Top ten in UK for internationally-recognised research excellence

9094480516_15224345a5The University of Kent School of Biosciences has consolidated its position as one of the strongest Biological Science departments in the UK in the most recent Research Excellence Framework (REF 2014). As measured by the proportion of the highest quality outputs – deemed 4* and 3* in the REF exercise – 88% of the School’s submitted research outputs were judged to be “world-leading” or “internationally excellent”. This has placed the School of Biosciences in the top 10 nationally.

As measured by the grade point average (GPA) that is widely reported in league tables, the School was ranked 23rd in the UK – equal with Queen Mary and King’s College London, and above prestigious institutions that include Bath, Warwick, Southampton, Durham, Nottingham and Essex.

The REF results cap an extraordinary year of success for the School of Biosciences. They follow our exceptional performance in the National Student Survey, which also placed the School in the top 10 for overall student satisfaction for all three of our degree programmes. These external measures of academic excellence confirm the School as a leading centre of discovery within the biological sciences in the UK.

Prof. Darren Griffin discusses avian genome evolution on Radio 4

Darren bird Prof. Darren Griffin took to the airwaves on the Today programme this week to discuss his team’s part in the multi-national “Avian Phylogenomics Consortium“, whose work was published in a special collection of articles published in the journal BMC Genomics.

The articles describe the identification and analysis of 45 avian genomes, and has revealed fascinating evolutionary insights. In particular, the work of Prof. Griffin and colleagues has revealed that the genome organisation of chicken and related species such as turkey has the closest genomic resemblance to avian dinosaur precursors; something to think about over the traditional Christmas lunch!

Prof. Griffin’s interview can currently be heard on BBC iPlayer; the interview starts at 53:40 minutes.



Research Seminar: Understanding cell shape: reconstituting the actin-membrane interace.

Dr. Jenny Gallop, Wellcome Trust/Cancer Research UK Gurdon Institute, University of Cambridge

Wednesday 17th December, 4.00 p.m., Stacey Lecture Theatre 1

Membranes are central organizing surfaces for signaling and actin polymerization in the control of cell shape and movement. My work uses artificial membrane systems and frog egg extracts in real time assays to delineate and reconstitute the biochemical events underlying the membrane-localized assembly of actin. By using PI(4,5)P2 containing supported lipid bilayers on glass we were able to form actin structures that resemble filopodia and show that they form by self-assembly of protein networks on a permissive membrane surface. By comparing the lipid specificities of actin polymerization from lipid bilayers of different curvature we have identified how signals from membrane curvature and composition can be combined to recruit different adaptor proteins during endocytosis, which then co-opt more general actin machinery. We are beginning to understand how the cell can form actin structures of different types within a common cytosol.


Review – Global Skills Award Lecture: Are our (genetic) male bits disappearing?

Professor Darren Griffin was the guest speaker at a lecture for postgraduate students enrolled on the Global Skills Award programme.

The lecture, entitled ‘Are our (genetic) male bits disappearing?’ was well received thanks to the fascinating subject and Darren’s friendly and humorous delivery. Even those from a non-biosciences discipline were interested in the ideas that were discussed and felt that they took a lot of information away with them.

“Professor Griffin made this into a very interesting topic of investigation. It was clearly structured and I could understand what he was talking about, even though I didn’t have any knowledge of this area prior to the lecture” – Psychology student

Darren initially looked at male and female traits, posing the questions, “Why do we need men?” and “Why do we have sex?” before giving a basic biology lesson on genomes and genetic exchange.

The main focus of the seminar however was on the (male) human Y chromosome and how it came to ‘shrink’.

Darren explained that a string of mutations caused by the absence of a ‘mutual support mechanism’ led to a structural differentiation between the X and Y chromosomes. In mammals, this involved a loss of DNA from the Y chromosome, the accumulation of ‘junk’ DNA and a reduction in genetic exchange.

This process continued until there was very little similarity between X and Y and only a small region of genetic exchange.

