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Research news from BBSRC

17 April 2006

The following stories appear in the April 2006 edition of Busines, the quarterly magazine of research highlights from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Locust eardrums provide models for mini microphones
Being able to hear the smallest of noises is a matter of life or death for many insects, but for the scientists studying their hearing systems understanding how insect ears can be so sensitive could lead to new microphones able to capture and analyse extremely faint sounds. By studying the tiny nanoscale movements of a locust hearing system and understanding how sound waves are turned into mechanical responses researchers may be able to develop microphones based on the functions of natural hearing.
(Page 10)

Professor Daniel Robert, University of Bristol, Tel: 0117 928 7484, e-mail:

Help needed from farmers to predict the spread of bluetongue
Scientists studying the potentially devastating animal disease, bluetongue, are calling for assistance from farmers to help them understand the distribution of the potential carriers, certain species of Culicoides biting midges, across the UK. Although bluetongue has not been recorded in the UK, recent outbreaks in the Mediterranean have seen the virus that causes the disease being carried northwards by species of midge which are known to be prevalent in the UK. Researchers are calling for farmers to allow them to set up light traps over-night on their holdings, to monitor which biting midge species are present and how abundant they are. In combination with other studies being carried out, this will allow them to predict the likelihood of spread of bluetongue to the UK.
(Page 14)

Dr Simon Carpenter, Institute for Animal Health, Tel: 01635 577241, e-mail:

Stem cell progress helped by mouse differences
Scientists at the Institute of Stem Cell Research at the University of Edinburgh have shed light on important differences in the behaviour of mouse and human stem cells through the discovery of the role of a protein called Mbd3. Cultures of mouse embryonic stem cells that lack Mbd3 cannot become specialised cell types. This discovery means that cultures of mouse cells that lack Mbd3 are similar to their human counterparts and so can be used to explore how human cells can replicate endlessly without LIF, an essential protein for self replication in mouse cells, but not human cells.
(Page 5)

Ana Coutinho, Institute for Stem Cell Research, University of Edinburgh, Tel: 0131 650 5830

Flaky salmon could be a thing of the past
The poor texture of some farmed salmon results in it falling apart and being downgraded so that it can be used only for low value products rather than prime smoked fillets, at a substantial cost to the industry. Fish flesh, consists of proteins called collagen and elastin that form the supporting structures between muscle fibres. Specific molecules called pyridinoline crosslinks link the collagen and elastin together, strengthening the connective tissue. Researchers have shown that increasing firmness of salmon flesh, including the smoked product, is related to higher concentration s of crosslinks.
(Page 7)

Professor Ian Johnston, University of St Andrews, e-mail:

Nitrogen sharing gives new clue to biodiversity
Scientists have found that organic nitrogen is important for plant growth and that the use of different sources may be a key factor in maintaining diversity in grasslands. Until recently it was generally believed that the most important source of nitrogen for plants was inorganic nitrogen. However, by tagging organic nitrogen with stable isotopes researchers have been able to track what happens to it. They found that not only is organic nitrogen more important than previously thought, it is also used differently by different plant species, enabling nitrogen sharing and biodiversity.
(Page 16)

Professor Richard Bardgett, University of Lancaster, Tel: 01524 594856, e-mail:

Scientists crack big problem for egg industry
Geneticists have discovered that a novel measure of egg shell strength – its ‘dynamic stiffness’ which is derived from its acoustic properties can be used in breeding programmes to select for hens that lay eggs which are less prone to cracking. Cracked eggs cost egg producers around 10 per cent of their profits, but financial loss is not the only concern, cracked eggs are at risk of infection by disease-causing organisms. By using acoustic resonance frequency analysis to measure the stiffness of the shells researchers have found that an egg’s dynamic stiffness is genetically determined and that the heritability and genetic correlation are favourable for reducing the number of cracked eggs by breeding.
(Page 20)

Dr Ian Dunn, Roslin Institute, e-mail:

These stories appear in the April 2006 edition of BBSRC Business. For additional copies please contact the BBSRC Media Office.



The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) is the UK funding agency for research in the life sciences. Sponsored by Government, BBSRC annually invests around £380 million in a wide range of research that makes a significant contribution to the quality of life for UK citizens and supports a number of important industrial stakeholders including the agriculture, food, chemical, healthcare and pharmaceutical sectors.


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