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The Beauty and Versatility of Sunflowers  

Published in May 2021

For millennia, sunflowers (Helianthus) have symbolised happiness, being synonymous with the golden rays of the sun, as described by their botanical name Heli [relating to the sun] anthus [flower]. These plants are cherished by many, particularly with school children who aim to grow the world’s tallest; although they would have to grow over 9.2 metres if they wish to surpass the Guinness World Record holder in Germany from 2014 [1]. 


Sunflowers belong to the wider daisy family (Asteraceae; named after the Aster), which has an estimated 70 species varying in a plethora of colour and size. Sunflowers use their petals to advertise that their nectar is available to pollinating insects such as bees. Unlike people, insects use a different type of light (ultra-violet or UV) in order to see. To a passing person, sunflowers have vibrant yellow petals tethered to a dark centre. However, to a bee, that sunflower displays a bullseye that strongly stands out to them compared to the background, indicating where they can collect nectar [2]. Each flower head is formed of thousands of miniature flowers, called florets that can produce up to 2,000 seeds [3]. The arrangement of these seeds, commonly 34 seeds clockwise and 55 seeds anti-clockwise follows to the Fibonacci sequence. This means that all sunflowers have their seeds arranged using the golden angle (137.5º) to form a mesmerising double spiral pattern [3-4]. 


Sunflowers were domesticated about 5,000 years ago in the eastern part of the United States by Native Americans, who consumed their seeds and extracted their oil for use in bread [3]. The Native Americans also used sunflowers for medicinal purposes, their fibres, and as dye for clothing [3]. In the 1500s, Spanish explorers brought these plants to Europe where they were popularised as an ornamental curiosity for the rich [3]. Many years after their introduction, they were commercialised as an agricultural crop in Russia [5]. As of 2020, Ukraine is the world’s largest producer of sunflowers at 16.5 million metric tonnes, where it is unsurprisingly the country’s national flower [3&6]. Broadly speaking there are two types of sunflower seeds which are harvested, black and stripped. The black seeds contain more oil that is extracted for margarine and standalone cooking oil. Whereas, the stripped seeds are used for consumption as they are rich in protein and unsaturated fats, and a good source of fibre and vitamin E [7].  


Ever since they were grown, it was believed that sunflower leaves and flowers could track the sun. However, this is not entirely true. A young sunflower’s leaves can indeed orientate themselves towards the moving sun, a response called phototropism [8]. When sunflowers mature, they remain in a fixed easterly position to capture the morning’s sun. In a study where sunflowers were grown inside within an isolated growth chamber that had a static light from above, the young sunflowers kept moving from east to west [9]. An inbuilt molecular clock known as the circadian clock, which also wakes us in the morning and makes us feel tired at night, enables sunflowers to discriminate between east to west. Sunflowers orientate themselves through their growth by elongating one side of their stem compared to the other, and thus causing their stem to bend in one particular direction [10]. Having an easterly fixed position benefits the plant by increasing the evaporation of morning dew, which can reduce the probability of fungal infection. It can also reduce excess heat when the sun peaks at noon, therefore protecting pollen and developing seeds from scorching [11].  


As well as being used as an agriculture crop, sunflowers can be used to decontaminate soils from heavy metals, which are highly toxic elements (such as arsenic, lead and mercury) to people [12]. Industrial sites, mining, landfill and sewage are major sources of these pollutants [12-13]. Traditional methods of decontaminating soils are expensive and arduous, requiring large amounts of chemicals and equipment to remove them. An alternative method that is estimated to reduce costs by half cost compared to the traditional method is phytoremediation, or plainly put, the use of plants to remove these hazardous elements [14]. Some varieties of sunflowers are able to accumulate these elements from deep within the soil into their tissues, including leaves and roots, without a determinantal effect on their health [14]. After accumulating these toxic elements, a grower can simply remove the plants and place within a secured area for processing. Processing involves burning the contaminated plants at high temperatures to remove organics, collecting the heavy metals, and compacting them into glass-like material for stable storage [13].  


In addition to heavy metals, sunflowers can accumulate radioactive elements such as uranium and cesium without too greater impact on their health. The Chernobyl nuclear disaster was one of the worse in history, contaminating vast areas of fertile land around the power plant. Common annual sunflowers were used to reduce levels of radioactive cesium and strontium pollution from the nearby containment land [15-16]. Following the success of using sunflowers to reduce radioactive elements around Chernobyl, volunteers planted millions of sunflowers near the Fukushima Daiiachi nuclear plant (within 100 km) to reduce radiation within the soil [17]. However, this turned out not to be so successful as they unknowingly planted the wrong variety of sunflower, which was unable to accumulate as much of these radioactive elements. It remains unclear how some varieties can accumulate toxic pollution, whereas other cannot.   


Throughout the millennia, many have used the sunflower as a symbol for happiness, as well as being associated with positivity, the sunflower has been demonstrated to be a highly versatile crop for the modern world. Under UV, they appear as bright bullseyes guiding in pollinating insects like landing strips. Once pollenated each flower head can produce up to 2,000 seeds, which can be eaten or turned into oil. The humble sunflower has also become a natural source of decontamination from leftover toxic heavy metals and radioactive elements.



[1] Guinness World Records (2014). Tallest sunflower.,held%20this%20record%20twice%20previously 


[2] Moyers, BT. Owens, GL. Baute, GJ. Rieseberg, LH. (2017). The genetic architecture of UV floral patterning in sunflower. Annals of Botany. 120: 39–50.  


