Friday, 19 December 2014

New research uses bioluminescent jellyfish as optical engineers

Researchers at St Andrews have produced the world’s first solid-state protein lasers, capable of record performance and some capable of self-assembly, by harnessing the optical engineering skills of bioluminescent jellyfish.

The findings, reported in the international journal Nature Communications ("Bio-optimized energy transfer in densely packed fluorescent protein enables near-maximal luminescence and solid-state lasers", doi: 10.1038/ncomms6722), have the potential to transform biomedical diagnosis of conditions such as cancer and advance the design of new materials. The work was inspired by the discovery that nature may have optimized - with sub-nanometre precision - the size of the molecules driving the bioluminescence of jellyfish to allow them to shine as brightly as possible. Professor Malte Gather from the School of Physics and Astronomy, together with Dr Seok Hyun Yun at Harvard Medical School and Massachusetts General Hospital, calculated that the green fluorescent protein molecule, which allows certain jellyfish to emit bright green light, has just the right size to strike an optimal balance between not losing energy to unproductive quenching and being able to squeeze as many molecules as possible into the light-emitting cells of the animal.

Fluorescent proteins derived from bioluminescent jellyfish
allow fabrication of efficient solid-state microlasers.
Under the right conditions, the protein molecules self-assemble
into a ring-shaped laser structure. Shown above are two such
lasers in action, made from a green and a red fluorescent protein, respectively.

Bioinspired by nature’s design, the researchers were able to make tiny solid-state lasers from these fluorescent proteins. The green fluorescent protein, generally known as GFP, is found the pacific jellyfish Aequorea Victoria where it is involved as energy acceptor in the natural bioluminescence of the animal. Several years ago molecular biologists isolated the section of DNA that tells the cellular machinery of the jellyfish how to produce GFP. Using genetic engineering this DNA can be used to confer the bright green fluorescence to other species - to bacteria, fruit flies, even to mice - a method that is widely used today to visualize cells or structures within cells under the microscope. Such measurements require only relatively modest protein concentrations. In the light-emitting organ of the jellyfish, however, the protein concentration is believed to be more than thousand times higher.

The scientists developed a number of different laser configurations. A particularly efficient design began to emit laser light when the power provided to it was less than what can be achieved in lasers based on state-of-the-art synthetic dyes. Another design makes use of the concept of self-assembly and allows the structure of the laser to form by itself. Professor Gather believes that beyond using GFP and other fluorescent proteins, the study of their structure and their optical properties can bio-inspire improvements of artificial emitters. [Press release]

Tuesday, 9 December 2014

Tree-rings reconstruct the South Asian summer monsoon index over the last millennium

The South Asian summer monsoon (SASM) is a major atmospheric synoptic climate system affecting nearly a quarter of the human population. Dr Rob Wilson, Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, with co-authors from China have published a 1000-year-long reconstruction of SASM in the Nature Group journal Scientific Reports. They utilised 15 tree-ring chronologies to reconstruct the SASM index over the last millennium. The record generated is significantly correlated (r=0.7, p<0.01) with the instrumental SASMI record on annual timescales; this correlation is higher than that obtained in any previous study. The reconstructed SASMI captures 18 of 26 (69%) recorded historical famine events in India over the last millennium; notably, 11 of 16 short events with durations of 1–3 years are accurately depicted in the reconstruction. Moreover, the reconstructed SASMI is positively correlated with variations in total solar irradiance (TSI) on multi-decadal timescales implying that variations in solar activity may influence the SASM. Epoch analysis additionallyindicates that volcanic events may also drive some of the SASM variability about 2 years after major eruptions.
Figure: Time series of the reconstructed South
Asian summer monsoon index (SASMI) and total
solar irradiance (TSI) over the last millennium.

Shi, F., Li, J., and Wilson, R. 2014. A tree-ring reconstruction of the South Asian summer monsoon index over the past millennium. Scientific Reports, 4 (6739). DOI: 10.1038/srep06739.

Monday, 1 December 2014

The Building Blocks of Life

Searching for the essence of life on Earth, understanding climate change and investigating the spread of diseases - these are a few examples of the fundamental research that academics at St Andrews will be tackling with new equipment won under a competitive £0.5M NERC grant! This cutting edge analytical set-up combines a multi-collector inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (MC-ICP-MS) with a gas chromatograph (GC), and will be the first of its kind in the EU (and only the third in the world!). The NERC capital equipment fund bid was led by Drs Andrea Burke, Harry Oduro, James Rae, and Heidi Burdett from the Department of Earth and Environmental Sciences, supported by an interdisciplinary team including Profs David Paterson Ian Johnston, and Derek Woollins from the Schools of Biology and Chemistry.
The state-of-the-art clean mass spectrometry lab where the new
equipment will be housed
One of the exciting major applications for this new equipment is the measurement of sulfur isotopes. The study of sulfur has both pure and applied uses, as it is a key element on scales ranging from nano to global, and in processes ranging from climate forcing by volcanic eruptions, to the processing of sulfur-rich crude oils. This new analytical set-up permits the measurement of sulfur isotopes on samples a thousand times smaller than previously possible, and will provide valuable new information on climate sensitivity, metabolic pathways, and Earth resources and their recovery.

 For further information on this, contact Dr Andrea Burke.

Monday, 24 November 2014

Sulfate on the early Earth – how low was low?

Findings recently published in Science (“Sulfate was a trace constituent of Archean seawater”, DOI: 10.1126/science.1258966) suggest that sulfate – a key biological nutrient – could have been incredibly scarce in the Earth’s ancient oceans.

