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    For some birds, recognising their own eggs can be a matter of life or death.

    In a new study, scientists have shown that many birds affected by the parasitic Common Cuckoo - which lays its lethal offspring in other birds’ nests - have evolved distinctive patterns on their eggs in order to distinguish them from those laid by a cuckoo cheat.

    The study reveals that these signature patterns provide a powerful defense against cuckoo trickery, helping host birds to reject cuckoo eggs before they hatch and destroy the host’s own brood.

    To determine how a bird brain might perceive and recognize complex pattern information, Dr Mary Caswell Stoddard at Harvard University and Professor Rebecca Kilner and Dr Christopher Town at the University of Cambridge developed a new computer vision tool, NATUREPATTERNMATCH. The tool extracts and compares recognizable features in visual scenes, recreating processes known to be important for recognition tasks in vertebrates.

    “We harnessed the same computer technology used for diverse pattern recognition tasks, like face recognition and image stitching, to determine what visual features on a bird’s eggs might be easily recognised,” explained Stoddard.

    Using the tool, the researchers studied the pigmentation patterns on hundreds of eggs laid by eight different bird species (hosts) targeted by the Common Cuckoo.

    They discovered that some hosts, like the Brambling, have evolved highly recognisable egg patterns characterised by distinctive blotches and markings. By contrast, other hosts have failed to evolve recognisable egg patterns, instead laying eggs with few identifiable markings. Those hosts with the best egg pattern signatures, the researchers found, are those that have been subjected to the most intense cuckoo mimicry.

    The Common Cuckoo and its hosts are locked in different stages of a co-evolutionary arms race. If a particular host species – over evolutionary time – develops the ability to reject foreign cuckoo eggs, the cuckoo improves its ability to lay eggs that closely match the color and patterning of those laid by its host.

    “The ability of Common Cuckoos to mimic the appearance of many of their hosts’ eggs has been known for centuries. The astonishing finding here is that hosts can fight back against cuckoo mimicry by evolving highly recognisable patterns on their own eggs, just like a bank might insert watermarks on its currency to deter counterfeiters,” said Stoddard.

    “The surprising discovery of this study is that hosts achieve egg recognition in different ways” said Kilner, from Cambridge’s Department of Zoology.

    Some host species have evolved egg patterns that are highly repeatable within a single clutch, while other species have evolved eggs with patterns that differ dramatically from female to female in a population. Still other host species produce egg patterns with high visual complexity. Each strategy is effective, increasing the likelihood that a given host will identify and reject a foreign egg. “Some species use two of these strategies, but none uses all three,” continued Kilner. “A signature like this would be too complex to be easily recognised”.

    The patterns on bird eggs are just one type of visual signature. Identity signatures are common in the animal world, but how they are encoded and recognised is poorly understood. In the future, computational tools like NATUREPATTERNMATCH - which account for important aspects of visual and cognitive processing - will be crucial for understanding the evolution of visual signals in diverse biological populations.

    The findings of this study are reported in the journal Nature Communications.

    Inset image: Reed Warbler caring for Cuckoo chick. Credit: David Kjaer

    Using new ‘pattern recognition algorithm,’ latest research highlights how birds are ‘fighting back’ against the parasitic Common Cuckoo in what scientists describe as an evolutionary ‘arms race’. They found that birds with the most sophisticated and distinctive egg patterning are those most intensely targeted by the cuckoo’s egg mimicry.

    The surprising discovery of this study is that hosts achieve egg recognition in different ways
    Rebecca Kilner
    NATUREPATTERNMATCH extracts visual features, here represented by magenta vectors (left). Three eggs each (represented in different rows) laid by three different Great Reed Warblers are shown here (right).

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  • 06/18/14--07:30: Honorary Degrees 2014
  • They were:

    Catherine Cesarsky, astronomer and former President of the International Astronomical Union (Doctor of Science)

    Yusuf Hamied, pharmaceutical chemist and Chairman of Cipla Limited, Honorary Fellow of Christ's College (Doctor of Science)

    Ian McKellen, actor and director, Honorary Fellow of St Catharine's College (Doctor of Letters)

    Dan McKenzie, geophysicist, Fellow of King's College and Royal Society Professor of Earth Sciences Emeritus (Doctor of Science)

    Martin Rees, Lord Rees of Ludlow, Astronomer Royal, former Master of Trinity College and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics Emeritus (Doctor of Science)

    Albie Sachs, lawyer, campaigner against apartheid and retired Justice of the Constitutional Court of South Africa (Doctor of Law)

    Mitsuko Uchida, pianist and winner of the Gold Medal of the Royal Philharmonic Society (Doctor of Music)

    Dr Catherine Cesarsky
    The astronomer Catherine Cesarsky received her first degree at theUniversity of Buenos Aires and her PhD in astronomy at Harvard in 1971. Returning to her native France, she became Head of the Service d’Astrophysique in 1985 and of the Direction des Sciences de la Matière in 1994. Dr Cesarsky served as Director General of the European Southern Observatory 1999–2007, High Commissioner for Atomic Energy in France 2009–12 and President of the International Astronomical Union 2006–09. She is currently Haut Conseiller Scientifique au Commissariat à l’Energie Atomique et aux Energies Alternatives.

    Dr Yusuf Hamied

    The pharmaceutical chemist and philanthropist Yusuf Hamied was born in Lithuania and raised in India before coming to Christ’s College, of which he is now an Honorary Fellow. Completing his PhD in organic chemistry in 1960, Dr Hamied joined Cipla, a socially conscious company founded by his father and producing generic pharmaceuticals, becoming Managing Director in 1976 and Chairman in 1989. An outstanding career in the life science industry followed, during which he pioneered the manufacture of affordable drugs to allow the poor to fight AIDS and other life-threatening diseases. The recipient of Lifetime Achievement Awards from Anacon, Express Pharma, Biospectrum and E&Y, Yusuf Hamied was CNN-IBN Indian of the Year 2012. Instrumental in driving successful academic collaboration between India and Cambridge, he is an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry, and the significance and scope of his achievements earned him the Padma Bhushan from the President of India in 2005.

    Sir Ian McKellen
    The actor Ian McKellen read English at St Catharine’s College and was President of the Marlowe Society 1960–61. During more than fifty years’ work, he has won as many international acting awards for his roles on stage and screen. Sir Ian is a co-founder of Stonewall, which lobbies for legal and social equality for gay people in the UK. Now an Honorary Fellow of St Catharine’s, he was appointed a Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1979, knighted in 1991 and made a Companion of Honour in 2008.

    Professor Dan McKenzie
    The geophysicist Dan McKenzie was both an undergraduate and a research student at King’s College, of which he first became a Fellow in 1965. A former Head of the Bullard Laboratory of Earth Sciences, he has been Royal Society Professor of Earth Sciences, now Emeritus, since 1996. In 2001, he received the William Bowie Medal from the American Geophysical Union for his ‘outstanding contributions to fundamental geophysics and for unselfish cooperation in research’. In 2002 came the Crafoord Prize from the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, for his contributions to research in the field of plate tectonics, sedimentary basin formation and mantle melting. Elected a Fellow of the Royal Society aged only thirty-four, Dan McKenzie was awarded their Copley Medal in 2011. He was appointed a Companion of Honour in 2003.

    Professor The Lord Rees

    The astrophysicist Martin Rees completed both his first degree and a PhD at Cambridge, and then held positions in the UK and the USA and a professorial chair at the University of Sussex before returning in 1973 as the Plumian Professor of Astronomy and Experimental Philosophy. He served for ten years as Director of the Institute of Astronomy, was Master of Trinity College 2004–12 and President of the Royal Society 2005–10. Awards have included the Gold Medal of the Royal Astronomical Society, the Balzan International Prize and the Crafoord Prize of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. A Fellow of Trinity and an Honorary Fellow of King’s, Jesus and Darwin Colleges, Lord Rees is Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics Emeritus. Knighted in 1992, created a Life Peer in 2005 and appointed to the Order of Merit in 2007, he has been Astronomer Royal since 1995.

    Albie Sachs
    The lawyer, judge and academic Albie Sachs started his career in human rights activism at the age of seventeen, when he took part in the Defiance of Unjust Laws Campaign. Obtaining a first degree in law at the University of Cape Town, he started a legal practice there in 1957. Driven into exile in 1966, he completed a PhD at the University of Sussex in 1971. Critically
    injured and left disabled by a car-bomb in 1988, Albie Sachs survived to found the South African Constitutional Studies Centre later that year. He won the Alan Paton Award twice, in 1991 and 2009. In 1994, he was appointed a Justice of the Constitutional Court of the new post-apartheid South Africa, retiring in 2009. Albie Sachs played an active role in the drafting of South Africa’s first democratic constitution.