[3] Helianthus annuus L. (Asteraceae). Oxford Plants 400:  


[4] Kuhlemeier, C. (2007). Phyllotaxis. Trends in Plant Science. 12: 143-150. DOI:   


[5] Putt, ED. (1997). Early History of Sunflower. In Sunflower Technology and Production, A.A. Schneiter (Ed.).  


[6] Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations. (2020). Food Outlook, Biannual Report on Global Food Markets.  


[7] Adeleke, BS. Babalola, OO. (2020). Oilseed crop sunflower (Helianthus annuus) as a source of food: Nutritional and health benefits. Food Science & Nutrition. 8: 4666-4684.  


[8] Wyk, AS. Prinsloo, G. (2019). Challenging current interpretation of sunflower movements. Journal of Experimental Botany. 70: 6049 6056 


[9] Atamian, HS. Creux, NM. Brown, EA. Garner, AG. Blackman, BK. Harmer, SL. (2019). Circadian regulation of sunflower heliotropism, floral orientation, and pollinator visits. Science. 353: 587-590.  


[10] Moulia, B. Bastien, R. Chauvet-Thiry, H. Leblanc-Fournier, N. (2019). Posture control in land plants: growth, position sensing, proprioception, balance, and elasticity, Journal of Experimental Botany. 70: 3467–3494.  


[11] Vandenbrink, JP. Brown, EA. Harmer, SL. Blackman, BK. (2014). Turning heads: The biology of solar tracking in sunflower. Plant Science. 224: 20-26.  


[12] Jun, L. Wei, H. Aili, M. Juan, N. Hongyan, H. Yunhua, Z. Cuiying, P. (2020). Effect of lychee biochar on the remediation of heavy metal-contaminated soil using sunflower: A field experiment. Environmental Research. 188:109886.  


[13] Greipsson, S. (2011) Phytoremediation. Nature Education Knowledge 3:7.,Phytoextraction,of%20contaminants%20in%20the%20soil 


[14] Zehra, A. Sahito, ZA. Tong, W. Tang, L. Hamid, Y. Khan, MB. Ali, Z. Naqvi, B. Yang, X. (2020). Assessment of sunflower germplasm for phytoremediation of lead-polluted soil and production of seed oil and seed meal for human and animal consumption. Journal of Environmental Science. 87: 24-38.  


[15] Revkin, AC. (2001). New Pollution Tool: Toxic Avengers With Leaves. The New York Times.  


[16] Soudek, P. Valenová, S. Vavříková, Z. Vaněk, T. (2006). 137Cs and 90Sr uptake by sunflower cultivated under hydroponic conditions. Journal of Environmental Radioactivity. 88: 236-250.  


[17] Slodkowski, A. Nakao, Y. 2011. Sunflowers melt Fukushima's nuclear "snow". Reuters.  

The Ever-increasing Role that Sunflowers Play in Society  

Published in June 2021


Many cultures around the world personify sunflowers with happiness and harvest. They have been used as a crop for thousands of years, having been first domesticated in parts of Northern America by Native Americans. With growing concerns over the Climate Crisis and food security, much research has been undertaken on crops to increase their yield, reduce emissions, and to protect the viability of fertile land. Research related to sunflowers is having real-world impacts, including the creation of biofuels and eco-products using previously discarded harvest waste, and uses in pharmaceutical development.   


Sunflower harvest waste helps to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels    

Traditional harvesting practices only use a small portion of the total plant, in the case of sunflowers seeds are only used for consumption. The rest of the harvested material such as leaves, stalks and hulls (seed shells) are considered ‘by-product’, and are either ground up and ploughed back into the ground or added to livestock feed [1]. This traditional harvesting can cause the release of carbon dioxide whilst the soil micro-organisms breakdown the components of this by-product [1]. Research examining these practices has demonstrated how the majority of this by-product can be better used in creating biofuels [2]. The use of such material as biofuel is known as second-generation biofuels [3]. Their precursor, first-generation biofuels, used the same material that would have been used as food [4]. This type of biofuel caused debates on their ethicality due to their competition with food production. There are examples where biofuel derived from sunflowers has been blended to diesel for cars in parts of the US to reduce emissions [2; 5]. By using sunflower by-product in a more efficient manner, these new developments are reducing carbon dioxide emissions both by eliminating the discarded breakdown of unused by-product and by acting as a greener alternative to fossil fuels.  


Sunflower by-product can also be used to manufacture eco-products. Some companies have developed a hardboard biomaterial by compressing the fibres from sunflower stalks under extreme heat to produce alternatives to many kinds of hard plastics [6;7]. A similar process can also produce bolts, furniture, insulation panels and smartphone cases. A key protein found within the hulls of sunflower seeds can create a natural superglue, which can be used to adhere various biomaterials together [7; 8]. This by-product could also have an impact on reducing single use plastics and non-recyclable packaging, such as the marrow-like spongey material contained within the stalks of the sunflowers that has been used to produce a biodegradable polystyrene [9]. Biodegradable films can also be made from the protein found in hulls as a natural alternative to plastic food wrap [10]. However, more investment is required to develop and refine the infrastructure so that growers and producers of biomaterials can further commercialise these new eco-products.  


