Visit to Cannon Sharples Primary School

On Tuesday 16th of May, Marie Phelan of the Technology Directorate (NMR Metabolomics) and two interns from the Ngee Ann Polytechnic in Singapore visited Cannon Sharples Year 6 pupils. The primary school in Wigan was holding a careers week, so as part of their #raising aspirations initiative Marie was invited to talk about higher education and scientific careers. In addition, interns Shina Teo and Xin Hui Er on their 4-month placement with the University of Liverpool spoke to the pupils about college life in Singapore and their experiences at the University. The 38 pupils in attendance gathered into groups to figure out what specialist skills various careers required and to play the celebrity education quiz.

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Marie talking about her career to year 6 pupils at Cannon Sharples Primary School in Wigan.

Interns Shina Teo and Xin Hui Er     Pupils pick skills for specific careers

Postcard from Vienna, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease (ADPD) conference – 2017

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This was a huge display within the conference venue – amazing photography!

Last week three members of IIB, Dr Hannah Davies, James Torpey and Prof. Jerry Turnbull went to Vienna to find out about the latest research and technological advances in the field of neurodegeneration and dementia at ADPD 2017. This five day conference saw over 3000 clinicians, researchers industry specialists from around the globe discuss recent advances in the field, including reports on the latest drug trails, new avenues for treatment and patient perspectives. This busy meeting gave us the opportunity to catch up with colleagues from around the world, and share the exciting research we are doing here at Liverpool with a huge audience.

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The conference venue and an action shot of James presenting his findings at one of the poster sessions

During our stay in Vienna we were treated to welcome reception at Vienna’s beautiful City Hall, we ate traditional Austrian dishes, talked science and enjoyed an impromptu opera performance from one of our colleagues!

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Welcome reception in the impressive Vienna city hall

We came away from the conference, tired but full of new ideas and renewed enthusiasm for our projects.

Range High School Students annual visit to NMR Centre

On Wednesday 18th January chemistry A-Level students from Range High School visited the Institute for a workshop in the NMR Centre for Structural Biology organised by Dr Jill Madine. This visit has become an annual event which the students enjoy and say enhance their understanding of how NMR can be applied in a research environment.  The students learnt about the advantages and disadvantages of mass spec and NMR from Dr Mark Wilkinson and Dr Marie Phelan, carried out chromatography and learnt to prepare  and run NMR samples and how to interpret the data.  Prior to their visit, as part of a school practical, they have made salicylic acid – a precursor for aspirin. We obtained these samples and collected NMR spectra of their products ready for analysis on the day.  This enabled them to establish how successful their synthesis had been and compare their results across the class, with previous years’ students (and to the teacher!). 

A range of University of Liverpool postgraduate students and postdocs helped with the day providing practical and theoretical advice, including Dr Hannah Davies, Rudi Grossman, James Torpey and Kieran Hand (pictured above).

Christmas lectures

Each year we are welcoming students from various secondary schools to our Christmas lectures. This year was once again a success:

Thanks to Jay Hinton (“It’s amazing you’re not dead yet”), Dada Pisconti (“The secret life of stem cells”) and James Hartwell (“Plants to save the world”) for their inspiring talks and thanks to our young visitors for coming.

Earlier version of Jay’s talk:

From Genomes to Biological Systems: Understanding molecular machinery

Our lives are surrounded by man-made structures, from the simple self-assembled furniture in our homes to the massive bridges and motorways that connect cities and countries. Regardless of how complex a piece of furniture or a bridge may be, there needs to be a blueprint in order to make the pieces fit together and function as a whole.

But what about the structures that aren’t man-made, like the proteins and cells in our body? How are these complex biological structures put together, and can we learluning-liu-1-2n how to use these biological blueprints to build cells of our own? Dr. Luning Liu, a research fellow and tenured lecturer at IIB, is working with his interdisciplinary group to better understand the blueprints that describe how living organisms are put together.

Luning came to the University of Liverpool in December 2012 and has been a tenured lecturer since July 2015. The Liu lab is focused on learning how nano-scaled biological machinery are assembled, and one of their interests is in how the parts of algae cells that control photosynthesis are put together. “During photosynthesis, the specialised cell membrane converts solar light into the chemical energy that supports the life on Earth, and we’re using cyanobacteria to understand how these cells build devices that can capture and convert light energy. We can then use that information to learn how we can build our own devices that we can use to enhance the movement of energy within a cell” said Luning.

Cyanobacteria are known as ‘blue-green algae’ and are a type of bacteria that get their energy from the sun. During photosynthesis, the energy from light hits the external membranes of the cell, which break down water into oxygen molecules and generate protons (in the form of hydrogen atoms) and free electrons. The protons are then used to produce energy molecules that the cell can use to generate sugars, amino acids, and starches through the Calvin-Benson cycle. These bacteria have also developed specialised carbon fixation mechanisms, using biological structures known as carboxysomes. Carboxysomes are used to help bacteria get enough carbon so they can complete photosynthesis. g2s-ll-figure

Luning and his group are working on how the photosynthetic machinery in cyanobacteria is organised and how the cells optimise these biochemical reactions to efficiently harvest solar energy and accumulate carbon. In a recent publication from the Liu lab, his group were able to add fluorescent tags to the carboxysomes. These tagged proteins allowed them to track the location and amount of the carbon-trapping carboxysomes while the bacteria were growing. The Liu lab were able to see first-hand how carboxysome movement could be linked to the energy state of the bacterial cell and how they allow the cyanobacteria to optimise how carbon is uptaken depending on the amount of light present.

One of the big picture goals of Luning’s research isn’t just to better understand photosynthesis and carbon fixation, but to work towards design systems that are more efficient, especially in terms of food and biofuel security. “Our goal is to improve the process of photosynthesis so we can improve yields of a wide range of food crops” Luning said.

