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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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 2: Matt Paul

So, last week we opened the Tuesday Feature and it went down brilliantly! It’s already the second most viewed post we’ve ever had on the blog. Thank you all for reading and we’re really glad you enjoyed it.

Matt in New YorkThis week we cross the pond to New York to catch up with Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul. Matt studied BSc Genetics with Industrial Experience here at the Faculty, graduating in 2012, and he tells us below just how inspiring he found some our staff.

He is now a 3rd year PhD student in the Department of Biology, New York University, in the labs of Dr. Andreas Hochwagen and Dr. Sevinc Ercan. It’s been an exciting journey for Matt, and you can find out more about it below.

Hi Matt. Thanks for talking to us. Can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?

I study the three-dimensional organization of the genome. DNA is not just randomly packaged into the nucleus, like a bowl of spaghetti. Regions of the DNA tend to be found in specific places, next to other regions. Where a loci is positioned can have an impact on various processes including transcription and DNA repair.

I use yeast and worms to study how genome organization regulates cell division to produce sex cells (meiosis) and the balancing of expression of X-chromosome genes between sexes (dosage compensation).

How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?

The study of chromosome structure and how it alters genome function is very basic and can have a wide varietyMatt in the lab of impacts.

The most direct example for the translation of my work to the real world would be in meiosis. During this cell division you produce the sex cells. The three-dimensional structure of the genome is important in ensuring that there is correct segregation of chromosomes into these cells. Errors could result in infertility, miscarriage, or disorders such as downs syndrome.

Can we ask how you first got interested in your research area?

Growing up was a very exciting time to be a budding biologist. Genomes were being sequenced and the promise that these projects brought was exciting. Though this was a huge step, there now seems to be even more questions about how the genome works.

The study of chromatin was definitely one of the hot topics in biology when I arrived at University of Manchester. Specifically, what I found fascinating was how so called ‘junk DNA’ actually coded for important information.

I got a chance at Manchester to investigate this topic by looking at non-coding RNAs with Dr. Matthew Ronshaugen in my final year. Many of these help organize genome structure, so it was a small leap from my work there to what I do now.

Do you have any science heroes? Who inspired you?

There been a steady stream of inspiring people without whom I wouldn’t have got so deep into science.

I have been fortunate to have many good science teachers, lecturers, and mentors along the way. Now, just being around my colleagues, the many hard-working biologists who are so passionate about their work, provides a lot of inspiration.

One person who I haven’t had contact with directly but admire is Craig Venter. Though I don’t necessarily agree with some of the moral aspects of his work, his insight and force of will played key roles in the genomic revolution. Furthermore, his current work in synthetic biology continues to be really exciting.

Could you tell us a bit about your interests outside of science?

Matt with crazy eyesLiving in New York certainly allows you to explore many interests. It’s a big city with a big cultural output, so I like to try and do as many new things as possible.

My favorite activity is going to gigs, and as good as it is here, I do occasionally miss the Manchester music scene.

Beyond this, I am also captain of NYU squash team so that keeps me busy and healthy.

And that wraps up the second Thursday Feature from the Faculty of Life Sciences’ blog. If anyone’s wishing they were in New York, or fit enough to be the captain of a squash team, have a look outside. At least it’s sunny today.

Our thanks go to Matt Paul – it’s great to see an ex-student thriving! It’s Brain Awareness Week next week, so we’ll be here with Dr. Jack Rivers-Auty. Thanks for reading and please come back next Tuesday!


Interview by Fran Slater, Images courtesy of Matt Paul

Alcohol Awareness Week interview with Sylvia Lui

Alcohol Concern use their annual Alcohol Awareness Week to encourage organisations and individuals to highlight the impact thatSylvia Lui the substance has on our health and communities.

As part of this year’s campaign, running from the 17th to the 23rd of November, we sent Kory Stout to interview Faculty PhD student Sylvia Lui. Her project, led by Professor John Aplin and Dr Clare Towers and funded by the British Medical Association, looked at the effect of alcohol on pregnancy during the first-trimester. It was the first time that such a study had focused on this early stage of pregnancy. Sylvia says:

“It appears that alcohol, even at moderate levels, reduces the growth and function of the placenta resulting in less support and nutrient supply for a rapidly growing baby. It was interesting to find, though, that ethanol at very low concentrations (1-2 units, equal to half or one standard drink) did not have any effect on placental growth or function. Unfortunately, people find it difficult to judge what a unit is and often underestimate how much they are drinking, so erring on the side of caution may be the best practice.”