Sunflower products benefit animals 

Another major issue facing our world is the decline of pollinating insects that help plants reproduce and to grow fruit, making them an essential player in agriculture. Research has shown that pollen from the common annual sunflower contains an anti-parasitic substance that reduces a bee’s infection and susceptibility to two devastating protozoan (microscopic lifeforms) and fungi parasites [11]. Planting sunflowers around fields is a simple solution to help improve the health of these economically important insects. Sunflowers can have an impact on larger economically important animals, as supplementing livestock feed with sunflower oil (5%/dry weight) can reduce a dairy cow’s methane emissions by up to 23% as well as enhancing the nutrition of feed [12; 13]. Methane being a more potent greenhouse gas compared to carbon dioxide. More research is required to determine if adding sunflower oil is economical when scaling up.  

Use of sunflowers in medicine  

Contained within sunflower oil is a fat molecule called lecithin, also found in other plants and animals. Lecithin is an amphiphilic molecule, meaning that it can attract both water soluble and other fat molecules. This unique property allows sunflower oil to envelop substances into a bubble-like structure (called micelle) when added to water [14]. Sunflowers produce large amounts of micelle making it of interest to industry. Research has demonstrated that the amphiphilic properties of sunflower lecithin can aid the absorption of medicines that have poor solubility, therefore increasing the effectiveness of such medicines. [15]. Another interesting pharmaceutical property of sunflowers is a protein called SFTI-1 (Sunflower Trypsin Inhibitor-1) that has been shown to inhibit some cancer-causing enzymes [16; 17]. However, to date this protein has not been adopted by industry due to the expense of producing synthetic versions of it on a commercial scale.  


A recent concept emerging from plant science are pharmaceutical crops or pharma crops, which are genetically modified (having higher amounts of a targeted molecule) to produce therapeutic substances used in drugs and vaccines [16]. Developing pharma crops would enable a cheaper and more natural source of medicines. An area of concern when growing these crops is the potential for cross-contamination with non-genetically modified plants. However, this should not affect pharma crops, as they are required to be grown in biosecure greenhouses due to strict sterile measures needed for their licence. An example of a successful pharma crop is the Artemisia, which produces a molecule called artemisinin that is used to treat malaria [18]. It is thought that sunflowers could soon be used as a pharma crop to produce a drug for cancer treatment [16]. 



Sunflowers have been cultivated for thousands of years. With the Climate Crisis and pressure to refine agricultural practices, their usage has become more versatile. Sunflower by-product can be converted into a range of eco-products that help detached us from fossil fuels. Sunflowers have also been demonstrated to have an anti-parasitic substance that can protect bee populations from devastating infections. Supplementing cattle’s diet with sunflower oil can reduce their methane emissions by almost a quarter. Sunflowers also contain a compound that inhibits enzymes involved in the growth of some cancers. In the future this crop may become a pharmaceutical plant factory.   




[1] European Bioenergy Day. (2020). Crop by-products.,litter%2C%20or%20as%20green%20energy.  


[2] Manmai, N. Unpaprom, Y. Ramaraj, R. (2020). Bioethanol production from sunflower stalk: application of chemical and biological pretreatments by response surface methodology (RSM). Biomass Conversion and Biorefinery. Biomass Conv. Bioref.  


[3] Bhuiya, MMK. Rasul, MG. Khan, MMK. Ashwath, N. Azad, AK. Hazrat, MA. (2014). Second Generation Biodiesel: Potential Alternative to Edible Oil-Derived Biodiesel. Energy Procedia. 61: 1969-1972.


[4] Muktham, R. Bhargava, SK. Satyavathi, B. Ball, AS. (2016). A Review on 1st and 2nd Generation Bioethanol Production-Recent Progress. J. Sustain. Bioenergy Syst. 6: 72-92.  


[5] Elkelway, M. Bastawissi, HA. Esmaeil, KK. Radwan, AM. Panchal, H. Sadasivuni, KK. Suresh, M. Israr, M. (2020). Maximization of biodiesel production from sunflower and soybean oils and prediction of diesel engine performance and emission characteristics through response surface methodology. Fuel. 266: 117072.  


[6] Karpati, Z. Kun, D. Fekete, E. Moczo, J. (2021). Structural biomaterials engineered from lignocellulosic agricultural waste. Applied Polymer Sci. 138: 50617.  


[7] Lynne Myers. (2019). Studio Thomas Vailly and atelier luma transform sunflowers into biodegradable material: ENSIACET laboratory. Designboom.  


[8] Rawski, DP. Bhuiyan, MSH. (2017). Reference Module in Materials Science and Materials Engineering. 7908-7910.


[9] Hitti, N. (2019). Thomas Vailly uses sunflowers to make bio-based materials. Dezeen.  

[10] Salgado, PR. Ortiz, SEM. Petruccelli, S. Mauri, AN. (2010). Biodegradable sunflower protein films naturally activated with antioxidant compounds. Food Hydrocolloids. 24: 525-533.


[11] Giacomini, JJ. Leslie, J. Tarpy, DR. Palmer-Young, EC. Irwin, RE. Adler, LS. (2018). Medicinal value of sunflower pollen against bee pathogens. Nature. 8: 14394.  


[12] Silva, BCM. Lopes, FCF. Pereira, LGR. Tomich, TR. Morenz, MJF. Martins, CE. Gomide, CAM. Paciullo, DSC. Mauricio, RM. Chaves, AV. (2017). Effect of sunflower oil supplementation on methane emissions of dairy cows grazing Urochloa brizantha cv. Marandu. Animal Production Sci. 57: 1431-1436.  


