All posts by Adam Brinded

Study unpicks why childhood maltreatment continues to impact on mental and physical health into adulthood

Childhood maltreatment can continue to have an impact long into adulthood because of how it effects an individual’s risk of poor physical health and traumatic experiences many years later, a new study has found.

We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthoodSofia Orellana

Black and white image of boy curled up on the floor
Black and white image of boy curled up on the floor
Credit: mali desha (Unsplash)

Individuals who experienced maltreatment in childhood – such as emotional, physical and sexual abuse, or emotional and physical neglect – are more likely to develop mental illness throughout their entire life, but it is not yet well understood why this risk persists many decades after maltreatment first took place.

In a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from the University of Cambridge and Leiden University found that adult brains continue to be affected by childhood maltreatment in adulthood because these experiences make individuals more likely to experience obesity, inflammation and traumatic events, all of which are risk factors for poor health and wellbeing, which in turn also affect brain structure and therefore brain health.

The researchers examined MRI brain scans from approximately 21,000 adult participants aged 40 to 70 years in UK Biobank, as well as information on body mass index (an indicator of metabolic health), CRP (a blood marker of inflammation) and experiences of childhood maltreatment and adult trauma.

Sofia Orellana, a PhD student at the Department of Psychiatry and Darwin College, University of Cambridge, said: “We’ve known for some time that people who experience abuse or neglect as a child can continue to experience mental health problems long into adulthood and that their experiences can also cause long term problems for the brain, the immune system and the metabolic system, which ultimately controls the health of your heart or your propensity to diabetes for instance. What hasn’t been clear is how all these effects interact or reinforce each other.”

Using a type of statistical modelling that allowed them to determine how these interactions work, the researchers confirmed that experiencing childhood maltreatment made individuals more likely to have an increased body mass index (or obesity) and experience greater rates of trauma in adulthood. Individuals with a history of maltreatment tended to show signs of dysfunction in their immune systems, and the researchers showed that this dysfunction is the product of obesity and repeated exposure to traumatic events.

Next, the researchers expanded their models to include MRI measures of the adult’s brains and were able to show that widespread increases and decreases in brain thickness and volume associated with greater body mass index, inflammation and trauma were attributable to childhood maltreatment having made these factors more likely in the first place. These changes in brain structure likely mean that some form of physical damage is occurring to brain cells, affecting how they work and function.

Although there is more to do to understand how these effects operate at a cellular level in the brain, the researchers believe that their findings advance our understanding of how adverse events in childhood can contribute to life-long increased risk of brain and mind health disorders.

Professor Ed Bullmore from the Department of Psychiatry and an Honorary Fellow at Downing College, Cambridge, said: “Now that we have a better understanding of why childhood maltreatment has long term effects, we can potentially look for biomarkers – biological red flags – that indicate whether an individual is at increased risk of continuing problems. This could help us target early on those who most need help, and hopefully aid them in breaking this chain of ill health.”

The research was supported by MQ: Transforming Mental Health, the Royal Society, Medical Research Council, National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre, the NIHR Applied Research Collaboration East of England, Girton College and Darwin College.

Orellana, SC et al. Childhood maltreatment influences adult brain structure through its effects on immune, metabolic and psychosocial factors. PNAS; 9 Apr 2024 ; DOI: 10.1073/pnas.230470412


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Four Cambridge researchers awarded prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grants

The funding provides leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul… It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.Anne Ferguson-Smith

Photographs of the four awardees

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced today the award of 255 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. Four University of Cambridge researchers are amongst those to receive this prestigious and competitive funding.

The University of Cambridge’s grant awardees are:

Professor Albert Guillén i Fàbregas in the Department of Engineering for his project Scaling and Concentration Laws in Information Theory.

Guillén i Fàbregas, who has previously received ERC Starting, Consolidator and Proof of Concept Grants, said: “I am truly delighted with the news that the ERC will continue to fund my research in information theory, which studies the mathematical aspects of data transmission and data compression.

“This project will broaden the theory to study arbitrary scaling laws of the number of messages to transmit or compress.”

Professor Beverley Glover in the Department of Plant Sciences and Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, for her project Convergent evolution of floral patterning through alternative optimisation of mechanical parameter space.

Glover said: “This funding will enable us to explore how iridescent colour evolved repeatedly in different flowers. We think it will shed new light on evolution itself, as we think about the development of iridescence structure from a mechanical perspective, focusing on the forces acting as a petal grows and the mechanical properties of the petal tissue.

“It’s only possible for me to do this work because of the amazing living collection at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and I’m thrilled that the ERC is keen to support it.”

Professor Ian Henderson in the Department of Plant Sciences for his project Evolution of the Arabidopsis Pancentromere.

Henderson said: “This project seeks to investigate enigmatic regions of the genome called the centromeres, using the model plant Arabidopsis. These regions play a deeply conserved role in cell division yet paradoxically are fast evolving.

“I am highly honoured and excited to be awarded an ERC Advanced grant. The advent of long-read sequencing technology makes addressing these questions timely. The ERC’s long-term support will allow us to capitalise on these advances, build new collaborations, and train postdoctoral researchers.”

Professor Paul Lane in the Department of Archaeology, for his project Landscape Historical Ecology and Archaeology of Ancient Pastoral Societies in Kenya

Lane said: “Pastoralism has been an extraordinarily resilient livelihood strategy across Africa. This project provides an excellent opportunity to reconstruct how East Africa’s pastoralists responded to significant climate change in the past, and to draw lessons from these adaptations for responding to contemporary climate crises in a region that is witnessing heightened water scarcity and loss of access to critically important grazing lands.”

“This project will allow us to utilise the department’s world-leading archaeological science laboratories and expertise to answer crucial questions about past patterns of mobility, dietary diversity, climatic regimes and food security among East African pastoralists over the last fifteen hundred years. This has never been attempted before for this time period.” Read more about Professor Lane’s project here.

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge said: “Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul on receiving these prestigious and highly competitive awards. It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.

“Now that the UK is an associated country to Horizon Europe I encourage other Cambridge researchers to also consider applying to the ERC and other Horizon Europe programmes.”

President of the European Research Council Professor Maria Leptin said: “Congratulations to the 255 researchers who will receive grants to follow their scientific instinct in this new funding round. I am particularly happy to see more mid-career scientists amongst the Advanced Grant winners this time. I hope that it will encourage more researchers at this career stage to apply for these grants.”

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The 255 ERC Advanced Grants, totalling €652 million, support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

The European Commission and the UK Government have reached an agreement on the association of the UK to Horizon Europe, which applies for calls for proposals implementing the 2024 budget and onwards.

The ERC Advanced Grants target established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant achievements. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in mid-career researchers (12-17 years post-PhD), who have been successful in the Advanced Grants competitions, with 18% securing grants in this latest round.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Pork labelling schemes ‘not helpful’ in making informed buying choices, say researchers

Farmers don’t have to choose between lowering environmental impact and improving welfare for their pigs, a new study has found: it is possible to do both. But this is not reflected in the current food labelling schemes relied on by consumers.

The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat.Harriet Bartlett

Two pigs on a farm
Two pigs on a farm
Credit: Charity Burggraaf/ Getty

Researchers have evaluated different types of pig farming – including woodland, organic, free range, RSPCA assured, and Red Tractor certified, to assess each systems’ impact across four areas: land use (representing biodiversity loss), greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotics use and animal welfare. Their study concludes that none of the farm types performed consistently well across all four areas – a finding that has important implications for increasingly climate conscious consumers, as well as farmers themselves.

However, there were individual farms that did perform well in all domains, including an indoor Red Tractor farm, an outdoor bred, indoor finished RSPCA assured farm and fully outdoor woodland farm. “Outliers like these show that trade-offs are not inevitable,” said lead author Dr Harriet Bartlett, Research Associate at the University of Oxford’s Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who was formerly at the University of Cambridge.  

“Somewhat unexpectedly we found that a handful of farms perform far better than average across all four of our environmental and welfare measures,” added senior author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge. However, none of the current label or assurance schemes predicted which farms these would be.

“The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat. Even more importantly, we aren’t rewarding and incentivising the best-performing farmers. Instead of focusing on farm types or practices, we need to focus on meaningful outcomes for people, the planet and the pigs – and assess, and reward farms based on these,” said Bartlett.

The findings also show that common assumptions around food labelling can be misplaced. For instance, Organic farming systems, which consumers might see as climate and environmentally friendly, have on average three times the CO2 output per kg of meat of more intensive Red Tractor or RSPCA assured systems and four times the land use. However, these same systems use on average almost 90% fewer antibiotic medicines, and result in improved animal welfare compared with production from Red tractor or RSPCA assured systems.

The way we classify livestock farms must be improved, Bartlett says, because livestock production is growing rapidly, especially pork production, which has quadrupled in the past 50 years and already accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Pig farming also uses more antibiotics than any other livestock sector, and 8.5% of all arable land.

“Our findings show that mitigating the environmental impacts of livestock farming isn’t a case of saying which farm type is the best,” said Bartlett. “There is substantial scope for improvement within types, and our current means of classification is not identifying the best farms for the planet and animals overall. Instead, we need to identify farms that successfully limit their impacts across all areas of societal concern, and understand, promote and incentivise their practises.”

The study reached its conclusions using data from 74 UK and 17 Brazilian breed-to-finish systems, each made up of 1-3 farms and representing the annual production of over 1.2 million pigs. It is published today in the journal Nature Food.

“To the best of our knowledge, our dataset covers by far the largest and most diverse sample of pig production systems examined in any single study,” said Bartlett.

James Wood, Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science at the University of Cambridge, commented: “This important study identifies a key need to clarify what different farm labels should indicate to consumers; there is a pressing need to extend this work into other farming sectors. It also clearly demonstrates the critical importance that individual farmers play in promoting best practice across all farming systems.”

Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable was authored by academics at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the University of São Paulo.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference: Bartlett, H.,‘Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable.’ Nature Food, April 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-024-00921-2

Adapted from a press release by the University of Oxford.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

£9.2m boost for next generation of Cambridge cancer experts

Cancer Research UK has announced £9.2m for Cambridge to train the next generation of doctors and scientists to bring new and better cancer treatments to patients faster. 

I’m immensely grateful for the funding I received from Cancer Research UK, which provided me with a key stepping stone in my clinician scientist careerCaroline Watson

Cancer researchers in the laboratory
Cancer researchers at the CRUK Cambridge Institute
Credit: CRUK

The charity is to award the funding over the next five years to train early-career clinician scientists – doctors who also carry out medical research – as part of its Clinical Academic Training Programme. 

The Clinical Academic Training Programme will invest £58.7m at nine research centres including the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre in partnership with the University of Cambridge and Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, which includes Addenbrooke’s Hospital.

Clinician scientists play an essential role in translating cancer research, helping to bridge the gap between scientific research carried out in laboratories and clinical research involving patients.  

Dr Caroline Watson – now a Group Leader in the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge and Honorary Haematology Consultant at Addenbrooke’s Hospital – has benefited from this funding, having previously been awarded a three-year Cancer Research UK Clinical Research Training Fellowship in 2017. Caroline was first author on a Science paper and Nature Genetics paper, based on her Cancer Research UK-funded research, that identified which mutations in healthy blood are associated with the highest risk of developing blood cancer.

Dr Watson said: “As we age, we all acquire mutations in the cells that make up our tissues.  The vast majority are harmless, but some can increase cancer risk. With blood’s relative ease of sampling and improved DNA sequencing costs, we now have enough data, across many thousands of individuals, to determine which specific mutations enable cells to expand most rapidly and could therefore confer the highest risk of cancer. Knowing whether specific mutations are high-risk or clinically insignificant is key for the future of personalised cancer risk. 

“I’m immensely grateful for the funding I received from Cancer Research UK, which provided me with a key stepping stone in my clinician scientist career.  I feel fortunate to now be able to spend the bulk of my time focused on research, but also continue with some clinical work in parallel.  Having been involved in setting up the UK’s first clinic focused on blood cancer prevention at Addenbrooke’s Hospital, I look forward to translating my research findings to directly benefit patients.”

Michelle Mitchell, Cancer Research UK’s Chief Executive, said: “Clinician scientists have a very important role to play by bringing their knowledge and experience of treating people with cancer to scientific research.

“We need all our doctors and scientists to be able to reach their full potential, no matter their background. That’s why we are continuing to provide flexible training options for early-career clinician scientists.”

The contribution of clinician scientists in the new Cambridge Cancer Research Hospital will be critical for the future of cancer research. The East of England specialist cancer hospital planned for the Cambridge Biomedical Campus is bringing together clinical expertise from leading Addenbrooke’s Hospital with world-leading scientists from the University of Cambridge and Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, under one roof.  

This integrated approach will help fast-track cancer innovations and will mean patients across the region can directly benefit from the latest innovations in cancer science.

Becoming a clinician scientist usually involves doctors taking time out of their medical training to undertake a PhD, before returning to train in their chosen specialisation, but many clinicians don’t come back to research after qualifying as consultants. This may be due to existing pressure on the healthcare system and lack of available funding.   

Nearly three quarters (74%) of clinical research staff surveyed by Cancer Research UK in 2023 said that it has become harder to deliver research in a timely manner in the last 18 months, with 78% of respondents describing wider pressures on the health service as a substantial or extreme barrier.  

To tackle this issue, Cancer Research UK’s Clinical Academic Training Programme provides flexible training options alongside mentorship and networking opportunities to better support clinicians who want to get involved and stay in cancer research.  

Data from the Medical Schools Council Clinical Academic Survey reports a decline in the number of clinical academic positions between 2011–2020. Research from the United States also suggests that offering combined qualifications retains more women in clinical research roles.    

Professor Richard Gilbertson, Head of the Department of Oncology at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Centre, said: “We are delighted to gain further generous support from Cancer Research UK to enable us to provide doctors and medical students with flexible training opportunities, training them to be the clinical cancer research leaders of the future.

“Developing new and effective treatments of cancer requires teams of scientists working in the clinic and laboratory, in all specialities. This funding is crucial to ensure that we train these individuals so that we can make these discoveries to benefit patients with cancer well into the future.”

Adapted from a press release from Cancer Research UK


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

UK-wide trials to begin on blood tests for diagnosing dementia

Cambridge researchers are helping lead countrywide trials to identify accurate and quick blood tests that can diagnose dementia, in a bid to improve the UK’s shocking diagnosis rate.

This is a ground-breaking study, to discover the best blood tests for dementia, not just Alzheimer’s but any type of dementia and for anyone, whatever their background age and other health problems. An early accurate diagnosis opens the way to better treatment, support and careJames Rowe

Elderly couple taking a walk through the park
Credit: micheile henderson

Professor James Rowe from the Department of Clinical Neurosciences at Cambridge will co-lead a team that will test multiple existing and novel blood tests, looking at a range of types of dementia.

The trials will capitalise on recent breakthroughs in potential dementia blood tests, and generate the evidence needed for them to be validated for use in the NHS within the next 5 years.

