Thursday, 30 April 2009

New digital technology research centres launched

Three new centres to develop digital technology to transform the lives of the elderly, disabled, and people in rural communities have been announced by Lord Drayson, Minister for Science and Innovation.

Building on plans to provide universal connectivity to broadband in the UK, the new research ‘hubs’ will be based in Nottingham, Newcastle and Aberdeen universities and are the biggest investment ever made by the research councils in creating a Digital Britain.
Lord Drayson at the press briefing, 28th April

Digital hubs

The centres' mission will be to connect people with digital technology to radically improve the way we live, work, play, and travel to ensure that everyone is included in our digital future. They will also develop new ways to utilise digital technologies to help business and stimulate economic growth.

The three hubs will each have a different focus: University of Aberdeen - transforming rural communities; the University of Nottingham - developing business opportunities; and Newcastle University - new technology for social inclusion.

Read More here

Tuesday, 28 April 2009

BBSRC Innovator of the Year

The inaugural BBSRC Innovator of the Year title has been awarded to Professor Stephen Jackson from the University of Cambridge. The award, organised by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), honours the UK bioscientist who has been best at turning world-class research into a product, company, service or advice to have an impact on our lives.

Alvin Hall, Dr Luke Alphey, Professor Steven Jackson, Professor Jeff Errington and Professor Douglas Kell

Prof Stephen Jackson was named as the first Innovator of the Year at an awards ceremony and gala dinner at Banqueting House in London last night (24 March) and was presented with the trophy and prize cheque for £10,000 by the well-known finance and television personality Alvin Hall. An independent judging panel had earlier selected Prof Stephen Jackson as the 2009 Innovator of the Year for his work to turn research on DNA damage and repair into cancer therapies that are now saving the lives of breast and ovarian cancer sufferers.

Two runners-up, Dr Luke Alphey and Prof Jeff Errington, were recognised for their work on spin out companies that have developed new ways to defeat disease carrying mosquitoes and crop pests, and new approaches to tackling superbugs like MRSA respectively. They each received £5,000.

Prof Stephen Jackson, said: "It's a tremendous honour to receive this prestigious award. It really reflects that science, like that funded by BBSRC in my group over the years can yield both exciting science and commercial and social applications.

"I think this award is a showcase for how funding of science by BBSRC is able to provide major tangible benefits not only the UK science base but also the biotech and pharmaceutical industries."

Alvin Hall, highlighting the importance of innovation in a downturn, said: "It was a total pleasure to attend the Innovator of Year ceremony, to meet the inspiring finalists and to present the prizes. I work with companies on both sides of the Atlantic to help them to develop and grow - and at the moment how to get through the downturn. One thing all organisations need is bright people prepared to take a great idea and run with it. In the finalists of Innovator of the Year the UK has seven individuals who have already done this."

The Innovator of the Year Award is an annual competition designed to recognise and reward those bioscientists who are taking steps to transfer the UK’s world beating bioscience research base into impacts that positively affect quality of life for UK citizens. The award aims to build a culture amongst the research base where all scientists consider the potential of their research and the steps that could be taken to maximise its social and economic impact.

Professor Douglas Kell, BBSRC Chief Executive, said: "The group of finalists the judges had to select the winner from was absolutely fantastic and everyone at BBSRC congratulates Professor Stephen Jackson on being named 2009 Innovator of Year.

"The finalists represent both the pinnacle of bioscientists who are turning their research into impact and, at the same time, just the tip of the iceberg. UK bioscience is world beating and BBSRC is striving to help translate this into economic and social benefits to create world beating companies and products. From tackling superbugs and developing new drugs to higher yielding crops and new animal vaccines, bioscience research generates millions of pounds for the UK economy and saves billions of pounds through policy advice every year. When the world emerges from recession it will be these high-tech, knowledge intensive areas that will help to power the UK economy."

visit the BBSRC for more information

Monday, 27 April 2009

Climate change and extinction

Tonight at the Royal Society, Dr Richard Leakey, Chairman for Transparency International Kenya, Chairman of WildlifeDirect and Professor of Anthropology at Stony Brook University in the USA will be giving a public lecture on climate change and extinction. The lecture is free to attend and can also be watched live online (see links below).