    Dame Mitsuko Uchida
    The pianist Mitsuko Uchida was born in Japan and educated at the Hochschule für Musik in Vienna, where she studied with Richard Hauser. Renowned for her interpretations of Mozart, Schubert and Beethoven, she has also illuminated the music of Berg, Schoenberg, Webern and Boulez for a new generation. Her recording of the Schoenberg Piano Concerto with Pierre Boulez and The Cleveland Orchestra won four awards, including the Gramophone Award for Best Concerto, while her recording of Beethoven’s Sonatas opp. 101 and 106 won two BBC Music Magazine Awards 2008 in the categories Disc of the Year and Instrumentalist of the Year. For her album with Mozart’s Piano Concertos nos. 23 and 24, she was awarded a Grammy for Best Instrumental Soloist Performance with Orchestra. Mitsuko Uchida is a trustee of the Borletti-Buitoni Trust and a Director of the Marlboro Music Festival. She was awarded the Royal Philharmonic Society’s Gold Medal in 2012. In June 2009, she was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

    Pictured l-r: Dan McKenzie, Catherine Cesarsky, Yusuf Hamied, Mitsuko Uchida, Ian McKellen, Martin Rees and Albie Sachs with the Chancellor and Vice-Chancellor

    Seven distinguished individuals were given Honorary Degrees, the highest honour that the University can bestow, by the Chancellor at a special ceremony in the Senate House today.

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    A newly-developed, highly accurate representation of the way in which neurons behave when performing movements such as reaching could not only enhance understanding of the complex dynamics at work in the brain, but aid in the development of robotic limbs which are capable of more complex and natural movements.

    Researchers from the University of Cambridge, working in collaboration with the University of Oxford and the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), have developed a new model of a neural network, offering a novel theory of how neurons work together when performing complex movements. The results are published in the 18 June edition of the journal Neuron.

    While an action such as reaching for a cup of coffee may seem straightforward, the millions of neurons in the brain’s motor cortex must work together to prepare and execute the movement before the coffee ever reaches our lips. When we reach for the much-needed cup of coffee, the neurons spring into action, sending a series of signals from the brain to the hand. These signals are transmitted across synapses – the junctions between neurons.

    Determining exactly how the neurons work together to execute these movements is difficult, however. The new theory was inspired by recent experiments carried out at Stanford University, which had uncovered some key aspects of the signals that neurons emit before, during and after the movement. “There is a remarkable synergy in the activity recorded simultaneously in hundreds of neurons,” said Dr Guillaume Hennequin of the University’s Department of Engineering, who led the research. “In contrast, previous models of cortical circuit dynamics predict a lot of redundancy, and therefore poorly explain what happens in the motor cortex during movements.”

    Better models of how neurons behave will not only aid in our understanding of the brain, but could also be used to design prosthetic limbs controlled via electrodes implanted in the brain. “Our theory could provide a more accurate guess of how neurons would want to signal both movement intention and execution to the robotic limb,” said Dr Hennequin.

    The behaviour of neurons in the motor cortex can be likened to a mousetrap or a spring-loaded box, in which the springs are waiting to be released and are let go once the lid is opened or the mouse takes the bait. As we plan a movement, the ‘neural springs’ are progressively flexed and compressed. When released, they orchestrate a series of neural activity bursts, all of which takes place in the blink of an eye.

    The signals transmitted by the synapses in the motor cortex during complex movements can be either excitatory or inhibitory, which are in essence mirror reflections of each other. The signals cancel each other out for the most part, leaving occasional bursts of activity.

    Using control theory, a branch of mathematics well-suited to the study of complex interacting systems such as the brain, the researchers devised a model of neural behaviour which achieves a balance between the excitatory and inhibitory synaptic signals. The model can accurately reproduce a range of multidimensional movement patterns.

    The researchers found that neurons in the motor cortex might not be wired together with nearly as much randomness as had been previously thought. “Our model shows that the inhibitory synapses might be tuned to stabilise the dynamics of these brain networks,” said Dr Hennequin. “We think that accurate models like these can really aid in the understanding of the incredibly complex dynamics at work in the human brain.”

    Future directions for the research include building a more realistic, ‘closed-loop’ model of movement generation in which feedback from the limbs is actively used by the brain to correct for small errors in movement execution. This will expose the new theory to the more thorough scrutiny of physiological and behavioural validation, potentially leading to a more complete mechanistic understanding of complex movements.

    A highly accurate model of how neurons behave when performing complex movements could aid in the design of robotic limbs which behave more realistically.

    Accurate models like these can really aid in the understanding of the incredibly complex dynamics at work in the human brain
    Guillaume Hennequin
    Multiphoton microscopy of mouse motor neurons

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    Paul Murphy MP, the former Secretary of State for Wales was appointed as Oxbridge Ambassador in March 2013. The Welsh Government asked him to consider the factors influencing Welsh applications and admissions to Oxford and Cambridge, and to make recommendations on how students could be better supported.

    The Final Report, launched at the Wales Millennium Centre on Wednesday 18th June, calls on the Welsh Government to create a “national network of partnership hubs” for more able and talented pupils, which would allow schools and colleges to share expertise and work directly with the UK’s leading universities.

    The report also finds raising standards and boosting self-esteem are key to increasing the number of students from Wales going to the two universities.

    ‘We welcome Mr Murphy’s excellent report and are grateful for the months of investigation, discussion and reflection that underpin it,” the Vice Chancellor said.

    “With raised attainment and confidence more will apply – and with a higher chance of success.  To this end we endorse Mr Murphy’s recommendation that schools and colleges in Wales should work in collaboration, with a focus on More Able and Talented (MAT) students.

    “We are delighted by the success of the established collaborative ‘hub’ of schools and colleges in the Swansea area, whose development we led, and will do our level best further to support similar hubs as they are established by the Welsh government.”

    The report launch was attended by Huw Lewis AM, Education and Skills Minister, Ken Skates AM, Deputy Minister for Skills and Technology, and students and teachers from across Wales.

    Drawing on his own experience as the first in his family to go to University, Mr  Skates spoke about the transformative value of education and the need to challenge myths..

    “We must challenge the misconception that being working class is incompatible with being educated,” he said. “Education strengthens our values, it doesn’t weaken them. Education brings us together. It doesn’t drive us apart.”

    Huw Lewis AM, Education and Skills Minister, said: “I will consider the recommendations in full but in the meantime I’ve agreed to pilot a hub scheme to help schools and colleges work together with universities to support Welsh students to gain entry into the UK’s top universities. I’ve asked for work on this to begin immediately and more details will follow shortly.

    “Once again I’d like to offer my appreciation to the Rt Hon Paul Murphy MP for bringing this report to me and to Oxford and Cambridge universities for being such major contributors to this project. There is no doubt that in the future we will see his findings and recommendations as a major turning point in our efforts to support our high achievers in Wales.”

    “There are many outstanding students in Wales and this report has shown that, if they are to reach Cambridge and Oxford in greater number, we must collectively ensure that they are appropriately encouraged, supported and most of all stretched in the sixth form,” said Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, Vice-Chancellor of Cambridge University, welcoming the Final Report of the Oxbridge Ambassador for Wales.

    We welcome Mr Murphy’s excellent report and are grateful for the months of investigation, discussion and reflection that underpin it.
    Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz
    Paul Murphy MP being interviewed by BBC Wales

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    "Thanks to recent progress in nanomaterials growth we can now engineer materials at the scale of individual atoms.

    This image, taken with an electron microscope, shows a nanoengineered electron gun formed from many carbon nanotubes that have been grown to be vertically aligned.
    Electron guns are central to almost all commercial Xray sources. They may be found in border control, food and pharmaceuticals inspection, electronics validation and medical diagnostics. Despite being so widespread, most systems use emitters that are inefficient because they have to be run at high temperatures.

    Patterned by a process called high resolution electron beam lithography, carbon nanotubes are made of rolled and concentrically nested graphite; where each tube is over one thousand times smaller than a human hair.

    More than a century old, bombardment-based Xray sources have experienced little technological development. The use of one and two-dimensional nanomaterials - such as nanotubes, nanowires and single-atom thick graphene-like materials - have the potential to modernise this stagnated technology by producing longer lasting, increasingly stable emitters. In the future, these advanced emitters will facilitate the emergence of a host of new Xray technologies such as micro-cancer treatment, high-throughput roll-to-roll manufacturing, and real-time three-dimensional imaging."

