Impact of our research on global challenges

An understanding of biology underpins our ability to address three major global challenges of the 21st century: impacting on health and disease; sustainably providing food and fuel for a population that will increase by 50% in the next 50 years; ameliorating the changes to the environment brought about by climate change. The research undertaken within the department contributes to solutions for these three challenges.


3D stromal cell culture

‌Health and disease

Our research aims to develop new tools for diagnosis, vaccination and therapies for important diseases.  In areas such as embryo health, tissue engineering and vaccine development, we are exploiting advanced imaging and post-genomic technologies through collaborations with the NHS and industry as well as spin out companies.  We also work closely with local and national charities to convert our fundamental research into therapies for a range of cancers.

Student holding a plant specimen

Sustainable production of foods and fuels

Biology researchers apply fundamental bioscience to convert the constituents of agricultural crops and forestry into useful products whilst maintaining ecosystem services from these landscapes. This includes use of modern genomic technologies for fast track breeding of novel and traditional crops for production of food, materials, chemicals and fuel; analysis of impacts of bio-derived products including ecological impacts of biofuels and oil palm plantations; conservation of ecosystem services and understanding their contribution to human wellbeing.


Ameliorating the effects on environmental change

York research on how species respond to habitat fragmentation and climate change has influenced policy and conservation decision-making. For example, the concept of protecting and managing populations of species in “isolated reserves” has largely been replaced by landscape-scale conservation strategies, now known to increase the long-term survival of species. This has altered practical land designation and management for conservation over millions of hectares in the UK, as well as affecting the strategies adopted by most global conservation organisations and countries in the world.



Health and Disease

Research impact: Health and Disease

By revealing underpinning molecular mechanisms, research at York enables the prevention, diagnosis, intervention and treatment of disease including cancer, infectious and auto-immune disease. We combine target identification through fundamental research with pre-clinical studies that seek to evaluate proof of concept and clinical (phase I) trials that address safety and in the case of vaccines, immunogenicity in man.  We work in close collaboration with colleagues in other Departments and in Pharma to develop computational models that can help bridge the valley of death in drug discovery, and with York CRF at York Hospital.

Reducing and replacing animal tests

replacing lab testing New mathematics and computational methods
Can we exploit existing data to arrive at more ethical and cost effective solutions than animal testing to evaluate the safety of new chemicals? A toxicology project funded by NC3Rs is asking just that question through applying methods previously developed for optimal foraging, evolution under uncertainty, and phylogenetic reconstruction. 
cell culture Novel approaches to pre-clinical testing of new immunomodulators
A CII researcher was part of the team that won the NC3Rs CRACK IT challenge in 2011 and has also won a NC3Rs project grant to help develop novel in vitro testing systems that will reduce and replace the use of animal models in clinical and developmental immunology.

3D gene knockout tissue models using adult human stem cells
This study will use new gene knockout technology in adult stem cells from human bone marrow, to find out how this affects their ability to form 3D micro-skeletons in the laboratory. The work will add to our understanding of gene function in stem cells and contribute to the replacement of mouse knockout experiments.

Developing and testing vaccines


MUCOVAC and MABGEL: phase I trials of new approaches to control HIV
MABGEL was a first-in-man study of a combination of anti-HIV-1 monoclonal antibodies as a vaginal microbicide, and analysed safety and genital tract pharmacokinetics. MUCOVAC2 was part of a BMGF funded Grand Challenges Award, and was an HIV vaccine study in collaboration with Imperial College London that studied a new HIV gp140 antigen, a new TLR4 agonist adjuvant, and compared various routes and combinations of mucosal and systemic vaccination. 
leishmaniasis-100sq New treatments for neglected tropical diseases
CII researchers, with support from a Wellcome Trust Translation Award, have developed a new therapeutic vaccine for the treatment of the parasitic disease, leishmaniaisis.  This vaccine will begin clinical safety trials in UK volunteers in mid 2013, with subsequent studies planned in India and the Sudan. In parallel, new lead compounds for chemotherapy against leishmaniasis and related diseases have also been identified.

