Biological Sciences researchers awarded prestigious Future Leader Fellowships
A prestigious fellowship will support five University of Leeds researchers addressing global challenges, three of whom are from the Faculty of Biological Sciences.
Today Universities Minister Chris Skidmore announced the next cohort of 78 Future Leader Fellows, which includes Dr Izzy Jayasinghe and Dr Laura Dixon, both from the Faculty of Biological Sciences, and Dr Karen Michelle Davies, who will join the Faculty in January as well as Dr Laura Carter from the Faculty of the Environment, Dr Richard Mann from the Faculty of Engineering and Physical Sciences.
Funded by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), the Future Leaders Fellowship provides funding and resources to the best early-career researchers and innovators from across universities, business and other organisations.
The fellows’ ground-breaking work forms a key part of maintaining the UK’s status at the forefront of cutting-edge research and innovation long into the future.
Universities Minister Chris Skidmore said “Research and innovation is vital to ensure the UK remains at the forefront of major scientific breakthroughs. In order to realise the full potential of these discoveries, big ideas need to be taken out of the lab and turned into real products and services, so they can actually change people’s lives.”
The new Future Leader Fellows at Leeds will be focusing on bolstering resilience in a rapidly changing world by examining risks and adaptability for plant and soil systems, understanding community interactions and developing new technology to better understand our biological environment.
Bringing the laboratory in to the field
Super-resolution microscopy allows us to visualise the smallest building blocks of any biological sample. The ability to examine the relevant genes, proteins and cellular components of a biological sample is vitally important for scientists across disciplines – including medical, conservation and industry work. Super-resolution microscopy equipment is currently extremely expensive and only available in a laboratory setting.
Dr Izzy Jayasinghe from the School of Biomedical Science will use a radical new approach to make super-resolution microscopy portable, cheap and easy to use. This will include harnessing a novel chemical reaction that allows scientists to physically inflate a desired feature of a sample by over a 1000 times. With the physical inflation of the sample, its finer features will then become easy to visualise with a simple microscope. The key breakthrough which allows this principle to be adapted to a portable and affordable imaging technology is the new insights into the chemistry underlying the inflation process.
Dr Jayasinghe said: “Super-resolution microscopy gives us a window into how molecules and cells are affected by their environment. This can give us insight into how climate change will affect our food sources and how lifestyle affects major human diseases and ageing.
“Super-resolution microscopy has remained beyond the reach of field scientists and clinicians because it has always relied upon specialist skill for its operations and expensive and bulky equipment for its implementation. By giving scientists working in the field these tools we can help them to tackle today’s global challenges more rapidly.”
To field test the developed equipment, Dr Jayasinghe will work in partnership with experts who collect samples outside of the academic laboratory. These will include a field scientist studying sea urchins in the UK coast; doctors and sports scientists examining needle biopsies taken from human patients; and a partner of the ‘Worms in Space’ programme who will use the equipment to study the effects of zero gravity on the ageing of microscopic worms sent beyond the earth’s gravitational field.
Avoiding a global food crisis
Changes to global temperatures and lengths of growing seasons have a significant impact on the amount of crops harvested every year. Wheat, which makes up a large portion of global calorific intake, is particularly sensitive to temperature, which regulates several stages its development.
Dr Laura Dixon from the School of Biology and Centre for Plant Sciences will lead a project to identify and understand the genes controlling the different temperature responses in wheat. Combining molecular biology, genetics and fieldwork, the aim is to develop and improve temperature robustness in wheat crops – maximising crop yields in the major types of bread wheat.
Dr Dixon said: “Worst case scenarios of global temperature changes would have a devastating impact on wheat crops around the world. Finding the means to regulate when and for how long a crop can be harvested would impact wheat growers across the world and potentially help safeguard our food supply in a rapidly changing climate.”
Harnessing photosynthesis for food and fuel
The rapidly growing global population means that demand for food and energy has never been higher. However, available land for crops is diminishing and continued reliance on fossil fuels is causing significant damage to the environment.
There is an urgent need to develop alternative clean renewable energy systems to power modern lifestyles as well as improve agricultural outputs.
Dr Karen Michelle Davies aims to advance the fundamental knowledge of the molecular events that occur in photosynthesis. She will focus specifically on an understudied aspect of the photosynthetic light reaction called cyclic electron flow (CEF), which ensures the correct ratio of cellular energy compounds are generated from sunlight to power the conversion of carbon dioxide and water into sugar.
By understanding this process in detail, it should be possible to manipulate the photosynthetic pathway of plants, cyanobacteria and algae so that they can generate more biomass or bioproducts under defined conditions.
Dr Davies said: “Understanding the complete process of photosynthesis is the key to unlocking the full potential of plants. Currently, very little is known about the molecular mechanism of the cyclic electron flow pathway.
“This project will give scientist the knowledgebase to start manipulating the efficacy of photosynthesis and could help us maximize crop yields and produce cost-effective green alternatives to fossil fuels.”
Tackling global challenges
The University of Leeds is a leader in addressing global challenges and is ranked in the top three UK universities for global funding success.
The new Future Leader Fellows join Dr Lauren Gregoire, Dr Katie McQuaid and Dr Alexander Valavanis who were announced as Fellows earlier this year – highlighting the University’s ability to attract world-leading researchers who are making a difference to the world around them.
Leeds has received more than £45 million from the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) over the last five years and supports more than 70 GCRF research projects across 30 different countries.
These projects range from research to improve the quality of life for people in developing countries, to building communities, developing skills and combating disease.
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