Mammalian Genome Mapping Grant awarded to Kent University

Professor Darren Griffin and Dr Becky O’Connor, in collaboration with Dr Denis Larkin at the Royal Veterinary College, London have recently been awarded a 3-year BBSRC grant for a study entitled “Rapid reconstruction of reference chromosome-level mammalian genome assemblies and insight into the mechanisms of gross genomic rearrangement”

We live in an era in which the genomes of new species are being sequenced all the time. The most modern ways to sequence DNA have many advantages over older approaches (the prominent one being a vastly reduced cost) but a problem that arises each time the genome of a new species is sequenced is that assigning large blocks of sequence to an overall genomic “map” can be problematic and/or very expensive. It’s a little like finding your location on Google Maps but not being able to “zoom out” to establish where that position is in relation to the whole country. In essence, the aim of this project is to rectify this problem at one fifth of the current cost. Using our experience with birds we have developed a high-throughput approach and the tools for assigning the sequences to their proper positions in chromosomes. This involves our own adaptations to a technique called “FISH” that can take the data from sequenced genomes and visualize directly blocks of DNA sequence as they appear in their rightful place in the genome.

Sequences of the pig genome visualised on chromosomes using fluorescent probes (FISH)


In this study, we will focus our attention on 25 newly sequenced mammal species. More importantly however we will provide the means through which this can be achieved for any of the 5,000 living mammalian species. Mammals are important to our lives in that many are models for human disease and development and are critical to agriculture (both meat and milk). Others are threatened or endangered and, with impending global warming, molecular tools for the study of their ecology and conservation are essential. Our combined efforts have also developed computer-based browser methods to compare the overall structure of one genome with another, directly visualizing the similarities and differences between the genomes of several animals at a time, something we can share widely amongst the scientific community and general public via the world wide web. The differences between mammalian genomes arose through changes that happened during evolution. One of the main aims of this project is to find out how this occurred and what are implications of these changes. We have a number of ideas such as we think there may be different “signatures” that classify why blocks of genes tend to stay together during evolution. Armed with this information, we fully intend to take it out into the world. The devices that we will develop can be adapted for the screening of individual animals for genomic rearrangements that may cause e.g. breeding problems. Moreover, the resources we will develop provide a source for public information and student learning through a dedicated, outwardly-facing web site. We have received overwhelming support from numerous laboratories all over the world who are interested in using the resources that we will develop to ask biological questions of their own. For this reason, we feel that this project will help us understand evolution in mammals and contribute to establishing the UK as a central international hub of mammalian genomics.

Doctors, Conscience and Abortion Law and Practice Workshop

This is a one-day workshop hosted by the University of Kent, as a collaboration between the Centre for the Interdisciplinary Study of Reproduction (CISoR), the Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS) and the British Pregnancy Advisory Service.

Thursday 29th June 2017

Ground Floor, Cornwallis East Building, University of Kent, Canterbury

Organisers: Dr Ellie Lee (SSPSSR) and Professor Sally Sheldon (Kent Law School), University of Kent

This event is one of a number taking place during 2017, the year of the 50th Anniversary of the 1967 Abortion Act. In common with other events, its aim is to promote critical reflection about this legislation. In the academic literature, one widely commented-on feature of the British abortion law is its ‘medicalisation’; that is, the centrality given by law to medical opinion in deciding on access to abortion procedures. While this feature of the abortion legislation has generated a great deal of academic analysis and discussion in the disciplines of law, ethics and sociology, research and discussion about the opinions and experiences of doctors themselves is notably, and curiously, absent from research. The main purpose of this event is to place ‘medical opinion’, as it operates in practice at the centre of a discussion about abortion provision.

The programme takes ‘conscience’ as its core theme. Part of the discussion will consider conscientious objection; its place in abortion legislation (in the 1967 Abortion Act, and in legislation in other jurisdictions) and the issues raised by its invocation by doctors as they ‘opt out’ of abortion provision. In addition to this consideration of ‘doctors who don’t’, however, we will also focus on ‘doctors who do’ through discussion about research that considers the experience of doctors who work to provide abortions.

