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Fellowship success for Biosciences researchers

Four members of Biosciences staff have been awarded prestigious national research fellowships, it has been announced.

Dr Elizabeth Williams, Dr Jonathan Phillips, Dr Joseph Costello and Dr Helen Fones

Dr Jonathan (JJ) PhillipsDr Helen Fones (Eyles) and Dr Joseph Costello have all been awarded UKRI Future Leader Fellowships.

They are part of a cohort of 90 new Fellows to be funded through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI)’s flagship initiative, which will help researchers and businesses to tackle some of today’s most pressing global challenges.

Dr Elizabeth Williams has been awarded a BBSRC David Phillips fellowship: a five-year award of up to £1million. The fellowship will provide support for Dr Williams to set up her first independent research group studying the neuronal bases of interactions between annelid larvae and diatoms.

Dr Williams is currently part of Professor Gáspár Jékely's research group in the Living Systems Institute, where she uses molecular biology approaches to study the ecology, evolution and development of marine invertebrate larvae.

Dr Jonathan Phillips will lead a research project called Protein Choreography, which will answer key questions in the molecular mechanisms of life and will develop new tools for biotechnology and new therapeutics.

The pioneering project will seek to develop a “molecular movie camera” – studying the movement of protein molecules to understand how enzymes catalyse the processes that underpin life, disease and medicine in the human body.

The project will allow Dr Phillips, and his collaborating researchers at the University of Zurich, to produce data-driven videos of how proteins are moving and so gain a greater understanding of the processes behind those movements. They will then use that information to design new ‘allosteric’ medicines and new biotechnological tools.

Dr Phillips said: “This is a tremendous opportunity to dedicate myself to making a step change in the way we view protein molecules. This work aims to understand how the dynamic changes of these tiny molecules underpin living systems and how we can harness that to create new medicines and biotechnologies.”

Dr Joseph Costello will seek to explore how different compartments inside cells communicate, and what happens when this communication breaks down.

The project, called “The Redox Triangle”, will use mammalian cells to investigate how three compartments (or organelles) - the endoplasmic reticulum, peroxisomes and mitochondria - communicate. These organelles are the major centres in the cell which are involved in both lipid exchange and the production and detoxification of waste products in the form of reactive oxygen species.

This novel and extremely exciting area of cell biology promises to deliver fundamental insights into organelle interactions events in cells and also establish how this fits into the broader cellular signalling network and how failure to communicate may be linked to disease.

Dr Costello said: "I am hugely excited to be given the opportunity to explore this novel and exciting area of research and look forward to starting my research programme".

Dr Helen Fones, a Biosciences Research Fellow who specialises in plant pathology, has also received a Fellowship for her project entitled Epiphytic ecology and nutrition for control of a wheat pathogen”.

Dr Fones’ research concerns Europe’s most problematic pathogen of wheat, the fungus Zymoseptoria tritici. Wheat yields can be reduced by this fungus by 10%, despite growing the most resistant wheat varieties and treating them with fungicide.

Dr Fones’ research has highlighted some unusual features of the way that the fungus interacts with the wheat plant, and she will use the FLF to investigate this in more detail. She will determine how the fungus obtains nutrients early in infection and how this may be influenced by other microbes on the leaf surface, as well as by the plants’ defences.

This work is designed to identify new ways to control the fungus, reducing our reliance on fungicides in agriculture. Reducing fungicide use is increasingly important, as fungi are becoming resistant to fungicides used in agriculture. Since this resistance can sometimes move from fungi that infect crops into fungi that infect us, this research is important for human health, as well as food security.

Date: 30 March 2020

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