found an overall prevalence of 94%, with our data showing that all of this was intestinal rather than urinary schistosomiasis. We also recorded extremely high egg counts, well over the WHO threshold for ‘intense’ infection, and on discussion of these results with experts, it is likely that if some of these eggs remain in the patient’s intestines then severe problems like liver cancer and splenomegaly could occur. Infection, if left untreated, can cause serious damage and even death, so it is critical to intervene with anti-parasite medicine and education. Further to this we ran health education programs to the school children, teaching them about schistosomiasis, how to avoid re-infection, and raising awareness to the local community.

What lies ahead for MADEX?

Our long-term goal is to control schistosomiasis in the Marolambo region.

We have met with the Ministry of Health of Madagascar in Antananarivo, who are keen for the work to continue. As well as ensuring complete treatment amongst this community, we would like to re-screen these populations to study the re-infection rates here.  In addition to this, with follow-up projects, we also aim to reduce the disease burden by focussing on improving education about the disease.

We hope to make this a long-term project, and to continue the collaboration between The Universities of Manchester and Antananarivio, by sending out students year on year. Planning for an expedition in summer 2016 is underway.

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Thanks to: Professor Anthony Freemont & Manchester Medical School, Dr Ed Wilkins & Infectious Diseases Unit (North Manchester General Hospital), Professor Andrew MacDonald, Dr Sheena Cruickshank & Manchester Immunology Group (University of Manchester), Dr Jane Wilson-Howarth, Anglo-Malagasy Society, Jayne Jones & Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine, Herizo Andrianandrasana & Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust, Dr Peter Long (University of Oxford), Dr Shona Wilson (University of Cambridge), Schistosomiasis Control Initiative, Natural History Museum London, World Health Organization, Royal Geographical Society, East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust, Mission Aviation Fellowship, Dr Alain Rahetilahy & Madagascar Ministry of Health, Prof Luc Samison & University of Antananarivo, Dr Clara Fabienne & Institut Pasteur (Madagascar), Zochonis Enterprise Award, British Medical and Dental Schools’ Trust.

Ayesha’s second year (International) Blog

Manchester Life Scientists

Hi all!

Let me introduce myself first! My name is Ayesha and this year I’m going to be writing for the international section of the FLS student blog.  I’m currently a second year student studying Biomedical Sciences here. A little backstory, I was born and raised in India (represent!) and moved to the UK only about a year ago for my studies.

As far as my first year goes, if I had to sum it up in a word, it was amazing. It was such a good learning experience for me from never even having flown before in my life, to coming all the way here to a completely different continent altogether all by myself. It may not seem like a big deal to many, but for me it was huge! I’m so glad I chose to live at Hulme Hall for my first year- the people were…

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Faculty scientist wins prestigious Optometry award

The College of Optometrists is the professional, scientific and examining body for optometry in the UK, recently recognised the achievements of the most talented researchers working in the field at its annual Diploma Ceremony at the Central Hall in Westminster, London on Tuesday 10th November. Four individuals and a research team were presented with a College Research Excellence Award in recognition of their outstanding contribution to vision science, eye health care and to the profession.

We are delighted to announce that Dr Hema Radhakrishnan MCOptom, received the Neil Charman Medal for Research, the most prestigious of the five awards, for her pioneering work on ocular accommodation and collagen cross linking.

She said:Picture by All rights reserved College of optometrists  diploma awards 2015, London.

I was delighted to receive the Neil Charman medal for research. The Research Excellence Awards recognise the outstanding research that is done by College members. It was amazing to see so many excellent researchers from across the globe being handed these awards and Life Fellowships. On the day, when the streets around Westminster were lined with poppies, we had our own affirmation of how we are able to see much further in our profession by standing on the shoulders of giants.

This is the first time that the award has been made to a Manchester researcher and is the highest profile research prize in Optometry in the UK.  This award follows on from a previous research excellence award from the College of Optometrists in 2011 when Dr Radhakrishnan was given The Bernard Gilmartin award  for having the most highly regarded research paper in Ophthalmic and Physiological Optics, the journal of the College of Optometrists.

Tuesday Feature Episode 29: Alexander Ryan

From science on the screen, to science in the labs – this week’s Tuesday Feature looks at Alexander Ryan. He’s a new post doctoral researcher in the Faculty, so read about his research into his congenital hyperinsulinism.

Please explain your research for the general public in ten sentences or less.

At the moment I’m looking at congenital hyperinsulism which is when the pancreas secretes too much insulin. It affects roughly 1:50000 new-borns and its potentially really awful because the high levels of insulin leads to low levels of glucose which can have major problems with development, especially in the brain. My research is looking at trying to stop the insulin secretion and to prevent the hypoglycaemia (the low levels of glucose) and therefore help the children.

How can this benefit the person reading this blog?

Obviously with it affecting 1:50000 children, it’s not particularly common but it is devastating to those families which are affected. Also, understanding more about how blood glucose levels are controlled may lead to new treatments for diabetes which is a much more common condition affecting blood glucose levels. There are some medications that can be used for treating congenital hyperinsulinism but they don’t always work, and have quite a few side effects.  Quite often the children need a pancreatectomy (removal of the pancreas) to stop hypoglycaemia, and this is a very drastic measure.  Hopefully my research should allow a new rage of medications to be developed which would help enormously.

How did you first become interested in this?

I did my PhD in Manchester where I looked at diabetes and I focused on skeletal muscle and fat. Then I moved to San Diego to do my postdoc and I looked at the effects the muscle and the fat have on the pancreas. I became interested in how the beta cells function as a whole and this is a natural progression from that. I look at the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too much insulin and so the whole combination of being able to fully understand the mechanisms behind why the beta cells secrete too little or too much insulin is really interesting to me.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Growing up, not so much. The main thing that wanted me to get into research science was my undergraduate degree. During this I did a project with Alan Dickson and everything he taught me was really really interesting. I got reading papers and I got excited by the idea that no one had done my work and that I was finding out new things. One of the people who I read was Randall Kaufman and I actually got the chance to meet him when I was in San Diego at a conference. It’s an embarrassing story but I completely ‘fanboy’d’ out. I basically told him I loved his lectures, his papers and so he’s closest thing to an actual hero. Other than that it’s people who I work with on a day to day basis. They do my sort of work but better than me!

How has studying and working here in Manchester helped you?

The University is fantastic. The reason I chose my undergraduate degree is that The University is one of the best in Europe, if not the World. When I was actually looking at the research the Faculty does, it seemed so fantastic and that’s what prompted me to do my PhD there. When I was coming back to England, I knew I would be coming back to the north so when I was trying to find universities to apply for, Manchester just stuck out as the best one. This was especially true for the research. The lab I’m working in now is one of the few labs in the country, if not the world, that is actually looking at congenital hyperinsulism in this manner and so it’s really unique to Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

I play bass and guitar quite a lot. I do a lot of musical stuff and I also play football. I took up surfing in San Diego, but that’s kind of useless here. Other than that, it’s just boring things like cooking, reading and travelling.

Research shows rice has been domesticated three times

Rice – the staple food source of around 50% of the World’s population, has been domesticated on three separate occasions, according to a new study by Faculty scientists.

The work could be used to educate better rice grain improvement projects, something that may prove crucial with growing environmental concerns.

The study focused on three major types of rice: the long-grain Indica which is non-sticky and mainly found in tropical lowland Asia; Japonica a short-grain rice that produces sticky rice, like the one in sushi and Aus, the drought-tolerant variety that grows in Bangladesh.

Before this study, researchers had thought rice may have been domesticated once or perhaps twice. Scientists had looked at Japonica and Indica because they have had the longest history of cultivation. Some argue that Japonica came first around 10,000 years ago and that Indica emerged as a hybrid form of it a little later. Others contend that both Japonica and Indica have separate domestication events.

However, new analysis from Professor Terry Brown, Dr Peter Civan and colleagues add a third domestication event to the mix by showing evidence that Aus was also domesticated separately in a region from India to Bangladesh.

The team looked at genetic data from 446 samples of different wild rice to see how similar Aus is to Indica and Japonica. In most cases, Aus was not similar enough to be explained by a single domestication event. More specifically, they looked at ‘domestication sweeps’ which are specific parts of the genome that differ from wild types and that scientists believe were chosen by early farmers because they had a great advantage to growing more grain. For example, the sweep region includes the ability for rice plants to grow more vertically and so can be planted more densely.

Brown and the team say that the genetic evidence that they have collected shows that these advantageous genes were present in a number of wild type rice varieties that were widely distributed across South Asia. It is therefore possible for farmers from three separate locations to select these wild types with the ideal genes and begin to cultivate them.

But why the big deal about rice? Well rice is thought to have brought about the great civilisations in Asia and led the way for large-scale agriculture to take place. Rice acted as a reliable food source and so large numbers of humans could gather to form large villages and settlements. Understanding how rice was domesticated would allow scientists to get a better understanding of how civilisations grew and moved across Asia.

Professor Brown concludes:

Our conclusions are in accord with archaeological evidence that suggests widespread origins of rice cultivation. We therefore anticipate that our results will stimulate a more productive collaboration between genetic and archaeological studies of rice domestication.

Civáň, P., H. Craig, et al. (2015). “Three geographically separate domestications of Asian rice.” Nature Plants 1: 15164.

Fly method is epilepsy’s ray of light

A revolutionary new approach developed by Faculty scientists has for the first time shown that epilepsy could be preventable.

Professor Richard Baines and Dr Carlo Giachello used a genetically-altered fruit fly to show that when nervous system activity is suppressed by shining yellow light through its embryo, it will not go on to develop symptoms of the disease when it gets older.

Though the procedure has only been used on flies, the team believe the Medical Research Council funded research proves that the development of Epilepsy can be stopped in its tracks if treated early enough.

However, the technique developed and tested over three-years and published in Current Biology, will not benefit individuals who already have epilepsy.

Professor Baines said:

“We’re excited by this discovery which we believe is proof of principle and a milestone in the way we understand epilepsy – though clearly more research is needed in mammals.

But if these findings are taken to their logical conclusion, then we might envisage the possibility of being able to treat individuals at an early enough stage so they do not go on to develop the symptoms of epilepsy.

After all, amazing though it might seem, the underlying biology of the central nervous system is the same in humans as it is in flies.”