    'Nanomaterials Up Close' is a special series linked to our 'Under the Microscope' collection of videos produced by Cambridge University that show glimpses of the natural and man-made world in stunning close-up.

    In this video we see an electron gun made of many thousands of vertically aligned carbon nanotubes, each more than 1,000 times smaller than the width of a human hair. Dr Matt Cole, from the University of Cambridge, explains the technological importance of exploiting emerging nanomaterials to engineer functionally novel X-ray sources.

    Nanoengineered electron gun

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    Law in Focus is a collection of short videos featuring academics from the University of Cambridge’s Faculty of Law, addressing legal issues in current affairs and the news.

    This Court decision enunciated both the scope and breadth of data protection obligations in an even more expansive way even than argued by the Agencia Espanola de Protection de Datos itself. It implies that Google acquires data protection obligations as soon as it collects information from the web and not just after it receives a request for deindexing. Moreover, Google appears to have absolute obligations to remove material in a variety of circumstances even if this is causing the individual mentioned no prejudice. It is particularly unclear how such obligations will operate vis-à-vis so-called sensitive data such as that concerning criminality, political opinion or health. The norms the Court articulated conflict markedly with those which are now mainstream online. Effective implementation will, therefore, depend less on legal technicalities than on how powerful such data protection norms are when placed alongside the vast cultural, political and economic power of “internet freedom”.

    David Erdos discusses C-131/12 Google Spain, Google v Agencia Espanola de Protection de Datos (2014), the Court of Justice of the European Union’s long awaited “right to be forgotten” case which examined the rights of individuals mentioned in public domain material indexed on Google search.

    Google heaviliy contested legal liability
    David Erdos
    David Erdos

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  • 06/19/14--08:49: The atomic building site
  • Making a perfectly flat layer of billiard balls is fairly straightforward. Doing the same thing with atoms is rather more difficult. But as we demand more of materials, the ability to control atoms as if they were billiard balls is required to make the next generation of advanced materials possible.

    Researchers in Cambridge are bringing these ‘made-to-measure’ materials one step closer to practical applications, and soon they will do so at unprecedented levels, thanks to a new pulsed laser deposition (PLD) system – unique in the UK – that allows for atom-by-atom design and growth.

    Oxides are prime candidates for making these new applications possible. Complex oxides – compounds of oxygen and one or more metallic elements – potentially have new properties that surpass those of silicon-based electronics. These make them ideal for next-generation computing devices that process vast amounts of data in an energy-efficient way.

    However, it’s extremely difficult to control the growth of complex oxides at the atomic level. To achieve this, new methods of laying down atoms need to be found, and any defects in the materials need to be minimised or eliminated.

    Defects influence the electronic properties of a material. In conventional electronic devices, information is carried via the charge or spin on electrons, so anything interfering with the electrons will affect the material’s performance. Atoms located in the wrong place or missing entirely can snare electrons like a mouse in a trap. The number of defects that can be tolerated varies depending on the application. Semiconductors, for instance, need to be as close to perfection as possible: the maximum amount of imperfection that can be tolerated is roughly equivalent to a pinhead on a football pitch.

    “Designing and growing new materials at the atomic scale are not yet ‘made-to-measure’ processes,” said Professor Judith Driscoll of the Department of Materials Science and Metallurgy, who specialises in fine-tuning the properties of oxides for applications in energy, low-energy electronics and photovoltaics. The properties of oxide materials can be manipulated by changing the bond lengths or angles between atoms, but cost-effectively designing them to be as close to perfect as possible is not easy.

    “Over the past 15 years, we’ve made huge advances with making materials perfect at nanometre-length scales, but we still can’t easily understand things going on at the atomic scale. You assume that things are perfect, but in reality they are not, and you don’t know by how much – you can only infer it from indirect measurements. To make really perfect structures, you have to be able to control the number of atoms being deposited and to stop at the exact point that a single complete layer has been grown.”

    Most metal oxides are grown using thin-film deposition techniques, where atomic layers are built one on top of the other on a substrate. Thin-film techniques are used by several Cambridge research groups who are interested in the physics and chemistry of functional materials, and how they can be manipulated. For instance, in the Department of Physics, researchers are using these techniques to explore the quantum properties of semiconductors. In Materials Science, Professor Neil Mathur’s group uses thin films to study the electrical and magnetic properties of materials, for example attempting to control either their temperature or their magnetism through voltage; and Professor Mark Blamire’s group is using them to create new kinds of magnetic and superconducting devices.

    While thin-film techniques such as ‘sputtering’ (eroding material from a source onto a substrate) have been vital in getting advanced materials such as metal oxides to their current state, they do not provide either the level of control that’s needed to see them used in practical applications nor the capabilities to make them at scale, as Blamire explained: “Sputtering is a very flexible and accurate technique for many types of metals, but it is not particularly well-suited to single-crystal oxide thin films. We have invested heavily in pulsed laser deposition, but the thickness control and the range of materials which can be grown is still limited.”

    Now, Driscoll, along with colleagues in Materials Science and the Department of Physics, has secured funding from the University and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council for state-of-the-art new PLD equipment that will make ‘made-to-measure’ materials possible. The new system uses advanced PLD with reflective high-energy electron diffraction to control growth rate and produce single atomic layers with a minimum of defects.

    The technique will give researchers the capability to measure thin-film thicknesses with extremely high levels of accuracy – down to less than one nanometre in thickness – as well as the ability to perform in situ chemical analysis to ensure the materials and the surfaces they are creating have the intended chemical and electronic structures.

    “In addition to helping us build really useful things from oxides, this new technology will help us to discover and explore the properties of new materials,” added Driscoll. “It will take some long-term thinking to see them transition to practical applications, but once we achieve control over these materials at the atomic scale, the practical applications will follow. We believe that such oxides could really revolutionise electronics.”

    The ability to design, control and build new materials at the level of individual atoms could open up a whole new world of electronic devices.

    This new technology will help us to discover and explore the properties of new materials
    Judith Driscoll

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    Humans have been modifying plants for millennia, domesticating wild species and creating a bewildering array of crops. Modern agriculture allows global cultivation of plants at extremely low cost, with production on the gigatonne scale of a wide range of biostuffs – from fibres, wood, oils and sugar, to fine chemicals, drugs and food.

    But, in the 21st century, we face both ever-increasing demand and the need to shift towards more sustainable production systems. Can we build new plants that make better materials, act as miniature ‘factories’ for food and fuel, and minimise the human impact on the environment?

    With this in mind, synthetic biologists are beginning to build new organisms – or at least reprogramme existing organisms – by turning the biology lab into an engineering foundry.

    Synthetic biologists choose a ‘chassis’ and then bolt on standard parts – such as genes, the promoters that activate them and the systems they drive – to build something that’s tailor-made. And, like open-source software programmers, they have been looking to open-access and the sharing of code – in this case the DNA that codes for each part – as a practical means of speeding up innovation.

    “Providing free access to an inventory of molecular parts for use in the construction of diverse plant-based systems promotes their creative use by others, just as the open-source feature has driven innovation in the computer software industry,” explained Professor Sir David Baulcombe from Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences.

    Earlier this year, the University of Cambridge and the John Innes Centre in Norwich received £12 million in funding for a new UK synthetic biology centre – OpenPlant – to focus on the development of open technologies in plant synthetic biology and their application in engineering new crop traits. The effort is being led by Baulcombe and Dr Jim Haseloff in Cambridge, and by Professors Dale Sanders and Anne Osbourn in Norwich.

    It’s one of three new UK centres for synthetic biology that, over the next five years, will receive more than £40 million in funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

    OpenPlant aims to establish the first UK open-source DNA registry for sharing specific plant parts. It will also support fundamental science: “Construction of these parts will allow us to test our understanding of natural plant systems in which assemblages of parts create a greater whole,” Baulcombe explained.

    Researchers like Baulcombe and Haseloff, who also leads a new Strategic Research Initiative to advance cross-disciplinary research in synthetic biology in Cambridge, believe that the investment in the three new centres will help the UK stay at the leading edge of plant synthetic biology.

    “Any large-scale reprogramming of living systems requires access to a large number of components and, as the number of these parts balloons, the cost of building a portfolio of patents, or licensing parts from patent owners, could strangle the industry and restrict innovation,” explained Haseloff.

    “While US researchers lead in the synthetic biology of microbes, the UK has the edge in plants. The field needs a new two-tier system for intellectual property so that new tools including DNA components are freely shared, while investment in applications can be protected.”

