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What are we good for? The University launches its social responsibility strategy
Prestigious honours for Faculty members
Raising awareness of animal research
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What are we good for? The University launches its social responsibility strategy
The University formally launched its social responsibility strategy at the end of November during an event in Whitworth Hall. The launch marks the finale of a two-month long awareness-raising campaign which highlights how staff, students, and alumni are ‘Making a Difference’ by featuring them on purple circles across campus and sharing their stories on the Make a Difference blog.
The event welcomed members of the Board of Governors and the General Assembly, staff, students and alumni, representatives from local organisations and the wider social responsibility community as well as colleagues from the Faculty.
President and Vice-Chancellor, Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell, delivered a keynote address at the event, speaking about social responsibility as one of three core goals of the University. Nancy summarised:
“Our first two goals of world class research and outstanding learning and student experience might be characterised by the question ‘what are we good at? In contrast, social responsibility can be characterised by a different question; ‘what are we good for?”
Alongside Nancy were Julian Skyrme, Director of Social Responsibility and Professor Aneez Esmail, Associate Vice-President for Social Responsibility. Aneez explained:
“The strategy highlights the University as an essential contributor to the betterment of the wider society, something that is in the DNA of this institution.”
The inspiring and up-beat event provided an opportunity for guests to meet some of the people who have been featured in the Make a Difference campaign and learn more about the priorities and programmes at the centre of the strategy. Guests also watched a film that illustrated the differences that are being made as a result of some of the social responsibility programmes developed by the University.
Two new publications were launched at the event: Measuring the Difference illustrates the significant economic and social impact created by the University and the second: A Guide to Social Responsibility at the University of Manchester outlines the priorities of the strategy and the many ways our staff, students and alumni can become involved and continue to make a difference. The Guide will be distributed to all staff in December’s edition of UniLife.
More information about the social responsibility strategy programmes and priorities and ways you can get involved and make a difference are available on the newly launched social responsibility website.
Prestigious honours for Faculty members
Two Faculty members received major honours in their respective fields last month.
Alexei Verkhratsky, Professor of Neurophysiology, has been elected to the German National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina. Founded in 1652, the Leopoldina provides science-based advice to political leaders and is home to the European Academies Science Advisory Council. Professor Verkhratsky is the first member of Leopoldina from Manchester and one of only 39 members from the UK. The election recognises Professor Verkhratsky’s personal standing and his many achievements in the neurosciences.
Optometry lecturer Andrew Stokes was also celebrating this month, after receiving an award from the Worshipful Company of Spectacle Makers. Andrew received the highest national qualification in spectacle manufacturing and processing. The presentation took place at Apothecaries Hall in London, the home of the oldest optical body in the world.
Raising awareness of animal research
Pupils from schools and colleges across Greater Manchester recently attended a special open day at the University, learning how and why animal research is used in certain situations. They heard how researchers were looking for cures for cancer, epilepsy, Parkinson’s, and age-related deterioration and attended a tour which showed how the animals are kept. The event came following the University’s commitment to developing principles of openness in animal research. Faculty researcher Professor Matthew Cobb said:
“The visit allowed students to experience the conditions and high standards of care we give to our animals. They saw mice, some of which are genetically modified by deletion or insertion of genes, or genes that can be switched on and off. They learnt about epilepsy research in flies and compared young flies and their grandparents to learn about ageing and how it can be studied. Believe it or not, we have lots in common with fruit flies. Many of our organs and structures have the same origins and serve the same purposes. Applying this knowledge from Drosophila flies to humans and human disease is a powerful and effective strategy.”
Mark McElwee, Deputy Head at Parrswood High School, said:
“The event was really worthwhile. The pupils gained an insight into the realities of animal research. It definitely opened their eyes to the potential of animal research for medical benefits and in fact it changed some of their opinions. They were also amazed at the care and dedication put into ensuring the wellbeing of the animals. The feedback from the pupils is that some were so inspired they are seriously considering changing their UCAS applications to go into biological sciences.”
Karolina Zaezyczny, aged 17, from Holy Cross College, said:
“The open day did change my view. It’s made me aware of the positive things and why scientists sometimes have to use animals in their research. I was very impressed with the facilities the animals were kept in.”
University receives doctoral training award in regenerative medicine
The University has been chosen to host four new national Centres for Doctoral Training (CDT) in science and engineering. Universities and Science Minister David Willetts revealed details of how the £350m fund will be used to train more than 3,500 postgraduate students. It is the UK's largest investment in postgraduate training in engineering and physical sciences and will fund more than 70 new centres.
The funding, allocated by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, will target areas vital to economic growth. The four CDTs awarded to Manchester are in ‘Power Networks,’ ‘Next Generation Nuclear,’ ‘Science and Applications of Graphene and Related Nanomaterials,’ and ‘Regenerative Medicine.’
The Regenerative Medicine CDT, led by Professor Cay Kielty of FLS, with support from the faculties of Medicine and Human Sciences and
Engineering and Physical Sciences, will tackle the growing need for therapeutic solutions to the ageing, degenerative, and injury-related pathologies faced by our society and address the shortage in skilled scientists equipped to meet these needs. The team will deliver multidisciplinary training in a variety of related areas and provide clinical translational training supported by the Manchester Academic Health Science Centre. This is the only CDT in regenerative medicine to be funded under the new scheme. Professor Kielty said:
“This CDT award enables us to exploit Manchester’s unique biomedical strengths to train future regenerative medicine experts and enhance the health and wealth of the UK.”
Professor Ian Jacobs, Vice-President and Dean of the Faculty of Medical and Human Sciences, added:
“I am delighted by this award for regenerative medicine. It reflects our major initiative, led by Professor Kielty, to build strength in this area from basic to translational and clinical science. It will facilitate a step change in our training capacity which will lead to outstanding research and, in due course, major health impacts.”
Understanding viral infection may help Alzheimer’s
FLS researcher Dr Alexander Golovanov, based in the Manchester Institute of Biotechnology, has just obtained an important grant from the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (part of the National Institutes of Health) to understand how the herpes virus infects cells.
The research is being carried out with Professor Rozanne Sandri-Goldin’s world-leading virology group at University of California Irvine USA, and will explore the molecular mechanisms that enable the herpes simplex virus 1 (HSV-1) to hijack the cell and produce more copies of itself.
HSV-1 causes a wide range of diseases, from recurrent painful skin lesions to more serious conditions such as encephalitis. Recent studies by FLS researcher Professor Ruth Itzhaki have suggested that HSV-1 can be a risk factor in the development of Alzheimer's disease, and that antiviral drugs may therefore be effective at slowing down the progress of Alzheimer’s. Unfortunately, there is a yet not antiviral treatment that can suppress viral replication efficiently enough. Finding a “weak spot” in HSV-1 that could be targeted by future therapies could constitute a significant breakthrough for a number of diseases.
During infection, HSV-1 expresses a protein called ICP27, which helps the virus to take control of the cellular machinery and use it to produce new copies of the virus. Dr Golovanov’s group has previously created the first atomic-level structure of the complex formed by ICP27 and its target in the cell (see: PLOS Pathogens). The new five-year project will look into further details of how the complexes of viral and cellular proteins are organized and regulated and may help to design new drugs that will interfere with this complex assembly and HSV replication.
Improving the design of prosthetic limbs
Faculty researcher Dr Emma Gowen has collaborated with members of the School of Psychological Science on a project which will help to improve the design of prosthetic limbs. 43 participants took part in a study in which they viewed images of human, robotic, and prosthetic hands and graded them on a nine-point scale in terms of eeriness and human-likeness.
Prosthetic hands generally received the highest eeriness ratings and were rated as more human-like than the mechanical hands. But prosthetic hands which looked more human-like were rated as less eerie. Dr Emma Gowen said:
“We hope this and further research will allow us to learn more about social perception and what is special about perceiving another human being. Determining these factors can help us to understand how we interpret and respond to other people.”
'Meet the Sloths' with Faculty alumni Becky Cliffe
Swansea University PhD student Becky Cliffe, who graduated from our Faculty in 2011, will be discussing her experiences of working at Costa Rica’s Sloth Sanctuary on the Animal Planet TV channel at 8 pm on Thursday, November 14th. ‘Meet the Sloths’ is an eight part documentary series which will feature dramatic sloth rescues, emotional releases, and all of the daily dramas associated with providing a home to over 100 orphaned and injured sloths.
The series will also feature a lighthearted look at the groundbreaking research undertaken in Costa Rica. Becky and her colleagues will be doing exclusive interviews and Q&A sessions in the coming weeks, so keep a look out for updates.
Manchester iGEM team are world champions!
Congratulations to the Manchester iGEM (international Genetically Engineered Machine) team for their success at the iGEM World Championships held in Boston, USA on 2-4 November. The 10 Manchester students, mainly from our Faculty and based at The Manchester Institute for Biotechnology (MIB), won the ‘Best Human Practices’ prize for their work on developing a biosynthetic version of palm oil which could help preserve the rainforest and thereby save elements of biodiversity, including the orangutan.
The Manchester team competed with 73 other synthetic biology teams from around the world. Their project drew praise for a vision in which synthetic biology and traditional farming complemented each other. Members of the team will be describing their work, and the excitement of the iGEM Championships, in the next episode of the Life Sciences podcast. For more details about the project, visit Team Manchester's website. Team member Robert Harrison said:
“I am absolutely thrilled that we have just won the award for World's Best Human Practices! We would once again like to express our deepest gratitude for all the support shown by the university, in particular to FLS and MIB, without which this amazing achievement would not have been possible.”
Digital reconstruction of giant dinosaur steps
Faculty scientists have helped digitally reconstruct one of the world's largest dinosaurs, allowing it to take its first steps in over 94 million years. The team, working alongside scientists in Argentina, began by scanning a 40-metre skeleton of the Cretaceous Argentinosaurus dinosaur. They then used advanced computer modelling techniques to recreate its walking and running movements and test its locomotion ability for the very first time.
The study provides the first ever ‘virtual’ trackway of the dinosaur. Dr Bill Sellers, lead researcher on the project, said:
“If you want to work out how dinosaurs walked, the best approach is computer simulation. This is the only way of bringing together every strand of information we have on this dinosaur, so we can reconstruct how it once moved. These animals are not like anything alive today, so we can’t just copy a modern animal. Our machine learning system works purely from the information we have on the dinosaur and predicts the best possible movement patterns.”
Argentinosaurus weighed 80 tonnes and the simulation shows that it would have moved at around 5 mph – barely above a human’s walking speed. The research does more than simply tell us about the movement of this particular dinosaur, though. It also increases understanding of musculoskeletal systems and will help the development of robots. Dr Sellers added:
“All vertebrates share the same basic muscles, bones and joints. To understand how these function we can compare how they're used in different animals. The most interesting are often those at extremes. Argentinosaurus is the biggest animal that ever walked on the surface of the earth and understanding how it did this will tell us a lot about the maximum performance of the vertebrate musculoskeletal system. We need to know more about this to help understand how it functions in humans. Similarly, if we want to build better legged robots then we need to know more about the mechanics of legs in a whole range of animals. Nothing has bigger, more powerful legs than Argentinosaurus.”
