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York Biology Open Lecture Series
Past Lectures

Grasses bite back: silica as an anti-herbivore defence

Wednesday 23 February 2011, 7.00PM

Speaker: Professor Sue Hartley, York Environmental Sustainability Institute, University of York, York


Grasses are a very important and successful plant family. Grasslands cover almost a quarter of the earth's surface and provide food for us, our livestock and natural populations of grazing animals. Many of our main food crops, e.g. wheat and maize, are grasses and half  the world's population is dependent on just one grass species - rice.  So understanding the interactions between grasses and the animals that eat them is central to the conservation and management of grasslands rich in biodiversity, such as the Serengeti in Africa, as well as the protection of our most important crops against insect pests and hence our future food security. In this talk I will explore how grasses, traditionally thought to be relatively defenceless against attack by herbivores, actually have a secret weapon - they can bite back! Grasses accumulate silica, a sharp abrasive substance, in their leaves. This makes them more unpalatable and reduces the ability of herbivores to digest the grass and extract essential nutrients from it. This decreases the growth rate of herbivores and can even reduce their abundance. The talk will show how and why silica is an effective plant defence and how it could be useful in new environmentally sustainable methods of crop protection in the future.   


Location: Physics, P/X001

Evolution MegaLab and Citizen Science - a new frontier for public involvement in science

Wednesday 2 March 2011, 1.15PM

Speaker: Professor Jonathan Silvertown, Open University,

Arguably, the best way for the general public to understand the scientific enterprise is for people to be offered the opportunity to become directly involved in it as 'citizen scientists'. A good citizen science project is one that makes the most of the mass participation and geographic scope that are uniquely available through public involvement to address genuine scientific questions. The Evolution MegaLab ( ) involved thousands of people in 14 countries throughout Europe in testing for evolutionary change in the banded snail, a model organism used in ecological genetics. I will describe the results of the project, what made it a success and discuss some recent developments in the tools available for new citizen science projects.

Location: Langwith, LN028

The Spark of Life

Wednesday 9 March 2011, 1.15PM

Speaker: Professor Frances Ashcroft, FRS, University of Oxford


What do a thoroughbred American quarter horse known as Impressive, a child born with diabetes, a herd of Texan goats, and a deaf person have in common? The answer is that all of them have errors in a particular type of protein, known as an ion channel, that regulates the electrical activity of the body. Each of us is a collection of many millions of individual cells. Ion channels are the guardians of these cells – they serve as gateways for the movement of substances into and out of the cell, and act as receptors for chemical messengers that enable cells to communicate with one another.. It is therefore not surprising that a multitude of medicinal drugs work by regulating the activity of ion channels, and that impaired ion channel function is responsible for many human and animal diseases. Your ability to read this page and to understand its message, to laugh and cry, to think and feel, to see and hear, and to move your muscles, depends on ion channels. This lecture explains how animal electricity is generated by ion channels, the ways it regulates our lives and the dramatic consequences when things go wrong. In particular, it will show how understanding the function of a specific type of ion channel has enabled children with diabetes to throw away their insulin syringes. Mary Shelley once famously animated Frankenstein's creation with a bolt of lightening - this lecture considers the extent to which electricity is indeed the Spark of Life.


Location: Alcuin College, Room ATB56/57

Rare Diseases, Rare Discoveries and The Common Good

Wednesday 27 April 2011, 1.15PM

Speaker: Professor Hudson Freeze, Sanford Children’s Health Research Center, Burnham Institute for Medical Research, La Jolla, CA, USA


Thousands of rare genetic disorders occur in humans. Perhaps that is not surprising, but it chills the bones when parents hear that about their own child. Their first question: Is there a treatment? Sadly, the answer is far too often negative. The genetic diagnosis may inform devastated families, but often it offers them little comfort or hope. Technical breakthroughs in DNA technology promise to unveil scores new genetic disorders: a bonanza is at hand. However, mining that treasure, transforming it into a useful therapeutic currency requires basic research to improve our understanding of  fundamental processes. Basic research underlies medical discoveries. Stories from our laboratory will show how we identified, treated and reversed symptoms in some rare inherited disorders in glycosylation, encountered their dark side and continue to  search for new treatments.


Location: Physics, P/X001