Author Archives: Judith Sleeman

BSCB COVID assistance fund

The BSCB is concerned about the additional pressures the current and ongoing COVID restrictions are placing on those with caring responsibilities. We are therefore pleased to announce a new initiative to provide financial support for those in this situation. We are offering two rounds of one-off grants of £200 to support the cost of extra childcare or additional carer support

We are now accepting applications to provide financial help to cover the costs of additional caring support for those affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Our intention is to use these funds to try to mitigate the additional pressures placed on individuals with caring responsibilities and can be used to cover any additional costs incurred, for example to support extra childcare or carer support.

We are offering grants of £200, from a total fund of £5,000, with application deadlines every 2 weeks. Preference will be given to students, postdocs, early career PI’s, and those with extraordinary circumstances. Thereafter funding will be distributed on a first-come-first-served basis.

The initial application deadlines will be the 15th and 30th July, after which the scheme will be reassessed, depending on the remaining funding available.

Application details and conditions:

1: Applicants must have been a BSCB member for at least 12 months

2: Only one application per person

3: Up to £200 maximum award

4: Funding will be provided only for example for extra childcare, day school care, after school clubs, home help, nursing staff not for existing arrangements

5: Childcare costs will only be considered for children aged 0-12 years.

6: Funds will be transferred after receipts have been received

7: All requests will be approved by the BSCB travel awards secretariat after consultation with the BSCB committee. This is a new scheme, and we reserve the right to adapt the rules as necessary in order to most fairly distribute the funds.

How to apply:

1) Log in to the BSCB online application portal here (registration required: you will need your BSCB membership number and registered email address).
2) Download the full application form here, complete and save as a single pdf.
3) Complete your details in the online application portal and upload the full application form.

BSCB Image Competition Winners 2020

We are delighted to announce the winners of our annual Image Competition. A little disappointed to have to do so online rather than in person at our annual meeting, but the images are just as beautiful nonetheless. Details of the winning images can be found here and of the winners themselves here. Congratulations to all of them!

BSCB Science Writing Prize 2020 Winner Announced

We are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2020 Science Writing Prize is Alexandra Bisia, a PhD student at the University of Oxford. You can read her winning entry, titled “One for all, all for one, or – what does it take to be multicellular?here. Our judge this year, scientist and author Dr Jenny Rohn (@JennyRohn) described Alex’s work as “a tour de force of writing — nuanced, humorous and highly original.” We hope you enjoy it as well.

Congratulations, Alex!

BSCB Science Writing Prize 2020

One for all, all for one, or – what does it take to be multicellular?

When people think of biology, ‘big’ often comes to mind: elephants, whales, redwoods. A closer look, though, reveals that the vast majority of organisms are in fact unicellular: think bacteria, archaea, and countless algae and fungi. But what does it take for a cell to make the leap to become part of something greater than itself, a multicellular organism? Things get interesting when we examine organisms living on the cusp between uni- and multicellularity.

Meet Dictyostelium, a genus of eukaryotes containing species that can exist as both single-celled amoebae and multicellular aggregates. The life history of D. discoideum, the best-studied species of this genus, illustrates the challenges of living in multicellular structures. ‘Dicty’ cells can live a fully unicellular life, preying on bacteria and happily multiplying. But normally solo-operating Dicties sometimes find themselves in nutrient-poor environments, at which point they let loose a call for help in the form of a small molecule, cyclic adenosine monophosphate (cAMP). Nearby Dicty cells, sensing this desperate cry – “cAMP! cAAAAAMP!” – will migrate towards the signalling epicentre and form a large multicellular aggregate, charmingly called a slug. This slug migrates to a new location, where certain lucky cells form reproductive spores inside a ‘fruiting body,’ which is supported by a sterile stalk composed of considerably unluckier cells. The spores are released into the environment with the hope of reaching a more nutrient-rich location. But how do these cells decide amongst themselves which ones will get another shot at survival and reproduction in the form of spore dissemination? Since the cells are not genetically identical, their evolutionary interests clash – and the fittest ones, containing the most advantageous genetic variants, are likelier to produce spores (1).