Funding boost to study genetic determinants of skeletal diseases
Faculty researchers have been awarded £1.3million by the European Union to fund a five-year study which aims to boost understanding and inform future treatments of osteoarthritis and other skeletal diseases. They will harness their knowledge of less complex skeletal diseases, such as dwarfism, in an attempt to learn more about common conditions such as osteoarthritis, which have a more complex genetic element.
The Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell-Matrix Research is leading the research. Professor Ray Boot-Handford said:
“Skeletal diseases like osteoarthritis present a major social, economic, and healthcare challenge which is set to rise as we live longer. The concept behind this research is to study and integrate through modelling the cellular and tissue effects of both common and rare skeletal diseases to gain a better understanding of how they work, how the disease progresses, and age-related changes. This will help us find markers, perhaps a blood or urine test like you currently have for diabetes, to show who suffers from early stages of these diseases. This will help determine whether potential treatments are working.”
The funding is part of a £10million pound programme looking at systems biology for the functional validation of genetic determinants of skeletal diseases (known as SYBIL). Seven European Countries are involved as part of the EU’s FP7 Health Innovation 2013 grant. Research began this month, with the hope of identifying new and more effective treatments for these common diseases.
The Big Picture – images of Manchester research in action
Photographs focusing on University research are being showcased as part of Manchester Science Festival. The photos are entries for this year’s Image of Research Competition, with subjects ranging from wishing trees, to living chrysalises, to the ravages of extreme weather. This year’s theme is ‘The Big Picture’ and all of the entries demonstrate how University research is making a real difference in the world.
Members of the public are invited to help decide which pictures most capture the imagination, raise curiosity, and get you thinking differently about research. You can vote for favourite until November 4.
Faculty researcher Dr Joanne Pennock has been shortlisted in the competition. Her image features a British boy looking through a microscope, standing in front of another photo of a young Ugandan boy. Dr Pennock explained:
“The Ugandan boy in the background is eligible for a global World Health Organisation program, which has a target to treat 750 million children for intestinal worm infection by 2020. The boy in the foreground is British. He is not part of the global treatment campaign, yet he is learning about the worm eggs that infect children in Uganda and the effect they have on health.”
The Images of Research Competition is a regular part of the annual Manchester Science Festival. Now in its seventh year, the festival’s family friendly programme also features the University’s Science Spectacular on Saturday November 2. This free event takes place at Whitworth Hall and Manchester Museum between 11am and 4pm, giving visitors the chance to learn about research, meet scientists, and try out simple experiments.
Success in the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition!
Faculty undergraduates were part of a team that won a gold medal in the European heat of the International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) competition. The students will now go on to the World Finals, to be held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Boston at the beginning of November.
The worldwide iGEM competition is open to students who are interested in synthetic biology. Competing teams are given a kit of biological parts at the beginning of the summer. They then use this kit, and additional parts of their own design, to build biological systems and operate them in living cells.
The Manchester team, mentored by Professor Eriko Takano, created a synthetic alternative to palm oil using E. coli. Due to its use in many consumer products, demand for palm oil is huge. This is causing the price to rocket, at the same time as creating irreparable damage to rainforests and species such as the Sumatran Orangutan. The team said:
“We went beyond what’s expected in terms of human practices. We researched a report that explored the effect of our project on national and global scales. We studied the viability of replacing palm oil with a synthetic alternative, putting special focus on the effects of competing with traditional farmers. Our report details a vision in which synthetic biology and traditional farming complement each other.”
Because of this aspect of their work, the team won the award for Best Human Practices. They were also involved in outreach activities, with stands at the FLS Community Open Day and at the University’s Science Stars day. Team member Rob Harrison said:
“We would like to thank the Faculty for their generous support. Each team member found the experience highly beneficial; be it for lab experience, computer modelling, or the development of transferable skills.”
We’ll be posting an update on how the team get on at the World Finals. You can find out more about their project on their Wiki page, and more about the competition in general on the iGEM website.
MCCIR move forward in mission to tackle parasitic worm infections
Faculty researchers have made an important step towards finding a treatment for gastrointestinal parasitic worm infections. These infections affect nearly a quarter of the world’s population and have been heavily linked with poverty. They often result in chronic, long-lasting infections which lead to a diminished quality of life, health problems, and disruptions to the education of school-age children.
A team at The Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research has identified an immune response pathway which appears to play an important role in driving the chronic infection. Potentially, this could be targeted for therapy. Dr Mark Travis, who led the research team, said:
“Current treatments involve the use of drugs that expel parasitic worms from the body by killing them. However, this doesn’t prevent rapid re-infection and sufferers often encounter problems with drug resistance. As these infections are usually chronic, they are likely to influence the behaviour of the body’s immune system. We wanted to look in more detail at the pathways via cells and molecules in the body that regulate the immune response during infections. We believe this is crucial for the identification of new ways to treat these poorly managed infections.”
The team examined the behaviour of TGFβ, a molecule which has many functions related to controlling the body’s immune response. The study found that when this key molecule was blocked soon after infection, the levels of protection from infection were significant. Dr Travis said:
“We have therefore identified a new pathway that regulates immune responses in the gut and can protect against infection. There now needs to be further research to see whether this could be used to create a protective immune response during a parasite infestation.”
Commendation for Faculty PhD student
Oliver Freeman, a final-year PhD student from the Faculty, has received a commendation for his entry in this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award. Following the shortlisting of his article, Why sugary nerves aren’t so sweet, Oliver attended a writing masterclass and an award ceremony in London, where he picked up his commendation prize of £750.
The Max Perutz Award is named in honour of one of the UK’s most outstanding scientists and communicators, Dr Max Perutz, who died in 2002. The awards are in their sixteenth year and aim to bring the work of Medical Research Council researchers to the attention of a wider audience. All entrants are asked to explain why their research matters in a maximum of 800 words. This year’s judges included MRC Chairman Donald Brydon, Channel 4 newscaster Jon Snow, New Scientist editor Lizzie Gibney, and Dr Andrew Bastawrous, the winner of last year’s award. Our congratulations go to Oliver and all of the successful entrants. Oliver said:
“Being shortlisted for the award was a fantastic experience and to be commended in the award ceremony was a great bonus. The support the MRC gives to young scientists is incredible and I’d urge anyone considering entering a competition such as this to give it a go.”
Faculty celebrates accreditation of life sciences degrees
On September 4th, 2013, Faculty members celebrated the accreditation of all our four-year biological science degree programmes during a glitzy ceremony at The Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.
Accreditation, granted by The Society of Biology, is awarded to programmes that demonstrate the highest standards in the biosciences and provide graduates with the skills for academic and industry careers. The award was accepted by Associate Dean for Teaching, Learning, and Students, Professor Catherine McCrohan:
“Recognition of our four-year degree programmes is the result of the combined efforts and the dedication of a huge number of individuals, both staff and students. In particular, I would like to thank academic and support staff, especially programme directors and those involved with sourcing and administering our many and varied placements. The Society particularly commented on the quality and enthusiasm of our students, and their confidence to tackle challenging placements in far-flung locations. Thank you to everyone”
The 34 accredited programmes range from anatomical sciences to zoology. Each was recognised for their high quality, the choices they offer, and the way they prepare our students for the future careers. Every programme includes a year’s placement in which students take part in a significant research project. Some of them have told us just how valuable their experiences were:
“It’s difficult to pick just one highlight. Living on an island in the Bahamas catching sharks in the sun doesn’t have many downsides. Without question the best and most productive year of my life”
“My research at the Horniman Museum was on the nutritional requirements of neo-tropical frog larvae. I learnt about the workings of an aquarium and about animal husbandry, and have been asked to present my work at the National Aquarium Conference. Best thing I have ever done!”
“My placement included trekking through remote areas of rainforest, setting camera traps to capture images of elusive mammals, and climbing trees to study the critters living in them.”
Sarah-Xaali O’Reilly Berkeley
“The highlight of my placement was the month I spent monitoring lizard foraging behaviour in Puerto Rico but helping the University of Rhode Island inter-mural ice hockey team win the league was pretty cool too!”
“The placement is not only invaluable to me, but the company I'm placed with are benefiting also. By taking on two students, they've gained hard workers with an eagerness to learn all about the ins and outs of conservation. The projects we are working on can be used and built on by the society for years to come.”
“I was given so many opportunities to learn new skills, and experience what it's like to work in a scientific environment. Not only was it helpful academically, it was also one of the best years of my life, during which I was able to meet brilliant people and experience a new country. ”
Discovery may help shape plants of the future
Faculty scientists have discovered an important mechanism that controls the direction in which plant cells grow. This could help to develop higher yielding crops and increase the size of plants grown for use in biofuels.
As plant cells grow, they can expand by up to 1000 times their original size. Many plant cells, including those in the root or the stem, need to expand in a certain direction for the plant to develop properly. The distribution of cellulose, a substance that forms much of the plant cell wall, is crucial to this process. Within the cell, cellulose is gathered around a ‘scaffold’ of proteins.
Now, a BBSRC-funded team has shown how the building of plant cell scaffolds results in different shapes, allowing the plant cells to grow in particular directions and giving the plant its overall size and shape.
The scaffold is formed by tiny, thin tubes known as microtubules. They form tracks which guide the placement of cellulose. Previous studies found that these tracks are aligned; if any microtubules become poorly aligned, they are cut away by an enzyme called katanin.
The Faculty research team demonstrated that a protein called SPIRAL2 decides where and when the poorly-aligned tracks are cut. Depending on the organisation required by the plant, SPIRAL2 either remains stationary and prevents cutting, or moves to expose areas that need to be cut by katanin to produce aligned microtubules. This is the first time that this mechanism has been understood. Professor Simon Turner said:
“This study answers some fundamental questions about how plants cells grow and the patterns of the microtubules within the cells. It potentially gives us the ability to alter these patterns. This may allow us to manipulate plant development and engineer plants that meet our needs for agriculture or to improve the environment. It may provide a means of increasing plant biomass for better crop yields or generating plant material for bioenergy production.”
Double success for the Faculty!
The Society of Biology Science Communication Awards reward scientists and researchers for outreach work which educates and engages the public. There are two categories in these annual awards, and this year both winners were from our faculty.
Applicants’ projects can vary widely, from articles and talks, to demonstrations and art displays. Judges look for engaging activities which bring top-quality science to non-academic audiences, encouraging a long-lasting interest in biology.
This year’s New Researcher Award went to developmental biology PHD Student Rebecca Williams. Rebecca established Fastbleep Biology, an organisation that runs workshops in Greater Manchester, while obtaining her PHD. She also worked as a Widening Participation fellow at the University and a demonstrator at Manchester Museum. Ben Johnson, chair of the judging panel, said:
“What struck us about Rebecca's application was the variety of activities she was involved in and her ability to improve projects based on participant feedback. Rebecca had some great projects and was really committed to ensuring they continued after she finished her PhD.”
