Plastid Preview 2015

A fascinating two days, ably hosted by Christine Raines and colleagues in the School of Biological Sciences at the University of Essex. The venue was the new, light, spacious Essex Business School, a building replete with winter garden and turf-roofed, space-age lecture hall with dire acoustics. A colleague from an ancient university remarked that the small, internal ersatz tropical forest made the building seem like a botany department. A brief circumnavigation dispelled any such comparison.

The “Plastid Preview” has evolved from an informal joint lab meeting into quite an impressive and professional mini-conference. Presentations, mostly by PhD students and postdocs, form the core of these meetings.

I was reminded of Marina Warner’s exit from the University of Essex and condemnation of what “management” seemed to have done to its original academic vision and idealism. The core of the campus is 60s architecture, surrounded with subsequent developments reflecting incremental changes in taste and sense of purpose. I suppose the opulence of the new Business School could be a sign of the times: plenty of space there, but not space designed for real academic, still less scientific, research. Possibly teaching, but there was a pervasive a feeling of being in a low-rise, while quite attractive, suite of offices. Perhaps that’s OK for people working towards MBAs. The campus had brash banners announcing that the university is now fifty years old, and declaring its positions in various league tables. Essex was one of a batch of 60s “green fields” universities. I spent four productive and life-changing years at Warwick. In comparison, Essex has topology, attractive views, and, of course, Wivenhoe Park.

I liked the location. I also liked the research being described from the people aligned with new academic appointees, including the biologists at Essex itself. I think even Marina Warner would have warmed to these people. I wish them well, and rather envy them their work environment. It would have been nice to see the laboratories.

Lots to think about.

The Evolutionary Origin of Oxygenic Photosynthesis

The title of my presentation at ASB6 “The Origin, Distribution & Detection of Life in the Universe”, 2 – 4 September 2015, Centre for Planetary Sciences at UCL/Birkbeck

A summary of my view is given on the Web page section entitled The origin of atmospheric oxygen.

There are ways in which to test the hypothesis described there.

It is also a pleasure to record that I shall soon receive support for research on this topic from the Leverhulme Trust in the form of an Emeritus Research Fellowship.

Why do we need two sexes?

“There is no greater mystery in the whole world, as it seems to me, than the existence of the sexes, – more especially since the discovery of Parthenogenesis. The origination of the sexes seems beyond all speculation.”

Charles Darwin: Letter to J. S. Henslow, 16 July 1860

It was an honour and a pleasure to speak on this topic, on August 28 2015, at the Capri Workshop of the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology.

My talk presented a possible answer and experimental results that are consistent with it.

There is an outline and links to the primary publications on my Research Web page, in the section Mitochondria, ageing, separate sexes.

Participation in the workshop was a complete pleasure. There was great diversity in the topics considered, and in research reported.

The hospitality of Prof Piergiorgio Crosignani was extraordinary. I am most grateful.

Capri is utterly beautiful. I’d love to return one day, with family, and time to explore.

Capri harbour from the quayside, waiting for return to journey to Naples.
Capri harbour from the quayside early on Sunday morning, waiting for return to journey to Naples.
Evening view South from clifftop near Anacapri, near Parco Filosofico.
Evening view South from clifftop near Anacapri, near Parco Filosofico.

The 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference

The 2015 Astrobiology Science Conference | June 15-19, 2015 | Chicago, Illinois.

Michael J. Russell
Michael J. Russell

Michael J. Russell: How the firstligand-accelerated automatic cycle gave an evolutionary trajectoryto emergent life

Elbert Branscomb, Tomaso Biancalani, Nigel Goldenfeld and Michael J. Russell: Disequilibria and Escapements; the engines that bring matter to life

Lake Michigan from hotel room
Lake Michigan from hotel room


John F. Allen: On the evolutionary origin of oxygenic photosynthesis

The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis

The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis

A post by Fanis Missirlis on matters arising from our letter: Allen JF, Missirlis F (2012) Queen Mary: nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition. Lancet 379 (9828): 1785.