The teams from Dementias Platform UK (which includes the Universities of Cambridge and Oxford) and UCL make up the Blood Biomarker Challenge – a multi-million pound award given by Alzheimer’s Society, Alzheimer’s Research UK and the National Institute for Health and Care Research and Gates Ventures including £5m raised by players of People’s Postcode Lottery. The project aims to revolutionise dementia diagnosis.

Both teams will recruit participants from sites spread across the country, to ensure their findings are applicable to the whole of the UK’s diverse population.

Timely and accurate diagnosis of the diseases that cause dementia, such as Alzheimer’s disease, is crucial as it means people can access vital care and support and take part in medical research. This will be even more imperative if new treatments are approved for use in the NHS, as these work best for people in the earliest stage of their disease.

Currently, people are usually diagnosed using memory tests and brain scans. These are less accurate than ‘gold standard’ tests like PET scans or lumbar punctures, which can confirm what type of dementia they have. However, only 2% of people can access these specialist tests.

In recent years, a number of different blood tests that can diagnose Alzheimer’s disease and other causes of dementia have shown very promising results in research settings. But they have yet to be tested widely in clinical settings in the UK.

The READ-OUT team (REAl World Dementia OUTcomes) will be led by Professor James Rowe from Cambridge and Drs Vanessa Raymont and Ivan Koychev from Oxford, who are part of Dementias Platform UK. They will test multiple existing and novel blood tests, looking at a range of types of dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease, vascular dementia, frontotemporal dementia, and dementia with Lewy bodies. The researchers will also look at whether the blood tests can help detect these diseases at various stages.

Professor Rowe said: “This is a ground-breaking study, to discover the best blood tests for dementia, not just Alzheimer’s but any type of dementia and for anyone, whatever their background age and other health problems. An early accurate diagnosis opens the way to better treatment, support and care. Cambridge researchers will lead the analysis pipeline, and the vital input from patients and families throughout the study.” 

For the first 3 years, READ-OUT will run a fact-finding study that will take blood tests in around 20 Dementias Platform UK sites across the UK, involving 3000 people from diverse populations. In the final 2 years, they will run a clinical trial with 880 people to explore how having a blood test for dementia affects diagnosis and quality of life, patients and carers, impact on care and how the results should be communicated to patients.

Dr Raymont said: “Since I first stepped into a memory clinic 30 years ago there has thankfully been a shift in the way society thinks about dementia. There was previously a feeling that this was just another part of aging, but now we’re seeing that people want to know more about their condition and they want a diagnosis as it helps them access the support they need. Both my parents lived with dementia so I know firsthand the devastation this disease causes, and how a timely and accurate diagnosis can benefit people and their families.”

A second team, ADAPT, will be led by Professor Jonathan Schott and Dr Ashvini Keshavan at UCL and will focus on the most promising biomarker for Alzheimer’s disease, called p-tau217. This reflects levels of two hallmark proteins found inside the brain in Alzheimer’s disease – amyloid and tau. The researchers will carry out a clinical trial to see whether measuring p-tau217 in the blood increases the rate of diagnosis for Alzheimer’s disease both in people with early dementia, but also in those with mild, progressive problems with memory.

These complementary research approaches will maximise the chances of providing the evidence needed to prove that blood tests are ready for use in the NHS. They will pave the way for them to be made available to all who might benefit within the next 5 years.

Fiona Carragher, Director of Research and Influencing at Alzheimer’s Society, said: “At the moment only 2% of people with dementia can access the specialised tests needed to demonstrate eligibility for new treatments, leading to unnecessary delays, worry and uncertainty. Blood tests are part of the answer to this problem – they’re quick, easy to administer and cheaper than current, more complex tests. I’ve spent decades working in research and the NHS and, after years of slow progress, it feels like we’re on the cusp of a new chapter on how we treat dementia in this country.”

Dr Sheona Scales, Director of Research at Alzheimer’s Research UK, said: “It’s fantastic that through collaborating with the leading experts in the dementia community, we can look to bring cutting-edge blood tests for diagnosing dementia within the NHS. And this will be key to widening access to groundbreaking new treatments that are on the horizon.”

For more information about the Blood Biomarker Challenge and how to take part, please visit the Dementia Platforms UK website.

Adapted from a press release from Alzheimer’s Research UK


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

How do we protect doctors, media and NGOs in war? – a time to discuss

By Dr Saleyha Ahsan

I write this from Egypt where I am currently with the WHO Eastern Mediterranean Regional Office (EMRO) Trauma Operation Advisory Team (TOpAT) who are running their Mass Casualty Management course. Its aim is to prepare healthcare systems in the region for managing events that lead to their emergency departments and hospitals being overwhelmed. As the training is delivered, thoughts of how close the reality is for many in the Middle East are never far away.

Dr Saleyha Ahsan

As we talk about our shared mass casualty experiences, I refer to my time in Palestine in 2002 where I experienced direct targeting as a clearly identified journalist during a conflict setting. I was making the film Article 17 – Doctors in Palestine at the time, which charts the story of healthcare workers delivering care under curfew during the second intifada.

I refer also to the wars in Syria and Libya where I worked as a doctor and how I had to hide that I was a doctor. Violent targeting of healthcare was taking place. I witnessed an ambulance being painted black on the Syrian Turkish border to hide its medical identity.

The situation now feels like an alternative universe to the time I first deployed to a war zone in the 1990s, with the NATO Stabilsation Force to Bosnia as part of the British Army. I was a non-medical support officer and in command of a troop of combat medic technicians. Though not a doctor, we  all wore the red cross emblem on our uniforms and vehicles. I saw the access afforded to us and the protection we enjoyed under laws of armed conflict. This has not been experienced in recent conflicts.

Lindsey Hilsum, international news editor of Channel 4 news, has been reporting from the Ukrainian frontline. She says: ‘Like others, I was shocked to be reporting a major war in Europe in 2024. I was in Ukraine in 2014 and in Kosovo in 1999, but this is a bigger war…’

Lindsey Hilsum. Credit: Elizabeth Dalziel

From the early stages of this war, healthcare was targeted. A Ukrainian Army medic told me told, for my 2022 report for the Lancet, that he removes his red cross armband when operational because Russian snipers directly target anyone wearing a red cross.

My role as a journalist, having reported from conflict settings for the BBC, the Lancet, The World Today (Chatham House), New York Times and the Guardian and as a doctor has led me to ask: how do we protect healthcare workers and the media in conflict settings? It’s the question defining our time and will be discussed at a Cambridge Festival event: The challenges of delivering healthcare in conflict and telling the story in a warzone on Thursday 21st March at the Cambridge Union.

On the panel, Hilsum will speak of the challenges covering the current conflict in Gaza.

She says: “All news organisations, including Channel 4 News, have colleagues in Gaza. We worry about them all the time. The work they have been doing is tremendous and unbelievably dangerous, even as they have to look after their families.”

The interdisciplinary relationship that exists in war struck me as I flew out to Libya in 2011 during the conflict there. On the plane were doctors, journalists and humanitarian workers. It formed the basis of the CRASSH research network I co-founded in Cambridge, Healthcare in Conflict, a practitioner and academic group accommodating the core people who run to a war zone – medics, media and NGOS.

Rob Williams

The current situation in Gaza has reinforced the need for such collaborative conversations. Fellow panellist, Rob Williams, CEO of the War Child Alliance, says in response to the current situation: “NGOs are not getting the support we need to provide humanitarian aid, which means that children are effectively being abandoned by the international community when they most need support whilst we spend our time and resources trying to persuade politicians to live up to the international norms on which the international system is founded.”

Medics and media are protected under international humanitarian law and yet they have never been more vulnerable. “Humanitarian space and independence is a fundamental legal construct which has served us well for decades and needs to be properly defended across all conflicts, even those where public  opinion is polarised,” says Williams.

The losses suffered by the medical and media professions far exceed losses in previous conflicts in comparable timeframes. A wider cross-disciplinary discussion is urgently required and that is what the panel will begin.

Toby Cadman

In previous conflicts, accountability is beginning to be sought.  In response to the conflict in Syria, panellist and human rights specialist barrister Toby Cadman has led a legal team in the filing of a complaint against Russia in the European Court of Human Rights for targeting hospitals in Syria and at the International Criminal Court against Russia and Syria for the targeting of schools and hospitals as one element of the crime of forced deportation.

Also joining the discussion will be the crucial voice of Jim Campbell, Director of the Health Workforce Department at the World Health Organization. He oversees the development and implementation of global public goods, evidence and tools to inform investments in the education and employment sphere as well as the retention of the health and care workforce in pursuit of global health security, universal health coverage and the UN Sustainable Development Goals. 

Jim Campbell

As leading global journalists sign an open letter demanding access to cover the situation in Gaza, Hilsum says: “We do all we can to support our colleagues, but we cannot protect them from air strikes. We use news agency pictures, as well as video shot by our own stringer and verified social media footage to show what’s going on, as well as interviews with eye-witnesses inside Gaza and those who have recently left. None of it compensates for not being on the ground.”

As part of the event, I will screen my film, Article 17 – Doctors in Palestine, that began my journey into the subject of healthcare in conflict, and the experience of which brought me to Cambridge to study for my PhD looking at the impact of attacks against healthcare in war. I never imagined how sadly timely such an event would be when I first planned the screening. An important conversation begins at the Cambridge Festival on the protection of those who risk so much for those affected by war.

Williams says the time for it is now.

“This panel is crucial to understanding the crisis in access for aid and objective news gathering and how this can be reversed before the rules based system unravels any further,” he says.

Last month marked 12 years since the death of award-winning war correspondent Marie Colvin, who was killed in Syria when an airstrike hit the media centre she was working in. She was Hilsum’s close friend and colleague and in her memory Hilsum co-founded the Marie Colvin Journalists’ Network. It has eight members in Gaza, supported through grants which cover equipment lost in airstrikes and other emergency needs.

Hilsum says: “I think of Marie a lot. She would be determined to tell the story of what is happening to civilians in Gaza. Nor would she forget the Israeli hostages. She is an inspiration to us all. I miss her a lot.”

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Farm to factories

Cambridge Zero research events focus on food and decarbonisation

By Ellie Austin

Photo by jean wimmerlin on Unsplash

1 | Sustainable and Healthy Food Production

Thursday 21 March 9:30-14:00
West Hub, room East 2

Cambridge Zero Symposium in collaboration with Cambridge Global Food Security Interdisciplinary Research Centre (IRC).

On 21 March, Cambridge Zero will host its Sustainable and Healthy Food Production symposium.

The symposium, in collaboration with Cambridge Global Food Security IRC, will feature National Institute of Agricultural Botany (NIAB) CEO Prof Mario Caccamo, Rob Wise of the National Farmers’ Union (NFU), and Cambridge academics Dr Jagjit Singh SraiProf David EdwardsProf Jaideep Prabhu and Dr Mukesh Kumar.

The keynote speakers will discuss the context and controversies that surround food production, from managing consumer demand for meat to wildlife-friendly farming, in our transition to a net-zero world.

The discussion will include insights and case studies from food security experts, including Prof Caccamo of the NIAB, one of the UK’s leading agricultural research organisations, and Dr Srai, the Co-Chair of the Council on the Future of Advanced Manufacturing and Production at the World Economic Forum.

Additionally, the symposium will hear from a multidisciplinary cohort of early career researchers to share cutting-edge research.

The symposium will provide a foundation for a white paper on how the University of Cambridge can strengthen its research and industry partnerships on keeping food production secure in a changing climate.

grass field
Photo by Dan Meyers on Unsplash

At the symposium Professor David Edwards will be speaking on how to minimise the environmental consequences of farming.

Intensive farming practices can be detrimental to wildlife. For example, pesticides are toxic chemicals which stop wildlife munching away on crops by reducing the habitability of farmland to all wildlife. Additionally, farmland lacking in plant diversity, such as monoculture fields, will be less attractive to a diverse range of wildlife.

However, some wildlife play a vital role in food production, such as crop-pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. Pollination is an important step in fertilising plants to grow the seeds and fruits we eat as food. Therefore, conserving wildlife is critical for food security.

In his keynote talk, Professor Edwards will discuss the context and controversies of wildlife-friendly farming as a tool for securing resilient food production.

Sign-up for our Sustainable and Healthy Food Production symposium here.

yellow and black heavy equipment on green field during daytime

A Cambridge Zero collaboration with the University of Cambridge Decarbonisation Network.

2 | Workshop: Decarbonisation Industry Partnerships

Monday 25 March 09:30-17:00
East 1 and East 2, West Hub, JJ Thomson Avenue, Cambridge, CB3 0US

On 25 March, Cambridge Zero will host a decarbonisation partnerships event.

The all-day event, in collaboration with the University of Cambridge Decarbonisation Network, will bring together academics and industry to discuss how organisations can utilise University of Cambridge researchers to decarbonise processes in their organisation.

In the morning, attendees will hear about examples of successful industry-academia partnerships in a series of bite-sized 15-minute talks from academics, industry partners and early career researchers.

Speakers will include Professor David Reiner on his experience utilising industry engagement with the Energy Policy Research Group, and Dr Shaun Fitzgerald on industry partnerships with the Centre for Climate Repair.

This is followed by an interactive session in the afternoon to discuss and generate ideas for research collaborations with the organisations in attendance.

Read the full programme and sign-up for our decarbonisation partnerships event here.

black metal empty building

To keep up-to-date with Cambridge Zero’s latest news and events, sign-up to our research newsletter here.

Published 15 March 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


AI and scholarship:a manifesto

By Dr Ella McPherson and Prof Matei Candea
School of the Humanities and Social Sciences

This manifesto and principles cut through the hype around generative AI to provide a framework that supports scholars and students in figuring out if, rather than how, generative AI contributes to their scholarship, writes Dr Ella McPherson and Prof Matei Candea.

This approach reminds us that what is at stake is nothing less than our educational values, they argue.


Generative artificial intelligence (AI) has stormed higher education at a time when we are all still recovering from the tragedies and demands of living and working in a pandemic, as well as facing significant workload pressures. It has landed without any significant guidance or resources from a rampant-revenue sector. 

For example, ChatGPT’s website provides an eight-(8!)-question ‘Educator FAQ’ which asks for free labour from those who teach to figure out how their technology can ‘help educators and students’: ‘There are many ways to get there, and the education community is where the best answers will come from.’

Still, teaching and teaching support staff have scrambled to find time to carefully think through generative AI’s implications for our teaching and research, as well as how we might address these. 

On the teaching side, for example, some colleagues are concerned with generative AI’s potential in enabling plagiarism, while also being excited about generative AI’s prospects for doing lower-level work, like expediting basic computer coding, that makes space for more advanced thinking. 

On the research side, we are being pushed various techno-solutions meant to speed up crucial research processes, such as summarising reading, writing literature reviews, conducting thematic analysis, visualising data, writing, editing, referencing and peer reviewing. 

Sometimes these options pop up within tools we already use, as when the qualitative analysis software ATLAS.ti launched AI Coding Beta, ‘the beginning of the world’s first AI solution for qualitative insights’, ‘saving you enormous time’.

