4 September 2016
The East Anglia branch came together on a bright September day for the AGM.The location was lovely - Chilford Hall and its gardens were an excellent location to enjoy the meeting, filled with interesting architecture and many a sculpture. After an active AGM discussion, a scrumptious afternoon tea was well deserved.
We then took a tour of the vinery and winery. The tour was incredibly detailed, covering the entire wine making process from the management of the vines, the pruning and picking of the grapes, through to the processing, fermentation, blending and bottling. The tour guide, Ged Bell, spends his time working on all aspects of the process and really brought the whole journey to life.
The, finally, the bit everyone had been waiting for - the wine tasting! We tried six different wines, all with different flavours and bouquets. The tour guide explained what the wines were, how they were made and how their tastes varied. It really made you appreciate the wine, once you realised how much effort had gone into the whole production. When the last drop had been drunk, it was time to leave a successful and a fun AGM.
4 June 2016
Honey bees are so important to the environment, yet never have they faced so many threats to their survival. East Anglia members visited the Huntingdonshire Beekeepers Association at their apiary in Hinchingbrooke Country Park to learn more about these fascinating creatures and to get hands on experience of working hives.
Our visit began with a short talk about the apiary, the types of hives, and what we might see. Despite a few reservations, every member put on a bee suit and went into the apiary to meet the bees. We saw how the health of a colony is checked, and found eggs, larvae, and the queen in most of the 16 hives. Members got hands on – feeling the weight of the frames, seeing the incredible activity, and hearing the sounds of the hive – a rare opportunity for which one member had driven over 90 miles!
During the session, the beekeepers discovered a new queen, and we saw her being marked. After a couple of hours in the apiary, one of the colonies became agitated and we were told the bees may be deciding to swarm. It was time for us to return to the bee free gallery for tea and cake, and a chat with the beekeepers. After the opportunity to see what activity bees are doing when not visiting our gardens, we were left with a new respect for the hard working honey bee.
17 February 2016
British American Tobacco (BAT) opened its doors to 20 members for a behind the scenes look at their research and development laboratories in Cambridge. Special thanks to BAT staff that helped during the visit; David Wrycraft, Louise Jones, Luke Richards, Susie Davenport, Kirsty Forsyth, and Deidre Wylie, who fielded questions and joined in discussions throughout the tour.
BAT Cambridge has recently undergone a program of lab refurbishment, which we were able to see. We saw what BAT is doing in terms of tobacco harm reduction, including research into how to reduce the concentrations of toxicants in cured tobacco. This may be done either with traditional breeding or more contemporary molecular techniques, using state of the art biochemical systems to analyse their results.
Small interactive and informative talks were given at each area by staff members, and we were able to see how to cultivate an entire plant from just a leaf disc.
After lunch there was an opportunity to network with the other members of staff at BAT we learnt a great deal about what they are doing to make smoking less harmful.
20 January 2016
Naomi Chapman, education and outreach officer of The Polar Museum and Scott Polar Research Institute, conducted a very insightful tour for 19 members from across East Anglia and Beds, Herts & Essex.
The geologist Frank Debenham formed ideas for the establishment of a polar research centre, having been trapped in Antarctic blizzards in 1912. In 1920 he established the Scott Polar Institute, and the museum was completed in 1934. It remains a repository for over 10,000 polar artefacts, with a rolling exhibition and other artefacts kept in deep freeze vaults.
Of course there are many exhibits belonging to the ill-fated Scott exhibition of 1912, including personal letters – it was difficult not to be moved by these. Scott heavily documented his expedition which has proved of immense historical value.
The museum has many items from the polar regions from old to new such as a beautifully beaded anorak from West Greenland and the much travelled telescope from HMS Discovery (British Artic Expedition, 1875-76) and Scott’s ship Discovery (British Antarctic Expedition, 1901-04), which was taken into space on the shuttle Discovery in 1984.
Having visited this museum many times before, one thing I learnt from the guided tour was that penguins are hidden in the paintings of the Artic and Antarctica on the ceilings of the Memorial Hall. The paintings were completed by Macdonald Gill in situ in 1934. The penguins are not painted in, so are challenging to see, but if you want a tip look at the Astrolabe Peninsula.
There is a repeat unguided visit on the 1st October 2016.
16 January 2016
The East Anglia members had a surprising treat when visiting Cambridge Sewage Treatment Works on a frosty Saturday morning in January.
Ceri Williams, Cambridge Water recycling manager, gave an incredibly informative tour of the works. You could see the works while it was operational, from the not-too-pleasant influent right through to good-quality fertiliser. And we were so close to the processes that you could almost touch it (not that you would want to, of course!). Regardless, the quality of the tour was exceptional, with Ceri showing true patience while answering the many questions which we had been inspired to ask.
There were also members of the Anglian Water laboratory team, who were able to identify the microorganisms in different sewage samples, shown by videos of microscopy. It was interesting to get a more first-hand perspective of these organisms, from the people who actually try to identify them on a day-to-day basis. They did a superb job, especially because they were put on the spot with the questioning.
Marcia Davies, community education team manager, did an excellent job of organising the day with Natalie Lamb, Chair of RSB East Anglia branch and assistant operational scientist at Anglian Water. Marcia also provided us with some brilliant food and a much-needed cup of tea after the tour (and after a good hand-washing).
Mr Andrew Buchan Notman CBiol MRSB said:
"Thank you for the visit yesterday. It was very interesting and enjoyable... Please also thank Ceri Williams and the staff for explaining all the details and answering all the many questions, along with the refreshments. It completed the visit."