People who suffer from genetic epilepsy, experience a period in the disease’s development called the epileptogenic process, the process which causes a brain to develop epilepsy.

Scientists have already discovered that starting treatment with antiepileptic drugs during the epileptogenic process will delay the inevitable onset of seizures.

However, this new procedure, which starts treatment during embryonic development and uses light rather than drugs to manipulate nervous system activity , seems to permanently prevent seizures altogether.

Flies do not have spontaneous seizures like humans – however according to the team, there is no reason to suggest that the effect would be any different.

The technique expresses a gene called halorhodopsin – an ‘optogenetic’ tool which allows yellow light to control cells in living tissue.

Dr Giachello added:

“By using this optogenetic tool, we found that if we prevent nervous system activity at a time when the fly embryo is between 80 and 90% fully developed, seizures stop entirely.

Optogenetics is a recent development in biology which is causing quite a bit of excitement, not just in the treatment of epilepsy but other illnesses too.”

Scientists have identified many genes that make humans predisposed to epilepsy. The identification of these genes makes it possible to screen for the disease before it starts and, as this new research shows, it might be possibly to intervene to prevent it.

Tuesday Feature Episode 28: David Kirby

Last week we featured the creator of the new Life Science Broadcast series and this week we feature a man who looks at the way science is portrayed in popular media. Read all about David Kirby and his work that looks at science on the screen.

Explain your research for the general public in about ten sentences of less.

As a science communication scholar, what I’m interested in are the ways that entertainment media serve as vehicles for science communication. By entertainment media I mean movies, television, graphic novels – things that we would think of as popular culture. I’m interested in the ways in which they disseminate messages about science and I’m interested in how those messages influence or impact real world science, technology and medicine.

How does this research benefit the general public?

Entertainment media like movies and television can have a significant impact on the ways in which the public think about science or technology. By examining the depictions of science in movies or on television and understanding how they are produced, how they are disseminated and how they are received by audiences, we can try and make these depictions better. We can try to ensure that those depictions match up with real world science – to make those depictions authentic, whether it is the depiction of science, scientists or the relationship between science and society.


How did you first become interested in your research area?

I’m trained as a scientist with a PhD in evolutionary genetics. I taught in a biology department for a while and during that time I became interested in the ways that media were depicting science. I had always had an interest in movies and that led me to undertake a retraining postdoc at Cornell University to study the relationships between science and media. Given my interest in film, I started looking at those relationships in particular. In terms of the research that I have done, I thought about the ways in which scientists have become involved in the making of entertainment products like movies and television. I thought it’d be a good idea to see the types of influences scientists might have on these media.

Did you have any science heroes growing up? Who inspired you?

Yeah, in terms of scientists who inspired me to take this path, I would point to Carl Sagan. This is especially because I’m an American who grew up in the 1970s and the 1980s. Cosmos was a major television show in the US at that time and it’s considered one of the seminal, popular depictions of science in media. Not only was Carl Sagan an inspiring figure in terms of being a prominent and articulate scientist, but the ways in which he made science understandable and made science something other people wanted to study, was important to me. So when I made the shift to look at science and media I kind of took Sagan as a model.

How has working here in Manchester helped you?

Working in Manchester has helped me because it brought me to the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine, which is one of the top centres for studying science and society in the world. Being here amongst my colleagues and being someone who made that transition from bench science into studying science’s relationship to society, it was actually really useful to me being here. Being in CHSTM allowed me to see how some of the top scholars in the world have studied this particular topic. I think I can rightfully say that had I not received the job here 11 years ago, my book Lab Coats in Hollywood would not have been as successful as it was. I owe the book’s success to being here in Manchester.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I have a lovely wife, Laura, and two cats and we enjoy doing a lot of travelling. In terms of activities for enjoyment, I play a sport called softball. It’s an American sport that is surprisingly popular here in Britain, especially in Manchester. We have a thriving league with over 30 teams, so we’re talking over 350 people playing the sport. I think its popularity in the UK surprises many people. For me it is a kind of life-line back to my roots in America.

Hello! And welcome…

Our student bloggers have begun again – it’s a great way to find out what’s going on here in the Faculty.

Manchester Life Scientists

To the UoM Faculty of Life Sciences student blog

Now that the students (new and returning) have had a few weeks to settle into university life, it’s time to start up the blog for 2016! This is a place where you can follow the stories of some of our Life Science students, enabling you to live in the life of a UoM student in each year of study! Please do take the opportunity to read through the experiences shared by our students – as you’ll probably soon find that the vibrant and exciting city of Manchester, with lots of fun activities and opportunity’s for students, is the only place you’ll want to be for the next few years!

So let me introduce myself. My name is Alina, and I am the new Digital Media Intern for the Faculty of Life Sciences. My role involves using social media to show potential…

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School children experiment with science and art

It is often thought that science and art are two opposite ends of the spectrum; whilst science is a strict, results-driven discipline, art is a creative, free expression of beauty – but this isn’t actually the case and there is a growing effort to recognise the similarities between art and science.

This week, scientists Emma Gowen and Ellen Poliakoff from the BEAM lab teamed up with local artist Anthony Hall and Steven Roper from the Whitworth Art Gallery to teach 150 local primary school children about the values of both science and art.

During the day the children learnt about the science of vision and the reasons why we see some art as beautiful and others as creepy.

The day started off by asking children to draw what they thought a scientist looked like versus what an artist looked like. The children then had to guess who was an artist and who was a scientist, which they didn’t always get right. Emma and Ellen then led a workshop looking at why our brains perceive somethings to be creepy and looked at the idea of realism in art.

The afternoon session kicked off with artist, Anthony Hall teaching about the ideas of beauty and how they apply to realism in paintings. It built upon what the children had learnt previously about the science of vision and how our brains perceive what it sees. The group also went around the gallery and applied what they had learnt to real life paintings.

The children then had a chance to create their own art. They produced art which was a mixture of different facial features in order to make something that blurred the lines between reality to see how creepy the pictures made them feel. They then rated the picture on a graph which compared how real the picture looked and how creepy this made them feel.

The day ended with another chance to draw what they thought an artist and what they thought a scientist looked like. As you can see, not only did the day blur the lines between reality, it also blurred the lines between science and art.

images courtesy of Anthony Hall.

Tuesday Feature Episode 27: Edward Bains

Edd joined the Faculty in September this year and his new broadcast will be out soon – so what better way to introduce him than a Tuesday Feature. Enjoy!

Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

I’m a digital media intern with the Faculty of Life Sciences. It’s my job to create the Life Science Broadcast – a series of regular short films about the exciting research that goes on in FLS. I do everything from coming up with the initial ideas and contacting academics, to recording interviews and cutaway footage. I then edit it all together and then finally market the finished product to the public. I also assist with the running of the Faculty’s social media channels, in particular our Instagram and the new Snapchat account.

How does your role benefit the general public?

By publicising the research done in the Faculty, I help facilitate a  better understanding of science to the general public. It’s vital in this day and age that scientists engage with the public and aren’t just hidden away in their labs. Science is of such huge benefit to society and people should be made aware of this, otherwise it’s easy for people to think of scientists as living in ivory towers cooking up Frankenstein’s Monster. My job also helps raise the profile of the Faculty and the University as a whole, which is important for ensuring that it continues to attract research funding and draws in students.

How did you first become interested in the life sciences?

I guess I first got into the life sciences and biology when I was about 12 years old when I adopted an orangutan with the WWF. Since then I’ve been passionate about animals and the environment and conserving our natural world. This motivated me to do a degree in biology at Manchester. My degree gave me a great insight into some fascinating topics within the life sciences such as microbiology, stem cell research and climate chance. I also went on an amazing field course to Costa Rice in my second year. I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do after university but I saw this internship being advertised and it sounded really appealing to me.

Do you have any heroes? Who inspired you?

*Don’t say David Attenborough, Don’t say David Attenborough*

I guess within the life sciences (and not David Attenborough) it would be Charles Darwin. He wasn’t just a brilliant biologist but was also a really great human being. Outside of the life sciences, I guess some of my heroes would be Stephen Fry and Ian Hislop. Oh and Mulan. Was she real? Saving China was pretty heroic

How has working in Manchester helped you?

Since starting my internship, I’ve learnt loads of new skills and got loads of great experience in all aspects of photography and film making and using professional editing software. I’ve also learnt a lot about marketing, running social media campaigns and the digital media environment in general. Thinking more broadly, I’ve been developing my capacity for teamwork and being creative and proactive at work. I hope this internship will be a great first step towards a career in media.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work, I love to keep active, going to a gym or running most evenings. I’m currently watching the Apprentice and Homeland and I’ve just started a really good new show on Netflix called Narcos. I’m really interested in politics and music and I love going to gigs and festivals. Other than that, I enjoy things like cooking, reading and going out with my friends. And I’m about to start yoga!

Manchester Science Festival Opening Night

Yesterday was the launch night of the Manchester Science Festival – an annual event that showcases the extraordinary science of the city. MSc Science Communication student, Emily Lambert was invited to the event and has written up what happened and what is going to happen in the coming week.

Manchester’s annual Science Festival opened on Thursday, with a diverse programme of events for all ages happening across the city.

81,000 white balls make up ‘Jump In!’, Manchester’s first ever adults-only ball pool at the Museum of Science and Industry. ‘Part lab, part playground’, the ball pool is strictly for ages 18+ and is designed to promote stress relief and creative thinking through play. Jump In! can be used as a workspace that is a bit different from the average desk and businesses can book the area for meetings. It is open until 1 November with an entry fee of £5. MOSI is also organising some evening events in the space, with tickets still available for a Silent Disco on 24 October.

Two new exhibitions are at MOSI for the festival. ‘Evaporation’ is a striking art installation by Tania Kovats, inspired by James Lovelock’s Gaia theory of the Earth as a single interconnected living system. Kovats focuses on the connectivity of water. The exhibition features large metal bowls in the shape of the largest oceans that all contain a saline solution that is slowly evaporating, leaving salt crystal traces. There is also an impressive collection of water samples from over 200 of Earth’s seas. A campaign to find the remaining 31 samples needed to complete this ‘All the Seas’ piece will be launched after the festival.

‘Cravings: Does your food control you’ is a culmination of research from North West Scientists investigating the relationship between sensory perception and food. The exhibition is a fusion of art, science and interactive activities, including a surprising smell test. MOSI will play host to Cravings: Late on 28 October, a free event where guests will be invited to explore their own tastes with an array of talks, games and activities.