Saving time – efficiency – is all well and good. But efficiency is not always, or even often, the core norm driving scholarship.  The only way to know if and how to adopt generative AI into our teaching, learning and research is through assessing its impact on our main values.

Generative AI and the core values of scholarship

We often hear of academic excellence as the core value of scholarship. The use of generative AI, where it facilitates knowledge generation, can be in line with this core value, but only productively if it doesn’t jeopardise the other values animating our teaching, learning and research. 

As described below, these include education, ethics and eureka. We have to broaden the conversation to these other values to fully understand how generative AI might impact scholarship. 


Education is at the heart of scholarship.  As students and scholars, understanding the how of scholarship is just as important as the what of scholarship, yet it often gets short shrift. Methodology is emphasised less than substantive topics in course provision, and teaching and learning often focuses more on theories than on how they were made and on how the makings shaped the findings. 

This misattention means we have been slower to notice that the adoption of generative AI may take away opportunities to learn and demonstrate the key skills underpinning the construction of scholarship. 

Learning-by-doing is a pedagogical approach that applies just as much to the student as the established scholar. It is often slow, discombobulating, full of mistakes and inefficiencies, and yet imperative for creating new scholarship and new generations of scholars.

Though generative AI can support scholarship in some ways, we should be sure that we understand and can undertake the processes generative AI replaces first, such as summarising and synthesising texts, generating bibliographies, analysing data and constructing arguments.

If we allow generative AI, we also have to think about how it impacts the equality of access to education. On the one hand, users who can pay have access to more powerful tools. On the other, educators are investigating the potential for generative AI to support disabled students, though past experience shows us that rushing into AI adoption, like transcription, in the classroom has had significant negative repercussions


The initial enchantment of generative AI also distracted us from the complex ethical considerations around using generative AI in research, including their extractive nature vis-à-vis both knowledge sectors and the environment, as well as the way they trouble important research values like empathy, integrity and validity. 

These concerns fit into a broader framework of research ethics as the imperative to maximise benefit and minimise harm.

We are ever more aware that many large language models have been trained, without permission or credit, on the creative and expressive works of many knowledge sectors, from art to literature to journalism to the academy. 

Given the well-entrenched cultural norm of citation in our sector – which acknowledges the ideas of others, shows how ideas are connected, and supports readers in understanding the context of our writing – it is uncomfortably close to hypocritical to rely on research and writing tools that do not reference the works on which they are built. 

Sustainability is increasingly a core value of our universities and our research. Engaging generative AI means calling on cloud data centres, which means using scarce freshwater and releasing carbon dioxide.  

A typical conversation with ChatGPT, with ten to 50 exchanges, requires a half-litre of water to cool the servers, while asking a large generative AI model to create an image for you requires as much energy as charging your smartphone’s battery up all the way. It’s difficult to un-know these environmental consequences, and they should give us pause at using generative AI when we can do the same tasks ourselves.

Research ethics are about conducting research with empathy and pursuing validity, namely producing research that represents the empirical world well, as well as integrity, or intellectual honesty and transparency. Generative AI complicates all of these. Empathy is often created through proximity to our data and closeness to our subjects and stakeholders. Generative AI as the machine-in-the-middle interferes with opportunities to build and express empathy. 

The black box nature of generative AI can interfere with the production of validity, in that we cannot know exactly how it gets to the thematic codes it identifies in data, nor to the claims it makes in writing – not to mention that it may be hallucinating both these claims and the citations on which they are based. 

The black box also creates a problem for transparency, and thus integrity; at a minimum, maintaining research integrity means honesty about how and when we use generative AI, and scholarly institutions are developing model statements and rubrics for AI acknowledgements.  

Furthermore, we have to recognise that generative AI may be trained on elite datasets, and thus exclude minoritised ideas and reproduce hierarchies of knowledge, as well as reproduce biases inherent in this data – which raises questions about the perpetuation of harms arising from its use. 

As always with new technologies, ethical frameworks are racing to catch up with research practices on new terrains. In this gap, it is wise to follow the advice of internet researchers: follow your instinct (if it feels wrong, it possibly is) and discuss, deliberate and debate with your research collaborators and colleagues.


It’s not just our education and our ethics that generative AI challenges, but also our emotions. As academics, we don’t talk enough about how research and writing make us feel, yet those feelings animate much of what we do; they are the reward of the job. 

Think of the moment a beautiful mess of qualitative data swirls into theory, or the instant in the lab when it becomes clear the data is confirming the hypothesis, or when a prototype built to solve a problem works, or the idea that surfaces over lunch with a colleague. 

These data eurekas are followed by writing eurekas, ones that may have special relevance in the humanities and social sciences (writing is literally part of the methodology for some of our colleagues): the satisfaction of working out an argument through writing it out, the thrill of a sentence that describes the empirical world just so, the nerdy pride of wordplay. Of course, running alongside these great joys are great frustrations, the one dependent on the other. 

The point is that these emotions of scholarship are core to scholarship’s humanity and fulfilment. Generative AI, used ethically, can make space for us to pursue them and in so doing, create knowledge. But generative AI can also drain the emotions out of research and writing, parcelling our contributions into the narrower, more automatic work of checking and editing. And this can happen by stealth, with the shiny promise of efficiency eclipsing these fading eureka moments. 

Of course, this process of alienation is nothing new when it comes to the introduction of technologies into work, and workers have resisted it throughout time, from English textile workers in the 1800s to Amazon warehouse workers today. As the Luddites were, contemporary movements are often criticised for being resistant to change, but this criticism misses the point. Core to these refusal and resistance movements, as in this case, is noticing what we lose with technology’s gain.

The carrot approach

In the context of a tech-sector fuelled push to adopt new technologies, we argue that the academy should take its time and question not when or how but if we should use generative AI in scholarship. 

Rather than being motivated by the stick of academic misconduct, decisions around generative AI and scholarship should be motivated by the carrot of our values. What wonderful and essential values do we protect by doing scholarship the human way? We strengthen our education; protect knowledge sectors, research subjects and principles, as well as the environment; and we make space for eureka moments. 

Generative AI has created a knowledge controversy for scholarship. Its sudden appearance has denaturalised the taken-for-granted and has created opportunities for reflection on and renewal of our values – and these are the best measure for our decisions around if and how we should incorporate generative AI into our teaching, learning and research.

Five Key Principles on AI and Scholarship

Based on the considerations above, we propose these five key principles on AI:

1. Think about it, talk about it.

AI is here to stay. It is increasingly pervasive, embedded in everyday applications and already forms part of staff and student workflows. We need to debate and discuss its use openly with colleagues and students. While we will benefit from technical training and ongoing information on the developing capacities of AI, we as experts in the social sciences and humanities, have a leading role to play in analysing and debating the risks and benefits of AI. We need to make our voice heard.

2. Our values come first.

The values animating our teaching, learning and research must lead and shape the technology we use, not the other way around. We need to pay particular attention to the joys of writing and research, as well as ensure AI enhances these rather than alienates us from them.

3. Stay ethically vigilant.

While the use of AI may be justified or indeed increasingly unavoidable in some cases, we need to remain vigilant as to the way generative AI in particular is extractive vis-à-vis both knowledge sectors and the environment, as well as the way it troubles important research values like empathy, integrity and validity. There is no ethically unproblematic use of AI.

4. Embracing change doesn’t mean giving up on the skills we have.

Just because AI seems able to undertake tasks such as summarising and organising information, it doesn’t follow that these skills should no longer be taught and assessed. To live in a world full of AI, our students will also need to learn to do without it. This means that, while we are likely to build an engagement with AI in diverse forms of teaching and assessment, zero-AI assessments (such as invigilated exams) will likely remain a core part of our assessment landscape going forward.

5. Be mindful of disciplinary diversity.

AI takes many forms. Some seem relatively benign, speeding up basic tasks, while others take away from students’ ability to learn, or raise deep concerns about authorship and authenticity. Where the line is drawn will depend on different disciplinary traditions, different professional cultures, different modes of teaching and learning. Departments and faculties must have the autonomy to decide which uses of AI are acceptable to them and which are not, in research, teaching and learning.

More information:

Guidelines for AI acknowledgements

Generative AI guidance from the School of Humanities and Social Sciences

This manifesto and principles were prepared for the School of Humanities and Social Sciences (SHSS) by Dr Ella McPherson, Deputy Head and Director of Education (manifesto) and Prof Matei Candea, SHSS Academic Project Director for Technology and Teaching (principles), with support from Megan Capon, SHSS Academic Project Coordinator. 

We prepared them at the request of the SHSS Council to support departments and faculties in deciding if and how uses of generative AI are acceptable in their disciplines, research and assessment. These decisions are in line with the University’s designation of the use of AI in assessments as academic misconduct unless expressly allowed and acknowledged. 

Published 15 March 2024

Imagery: Carol Yepes / Getty images
The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


Plastic Fantastic Cambridge

Vintage football kit re-cycled for Varsity’s 150th year

By Paul Casciato

Cambridge Zero’s Elizabeth Simpson and Dr Amy Munro-Faure (centre) pose with L-R CUAFC Women’s Co-President Alissa Sattentau (King’s College, HSPS), Women’s Treasurer Ella O’Connnell (King’s College, Engineering), Men’s Treasurer Ross Harrison (Pembroke College, HSPS) Credit – Ben Chattell

Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice (centre) poses with L-R CUAFC’s Ross Harrison, Men’s Blues Captain Cai La Trobe Roberts (Jesus, Economics), Women’s Blues Co-Captain Emilia Keavney (Homerton, Engineering), Women’s Blues Co-Captain Abbie Hastie (Emmanuel, History)

Vice-Chancellor Deborah Prentice (centre) poses with CUAFC players and Cambridge Zero L-R, Elizabeth Simpson, CUAFC’s Ella O’Connell, Women’s Co-President Alexia Dengler (Gonville & Caius, Law), Emilia Keavney, Abbie Hastie, Matt Page, Amy Munro-Faure (Cambridge Zero) Credit – Ben Chattell

The men’s and women’s squads take the pitch at The Cledara Abbey Stadium for the 150th anniversary of the Varsity football match in kit made from more than 2,000 plastic bottles.

Cambridge University Association Football Club (CUAFC) will wear a design that copies the match kit from their 1905 Varsity fixture with Oxford. But the shirts, socks and shorts for the 39th Women’s Varsity Match and the 139th Men’s Varsity Match in Cambridge on Friday 15th March are a modern marvel of recycling innovation.

This year’s kit is made from OEKO-TEX certified recycled yarn, which is produced by recycling used plastic bottles. That cuts waste, saves on energy and fossil fuel use and reduces pollution. The kit is sponsored by the University’s climate change initiative Cambridge Zero and Cambridge-based technology firm RealVNC.

Ahead of the match Cambridge Zero’s Head of Student Engagement Dr Amy Munro-Faure and Student Engagement Coordinator Elizabeth Simpson joined CUAFC captains, presidents and treasurers to present Vice-Chancellor Professor Deborah Prentice with a signed 150th anniversary game jersey.

“This shirt is a symbol of the real determination we all have at Cambridge to tackle climate change on every front,” Professor Prentice said. “Good luck to the teams on Friday.”

Cambridge Zero Student Engagement Coordinator Elizabeth Simpson said funding for the kit came after the team applied to Cambridge Zero’s Student Societies Climate Fund for sponsorship.

“The design of yesteryear, made with today’s technology to help secure a sustainable future?” Simpson said.

“That’s an irresistible request.”

Around the world, one million plastic bottles are purchased every minute, while up to five trillion plastic bags are used worldwide every year. In total, half of all plastic produced is designed for single-use purposes – used just once and then thrown away.

Today, we produce about 400 million tonnes of plastic waste every year.

CUAFC Treasurer Ross Harrison said Varsity players wanted match-day kit modelled on 1905, but which demonstrated that we can turn around the trend in pollution that has become the legacy of the last 150 years.

“It’s a shirt that pays homage to Cambridge’s esteemed footballing history and recognises the need for new innovative solutions for cutting plastic waste.”

At the Varsity matches, CUAFC are wearing the equivalent of more than 2,000 plastic half-litre bottles, approximately 30 bottles per player.

Football’s world body FIFA estimates there are more than 200 million players on the planet and billions of supporters.

Women’s Blues Co-Captain Abbie Hastie said the idea that just football and its supporters alone could cut billions of tonnes of plastic waste across the planet with their choice of a bit of kit was inspiring.

“Saving the planet is the biggest goal any athlete could score.”

To produce the kits, post-consumer PET plastic bottles are first shredded into small pieces in a recycling plant and cleaned. The parts are melted and the resulting mass is pressed into the desired shape by extrusion. From this the yarn is produced and further processed into fabric which is used to make clothing. The result: Kits made entirely from plastic bottles. 

The shirts, socks and shorts have been developed by Appareal, a Swiss-based company whose mission is to provide sustainable clothing from recycled sources. It was co-founded six years ago by Andy Wright, who is studying for a Masters in Crime and Thriller writing at Selwyn College.

Cambridge University Association Football Club’s 150th Anniversary Varsity Match Jersey – Photo credit Ben Chattell

Having read the College’s Sustainability Charter, Wright saw an opportunity to expand it through the use of sustainable sports clothing.

“Across the sporting industry, you can see a surge of investment in more responsible products to meet corporate strategic commitments, at the demands of stakeholders,” Wright said. “If the oldest football club in the world is putting its best foot forward, there’s hope for us all.”

Recycling one ton of PET waste saves 3.8 barrels of oil, with 86% less water consumption and 75% less energy consumption than conventional PET manufacturing, Wright says.

The men’s and women’s Varsity matches against Oxford University will take place at home in Cambridge on the 15th of March at the Abbey Stadium, Home to Cambridge United FC. Tickets can be bought on the Cambridge United website.

Published 13 March 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


Major investment in doctoral training announced

Two people working on circuit boards in an office
Two people working on circuit boards
Credit: Phynart Studio via Getty Images

Sixty-five Centres for Doctoral Training – which will train more than 4000 doctoral students across the UK – have been announced by Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan.

The 65 Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) will support leading research in areas of national importance, including net zero, AI, defence and security, healthcare and quantum technologies. The £1 billion in funding – from government, universities and industry – represents the UK’s biggest-ever investment in engineering and physical sciences doctoral skills.

The University of Cambridge will lead two of the CDTs and is a partner in a further five CDTs. The funding will support roughly 150 Cambridge PhD students over the next five years.

The CDT in Future Infrastructure and Built Environment: Unlocking Net Zero (FIBE3 CDT), led by Professor Abir Al-Tabbaa from the Department of Engineering, will focus on meeting the needs of the infrastructure and construction sector in its pursuit of net zero by 2050 and is a collaboration between Cambridge, 30+ industry partners and eight international academic partners.

“The infrastructure sector is responsible for significant CO2 emissions, energy use and consumption of natural resources, and it’s key to unlocking net zero,” said Al-Tabbaa. “This CDT will develop the next generation of highly talented doctoral graduates who will be equipped to lead the design and implementation of the net zero infrastructure agenda in the UK.”