[13] Osman, NS. Sapawe, N. Sapuan, MA. Fozi, MFMF. Azman, MHIF. Fazry, AHZ. Zainudin, MFH. Hanafi, MF. (2018). Sunflower shell waste as an alternative animal feed. Materials Today: Proceedings. 5: 21905-21910.


[14] Margineanu, A. (2019). Polymeric Nanomaterials in Nanotherapeutics: Biological Applications of Nanoparticles in Optical Microscopy. Elsevier: Amsterdam. 519-527.  


[15] Riva, A. Ronchi, M. Petrangolini, G. Bosisio, S. Allegrini, P. (2018). Improved Oral Absorption of Quercetin from Quercetin Phytosome®, a New Delivery System Based on Food Grade Lecithin. Eur. J. Drug Metab. Pharmacokinet. 44: 169-177.  


[16] Mylne, JS. Colgrave, ML. Daly, NL. Chanson, AH. Elliott, AG. McCallum, EJ. Jones, A. Craik, DJ. (2011). Albumins and their processing machinery are hijacked for cyclic peptides in sunflower. Nature Chem. Biol. 7: 257-259.  


[17] Veer, SJ. White, AM. Craik, DJ. (2021). Sunflower Trypsin Inhibitor-1 (SFTI-1): Sowing Seeds in the Fields of Chemistry and Biology. 60: 8050-8071. Angewandte Chemie.  


[18] Bridgford, JL. Xie, SC. Cobbold, SA. Pasaje, CFA. Herrmann, S. Yang, T. Gillett, DL. Dick, LR. Ralph, SA. Dogovski, C. Spillman, NJ. Tilley, L. (2018). Artemisinin kills malaria parasites by damaging proteins and inhibiting the proteasome. Nature Comms. 9: 3801.  

Basic Research that had Unintended Consequences  

Published in April 2022

Who knows what you could discover?

The core principle of basic research is ‘knowledge for knowledge’s sake’; the idea that simply knowing something is of benefit. Basic research is central for developing our understanding of the universe, which may not have a direct benefit to society. However, there are a whole suite of examples where basic research has revolutionised our lives.


Many funders these days ask researchers to write an ‘Impact Statement’, requiring a researcher to try to imagine what their research could lead to. However, not all research starts with a grand plan to revolutionise an area. This article aims to highlight how recent examples of revolutionary technology had its roots in basic research.


Classic examples demonstrating the power of basic research

The discovery of penicillin in 1928, where Alexander Fleming left some mould in a petri dish whilst he was on holiday, led to the first known antibiotic which modern medicine depends on [1]. In 1957, George de Mestral developed Velcro after observing a hook and loop interaction from cockleburs seeds in his dog’s fur. [2]. One of the largest unintended impact on our society was from the space race, where the US and Soviet Union poured billions into developing rockets. This would lead to the development of LED lights, satellite navigation, cordless tools, scratch resistant glass [3], and many more inventions that are now ubiquitous in everyday life. While these are definitive examples demonstrating the power of basic research, they happened many decades ago.


From basic research to the foundations of biology

The structure of DNA was discovered in 1953 by James Watson, Francis Crick, Rosalind Franklin and Maurice Wilkins, which was purely undertaken as basic research [4]. This pioneering step would eventually lead to the development of genetics. Another pioneering step in genetics was back in 2003, where President Clinton announced that the first survey of the human genome was complete, taking 10 years to do so [5]. This project cost $3 billion and had no obvious benefits other than to simply understand the human genome.


Two decades later, this academic endeavour has resulted in a genetics revolution, where such technologies as NGS (Next Generation Sequencing) can sequence a person’s genome for a more affordable price ($300 as of 2020) [6]. Understanding a person’s genome can aid medical diagnosis, gene therapies, exploring ancestry and collecting evidence for criminal investigations, all now standard practice [6]. Furthermore, a better understanding of genetics, owed to the Human Genome Project, has led to technology where scientists can remove undesirable DNA sequences that cause disease, or by creating crops that are more resistant to drought.


CRISPR-Cas9 and gene editing

In 2020, the Nobel Prize for Chemistry was awarded to Emmanuelle Charpentier and Jennifer Doudna for their work on CRISPR-Cas9 [7], which is now widely used to edit DNA via ‘molecular scissors’. Only eight years earlier, Charpentier and Doudna had published a peer-reviewed paper in Science on the basic principles of exploiting a bacteria’s natural defence mechanism (Cas9 protein), to modify a specific region of DNA by cutting or pasting a new sequence [8]. Today, this ‘cut-and-paste’ technique is currently going through range of clinical trials that could cure such diseases as sickle cell anaemia and cystic fibrosis, and one of the most common tools used in any molecular biologists’ lab.


mRNA vaccine research

Recently, the enhanced understanding of genetics has led to mRNA (Messenger Ribonucleic Acid) vaccines such as Pfizer-BioNTech and Moderna, which have saved numerous lives during the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2021, global sales of these vaccines had topped $300 billion, up $285 billion from 2019 [9]. mRNA vaccines teach our immune systems to recognise various proteins on a virus’s coat that comes into contact with a cell in order to infect. mRNA vaccines are more efficient and cost effective to produce, and can even provoke a stronger immune response more able to protect against mutations, when compared to traditional ones that used weakened virus material [10-11]. For instance, COVID-19 was first identified on 31st December 2019, five days later the genome sequence was mapped, and within 63 days the mRNA vaccine was in early-stage clinical trials. Traditional vaccines would take 10-15 years to get to a similar level [10].