For the full programme of over 150 Manchester Science Festival Events, please visit . Many events are free.

blog msci

Snake unlikely to have killed Cleopatra

Academics at The University of Manchester have dismissed the long-held argument that the ancient Egyptian queen Cleopatra was killed by a snake bite.

cleopatraAndrew Gray, Curator of Herpetology at Manchester Museum, says venomous snakes in Egypt –  Cobras or Vipers – would have been too large to get unseen into the queen’s palace.

He was speaking  to Egyptologist Dr Joyce Tyldesley in a new video which is part of a new online course introducing ancient Egyptian history, using six items from the Museum’s collection.

According to Dr Tyldesley, the ancient accounts say a snake hid in a basket of figs brought in from the countryside, and was also used to kill one or two of her serving maids.

But according to Andrew Gray, Cobras are typically 5 to 6 feet long but can grow up to 8 feet – too big to hide very easily.

There would also be too little time to kill 2 or 3 people-  because snake venom kills you slowly-  with in any case only a 10 per cent chance of death.

He said:

Not only are Cobras too big, but  there’s just a 10 per cent chance you would die from a  snake bite: most bites are dry bites that don’t inject venom.

That’s not to say they aren’t dangerous: the venom causes necrosis and will certainly kill you, but quite slowly

so it would be impossible to use a snake to kill  2 or 3 people one after the other. Snakes use venom to protect themselves and for hunting – so they conserve their venom and use it in times of need.

Cleopatra is strongly associated with snakes, like many ancient Egyptian kings and queens of Egypt. In addition, Cleopatra also believed she was the embodiment of the Goddess Isis, who can take on the form of a snake.

Dr Tyldesley, who’s book Cleopatra: Egypt’s Last Queen was a BBC Radio 4 book of the week, says one aspect of the accounts has proved to be correct. The ancient Egyptians believed snakes were good mothers.

Very few snakes have a maternal instinct. However, the cobra is an exception: they sit on the nest and protect them until they hatch. So in this case, it seems the Egyptians were right.

The free Massive Open Online Course (MOOC), ‘A History of Ancient Egypt’, launches on 26 October.

Dr Tyldesley added:

The MOOC includes behind-the-scenes access at the Museum and detailed descriptions of many objects from our Egypt and Sudan collection.

How flies are making their way into classrooms

Scientists have a problem: they find it hard to convey their knowledge and the importance of their research to the general public and, making time for this, clearly adds to the challenge. Sure, programmes like Stargazing Live and Big Blue Live are helping lead a fresh wave of interest in science, but they often focus on popular events or topics which have already made it into the limelight of interest. Faculty researchers at the Manchester Fly Facility are coming up with novel strategies to reach the public aiming to enthuse about less known topics, in their case the importance of Drosophila research.

Drosophila is better known as the fruit fly. It has been used in the research for 5 Nobel Prizes in Physiology and Medicine and over 100,000 scientific papers have been written about it. Its importance to science cannot be overstated and yet it is hardly taught in schools and its significance is little known by the general public. The Manchester Fly Facility addresses this unfortunate shortcoming with a series of well-designed resources for teachers inspiring them to use the fly as a powerful modern teaching tool for curriculum-relevant topics in biology lessons, and in this way to reach broad young audiences.

Professor Andrea Prokop states:

Drosophila is the conceptually best understood animal we have, it is used by over ten thousand scientists worldwide for cutting edge research, and it is easy to keep in schools for captivating, memorable experiments that bring life into classrooms. In a nutshell, flies have all the ingredients to convey conceptual understanding of biology as well as the thrill and relevance of science as a subject and future career perspective.

The team so far have built an impressive portfolio of teaching resources including fully developed lessons with support information,  two animated YouTube videos explaining the history and importance of fly research (below), a computer game, a dedicated web page with support information for schools, and they have built a repository listing hundreds of further educational resources available online. All resources are explained in greater detail in a recent blog by Andreas Prokop, and they are clearly picking up in popularity as indicated by the many views and shares of the various internet pages.

The resources are built on long-standing experiences that the team has with school visits, where Drosophila is always a warmly greeted guest. This approach has now been taken to the next level with the “droso4schools” project. On this project, doctoral students went into two schools, Trinity CoE High School and Loreto Sixth Form College, to work as teaching assistance for months. This allowed the team to develop an understanding of the biology curriculum and school realities, to then use this knowledge and develop biology lessons in which Drosophila is being uses as a powerful modern teaching tool, made memorable through simple but telling experiments with living flies.

Flies are kept in small vials with a bit of food at the bottom: ideal for maintaining them even in schools.

Surita Lawes, Head of Science and Maths Faculty at Loreto College, said about a lesson on genetics and alcohol developed at her school:

By studying mutations in Drosophila, our students have been exploring how alcohol and human culture affects our genetic make-up. It’s an excellent way for teachers to meet the challenge of revising many areas of the new linear syllabus using a topic designed to spark an interest.

Also students loved the new way of teaching. After an experimental session using a simple climbing assay comparing the performance of old versus young flies, Tof Apampa from Trinity High said :

Having the flies in the classroom was good fun.  It was so clear to see how the old flies were less mobile then the young ones.  We then learnt how this can help us understand aging in humans.  It also showed in a really clear way how using a large sample size is important when we are looking for patterns in scientific data.

The Fly Facility is looking to pave the way to make science more relevant and accessible than ever before – and they’re doing it with the humble fruit fly.

A simple, 5-10 minute colour reaction experiment demonstrating the genetics behind enzyme activity. Click to enlarge.

Flies can make a buzz in schools

Professor Andreas Prokop and colleague Sanjai Patel say the fruit fly – or Drosophila –  can be used as a modern teaching tool to explain many biological concepts used in the school curriculum.

In a UK first, the scientists based at the University’s Manchester Fly Facility have launched droso4schools – a website with sample lessons and teaching resources for schools.

Professor Prokop said:

Fruit flies are a fantastic resource for schools as Drosophila is the conceptually best understood animal there is.

“It is used by over ten thousand scientists worldwide for cutting edge research, and it is easy to keep in schools for captivating, exciting experiments which bring life into the classroom.

According to the researchers, the flies are easy and cheap to breed;  the equivalent of London’s population can be kept on a handful of laboratory trays.

The project website contains supporting documents and additional information to engage students who want to know more about Drosophila and help teachers who want to use flies in their lessons.

He explained:

“Currently we have resources for teaching classical genetics, statistical analysis of experiments, concepts of nervous system function, the gene to protein concept, principles of enzyme function, genetic variation and Darwinian evolution. All with flies,” h

He has even created a computer game where flies develop from eggs and spawn against time and parasites. To play the game visit

To adapt resources to teachers’ needs, Prokop and Sanjai supervised two PhD students, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, who worked as teaching assistants in two Manchester schools

The students then developed biology sample lessons in close collaboration with the teachers which can be downloaded from the droso4schools website

The lessons continue to be used in the two schools: Loretto college and Trinity Church of England High school

Professor Prokop added

Flies have all the ingredients to convey conceptual understanding of biology as well as the thrill and relevance of science as a subject and future career perspective.

Surita Lawes, Head of Faculty at Loreto Sixth Form College, who is also a biology teacher, said: “By studying mutations in Drosophila, our students have been exploring how alcohol and human culture affects our genetic make-up. It’s an excellent way for teachers to meet the challenge of revising many areas of the new linear syllabus using a topic designed to spark an interest.”

Tof Apampa, a student at Trinity Church of England High School said:

It was great having the PhD student working with us.  We learnt about what we can study at university and how fruit flys can help scientists explain how the human body works.

Having the flies in the classroom was good fun.  It was so clear to see how the old flies were less mobile then the young ones.

We then learnt how this can help us understand aging in humans.  It also showed in a really clear way how using a large sample size is important when we are looking for patterns in scientific data.

If you want know how and why fruit flies became so important for biology research, Prokop and Patel have even created two very entertaining educational YouTube videos.

For more information visit

To download the teaching packs and support information for teachers, visit the droso4schools website:

All school resources including computer game and YouTube videos are explained and summarised on this blog:

Science Communication: The Manchester Science Festival Launch Night

Each year the city of Manchester turns into a hub of science, with researchers coming from all over the world to celebrate the Manchester Science Festival (MSF). This year is no different and this year some of the coverage of the event has been reported by students of the MSc Science Communication course. Below is a report done by Amy Hodgson about the start of the MSF and the launch night.

This year’s Manchester Science Festival launch had extra impact thanks to the first cohort of students on the University’s new MSc in Science Communication. The students live tweeted throughout the launch party on Thursday evening at the Museum of Science and Industry. Also promoting the European City of Science (ECOS) 2016, the party was a thoroughly entertaining and inspiring evening of demonstrations, experiments and ‘sneak peeks’ of what is to come during this exciting year of science in Manchester. The Manchester Science Festival runs from 22 October to 1 November with events across the city for all ages.

Marieke Navin, the Director of the Science Festival and Sally MacDonald, the Director of the Museum of Science and Industry introduced the launch event. Juergen Maier, from chief sponsor Siemens addressed the importance of innovation and technology in the UK. Judith Smith, from lead education sponsor the University of Salford asked whether science could have the same ‘pulling power’ as the Great British Bake Off. Danielle George, Professor Engineering at Manchester University showcased the beginnings of a new ‘robot orchestra’, using old floppy disks to play the Rocky theme tune. She asked for donations of any old technology items that can be added to the orchestra.

The headline exhibition at the festival is ‘The Cravings Experiment’ and at the launch party the award-winning chef Mary-Ellen McTague created two tasty experiments for the guests. The first involved two invented names ‘bouba’ and ‘kiki’ to investigate how we relate certain flavours to sounds. Various canapés were served and guests were asked which word best described each canapé. The second experiment aimed to find out if having food displayed in different ways changed the tasting experience.

Next on stage was ‘Gastronaut’ Stefan Gates who conducted various noisy and smelly demonstrations and experiments. These included firing marshmallows into the audience using a leaf blower, freezing cheese with a fire extinguisher and using a ‘flavour dispersal device’ to see if the audience could recognise a certain smell. There was also a taste bud experiment in which MSc student Emily Lambert’s tongue turned bright blue, revealing her to be a ‘super taster’.

