Think Biophysics, Think Harwell
16 Mar 2016



International scientists came together for a mini-symposium to celebrate Biophysics Week at STFC’s Rutherford Appleton Laboratory on Friday 11th March.

​Gram negative bacterial membrane model

At the meeting, leading experts who apply the laws of physics to biological phenomena, in a field known as Biophysics, presented the latest developments in their research, from ‘pizza’ proteins to bacterial models.​

Biophysics societies are celebrating 60 years of research in the field this year. Biophysics is a well-established field in which scientists study biology using physical methods and theories. Facilities at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Research Complex at Harwell and Diamond are ideally placed for biophysical research owing to the combination of instrumentation and expertise.

To celebrate Biophysics week, organised by the Biophysical Society, a series of talks were presented at the Research Complex at Harwell, covering the latest developments in this field. 

Professor Tony Watts, University of Oxford and Chair of the British Biophysical Society kicked off proceedings with an introductory talk. The scientific talks were then introduced by Dr Dave Scott, a Biophysicist from the University of Nottingham who works at the Research Complex at Harwell and ISIS Neutron and Muon Source.

The first scientific talk of the day was given by Professor Jeremy Tame from the Protein Design Laboratory at Yokohama City University, Japan. Professor Tame’s research has recently centred around the design of proteins with novel structural functions. He spoke about his “Pizza” proteins, so called because the protein is a triangular shape much like a slice of pizza, which then self-assembles to form a hexamer, or whole pizza. By changing the specificity of the residues, he is able to affect their structural properties, how tightly they bind, as well as forming large 2D arrays.

The second scientific talk was from Dr Corinne Smith of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick. Dr Smith is one of the UK’s experts in determining the shape and conformation of proteins using cryo-electron microscopy. She discussed her results obtained over many years on the cage-like protein clathrin which is now approaching atomic resolution. As a user of the ISIS Neutron and Muon Source, Dr Smith discussed her recent SANS results and how they potentially contribute to our understanding of how clathrin assembles.

Finally Professor Jeremy Lakey from Newcastle University spoke about the model membrane system that mimics the inner and outer membranes in Gram negative bacteria such as E.coli, which he constructed over many years. Much of this work has been carried out at ISIS and Diamond, as well as the Central Laser Facility. The system is now quite advanced, with proteins that span the membrane being able to be studied, and the model provides a platform for looking at the action of antibiotic mechanisms. Further information on the model can be found on the IS​IS website.

Gram negative bacterial membrane model

“Our work using neutrons at the STFC ISIS Facility has enabled us to build a model bacteria which we can use to test the effects of antibiotics. Neutrons can be used as a molecule microscope to provide pictures of how molecules fit together. In this case we are trying to understand how the outer surface of some bacteria enables them to resist antibiotics. We created a simulated bacterial surface 30,000 times thinner than a sheet of paper and used neutrons to show how it reacted to different antibacterial molecules. In the future we hope to understand how to make molecules that penetrate the bacteria better and get around the defences of some disease causing bugs,” said Professor Jeremy Lakey

“I am very happy to be invited to present at this Biophysics week event. Our research involves classical examples of biophysics; using methods which originated in the physics lab to solve real life biological challenges,” Professor Lakey added.

 Professor Watts ended the proceedings and reflected on what Harwell brings to research in Biophysics. He said: “[Harwell is an] appropriate location for this event, the last of eight in the UK celebrating Biophysics Week to raise the profile of biophysics with the community, with the funding councils and with the public. This is a great location because it brings together so many biophysical methodologies that include neutrons, synchrotrons, electron microscopy, laser facility, NMR, protein production and all the other activities that go on at this site. So it’s been a perfect location for this particular event, and I hope it might become an annual event and gain still wider participation and appreciation on the site.”​