The Focusing in on Nucleic Acids (FioNA) project is part of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) Excellence with Impact competition, which helps the Research Council understand how its funded projects are impacting society. The competition aims to recognise institutions that can develop and successfully deliver a vision for maximising impact, alongside a relevant institution-wide culture change. Former Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts says: “These awards recognise the impact of bioscience both on the economy and society, through driving innovation, training highly-skilled people, improving businesses and public services and attracting foreign investment.”
The FioNA community is made up of staff from across the University, including Medicine, Biological Sciences, Engineering, Maths, Electronics and Computer Science (ECS) and Chemistry. Professor Peter J S Smith, Director of the Institute for Life Science (IfLS), explains:
The FioNA project aims to add a new dimension to our research activities by generating a new network, tying together areas of excellence, while maturing to deliver in areas of enterprise, outreach and policy.
Focusing in on enterprise
From developing pioneering biosensors and biodevices, such as handheld devices for diagnostics at point of care, to exploring the structure and function of our DNA (genomics) and how environmental factors can affect how our genes are expressed (epigenetics), Southampton research within FioNA is leading the field. Dr Jonathan Watts, former Lecturer in Chemical Biology, has recently been awarded a share of £8m of funding to help create the DNA starting blocks for synthetic biology. Synthetic biology is a new way of doing science that applies engineering principles to biology to make and build new biological parts, devices and systems. It’s being used to make biological ‘factories’ that make useful products like medicines, chemicals and green energy, as well as tools for improving crops. Examples include biofuels and anti-malaria drugs made by microbes like yeast or bacteria. Synthetic biology has been identified by the UK government as one of the ‘Eight Great Technologies’ in which Britain can be a world leader.
The funding from the BBSRC award will provide major new equipment to improve the quality and reduce the cost of DNA synthesis. Jonathan says: “The mass spectrometer we will buy with the funding will be one of the best in the UK. One specific goal is to develop ways to reduce the scale of DNA synthesis, which will reduce the cost and environmental impact of making synthetic genes.”
Another important outcome for the FioNA programme is to engage with small- and medium- sized enterprises and other industrial partners to develop opportunities to work together. Southampton already has a number of established mutually beneficial links with companies involved in nucleic acids development and will look to strengthen these by organising enterprise networking.
The IfLS has a role to play in helping stimulate regional economic activity in areas of excellence like nucleic acids research, through licensing technology, collaborative research, consultancy, exchange of staff between organisations and creation of spin-out companies. “We will expand on Southampton’s enterprise collaborations by sharing our capabilities and vision so that together we can maximise our progress in the field of nucleic acids,” explains Jonathan.
Focusing in on policy
In the 1980s, University of Southampton physician and epidemiologist Professor David Barker pioneered the revolutionary new theory that common chronic diseases such as cancer, cardiovascular disease and diabetes could be affected by patients’ nutrition while in the womb. His argument that the diet of a pregnant woman could influence the health of her children as they grew to adulthood is now widely accepted and has inspired much more research into the subject.
Now, Professor Karen Lillycrop, Director of Research in the Centre for Biological Sciences, is exploring a further development of this concept, which suggests that changes at a molecular level to a baby’s genes before birth can play a part in their future risk of disease. “At a very early stage of life, molecules called methyl groups (which contain one carbon atom and three hydrogen atoms – CH3) are added to our DNA, which changes the activity of our genes to create structurally and functionally distinct cell types, such as nerve, blood and brain cells,” she explains.
Crucially, we now believe some of these alterations of the genes induced in early life can affect our susceptibility to a range of diseases in later life.
Karen has discovered that the process where a child develops a predisposition to diseases can be reversed and there is potential to develop treatments. “In theory, reversing the process is possible but it would involve making very subtle changes to cells at the molecular level. It is a very delicate process, as it would be very easy to cause more harm than good,” she says.
