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Williams

Professor Nicole Grobert, a nanomaterials scientist at Oxford University, has been awarded a Royal Society Industry Fellowship to work with Williams Advanced Engineering, part of the Williams group of companies that includes the Williams Martini Racing Formula One team. In doing so, she has become the first person to hold all three of the Royal Society’s Industry, University Research and the Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowships.

As part of her new industrial fellowship, Professor Grobert will support Williams Advanced Engineering's Technology Ventures Group to help bring emerging nanomaterials technologies and IP to market.

Nanomaterials, which exist in a range of different shapes and include the 'supermaterial' graphene, are so tiny that modern techniques such as advanced electron microscopy are required to see them. By definition, all nanomaterials are no bigger than 100 nanometres (100 billionths of a metre) in at least one direction.

Professor Grobert, who heads the Nanomaterials by Design Group in Oxford's Department of Materials, said: 'This Royal Society Industry Fellowship provides an excellent opportunity to bridge the gap between research and industry and help accelerate the commercialisation of this rapidly developing area of science. My group has already been working on a number of nanomaterial-application engineering projects with Williams, funded by Oxford's EPSRC Impact Acceleration Account, and I look forward to more innovation projects with Williams and the wider industry under this fellowship.'

She added: 'Nanomaterials is a hugely exciting field in which the possibilities are limitless. In theory, nanomaterials can outperform traditional materials. They can be highly conductive, lightweight and ultra-strong. If we tackle current practical challenges related to manufacturing, characterisation, processing and handling, nanomaterials could be the answer to many of modern society’s problems, including the ever-increasing demand for better energy and healthcare solutions.

'Williams Advanced Engineering inspired me to apply for this fellowship with their vision of delivering performance-engineered solutions that make a positive societal impact. Identified as one of the "eight GREAT technology areas" by the UK government, advanced materials combine both our science and business strengths, with UK material-related industries having a yearly turnover of £197 billion.

'Key to the success of nanomaterials is a multi-pronged approach – designing new, controlled production routes, combined with novel nano and classical materials, with end-user applications in mind. The Royal Society Industry Fellowship will enable this. In a few decades, nanostructured materials could easily exceed the importance that plastics have in our lives today.'

After completing her PhD, Professor Grobert joined Oxford and was awarded a Royal Society Dorothy Hodgkin Fellowship, followed by a Royal Society University Fellowship and an ERC Starting Grant. This long-term funding was crucial in helping Professor Grobert and other scientists at Oxford towards the challenging goal of taking blue-skies research to the next level by achieving the controlled production of new carbon and non-carbon-based nanomaterials – in particular, the structural control of nanomaterials down to the atomic level.

Craig Wilson, Managing Director of Williams Advanced Engineering, said: 'Williams Advanced Engineering is extremely excited about Nicole joining our team of experienced engineers, and being able to continue to offer her deep knowledge of materials science across our programmes and ventures to help ensure we can deliver state-of-the-art technology solutions.'

Professor Patrick Grant, Head of the Department of Materials at Oxford, added: 'With our strong history of collaboration with world-leading industries, we are delighted to participate in this Royal Society Industry Fellowship that will allow us to strengthen further our links with Williams Advanced Engineering. Through her earlier Royal Society-funded Dorothy Hodgkin and University Research Fellowships, Professor Grobert has generated the fundamental knowledge and facilities that allow large-scale, controlled manufacturing of nanomaterials in her laboratory. We are now looking forward to seeing the next generation of nanomaterials, designed at the Department, being incorporated in advanced engineering applications.'

DNA illustration

In a guest blog, Professor David Roberts from the Nuffield Division of Clinical Laboratory Sciences at Oxford University explains the role of non-DNA genetic information in disease and development.

One of the great mysteries in biology is how the many different cell types that make up our bodies are derived from a single cell and from one DNA sequence, or genome. We have learned a lot from studying the human genome, but have only partially uncovered the processes underlying cell determination and susceptibility to different diseases.

The differences in the number of cells and their function between people are partly dependent on the genetic variation in the DNA code. The identity of each cell type is largely defined by an instructive layer of molecular annotations on top of the genome – the epigenome – which acts as a blueprint, unique to each cell type and developmental stage. Unlike the genome, the epigenome is modified as cells develop and in response to changes in the environment.

We have helped compile a landmark global study to characterise the role of not only intrinsic genetic variants, but also epigenetic molecular tags that decorate our DNA code, in the formation of blood cells. The research, published as part of a suite of articles, delves into these genetic variations in blood cells and how they influence common diseases such as arthritis.

Defects in the factors that read, write and erase the epigenetic blueprint are involved in many diseases. Comprehensive analysis of the role of genetic variation, combined with the knowledge of the epigenomes of healthy and abnormal cells, will facilitate new ways to diagnose and treat various diseases, and ultimately lead to improved health outcomes.

Our team at National Health Service Blood and Transplant at the University of Oxford, collaborated with researchers at the University of Cambridge and the Sanger Institute to conduct an in-depth study of blood cell genetic profiles in more than 150,000 people. We integrated genetic and epigenetic information to define more than 2,500 previously undiscovered associations of genome regions with blood cell characteristics and functions.

This study has increased the number of known genetic variants associated with blood cell types tenfold – creating the potential to develop new treatments for blood cell diseases, auto-immune diseases and arthritis. For example, we have found strong associations with the epigenetic markers of the turnover of red blood cells (or high reticulocyte counts) and cardiovascular disease, as well as associations of genetic markers of the eosinophil white blood cell numbers and rheumatoid arthritis. Here, the study has opened up new or overlooked pathways and mechanisms that lie behind these major diseases.

