kings100bSynthetic Biology in Cambridge

Research activities and studentship opportunities at the University of Cambridge. There is an index of research groups engaged in Synthetic Biology related work, with funding news and resources for people considering work in Cambridge. See a collection of web sites with extensive local information.

Research news at Cambridge University

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One millionth Raspberry Pi baked in UK

One millionth Raspberry Pi baked in UK

Can we call it a Raspevolution yet? The UK (the Sony-owned Pencoed factory in South Wales, to be precise), has baked its one millionth Raspberry Pi. Announcing the figure in a blog post on its company website, the Raspberry Pi Foundation says that a total of 1.75 million of the diminutive computers have been built to date. Three quarters of a million...

Hits:449 Cambridge news

Top universities in the UK

Top universities in the UK

UK universities scored particularly well for the employability of their graduates Continue reading the main story The UK now boasts six of the world's top 20 universities, according to a new global table. Edinburgh and King's College London have edged into the top 20 of the QS World University rankings. Cambridge, UCL, Imperial and Oxford all made it into the top 10. But John O'Leary...

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OpenLabTools in Cambridge

OpenLabTools in Cambridge

The OpenLabTools Project is a new initiative that will provide a forum and knowledge centre for the development of low cost and open access scientific tools at the University of Cambridge, with an emphasis on undergraduate and graduate teaching and research. The programme starts this year with a number of projects that will be offered to establish the core components...

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Synchronized Pipetting

Synchronized Pipetting

by Mary Abraham and Jochen Rink Department of Biochemistry, University of Cambridge We investigated the effect of using music to enhance the sub-optimal system of undergraduate laboratory research assistants (Researcheria virginium). Many aspects of the interaction between the undergraduate and the laboratory bench leave much to be desired. We focused on the simplest — yet easily quantifiable — laboratory skill, the...

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Cambridge: the UK’s most successful city

Cambridge: the UK’s most successful city Cambridge has come first in a report comparing cities across the country by Jonny Barlow Wednesday 25th January 2012, 18:21 GMT Cambridge’s economy has ranked first in an annual Cities Outlook report, suggesting that that Cambridge could play a significant role in driving the country’s economic successes amidst a bleak national picture. This is in...

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University Publishing Online adds six more academic presses

University Publishing Online adds six more academic presses

  From the press release: Cambridge University Press is pleased to announce the addition of six more academic presses to its University Publishing Online (UPO) platform. 2012 will see the addition of content from Anthem Press, Boydell & Brewer, Edinburgh University Press, Nottingham University Press, Pickering & Chatto and the University of Adelaide Press. Launched in October 2011...

Hits:1643 Cambridge news

Geeky Cambridge

Geeky Cambridge

Cambridge is 'geekiest' city in the UK. A survey has placed Cambridge as the UK’s technological capital and 'geekiest' city. This puts the city ahead of London, which came only fourth behind fellow technological heavyweights Gloucester and Brighton, claims a new survey by Ebuyer. The University is responsible for training a tech savvy Cambridge population. Oxford proved to be relative luddites as they only managed...

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Improving Science Learning

Improving Science Learning

Less Talk, More Action: Improving Science Learning From The New York Times, By BENEDICT CAREY Published: May 12, 2011 Over the past few years, scientists have been working to transform education from the inside out, by applying findings from learning and memory research where they could do the most good, in the classroom. A study published in the journal Science on Thursday illustrates how promising this...

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Press coverage for the Cambridge iGEM team

Press coverage for the Cambridge iGEM team

 An index of published articles and interviews for iGEM teams at the University of Cambridge - with links to PDFs and audio files.    

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PhD in Cambridge?

PhD Studentships in Cambridge The Board of Graduate Studies manages admission of the University's graduate students. Prospective students should start here - for an introduction to the University of Cambridge, the courses we offer, how to apply for postgraduate study, how your application will be processed, and immigration and other important information. Click here for more information about Cambridge

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Biology at Cambridge

Biology at Cambridge

Click here for the website for the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Cambridge. Undergraduate teaching: The Natural Sciences Tripos is the framework within which most of the science is taught in Cambridge. It is taught by sixteen Departments and includes a wide range of physical and biological sciences and the history and philosophy of science. Postgraduate teaching: The Board of Graduate Studies...

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iGEM2012 recruitment

iGEM2012 recruitment

iGEM is an undergraduate synthetic biology competition where student teams are given a kit of biological parts from the Registry of Standard Biological Parts at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).  The aim is to use this kit to design and construct new biological systems and operate them in living cells. The teams will first present the projects at the...

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In a lab at the University of Wyoming, some silkworms are spinning cocoons of silk, just as every silkworm has done for millions of years. But these insects are special. They have been genetically engineered to spin a hybrid material that’s partly their own silk, and partly that of a spider. With spider DNA at their disposal, they can weave fibres that are unusually strong and tough. It’s the latest step in a decades-long quest to produce artificial spider silk.