The European City of Science ‘photo booth’ proved to be a popular attraction. Guests were asked to make a promise to join, create, share or tell for the year, with the pictures published on Instagram to ensure all promises are kept. The evening ended with a DJ set from Everything Everything. ECOS director Annie Keane said that the student social media team had done a ‘great job’ in helping to get the programme off to ‘such a fabulous start’ on Twitter and Instagram.

The Manchester Science Festival runs from 22 October to 1st November with events across the city for all ages. Manchester is the European City of Science 2016 and the EuroScience Open Forum runs from 23 to 27 July 2016.

     msf launch

Report by Amy Hodgson. The social media team was Amy Hodgson, Jair Sian, Emily Lambert, Bernadette Tynan, Alec Wilby and Dave Saunders.

Tuesday Feature Episode 26: Max Drakeley

Max is a recent graduate from The Faculty of Life Sciences and is now working as part of the Biological Sciences Review (BSR). Read below about how he first got interested in science and how the BSR is helping to teach the next generation of scientists.

What is your role here in the Faculty?

So my role is editorial assistant with the Biological Sciences Review, which is an A-level magazine that tries to take cutting edge scientific research and make it understandable to A-level students who have just come out of GCSE. Because BSR is aimed at A-level students, it’s a great way of getting really good research down into the general public.  I basically try to coordinate the publishing team, the editing team and the authors who are sending us their articles. I try to make things run very smoothly. I do a little bit of proof-reading myself too.

How does BSR help the general public?

The way the BSR helps the public is by making science understandable for A-level students. I used to read it when I was at school and it really helped me to decide to do a neuroscience degree at university. It’s great at getting kids involved in science and developing an understanding that you wouldn’t get in the class room.

How did you first become interested in Science?

Well I did cognitive neuroscience as an undergraduate and that was based on the fact that I read an Oliver Sacks book (The man who mistook his wife for a hat) which really got me into the psychology and the neuroscience side of things. I guess I knew I wanted to do neuroscience at university after that.

Have you got any science heroes? Who inspired you?

Other than Oliver Sacks? A standard cliché science hero is David Attenborough. I always used to love his documentaries when I was growing up. It really made me want to go into the media side of things back when I was younger. Blue Planet certainly blew my mind – it was the thing that got me into scuba diving and made me really want to go do deep sea diving. So yeah, David Attenborough would be my science hero.

How has working/studying here in Manchester helped you?

I did a science communication final year project which really helped me build my writing and editing skills because you have to do a lot of writing in your final year. I wrote a BSR article and this really helped me hone my skills and taught me how to really get a decent article ready for publication. That helped me get the job I am currently doing and it allows me to understand what the authors are going through when they’re trying to write things. A lot of the feedback the editors give back to the authors is really useful.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I’m a major ice-hockey player. I’ve always played ice-hockey throughout my time at university. At the moment I’m playing for Blackburn Hawks which takes up both my days at the weekend. I also train during the week. Other than that, I like music, chilling out with friends and that sort of thing.

FLS staff contribute to National Climate Change Report Card

Two Faculty scientists are helping to shape policy by submitting scientific evidence to the latest National Biodiversity Climate Change Report card. Ecologists Professor Richard Bardgett and Dr Franciska De Vries have both been asked to contribute to the report which summarises the latest scientific evidence and understanding of how climate change is affecting UK biodiversity. The card itself shows where observed changes are likely to have been caused by changes in the UK climate over recent decades, and assesses potential future impacts of climate change on biodiversity.

Dr De Vries says:

This report card is important because it shows, at a glance, how UK biodiversity is already being affected by climate change. It shows which ecosystems and groups of organisms are most vulnerable to future changes , and this information is important if we want to act on climate change and protect UK biodiversity.

It is important that we take action to protect UK biodiversity against the effects of future climate change, because many ecosystem services depend on the diversity and composition of communities present. The report card includes potential ways for adaptation to climate change. For example, it is now clear that the way we manage land influences how species populations and communities respond to climate change.

It is hoped that reports such as these will give governments a clearer picture on what actions should be taken to protect our environment.

A link to the report can be found here (pdf)

Student Placement: The door creaks back open – week 3

The latest blog post from our placement student George Campbell studying frogs in Colombia!

frogtastic blog

We complain about temperamental weather in England but even we don’t have it quite as extreme as it is here, it seems. Last night there was thunder, yesterday it was boiling hot and the night before it was torrential rain. Right now it’s cold but 5 minutes ago it was T-shirt & shorts weather…I keep getting reminded that Pamplona only has two seasons: wet and dry. So far they only have one though: random, and I guess this is where being a Brit comes in helpful as you naturally have to leave the house prepared for any and every possibility.

The town of Pamplona from the Universities viewpoint during the day:


And later that night:


Neither photos really do justice to either the weather at its best or worst, which had my landlady praying to god that the roof holds out. It did.

Anyway, that’s the British conversation starter of…

View original post 1,375 more words

Student awarded SCI Scholarship

We are delighted to announce that The Faculty of Life Science’s very own James Adams, has been awarded a SCI scholarship of £5,000 to support his studies into the development of selective Phosphatase inhibitors.

SCI Scholarships are more than just financial, he will also benefit from publishing opportunities, access to a high-calibre network to help launch his career, and opportunities to present his work and raise his profile within the scientific community.

James Adam said:

“I am working on a challenging but inspirational research project that is truly multidisciplinary. This research involves the development of effective bioactive tools to dissect fundamental signalling pathways in particular those involving Phosphatases.

The funding and support offered by my SCI Scholarship will provide a valuable resource to help me pursue my studies.”

Faculty of Life Sciences awarded the Athena Swan Silver Award

The Faculty of Life Sciences are proud to announce that they have been awarded the prestigious Athena Swan Silver Award. The award was created as a way to recognise institution’s commitment to tackle gender inequality in higher education.

Equality Challenge Unit awarded the Athena Swan Silver Award to just 87 departments in the whole of the UK. The Faculty was one of only 6 departments who were able to retain their silver award from 3 years ago. In order to retain, The Faculty had to show progression in its efforts to address gender equality on both an individual and structural level. The award will last for the duration of 3 years and will promote the Faculty as a champion for gender equality.

On the value of the award, Sarah Dickinson, Head of Equality Charters at Equality Challenge Unit said:

“In an ever changing higher education landscape, we realise that participating in the charter is a significant undertaking, and we would like to take this opportunity to thank and congratulate all those who participated for their demonstrable commitment to tackling gender inequality.”

Amanda Bamford, Chair of the Athena Swan Self-Assessment Team and Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, said:

“I am really thrilled with this award which recognises the efforts made across the Faculty to ensure a supportive working environment for all our staff. The award reflects an enormous amount of work and commitment to provide the most progressive and supportive environment possible for career development and work-life balance in the Faculty. We strive to develop a culture of fairness, opportunity, flexibility, and respect. We want to be a beacon in gender equality so there is no pausing in our efforts especially as are now working towards our Athena Swan Gold award!”

Hema Radhakrishnan, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, Faculty of Life Sciences, who also took an active role in the application, said:

“We are delighted to receive the Athena SWAN Silver award which recognises the tremendous effort from the Faculty of Life Sciences towards advancing gender equality amongst staff and students. Even though we are a long way forward from the Suffragette movement, women are still more likely to be discouraged from pursuing careers in Science, Engineering and Technology. Women who do take interest in these subjects often progress in their careers at a rate that is slower than their male counterparts. Athena SWAN Charter was established in 2005 to encourage and recognise commitment to advancing the careers of women in science. This Silver award shows that we as a faculty are working hard to reduce the gender gap and the efforts taken by the faculty are benefiting women and individuals with caring responsibilities.”

The Faculty will be presented with the award at a ceremony in the coming months and will be able to proudly wear the Athena Swan Silver badge.


Bioremediation: nature’s helping hand against metal pollution

Each year some of our students undertake summer projects and this year was no different. Here’s an account of Msci Plant Science student Helen Feord working as part of Dr Jon Pittman’s lab to research more into metal pollution. This project was supported by a Faculty of Life Sciences Sustainability studentship.

Metal pollution creates hostile environments, but many different organisms persevere and survive in these extreme conditions. Our understanding of such polluted ecosystem comes from characterising their biodiversity and the presence of extremophile (living in extreme environment) organisms. As part of a summer project, funded by the sustainability studentship, plant science student Helen Feord investigated biodiversity from the abandoned copper mine, Parys Mountain, in north Wales. Working in Jon Pittman’s lab, Helen identified organisms from ponds from the abandoned mine by using ribosomal marker sequence identification and then comparing the unknown DNA sequence with known database sequences. Amoebas, fungi, an acidophilic bryophyte and golden alga were some of the organisms found.

To examine these organisms further, Helen focused in particular on the Chlamydomonas acidophila alga. This alga lives in incredibly acidic conditions (in a pH as low as 2) and has a high tolerance to metals such as zinc.  There was an interest in knowing if the amount of zinc present in the water that they lived in had an influence on their tolerance for the metal. Indeed Helen looked at zinc tolerance by comparing the growth of C. acidophila isolated from different ponds and found a difference in zinc tolerance between C. acidophila from the various ponds. However there was no apparent link between the zinc tolerance of C. acidophila and the zinc concentration in the pond they came from, meaning that, in this context, high zinc concentrations did not induce high zinc tolerance.

Furthermore by testing C. acidophila survival and growth at different zinc concentrations, Helen found tolerance surpassing 50 mM zinc. Helen also compared the metal tolerance of genetically modified Chlamydomonas reinhardtii, a model species suitable for genetic analysis. Transgenic strains had they had been genetically modified to express plant proteins that bind metals, and thus have the potential to tolerate metal better. Interestingly, compared to these genetically modified algae, C. acidophila zinc tolerance was much higher.  However for Cadmium, both species had a similar tolerance.

This emphasised the high metal tolerance of C. acidophila and this knowledge is particularly useful as this organism has the potential to be a solution for metal pollution, a concept called bioremediation, the use of living organisms to solve environmental issues like this one. Indeed C. acidophila appears be so metal tolerant because of its ability to uptake the metal. But this still needs to be investigated further so that we can continue to look for ways to use this organism in bioremediation.

