Origins of life in Newcastle

ICaMB’s Prof Jeff Errington organised and hosted an impromptu symposium on the origins of life at the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB) on Wednesday 18th January 2017. About 80 people attended, hearing 11 talks from a mixture of Newcastle and international speakers, including a number of guests who had travelled over from Japan for the meeting. The program was arranged more or less in “chronological” order, starting with the origins of the solar system 4-6 billion years ago, and ending (still almost 2 billion years in the past) with the emergence of the eukaryotes. The meeting sparked several very lively discussions, perhaps reflecting the difficulty of doing standard hypothetico-deductive experiments on the topic, in the absence of time travel technology! Nevertheless, the day was a great success and is likely to lead to new international collaborations and funding opportunities.

By Jeff Errington

My emerging interest in the subject has two origins. First, through ageing and trying to find a reason for existence before existence disappears! Second, the lab’s work on L-form bacteria (see Box), which has attracted much interest from the origins of life scientific community.

L-form bacteria use a seemingly primitve mechanism of replication.

L-form bacteria use a seemingly primitive mechanism of replication. L-forms are cell wall deficient bacteria, which turn out to replicate by a slightly bizarre, seemingly haphazard mechanism involving membrane blebbing and tubulation. The process provides a model for how primitive life may have proliferated billions of years ago, before the invention of the cell wall.


The latest findings have led to a number of fascinating new scientific contacts, and about a year ago, Prof Shige Maruyama, who heads a major Japanese research institute dedicated to origins of life work called the Earth-Life Science Institute (ELSI), made contact, proposing discussion around possible collaborations. After a series of small meetings in Newcastle and my visit to Tokyo, momentum began to emerge, culminating with the proposal for a major workshop in Newcastle, with half a dozen or so ELSI members planning to attend.

Prof Shige Maruyama, ELSI, Tokyo, Japan

Prof Shige Maruyama, ELSI, Tokyo, Japan

As discussions developed, I identified various experts in Newcastle with complementary expertise and interests in the general area, and the idea for a full blown symposium took shape. There was even time to identify a top class international “guest” speaker, Prof Bill Martin from Dusseldorf, who came over at short notice to give the concluding talk.

This is not the place to go through each talk in detail. However, from my perspective, what I hope people took away from the meeting would have included the following general points.

First, the problem is amazingly multidisciplinary, with important contributions from astrophysicists, geochemists, organic chemists, microbiologists (structure/function, metabolism and physiology) and evolutionary bioinformaticians. Second, we still have a very hazy understanding of many of the early events in the earth’s planetary history, e.g. when did the water arrive and how much? Third, it is clear that microbes were responsible for huge changes in planetary chemistry, particularly oxygenation but also that planetary composition must have reciprocally influenced microbial evolution.

Prof Bill Martin, Dusseldorf, Germany

Prof Bill Martin, Dusseldorf, Germany

The day concluded with a very nice dinner at the Jesmond Dene House Hotel, supported by Newcastle University and hosted by Pro-Vice Chancellor Prof Nick Wright. I’m sure that the original owner of the house, Lord Armstrong, would have approved of the day (for example, I gather that his company won the contract to build ships for the Japanese Navy 120 or so years ago). I’m also sure that as a Fellow of the Royal Society (elected in 1843) he would have been acquainted with Charles Darwin and perhaps they too had interesting conversations about the origins of life in their own time frame.

Determination is key – Prof Ramakrishnan’s Baddiley Lecture

By Kevin Waldron.

Last week saw ICaMB host the latest in our series of Baddiley lectures, which commemorates Professor Sir James Baddiley (1918-2008). Baddiley was a distinguished Professor at Newcastle University (1954-81) and a Fellow of the Royal Society (elected 1961) who made numerous important fundamental discoveries in microbiology, not least the discovery of teichoic acids, cell wall components in Gram positive bacteria.

Jeff Errington introduces Venki Ramakrishnan to the ICaMB audience

Jeff Errington introduces Venki Ramakrishnan to the ICaMB audience

Baddiley’s work on the fundamental processes of bacteria, including the structure and function of components of the bacterial cell wall, is continued to this day in Newcastle through the work of members of ICaMB’s Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB). Although James Baddiley died shortly after the first in ICaMB’s series of Baddiley lectures, we were delighted that the Baddiley family was again represented at this year’s lecture by James’s son, Christopher Baddiley.

