So long and thanks for all the science!

by Bob Lightowlers

Since its inception over 15 years ago, first under Monica Hughes, then Jeff Errington and more recently myself, ICaMB has continued to exceed expectations. There are many metrics to support this. For example, being invited to become a Fellow of the Royal Society, the oldest scientific academy in the world, is a remarkable honour and ICaMB was home to four of the five Fellows at Newcastle University. At the other end of the scale, our cohort of Early Career Researchers is truly remarkable, winning Henry Dale, University Royal Society and David Phillips Fellowships as well as BBSRC/MRC New Investigator and Career Development Awards.

Whilst the quality of research that was performed in ICaMB continues to be superb, it
is the working culture moulded by professional services, technical and academic members,
postdocs and students
that I really want to pay tribute to. I believe ICaMB has evolved an excellent and collegiate environment which most people have felt pleasure in being part of. It is with sadness that we say goodbye and many thanks to ICaMB, but with such exceptional members moving on to Newcastle University Biosciences Institute (NUBI) I have no doubt it will continue in spirit to punch well above its weight.

Any excuse to drink red wine

By Elisabeth Lowe

I’m writing this blog from an interesting perspective – though a member of the lab I’m not involved in the project, except through the (exhaustive!) discussions at coffee time with Harry Gilbert and the rest of the authors on the paper. This work, published today in Nature, describes the way in which one particular species of human gut bacteria is able to degrade a complex plant polysaccharide. Why is this new, you might well ask? Well, after being talked to death on the project, so much so I’d be glad never to hear a word about it again, I’ve actually come to appreciate what a great piece of work it is. The Bolam and Gilbert labs have published quite a bit on plant polysaccharide degradation over the years, but this one is a little different, because the polysaccharide involved – Rhamnogalacturonan-II (RGII) – is thought to be the most complex glycan found in nature. It contains ~13 different sugars linked by 21 different linkages, and all but one can be broken by a single bacterial species, Bacteroides thetaiotaomicron (Bt).

Complex structure of RG-II from red wine

Complex structure of RG-II from red wine

Wade Abbott, a post-doc in Harry’s lab when he was at the Complex Carbohydrate Research Centre, in Athens, Georgia, which is incidentally where the structure of RG-II was determined in the first place by Alan Darvil and Malcolm O’Neill in the 1980s, initiated this project. We knew which loci were upregulated during growth on RG-II from earlier work by myself, Dave Bolam and Eric Martens, so Wade set about cloning and expressing the 30 genes in these loci, and looking for activity with a PhD student, Jeff Xhang. It was a tough job, and little progress was made. When Harry came back to the UK he decided he absolutely had to crack it, and put two post-docs onto the project, Art Rogowski and Didier Ndeh. Though as the project has progressed, more and more people from the lab were sucked in, including the post-docs Alan Cartmell and Aurore Labourel, and Harry’s last PhD student, Ana Sofia Luis. All worked incredibly hard, assisted by Arnaud Baslé from SBL, and between them discovered the activities of 26 enzymes, including seven entirely new glycoside hydrolase families, three new activities, and seven crystal structures, with all the active site mutations, and ligand soaks that go along with a new crystal structure.

Working out the enzyme activities on a polysaccharide as complex as RG-II poses some problems, in that you can’t really buy it, so you have to make it. RGII is concentrated in red wine, so Harry put 150 litres of Asda’s not so finest wine on Dave Bolam’s credit card (don’t ask) and with Art and Didier, took it to Prozomix in Haltwhistle, to use their industrial concentrators.

Concentrating wine

Starting to concentrate 150 L of wine

As you can see, this did not end well.

It's all gone horribly wrong

It’s all gone horribly wrong


Art then turned to apple concentrate and managed to purify some through an intensive multiple two-week process. Making or buying oligosaccharides is also extremely difficult, so Didier devised a way of killing two birds with one stone – identifying which unknown open reading frames (ORFs) were enzymes, and making oligos at the same time. By deleting the gene of interest, RG-II degradation (which is mainly exo-acting) was halted at the point at which that enzyme acted. Taking the supernatant from these strains grown on RG-II and purifying the sugars released by the bacterium yielded partial breakdown products which could be identified by mass spectrometry with tremendous help from Joe Gray, and then used as a substrate for the enzyme in question.

Getting the data in a format suitable for the tight space restrictions imposed by Nature was almost as challenging as doing the work. Given that Harry is not very artistic, and certainly has no idea how to use Adobe Illustrator, he was fortunate to have three talented artists Ana, Art and Aurore, who ended up doing all the figures. They are now referred to as the art department. This project was definitely a labour of love (for Harry, if no-one else!) and by carefully characterising the breakdown of this polysaccharide, one linkage at a time, has actually revealed new features of the structure of this critical plant polysaccharide. Finding and characterising the vast repertoire of enzymes produced by gut microbes is not only interesting in its own right, but can provide tools to understand complex glycan structure. It’s a fantastic achievement, and I pity the poor lab member who has to try and bake the RG-II cake for the celebrations this week!


Link to paper


University policy: evidence and evaluation

The ICaMBlog this week features an article from Professor Bernard Connolly. Bernard is retiring today (March 31st 2016) and so we asked him if he could write a post on ‘anything he wanted’. Here Bernard discusses his frustrations with the frequent lack of evidence based policy making in universities.

Prof ConnollyI began my academic career as an undergraduate student at Sheffield University in 1973, I finish as the Professor of Biochemistry at Newcastle in 2016. Possibly the biggest change to have occurred over this forty or so years is the degree of surveillance and monitoring to which everybody at the University is subject. During my undergraduate studies attendance at lectures was voluntary and it was up to me to decide if, and when, I should consult my tutor. While a PhD student and postgraduate there was no concept of mandated and recorded meetings with my supervisors and the only reports I was expected to prepare were first drafts of eventual publications. When starting as a lecturer at Southampton University, I had about five minutes with the Head of Department, was shown an office and left to get on with it. I had no formal meetings with my “line manager” (indeed this concept did not exist) and I was prepared for undergraduate teaching with a single three hour session. Today undergraduate attendance at lectures is recorded as are compulsory meetings with tutors; sanctions are applied for non-compliance. PhD students have multiple supervisors/mentors and are required to record compulsory meetings with them. A number of intermediate reports must be produced and assessed along the road to graduation with a doctoral degree. Staff have a PDR once a year and are required to complete forms detailing the work they perform and how they occupy every hour at, and away from, work. Although I personally prefer the old system, this article is not aimed at discussing which is better. Rather, it is to enquire how the University implements policy changes, often introduced at the cost of great disruption, to ensure they are based on best current practice. Further, how are the outcomes of these changes determined and any benefits measured?