  • What does this work suggest about the relation between the law, and the practice of abortion provision?
  • How do doctors who provide abortion think about the work they do and its place as part of medical care?
  • What tensions and difficulties mark the present relation between a now 50 year old law and the experience of those legally obliged to make ‘good faith opinions’ about access to abortion?

The day will begin with a presentation by Professor Sally Sheldon about the history of medical opinion in the development of British Abortion law, based on work for the project ‘The Abortion Act: A Biography’. The programme includes discussion about research considering abortion provision in England based on new research led by Dr Ellie Lee, but we will also widen the lens and benefit from a comparative focus. We are delighted to be able to include Dr Lori Freedman and Professor Wendy Chavkin from the US as presenters.

The day is also designed to encourage participation from Postgraduate Researchers with an interest in any aspect of the provision of abortion and contraception. Postgraduate students are invited to contribute Poster Presentations to run alongside the main programme. This part of the day is organised by Verity Pooke (PhD Candidate, University of Kent,


Jennie Bristow, Senior Lecturer in Sociology, Canterbury Christ Church University

Wendy Chavkin, Professor Emerita Population and Family Health and Obstetrics and Gynecology

Sylvia De Zordo, Senior Researcher, ERC Starting Grant and Ramón y Cajal Fellow, University of Barcelona, Dept. of Anthropology

Lori Freedman, Assistant Professor, Department of Obstetrics, Gynecology & Reproductive Sciences, Bixby Center for Global Reproductive Health, University of California

Ann Furedi, CEO British Pregnancy Advisory Service

Kate Greasley, Lecturer in Law University College London

Lesley Hoggart, Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Health and Social Care at the Open University

Ellie Lee, Director, Centre for Parenting Culture Studies, University of Kent

Patricia Lohr, Medical Director, British Pregnancy Advisory Service

Joanna Mishtal, Associate Professor, Cultural/Medical Anthropology, University of Central Florida

Mary Neal, Senior Lecturer in Law, University of Strathclyde

Malcolm Potts, Bixby Chair, Professor in Population and Family Planning, University of California

Sally Sheldon, Professor of Medical Law, University of Kent

Christy Zink, Assistant Professor, University Writing Program, The George Washington University

Pig Breeders Round Table 2017

In April, 70 delegates of the great and the good in the world of pig breeding congregated at the University of Kent campus for the Pig Breeders Round Table – a small, friendly bi-annual meeting. Over the past 40 years this meeting has built up an enviable reputation as one of the best and friendliest international meetings in livestock genetics.

The scientific programme gave both academic and industrial scientists an excellent opportunity to present and discuss new results with an informed and interested audience.  Highlights included the pig genome sequence update, an update on porcine IVF – a route to global sustainability (a join presentation by Canterbury’s two Universities) as well as talks on behavioural deprivation, human trends in animal protein consumption, sexed semen, genome editing, predicting breeding values and sperm morphology. The social programme included a meat tasting session and a lovely dinner at the Marine Hotel, Whitstable.

This year the meeting celebrated its 40 anniversary, always being held in Kent – from its inception at Wye College then, since 2008 here at the University of Kent. Especial thanks go out to the sponsors, JSR Genetics, Topigs Norsvin and Genus.

Scientists overcome pig genome flaw

University scientists, working with colleagues from the genetics research industry, have developed a new genetic screening device and protocol that helps pig breeding.

Through her work, Dr Rebecca O’Connor, a member of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Reproduction (CISoR) from the School of Biosciences, found previously undiscovered, fundamental flaws in the pig genome, the results of which have contributed to improved mapping of the pig genome.

In pigs – which provide 43% of the meat consumed worldwide – a chromosome defect can affect fertility.

With each pig producing as many as 14 piglets per litter, a faulty chromosome can reduce this by as much as half, with massive economic costs to the producer.

Dr O’Connor’s research, carried out in the Griffin Laboratory, has led to the development of chromosome screening devices for both pigs and cattle and a chromosome screening service to multiple agricultural food providers.

Now with 13 clients in eight different countries, the team are screening hundreds of samples a year, as well as adapting the method to screen for chromosome abnormalities in other species.

The research findings were presented to agricultural industry leaders at the Pig Breeders Round Table Conference, one of the foremost international conferences on livestock genetics, held at the University of Kent in May 2017.