    As well as new DNA components, Haseloff and colleagues have been focusing on a new plant chassis. Rather like the frame of a car, the chassis is the body of the cell that houses the rest of the desired parts. And for this they have turned to liverworts, relics of the first land plants to evolve around 500 million years ago.

    The Marchantia polymorpha liverwort is small, grows rapidly, has a simple genetic architecture and is proving such a useful test-bed for developing new DNA circuits that Haseloff has launched a web-based resource ( for a growing international community to exchange ideas. The hub characterises one of the wider aims of OpenPlant in promoting interdisciplinary exchange between fundamental and applied sciences, and is one of a series of collaborative projects, such as OpenLabTools (see panel), which are promoting open technology, innovation and exchange between engineers and physical, biological and social scientists across the University.

    In parallel with the development of standardised parts, the Centre will support around 20 researchers and their teams in Cambridge and Norwich who are engineering new plant traits. For instance, scientists at the John Innes Centre are investigating new systems for producing useful compounds like vaccines. In Cambridge, researchers are creating systems with altered photosynthetic capabilities and leaf structure to boost conversion of the sun’s energy into food, as well as developing plant-based photovoltaics for fuel.

    Another of OpenPlant’s aims is to foster debate on the wider implications of the technology at local and global scales. As Baulcombe described, “The open source feature may allow straightforward discussion about the applications of synthetic biology in plants. Societal discussion about other strands of biotechnology has been greatly hampered by the complications following from intellectual property restrictions.”

    “We think that biological technologies are the underpinning of the 21st-century’s industrial processes,” added Haseloff. “Plants are cheap and inherently sustainable, and have a major role to play in our future.

    In order to implement ideas and shift towards more rational design principles to support advances, we need to have the ability to exploit synthetic biology technologies in a responsive way, and that’s where we see OpenPlant contributing in the years to come.”

    Inset images: Marchantia - a primitive plant form used as the 'chassis' for designing new plants. Credit: Jim Haseloff.

    A movement is under way that will fast-forward the design of new plant traits. It takes inspiration from engineering and the software industry, and is being underpinned in Cambridge and Norwich by an initiative called OpenPlant.

    Plants are cheap and inherently sustainable, and have a major role to play in our future
    Jim Haseloff
    Marchantia - a primitive plant form used as the 'chassis' for designing new plants

    OpenPlant is part of a wider move towards ‘sharing’ in Cambridge that now includes scientific tools of the trade.

    Resourcing laboratories with scientific tools is a costly business. An automated microscope, for instance, could cost upwards of £75,000, and yet be a key tool in materials and biological laboratories.

    Now, an initiative coordinated by Dr Alexandre Kabla, from the Department of Engineering, is rethinking how scientists can access the tools that they need at a less-prohibitive cost.

    He recognised that a wealth of instrument-building know-how exists across the University – expertise that could be drawn on to develop a suite of low-cost open-access scientific tools.

    Raspberry Pi, for example, was conceived and incubated in the Computer Laboratory to encourage children to learn programming for themselves: this credit-card-sized computer is now available for only $25.

    The OpenLabTools initiative has set itself the task of creating high-end tools such as microscopes, 3D printers, rigs for automation and sensors, with an emphasis on undergraduate and graduate teaching and research. It was created with funding from the University and the Raspberry Pi Foundation, and is supported by an academic team of engineers, physicists, materials scientists, plant biologists and computer scientists.

    “Current projects primarily focus on the development of core components, thanks to the contributions of a team of physics and engineering students. However, we have already made significant progress towards the development of imaging systems and mechanical testing devices,” said Kabla, whose own expertise lies in the physics and mechanics of biological systems. “We anticipate that these will be rolled out in undergraduate laboratories sometime next year.”

    To encourage open access, ‘How To’ manuals and designs are being published on the OpenLabTools website.

    “It’s an exciting prospect,” said Kabla. “When you consider that consumer-grade low-cost microscopes are essentially a digital camera with a high magnification objective, not only can we build this but we can also provide a means to automate the microscopy, dramatically reducing the cost of the tool. The blueprints and tutorials we make available will be useful for undergraduate and research projects, as well as school activities and small-scale industrial applications running on a tight budget.”

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    The Faculty of Education

    “The vast majority of our PGCE graduates go on to teach in the state sector,” Jacqui explained, “so it’s really important that they have accurate and up-to-date information on how to support those students who have the potential to apply to Cambridge, or other highly-selective universities.”

    “Many of our NQTs find that because they’ve applied for and completed their PGCE at Cambridge, they are expected to be knowledgeable about the undergraduate admissions process, which is really quite different. This session was aimed at bringing all of our NQTs up to speed, no matter where they have studied for their undergraduate degree.”

    Drawing on her own classroom experience, Jacqui’s presentation covered some of the ways teachers can encourage pupils to think beyond the curriculum, and highlighted the resources available from the University to help.

    “I went through the application process as a state school student, at a school that wasn’t very familiar with sending applicants to Cambridge,” said Kenichi Udagawa.

    Kenichi took his first degree at Cambridge as well as his PGCE and will be teaching in Croydon from September.

    “It made me realise how much you rely on your school to know the process," he said.

    “The presentation was very helpful. If you’ve been a student at Cambridge you can forget what it looks like from  outside. Terms like ‘supervision’ can be a barrier. I need to be able to explain the system to the students at my school in straightforward terms.”

    “Information, Advice and Guidance services in many schools have been cut back in response to funding cuts,” Jacqui said. “I hope this talk has encouraged our NQTs to get involved and help fill the gap.”

    “It’s a great opportunity for them to work with motivated and enthusiastic students, and it’s very beneficial for the students to have the support of committed teachers in realising their potential.”

    All students will also receive copies of the University’s guide for Teachers and Advisers in a special pack at their end of course ceremony today.

    The University of Cambridge Secondary PGCE Class of 2014 enjoyed a special briefing session this week on how to support their pupils to aim high in their university ambitions, delivered by Jacqui Howard, Schools Liaison Co-ordinator for the Faculty of Education.

    The vast majority of our PGCE graduates go on to teach in the state sector.
    Jacqui Howard, Schools Liaison Co-ordinator for the Faculty of Education.
    The Faculty of Education

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    The discovery of a schistosomiasis parasite egg in a 6200-year-old grave at a prehistoric town by the Euphrates river in Syria may be the first evidence that agricultural irrigation systems in the Middle East contributed to disease burden, according to new research published in Lancet Infectious Diseases.

    Schistosomiasis is a disease caused by several species of flatworm parasites that live in the blood vessels of the bladder and intestines.

    Infection can result in anaemia, kidney failure, and bladder cancer. This research shows it may have been spread by the introduction of crop irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia, the region along the Tigris-Euphrates river system that covers parts of modern-day Iraq, Iran, Kuwait, Syria, and Turkey.

    According to co-author Dr Piers Mitchell, from the Division of Biological Anthropology at the University of Cambridge, the discovery might be among the oldest evidence of man-made technology inadvertently causing disease outbreaks.

    “The individual who contracted the parasite might have done so through the use of irrigation systems that were starting to be introduced in Mesopotamia around 7500 years ago. The parasite spends part of its life cycle in snails that live in warm fresh water, before leaving the snail to burrow through the skin of people wading or swimming in the water,” said Mitchell.

    “These irrigation systems distributed water to crops and may have triggered the beginning of the enormous disease burden that schistosomiasis has caused over the past 6000 years.”

    The discovery at Tell Zeidan in Syria was made by an international team of archaeologists and biological anthropologists from Cambridge, the Cyprus Institute, and the University of Chicago’s Oriental Institute. It shows that the parasite infected humans there at least a thousand years earlier than has been found in Egypt. The oldest schistosomiasis egg found previously was in Egyptian mummies from 5200 years ago.

    The egg was found in the pelvic area of the burial where the intestines and bladder would have been during life. Control soil samples from the head and foot areas of the grave contained no parasitic eggs, suggesting that the gravesite was not contaminated with the parasite more recently.

    “Schistosomiasis has become progressively more common over time so that it causes a huge burden across the world today, with over 200 million people infected. It causes anaemia which significantly decreases physical productivity in infected people, and may also cause bladder cancer,” said Mitchell.

    “We would expect these consequences in ancient peoples to have had a significant impact upon early civilizations in the region.”

