Research in our faculties, schools and institutes is increasing
our understanding of the world. Here’s some of the most
recent activity going on at Leeds.
Melting ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica have raised the global sea level by 1.8cm since the 1990s – and are matching worst-case climate-warming scenarios predicted by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
According to a study led by research fellow Dr Tom Slater in collaboration with colleagues in Denmark, if these rates continue, the melting ice sheets are expected to raise sea levels by a further 17cm by the end of the century, exposing millions more people to annual coastal flooding.
“Although we anticipated the ice sheets would lose increasing amounts of ice in response to the warming of the oceans and atmosphere, the rate at which they are melting has accelerated faster than we could have imagined,” said Tom.
“The melting is overtaking the climate models we use to guide us, and we are in danger of being unprepared for the risks posed by sea level rise.”
A new study, widely reported in the press, shows how spreading volcanic rock dust boosts a soil’s ability to draw carbon from the air. Adding crushed basalt to farmland could remove more CO2 than the total global emissions from aviation and shipping.
“In many agricultural regions, crushed rock is routinely used to improve soil pH,” said Steve Banwart, Professor of Integrated Soil, Agriculture and Water Research. “Adapting this to use basalt dust could capture vast amounts of CO2.”
Research to better understand when and why plants stop flowering could have major implications for crop yields and food production.
Led by Leeds academic fellow Dr Tom Bennett, collaborative research with the University of Nottingham examined auxin production in fertilised fruits to identify the role it plays in blocking the growth of new flowers. This understanding could provide insight into better commercial management of plant flowering, which will help to improve crop yields.
More than 2,000 new protostars have been identified in our galaxy thanks to PhD researcher Miguel Vioque and his team. They used artificial intelligence to sift through vast quantities of data collected by the Gaia space telescope on its mission to map the Milky Way, identifying 2,226 new, large, forming stars. Previously, only 100 examples of this type of star had been catalogued. Analysis of the new stars revealed in Miguel’s research will help inform understanding of massive star formation and the galaxy’s origins.
Susan Bernal Lopez, Professor in Structural Materials, received the Rosenhain Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals and Mining for her research into new cements and concretes. Concrete is one of the world’s most widely used materials and contributes to around 8 per cent of global CO2 emissions. Susan and her team aim to develop sustainable alternatives produced from wastes or by-products from industrial, mining and agricultural processes.
Boris Johnson’s positive Covid-19 test turned thoughts to times when previous British prime ministers fell ill. Kevin Theakston, Professor of British Government, explored how leaders such as Anthony Eden and Margaret Thatcher led the nation while unwell.
Kevin explained in Time magazine that Winston Churchill suffered a stroke in 1953, a fact kept secret from the nation: “His aides sent out memos in the name of the Prime Minister, when perhaps Churchill hadn’t even seen the text. They knew his thinking pretty well.”
An international research team has discovered a new pygmy seahorse species in Sodwana Bay in South Africa, the first of its kind found in African waters. At around 2.7cm, the seahorse is not much bigger than a thumbnail and its closest known relatives live over 8,000km away in Southeast Asia. Research fellow Dr Maarten De Brauwer said: “Being a part of the team that discovered this amazing creature
is definitely a career highlight.”
Credit: © Richard Smith – OceanRealmImages.com
Opened in January 2020, the Digital Futures at Work Research Centre provides a base for exploring how new technologies could impact the future of work. Particularly relevant after the sudden global shift to remote working, the Centre brings together researchers and policymakers to examine the evolving nature of work. By exploring the impact of technology on employers, employees, jobseekers and governments, the researchers will help inform global policies and identify future essential skills.
The International Medieval Congress, held annually at Leeds, is the biggest academic event of its kind in Europe. Last year the organisers turned to modern technology to bring the medievalists together online.
Hosted over five days by the Institute of Medieval Studies, around 3,000 attendees took part in over 250 academic sessions, as well as fringe events, including networking sessions, book launches, calligraphy demonstrations, manuscript workshops and even a virtual disco. Delegates were delighted by the opportunity for the medievalist community to meet without leaving their homes.
Senior research fellow Dr Ian Philips and his team recommended that governments incentivise electrically assisted bike use to improve mobility in low income and non-urban areas. Replacing 20 per cent of car miles with electronically assisted bike travel could reduce annual carbon emissions by 4 to 8 million tonnes.
With final year shows cancelled in 2020, it could have been a disappointing end to months of preparation for students from the School of Fine Art, History of Art and Cultural Studies. Instead, students across the school pulled together to adapt their plans to the digital sphere. From creating a virtual gallery, to adapting a live performance to an audio play, they demonstrated that even in difficult circumstances their show could go on.
A grant from UK Research and Innovation is allowing Leeds researchers to examine the changing face of crime throughout the Covid-19 pandemic. Closures to shops and people spending more time at home led to decreases in shoplifting and burglary, but increases in domestic abuse and online crime. Researchers are examining the impact of crime and identifying areas for crime prevention as the world adapts to the changes caused by the pandemic.
An innovative new modelling tool, created in partnership with the investment management and stockbroking firm Redmayne Bentley, will help investment managers make decisions on where to invest client money. With input from both the School of Mathematics and Leeds University Business School, the tool breaks down portfolio risks, creating real outputs that can be used to support decisions about asset allocation.
The climate emergency has spawned a genre of fiction, but David Higgins, Professor of Environmental Humanities, and postdoctoral fellow Dr Tess Somervell have shown how, through the ages, literature has offered a valuable perspective on environmental changes.
Writing in The Conversation, they cite examples such as literature’s oldest epic poem, Epic of Gilgamesh (c1800 BC), which tells of a huge flood, that stemmed from a cultural memory of sea level rise after the Ice Age.
Similarly, Byron’s Darkness, Percy Shelley’s Mont Blanc and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, which were written as global temperatures plummeted after an Indonesian volcanic eruption during 1816, reveal anxieties about our vulnerability to the environment.
The researchers concluded: “Literature reminds us of the need to take responsibility for our own impact on the environment. We may not want to view climate change as divine punishment, but when Milton suggests it was the fall of man that replaced Eden’s eternal spring with ‘pinching cold and scorching heat’, his narrative resonates with our present crisis.”
The discovery of a master control region for a protein linked to Parkinson’s disease could provide hope of new therapies.
Associate Professor David Brockwell and Sheena Radford, Astbury Professor of Biophysics, led research by their team in the Astbury Centre for Structural Molecular Biology on the protein alpha-synuclein, which is involved in Parkinson’s disease. Alpha-synuclein is found in healthy cells within the nervous system. Problems occur when the protein aggregates, or clumps together, disrupting normal cell function. NAC, an area of the protein particularly prone to aggregation, was previously thought to be key to understanding the disease, yet this new research has discovered two additional regions outside of NAC that control its aggregation. The identification of these sites provides a new target for therapies that could delay or even prevent the progression of Parkinson’s disease, which affects more than 10 million people worldwide.
Drugs developed to treat Alzheimer’s disease could be repurposed to prevent – or even reverse – damage done to the blood vessels of people who are obese or have type 2 diabetes.
People living with conditions including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure and high cholesterol have a stiffening of their blood vessels, which puts them at increased risk of heart attack or stroke. Scientists at Leeds and the University of Dundee found that changes to the blood vessels can be triggered by the over-production of an enzyme called BACE1, which in turn creates the protein beta amyloid. Stopping the actions of BACE1 can restore blood vessel health, according to findings published in The Journal of Clinical Investigation.
Drug companies have developed BACE1 inhibitors but, so far, they have proved ineffective in tackling Alzheimer’s disease. It is now hoped that they can be repurposed to tackle stiffening blood vessels.
Working with colleagues from the Sorbonne, Leeds scientists located a single silicon atom in a graphene crystal using an electron microscope and then observed its vibrations within the crystal.
The energy of the microscope beam makes atoms vibrate, creating a unique vibrational fingerprint. Impurities can change that fingerprint, but advanced techniques are needed to detect these subtle changes.
Quentin Ramasse, Professor of Advanced Electron Microscopy, explained: “We now have evidence that a single ‘foreign’ atom in a solid can change its vibrational property. We have shown for the first time that you can record that defect signature with atomic precision.”
Despite the challenges of a complex architecture, researchers have created a synthetic soft surface replica of the human tongue that mimics its topography and wettability – factors that influence how food and saliva interact upon its surface. Researchers used tongue masks obtained from healthy human subjects and digital light processing technology to make a 3D printed tongue mould. This silicone-based tongue surface could help accelerate the development of nutritional, biomedical and clinical products. It is a result of an interdisciplinary collaboration with the University of Edinburgh, which was led by Anwesha Sarkar, Professor of Colloids and Surfaces.
Leeds scientists were among a global collaboration that identified 33 new regions of the human genome that influence the risk of developing the skin cancer melanoma.
They compared DNA from 37,000 people with melanoma to that of nearly 400,000 people with no history of the disease. By identifying these regions, and confirming another 21 previously reported regions, they have more than doubled the number of areas of the genome known to be linked to melanoma.