The most challenging aspect of mRNA vaccine research is to get the vaccine into the body. This development took 30 years to figure out. In 1987, Robert Malone undertook what would become a landmark study that demonstrated how to get mRNA into a cell [11]. In Malone’s experiment, he mixed strands of mRNA with droplets of fat, and then bathed human cells into this mixture. He uncovered that these cells could absorb and integrate the genetic material form this mRNA.


Learning from nature

Evolution has been driving life on Earth for 3.5 billion years. Since then, countless species have adapted to their niche. By studying these adaptations, researchers have developed new technology or improved existing technology.


Bullet trains and the kingfisher

When the first bullet train was launched in 1964, it revolutionised transport in Japan. Typical speeds had increased from 200 Km/h to 350 Km/h. However, when trains reached their maximum speed, a loud booming was heard which was intrusive to the lives of many people. After struggling to understand the sound issue, the Japan Railways Group sought help. This problem was solved by a Japanese engineer, Eiji Nakatsu who was also an avid birdwatcher. Nakatsu was intrigued by how the kingfisher did not make much of a splash when diving [12]. After modelling, he discovered that the long beak of the kingfisher helped to make the bird more aerodynamic. Using these models, the loud booming sound from the bullet train was corrected by fitting them with a long ‘beak’.


Owl feathers and quieter aeroplanes

In 2011, Hermann Wagner, who is a zoologist at Aachen University in Germany, used high precision imaging to determine how owls fly so quietly. He uncovered that feathers on the wings of owls are serrated, which reduces air vortices [13]. Wagner has demonstrated that adding in micro-serrations on the wings of aeroplanes, and the blades of fans would reduce noise.


Gecko toepads and a new superglue

After studying how gecko climb and cling onto surfaces for decades, researchers from the University of Massachusetts had uncovered that a gecko’s toepads contain millions of minute hairs [14]. These hairs were able conform to a range of different textures. Using this, researchers were able to develop a commercial superglue pad material that can hold up to 318 Kg to glass. 


Beetles and water harvesting

In the Namib Desert lives an inconspicuous beetle known as the Fog Bask. The Fog Bask drinks water by harvesting it directly from the desert air. After decades of research, Hunter King discovered that the beetle’s body contained special micro-grooves and bumps, which helped to condense water and funnel it to the bug’s mouth [15]. Consequently, several companies leaped onto the idea of harvesting water from fog by using a micro-design similar to that of the Fog Bask beetle. These industrial fog harvesters are currently being tested.


In conclusion

Science seeks to understand the world we live in. Although studying an aspect of our world may not bring obvious benefits, it can have some unintended consequences. From revolutionising the foundations of biology to making enhanced superglues.



 [1] Gaynes, R. (2017). The Discovery of Penicillin—New Insights After More Than 75 Years of Clinical Use. Emerg. Infect. Dis. (23): 849-853. doi: 10.3201/eid2305.161556.


[2] Goodrich, R. (2013). Who Invented Velcro? Live Science. [Online].


[3] NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. (2016). 20 Inventions We Wouldn't Have Without Space Travel. [Online].


[4] Klug, A. (1968). Rosalind Franklin and the Discovery of the Structure of DNA. Nature. 219: 808-810.


[5] Collins, FS. Morgan, M. and Patrions, A. (2003). The Human Genome Project: Lessons from Large-Scale Biology. Science. 300: 286-290. doi: 10.1126/science.1084564. 


[6] Wetterstrand, KA. (2021). The Cost of Sequencing a Human Genome. National Human Genome Research Institute. [Online].


[7] Nobel Prize. (2020). Press release: The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2020. [Online].


[8] Doudna, JA. And Charpentier, E. (2014). The new frontier of genome engineering with CRISPR-Cas9. Science. 346: doi: 10.1126/science.1258096.


 [9] Xie, W. Chen, B. and Wong, J. (2021). Evolution of the market for mRNA technology. Nature Reviews, Drug Discovery. [Online].


[10] Komaroff, AL. (2021). Why are mRNA vaccines so exciting? Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. [Online].


[11] Golgin, E. (2021). The tangled history of mRNA vaccines. Nature. [Online].


[12] Green, J. Doble, A. and Bartl, J. (2019). How a kingfisher helped reshape Japan's bullet train. BBC News. [Online].


[13] Whipple, T. (2022). Silent owls inspire quest for quieter drones and aircraft. The Times. [Online].


[14] King, DR. Barlett, MD. Gilman, CA. Irschick, DJ. Crosby, AJ. (2014). Creating Gecko-Like Adhesives for “Real World” Surfaces. Advanced Materials. 28: 4345-4351. doi: 10.1002/adma.201306259.


[15] Frederick, E. (2019). Could this desert beetle help humans harvest water from thin air? Science. [Online]. doi: 10.1126/science.aba3775.

Who were the founding members of the SEB? 

Published in January 2023


The Society for Experimental Biology (SEB) celebrates its centenary this year. The Society started from humble beginnings with an endowment of £200, around £10,000 in today’s money, and endorsements from iconic people such as the science fiction novelist HG Wells. The SEB was founded by three key figures, Lancelot Hogben, Julian Huxley and Francis Crew. Initially the trio wanted to create a journal featuring experimental biology research. They gathered the input and support of peers, and established the British Journal of Experimental Biology (BJEB), which is now the Journal of Experimental Biology. During a board meeting at Birkbeck College, London, the decision was made to create a Society with the aim of promoting cell, plant and animal research [1]. One hundred years later, the Society has expanded to over 2,500 researchers from across the globe who are involved in 23 interest groups helping to advance cell, plant and animal research.


