The innovative Cambridge research of 2014

Liv Grant 15 January 2015

Plastic plants

Our ability to manipulate DNA has rapidly evolved in recent history: humans have spent thousands of years relying upon the pressures of artificial selection in order to create crops with higher yields, but now we can cut, dice and splice the genomes of plants in order to insert codes for desirable traits. These sequences may encode the necessary genes to produce a particular vitamin, immunity to a disease, or perhaps a substance that is harmful to nefarious parasites. Plant scientists Professor Sir David Baulcombe and Dr Jim Haselhof have played key roles in the creation of OpenPlant, a synthetic biology centre that should prove to be a hothouse for creative ideas involving plant modification. One unlikely synthetic biology star is the homely liverwort, which is invaluable in genetic modification because its cells only carry a single set of genetic information. OpenPlant aims to create a comprehensive public-access database for everything liverwort, and this will aid Cambridge scientists who are exploring ideas such as manipulating the rate of photosynthesis and leaf structure in plants so that they can harness the sun’s energy more efficiently.

Looking at microwaves in a new light

“Waste disposal” is not perhaps the most glamorous of research fields, but Professor Howard Chase and Dr Carlos Ludlow-Palafox have brought it to the headlines, via their discovery and industrialisation of a recycling method for the ubiquitous plastic wrap which envelopes food, drinks, and cosmetics. This packaging is called plastic-aluminium laminate, and 160, 000 tonnes are used, annually in the UK. Aside from the obvious concern of the sheer volume of landfill that this waste occupies, this also results in 16 000 tonnes of precious aluminium being thrown away.  Chase and Ludlow-Palafox were intrigued by the problem of how to separate the metal from the plastic, and noted that carbon, of which plastics are primarily composed, efficiently absorbs microwaves, and carbon transfers this heat to the surrounding materials.  This results in the rapid incineration of organic compounds, and the melting and congregation of metals. The scientists wanted to know what would happen when they superheated plastic-aluminium laminate? The experiment to test this was simple: the scientists microwaved some laminate, and “bing” they had a pool of shimmering aluminium! In 2014 they vastly multiplied the scale of this experiment by launching the first industrial plant that uses this method, and thus made disposable packaging a little more sustainable.

Iridescent Opals

New discoveries are commonplace in the field of nanophotonics – well they would have to be considering that it is only just over a decade old. Nanophotonics is a branch of physics that explores the interplay of light with miniscule particles. Professor Baumberg manipulates particles which are “smaller than the wavelength of light”, and theoretically such tiny changes in particle architecture can alter the configuration of electrons in such a way that the entire properties of a material – from gold to graphite – can be altered. Baumberg’s lab have developed a new synthetic material, which is flexible and shimmers with the hues of opals. “Polymer opals” are an exciting discovery (or invention) because they perfectly demonstrate how the exact arrangement of molecules affects light waves; polymer opals will reflect and refract light differently depending on how they are twisted and stretched. Though beautiful, polymer opals are more likely to find themselves working in security, or in futuristic light reflecting textiles, than dripping from chains of gold.  From splitting the atom to flexible opals, the Cavendish labs are home to some of the most exciting and visionary experiments in the world.

The potential to do anything

To suspend cells forever in that brief moment when they have the potential to become any type of cell found in the human body, when they are still pluripotent, or “naïve”, is a scientist’s dream. A stable cell line of pluripotent cells would expand the fields of regenerative medicine and drug screening, and could also answer more fundamental questions pertinent to development and evolution. This is actually possible in the case of mouse cells, yet capturing naïve human cells has so far eluded researchers, as human cells have proved to be slightly more capricious that mouse cells. Professor Austin Smith and Dr Jenny Nichols have published a paper in Cell which shows that their research into genes and growth factors is bringing them tantalisingly close to the great discovery. In Smith’s words “It’s now only a matter of time.” – we look forward to hearing more!

The Future of brain injury treatment

Gelatinous yet structurally complex, grey yet charged with electrical impulses, the brain can seem a mystery, and neuroscience is one of the most exciting fields of research. Yet as interesting as plumbing the depths of learning, memory, and thought in a healthy brain may be, trying to identify and treat the effects of traumatic brain injuries threatens to be overwhelming. Traumatic brain injuries are the primary cause of death and disability in children and adolescents, and Professor David Menon, of the Department of Medicine, has found that variability between patients in their response to treatment has rendered a textbook medical approach impossible. Statistical studies are desperately needed in order to develop treatments and to find how different people are affected, and Professor Menon is leading a European Union funded project to study the effects of head injuries on up to 30, 000 patients. What makes this so potentially fascinating is that just a sampling of the numerous responses of the brain to injury include a massive increase (and then disappearance) of amyloid deposits, which are symptomatic of Alzheimers; another Cambridge researcher, Dr Alisdair Coles, has found that the brain often produces antibodies against itself in the aftermath of an injury, and nobody has any idea why. Hopefully the results of this project will yield a highly personalised medical approach to brain injury patients.