The FIBE3 CDT will provide more than 70 fully funded studentships over the next five years. The £8.1M funding from EPSRC is supported by £1.3M funding from the University and over £2.5M from industry as well as over £8.9M of in-kind contributions. Recruitment is underway for the first FIBE3 CDT cohort, to start in October.

The CDT in Sensor Technologies and Applications in an Uncertain World, led by Professor Clemens Kaminski from the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, will cover the entire sensor research chain – from development to end of life – and will emphasise systems thinking, responsible research and innovation, co-creation, and cohort learning.

“Our CDT will provide students with comprehensive expertise and skills in sensor technology,” said Kaminski. “This programme will develop experts who are capable of driving impactful sensor solutions for industry and society, and can deal with uncertain data and the consequences of a rapidly changing world.”

The University is also a partner in:

  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in 2D Materials of Tomorrow (2DMoT), led by: Professor Irina Grigorieva from the University of Manchester
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training Developing National Capability for Materials 4.0 and Henry Royce Institute, led by Professor William Parnell from the University of Manchester
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Superconductivity: Enabling Transformative Technologies, led by Professor Antony Carrington from the University of Bristol
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Aerosol Science: Harnessing Aerosol Science for Improved Security, Resilience and Global Health, led by Professor Jonathan Reid from the University of Bristol
  • EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Photonic and Electronic Systems, led by Professor Alwyn Seeds from University College London

“As innovators across the world break new ground faster than ever, it is vital that government, business and academia invest in ambitious UK talent, giving them the tools to pioneer new discoveries that benefit all our lives while creating new jobs and growing the economy,” said Science and Technology Secretary, Michelle Donelan. “By targeting critical technologies including artificial intelligence and future telecoms, we are supporting world-class universities across the UK to build the skills base we need to unleash the potential of future tech and maintain our country’s reputation as a hub of cutting-edge research and development.”

“The Centres for Doctoral Training will help to prepare the next generation of researchers, specialists and industry experts across a wide range of sectors and industries,” said Professor Charlotte Deane, Executive Chair of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, part of UK Research and Innovation. “Spanning locations across the UK and a wide range of disciplines, the new centres are a vivid illustration of the UK’s depth of expertise and potential, which will help us to tackle large-scale, complex challenges and benefit society and the economy. The high calibre of both the new centres and applicants is a testament to the abundance of research excellence across the UK, and EPSRC’s role as part of UKRI is to invest in this excellence to advance knowledge and deliver a sustainable, resilient and prosperous nation.”

More than 4,000 doctoral students will be trained over the next nine years, building on EPSRC’s long-standing record of sustained support for doctoral training.

Total investment in the CDTs includes:

  • £479 million by EPSRC, including £16 million of additional UKRI funding to support CDTs in quantum technologies
  • Over £7 million from Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, also part of UKRI, to co-fund three CDTs
  • £16 million by the MOD to support two CDTs
  • £169 million by UK universities
  • plus a further £420 million in financial and in-kind support from business partners 

This investment includes an additional £135 million for CDTs which will start in 2025. More than 1,400 companies, higher education institutions, charities and civic organisations are taking part in the centres for doctoral training. CDTs have a significant reputation for training future UK academics, industrialists and innovators who have gone on to develop the latest technologies.


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Investing in women

For International Women’s Day, we meet two women from Murray Edwards, one of Cambridge’s two Colleges for women

This International Women’s Day, we speak to two proud Murray Edwards women. Affectionately known as ‘Medwards’, the Cambridge College was founded in 1954 by women who defined for themselves what a woman should be and set no limits on their potential.

Women had only been allowed to graduate from Cambridge for eight years, when 16 female students moved into a house on Silver Street and the newest women’s College, then known as New Hall, was born.

In the 70 years since, New Hall has grown and evolved, moving in 1964 to iconic new modernist buildings designed by Chamberlin, Powell and Bon – the architects who would go on to design the Barbican. In 2005, the College received a landmark £30m gift from alumna Dr Ros Smith and her then-husband Steve Edwards, securing its financial future. It was renamed Murray Edwards College, reflecting the generosity of the Edwards family and the vision of its founding president, Dame Rosemary Murray. The College is now home to up to 700 female undergraduate and postgraduate students.

Here we speak to Ann Cullen, one of those first pioneering women in Silver Street in 1954, and Katherine Perry, a current Medwards student, to hear their experiences and insights of living and studying in a space for women.

Matriculation photo of the first cohort of New Hall students in 1954. Ann Cullen is back row, centre, fifth from left.

Matriculation photo of the first cohort of New Hall students in 1954. Ann Cullen is back row, centre, fifth from left.

A blue plaque in Cambridge marking the original site of New Hall College on Silver Street

Ann Cullen (née Harding), Natural Sciences alumna (1954-1957) and one of the original 16 ‘Silver Street ladies’ from the College’s inaugural year

On applying to Cambridge…

The government had just brought in regulations that you had five years to take your O-Levels, well I’d done mine quicker and I had a spare year. My teachers said I might as well try for Oxbridge, so I sat the entrance exam and had to write an essay and I got in.

It was wonderful! I feel very fortunate that I happened to be going to University at that time and could slip through the regulations before they changed.

On the early days of New Hall…

It was a bit scandalous but we had a wonderful time, the first 16 of us.

We were absolutely flavour of the month and anyone who was anyone invited New Hall to their party because,16 girls, they thought ‘wonderful’. The garden at our house went down to the river, so people would punt up the river and then walk up our garden to come and call on us.

In our first year, for the Poppy Day Appeal, there was a large procession of lorries and fancy dress throughout the town to collect money – so we thought, we can do that! And we dressed up as St Trinian’s girls and took part.

There was also a society called ‘The Dampers’ for people who’d fallen in the Cam from a punt and they had their summer party at New Hall. All sorts of lovely things like that happened.

And because there was only 16 of us, we got to know each other really well. It was a really sociable place and especially that first year, people made us feel very special.

Varsity, the student newspaper, even wrote about us and sent a photographer to take all our photographs to feature in the paper. Then people would spot us in the street and tick our picture off saying, ‘Oh look there’s one’.

But of course reality set in when we realised that actually, we had to take exams, get degrees and life could be serious too.

On life after Cambridge and joining Oxfam…

I got married very soon after university, so I started a completely different life having children and looking after a husband, as you did back then. Husbands in those days didn’t do useful things or look after children. Everything’s changed now thank goodness.

So I started my career in my 40’s when I began working in a library before taking a secretarial course and joining Oxfam as an office administrator.

Then the Ethiopian famine in the 1980’s happened and we were suddenly launched into major fundraising mode. It was a unique experience to be running this charity appeal, with known faces like newsreader Michael Buerk and television coming to cover it.

Lots of people who were quite famous rolled up their sleeves to help raise money. It was the first time that [such a widespread public campaign] had happened and I think that’s what made it special. Live Aid came as a consequence of it.

We sent planes full of supplies and then boats full of supplies to help. Local people like bank clerks, were all coming after work to help. It was very moving.

On advice for young women now…

Get as many qualifications as you can, as young as you can!

The first cohort of New Hall students in 1954. Ann Cullen is bottom row, centre.

The original location of New Hall, now Murray Edwards, on Silver Street. Credit: Cambridge Colleges

Katherine Perry in the grounds of Murray Edwards

Murray Edwards College

Katherine Perry, a first year History and Modern Languages student

On applying to Murray Edwards…

I went to an outreach day for History and Modern Languages at Medwards when I was in Year 12 – it was the first time I’d ever visited Cambridge and it immediately dispelled most of my preconceptions about the university.

The atmosphere was incredibly friendly and welcoming. I didn’t always plan to apply to a women’s college – mainly, I liked that Medwards is a bit further from the city centre, and has beautiful gardens. But I also quickly realised that being a women’s College was one of the aspects of Medwards that made it so supportive and friendly. This term, I am really looking forward to the in-college Fleabag watch party. If that’s not Medwards-core, I don’t know what is!

On living in a space created for women…

My favourite aspect of studying at a women’s college is our library. The Medwards library balances study spaces with communal activities and support, like the pink week crochet and knitting night, the nail painting station, and the weekly tea and biscuits. These things might seem trivial, but in a society where gendered power dynamics often feel inescapable, it is as important to be able to wind down in a space free from this. Also, the women’s fiction collection is excellent. I’m currently locked in a deadly library competition to read the most women’s prize for fiction winners. I have yet to experience a similar level of celebration of women’s achievements anywhere else.

My favourite aspect of living at Medwards is the Women’s Art Collection. Like the women’s fiction, there’s abundant inspiration for and celebration of women, without the gravitational pull of privilege that often causes women to be sidelined. There are (as far as I know), no portraits of old men staring down at me as if to tell me I am an imposter in some long male legacy.

 On why Colleges for women are still important in 2024…

Though I hope for a society where no women-only spaces are necessary, I do not think we have reached that point, which is why women’s colleges are still important.

Studies on gender dynamics in college classrooms show that men, on average, speak for 1.6 times longer than women. It’s not just the numbers, either, but the context. Men were more likely to interrupt and speak without raising hands. I do not mean to insult all men, but if you have the privilege to feel insulted by these statistics then you have probably never been the woman on the receiving end of this power imbalance. Women’s spaces provide freedom from this ‘gravitational pull’ of privilege that amplifies men’s voices, and the room to learn how to take up space.

Beyond the academic environment, I would like to highlight that being a women’s college means that the gym is also no-men – a facility that some may find very useful – and access to more specific health resources is clear and easy.

To anyone women unsure about applying…

To be totally honest, it is easy to forget that you are at a women’s college, because the absence of men is not some lingering silence that hangs over us. When I do remember, it is the supportive atmosphere amongst students that I notice. With that in mind, briefly discard the “women’s” label and remember that Medwards and Newnham have numerous other draws. For instance, they are both known for their beautiful gardens, unique architecture, and access to ovens. Medwards is the closest college to Aldi (a lifesaver) and Newnham is approximately one snooze alarm away from the Sidgwick Site.

Remember that most of your academics, like lectures, classes, and some supervisions, are done outside of college, so there is plenty of opportunity to collaborate with men. The College sports, music, and academic societies are also often mixed – Medwards has a particularly strong relationship with its fellow hill colleges.


Women’s colleges are like convents.”
Men are welcome all the time as visitors, and as students who may have supervisions here. If the convent lifestyle was in fact an appealing factor, then I believe there is one up the road.

“Women’s colleges are like high schools, and full of drama.”
Are we really still into perpetuating stereotypes about ‘catty’ women? In fact, if we lean into the theory that girls mature faster than boys, does that not tell an opposite story? It is simply a myth, with much deeper roots than any singular college or university.

Murray Edwards College

New Hall, now Murray Edwards, was founded to welcome all outstanding young women of potential, no matter what their background, to the University of Cambridge – with a mission to provide the best education for female students possible.

More than 70 years later, this remains at the heart of the College’s existence. Murray Edwards chooses to remain a College for women in recognition of the fact that there is still much gender inequality facing women in the world today.

Thus there is a need for institutions such as Murray Edwards, and Newnham College, another Cambridge College for women, which offer the additional focus on women’s education, to make sure students get the most from Cambridge and, later, to help them meet the challenges of the workplace.

Explore the Murray Edwards website to learn more about what they have to offer, including The Women’s Art Collection, a collection of modern and contemporary art by women. The largest of its kind in Europe, the Collection is free to visit and is on display across the College.


Earth’s earliestforest revealed in Somerset fossils

By Sarah Collins
Published 7 March 2024

A forest of Calamophyton trees. Credit Peter Giesen/Chris Berry.

The oldest fossilised forest known on Earth – dating from 390 million years ago – has been found in the high sandstone cliffs along the Devon and Somerset coast of South West England.

The fossils, discovered and identified by researchers from the Universities of Cambridge and Cardiff, are the oldest fossilised trees ever found in Britain, and the oldest known fossil forest on Earth. This fossil forest is roughly four million years older than the previous record holder, which was found in New York State.

The fossils were found near Minehead, on the south bank of the Bristol Channel, near what is now a Butlin’s holiday camp. The fossilised trees, known as Calamophyton, at first glance resemble palm trees, but they were a ‘prototype’ of the kinds of trees we are familiar with today. Rather than solid wood, their trunks were thin and hollow in the centre. They also lacked leaves, and their branches were covered in hundreds of twig-like structures.

These trees were also much shorter than their descendants: the largest were between two and four metres tall. As the trees grew, they shed their branches, dropping lots of vegetation litter, which supported invertebrates on the forest floor.

Scientists had previously assumed this stretch of the English coast did not contain significant plant fossils, but this particular fossil find, in addition to its age, also shows how early trees helped shape landscapes and stabilise riverbanks and coastlines hundreds of millions of years ago. The results are reported in the Journal of the Geological Society.

The Hangman Sandstone Formation, where these fossils were found

Scientist standing by a large fossil of tree stumps

The forest dates to the Devonian Period, between 419 million and 358 million years ago, when life started its first big expansion onto land: by the end of the period, the first seed-bearing plants appeared and the earliest land animals, mostly arthropods, were well-established.

“The Devonian period fundamentally changed life on Earth,” said Professor Neil Davies from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences, the study’s first author. “It also changed how water and land interacted with each other, since trees and other plants helped stabilise sediment through their root systems, but little is known about the very earliest forests.”

The fossil forest identified by the researchers was found in the Hangman Sandstone Formation, along the north Devon and west Somerset coasts. During the Devonian period, this region was not attached to the rest of England, but instead lay further south, connected to parts of Germany and Belgium, where similar Devonian fossils have been found.

“When I first saw pictures of the tree trunks I immediately knew what they were, based on 30 years of studying this type of tree worldwide” said co-author Dr Christopher Berry from Cardiff’s School of Earth and Environmental Sciences. “It was amazing to see them so near to home. But the most revealing insight comes from seeing, for the first time, these trees in the positions where they grew. It is our first opportunity to look directly at the ecology of this earliest type of forest, to interpret the environment in which Calamophyton trees were growing, and to evaluate their impact on the sedimentary system.”

The fieldwork was undertaken along the highest sea cliffs in England, some of which are only accessible by boat, and revealed that this sandstone formation is rich with plant fossil material from the Devonian period. The researchers identified fossilised plants and plant debris, fossilised tree logs, traces of roots and sedimentary structures, preserved within the sandstone. During the Devonian, the site was a semi-arid plain, crisscrossed by small river channels spilling out from mountains to the northwest.

“This was a pretty weird forest – not like any forest you would see today,” said Davies. “There wasn’t any undergrowth to speak of and grass hadn’t yet appeared, but there were lots of twigs dropped by these densely-packed trees, which had a big effect on the landscape.”

This period marked the first time that tightly-packed plants were able to grow on land, and the sheer abundance of debris shed by the Calamophyton trees built up within layers of sediment. The sediment affected the way that the rivers flowed across the landscape, the first time that the course of rivers could be affected in this way.