Tackling immunological disorders

stroma-100sq STROMA – new insights into immune regulation
York researchers along with partners across Europe have developed a comprehensive training and research network that will uncover the part played by stromal cells in organising and regulating immunity to infection, cancer and during autoimmune disease.  With industrial partners , STROMA is developing new tools for the research community to study these diverse cells.
Tissue engineering bone: High magnification image of stem cells growing on a support scaffold Arthritis Research UK Tissue Engineering Centre
brings together leading academic clinicians, with leading scientists in engineering, biology and material science with the aim of regenerating bone and cartilage by using the patients’ own stem cells to repair joint damage caused by osteoarthritis.
the chemokine receptor CCR5 (red) is expressed at the surface of human blood monocytes (panel medium) and rapidly internalised in a perinuclear compartment following treatment with lipoteichoic acid from the bacteria Staphyloccocus Aureus (panel TLR-2 ligand).

Retaining phagocytes at the site of infection
Monocytes and macrophages are phagocytic white blood cells that play a key role in host defence.  York researchers have discovered that the Toll-like receptor 2 that allows monocytes to 'recognise' bacteria also stops these cells responding to stimuli that would normally make them leave tissues. This new molecular mechanism explains why phagocytes stay at the site of infection and could be used for new therapeutics.

Diagnosing & treating cancer

Nucleotide incorporation into sites of DNA replication in S phase. Cizzle Biotech Limited
The Ciz1 protein plays a role in regulating DNA replication and is linked with adult and pediatric cancers. Work in the department of Biology has shown that a Ciz1 variant can be used as a biomarker for detection of early stage lung cancer, leading to its commercial development as the basis of a blood test by Cizzle Biotech.
Image shows a series of single nuclei (blue) taken from individual colonies initiated from a single stem cell. The presence of a tumour-inducing gene fusion is detected by a break-apart FISH assay (red arrows Tackling Human Prostate Cancer
In human prostate cancer, the tumour inducing fraction comprises less that 0.1% of the tumour mass and has a unique phenotype compared to all other cells in the cancer.  Researchers in the Cancer Research Unit in Biology have shown that novel treatments, based on signalling pathway analysis in the tumour initiating cells, can completely abrogate tumour induction.
Prostate Cancer Stem Cell Targeting prostate cancer with viruses
A major challenge in the treatment of prostate cancer is the specific targeting of therapeutic agents only to prostate cells.  The Maitland lab is engineering viruses that target human prostate tumours by recognising cancer-specific epitopes on the surface of these cells.  This approach allows delivery of agents that can kill cancer cells without affecting those around them.

Developing drugs

kystis-Uroplakin 3 labelling of human ureter Kystis ex vivo human bladder research
Researchers have developed a method to propagate human urinary tract epithelial tissues in the laboratory. This discovery has been patented and is being exploited as an ex vivo model for understanding urothelial tissue physiology for drug development/testing and for developing new strategies for bladder reconstruction and replacement.
Leishmaniasis hospital Therapeutics for treating sleeping sickness
Collaborating with scientists from Dundee and Toronto, scientists in York, led by our current head of department, Prof. Deborah Smith, have identified novel N-myristoyltransferase inhibitors that have potential to cure African sleeping sickness.
P.aeruginosa colony Rapid-bacterial-evolution (PDF , 265kb)
Scientists at York have demonstrated that populations of the bacterial pathogen Pseudomonas aeruginosa infecting Cystic Fibrosis lungs harbour huge amounts of diversity, including variation in antibiotic resistance and secretion of toxins. The Wellcome Trust is funding research to exploit these discoveries to discover new targets for interventions or drugs.
HTLV-1 virus New treatments for neglected viral diseases
York clinicians in the CII are coordinating a research programme into the chronic debilitating disease HTLV-1 associated myelopathy.  This multi-centre international collaboration, has already received $2.2M in funding from the Brazilian and Japanese Governments and the US NIH to initiate a series of clinical trials aimed at identifying effective treatment regimens.
artemisia and hand CNAP Artemisia Research Project
Over the past six years, the CNAP Artemisia Research Project has successfully developed new varieties of the medicinal plant Artemisia annua, the primary source of the leading anti-malarial drug artemisinin.
poppy-100sq Novel opium poppy varieties for the pharmaceutical industry
Noscapine is a compound that is currently used as a cough suppressant and is in clinical trials as an anti-cancer compound; however, it is in short supply. Researchers at York have collaborated with GlaxoSmithKline to develop a high yielding noscapine–morphine poppy variety which will provide 25% of GlaxoSmithKline’s noscapine during 2013.
Biofilms are communities of cells attached to a surface

Staphylococcal biofilm formation
Bacterial biofilms on prosthetic devices are an expensive problem for health services and debilitating and potentially life-threatening for patients.  Structural biologists and microbiologists are working to understand how these bacterial communities form and are stabilised.