Dr Sheena Cruickshank was successful in the other category, receiving the Established Researcher Award for her role as a developer of The Worm Wagon. Combining art and interactive activities, The Worm Wagon brings awareness to global health issues caused by parasitic worms. Working with a variety of audiences, ranging from school children, to immigrant groups, to festival goers at Live from Jodrell Bank, The Worm Wagon informs the public of how these infections can be both transmitted and treated. Dr Steve Cross, another judge on the panel, said:
“Sheena's application stood out because she's getting to audiences beyond the places science normally goes, focusing her time and effort to make successful projects that involve her colleagues. We loved the creativity of her communication and the very clear passion for her field of immunology.”
The winners will receive their awards at the Society's Annual Award Ceremony at the King's Fund on Thursday 17th October during Biology Week 2013.
The final nail in the Jurassic Park coffin?
When Jurassic Park was released in 1993, one idea in particular caught the public imagination: could dinosaurs be recreated by by extracting DNA from insects preserved in amber? Some scientists initially claimed they could find DNA traces in amber that was 130 million years old, but doubts were soon cast on this finding.
Now scientists from the Faculty have sadly confirmed that the existence of DNA in amber fossils is highly unlikely. The team, led by amber expert Dr David Penney and coordinated by ancient DNA expert Professor Terry Brown, used highly-sensitive ‘next generation’ sequencing techniques – the most advanced type of DNA sequencing – on insects preserved in copal, the precursor of amber. They used two samples of copal, one that was less than 60 years old, the other that was about 10,000 years old. To everyone’s disappointment, both samples drew a blank. According to Professor Brown:
“In the original studies DNA amplification was achieved using the polymerase chain reaction, which preferentially amplifies any modern, undamaged DNA molecules that contaminate an extract of partially degraded ancient ones. This can give false positive results that might be mistaken for genuine ancient DNA. Our approach, using ‘next generation’ sequencing methods, is ideal for ancient DNA. It provides sequences for all DNA molecules in an extract, regardless of length, and is less likely to give preference to contaminating modern molecules.”
The team concluded that their inability to detect ancient DNA despite using such sensitive methods suggests that the potential for DNA survival is very poor. This raises significant doubts about claims of DNA extraction from fossil insects in amber many millions of years older than copal. Dr Penney said:
“One might imagine that the complete and rapid engulfment in resin, resulting in almost instantaneous demise, might promote the preservation of DNA in a resin entombed insect. However, this appears not to be the case. So, unfortunately, the Jurassic Park scenario must remain in the realms of fiction.”
This is not the only element of Jurassic Park’s science that is questionable. To read more about how Faculty scientists have undermined the Jurassic Park myth, take a look at Professor Matthew Cobb’s recent blog post: The University of Manchester says: "Jurassic Park is fiction".
Moorland plant composition can affect levels of greenhouse gases
Faculty scientists have helped show that moorland plants, particularly heather and cotton grass, can strongly influence the climate warming effects of greenhouse gas emissions. Valuable carbon stores, held deep below peaty moorlands, are at a double risk due to changes in climate and new land management techniques that alter plant diversity.The study found that the make-up of plant communities could be crucial to controlling greenhouse gas emissions from carbon-rich ecosystems, as not all vegetation types respond to warming in the same way.
Researchers manipulated temperature as well as the composition and diversity of vegetation, and studied their combined effects for the very first time. Temperatures were increased by around 1°C using warming chambers, mimicking the effects of global warming.
Encouragingly, when heather was present, warming increased the amount of CO2 taken up from the atmosphere, making the ecosystem a greater sink for this greenhouse gas. However, with cotton grass, the CO2 sink strength decreased and the amount of methane released increased – an alarming result. Professor Richard Bardgett said:
“We were surprised that changes in vegetation had such a strong impact on greenhouse gas emissions and changed the way that warming affected them. This means that management of peat land vegetation be necessary to ensure our extensive the way peat moorlands respond to future climate change in a positive way.”
Dr Sue Ward from Lancaster Environment Centre believes the study will interest ecological scientists and policy makers:
“By taking gas samples every month, we showed that the types of plants growing in these ecosystems can modify the effects of increase in temperature. Both changes in vegetation and physical changes in climate should be considered when looking at how global change affects carbon cycling.”
Professor Nick Ostle, from Lancaster’s Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, said:
“This study is unique, making the findings very important. The identity of plants present in these landscapes seems to exert a strong influence on the effect of climate warming on soil CO2 emissions back to the atmosphere. If this is true then we can expect similar responses in other carbon rich systems in the Arctic and Boreal regions.”
Nice genes! What makes you genetically compatible with your partner?
Faculty professor Daniel Davis and his wife Katie had their DNA analysed for compatibility as part of the research for his new book, The Compatibility Gene. This experience is documented in the book, forming part of its discussion of how our compatibility genes may influence finding a life partner as much as they influence our health and individuality. Professor Davis said:
“Some genes vary from person to person, like those that effect eye or hair colour. But my book is about compatibility genes, the genes that vary the most between each of us. First and foremost these are immune system genes; they control how we combat disease. But recent research suggests they may be more important than we thought, that they effect how our brains are wired, how attractive we are, and even how likely we are to reproduce.”
The process of finding out more about their own genetic make-up was a surprisingly nerve-wracking experience for the couple. They had their saliva sent to The Anthony Nolan Trust, a UK charity that matches transplantation donors and recipients.
Professor Davis's compatibility genes turned out to be quite rare, while Katie's were more common. One group of his genes were frequently found in Eastern Europe, while the others were more prevalent in India and Australia. Katie had a gene which would be helpful if she ever suffered a HIV infection, but which increased her susceptibility to the auto-immune disease ankylosing spondylitis. After initially being pleased with his rare combination of genes, Professor Davis was concerned when he thought about what might happen if he needed a transplant. Especially when the researchers offered the advice: 'just don't get ill!'
So does the book, which came out on August 29th, reveal the perfect set of genes? Professor Davis concludes:
“Overall, nobody has a better or worse set of compatibility genes: there’s no hierarchy in the system. The fact that we differ is what’s important; the way our species has evolved to survive disease requires us to be different”
Professor Davis and his wife were interviewed about The Compatibility Gene on BBC Breakfast and you can read more about the book over at his website.
Soil biodiversity crucial to land management and response to climate change
Research involving Faculty scientists has highlighted the importance of maintaining healthy soil biodiversity to optimise land management programmes and reap benefits from living soil. According to the team, more research on soil food webs, the communities of organisms that live all or part of their life in the soil, could improve predictions of climate change’s impact on ecosystems.
In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers looked at soil life in 60 sites across the UK, Sweden, Greece, and the Czech Republic, assessing the role of soil food webs in nutrient cycles among agricultural soils. This is the first time that researchers have taken the entire community of organisms into account when researching soil biodiversity, rather than focusing on one particular aspect. The study showed that there was a strong link between soil organisms and the overall functioning of ecosystems. Lead author of the research, Faculty lecturer Dr Franciska de Vries, said:
“We found that the condition of soil was less tied to how the land was used and more influenced by the soil food web properties. Soils contain a vast diversity of organisms which are crucially important for humans. These organisms help capture carbon dioxide which is vital for helping to reduce global warming and climate change. The research highlights the importance of soil organisms and demonstrates that there is a whole world beneath our feet, inhabited by small creatures that we can’t even see most of the time. By liberating nitrogen for plant growth and locking up carbon in the soil they play an important role in supporting life on Earth.”
The researchers hope these findings will help predict how land use and climate change will impact on ecosystems and might suggest ways to minimise negative changes. Dr De Vries said:
“Soil biodiversity is under threat from a range of pressures, but the topic remains severely understudied. We hope that this research will help devise ways for farmers, landowners, and conservation agencies to reap benefits from the living soil and reduce carbon emissions.”
Dr Jeffrey Hughes has been elected as Treasurer of IUHPS
Dr Jeff Hughes has been elected to the role of Treasurer of the International Union for the History and Philosophy of Science (IUHPS). He will now have a seat on the Executive Committee of the Union and the Council of The Division of History of Science and Technology.
The vote took place during the recent iCHSTM event, for which Dr Hughes was the Chair of the Local Organising Committee. This Congress takes place every four years, in venues across the globe. Previous hosts have included Mexico City, Beijing, and Budapest. This year the University was very proud to host the event, which attracted 1785 delegates, making it probably the largest ever event focusing on the history of science, technology, and medicine (HSTM). Dr Hughes said:
“Organising the event took up much of the last two years, but we’re happy to say that it was well worth it. It was a huge success. Personally, I’m very proud to be elected to such a senior role at IUHPS, and although I’ve been led to believe it is one of the most challenging roles available, I’m very much looking forward to taking it on. It will be fascinating to be at the centre of international aspects of HSTM!”
Dr Ian Burney attracts media attention with his iCHSTM symposium
Nearly 1800 delegates attended the recent International Congress for the History of Science, Technology and Medicine, hosted by CHSTM and the University. They were treated to an astonishingly diverse programme of research presentations and cultural events, demonstrating the vibrancy in the field. Among the many highlights was Dr Ian Burney’s symposium on “Forensic Histories in Global Perspective.” Forensic medicine and science has attained unprecedented visibility in recent years, penetrating the public’s imagination through daily newspapers, bestselling novels, and award-winning television dramas.
“Forensic Histories” brought together experts from North America, Europe, and the UK whose presentations ranged from “Canine Forensics” to identifying the unnamed dead. Dr Burney’s contribution, as part of his Wellcome Trust funded history of twentieth-century English homicide investigation, focused on the roots of what we now recognise as Crime Scene Investigation (CSI). He explained how CSI emerged in late nineteenth-century Europe as a method of ‘disciplining’ the crime scene and analysing the traces harvested from it. He then showed how these ideas were translated into English practice, and how this process reshaped our forensic landscape.
Dr Burney’s remarks received wide press coverage. He was interviewed by BBC Radio and Sky News, and accounts of his argument have been published on blogs and in newspapers across the globe. This unusual level of media attention stemmed from his claim that in their scientific writings, early crime scene practitioners unabashedly embraced fictional detective heroes such as Sherlock Holmes as inspirations for the regime of CSI they were attempting to bring into being. Dr Burney explained his argument:
“Detective fiction showcased the core principles of early crime scene theorists, from protecting the crime scene from contamination, to recording the relationships of objects at the scene and submitting even minute trace evidence to scientific scrutiny. Holmes and his fellow fictional sleuths helped to demonstrate the powers of an emergent model of forensic investigation and its promise to make invisible clues visible.”
Primates evolved monogamy to reduce the risk of infanticide
Academics from the Universities of Manchester, Oxford, Auckland, and University College London have revealed a new understanding of why primates live in monogamous pairs. According to their study, the key drive factor that led to the evolution of monogamy in many primates is the threat of infants being killed by unrelated males. The team also found that males became more likely to care for their offspring following the emergence of monogamy, as they began protecting infants and sharing the burden of childcare.
Infants are most vulnerable when fully dependent on their mother because females delay further conception while nursing. This leads to threats from unrelated males, who hope to bring the next conception forward by killing the infant. When raising the young is a shared process, the dependency period is shortened, and females reproduce sooner.
Sharing the burden of care also allows for more intelligent infants. Growing a ‘big’ brain is expensive and requires offspring to mature slowly. Caring fathers help to alleviate the burden of looking after the young, allowing for longer childhoods, which may explain the evolution of large brains in the human lineage.