While the union of these founding members was a pivotal moment in the history of biology, these people also led interesting lives outside work with the SEB. This article will explore their lives as well as their contributions to science.


The founding members of SEB


Lancelot Thomas Hogben

In 1895, Hogben was born two months premature into a Methodist family who saw his survival as a miracle. This led his parents to believe that he should become a medical missionary. After completing his schooling, he managed to gain a scholarship to study physiology at Trinity College, Cambridge. Shortly after gaining his degree, Hogben decided to volunteer in Northern France during WWI as a first aider for the Quakers [3]. Seeing the horrors of war, he became a conscientious objector and failed to do his medical exam after being conscripted. He was subsequently imprisoned for three months, a lenient outcome at the time.


After the war he became a lecturer of zoology at the University of London, where he also gained his doctorate. Whilst he was teaching, the abhorrent eugenics movement of the 1930s was growing. Hogben became an avid objector of this belief that specific traits made some humans more ‘desirable’ and the human population could be improved through selective breeding by actively protesting against the movement. Later, Hogben gained a professorship at McGill University, Canada specialising in linguistics where he developed an artificial language that was formed of 800 words derived from Greek and Latin [3]. In 1936, Hogben was elected Fellow at the Royal Society and Chair of the Zoology at the University of Cape Town for the Principal Evolution Biology Journal. During his time in South Africa, he openly admitted black students into his classes which was considered scandalous at the time as this was during apartheid. In protest with the country’s policy, he returned to the UK and lectured at the London School of Economics and Political Science.


Whilst giving a lecture in Norway the Nazis invaded. To escape he had to use the Trans-Siberian Railway to get a ship to Japan, and then onto the US due to the Nazis blockading the North Sea. After months of travelling, he signed up to help in the war effort by analysing medical statistics to help treat injured soldiers [4]. At this time, he warned governments against the over prescription of antibiotics, a problem that we are still facing today. After the war he was offered a Vice Chancellor position at the newly opened University of Guiana, South America. After several years he retired to Wales. Hogben was most known for writing many popular science books such asA Short Life of Alfred Russel Wallace’ and for making the African Clawed Frog (Xenopus laevis) a model species in zoology.


Julian Sorell Huxley

Huxley was born into a wealthy and influential family. His grandfather, Thomas H Huxley, was the famous biologist, and his brother, Aldous Huxley was the famous writer and philosopher who wrote ‘A Brave New World’. Julian received the best education at Eton College, and then Balliol College in Oxford where he gained his degree [5]. He was then invited to the newly open Rice University in Houston, Texas where he headed biology.


During the outbreak of WWI, he returned to England and signed up to serve in the British Army Intelligence Corps where he was in charge of letter censoring. Huxley moved quickly through the ranks to become a lieutenant. After serving in the army, he returned to academia by becoming a Fellow at New College, Oxford. After some time, he was offered a professorship at King’s College within the Department of Zoology where he also served as Sectary to the Zoological Society of London [5]. During this appointment, Huxley redeveloped Regent’s Park Zoo (now London Zoo) into what it is today, and helped to set up the UK’s largest zoo at Whipsnade. He also opened Europe’s first petting zoo for children, and fast became a prominent fellow at the Royal Society like his grandfather.


With his passion for animals and conservation, Huxley directed an Oscar-winning film ‘The Private Life of the Gannets’ which documented the lives of these seabirds that lived on Grassholm, a small uninhabited island off the coast of Wales. The premise of the story was that man had to live with nature; a pro-environments’ stance which still resonates today.


After WWII, Huxley was invited to become the first Director General of UNSECO (1946-1948). During his tenure he visited many parts of the world advising governments and conservation groups. In 1958, he was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II for his service to zoology. Huxley was an avid supporter of abortion rights and the decriminalisation of homosexuality during the 50s and 60s, which was highly controversial at the time. Throughout this period, he suffered from periodic bouts of depression, which was treated by the now discredited electro-shock therapy [6]. Whilst suffering from depression, Huxley managed to set up the World Wildlife Fund (WWF), which has transformed conservation on a global-scale. Huxley revolutionised embryology, systematics, and the study of behaviour and evolution.


Francis Albert Eley Crew

Crew was born in the sleepy English town of Tipton where he was educated at King Edward VI High School. Crew developed a passion for breeding bantams (miniature chickens), winning many prizes in various poultry shows. Crew then went onto study medicine at Mason College in Birmingham and then at the Medical School in Edinburgh. After graduating he opened a medical practice in North Devon, until the outbreak of WWI where Crew joined the army as a major serving in India and France [7]. He returned to Edinburgh after the war as a research assistant in the Natural History Department.


In 1921, Crew became the Director of the Animal Breeding Research Department (ABRD) in Edinburgh, followed by admission into the Royal Society. Whilst being director he transformed the department moving its home from a dilapidated building into King’s Building, with the help of a large £30,000 grant (£1.4 million in today’s money) from the Rockefeller Foundation. This injection of funding made the ABRD one of the world-leading facility for genetics in the 1930s [8]. During his tenure with the ABRD, he advanced his specialism of intersexuality and sex transformations in domestic birds. As the Second World War began, Crew re-joined the army commanding a Miliary Hospital within the grounds of Edinburgh Castle, and leading the development of new medical techniques for the War Office. As war progressed, he founded the Polish School of Medicine in Edinburgh and trained several hundred Polish doctors to help treat their injured citizens back home. After the war, the Polish Government awarded Crew the Polonia Restituta (highest honour) for his help training so many doctors [7]. Crew also helped to part-edit the official army medical history of the allied forces.


