BBSRC injects £12m into pioneering frontier bioscience research

Test-tubes with reflections on a colored background.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is set to fund 62 visionary projects that could revolutionise our understanding of the rules of life.

Sixty-two researchers across the UK will receive a share of £12 million to pursue novel bioscience research.

From lessons in regeneration that we can learn from rejuvenating jellyfish to the effect sleep has on our genetic ageing, each of the projects will explore early-stage ideas at the frontiers of bioscience.

Radical research

By drawing upon unconventional thinking and approaches, the investigators hope to make exciting discoveries with the potential to transform our understanding of the fundamental rules of life.

These new investigations aim to radically change the way we think about important biological phenomena covering plant, microbial and animal sciences.

The investment by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s (BBSRC) Pioneer Awards enables the pursuit of unique ideas that challenge current thinking or open up novel areas of exploration.

Cracking the code of immortality

In the world of biology, there’s very little dispute that once animals reach adulthood, they cannot turn back the clock. That’s because their cells transform into specific types and cannot change back.

However, the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish defies this rule. It can transform its adult cells back into a youthful state, essentially becoming young again and granting itself a form of immortality.

In a research first, scientists at Cardiff University will delve into the genetic secrets behind this remarkable phenomenon to unpack the molecular mechanisms that underpin this astonishing physiological process.

This ground-breaking research could transform our understanding of ageing, regenerative medicine and developmental biology.

Secret fungal travellers

Fungi can exchange genetic traits through a process called horizontal gene transfer (HGT), allowing the spread of potentially dangerous traits like virulence and antibiotic resistance.

Recent research has hypothesised that HGT in fungi may be driven by a class of giant transposons called ‘starships’. These starships are thought to contain both the genetic material to be shared and the machinery needed to excise and re-insert themselves into a host genome.

With this latest funding, researchers at the University of Birmingham will investigate these intriguing phenomena to answer key questions about evolutionary biology.

A more thorough understanding of the mechanisms that govern fungal HGT could pave the way for new innovations that prevent the spread of fungal diseases and antibiotic resistance.

Unlocking nature’s GPS

A bird’s ability to navigate during migration has long fascinated scientists. It is believed they can sense Earth’s magnetic fields, aiding their coordination during migration. This phenomenon, called magnetoreception, involves proteins sensing magnetic fields and influencing the bird’s behaviour.

Current consensus among researchers is that this ability is linked to two specific chemical radicals in the bird’s eyes, formed by a protein called cryptochrome. However, this theoretical model fails to explain the remarkable sensitivity that migratory birds have to Earth’s weak magnetic field.

With BBSRC funding, researchers at the University of Exeter will challenge current thinking with a new hypothesis; that not two, but three radicals are involved in the process.

Regardless of whether the central hypothesis is confirmed or not, the outcomes of this pioneering research will significantly advance the field. This is because the scientific basis for how animals sense magnetic fields has never been experimentally proven.

Deep roots in bioscience

Professor Guy Poppy, Interim Executive Chair at BBSRC, said:

Understanding the fundamental rules of life, such as the principles governing genetics, evolution and biological processes, is essential for advancing scientific knowledge. It is also imperative to societal progress.

Many of the challenges faced by today’s society, such as global food security, environmental sustainability and healthcare, are deeply rooted in biological processes.

BBSRC is committed to understanding the rules of life by investing in cutting-edge discovery research through schemes like the Pioneer Awards pilot. Our investments are pivotal in expanding the horizons of human knowledge and helping to unlock innovative bio-based solutions to some of the world’s most pressing challenges.

Learn more about how BBSRC’s investments are expanding the frontiers of human knowledge and understanding.

Further information

BBSRC Pioneer Awards projects

Aston University

A novel gliovascular interface on a chip to study the molecular mechanisms of brain waste clearance

Led by Roslyn Bill

This project will accelerate research into understanding the precise molecular details of how the brain clears waste products. This fundamental knowledge could be used to slow cognitive decline as we age.

Babraham Institute

Elucidating the contribution of mRNA oxidation to protein aggregation

Led by Ian McGough

The functional decline of ageing tissues is accelerated by the formation of age-dependent protein aggregates. This project will investigate whether modified messenger RNAs (mRNA) are the origins of protein aggregates, potentially revolutionising therapeutic strategies to prevent protein aggregation.

Interspecies cell fusions to dissect the species-specific rates of development

Led by Teresa Rayon

This innovative research aims to explore the genetic mechanisms that drive developmental pace, opening up entirely new research streams in the field of developmental timing.

Extracellular histones as physiological cell communication signals that modulate cell fate

Led by Maria Christophorou

This research will explore a radical new idea in cell-cell communication as it investigates a novel biological function for histone proteins that could have far-reaching implications for cell biology research and biomedicine.

Do stubborn drug resistant fungal infections circumvent the rules of adaptive evolution?