This year’s guest speaker was Professor Sir Venki Ramakrishnan, distinguished research leader and Deputy Director of the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, Nobel laureate and newly-elected President of the Royal Society. With all of the demands on his time that come with this new role as President, the large audience that gathered on Friday afternoon were grateful that Venki was able to find time to visit Newcastle to deliver his lecture. As ever, both the lecture and the surrounding celebration was expertly organised and introduced by CBCB Director, Professor Jeff Errington.

Venki illustrates the structure of the yeast mitochondrial ribosome

Venki illustrates the structure of the yeast mitochondrial ribosome

Venki’s lecture gave a brief history of his atomic-resolution structural studies of the ribosome, the macromolecular nucleoprotein complex that converts the four-letter genetic code in nucleic acid into the twenty-letter amino acid code in proteins. He presented detailed structural models of eukaryotic ribosomes, derived from X-ray crystallography and cryo-electron microscopy data accumulated over 30 years of detailed study in his laboratory.

We asked some of ICaMB’s early career researchers to describe their impression of Venki’s lecture:

“Professor Venki Ramakrishnan was kind enough to deliver this year’s Baddiley lecture. It was an honour to meet Venki, who somehow managed to fit us in between Royal Society committee meetings and a chat with the Science minister! He impressed us all with a phenomenal talk discussing how he solved the structure of the mitochondrial ribosome using cryo electron microscopy. Wow – cryo EM has truly moved beyond blob-ology! One thing that really struck me about Venki is how humble he is; despite being so incredibly successful and lauded, there’s not a trace of ego on the guy; something for us all to aspire to.”

Venki illustrates how the ribosome works

Venki illustrates how the ribosome works

Seamus Holden, University Research Fellow

“It was incredibly cool to hear about Venki’s work first hand. The enormity of his achievement became clear when he showed a single slide with the dozens of conformations of the ribosome’s catalytic cycle and indicated that there were structures available for the majority of them! And what was humbling was that Venki did not seem at all interested in dwelling upon his past successes. Rather, he briskly moved past this slide onto his current work regarding mitochondrial ribosomes which was both cutting-edge but also somewhat raw because of its novelty. I found it inspiring to see a scientist of his stature still so driven to continue discovering and learning.”

Post lecture, Venki holds the gift he received from his hosts at ICaMB

Post lecture, Venki holds the gift he received from his hosts at ICaMB

Heath Murray, Royal Society URF

“For me Venki’s journey was an excellent advert for never giving up. Often as researchers (particularly at the start of our careers) we are encouraged to know when to call time on a set of experiments that are bogged down and not yielding answers. Pursuit of the next grant and the speed of some of our competitors unfortunately make it risky to continue to spend years and years believing in the same project that fails to show progress relatively quickly. Yet what an example Venki is, many years and many postdocs focusing on the same problem, persistence and belief in himself and his team has more than paid off. Inspirational.”

Suzanne Madgwick, Wellcome Trust Career Re-entry Fellow

Happy 60th birthday, Jeff!

by Prof Jeff Errington

Daunting 60?

IMG_4117I turned 60 on the 3rd of May. The year leading up to that was traumatic for me because, psychologically, it felt like a turning point in life – a long and enjoyable career behind me but a rapidly foreshortening window ahead! Surprisingly, things suddenly looked up when the birthday actually arrived (last Tuesday) – I didn’t really feel any different!

Jeff welcomes everyone as an audience of friends and colleagues gathered for celebrations

Jeff welcomes everyone as an audience of friends and colleagues gathered for celebrations

And then I had a really exciting science symposium and lab reunion to look forward to, which took place on Friday (mostly science) and Saturday (mostly fun!).


So many wanted to come!

davidquote2We wondered how many of the past members of the lab would be able to make it, given that they were scattered to the four corners of the earth and we had no funds to cover their expenses. To my astonishment and delight, over 20 lab alumni agreed to come, and we were able to fill all of the 16 speaker slots with alumni from outside Newcastle.

