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.

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.

A CBCB Cell-ebration

Heath MurrayKevin WaldronEarlier this month, the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology held its inaugural Symposium. Here, the CBCB’s Heath Murray and Kevin Waldron tell us about what happened at the event.

One of the aspects of ICaMB that makes it a unique institute is the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB), a group of researchers who are focused on understanding fundamental biological questions using bacteria as model organisms. The CBCB was founded by Professor Jeff Errington FRS and is the world’s first major research centre with a focus on bacterial cell biology. Since its inception, CBCB has relocated to a purpose-built £30 million facility in the Baddiley-Clark Building, and has grown to include more than 20 different research groups. In a relatively short time, CBCB members have made outstanding contributions to our understanding of numerous aspects of fundamental cellular processes in a wide range of bacteria.

Prof Kenn Gerdes from the CBCB discusses how bacteria can form dormant variants that evade the immune defence response.

Prof Kenn Gerdes from the CBCB discusses how bacteria can form dormant variants that evade the immune defence response.

In order to recognise the success and the breadth of science being generated in the Centre, we recently held the inaugural CBCB Symposium on July 9-10. More than 120 members of the CBCB community participated in the two-day event, underscoring the critical mass of researchers at Newcastle University working within the field. This excellent turnout certainly contributed to the overall success of the event.

Research themes covered by talks from group leaders in the CBCB included sporulation, infection, persistence, biofilms, metabolism, motility, and morphogenesis. We also heard about the emerging subject of synthetic biology, where bacterial organisms will be programmed much like computers to perform discrete biological tasks.The CBCB Symposium was highlighted by inspirational talks from three distinguished external scientists, Jan Löwe (Laboratory of Molecular Biology, Cambridge), Mervyn Bibb (John Innes Centre, Norwich), and Simon Foster (Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Sheffield).

Prof Simon Foster explains how the superbug Staphylococcus aureus grows and divides.

Prof Simon Foster explains how the superbug Staphylococcus aureus grows and divides.

Professor Löwe discussed his work using a range of biochemical and structural approaches to analyse the bacterial cell division and morphogenesis machinery. Professor Bibb explained how his lab utilises a combination of next generation DNA sequencing and bioinformatics with classical genetic analysis to discover novel antibiotics. Professor Foster showed how studies on the fundamental aspects of bacterial cell biology can be harnessed to better understand host-pathogen interactions that can eventually be translated into vaccine development, with his focus on the ‘super bug’ Staphylococcus aureus..

Participants hold discussions over dinner and drinks following the Symposium.

Participants hold discussions over dinner and drinks following the Symposium.

At the end of the Symposium participants gathered together for dinner and drinks in the informal setting of the Forum. This provided an interactive end to the event that allowed researchers throughout the CBCB to meet one another, discuss the amazing science, and develop connections.

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: