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Enhancing photosynthesis | Royal Society Discussion Meeting

Enhancing photosynthesis in crop plants: targets for improvement

October 10 and 11, 2016.

Contributors presented interesting new findings, approaches and techniques, while the outlook and prospect of “enhancing photosynthesis” seems not to have changed significantly over many years. Crop plants rely totally on the same photosynthetic mechanisms as those used by all plants, and some bacteria. I like the idea of tinkering with these machines to see what might be done. Totally unexpected results, rather than targets, will be the most useful. Important discoveries and new possibilities always arise from a problem in understanding, and from thinking of ways to solve it. There were definitely some important problems, good ideas, and experimental tests freely reported at the meeting. Some were very good indeed. I shall comment on these. It was unfortunate that the meeting opened with an unscheduled ten minutes intelligible only to those already aware of some sort of bid for funding, thus excluding most of those present.  I was happy to be in the majority on this.

There is progress – resting always on the possibility of ideas being open to examination and criticism.

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The 13th International Colloquium on Endocytobiology and Symbiosis, Kyoto

The 13th International Colloquium on Endocytobiology and Symbiosis was held in Kyoto from September 10 to 14, 2016. A fine poster advertised the colloquium.

The organiser was Junichi Obokata of Kyoto Prefectoral University. My painstakingly generous local host was Mitsumasa Hanaoka of Chiba University. I am so grateful to them both, as to the colloquium staff and fellow participants.

At Mitsumasa’s invitation I gave a seminar in his laboratory in Chiba, immediately after getting off the train from Narita airport on 8 September, and a longer and better version on 9 September at Kyoto University. Both seminars were entitled Mitochondria, ageing and separate sexes, and elicited excellent questions.

My plenary lecture at the colloquium itself was an account of progress with a consistent theme over a number of years and in different laboratories, countries, and universities, including recent results published in 2016. This lecture was entitled Why chloroplasts and mitochondria retain their own genomes and genetic systems: Co-location for Redox Regulation of gene expression.

The full programme of the Colloquium is available, and includes abstracts.







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Photosynthetic and Respiratory complexes: from structure to function

Photosynthetic and Respiratory complexes: from structure to function in Verviers, Belgium, from August 13 to 16, 2016. A satellite conference organised by Egbert Boekema and Pierre Cardol. The programme was full of interest.

I gave a Plenary Lecture soon after arrival: Redox control of thylakoid protein phosphorylation and reaction centre gene transcription. Molecular recognition redistributes mobile light-harvesting antennae and adjusts the stoichiometry of photosystems I and II.


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The 17th International Congress on Photosynthesis Research, Maastricht

The 17th International Congress on Photosynthesis Research. Photosynthesis in a Changing World took place in Maastricht, The Netherlands, from 7 to 12 August 2016. The organisers were Roberta Croce and Herbert van Amerongen.

My own contribution, in the session Evolution of Photosynthesis, was about photosynthesis in a radically changing world. It was entitled Conserved two-component transcriptional redox regulation in cyanobacteria and chloroplasts. Implications for the origin and evolutionary trajectory of oxygenic photosynthesis.

The full programme of the Congress.


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Photosynthetic electron and proton transport Arnhem 4-7 August

Photosynthetic Electron and Proton Transfer in Plants and Algae took place in Arnhem on the 4th to the 7th of August 2016.

Many thanks to the organisers; Anja Krieger, Jeremy Harbinson, and Giovanni Finazzi; as to all participants.

My own presentation had the title Redox control of chloroplast protein phosphorylation and reaction centre gene transcription. Regulatory coupling between photosynthetic electron transport and gene expression.

About universities Diary Not extinct

Higher Education and Research Bill – what is it for?

This morning I attended a discussion meeting at the House of Lords concerning the Higher Education and Research Bill.

In my opinion there is an urgent need to oppose this disastrous Bill.

The Convention for Higher Education has produced a summary of the many reasons for doing so.

These include, quoting from the e-mail of invitation to today’s meeting:-

  • the proposed reorganisation of research in the UK (including abolition of the Research Councils’ royal charters);
  • the proposed introduction of a lower bar for entry into English higher education by new ‘alternative providers’;
  • the proposal to abolish Privy Council involvement in the granting of English university title, and to vest all such powers (including withdrawal of title) in a new body entirely appointed by and overseen by the Secretary of State.

The Bill seems designed to consolidate Failing management in UK universities.

In its 117 pages, the Bill contains neither definition nor description of the term university. The Bill has no declared aim. What is its purpose?

Teaching is to be overseen by an Office for Students.

The White paper’s short section “Research” is entirely about United Kingdom Research and Innovation, a superstructure for the Research Councils. Is research itself no longer a core university activity?

From the Higher Education and Research Bill:-

UK research and innovation functions
UKRI may—
(a) carry out research into science, technology, humanities and new ideas,
(b) facilitate, encourage and support research into science, technology, humanities and new ideas,
(c) facilitate, encourage and support the development and exploitation of science, technology and new ideas,
(d) collect, disseminate and advance knowledge in and in connection with science, technology, humanities and new ideas,
(e) promote awareness and understanding of science, technology, humanities and new ideas,
(f) provide advice on any matter relating to any of its functions, and
(g) promote awareness and understanding of its activities.

