British Society for Medical Mycology meeting – on fungal pathogens and the mycobiome


We’ve all heard about the human microbiome, a term usually referring to the bacterial organisms inhabiting the human body and its interactions with our bodies. Research published in Nature this week focuses on an often neglected part of our microbiome:  the rich fungal community, ie, the mycobiome! So this is the perfect time to highlight the annual meeting of the British Society for Medical Mycology hosted by Newcastle University in April.


The meeting was organised by ICaMB’s Julian Rutherford, Julian Naglik (King’s College London) and Riina Richardson (BSMM treasurer, Manchester University) with excellent support from Adam O’Neill. Julian Rutherford and Jan Quinn tell us what happened.




by Julian Rutherford & Jan Quinn

Candida albicans infection of oral mucosa - an example of nasty fungal infections

The BSSM meeting is the premier conference in the UK for researchers studying human fungal infections. These fungi can cause a wide range of infections, ranging from ‘thrush’ to severe systemic infections acquired in hospitals.

It was great to host this meeting in Newcastle this year and very gratifying that, with almost 100 delegates, this was the best attended meeting in recent years. However, the meeting got off to a somewhat interesting start as both national and international leaders in the medical mycology field arrived at Newcastle just as Sunderland beat ‘The Toon’ 3-0. It took some explaining, especially to our international colleagues, why there were more police than people on the streets of Newcastle… We were particularly pleased to welcome Professor El Sheik Mahgoub (University of Khartoum) who was present at the first BSMM annual meeting 49 years ago.

Reflecting the diverse nature of the BSMM membership, poster presentations and talks covered all aspects of Medical Mycology, including genomics, systems biology; cool tools and new infection models; pathogenicity mechanisms; and fungal immunity. Newcastle labs were well represented with Jan Quinn chairing a session, and 5 presentations from post-docs and PhD students from the Quinn and Lilic groups.

One of the most entertaining talks was given by Prof David Underhill, who highlighted the importance of fungi within the human microbiome (an aspect us fungal fanatics often find neglected!). Not only did his data clearly support the presence of a rich fungal community in the gut – the “mycobiome” – but that colonisation with specific fungal species can trigger immune responses and consequently inflammatory diseases such as colitis.

We were also treated to some amazing 3D images of the fungal infection process in a whole animal model  by Simon Johnston.

Visualising the progression of cryptococcosis infection using zebrafish. Cryptococci are expressing GFP (green) and zebrafish are labelled for filamentous actin (red).











Lars Erwig also provided amazing visualisation of fungal infections with his images of C. albicans infecting macrophages:

Candida (top right, budding cell) infecting a macrophage








However, the pinnacle of the meeting was the Foundation lecture given by Scott Filler. Scott has led the field in understanding Candida albicans invasion of host cells which is a key to this fungal pathogen causing life threatening systemic infections. Highlights of his talk included the identification of the invasins that induce human host cells to take up the fungus and the generation of an anti-Candida vaccine raised against one of these invasions that protects mice from systemic Candida infections.

As in previous years, one session consisted of talks by PhD students with Shirley Tang (King’s College London) taking home the £100 prize money for best student talk with her presentation on the role of the Candida albicans protein Ece1 in damaging oral epithelial cells. The prize for best student poster was awarded to Robert Evans (University of Birmingham) for his poster describing his work on the role of phospholipase B in cryptococcal pathogenesis.

The Sing Song Book!


The meeting is also a very social event: the annual dinner was a great success with BSMM president Chris Kibbler giving his usual entertaining after dinner speech. This was followed by the traditional sing-song led by Professor Frank Odds on piano and a few croaky voices at the sessions the following day! As usual, few could resist joining in on the all time favourite Bohemian Rhapsody!

Prof Frank Odds with the lead singers (left) and an enthusiastic chorus (left)



This year the meeting concluded with a Career Workshop for Medical Mycologists, sponsored by the Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for Medical Mycology and Fungal Immunology, of which Newcastle University is a consortium member. Jan Quinn gave (honest!) advice on the post-doc to PI transition, and there were also talks on non-academic and clinical career paths. This was finished by an interactive CV writing session led by Prof. Al Brown from Aberdeen University – ‘photographs on CVs?’ was a heavily debated point! And the agreed view was: don’t include them! What do you think – please let us know by adding a comment!

