Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
13 Jun 2018
Each year scientists pair up with UK parliamentarians to gain an insight into each other’s worlds, as part of the Royal Society’s Parliamentary Pairing Scheme. Glenn Masson, a postdoc from the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge, shares his experience of welcoming an MP into his lab.
Daniel Zeichner, MP for Cambridge, arrived on my doorstep at midday. My lab doorstep that is, at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). He was here to shadow my day and see what we researchers spend our days doing with public funding.
Image credit: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology
My week in Parliament – the first leg of our exchange – exposed me to the breadth of MP’s interests. As we briskly made our way around Westminster, national and European headlines ran alongside constituents’ concerns; Daniel’s attention was dragged from one issue to the next at an unrelenting pace. [...]
Continue reading: A parliamentary lab meeting
28 Apr 2016
This image has been created by a team at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) in collaboration with the University of Exeter and Birkbeck College and, for the first time, shows a detailed structure of a ‘lysenin pore’. Dr Christos Savva, an Electron Microscopy Facility scientist at the MRC LMB spoke to Sylvie Kruiniger about why understanding these structures could be the key to treating many different diseases.
It may look like some kind of technicolour mushroom but this teeny structure is actually a cell-attacking pore made of just nine proteins. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: a tiny cell-killing drill
23 Sep 2015
Sir John Sulston is best known for the leading role he played in the Human Genome Project. But earlier in his career, he studied the development of the nematode worm. Sarah Harrop tells the story behind a lab notebook entry which contributed to a Nobel Prize-winning breakthrough.
A page from John Sulston’s 1980 lab notebook showing his cell-tracking method (Image: Wellcome Images under CC BY 4.0)
These intricate biro scribblings are from the 1980 lab notebook of Sir John Sulston, completed when he was a young postdoc at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. They’re the result of hours spent staring at the embryos of nematode worms under the microscope, hand-drawing their tiny cells as they divided.
Early 1980s technology wasn’t up to photographing the cells at a high enough resolution to see them dividing. So John took on the ambitious task of watching and recording each and every cell division of the developing embryo to trace the origin of each cell. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Sir John Sulston’s worm cell drawings
17 Aug 2015
They started out as a useful tool for studying the immune system in the lab and now they’re a family of drugs treating millions of patients, with global revenues of nearly $75 billion in 2013. MRC funding and researchers have been entwined with the monoclonal antibodies story from the very beginning. Forty years ago this month, Nature published a paper by César Milstein and Georges Köhler which described how they’d made mouse monoclonal antibodies. Here we look at the landmarks on the 40-year journey.
They can fight disease, determine blood types, and diagnose pregnancy in minutes. Such varied uses, but the usefulness of monoclonal antibodies actually lies in their uniformity.
Antibodies are proteins that recognise and fight foreign invaders, such as bacteria or viruses. Monoclonal antibodies are tailored in the lab to recognise specific desirable targets, such as a marker on a cancer cell or a pregnancy hormone. They are then churned out in their identical multitudes, ready to become a drug, a diagnostic test, or a probe to study disease in the lab. [...]
Continue reading: From tool to therapy: a timeline of monoclonal antibody technology
13 Aug 2015
Today would have been the 97th birthday of Fred Sanger, double Nobel Prize winner and inventor of DNA sequencing. As her new online exhibition about Sanger’s life and work launches, Dr Lara Marks of the Department of Social Science, Health and Medicine at King’s College London, looks back on his path to the development of DNA sequencing and its application in medicine.
(Image copyright: Mark Ordish)
This picture, taken in 1934, shows a 16-year-old Sanger almost slap-bang in the middle of a group of boys at Bryanston School, a private school for boys in Dorset. Reflecting his smallness in the photo, Sanger was nicknamed ‘Mouse’ at school, perhaps due to a combination of his size and relative shyness.
Behind Fred’s left shoulder is his brother Theo. It was Theo’s passion and explorations of nature in the family garden that helped awaken Sanger’s interest in science.
Another significant member of the party, in the middle of the front row, is Fred’s chemistry and house master Henry Geoffrey Ordish. Having studied chemistry at Cambridge University and pursued research at the Cavendish Laboratory, Ordish was a powerful influence on Sanger and his decision to pursue a scientific career. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: Fred Sanger’s schooldays
2 Jul 2015
Being able to grow rudimentary brain tissue in the lab means that researchers can study organ development and disease. But how do you go from stem cells to a ‘mini-brain’? Ben Martynoga reports for the Long + Short.
