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The University of Southampton
Institute for Life Sciences

Reproductive Biology. From gametes to systems, and between generations

Leading research fellows from here at Southampton and across the UK contributed to an interdisciplinary human reproductive biology conference hosted by the Institute for Life Sciences in September.

Professor Tom Flemming

Each year the IfLS hosts a conference focussing on a particular area of life sciences that reflects the strengths, expertise and interests of its members. This year's one-day conference, entitled ‘Reproductive Biology - from gametes to systems, and between generations,' was attended by some of the UK's most accomplished reproductive scientists.

At the event, Professor Lord Robert Winston, of Imperial College London, delivered a keynote speech in which he praised the University of Southampton for its commitment to scientific investigation. The peer, who was involved in drafting The Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill, added that more research needed to be done in the field of reproductive medicine by the global scientific community as a whole.

Throughout the day those in attendance listened as eminent speakers from a range of scientific disciplines presented their research findings in detail - helping to underline the IfLS's reputation for facilitating interdisciplinary relationships.

Speakers and their presentations:

The conference, which was officially opened by University of Southampton Professor of Developmental Biology Tom Fleming, began with a presentation by Research Fellow for Biological Sciences Dr. Simon Lane, who is also based here.

Dr Lane shared his findings into how aneuploidy occurs in eggs - generating conditions like Down syndrome and leading to  miscarriage. He went on to explain how missegregation of chromosomes can persist unchecked at the time of their division in eggs, unlike all other cells in our body which have a robust checking system. The lack of such a thorough checking system in eggs causes their propensity to undergo chromosome mis-segregation and so harbour high rates of aneuploidy.

Then, University of Southampton Senior Lecturer in Early Development Dr Judith Eckert, presented her work on high fat maternal diets, which yielded useful evidence to help raise awareness of the importance of diet for conception and pregnancy. Dr. Eckert told the conference she had demonstrated that a high fat diet alters fetal development, leaving offspring more susceptible to conditions like hypertension and liver disease. She also explained how she had demonstrated that this susceptibility remains, even when the mother switches to a lower fat diet.

University of Southampton Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Nicholas Macklon, presented findings which demonstrated that the uterus could effectively reject low quality embryos by not allowing them to implant. He explained that a less selective uterus, which readily accepted low quality embryos, might be the reason why some women are more prone to the condition of persistent miscarriages.  

Professor Macklon said: "Our research has shown that one of the signals which the uterus can pick up on in determining the quality of the embryo is the amount of trypsin it gives off. The lack of trypsin signals appear to indicate to the endometrium that the embryo's quality is not very high and initiates a reduction in receptivity to implantation."

During the afternoon session, academics based here from a variety of specialist disciplines covered the sometimes controversial subject of stem cell research in considerable depth. Research findings about how stem cells work have tremendous potential for translation into therapies for hitherto untreatable conditions like spinal cord injuries, for example.

Firstly, Dr Robert Ewing, who is a Senior Lecturer in Proteomics and Systems Biology, explained how he was using the power of computers to catalogue tens of thousands of proteins to help better understand how stem cells make the decision to differentiate into other types of cell and so lose their stem cell nature.

This theme was continued by Dr Ben MacArthur, Lecturer in Mathematics at the Life Science Interface, who has been using mathematical modelling to sift through vast quantities of genetic  information to find commonalities in the genes within different types of stem cells in order to help identify their purposes.

Senior Lecturer in Stem Cells and Developmental Biology, Dr Franchesca Houghton, then shared her recent discovery that stem cells can be examined outside the body for longer by culturing them at an oxygen tension of just five per cent; therefore giving scientists a greater opportunity to observe their behaviour.

Next, University of Southampton Reader of Epigenetics Dr Karen Lillycrop, presented her findings on how gene expression, which dictates physical characteristics, can be affected by maternal diet through a process known as DNA methylation. Dr Lillycrop said DNA methylation could affect the expression of metabolic genes, perhaps leading to obesity and coronary heart disease. This body of evidence now represents a powerful tool in helping to encourage women to maintain good nutrition throughout pregnancy.

Following that, Professor Paul Fowler, who is Chair in Translational Medical Sciences at the University of Aberdeen, talked about his ground breaking discovery that environmental factors affecting the female fetus, like maternal smoking, can damage the eggs that are forming inside the ovaries of the unborn child.

Then, Dr John Parrington, Lecturer in Cellular and Molecular Pharmacology from the University of Oxford, explained his discovery that some males with fertility problems have been shown to exhibit a mutation in a sperm protein.

The event was rounded off by Professor Evelyn Telfer, who is Personal Chair in Reproductive Biology at the University of Edinburgh. She presented her findings that adult ovaries have a capacity for generating new oocytes: a discovery that has shattered a decades-old belief that when girls are born they are endowed with a finite number of oocytes that has to last their entire reproductive lifespan.

In retrospect

Speaking afterwards, Director of the Institute for Life Sciences, Professor Peter Smith, said: "I wish to thank all those who contributed to making this conference truly world class.

"At the University of Southampton we represent a major force in the development of interdisciplinary life sciences, and I think this fact is very much in evidence when you look at the long list of exceptional individuals who found time to attend this event."

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