Dr O’Connor, research associate in the School of Biosciences, won the 2017 University Prize for Postgraduate Research in recognition of her ‘exceptional publication record, and achievements far beyond those normally expected of a doctoral student’.

A paper, entitled Isolation of subtelomeric sequences of porcine chromosomes for translocation screening reveals errors in the pig genome assembly (Dr Rebecca O’Connor and Professor Darren Griffin, University of Kent; Dr G Fonseka, Dr M. Lawrie and R Frodsham, Cytocell Ltd, Cambridge; Professor A. L. Archibald, The Roslin Institute, R(D)SVS, University of Edinburgh, Division of Genetics and Genomics, Midlothian; and Dr G. A. Walling, JSR Genetics, Southburn, Driffield, North Humberside), was published in Animal Genetics.

Advice to pregnant women on drinking ‘patronising and sexist’

Dr Ellie Lee, Director of the University’s Centre for Parenting Culture Studies (CPCS), and member of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies of Reproduction (CISoR) says advice given to pregnant women about drinking may cause more harm than good.

Speaking at a conference in Canterbury on 19 May, Dr Lee said that official advice about drinking alcohol in pregnancy had gone down an ‘overtly precautionary route’.

Evidence suggesting that the odd drink, or even more than that, has no impact on child outcomes is interpreted as ‘insufficiently robust’ and any level of drinking is now associated with ‘possible harm’, Dr Lee told her audience.

Dr Lee’s speech was covered extensively in the media, including articles in the Guardian and Mirror newspapers and a television news feature on BBC South East.

During her interview, during the main BBC South East 6.30pm news programme, Dr Lee described the government’s advice to pregnant women as ‘patronising’ and ‘sexist’.

Dr Ellie Lee interviewed by BBC South East/Photo: Press Office UoK

The conference, entitled Policing Pregnancy: Who Should be a Mother? was organised jointly by CPCS, the British Pregnancy Advisory Service, Birthrights, and Engaging Sociology at Canterbury Christ Church University, which hosted the event.

CISoR Success as Kent Celebrates Research Excellence

CISoR scientists scored well in Kent’s third annual Research Prizes, which took place on 21 April, with three of the 16 awards handed out to staff in recognition of their accomplishments over the last year.

The awards recognised achievements such as publication in top-ranked journals, high citation rates, significant funding awards and impact through public engagement and policy development.

Specifically, the CISoR winners were as follows:

The University Prize for Postgraduate Research was awarded to Dr Becky O’Connor (5th  from right) in recognition of an exceptional publication record, including a potential 4* publication, and achievements far beyond those normally expected of a doctoral student. As part of a project in the Griffin Laboratory Becky O’Connor examined the links between dinosaur and modern avian genomes, using a combination of lab-based and computational means. This allowed the laboratory to learn more about the evolution of bird genomes, and develop new products and processes along the way. The work has proved that a so-called typical avian genome structure became established much earlier than previously thought, about the time that the dinosaurs first emerged. These results were considered so significant that they were accepted by one of the most highly cited journals in the world, Genome Research.  In addition, Becky has been involved in the development of Chromoprobe Multiprobe devices, a pig chromosome infertility screening service, has written 2 small grants (£10,000 each) and been named investigator and co-author on a large BBSRC grant which has recently been funded. In nominating Becky, Prof Darren Griffin stated that, ‘even by the standards of a high-flying academic, this has been an outstanding year, and PhD, for Becky. To get a single 4* paper as a result of a PhD would be considered exceptional. For it to be the centre piece of a suite of 5 papers has me reaching for superlatives. ‘Becky was awarded her PhD “without corrections”, and I know of only one other person who has done this. Such achievement could not have been better deserved.’ Becky previously was a Graduate of the CISoR MSc in Reproductive Medicine: Science and Ethics.