Lecture Summary:
Over one hundred years ago the first national parks were established in order that nature might be preserved for the enjoyment and benefit of the current and future generations. Today countless protected areas' for biodiversity are maintained at huge public and private expense. The question we must consider is whether our protection' strategies actually protect when the real threats are related to the current climate change.

Mounting evidence suggests that the parks are in fact very vulnerable and mass extinctions may be the consequence.

This lecture is free - no ticket or advanced booking required. Doors open at 5.45pm and seats will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis. Lecture starts 6.30pm.

This lecture will be webcast LIVE at and available to view on demand within 48 hours of delivery.

The Royal Society
6-9 Carlton House Terrace

More info: Royal Society website

Friday, 24 April 2009

UK school children celebrate science

It is always great to see young people embracing science and this week two news stories highlighted the ways in which UK school children are getting in on the action.

In Bristol, a new £36 million secondary school celebrated its official opening with a science fun day. The Redland Green School hosted Professor Sykes, presenter of BBC TV's Rough Science and Professor of Science & Society at Bristol University, along with the university's ChemLabS presenters, who led a series of science-related events that included explosions and a workshop covering the physics of ice cream.

Redland Green School head teacher Sarah Baker said: "The whole RGS community is very excited about officially marking our opening and we're especially delighted to welcome Professor Sykes and the University of Bristol ChemLabS team. Their input will make an important day for everyone here fun as well as memorable."
Image from

Whilst over in Norfolk, a 58ft Starchaser Nova 2 rocket, the UK's largest ever space rocket was sent by lorry to Acle High School. Pupils were shown the rocket and were given a talk about Britain's space industry as part of the school's celebration of the International Year of Astronomy 2009. The rocket will tour 100 schools before being launched.

Around 30 of the students will join children from 99 other schools throughout the country in November to watch its test launch at Morecambe Bay.

Head of Science Helen Banfill said: “We had the rocket here on the back of a lorry for the children to have a look at and there were quite a lot of kids standing round in the playground just staring at it - it's massive and silver.

“We had a member of the Starchaser company here and Years 7, 8 and 9 gave talks about the history of the company and its aims for the future.

“A lot of the students have been inspired to consider working in the space industry - a lot of them didn't know that the industry was alive and kicking in this country.

“Hopefully it will encourage more students to study maths and physics, because at the moment a lot of them tend to think they are hard and so choose softer options.”

Read more: Bristol Evening Post and Norwich Evening News

More on Starchaser

Wednesday, 22 April 2009

Science Beyond Fiction

The European Commission has announced a large initiative to fund high-risk information and communication technology (ICT) research.

The commission believes such blue-sky research has in the past proven to be a significant economic boon.

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The European Future Technologies Conference and Exhibition is a new European forum dedicated to frontier research in future and emerging information technologies. Leading scientists, policy-makers, industry representatives and science journalists will convene over 3 days to discuss today's frontier science, tomorrow's technologies and the impact of both on tomorrow's society.

The conference, dubbed Science Beyond Fiction, focuses on emerging technologies such as quantum computing, artificial intelligence, and robots.

The website describes how this initiative will target open-minded scientists and thinkers - young and established - who are willing to think out of the box of established disciplines, technologies, practices or theories. "Whether you're a scientist, a policy maker, an industry representative or a journalist, the multidisciplinary creative process will challenge conventional boundaries and take you beyond them."

Read more here:

and here:

Tuesday, 21 April 2009

The Model Gut

The IFR Model Gut is a “state of the art” in-vitro system that simulates human digestion for the first time from a true physiological perspective. It is the only model developed to combine emerging knowledge of the physical, mechanical, and biochemical environments experienced during digestion.

The model is built on a modular design and includes a simulation of the main body of the stomach, a region with a specific inhomogeneous mixing behaviour, followed by a unique emptying routine. Digesta from the main body of the stomach ‘empties’ into a model of the antrum (the lower part of the stomach). Here the digesta is subjected to high shear, forcing mechanical breakdown of the food structure. The final stage of the model is designed to simulate the conditions found in the duodenum (the first section of the small intestines).