The team hope to conduct a much larger study in the future. Because guidelines on alcohol intake are often contradictory and confusing, they hope to produce some more specific advice to pregnant women about the individual dangers that they and their babies would be subject to through drinking alcohol.

You can read the whole interview over at the Life Sciences Blog.

What were the aims of your research?

Working in partnership with Tommy’s [a UK based charity that supports research into problems in pregnancy] and funded by the British Medical Association, we decided to look at the impact alcohol had on placental growth and function, and hence fetal development. My project, led by Dr Clare Towers and Prof John Aplin, looked at the effect of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde on first-trimester pregnancy. We wanted to see if there was direct scientific evidence that would support the existing medical advice of avoiding alcohol consumption during pregnancy.

Why did you choose first-trimester pregnancy?

Although there are many studies on the effects of high levels of alcohol through the duration of pregnancy, this is the first time a study has shown the effect of alcohol in such an early stage. Previous research has centred on fetal outcomes at the end of pregnancy after massive levels of alcohol intake. Whilst this is obviously very important, we believed that understanding the effects of alcohol at the very early stages, when the fetus is at its most crucial stages of development and all the organs are just being programmed, was crucial in understanding the overall effects of alcohol in pregnancy and on fetal health.

How did you go about investigating the effects of alcohol on the developing fetus?

We are very fortunate to be working here at the Maternal and Fetal Research Centre at St. Mary’s hospital, one of the UK’s largest human placenta research centres. We are in an unparalleled situation in terms of having access to donated placental tissues and all of the work we did here was done in the laboratory and on donated tissue samples. The placenta was used as a means of assessing the potential effects on the development of the fetus because of its crucial role in providing nutrients and oxygen during pregnancy. Poor placental development is very strongly linked with poor fetal development and risk of fetal death. With the documented detrimental effects of alcohol, we were interested in how it would affect very early pregnancy, when the pregnancy is less likely to be known and more alcohol consumed.

To test the effect of alcohol on the placenta, we incubated the placental tissue with low (equal to half to one standard drink), mid (2-3 standard drinks), and high (4-6 standard drinks) levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde (the major metabolite of ethanol). After doing this, we measured the amount of vital amino-acids (including taurine) taken up by the placenta, that would act as markers of nutrient transfer for good fetal development. We then wanted to see if the levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde would affect the growth of the placenta. If they did, we could then draw conclusions from this about the consequent effects on the development of the fetus.

What were the results of your research?

The biggest and most surprising effect we found was that mid to high levels of both ethanol and acetaldehyde had detrimental effects only on taurine transport. Taurine is an important amino acid that is vital for normal brain development. In extreme cases of babies born with fetal alcohol syndrome, infants are often diagnosed with lifelong neurological problems. There are documented negative effects on behaviour and physical development with extended low taurine levels. Our results may indicate how alcohol can affect the baby’s brain development during pregnancy via the reduced placental transport of taurine to the fetus.  Another important finding was that the same middle to high levels of ethanol and acetaldehyde also reduced placental cell growth.

In summary, it appeared that alcohol, even at moderate levels, reduced the growth and function of the placenta and resulted in less support and nutrient supply for a rapidly growing baby. It was interesting to find, though, that ethanol at very low concentrations (1-2 units, equal to half or one standard drink) did not have any effect on placental growth or function. Unfortunately, people find it difficult to judge what a unit is and often underestimate how much they are drinking, so erring on the side of caution may be the best practice.

What’s next?

Ideally, we would be able to do a much larger study. We want to see what alcohol’s effects are on a range of specific attributes. Advice on alcohol intake is confusing and studies have shown that alcohol has varying levels of effects, depending on genetic/race factors, different body types, socio-economic backgrounds, and gender. We want to see how much these factors affect the detrimental effects of alcohol during pregnancy and so the development of the fetus. This would help us to give much more specific advice to pregnant women about the individual dangers that they and their babies would be subject to through drinking alcohol.


You can read the paper,  entitled Detrimental effects of ethanol and its metabolite acetaldehyde, on first trimester human placental cell turnover and function, on PLOS ONE. http://www.plosone.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pone.0087328