For some time, the cells work as a single cooperative, albeit ‘sluggish’ unit: they move with coordination and purpose, tightly adhering to each other. However, competition between these genetically distinct cells arises pretty quickly, which poses a problem to becoming a bona fide multicellular organism – we’ll come back to how such competition can be avoided. For now, we can turn to more concrete forms of multi-celled life to shed more light on what it takes to truly be multicellular…

A relevant group of organisms are the members of a lineage of green algae, the Volvocaceae. In this lineage, multicellularity is a recent development in evolutionary terms, with different species exhibiting different ‘stages’ of it. Chlamydomonas species represent the ancestral, unicellular form of the lineage, while individuals of the Pandorina species have 16 cells, and those of the genus Volvox have thousands. Therefore, the mechanisms by which multicellularity arose in this lineage can be traced by comparing its various members. Compared to their single-celled cousins, Volvox during their evolution repurposed genes to perform functions necessary to multicellular life. Additionally, they possess expanded ‘gene families’ that arose from single genes, with each ‘family member’ now carrying out a different function related to the organisation of their multicellular bodies (2). Thus single-celled organisms often already possess certain tools useful to multicellular life. With relatively minor changes to their genomes, they are able to evolve into more complex forms.

Animal genomes have been compared to those of their closest relatives that exhibit facultative (optional) multicellularity, including, but not limited to, the previously mentioned slime moulds, such as Dicty, and green algae, such as Volvocaceae. These studies suggest that key players in the early stages of acquisition of multicellularity were genes involved in cytokinesis (the physical separation of cells during cell division) and genes encoding components of the extracellular matrix (ECM – a collection of proteins found in the space between cells that provides structural and functional cohesion in multicellular organisms). Therefore, in animals and in plants, it is almost certain that clonal cells (daughter cells produced by successive cell divisions of a single, original cell) banded together through incomplete cytokinesis to form the first proto-animals and proto-plants respectively (3). This overcomes the ‘competition’ element that we observe in the case of aggregation of heterogeneous cells, such as in the case of Dicty. The single-cell ‘bottleneck’ imposed on each successive generation of animals and plants in the form of the zygote ensures streamlined genetics and evolutionary goals, reducing competition between cells of a single organism.

Acquisition of multicellularity often and rapidly leads to division of labour between different, cooperating cell types. Organisms no longer need to temporally vary their phenotype to meet the demands of a changing environment, as they allocate different functions to their different cell types. For instance, the most famous of the Volvox species, V. carteri, has two cell types: somatic and reproductive. With evolutionary time, organisms often develop greater numbers of increasingly specialised cell types, which are in turn much more dependent on each other. Division of labour therefore makes it difficult for organisms to revert to an ancestral unicellular ‘multitasker’ form, instead leading to increasingly complex multicellular lifeforms with interdependent cells (3).

It has recently been argued, though, that it isn’t only changes in cells that drive the evolution of multicellularity. It has been suggested (4) that the aforementioned ECM itself is not in fact simply a result of multicellular evolution, but that its presence actively promotes it. The ECM acts as a dynamic control structure, allowing the organisation of extracellular space and coordinating the intercellular processes of increasingly complex organisms. This challenges the cell-centric dogma of the evolution of multicellularity, as it isn’t just cells, but also their immediate surroundings, that must undergo changes to become compatible with a multicellular lifestyle. Characteristically, ECM occupies the majority of the volume of V. carteri – what would this species be without its ECM?

Genetic uniformity, adaptation of the (extra)cellular environment, cooperation and functional specialisation may begin to explain what it takes for a cell to be able to form part of an organism greater than itself. No matter how well these principles are understood though (and there is still a long way to go), the intricate structures that relatively simple single cells can build when they form part of multicellular lifeforms will never stop being magnificent.


  1. Castillo D, Queller D, Strassmann J. Cell condition, competition, and chimerism in the social amoeba Dictyostelium discoideum. Ethology Ecology & Evolution. 2011;23(3):262-273.
  2. Herron M. Origins of multicellular complexity: Volvox and the volvocine algae. Molecular Ecology. 2016;25(6):1213-1223.
  3. Brunet T, King N. The Origin of Animal Multicellularity and Cell Differentiation. Developmental Cell. 2017;43(2):124-140.
  4. Bich L, Pradeu T, Moreau J. Understanding Multicellularity: The Functional Organization of the Intercellular Space. Frontiers in Physiology. 2019;10.