IFR model digestive system innovations are:

  • Able to process both real foods and pharmaceutical preparations under conditions based on current knowledge of human digestion
  • Access for sampling digesta at all stages allowing real time collection at any point during digestion
  • Modular design and construction of the technology provides the opportunity of easy adaptation of The Model for specific customer needs
  • Integration of gastro-intestinal mixing dynamics, hydration patterns, breakdown forces & diffusion profiles all validated against measured in vivo human data
  • Physiologically relevant additions of digestive enzymes, acid, bicarbonate, phospholipids and bile
  • Computer control by state-of-the-art software which includes monitoring of all parts of The Model in real time

The IFR model Gut offers a physiologically relevant screening tool that will provide valuable data for evaluating novel and existing foodstuffs, diets and pharmaceutical preparations. The Model provides an accurate and meaningful method for predicting the fate of compounds, nutrients and formulae prior to absorption and therefore will become an invaluable tool for mechanistic, stability and bioaccessability studies during product development in the following fields:

  • Food safety
  • Oral drug development
  • Novel, functional & specialist food characterisation
  • Screening of active components
  • Food structure studies
For More information visit the Institue for Food Research

Save Our Bees!

Up to £10million is to be invested to help identify the main threats to bees and other insect pollinators, under a major project announced today.

Pollinators – including honey and bumble bees, butterflies and moths – play an essential role in putting food on our tables through the pollination of many vital crops. These insects are susceptible to a variety of disease and environmental threats, some of which have increased significantly over the last five to ten years. Climate change, in particular warmer winters and wetter summers, has had a major impact on pollinators.

As a result, the numbers of pollinators have been declining steadily in recent years, with the number of bees in the UK alone falling by between 10 and 15 per cent over the last two years.

To gain a better understanding of why this is happening, some of the UK’s major research funders have joined together to launch an important new research programme.

The biggest challenge will be to develop a better understanding of the complex relationships between biological and environmental factors which affect the health and lifespan of pollinators.

The funding will be made available to research teams across the UK under the Living With Environmental Change (LWEC) partnership, the major initiative by UK funders to help the UK respond effectively to changes to our environment. This is a joint initiative from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC), Defra, the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), the Wellcome Trust and the Scottish Government.

Environment Secretary Hilary Benn said:

"Aristotle identified bees as the most hard working of insects, and with one in three mouthfuls coming from insect-pollinated crops, we need to support bees and other pollinators.

"I announced in January that Defra would put an extra £2M into research funding, and I am delighted our partners have agreed to boost this to up to £10M.

"This funding will give some of Britain’s world-class researchers the chance to identify the causes of the decline we’re seeing in bee numbers, and that will help us to take the right action to help."

Read More here

Monday, 20 April 2009

UK 'superscope' gets first signals from space

A super-powerful new radio telescope network - which will allow astronomers to carry out three years worth of observations in a single day - has received its first signals from space at the University of Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory.

Engineers and astronomers at the famous Cheshire site have seen 'first light' with e-MERLIN, successfully processing signals from two of the telescopes in the seven-telescope network.

e-MERLIN is designed to make detailed radio images of stars and galaxies using seven telescopes spread up to 217 km apart across the UK.The radio signals collected by the telescopes are brought back to Jodrell Bank using 600 km of high-speed optical fibre cables laid by Fujitsu UK and operated by Global Crossing.

Professor Simon Garrington, Director of e-MERLIN, said:

"The new optical fibre network, together with new electronics at each telescope and a powerful new 'correlator' which combines the signals at Jodrell Bank, will make the telescope one of the most powerful of its type in the world.

"The e-MERLIN fibre network will carry as much data as the rest of the UK Internet combined, enabling astronomers to see in a single day what would have previously taken us three years of observations."

e-MERLIN is the UK's national facility for radio astronomy. Its combination of widely separated telescopes provides astronomers with a powerful "zoom lens" with which they can study details of astronomical events out towards the edge of the observable universe.