Conquest quote

A few years ago all undergraduate teachers were informed that they would be required to use the “buddy system”. Here, two academics are paired and required to attend, and write a report, on one of their buddie’s lectures. Although not onerous, I enquired about evidence that such a scheme was beneficial. After much badgering I was eventually sent a link to two publications. The first, admittedly in a peer reviewed journal, consisted of about ten subjects beingcartoon asked if they found the scheme helpful. This paper could be used as an example of how not to do science and I can only assume that the author, a young medical doctor, felt that any publication, no matter how poor, would benefit his future career. The second was not even peer reviewed, rather a trenchant statement of a scheme supporter bereft of any evidence. The purpose of the buddying is assuredly to improve undergraduate teaching and, as we survey our students almost to destruction, I enquired if an improvement in quality had been observed. I received no reply and concluded that this scheme was started on the whim of the dean involved, based on little evidence and with no mechanism in place to observe its consequences. This example is trivial but similar considerations apply to the much more consequential issues addressed in the first paragraph. I have yet to be presented with evidence that constant monitoring and assessing of students and staff is based on rigorous studies that clearly demonstrate positive effects. We survey our undergraduates continually and for postgraduates and postdoctoral workers have data on their accomplishments (do PhDs graduate on time, how many publications result from Bernard phototheir work, what are their future job successes). But this data is never correlated with policy changes to measure their efficacy. Similarly for staff, following the introduction of PDR, has teaching improved, has grant funding increased, have more and better publications resulted? Overall is the University a better place in which to work, perhaps monitored by absenteeism rates, which correlate well with staff happiness. As academics we must insist that anybody introducing new policies should present the evidence underpinning the change. A system for monitoring outcomes, which places minimal burden on students and staff, should be demonstrably in place. While benefits at the individual level may be small they should surely be apparent over the entire University body. Finally anybody introducing procedures based on little evidence or not leading to favourable outcomes should rapidly be removed from any position of authority.



The ICaMB PhD student symposium: what does it mean to the supervisors?

A strong and vibrant PhD programme is essential for any successful academic department. PhD students bring energy and enthusiasm to their projects (well that’s the idea anyway) that frequently reminds many jaded professors contemplating the hell that is ResearchFish why they went into this business in the first place. Typically a PhD student progresses from hesitant first steps in the laboratory to becoming a confident scientist with ownership of their project. Although in the moments before a PhD viva some of that confidence has been known to slip away. The ICaMB Postgraduate Research Symposium is an important showcase that allows our final year PhD students to demonstrate not just the exciting science they have been doing but also just how far they have come over the last 3/4 years. But there is also a serious side to this for ICaMB. In the last REF (where we <cough> did quite well), our PhD students made a major contribution to our returned papers. Brian Morgan has crunched the numbers and discovered that PhD students were first authors on 30% of our 3*/4* submissions (see Figure), including papers in Cell (x2), Nature, Science, Molecular Cell, Nature Chemical Biology (x2) and PNAS (x3). Moreover, in our UO5 return, 3 out of 4 of our Impact cases were underpinned by PhD student research.


This year, the first day of the symposium was on March 14th with a second to be held on April 29th. We’ve covered the ICaMB PhD symposium before but this year we thought we’d do something different and ask some of the PhD supervisors what this meant to them. All of us are proud of the PhD students that come through our labs, even if, occasionally, there are some grey hair inducing moments on the way. Seeing a final year student confidently discuss their project and answer questions is an important moment for a PhD supervisor. Below we have a varied group of supervisors, from a definitely not jaded professor discussing their final PhD students, to a newer PI discussing their first.

Harry Gilbert: Ana Luis and Jon Briggs

The two final year students from my laboratory who are contributing to the 2016 Postgraduate Research Symposium are Ana Luis and Jon Briggs. These are my last PhD students and it is great to finish with such excellent scientists. Neither student is on the traditional BBSRC/MRC DTP. Jon is supported by the Faculty to work on my Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Award and Ana is funded mainly from my overheads and more recently by my ERC grant. Jon did a summer placement with Waldemar and his undergrad project in my lab. I was very impressed with Jon and was delighted he was willing to do a PhD with me. I said to Jon his project could be funded by BBSRC, requiring that he did a PIP (Professional Internships for PhD Students) or the Faculty in which case the three month break was not required. Jon said “I want to do science during my PhD and not be distracted by other activities”. Ana wanted to do a PhD with a glycan lab and came highly recommended by one of my previous PhD students, Carlos Fontes from the University of Lisbon, Portugal. So Ana is doing a three year PhD with no MRes, PIPs etc. Some of us, of a certain age, may remember these type of PhDs.

Harry, Jon and AnaThe two students have worked on glycan degradation by the human gut microbial community, or microbiota. Jon is focussed on the biochemistry of selected enzyme systems and the extent to which there is cross feeding of oligosaccharide products generated during the degradative process. Ana, like Jon, has used molecular genetics and biochemistry to explore the enzymology of these glycan degrading processes, while also using X-ray crystallography to study the structure and function of key enzymes.

Both students are remarkable in that they work on their own project within a largish collaboration. This is fine but on a regular basis, well almost weekly, they are given “the opportunity” by their supervisor to alter the objectives of their project almost on a weekly basis. They adapt to these unusual demands brilliantly. We all have tremendous respect for both students; they work extremely hard, are technically excellent, flexible and, most importantly, think carefully about their science, designing and carrying out a series of decisive experiments to resolve critical components of the glycan degrading process. Maybe the best testimony I can provide is that it is not possible to distinguish Ana and Jon from the postdocs in the lab, they are an inspiration to all of us.