Later in life, Crew moved away from research becoming the chair of Public Health and Social Medicine in Edinburgh, and established the world’s first Teaching Unit for Nurses. Following his retirement in 1955, he was asked to be presentative of the World Health Organisation (WHO) in Egypt to advise the government on matters of medical training [8]. He was also asked by the UK Government to become an advisor to the Central Family Planning Institute in New Delhi. Whilst living in India he established the first genetic diagnostic clinic. Crew laid the foundations for modern medical genetics and reconstructive treatment, he also put Edinburgh on the map for genetic research.



The SEB was founded 100 years ago on the principles of cooperation and a drive to advance biology. The three founding members had some interesting stories to tell. Lancelot Hogben made the African Clawed Frog a model species, wrote many popular science books, and led the way on peace. Julian Huxley transformed British zoos, brought conservation onto the world stage, and was a supporter of equality for women and gay rights. Francis Crew transformed animal genetics in Edinburgh, served in the army to treat injured soldiers, and worked as a medical advisor for WHO.



[1] Erlingsson, SJ. (2013). Institutions and innovation: experimental zoology and the creation of the British Journal of Experimental Biology and the Society for Experimental Biology. BJHS. 46: 73–95. DOI:


[2] SEB, (2022). SEB History: We have100 years of history! Read about the SEB foundation and some key facts.


[3] Wells, FRS. (1975). Lancelot Thomas Hogben. Royal Society:


[4] Hosch, WL. (2009). Lancet Thomas Hogben. Britannica:


[5] Baker, JR. (1976). Julian Sorell Huxley, 22 June 1887 – 14 February 1975. Royal Society:


[6] Cain, J. (2010). Julian Huxley, general biology and the London Zoo, 1935–42. Royal Society:


[7] Hogben, LT. (1974). Francis Albert Eley Crew, 1886-1973. Royal Society:


[8] Button, C. (2017). James Cossar Ewart and the Origins of the Animal Breeding Research Department in Edinburgh, 1895–1920. J Hist Biol. 51: 445–477. DOI:

Who are Radiographers and What Do They Do?  

Published in December 2021

On the 8th November we celebrate World Radiography Day, but who are the people that work within radiography, and what do they do?  


Radiology, radiologist and the radiographer  

Radiography is the science of using images to view the inside of something without causing harm. When thinking about radiography, your mind’s eye may conjure up an image of a person who works at a hospital, within an X-Ray or MRI Department, and takes images of us using a large doughnut-shaped object to see what’s going on under your skin. If so, then you are probably thinking of a radiologist. These specialised doctors are clinically trained to diagnose our health issues, such as broken bones or brain tumours through images taken by a range of methods such as X-Ray, CT, MRI, and PET. However, there is another lesser-known highly qualified professional, known as a radiographer who works within the radiology teams. The key difference between the two specialisms is that one is heavily involved in health diagnostics, whereas the other is a technical specialist that delivers and facilitates most radiological procedures.  


Radiographers work in highly diverse areas such as hospitals (i.e. diagnosis and working closely with customs officials), universities, private enterprises and even in the field through the armed forces. Despite what seems like a simple procedure; to image someone, the scans used by both radiographers and radiologists require strict safety measures due to using different types of radiation (for X-Ray, CT and PET) or strong magnetic fields (for MRI), which is often under the close supervision of a radiographer. Although some people will be concerned by the word radiation, the amount that is given off from an X-ray (CT or via drug for PET) is very low, and is equivalent to a few days of natural radiation from being outside. 


Meet the radiographers of WIN 

At the Wellcome Centre for Integrative Neuroimaging (WIN), University of Oxford we use research grade MRI scanners which are usually higher field strength than hospital-based scanners to help us learn more about how our brains work. Radiographers are critical to our operations and enable us to safely image people for our research. To highlight their role at WIN for World Radiography Day, we interviewed three of our radiographers; Michael Sanders, David Parker and Juliet Semple to help you understand what they do for us. 


Michael Sanders, Senior Research Radiographer 

Mike has been working at WIN for over 9 years. 


How did you get started in radiography? 

Mike was inspired to work in health care from his mother who was a nurse. An initial interest in a role with the RAF as a Radiographer did not work out but the radiography interest remained and he secured a place at the School of Radiography at Hammersmith Hospital. The Hammersmith Hospital was the location of the Royal Postgraduate Medical Centre and as such was at the forefront of medical imaging offering many unusual and cutting-edge procedures. On qualifying Mike moved onto a general hospital that included plenty of night duties with a wide range of injuries from car crashes, sports injuries, and altercations. After a couple of industry roles including one in Didcot and slightly more glamorously New York, Mike travelled extensively in support of clinical trials involving CT and MRI. After this experience Mike return to the UK working first in the West Wing at the John Radcliffe Hospital before finally moving to WIN. 


What do you do on a day-to-day basis? 

Aside for undertaking the scanning Mike oversees safety checks on people getting an MRI scan, ensuring that no metal is on their person and that they have declared all their relevant health history. Radiographers are responsible for checking through all research proposals on their ethics and other documentation. Any participant involved in scanning must be comfortable, supported and reassured during the procedure and the role of the radiographer is to act as a participant’s advocate during the scanning process to ensure that their wellbeing is priority.  


What was your most memorable moment as a radiographer? 