One challenge faced by the Liu lab is the role of their work in the realm of genetically modified organisms. While his group works primarily on fundamental research, he has encouraged members of his group to be ready for questions on the topic when doing public engagement work and when applying for grants about their research.“Our research has potentially a lot of promise to make a difference but we have to be solid on understanding technology and the mechanism before we can apply them in the real world” added Luning.

Luning and his group work with plant scientists, biophysicists, chemists, synthetic biologists, and microbiologists: a truly interdisciplinary approach towards a better understanding of these complex biological structures. Luning commented: “Nowadays all work in science is multidisciplinary, and you can’t use one technique to solve everything.  The advantage in our group is that there are advanced technologies that we can use to bring our ideas to life. We can ask questions about how natural structures are built in the cells and then work with plant scientists who are looking for a fundamental understanding of the system to see what approaches and techniques they use.”

Luning regularly sends students to technical workshops so they can gain more knowledge and training in the latest technologies and techniques. However he also makes sure that he and his group stick to the basic principles of the scientific method. “I focus on the question more than just the technique by itself. You can use lots of different techniques and technologies to do science, but having a clear question is the most important starting point. The biggest challenge is that there is no one who can tell you what will work, so you really have to explore lots of ideas and try a lot of things before you get something that works” said Luning.

Luning received his undergraduate degree in Biochemistry before earning a joint PhD in microbiology from Shandong University (China) and Leiden University (Netherlands). After spending 2 years carrying out research on biological membranes at the Institute Curie in Paris, he started working on cyanobacteria as a researcher at Queen Mary University of London before joining IIB in 2012. Luning describes himself as driven by curiosity: “Every day is exciting; there are new technologies and papers to keep up with, working with my students on their projects, and reaching out to new collaborators. I enjoy discussing and exploring new ideas by working with colleagues in such an open-minded work environment at IIB.” g2s-group-photo

The Liu lab currently consists of seven PhD students, one post-doc and one technician. Luning works to recruit a multidisciplinary team in his lab, including researchers specialising in molecular biology, biochemistry, biophysics, and plant science. This diverse approach allows group members to learn from one another and enables them to approach problems with different types of perspectives. “Sometimes the biology students have a hard time with the physics, so having a diverse team with diverse sets of skills and knowledge is crucial to making these complex experiments work.” Luning commented.

Luning can regularly be found working in the lab alongside his students and post-doc while encouraging his students to enjoy this time in their research careers as much as possible. Luning replied when asked what his students thought about having their boss pipetting alongside them: “Being a PhD student is the most exciting time in a scientist’s career, because it’s a time when you get to focus on the research and not have to deal with the stressors of applying for grants and funding. I try to help them enjoy this time as much as possible and to help them out.”

Luning is also focused on achieving his own life-work balance, spending the hours from 9am to 5pm in the lab and office before heading home to spend time with his two young children. He then finishes off the evening hours with grant applications, papers, and emails. “The job can be very stressful, especially since this is a very new area, and I try to work hard to stay on top of things. It’s also tough since my kids need my time too, so I don’t go to as many big conferences now so I can spend more time with my family. It’s important to make time for family and do things apart from work”.

What is the Institute of Integrative Biology?

Guest writer Erica Brockmeier introduces a new series of posts featuring our scientists by first giving you an overview of the Institute of Integrative Biology.

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The Three Graces, Liverpool Waterfront

Liverpool is a city famous for its Fab Four, Three Graces, two rival football teams,
and instantly recognisable regional accent. Liverpool is also home to one of the six original ‘red brick’, Victorian-era universities, a university with a history spanning over 200 years. The University of Liverpool is associated with 9 Nobel Prize winners whose academic achievements include a better understanding of malaria and the economics of UK property rights.

However our University is not just an institution focused on its past—it also plays an active part in shaping the future of our city, our community, and the world. Here at the Institute of Integrative Biology (IIB), we’re working for a better understanding of the science of life at all ends of the spectrum. Our scientists study life across all scales, from genes, proteins, cells, animals and even ecosystems. You can think of biology as a ladder, where you start at the lowest rung (genes and proteins) and climb your way to the top (ecosystems). You need each step of the ladder to make it to the top in the same way that we need to study more than one area of biology in order to make progress towards a cleaner and safer world.

Delving into the intricacies of life as we know it isn’t an easy task. That’s why here at IIB, we’ve split up our efforts into four research themes to help us break down these complex systems into parts that we can see and study more clearly:

In the From Genomes to Biological Systems theme, scientists use state-of-the-art technologies to answer questions on how the instructions of life are encoded into the long, complex blueprints known as genomes. Researchers in this theme also work on how we can use knowledge of genes and genomes to address problems related to food security and energy.

Scientists working in the Molecular Basis of Therapeutic Targets theme are investigating how to make more effective drugs by studying how diseases target specific proteins and cells in the body. Members of this group are also working on understanding the differences in people that make some of us more susceptible to diseases (or drugs) than others.

Researchers of the Dynamics and Management of Host-Microbe Interactions study topics ranging from how infection occurs, why some individuals are more affected than others, and how the dynamics of a population can influence how fast a disease spreads.

On the top of biology ladder, our Adaptation to Environmental Change scientists are focused on how groups of animals and plants respond to altered habitats or extreme environmental changes, including global warming. They’re investigating ways to better protect sensitive species and to make sure that the food and materials we need can grow and thrive in a world faced with climate change.

In this blog series, we’ll be talking in-depth about each of our research themes as we highlight the work of four of our IIB scientists. If you’re interested in learning more about IIB and the work we do, be sure to check out our website and stay tuned for our series highlighting the work done here at IIB in the coming weeks!