Research highlights

Unique spinal nerve cell activity

zebrafishembryo.jpgJonathan McDearmid and Huaxia Tong have published details of unique forms of spinal nerve cell activity in a developing vertebrate motor network. The McDearmid lab use zebrafish as a model organism for studying the neural of motor behaviour. Their work should lead to a better understanding of how nerve activity in the spinal cord underpins maturation of motor behaviour.

·         More details

·         The research is supported by BBSRC

·         the paper is published in Current Biology

·         Jonathan McDearmid’s research pages


Ripening of fruit may be affected by manipulation of chloroplasts

Work led by Paul Jarvis and published in Science has shown that chloroplasts are affected by the ubiquitin protease system that causes the breakdown of unwanted proteins in cells. The role of the SP1 gene in the regulation of chloroplast development may be harnessed to affect the ripening of fruits.


·         More details

·         The research has been funded by the BBSRC

·         Prof Paul Jarvis' research pages

·         Link to the original paper in Science


Restoration of the River Welland

David Harper is leading a half-million pound project that aims to restore the River Welland in Leicestershire, which has been profoundly affected by pollution and through mismanagement of the river channel. The work will be funded by DEFRA’s Catchment Restoration Fund, in partnership with the University’s Centre for Landscape and Climate Research, the Environment Agency and Harborough District Council.DMH.jpg



·        Funded by DEFRA

·         More details

·         Link to Welland Rivers Trust

·         David Harper’s research pages



The banana genome and plant evolution

A recent paper in Nature by Pat Heslop-Harrison and several colleagues reports the sequencing of the genome of the banana (Musa acuminata) and relates these findings to the evolution of monocotyledonous plants. This whole-genome sequence could be used for the genetic improvement of the popular Cavendish strain of banana which is currently under threat from a variety of pests and diseases.



Six-way Venn diagram showing the distribution of shared gene families (sequence clusters) among M. acuminata, P. dactylifera, Arabidopsis thaliana, Oryza sativa, Sorghum bicolor and Brachypodium distachyon genomes.

  • link to the original paper in Nature
  • for more information click here
  • home pages of Professor Pat Heslop-Harrison
  • Global warming changes the balance between parasite & host in fish

    Dr Iain Barber and PhD student Vicki Macnab have shown that global warming has the potential to change the balance between parasite and host, with potentially serious implications for the host population. Using sticklebacks as a model organism, they show that parasitic worms infecting the fish have a devastating effect on fish reproduction and behaviour. This is some of the first evidence that global warming can affect the interactions between parasites and their hosts.


    Stickleback showing four parasites recovered from the body cavity.

    The research, supported by funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (Cefas), has been published in the influential journal Global Change Biology.

    Biologists discover 'control centre' for plant sperm production

    Biologists at the University of Leicester have published results of a new study into the genetic intricacies of sex in flowering plants.

    They have found that a unique gene in plants, called DUO1, that acts as a master switch to ensure twin fertile sperm cells are made in each pollen grain. 

    Professor David Twell and colleagues in the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester report the discovery of a battery of genes controlled by this ‘master regulator’ (DUO1) that sheds new light on the genetic mechanisms plants use to govern sperm cell formation and their ability to fertile the egg cells.

    The findings also have implications for plant fertility and seed production – and could be used to help produce hybrid crops to help meet food shortages.
    The new study is reported in the journal The Plant Cell and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

    Production of the sperm cell-specific regulator protein DUO1 in Arabidopsis roots

    Pictured is an image of an Arabidopsis root showing the fluorescence (green) of the GFP-tagged DUO1 protein along with an image of the same root showing the different cell files. DUO1 is normally restricted to sperm cells. It is normally technically challenging to study genes active within plant sperm cells because plant sperm are tiny and encased within tough pollen grains. Using these genetically modified plants, the researchers were able to survey the target genes switched on by DUO1.

    Image Credit: Image generated by Lynette Brownfield (University of Leicester)

    Krill moult cycle

    Molecular biologists at the British Antarctic Survey, working with Ted Gaten and Ezio Rosato, have recently published one of the most highly resolved molecular insights into the moult cycle processes yet achieved in any crustacean species. Combining DNA microarray technology in the laboratory with anatomical moult staging at sea during Ted Gaten's research cruise in the Southern Ocean has resulted in a better understanding of the processes involved in Antarctic krill moulting and their control at the gene expression level.


    This work was published at:

    Seear P.J., Tarling G.A., Burns G., Goodall-Copestake W., Gaten E., Ozkaya O. and Rosato E. (2010) Differential gene expression during the moult cycle of Antarctic krill (Euphausia superba). BMC Genomics, 11, 582

    Synchronization of Oscillations

    Work published in February 2010 by Pat Heslop-Harrison and colleagues in Korea shows that weak coupling between cellular oscillators can lead to rapid synchronization. With such a strong effect, there is often no need for cellular processes to be connected to any centralized or controlling clock.




    See the full paper at:

    Kim J-R, Shin D, Jung SH, Heslop-Harrison P, Cho K-H. 2010. A design principle underlying the synchronization of oscillations in cellular systems. Journal of Cell Science doi: 10.1242/jcs.060061



    DNA Satellite Evolution

    Guto Kuhn, working with Pat Heslop-Harrison and Trude Schwarzacher, reports for the first time interspersion between non-homologous satellite DNA repeats in Drosophila. The article features on the Heredity website for May 2009.