“The evidence contained in these fossils preserves a key stage in Earth’s development, when rivers started to operate in a fundamentally different way than they had before, becoming the great erosive force they are today,” said Davies. “People sometimes think that British rocks have been looked at enough, but this shows that revisiting them can yield important new discoveries.”

The research was supported in part by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). Neil Davies is a Fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge.

Neil S. Davies, William J. McMahon and Christopher M. Barry. ‘Earth’s earliest forest: fossilized trees and vegetation-induced sedimentary structures from the Middle Devonian (Eifelian) Hangman Sandstone Formation, Somerset and Devon, SW England.’ Journal of the Geological Society (2024). DOI: 10.1144/jgs2023-204

Rocks at Porlock Weir, Somerset

Image credits (top to bottom):
Illustration of Calamophyton trees. Credit: Peter Giesen/Chris Berry
Cliffs of the Hangman Sandstone Formation, where many of the fossils were found. Credit: Neil Davies
3D reconstruction of fossilised Calamophyton trunks. Credit: Chris Berry

Outcrop at Porlock Weir, Somerset. Credit: Neil Davies

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

Marking International Women’s Day at the Cambridge Festival 

By Zoe Smith

From pre-eclampsia and its lasting impact on women’s health to inequitable distribution of domestic and caring labour in different-sex couples to an in-conversation with the Vice Chancellor: the Cambridge Festival counts a host of prominent female speakers in its programme.

Pre-eclampsia affects approximately 6-8% of pregnancies and is thought to be a problem with the placenta that usually causes blood pressure to rise. 
If left untreated, pre-eclampsia can be very dangerous for both the Mother and her baby.  

In Pre-eclampsia and its lasting impact on women’s health: Not just a villain of pregnancy? (28 March, 6.30pm), explore the puzzling relationship between pregnancy, pre-eclampsia and women’s long-term cardiovascular health, and explain how the University of Cambridge-led POPPY study hopes to provide answers to some of these questions. 

Principal Investigator Dr Carmel McEniery says, “Our principal aim is to raise awareness about the increased long-term health risks faced by women who experience pre-eclampsia and other pregnancy syndromes.” 

“We need to ‘continue the conversation’ around pregnancy, pre-eclampsia and women’s long-term health and the Festival will be an ideal forum for this. We also wish to highlight the POPPY study, which will address fundamental questions around the links between pre-eclampsia and women’s long-term cardiovascular health.” 

woman wearing gold ring and pink dress

Photo by Juan Encalada on Unsplash

Top female voices taking part in the festival include University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Debbie Prentice, Dr Una McCormack, Verity Harding and Nicola Upson amongst others. 

In our Cambridge Conversations series, University of Cambridge’s Vice-Chancellor Professor Debbie Prentice will take part in a Q&A on her research in Psychology where she has specialised in the study of domestic violence, alcohol abuse and gender stereotypes. She will also discuss her time at Cambridge and her vison for the University of Cambridge (27 March, 6pm). 

An eminent psychologist, Professor Prentice carried out her academic and administrative career at Princeton University, which she first joined in 1988. She rose through the academic ranks and took on administrative responsibilities of increasing scope, chairing the Department of Psychology for 12 years, serving as Dean of Faculty for three years, and then serving six years as Provost. 

Her academic expertise is in the study of social norms that govern human behaviour – particularly the impact and development of unwritten rules and conventions, and how people respond to breaches of those rules. 

Bestselling science fiction writer, Dr Una McCormack, will be speaking with Professor Lord Martin Rees on the relationship between science and science fiction when it comes to our knowledge of the life, the universe and outer space. (25 March, 8pm

Dr McCormack is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling science fiction writer who has written more than twenty novels based on TV shows such as Star Trek, Doctor Who, and Firefly. Her academic interests include women’s science fiction, transformative works (‘fanfiction’), and JRR Tolkien 

Writer Emily Kenway and Thara Raj, Director of Population Health and Inequalities at Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, will be on a panel discussion trying to answer the question: how can we fix the NHS and social care? (21 March, 6pm). 

Emily Kenway researches, writes and speaks about thought-provoking social issues. Drawing on a decade-long career working in social justice, from campaigning for living wages to tackling worker exploitation, she sheds light on the crucial forces shaping our lives and communities. 

Thara Raj is Director of Population Health and Inequalities at Warrington and Halton Teaching Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust (WHHT). Prior to coming to the hospital Thara was Director of Public Health for Warrington Borough Council and oversaw the public health response to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Professor Clare Brooks is Professor of Education at the University of Cambridge. She will be speaking in a Question Time-style panel discussion on the teacher recruitment crisis on Who can fix the teacher recruitment and retention crisis? (20 March, 5.30pm). Professor Brooks is a leading authority on teacher education whose work emphasises its wider social context, impact and purpose. 

Dr Melisa Basol is a social psychologist and one of Forbes’ 30 under 30 Class of 2022 and is currently leading the misinformation work at Moonshot, a social impact business that works to end online harms, applying evidence, ethics and human rights. 

Dr Ella McPherson, Associate Professor of the Sociology of New Media and Digital Technology and Co-Director of the Centre of Governance and Human Rights (CGHR). At CGHR, she leads the research theme on human rights in the digital age. Both will be panel members on How will AI affect the democratic process? (20 March, 6pm

Emily Kenway

Professor Clare Brooks

Dr Melisa Basol

Dr Ella McPherson

Verity Harding

Dr Tina Van der Vlies

Samantha Day

Crime author Nicola Upson will be talking to Cambridge University Librarian Dr Jessica Gardner about curating the library’s latest exhibition, Murder by the Book, which opens on 23 March, and the importance of crime writing as a genre.  (28 March, 5.30pm

As part of the Cambridge Festival, Verity Harding, one of Time’s 100 Most Influential People in AI, will discuss her new book – AI Needs You: How We Can Change AI’s Future and Save Our Own – with Professor Dame Diane Coyle, from the Bennett Institute for Public Policy, Cambridge (14 March, 6pm

Verity will draw from her book some inspiring lessons from the histories of three 20th-century tech revolutions – the space race, in vitro fertilisation and the internet – to draw us into the conversation about AI and its possible futures. 

She argues that it is critical for society to take the lead in ensuring that AI fulfils its promise to tackle some of the world’s most pressing challenges. 

History is a contested school subject and a topic of polarised public debates. These discussions involve the attributed meaning to the narrated and remembered past, while shaping identities and world views. In Why school history matters: Public discourses on the value of history for society, 1924–2024, Dr Tina Van der Vlies discusses how and why ideas on the value and purpose of school history for society changed in this period. Dr Van der Vlies is Assistant Professor History, Heritage & Education at the Erasmus School of History, Culture and Communication

Comedian Samantha Day will present an evening of thought-provoking humour in the Booby Trap. Breasts loom large in our culture, but why are we so obsessed with them? The award-winning comedian gets her tit jokes out and exposes some big issues. (20 March, 7.30pm

The inequitable distribution of domestic and caring labour in different-sex couples has been a long-standing feminist concern. In Seeing the mess: Gender, housework and perception (21 March, 3pm) we question why do women continue to shoulder a disproportionate amount of housework and childcare despite economic and cultural gains? And why is there a widespread one-sided misrepresentation within different-sex couples about how domestic and caring work is distributed between the two partners? 

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

The Cambridge Festival is a unique festival of events brought to you by the University of Cambridge. With over 350 events from exhibitions, walks, talks, workshops, performances, hands-on activities, films and more!

AI predicts healthiness of food menus

Study highlights ‘double burden’ of unhealthy food environment in deprived areas

By Craig Brierley

Published 8 March 2024

Cambridge researchers have used artificial intelligence to predict the healthiness of café, takeaway and restaurant menus at outlets across Britain and used this information to map which of its local authorities have the most and least healthy food environments.

The findings, published in Health & Place, highlight the double burden faced by people living in the most deprived areas, where there tend to be more food outlets per capita – more than double the number in the least deprived areas – and these outlets tend to be less healthy.

‘Out-of-home’ food – whether that’s food eaten in a pub, café or restaurant or takeaway food – is an increasing part of how many people eat. But this food tends to be higher in calories, saturated fat and salt and less nutritious than food prepared at home.

Studies have shown consistently that the more an individual eats food out of home – especially fast food – the poorer the quality of their diet and the higher their body weight. In the UK, there also tend to be more fast food outlets in more deprived neighbourhoods.

Not all menus are equal, however – some will be healthier than others – but little is known about whether there are differences between neighbourhoods in the healthiness of out-of-home food outlets.

“Given the link between the food environment and diet, it’s important to understand how healthy this environment is at a local level. This will empower local authorities to take action to try and improve the consumer food environment.”

Yuru Huang, a Gates Cambridge Scholar at the Medical Research Council (MRC) Epidemiology Unit, University of Cambridge

To explore this, Huang and colleagues examined menus from almost 55,000 food outlets on Just Eat, an online food ordering and delivery platform. Each outlet’s menu was given a healthiness score of 0-12 (with 12 being the healthiest) based on a number of factors including: the number of special offers (such as meal deals or family meals), desserts, salads, chips, milk, water, and the diversity of vegetables.

As not every food outlet is on Just Eat, the team turned to an artificially-intelligent ‘deep learning’ model, trained on a subset of Just Eat data, to predict menu healthiness of every out-of-home food outlet in Britain – a total of almost 180,000 outlets. These outlets were classified into four categories:

  • cafés, snack bars, and tea rooms
  • fast food and takeaways
  • pubs, bars, and inns
  • restaurants

The only information available for all out-of-home food outlets were the outlets’ names and hygiene ratings. When the team tested their model, they found that the outlet’s name was the best at predicting the healthiness of its menu.

While the complexities of menu healthiness cannot be accurately captured by name only, the researchers validated their results against a different set of test data from Just Eat to that used in the model training, and against real menus from outlets in Cambridge and Peterborough to demonstrate that the model works.

Restaurants were found, on average, to have the healthiest menus, followed by: cafes, snack bars, and tea rooms; pubs, bars, and inns; and lastly fast food and takeaways.

The team used geographical data to map the food outlets, summarising the average menu healthiness of all out-of-home food outlets at the local authority level. Local authority districts with the highest menu healthiness scores included City of London, Kensington and Chelsea, and Westminster. The local authority districts with the lowest menu healthiness scores were Northeast Lincolnshire, Luton, and Kingston upon Hull.

The researchers found that, in general, the higher the level of deprivation in an area, the lower the average menu healthiness across its out-of-home food outlets – and all four categories of food outlets tended to be less healthy in more deprived areas.

Not only that, but out-of-home food outlets also tended to cluster in more deprived areas. In the most deprived areas, there were 8.39 food outlets per 1,000-3,000 people, compared to just 3.85 in the least deprived areas.

“There’s a clear pattern between the healthiness of menus at out-of-home food outlets in an area and its level of deprivation. This can create a ‘double burden’ for people living in deprived neighbourhoods, where there are more outlets and these tend to be less healthy, compared to less deprived neighbourhoods.”

Yuru Huang

“On top of this, there are studies that show, for example, that people with the lowest income were more likely to be obese when living in areas with a high proportion of fast-food outlets. This could even create a ‘triple burden’ for people living in these areas.”

The researchers acknowledge that the menu healthiness score does not capture the intricate nuances of the menu, such as portion size, cooking methods, and levels of food processing. This could be important, as interventions such as healthy catering awards introduced by local government focus on aspects like smaller portion sizes, reducing salt, and switching cooking oils.

This work was supported by the Medical Research Council and Gates Cambridge.


Huang, Y et al. Assessing the healthiness of menus of all out-of-home food outlets and its socioeconomic patterns in Great Britain. Health & Place; 5 Dec 2023 ; DOI: 10.1016/j.healthplace.2023.103146


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Genetic mutation in a quarter of all Labradors hard-wires them for obesity

A quarter of Labradors are hard-wired for obesity

New research finds around a quarter of Labrador retriever dogs face a double-whammy of feeling hungry all the time and burning fewer calories due to a genetic mutation.

Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.Eleanor Raffan

This obesity-driving combination means that dog owners must be particularly strict with feeding and exercising their Labradors to keep them slim.

The mutation is in a gene called POMC, which plays a critical role in hunger and energy use.

Around 25% of Labradors and 66% of flatcoated retriever dogs have the POMC mutation, which researchers previously showed causes increased interest in food and risk of obesity.

The new study reveals how the mutation profoundly changes the way Labradors and flatcoated retrievers behave around food. It found that although they don’t need to eat more to feel full, they are hungrier in between meals.

In addition, dogs with the POMC mutation were found to use around 25% less energy at rest than dogs without it, meaning they don’t need to consume as many calories to maintain a healthy body weight.

“We found that a mutation in the POMC gene seems to make dogs hungrier. Affected dogs tend to overeat because they get hungry between meals more quickly than dogs without the mutation,” said Dr Eleanor Raffan, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience who led the study.

She added: “All owners of Labradors and flatcoated retrievers need to watch what they’re feeding these highly food-motivated dogs, to keep them a healthy weight. But dogs with this genetic mutation face a double whammy: they not only want to eat more, but also need fewer calories because they’re not burning them off as fast.”

The POMC mutation was found to alter a pathway in the dogs’ brains associated with body weight regulation. The mutation triggers a starvation signal that tells their body to increase food intake and conserve energy, despite this being unnecessary.

The results are published today in the journal Science Advances.

Raffan said: “People are often rude about the owners of fat dogs, blaming them for not properly managing their dogs’ diet and exercise. But we’ve shown that Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.”

The researchers say owners can keep their retrievers distracted from this constant hunger by spreading out each daily food ration, for example by using puzzle feeders or scattering the food around the garden so it takes longer to eat.

In the study, 87 adult pet Labrador dogs – all a healthy weight or moderately overweight – took part in several tests including the ‘sausage in a box’ test.

First, the dogs were given a can of dogfood every 20 minutes until they chose not to eat any more. All ate huge amounts of food, but the dogs with the POMC mutation didn’t eat more than those without it. This showed that they all feel full with a similar amount of food.

Next, on a different day, the dogs were fed a standard amount of breakfast. Exactly three hours later they were offered a sausage in a box and their behaviour was recorded. The box was made of clear plastic with a perforated lid, so the dogs could see and smell the sausage, but couldn’t eat it.

The researchers found that dogs with the POMC mutation tried significantly harder to get the sausage from the box than dogs without it, indicating greater hunger.

The dogs were then allowed to sleep in a special chamber that measured the gases they breathed out. This revealed that dogs with the POMC mutation burn around 25% fewer calories than dogs without it.

The POMC gene and the brain pathway it affects are similar in dogs and humans. The new findings are consistent with reports of extreme hunger in humans with POMC mutations, who tend to become obese at an early age and develop a host of clinical problems as a result.

Drugs currently in development for human obesity, underactive sexual desire and certain skin conditions target this brain pathway, so understanding it fully is important.

A mutation in the POMC gene in dogs prevents production of two chemical messengers in the dog brain, beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone (β-MSH) and beta-endorphin, but does not affect production of a third, alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH).