Led by Jonathan Houseley

This research will provide a pivotal piece of understanding about how fungal species become drug resistant, potentially revealing mechanisms to protect people and food supplies from fungal pathogens.

Cardiff University

Plant Reproduction: do pistil microRNAs communicate with pollen tubes?

Led by Barend de Graaf

The curious case of Turritopsis dohrni jellyfish, elucidating epigenetic principles of immortality

Led by Tomasz Jurkowski

This research aims to better understand the molecular mechanisms that underpin the physiological processes of the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish, potentially transforming our understanding of ageing, regenerative medicine and developmental biology.

Durham University

Exploring stem cell signalling dynamics in vivo

Led by David Doupe

This research will make new genetic tools and use live intravital imaging to characterise the temporal dynamics of conserved signals that regulate intestinal stem cells in the fruit fly.

Francis Crick Institute

Digitally dissecting regions of the developing ovary

Led by Robin Lovell-Badge and Güneş Taylor

To better understand the female reproductive system, this research will build a digital map of the ovary as it undergoes development in both fertile and infertile mice.

Polysynaptic tracing of neural circuits

Led by Johannes Kohl

Brain functions are controlled by complex networks, but visualising such networks in the mammalian brain is challenging. This project will develop a multistep approach to trace complex circuits in the mouse brain.

Imperial College London

A three-dimensional view of the central dogma of molecular biology

Led by Jose Jimenez

This project will investigate how the physical location of genes inside a cell plays a role in controlling their expression and whether this distribution is shaped by evolution.

James Hutton Institute

Shining light on the ‘dark matter’ of shotgun proteomics to enable comprehensive and sensitive proteomics analysis

Led by Runxuan Zhang

Using novel computational methods, this project aims to shine light on the ‘dark matter’ that mass spectrometry-based studies of plant proteins struggle to identify, boosting identification and sensitivity in proteomics analysis.

John Innes Centre

Gene expression specificity at the single cell level in polyploid wheat

Led by Philippa Borrill

This project aims to measure gene expression in high resolution to uncover why polyploid plants like wheat and other major crops have high environmental adaptability and vigorous growth.

King’s College London

Measuring impact of allele-biased gene expression on animal physiology

Led by Robert Hindges

This project aims to investigate whether neurons selectively express only one or both of the usual two gene copies per cell and if this influences brain activity or animal behaviour.

Ribosome-mediated force control of co-translational membrane protein folding

Led by Paula Booth

This project will develop a novel regulation mechanism to understand how nature controls the biosynthesis of one of its key components, membrane proteins that act as cellular gatekeepers.

Newcastle University

Do the environment and metabolism constrain the power of natural selection in bacteria?

Led by Thomas Curtis

Northumbria University

A testable hypothesis for lipoprotein-driven bacterial outer membrane evolution

Led by Professor Iain Sutcliffe

This project will engineer the release of lipid-modified proteins from a model bacterium. This is expected to cause surface accumulation of these proteins in a manner that may mimic the early evolution of bacterial outer membranes.

Queen Mary University of London

The neural basis of inter-species communication

Led by Valdas Noreika

This project aims to characterise inter-species inter-brain synchronisation patterns for the very first time by engaging dog owners and their pets in a series of mini-tasks. This novel research could uncover neural markers of communication between phylogenetically different species and provide the foundations to develop social neuroscience of group behaviours within and across animal species.

Organelle reuse by macrophages during dead cell clearance

Led by Manikandan Subramanian

This project will explore mechanisms of organellar and metabolic cargo utilisation by macrophages during dead cell clearance.

Rothamsted Research

Solving the mystery of heterochiasmy

Led by Christophe Lambing

The project uses a multidisciplinary approach to decipher the molecular mechanisms causing different patterns of meiotic recombination between male and female germ cells in Arabidopsis plants.

The electrostatic basis of insect olfaction

Led by Jozsef Vuts

This joint Rothamsted Research and University of Bristol project will study biophysical interactions between odour molecules and the antenna to explore the frontiers of insect olfaction. This will help better understand crop plant-pest interactions and pollination ecology.

Can vertebrates communicate disease status through airborne chemical signalling?

Led by Michael Birkett

This joint Rothamsted Research and University of Edinburgh project will study if airborne chemical signalling from infected animal hosts can communicate disease status to other hosts. This could improve our understanding of poultry immunology and genetics and avian resistance to pathogens.

Scottish Universities Environmental Research Centre

Realising the routine measurement of normal human physiology: a case study in probing the function of the human gut microbiota with stable isotopes

Led by Douglas Morrison

This project will develop new mass spectrometry tools for measuring stable isotope labelled molecules, giving unparalleled new insights into how diet and the gut microbiome influence human health.