Health and Disease

Targeting bacterial multidrug resistance
Multidrug resistance is a global burden on human health worldwide. It is often due to low copy number plasmids that harbour genes encoding resistance to multiple antibiotics. Investigating the biochemical mechanisms responsible for the stability and segregation of these insidious genetic elements will reveal novel targets that may be used to devise new therapeutic options.

Tackling degenerative disease

Single Molecule Biophysics

DNA replication and genome stability
Each time a cell divides its genetic material must be copied accurately since mistakes can cause potentially life-threatening mutations. Using a combination of cutting-edge single-molecule biophysics, the Leake group is beginning to unravel the intricate mechanisms involved in genome stability. The McGlynn group exploits biochemistry, genetics and structural biology to understand how mistakes can arise during the DNA copying process.

The transcription factor Fos is expressed in motorneuron cell bodies in the Drosophila larval ventral nerve cord. Nuclei (blue);  Fos-GAL4 enhancer trap expressing UAS-nuclear-GFP (green);  subset of motorneuron nuclei defined by expression of the even-skipped transcription factor (magenta). Image by Radhika Sreedhar (Sweeney lab). Neurodegenerative conditions
Neurodegenerative conditions often exhibit levels of reactive oxygen species (ROS) that exceed the antioxidant capacity of the neuron. Researchers in Biology have shown that by reducing the oxidative stress burden, synaptic overgrowth may be reduced. These findings have important implications for ageing neurons, neurodegenerative conditions and the interpretation of metabolic demand during learning and memory.
neuron Genetic link between Parkinson’s disease and problems with vision
Parkinson’s is the second most common form of neurodegenerative disease. Some people with Parkinson’s experience changes in vision as well as tremor and slowness of movement. Researchers at York have established a link between a mutation that triggers Parkinson’s and problems with vision. This may lead to new treatments.
In vivo electroporated muscle fibre with recombinant KY_tdTomato (red) showing the effect of KY protein on muscle hypertrophy. Overexpression of KY leads to increased muscle fibre size. Tackling muscle loss
Elucidating the mechanisms of muscle hypertrophy and atrophy is critical to tackling muscle loss and minimising its impact as a morbidity factor in rare inherited muscle and neurogenic diseases, cancer, AIDS or renal failure. Research in Biology has revealed novel causes of atrophy and novel players in the muscle hypertrophy pathway which can lead to new treatments.
Model for the tethering of vesicles that sort glycosylation enzymes. The COG tethering complex helps to reel in the vesicle along the golgin TMF, and is assisted by the Rab proteins Rab1 and Rab6 in this process. Congenital glycosylation disorders in disease
Alterations in protein- and lipid-linked glycans are associated with many disease states. York researchers studying rare congenital glycosylation disorders have uncovered the importance and molecular details of intra-Golgi protein sorting in these disorders. The discoveries should help to understand the roles of glycan aberrations in cancer metastasis or inflammation.


Sustainable food and fuel

Research impact: Sustainable food and fuel

Agricultural crops will need to supply sufficient food to nourish around 9 billion people by 2050. Further, growth of the “bioeconomy” requires new technology to convert the constituents of agricultural crops and forestry products into useful products whilst maintaining ecosystem services from these landscapes. Researchers at York are working on the scientific breakthroughs needed to create crops that are resistant to environmental stress and require less water and fertiliser as well as developing new varieties of plants and microbes for manufacture of pharmaceuticals, chemicals and fuels.