‘During my time with the NHS, I routinely helped Customs and Excise, now known as UK Border Force, officers to determine if suspects were carrying illegal drugs. On one occasion the ‘drugs’ were £30,000 worth of uncut diamonds.’ 


What advice would you offer young radiographers? 

‘Before deciding on becoming a radiographer, you need people skills and the ability to empathise with patients or participants in research studies. You need to be confident in your technical abilities but not forget that there is a human being at the other end of your ‘service delivery’. Radiology is a highly diverse field with plenty of career development opportunities and areas of specialism which will more than repay the effort you put in.’ 


What’s the most challenging aspect of radiography? 

‘There are many challenges to working in radiology, particularly those associated with people or their families that have life-changing or life-threatening injuries or illnesses. I have been involved in work with coroners and post-mortem imaging attempting to identify cause of death, which has caused some thought-provoking moments.’ 


What’s the best aspect of radiography? 

‘Helping patients with their needs, possibly on the worst day of their life, or participants with their desire to contribute to science. I have met many people at their worse and admire how they cope with their circumstances.’ 


Describe your role as Tweet? 

‘It’s a blast.’  


David Parker, Research Radiographer 

David has been working at WIN for over 7 years. 


How did you get started in radiography? 

David gained his passion for imaging when he was studying for his first degree in Psychology with Neuropsychology at Banger, Wales. He realised that he preferred the interaction with patients and participants rather than data analysis. After completing his degree, David continued his studies decided to take another degree at Exeter. Between degrees he worked as an assistant at a local X-ray Department. Prompted by the 2008 recession he decided to move into health care as a trainee radiographer, studying x-ray imaging, before going on to work in the private sector on an MRI graduate scheme. David then moved to Oxford to work for WIN.  


What do you do on a day-to-day basis? 

David is responsible for safety screening, operating the MRI scanner, acting as an advocate for participants during scans, record keeping and ensures that everyone is fully safety trained. David also ensures that the scanners are correctly maintained, clean and that consumables are replenished.  


What was your most memorable moment as a radiographer? 

David couldn’t pin point a single moment. However, he mentioned that being involved with a diverse mix of people, and learning more about the human condition was his continued memorable moment.  


What advice would you offer young radiographers? 

‘Develop a long-term goal when first studying for your degree. Developing specific steps to meet your over-arching goal would be great but try to find diverse work placements at hospitals, research institutes or universities to develop your work experience.’  


What’s the most challenging aspect of radiography? 

‘Being dyslexic, I find paperwork and university administration the most challenging. However, I have developed strategies to cope and finds that having an enhanced ability to imagine 3D objects, a common trait amongst dyslexic people is an advantage.’  


What’s the best aspect of radiography? 

‘I thoroughly enjoy being involved with a diverse mix of people, and being at the forefront of the latest neurological research at WIN.’  


Describe your role as Tweet? 

‘Delivering the highest quality images, for diagnosis or research, safely and professionally.’  


Juliet Semple, OHBA Lead Research Radiographer 

Juliet has been working at WIN for over 6 years. 


How did you get started in radiography? 

Juliet had considered going into medicine from a young age, but was inspired into radiography during a hospital tour where she saw rows of CT scanners. She decided to take a degree in radiography at Guys Hospital. After qualifying, Juliet got her first job at Lewisham Hospital within their X-ray Department. A couple of years later she moved onto King’s College Hospital to specialise in neuroimaging and to explore cutting-edge CT and MRI techniques, which were being used there. After this post, Juliet decided to move outside of London and came across a posting at the old Radcliffe Infirmary which eventually moved into the West Wing at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford. At the time the University of Oxford built the Acute Vascular Imaging Centre (AVIC) that specialised in imaging for hyperacute health conditions, which included people having strokes and heart attacks, Juliet worked there for a number of years before moving to WIN and OHBA. 


What do you do on a day-to-day basis? 

Juliet is responsible for the administration and operation of the scanners at WIN’s centre based at the Warneford Hospital. She upholds safety standards, thoroughly checks a project’s ethics before approval, and ensure patients’ and participants’ wellbeing are a priority. Juliet also undertakes clinical scans as a part of the Oxford Brain Health Clinic initiative.  


What was your most memorable moment as a radiographer? 

‘My most memorable moment was as a newly qualified radiographer being allowed into the brand-new angiography suite to watch a case. At the end of the case, I hung up my lead coat on the rack and the entire rack and wall it was attached to fell down. This was two days before the unit was being officially opened. When I left that role many years later, I was presented with a certificate saying I had gone above and beyond in my demolition duties!’  


‘It wasn’t actually my fault…the builders had put the lead coat rack up on a plasterboard wall with inappropriate fixings.’ 


What advice would you offer young radiographers? 

‘Get some exposure to what goes on in a Radiology Department to see if it’s your sort of thing. You need to enjoy some physics and be able to combine kindness and empathy with science and technology.’  


What’s the most challenging aspect of radiography? 

‘When the government implemented the 18-week referral target. Radiology is almost always involved in a patient’s journey. This and subsequent targets have increased referrals and radiology departments cannot keep up with the demand. There’s not enough scanners, equipment or people.’  


What’s the best aspect of radiography? 

‘The feeling that I helped someone, either with their medical pathway, or getting someone who is claustrophobic through a scan. I get a lot of reward from that. I also get to play with a multi-million-pound piece of equipment!’  


Describe your role as Tweet? 

I’m not just a button pusher! There is more to being a radiographer’ 

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