To uncover this evolutionary pathway, the team gathered data across 230 primate species, plotting them on a family tree of the species’ relationships. They then used computers to ‘re-run’ evolution millions of times to see whether different behaviours appeared at similar points in evolutionary time, and if so, which behaviour evolved first. They found that male infanticide tended to cause the switch from a multi-male mating system to monogamy, while other suggested causes, such as bi-parental care and solitary ranging by females, were the result of monogamy rather than a cause. Faculty researcher Dr Susanne Shultz said:
“What makes this study so exciting is that it allows us to peer back into our evolutionary past to understand the factors that were important in making us human. Once fathers decide to stick around and care for their young, mothers can then change their reproductive decisions and have more, brainier offspring.”
The Science Arena attracts the crowds at Live from Jodrell Bank
Live sets from New Order, Jonny Marr, and the Australian Pink Floyd were the main attraction at Live from Jodrell Bank in early July. During the day, though, visitors could also attend activities in the Science Arena, soak up the sun or enjoy the shade of the Lovell Telescope, and learn about the different areas of research being undertaken at the University.
The Manchester Immunology Group’s ‘Worm Wagon’ was at the festival for the second year running. Armed with specimens of a variety of gut dwelling parasitic worms, large sheets of paper, and trays of coloured chalk, they encouraged festival goers to learn about parasites through the creation of a giant worm mural.
Visitors created worm illustrations based on specimens, images, or simply on the emotions that the idea of parasitic worms conjured up. Some superb parasites were created, including a wonderful ‘Wimble Worm’ to celebrate Andy Murray’s participation in the Wimbledon final on the same day. Professor Kathryn Else was pleased with the Worm Wagon’s contribution to a great weekend:
“Fun was certainly had, but more importantly the festival gave us an opportunity to inform people about the impact that parasitic infections have on public health across the globe.”
Anna Salter, Annette Allan, and Liz Granger ran a stand where they creatively explained the different parts of cells using biscuits and sweets. Images of cells taken as part of their own research were shown to visitors, who used them as a guide when decorating their biscuits. Over 300 visitors of all ages made their own cell cookie. Liz Granger commented on the activity:
“It was a really fun day, and a great opportunity to discuss our research with people who might not normally engage with science.”
Pupils discover new treatment to stop the spread of worm infection
Scientists from the University have been working with inner-city school children, carrying out research into a condition which affects roughly one billion people worldwide. The 29 youngsters, from Trinity Church of England High School in Hulme, conducted an eight-week experiment investigating the development of eggs from worms which infect the gut.
The pupils learnt how worm eggs infect children around the world, causing malnutrition and sickness, and how these infections are responsible for children missing out on education. They treated worm eggs with different substances to try and stop them from developing into worms, with the hope of finding new ways to prevent the spread of disease.
They made an exciting discovery when realising that clove oil reduced egg development by 50%. As clove oil grows in many places where worm infections exist, they may have found an effective natural therapy to reduce the spread of worm infection.
Pupils showcased these results as part of a presentation day for parents, staff, and students at the University. Faculty researcher Professor Richard Grencis presented certificates to all the participants and even had prizes for a few. Ann Flatman, Deputy Headteacher at the school, said:
“The Trinity Community is extremely proud of our pupils and the work they carried out during this Royal Society Research Project. It’s a joy to see pupils engaged and learning practical scientific skills. It‘s extremely important to us that our pupils gain a real understanding of the hardships faced by others within our global community. The fact that they have stumbled across a potential solution to a condition that affects millions of other children worldwide is an added bonus, to say the least.”
Dr Jo Pennock, from the Institute of Inflammation and Repair, said:
“Most of the children and parents had never been to the University and didn’t know much about what scientists did. We hope that by working more closely with local children, we’ll encourage them to take up science as a subject choice and a career.”
Researchers reveal the clearest new pictures of immune cells
Scientists from the University have revealed new images which provide the clearest picture yet of how white blood immune cells attack viral infections and tumours. They show how the cells, which are responsible for fighting infections and cancer in the human body, change the organisation of their surface molecules when activated by a type of protein found on viral-infected or tumour cells. Professor Daniel Davis, who has been leading the investigation into the immune cells, known as natural killers, said the work could provide important clues for tackling disease.
The research reveals the proteins at the surface of immune cells are not evenly spaced but grouped in clusters - a bit like stars bunched together in galaxies. Professor Davis, Director of Research at the Manchester Collaborative Centre for Inflammation Research (MCCIR), said:
“This is the first time scientists have looked at how these immune cells work at such a high resolution. The surprising thing was that these new pictures revealed that immune cell surfaces alter at this scale – the nano scale – which could perhaps change their ability to be activated in a subsequent encounter with a diseased cell. We have shown that immune cell proteins are not evenly distributed as once thought, but instead they are grouped in very small clumps.”
“We studied how these clusters or proteins change when the immune cells are switched on – to kill diseased cells. Looking at our cells in this much detail gives us a greater understanding of how the immune system works and could provide useful clues for developing drugs to target disease in the future”
Until now the limitations of light microscopy have prevented a clear understanding of how immune cells identify other cells as being diseased or healthy. The team used high quality, super-resolution fluorescence microscopy to view the cells in blood samples in their laboratory and to subsequently create the still images published in the journal Science Signalling this week. You can listen to Professor Davis discussing the images on this Science Signalling Podcast.
Manchester’s brain leaders featured in MOSI exhibition
‘Brains: the Mind as Matter’ is a Wellcome Collection exhibition at The Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) which opens on July 26. The exhibition explores what humans have done to brains in the name of medical intervention, scientific enquiry, cultural meaning, and technological change. It also demonstrates how Manchester has long featured at the forefront of all things neurosurgery.
Many items in the exhibition have been loaned out by The University of Manchester for the very first time, including the work of Carys Bannister (OBE), the UK’s first female neurosurgeon. Bannister was a world-leader in neurosurgery who lived and worked in Manchester. She pioneered much of the research for the successful treatment of hydrocephalus, the condition of excess fluid on the brain. When visiting the exhibition you will be able to view a hydrocephalic skull and lantern slides which show hydrocephalus.
Other highlights include the work of Sir Geoffrey Jefferson, an employee at hospitals in both Salford and Manchester between the 1920s and 1950s, and drawings by Dorothy Davison, a medical artist who helped found the Medical Artist Association. Jefferson and Davison worked together extensively to illustrate brain conditions and the surgical procedures used to treat them.
Brains curator Marius Kwint said:
“The archives and collections from the University reveal some of the inspiring individuals who helped to make the city a centre for neurological science and medicine. There are some fascinating stories here. And then, of course, there are the sometimes tragic and touching cases of their patients.”
Items loaned from the University include slides, video footage, drawings, and books. There are also some historic specimens from diseased brains, a spinal cord, and brain slices, and a fascinating resin cast of a brain hemisphere. Professor Stuart Allan discussed our collaboration with MOSI:
“These artefacts reveal the ground-breaking work done on the brain here in Manchester, and the MOSI exhibition provides a fantastic opportunity to share these stories with the public. The University has played a crucial role in training world-leading scientists and medics. We hope this exhibition will inspire future generations and highlight the wonders of the human brain.”
Faculty hosts British Biology Olympiad Lecture
The British Biology Olympiad (BBO) is a nationwide competition organised by the Society of Biology in which competing students must sit two exams and complete a practical assessment. Four students are then selected to represent the UK in the International Biology Olympiad (IBO) in Switzerland. Alongside the competition, a series of regional events take place around the country. As part of this series, the Faculty hosted the 3rd North West BBO Lecture at the beginning of July.
Attendees included sixth form students from Holy Cross College, Whalley Range 11-18 High School, and Withington High School for Girls. Professor Matthew Cobb, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, was the invited speaker. He gave a fascinating and thought-provoking lecture on the topic of “Why evolution is true.”
Event organiser Dr Michelle Keown then gave an overview of the Faculty’s sponsorship of the BBO, before discussing details of another Society of Biology competition, known as The Biology Challenges. As the event drew to a close, Faculty lecturers Dr Elizabeth Sheader, Dr Tristan Pocock, and Dr Susan Cochran spoke to the students about degree options in the Faculty and the wide variety of career options that studying biology can lead to. This successful event promoted these challenging and exciting competitions to local schools, while also encouraging and developing the students’ interest in biology.
Sale Sharks star wings his way to graduation
A Sale Sharks star graduated from the University this week after completing his final-year studies at the same time as playing and training with the Premiership rugby union team. Charlie Amesbury transferred to Manchester after signing a professional contract with the club and followed the advice of his tutors and trainers when deciding to spread his final-year studies over two years. This decision allowed him to cope with both his education and a gruelling training schedule. The winger’s dedication paid off when he was awarded a 2:1 (Upper Second) classification in his BSc Biology degree:
“I’m very pleased with my result – the grade reflects the support offered by the University and their sensitivity to individual needs while delivering first-class teaching. Combining a professional sports career with a time-intensive degree would’ve been impossible without this support. Modern lecture theatres and teaching techniques such as podcasting allowed me to keep up with fellow students even when lectures clashed with training.”
Charlie’s final-year research project involved studying the body clocks of professional rugby players and comparing them with non-rugby playing men of the same age. He aimed to discover if the biological clocks of the professionals were well synchronised and able to be more active earlier in the day than the non-rugby players. His supervisor, biological clock expert and Sale Sharks fan Professor Andrew Loudon, spoke about working with Charlie:
“Charlie’s incredibly organised. To hold down a competitive place playing on the wing in a Premiership rugby club and perform academically as he did takes some doing. The team at Sale Sharks were very supportive and we thank them for their cooperation.”
Charlie benefited from the University’s Sports Scholarship Scheme, which provides a range of support for students such as funding for free gym access, physiotherapy sessions, lifestyle support, and strength and conditioning coaching.
Professor Matthew Cobb, Associate Dean for Social Responsibility, said:
“We recognise that university life is not only about academic achievement, and that some students have to cope with major challenges in life and work. Charlie is a great example of a student who has met all his challenges and achieved excellence in all fields.”
Loreto College students visit the Faculty
In the middle of June, 90 Year 12 students from Loreto College in Hulme took part in exciting and informative practical sessions at the University. The exercises, led by Dr Kathy Hentges, included the dissection of chicken eggs so that the students could study the developing embryo. They then designed experiments that demonstrated how temperature and salt solutions affect embryonic heart rate.
Researchers and lecturers from the Faculty of Life Sciences and the Faculty of Medicine and Human Sciences talked to the students and described the variety of research topics being studied in the University. The students seem to have enjoyed the meetings and practical sessions:
“The session was brilliant – I enjoyed talking to the academics.”
“Overall, the programme was excellent.”
“I really enjoyed it and found it interesting to be involved in the practicals.”
This visit was part of a larger project with Loreto College. Earlier in the year, Dr Hentges, Rebecca Williams, and Joe Timothy visited the college to teach 40 students about gene expression. Through practical experiments the students increased their knowledge of gene expression, PCR reactions, and gene structure. They were also encouraged to use these experiences in their ‘personal statement’ as part of their application to university.
