Posted on 18/12/2008
Biological Sciences ranked joint 3rd in the UK for research excellence
The School of Biological Sciences is ranked joint 3rd in the UK in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) based upon the proportion of 3* and 4*outputs.
Commenting on the result, Professor Peter Bramley, Head of the School of Biological Sciences said, “I am delighted that the internationally competitive quality of our research has been recognised and that the School is in the very top tier of research-led departments in the UK.”
All three Research Centres in the School have attracted major funding for research during the past year. Some of the research highlights include:
- Professor George Dickson and Professor Judith Klein-Seetharaman have received substantial grants from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to support their innovative global health research into HIV/AIDS.
Over 60 million humans have been infected by HIV, but only an extremely low percentage of infected individuals are able to hold down virus levels. The emergence of protective immunity to HIV in the general population is thus extremely low, suggesting that vaccination-induced protection may not be feasible with conventional immunization strategies and that radically different vaccination paradigms may be required to enable immune control of HIV infection. Professor Dickson’s research is evaluating such a radically different vaccination paradigm, with the biology of HIV and special gene vectors, called lentivectors, harnessed to force the immune system to react very strongly.
Professor Klein-Seetharaman is using computational tools to discover signal transduction pathways in the global network of human protein interactions to identify the points in which HIV and other pathogens interact with specific proteins in these pathways. Knowing this information should enable biomedical scientists to design very specific, potentially more effective anti-HIV therapies.
- The School has joined forces with CABI to establish a facility to screen for potential new antibiotics. The three-year programme, managed by Professor Peter Bramley and Dr Paul Fraser, is utilising CABI’s unique collection of fungi, gathered from all parts of the world, to screen for these new antibiotics.
Over the past 25 years, companies have concentrated on using chemistry-based approaches to modify recognised antibiotic structures. However, the use of natural products, from fungi, which have evolved from millions of years of competition against bacteria, is likely to lead to products with new modes of antibiotic action that disease-causing bacteria cannot counter. This new joint facility aims to harness these natural chemical compounds from fungi to offer potential new antibiotics. Professor Bramley and Dr Fraser’s extensive experience in molecular biology and analytical methodologies will be applied to state-of-the-art screening techniques for the discovery of new compounds and the manipulation, recombination and expression of their biosynthetic pathways to bioengineer new, related compounds.
- Professor Vincent Jansen’s research into the behaviour of Icelandic midges, featured on the cover story of Nature (6 March 2008) and implied that small environmental or human-induced changes are very likely to impose profound and unpredictable effects on ecosystems.
The midges in Iceland’s Lake Myvatn can occasionally be so numerous that they darken the sky and make breathing difficult and even dangerous. However, after the midges die they cover the surface of the lake and its surroundings and leave so many nutrients in the water that the productivity of the lake is strongly enhanced.
Professor Jansen and his colleagues have developed a mathematical model to describe the change in numbers of the midges in Lake Myvatn. The model shows that the change in numbers can flip between two types of behaviour: either the numbers go through boom and bust cycles, or the numbers can be more or less constant over several years.
Until now, scientists believed that the switching between two such stages was a mere theoretical possibility. The midges have now provided a real example and this new research has shown that the reactions to changes in the environment are largely unpredictable.
- Professor Alan Gange’s research showing how mushroom growth has been affected by global climate change over the last 50 years, also featured in Nature. Professor Gange used data collected by his father, an amateur mycologist in southern England between 1950-2005. The data was used to document the first and last fruiting dates of 2,000 different species of mushrooms and toadstools. For the first time it has been possible to examine how climate change affects autumnal events.
Professor Gange examined relations between fruiting dates of each species and monthly records of local temperature and rainfall, concluding that for every decade, the first fruiting date has moved forward by 8.5 days and the last fruiting date has extended by 7.5 days. The length of the autumnal fruiting season has more than doubled, from an average of 33 days in the 1950s to 75 days in the current decade. Further research by Professor Gange has revealed that climate warming seems to have caused significant numbers of species to begin fruiting in spring as well as autumn, showing how the warmer climate we are experiences is confusing many species of fungi, causing them to fruit earlier than ever before and for longer periods. In some cases they are fruiting for a second time, which may have huge implications for the entire ecosystem.
- Dr Ian Barnes has been continuing his pioneering research into the disappearance of the woolly mammoth using DNA data as markers of different populations to track movements of the animals at different times.
DNA lifted from the bones, teeth, and tusks of the extinct mammoths revealed a “genetic signature” of a range expansion after the last interglacial period. After the mammoths’ migration, the population apparently levelled off, and one of two lineages died out. From Dr Barnes’ research emerges a picture of extinction not as a sudden event at the end of the last ice age, but as a piecemeal process over tens of thousands of years involving progressive loss of genetic diversity. For the mammoth, this seems much more likely to have been driven by environmental rather than human causes, even if humans might have been responsible for killing off the small, terminal populations that were left.