    Molecular analysis of satellite DNA junctions revealed that they have evolved by multiple events of illegitimate recombination with subsequent rounds of unequal crossing-over expanding the copy number of some junctions.

    This work also revealed satDNA monomers organized as higher-order repeats – a rarely reported feature in the Drosophila genus.


    The figure shows extended DNA fibers hybridized with red and green probes showing the organization of satDNAs in representative fibers from D. gouveai. Interspersion and junctions are visualized by adjacent red and green hybridization sites, yellow where signals overlap. Scale bar represents 10 kb of stretched DNA.

    See the full paper at: Kuhn GCS, Teo CH, Schwarzacher T, Heslop-Harrison JS. 2009. Evolutionary dynamics and sites of illegitimate re-combination revealed in the interspersion and sequence junctions of two nonhomologous satellite DNAs in cactophilic Drosophila species. Heredity 102: 453-464. doi: 10.1038/hdy.2009.9.


    Microsurgery in an insect reveals flexibility of limb motor control

    Scientists at the Universities of Leicester and Cambridge have carried out microsurgery on the legs of locusts to investigate the role of internal sense organs in the control of limb movements. Drs Keri Page and Tom Matheson artificially shortened the tendon of a leg joint receptor and then measured the animals’ ability to make aimed leg movements. The surgery led to an immediate systematic error in the movements but, remarkably, after a week’s recovery the accuracy returned to normal. This indicates that there is compensation for the erroneous sensory signal and reflects considerable plasticity in the control system for leg movements. The work is an important step forward in understanding how sensory signals are used to guide actions. 

    Surgically shortened tendon from an insect sensory receptorThe photograph shows a surgically shortened tendon from an insect sensory receptor (the femoro-tibial chordotonal organ). This sense organ signals the position and movements of the ‘knee’ joint. Working under a microscope the tendon was cut using microsurgical scissors, then the ends were overlapped and reattached using tissue glue so that the overall tendon length was reduced. This causes the receptor to signal an incorrect knee angle. The scale bar is one tenth of a millimetre. Photo credit: K Page

    This work was published in the Journal of Neuroscience and was funded by the BBSRC.

    New Breakthrough in Global Warming Plant Production

    Arabidopsis thaliana plants grown at 22oC (left) and 28oC (right). (Credit: Dr. Kerry Franklin, University of Leicester)
    Researchers one step closer to ‘Holy Grail’ of plant biology research

    Researchers at the universities of Leicester and Oxford have made a discovery about plant growth which could potentially have an enormous impact on crop production as global warming increases.

    Dr Kerry Franklin, formerly of the University of Leicester Department of Biology led the study which has identified a single gene responsible for controlling plant growth responses to elevated temperature.

    The work has been published in:

    Plant biologists discover gene that switches on 'essence of male'

    Study identifies role of gene responsible for plant sperm production

    Biologists at the University of Leicester have published results of a new study into plant sex – and discovered that a particular gene switches on 'the essence of male'. The study takes to a new level understanding of the genes needed for successful plant reproduction and seed production.

    Professor David Twell and colleagues in the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester report a dual role for DUO1, a regulatory gene required for plant sperm cell production and show that the DUO1 gene is required to promote the division of sperm precursor cells, while at the same time promoting their specialised function as sperm cells. “It effectively switches on the essence of male”.

    Pollen grainCaption: Pictured is a confocal image of an Arabidopsis pollen grain showing ectopic GFP expression in the pollen vegetative cell (outlined in red with large single green nucleus) under control of the normally male germ cell-specific histone H3 (MGH3) promoter (pair of green sperm cell nuclei). The MGH3 promoter is induced by the ectopic expression of the germline-specific transcription factor DUO1 in the pollen vegetative cell. The authors show that germ cell mitosis and specification are regulated by DUO1, including the expression of cell cycle and gamete fusion proteins. Thus DUO1 has a key integrative role linking germ cell division and sperm cell differentiation in flowering plants.  Credit: Image generated by Lynette Brownfield (University of Leicester)

    Their study is reported in the journal Public Library of Science Genetics (PLoS Genetics) and was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

    Bumblebee colonies which are fast learners are also better able to fight off infection

    A bumble bee collects pollen from a flower in a garden near York, northern England, June 28, 2008.(REUTERS/Nigel Roddis)Bumblebee colonies which are fast learners are also better able to fight off infection, according to scientists from Queen Mary, University of London and the University of Leicester. Dr Nigel Raine from Queen Mary’s School of Biological and Chemical Sciences, and Akram Alghamdi, Ezio Rosato and Eamonn Mallon from the University of Leicester tested the learning performance and immune responses of bumblebees from twelve colonies.

    Biologists discover gene behind ‘plant sex mystery’

    Two pollen grains viewed by fluorescence microscopy. A pair of red sperm cells are visible in the normal pollen grain (top left) whilst only one red germ cell is present in mutant pollen. (Credit: Lynette Brownfield and David Twell, University of Leicester)An enigma – unique to flowering plants – has been solved by researchers from the University of Leicester (UK) and POSTECH, South Korea.

    The discovery is reported in the journal Nature on 23 October 2008. Professor David Twell, of the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester and Professor Hong Gil Nam of POSTECH, South Korea report the discovery of a gene that has a critical role in allowing precursor reproductive cells to divide to form twin sperm cells.

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