These sessions with Loreto College are part of the University's Widening Participation (WP) scheme, which aims to increase the recruitment of students from backgrounds that are traditionally underrepresented in Higher Education. The University’s recognition of the central importance of this aspect of our work is reflected by the fact that WP forms one of our core strategic goals. Dr Kath Hinchliffe commented on Loreto College and the WP scheme:
“The activities with Loreto College students are a superb example of how the Faculty is interacting with the local community to fulfil WP obligations. By actively engaging with potential future undergraduates, we raise awareness of the biological sciences, reveal the wealth of exciting career opportunities they provide, and deliver the key message that these opportunities are open to any individual with the potential to succeed, irrespective of his or her background.”
The Beast Within: an update
The Beast Within was a collaboration between the Manchester Immunology Group (MIG) and artist Paul Evans. The original exhibition, which saw a series of drawings of microscopic parasites on human scale displayed in The Manchester Museum, was part of Manchester Science Festival in 2012. MIG have now negotiated with Paul so that they can keep four of the images on permanent display in the AV Hill Building. The pictures chosen tie in with research currently being undertaken by members of MIG, MCCIR, and Computer Sciences.
Paul used microscopic images of the parasites to create the graphite drawings. By drawing the parasites on a scale clearly visible to humans, he was hoping to emphasise the contrast between the strange beauty of the organisms and the horrific nature of their impact. Infections caused by such parasites affect almost three billion people worldwide. Research undertaken at MIG and MCCIR looks at how these parasites affect the immune system and what can be done to better manage and treat such infections.
MIG regularly study one particular parasite; the gut dwelling whipworm known as Trichuris trichuria. Around 1 billion people are infected with this worm, most commonly in humid tropical countries in Asia, Africa, and South America. The infection occurs when people eat food that has been contaminated with parasite eggs found in the soil. Symptoms include malnutrition and stunted growth. They are the single most significant reason that primary school aged children miss out on education. Interestingly, though, species of the same worm are currently being used in clinical trials for the treatment of inflammatory bowel disease.
Dr Sheena Cruickshank researches the role of these parasites in human health, including the ways they can benefit their host. She welcomes Paul’s use of these creatures for art:
“The final images that Paul has produced are incredibly striking. They provide the public with an opportunity to see these creatures in a way that isn’t possible without a microscope. We hope they will make people think about the impact of these parasites and their significance for human and animal health.”
Now in Japanese: Stephanie Snow's Blessed Days of Anaesthesia
Dr Stephanie Snow, a Senior Research Associate at the Faculty, has had her successful book Blessed Days of Anaesthesia: How Anaesthetics Changed the World opened up to a whole new audience following its translation into Japanese. The book, which recounts the early days of anaesthesia, was highly commended by the Longman/History Today Book of the Year Awards in 2009. The translated version has been published by Medical Sciences International Ltd, Tokyo.
From accounts of Humphry Davy’s early experiments with nitrous oxide, to details of the dramas that drove the discovery of ether anaesthesia, the book unravels some of the key moments in medical history. And Dr Snow hasn’t shied away from the more grisly stories that such a history is bound to contain. Frequent deaths and notorious murders are well accounted for on the pages of this captivating work.
Interwoven throughout these stories, a fascinating social change is revealed. Anaesthesia caused the Victorians to rethink concepts of pain and sexuality and the links between mind and body. A profound change in attitudes began to be realised as the view that physical suffering could and should be prevented permeated throughout society. This was most telling in prisons and school where pain had long been used as a method of social control. Dr Snow’s book details how the discovery of anaesthesia created a legacy that was not only scientific and medicinal, but also extremely compassionate.
Sustainability events at Manchester Museum
Alongside colleagues from Manchester Museum, Dr Jennifer Rowntree recently organised a series of events focusing on the theme of sustainability. The Tuesday evening talks, which ran from April 30th to May 28th, covered the topics of transport, clothing, housing, biodiversity, and food. At each event a speaker from outside the University gave a 30 minute talk. This was followed by 2-4 shorter talks from academic or administrative staff which provided an excellent opportunity to highlight important research, promote good practice, and suggest areas for improvement within the University.
Simon Warburton, from Transport for Greater Manchester, was the speaker at the first event. He provided some fascinating insights into the practicalities of devising and implementing a coherent travel plan for Manchester. During the Clothing event, Stitched Up Collective’s Sara Han discussed upcycling and sustainability within the fashion industry. Ric Frankland from Dwelle was the next speaker and his focus was sustainable housing. In particular, he discussed the process of building his EcoHouse, which can be seen on the roadside when following the bus route into Fallowfield. Matt Holker from the Greater Manchester Ecology Unit offered some inspirational words regarding the ways in which recording biodiversity in our local area can map the trends of species distribution, an increasingly important practice as climate and habitat pressures continue to change. In the final event, it was Incredible Edible’s Pam Warhurst’s turn to make the audience think about the sustainability issues that exist within our food chain. Each event attracted an impressive audience of between 30 and 40 people, many of whom were keen to get involved in the lively discussions which followed the talks. Dr Rowntree commented on the events:
“The Faculty’s involvement in organising this kind of public outreach activity is a testament to our commitment to sustainability issues. The events not only encouraged links between the University and external organisations, but also enabled cross-faculty discussion and cooperation that will ensure the work being done to improve sustainability awareness across the University continues to thrive.”
Mysterious manuscript may contain meaning
The mysterious Voynich manuscript, which is held at Yale University, is a 240 page medieval text that no one has been able to decipher. Written in an unknown alphabet, it is lavishly decorated with drawings of unidentified plants, bathing women, and astrological motifs. Its origin, purpose and meaning all remain unknown.
Many linguists, mathematicians, historians and code-breakers from around the world have attempted to understand it, but all have failed. Although it is written on vellum from the early 15th century, many people who have studied the manuscript have ended up thinking that it may be a hoax.
Dr Marcelo Montemurro, a physicist who studies neuroscience in the Faculty of Life Sciences, has just made a breakthrough that suggests that the Voynich manuscript may not be a pseudo-random jumble of symbols, but instead contains meaning.
Together with a colleague from Argentina, Dr Montemurro used the information theory he normally employs to study nervous systems to show that the statistics of word use in the Voynich manuscript are similar to documents written in real languages and are different from non-linguistic sequences of symbols. This suggests that it may be written in a code or a secret language. Furthermore, they found a link between the strange illustrations that pepper the manuscript and the patterns of symbols in the text surrounding them. This increases the likelihood that the manuscript may contain a message.
Dr Montemurro’s study has lifted a corner of the mystery surrounding the Voynich manuscript, supporting the hypothesis that there is a genuine message in the book. His study could have implications for both cryptography and linguistics – for nearly a century the manuscript has resisted all attempts to uncover its secrets. It could still turn out to be a hoax, but that now looks less likely.
If you'd like to know more about the Voynich manuscript you can read the original article, have a go at decoding the manuscript yourself, or watch this fascinating video from National Geographic.
A successful year in the Faculty is marked by various teaching awards
As the teaching year comes to a close, various awards have been presented to those who have excelled in the past academic year. In The University of Manchester’s Student Union Teaching Awards, Dr Richard Prince was chosen from the 54 people nominated as the best Life Sciences Lecturer 2013. Dr Prince was praised for his interesting lectures and the use of real world scenarios and anecdotes that helped to bring his subject to life.
Further evidence that Dr Prince has enjoyed a very successful year came when he was awarded the Distinguished Achievement Award for the FLS Teacher of the Year 2013. Our congratulations go to him.
The University Teaching Excellence Awards recognise academics who have demonstrated a significant and sustained commitment to excellence in teaching. These awards are extremely prestigious. We are pleased to announce that Dr David Kirby, who specialises in the study of science in film and entertainment, received one of the five awards presented across the University.
Further congratulations go to Dr Amit Jinabahai. He was nominated by the University’s Optometry students as the Optometry Lecturer of the Year. He will now go forward to compete against eleven lecturers from other universities for the Association of Optometrists Lecturer of the Year Award.
Rare Orchid Flowers in the Quad of the Michael Smith Building
One of Britain’s rarest flowering plants can currently be seen in the quad of the Faculty’s very own Michael Smith Building. Though never a common plant, the Lady’s Slipper Orchid Cypripedium calceolus was reduced to a population of just one plant in the 1980s, mainly due to the attention of plant enthusiasts and herbarium collectors. The plant was rescued by a conservation project at the Royal Botanic Gardens, and has since been propagated and reintroduced at a number of sites. It is still extremely rare, though, and should not be missed while it’s flowering on our grounds.
The flowering of this orchid will be of particular interest to the plant scientists among us. MPhil student Oliver Hughes has found it especially helpful as he is currently studying the associations of orchids and fungi and hoping to discover ways in which this symbiosis can aid in the further propagation of these rare British flowers.
Lady’s Slipper Orchids are a fascinating plant. They attract bee pollinators by deception, imitating other woodland flowers and producing fragrances which are similar to bee pheromones but offer no nectar reward. Once attracted, bees enter the opening of the yellow slipper or labellum. A combination of the shape, the slippery interior surface, and the placement of transparent windows, helps to guide the bee to exit via a narrow corridor where pollen sacs are deposited on the insect’s back. If the bee blunders into another Lady’s Slipper upon exit, the pollen is deposited on the stigma and pollination occurs.
This particular plant has been grown from seed using sterile propagation techniques on artificial media. The plants are very slow growing, taking 5 to 10 years to reach flowering size. They are also very sensitive to disturbance, so to see the orchid flowering in the quad is quite an achievement. Orchids are among Britain’s most spectacular wild plants, and although there are around fifty species in the UK, roughly a third of these are threatened. The Faculty is proud to have such a rare plant growing on our grounds, and we’re happy that our students may play an important role in their preservation.
Biology Based Courses Receive Accreditation from the Society of Biology
The Faculty is delighted and honoured to announce that the Society of Biology has accredited all of our biology-based four year degree programmes.
These programmes equip graduates with a competitive edge in an increasingly difficult job market by providing rigorous training in the fundamentals of the eighteen disciplines we cover. Our students undertake original, cutting-edge research, putting into practice the theoretical concepts they learn.
Accreditation recognises the emphasis on students for acquiring practical experience in a research environment and gives our students the best opportunities for securing their chosen PhD programmes or positions within their preferred industry or research institute. The external recognition of excellence provided by The Society represents a huge boost to both current students on the programmes and the staff responsible for their delivery.
A Faculty Graduate Discusses his New Career in the Bahamas Based Sharklab
CJ Crooks graduated with a Zoology with Industrial Placement BSc in 2012. He spent his placement year in the Bahamas, working at the Bimini Biological Station Foundation ‘Sharklab.’ The Sharklab is a non-profit organisation offering internships and placements to people interested in shark research and ocean ecosystem conservation. They’ve published scientific papers, appeared in TV shows, films, and documentaries, and they possess the largest genetic database of a single shark species in the world.
After graduating, CJ returned to the Bahamas as the Media Manager of the Bimini Biological Field Station. He relishes the variety in the role, which sees him heavily involved in bringing in income and exposure via production companies and social media. He is the primary contact for every production they host and is leading their website reconstruction and the improvement of their Facebook and Twitter accounts. He also releases details of their fascinating research to media outlets.