Our paper is one of a suite of 41 coordinated papers published by scientists from across the International Human Epigenome Consortium (IHEC), shedding light on these processes and taking global research in the field of genomics and epigenomics a major step forward.

The full research paper can be read in Cell, and the complete collection of papers from the consortium can be read here (volume 1) and here (volume 2).

Lip-reading

Researchers in Oxford's Department of Computer Science are developing software to tackle the tricky business of lip-reading. With even the best human lip-readers limited in their ability to accurately recognise speech, artificial intelligence and machine learning could hold the key to cracking this problem.

While the new software, known as LipNet, is still in the early stages of development, it has shown great potential, achieving a performance of 93% against an existing lip-reading dataset.

Yannis Assael, a DPhil candidate in Oxford's Department of Computer Science who worked on the project, said: 'LipNet aims to help those who are hard of hearing. Combined with a state-of-the-art speech model, it has the potential to revolutionise speech recognition.

'The implications for the future could be quite significant. As we said in our LipNet paper's introduction, machine lip-readers have enormous practical potential, with applications in improved hearing aids, silent dictation in public spaces, covert conversations, speech recognition in noisy environments, biometric identification, and silent-movie processing.

'So far, we have compared the 93% performance of LipNet against human lip-reading experts – 52% – using the largest publicly available sentence-level lip-reading dataset, called the GRID corpus. LipNet also outperforms the best previous automatic lip-reading system, which achieved 80% on this dataset. And that system, unlike LipNet, predicts only words, not complete sentences.'

Brendan Shillingford, another Computer Science doctoral candidate who worked on the project, added: 'The GRID corpus has a fixed grammar and limited vocabulary, which is why LipNet performs so well there. Nonetheless, there are no signs that LipNet wouldn't perform well when trained on larger amounts of more varied data, and this is what we are working on now.

'In the future, we hope to test LipNet in a real-world setting, and we believe that extending our results to a large dataset with greater variation will be an important step in this direction.'

Defensive microbes

'Good bacteria' make diseases less deadly

Stuart Gillespie | 15 Nov 2016

In a new paper published in the journal Nature Communications, Oxford DPhil student Suzanne Ford from the Department of Zoology shows how the use of ‘good bacteria’ – or defensive microbes – could help fight diseases.

Using a microscopic worm infected both with a host-protective microbe and a harmful pathogen, the study demonstrates that the presence of a defensive microbe can force a pathogen to become less virulent.

Defensive microbes can also ‘steal’ vital proteins from pathogens to make themselves stronger, causing the pathogens to evolve to produce fewer such proteins. This, in turn, makes the defensive microbes weaker – but enough damage has already been done to the pathogen to stifle its future growth and virulence.

In a video produced by fellow Oxford DPhil student Sally Le Page for her ‘Shed Science’ YouTube series, Suzanne explains how, in the era of antibiotic resistance, alternative strategies for disease control are of the utmost importance.

How the brain coordinates copulation

How the brain coordinates copulation

Chris McIntyre | 15 Nov 2016

Scientists have identified the neural pathway in male fruit flies that allows them to perform their complex mating ritual, paving the way for deeper studies into sexual behaviour and how it can be modified by social experience.

A gene known as doublesex is responsible for the differences in anatomy and behaviour of males and females in many animal species. The male doublesex gene is active in around 650 neurons - specialised cells that transmit nerve impulses - with specific groups of cells controlling distinct steps in the courtship ritual. However, it was not known how these different steps are coordinated to ensure successful mating.

“Male fruit flies court females with a series of ‘hard-wired’ or genetically programmed behaviours, and failure during any part of the process may prevent reproduction,” says senior author and Wellcome Trust Senior Investigator Stephen Goodwin, from the Centre for Neural Circuits & Behaviour at the University of Oxford.

In their study, Goodwin and his team identified a circuit of doublesex-expressing neurons in males that controls the act of sex itself. Located in the fruit fly’s equivalent of the spinal cord, this circuit is made up of three key types of neurons: motor neurons, inhibitory interneurons, and mechanosensory neurons.

Hania Pavlou, lead author of the study and MRC Career Development Postdoctoral Fellow in Computational Genomics, added: “We found the exact motor neurons that control the male penis and enable sex to take place, in addition to a second group of inhibitory neurons that oppose the motor neurons and are involved in the uncoupling following sex.

“Using sophisticated genetics, we are able to perturb the activity of these neurons and stop males from mating. We also show that the mechanosensory neurons on the genitals feedback and potentially coordinate the activity of the other neurons to generate the correct balance of excitation and inhibition that is needed for copulation.”

The results suggest the doublesex gene configures a circuit specific to males, which allows them to successfully execute the correct action sequence for both the initiation and termination of sex.


The findings also indicate that the mechanics of copulation are separate from those of reproduction.

It has previously been shown that sperm transfer in fruit flies is controlled by a group of neurons that supply the reproductive glands with nerves and promote ejaculation. The new study reveals that the circuit controlling the act of sex is distinct from that involved in sperm transfer, although it may still help to modulate it. This suggests a mechanism for separating the pleasant sensation of sex from reproductive function.

Identifying the neural circuits that drive behaviours in fruit flies can provide scientists with an insight into the universal principles of how a nervous system can coordinate complex motor behaviours, such as walking, flying and sex.

The full study, which was funded by the Wellcome Trust, can be read in eLife Sciences.

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