24 April 2014
The "Contemporary Research in..." series, which involves young scientists at PhD or Post-Doc level at local universities and research institutes talking about their research, began in 2013. After successful evening events in biochemistry and pathology last year, our spring 2014 talk moved to plant science, with all our speakers coming from the University of Cambridge.
Sarah Covshoff talked about her work to increase the photosynthetic efficiency of rice. Her research is funded by the C4 Rice Consortium, which is supported by the International Rice Research Institute and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Of the two different types of photosynthetic plant – C3 and C4 – C4 plants have a mechanism that enhances yield by maximising CO2 capture from the air. Sarah and the rest of the consortium aims to introduce a gene cluster of 20+ genes derived from C4 plants into the rice genome, increasing grain yield while decreasing water and nitrate demands. This project has huge potential in enhancing food security in parts of the world reliant on rice as the staple crop.
Johan Kudahl explained how modelling biological systems could help reduce the production costs of biodiesel from algae, currently six times more expensive than equivalent fuels. Modelling biological systems can show us how we might manipulate enzyme production and use different media to enhance growth and productivity. With this research, biofuels may be an increasing part of the solution to energy demands.
Yoan Coudert's work looks at the genetic mechanisms which allowed land plants to develop their form, how a single-stemmed ancestor like a moss with determinate growth evolved to form plants with indeterminate growth and a branched structure. We explored the question: can we create extinct early land plants? The simple answer was no. In the same way as Jurassic Park was a work of fiction to recreate dinosaurs, 450 million old DNA can't be used to recreate the first land plants.
Paul Grant explained how he uses E. coli to study synthetic pattern-forming genetic circuits. Understanding pattern-formation in these simple systems may throw light on mechanisms operating in higher organisms. We look forward to our next talk in the series.
14 October 2013
Twenty five East Anglia branch members were privileged to visit Bluegnome Ltd, Cambridge, one of the UK's fastest growing biotech companies. Along with its holding company Illumina, it is at the frontline in IVF technology and rapid DNA analysis. The state of the art laboratories demonstrated the advanced automation in this industry.
Professor Alan H Handyside, head of preimplantation genetics at Bluegnome and the University of Leeds, outlined the IVF timeline from pioneers Edwards and Steptoe and the first IVF live birth in 1978 through to the current role of Preimplantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD). This contributes to 5000 (1%) of UK births each year. This screening method is used to monitor preimplantation embryo development.
Array CGH (Comparative genomic hybridisation) is used to detect abnormalities of chromosome number (aneuploidy), which increases exponentially in women in their late 30s and early 40s. This diagnostic test analyses the chromosome composition of oocyte polar bodies or single embryo cells and can detect aneuploidy for any of the 22 pairs of autosomes and the sex chromosomes. Dr Marc Botcherby described how Array CGH testing at blastocyst stage is used in both prenatal and post natal testing.
Dr Russell Grocock reminded us that DNA is one of the world's longest molecules. We each have enough DNA to stretch to the sun and back more than 300 times! Russell described the Next Generation Sequencing (NGS) protocol to prepare a DNA sample for synthesis and sequencing.
Dr Mark Ross addressed the wide-ranging applications of NGS in forensics, agronomy, infectious disease outbreaks, antibiotic resistance, and cancer research and diagnosis, possibly because NGS produces large amounts of sequence data from many individuals, cheaply and quickly.
Bluegnome's hospitality and the speakers' generosity with their professional time were most appreciated.
6 October 2012
"You can eat all fungi...at least once". This popular saying amongst field mycologists was our first piece of advice from guide, Dr Tony Leech, the fungus specialist for the Norfolk and Norwich Naturalists Society and founder of the Norfolk Fungus Study Group. On his instruction we dispersed in all directions and within minutes, handfuls of specimens were being thrust in Tony's direction.
With so many specimens to be found, it took over an hour just to get out of the car park. Once into the arboretum proper, with its closer cropped turf and different woodland flora, a whole new selection of species came to light.
Amongst our finds, were shaggy ink cap, amethyst deceiver, honey fungus, false chanterelle, wood blewit, russulas, the occasional cep and the rather beautiful coral fungus. Not all species are readily identified in the field, so a number of our finds went straight into the basket and back to the lab for closer scrutiny.
Tony commented that he'd never had a group quite like ours, who stopped and listened to his every pronouncement, photographed the specimens and took detailed notes – perhaps not too surprising though, for members of the Society of Biology. Having overrun our allotted time we had only explored around 300 metres into the main arboretum; more for another day's exploration.
16 June 2012
In 1995 Lakenheath Fen was a 740 hectare site of farmland, growing carrots between stands of poplar. Today it's an RSPB reserve of rich biodiversity, home to golden oriole, many pairs of nesting marsh harrier, bearded tit, bittern, reed warbler, reed bunting and the recent colonising crane.
David White, information officer for Lakenheath, led a fascinating walk. Before setting off David warn us about "Jack", a young jackdaw, the self-appointed gatekeeper who welcomes visitors. Sure enough after 50 metres there was Jack, soon hopping on willing hands, shoulders and heads. We hadn't anticipated being quite so close to nature!
Marsh harriers were ever present, hunting over the extensive reed beds after another successful breeding season. The reed beds are a tribute to the back-breaking work by volunteers who planted 250,000 reeds by hand. The day was a bit windy so no bearded tits flying but plenty of reed and sedge warblers singing and a cuckoo telling us that the warblers better get ready for an unexpectedly large chick.
During our walk we gained a full appreciation of the conservation efforts shaping the reserve now and into the future. Paramount is to control water. A system of sluices control water levels and over 4km of channels were added to the existing ditch network to move water around the site.
In 17 years Lakenheath has become a magnet for birders and nature enthusiasts alike. A visit is highly recommended.