Once fully functional in early 2010, e-MERLIN's unique combination of sharpness of view and sensitivity will allow astronomers to address key questions relating to the origin and evolution of galaxies, stars and planets.

For more information visit the Jodrell Bank website

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Cool pictures of Mars

Thanks to the Bad Astronomy blog for posting these.

These images were taken by a camera called HiRISE, on the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. This picture shows a huge impact depression 2700 km across.

Wednesday, 15 April 2009

Helping the UK cope with climate change (in the countryside)

Research supported by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and Defra is helping the UK to meet the challenges of climate change.

The latest research from scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council at North Wyke Research has found for the first time that the rate at which a dried soil is rewetted impacts on the amount of phosphorus lost from the soil into surface water and subsequently into the surrounding environment.

Crop growth, drinking water and recreational water sports could all be adversely affected if predicted changes in rainfall patterns over the coming years prove true, according to the research publishd this month in Biology and Fertility of Soils.

Some of the other research carried out by scientists to tackle climate change requires the study of fundamental processes in the life of plants. Under even mild environmental stress, plant cells may stop dividing, so the plant stops growing.

Research on the regulation of cell division, at the University of Cambridge, together with studies on plant growth at Rothamsted Research, is revealing how this response works. Once scientists can identify the genes that equip plants to tolerate and continue to grow under extreme climates, they can begin to breed them into commercial crop varieties. This approach is being used in East Anglia where drought is likely to be a worsening problem for sugar beet growers. Yields of sugar beet are predicted to decline by half in areas that are already experiencing difficulties. Scientists at Broom’s Barn are working with an international seed company to develop drought-resistant varieties.

Warmer wetter winters in the UK will make cereal crops more prone to fungal diseases such as Fusarium ear blight. At Rothamsted Research, scientists are exploring new crop management systems, including using natural predators, to control the fungus. They are also trying to find genes that confer natural resistance, so that these could be bred into wheat to make it less susceptible to Fusarium.

Using controlled environment chambers at the NERC Centre for Ecology and Hydrology at Bangor, scientists from the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research (IGER) have modelled how temperature, atmospheric carbon dioxide and management practices affect grass yield and composition. They can predict grass growth and quality under different conditions, including the climate change scenarios identified by the UK Climate Impacts Programme.

For more info on this topic check out this pdf report:


Satellites show how Earth moved during Italy quake

Studying satellite radar data from the European Space Agency’s Envisat and the Italian Space Agency’s COSMO-SkyMed satellites, scientists have begun analysing the movement of Earth during and after the 6.3 earthquake that shook the medieval town of L’Aquila in central Italy on 6 April 2009.
Image from European Space Agency (

Italian scientists are studying data from these satellites to map surface movements after the earthquake and the numerous aftershocks that have followed.

The scientists are using a technique known as SAR Interferometry (InSAR), a sophisticated version of 'spot the difference'. InSAR involves combining two or more radar images of the same ground location in such a way that very precise measurements – down to a scale of a few millimetres – can be made of any ground motion taking place between image acquisitions.

The InSAR technique merges data acquired before and after the earthquake to generate 'interferogram' images that appear as rainbow-coloured interference patterns. A complete set of coloured bands, called ‘fringes’, represents ground movement relative to the spacecraft of half a wavelength, which is 2.8 cm in the case of Envisat's ASAR.

"We produced an interferogram just a few hours after the Envisat acquisition by combining these data with data acquired before the earthquake on 1 February. We were pleased that we were able to immediately see the pattern of the earthquake," said Riccardo Lanari of IREA-CNR in Naples, Italy.

The Envisat interferogram shows nine fringes surrounding a maximum displacement area located midway between L’Aquila and Fossa, where the ground moved as much as 25 cm.

Read more: European Space Agency

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

You are only 10% human...

This is a great video of a lecture about bacteria.

(link to video: )

UK drug shows early promise against Alzheimer's

A new drug which shows promise as a treatment for Alzheimer's disease has been developed by UK scientists.

The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences reports the drug, CPHPC, removes a protein thought to play a key role in Alzheimer's from the blood.