Paula Salgado: Adam Crawshaw

Paula and Adam

Being your supervisor’s first PhD student can be a mixed bag. You will get a lot of their attention, so help will always be available. But at the same time, as they find their way as independent researchers, any issues will be closer to your own progress than for many of your colleagues. As I saw Adam present his work at the ICaMB Postgraduate Research Symposium, I was reminded of my own journey as a “first student”, several years ago. As I shared my supervisor’s progress, so has Adam shared mine. It has been fantastic seeing him develop, visibly learn and acquire so many skills. Even when his project didn’t go according to plan and experiments were proving hard, he didn’t lose the drive, the enthusiasm. It was with pride that I saw him give a confident talk, answer questions and be humble enough to challenge his own work. He has learned many techniques, from crystallography to circular dichronism, from molecular biology to NMR – he took it all in willingly and enthusiastically. His contribution to understanding several aspects of Clostridium difficile pathogenicity will be in the scientific papers produced, as well as in the future of my “Structural Microbiology” lab. It was great to hear him present all the work he did over the last 3.5 years to our colleagues. Well done!


Dianne Ford: Joy Hardyman

 Joy Hardyman’s presentation at the ICaMB Postgraduate Student Research Symposium was on the topic of zinc, which we have studied in our lab for many years. Joy’s PhD research is funded by an MRC studentship, which not only gave Joy the opportunity for research training but also really allowed us to add value to data we collected as part of a BBSRC grant, and generated an additional publication (Hardyman JEJ et al (2016) Metallomics (in press)).

Dianne and Joy

Global zincThe lab’s focus is the basic cell biology of zinc, which is essential to understanding zinc nutrition. Zinc nutrition is a global health challenge, with an estimated 17.3% of the global population at risk of inadequate zinc intake. Also older people, including here in the UK, are particularly at risk of sub-optimal zinc intake or low plasma zinc concentrations.

Zinc rich foodsAt the end of our BBSRC grant we had some intriguing microarray data that we had set aside because we struggled initially to make sense of it. We had depleted cells of a transcription factor known to have a role in zinc homeostasis (MTF1) then challenged them with zinc, with the aim of identifying the gene targets of this transcription factor. However, rather than see gene responses to zinc being attenuated we saw ‘sensitisation’ of the transcriptome response to zinc. We now know that this is because the usual response of the intracellular protein metallothionein, which effectively ‘mops up’ intracellular zinc, was attenuated because this response is under the control of MTF1.

We all need zincInterestingly, we now think this model, where MTF1 is depleted, may allow us to study what happens to zinc homeostasis in cells as they age, because cells from older individuals have higher levels of metallothionein. Thus, cells with MTF1 depleted may represent a ‘younger’ phenotype. We will now explore the suitability of this as a model of zinc balance in the ageing cell with a view to using it in further research to gain a better understanding of zinc dys-homeostasis in older age.


Kevin Waldron: Anna Barwinska-Sendra

Anna’s project began as something of a ‘sideline’ of research in my lab, something that I’d originally initiated when I first started my own independent research back in 2010 but then put on the back burner due to limited resources when my ‘lab group’ consisted solely of me. I re-initiated the project when Anna approached me for a short period of work experience in my lab in 2012. It is a tribute to Anna’s drive and enthusiasm that, within just a few days of her being in my lab, I was keen to keep her on in some form, and I was delighted when she later accepted my offer of a PhD studentship to continue this project in my lab. It’s one of the best decisions I’ve made in my short time as a PI.

Kevin's lab

I set Anna the task of determining the metal specificity of the two superoxide dismutase (SOD) enzymes that are encoded within the genome of Staphylococcus aureus. SODs are essential for the bacterial defence against the reactive oxygen species (ROS) superoxide anion, and both of these enzymes were predicted to be manganese-dependent. However it was emerging that, during infection, pathogens such as S. aureus experience host-imposed manganese starvation, a process termed nutritional immunity, which raised the possibility that one or both of these enzymes might be able to use an alternative cofactor for catalysis, most likely iron. Anna has confirmed that one of these enzymes is cambialistic in vitro, which means it is catalytically active with either metal cofactor, something that’s exquisitely rare amongst metalloenzymes. We hypothesise that this cambialistic property of this SOD is a mechanism by which S. aureus is able to circumvent nutritional immunity and resist the onslaught of oxidative attack during manganese starvation.

Anna has been an exceptionally productive student during her time in my lab, and I’ll be sorry to lose her when she completes her studies later this year. She has a bright future in research. Her project also highlights the importance of PhD student projects to a ‘basic research’ lab like mine, as they enable more exploratory, high-risk, high-reward projects such as this, and allow us to take our research in whole new directions that would not be possible within the constraints of traditionally-funded, Research Council grant-based projects.


Jeremy Lakey: Alysia Davies

Alysia poster prize

Alysia’s studentship is rather unusual as it is funded by the BBSRC, Bioprocessing Research Industry Club (BRIC) and has a partner company, Pall, who make a huge range of products used in the production and purification of biomolecules. BRIC is a very proactive organisation that meets twice a year for students and post docs to present their work. It also arranges training and skills schools to enhance the employability of the graduates especially those wishing to enter the fast growing bioprocessing industry. This industry is responsible for delivering the next generation of treatments based upon large protein and DNA molecules rather than small molecules such as penicillin. The magic bullets in all this are immunotherapies based upon large proteins called monoclonal antibodies. These are used in the treatment of many conditions such as cancer (Avastin) or rheumatoid arthritis & Crohn’s Disease (Humira). One difference with such large molecules is that they can provoke an immune response which prevents further treatment. Such responses are more common if the proteins stick to each other; a process known as aggregation. Alysia’s project is to develop rapid tests for aggregation so that problem batches can be detected early in the factory and removed. We hope these tests will make the medicines both safer and cheaper.