Most important to CJ is the fact that his role makes scientific research accessible to the public. He currently organises a non-technical Naturalist Course focusing on shark biology and ecology which is open to anyone over 18. He also runs Research Experiences for people who are unable to commit long-term or are too young to volunteer. Of course, the most exciting element of the role is his involvement in research: whether tagging a free swimming great hammerhead or catching a 12 foot tiger shark, no two days are the same.
CJ also gets to indulge his strongest passion while working in the Bahamas. As a keen photographer, CJ documents the research via still and motion pictures which he sells on a freelance basis to the public, the media, and production companies. The images that accompany this article are his and there are many more to be seen on his website. CJ had this to say:
“I’m living the dream right now. I learn and see new things every day and live on an idyllic Caribbean island. None of this would’ve been possible without the Faculty; the opportunities provided were second-to-none and shaped my prospects as a graduate. I highly recommend the placement year; it helped me to realise my passions and dreams.”
MICRA Celebrates 1000 Members with Two New Co-Directors
The Manchester Interdisciplinary Collaboration for Research on Ageing (MICRA) is celebrating its 1000th member following the announcement of two new co-directors. Professors Cay Kielty and Dean Jackson, both from the Faculty, have joined the existing leadership team of James Nazroo, Chris Phillipson, Alistair Burns, and Neil Pendleton to support the continued growth and development of MICRA across the University and beyond. Until recently, Cay was Associate Dean for Research in the Faculty and she now leads on cross faculty working. She holds a chair in medical biochemistry with a focus on regenerative medicine. Dean is a cell biologist, the Head of Section for Cellular Systems, and a member of the FLS Senior Management team.
MICRA has a diverse membership built up over three years as a network promoting interdisciplinary research on all aspects of ageing. Membership is open to anyone interested in this field and has attracted academics, students, voluntary sector providers, staff from the NHS, the private sector, and the government, as well as many older people. Most members have attended MICRA events, including the monthly public seminars in which academics from different disciplines present alongside practitioners on key ageing issues. Seminars are now regularly attracting audiences of around 100, looking at topics such as ‘Ageing, Dementia, Creativity and Storytelling’ and ‘Population Ageing and the Future of Cities.’ 115 attended last month’s public lecture by Dr Aubrey de Grey. You can join MICRA by following the link at the bottom of their homepage.
Professor Nancy Papalopulu Becomes a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences
Professor Nancy Papalopulu has been elected to the Fellowship of the Academy of Medical Sciences as recognition for her contribution to the advancement of medical science. Out of 351 candidates, Professor Papalopulu was one of only 44 UK researchers to be recognised in this year’s list.
To be elected as an Academy Fellow, a scientist must display excellence in medical research, show innovative applications of scientific knowledge, or provide eye-catching service to healthcare. Professor Sir John Tooke, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences, said:
“The Academy of Medical Sciences exists to promote the best of medical science for the benefit of society. Our new Fellows are recognised for their exceptional contribution and collectively represent the array of talent present in the UK medical science community. They will further strengthen the Academy and I look forward to working with them over the coming years.”
Professor Papalopulu joined the Faculty from The University of Cambridge in 2006. Her research studies the development of the nervous system from fertilised egg to embryonic brain. Her work focuses on understanding how cells decide to divide or differentiate at the molecular level; a decision which is crucial for the correct development of the nervous system. Most recently, she made an important discovery into how cyclical fluctuations in levels of protein and small RNAs regulate the fate that cells adopt.
This research into the nervous system could prove integral to the treatment of many medical conditions. It is for this work, and the role she plays in helping future scientists to undertake similar crucial research, that Professor Papalopulu has been recognised as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences. Professor Papalopulu discussed her election to the Academy:
“Basic research underpins medical discoveries and it is a great honour that my research has been recognised in this way by the country’s leading medical scientists. I am looking forward to serving the community as a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.”
The Faculty would like to offer our heartfelt congratulations.
Two University Institutes Secure €3.4million to Train Future Generation of Investigators
The Manchester Institute of Biotechnology (MIB) and Photon Science Institute (PSI) have secured a Marie Curie training network grant worth €3.4 million to train the future generation of investigators. The four year grant entitled “MAGnetic Innovation in Catalysis”, known as the MAGIC Innovative Doctoral Programme, will see the MIB and PSI host 12 early stage researchers who will be appointed to three-year PhD training programmes. The University of Manchester will partner with six Universities (Tokyo, Freiburg, Lund, Joseph Fourier in France, Edinburgh and Copenhagen) and five companies (AZ, Bruker, TGK, Conformetrix, and SarOMICS). Each early stage researcher will be closely linked to the international and industrial partners who will be actively involved in their research projects. Professor Nigel Scrutton, Director of MIB, said:
“The concept of team-based activity is well founded across research groups in MIB and PSI and will enrich the training experience by bringing multiple skills embedded in these teams to MAGIC programmes. Our aim is to train the future generation of leading investigators of biological catalysis/enzymology in developing new enabling technologies that can advance physical understanding of catalysis and mechanism. These collaborative research projects will explore the mechanistic details of enzyme systems by adopting innovative, versatile and unique experimental techniques to probe the contributions of motions across multiple spatial and temporal timescales and quantum chemical effects. In turn, these novel methods will transform current experimental capabilities and will be applied to a range of important biological catalysts to probe the mechanistic importance of coupled motions and quantum physico-chemical effects.”
It is expected that this grant will commence in February 2014.
Video Reveals Cancer Cells' Achilles' Heel
Professor Dan Davis and his team at the MCCIR have discovered why the cancer drug rituximab kills cancerous B cells so effectively. The drug is widely used in the treatment of B cell malignancies such as lymphoma and leukaemia, as well as with autoimmune diseases such as rheumatoid arthritis. The findings could be integral to the design of future cancer treatments.
Using high-powered laser based microscopes, researchers made videos of the process by which rituximab binds to a diseased cell and then attracts white blood cells, known as natural killer (NK) cells, to attack. They discovered that rituximab tended to stick to one side of the cancer cell, forming a cap and drawing a number of proteins to that side. Effectively, it caused a front and back to the cell – with a cluster of protein molecules on one side.
What most surprised the scientists was how this changed the effectiveness of NK cells. When NK cells latched onto a rituximab cap which had already drawn a protein cluster to one side of the cell, it killed the cell 80% of the time. Without the cluster of proteins, it killed only 40% of the time. Professor Davis said:
“These results were unexpected. It was only possible for us to unravel why this drug was so effective through the use of video microscopy. Watching what happened within the cells, we could identify why rituximab is so effective. It tended to reorganise the cancerous cell, making it especially prone to being killed. Our findings demonstrate that the ability to polarise a cell by moving proteins should be considered when new antibodies are tested as potential cancer treatments. It appears they can be twice as effective if they bind to a cell and reorganise it.”
Dr Matt Sleeman, Senior Director of Biology at MedImmune, said:
“This great observation can influence how we as a biotech company identify and design future therapies. It shows how innovative thinking can be achieved by working with top academics. I am excited by the potential of the MCCIR to bring further innovation and ultimately bring benefits to patients. ”
A Hub for Engineering and Exploiting the Stem Cell Niche
Faculty professors Sue Kimber and Cay Kielty are partners in a new cross-university consortium which will form a research platform to address the gaps in knowledge, the challenges, and the opportunities for regenerative medicine offered by stem cells and their microenvironment (‘niche’). This hub will bring together world-leading expertise from Manchester, Edinburgh, KCL, Cambridge, Bristol, ICL, and Keele. The consortium is funded by an award to the UK Regenerative Medicine Platform, led by the Medical Research Council.
The hub aims to discover and deliver niche-based approaches to regenerative medicines by focusing on exemplar tissues such as cartilage. It will establish a platform of cutting-edge technologies which the UK community can apply to a spectrum of disease in which the failure of tissue repair causes societal suffering and economic hardship.
The overall objective of the hub is to promote the regeneration of healthy tissues by identifying the niche signals that direct stem cells to restore tissue function. This knowledge will allow stem cells to be regulated using biological agents, drugs, and other methods, and thus be exploited therapeutically. They also anticipate that new understandings of the abnormal niche created by inflammation following tissue damage will improve the effectiveness of repair by transplanted cells.
The consortium’s funding will help UK scientists overcome barriers in this emerging field, allowing them to transform laboratory discoveries into the most effective clinical applications. Regenerative medicine is a relatively new field of science, but with its great potential to repair or replace damaged tissues, it could provide therapies for as yet incurable conditions such as heart disease, Parkinson’s, blindness, osteoarthritis, and liver failure. Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts said:
“Regenerative medicine is a hugely promising area of science, which is why it featured in our Strategy for UK Life Sciences and was identified as one of the eight great technologies. This investment will help take excellent basic research through to clinical application, benefitting patients and driving growth.”
Exciting Breakthrough in Search for Neurodegenerative Disease Treatments
Faculty scientists have taken a significant step towards developing an effective treatment for neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. Manchester Institute of Biotechnology researchers have detailed how an enzyme in the brain interacts with a drug-like lead compound for Huntington’s, inhibiting its activity. Their findings demonstrate that this can be developed as an effective treatment for these difficult to treat conditions.
Working with colleagues at the Universities of Leicester and Lisbon, the researchers identified the molecular structure of the enzyme kynurenine 3-monooxygense (KMO), found in the human brain. This is the first time the crystal structure of KMO has been established, and the process took five years to complete.
The scientists then studied how the compound UPF 648 binds incredibly tightly to the enzyme, acting as an inhibitor. Previous studies had shown that switching off the enzyme activity through drug binding should be effective when treating brain disorders. Professor Nigel Scrutton, who led the study, said:
“UPF 648 works effectively as an enzyme activity inhibitor. However, in its current form it doesn’t pass from the blood into the brain. Our research enables a search for new KMO inhibitors that are able to cross the blood-brain barrier. This provides real hope for developing drug therapies for diseases such as Huntington’s, Alzheimer’s, and Parkinson’s. ”
Dr Flaviano Giorgini from the University of Leicester said:
“This is a big move forward for the development of KMO inhibiting drugs. It is hoped that such compounds may ultimately be tested in clinical trials and prove beneficial for patients.”
Cath Stanley, Chief Executive of the Huntington's Disease Association, welcomed the findings:
“This research is a really exciting piece of the jigsaw that enables us to understand a little more and takes us a step closer to being able to provide an effective treatment for Huntington’s Disease”
Paired Fins of Fossil Fish Could Have Implications for Human Evolution
According to Faculty scientist Dr Robert Sansom, the discovery of paired fins behind the anus of an unusual fossil fish could have implications for human evolution. The fins were identified on Euphanerops, a fossil jawless fish that swam in the seas around 370 million years ago. The find makes the fish one of the first vertebrate to develop paired appendages. However, as Dr Sansom explains, the positioning of the fins is very unusual:
“Euphanerops is unique because its anal fin is paired, meaning there is one fin on each side of the fish. Until now anal fins have only been seen on jawed fish and have been unpaired. Euphaerops’ age is important as it dates from a time of deep evolutionary split between jawed and jawless fish, the two main divisions of vertebrates alive today. It represents an important stage in the evolution of paired appendages. It’s unclear why the fins are so far back on the fish, or what advantaged they might have provided. However, they do show that our early vertebrate ancestors tried out many different body plans before settling on two arms and two legs. Our bodies could have looked very different!”