Sulfur is a crucial component of biomass and an important source of energy for microbial metabolisms. It also plays a central role in regulating atmospheric chemistry and global climate over geologic timescales.

Research vessel on Lake Matano, Indonesia.
PHOTO by Sean Crowe, University of British Columbia.
Researchers led by Dr Sean Crowe, a lead author of the study in the Departments of Microbiology and Immunology, and Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences at the University of British Columbia, collected samples from Lake Matano, Indonesia—a sulfate-poor modern analogue for the Earth’s Archean oceans – to examine the isotope effects associated with sulfur metabolisms under early Earth conditions. The team used state-of-the-art mass spectrometric approaches developed at California Institute of Technology to demonstrate that microorganisms in this lake fractionate sulfur isotopes at concentrations orders of magnitude lower than previously recognized.

“These results suggest that sulfate levels in the Archean could have been thousands of times lower than today, which would have had important consequences for the cycling of sulfur in the oceans and atmosphere, and for the evolution of early microbial ecosystems”, says Dr Aubrey Zerkle, a Lecturer in the Department of Earth & Environmental Sciences and collaborator on the study. Two additional papers published in the same issue of Science used similar techniques to examine sulfur isotope signatures of in ancient sediments from ~2.5 billion years ago. These studies suggest dynamic spatial and temporal variations of seawater sulfate during that time, supporting a low-sulfate scenario. However, both indicate that microbial ecosystems based on sulfur cycling still thrived, despite the lack of sulfate.

Friday, 7 November 2014

IMAGINE … could a non-party Scottish Parliament work?

The Centre for Housing Research (CHR), School of Geography and Geosciences, will be hosting a Café Politique (format – café style public debate in an informal setting with a licensed bar, tea, coffee and cakes), entitled "IMAGINE … could a non-party Scottish Parliament work?" at the Byre Theatre in St Andrews on Wednesday, 19th November from 5:45-7:45pm as part of Parliament Week.

Pre Scottish independence referendum, as the chair of the Scottish Youth Parliament (SYP), Louise Cameron was invited to talk to the Law Society of Scotland about the work of the SYP. The lawyers asked her the above question (that forms the title of the talk). At the time, Louise didn’t answer in detail. After some reflection, this informal talk is her response.

The style of the discussion will be that the speaker will introduces her 20 minutes informal talk in an accessible and challenging way. The floor will then be opened up for comment, debate and discussion. The idea is not to follow a strict Q&A but to invite audience members to offer thoughts (facilitated by Kim McKee, the Director of CHR). The idea is to create an atmosphere where people can talk openly, with passion and keeping minds open to new ideas (after Newcastle Café Culture format). For more information please email Fionagh Thomson (

Parliament Week is a programme of events and activities that connect people across the UK with Parliament and democracy.

Tuesday, 4 November 2014

Pulbic talk: 'The Weather in British Literature'

The School of English will be hosting a lecture by Dr Alexandra Harris of the University of Liverpool, entitled "The Weather in British Literature".

"Writers and artists across the centuries, looking up at the same skies and walking in the same brisk air, have felt very different things. There have been times when the numbers on a rain gauge count for more than a pantheon of aerial gods; there have been times for meteoric marvels and times for gentle breeze. Shelley wanted to sublimate himself into a cloud while Ruskin, equally but differently obsessed, wanted to store the clouds in bottles. Alexandra Harris will introduce her work on a cultural history of English weather, show how Woolf's Orlando can be read as a guide to the climates of history, and ask whether modernism has distinctive weathers of its own."

Dr Alexandra Harris
'The weather in British Literature' 
Tuesday, 11 November 2014, 5.15pm
Lawson Room, Kennedy Hall,
School of English, The Scores 

Dr Harris' wide-ranging book 'Romantic Moderns' won Guardian First Book Award in 2010. She appears regularly on radio and television, most recently fronting an episode of the BBC series 'The Secret Life of Books'.

The lecture is free and open to the public.

Monday, 3 November 2014

"Dragon" wins Best Play for Children and Young People award

Dragon, by Oliver Emanuel, a lecturer in Creative Writing at the School of English, was named Best Play for Children and Young People in the UK Theatre Awards. The play was up against productions of Around the World in Eighty Days and Nivelli’s War in the awards ceremony at London's Guildhall on 19 October 2014.
Oliver had been approached by directors Jamie Harrison and Candice Edmunds to write a visual play with very little text about grief and dragons. The result, Dragon, has no spoken text, instead utilising puppetry, magic and orchestral music to tell the story of 12-year-old Tommy who has recently lost his mother. His father is in despair, his big sister ignores him and he has become the target of the school bully. And then, one night, a dragon appears at his window…
Dragon, which was commissioned by the National Theatre of Scotland, opened at the Citizen’s Theatre in October 2013. A co-production with Scottish touring company Vox Motus and the Tianjin People Arts Theatre, China, the play subsequently toured Scotland and opened in Tianjin, China in 2014.

The UK Theatre Awards are the only nationwide awards to honour creative excellence and the outstanding achievement seen on and off stage throughout England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

Oliver, whose new play for children, The Lost Things, will open next May, said, “Dragon is a dark tale of loss, family and the beasts that haunt our dreams. The response has been overwhelmingly positive and we’re in the process of developing another tour at the moment. It seems to be a show that both young and old respond to.”

Dragon trailer from the National Theatre of Scotland