David Lydall: Joana Rodrigues and Marta Markiewicz

Joana Rodrigues, from Portugal, and Marta Markiewicz, from Poland, will complete their EU (Marie Curie) International Training Network funded PhDs very soon.   On this basis I will vote to stay in Europe.

Lydall lab

As a supervisor I have been delighted to have Joana and Marta in my lab.  It is really rewarding to have bright, enthusiastic, international members of the lab.  Very often the most rewarding aspect of my job is observing PhD students gain confidence, experience and strength during their comparatively short time in the lab.  I think this has certainly been the case for Joana and Marta and they both gave excellent talks at the symposium.

As is usual, at least in my lab, the projects Marta and Joana have pursued have drifted substantially from where they started.  It is one of the most fun aspects of supervising PhD students that there are few, if any, “milestones” to be met during a PhD.  Despite this chaos, philosophy usually occurs, doctorates are earned and knowledge improves.

Joana and Marta have each worked in budding yeast on proteins that are conserved in human cells and that affect cancer.  Joana has made substantial inroads to our understanding of how the PAF1 complex interacts with and affects telomere function.  Marta has shown how Dna2 protein, known to be important for DNA replication, may play its most important functions at telomeres.  We are just in the process of submitting papers from both Marta and Joana.  They have also each agreed to stay in the lab for a further year to capitalize on all their hard work.

Joana and Marta were recruited to the Codeage International Training Network, which is centred in Cologne (  For all three of us this was our first involvement in such a network.   It has been a lot of fun and we have networked our way from Cologne, to Crete and Milan.  We are looking forward to the final meeting in Crete in September.

Jeremy Brown: Shiney George and Man Balola

I have 3 PhD students in the final year of their studies. 2 of them, Shiney George and Man Balola gave excellent presentations on their work on translational control of viral gene expression in the Symposium earlier this week. My lab has been dependent on PhD students for the last few years, and I can only thank them for the positive contribution that they have all made to the lab’s research output: without them there would have been little, if any, progress. Nearly all the lab publications in the last few years have had PhD students as first authors, and the current group have generated excellent data for the next papers that we will publish.

Jeremy's lab

My students over the past few years have had very different sources of support, from self-funded through sponsored to Research Council support. This has led me to reflect on the disparities between funding arrangements, and also how this and the structure of PhDs has changed over the years. I was very lucky when I did my PhD – I was the recipient of a Welcome Trust Prize Studentship. These were quite a novelty at that time, a relatively new scheme, with more generous stipend than other studentships, but the same length – 3 years – as most other studentships. At that time pretty much all PhDs were: go to the lab; do the work; learn the trade; write the thesis.

In the years since my time as a PhD student there has certainly been a shift in how PhDs are organised with alterations to funding for students, various add-ons in terms of knowledge and skill training being tried and in some cases discarded, and a move towards longer, 4 year, training. Some of this could be argued to have diluted the important ‘learn the trade’ part of a PhD, though there are clear pros to enhanced training too. Perhaps more worrying though, there is considerable disparity in the provision for students funded from different sources. One obvious issue is the budget for laboratory costs, which is woefully inadequate for many studentships, but much more adequately costed from others. This has to impact at some level the ambition and scope of PhD projects. Another issue is that while the formal length of PhD (i.e. the time from starting to when the book has to be submitted) is pretty much standard at 4 years, there are differences in the length of funding of PhDs. As we know, as staff in ICaMB we can apply for 4 year BBSRC studentships, 3½ year MRC, and faculty studentships (including this year the Research Excellence Academy) that provide 3 years.

There are few level playing fields in life, but as a PhD is an academic qualification one might naively expect that the duration, resources and other support should, where possible, be similar, at least within a country. Why are there such disparities, how confusing must this be for anyone hoping to employ someone with a PhD? Bioscience needs bodies and PhD students are the backbone and key work-force of a good number of laboratories (mine included). There is then strong competition between academics for studentships each year – evidenced particularly by the very large number (>150) of applications for faculty studentships this year – and disappointment for those who are unsuccessful. Conversely there are many aspiring to a career in bioscience for whom a PhD is a key step. So, there are strong reasons to spread the available resource as broadly as possible, and it is easy to rationalise the way in which resources are being used. I would make the comment (my personal view) that at a time when significant efforts being made to even out opportunities at a number of career stages, we should when possible make sure that we do not undermine this at the early stages, by having some PhD students advantaged over others. And this is before the vagaries of supervision, luck and other factors kick in.

Climbing the Tree of Life

MartinIn this week’s blog, Professor Martin Embley reflects on the  the journey that led to him, his collaborators and his laboratory to fundamentally change our views on evolution and the Tree of Life.

The Early Years

My early career was a bit of a random walk while I tried to figure out what I really wanted to do. After my PhD in Newcastle on bacterial diseases of trout and salmon, I got a job teaching industrial microbiology at North East London Polytechnic in 1984. It was an odd but interesting place, a number of staff appeared to have strong religious beliefs of various sorts and wanted to talk about them, and one colleague thought he could change traffic lights from red to green so he never had to slow down. I was keen to keep doing some research and I was interested in evolution, but like a lot of newly independent researchers I struggled to get any funding. My big break came when I got a “cultural exchange” grant from Newham Council to go to Poland to learn some molecular biology and I met Professor Erko Stackebrandt who was passing through. Erko had worked with Carl Woese in pioneering the use of ribosomal RNA sequences to investigate evolutionary relationships among prokaryotes. I persuaded him to let me visit his lab in Germany to learn the new techniques and in 1991 these skills got me a job at the Natural History Museum in London.

The Museum wanted to set up a lab using molecular sequences to investigate evolutionary relationships. The film Jurassic park was just about to appear and there was tremendous excitement about the potential of ancient DNA. The Museum gave me free rein regarding my own research as long as it had evolution at its core. So I decidedTree of life to work on the early evolution of eukaryotic cells. At the time two ideas were central to views of early eukaryotic evolution. One was that the “three domains tree of life” was an accurate description of the relationships between eukaryotes and prokaryotes (you can see the tree here). The other was that some eukaryotes, including obligate intracellular microsporidian pathogens, had never had mitochondria because they split from other eukaryotes before the mitochondrial endosymbiosis. I’ve been trying to test these two ideas for the past 25 years and while it’s often been difficult and frustrating, it has also been a lot of fun.