About the Author: Alexandra Bisia studied Development, Regeneration and Stem Cells at the University of Edinburgh. She is currently in her second year of doctoral studies at the University of Oxford in the Chromosome and Developmental Biology Wellcome Trust programme. She is carrying out her research in Prof Liz Robertson’s lab on mouse trophoblast stem cells.
Comments from our judge, Dr Jennifer Rohn (@JennyRohn) on the winner of the 2020 competition: This year’s winning entry is a tour de force of writing — nuanced, humorous and highly original.



NEW AWARD! BSCB Postdoctoral Researcher Medal

We are delighted to launch a new BSCB award to recognise early career researchers who have made a major contribution to UK/Ireland Cell Biology during their postdoctoral training.  This award was instigated by the BSCB postdoc representative, Gautam Dey, in collaboration with the BSCB committee.

As well as scientific excellence the committee will consider the applicant’s independence, contribution to the scientific community and outreach through public engagement and other activities. In the BSCB postdoc award we are looking for the next generation of inspirational scientific leaders.

The awardee will receive free registration, accommodation and UK/Ireland travel for the upcoming BSCB annual meeting at which they will be presented with a medal and give a short talk.

You can find the details of eligibility, selection criteria and how to apply here.

BSCB COVID-19 Initiative: Funding for Virtual Conferences and Seminar Series

As a result of the current situation leading to the cancellation of many scientific meetings, we at the BSCB would like to invite our members to apply for financial support for virtual meetings or virtual seminar series. 

The virtual meetings can be either a one-off event running over one or more days or can be a regular series. Criteria for funding will be:

1. The subject area must be within the remit of the BSCB
2. Selection of speakers must be inclusive, in particular providing opportunities for early career researchers to present
3. The meeting must be open to all interested participants (UK and beyond)

We are willing to fund activities that are already in progress as well as new initiatives. If we have more applications than we are able to fund, we will look to minimise overlap and fund across the topics.

To apply for this support, please complete the form below:



BSCB Magazine 2020

If your beautiful copy of the 2020 BSCB magazine is (like mine!) trapped in a locked building, you can download a pdf replacement version.

As with many things at the moment, perhaps not quite as satisfying as the real thing, but available for you here.

NEW: BSCB PhD Award – Raff Medal

We are delighted to launch a new BSCB award, The Raff Medal. The medal was developed to recognise BSCB PhD students who have made outstanding contributions to UK/Ireland cell biology. The medal was developed by our own BSCB PhD rep Joyce Yu and was unanimously approved in our autumn 2019 committee meeting.

Martin Raff was a major driving force in the development of the LMCB four-year PhD programme. Among a number of innovations, Martin championed the introduction of rotations that facilitated the integration of students from diverse scientific backgrounds into a molecular cell biology training programme. The four-year format has now been widely adopted elsewhere and offers some of the best graduate training opportunities in the UK. Martin has continued to lobby for the implementation of new approaches and the importance of outstanding graduate training, this award is a wonderful acknowledgement of his advocacy.

More detail about the medal and how to apply can be found here.

COVID-19: important update on BSCB summer studentships

The deadline for the BSCB Summer Studentship applications for Summer 2020 has been extended until 30 April 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. All applications now need to have additional and specific information as follows:

  1. If it is not possible to carry out a wet lab project due to extended lab closures, an alternative project involving analysis of cell biological data should be included.  This needs to explain how the student would access and be able to analyse cell biological data online, and which freely available software they would use.
  2. You should also include a description of how remote supervision of a student carrying out an online data analysis project will be carried out.

BSCB Writing Prize Extended Deadline: 31st March

We have extended the entry deadline for the BSCB Science Writing Prize until 31st March 2020, so if you thought about entering and ran out of time, you have another chance at a £500 cash prize! Details below. Science Writing Prize The science writing prize is open to student and postdoctoral members only. More information can be found here. If you don’t want to enter either competition yourself, but know someone who might be in with a chance, then please spread the word! The competitions are for members only, but brand new members are welcome to enter. Find out how to join the BSCB here!