    Inset images:

     - Excavating a chalcolithic burial at zeidan (credit: Gil Stein, Oriental Institute, University of Chicago)

     - A schistosome egg recovered from the pelvic sediment of a human individual dated 6500—6000 BP (Before Present) (credit: Piers Mitchell)

    Latest research shows that schistosomiasis, a disease caused by flatworm parasites, may have been spread by earliest crop irrigation in ancient Mesopotamia, suggesting early technology exacerbated disease burden.

    We would expect these consequences in ancient peoples to have had a significant impact upon early civilizations in the region
    Piers Mitchell
    Chalcolithic burial at Zeidan

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    The COSMOS facility, which is located in the Stephen Hawking Centre for Theoretical Cosmology (CTC) at the University, is dedicated to research in cosmology, astrophysics and particle physics. It was switched on in 2012.

    To date, the facility has been used to simulate the dynamics of the early Universe and for pipelines analysing the statistics of Planck satellite maps of the cosmic microwave sky. The COSMOS supercomputer was the first very large (over 10 terabyte) single-image shared-memory system to incorporate Intel Xeon Phi coprocessors, which are behind the most power-efficient computers in the world.

    Intel Parallel Computing Centres (IPCC) are universities, institutions, and labs that are leaders in their field. The centres are focusing on modernising applications to increase parallelism and scalability through optimisations that leverage cores, caches, threads, and vector capabilities of microprocessors and coprocessors.

    As an IPCC, the COSMOS research facility will receive enhanced Intel support from its applications and engineering teams, as well as early access to future Intel Xeon Phi and other Intel products aimed at high-performance computing. IPCC status will allow COSMOS to better focus on delivering computing advances to the scientific community it serves and also highlight the efforts Intel has put into advancing high-performance computing.

    When operating at peak performance, the COSMOS Supercomputer can perform 38.6 trillion calculations per second (TFLOPS), and is based on SGI UV2000 systems with 1856 cores of Intel Xeon processors E5-2600, 14.8 TB RAM and 31 Intel® Xeon PhiTM coprocessors.

    The research centre has already developed Xeon Phi for use in Planck Satellite analysis of the cosmic microwave sky and for simulations of the very early Universe. These capabilities will become even more important in the near future pending the arrival of new generations of Intel Xeon Phi coprocessors and associated technologies.

    “I am very pleased that the COSMOS supercomputer centre has been selected among the vanguard of Intel Parallel Computing Centres worldwide,” said Professor Stephen Hawking, founder of the COSMOS Consortium. “These are exciting times for cosmology as we use COSMOS to directly test our mathematical theories against the latest observational data. Intel’s new technology and this additional support will accelerate our scientific research.”

    “Building on COSMOS success to date with Intel’s Many Integrated Core-based technology, our new IPCC status will ensure we remain at the forefront of those exploiting many-core architectures for cosmological research,” said COSMOS director, Professor Paul Shellard. “With the SGI UV2 built around Intel Xeon processors E5-2600 family and Intel Xeon Phi processors, we have a flexible HPC platform on which we can explore Xeon Phi acceleration using distributed, offload and shared-memory programming models. Intel support will ensure fast code development timescales using MICs, enhancing COSMOS competitiveness and discovery potential.”

    “Intel Parallel Computing Centres are collaborations to modernise key applications to unlock performance gains that come through parallelism, enabling the way for the next leap in discovery.

    We are delighted to be working with the COSMOS team in this endeavour as they strive to understand the origins of the universe,” said Stephan Gillich, Director Technical Computing, Intel EMEA.

    COSMOS is part of the Distributed Research utilising Advanced Computing (DiRAC) facility, funded by the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.

    Cambridge’s COSMOS supercomputer, the largest shared-memory computer in Europe, has been named by computer giant Intel as one of its Parallel Computing Centres, building on a long-standing collaboration between Intel and the University of Cambridge.

    These are exciting times for cosmology as we use COSMOS to directly test our mathematical theories against the latest observational data
    Stephen Hawking

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    The much-needed repair work means that the 1,400-line epic poem, one of the most important sources for historians studying Bannockburn and the Wars of Scottish Independence, can now be used properly by researchers and in public displays. Interest in the famous encounter, which was fought on 23 to 24 June, 1314, is expected to rise as a result of both the forthcoming anniversary celebrations, and the Scottish Independence Referendum.

    The Brus was written by John Barbour, Archdeacon of Aberdeen, in about 1375 and covers the Wars of Independence waged by Robert the Bruce. Its centrepiece is a stirring and bloody description of Bannockburn itself, and despite various inaccuracies, it remains a significant historical document as well as one of the finest and best-known works written in early Scots. In particular, its central theme that freedom is a prize worth winning at all costs, has resonated through the ages.

    No edition of the poem written in Barbour’s own hand survives, but two early versions, transcribed in the 15th century, still exist. These are kept at the Library of St John’s College, in Cambridge, and at the National Library of Scotland, Edinburgh.

    After centuries of use, however, the St John’s manuscript had become badly damaged. The great majority of its pages were torn, sections were difficult to read because of dirt and marking, and the volume was so tightly bound it could not be opened without damaging the pages further, making the document virtually unusable.

    Last year, the College commissioned specialists from the Cambridge Colleges’ Conservation Consortium to conserve the text, with support from the National Manuscripts Conservation Trust. Over months of painstaking work, it was systematically taken apart, cleaned, repaired and rebound in a style more appropriate to its age.

    The result is an expertly and sympathetically repaired manuscript of The Brus which scholars of the Scottish Wars, or medieval literature, will be able to use in full. Along with many of the other priceless materials in the Library’s special collections, it will also be available for visiting groups to examine, and will periodically go on public display.

    “The 700th anniversary essentially gave us the impetus for doing the work,” Kathryn McKee, Special Collections Librarian at St John’s College, said. “It’s likely to result in a fresh wave of interest in Bannockburn and we wanted the book to be available in a fit state.”

    The St John’s edition of The Brus was given to the College in the 1630s by Thomas, fourth Earl of Southampton. It was written in 1487, and is thought to have been transcribed by John Ramsay, Prior of the Carthusians at Perth. Quite unusually for a surviving manuscript of this time, it is written on high-quality rag paper, which, as the name suggests, was made from pulped textile rags.

    Unfortunately, at some point during the late 18th or early 19th century, the book was rebound rather poorly and exposed to considerable damage during the process as a result. Although it was still regularly consulted in the years that followed, by the time the conservators were called in it was in a very fragile state. Many of the pages could barely be prised apart enough to take a photograph of their contents, without causing further damage still.

    The delicate repair operation required the specialists to remove the binding, and lift the modern spine-liners and glue. Surface dirt was gently dry-cleaned from the pages, tears in the paper were repaired, and dog-eared corners flattened out. The manuscript was then resewn according to the original, 15th-century pattern, and rebound with traditional materials.

    The Brus is a unique and nationally important treasure,” McKee added. “This project means that we can now make it available to researchers, or put it on public display, without having to compromise its long-term preservation.”

    For more information about this story, please contact Tom Kirk, 

    One of the two oldest surviving copies of 'The Brus'– a medieval poem famous for its vivid, early description of the Battle of Bannockburn – has been restored in time for the battle’s 700th anniversary.

    The Brus is a unique and nationally important treasure. This project means that we can now make it available without having to compromise its long-term preservation.
    Kathryn McKee
    The 1487 edition of The Brus, one of the two oldest remaining copies in existence, has been conserved and rebound for research and public display.

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    "We are designing cobalt oxide assemblies at the nanoscale to improve their properties as a catalyst - a material that speeds up a reaction. We're using the material to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water, contributing to the development of new sources of fuel and energy.

    Being able to make tailored structures at the nanoscale is very important for catalysis and has important applications in everyday life, from electricity generation to sensors and manufacturing processes.

    In my research I study what such structures look like, using state-of-the-art electron microscopes that can push the limits of science, allowing individual atoms to be imaged and identified."

    With thanks to Dr Caterina Ducati and to the ERC for funding under grant number 259619.

    'Nanomaterials Up Close' is a special series linked to our 'Under the Microscope' collection of videos produced by Cambridge University that show glimpses of the natural and man-made world in stunning close-up.

    These individual particles of cobalt oxide have been engineered to form a superlattice or 3D mesh structure to improve their chemical activity, explains Giorgio Divitini.

    I study what such structures look like, using state-of-the-art electron microscopes that allow individual atoms to be imaged and identified
    Giorgio Divitini
    Cobalt oxide

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    The University Wi-Fi network has expanded into the city's public spaces for the first time today as high-speed internet access points have been placed on Parker's Piece and along central streets.

    A new map shows the areas where academics, students and staff can now access the eduroam and Lapwing services (see slideshow below where coverage is shaded in red).