Who guards the guardians? And what happens if meta-guardians themselves have something to hide?

Research Assessment and REF

What is ‘research output’? Can it be measured? If so, how? What are its ‘metrics’? from Allen JF (2010) Research and how to promote it in a university. Future Medicinal Chemistry 2: 15-20.

What must one do to avoid being made redundant…?
Continue reading “The Devil in the Detail | fanismissirlis”

Fascination of Plants University of Greenwich 2015

17 April. My pleasure to help provide the solar energy demonstration.

Dr Iskander M. Ibrahim demonstrates the power of sunlight with the famous solar-powered train set.  The demonstration was devised as part of my inaugural lecture, thinking outside the green box.  On this sunny April day in Chatham the train could be driven by sunlight rather than artificial light.  The unshaded silicon photovoltaic panel produced quite enough power to derail the train.

image1Source: Fascination of Plants University of Greenwich 2015 | Facebook

The Building Blocks of Microbial Evolution

It was an honour and a pleasure to participate last week in the Society for General Microbiology Annual Conference in Birmingham.

Two sessions were of special interest, and did not overlap. These were The building blocks of microbial evolution and Mitochondria and related organelles in microbial eukaryotes. The conference also had fascinating plenary and prize lectures.

Good to meet old friends and colleagues, and make new ones. Good, too, to see such progress in understanding fundamental problems.

My presentation in Birmingham, on 30 March, was entitled Anoxygenic photosynthesis and the archaean world. In it, I presented my hypothesis for the events that caused the transition from anoxygenic to oxygenic photosynthesis, and from the Archaean to the Proterozoic aeon. This was also the subject of A redox switch hypothesis for the evolutionary origin of oxygenic photosynthesis, which I gave on 24 March to the 2015 Iron–Sulfur Proteins Meeting at the MRC National Institute for Medical Research, Mill Hill.

I am optimistic that I can see a means by which to test this hypothesis, as it is outlined in The origin of atmospheric oxygen on my research web page.

International Convention Centre, Birmingham
International Convention Centre, Birmingham

The Many Worlds Interpretation

Sober reflection may be required after my paean of praise for physicists in the post In Our Time, The Photon.

Too many worlds is a thought-provoking Aeon article by Philip Ball.

Nobody knows what happens inside quantum experiments. So why are some so keen to believe in parallel universes?

Apparently there is a strongly held view that simplicity and elegance trump falsifiability, and there are an indefinite number of parallel universes in which everything that can happen does happen. The problem is that we are inhabit just one of these, and can know nothing of any of the others.

Scientific method: Defend the integrity of physics by George Ellis and Joseph Silk (Nature, 16 December 2014) proposes that physics is becoming undermined by untestable theory. Any hypothesis is only as good as the evidence that supports it.

As card-carrying Popperian, I am with Ellis and Silk. However, all seem to agree that the Copenhagen model won’t do. The question is: what can we put in its place?

I have nothing to offer. However, important questions about the nature of reality and of ourselves clearly coincide in deciding how to interpret quantum mechanics.

I still wish I were a physicist. I have consistently sought unifying principles in biology, biochemistry, and evolution, while believing that nothing can advance understanding if it fails to make predictions about observations that could, in principle, demonstrate that it is false. I act on the assumptions that we all inhabit the same single World, and that we can, if we are honest with each other and ourselves, share our experiences of it, thus increasing our understanding; pushing forward the boundaries of knowledge; seeing more deeply into nature. The alternative seems absurd. And, in fact, dangerous.

Nevertheless, both physicists and biologists eventually run up against the insight that there is a problem in understanding how we can know things in the first place. There, I am endorse Philip Ball’s closing comment.

Here, after all, is a theory that seems to allow everything conceivable to happen. To pretend that its only conceptual challenge is that it leads to scenarios like the plot of Sliding Doors (1998) shows a puzzling lacuna in the formidable minds of its advocates. Perhaps they should stop trying to tell us that philosophy is dead.