A Team Effort

Like most PI’s I’ve relied on attracting talented young scientists to do the work that we have published. Robert Hirt walked into my lab off the street and asked me if he could do a project involving eukaryotic evolution and ecology. He already had a first author paper in Cell and now he wanted to do something different. We didn’t do much ecologMitochondriay together but Robert and I co-supervised PhD student Bryony Williams who showed that microsporidians actually contained a tiny, hitherto overlooked mitochondrion, now often called a mitosome.

Unlike our own mitochondria, the microsporidian mitosome doesn’t make ATP, because it has lost all of the pathways used by classical mitochondria to make energy. Alina Goldberg in our lab – now at Newcastle – and Sabine Molik in the lab of Roland Lill in Germany spent Mitochondria 2the next seven years showing that the mitosome functions in the biosynthesis of essential cytosolic and nuclear Iron/Sulphur (Fe/S) proteins. The discovery of a tiny mitochondrion in microsporidia (Figures 1 and 2) was an important piece of evidence that led to current ideas that the mitochondrial endosymbiosis occurred at the origin of eukaryotes. Thus, it is now thought that all eukaryotes contain an organelle related to mitochondria, and its most conserved function is in Fe/S protein biogenesis, not ATP production.

Figure 1Figure 2Competing Hypotheses

In the three domains tree of life, eukaryotes are a separate domain that is most closely related to the domain Archaea and the host for the mitochondrial endosymbiont is already a eukaryote. Although this hypothesis appears in most textbooks, there have actually been a number of alternative hypotheses published over the years (Figure 3 shows one of them), but these have largely been ignored. Cymon Cox spent three years analysing molecular sequence data to identify which of the competing published hypotheses was best supported and reached the surprising conclusion that it was not the three domains tree but an alternative hypothesis called the eocyte tree (you can read a discussion about the differences between the two trees including a picture of the eocyte tree here). In the eocyte tree, eukaryotes originate from within the Archaea, suggesting that eukaryotes are not a primary domain of life like Archaea and Bacteria, but are instead a product of genetic and cellular contributions from both prokaryote domains. Very excited by these results, we sent Cymon’s paper to Nature where it was reviewed and quickly rejected. We appealed, it was revised, it was reviewed again, and it was rejected again, all in all pretty dispiriting, but a common experience for most scientists. However, after hearing me talk about Cymon’s work at a meeting, we were invited to submit Cymon’s paper to PNAS where it was finally published in 2008.

Figure 3A Mixed Response

Although Cymon’s paper has been highly cited it is true to say that the initial response from the community was very mixed. We received emails suggesting that we had manipulated our results to get the answer we wanted and one of the reviewers told us that it was impossible to infer such ancient events using molecular sequences. In responding we agreed that it was difficult to be confident about anything that happened billions of years ago based upon small amounts of data and even the best methods of analysis, but that people in the field seemed happy to use the same data and worse methods to support the three domains tree. Cymon eventually moved on, scarred but not defeated, and Tom Williams took over the project when he came to Newcastle on a Marie Curie Fellowship in late 2010. Over the next few years, more data was published as new Archaea were discovered and new methods of analysis were developed, and every analysis that Tom, or others, did on these data produced a version of the eocyte tree, so that it is now the best supported hypothesis – at least in our opinion.

More evidence emerges

Hypotheses are only useful when they make predictions that can be tested by further research, and evolutionary hypotheses are no different. The eocyte tree predicts that new species that share more features in common with eukaryotes will be discovered among the Archaea, and this prediction now appears to have been spectacularly fulfilled by recent discoveries from Thijs Ettema’s lab in Sweden. The new paper describes the discovery, so far only from metagenome data, of an archaeal lineage called Lokiarchaeota that contains many genes for proteins that were previously thought to be eukaryotic specific, including homologues of proteins used in the eukaryotic cytoskeleton, in membrane remodeling and in phagocytosis.  This is incredibly exciting and the challenge is now to isolate Lokiarchaeota and other new lineages into culture so that their biology and physiology can be studied in the laboratory.

An Interesting Journey

Scientific work is often written up as if it were a linear progression towards improved understanding, a type of “Whig history” which does not accurately reflect how science is really done. In reality, science is a collaborative endeavour with lots of dead ends, confusion and false trails, and we could easily be walking down some of those still. Nevertheless, the currently prevailing paradigm for eukaryotic evolution is now very different to the popular views held in the 1990s when I started my research career. All eukaryotes are now thought to contain a mitochondrial homologue that generally functions in Fe/S protein biogenesis, and the host for the mitochondrial endosymbiont is thought to have originated from within the Archaea. Eukaryotes are thus viewed as the product of an interaction between (at least) those two prokaryotic partners and are not a primary domain of life but one derived from prokaryotic antecedents. The complex features that we take to define eukaryotic cells including our own, such as the nucleus, large genomes and diversity of RNAs, are thus secondary features that have evolved since those primordial interactions. I’m not sure what my religious former colleagues would have made of the work I’ve done since leaving NELP, but it’s been an enjoyable and interesting journey for me.


The Tree of Life:

Bryony Williams’ paper:

Alina Goldberg and Saline Molik paper:

Mitochondria and Fe/S proteins:

The eocyte tree:

Cymon Cox paper:

Tom WIlliams paper:

Thijs Ettema lab paper:

REF 2014: Hurrah, we did really well – but is it really a good exercise?

By Neil Perkins

And so the REF 2014 results are upon us. If you listen closely you can hear academics all around the country trying desperately to find the method of expressing the results that most favours their own Institution (or downplays bitter rivals). Of course, this is a technique commonly used in publishing research articles so there is a lot of expertise in this area.

Anyway, however you wrangle the figures in ICaMB we think we’ve done pretty well (whisper it quietly, possibly better that we expected when our return was submitted).