Further laboratory studies by the team suggest that β-MSH and beta-endorphin are important in determining hunger and moderating energy use, and their role is independent of the presence of α-MSH. This challenges the previous belief, based on research in rats, that early onset human obesity due to POMC mutations is caused only by a lack of α-MSH. Rats don’t produce beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone, but humans and dogs produce both α- and β-MSH.

The research was funded by The Dogs Trust and Wellcome.

Reference: Dittmann, M T et al: ‘Low resting metabolic rate and increased hunger due to β-MSH and β-endorphin deletion in a canine model.’ Science Advances, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj3823


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Low iron levels resulting from infection could be key trigger of long COVID

Problems with iron levels in the blood and the body’s ability to regulate this important nutrient as a result of SARS-CoV-2 infection could be a key trigger for long COVID, new research has discovered.

A man sitting on a couch holding his head in his hands
A man sitting on a couch holding his head in his hands
Credit: Malachi Cowie

Iron levels, and the way the body regulates iron, were disrupted early on during SARS-CoV-2 infection, and took a very long time to recover, particularly in those people who went on to report long COVID months laterAimee Hanson

The discovery not only points to possible ways to prevent or treat the condition, but could help explain why symptoms similar to those of long COVID are also commonly seen in a number of post-viral conditions and chronic inflammation.

Although estimates are highly variable, as many as three in 10 people infected with SARS-CoV-2 could go on to develop long COVID, with symptoms including fatigue, shortness of breath, muscle aches and problems with memory and concentration (‘brain fog’). An estimated 1.9 million people in the UK alone were experiencing self-reported long COVID as of March 2023, according to the Office of National Statistics.

Shortly after the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of Cambridge began recruiting people who had tested positive for the virus to the COVID-19 cohort of the National Institute for Health and Care Research (NIHR) BioResource. These included asymptomatic healthcare staff identified via routine screening through to patients admitted to Cambridge University Hospitals NHS Foundation Trust, some to its intensive care unit.

Over the course of a year, participants provided blood samples, allowing researchers to monitor changes in the blood post-infection. As it became clear that a significant number of patients would go on to have symptoms that persisted – long COVID – researchers were able to track back through these samples to see whether any changes in the blood correlated with their later condition.

In findings published in Nature Immunology, researchers at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease (CITIID), University of Cambridge, together with colleagues at Oxford, analysed blood samples from 214 individuals. Approximately 45% of those questioned about their recovery reported symptoms of long COVID between three and ten months later.

Professor Ken Smith, who was Director of CITIID at the time of the study and will take up a position as Director of the Walter and Eliza Hall Institute of Medical Research (WEHI) in Melbourne, Australia, in April, said: “Having recruited a group of people with SARS-CoV-2 early in the pandemic, analysis of several blood samples and clinical information collected over a 12 month period after infection has proved invaluable in giving us important and unexpected insights into why, for some unlucky individuals, initial SARS-CoV-2 infection is followed by months of persistent symptoms.”

The team discovered that ongoing inflammation – a natural part of the immune response to infection – and low iron levels in blood, contributing to anaemia and disrupting healthy red blood cell production, could be seen as early as two weeks post COVID-19 in those individuals reporting long COVID many months later.

Early iron dysregulation was detectable in the long COVID group independent of age, sex, or initial COVID-19 severity, suggesting a possible impact on recovery even in those who were at low risk for severe COVID-19, or who did not require hospitalisation or oxygen therapy when sick.

Dr Aimee Hanson, who worked on the study while at the University of Cambridge, and is now at the University of Bristol, said: “Iron levels, and the way the body regulates iron, were disrupted early on during SARS-CoV-2 infection, and took a very long time to recover, particularly in those people who went on to report long COVID months later.

“Although we saw evidence that the body was trying to rectify low iron availability and the resulting anaemia by producing more red blood cells, it was not doing a particularly good job of it in the face of ongoing inflammation.”

Interestingly, although iron dysregulation was more profound during and following severe COVID-19, those who went on to develop long COVID after a milder course of acute COVID-19 showed similar patterns in the blood. The most pronounced association with long COVID was how quickly inflammation, iron levels and regulation returned to normal following SARS-CoV-2 infection – though symptoms tended to continue long after iron levels had recovered.

Co-author Professor Hal Drakesmith, from the MRC Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine at the University of Oxford, said iron dysregulation is a common consequence of inflammation and is a natural response to infection.

“When the body has an infection, it responds by removing iron from the bloodstream. This protects us from potentially lethal bacteria that capture the iron in the bloodstream and grow rapidly. It’s an evolutionary response that redistributes iron in the body, and the blood plasma becomes an iron desert.

“However, if this goes on for a long time, there is less iron for red blood cells, so oxygen is transported less efficiently affecting metabolism and energy production, and for white blood cells, which need iron to work properly. The protective mechanism ends up becoming a problem.”

The findings may help explain why symptoms such as fatigue and exercise intolerance are common in long COVID, as well as in several other post-viral syndromes with lasting symptoms.

The researchers say the study points to potential ways of preventing or reducing the impact of long COVID by rectifying iron dysregulation in early COVID-19 to prevent adverse long-term health outcomes.

One approach might be controlling the extreme inflammation as early as possible, before it impacts on iron regulation. Another approach might involve iron supplementation; however as Dr Hanson pointed out, this may not be straightforward.

“It isn’t necessarily the case that individuals don’t have enough iron in their body, it’s just that it’s trapped in the wrong place,” she said. “What we need is a way to remobilise the iron and pull it back into the bloodstream, where it becomes more useful to the red blood cells.”

The research also supports ‘accidental’ findings from other studies, including the IRONMAN study, which was looking at whether iron supplements benefited patients with heart failure – the study was disrupted due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but preliminary findings suggest that trial participants were less likely to develop severe adverse effects from COVID-19. Similar effects have been observed among people living with the blood disorder beta-thalassemia, which can cause individuals to produce too much iron in their blood.

The research was funded by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council, NIHR and European Union Horizon 2020 Programme.

Hanson, AL et al. Iron dysregulation and inflammatory stress erythropoiesis associates with long-term outcome of COVID-19. Nat Imm; 1 March 2024; DOI: 10.1038/s41590-024-01754-8


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

The Verona astrolabe

The discovery of an extremely rare astrolabe reveals a complex history of Islamic – Jewish scientific exchange

By Tom Almeroth-Williams

The identification of an eleventh century Islamic astrolabe bearing both Arabic and Hebrew inscriptions makes it one of the oldest examples ever discovered and one of only a handful known in the world.

The astronomical instrument was adapted, translated and corrected for centuries by Muslim, Jewish and Christian users in Spain, North Africa and Italy.

Dr Federica Gigante, from Cambridge’s History Faculty and Christ’s College, made the discoveries in a museum in Verona, Italy, and just published her study in the journal Nuncius.

Dr Gigante first came across a newly-uploaded image of the astrolabe by chance on the website of the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo. Intrigued, she asked them about it.

“The museum had not yet started an in-depth study of the object,” Dr Gigante said. “It’s now the single most important object in their collection.”

“When I visited the museum and studied the astrolabe up close, I noticed that not only was it covered in beautifully engraved Arabic inscriptions but that I could see faint inscriptions in Hebrew. I could only make them out in the raking light entering from a window. I thought I might be dreaming but I kept seeing more and more. It was very exciting.”

“This isn’t just an incredibly rare object. It’s a powerful record of scientific exchange between Arabs, Jews and Christians over hundreds of years.”

“The Verona astrolabe underwent many modifications, additions, and adaptations as it changed hands. At least three separate users felt the need to add translations and corrections to this object, two using Hebrew and one using a Western language.”

Astrolabes were the world’s first smartphone, a portable computer which could be put to hundreds of uses. They provided a portable two-dimensional model of the universe fitting in their user’s hand, enabling them to calculate time, distances, plot the position of the stars and even forecast the future, by casting a horoscope.

The Verona astrolabe
The Verona astrolabe

Islamic Spanish origins

Dr Gigante, an expert on Islamic astrolabes and previously a curator of Islamic scientific instruments, dated and located the creation of the ‘Verona astrolabe’ by analysing key scientific, design, construction and calligraphic characteristics.

She identified the object as Andalusian, and – from the style of the engraving, and the arrangement of the scales on the back – matched it to instruments made in AlAndalus, the Muslim-ruled area of Spain, in the eleventh century.

One side of a plate is inscribed in Arabic “for the latitude of Cordoba, 38° 30′,” لعزض قرطبة لح ل, while the other side “for the latitude of Toledo, 40°,” لعزض طليطلة م. Dr Gigante suggests that the astrolabe might have been made in Toledo at a time when it was a thriving centre of coexistence and cultural exchange between Muslim, Jews and Christians.

The astrolabe features Muslim prayer lines and prayer names, arranged to ensure that its original intended users kept to time to perform their daily prayers.

Translated into English, the signature inscribed on the astrolabe reads “for Isḥāq […]/the work of Yūnus.” This was engraved sometime after the astrolabe was made probably for a later owner.

The two names, Isḥāq and Yūnus, that is Isaac and Jonah in English, could be Jewish names written in the Arabic script, a detail that suggests that the object was at a certain point circulating within a Sephardi Jewish community in Spain, where Arabic was the spoken language.

A second, added plate is inscribed for typical North African latitudes suggesting that another point of the object’s life, it was perhaps used in Morocco, or Egypt.

Hebrew inscriptions

Hebrew inscriptions were added to the astrolabe by more than one hand. One set of additions are carved deeply and neatly, while a different set of translations are very light, uneven, and show an insecure hand.

Dr Gigante said: “These Hebrew additions and translations suggest that at a certain point the object left Spain or North Africa and circulated amongst the Jewish diaspora community in Italy, where Arabic was not understood, and Hebrew was used instead.”

Unusually, one of the Hebrew additions, engraved neatly above the Arabic marking for latitude 35°, reads “34 and a half” rather than “34 ½”, which suggests that the engraver was not an astronomer or astrolabe maker.

Other Hebrew inscriptions are instead translations of the Arabic names for astrological signs, for Scorpio, Sagittarius, Capricorn, Aquarius, Pisces, and Aries.

Dr Gigante points out that these translations reflect the recommendations prescribed by the Spanish Jewish polymath Abraham Ibn Ezra (1089–1167) in the earliest surviving treatise on the astrolabe in the Hebrew language written in 1146 in Verona, exactly where the astrolabe is found today.

 Jewish Verona

Twelfth-century Verona hosted one of the longest-standing and most important Jewish communities in Italy. Ibn Ezra’s treatise assumes pre-existing knowledge of the astrolabe among the Verona Jewish community, showing that the instrument must already have been popular.

Ibn Ezra’s description has a lot in common with the ‘Verona astrolabe’ which would have been in circulation by the time Ibn Ezra was in Verona. He warned his readers that an instrument must be checked before use to verify the accuracy of the values to be calculated.

Dr Gigante suggests that the person who added the Hebrew inscriptions might have been following such recommendations.

This part of the astrolabe features inscriptions in Arabic and Hebrew



Incorrect corrections

The astrolabe features corrections inscribed not only in Hebrew but also in Western numerals, the same we use in English today.

All sides of the astrolabe’s plates feature lightly scratched markings in Western numerals, translating and correcting the latitude values, some even multiple times. Dr Gigante thinks it is highly likely that these additions were made in Verona for a Latin or Italian language speaker.

In one case, someone lightly scratched the numbers “42” and “40” near the inscription reading “for the latitude of Medinaceli, 41° 30’”.

Dr Gigante said: “Not only do both numerals differ from the value given in the Arabic, they don’t agree between themselves. It may be that a later user of the instrument thought the original Arabic value was wrong and amended it. But the correct, modern value for the latitude of Medinaceli is 41°15′, indicating that the Arabic value was more accurate than either amendment.”

Elsewhere on the instrument, Gigante found similar conflicting and erroneous amendments relating to the latitudes of Cordoba and Toledo.

Star map

The astrolabe features a ‘rete’ – a pierced disk representing a map of the sky – which is one of the earliest known made in Spain. Remarkably, it features similarities with the rete of the only surviving Byzantine astrolabe made in AD1062 as well as with those of the earliest European astrolabes, made in Spain on the model of Islamic ones.

A calculation of the star position allows a rough timing of the sky for which it was created. Dr Gigante explains that “due to a phenomenon called the precession of the equinoxes, whereby the earth rotates on its axis not in a straight line, but in a “wobbly” manner, like a spinning top about to stop, the stars’ apparent positions above our heads change constantly, about 1 degree every 70 years.”

By analysing the position of the stars on the rete, it is possible to calculate that they were placed in the position that stars had in the late 11th century, and that they match those of other astrolabes made, for example, in AD 1068.

Later life

The astrolabe is thought to have made its way into the collection of the Veronese nobleman Ludovico Moscardo (1611–81) before passing by marriage to the Miniscalchi family. In 1990, the family founded the Fondazione Museo Miniscalchi-Erizzo to preserve the collections.

“This object is Islamic, Jewish and European, they can’t be separated,” Dr Gigante said.


F. Gigante, ‘A Medieval Islamic Astrolabe with Hebrew Inscriptions in Verona: The Seventeenth-Century Collection of Ludovico Moscardo’, Nuncius (2024). DOI : 10.1163/18253911-bja10095

The 'rete' of the Verona astrolabe
The ‘rete’ of the astrolabe

Published 4th March 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License 

Image credits

Astrolabe images: Federica Gigante
Federica Gigante: Federica Candelato


Facing The New Reality

By Ellie Austin and Paul Casciato

Watch the full film and cast your vote

Climate action film “Facing The New Reality” featuring Cambridge Zero Director Professor Emily Shuckburgh is a finalist for the Smiley Charity Film Awards.

Watch and vote for the film
via this link by 12 March 2024

The 7-minute film, Facing The New Reality, premiered at the opening ceremony of the world’s biggest climate event of its kind at Climate Week NYC in September 2023, in front of hundreds of world-leading politicians, business executives and civil society representatives.

Since then, the film has been viewed more than 54,000 times online and has now been shortlisted in the Smiley Charity Film Awards.

The film is the only finalist with a sole focus on climate change, and is up against some of the industry’s biggest names, including a Greenpeace short film with Simon Pegg and Jane Fonda.

In Facing The New Reality, Professor Shuckburgh and fellow climate scientists Harvard’s Naomi Oreskes, World Meteorological Organization’s Petteri Taalas and Energy for Growth Hub’s Rose Mutiso take centre stage to report on the current state of the planet, outline the action needed to tackle climate change and urge global leaders to take the critical decisions today to construct a just and sustainable world.

Professor Shuckburgh offers a glimpse of optimism in the film and urges the assembled world leaders to press on with the critical action needed this decade to address climate change.

We have all the building blocks in order to do it, we just simply haven’t put them together… yet,” Professor Shuckburgh said.

Climate Week NYC has grown hugely in importance from small panel discussions in 2009 to a weeklong happening of events, networking, dinners and spectacle and was described by New York Times as “Burning Man for Climate Geeks” last year.

Climate Week NYC is a partnership between The Climate Group and the United Nations General Assembly and is run in coordination with the United Nations and the City of New York.