He then went on to discuss the ‘debate’ in the genome evolution community about whether or not the mammalian (including the human) Y chromosome would eventually disappear and when. He looked at two opposing theories by Jenny Marshall-Graves and Jennifer Hughes, given at the 18th International Chromosome Conference in Manchester on 31 August, 2011.

Darren closed the lecture by saying that the human Y chromosome has indeed shrunk considerably; but it has also evolved some clever mechanisms to ‘put the brakes on’.

Darren has always enjoyed giving the global skills lecture. He said: “It’s an important opportunity to get across work that we do in Biosciences in an accessible way to students with a range of backgrounds.  The programme is an exciting one and the audience is always receptive.”

What do you think? Did you attend the lecture last Monday? What did you make of the topic of the lecture?

Here are some more quotes from other postgraduate students that attended:

“He was able to simplify really complex material without losing the importance and the essence of it. It was a great lecture” – Law student

“Excellent. This lecture was one of the best I have seen in my academic career, so far. Funny, entertaining and interesting. An evening well spent!” – Business student

“Professor Darren Griffin executed the lecture with extreme confidence, humour and in-depth knowledge” – Biosciences student

Professor Darren Griffin

Professor Darren Griffin



Darren Griffin is a professor of genetics. You can read more about him and his research at

Research Seminar: Modelling the Kinetics of Protein Polymerization in Amyloid Diseases

Dr. Marie Doumic, INRIA Rocquencourt, BANG project team, France

Wednesday 10th December, 4.00 p.m., Stacey Lecture Theatre 1

Amyloid diseases are of increasing concern in our aging society. They are a group of diseases which involve the aggregation and the deposition of misfolded proteins, called amyloid, which are specific for each disease (PrP for Prion, Abeta for Alzheimer’s). In a healthy state, they remain monomeric, but when misfolded they propagate the abnormal configuration and aggregate to others, forming very long polymers also called fibrils. Elucidating the intrinsic mechanisms of these chain reactions, most probably specific for each disease, is a major challenge of molecular biology: do polymers break or do they coalesce? Do some specific sizes polymerize faster? What is the size of the so-called nucleus, i.e. the minimum stable size for polymers? Does polymerization occur by monomer, dimer, or i-mer addition? On which part of the reactions should a treatment focus to arrest the disease? Up to now, only very partial and partially justified answers have been provided. This is mainly due to the extremely high complexity of the considered processes, which may possibly involve an infinite number of species and reactions (and thus, an infinite system of equations). Mathematical modelling, simulation and parameter estimation methods are thus required and already proved to have a major impact on understanding amyloids’ kinetics. In this talk I will review existing results and explain our approach, which is based on combined ODE-PDE (and more recently stochastic) models. I will also develop some of our recent findings, both in a mathematical and more general side, with some focus on specific applications for different proteins.

Cancelled – Research Seminar: Dissecting cancer heterogeneity

Dr. Florian Markowetz, Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, University of Cambridge, Li Ka Shing Centre

Wednesday 3rd December, 4.00 p.m., Stacey Lecture Theatre 1

I will talk about computational methods to address heterogeneity of breast and ovarian cancer at different levels:

(i) At the *population* level breast cancer appears in different subtypes and I will talk about our recent work on finding 10 different manifestations of the disease.

(ii) At the *patient* level, different cancer sites can differ significantly in the genomic aberrations they carry. I will discuss how to quantify intra-patient heterogeneity by rigorous analysis of multiple patient samples.

(iii) At the *sample* level we often find cancer cells mixed with immune cells, stromal cells and others. This mixture of cells leads to a mixture of signals when DNA, RNA, or proteins are measured in these samples. I will present an automated and quantitative approach that leverages image analysis of histopathological images to estimate cellular composition and complement genomic profiling.


Biosciences supports the KM Kent Teacher of the Year Award 2015


Professor Martin Warren (left) together with Professor Peter Clarkson of the School of Mathematics, Statistics & Actuarial Science, who are also sponsoring a Teacher of the Year award

The School of Biosciences is very pleased to be supporting the KM award for Kent Biology Teacher of the Year.