Swansea University

Vision without motion, investigating the eyespot in non-motile algae

Led by Stephen Slocombe

This research will investigate the function of eyespot-like structures in non-motile algae, answering the fundamental question ‘do they have a role in adjusting buoyancy in response to depth?’

High throughput mapping of inter-kingdom interactions using precision microfluidics and machine learning

Led by Eva Sonnenschein

The project aims to develop a precise high throughput approach for deciphering inter-kingdom interactions of a microbiome and its host using recent microfluidics advances, single-droplet analysis, metatranscriptomics and machine learning.

University College London

Mechano-regulation of T-cell receptor conformational changes examined with 3D fluorescence nanoscopy

Led by Sabrina Simoncelli

Sequencing chemical reactions to discover miniature catalytic ribonucleic acids (RNA)

Led by James Attwater

University of Aberdeen

Exploring the role of higher-order interactions in living systems

Led by Francisco Perez-Reche

The project will combine empirical and mathematical work to explore the role of higher-order interactions between three or more individuals on the dynamics and evolution of traits of living systems.

Serendipitous adaptive evolutionary innovation mediated by methylome and TE mobilome dynamics

Led by Stuart Piertney

The project will use the colonisation of the deep sea by amphipod crustacea to examine how the action of selfish genetic elements can generate rapid evolutionary novelty that promotes adaptation to extreme environments.

University of Birmingham

Starship transposons: carriers of adaptive cargo across species boundaries in pathogenic fungi?

Led by Megan McDonald

This proposal seeks to show experimentally that a novel group of transposons, called Starships, contain the genetic machinery required to move horizontally between fungal species. This experimental system will deliver a step-change in our ability to study adaptive evolution in eukaryotes.

An in vitro gram-negative envelope mimetic: a new way to study membrane biology

Led by Timothy Knowles

This award focuses on developing a gram-negative cell envelope mimetic atop a sensor surface, providing a novel platform for studying bacterial membrane biology, drug screening and host-pathogen interactions.

Spinal effort: the spinal signals underlying human motivation

Led by Matthew Apps

This project will use simultaneous imaging (functional magnetic resonance imaging) to examine if communication between the brain and the spine influences how motivated people are.

Brain mechanisms underlying emotional processing in infants

Led by KyungMin An

The age-old debate of nature versus nurture in human emotions has endured for over 150 years. This research will uncover early emotional development using OPM-MEG, a cutting-edge infant-friendly brain imaging technique.

University of Cambridge

The genetics of environmental sex determination

Led by Dr Sebastian Eves-van den Akker

This project provides a simple test to unequivocally challenge a well-established paradigm across the tree of life, that the sex of some organisms is determined environmentally.

How does cell division influence decision-making in plants?

Led by Dr Sarah Robinson and Professor James Locke

The project examines the effects of altering cell division on the plant circadian clock, a key timing system that relies on cell-to-cell communication.

Two sides of a blade: identifying master regulators of photosynthetic cell type in plants

Led by Dr Chris Whitewoods

This project aims to identify the molecular mechanisms that control the identity of two main photosynthetic cell types in leaves, the spongy and palisade mesophyll.

University of Dundee

26S-NanoLuc: a transformational assay of proteasome assembly

Led by Dr Adrien Rousseau

The project will engineer the proteasome to develop a transformative assay to quantify assembly of proteasomes that can be used in high-throughput screening.

Unlocking the alternative splicing code

Led by Dr Angus Lamond

Human genes have a modular structure and can generate many different types of proteins through a process called alternative splicing. Defects in alternative splicing underlie many forms of disease of unmet need, including genetic disorders, neurodegeneration, viral infections and cancer.

This research will use recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI) to build computational models designed to predict how alternative splicing is controlled and how small molecule drugs can manipulate alternative splicing to treat human disease.

Sugar ubiquitylation, a new quality control mechanism for the recognition and elimination of misfolded macromolecules?

Led by Professor Sir Philip Cohen

The project aims to discover how a toxic glucose polymer that causes fatal heart attacks in young adults is normally eliminated from the body before it leads to heart failure.

The University of Edinburgh

Estrus cycle regulation of cortical activity

Led by Professor Nathalie Rochefort

The project uses high throughput chronic electrophysiological recordings to test whether the estrus cycle modulates neuronal activity in brain regions processing sensory information.

Synaptic plasticity in the entorhinal cortex as a locus for episodic-like memory

Led by Professor Matthew Nolan

This project will investigate whether parts of the brain typically thought to process remembered information are also important for storing memories. This may lead to new approaches to memory disorders such as Alzheimer’s disease.

Circadian transfer RNA (tRNA) methylation as a rhythmic regulatory system of overall cellular translation

Led by Dr Gerben van Ooijen

The project will establish whether the circadian clock controls protein synthesis through rhythmic tRNA modifications.

University of Essex

ROS signalling in plants: are we missing a fundamental pathway?