    The University investment in the network is part of plans to extend its existing education Wi-Fi networks to all Cambridge and Anglia Ruskin University students, staff and visiting academics to cover open spaces.

    The University’s existing networks already support up to 25,000 unique visitors each week of which a third are visitors from other universities. Demand for the free Wi-Fi will be monitored over the next 12 months to help plan for future extension of the network.

    Jon Holgate, Head of Network, University of Cambridge, said: "We wanted to expand the University network and as part of that we spoke to many people including to students. We often think of Wi-Fi as being something we access from the office, but people kept asking about being able to use their devices outside."

    Members of the public will also be able to use the internet while out and about thanks to a free public Wi-FI pilot scheme. The year-long trial of the new Wi-Fi network was launched today (Monday 23 June) by Connecting Cambridgeshire and the University ready for when the Tour de France comes to Cambridge on Monday, 7 July.

    People who already use the academic systems eduroam and Lapwing should automatically connect to the network. Last week, before the official launch, almost 50,000 devices connected to the network. The public service is being provided through BskyB-owned The Cloud, which has over 22,000 hotspots across the UK.

    Jon added: “The University of Cambridge has taken this opportunity to invest in free public Wi-Fi because of the value of extending our existing University networks and bringing a lasting legacy for the city, which everyone can benefit from. This project represented an excellent opportunity to work closely both with University colleagues as well as local partners across the City to deliver genuinely innovative and leading-edge services to academics and the general public alike.

    “We expect thousands of people will use the free Wi-Fi for the Tour de France event which will be a challenge for the network capacity, and the good news is that the service will still be available when the cyclists have moved on.”

    Although putting up Wi-Fi points in Cambridge, much of which is a conservation area, was not an easy task, the collaborative efforts of councils, University departments and suppliers made the project work.

    On Parker's Piece the city council was putting up a series of lamp posts in the greenspace to make it safer at night. This enabled the University, with the help of its suppliers, and work by the Department of Engineering, to create bespoke housing for the equipment so engineers could place access points and equipment within the lamp posts.

    The collaboration between Cambridgeshire County Council, Cambridge City Council and the University to set up the free public access, is the first step in making Wi-Fi technology more widely available as part of Connecting Cambridgeshire’s ambitious programme to improve connectivity across the county.

    More than 20 new Wi-Fi access points have been installed on lighting posts, CCTV poles and public buildings at key locations including Parker’s Piece, King’s Parade, the Senate House and the market area. They include the traditional looking lamp posts.

    Computer science has a long history at the University and it was recognised early on that a unified computer network was essential. Since the first major cross-city University network (The Granta Backbone Network) was created in 1992, the demands on the more than 45 km of underground system have grown from 150 devices to 130,000 devices in the Colleges, Department and Administration buildings.

    University Information Services (UIS) has invested £35,000 in supplying the equipment and resources for the new improvements.

    Councillor Steve Count, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, which leads the Connecting Cambridgeshire programme, said: “Cambridge has always been at the forefront of new technology and evolving the way we interact with the world.  This new free public Wi-Fi service in central Cambridge is a fantastic example of the difference we can make for residents, visitors and students by working together.

    “Developing wider public access Wi-Fi and improving mobile coverage is part of the Connecting Cambridgeshire programme’s drive for better connectivity across the county, which is vital in an increasingly digital world. This trial paves the way for improving wireless connectivity across the city and beyond.”

    Councillor Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council said: “Cambridge has a global reputation for innovation. We want to enhance this by ensuring we are digitally connected, making sure people can access the Internet on the go.

    “This is just the beginning of our plans to expand public access Wi-Fi for the city and beyond, so more people can share the benefits of being connected where-ever they are.”

    Users of the free Wi-Fi can connect to the Internet by logging in, or registering, via a shared landing page on The Cloud, which will provide links to useful information and event updates.

    Connecting Cambridgeshire is leading the introduction of public access Wi-Fi as part of the Government-funded Super Connected Cities project to improve superfast broadband connectivity and expand wireless technology in Cambridge and surrounding economic areas of South Cambridgeshire.

    Free public Wi-Fi launched as University expands its network ahead of the Tour de France.

    The University of Cambridge has taken this opportunity to invest in free public Wi-Fi because of the value of extending our existing University networks and bringing a lasting legacy for the city.
    Jon Holgate, Head of Network, University of Cambridge
    More information
    • Connecting Cambridgeshire is working to ensure businesses, residents and public services can make the most of opportunities offered by a fast-changing digital world. This ambitious programme is improving Cambridgeshire’s broadband, mobile and Wi-Fi coverage, whilst supporting online skills, business growth and technological innovation to meet future digital challenges. This coordinated approach will drive economic growth, help rural communities to thrive, improve health and well-being, and make it easier for people to get online and access public services. The programme is led by a strong partnership of local councils in Cambridgeshire and Peterborough with the support of Government and partners in business, health and education.
    • Super Connected Cambridge is part of the Connecting Cambridgeshire programme and has been awarded extra funding as part of the Government’s £150 million Urban Broadband Funding for Super Connected Cities to bring faster connectivity to boost economic growth and support local businesses. This is in addition to the countywide investment in high speed fibre broadband being rolled out to 98% of homes and businesses across Cambridgeshire and Peterborough the end of 2015. It also includes funding for the Destination Digital business support scheme offering free advice, connectivity vouchers and grants for small and medium business to make the most of digital technology.
    • The Cloud builds and operates WiFi networks across the UK and Europe. The Cloud is a BSkyB Company and has over 9 million registered users.
    • eduroam (education roaming) is the secure, world-wide roaming access service developed for the international research and education community.It allows students, researchers and staff from participating institutions to obtain Internet connectivity across campus and when visiting other participating institutions by simply opening their laptop

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    The signing is the latest step in securing potentially hundreds of millions of pounds of extra money that will be invested in improving transport and facilitate housing delivery in the Cambridge and South Cambridgeshire area.

    The game changing deal was announced by the Chancellor of the Exchequer in his budget speech this year and follows intensive negotiation by Cambridge City Council, South Cambridgeshire District Council, Cambridgeshire County Council, the University of Cambridge and the Greater Cambridge Greater Peterborough Enterprise Partnership.

    The Deal aims to secure hundreds of millions of pounds of additional funding for investment in transport infrastructure to support high quality economic and housing growth over the coming decades. According to local business leaders one of the main barriers to economic success is lack of housing or transport measures.

    The first £100m of funding will be made available in the five years from April 2015. Transport improvements as a result of the Deal will start to be seen within the first year of this period.

    As long as certain conditions are met, a further £200m will be available from April 2020 onwards and a final £200m from April 2025 onwards.

    The £500m of Government money will supplement similar levels of funding from local sources so that around a £billion in total will be spent on supporting the delivery of vital infrastructure necessary to provide good quality and sustainable growth for the area for decades to come.

    The deal will accelerate delivery of around 33,000 planned homes and enable the delivery of an extra 1,000 new homes - creating more homes for families across the region and allowing people to live and be more able to afford homes within a reasonable commuting distance.

    The deal will also help local young people develop the skills they need to take advantage of these new opportunities: the City Deal will deliver over 400 new Apprenticeships for young people and create new teams to help increase apprenticeships by acting as brokers between training providers and businesses, as well as supporting the guidance that is given in schools and colleges to encourage young people to take up vocational careers.

    The partners have come together, crossing political and geographical divides, with Government to deliver this innovative deal to secure the economic success of Cambridgeshire and the communities they serve.

    The Rt Hon Greg Clark MP, Minister for Cities signed the deal in Cambridge last week.

    The signing included the leaders from all three councils (Councillor Steve Count of Cambridgeshire County Council, Councillor Lewis Herbert of Cambridge City Council and Councillor Ray Manning of South Cambridgeshire District Council) and Professor Jeremy Sanders CBE, Pro-Vice-Chancellor for Institutional Affairs (pictured Left with Greg Clark) representing the University. Julian Huppert MP and Andrew Lansley MP also  attended.

    Greg Clark said: “Cambridge is one of Britain’s most successful cities and the Government is backing that success. The Greater Cambridge City Deal is a massive £1billion boost to the local economy, making sure Cambridge has the transport, housing and skills to continue its phenomenal success.”

    The Vice-Chancellor, Professor Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, said: "This is great news for Cambridge. We look forward to working with our partners to deliver housing and transport improvements that will help us to innovate and sustain economic growth, while protecting the features that make Cambridge such an attractive place to work, study and live."