A cross-section of a cerebral organoid or ‘mini-brain’ (Image copyright: IMBA/ Madeline A. Lancaster)
It sounds like witchcraft. Scientists take a sample of your skin, transform the skin cells into stem cells, and from these grow pea-sized blobs of brain. Living, human brain, built from your cells.
Back in 2010, Madeline Lancaster, the inventor of this powerful new procedure, was fresh from her PhD in California, and learning the ropes in a new lab in Vienna. She set out to grow brain cells on the flat bottom of the Petri dish. But many cells refused to stay put: they floated up and massed into small balls. This was a familiar problem, but it piqued Lancaster’s interest.
How big could the balls grow? She encased them in protective jelly and agitated her broth, so nutrients and oxygen could penetrate deeper. Eventually, in 2013, she coaxed them into growing up to several millimetres across.  This was new. [...]
Continue reading: How to grow a ‘brain’
17 Dec 2014
Pat Edwards is a Research Support Technician in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB) in Cambridge. She spoke to The Long+Short about her job.
Pat Edwards (Image copyright: Chris Tate)
I suppose I am an archetypal technician. We have a lot of new people just trying to work out what’s going on, so I’m a knowledge base for a lot of the things, the methods and technologies, which go on in the lab.
We do structural biology of membrane proteins, which has huge implications for medicine. I do anything from expressing those proteins, to purification and crystallisation. I work with my boss and a postdoc on a project that will change depending on who that is. My work is acknowledged and I am always on the papers that result from it.
My background is an applied biology degree. I was interested in doing science, but not in doing a PhD – I’m not very good at studying, but I’m a very practical person. My first job was actually here in the LMB, and I guess I really learnt the trade, if you could call it that, in the lab – which is really the more practical side of science. [...]
Continue reading: Practical science: the lab technician
12 Dec 2014
Christmas decoration? Modern art? Anything to do with science at all? Of course it is. As well as being pretty to look at, this little grid full of holes could have a big impact on microscopy. Dr Chris Russo, a researcher at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB) and the person who took the photo, explains more.
It might look like something you should hang on your wall, but this picture is actually a close-up of a tiny gold device that could allow researchers to unravel the details of how the complex biological machines inside cells work.
Working with Dr Lori Passmore, I have used this ‘grid’, which costs just a few pounds to make, to almost double the image quality of a multi-million pound electron microscope.
We then used it to determine the structure of a protein called ferritin, a small protein cage which stores the iron that cells need to function, and a particularly tough structure to determine. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: New microscope tech that’s as good as gold
15 Jul 2014
Dr Lori Passmore is head of the Mechanisms of Macromolecular Machines group in the Structural Studies Division at the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology (LMB). She showed Isabel Baker around her shiny new office where she approaches biological questions using structural biology methods.
These coasters were made by a friend of mine who does glass fusing. She’s put some actual electron microscopy (EM) grids, which we use to image proteins, inside the glass. Each grid is 3mm in diameter, made of a disc of metal such as copper or gold, often with a layer of carbon on top. To use these grids in the lab, we pipette a few microlitres of protein in solution on top and remove the excess solution, leaving a thin layer containing the protein. For cryo-EM – where we freeze the samples at liquid nitrogen temperature to preserve them in the vacuum of the microscope – the carbon has holes in it. When you freeze the grid, the protein molecules are trapped in ice suspended across the holes. We then image the protein, in the suspension of ice across the grid. [...]
Continue reading: What’s in a work space? Lori Passmore and her images of science
12 May 2014
Max Perutz, the Austrian-born molecular biologist who founded the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology in 1962, won the Nobel Prize for his work deciphering the structure of the blood protein haemoglobin. But he was also a passionate writer and speaker committed to revealing the intricacies of science to new audiences. As we launch the 2014 Max Perutz Science Writing Award, Katherine Nightingale looks back on his forays into the world of words.
Max Perutz being filmed for a BBC television programme circa 1960 (Image copyright: MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology)
Max Perutz knew that there were parallels to be drawn between scientists and writers. In one of his collections of essays, he wrote “Imagination comes first in both artistic and scientific creation ― which makes for one culture rather than two…”
He had a long-held interest in words, keeping a book in which he wrote down quotations that struck him as particularly good, and was a prolific writer of letters to family, friends and colleagues. He began writing popular science articles for magazines such as New Scientist and Scientific American in the 1940s, sometimes about his own research, and sometimes on more personal notes, such as a later New Scientist article on his founding of the LMB.
His popular science articles were full of the analogies and examples to make his research understandable to the general reader. Like many writers, he wasn’t a fan of being edited. [...]
Continue reading: Max Perutz: science communicator