The Prime Minister visits the Department
Dr John Hood, the Prime Minister and Professor David Sherratt touring the building
Scientists in the Department of Biochemistry were given the rare opportunity to show off their new building, as well as some of their research, to the Prime Minister, The Rt Hon Gordon Brown MP, during his recent visit to the University of Oxford. The Prime Minister was in Oxford to give the Romanes Lecture on 'Science and our Economic Future', but was first shown round the distinctive new Biochemistry Building, recently featured in an article in The Independent.
Professor of Microbiology, David Sherratt, who was standing in for Head of Department Professor Kim Nasmyth, escorted the Prime Minister on a tour of the building, accompanied by the University's Vice-Chancellor Dr John Hood. He explained about the building's unique blend of science and art, and how it had been designed to encourage scientists to stop and talk to each other about their work.
The large number of young people in the department and its international flavour caught the Prime Minister's attention in particular. One of the people whom he stopped to chat to briefly was final year D.Phil. student Suzanne McDermott. 'He asked me what I was doing at the bench and was interested in what my thesis work was on,' said Suzanne, who was in the middle of an experiment as the Prime Minister passed.
Walking through the labs with Dr Hood and Professor Ilan Davis
The group then moved to the lab of Professor Ilan Davis for a microscope demonstration. Professor Davis' group studies the fruitfly Drosophila which is a very good model system for humans. Many of the genes which are known to contribute to disease in humans have been found to have counterparts in Drosophila. This means that scientists can use the fruitfly to probe the basic molecular mechanisms underlying disease.
Two postdoctoral scientists, Dr Richard Parton and Dr Raquel Oliveira, showed the Prime Minister highly specialised microscopes which allow scientists to see events unfolding live inside the cell and are powerful enough to visualise individual chromosomes – equivalent to around 500-1000 times magnification. The scientists have been using this equipment to learn more about what happens when chromosomes separate during cell division. This is crucial to our understanding of why the process goes wrong in diseases such as cancer and in Down's Syndrome.
Chromosomes separating as seen under a deconvolution microscope
Dr Parton demonstrated the injection into the Drosophila embryo of a specific protein which interferes with the protein glue holding the chromosomes together so that they do not separate prematurely. At another microscope, Dr Oliveira then played short movies showing how the protein, tagged with a fluorescent dye so that it can be followed under the microscope, acts like molecular scissors, freeing the chromosomes and allowing them to separate.
Professors Ilan Davis and David Sherratt explaining the mechanics of chromosome separation to the Prime Minister
The research brings together the technical expertise of Professor Davis' lab and the interest of Professor Nasmyth's lab in understanding how chromosomes separate during cell division. The Prime Minister was clearly impressed by the demonstration. 'There was very little time to allow him to ask probing questions', remarked Professor Davis, 'but the feedback we got was that he really enjoyed it and would have liked to have had more time.'
The group then passed through the lab of Professor Jonathan Hodgkin who works on another model organism, the nematode worm, before reaching the seminar room. Here the Prime Minister participated in a roundtable discussion with a range of Oxford scientists about spin-out companies, postgraduate training and GM crops. 'It was a very successful visit', commented Professor Hodgkin, 'and the building looked great.'