Alumni came from far and wide to join the celebrations.

Alumni came from far and wide to join the celebrations.

The speakers came from 4 different continents, and though most were high powered talks on bacterial cell biology, other topics extended through yeast and worms to bat wing development!


Meriem El Karoui explaining the mathematical model used in her work on DNA repair

Meriem El Karoui explaining the mathematical model
used in her work on DNA repair


Nicola explains how her group collects bats for their developmental biology research.

Bat collection methods by Nicola

ianA day of great science – and warm friendship

Fun trip down memory lane

Fun trip down memory lane


I was overwhelmed by the experience: seeing so many old friends again, the fantastic quality and quantity of science, and the showering of gifts and kind words.




"Looking back at the pictures from my time in Newcastle, it seems we were always doing fun stuff together, something really only possible because Jeff is such a great guy!" Jan-Willem

“Looking back at the pictures from my time in Newcastle, it seems we were always doing fun stuff together, something really only possible because Jeff is such a great guy!” Jan-Willem

I was of course obliged to attempt some profound words at the closing. What struck me was that I could not work out what it was that I had done which had resulted in such an amazing scientific legacy.

philippeThe only thing that I can think of is that if you can once assemble a critical mass of good scientists, which includes a few very good people, the culture or ecology of the lab becomes self sustaining. New people coming into the lab are well trained and inspired by the existing members, and they in turn go on to succeed in their own right. My job mainly becomes one of trying to make sure that the environment and infrastructure of the lab is capable of enabling good scientists to achieve their potential.




We all agreed that it had been a great idea to get everyone back together again and we plan to have another reunion (outside of any special birthday) again in a few years’ time.

Happy birthday, Jeff!

Happy birthday, Jeff!

Congratulations, Prof Gilbert, FRS!

by Prof. Harry Gilbert, FRS, FMedSci

I was asked to write a blog about my election as a Fellow of the Royal Society. I start by apologising for my ineptitude compared to the “professional” social media people in the Institute. So, what to say? Well, maybe the process might be of interest.

How do you get elected as an FRS?

ICaMB's FRS: Prof Jeff Errington and Prof Harry Gilbert

ICaMB’s FRS: Prof Jeff Errington and Prof Harry Gilbert

You need to be proposed and seconded by current FRS’s. Jeff tried twice to propose me before I went to the USA and a third time (September 2012) upon my return, at which point I said OK. I had to generate a full CV, list 20 papers and include PDF versions of these articles, and the proposers were required to write a three page narrative on my research.

Every year material is updated. The first year I wondered what feedback I might get but I soon realized that no one says anything to you. I rapidly put the issue to one side and did not give it any thought.


‘Wrong Direction’ – Prof Gilbert forms a karaoke boyband with other eminent scientists at a conference in Japan


Looking back on my research it’s evident that most of my science was done with collaborators who are much smarter than me. So, I consider myself to be extremely fortunate to have worked with these people.



The talented people currently working in the Gilbert/Bolam labs

The talented people currently working in the Gilbert/Bolam labs


Finally, the election

In late March of this year, I received a letter from the Royal Society marked “In strictest confidence“. I assumed it was yet another reference for someone applying for a grant to the Royal Society and I thought “another job to do”. I read the letter several times and the words “you are on the list of candidates submitted to become an FRS” was hard to digest. When it said you needed 2/3 of the votes to be elected, I became dubious about my chances. On speaking to Jeff, he explained that only one person in the last 150 years has failed to become an FRS at this stage. I was thus confident that not even I could screw this up.

Fun celebrations!

Fun celebrations!

However, keeping it secret for a month before the election took place was extremely hard as I don’t do secrets. I did, however, tell Rosie, my wife, who initially shared my excitement of the news. Her enthusiasm waned somewhat as I kept on about it at home for a day or two. At this point, Rosie said “I hope you don’t become too grand” which ceased any talk about the FRS. I am pleased to say that Rosie’s excitement was rekindled when she realised that she will likely get the opportunity to meet Brian Cox (who also became an FRS this year) who she rates as “very dishy, particularly for a scientist”.


How does it feel to be an FRS?

What are my thoughts about being an FRS? Well, shocked but also excited, although I feel a complete fraud.