Led by Dr Philippe P Laissue

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are important physiological regulators found in animals, plants, fungi and bacteria. We believe plants have an additional, unique way of using ROS to adapt to their environment that has so far been missed. Since plants are great at harvesting light, we must use a very gentle kind of imaging.

University of Exeter

Optical single-molecule dynamometer that measures work and force of active enzymes

Led by Frank Vollmer

Three, not two, radicals: revealing the true mechanism of cryptochrome magneto-sensation

Led by Daniel Kattnig

University of Leeds

Understanding the molecular mechanisms that result in influenza virus pandemics

Led by Dr Juan Fontana

This project aims to set up a polarised cell system to unravel the molecular mechanisms that drive novel influenza A virus outbreaks.

Toward blood brain barrier development in assembloids

Led by Dr Heiko Wurdak

Generating ‘BBB assembloids’ from stem cells, this project aims to uncover new insights into human blood-brain barrier development and function by combining self-organising brain, cardiac, and vascular tissues in a dish.

Developing new mass spectrometry tools for structure-function relationships of oligonucleotides

Led by Professor Frank Sobott

The project aims to develop a hydrogen-deuterium exchange mass spectrometry tool for oligonucleotides to better understand how they adopt their defined three-dimensional shapes and interact with others.

University of Leicester

Does sleep disruption affect epigenetic ageing in an insect model?

Led by Professor Eamonn Mallon

This project will establish an insect model for the impact of sleep disturbance on ageing and examine whether it is reversible by looking at how it affects the chemical modification in our DNA.

University of Liverpool

Insect cell culture systems to explore the symbiont-sex determination system interface

Led by Professor Gregory Hurst

Insects commonly carry microbes that kill only male hosts, known as ‘male-killers’. This project aims to understand how the microbes kill males that carry them while sparing females.

CTLA-4 division of labour: soluble isoform regulates immune tolerance

Led by Dr Lekh Dahal

The project will develop novel transgenic models to understand how the different forms (soluble and membrane-bound) of an important immune receptor cytotoxic T-lymphocyte antigen 4 (CTLA-4) operate in the regulation of immune systems.

Do gut immune responses drive evolution of the gut microbiome?

Led by Professor Mark Viney

This project will test the idea that gut antibody responses that target a subset of bacterial cells in the gut microbiome drive the evolution of those bacteria so that they evolve faster than bacteria not targeted by the gut antibody response.

The University of Manchester

Mutation dynamics in intramacrophage bacteria: how a host-microbe interaction affects antimicrobial resistance

Led by Dr Rok Krašovec

The project uses a three-dimensional single molecule localisation microscopy to quantify real-time mutation dynamics in a live bacterium surviving inside a macrophage.

University of Nottingham

Understanding the rules of intragenomic cooperation and conflict

Led by Professor James McInerney

This project leverages advanced machine learning on bacterial pangenomes in combination with synthetic biology to study gene conflicts, cooperations and compromises within genomes.

University of Oxford

Towards understanding the mechanism underlying centromere evolution

Led by Dr Fumiko Esashi

This project explores the potentially advantageous impact of DNA breaks on genome evolution, particularly in centromeres, by identifying DNA breakpoints using advanced sequencing and machine learning.

MerYEASTem: synthetic meristems to study the contribution of O2 sensing to organised multicellularity

Led by Francesco Licausi

Calcium oscillations as a spatio-temporal patterning mechanism in the early mammalian embryo

Led by Dr Shankar Srinivas

This project will investigate the role played by oscillations in the level of cellular calcium ions in instructing the mammalian embryo to develop correctly.

The University of Sheffield

Functional effects of condensates on enzyme dynamics in the nucleus

Led by Dr Daniel Bose

This project investigates how controversial biomolecular condensates affect enzyme dynamics, building proteins with unnatural amino acids and using single-molecule fluorescence techniques to measure intramolecular protein movements in the cell’s nucleus.

ECM-led physiological maturation at the heart of cardiac development

Led by Dr Emily Noël

This project uses zebrafish to investigate how composition of the extracellular matrix influences initiation of the embryonic heartbeat.

How does endocytic flux respond to environmental cues?

Led by Professor Elizabeth Smythe

This project will explore how endocytic pathways respond to environmental changes including temperature, osmolarity and hypoxia. This has implications for the effect of climate change on insect biodiversity, the spread of agricultural pests as well as healthy ageing.

University of Southampton

Using AI to expand the universe of cell types

Led by Dr Owen Rackham

This project uses AI to generate and validate artificial gene expression profiles, potentially expanding our understanding of cell types beyond what naturally occurs in our bodies.

University of Warwick

How some animals edit their genomes

Led by Dr Andre Pires da Silva

This project will uncover the molecular basis of genome size regulation during development, which could lead to new biotechnological tools for genome editing.

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