This was a very successful meeting and it will surely be remembered by those attending. For all those interested in fungal pathogens – see you next year!

More details on BSMM: 

The BSMM has approximately 350 members from all over the British Isles, Europe and the USA and includes clinicians, clinical scientists and research scientists. The Newcastle meeting was the last to be held with Chris Kibbler as BSMM president. Professor Rosemary Barnes (Cardiff) takes over as president and the 50th BSMM meeting will be held in Manchester.



British Society of Medical Mycology:

Wellcome Trust Strategic Award for Medical Mycology and Fungal:



Spills and pills: thrills for a structural biologist

One of the newest recruits to ICaMB is Professor Bert van den Berg, who arrived here in December 2012.  Bert is already off to a great start having been awarded a Royal Society Wolfson Research Merit Award in April.  Here we have asked him to tell us why he decided to join ICaMB and the research that lead up to this prestigious award.

By Bert van den Berg

Bert, looking thrilled

I joined ICaMB in January, coming from the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester, where I was a tenured faculty member in the Program in Molecular Medicine. While I had a great and productive time in this department, after eight years I felt increasingly isolated academically and started to look for another position. ICaMB seemed a great fit for my research interests, with a large number of scientists interested in bacterial biochemistry and cell biology. Since ICaMB was also looking to strengthen its efforts in structural biology, the decision to cross the pond and join ICaMB wasn’t a very hard one. I am happy to be here, and I hope and expect that my expertise in membrane protein structural biology will also be a benefit for the faculty within ICaMB and will lead to successful collaborations.

My lab has been studying protein channels (see below) for about nine years. Determining structures is really the only way to obtain deep insights into protein function. In addition, seeing a new protein structure for the first time is often an “aha!” moment and, at least for me, the closest thing to a true discovery in modern science. In any case, the importance of structural biology for science is clear from the large number of Nobel prizes awarded to the field over the years.

What do the cleanup of oil spills and the treatment of many bacterial infections have in common? The answer is that both processes depend on the efficient passage of bacterial membranes by small molecules.

Oil spills and antibiotics have more in common than you may realise

Gram-negative bacteria are surrounded by two lipid membranes, which are termed plasma membrane and outer membrane. The outer membrane borders the cell and is a very efficient and sturdy barrier that protects the cell from noxious substances in the external environment, such as bile acids in the case of E. coli bacteria living in the gut. However, since bacteria also require nutrients for growth and function, protein channels are present in the outer membrane to allow the uptake of such small molecules. In our work we use X-ray crystallography to determine the atomic 3D structures of the channels, most of which are shaped like hollow barrels. Based on the structures we propose transport models, which we then test by characterisation of mutant proteins.

Many Gram-negative bacteria are able to use industrial pollutants such as oil as food sources, a process called biodegradation. The enzymes that catalyse these remarkable processes are located inside the cell but not much is known about how the pollutants enter the cell in the first place, something that is clearly required before they can be degraded. We study the highly specialised channels that mediate the uptake of these water-insoluble (“hydrophobic”) molecules. In addition, we are interested in discovering cellular adaptations that allow biodegrading bacteria to grow on these toxic compounds. We think that this research may lead to insights that will aid the design of bacterial strains that are optimised not only for bioremediation but also for important other processes such as production of biofuels.

The other main focus of research in my lab is to understand how antibiotics “hijack” outer membrane channels to enter bacteria. Being water-soluble, antibiotics are dependent on protein channels for membrane passage. Bacteria that are under antibiotic pressure will often change or remove the channels through which antibiotics pass, resulting in resistance.

Movie showing ampicillin movement through E coli OmpF protein channel. The view is from the outside of the cell. Movie made by Matteo Ceccarelli (University of Cagliari).

In concert with other mechanisms such as enzymatic degradation and increased efflux by pumps, this acquired antibiotic resistance has the potential to become a huge and global problem in public health. New drugs are therefore urgently needed. The problem is that not nearly enough new drugs are currently in pharmaceutical pipelines, due to the costly and risky nature of antibiotic development. However, pharmaceutical companies are starting to realise that the fundamentals of drug design need to change, and that they have to collaborate with academic labs that are studying the basic biology of small molecule membrane transport.