    Councillor Steve Count, Leader of Cambridgeshire County Council, said: “This is a real game changing deal for Greater Cambridge and the surrounding County. It will see a step change in transport infrastructure, create jobs and boost the local economy. The success of this will also be felt outside the Cambridge area so all our communities benefit.”

    Councillor Lewis Herbert, Leader of Cambridge City Council, said: "We cannot risk transport in Cambridge grinding to a standstill given the damage that would cause to the lives of local people, and to the firms behind our growing local economy.  Signing this deal signals our intention as the new administration at the City Council to play our full part in joint work by the three councils to unlock housing, transport and skills investment and improve the quality of life for everyone in and around Cambridge."

    An innovative City Deal that could see a £billion investment in the Greater Cambridge area has been signed by Government, Council leaders, businesses and the University of Cambridge.

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  • 06/24/14--01:30: Seeds to skyscrapers
  • It’s not often that research begins with designing a wooden 70-storey office building that falls over, at least on paper. But this is what a group of architectural engineers in Cambridge did to demonstrate that wood is simply not up to the task.

    Today, almost all new large-scale buildings are constructed using concrete and steel. Valued for their strength, flexibility and stability, these materials are nonetheless notoriously energy-intensive, with the manufacturing of construction materials for buildings suggested to account for around 5% of total UK emissions. Indeed, CO2 emissions embodied in how the fabric of the building is constructed can be just as significant as the operational emissions once it is occupied.

    “It’s doubtful that much can be done to bring down the energy used in traditional manufacturing of concrete and steel. Primary savings will come only through demand reduction, including switching to other materials,” explained Michael Ramage, the architect behind the experimental wooden skyscraper. “We think there are tremendous opportunities for novel plant-based materials in construction but, as our skyscraper showed, the material itself must be redesigned.

    “Forensic engineering showed that once our test building reached a certain height the wood at the bottom began to crush. We want to redesign wood from the molecular level to create some of the most advanced and sustainable construction materials known.”

    It’s a compelling vision, and one that will require the combined efforts not just of architects and engineers, but also of plant biochemists, polymer chemists and experts in fluid mechanics. The ambitious five-year project aims to “fundamentally transform the way we build” and is led by Ramage from the Department of Architecture with £1.75 million funding from the Leverhulme Trust.

    “There are more varieties of plants than there are of manufactured materials,” added Ramage. “Although the techniques to manipulate manufactured materials are better understood, the potential to generate materials with diverse properties based on plants may be far greater.”

    Plants derive much of their strength from the rigid cellulose wall that surrounds each cell. What if this could be engineered to have even greater strength, rather like reinforcing steel bars are used to improve the tensile strength of concrete?

    Team member Professor Paul Dupree from the Department of Biochemistry is an expert in understanding how plant cell walls are built. Although this structure forms one of the largest biomasses on Earth, many fundamental aspects of its structure and function, and the enzymes responsible for its synthesis, have largely been a mystery.

    Dupree’s work focuses on improving the efficiency of using plants as biofuels by determining how to release the myriad of sugars locked into the cell wall. By deciphering how to unbuild cell walls, he is also gaining understanding of how they can be built better. Ultimately, the researchers would like to understand the process enough to be able to breed or genetically engineer plants that are naturally stronger.

    Meanwhile, pioneering work by Ramage and Dr Oren Scherman, in the Department of Chemistry, is looking at boosting the strength, stiffness and longevity of plant-based materials by impregnating them with polymers. Their aim is to use low-value, fast-growing species like spruce and bamboo (see panel) in tall buildings. For instance, they have shown that impregnation of spruce by soaking in methacrylate, a polymer commonly used in windscreen repair kits, can increase spruce’s strength and resistance to fungal attack.

    This technology could be used to construct polymer-modified wooden beams that are stronger at the ends for better connections, and stiffer in the middle for greater spans. Scherman, Ramage and Dupree will work together to understand where the polymers end up in the plant cell and what this means for improving structural properties.

    And it’s not just structural construction materials that the researchers have in mind. They hope to uncover a range of uses and scales of modified natural materials that improve the sustainability of the way we live, including new materials that moderate temperature and humidity in buildings.

    The expertise of Professor Paul Linden from the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics will be crucial for this – his group develops models of the fluid flow in low-energy buildings, which will be used to optimise the mechanical and environmental properties of naturally-based building materials. The aim is to construct buildings that not only use materials that have low embodied energy but also consume as little energy as possible when they are used. “Our ideas are a step towards ‘living differently’,” explained Ramage. “It’s a vision that can only be achieved by strong multi-disciplinary connectivity.”

    The research programme fuses fundamental and applied sciences, and is firmly connected with industrial applications. Team member Dr Beatrix Schlarb-Ridley, along with Dr Brenda Parker in the Department of Plant Sciences, supports companies in the East of England in taking up low-carbon solutions based on plant materials as part of the InCrops Project. The researchers hope that this interaction will provide a continuous flow of practical ideas into the project and facilitate the transfer of new technologies into industry.

    “Effectively we are working from micro to mega,” summed up Ramage. “We want to redesign natural materials to carry out different functions that will change the way we construct cities. This starts at the molecular level and continues to engineered solutions to sustainable living. Our work will show a way for improved natural materials that are better for people, and better for the planet.”

    And as the project nears completion, Ramage and colleagues aim to return to their plans for a 70-storey skyscraper made of wood, and show this time that it can work.

    Onset image: Bamboo I-beam; credit: Michael Ramage.

    Wood is one of the oldest building materials but its use is limited by its properties. With new funding, researchers aim to stretch these properties to an unprecedented degree, creating the means to build a skyscraper out of plants.

    Although the techniques to manipulate manufactured materials are better understood, the potential to generate materials with diverse properties based on plants may be far greater
    Michael Ramage
    High and mighty: the new bamboo

    At the World Conference on Timber Engineering this August, Michael Ramage will present research on new engineering products based on bamboo, a material that has been used to construct houses for thousands of years.

    As a building material, bamboo makes great sense. It’s cheap, renewable, is found in areas of the world where structural timber is limited and it grows faster than wood. Little wonder then that new forms of laminated and resin-impregnated bamboo are emerging as building materials.

    “Bamboo has captured the imagination of engineers and architects worldwide, but its use has been limited largely because the material shows variations in its geometry and structural properties,” explained Ramage. “Full acceptance of these materials has been hindered by a lack of engineering data on which regulatory bodies can base building standards.”

    With funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, Ramage and colleagues have been investigating the properties of bamboo products. He has been working with the independent consultancy Cambridge Architectural Research Limited, and in collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and the University of British Colombia.

    Their preliminary results have shown that some mechanical properties were similar to those of timber (such as stiffness), but others, like tensile strength, are up to five times greater. This suggests that bamboo might even be used to replace steel eventually, as Ramage explained: “We think that with some slightly more advanced engineering we can reconstitute bamboo into shapes like the rolled steel joists, or I-beams, used in buildings. The time has come to exploit bamboo to its full potential as a durable, strong and beautiful material.”

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    Previously, as with the longitude problem 300 years earlier for fixing locations on Earth, there was no unified system of reference for calibrating the heavens.

    But now, when investigating the atmospheric structure and chemical make-up of stars, astronomers can use a new stellar scale as a ‘ruler’ – making it much easier for them to classify and compare data on star discoveries.

    In fact, the work is a critical first step in the Gaia satellite’s mission to map the Milky Way, as the unprecedented levels of stellar data that will result need “consistent stellar parameters”, the same way we need values to measure everything from temperature to time, say astronomers.

    The guidelines are free to download and are already being used by the world’s largest astronomy projects. The work has recently been published in the journal Astronomy & Astrophysics

    The team, including Dr Paula Jofre from the University of Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, selected 34 initial ‘benchmark’ stars to represent the different kinds of stellar populations in our galaxy, such as hot stars, cold stars, red giants and dwarfs, as well as stars that cover the different chemical patterns – or ‘metallicity’ – in their spectrum, as this is the “cosmic clock” which allows astronomers to read a star’s age.

    This detailed range of information on the 34 stars form the first value set for measuring the millions of stars Gaia aims to catalogue. Many of the benchmark stars can be seen with the human eye, and have been studied for most of human history – dating back to the very first astronomical records from ancient Babylon.          

    “We took stars which had been measured a lot so the parameters are very well-known, but needed to be brought to the same scale for the new benchmark - essentially, using the stars we know most about to help measure the stars we know nothing about,” said Jofre. 

    “In previous galactic studies, the Sun is used as the standard to show a method is working, along with a few other well-known stars. But I choose this one because it works for my method, you choose a different one for different reasons; data may not match.