Most ICaMB scientists went into UoA5 Biological Sciences, although a number of us also were included in the UoA1 (Clinical Medicine) and UoA3 (Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy) submissions. In fact UoA5 contained only ICaMB members and was written and submitted by ICaMB members. So this is the right place to say congratulations to ICaMBs Professor Brian Morgan who masterminded, with the help of Amanda Temby, our UoA5 submission. We hope Brian has recovered from the ordeal by now.

So how did we do? If we go by the Times Higher Education table then Newcastle (i.e. ICaMB) came joint 5th overall. However, in the clearly much more important ‘Output’ table we come 2nd in the country!! I suspect that’s the one that will end up on the front page of our website. Our ‘Impact’ submissions dragged us down a bit. I remember the meetings where we struggled with the tight definition used for ‘Impact’, something not easy for an Institute that really focuses on fundamental science. We work on important and relevant subjects but the impact of this on medicine or biotechnology is often a few steps removed.

THE ranking

The Time Higher Education raking for Uo5, Biological Sciences. The most important section (cough) is highlighted.

It would be remiss of me not to point out that our sister UoA submissions in Newcastle also did well

UoA1 Clinical Medicine) came 9th out of 31, UoA3 (Allied Health Professions, Dentistry, Nursing and Pharmacy) was 15th out of 94 while Uo4 (Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience was 9th out of 82.

Lies, damned lies and…..

I like this viewer put together by City University London 

And if I tweak the parameters in just the right way……

Second again

……. Hurrah! Second again!

A big BUT

OK, if we were to be slightly self-critical it could be noted that our Uo5 submission had, relative to many Institutions, a relatively low number of staff associated with it, although this is the substantial majority of the people in ICaMB. It was very much the ICaMB submission, with many others in the Faculty of which we are a part, going into UoA1, Clinical Medicine.

However, this is also an exercise in who decodes the rules most successfully (and there was head scratching at times over ambiguities and what it really meant). So what better time, after having done well, so it cannot be said to be sour grapes, to repeat that the REF really is a bad way to go about assessing the relative research strengths of UK universities. The arguments for why this is the case have been aired before in detail (also here) and I will not go over them all again here. I think that every academic I speak with agrees with this. People involved with this work phenomenally hard at all levels in the university but it has to be said that it is a colossal, time consuming juggernaut of dubious worth.  Speaking to colleagues who were members of REF panels, I was horrified at just how many papers they were expected to read. You do not need to go that far outside my area of expertise before my judgement becomes quite superficial. Quite how anyone thinks this process leads to an unequivocal assessment of research quality is beyond me. However, as an entire industry seems to have grown up around the REF, incentives for change are few.

So what could replace it? Well as academics we are judged and assessed continually as part of or our normal jobs. Our grant applications are rigorously reviewed. Our papers are refereed in detail. There are citation indices and download statistics showing if these are actually being read. While individual applications or submissions are subject to some randomness, over an Institution, over time, these are the measures that really assess how well we are doing. The information for these is already out there and would be relatively quick to compile.

Of course there are caveats to this. Different disciplines receive different levels of funding or are cited lightly relative to others. But it should not be beyond the wit of the academic community to come up with different weightings for different subject areas. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if someone at the top came out and said, ‘never again, there has to be a better way of doing this’. However, I suspect this might be wishful thinking. I’ll just fearfully wait for the email saying “Neil, about REF 2020, Brian did a great job last time and we’d really like it if you could…..”

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of Newcastle University

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).

Deep Impact

Alginate bread on a pedestal under show-biz lights

Alginate bread on a pedestal under show-biz lights.


Another excellent post by ICaMB’s Dr Matthew Wilcox as the fame of alginate spreads and seaweed bread goes on tour!

Well, I was kindly invited along to the BBSRC Fostering Impact awards ceremony in London a couple of weeks ago and although I wasn’t up for anything, Newcastle University were.

Fostering impact is a scheme run by the BBSRC to capture the economic and social impact of research funded by them.  There are three competitions that fit the fostering impact scheme; ‘innovator of the year’, ‘activating impact’ and ‘excellence with impact’.  The first is for an individual researcher, the second is for the knowledge exchange teams and the final award is for research organisations (runs from 2013 – 2015).

Outside eventInside eventThe knowledge exchange and commercialisation team at Newcastle University has changed substantially over the past couple of years.  What was once a centralised Business Development Directorate has now become the Research Enterprise Service, comprised of three teams, each embedded in one of the Faculties.  Each Institute or School now has their own dedicated business development manager (BDM), with ICAMB’s BDM being Laura Rush (who is very nice).  They are now much easier to contact, whether it’s just a quick question or the drafting of patents.

Home baking

Home baking practice.

Newcastle’s application for the Activating Impact award was submitted back in October 2013 and used the wonderful research done by the beautiful people of ICAMB as its basis.  In January the RES team found out that they had successfully made it to the final five (from 18) and through to the grand final in London.  Newcastle was up against the knowledge exchange and commercialisation teams from King’s college London, Queen Mary University of London, University College London and University of Aberdeen. One of the requirements of the competition was to bring along someone to the final who had worked with RES, a ‘user’ (according to the BBSRC).  They also wanted an iconic object?!  Alginate bread it was then.  Back in the kitchen I went. How many loaves would I need to feed the people there? Two should do it, right?

Martin and Laura on the train gearing up for competition.

Martin and Laura on the train gearing up for competition.

In London Martin Cox presented the case for Newcastle in front of a panel of scientists, business types and other technology transferers, assembled by the BBSRC. Demonstrating what Newcastle does well, how BDM’s have been embedded into each institute and also what they would do with the money if we won (£100k).  He also described the additional internal funds that are available to help activate impact.  FMS has two funds available; the first is to help with data collection for translational grant applications, the second is to support further claims in patent applications.  The two internal grants can both potentially support a post doc salary for three months, plus consumables.

Dengue fever carrying mosquito

Dengue fever carrying mosquito.

The awards ceremony combined the ‘innovator of the year’ and ‘activating impact’.  I got a glitzy stand for my bread and also had the chance to look around the other pretty amazing stuff that was on display, like Dr Luke Alphey’s work. Luke ended up being named both social innovator and overall innovator of the year for his work on the genetic control of pests, including the dengue fever carrying mosquito.