In 2023 it centred around the UN General Assembly, the UN Secretary-General’s Climate Ambition Summit as well as hundreds of national government, business and climate group initiatives, making it a unique opportunity for Cambridge to communicate with the world.

Facing The New Reality was produced by The Climate Group, with the creative agency Nice & Serious, who ask viewers to “let it inspire us, let it challenge us, and let it empower us to act – because the time to make a difference is now.”

Watch the full film and cast your vote via the Smiley Charity Awards page by March 12th 2024.

“There’s still hope if we’re determined.”

Professor Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero, the University of Cambridge’s ambitious climate change initiative to help to stop climate change and create a resilient and sustainable zero-carbon world.

“We’re thrilled to be a finalist at the Smiley Charity Film Awards, but what we really need is for global leaders to take bold action today to create a sustainable tomorrow.” – Prof Shuckburgh

Professor Shuckburgh also appeared on Climate Week NYC’s main stage for one of the key discussions on the New frontiers of Climate Action alongside the Chief Sustainability Officers of Google and Siemens, a Cambridge alumni event hosted by Cambridge in America Mission Possible: Creating a Better Planetary Future and met with dozens of supporters, policymakers, business, industry and climate leaders.

Across the week she shared Cambridge’s efforts to tackle climate change. She mentioned Cambridge research on materials, batteries, photovoltaics, the Cambridge ecosystem for innovation, including Cambridge research on AI, aviation, the Centre for Landscape Regeneration and the ground-breaking work of the Cambridge Conservation Initiative.

Published 5 March 2024

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License


Astronomers spot oldest ‘dead’ galaxy yet observed

A galaxy that suddenly stopped forming new stars more than 13 billion years ago has been observed by astronomers.

False-colour JWST image of a small fraction of the GOODS South field, with JADES-GS-z7-01-QU highlighted
False-colour JWST image of a small fraction of the GOODS South field, with JADES-GS-z7-01-QU highlighted
Credit: JADES Collaboration

Using the James Webb Space Telescope, an international team of astronomers led by the University of Cambridge have spotted a ‘dead’ galaxy when the universe was just 700 million years old, the oldest such galaxy ever observed.

This galaxy appears to have lived fast and died young: star formation happened quickly and stopped almost as quickly, which is unexpected for so early in the universe’s evolution. However, it is unclear whether this galaxy’s ‘quenched’ state is temporary or permanent, and what caused it to stop forming new stars.

The results, reported in the journal Nature, could be important to help astronomers understand how and why galaxies stop forming new stars, and whether the factors affecting star formation have changed over billions of years.

“The first few hundred million years of the universe was a very active phase, with lots of gas clouds collapsing to form new stars,” said Tobias Looser from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology, the paper’s first author. “Galaxies need a rich supply of gas to form new stars, and the early universe was like an all-you-can-eat buffet.”

“It’s only later in the universe that we start to see galaxies stop forming stars, whether that’s due to a black hole or something else,” said co-author Dr Francesco D’Eugenio, also from the Kavli Institute for Cosmology.

Astronomers believe that star formation can be slowed or stopped by different factors, all of which will starve a galaxy of the gas it needs to form new stars. Internal factors, such as a supermassive black hole or feedback from star formation, can push gas out of the galaxy, causing star formation to stop rapidly. Alternatively, gas can be consumed very quickly by star formation, without being promptly replenished by fresh gas from the surroundings of the galaxy, resulting in galaxy starvation.

“We’re not sure if any of those scenarios can explain what we’ve now seen with Webb,” said co-author Professor Roberto Maiolino. “Until now, to understand the early universe, we’ve used models based on the modern universe. But now that we can see so much further back in time, and observe that the star formation was quenched so rapidly in this galaxy, models based on the modern universe may need to be revisited.”

Using data from JADES (JWST Advanced Deep Extragalactic Survey), the astronomers determined that this galaxy experienced a short and intense period of star formation over a period between 30 and 90 million years. But between 10 and 20 million years before the point in time where it was observed with Webb, star formation suddenly stopped.

“Everything seems to happen faster and more dramatically in the early universe, and that might include galaxies moving from a star-forming phase to dormant or quenched,” said Looser.

Astronomers have previously observed dead galaxies in the early universe, but this galaxy is the oldest yet – just 700 million years after the big bang, more than 13 billion years ago. This observation is one of the deepest yet made with Webb.

In addition to the oldest, this galaxy is also relatively low mass – about the same as the Small Magellanic Cloud (SMC), a dwarf galaxy near the Milky Way, although the SMC is still forming new stars. Other quenched galaxies in the early universe have been far more massive, but Webb’s improved sensitivity allows smaller and fainter galaxies to be observed and analysed.

The astronomers say that although it appears dead at the time of observation, it’s possible that in the roughly 13 billion years since, this galaxy may have come back to life and started forming new stars again.

“We’re looking for other galaxies like this one in the early universe, which will help us place some constraints on how and why galaxies stop forming new stars,” said D’Eugenio. “It could be the case that galaxies in the early universe ‘die’ and then burst back to life – we’ll need more observations to help us figure that out.”

The research was supported in part by the European Research Council, the Royal Society, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).


Tobias J. Looser et al. ‘A recently quenched galaxy 700 million years after the Big Bang.’ Nature (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41586-024-07227-0

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Neon sign identified by JWST gives clue to planet formation

The winds that help to form planets in the gaseous discs of early solar systems have been imaged for the first time by the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) using the noble gases neon and argon.

Artist's impression of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in NGC 3783
Artist’s impression of the surroundings of the supermassive black hole in NGC 3783
Credit: ESO/M. Kornmesser

Planetary systems like our Solar System seem to contain more rocky objects than gas-rich ones. Around our sun, these include the inner planets, the asteroid belt and the Kuiper belt. But scientists have known for a long time that planet-forming discs start with 100 times more mass in gas than in solids, which leads to a pressing question; when and how does most of the gas leave the disc/system?

JWST is helping scientists uncover how planets form, by advancing understanding of their birthplaces, the circumstellar discs surrounding young stars. In a new study published in the Astronomical Journal, a team of scientists including those from the University of Leicester, the University of Cambridge and led by the University of Arizona, image for the first time an old planet-forming disc (still very young relative to the Sun) which is actively dispersing its gas content.

Knowing when the gas disperses is important as it constrains the time that is left for nascent planets to consume the gas from their surroundings.

During the very early stages of planetary system formation, planets coalesce in a spinning disc of gas and tiny dust around the young star. These particles clump together, building up into bigger and bigger chunks called planetesimals. Over time, these planetesimals collide and stick together, eventually forming planets. The type, size, and location of planets that form depend on the amount of material available and how long it remains in the disc. So, the outcome of planet formation depends on the evolution and dispersal of the disc.

At the heart of this discovery is the observation of T Cha, a young star (relative to the Sun) enveloped by an eroding disc notable for its vast dust gap, approximately 30 astronomical units in radius. For the first time, astronomers have imaged the dispersing gas (aka winds) using the four lines of the noble gases neon (Ne) and argon (Ar), one of which is the first detection in a planet-forming disc. The images of [Ne II] show that the wind is coming from an extended region of the disc. The team is also interested in knowing how this process takes place, so they can better understand the history and impact on our solar system.

Scientists have been trying to understand the mechanisms behind the winds in protoplanetary discs for over a decade. The observations by JWST represent a huge step-change in the data they have to work with, compared to previous data from ground-based telescopes.

“We first used neon to study planet-forming discs more than a decade ago, testing our computational simulations against data from Spitzer, and new observations we obtained with the ESO VLT,” said co-author Professor Richard Alexander from the University of Leicester. “We learned a lot, but those observations didn’t allow us to measure how much mass the discs were losing.

“The new JWST data are spectacular, and being able to resolve disc winds in images is something I never thought would be possible.  With more observations like this still to come, JWST will enable us to understand young planetary systems as never before.”

“These winds could be driven either by high-energy stellar photons (the star’s light) or by the magnetic field that weaves the planet-forming disc,” said Naman Bajaj from the University of Arizona, the study’s lead author.

To differentiate between the two, the same group, this time led by Dr Andrew Sellek of Leiden Observatory and previously of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, performed simulations of the dispersal driven by stellar photons. They compare these simulations to the actual observations and find dispersal by high-energy stellar photons can explain the observations, and hence cannot be excluded as a possibility.

“The simultaneous measurement of all four lines by JWST proved crucial to pinning down the properties of the wind and helped us to demonstrate that significant amounts of gas are being dispersed,” said Sellek.

To put it into context, the researchers calculate that the mass dispersing every year is equivalent to that of the moon! These results will be published in a companion paper, currently under review at the Astronomical Journal.

The [Ne II] line was discovered towards several planet-forming discs in 2007 with the Spitzer Space Telescope and soon identified as a tracer of winds by team member Professor Ilaria Pascucci at the University of Arizona; this transformed research efforts focused on understanding disc gas dispersal. Now the discovery of spatially resolved [Ne II] – as well as the first detection of [Ar III] – using the James Webb Space Telescope, could become the next step towards transforming our understanding of this process. 

The implications of these findings offer new insights into the complex interactions that lead to the dispersal of the gas and dust critical for planet formation. By understanding the mechanisms behind disc dispersal, scientists can better predict the timelines and environments conducive to the birth of planets. The team’s work demonstrates the power of JWST and sets a new path for exploring planet formation dynamics and the evolution of circumstellar discs.


Naman S. Bajaj et al. ‘JWST MIRI MRS Observations of T Cha: Discovery of a Spatially Resolved Disk Wind.’ The Astronomical Journal (2024). DOI: 10.3849/1538-3881/ad22e1

Adapted from a University of Leicester press release.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Pythagoras was wrong: there are no universal musical harmonies, study finds

The tone and tuning of musical instruments has the power to manipulate our appreciation of harmony, new research shows. The findings challenge centuries of Western music theory and encourage greater experimentation with instruments from different cultures.

A man playing a bonang
A man playing a bonang
Credit: Andrew Otto via Flikr under a CC license

There are many more kinds of harmony out therePeter Harrison

According to the Ancient Greek philosopher Pythagoras, ‘consonance’ – a pleasant-sounding combination of notes – is produced by special relationships between simple numbers such as 3 and 4. More recently, scholars have tried to find psychological explanations, but these ‘integer ratios’ are still credited with making a chord sound beautiful, and deviation from them is thought to make music ‘dissonant’, unpleasant sounding. 

But researchers from the University of Cambridge, Princeton and the Max Planck Institute for Empirical Aesthetics, have now discovered two key ways in which Pythagoras was wrong.

Their study, published in Nature Communications, shows that in normal listening contexts, we do not actually prefer chords to be perfectly in these mathematical ratios.

“We prefer slight amounts of deviation. We like a little imperfection because this gives life to the sounds, and that is attractive to us,” said co-author, Dr Peter Harrison, from Cambridge’s Faculty of Music and Director of its Centre for Music and Science.

The researchers also found that the role played by these mathematical relationships disappears when you consider certain musical instruments that are less familiar to Western musicians, audiences and scholars. These instruments tend to be bells, gongs, types of xylophones and other kinds of pitched percussion instruments. In particular, they studied the ‘bonang’, an instrument from the Javanese gamelan built from a collection of small gongs.

“When we use instruments like the bonang, Pythagoras’s special numbers go out the window and we encounter entirely new patterns of consonance and dissonance,” Dr Harrison said.

“The shape of some percussion instruments means that when you hit them, and they resonate, their frequency components don’t respect those traditional mathematical relationships. That’s when we find interesting things happening.”

“Western research has focused so much on familiar orchestral instruments, but other musical cultures use instruments that, because of their shape and physics, are what we would call ‘inharmonic’. 

The researchers created an online laboratory in which over 4,000 people from the US and South Korea participated in 23 behavioural experiments. Participants were played chords and invited to give each a numeric pleasantness rating or to use a slider to adjust particular notes in a chord to make it sound more pleasant. The experiments produced over 235,000 human judgments.

The experiments explored musical chords from different perspectives. Some zoomed in on particular musical intervals and asked participants to judge whether they preferred them perfectly tuned, slightly sharp or slightly flat. The researchers were surprised to find a significant preference for slight imperfection, or ‘inharmonicity’. Other experiments explored harmony perception with Western and non-Western musical instruments, including the bonang.

Instinctive appreciation of new kinds of harmony

The researchers found that the bonang’s consonances mapped neatly onto the particular musical scale used in the Indonesian culture from which it comes. These consonances cannot be replicated on a Western piano, for instance, because they would fall between the cracks of the scale traditionally used. 

“Our findings challenge the traditional idea that harmony can only be one way, that chords have to reflect these mathematical relationships. We show that there are many more kinds of harmony out there, and that there are good reasons why other cultures developed them,” Dr Harrison said.

Importantly, the study suggests that its participants – not trained musicians and unfamiliar with Javanese music – were able to appreciate the new consonances of the bonang’s tones instinctively.

“Music creation is all about exploring the creative possibilities of a given set of qualities, for example, finding out what kinds of melodies can you play on a flute, or what kinds of sounds can you make with your mouth,” Harrison said.

“Our findings suggest that if you use different instruments, you can unlock a whole new harmonic language that people intuitively appreciate, they don’t need to study it to appreciate it. A lot of experimental music in the last 100 years of Western classical music has been quite hard for listeners because it involves highly abstract structures that are hard to enjoy. In contrast, psychological findings like ours can help stimulate new music that listeners intuitively enjoy.”

Exciting opportunities for musicians and producers

Dr Harrison hopes that the research will encourage musicians to try out unfamiliar instruments and see if they offer new harmonies and open up new creative possibilities. 

“Quite a lot of pop music now tries to marry Western harmony with local melodies from the Middle East, India, and other parts of the world. That can be more or less successful, but one problem is that notes can sound dissonant if you play them with Western instruments. 

“Musicians and producers might be able to make that marriage work better if they took account of our findings and considered changing the ‘timbre’, the tone quality, by using specially chosen real or synthesised instruments. Then they really might get the best of both worlds: harmony and local scale systems.”

Harrison and his collaborators are exploring different kinds of instruments and follow-up studies to test a broader range of cultures. In particular, they would like to gain insights from musicians who use ‘inharmonic’ instruments to understand whether they have internalised different concepts of harmony to the Western participants in this study.


R. Marjieh, P.M.C. Harrison, H. Lee, F. Deligiannaki, & N. Jacoby, ‘Timbral effects on consonance disentangle psychoacoustic mechanisms and suggest perceptual origins for musical scales’, Nature Communications (2024). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-024-45812-z

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


Opinion: the future of science is automation

Professor Ross King from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology, who originated the idea of a ‘Robot Scientist’, discusses why he believes that AI-powered scientists could surpass the best human scientists by the middle of the century, but only if AI for science is developed responsibly and ethically. 

Robot arm handling test tubes
Robot arm handling test tubes
Credit: kynny via Getty Images

Thanks to the widespread availability of food and medical care, the ability to travel, and many other scientific and technological developments, billions of people today are living better lives than kings of centuries past. It is deeply surprising to me how little appreciated this astonishing fact is.

