Department marks 50+5 anniversary

The Department has celebrated 5 years of occupancy of the New Biochemistry Building alongside the 50th anniversary of the Oxford University Biochemical Society (OUBS).

Photo: Jeremy Rowntree

Peter Holmes, Linda Partridge, Mark Sansom, Jane Mellor, Matt Higgins, Gerard Evan, Kim Nasmyth and Alan Fersht at the 50+5 event

Professor Mark Sansom and Peter Holmes (OUBS President) welcomed attendees to the event which brought together a range of speakers from across the discipline for a day of talks.

Professor Sansom introduced the programme of distinguished external and departmental speakers, chosen to reflect the diversity of research across the department. Peter Holmes followed by giving a brief history of OUBS. Since its formation in December 1964, it has aimed to bring the best speakers into the department, enriching the experience of students and postdocs working there.

The science talks began with Professor Gerard Evan, Head of the Department of Biochemistry at the University of Cambridge. He reminisced about his years as a Biochemistry undergraduate at St Peter's College, when Rodney Porter, Walter Bodmer and Joel Mandelstam were active in the department.

As a cancer researcher, he has focused on identifying and exploiting the common ground between different cancers. He added that he viewed cancer as a disorder in which the acceleration pedal is stuck down and the brakes removed. Taking as his starting point the 'ideal' cancer drug target, he explained about his focus on the few key pathways in cancer formation and recent work exploring the impact of myc inhibition.

His talk was followed by Professor Kim Nasmyth who started with a brief historical introduction to cell division and mitosis. He emphasised that we now know that chromosome segregation is an inherent property of chromosomes not the microtubules. His research has focused on the second phase of segregation, where microtubules pull the sister chromatids to opposite poles. In recent work, he has shed light on the in vivo structure and behaviour of the cohesin complex which holds sister chromatids together.

Associate Professor Matt Higgins talked about his work on malaria, an ancient disease that has killed pharaohs and kings and that remains as deadly as ever, killing about 1 million people a year. Two recent highlights of his research provide insight into what makes Plasmodium such an effective parasite. His group has characterised two important parasite proteins, one essential for the parasite to invade red blood cells and the other a protein that makes the infected cells stick to blood vessels, causing them to be retained in the body.

Reflecting the interests of many groups in the department, Professor Jane Mellor spoke about her work on chromatin structure and non-coding RNA as studied in yeast and humans. Her passion to discover how genes are expressed has taken her from basic science to commercial exploitation. Her talk illustrated how far the concept of a gene has evolved, especially in light of recent studies suggesting that huge swathes of non-coding DNA may have functional importance. Researchers must now grapple with regulatory elements that show complex distribution as well as structural features of the genome such as topologically associated domains.

The programme finished with two eminent external speakers, Professor Sir Alan Fersht from the University of Cambridge and Professor Dame Linda Partridge from the MPI for Biology of Ageing in Germany. Professor Fersht spoke about his research on the tumour suppressor gene p53, and Professor Partridge followed with a talk about intervening in ageing with reduced insulin/Igf signaling.

Professor Sansom was delighted to mark the two anniversaries with the stimulating series of talks. 'We've had a series of wonderful talks covering a wide range of biochemistry, from protein aggregation to the molecular basis of ageing. The day has given us an opportunity to celebrate both the history of OUBS, and our first five years in the new building. We look forward to the next 50 + 5 years of Oxford Biochemistry.'




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