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Research news from BBSRC

20 January 2006

The following stories appear in the January 2006 edition of Business, the quarterly magazine of research highlights from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Sun protection for plants
Scientists in Sheffield working on the fundamental biological processes of plants could make significant difference to the lives of farmers around the world. The researchers have uncovered one of the processes used by plants to protect themselves from the potentially lethal excess levels of sunlight found under many environmental conditions. Their discoveries are now being applied to improve the productivity of bean farmers in South America and rice producers in Asia.
(Page 6)

Professor Peter Horton, University of Sheffield, e-mail:

Growing crops to cope with climate change
Researchers have a gene that could help to develop new varieties of crop that will be able to cope with the changing world climate. They have identified the gene in barley that controls how the plant responds to seasonal changes in the length of the day. This is key to understanding how plants have adapted their flowering behaviour to different environments. The varieties of crops grown in the UK are suited to the soil, seasons and traditional cool, wet summers. If British summers get hotter and drier we will need types crops that flower earlier to beat summer droughts but which will otherwise be adapted to UK conditions.
(Page 5)

Dr David Laurie, John Innes Centre, Tel: 01603 450 610, e-mail:

The secret life of algae
A fundamental process that has puzzled researchers for many years has been explained by UK scientists. Algae are vital in fixing half of the world’s carbon but none have the necessary genes to produce vitamin B 12. Some algae have developed mechanisms, like more complex plants, that do not need the vitamin but the others must get vitamin B 12 from somewhere. Scientists have discovered bacteria that provide the vitamin in the natural environment and, in return, the algae provided the bacteria with the carbon they needed to grow. The research raises important questions about how we look at aquatic ecosystems.
(Page 24)

Dr Alison Smith, University of Cambridge, Tel: 01223 333952, e-mail:

New rapid tests to help doctors and police
Two projects have led to immunoassays to produce new sensors that could provide a major boost to the health service, food industry and the police. In the first, researchers have developed a sensor able to detect multiple biological markers in a patient sample. Most current diagnostic tests in healthcare can only detect one disease marker at a time but the new technology is able to test for up to 10. The second project has led to sensors able to detect multiple vitamins in a food sample to improve food quality and safety. The scientists are now developing the system to provide rapid roadside testing for drugs such as cocaine.
(Page 9)

Professor Ian Cree, University of Portsmouth (health diagnostics), e-mail:
Professor Colin Self, University of Newcastle (food and roadside testing), e-mail:

Ultrarapid tissue engineering
Current methods of tissue engineering rely on the ability of cells to grow around a scaffold; a slow and expensive process that has had limited success. Scientists have now developed a technique that uses a compressed collagen scaffold to make tissue-like implants. This process takes minutes rather than days or weeks and can be shrunk to give nanoscale, biomimetic structure. Once in a patient’s body the implants perform more like natural grafts than artificial devices. The long-term aim of the research is to produce a bedside machine that could make customised bits of tissue that surgeons could sew into defects, tendons, nerves and blood vessels as needed.
(Page 3)

Professor Robert Brown, University College London, e-mail:

Revealing how Darwin's growth substance is detected by plants
In 1880 Charles Darwin observed a growth-stimulating substance that moved through plants. It is now known as auxin and after more than a century researchers have an answer for how it works. Scientists at the University of York have revealed that auxin acts to trigger the destruction of the proteins in plants that normally keep growth genes switched off. The team has shown that a specific protein acts as a receptor, enabling cells to detect the auxin and remove the brakes on growth. (Page 28)

Professor Ottoline Leyser, University of York, Tel: 01894-328680, e-mail:


These stories appear in the January 2006 edition of BBSRC Business. For additional copies please contact the BBSRC Media Office.


The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.


Matt Goode, Head of External Relations

tel: 01793 413299

Tracey Jewitt, Media Officer

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