Tuesday Feature Episode 25: Lara Clauss

For many, this is the first week of lectures and it can be quite hard to imagine what it’s like to do another 3/4 years of study! Fear not, this Tuesday Feature is with a recent graduate and is full of some good advice. Check it out.

What did you study here at the University of Manchester?

In my first year, I studied Biomedical Sciences with Spanish. Although I enjoyed the combination of science with a modern language, I wanted to focus more strongly on a specific area of science, so I switched to Pharmacology and Physiology in my second year. It’s the only degree in the Faculty of Life Sciences that you can’t combine with a language, but humanities aren’t completely out of the picture: My final year project in the history of science really helped me gain a wider perspective on the role of science in society.

What are your plans for after University?

A few months ago I would have said travelling, but I was lucky enough to receive a place to do my Masters degree in Neuroscience. I’m excited because it’s in France, so there will be good food and plenty of opportunities to improve my French while I’m here. If all goes well I’m hoping to do a PhD afterwards, and I believe the additional degree will help me determine what I would like to spend four years of my life researching.

lara tfHow did you first become interested Life Sciences?

My first interests were in the application of scientific knowledge to a clinical environment, so I considered becoming either a doctor or a scientist. I did an internship in a virology laboratory which I really enjoyed, and Manchester showed me that working in a laboratory can be fun as well as challenging. My interest has just kept growing!

How has studying in Manchester helped you?

Manchester is brilliant because it is recognised internationally and as such it attracts brilliant researchers from around the world as well as great fellow students. I always had something to do with great people around me, and benefited from some amazing teaching and support. Also, I’m confident that Manchester will be a great asset to my CV when I start searching for jobs, because it’s one of the top universities worldwide (and definitely lives up to that reputation)!

What do you do in your spare time?

In my spare time, I got involved in halls of residence and many societies, which included managing FOLSS for two years. I also worked for the university as a Student Ambassador. The activities really helped broaden my skills set, and although not academic I think they helped show my eagerness to get involved in university life, which might have helped in getting a place for my Masters. I’m hoping to get more involved in sports now, let’s see how it goes!

Cobra Biologics and The University of Manchester Announce Collaboration to Improve Industrial Scale-up

It has been announced that a two year collaboration between The University of Manchester and Cobra Biologics is to take place.

The partnership is focused on improving understanding of cellular bio-processing which is required for the scaled production of therapeutic proteins. The collaboration is supported via the FLexible Interchange Programme (FLIP) Scheme from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The partnership aims to produce better predictability in the production of bio-pharmaceuticals which can be used in treatments for diseases like cancer and inflammation.

The agreement will enable the exchange of knowledge, technology and skills and will allow Cobra access to the University’s internationally renowned academic and associated research group. Professor Dickson will benefit from Cobra’s production data and significant operational knowledge of industrial manufacturing processes.

Dr Daniel Smith, CSO Cobra Biologics, said:

This is an exciting and unique opportunity for Cobra Biologics to gain scientific and technological insights from one of the senior UK academics working in the bioprocessing area.
“In addition, Professor Dickson has links and collaborations with UK and international academics, addressing all aspects of production of biopharmaceuticals.
“The insights of Professor Dickson into the various processes and tools used, combined with historical data case studies undertaken by Cobra Biologics, will allow better definition and enhancement of our current manufacturing processes and to build towards the idealised platforms and processes for future manufacture of innovator and biosimilar molecules.

Professor Alan Dickson, The University of Manchester, commented:

For an academic, FLIP support offers a tremendous opportunity to place the intellectual driver of research in the context of commercial perspectives.

In working with colleagues at Cobra Biologics over the next two years, we hope to develop predictive visions for choice, manipulation and decision-making in manufacturing processes. The collaboration will offer long-term benefits for the University of Manchester, Cobra Biologics and, consequently, for the biopharmaceuticals sector in the North West of England.

This is a true exchange of vision across the industrial/academic interface, in which both partners will learn from each other’s perspectives, with learnings that will be translated to subsequent research projects and commercial activities.

Seasonal body clock discovered in animals

Scientists have discovered the cells driving the annual body clock in animals which adapts their body to the changing seasons.

The BBSRC team from The Universities of Manchester and Edinburgh reveal that cells in a structure called the ‘pars tuberalis’- which is situated in the pituitary gland – there are specialised cells that respond according how much daylight there is, providing an internal genetic calendar for the animal.

The activity of these “calendar cells” changes dramatically over the year, with different proteins produced in winter or summer months. The switching between proteins in calendar cells is what drives the seasonal cycle in sheep and other mammals.

The findings, published in the journal Current Biology, advance our understanding of how the environment affects animals – but could also be relevant to humans.

Lead Author Professor Andrew Loudon from The University of Manchester said: “Scientists have long puzzled over how many animals seem to change their physiology according to the seasons.

Animals need to change their physiology to predict the changing environment and increase their chances for survival.

For example, some animals hibernate through the winter and others, including sheep, will time mating to the winter so they can give birth in the spring – when more food is available.

Now we have a much stronger understanding about how the body’s so-called circannual clock regulates this process.


The study took three years to complete and involved analysis of how sheep respond to seasonal changes in daylength.

Dr Shona Wood, Research Associate from The University of Manchester said:

A similar structure can be found in most animals – including humans.

Scientists once believed that humans did not show seasonal adaptations, but more recent research has found that this may not be the case and in fact there is seasonal variation in protection against infectious disease.

Our study gives more increases our understanding of how this may work.

Professor Dave Burt from Edinburgh said:

The seasonal clock found in sheep is likely to be the same in all vertebrates, or at least, contains the same parts list. The next step is to understand how our cells record the passage of time .

Wood, Et al. Binary Switching of Calendar Cells in the Pituitary Defines the Phase of the Circannual Cycle in Mammals, Current Biology.

Faculty Student awarded a £200 Studentship

Hannah SmithA faculty student has recently been awarded a £200 scholarship for outstanding work in Microbiology. Hannah Smith, who is entering her third year of microbiology, will also receive a year’s membership to the Society for General Microbiology (SGM).

The prize was awarded by the SGM as a way of recognising academic excellence at universities. Dr Jennifer Cavet, who put forward Hannah for the award said:

“Hannah was put forward for this prize due to her outstanding performance in Microbiology. She was the highest scoring student on the BSc Microbiology degree programme in the second year exams in the 2014-2015 academic year”

Shark eggs in a future climate

Our students often have exciting summers and this summer was no different. Here, undergraduate Molly Czachur, talks about her summer of sharks and symposiums.

I am an undergraduate student, and this summer I have had the privilege of receiving funding for a Sustainability Studentship at The University of Manchester. I worked together with Syafiq Musa, a first year PhD student for 3 months.

My project was to assist him in setting up a study of the effects of climate change on the early development of 2 endemic British elasmobranchs: the small spotted catshark (Scyliorhinus canicula) and the thornback ray (Raja clavata). These responses may provide vital evidence for the sustainability of these native UK elasmobranch species under predicted climate change, and these species were chosen as a model to represent all elasmobranch species whose life history strategy includes an egg case phase.

Molly Czachur (left) with her supervisors Dr. Holly Shiels (middle) and PhD student Syafiq Musa (right).

 The wider project aims to establish the effects of predicted climate change for the year 2100 on the development of the shark egg cases. For me, this involved helping to set up a system of 8 mini biospheres, each with its own mini climate that reflects different aspects of climate change. These aspects included changes in temperature (ocean warming), carbon dioxide (hypercapnia) and oxygen (hypoxia).

The setup of the 8 biospheres for our project.

 To help us build our system of mini biospheres, we attended conferences and read scientific literature to build up our knowledge of sharks and climate change. The first conference we attended was on the theme of ocean acidification with the Royal Society in London. We met some of the world leading researchers in the field of climate change, and talked to them about our project.  I had the opportunity to learn from the experts about the direct effects of human habits that are not sustainable for the oceans and our environment, and I watched leading scientists present their research that tested the effects of ocean acidification on marine life.

Syafiq and Molly at the Royal Society Ocean Acidification Conference in London.

 We also attended the annual symposium held by the Fisheries Society of the British Isles, and this years’ theme was elasmobranch biology, ecology and conservation. The 5-day conference was held in Plymouth, and included presentations about sharks and rays, which expanded my knowledge of elasmobranchs beyond my university education, allowing me to apply the biology and ecology that I learnt to inform my own understanding on how to sustainably manage our study species. We also spoke to researchers from all over the world about experimental approaches and their experiences of working with our study species. I met lots of like minded people, became informed on how to share science to a wider audience, and I was even inspired to set up a Twitter page (@zoologymolly)!

Molly and Syafiq at the Elasmobranch conference in Plymouth.

 In addition to our conferences away from our University, I was able to attend multiple tutorials, lab meetings and even an Ecology conference in Manchester with Syafiq, where I heard members of our laboratory speak about their projects and their progress with PhD and other projects, as well as Syafiq and I talking about our own progress over the summer. I had a chance to learn about the scope of the projects and facilities available at The University of Manchester, as well as meeting with people working in academia -a priceless experience for an undergraduate student like myself.

 After learning the theory behind the two elasmobranch species, Syafiq and I set off into the field looking for egg cases in a natural environment -usually attached to seaweed by their long and stringy tendrils. Also known as mermaid’s purses, the egg cases are often found washed up on beaches at the high tide line, hidden in the seaweed that has also washed up. All of the egg cases that we found were empty, so the shark had already left the egg case, but they were still useful because we could study the egg cases in detail. Later stages of Syafiq’s project will involve scratching the dark pigmented layer off the egg case to leave a window, where he will be able to look into the egg cases and see the shark embryo developing inside in real time. We could therefore use the empty egg cases to practice scratching off the pigment. As well as being useful for us, we were able to submit our egg case findings to a nationwide survey called The Great Eggcase Hunt by The Shark Trust, contributing to a large record of egg cases distribution across the UK.

Whilst in the field, we used specialist equipment to measure the seawater conditions, to give us more information about todays water conditions.

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Molly beachcombing and snorkelling for shark eggs.

Based on all that we learnt in theory and in the field, we then set up the biosphere system, with the 8 tanks that imitate different aspects of the predicted future climate for the year 2100. We created 8 environments: four of the tanks were at an ambient temperature of 15°C, and 4 tanks were at an elevated temperate of 20°C. Each of the four tanks had different treatments for 1) a control biosphere which was the same as todays conditions, 2) a low oxygen environment (hypoxic), 3) a high carbon dioxide  environment (hypercapnic) and 4) a combined hypoxic/hypercapnic treatment.

