Cambridge website for Synthetic Biology resources

Compiled by Jim Haseloff at the University of Cambridge. SpannerPlantLogo140This site contains details of recent papers and activity in Synthetic Biology, with particular emphasis on: (i) development of standards in biology and DNA parts, (ii) microbial and (iii) plant systems, (iv) research and teaching in the field at the University of Cambridge, (v) hardware for scientific computing and instrumentation, (vi) tools for scientific productivity and collected miscellany.

Similar to the Cambridge-based Raspberry Pi and OpenLabTools initiatives, we promote the use of low cost and open source tools - in our case for use in biological engineering.

Google: Synthetic Biology news

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Meetings: Synthetic Biology

  • 30 Aug 2014
    01:00 to 01:00

    This conference will focus on the advancement of synthetic biology, especially its application in the field of antibiotic production in filamentous fungi and actinomycete bacteria, including the implementation

  • 14 Sep 2014
    01:00 to 01:00

    This year's conference theme Systems Biology: The Fifth Element seeks to capture the multiple facets that comprise a systems understanding of life, as a single common thread that unifies seemingly different

30 Aug 19 Sep

Weather: Cambridge

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A journey to life’s beginnings

Life, biologists would tell us, is one of the last great mysteries. It is hard to define, even in an 'I know it when I see it' fashion, making it tricky to study. Yet, as I sit here at a scientific meeting, I take some comfort that I am not alone in my ignorance. The concluding slide of the last presentation clearly demonstrates that the more you know, the more you realize you don't know.

And yet I have come to treasure my ignorance, because it makes what we do learn even more pleasurable. That is what Adam Rutherford's book Creation is: a pleasure to read. The curtain that hides the complexity of the inner working of the cell is momentarily tweaked aside, allowing a glimpse of the backstage bustle of DNA, RNA, ribosomes, and proteins. Hell, I still don't even know what half of that stuff is, but Rutherford has convinced me that I do now—a testament to his explanatory skills.

As the title of the book suggests, Rutherford is aiming for nothing less than to explain the beginnings of life: what did that moment, where non-living organic chemistry transformed into living organic chemistry, look like? In order to get from molecules to life, we end up delving deep into the inner workings of modern life: the messy elegance of the molecular machines that underly our macroscopic being; the highly redundant three-letter DNA codes that limit life to something like 20 amino acids; the beauty of cell membranes, and the majesty of the machine called the ribosome that translates strips of RNA into strips of protein. All have their moment center stage in the biochemical drama that is life.

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A journey to life’s beginnings

Fossil insect hid by carrying a basket of trash

If you travelled back to Spain, during the Cretaceous period, you might see an insect so bizarre that you’d think you were hallucinating. That’s certainly what Ricardo Pérez-de la Fuente thought when he found the creature entombed in amber in 2008.

The fossilised insect of the larva of a lacewing. Around 1,200 species of lacewings still exist, and their larvae are voracious predators of aphids and other small bugs. They also attach bits of garbage to tangled bristles jutting from their backs, including plant fibres, bits of bark and leaf, algae and moss, snail shells, and even the corpses of their victims. Dressed as walking trash, the larvae camouflage themselves from predators like wasps or cannibalistic lacewings. And even if they are found, the coats of detritus act as physical shields.

We now know that this strategy is an ancient one, because the lacewing in De la Fuente’s amber nugget—which is 110 million years old—also used it. It’s barely a centimetre long, and has the same long legs, sickle-shaped jaws, and trash-carrying structures of modern lacewing larvae. But it took camouflage to even more elaborate extremes. Rather than simple bristles, it had a few dozen extremely long tubes, longer even than the larva’s own body. Each one has smaller trumpet-shaped fibres branching off from it, forming a large basket for carrying trash.

De la Fuente called it Hallucinochrysa diogenesi, a name that is both evocative and cheekily descriptive. The first part comes from the Latin ‘hallucinatus’ and references ‘the bizarreness of the insect’. The second comes from Diogenes the Greek philosopher, whose name is associated with a disorder where people compulsively hoard trash.

Hallucinochrysa presumably carried trash for the same defensive advantages as its modern relatives. But why carry so much? De la Fuente speculates that it might have needed to defend itself against a predator with a very long, piercing snout or sting, as many bugs and wasps do. This hypothesis may not be correct, but there’s a lovely feel about it—after all, when Darwin saw an orchid with a long tube, he correctly predicted the existence of a moth with a long tongue that pollinated it.

At the very least, we know that Hallucinochrysa hoarded trash because the larva in the amber still has thick bundles of fern hairs trapped in its bristles. De la Fuente could even tell which group of ferns the hairs came from—it’s a group that specialises in colonising land that has been recently scorched by fire. This supports the idea that Spain’s Cretaceous forests were swept by seasonal fires. Ironically, those same fires would have stimulated the trees to produce more resin, which would have trapped many an insect in liquid tombs that eventually fossilised into amber.

Hallucinochrysa may have blended into the forest of its time, but its beautiful remains tell us a surprising amount about what those forests were like. And the forests, in turn, set up the perfect conditions for Hallucinochrysa’s body to endure to this day.

Note: This is one of two wonderful stories about prehistoric insect camouflage in as many weeks. For the other one, about a hangingfly that mimicked a tree, head over to Brian Switek’s blog.

Reference: De La Fuente, Delcios, Penalver, Speranza, Wierzchos, Ascaso & Engel. 2012. Early evolution and ecology of camouflage in insects. PNAS

Images: Reconstruction by J.A.Penas, and others from de la Fuente et al.

Fossil insect hid by carrying a basket of trash

Contest: create a new kind of science kit for kids

GilbertAtomicOpentrimmedRemember how much fun chemistry sets used to be before the chemicals were deemed too dangerous for household fun? The Society for Science & The Public, in collaboration with the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, have launched a contest to collect ideas for a new kind of Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK) 'that encourage imagination and interest in science, recapturing the spirit of the chemistry set.' There are cash prizes too! From the SPARK Competition site:

To be clear, we’re interested in science beyond chemistry. We borrow this term to capture the spirit and magic of what the classic chemistry set spawned in the 1940s - 60s. We’re looking for ideas that can engage kids as young as 8 and inspire people who are 88. We’re looking for ideas that encourage kids to explore, create, build and question. We’re looking for ideas that honor kids’ curiosity about how things work.

SPARK Competition: Reimagining The Chemistry Set of the 21st Century

Research news at Cambridge University

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Online resources, including bibliography, weblinks and posters, for work with the simple plant system, Marchantia polymorpha.

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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.

Research Studies

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