The Faculty of Sciences Prize for Advanced Research was awarded in recognition of Prof Darren Griffin’s (far left) outstanding contribution to the field, his publication and income track record, his impact activity and his achievements in nurturing and facilitating ground-breaking interdisciplinary work. Prof Griffin is a key figure in genomic research and has made significant breakthroughs, such as the development of the first clinical application of a universal test for diagnosing disease in IVF embryos. His publication record, research and innovation income, impact and public engagement activity all attests to his standing and achievements in the field, including over 150 publications in some of the world’s highest impact journals e.g. Science, Nature, Nature Genetics and Genome Research; £6.5m research grant income as principal investigator; the most citations for any academic in the University and the second highest h-index (SciVal); over £1m of innovation funding, the highest for any single academic in the University; the most viewed articles by journalists; and supervising 20 PhD students to completion.  In nominating him for the prize, Prof Alan Thornhill emphasised that ‘an outstanding researcher in his own right, his work in working collaboratively gives the University of Kent incredible international kudos from the point of view of the outside observer, combining excellence in social, scientific and clinical research.’

The University Prize for Advanced Research awarded to Prof Adrian Podoleanu (6th from left) in recognition of outstanding achievements in developing the field of optical coherence tomography (OCT), founding a strong and successful research group, and Prof Podoleanu’s record of internationally leading publications, patent protection and extensive grant income. Prof Podoleanu produced the first en-face OCT image of the human retina in 1996, and has since developed an international reputation in the field. He has attracted more than 30 grants worth over £6m, including three European Research Council awards, two Marie Curie training sites, and three major EPSRC grants.  In nominating him for the Prize, his Head of School Prof Mark Green stated that ‘Prof Adrian Podoleanu is one of the leading physicists in the country. He has developed biomedical optical technology that is treating thousands of patients with eye problems per year worldwide, and has adding millions to the UK economy. ‘He is an example of nurturing interdisciplinary links between specialists in different disciplines in the Faculty of Sciences and of promoting PG education mixed with entrepreneurship. I don’t believe there is anyone in the history of science at the University of Kent that has done more to increase the international research profile of the University. As the Royal Society and the UK government has recognised this so publicly in 2015, he unquestionably deserves accolade from Kent in the form of the University Advanced Research Prize this year.’

The ceremony was hosted by Professor Catherine Richardson from the School of English, and the awards were presented by the Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Research and Innovation Professor Philippe De Wilde during a gala dinner held at the Darwin Conference Suite at the University’s Canterbury campus.

Professor De Wilde commended the high quality of applications received and congratulated the winners on their success: ‘The nominations highlighted the diversity of research, and the impressive achievements for which Kent academics and students are responsible. Such excellence made selecting sixteen winners particularly difficult, and as well as congratulating the winners I would like to thank all those who put their work forward for consideration. It has shown me how much excellent work is being undertaken, how many publications and grants are being secured, and how many accolades are being won.’

The Research Prizes scheme has generated considerable interest across the University since its launch in 2014 and this year 44 applications from 13 of the University’s Schools were submitted.

Further details of all the prize-winners are available on the Research Prize website.

Professor Sally Sheldon made a Fellow of Academy of Social Sciences

Professor Sally Sheldon has been made a Fellow of the Academy of Social Sciences, the representative body of the social sciences in the United Kingdom.

Fellows are drawn from academics, practitioners and policymakers across the social sciences who are recognised after an extensive peer review process for the excellence and impact of their work addressing some of society’s most pressing issues.

The Academy describes Professor Sheldon as a ‘pioneer in socio-legal research, particularly in the area of the sociological understanding of the dilemmas and effects of abortion law’.

Professor Sheldon of Kent Law School is widely regarded as one of the UK’s leading researchers in health care law and ethics. She has an outstanding record for producing independent, peer-reviewed research, and regularly contributes to public debate in these areas.

Environmental DNA helps protect great crested newts

Research by the University has revealed how tiny amounts of DNA (eDNA) released into water by great crested newts can be used to monitor the species. This can bring benefits for its conservation, and help protect great crested newts from major construction projects.

It has also revealed, for the first time, how great crested newt eDNA varies throughout the year in relation to population size and environmental factors.

PhD student Andrew Buxton and a team from the Durrell Institute of Conservation and Ecology (DICE) in the University’s School of Anthropology and Conservation studied great crested newts on the Canterbury campus, where there are eight identical ponds.

