Professor Francis Barr joins the department

Prof Francis Barr

Professor Francis Barr

The department has welcomed Professor Francis Barr as the new E. P. Abraham Chair of Mechanistic Cell Biology.

Professor Barr moved from the University of Liverpool to take up the position at the beginning of September. 

Attracted mainly by the outstanding research environment within the department and the University more generally, he is looking forward to continuing to pursue his studies on protein trafficking and cell division in the new surroundings.

‘We apply a broad range of techniques to a problem to get as comprehensive an answer as possible and to get to the mechanisms at work,’ he explains. ‘That seems to be shared by a lot of people in the department.’

‘There are specific things we want to do more ourselves, like structural analyses and detailed biophysical characterisation of protein complexes, and this is the place where that’s relatively easy because there are real experts who do this every day.’ He adds that the enthusiasm of his colleagues is very stimulating.

Professor Barr studies two key areas of cell biology: the regulation of protein transport by GTPases, and the control of cell division.

A third of genes in the human genome encode membrane proteins, many of which have a role in transport or signalling in the cell. The problem of how to get these proteins delivered to the right location in the membrane is a complicated one.

Membrane-bound proteins known as GTPases act like a postal code system for membrane trafficking. Layered on top of this is a complex regulatory system that ensures that the right GTPase is loaded onto the right location in the membrane at the right time.

Professor Barr studies one type of GTPase called Rab GTPase and how its recruitment onto the membrane is regulated. Components of the regulatory system have been found to be mutated in a number of different diseases, so his research is relevant to understanding about how these diseases develop.

The other strand of his work follows the intricate processes that accompany cell division. When a cell divides, it rounds up and loses adhesion to the surface to which it is attached. Professor Barr and his group have made some important discoveries about how cells know when to shutdown adhesion, undergo cleavage, and turn adhesion back on again.

One major attraction of the department for Professor Barr is access to state-of-the art imaging facilities. ‘Imaging is really critical,’ he says. ‘If you want more detail you need to use more sophisticated methods like super-resolution microscopy. It’s really critical in some areas, for example where you have spatial separation within the membrane.’

Ultimately, he would like to image cells live. The unique OMX imaging system located in the department in the multi-user Micron facility offers the exciting possibility of being able to do this.

Professor Barr stresses that the move to Oxford will be good not only for himself but also for members of his lab. ‘With a greater concentration of people here taking similar approaches and working on a diverse range of topics, it will give people in the lab greater opportunities to discuss their work,’ he adds.





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