Dr Sansom discovered the paired fins while studying Euphanerops fossils in Quebec. The research followed on from a 2009 study of early vertebrate evolution and fossil preservation with colleagues from The University of Leicester. Their findings have been published in the Royal Society’s journal Biology Letters. Dr Sansom says it was an exciting find:
“The unusual paired anal fin of Euphanerops lends support to the idea that there was some degree of developmental and evolutionary experimentation in fish. After the Devonian period and the extinction of a lot of species, the jawed vertebrate body exhibits fewer deviations from the formula of paired pectoral, paired pelvic, unpaired dorsal, and unpaired anal appendages. The discovery of new anatomical conditions will hopefully shed more light on the timing and sequence of the events underlying the origin and diversification of vertebrate appendages.”
Monkey Study Reveals Why Middle Managers Suffer Most Stress
Dr Susanne Shultz, a Royal Society University Research Fellow in the Faculty of Life Sciences, recently oversaw a study into monkeys which reveals why middle managers of the human variety suffer the most stress at work. The study, undertaken by scientists at the Universities of Manchester and Liverpool, found that middle hierarchy monkeys are the most likely stress sufferers.
Katie Edwards, from Liverpool’s Institute of Integrative Biology, spent nearly 600 hours watching Barbary macaques at Trentham Monkey Forest. She monitored one female for a day at a time, recording all incidences of social behaviour. This included agonistic behaviours like threats and slaps, submissive behaviours such as displacing and screaming, and affiliative behaviours such as embracing and grooming. Faecal samples from the female were then collected and analysed for levels of stress hormones. Katie explains:
“Unsurprisingly, we recorded the highest level of stress hormones on the days following agonistic behaviour. Unlike previous studies that follow a group over a period of time and look at average behaviours and hormone levels, this study allowed us to link the observed behaviour of specific monkeys with their individual hormone samples from the period when they were displaying that behaviour.”
Another key aspect of the research noted where the observed monkey ranked in the social hierarchy. Those in the middle order had the highest recorded levels of stress hormones. Dr Shultz considers why:
“We found that monkeys in the middle of the hierarchy are involved in conflict with those below and above them, while those at the bottom are distanced from conflict. The middle ranking macaques are more likely to challenge, and be challenged by, those higher up the ladder.”
Katie says the results could also be applied to human behaviour:
“People working in middle management might have higher levels of stress hormones than their boss or the workers they manage. These ambitious mid-ranking people may face challenges of moving upwards, whilst also maintaining authority over lower-ranking workers.”
University and UMIP Runners Up in BBSRC Award
The University of Manchester and its technology transfer arm, University of Manchester Intellectual Property (UMIP), have been announced as joint runners-up in the Activating Impact category of the 2013 BBSRC Fostering Innovation Awards.
Activating Impact is a new category. It was created to celebrate the work of successful Knowledge Exchange and Commercialisation (KEC) teams or individuals who have made essential contributions in turning BBSRC supported bioscience research into real-life applications. The University places great emphasis on KEC and the Faculty is a major recipient of funding from the BBSRC.
The Faculty’s Associate Dean for Business Development, Professor Ian Kimber, has played a crucial role in the work that led to this award. Working closely with Dr Rich Ferrie, Head of UMIP, he helped create an intimate connectivity between the researchers and IP specialists.
This has contributed to the successful transfer of technology, and the subsequent healthcare impact, for many years. Ai2 Ltd and Conformetrix were just two examples recognised by the judges. Ai2 Ltd has developed anti-infective peptide technology for use in ophthalmics and medical devices, whilst Conformetrix have developed platform technology that uses nuclear magnetic resonance analysis to determine 3D molecular structures of drug compounds with high accuracy. This is a world first which allows Conformetrix to develop a pipeline of proprietary drugs for use against therapeutically important targets.
As joint runners-up, The University and UMIP will receive £25,000. This will help appoint an IP Impact Officer for one year, to work closely with Professor Kimber and Dr Ferrie on a pilot programme aimed at maximising impact from the pool of IP emanating from the Faculty. Professor Ian Kimber comments:
“I was delighted to learn that our bid was awarded joint second place in the finals. I believe this achievement recognises our commitment to developing new models and new mechanisms, ensuring that the fruits of our investment in research are exploited quickly and effectively to deliver real health and economic benefits.”
Worm Wagon Team Win International Women's Day STEM Award
Faculty scientists Dr Sheena Cruickshank and Professor Kathryn Else, alongside Dr Joanne Pennock of The Faculty for Medical and Human Sciences, have received the International Women’s Day 2013 Award for Woman in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM). The award is presented to women who have excelled in the STEM fields, and those having a positive impact on women or the wider community. The fact that the team have been chosen as this year’s recipients demonstrates just how successful they have been in their joint venture: The Worm Wagon.
The award-winning trio’s research focuses on Neglected Tropical Diseases, specifically soil transmitted parasitic worm infections. These illnesses have a huge impact on global health and often trap communities in poverty due to ill health and reduced schooling. A key 2020 goal for the World Health Organisation is to provide deworming medication to 75% of school-age children in endemic regions.
The Worm Wagon showcases this research and is enthusiastically supported by other members of the Manchester Immunology Group. Activities revolve around videos of hatching worm eggs, field work in Ecuador, and messy mucus demonstrations. These activities have been enjoyed by over 45,000 people at schools, festivals, and museums. The scientists have also worked with community organisations and women and children from Asian communities, raising awareness of parasitic worm infections.
At the 2010 Manchester Science Festival, the Worm Wagon created two pieces of traditional Indian art (Rangoli) to highlight the role that science can play in reducing world poverty. The artwork raised awareness of on-going research and highlighted the global drive to reduce worm infection in school children. The events were a great success, prompting interesting discussion and contributing to the scientific direction in Manchester.
The Worm Wagon team are all committed to encouraging and promoting women in science. Professor Else and Dr Pennock work on improving Athena Swan status for their Faculties, while Professor Else also founded the Women in Life Sciences group at the University. Receiving this latest award is a deserved achievement, recognising the successful and dynamic work done to improve the situation for female scientists at the same time as combatting serious illness.
Extinct Giant Camel Found in Arctic Discovery
Faculty researcher Dr Mike Buckley was recently drafted in to identify ancient fossilised bones discovered on Ellesmere Island of the High Arctic. The fossils were collected by Dr Natalia Rybczynski of the Canadian Museum of Nature, but her research team had been struggling to identify them.
Important characteristics suggested the fragments were part of a large tibia, the main lower-leg bone in mammals. Digital files were produced using a 3D laser scanner, allowing the 30 fragments to be assembled and aligned. Dr Buckley then used recently developed collagen fingerprinting techniques to determine that the bones belonged to an 3.5 million year-old giant camel. This is the first evidence of the creature in the High Arctic, and the furthest North that a camel has ever been discovered.
The identification involved extracting minute amounts of collagen from the fossils. Using a collagen profile the bones were compared to 37 modern mammal species and a fossil camel found in the Yukon. The collagen profile was almost an identical match to the modern day Dromedary and the Ice-Age Yukon giant camel. Dr Buckley explained:
“This is the first time that collagen has been extracted and used to identify a species from such ancient bone fragments. The fact the protein was able to survive for three and a half million years is due to the frozen nature of the Arctic. This has been an exciting project to work on and unlocks the huge potential collagen fingerprinting has to better identify extinct species from our preciously finite supply of fossil material.”
Dr. Rybczynski says the discovery sheds new light on modern camels:
“We now have a new fossil record to better understand camel evolution, since our research shows that the Paracamelus lineage inhabited northern North America for millions of years, and the simplest explanation for this pattern would be that Paracamelus originated there. So perhaps some specialisations seen in modern camels, such as their wide flat feet, large eyes and humps for fat may be adaptations derived from living in a polar environment.”
Retirement of Janet Vale
The Faculty bid a fond farewell to Janet Vale on the 28th February 2013, following her retirement from the University. Janet began working here in 1966, and, if we consider her time as an undergraduate, has been a member of the Manchester family for over fifty years. After graduating, she immediately joined the staff as a Research Assistant in Pharmacology and Ophthalmology. Despite escaping to work in Sweden for a year, she would later become a lecturer in the same fields, remaining so until her recent retirement. Janet’s high levels of achievement as a lecturer, and in the many other roles she fulfilled, led to her being presented with a Distinguished Achievement Award from the University.
Janet’s work also extended beyond the teaching of Faculty of Life Sciences students. She was a Non-Residential Advisor at Whitworth Park Halls of Residence from 1975 onwards, a Senior Advisor in the Student Guidance Service, an important part of the University Ethics Committee, and, in perhaps her favourite role, she was the Secretary of The University Wine Club. That is one role she hopes to continue past her retirement.
Never one to let things get dull, Janet has also spent several summers teaching pharmacology in Tanzania. During this time she took advantage of her environment to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. She has also twice taken part in the BOGLE walk for Manchester RAG, and in 2011 she completed lectures wearing a red nose, raising £270 for Comic Relief. Despite raising much more than she’d expected, Janet did not renege on her promise to match whatever her students donated.
Janet says that the students were always the most important thing to her. She even worked as a pharmacist on Saturday afternoons to ensure that she kept up-to-date with developments, and could provide the best possible teaching to those students. As most of her time was split between teaching and student support, it will be these interactions that she misses the most. We can be sure that her students, and all at the University, will miss the presence of such a valued character in the University’s corridors.
Faculty at the Forefront of Inflammatory Bowel Disease Network
Faculty researcher Professor Werner Müller is the Scientific Coordinator for a new €12 million systems research network, created to identify better treatments for Inflammatory Bowel Disease. The network, called SysmedIBD, includes universities and companies from the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Israel, and New Zealand.
The five year project is aiming for a better understanding of the disease. To achieve this, the team will attempt to identify risk genes, investigate the effects of diet, and develop methods for better prediction of treatment for patients. The research network will use the systems medicine approach. This utilises specific patient details to build mathematical models and provide the best possible treatments for each individual. Professor Müller explains:
“This systems medicine approach will lead to a better personalised diagnosis and treatment of patients. We will target the central pathway of inflammation in the hope that by understanding the signalling processes we can eventually manipulate them. IBD affects every patient differently making it difficult to develop effective treatments. Current treatments are very expensive and many patients develop resistance to the drugs. We hope that this intense programme of research will help us to overcome the current limitations of treatments for this incurable condition.”
The term IBD refers mainly to Crohn’s Disease and Ulcerative Colitis. Both conditions are chronic long-term diseases that involve inflammation of the gastrointestinal tract. In the UK, IBD affects about one person in every 350. This new network aims to bring relief to these people. Professor Jonathan Rhodes from the collaborating group at the University of Liverpool says:
“This is a great boost for Inflammatory Bowel Disease research in the UK and stands an excellent chance of leading to benefits for patients.”