Surveying the newts every 14 days throughout the year, Andrew Buxton and his team mapped the amount of DNA in the water as it changed through the seasons in relation to the number of newts and their behaviour – from their arrival in March through their breeding season in May, until the start of hibernation in October. During breeding, the newts are very active and release a lot eggs, sperm and DNA into the water. This results in a peak in DNA towards the end of the breeding period, which may be the best time to take water samples to detect the species.

eDNA sampling can improve the effectiveness of surveys on sites scheduled for  development. By finding rare species early in a development there is less chance of delays than if they are found once it has started, saving time and money.

The great crested newt is protected under European law although it is not uncommon in the south-east of England, which is one of their strongholds in the UK. They have however suffered dramatic declines over the last 60 years, due to development and agricultural changes.The team’s paper, entitled Seasonal variation in environmental DNA in relation to population size and environmental factors (Andrew S. Buxton, Jim J. Groombridge, Nurulhuda B. Zakaria & Richard A. Griffiths) is published in Scientific Reports on 10 April 2017.

Eye dilation sex specific but not sexually explicit, study finds

People’s eyes dilate when they are looking at people they find sexually appealing – but new research from the University suggests that their response does not depend on whether the person being viewed is naked or clothed.

Researchers from the University’s School of Psychology studied whether a stronger dilation for the preferred sex is produced when participants viewed images depicting higher levels of sexual explicitness compared to images low on sexual explicitness.

Using eye-tracking technology in combination with highly controlled stimuli, the team found that pupillary responses to images of men and women appeared to be sex-specific but not sensitive to the sexual explicitness of the image.

Researcher Dr Janice Attard-Johnson said: ‘We found that changes in pupil size when viewing images of men and women corresponded with participants’ self-reported sexual orientation.

‘This meant that in heterosexual men and women, dilation occurred during the viewing of opposite-sex people, but that these responses were comparable when participants viewed both naked and dressed targets.

‘Our findings suggest that pupillary responses provide a sex-specific measure that is sensitive to both sexually explicit and non-sexually explicit content.’

Other research indicates that naked pictures of people elicit stronger signs of arousal than dressed images when this is measured using other physiological reactions, such as genital responses.

But researchers found this was not the case with pupillary responses, and suggest it is possible that a change in pupil size is elicited with lower levels of sexual arousal than is necessary for other physiological measures.

The research report, entitled Sex-specific but not sexually explicit: pupillary responses to dressed and naked adults, is published in the Royal Society Open Science journal. Its authors are Dr Attard-Johnson and Dr Markus Bindemann.

Kent Reproductive Medicine MSc Accredited by The Royal Society of Biology for its Outstanding Programme

The MSc in Reproductive Medicine: Science and Ethics (along with four other Kent MSc programmes) has become the first to be awarded accreditation from the country’s leading professional association for biology, the Royal Society of Biology (RSB).

Top Reproductive Medicine Master’s student, Abeo McCollin (right) along with Dr Mark Shepherd, lecturer in Microbial Biochemistry (centre) in the University’s School of Biosciences and Dr Jill Shepherd, honorary lecturer in Biosciences (left) collected the award at a ceremony at the Pavilion Terrace at the Houses of Parliament in London in April 2017.

The RSB accreditation scheme promotes excellence in the biosciences and identifies courses of particular quality that provide the knowledge and skills required by employers in the life sciences sector.  The other Kent Master’s courses accredited were in Biotechnology and Bioengineering, Cancer Biology, Drug Design and Infectious Diseases.

The RSB awarding panel scrutinised the courses, met with staff and students and inspected the teaching and research facilities. The panel noted several areas of good practice, including the interactive style of teaching, the development of research skills, the academic advice and pastoral care available and the ability of students to use cutting-edge research equipment as part of their course.

Kent’s undergraduate provision in Biosciences has already been awarded RSB accreditation and the University now becomes the only UK institution with all its BSc and MSc taught programmes accredited by the professional association.

Accredited for its for its outstanding provision, the MSc Reproductive Medicine: Science and Ethics had its first intake in 2011 and was, from the outset, a collaboration between the Schools of Biosciences and Law. It was one of the inspirations for the formation of CISoR.