A team at the University College London found the small molecule drug caused the disappearance of a protein called SAP, thought to be involved in the disease, from the brains of five Alzheimer's patients who took it for three months. Longer and larger scale clinical studies are now being planned.

The results were published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.

Britain's Alzheimer's Research Trust, which helped fund the research, said the results with the drug, CPHPC, were cause for "cautious optimism," but it was too soon to know for sure if removing SAP from the brain would provide clinical benefit.

"New treatments for Alzheimer's disease are desperately needed, and it's possible that this small molecule could be a future candidate," said Trust Chief Executive Rebecca Wood.

Given the world's aging population and the lack of an effective treatment, new medicines for Alzheimer's are seen as a major untapped opportunity for the pharmaceutical industry.

From BBC and Reuters

Thursday, 9 April 2009

£1.8m funding for green car trial

A scheme to trial electric cars in Glasgow has been awarded £1.8 million in Government funding.

Workers from a number of public-sector organisations in Scotland's biggest city will be among the first to test the fleet of green vehicles over the next two years.

The Technology Strategy Board – part of the UK Government's Department for Business – awarded the grant to a consortium led by Glasgow-based Allied Mobility.

The car manufacturer will work alongside Glasgow City Council, ScottishPower, Strathclyde University and Scottish Enterprise to produce 30 Peugeot 207s and 10 Peugeot Eurobus models.

Dundee firm Axeon has been tasked with developing the batteries for the scheme. The firm is one of Europe’s largest independent supplier of lithium-ion battery systems and specialises in providing power sources for electric and hybrid electric vehicles.

The Technology Strategy Board says its role is to stimulate technology-enabled innovation in areas which offer the greatest scope for boosting UK growth and productivity. This is done by promoting, supporting and investing in technology research, development and commercialisation.

The £1.8 million is coming from the board's low-carbon vehicle programme.

Paul Nelson, managing director of Allied Mobility, said: "It is great to have been awarded this funding for a project that will make Glasgow a centre for green transport.

Full story click here

Technology Strategy Board

Royal Society TV

The Royal Society is the national academy of science of the UK and the Commonwealth and is at the cutting edge of scientific progress.

They support many top young scientists, engineers and technologists, influence science policy, debate scientific issues with the public and much more. They are an independent, charitable body which derives its authoritative status from over 1400 Fellows and Foreign Members.

Now after 350 years, you can watch and listen to Royal Society events online, at home, in the office, or on the move.

At you can watch live webcasts and online videos of public events and prize lectures feature cutting-edge science, revealing history of science, and the exploration of science and culture. Or you could listen to podcasts on history of science, or review the latest discoveries from our discussion meetings.

Check out the latest video:

Mathematics in the real world: From brain tumours to saving marriages

Monday, 6 April 2009

UK-based research finds common infection role in childhood leukaemia

UK researchers have for the first time identified the molecule that stimulates leukaemia to develop in children. Scientists at The Institute of Cancer Research found pre-cancerous cells multiplied when exposed to a molecule produced in the body as a response to infection.

The molecule, TGF, is triggered as a normal response to infection and so the new finding provides the first experimental evidence as to how common infections might trigger childhood leukaemia.

Dr Shabih Syed, Scientific Director at Leukaemia Research says: “Before this study, there had been only circumstantial evidence to implicate infections in the progression from a child carrying pre-leukaemic cells to actually having leukaemia. There was no evidence of the mechanism by which this might happen. While infection is clearly only one factor in triggering progression, this study greatly increases the strength of evidence for its role in the commonest form of childhood leukaemia.”

The research was funded by Leukaemia Research, The Kay Kendall Leukaemia Fund, The Institute of Cancer Research and the Medical Research Council.

Friday, 3 April 2009

Robot scientist becomes first machine to discover new scientific knowledge

Scientists funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) have created a Robot Scientist which the researchers believe is the first machine to have independently discovered new scientific knowledge. The robot, called Adam, is a computer system that fully automates the scientific process. The work will be published tomorrow (03 April 2009) in the journal Science.

Adam the robot scientist (photo from

Prof Ross King, who led the research at Aberystwyth University, said: "Ultimately we hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories".