The researchers have joined forces with academic colleagues around the world who are working on epigenetics and building partnerships with private sector organisations including Nestlé and Abbott Nutrition, who are interested in improving the health and wellbeing of their customers. This global research collaboration, the EpiGen Consortium (www.EpiGenGRC.com) was established in 2006. It brings together leading researchers in four organisations across three countries and has attracted considerable research grants. The consortium comprises of the Institute of Developmental Sciences and Medical Research Council Lifecourse Epidemiology Unit at the University of Southampton, the National University of Singapore, A*STAR’s Singapore Institute for Clinical Sciences and the Liggins Institute of the University of Auckland. EpiGen is led in the UK by Southampton’s Professor Keith Godfrey, Professor Cyrus Cooper, Professor Karen Lillycrop, Dr Graham Burdge and Dr Nick Harvey. Its aim is to advance understanding of the developmental and environmental processes that influence health through the lifecourse. Through the collaborative network, EpiGen’s members aim to accelerate the translation of their knowledge to make a positive impact on health, wellbeing and society.
One of the FioNA group’s key focuses is the impact that its research can have on government policy. The study of nucleic acids inevitably raises issues around policy, and excites public interest, so it is important that the research community takes a lead in ensuring accurate information is available for public debate.
Peter Smith, Director of the IfLS, comments:
Southampton can contribute to these debates, particularly in terms of the developmental origins of health and disease. This wide-ranging subject sits well within the interdisciplinary community that lies at the heart of many Southampton projects.
In June, the University hosted a conference entitled Epigenetics and Evolution, with the aim of showcasing how epigenetics contributes to evolution and leads to disease. The conference focused on the interdisciplinary research from across the University and included speakers from Mathematics, Ocean and Earth Science and Electronics and Computer Science, as well as Medicine and Biological Sciences, with keynote speakers from King’s College and the University of Oxford. There were 93 delegates representing seven of the University’s eight faculties which highlights the interdisciplinary interest in this topic. The conference programme took delegates on a journey from basic evolution and environmental change through epigenetic variation and mechanisms to the impact on health and social policy.
Peter continues: “The conference was a great success and provided a platform to bring together experts in the field stimulating discussion that can inform policy and also contribute to future collaborative research projects.”
Focusing in on outreach
The final endeavour of the FioNA group is to ensure its research is translated into outreach activity, in line with other University outreach work. The group has so far enriched existing University activities through a number of collaborations, including the South Wiltshire University Technical College summer schools the University’s Southampton Science and Engineering Festival and seminars for the FioNA community at Southampton.
The team has also been on the road, touring its DNA in Childhood Diseases engagement activity as part of the University of Southampton’s Bringing Research to Life roadshow. The team has visited events across the country including the Cheltenham and Winchester science fairs, the Big Bang Fair in Birmingham and Bestival on the Isle of Wight. Hundreds of children have been able to find out more about the impact of nucleic acids research through a range of hands-on activities and demonstrations.
Reuben Pengelly, PhD researcher in Medicine, comments: “As genomics is entering the mainstream, it is essential that we encourage young people to engage with the field. This will help to continue the rapid expansion that it is currently enjoying.”
As well as disseminating information to schools, colleges and the general public, FioNA has also been working with Artist in Residence Pauline Pratt, based in Medicine, to create an outreach tool designed to engage people with the FioNA project. The artwork is an adaption of the table football game but with a variation on the rules and the standard formation of the players. It highlights the programme’s networking connections. Another example is Associate Professor Syma Khalid’s ‘Chemical Arcade’. She has created a novel piece of software, where people are able to manipulate DNA and bind atoms together on screen.
On the topic of outreach activity, Professor of Genomics Sarah Ennis adds: “We feel it is imperative that we share our research with the wider community, both inside and outside the University. It is vital that we engage the community with the importance of nucleic acids research, as well as inspire the next generation of researchers to carry on the pioneering work that FioNA is doing.”
The FioNA research at Southampton is extensive and interdisciplinary, spanning devices and engineering, genomics, epigenetics in asthma, the genetics of paediatric disease, developmental biology, and more. For further information on our research projects, visit the FioNA website, at www.southampton.ac.uk/ifls/fiona