Funding for the project has come from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme. The €12 million grant is being shared between 12 participants, with the largest share, €2.5 million, coming to The University of Manchester.
Cell Movement Explained by Molecular Recycling
Faculty scientists have identified how cells control the recycling of molecules, a process which is essential for their movement. This discovery provides a better understanding of how our bodies heal wounds.
Dr Mark Morgan and his team at the Wellcome Trust Centre for Cell Matrix Research have been studying the role of integrins in this process. Integrins are molecules capable of grabbing hold of the fibres that surround the cell, allowing the cell to drag itself along. However, there are several types of integrin on the cell surface and their varying properties affect how quickly the cell moves.
Once used by the cell, integrins are moved inside the cell and stored. When necessary, they are recycled back to the surface where they can once again bind with the surrounding fibres. Dr Morgan’s team uncovered the method by which cells control the type of integrins recycled. They found that Syndecan-4, another cell surface molecule, is able to detect and interpret subtle changes in the cell’s surface and respond accordingly. Dr Morgan says:
“Syndecan-4 plays a critical role in regulating wound healing, so, ultimately, we hope that this work will inform the development of novel therapeutic strategies to improve wound healing.”
The team identified the role of Syndecan-4 using sophisticated imaging techniques to study the movement of fibroblast cells. Dr Morgan explained their findings:
“When we changed the way Syndecan-4 senses the environment outside the cell, we were able to alter the way that it transmits signals into the cell and control integrin recycling. By manipulating the molecules in this way we found that we could either force the cells to move in a fast forward motion or stop altogether.”
The team plan to investigate how Syndecan-4 can be manipulated to control cell movement, and if new wound healing strategies can be developed as a result. They will also test whether this mechanism is involved in tumour progression and metastasis as disruptions in cell movement are often seen in cancer, vascular disorders, and chronic inflammatory disease.
Understanding How Cells Stick
Faculty researchers and scientists from the Georgia Institute of Technology have generated new insights into how cells stick to each other and to tissue structures known as extracellular matrices. These are essential functions in the formation of organs and organisms. Abnormalities in these areas are thought to play important roles in a range of disorders involving cell adhesion and movement, including cardiovascular disease and cancer.
The findings outline a surprising aspect of cell adhesion, involving molecules known as integrins. The research uncovered a phenomenon termed ‘cyclic mechanical reinforcement,’ in which the length of time bonds between cells and their surroundings exist is extended through repeated pulling and release between the integrins of the extracellular matrix. Professor Martin Humphries, Dean of the Faculty, says the study suggests new capabilities for cells:
“This paper identifies a new kind of bond that is strengthened by cyclical applications of force, and which appears to be mediated by shape changes in integrin receptors. The findings shed light on a possible mechanism used by cells to sense extracellular topography and to aggregate information through ‘remembering’ multiple interaction events.”
Cheng Zhu, a professor at Georgia Tech, had this to say:
“Many cell functions depend on cell interaction with the ligands of the extracellular matrix. The cells respond to their environment, including many mechanical aspects. This study extended our understanding of how connections are made and how mechanical forces regulate interactions.”
Using delicate force measuring equipment, Professor Zhu and his collaborators studied adhesion between integrin and a protein component of the extracellular matrix known as fibronectin. Cyclic forces applied to the bond switched it from a short-lived state with lifetimes of roughly one second, to a long-lived state that can exist for more than one hundred seconds.
The researchers now hope to determine whether or not the cyclic mechanical reinforcement they observed is a universal property of cellular adhesion molecules. They hope to discover how cells use this cyclic mechanical reinforcement, so they can form a better understanding of the processes that allow cells to move together with the abnormal cellular adhesion mechanisms that occur in diseases.
Important Advances in Treatment of Eye and Kidney Conditions
Faculty scientists have made important discoveries regarding why our immune system attacks our own tissues, causing eye and kidney diseases. This research could pave the way to new treatments for the eye condition Age-related Macular Degeneration (AMD) and the kidney condition atypical Haemolytic Uremic Syndrome (aHUS).
Both conditions are associated with incorrectly controlled immune systems and a protein called CFH which is responsible for regulating a part of our immune system called the complement cascade. Genetic alterations in CFH are known to increase a person’s risk of developing either AMD or aHUS, but rarely both. The reasons for this have remained unexplained until now.
Research teams led by Professor Paul Bishop and Professor Tony Day have expanded on previous work which demonstrated how a single common genetic alteration in CFH prevents it from fully protecting the back of the human eye. They found that the altered form of CFH couldn’t bind properly to a layer under the retina called Bruch’s membrane. This resulted in low-level inflammation and tissue damage, and, eventually, AMD.
In their most recent study, the Manchester researchers identified why certain CFH mutations result in diseases in specific tissues. Their studies showed that the region of CFH that helps protect the kidney had no effect in the eye. Instead, the other part of CFH, which is central to the AMD-associated genetic alteration, was crucial for protecting the eye, but did not contribute to the binding of CFH to kidney tissue. Their findings show, for the first time, that the level of importance of the two regions of CFH changes depending on which tissue the protein finds by itself. Dr Simon Clark said:
“Our findings suggest that the particular structure within the eye and kidney tissue determines precisely how and where CFH will bind. It’s as if the tissues have their own molecular postcodes. This is important because if we’re going to improve treatments for devastating diseases, such as AMD, we need to be able to develop tissue-specific therapies.”
World First for Fly Research
The Faculty of Life Sciences is at the forefront of fly research thanks to a unique scheme from Dr Andreas Prokop. Alongside Cambridge University’s John Roote, Dr Prokop has created the first ever basic training package for research using Drosophila, also known as the fruit fly. It’s hoped that more researchers will be encouraged to use the humble fly when studying conditions such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease.
The Faculty is host to one of Europe’s biggest fly facilities. It provides temperature controlled rooms for storing fly stocks, dedicated work spaces to sort the flies, and high tech microscopes for training and experiments. The facility is currently used for various studies, with subjects ranging between evolution, cancer, sleep patterns, and drug tolerance.
Drosophila have been used for scientific research for over a century, but many scientists remain unaware of their value. To combat the difficulties that newcomers to flies may face because of this, Dr Prokop put together a training package for undergraduate students. The material assumed no prior knowledge of flies and took students back to basics.
Together with John Roote, Dr Prokop has now taken the student manual to the next level, developing it into a four part training package for all scientists. This includes an introductory manual, a practical session on gender and marker selection, a PowerPoint presentation, and a training exercise in mating scheme design. Sanjai Patel, who manages the Faculty’s Fly Facility, has already seen the impact of the training package:
“I was spending a lot of my time training students how to use the flies for their research. They would struggle with some of the basic concepts and kept coming back with questions. The training manual is self-explanatory. After they’ve been through it they’re usually confident enough to start using the flies.”
The training package has received positive feedback from all who have tested it so far. With the help of this new knowledge, it is hoped that more scientists will be encouraged to make use of the versatile fruit fly in their crucial research in the future.
Budding Researchers to experience Cutting-edge Research Thanks to Pioneering Project
The Faculty of Life Sciences was central to a recent successful bid for funding from Research Councils UK (RCUK). As part of a University wide programme, the Faculty will play a key part in the pioneering School-University Partnerships Initiative, an RCUK campaign which aims to introduce young people from diverse backgrounds to cutting-edge research.
As one of only twelve institutions to succeed in their application, the University will receive a share of £3.5 million funding. RCUK hope that this cash injection will help to raise the aspirations of the young people involved, leading them to further study and success in their future lives.
As part of the University’s involvement Faculty staff and researchers will run a Life Sciences Summer School for Teachers. Teachers at schools and colleges will get a rare opportunity to update their knowledge on current research techniques as they undertake lab tours, hands-on practical work, and exclusive seminars. These experiences should equip teachers with the skills and information to confidently use contemporary research in the classroom and encourage research skills in their learners.
Many of the young people involved will come from groups currently under-represented at university, such as those in receipt of free school meals, those with experience of local authority care, and disabled pupils. Discussing the initiative, David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, said:
“Maintaining a good supply of scientists and researchers is vital to our economy and society, but to do this we need to draw talent from as wide a pool as possible. That is why the School-University Partnerships Initiative is so important.”
New Use for Old Drug Could Bring Hope to Alzheimer's Patients
Scientists working at PharmaKure, a drug discovery company spun out from The University of Manchester’s UMIP programme, are hoping that their research into new uses for old drugs may soon bring hope to Alzheimer’s patients. Alzheimer’s is the most common form of senile dementia, affecting more than 15 million people worldwide, and it is also the fourth biggest killer in Britain today, behind only heart disease, cancer, and stroke.
It is, therefore, a great concern that there are currently no drugs to cure Alzheimer's, and that the best available only alleviate symptoms for 6-12 months. However, based upon recent research, PharmaKure has just patented its first drug for Alzheimer’s treatment and is currently looking for investment to fund the necessary screening and trials.
The drug, known as PK-048, was first discovered in the 1980s. Envisaged as a drug candidate for Parkinson’s disease, it had never been tested for treatment of Alzheimer’s. Previous trials have shown that the drug is orally active, non-toxic, and crosses the blood-brain barrier, a crucial requirement for an Alzheimer’s drug. Commenting on trials of the drug, Dr Farid Khan, said:
“The potential for PK-048 to help alleviate the symptoms and potentially cure Alzheimer’s disease is really exciting. 30% of all newly marketed medicines are either existing drugs or formulations of old drugs which have been shown to be safe in patients. If these can be found to work for other diseases then development costs and risks can be drastically reduced, creating a huge investment potential.”
Discussing the potential of the research on PK-048 and other drugs which could have new uses, MSP Chief Executive, Rowena Burns, added:
“The impact of PharmaKure’s research will have a worldwide reach and help to cement Manchester’s reputation as a centre of excellence in life sciences.”
Secrets of a Tadpole’s Tail Could Have Big Implications for Human Healing
Professor Enrique Amaya and his team at the Healing Foundation Centre have been trying to better understand the remarkable regenerative capacities of frogs and salamanders in the hope that their research may improve human ability to heal and regenerate. During their studies, focused on tadpole tail regrowth, the team made a surprising and exciting discovery.
Unexpectedly, during their research, it was discovered that several genes involved in metabolism were activated during tail regeneration, particularly genes linked to the production of reactive oxygen species (ROS). The most surprising thing about these findings was that ROS are commonly believed to be harmful to cells. Discussing this research Professor Amaya said:
“We were very surprised to find these high levels of ROS during tail regeneration. Traditionally, ROS have been thought to have a negative impact on cells, but in this case they seemed to be having a positive impact on tail re-growth. When we decreased ROS levels, tissue growth and regeneration failed to occur. Our research suggests that ROS are essential to initiate and sustain regeneration response. We also found that ROS is essential to activate signalling activity implicated in essentially every studied regeneration system, including those found in humans.”
The next step for the team at the Healing Foundation Centre will be to study ROS and their role in healing and regenerative processes more clearly. With a better understanding, Professor Amaya and his team hope to apply their findings to human health and identify whether manipulating ROS levels in the body could improve our ability to heal and regenerate tissues. Although there is still a long way to go, these early findings may prove crucial to the future of regenerative medicine.