The scientists at Aberystwyth University and the University of Cambridge designed Adam to carry out each stage of the scientific process automatically without the need for further human intervention. The robot has discovered simple but new scientific knowledge about the genomics of the baker’s yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae, an organism that scientists use to model more complex life systems. The researchers have used separate manual experiments to confirm that Adam’s hypotheses were both novel and correct.

"Because biological organisms are so complex it is important that the details of biological experiments are recorded in great detail. This is difficult and irksome for human scientists, but easy for Robot Scientists."

Using artificial intelligence, Adam hypothesised that certain genes in baker’s yeast code for specific enzymes which catalyse biochemical reactions in yeast. The robot then devised experiments to test these predictions, ran the experiments using laboratory robotics, interpreted the results and repeated the cycle.

Adam is a still a prototype, but Prof King’s team believe that their next robot, Eve, holds great promise for scientists searching for new drugs to combat diseases such as malaria and schistosomiasis, an infection caused by a type of parasitic worm in the tropics.

Prof King continued: "If science was more efficient it would be better placed to help solve society’s problems. One way to make science more efficient is through automation. Automation was the driving force behind much of the 19th and 20th century progress, and this is likely to continue."

Prof. King and Adam (photo from

Read more and watch video: click here

Thursday, 2 April 2009

UK-based research brings underground carbon capture a step closer

New research shows that for millions of years carbon dioxide has been stored safely and naturally in underground water in gas fields saturated with the greenhouse gas. The findings - published in Nature yesterday - bring carbon capture and storage a step closer.
Chaffin Ranch geyser, Utah - this geyser erupts from an aquifer naturally saturated with carbon dioxide (picture from

In research funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the Natural Sciences & Engineering Research Council of Canada, scientists from the University of Manchester measured the ratios of isotopes of carbon dioxide and noble gases like helium and neon in nine gas fields in North America, China and Europe. These gas fields were naturally filled with carbon dioxide thousands or millions of years ago.

They found that underground water is the major carbon dioxide sink in these gas fields and has been for millions of years.

Dr Stuart Gilfillan, the lead researcher who completed the project at the University of Edinburgh said, "We've turned the old technique of using computer models on its head and looked at natural carbon dioxide gas fields which have trapped carbon dioxide for a very long time.

"By combining two techniques, we've been able to identify exactly where the carbon dioxide is being stored for the first time. We already know that oil and gas have been stored safely in oil and gas fields over millions of years. Our study clearly shows that the carbon dioxide has been stored naturally and safely in underground water in these fields."

Professor Chris Ballentine of the University of Manchester, the project director, said, "The universities of Manchester and Toronto are international leaders in different aspects of gas tracing. By combining our expertise we have been able to invent a new way of looking at carbon dioxide fields. This new approach will also be essential for monitoring and tracing where carbon dioxide captured from coal-fired power stations goes when we inject it underground this is critical for future safety verification."

Read more: click here

New national Genome Centre to underpin food security and animal health

A new national centre to analyse plant, animal and microbial genomes has been announced today by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

The Genome Analysis Centre (TGAC) will be based on the Norwich Research Park and will provide genome sequencing to underpin advances to improve food security, to protect UK agriculture from exotic animal disease and exploit weaknesses in microbes to develop new ways to kill superbugs. It will also be a centre of excellence in bioinformatics to ensure that the data generated by its genome analysis, and that of other facilities, can be effectively collected and analysed.

TGAC will become operational over the next two months and will be formally opened in June. It will be a BBSRC national centre in partnership with EEDA, Norfolk County Council, South Norfolk Council, Norwich City Council, and the Greater Norwich Development Partnership. BBSRC is providing the majority of the £13.5M investment in the Centre and will underwrite its running costs for several years but the partners are all making significant contributions.

Lord Drayson, Minister of State for Science and Innovation, said: "Genomic technology has enormous promise. The new Genome Analysis Centre will help to develop UK capacity in this area, where we are already a world leader.

"I am delighted that the centre will work closely with industry to develop our economic potential in such disciplines as bioinformatics and metagenomic sequencing."

Read more: click here