“…and new ideas” – listed as if these are a separate field of enquiry. I wonder what the authors imagine research to be?

A member of academic staff in a real university researches and teaches. These two activities are complementary; each supports the other. Research qualifies a university teacher to take students to the boundary of existing knowledge, to try to see beyond it, and to question what they find there.

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30 May | Institute of Cell Biology, University of Bern

Mitochondria, ageing and separate sexes

This seminar was given at the kind invitation of Prof. Dr. Mariusz Nowacki.

I received excellent questions and comments from members of an expert audience. There seemed to be agreement on my view of the experiment we should do next.

It was a pleasure to meet Mariusz’s lab members, including Dr. Estienne Swart and a special host, Dr. Sarah Allen.

I also appreciated the introduction to colleagues. Prof. Dr. André Schneider in particular had fascinating research to report on protein import into mitochondria, with, he believes and I agree, so much to tell us about the origin and evolution of eukaryotes. André thanked me for acknowledging past discussion with Jeff Schatz, whom he knew as his postdoctoral advisor and mentor, and who had provided the first compelling evidence for mitochondrial DNA. In about 1996, in Lund, Sweden, Jeff had recommended not wasting time on Xenopus oocyte mitochondria since they were “really boring; no cytochromes, no ox-phos”. I tried but failed to explain why I thought this was an interesting comment.

André’s comment in Bern was prompted by an acknowledgement slide I’d prepared, and worried about, thanking Jeff and also Lars Ernster for early encouragement. I can’t be sure about Jeff’s view, but Lars definitely liked the mitochondrial theory of ageing, and even showed a summary graphic, Figure 1 from my 1996 Journal of Theoretical Biology paper, in a seminar he later gave in Lund. I recalled apologising to Ernster, an outstanding biochemist and experimentalist, Nobel Chemistry Committee member and spokesman, for proposing “just an hypothesis”.

His reply? – “This is what we do!


Sarah outside the former home of Bern's most famous resident.
Sarah outside the former home of Bern’s most famous resident.
Two members of the Allen family.  Bern, Switzerland, 30th May 2016.
Two members of the Allen family. Bern, Switzerland, 30th May 2016. Photo taken by Estienne Swart.

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4 May | Instituto de Neurobiología UNAM

Energy, ageing, fidelity and sex. Oocyte mitochondrial DNA as a protected genetic template

A lively audience packed into a small lecture theatre in the beautiful UNAM Campus Juriquilla.

Good questions introduced many ideas new to me. I thank Dr Alfredo Varela, the newly-appointed director of the Institute of Neurobiology, for generous hospitality. This included an afternoon of presentations and discussion of current research in Alfredo’s laboratory.


Mexico Lectures April–May 2016

Mitochondria, ageing, separate sexes

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3 May | Departamento de Bioquímica, CINVESTAV

Regulation of photosynthesis. Control of chloroplast DNA transcription and membrane protein phosphorylation

I felt at home in the research laboratory of Dr. Carlos Gómez of the Department of Biochemistry. I saw a French Press, spectrophotometers and fluorimeters, SDS-PAGE, sucrose gradient centrifugation, and cultures of fascinating cyanobacteria. I learned that Spirulina, once a Mexican speciality and export, is now called Arthrospira. Krisha Rao in King’s College London once gave me a brick-red Spirulina ferredoxin preparation, I seem to recall at 10 mM. I now know Krishna had purified it from Sprulina obtained in Mexico when Krishna worked as a visitor in Carlos’s lab.

Unfortunately I overran again. This seminar was a daunting task, the title requiring me to reach back to a time before most of the audience had been born. It was not all history. The research included Iskander Ibrahim‘s results, published in February this year, on phosphoryl group transfer from cyanobacterial Histidine Kinase 2. So this lecture presented both older and newer work than any lecture in my Mexico tour. An attentive audience again came up with fine questions.

s- dr john f allen

Carlos Gómez and Fanis Missirlis
Carlós Gomez and Fanis Missirlis

Mexico Lectures April–May 2016

Regulation of photosynthesis

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29 April | Instituto de Fisiología Celular, Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México

A formidably well-informed audience volunteered numerous good questions during and after my presentation Energy, ageing, fidelity and sex. Oocyte mitochondrial DNA as a protected genetic template. I sensed a degree of polite scepticism. Good. There is no point in explaining things to people who already agree. Such an appreciative and critical audience is definitely good for morale. What a contrast with the department in which Fanis and I were once colleagues.

Lunch was followed by a guided walking tour of the spectacular UNAM campus. Warmly recommended. It’s not my place to comment, but the “Autonomous National University of Mexico” (which it is) should surely be better known internationally. Go there if you ever get the chance. It’s a great place. We’d seen that already on 27 April.

I am most grateful to my host in IFC-UNAM, Xochitl Pérez Martínez, pictured here with Fanis Missirlis.

UNAM lecture 29 April 2016

Mexico Lectures April–May 2016

Mitochondria, ageing, separate sexes