My lab is participating in an exciting, EU-funded joint venture between big pharma, small biotech firms and academic labs aiming to understand the influx/efflux of drugs in a number of pathogenic Gram-negative bacteria. Beyond the potential benefits for drug design, it is hoped that this project will change the way in which industry and academia work together to benefit public health.



Royal Society Wolfson Merit Awards:

Bert’s ICaMB homepage:

Newcastle Structural Biology website:

Structural Biologist Nobel Prize Winners:


Why PAN!C?


ICaMB’s PhD and Master students now have their own Network – PAN!C. Here they tell us about the network, its aims and activities so far, as well as plans for the future.

by the PAN!C committee

The idea for a Postgraduate Network in ICaMB – PAN!C – was conceived in Campus Coffee in November 2012 by Claire Whitworth and Kerrie Brusby in the hope of uniting the near 90 postgraduate students within the institute. Since then, the PAN!C committee has gained 5 more committee members: Beth Lawry, Monica Piatek, Jonathon Briggs, Max Temple and Adam Crawshaw. The aim of PAN!C is to strengthen the community of postgraduate students around the institute and, in particular, improve interactions between the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology and Medical School building laboratories, enhancing both the academic and social experiences of students within the institute.

Jeff’s talk for PAN!C

Our first academic event back in March and was a real success, with a strong turnout of over 50 students to a career talk given by Professor Jeff Errington. His talk was based on his journey from being a student through to becoming an academic at the very top of his field and balancing his thriving business ventures with the stresses of academia.

We are currently planning our next academic event, again about careers but from a new perspective, which we’ll have more information about soon. We are hoping over the next few months to invite more speakers and if you have any suggestions of whom you might like to hear from or a subject that you would like to see covered, please email us!

Over the past 4 months we’ve also had a number of social events ranging from pub quizzes to laser questing, events which have had a good turnout and positive feedback from students. We have plenty of more events up our sleeve so keep an eye out for emails and posters advertising them soon!


PAN!C are currently applying for support from the University so that we can have more great events in the future, particularly for academic events, such as talks, workshops and more. To help us obtain this support we would really appreciate it if you could complete our very short survey, it takes less than 2 minutes.

For any questions about PAN!C or to suggest an idea for an event, be it academic or social please get in touch  with the PAN!C committee. We want PAN!C to be all about the postgraduate students in the Institute so we want students to have influence on what we do, get involved with our events and have fun! We are really grateful for the support shown by students, academics and the institute as a whole and hope that this continues so that an even bigger PAN!C ensues.



Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biosciences:
Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology :
PAN!C survey:

IPA Update: Pub Quiz and Nature Editor visit


April 27th saw the ICaMB postdoc association (IPA)’s second social event with a Friday Night at the North Terrace pub.  Here the IPA committee describes the evening and upcoming VERY IMPORTANT EVENT

By the IPA

All those involved with the IPA social evening and pub quiz thought it was a terrific success, with a good turn out of Postdocs and final year PhD students letting off some steam after their hard week at work.

The pub quiz. Postdocs hard at work.

It was a great night and we all enjoyed the drinks and delicious North Terrace food, including generous portions of tasty potato skins and pizzas, which were very much approved of (even by Alessio). While some got serious over a game of darts, others chatted over pints – however the best part of the night was by far the PUB QUIZ.

Who is this man? One of the tough questions at the IPA pub quiz. Fortunately everyone got this one right.

The IPA committee prepared the questions with an international angle that went down well with our multi-national postdoc community.  It was amusing to see the quality team-work used to answer questions on intercontinental cuisine and different languages. Particularly with the question “how does a Geordie spell the word home?”* Although the Italian Quiz Master occasionally struggled to read the questions in a ‘proper’ English accent, this just kept the postdocs on the ball! We had 4 competing teams, with every team randomly formed with different lab members, so everyone got to know and chat with new people.

Victory went to the ‘baby PINK team’ after winning the tie break question with their closest answer to “What is the length of the River Nile?”** Not easy! Their 1st place prize was North Terrace Deli sandwich vouchers. Yummy!

The result. A close run thing.

The IPA committee is looking forward to our next social; a barbecue in September!  We are in the process of seeking a good venue!