    “This is the first attempt to cover a wide range of stellar classifications, and do everything from the beginning – methodically and homogenously.”    

    Launched at the end of last year, Gaia will gather data on over a billion stars in the Milky Way, allowing astronomers to study for the first time in close detail its myriad stars and planetary systems. Petabytes of data will be sent back to Earth – roughly the equivalent of all the information held in all the libraries of the world today.

    The new value system was needed to ensure that analysis of this extraordinary amount of data is done in the most effective and efficient way, a template to measure the vast stream of data against.

    Jofre focused on spectroscopic data to work out metallicity: the chemical combination that makes up a star. Just as a raindrop can split sunlight into the colours of the rainbow, spectroscopes split the light from a star into its chemical elements – and the results can be read like a musical score, with high notes or low notes in the scale giving clues as to the star’s age. On average, the higher a star’s metal content the younger it is.

    Jofre created a ‘spectral’ library, combining the best data on the atmospheric structure of benchmark stars to determine a uniform scale for metallicity. Together with definitive scales for the stars’ temperatures and surface gravities, produced with colleagues at the University of Uppsala and the University of Bordeaux, her work completes the measuring system that will be used to gauge data from Gaia.

    “Now this set of data scales for the benchmark stars can be used as a way of making definitive measurements of others stars – invaluable to astronomers working on a wide range of projects,” Jofre said.

    The benchmark stars are already being used as a standardising model by Gaia’s sister project, the Gaia-ESO survey, which is observing stellar spectra at a high resolution from the Very Large Telescope in Chile. They will also provide the basis for the thousands of reference stars needed to set the parameters for the hugely ambitious Gaia satellite once it starts mapping the entire galaxy – the “pillars for the enormous calibrators”.

    The fact that the ideal benchmark stars needed to be ones we already have a lot of data on means that many are bright and relatively near to the Earth – and have been the subject of wonder across civilisations.

    Aldebaran, Arcturus, Pollux, Procyon and Alpha Centauri have played a part in the culture and mythology of mankind since they were first identified thousands of years ago. Babylonian astronomers used them as a reference point to describe the positions of the moon and planets as they moved through the night sky, appearing in the Babylonian Astronomical Diaries dating back to almost 1000 years BC.

    “Many people interested in astronomy know these stars, their position in constellations, and the best time of year to see them. It is amazing that there is still so much to learn about the physics of these most well-known stars," said Dr. Ulrike Heiter from the Uppsala University.

    “While stars do move over millennia, for humans they are fixed points – used to navigate the Earth for centuries. We are still using them as fixed points, but this time for navigating the galaxy,” Jofre said.

    UK Gaia lead Professor Gerry Gilmore added: “Advances in understanding the history and structure of our Galaxy with ambitious projects are possible only because, like Newton, we see farther by standing on the shoulders of giants. For reliably determining what chemical elements the stars are made of, those giants are the benchmark stars. All our vastly expanding knowledge depends on really understanding the few."

    Inset images: Crab Nebula and graphic rendering of the Gaia satellite

    A team of astronomers have created the first standardised set of measurement guidelines for analysing and cataloguing stars.

    This is the first attempt to cover a wide range of stellar classifications, and do everything from the beginning – methodically and homogenously
    Paula Jofre
    The first standardised way to measure stars has been developed for Gaia mission

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    Senior Research Associate Dr Clémence Blouet is among the four winners of the 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO UK & Ireland For Women In Science Fellowships (FWIS).

    Dr Blouetis works at the MRC Metabolic Diseases Unit and University of Cambridge Metabolic Research Laboratories.

    She was selected for her work on the consequences of high-fat intake on the hypothalamus and the mechanism behind obesity.

    The FWIS UK & Ireland fellowships have been designed to provide flexible financial help to four outstanding female postdoctoral scientists to continue research in their chosen fields.

    Chair of the judging panel, Pratibha Gai, Professor of Chemistry and Physics, Founding Professor of Electron Microscopy and co-director of the York Nanocentre at the University of York commented on the winners: “We had an absolutely outstanding shortlist this year, and these four women – Dr Clémence Blouet, Dr Tracy Briggs, Dr Eva-Maria Graefe and Dr Sneha Malde exemplify perfectly what the For Women in Science Fellowships stand for.

    “They are deeply talented, committed and hard-working scientists, who have huge passion for their research areas. I am excited to see what they all achieve in the coming year, and am confident that the influence and dedication of the female scientific community in the UK is well represented by these remarkable women.”

    The fellowships, worth £15,000 each, can be spent on whatever they may need to continue their research.

    The four winners stated that they will be using their prize money for a range of support such as equipment, field trips, attendance at conferences, childcare and collaborations.

    Winners were selected by a jury of scientists and included Royal Society Vice President Professor John Pethica and Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission.

    The awards are run in partnership with the UK National Commission for UNESCO, the Irish National Commission for UNESCO, with the support of the Royal Society.

    Image credit: Drew Gardner.

    Cambridge academic among winners of 2014 L’Oréal-UNESCO UK & Ireland For Women In Science Fellowships.

    These four women exemplify perfectly what the For Women in Science Fellowships stand for.
    Chair of the judging panel, Pratibha Gai

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    Professor Henrietta L Moore, William Wyse Chair of Social Anthropology, is to be recognised for her outstanding services to the social sciences.

    The Fellow of Jesus College will be awarded an honorary Doctor of Social Science (DSSc) degree from Queen’s University Belfast.

    Queen’s awards honorary degrees to individuals who have achieved high distinction or given significant service in one or more fields of public or professional life, and who serve as ambassadors for the University and Northern Ireland around the world.

    Professor Moore will receive her award alongside several other notable individuals, including the Nobel Prize winning physicist Peter Higgs, singer Katie Melua, Irish rugby player Brian O’Driscoll and the Irish businessman Dermot Desmond.

    The graduation ceremony will take place on 3 July.

    Image credit: Hannah J Taylor


    Professor Henrietta L Moore to receive honorary degree.

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    The study, published in The Lancet Psychiatry, surveyed 374 individuals (256 men and 118 women) diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome as adults between 2004 and 2013 at the Cambridge Lifetime Asperger Syndrome Service (CLASS) clinic in Cambridge UK. It revealed a significantly higher rate of suicidal thoughts among adults with Asperger Syndrome (66%), compared with the rate found in the general population (17%), and patients with psychosis (59%) taken from other data sources.

    The research, led by Dr Sarah Cassidy and Professor Simon Baron-Cohen from the Autism Research Centre at the University of Cambridge and the CLASS clinic in the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, found that two-thirds (66%) of adults with Asperger Syndrome had contemplated suicide and a third (35%) had planned or attempted suicide during their lifetime. Suicidal thoughts and behaviours were significantly more common in adults with Asperger Syndrome and a history of depression.

    Among adults with Asperger Syndrome, those with depression were four times more likely to experience suicidal thoughts, and twice as likely to plan or attempt suicide, compared to individuals with Asperger Syndrome but without a history of depression. A second risk factor for suicide plans or attempts was a higher level of autistic traits.

    “Our findings confirm anecdotal reports that adults with Asperger Syndrome have a significantly higher risk of suicide in comparison to other clinical groups, and that depression is a key risk factor in this,” said Dr Cassidy.

    According to Professor Baron-Cohen, “Adults with Asperger Syndrome often suffer with secondary depression due to social isolation, loneliness, social exclusion, lack of community services, under-achievement, and unemployment. Their depression and risk of suicide are preventable with the appropriate support. This study should be a wake-up call for the urgent need for high quality services, to prevent the tragic waste of even a single life.”

    Autism spectrum conditions are a group of developmental brain conditions that cause difficulties in communication and social interaction, alongside the presence of unusually narrow interests and difficulties in adapting to change. In Asperger Syndrome, people show the key symptoms but without delayed language or intellectual disability. In the UK, one in 100 people (around 700,000) has an autism spectrum condition.

    The study was funded by The Three Guineas Trust, the Baily Thomas Foundation, the Medical Research Council, NIHR-CLAHRCEoE, Cambridgeshire and Peterborough NHS Foundation Trust, and the Autism Research Trust.

    Adults with the autism spectrum condition known as Asperger Syndrome are significantly more likely to experience suicidal thoughts than people from the UK general population, according to the first large-scale clinical study of its kind.

    This study should be a wake-up call for the urgent need for high quality services, to prevent the tragic waste of even a single life
    Simon Baron-Cohen
    Numb (cropped)

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