Professor Martin Warren, Head of the School of Biosciences, said: ‘Making science engaging, understandable, fascinating and exciting is key. That’s why good science teachers are so inspiring; they have the responsibility of nurturing the next generation of scientists’.
The winning Biology teacher will have the opportunity to visit the University for a day with a group of their students, including a tour of facilities and practical sessions in the labs.

Research Seminar: De Novo Protein Design: Faster, Better, Fitter

Professor Dek Woolfson, Schools of Chemistry and Biochemistry, & BrisSynBio, University of Bristol

Wednesday 26th November, 4.00 p.m., Stacey Lecture Theatre 1

We have developed a toolkit of de novo peptides (1). These can be used as building blocks for the rapid construction of new protein structures and supramolecular assemblies. This talk will demonstrate the utility of this approach to make nanoscale protein pores (2, 3), and peptide-based nanocages (4). Potential applications of these structures and materials span nanoscience, synthetic biology and biotechnology.

  1. A Basis Set of de Novo Coiled-Coil Peptide Oligomers for Rational Protein Design and Synthetic Biology. JM Fletcher, AL Boyle, M Bruning, GJ Bartlett, TL Vincent, NR Zaccai, CT Armstrong, EHC Bromley, PJ Booth, RL Brady, AR Thomson, and DN Woolfson.  ACS Synthetic Biology 6, 240-250 (2012)
  2. A de novo peptide hexamer with a mutable channel. NR Zaccai, B Chi, AR Thomson, AL Boyle, GJ Bartlett, M Bruning, N Linden, RB Sessions, PJ Booth, RL Brady and DN Woolfson. Nature Chemical Biology 7, 935-941 (2011)
  3. Computational design of water-soluble alpha-helical barrels. AR Thomson, CW Wood, AJ Burton, GJ Bartlett, RB Sessions, RL Brady and DN Woolfson. Science 346, 485-488 (2014)
  4. Self-assembling cages from coiled-coil peptide modules. JM Fletcher, RL Harniman, FRH Barnes, AL Boyle, A Collins, J Mantell, TH Sharp, Antognozzi, PJ Booth, N Linden, MJ Miles, RB Sessions, P Verkade, and DN Woolfson.  Science 340, 595-599 (2013)

Ageing expert Dr. Jennifer Tullet in podcast for “The Naked Scientists”

tulletDr. Jennifer Tullet recently contributed to the Naked Genetics podcast on “Genes, Ageing and Metabolism” for the popular “Naked Scientists” BBC radio show. The podcast explored Dr. Tullet’s use of the nematode worm C. elegans to understand the process of ageing and, in particular, how modifying the genetic make up of the organism alters metabolic processes that may influence the ageing process.

Dr. Tullet is a former undergraduate student from the School of Biosciences, and currently teaches metabolic regulation as part of our undergraduate degree programmes.

Research Seminar: Recombination in RNA viruses: Molecular mechanisms and honeybee diseases

Professor David Evans School of Life Sciences, University of Warwick

Wednesday 19th November, 4.00 p.m., Stacey Lecture Theatre 1

RNA viruses evolve rapidly, generating large populations of diverse progeny by the combined influence of error-prone polymerases and – in cells co-infected with two related viruses – recombinants possessing hybrid genomes. Recombination, presumably because it involves significant change in virus genotype, can readily generate viruses with a virulent phenotype. Using examples of poliovirus (humans) and deformed wing virus (DWV; honeybees) I will discuss recent novel insights into the molecular mechanism of recombination and the selection and evolution of virulent recombinant viruses in the host. Our studies demonstrate that recombination is a biphasic process, involving the generation of intermediates of greater than genome-length, potentially providing a mechanistic explanation for “evolution by duplication”. In honeybees, virulent recombinant forms of DWV are the primary cause of overwintering colony losses by beekeepers.