Author Archives: Judith Sleeman

BSCB Writing Prize 2017

Breaking the unbreakable: Solving the problems of plastics and plants

We are addicted to plastics. They are used for everything, from food packaging to smart phones. But when we are done with them, they hang around for a long time, taking decades to decompose.

These hardy plastics aren’t just creating litter in cities and filling up landfills. They are harmful to wildlife, especially in the sea where animals can become entangled in the plastic or mistake it for food. The harm of a single piece of plastic can be long lasting since it takes so long to degrade. A striking example of this is the Great Pacific garbage patch which has formed from small bits of floating plastic that break into smaller and smaller pieces but haven’t fully degraded. Researchers have described ocean water taken from there as looking like a “snow globe” of plastic chips (1). Though we are developing biodegradable plastics and recycling is on the rise, there is still the question of what to do with the built up waste.

One way to solve this problem is by taking a cue from nature. Plants also developed an incredibly sturdy material many hundreds of millions of years ago. When plants evolved from water-based organisms to living on land, they had many new problems to adapt to: drying out in the air, withstanding UV from sunlight, and counteracting gravity. To be able to grow upwards, they evolved a new material – lignin. Lignin becomes embedded in the wall that surrounds plant cells and gives it rigidity, and is held together by strong bonds so it resists degradation. At the time lignin evolved, no living thing could break it apart. So why aren’t we surrounded by piles of un-decomposed trees? 

We have bacteria and fungi to thank for that. Specifically, the kinds that have counter-evolved to break lignin apart. Mostly this job is done by the fungus, white rot. Cells make proteins called enzymes that can help bring molecules together or break them apart. For example, it is the enzyme lactase that breaks down the lactose in milk we drink into parts we can absorb for energy. Similarly, it was useful for fungi to be able to break lignin apart to get at the food stored in plants. Under this strong selection pressure, a fungus with an enzyme that could even partially break lignin apart would get more food and thrive. Every change that appeared that was a small step towards improving this enzyme would be an advantage for the fungus. Eventually, they evolved a special type of peroxidase enzymes that are particularly good at using reactive chemicals to attack the lignin structure.

So, plants invented an indestructible material and then fungi figured out how to digest it – can we do the same with plastics? Even though there is currently no known organism that can efficiently break down plastic, there are ways to search for ones that do. Scientists test already known bacteria and fungi for their ability to degrade plastic. They also try to find new candidates by sifting through organisms found around slowly degrading plastic to pinpoint which one is actually responsible for breaking the plastic apart.

There have been plastic-degrading bacteria and fungi found in this way, but they are nowhere near as efficient as the white-rot fungus is at breaking down lignin. This is probably because of the short amount of time organisms have had adapt to this new material, similar to how fungal enzymes had to evolve from less efficient enzymes. There was a lag of many millions of years between the evolution of lignin and the evolution of organisms able to degrade it thoroughly and quickly.

We do not have this kind of time. So, scientists can speed up the process by directed evolution. While natural evolution depends on random mutations popping up, in directed evolution we can actively create small differences in enzymes that could make them better, and then directly test these slightly different enzymes for their ability to degrade plastic.

With this type of biotechnology, we can use the cells of organisms around us as a resource and learn lessons from their evolutionary history. By harnessing the ingenuity of natural systems we can solve our plastic problem.


1. Kaiser, J. “The Dirt on Ocean Garbage Patches.” Science 328.5985 (2010): 1506. Web.

About The Author: Marcia is a final year PhD student at the University of Cambridge with Angeleen Fleming and Roger Keynes in the Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience. She is studying how the vertebral column develops using zebrafish as a model system and is broadly interested in evolution and development.

BSCB Involvement in Science Policy

The BSCB has recently made a strategic decision to become more involved in science policy issues that affect our members. We will need your help to ensure that we have a say in the challenges to UK science that loom on the horizon due to Brexit, potential budget cuts and other pressure points.