I even got to meet the new (ish) CEO of the BBSRC, Professor Jackie Hunter, who was definitely not snapped stuffing free stuff into her bag!

BBSRC's CEO Jackie Hunter enjoying the exhibition

On the right BBSRC’s CEO Professor Jackie Hunter enjoying the exhibition.

Unfortunately Newcastle did not win, but being down to the last five of the competition is brilliant and should give confidence to ICAMB scientists that when help is required in achieving impact (social or economic), we have a great team to help.

Queen Mary University of London, whose entry was also being supported by a previous BBSRC Enterprise Fellow and King’s College London, ended up being joint winners each scooping £100k.

Perhaps if a few more of the world leading researchers in ICaMB engaged with the Enterprise team, they might not have to only take some eejit and his bread to the competition next year and increase NU’s chance of winning!

Skinny Seaweed


Obesity has reached epidemic proportions globally, with at least 2.8 million people dying each year as a result of being overweight or obese (WHO). Dr Matthew Wilcox from Professor Jeff Pearson’s lab tells us about his research into the slimming powers of brown seaweed. A simple and sustainable food additive. 

“Seaweed bread” by Dr Matt Wilcox

Seaweed bread

Seaweed bread

Over 40% of the calories in your diet can come from fat (mainly triacylglycerol) and you digest and absorb between 95 and 100% of all the fat that you eat!  There is one enzyme (pancreatic lipase) that accounts for 80% of all fat digestion and if the activity of this enzyme can be reduced then we will absorb less fat from our diet.

The Pearson lab has shown that alginate (a dietary fibre extracted from brown seaweed) can reduce the activity of pancreatic lipase by up to 80%.  If you don’t digest fat you can’t absorb it.

Times pictureLipase is a recognised target as a treatment for obesity. In 2010 the pharmaceutical drug orlistat (Xenical) which acts on this enzyme accounted for 98% of all UK prescriptions for the treatment of obesity. The remaining 2% was for Sibutramine which has since been withdrawn. We are therefore heavily reliant upon one drug which can have some rather unpleasant side effects (brown trouser syndrome) greatly reducing patient compliance. So even though it’s the only pharmaceutical drug available, not everyone who is prescribed it will actually take it!

Tasteless alginate is already found in a number of foods (E400-405), salad dressings, ice-creams ..... even beer.

Tasteless alginate is already found in a number of foods (E400-405), salad dressings, ice-creams ….. even beer.

Thankfully there is still hope (and clean trousers) since some, if not all of the side effects of orlistat can be eliminated if it is taken with a high fibre product. Luckily, it just so happens that alginate is not only a lipase inhibitor but is also a dietary fibre itself, and to top it all off makes great bread!

Most commercial alginates come from seaweed, hence the seaweed bread.  The extraction process is relatively simple and you end up with a dry white (ish) powder, great to use in products with flour. There is no ‘seaweed’ taste (although seaweed bread is actually quite nice) and in blinded tests people actually prefer the alginate bread over standard white bread.  Likely to be due to the retention of moisture so it’s like eating fresh bread, even if it’s a day or so old

Seaweed culture and harvesting is big business around the world from the Shetlands to Shanghai and can even be seen from space. The extracted alginates are already used in the food industry, just not necessarily the right ones or in the right concentrations. The majority we test in the lab are from Norwegian or Scottish seaweeds.

The  latest technology in seaweed harvesting.

The latest technology in seaweed harvesting.

The alginate project in the lab started nearly eight years ago with simple colourimetric assays. These initial experiments showed that certain seaweed alginates can inhibit lipase. From this we developed a model of the upper gastrointestinal tract to test the alginates in a system as close to a human as possible without being human. Our model gut has now been used to show that alginate is released from the bread (amongst other things) and has also featured in a BBC3 program. We have just finished the first proof of concept trial in humans, so there will be more on this story to follow.

The Pearson Lab line-up

The Pearson Lab line-up

The big fat truth is that fat in food is often vital for the enjoyment, try eating cream crackers without butter (3 cracker challenge).  It’s hard!  So, if we can still get the enjoyment but not all the calories from our food then we can significantly reduce the amount of calories we take in.  It’s not just a reduction in the absorption of fat in the food that contains the alginate; it’s the entire meal that you eat.  Not that you should eat loads of burgers but if we could put alginate into burger buns then you would reduce the amount of fat absorbed from the burger, the cheese, the fries and the ridiculously oversized milkshake that you have with it.

Low fat lunch?

Low fat lunch?

Perhaps that’s the best way to end a blog with the thought of a ridiculously oversized milkshake and also by thanking the BBSRC for all their funding and support!

Matt’s PhD was a BBSRC CASE studentship sponsored by Technostics

This work has been patented

Full Links

The patent:


Matthew Wilcox:

Jeff Pearson:

One year of the ICaMBlog in numbers

By Neil Perkins

At the one year anniversary of the ICaMB Blog, and after publishing 35 articles, it seemed like a good time to reflect on what this initiative has (or has not) achieved. When Paula Salgado, Phil Aldridge and myself (with the prompting and encouragement of Bob Lightowlers) started this, there were a number of very clear goals we had in mind.  The first of these was to improve communication within ICaMB itself, so that we would all have a better sense of what our colleagues were up to, their achievements and to introduce new PIs.  In particular we wanted to highlight some of the great things our newly formed postdoc and PhD student associations (IPA and PANIC) have been doing. We also wanted to tell the world about some of the exciting science being performed in ICaMB and highlight some issues and discoveries that we thought would be of wide interest.  Finally we wanted to show the fun side of being a scientist in Newcastle and reveal some of what we get up to when we’re not in the lab.

Did we succeed?  Well that’s probably not for us to judge and the true test of this will be if the blog is still going in five years time (and if people are still reading it).  However, one unanticipated highlight for me has been the discovery of Google Analytics and what it can tell us about the success of the ICAMBlog. As a hard core geeky scientist, Google Analytics can be frighteningly addictive. A guilty pleasure for me has been to watch in real time what happens after we start publicising the latest blog: as soon as the emails get sent out, the tweets are sent or the Facebook update posted you can see people logging in to read the blog.  We don’t know who you are but we can see where you are and how you found us. Fascinating and slightly scary.