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Schematic of the biosphere set-up.

Together we wrote a proposal for a supply of shark egg cases from an aquarium, which allowed me to practice writing in the style of a project proposal -a useful skill for writing grant proposals in the future, and very relevant to the academic career that I hope to pursue.

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Molly during a shark tagging trip off the coast of North Wales.

Through my many contacts that I gained during this studentship, I ended up volunteering at Manchester Museum where I filmed and edited a short film ( and helped recurate a collection of crustaceans. I also had the chance to go shark tagging off the coast of North Wales, where I had first hand experience of some of our very own British shark species. By working at Manchester University with the Undergraduate Sustainability Studentship, many doors opened for me. This scheme not only reinforced the importance of acting sustainably to support marine wildlife, it also gave me a priceless opportunity to work alongside academic staff and postgraduate researchers, something that would not have been possible without the funding from this scheme, and I hope that this initiative continues to spread the important message of sustainability to undergraduate students.

Week 1

The latest blog post from our placement student George Campbell, out in Pamplona, Colombia.

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Hola, and thanks for coming back! For first time readers I’m currently working at the University of Pamplona, Colombia studying conservation genetics (primarily on frogs) and will be documenting my experiences here.

Of course the Colombian photo was photo B. The other was The Academy in Manchester, where students sit exams with the tortuous smell of beer filling their nostrils from last nights gig in the same room. Never has a University been so sadistic.

Depending on how it goes I’m planning on doing a blog during the week on Colombian lifestyle and what I’m getting up to outside of work and then a blog at the end of each week about what I’ve done at work…so, here goes

Week 1

To be perfectly honest much of this week has been one mad blur. From adjusting to life on another continent to crazy hours spent in labs, blink and you’ve…

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Soil in Smith Quad stores 12.1 tons of carbon

Damla Kiral, a now third year MSci Zoology student, was awarded a Faculty Sustainability Studentship in Franciska de Vries’ lab to estimate the total amount of carbon stored in the Smith Quad. Soil is the third largest global carbon pool, and it stores more carbon than vegetation and atmosphere combined. The amount of carbon stored in soils can be increased to mitigate CO2 emissions, which cause global climate change.

Damla took soil samples from all vegetation types in the Quad and analysed them for total carbon content. She also measured the bulk density, soil depth, and area of all vegetation types, and calculated the total amount of carbon stored in the Smith Quad.

She found that the Smith Quad stores 12.1 tons of carbon in total. The majority of this carbon (75%) is stored in the grass areas, because grass covers the largest area of the quad. However, the raised beds had the highest carbon concentration (17%, compared to 7% under grass).

The total amount of carbon stored in the quad is equal to the amount of carbon emitted from 60 economy class direct return flights from Manchester to Paris.

This project illustrates the importance of urban soils in carbon storage, and the role the University can play in this. But, it also highlights an easier way for academics to mitigate carbon emissions, by simply cutting down their air travel.

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Check out this first blog post from one of our placement students studying frogs outs in Pamplona, Colombia!

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So….first things first, welcome to my blog-family, friends, University of Manchester students and people who were trying to find the blog with the worst pun name!

In my first post I’m going to briefly outline what I’ll be doing on placement as I know my answers were fairly poor (at best) when people asked me before. And also where it is! In future posts I hope to cover what I’m doing on a daily basis in more depth & what it is like working here in Pamplona, Colombia. And also my attempts at learning a language that I’ve not really been taught before by jumping in head first and moving to somewhere where they only speak Spanish-because why the hell not?

For those of you that don’t know already-I’m a genetics student at the University of Manchester. Part of my degree programme allows for a ‘year in industry’ between 2nd &…

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Tuesday Feature Episode 24: James Mcinerney

From inflammation last week to evolution today, the Tuesday Feature is featuring some really interesting research. This week we talk to Professor James Mcinerney who specialises in micro-evolution. He recently joined the Faculty and can’t wait to get stuck in.

Explain your research the layman in ten sentences or less.

I’m an evolutionary biologist and my interest is in trying to understand the process that led to the patterns that we see today. The patterns we see like some bacteria are anti-bacterial resistant, that plants have chlorophyll that harvest light – these are the patterns we see. I’m trying to understand the evolutionary history of the organism or how they got to be the way they are today.

Very specifically I’m looking at things that merge. I’m interested in things that form hybrids; I’m interested in genes that jump from one species to another, which is really topical at the moment and something that I’ve worked on for the past ten years. I’m also interested in the origin of the eukaryotic cell – the cell of complex life. For me, how they got to be, how they arose on the planet is a very interesting question.

What is the importance of your research to the person reading this blog?

In evolutionary biology we’re interested in analysing the evolution of pathogens. These are disease causing bacteria and disease causing viruses. So when we see outbreaks, like the recent Ebola outbreak, we want to know where that outbreak started. The way in which we do that is by analysing the evolutionary history of the strains we isolate from the patient. These evolutionary biology methods have a direct benefit to humanity by allowing us to: trace and track epidemics and various outbreaks of disease, and to understand the spread of antibiotic resistance on the planet.

How did you first become interested in evolutionary histories?

My first studies were on deep evolutionary histories, that is to say trying to understand the first organisms on the planet, what they look like and so on. In order to do that, we had to develop methods and it seemed to us that this was the most interesting aspect at the time. We weren’t going to get access to the kinds of data we have right now. Today, if an outbreak of a disease occurs, we can get the full genomic sequence of the bacteria involved in that outbreak. We didn’t sort of have that kind of data 20 years ago, but we do now. The methods we developed 20 years ago we can now apply in a very real way to these problems today. The way I got into this was almost by accident – we were developing these methods for something entirely different and today those methods are useful for analysing epidemics.

Do you have any sciences heroes? Who inspired you?

I do indeed have a science hero. He’s a British scientist called Sir Paul Nurse. Paul Nurse got a Nobel Prize about 14 or 15 years ago and it’s not really his science that makes him a science hero to me. He struggled to get into university; he came from a very very modest background. He talks about this quite often. He finally got into university through sheer willpower and this meant that 20 years later he’s been awarded a Nobel Prize. I think that’s a really great thing and I think that Sir Paul Nurse is a superb individual.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

So I’ve just moved to Manchester; since June of this year. One of the main motivations of me moving to Manchester was that it has one of the great centres of Evolutionary Biology in the country and perhaps even in Europe and the world. Some tremendous people who are working here and some tremendous people who I want to work with. New methods are coming out, new technologies, science on the grand scale. This is one of the great universities of the world and so I moved here in order to be part of that and hopefully in the next ten years we can work hard on trying to uncover new evolutionary patterns, new evolutionary processes and Manchester is a great place to be for that.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work I find that what I really want to do is read a book and relax – to play some bad guitar. My work involves a lot of travel. For example this summer I was in the USA twice, I was in Europe and the Far East so when I’m on my time off I actually just want to sit around, read a book, relax, have a beer and just chill out.

When fashion meets science.

Two scientists have launched a fashion blog which aims to break the stereotypical image of the dowdy middle aged scientist.

The Tumblr site, called Sartorial Science, asks scientists to send in fashionable pictures of themselves.

Visitors to the site can also learn about each contributor’s research and gain some style inspiration as well.

The site is the work of Sam Illingwortha 31-year-old science communication lecturer at Manchester Metropolitan University and Sophie Powell, a 24-year-old PhD student from the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Though the site has only been live for a few days, there has already been a lively response from all across the world, with entries ranging from clinical psychologists in Costa Rica to zoologists in Belgium.

Biochemistry student Sophie, who studies arthritis, also publishes a blog called The Scientific Beauty, where she explains the science behind the latest beauty products and writes about being a female researcher.

She said:

Sartorial Science is all about challenging the stereotype of what a scientist looks like in the eyes of the public and actually, other colleagues. It’s really because as a young woman, there’s a fear I won’t be taken seriously if I care about the way I look, which is kind of frustrating. As a 14-year-old school girl, I was good at science but I remember feeling unsure if it was for me, as it seemed that it was for dowdy, middle-aged ‘boffins’ .

She is hopeful that this will change:

But hopefully this blog will challenge that. And I hope it will encourage young people into science when they realise that actually, we are real people with real interests. It’s not at all about being beautiful: anyone can send us their photos and it doesn’t matter if you think you’re good looking or not. It’s just about taking science out if its pigeonhole and showing that scientists can be fashionable too.

A Summer of Science – a Celebration of Environmental Research

In celebration of the Natural Environment Research Council’s (NERC) 50th anniversary, a series of special science outreach events have taken place as part of the “summer of science”. As part of this, four teams of scientists from the FLS were given funding to host the “FLS environmental roadshows”.

The roadshow took place in 3 events – the FLS Community Open Day, a special adult-only event at the Manchester Museum and a one day exhibition at the Jodrell Bank Observatory is Cheshire. The open day saw over 850 people come to the University where they got to learn about the exciting life of plants.

For the one day exhibition the team were based at the Jodrell Discover Centre. The family friendly event saw cockroaches running up children’s arms, earthworms moving through soil and hands on experiences with carnivorous plants. The adults at the centre were taught about food security, radioactive contamination and soil ecology.

Dr Giles Johnson, Deputy Associate Dean for Social Responsibility and Faculty Lead for Environmental Sustainability said:

For us, the event was a huge success.  We were able to explain our science to a wide range of the public and we were also challenged to think about our science in new ways, by the questions we were asked.  It was a great day out.

Becky Burns, the Head of Gardens and Interpretation at Jodrell Bank thanks the team:

Thanks to the FLS team for coming out to Jodrell Bank Discovery Centre with their Summer of Science Roadshow! Visitors of all ages enjoyed interacting with enthusiastic staff and students, exploring the world of plants and living creatures and learning about their ongoing research.

Jodrell Bank, famous for its radio telescopes, has a long lasting association with Life Sciences in Manchester. Even before the telescopes moved in, the Bank housed the Victoria University Botany department. The botany tradition has continued through to today with an extensive arboretum, which is where the national collection of apples trees bloom. It makes for a great visit – so why not treat yourself this weekend.

