With a world-class biological research facility only a couple of hours away, it would seem silly for us not to pay them a visit each year, and once again we were generously hosted by Professor Alan McCarthy - Head of Undergraduate Admissions for Liverpool’s School of Life Sciences (and Shrewsbury School Governor). In the morning we heard talks giving overviews of the key technologies we would later be seeing.
Liverpool’s Centre for Cell Imaging is at the cutting edge, and the talk on “5-Dimensional” Cell Imaging ended with a sensational video of live cells, labelled with different colours, multiplying in three dimensions. In the words of Jetty Russell: “The fact that the spread of cancer cells through the brain can now be mapped in both 3D colour and in actual time is incredible and hopefully this can be used to find an effective and long-lasting cure for multiple diseases and to work out how they spread and develop.”
The talk on Next-Generation DNA Sequencing was eye-opening even for the teachers who accompanied the trip, such is the astonishing rate of progress in this technology. A whole genome (the complete genetic instruction set of an organism) can now be read in a few hours, having taken many years only two decades ago. A pocket-sized sequencer was passed round – the sort of thing that soon could be plugged into a smartphone for use in forensics labs or GPs’ surgeries.
In the afternoon we were shown round the Centre for Genomic Research – the second largest such facility in the UK after the Sanger Centre in Cambridge. The implications for society are huge, as Jack Lockett writes: “I found the talk and tour of the process of sequencing a genome very interesting as it has so many positive implications for medicine in the future. It was amazing to see how much the cost has fallen and is still, as well as the time to sequence the genome. The possibilities this can create in the future will make such an impact on people if the cost falls below $1000, which it will soon after costing millions of dollars only ten years ago.”
On the tours, the ability to capture individual cells for genetic analysis was demonstrated live and we saw the GeneMill, where novel sequences can be turned into real DNA for incorporation into living cells: it’s a new era of “synthetic biology”.
Proteomics only appeared in Sixth Form Biology very recently, and Pre-U requires a good understanding of it. The talk by Professor Beynon on protein structures set us up with the idea that there are more possible protein structures than atoms in the known universe…
We then saw the x-ray crystallography suite and nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers and met the staff and students who use them to elucidate new structures – perhaps in the hunt for future medicines. Maddy Baly writes: “We helped demonstrate the spectrometer’s power by dissolving some sugar in a test tube and suspending it in the machine that contained a superconductor coil which produced a magnetic field. We then read the results, which showed the sugar’s structure. I found this particularly fascinating as we got to take part in the experiment.”
And as a neat counterpoint we heard a talk on the nature of evidence itself in science, and how scientists can bias or misinterpret the data that all this technology produces. For many this was a revelation: as Daisy McMullen said: “I found this very interesting as I had no idea that this sort of thing could happen.”
We can’t wait to return in 2019: there are new wonders to see every year.
Dr Morgan, Head of Biology