Of course, despite all the progress we’ve made, the world faces many challenges in the 21st century: climate change, pandemics, poverty and cancer, to name just a few.

If all the countries in the world could join together to share technology and resources, we might be to deal with and overcome these challenges. However, history presents no example of such collaboration, and the current geopolitical situation does not offer much in the way of hope.

Our best hope of dealing with these challenges is to make science and technology more productive. The only feasible way to achieve this is through the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and laboratory automation.

AI systems already possess superhuman scientific powers. They can remember massive volumes of facts and learn from huge datasets. They can execute flawless logical reasoning, and near optimal probabilistic reasoning. They are can read every scientific paper, indeed everything ever written. These powers are complimentary to human scientists.

When the scientific method was developed in the 17th century, one of the core insights was the need to conduct experiments in the physical world, not just to think.

Today, laboratory automation is steadily advancing, and robots can now carry out most of the laboratory tasks that humans can. We are also now seeing the emergence of the ‘Cloud Lab’ concept. The idea is to provide laboratory automation at scale and remotely, with scientists sending their samples to the cloud lab, using a computer interface to design and execute their experiments.

And then there are AI Scientists: AI systems integrated with laboratory automations that are capable of carrying out the closed-loop automation of scientific research (aka ‘Robot Scientists’, ‘Self-driving Labs’). These systems automatically originate hypotheses to explain observations, devise experiments to test these hypotheses, physically run these experiments using laboratory robotics, interpret the results, and then repeat the cycle.

AI Scientists can work cheaper, faster, more accurately, and longer than humans. They can also be easily multiplied. As the experiments are conceived and executed automatically by computer, it’s possible to completely capture and digitally curate all aspects of the scientific process, making the science more reproducible. There are now around 100 AI Scientists around the world, working in areas from quantum mechanics to astronomy, from chemistry to medicine.

Within the last year or so the world has been stunned by the success of Large Language Models (LLMs) such as ChatGPT, which have achieved breakthrough performance on a wide range of conversation-based tasks. LLMs are surprisingly strong absorbers of technical knowledge, such as chemical reactions and logical expressions. LLMs, and more broadly Foundation Models, show great potential for super-charging AI Scientists. They can act both as a source of scientific knowledge, since they have read all the scientific literature, and a source of new scientific hypotheses.

One of the current problems with LLMs is their tendency to hallucinate, that is to output statements that are not true. While this is a serious problem in many applications, it is not necessarily so in science, where physical experiments are the arbiters of truth. Hallucinations are hypotheses.

AI has been used as a tool in the research behind tens of thousands of scientific papers. We believe this only a start. We believe that AI has the potential to transform the very process of science.

We believe that by harnessing the power of AI, we can propel humanity toward a future where groundbreaking achievements in science, even achievements worthy of a Nobel Prize, can be fully automated. Such advances could transform science and technology, and provide hope of dealing with the formidable challenges that face humankind in the 21st century

The Nobel Turing Challenge aims to develop AI Scientists capable of making Nobel-quality scientific discoveries at a level comparable, and possibly superior to the best human scientists by 2050.

As well as being a potential transformative power for good, the application of AI to science has potential for harm. As a step towards preventing this harm, my colleagues and I have prepared the Stockholm Declaration on AI for Science. This commits the signees to the responsible and ethical development of AI for science. A copy of the declaration can be signed at:

We urge all scientists working with AI to sign.

The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified. All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.


NHS trial of sponge-on-a-string test replaces need for endoscopy for thousands of patients

A new test to help diagnose a condition that can lead to oesophageal cancer – developed by Cambridge researchers and trialled by the NHS – has reduced the need for invasive endoscopy in thousands of low-risk patients.

Capsule and sponge
Capsule and sponge
Credit: Cyted

It is very exciting to see the positive results of the NHS England real-world pilot for our capsule-sponge testRebecca Fitzgerald

The NHS pilot, which has tested over 8,500 patients with the ‘capsule sponge test’, showed almost eight out of 10 patients who completed a test were discharged without the need for further testing, freeing up endoscopy capacity for higher risk patients and those referred for urgent tests for oesophageal cancer.

The test involves patients swallowing a small capsule-shaped device that contains a tiny sponge that collects cell samples for analysis before being extracted via a string thread attached to the sponge. It has been developed by Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald, Director of the Early Cancer Institute at the University of Cambridge.

Professor Fitzgerald said: “It is very exciting to see the positive results of the NHS England real-world pilot for our capsule-sponge test. This is a major step forward to making this simple test more routinely available outside of clinical trials. Timely diagnosis is vital for improving outcomes for patients.”

Barrett’s oesophagus – a condition affecting the food pipe which can go on to cause oesophageal cancer in some patients – is usually diagnosed or ruled out via endoscopy (a camera test of the food pipe) following a GP referral to a gastroenterologist or other specialist practitioner who can carry out the procedure.

The sponge-on-a-string test being trialled by the NHS can instead be carried out quickly in a short appointment, without the need for sedation.

Amanda Pritchard, NHS chief executive, said: “Thousands of people have now benefitted from this incredibly efficient test on the NHS – while the sponge on a string is small in size, it can make a big difference for patients – they can conveniently fit the test into their day and it can often replace the need for an endoscopy while also helping to reduce waiting lists by freeing up staff and resources.

“The NHS is always striving to adopt the latest innovations and new ways of working that help improve patient experience and increase efficiency simple sponge on a string test is just one example of many pioneering tools we’ve trialled in recent years to help diagnose and treat people sooner.”

In a survey of over 350 patients who had the capsule sponge test, patients often said they would recommend the test to a friend or family member, and 94% of patients reported experiencing only mild or no pain at all.

The NHS began piloting the test during the pandemic when there was increased pressure on services and a growing backlog for endoscopy.

Gastro-oesophageal reflux, also known as acid reflux, is a relatively common condition, affecting around one to two in every ten people to some degree, and some of these people may already have or will develop Barrett’s oesophagus, which is a precursor to oesophageal cancer.

There are around 9,300 new oesophageal cancer cases in the UK every year. The key to saving lives is to detect it an earlier stage of Barrett’s oesophagus before it becomes cancerous.

The NHS pilot was launched at 30 hospital sites across 17 areas in England including Manchester, Plymouth, London, Kent and Cumbria. Evaluation of the pilot showed that using capsule sponge was highly cost effective compared to using endoscopy-only for diagnosing patients – saving around £400 per patient.

Patients with positive results from the capsule sponge test who were referred on for an endoscopy had the highest prevalence of Barrett’s oesophagus at 27.2%, compared to zero patients with negative results who completed an endoscopy.

One of the first pilot sites at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust has now performed around 1,400 capsule sponge tests – offering to both patients with reflux symptoms via a new consultant led, nurse run early diagnosis service, as well as to patients on an existing Barrett’s surveillance programme.

In the first 1000 patients, the capsule test identified Barrett’s in 6% patients with reflux and found two new cancers and three patients with dysplasia who may have had a longer time to diagnosis otherwise. While 72% reflux patients were discharged back to their GP without the need for an endoscopy.

As of January, 368 patients have had a positive test result of whom about half have confirmed Barrett’s oesophagus.

Dr Danielle Morris, a consultant gastroenterologist at East and North Hertfordshire NHS Trust, said: “Using the capsule sponge test as a diagnosis triage tool has had huge benefits for patients, avoiding the need for unnecessary gastroscopy in almost seven out of 10 patients, and helping to reduce endoscopy waiting lists enabling us to prioritise those who really need endoscopy to have it done quickly.

“The test is performed by a single trained practitioner in an outpatient setting, so it is very resource light compared to gastroscopy, and our patients are very supportive of the service – with almost nine in 10 patients preferring the capsule sponge to a gastroscopy.”

Adapted from a press release from NHS England.

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Having a ‘regular doctor’ can significantly reduce GP workload, study finds

If all GP practices moved to a model where patients saw the same doctor at each visit, it could significantly reduce doctor workload while improving patient health, a study suggests. 

Doctor examining a patient
Credit: The Good Brigade via Getty Images

In one of the largest studies of its kind, researchers from the University of Cambridge and INSEAD analysed data from more than 10 million consultations in 381 English primary care practices over a period of 11 years.

The results, reported in the journal Management Science, suggest that a long-term relationship between a patient and their doctor could both improve patient health and reduce workload for GPs.

The researchers found that when patients were able to see their regular doctor for a consultation – a model known as continuity of care – they waited on average 18% longer between visits, compared to patients who saw a different doctor. The productivity benefit of continuity of care was larger for older patients, those with multiple chronic conditions, and individuals with mental health conditions.

Although it will not always be possible for a patient to see their regular GP, this productivity differential would translate to an estimated 5% reduction in consultations if all practices in England were providing the level of care continuity of the best 10% of practices.

Primary care in the UK is under enormous strain: patients struggle to get appointments, GPs are retiring early, and financial pressures are causing some practices to close. According to the Health Foundation and the Nuffield Trust, there is a significant shortfall of GPs in England, with a projected 15% increase required in the workforce. The problem is not limited to UK, however: the Association of American Medical Colleges estimates a shortfall of between 21,400 and 55,200 primary care physicians in the US by 2033.

“Productivity is a huge problem across all the whole of the UK – we wanted to see how that’s been playing out in GP practices,” said Dr Harshita Kajaria-Montag, the study’s lead author, who is now based at the Kelley School of Business at Indiana University. “Does the rapid access model make GPs more productive?” 

“You can measure the productivity of GP surgeries in two ways: how many patients can you see in a day, or how much health can you provide in a day for those patients,” said co-author Professor Stefan Scholtes from Cambridge Judge Business School. “Some GP surgeries are industrialised in their approach: each patient will get seven or ten minutes before the GP has to move on to the next one.”

At English GP practices, roughly half of all appointments are with a patient’s regular doctor, but this number has been steadily declining over the past decade as GP practices come under increasing strain.

The researchers used an anonymised dataset from the UK Clinical Practice Research Datalink, consisting of more than 10 million GP visits between 1 January 2007 and 31 December 2017. Using statistical models to account for confounding and selection bias, and restricting the sample to consultations with patients who had at least three consultations over the past two years, the researchers found that the time to a patient’s next visit is substantially longer when the patient sees the doctor they have seen most frequently over the past two years, while there is no operationally meaningful difference in consultation duration.

“The impact is substantial: it could be the equivalent of increasing the GP workforce by five percent, which would significantly benefit both patients and the NHS,” said Scholtes. “Better health translates into less demand for future consultations. Prioritising continuity of care is crucial in enhancing productivity.”

“The benefits of continuity of care are obvious from a relationship point of view,” said Kajaria-Montag. “If you’re a patient with complex health needs, you don’t want to have to explain your whole health history at every appointment. If you have a regular doctor who’s familiar with your history, it’s a far more efficient use of time, for doctor and patient.”

“A regular doctor may have a larger incentive to take more time to treat her regular patients thoroughly than a transactional provider,” said Scholtes. “Getting it right the first time will reduce her future workload by preventing revisits, which would likely be her responsibility, while a transactional provider is less likely to see the patient for her next visit.”

The researchers emphasise that continuity of care does not only have the known benefits of better patient outcomes, better patient and GP experience, and reduced secondary care use, but also provides a surprisingly large productivity benefit for the GP practices themselves. 


Reference:Harshita Kajaria-Montag, Michael Freeman, Stefan Scholtes. ‘Continuity of Care Increases Physician Productivity in Primary Care.’ Management Science (2024). DOI: 10.1287/mnsc.2021.02015

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Shimmering seaweeds and algae antennae: sustainable energy solutions under the sea

How could tiny antennae attached to tiny algae speed up the transition away from fossil fuels? This is one of the questions being studied by Cambridge researchers as they search for new ways to decarbonise our energy supply, and improve the sustainability of harmful materials such as paints and dyes.

Seaweeds showing structural colour
Credit: BEEP

Funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme, the Bio-inspired and Bionic materials for Enhanced Photosynthesis (BEEP) project, led by Professor Silvia Vignolini in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, studied how marine organisms interact with light.

The four-year sustainable energy project brought together nine research groups from across Europe and drew its inspiration from nature, in particular from the marine world, where organisms including algae, corals and sea slugs have evolved efficient ways to convert sunlight into energy. Harnessing these properties could aid in the development of new artificial and bionic photosynthetic systems.

Some of the brightest and most colourful materials in nature – such as peacock feathers, butterfly wings and opals – get their colour not from pigments or dyes, but from their internal structure alone. The colours our eyes perceive originate from the interaction between light and nanostructures at the surface of the material, which reflect certain wavelengths of light.

As part of the BEEP project, the team studied structural colour in marine species. Some marine algae species have nanostructures in their cell walls that can transmit certain wavelengths of visible light or change their structures to guide the light inside the cell. Little is known about the function of these structures, however: scientists believe they might protect the organisms from UV light or optimise light harvesting capabilities.

The team studied the optical properties and light harvesting efficiency of a range of corals, sea-slugs, microalgae and seaweeds. By understanding the photonic and structural properties of these species, the scientists hope to design new materials for bio-photoreactors and bionic systems.

“We’re fascinated by the optical effects performed by these organisms,” said Maria Murace, a BEEP PhD candidate at Cambridge, who studies structural colour in seaweeds and marine bacteria. “We want to understand what the materials and the structures at the base of these colours are, which could lead to the development of green and sustainable alternatives to the conventional paints and toxic dyes we use today.”

BEEP also studied diatoms: tiny photosynthetic algae that live in almost every aquatic system on Earth and produce as much as half of the oxygen we breathe. The silica shells of these tiny algae form into stunning structures, but they also possess remarkable light-harvesting properties.

The BEEP team engineered tiny light-harvesting antennae and attached them to diatom shells. “These antennae allowed us to gather the light that would otherwise not be harvested by the organism, which is converted and used for photosynthesis,” said Cesar Vicente Garcia, one of the BEEP PhD students, from the University of Bari in Italy. “The result is promising: diatoms grow more! This research could inspire the design of powerful bio-photoreactors, or even better

The scientists engineered a prototype bio-photoreactor, consisting of a fully bio-compatible hydrogel which sustains the growth of microalgae and structural coloured bacteria. The interaction of these organisms is mutually beneficial, enhancing microalgal growth and increasing the volume of biomass produced, which could have applications in the biofuel production industry.

Alongside research, the network has organised several training and outreach activities, including talks and exhibitions for the public at science festivals in Italy, France and the UK.

“Society relies on science to drive growth and progress,” said Floriana Misceo, the BEEP network manager who coordinated outreach efforts. “It’s so important for scientists to share their research and help support informed discussion and debate because without it, misinformation can thrive, which is why training and outreach was an important part of this project.”

“Coordinating this project has been a great experience. I learned immensely from the other groups in BEEP and the young researchers,” said Vignolini. “The opportunity to host researchers from different disciplines in the lab was instrumental in developing new skills and approaching problems from a different perspective.”

This project has received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under a Marie Skłodowska-Curie grant.


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