Periodically, we will be asking for your input and feedback about ongoing policy initiatives – for example, calls for consultation from the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee.

Your valuable feedback will be collated by our Science Advocacy Officer,  Jenny Rohn, and sent off to our parent organization, the Royal Society of Biology, to feed into their formal response. Naturally, you would also be free to send in your own individual submissions.

As part of our commitment to being more involved in science policy, we will also post occasional updates about issues that affect our membership as news items here. Equally, if there is any issue you feel that we should be engaging with, please do get in touch with Jenny for a chat.

Nominations Invited for the BSCB Hooke and Women in Cell Biology Medals

Each year the British Society for Cell Biology presents two prestigious medals:

1) The Hooke Medal to an outstanding UK cell biologist who has been working as an independent PI for 14 years or less.

2) The BSCB Women in Cell Biology Early Career Award Medal which is an honour awarded to an outstanding female cell biologist who has started her own research group in the UK within the last 6 years.

The 2018 awardees for the Hooke Medal (Andrew McAinsh, University of Warwick) and Women in Cell Biology Early Career Award (Meritxell Huch, University of Cambridge) gave presentations on their work at the 2018 BSCB annual spring meeting at ‘Dynamic Cell III’. You can see watch their medal lectures on our YouTube channel.

The BSCB committee is currently inviting nominations for both of these awards.

Nominations of cell biologists (both BSCB and non-BSCB members) must be supported by two scientists who act as Proposer and Seconder (at least one of whom should be a BSCB member).

BSCB members can also self-nominate for either category but this again needs to be accompanied by supporting statements from two scientists who act as Proposer and Seconder (at least one of whom should be a BSCB member).

The nomination for each category should provide a full CV including a list of relevant publications and a short (no longer than 1 page) summary of the candidate’s major contributions to cell biology.  It should also include a statement of eligibility: for the Hooke medal – that the candidate has been independent for less than 14 years; for the WICB medal – that the candidate has been independent for less than 6 years and has at least one senior author paper. Note that we can be flexible in considering nominations for scientists who have been independent for longer than the 14 or 6 years but whose careers may have been interrupted for any reason e.g. maternity leave.  Please include this in the statement of eligibility.

Winners will be selected by the BSCB Committee and will be presented with their medal at the BSCB Society Annual Spring Meeting after which they will give their Medal Lecture. The 2019 BSCB Spring Meeting will be jointly held with the British Society for Developmental Biology to be held at the University of Warwick (UK).

The deadline for nominations will be 1st October 2018.
Nominations should be sent to the BSCB Secretary Vas Ponnambalam.

BCSB Science Writing Prize Winner 2018: Alex Binks

We are delighted to announce that the winner of the 2018 BSCB Science Writing Prize is Alex Binks, a PhD student at the University of Glasgow.

You can Alex’s winning essay about the use of AAV in the fight against childhood blindness, and a little more about him here.

The Science Writing Prize is open to all PhD student and Postdoc members of the BSCB and aims to encourage budding science communicators. If you would like to enter next year, details of the competition are here. The deadline is usually in February and will be announced towards the end of this year.

BSCB Image Competition Winners 2018 Announced

The results of the 2018 image competition were announced at our fantastic “Dynamic Cell III” meeting, held last week in Manchester in partnership with the Biochemical Society.

You can see the winning images and read about the winners here.

Many thanks to everyone who entered and please consider sending in your best images for next year’s competition.

BSCB Image Competition and Writing Prize: Deadline 14th February.

The deadline for our two annual competitions will be 14th February 2018. We have an image competition, open to all members, and a Science Writing Prize open to PhD student and post-doc members only. Both have cash prizes, together with the opportunity to have your images or writing feature here on the BSCB website and in our glossy Newsletter. On the subject of which, the brand new Newsletters will be on their way to members very soon, filled with articles, interviews and book and meeting reviews. Keep an eye out for them!

All the rules and how to enter can be found here for the Image Competition and here for the Writing Prize.

Please send us your entries!