Spider silk is a remarkable material, wonderfully adapted for trapping, crushing, climbing and more. It is extraordinarily strong and tough, while still being elastic enough to stretch several times its original length. Indeed, the toughest biological material ever found is the record-breaking silk of the Darwin’s bark spider. It’s 10 times tougher than Kevlar, and the basis of webs that can span rivers.

Because of its enticing properties, spider silk has enormous potential. It could be put to all sorts of uses, from strong sutures to artificial ligaments to body armour. That is, if only we could make enough of the stuff. Farming spiders is out of the question. They are territorial animals with a penchant for eating each other. It took 82 people, 4 years and 1 million large spiders to make a piece of cloth just 11 feet by 4 feet.

The alternative is to synthesise spider silk artificially. That hasn’t been easy. Scientists have long since managed to reconstruct the proteins in the silk, using everything from bacteria to potatoes to goats. But these systems only provided small amounts of silk proteins, and would be expensive to scale up. Making silk proteins is just part of the far harder challenge of turning proteins into silk fibres, with their complex microscopic structures. To get around these problems, Donald Jarvis, Malcolm Fraser and Randolph Lewis had a simple idea: why not use another animal that also spins silk?

As a large industry and centuries of history can attest to, silkworms are easy to farm in large numbers. And they’re silk-spinning machines, with massive glands that turn silk proteins into fibres. Their own silk is no mechanical slouch, and it’s already used to make sutures. But spider silk has many advantages. Not only is it stronger and tougher, but we understand how specific tweaks to a spider’s genes can produce silks with different properties. It should be possible to customise unique silks that are tailor-made for specific purposes.

Fraser had just the right tool for the job. In the 1980s, he identified pieces of DNA that can hop around insect genomes, cutting themselves out of one location and pasting themselves in somewhere else. He named them PiggyBac, and he has turned them into tools for genetic engineering. You can load PIggyBac elements with the genes of your choice, and use them to insert those genes into a given genome. In this case, Florence Teulé and Yun-Gen Miao used PiggyBac to shove spider silk genes into the silk-making glands of silkworms.

To identify the silkworms that had incorporated the spider genes, Teulé and Miao added another passenger to their PiggyBac vehicle – a gene for a glowing protein. The insects that had been successfully engineered all had glowing red eyes.

These engineered silkworms produced composite fibres that were mostly their own silk, with just 2 to 5 percent spider silk woven among it. This tiny fraction was enough to transform the fibres. They were stronger, more elastic, and twice as tough as normal silkworm fibres. And even though they didn’t approach the strength and elasticity of true spider silk, they were almost just as tough.

One other team has tried to do something similar, but their fibres didn’t show the same physical improvements. They also produced fibres where the spider silk merely coated the silkworm strands. When silkworm cocoons are harvested, these outer coats are usually removed. By contrast, Teulé and Miao’s engineered their spider genes so that the resulting silk would be woven throughout the silkworms’ own fibres.

Many spider silk proteins are extremely large and most attempts to create them artificially (including this one) use smaller versions that are around a quarter of the size.  When Sang Yup Lee engineered bacteria to produce spider silk, he found that the small proteins led to inferior fibres, and only the very large ones produced fibres comparable to actual spider silk. Given that Teulé and Miao have already produced reasonably strong composite fibres using the smaller version, it will be interesting to see what the larger proteins can do.

The team are also planning to refine their technique to take the silkworms’ own proteins out of the equation. “The next step will be to produce silkworms that produce silk fibres consisting entirely of spider silk proteins,” says Jarvis. Perhaps they could even use the genes from the best of the silk-producers, like Darwin’s bark spider.

Reference: Tuele, Miao, Sohn, Kim, Hull, Fraser, Lewis & Jarvis. 2011. Silkworms transformed with chimeric silkworm/spider silk genes spin composite silk fibers with improved mechanical properties. PNAS

Conflict of interest: Jarvis, Fraser and Lewis are all paid advisors to Kraig BioCraft Laboratories, Inc, the company that is commercialising the artificial silk, and that provided some of the funding for the study. The discovery was originally announced in a press conference last year, but has finally been published after a lengthy review process.

(Via Not Exactly Rocket Science.)

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Research Studies

PhD Studentships in Cambridge

The Board of Graduate Studies manages admission of the University's graduate students. Prospective students should start here - for an introduction to the University of Cambridge, the courses we offer, how to apply for postgraduate study, how your application will be processed, and immigration and other important information.

Click here for more information about Cambridge

OpenLabTools: open technology in Cambridge


The OpenLabTools Project is a new initiative for the development of low cost and open access scientific tools at the University of Cambridge. With support from the Raspberry Pi Foundation, student projects include data acquisition, sensing, actuating, processing and 3D manufacturing, see the website.