Each spike on the graph represents people viewing the website when a new blog article comes out. There is an immediate response the moment we send out an email, tweet or share on Facebook. Data shown is from Sept 1st - Dec 31st, 2013

So for this blog, to commemorate our one year anniversary, I thought I’d share some of the numbers. How many of you actually read the ICAMBlog?  Where are you from? Which article was the most popular?

So how popular are we?

At the time of writing we have had 7,703 ‘Unique Visitors’ to the blog, who have made 11,715 visits comprising a total of 20,602 ‘Page views’.  Unique visitors really means different devices, so someone who accesses the blog through their phone as well as a computer will count twice.  On the whole though, we are pretty happy with this.  It is thousands of people who now hopefully know more about ICaMB and what we do than a year ago.

So where is everyone coming from who reads the blog?  Unsurprisingly, the majority of our readers (58%) come from the UK.  The USA and Canada are the next highest, (although see the ‘reddit event’ below), followed by Australia and India.  Although the numbers are lower for other countries, the readership is truly global.

Within the UK, as might be expected, we have a large number of readers from the Northeast.  Readers from Newcastle upon Tyne represent 38.5% of our total readership which means that >60% of our readers are not local, so we are achieving our aim of getting the word out there.  London is the next highest city followed by several other cities with strong university links.

Someone from San Francisco just started reading the blog

What are people reading?

Our most popular article by far has been ‘Exploding Bacteria for Science’, which featured the work of Kenn Gerdes from the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology here in ICAMB. This article garnered 3,189  page views, 15.5% of our total (note to blog team, must feature more exploding things next year). However, this number may be slightly artificial as it benefited from exposure on reddit (see what that means below). Our first ever long feature was ‘Bulging Bacteria and the Origins of Life’ which highlighted an outstanding Cell paper from the Errington lab on L-form bacteria. This is particularly impressive as the blog was starting and it wasn’t on people’s radar yet.  Completing our top 5 were the blog on ICaMB PhD student opportunities, the ‘Great Bacterial Bake Off‘ and ‘ICaMB goes away for the day’.

The success of Exploding Bacteria is also reflected in the number of views on our ICaMB Youtube site, with 3,186 visits to the penicillin effect video associated with this article.  Jeff Errington’s Bulging Bacteria video follows, with 322 views and the video of Jeremy Lakey and a new bacterial cell killer had a respectable 187 views, completing our top 3 video chart.

Are they really reading these articles?

One interesting feature of Google Analytics is that we can see how long people stay on each page, although we cannot control for people opening the page and then wandering off to do something else.

So when people from England and Wales log on, they spend an average of 1 minute 51 seconds with the page open.  They may be making tea of course but in general this suggests they are reading the blog.  Readers from Scotland and Northern Ireland, slightly less impressive, with 58 seconds and 1 minute 7 seconds respectively. Maybe they are speed-readers in Scotland.

When we look deeper, some of those page view numbers start to look a bit less impressive. All those visitors from the USA don’t look so good when you realise they stayed on the page for an average of 13 seconds.  Low attention span maybe?  It’s OK to say that, they will not have read this far down the page. Canada is a bit better at 34 seconds, Australia is at 24 seconds but India is a very respectable 1 minute 25 seconds. People from Newcastle spend 2 minutes 11 seconds on each page. London less so at 46 seconds while other cities average around 30 seconds.

Our headline numbers also start to look a bit less impressive when we take visit duration into account.  Of our 20,723 page views, 9,669 are for less than 10 seconds.  But that still leaves >8,000 page views being read properly. So a bit of a mixed bag but at least our colleagues seem to be interested in what we are writing.

The impact of social media

To get word of the blog to the outside world we have been using Twitter, Facebook and other forms of social media.  Google Analytics can also tell us how successful this has been. Of our 11,715 visits to the site, 1,284 have been through Twitter and 1,105 through Facebook. Twitter visitors stay for 1 minute 14 seconds on the site, while Facebook visitors stay for 49 seconds.

The reddit event

Reddit is a ‘a social news and entertainment website where registered users submit content in the form of links or text posts’.  Paula sometimes submits links to the science section when the ICAMBlog is carrying something that we think might be of interest.  This was certainly case with ‘Exploding Bacteria for Science’, which picked up a lot of traffic from reddit, accounting in part for its high popularity.  In total, we have had 1,557 visitors come through reddit and another 488 through Stumbleupon (‘a form of web search engine that finds and recommends web content to its users’).  These account for quite a large chunk of our USA traffic to the site. The down side is that the average visit duration of a Reddit user is 3 seconds, while someone from Stumbleupon lasts for 9 seconds.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest that they are not actually reading the content.  So the moral is that while some approaches can boost our overall numbers, it is whether they stay around and actually read the articles that is important.

That big spike is people coming to the blog from reddit, staying 3 seconds and then leaving. The smaller spikes are our normal readership levels

Any Conclusions?

So have we been a success?  We think so but there is clearly a lot of room for improvement and scope to increase our readership. In the year ahead we certainly plan to continue our work on the blog and are very happy to welcome Suzanne Madgwick and Kevin Waldron to the blog team.  We will continue to highlight the science being produced in Newcastle but are thinking of broadening the scope of our articles.  For example, should we publish more opinion pieces and take a stand on the various issues confronting scientists today, both in and outside ICaMB?  We’d be very interested in hearing from you to let us know what you think. Comment is easy: tell us what you think and submit, no need to register or create an account. We would really like to hear from you, the reader that spends some time with us and reads all the way to end  – what kind of articles would you be interested in reading? Let us know!

A final word.  Those of us on the blog team would like to thank Phil Aldridge for all his help over the last year.  Phil has decided to step down from the blog after this first year but his input and enthusiasm has been crucial to getting things going and keeping the momentum up. Thanks Phil!