Crops resistant to abiotic stress

rice on plant

Unlocking ancient rice secrets to overcome rainfall extremes
Researchers from the UK, USA and India are developing new strains of rice which are more resilient to drought, through introgressing beneficial genome segments from wild ancestors into modern high yield varieties.

resilient rice

Improving Arsenic tolerance in rice
Rice is the staple crop for many south east Asian countries that have high levels of Arsenic in their aquifers. Rice translocates a relatively high proportion of As to its edible part, the grain. In collaboration with Rothamsted Research, York researchers are manipulating membrane transporters in rice to increase Arsenic tolerance.

leaf shape 100sq

How plants shape their leaves
Leaf architecture is a key determinant of yield and stress resistance. New, high throughput methodologies and software to analyse formation of leaf morphology were developed in York and some of the key players in this process, such as TCP transcription factors, were identified.

plant stress 100sq Antioxidants for dealing with stress
Studies in York demonstrated the potential role of glutathione transferases in fatty acid metabolism and transport and in maintaining a pool of powerful antioxidants important in plant stress tolerance.

Crops resistant to biotic stress

Nitrogen Acquisition Improving plant nitrogen nutrition
Research in York has shown that mycorrhizal fungi can break down and utilise large amounts of organic nitrogen which represents a substantial, and previously unappreciated, N pool contributing to the global N cycle.
hyphal proliferation 100sq How plants meet friendly fungi
Mycorrhiza are plant-fungal symbioses that help plants grow in nutrient poor conditions. Studies in York led to the identification of novel signaling components and pathways during the establishment of mycorrhizal symbioses that help us understand how plants distinguish between beneficial and parasitic symbionts.
Grass Bites Back

Grass Bites Back (PDF , 446kb)
Silicon-based defences in crops and other grasses deter feeding by herbivores and reduce their growth. Our research identified the mechanisms underpinning these effects: silicon wears down herbivore mouthparts, reducing their ability to absorb nutrients from their food. These findings could help us develop new sustainable methods of crop protection.

aphid Novel targets for aphid insecticides
Aphids are pests that cause millions of pounds of damage to crops in the UK, but new research led by biologists in York has revealed potential new targets for aphid-specific insecticides.

Sustainable biofuels and chemicals

Biorenewables Development Centre BDC

Biorenewables Development Centre
The BDC is a not-for-profit company which provides industry with new processes to convert plants and biowastes into high value products. Focused on business needs, it bridges the gap between laboratory development and commercial manufacture.

Biofuels from marine bugs

Marine wood borer enzyme discovery
The gut of the marine wood borer has all the enzymes needed to digest lignocellulose. Researchers at York have sequenced the genes that are expressed in the marine wood borer gut and are studying the digestive process to allow industrial applications for their enzymes in biofuel production.

SUNLIBB biomass Sustainable Liquid Biofuels from Biorefining (SUNLIBB)
Brazilian and European researchers are developing lines of maize, miscanthus and sugarcane that have cell walls which are more digestible. This will enable sustainable production of bioethanol from agricultural wastes, reducing conflicts between the use of land for food or fuel.
Phytocat PHYTOCAT Catalysing the recovery of metals
Researchers from the Departments of Biology and Chemistry are investigating how plants extract platinum group metals from soil and redeposit the metal as nanoparticles. They aim to develop a green method for extracting metals from mine tailings that are currently uneconomical to recover.

Bioremediation of explosives using microbes and plants
Significant areas of land are polluted with explosives such as RDX.  Work in the Bruce group has led to the identification and characterisation of genes that can be used to degrade these explosives, decontaminating land and making it fit for use again.


Environmental change

Research Impact: Environmental change

York successfully combines mathematical modelling, modern genomic technologies, ecology and population biology to understand the effects of human activity and environmental change on biodiversity and the services it provides.  York research underpins modern policies of landscape scale conservation strategies and balanced harvesting approaches to sustainable fisheries management and is developing second generation biofuels that will contribute to a sustainable bio-based economy.

Conservation in agriculture and aquaculture

conserving sheep breeds

Native sheep saved from extinction
Diseases such as Foot and Mouth have the potential to wipe out breeds of farm animals. Professor Dianna Bowles, set up the Heritage Gene Bank, the UK’s first sheep gene bank, to preserve the genetic material of native sheep breeds threatened by the disease. The first Herdwick lambs were born in 2011 from genetic material collected a decade ago.