Research reveals why humans like to share

Human intelligence and knowledge depends on how we collect and use sharable resources, according to scientists from The University of Manchester.

Marco Smolla and Dr Susanne Shultz say in contrast with humans, the impact of competition means it is often costly for animals to learn from, or share information with others.

Using a computer simulation to mimic the behaviour of animals, the findings cast important new light on our understanding of human  – and animal  – behaviour.

The research is published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society B today.

Dr Shultz explains:

“Unique human traits include generosity, teaching and imitation. Our model suggests the key to both of these behaviours might lie in how we overcame the impact of competition, allowing us to share resources and information between us.

“It does not pay to share a blade of grass or a leaf from a tree. So animals that eat such foods do better by making their own decisions about what to eat rather than copying others.

“However, it does make sense to copy individuals using highly valuable foods even if the proceeds need to be shared.

“So, it is possible a key part of human evolution was learning to use sharable resource, for example by hunting large game.”

Until now, scientists have struggled to explain why animals chose not to learn from those around them when it seems a much easier and less risky way to get information than learning by yourself.

And the team realised that up to now, researchers had excluded competition from their models.

However, competition is one of the major mechanisms that shape interactions between individuals and groups.

Their computer program simulated individual animals that search, collect, and compete for food.

The food was spread over patches that could change over time.

But the crucial difference to earlier models was that individuals had to share food items if they foraged in the same place.

The simple addition resulted in animals ignoring others when using evenly spread out resources, but learning from others when using rare, highly profitable ones.

Marco Smolla said:

“What is surprising and previously unexplained is that non-human animals do not share or copy as much information as they might: this is almost as true for honey bees as it is for apes.

“But our study shows that competition for limited resources provides a compelling explanation.

“We found that when rewards are more evenly distributed in the environment or when our simulated patches quickly change the amount of food items, individuals are less likely to share or copy information.

“There is simply not much use in following others when an individual could also just find food on its own and then doesn’t have to compete with others.”

The paper ‘Competition for resources can explain patterns of social and individual learning in nature’ is available here:

Tuesday Feature Episode 23: Mike Daniels

This week we feature Mike Daniels, a PhD student who is looking at inflammation! Without further ado, here is his ‘Tuesday Feature’

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I work on the Immune system and inflammation, which is basically a process where our body releases its troops – the immune cells, in order to fight infection caused by damage of bacterial infection. What I work on specifically is one particular component of this army and that’s called the inflammasome. What’s particularly interesting is that this guy, the inflammasome, actually causes more harm than good. What we’re trying to find out is exactly how this occurs and whether we can produce drugs which will inhibit this inflammasome and hopefully use this to treat inflammatory disease.

mike daniels

How could this benefit the person reading this blog?

The concept of this over active immune system is actually one that I’ve found really interesting. If we’ve got an immune system that is causing us harm, then how has that evolved? This is one of the questions that I would really love to answer. Regardless of that question, this over active immune system process, is involved in a huge number of diseases including Alzheimer’s disease, stroke, malaria, diabetes, cardio vascular disease – all of these disease have a huge involvement with an over active immune system.

If we can understand how this is happening and potentially find ways we can inhibit this response without causing damage to our own immune system, then hopefully we’ll be able to use drugs to treat these diseases.

How did you first get interested in inflammation?

I’ve always been interested in science and one thing that interested me was how drugs were used to treat and cure diseases, so I did pharmacology as an undergraduate. Whilst doing that I got interested in neuroscience and pain. One particular thing about pain is that you think of it as a neural process, but there’s a huge inflammatory component. As I realised this, I discovered that there’s a huge inflammatory component to almost anything you can think of and so on knowing that, I realised what better thing to do than inflammation itself.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

I’m not really sure I was inspired by one particular scientist. I always liked the idea of the polymath. So a polymath is someone who is learned in basically everything. I did a school project once on Benjamin Franklin. He was not just a scientist, but he was an inventor, an author, a philosopher and he founded the most powerful country in the world. One really cool thing about Benjamin Franklin that I always liked was that he was one of those really cool types of scientist that just used to test stuff on himself. This is something that I’ve always thought was in days gone by, but in actual fact I had a meeting with someone recently who wanted to know whether or not something was involved in pain. Instead of doing any tests on animals or cells, he just bought it on the internet and injected it in himself to see if it caused any pain. As far as I know, he’s still alive and interestingly it didn’t cause pain. This is something I’ve always inspired to be, a scientist like that – a really cool scientist.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The Faculty of Life science here at Manchester provided the perfect foundations for me to build a successful PhD. In terms of facilities I have the ability to go to any state of the art facility where I’ll have expert advice on experimental planning, the design and the execution of the experiment and even data analysis. The staff are really supportive and help you build your experiments, but at the same time, they’ll let you go and do your own thing. Also the whole ethos behind the faculty allows a kind of environment where it’s enjoyable to come into work and at the same time we can all still be focused enough to produce successful research. So yeah, thumbs up for FLS.

What do you do outside of work? 

Outside of science, I like to get involved in a lot of sport.  I play football, tennis, badminton, squash – anything I can really get my hands on, although all fairly badly. At the weekends, I like to get myself up a mountain somewhere and do a bit of climbing.


Scientists move closer to curing common eye disorder

Scientists at The University of Manchester have successfully restored the sight of laboratory mice suffering from a common cause of blindness in people.

Image of a retina.

A team led by Rob Lucas and Paul Bishop carried out the pioneering research which may help sufferers of retinitis pigmentosa, a group of inherited eye disorders.

The treatment works by expressing a light sensitive human protein called rod opsin into the undamaged cells of the retina, so that it will turn them into special cells called photoreceptors which enable sight.

It was trialled on mice who had inherited advanced retinal degeneration and so were blind.

The treated mice became able to distinguish not only light from dark but also flickering from steady light as well as spatial patterns and to detect a natural movie – an advance on attempts to combat the disorders using non-human proteins.

Retinitis Pigmentosa is a leading cause of blindness: 1.5 million people worldwide are thought to be currently affected.

Using a human protein, says another team member Dr Jasmina Cehajic-Keptanovic , minimises the risk of side effects.

Professor Lucas said: “We aim to find ways of restoring photosensitivity to the retina in conditions such as retinitis pigmentosa in which loss of rod and cone photoreceptors leads to blindness. The protein rod opsin restores some vision under normal office light conditions, allowing mice to detect images presented using standard computer screens. Other researchers have also had some success using other sorts of light protein, but these generally require much brighter light beyond what we generally experience.”

The team’s paper is to be published in the journal Current Biology on 17 August.

Matthew Cobb answers questions about evolution and animal sniffers

Our #AskaScientist episode with Matthew Cobb!

Why Evolution Is True

Manchester Life Sciences has posted a new YouTube video in its “Ask a Scientist” series, and the scientist to ask happens to be our own Matthew Cobb. In this 15-minute video he takes on six questions about evolution and about his own speciality: olfaction. It’s very interesting: click on either screenshot below to go to the video:

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Our hero! (Notice his collection of toy dinosaurs in the office.)

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Tuesday Feature episode 22: Nick Ogden

This week we’re getting creative by interviewing Faculty photographer and designer Nick Ogden. Find out how he got into photography and why it’s crucial for the Faculty of Life Sciences.

Briefly explain your role here in the Faculty.

My role here in the faculty is as the photographer and designer. I am based here in the photographic unit and we’re responsible for the visual output for most of the Faculty research work. It includes photos, papers and thesis but also producing scientific posters. I am also responsible for designing a lot of the faculty’s literature such as fliers, brochures and leaflets.

How does your role benefit the general public?

My role benefits the general public in helping to bring the science within the faculty to them in a visual aspect – both in imagery and photography but also in design. So we produce brochures and leaflets and literature which helps to promote the science that actually takes place here. It makes what we do here understandable and interpretable by the general public.

Nick Ogden - Photographer Genius

How did you first become interested in photography?

I first got interested in both photography and design when doing GCSEs in high school. I had an art teacher who was very very supportive and encouraged me to go down a creative route. We had dark rooms where we used to do ‘wet’ photography. I always had an interest in and spent a long time developing photos that I had taken on black and white film.

When I finished my a-levels, these experiences led me to getting a job here at the University as a dark room technician. Day in and day out I was just developing films. As the wet photography and more traditional photography ended and we became digital, the photography changed and we moved down a much more creative route which allowed me to do a degree in graphic design. This helped me move into that side of the photographics.

Do you have any heroes? Who inspired you?

I haven’t got any particular heroes in photography, but the two people who really inspired me were related to me. I never met one of them and only met the other when I was very young. One of them was my grandfather and the other was my godfather and they were both very keen photographers. One was a wedding photographer and my grandad also did it as part of his job. This is going back into the traditional photography era. These people always gave me a kind of spark and desire to follow in their footsteps a little bit. I’m guessing that’s where the interest came from – it’s passed down. I really just fell in love with it once I got started with it.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

The University has been very supportive in my role. I started here after leaving college with A-levels and I wanted to go work rather than go to University. I wanted to get out into the ‘real world’ and the University had a very supportive trainee scheme. They gave me day release which allowed me to go to Manchester Met to study for a degree in graphic design and after 3 years of that – I completed it back in 2005. It has benefited the University and the Faculty in that I have been able to bring the skills that I’ve learnt and put them, I hope, to good use in the Faculty.

What do you do outside of work?

Outside of work, I have a keen interest in sport – more watching than participating. Up until recently I was a photographer down at an ice hockey club based in Manchester – I photographed the action on game nights which went on the websites and programmes. I recently became a new dad so a lot of my time is now taken up looking after my little girl. It has a had a major impact on my social life, but it’s all for the better and other than that, I’m out taking pictures and doing some gardening.

Genomes uncover life’s early history.

A team of scientists have carried out one of the biggest ever analyses of genomes on life of all forms. This has allowed them to map the evolutionary history of eukaryotic genes in unprecedented detail – giving insight into the mechanisms of evolution in the very earliest forms of life.

Their paper, which is to be published in Nature, builds upon the work of famous palaeontologist Stephen Jay Gould who suggested that even though evolution is usually a slow process, it can sometimes take great jumps forward in a relatively short space of time. This theory was called ‘punctuated equilibrium’.

