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

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.

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!

Science Minister visits Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology


by Dr Heath Murray 

On June 27 the RH David Willetts MP, Minister for Universities and Science, visited the Centre for Bacterial Cell Biology (CBCB) to hear about how research on bacteria can lead to: development of novel antibiotics, design of synthetic biological systems, and even understanding the origins of life on earth. Dr Heath Murray (CBCB & ICaMB) tells us more about this visit.

Mr. Willetts was given a guided tour of the new Baddiley-Clark building by the director of the CBCB, Prof Jeff Errington.

Jeff (left) outlines CBCB research to David Willetts (right), with Heath (middle back) paying close attention

Jeff discussed why he left Oxford University after 25 years to start the CBCB at Newcastle, the first Centre of its kind in the UK to provide a world-class facility in which to carry out fundamental research on bacterial cells. During the tour Jeff highlighted how the localised network of international researchers at the CBCB, working on biological problems in model bacterial organisms provides an unparalleled setting in which to exchange ideas and to benefit from related advances in microbial cell biology. While walking around Jeff noted how the open plan of the Baddiley-Clark building promoted interactions amongst the various research groups, thereby creating a uniquely stimulating environment for the scientists that work there.

This was a very fruitful visit with interesting discussions, as highlighted by Jeff: “I was impressed at how quickly the Minister picked up the key biological points we wanted to make, such as about how our work impacts on thinking about the origins of life!

An image similar to those seen by David Willetts showing severe DNA segregation defect in a mutant Bacillus subtilis strain, observed using epifluorescent microscopy. (DNA: blue; origin of replication: green, cell membrane: red)


I then demonstrated the bespoke microscopes available within the CBCB to the Minister, highlighting how the small size of bacterial cells (only a few micrometers) makes microscopic analysis technically challenging and how the CBCB is utilizing state-of-the-art super-resolution microscopes to overcome this difficulty. I also explained how researchers use genetic engineering to fuse their “proteins of interest” to the Green Fluorescent Protein (GFP) from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, thus creating tools to visualize the localization of proteins or nucleic acids within living bacterial cells using fluorescence microscopy.


Heath explains the potential applications of the research to the Science Minister


The Minister was keen to see the live demonstration of our fluorescent microscope and seemed amazed by how clearly the organization of the bacterial chromosomes was immediately apparent. He quickly appreciated that interfering with this process might have application in the development of new antibiotics.



We were all left with the clear feeling that Mr. Willetts enjoyed hearing about the science taking place within the CBCB and how this fundamental research provides insights crucial for the discovery and development of new antibiotics, as well as providing solutions to a wide range of industrial and environmental problems. “It was an interesting meeting – very reassuring to hear that the Minister is keen to make sure that Government continues to invest in Blue-Skies Research”, Jeff concluded.