Prof Gilbert's speech to his colleagues at ICaMB

Prof Gilbert’s speech to his colleagues at ICaMB

I was very pleased that so many people were able to come and celebrate with me on Friday, I would like to thank you all for coming. I also hope that people will think that “if Harry can become an FRS then the bar is not so high”, and that this will result in other people becoming Fellows in the next few years. In 30 years at Newcastle, I have never worked in a place with so many talented people, and it is clear that ICaMB merits more than two Fellows of the Royal Society.


Another Cell-ebration

Heath MurrayKevin WaldronLast year we brought you details of the inaugural CBCB Symposium. In July the second CBCB symposium was held, and today we hear from the organisers, Kevin Waldron and Heath Murray, about this latest successful event.

The idea for an annual Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB) symposium was originally conceived in 2013, and aimed to showcase both the high quality and the immense breadth of research activity that goes on in this unique Centre. It would also be an excellent opportunity to bring together the CBCB research community based in both the Medical School and in the Baddiley-Clark building to discuss their work and build future collaborations.

It wasn’t long after our 2014 Symposium was over when the organising team (Bernie Shaw, Heath Murray, Kevin Waldron and Jeff Errington) began planning for this year’s second event. Obviously we were delighted with the success of that first meeting, but of course it also applied a little pressure on us as organisers; this year’s event had to achieve a similar level of success. Fortunately, the feedback we had received from the 2014 event included a number of constructive suggestions from the CBCB community about how we might be able to improve the Symposium, and we tried to incorporate as many of these ideas as possible.

One of our postdoctoral researcher speakers, Yoshi Kawai, addresses the Symposium audience on the subject of L-forms

One of our postdoctoral researcher speakers, Yoshi Kawai, addresses the Symposium audience on the subject of L-forms

One suggestion was to include a number of more junior speakers in the Symposium Programme as well as PIs, and we are grateful to those postdocs who volunteered to present their work to the CBCB audience. Alexander Egan told us about his research in the Vollmer lab on the proteins that coordinate biosynthesis of the cell envelope during growth and division. Yoshi Kawai of the Errington lab explained  how L-forms, bacteria that lack their cell wall, can be produced in the lab and how they propagate in a manner independent from the known bacterial cell division machinery, as well as speculating on their implications for early life forms on Earth. Marcin Dembek of the Salgado lab contrasted the mechanisms that govern sporulation in Clostridium difficile, a pathogen that primarily causes infections via spores, and the model organism Bacillus subtilis. Finally Didier Ndeh described his research in the Gilbert lab on how gut bacteria degrade the most structurally complex dietary polysaccharide known, rhamnogalacturonan II. PI speakers covered further topics relating to antibiotic discovery and their mechanisms of action and synthetic biology.

In addition to our CBCB researchers, we also again invited two high-profile external speakers. The day started with Mark Leake (University of York) who told us about his research using state-of-the-art microscopy for in vivo imaging of single molecules within the bacterial cell. And the Symposium was concluded by John Helmann (Cornell University) on the subject of transcriptional stress responses in one of CBCB researchers’ favourite model organisms, Bacillus subtilis.

Poster prize winner Lauren Drage

Poster prize winner Lauren Drage

Another of the suggestions that we incorporated into the Symposium schedule this year was a poster session, which was accompanied by light refreshments (of course!) immediately after the day’s talks. We had a great turnout, with more than 20 posters on display, and the session generated a lot of lively scientific discussion. Again the Symposium organisers are very grateful to all those members of CBCB who participated in the poster session. We awarded three poster prizes, with congratulations to winner Lauren Drage for her excellent poster describing her research in the Aldridge lab looking for biomarkers for diagnosis of urinary tract infections, and to our two runners-up, Martin Sim (Wipat lab) and Clare Wilson (Errington lab); and of course thanks to our poster judges, Lucy Eland and Yulia Yuzenkova.

Finally, we all got to enjoy an informal barbecue dinner and drinks, where the science discussions could continue into the evening.

Jeff Errington and John Helmann in post-symposium discussions

Jeff Errington and John Helmann in post-symposium discussions

Planning has already begun for next year’s Symposium, which will be held on the 8th July 2016, and will feature two more external keynote speakers, Christine Jacobs-Wagner (Microbial Sciences Institute, Yale University) and Prof. Tracy Palmer (Molecular Microbiology, University of Dundee). We welcome your feedback too, so if you attended this year’s Symposium and you have any suggestions about how we might improve next year, please let us know.

Discovery at the Discovery Museum



Great Hall

Great Hall

Ready to replicate the success of last year’s Away Day, it was en masse outing time for ICaMB again! Time to find out who all the new faces are, and to find out exactly what that person you have a ‘hello and a nod in the corridor’ relationship with actually does at the bench all day. This year we headed to the Great Hall of the Discovery Museum. Despite the leaking roof caused by the downpour outside and the sometimes dodgy acoustics the day was still a success.

Serious faces, this is science

Serious faces, this is science

ICaMB is a fast paced, constantly evolving institute. Everybody is busy with their own research, making a break and a get-together once in a while a vital part of reminding ourselves of the vast range of expertise and diverse set of interests beavering away in our labs and offices. The answer to that tricky problem or that elusive technique is quite possibly just a few yards away.

But also fun!

But also fun!

With that in mind, this year’s Away Day felt particularly important as we welcomed 8 new academic groups to ICaMB from CAV (Campus for Aging and Vitality) as well new IRES fellows and a list of other recent recruits. Drs Victor Korolchuk and Gabi Saretzki from the CAV both spoke at the away day about their interests in neurodegenerative diseases and the role of oxidative stress in the ageing process.

As ever the day was kicked off by the Institute director, Bob (Professor Robert Lightowlers), who gave us a taster of ICaMB’s growth and success stories over the past year. Without breaking into the tune of that well known Christmas song; 7 Vacation Studentships, 6 BBSRC awards, 5 MRC awards, 2 Wolfson awards, 2 Senior Investigator awards and 1 Henry Dale ………. Not to mention all the promotions, outstanding research papers and commercial contracts = 1 happy Bob.











A cell-tastic morning then ensued: the completely dispensable nature of bacterial cell walls (Professor Jeff Errington); the role of NF-kB in the pathogenesis of lymphoma (Dr Jill Hunter); and the cell death independent functions of inhibitors of apoptosis (new IRES recruit Dr Niall Kenneth). The session was wrapped up by Dr Paula Salgado summarising 3.5 years of structural C. difficile research in 15min. Some feat Paula!

Of course just as last year, an absolute highlight of the day were the six, animated, three minute thesis presentations by our brave PhD students ……..  Soon to be followed by the look of horror on several Professorial faces when it was suggested by PAN!C that at next year’s Away Day we have a session of 3 minute PI pitches! We can’t ignore the demands of our PhD students now can we? And congratulations to Mandeep Atwal from the Cowell/Austin lab who against steep competition was awarded the prize for best three minute thesis.

The possibilities of alginate bread?

The possibilities of alginate bread?

A spot of oxidative stress and the evolution of peroxidases by Dr Alison Day, and some lunch completed the morning’s discovery. Though half an hour later and Dr Peter Chater had us all wishing we’d had an alginate packed lunch (and a go with the model gut!). Perhaps the Pearson lab can cater next year’s event? If it’s good enough for the One Show it’s good enough for the ICaMB Away Day.

A major focus of the Away Day is not just to learn about the breadth of exciting research carried out in our institute, but also to learn all about the very latest techniques and expertise ripe for exploitation. This year the focal point of new techniques came from Dr Alex Laude and the Bio-Imaging facility, with some beautiful images and super resolution microscopy techniques, which again left a number of the audience wanting a turn!

P1000375An afternoon transcribing and translating with Dr Danny Castro-Roa; learning about how the crucial nature of cell polarity means we really don’t mix up our arse from our elbow (thank you new IRES recruit Dr Josana Rodriguez); and last but by no means least, how on earth all that DNA manages to faithfully copy and repackage itself time after time from yet another new recruit, Professor Jonathan Higgins.

This completes our diverse and entertaining line-up, just leaving enough time for complementary wine, and the amusement as speakers and audience alike embarrass themselves at the ICaMB quiz (and I hear also in the pub afterwards).