butterfly Flower Is organic farming good for wildlife?
York researchers showed that even though organic methods may increase farm biodiversity, a combination of conventional farming and protected areas could sometimes be a better way to maintain food production and protect wildlife.
Palm oil Balancing the effects of palm oil production
Palm oil is a versatile, relatively cheap product used across the world in processed foods, soaps and cosmetics, and as a fuel in biodiesel. A project led by the University of York aims to reduce biodiversity losses linked to palm oil production in tropical agricultural landscapes.
marine  ecosystems Reconsidering the consequences of selective fisheries
Policymakers are increasingly aware of the need for an “ecosystem approach” to management, with “end-to-end” models capturing dynamics from primary production to size- and species-based fisheries. Our mathematical models have been used to advocate “balanced harvesting” by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and the European Bureau for Conservation and Development.
migrating insects

Migrating insects fly in the fast lane
York researchers showed how insects successfully undertake long-distance migrations in favourable directions. Climate change is likely to alter insect migrants and introduce new pests to the UK so understanding their migration strategies is crucial to securing agriculture.

rice on plant

Unlocking ancient rice secrets to overcome rainfall extremes
Led by the University of York, researchers from the UK, USA and India are developing new strains of rice to help to feed millions of people. Through introgressing beneficial genome segments from wild ancestors into modern high yield varieties, they aim to develop varieties more resistant to extremes of climate and provide subsistence communities with more stable grain yields.

Conservation and climate change

comma butterfly feat Further, faster, higher: wildlife responds increasingly rapidly to climate change
New research by scientists in York shows that species have responded to climate change up to three times faster than previously appreciated. These results are published in the latest issue of the leading scientific journal Science.
Protected wildlife areas are 'welcome mats' for UK's bird newcomers
A study by scientists at York and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) shows that bird species which have colonised the UK in recent decades breed initially almost exclusively in nature reserves and other areas specially protected for wildlife.
steps on river Steps in the right direction for conservation
A study led by scientists in York says that well placed habitat “stepping stones” would lead to faster range expansion than the equivalent amount and quality of habitat tacked onto existing sites. This landscape scale approach to biodiversity conservation has important policy impacts.
unspoilt landscape Intervention offers 'best chance' to save species endangered by climate change
Translocation represents one of the principal means of saving species from extinction from climate change in conjunction with maintaining large areas of high quality (low human impact) habitats.
butterfly Stepping stones to the north
Led from the University of York, 'citizen science' revealed that birds, butterflies, other insects and spiders have colonised nature reserves and areas protected for wildlife, as they move north in response to climate change and other environmental changes.
moorland Habitat restoration could help species to cope with climate change
Researchers at York used population models to show that many species could not successfully colonise the fragmented habitats of Yorkshire and Humberside. But current plans for habitat re-creation across the region could help some species colonise new habitats rather than being marooned.
Species distribution models Conservation policies 'impaired by over-confident predictions'
Dr Colin Beale warned that inappropriate conservation policies may be implemented as a result of scientists failing to sufficiently acknowledge the uncertainty of their species distribution models.
daddy long legs The wetter the better for daddy longlegs – and birds!
York research suggests that keeping moorland soils wet could prove vital in conserving some of Britain's important upland breeding bird species such as golden plover by protecting the humble daddy longlegs.

Social networks

Ant with microchip Ant behaviour tracked by tiny radio receivers in pioneering scientific study
York researchers are tracking ant behaviour to help the National Trust manage the ancient woodland on their Longshaw estate. How ants pass on information may also have implications for information and telecommunications networks.
social networks - Dan Franks The importance of social networks
Social structure has been shown to play a key role in life history, group movement, and reaction to perceived threat. This fundamental research has practical consequences, for example using social models for birds to assess the flock collision hazards caused by wind farm developments.

Measuring sources and sinks of greenhouse gasses

breathing Forest The breathing forest
York researchers developed technology to gather important evidence on the role of forests in capturing and releasing CO2 as well as other more powerful greenhouse gases.  They showed that the “breathing” pattern balance of forests seems to be controlled by climate.
SkyGass The Skygas project
Aims to fill a critical gap in our knowledge of sources and sinks of greenhouse gases to support development of national and international strategies for managing energy production and land use.
ecotron Closed ecological systems for carbon cycle modelling 
This project uses materially closed, energetically open analogue/physical models of the carbon cycle to complement computer-based simulations for estimating biotic feedbacks and predicting future atmospheric CO2 levels and temperatures.