The team, including Faculty scientist Professor James McInerney, wanted to look at the different ways in which eukaryotic and prokaryotic life evolved to see if there were any clues to how evolution could do these great leaps forward. Traditional models had shown that lateral gene transfer (LGT) (the flow and swapping of genes between two individuals) happened in prokaryotes and thus helped explain the enormous diversity they have compared to eukaryotes. The team therefore asked: could LGT in eukaryotes explain these great leaps forward?

The project lead, Professor Bill Martin of the University of Dusseldorf explains the results:
“The big surprise of the study was that eukaryotes, don’t engage in this kind of continuous gene swapping nearly as much [as prokaryotes] – though when they do, it’s a really, really important event and in early evolution, it corresponded to the origin of organelles.  These events were huge evolutionary leaps”

Organelles are parts of the cell that scientists can use to help differentiate between eukaryotic and prokaryotic cells. Eukaryotes crucially have structures like mitochondria and chloroplasts, mini-factories that work in the cell to provide energy for the organism. Research has shown that both mitochondria and chloroplasts evolved from two cells coming together to share genes and form a ‘hybrid’ organism.

Importantly the team’s computer model has shown that after this initial hybrid-forming stage, the organism starts to lose some of its newly acquired genetic information. Professor McInerney explains:

“It’s like in a game of chess. The cells starts out with two full sets of genes, one from each symbiotic partner, all lined up at either end of the board. But during evolution, the pieces are removed from the board one by one, so that at the end of the game almost no pieces are left, and from those that are left one tries to reconstruct how the game went, retracing the moves back in time.”

The team’s research has therefore shown that these evolutionary great leaps forward can take place when prokaryotes and eukaryotes mix their genes together in an endosymbiotic event. This evidence gives strong support to the theory of punctuated evolution and can explain the origins of complex life here on Earth.

Tuesday Feature Episode 21: Olly Freeman

Episode 21 of the Tuesday Feature is with Olly Freeman who is beginning on his Post-PhD research here at the University of Manchester. Without further adieu, find out what he’s up to and how he got to this point!

Please explain your research for the layman in ten sentences or less.

I look at energy generation in the brain and the nervous system. Now, the brain is really electrically active and this needs lots and lots of energy to keep it going. There are these cells called glia, which wrap around the neurons, the nerve cells in the brain, and these were classically thought to be like insulation on a wire to insulate the signal. That is the case, but actually what we think now is that they may play a more direct role in energy generation – generate some energy themselves and pass that to the nerve cell. So, this is the research I’m looking into at the moment.

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How might your research benefit the person reading this blog?

I look at fundamental mechanisms, fundamental cellular mechanisms at the basic level but what we hope is that these will be able to be translated through to the clinic. There are many neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s which have all seen deficits in energy production in how these nerve cells communicate because they lack the right energy. So what I hope, and it’s paramount to say that this is a long way in the future, that the basic research that we’re doing at the moment could in some future time help patients.

How did you first become interested in Energy Generation?

It’s stemmed from my PhD research really. So, my PhD was looking at a condition called diabetic neuropathy which is a very common condition but it’s not very well known. It’s where patients with diabetes commonly get pain right down in the hands and feet and what we don’t really understand is why you’ve got a whole blood sugar all over the body but painful symptoms right down in the distal areas. So what we found, or what we think we found, is that actually it could be the energy generation could be different at one end of the nerve to the other. So the nerve at the bottom has a problem making its energy while the one at the top is fine. So what I’m now trying to do is look at the fundamental mechanisms behind how energy is maintained in different parts of the nervous system. The role of the glia in energy generation of the nerve seems to be a really important feature.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

So I guess towards the top of the list has to be a guy called Eric Kandel. He won the Nobel Prize in the year 2000 for his pioneering work on learning and memory. What I like about Kandel so much is that actually he wanted to study these big phenomena – learning and memory, but what he wasn’t afraid to do was take it down to a really basic level. And what he did was take a sea slug, aplysia, which is a ridiculous little animal. But he used this against most of his colleagues who were telling him ‘no – you’ve got to study this in the brain of mammals’. He used this little sea slug to study actual cellular mechanisms of learning and memory and he managed to outline this cellular process, which has now been shown in higher organisms in mammals and humans to actually be a fundamental mechanism of learning and memory. I think he’s a fantastic example of just going with your gut and studying what you want to study and it can go really great.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

One of the best things about Manchester is that there is a real can do attitude about Manchester. If you want to do something, you can find people who are willing to support you doing that and just give it a go. It may be a ridiculous idea but people around will support you in chasing that and trying to do what you want to do. There is fantastic expertise in loads of different areas, which will support you to do that.

What do you do outside of work?

One of my great passions is football. I love playing football, I love watching football. Also love to travel which being a scientist is fantastic, you get to go away a lot with work and that really helps to wind down.

Faculty Historian awarded Wellcome Trust 5 year research grant

Historian of science and medicine Dr Duncan Wilson has been awarded a 5 year fellowship by the Wellcome Trust to fund research into considerations of human health in the history of animal conservation.
duncanDr Wilson, whose previous work examined the history of bioethics, will look at why scientists increasingly drew connections between species loss and human health from the 1940s onwards. He will focus on how this viewpoint led to ethical debates about which species we should prioritise in conservation programmes, which influenced and continues to influence the work of scientists working across universities, parks and zoos.

When asked about the project, Wilson describes:

‘A striking feature in coverage of epidemics like Ebola today are claims that increasing rates of species loss are, to quote the International Union for the Conservation of Nature “the leading driver of disease emergence in humans”. Scientists warn that species loss through hunting, habit loss and climate change causes viruses to “spill over” into humans and eradicates potential medicines.

These warnings link our health to the fate of endangered animals and raise difficult questions about which species we should preserve’.

‘Yet despite its importance for understandings of our relation to the natural world, we do not understand why this view of species loss emerged and became influential. My new project will show how scientists in the 1940s first drew on ecology to argue that extinction threatened human health. I will detail how these claims underpinned the work of conservation organisations, national parks and zoos, and will isolate the professional and ethical concerns that led scientists to prioritise certain approaches and animals.

Wilson summarises:

‘Given the dire warnings about the rate and consequences of species loss today, with up to half of all  plant and animal species predicted to become extinct by 2100, this project is vital for helping us reflect on the changing connections between human and animal health, and on why we value some animals over others’.

Faculty scientist shortlisted for International book prize.

Faculty scientist, Professor Matthew Cobb has been shortlisted for the prestigious Royal Society Winton Prize.

In Life’s Greatest Secret: The Story of the Race to Crack the Genetic Code, Matthew talks about the fascinating history behind the genetic code and how scientists from the 1940s and 50s managed to crack it.

The Royal Society Winton Prize is the world’s leading science literature award and celebrates science books which are designed to be accessible for the general public. The book, released earlier this year, has received rave reviews:

“Authoritative… thrilling… a first-class read’ – the Observer

“A compelling fusion of science, history and biography” – The Sunday Times

“A masterly account… a delight” – the Guardian

On receiving the nomination, Matthew Cobb says:

“I’m delighted and honoured that Life’s Greatest Secret has made it onto the shortlist of this prestigious prize. I hope that it will inform and inspire readers, in particular school and university students.”

The winner will be crowned on the 24th September, with the winner receiving £25,000. The other five shortlisted authors will receive £2,500 each.

Tuesday Feature Episode 20: Kory Stout

After a summer hiatus, the Tuesday Feature is back. After 19 episodes, I thought it was about time the readers got to know me a little better so that’s why I decided to take up the proverbial driver’s seat to talk about my role here in the faculty. Thank you to Nick Ogden for the interview.

What is your role here in the Faculty?

My title for my job is digital communications assistant. This essentially means that I have two major roles here in the faculty. The first role is to do web updates. So the faculty has over a 100 different web pages and these need updating with relevant information. Academic members will send me and my team – it’s a two man team, I work with a wonderful colleague called Helen, and we then update the web pages with the relevant information.

Kory Stout The second major role in the faculty is the social media presence. I do things like this on the blog and on Facebook, as well as sharing news about the Faculty. I also produce content with the Communication and Marketing Leadership Team (CMLT) – things like the Minute Lectures and the Tuesday Feature.

How does your role benefit the general public?

I firmly believe science is for everyone. It shouldn’t be too technical and it shouldn’t be too hard for people to understand. My job role therefore helps the general public to understand science, helps them see how it’s relevant to their daily lives and it helps them see how science can be for them and not just for people in lab coats working in the lab.

How did you first become interest in science?

I did my undergraduate degree here in Manchester.  I did it as part of CHSTM which is the Centre for History of Science, Technology and Medicine and is part of the Faculty of Life Sciences. My degree was in Biology with Science and Society and it lasted three years. We looked at things like how science Is used today in the 21st Century, how it came to be that way and we looked at the history and ethical implications of science.  This helped give me a really good education in science and gave me a passion for communicating science to the general public.

After University I looked for a job in science communication, but I found it quite hard to find one with little professional experience in the field. I took up an MGIP (Manchester Graduate Internship Programme) in the Faculty of Life Sciences to do their social media. About 7 or 8 months later I got offered a job here for the Digital Communications Assistant.

Originally I’ve always been interested in science ever since I was a young child. I was fascinated by nature around me, about how science is used to treat disease and how it’s used to better people’s lives. I’ve always enjoyed science and have always wanted to educate people and to teach them about science.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

At the time, I really didn’t have any science heroes, but looking back I can see people who have been influential in my life. I had science teachers who were really fun and engaging and there were science personalities on TV, like David Attenborough, who really infused a passion in me to learn more about science. I guess those people who had a passion for science and wanted it to be shared, really inspired me to do the same.

How has working in Manchester helped you?

As I said previously, as a recent graduate I found it quite hard to find a job in science communication without relevant experience. The University here has given me great experience in working in the science communication field; without that, it’d have been much harder to find a job that I was passionate about and really wanted to do. The University helped me first with the MGIP which allowed me to learn relevant techniques and practices that I can use in the work place and well as giving me a full time job after that. I’m really grateful for that. I really love working here in Manchester and the faculty is a really great place to be.

What do you do outside of work?

I’m a really keen sports person. I really love playing and watching football, with the new season kicked off, I’m really excited about that. I also I do a Fact a Day, which is basically an email list. I send out a fact via email and via Facebook to people who are interested in learning stuff. That’s really fun and keeps me learning.