Before this we have our next Science Lives Seminar with the invited Nature Microbiology senior editor Dr Andrew Jermy giving an exclusive talk to our Postdocs and final year PhDs. Get Thursday 23rd May 4pm blocked now in your busy diaries – you can’t miss hearing about how this former postdoc established a career in editing for one of the most renowned journals in our field. We, as postdocs, need to keep our career options open, and this does not seem like a bad one! The PIs are perhaps even more excited than us about his visit, not that they are invited to the seminar (haha unlucky), but we can expect some serious sweet-talking in Andrew Jermy’s tight schedule of meetings with ICaMB academics the following day! We all know that PIs don’t have much time, but all of them have managed to rearrange their outlook calendars for this guest!

* Answer is ‘yem
** Answer is 6,650 km (4,130 miles)

If you have any suggestions for themes for future events please  get in touch with the IPA committee.



IPA Facebook page:
Institute for Cellular and Molecular Biosciences:
Newcastle University:
Nature Journal:
Andrew Jermy’s twitter page:

The Great Bacterial Bake Off


Ready, Study, Bake! Phil Aldridge set out this challenge for his students and tells us all about the amazing results – and how it is all about engaging with students in innovative and fun ways.

@ScoobyWaffs: I am loving the #GreatBacterialBakeOff tweets! I’ve never wanted E. coli in my belly as much as I do now! #cake

@jeanmadams: Who would have thought lab scientists could have so much fun with cake! Definitely look at #GreatBacterialBakeOff

If you ask a scientist to do something outside their defined barriers they come up with creations that look amazing.

The pictures and quotes in this post were all generated after I challenged our Stage 2 Medical Microbiology students to a “Great Bacterial Bake Off”, which took place at lunchtime on Friday 26th April.  After the very positive response to tweeting pictures of these creations, we have uploaded an album of the creations to both the ICaMB and School for Biomedical Science (in progress) Facebook pages and collected the twitter action on storify. The quotes and images speak for themselves.  This was a nice, and hopefully successful, way to make some noise about Microbiology studies at Newcastle University, not strictly through our academic exploits but through CAKE!

The Background:

There was no criteria set for this challenge except they had to focus on bacteria that they had come across in their course. Wow, did they deliver! Well done all of you.

Since advertising this event, there was a clear buzz on the grapevine asking what I was up to. The occasional probing question to a student brought forth comments “Oh this is going to get competitive” and “someone has bought chickenwire!” (Chickenwire???)

I will admit the decision to tweet the results was a bit of an experiment in itself as I had not tried something like this before. Since I was lecturing the Stage 2 students on Diagnostic Microbiology earlier in the week, I checked if they were fine if we went online with this experiment. One student got the ball rolling on Thursday evening with a proud tweet of one entry, which gave us the hashtag #GreatBacterialBakeOff. The rest is now history…

The reason:

I was looking for a way to drive what could have been a rather dull discussion about our Medical Microbiology degree, into something with a fun twist.  Not enough experiments in the lab result in edible end products (at least if you are obeying all health and safety instructions) so a bake off seemed like a way to make people think while overcoming this scientific shortcoming.

We can, at times, forget the need to not only teach our undergraduates but also engage with them. In fact, a workshop has been organised for the Higher Education Academy here in Newcastle on Student Engagement in Education. Being able to interact, in an informal manner, can have great benefits for everyone involved. This does not have to be only at the Academic-Student interface. Indeed this is partly what both PANIC and IPA are doing in ICaMB at the moment. What is important is that it is fun, works both ways and you can get a chance to communicate.

ICaMB Academics mainly lecture on the portfolio of undergraduate degrees offered through the School of Biomedical Sciences. I have recently taken over the coordination of Biomedical Science with Medical Microbiology (UCAS BC95). The custodian of Wikipedia, Jimmy Wales, this week proclaimed that lectures are doomed. I disagree with this statement. Yes, not everyone is going to be able to deliver the perfect lecture but we can sure try to find complimentary ways in which to engage with our students at the undergraduate and postgraduate level to inspire them to learn and hopefully stay in a Science related career.

The winning cake

Health Warning: Having such a bake off creates quite a few cakes – eating said cakes (it was part of the competition for best effort) means you end up eating a serious amount of sugar. A number of participants, me included, suffered from “icing” overdose! So, if you do think about doing something similar, you may want to co-ordinate it to be a cake sale so you do not end up trying to eat all the entries!