Rowett Newsletter 2017

Rowett Newsletter 2017

A Royal Opening

In January, in front of a large number of invited guests and staff,  we were delighted to invite HRH The Duchess of Rothesay, Chancellor of the University of Aberdeen, to officially open our new building.  Her Royal Highness and our guests enjoyed a tour of the facility and heard about some of the innovative research being undertaken in the building.  Highlights included research on weight loss strategies that enabled Marks & Spencers plc to formulate their ‘Fuller for Longer’ range (now called ‘Balanced for you); research looking at the role of maternal nutrition in determining birthweight and lifelong health and work looking at how we can potentially reduce our sugar intake by changing preferences and habits.  Much of this research is funded by the Scottish Government, who also provided a substantial amount of funding towards the building itself, and were represented on the day by Dr Linda Pooley, Deputy Director, Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division, Scottish Government.  Her Royal Highness was also introduced to Ian Gourlay, one of the Rowett’s longest-serving volunteers, who has taken part in fifteen of our studies to date. 

Some more excellent photos from the day can be seen here-> 


Major new research collective launches in Scottish Parliament

The University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute is part of a new collective, which was officially launched at the Scottish Parliament. 

The collective, Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes (SEFARI), is made up of academics from six of Scotland’s research institutes: the Rowett Institute; Moredun Research Institute; Scotland’s Rural College; The James Hutton Institute; Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh and Biomathematics and Statistics Scotland. SEFARI aims to make the links between researchers and users more effective through innovative events, conferences and key conversations to promote and utilise research findings. Businesses, charities, communities and policy-makers will all benefit from easier access to environmental, food and agricultural research carried out in Scotland.

Professor Peter Morgan, Director of the Rowett Institute and Executive Chairman of SEFARI, speaking at the parliament, said:  “There is immense strength in this collective of research expertise, and with SEFARI we have made moves to ensure this is further enhanced. Our belief is that this collective can deliver leading ideas for better lives which means that our research can make a material positive difference to the lives of people in Scotland and beyond. I am looking forward to working with this group and am delighted that the Rowett Institute is part of the collective.”

Graeme Cook, Director of SEFARI’s Knowledge Exchange and Impact activities, added: “There is great strength in publicly funded research in Scotland, but SEFARI has a critical role in ensuring that this research is better used where and when it can have the greatest impact.

Launching Scotland’s new Food and Drink Strategy

On 23rd March 2017 Institute Director, Professor Peter Morgan together with Dr Alex Johnstone and Dr Alan Rowe attended the launch of ‘Ambition 2030’ by First Minister Nicola Sturgeon and Cabinet Secretary Fergus Ewing.

Ambition 2030 is the culmination of 18 months detailed analysis and planning by the Scotland Food and Drink partnership (pictured) which includes the Rowett Institute, to develop a growth strategy for the farming, fishing, and food & drink sector. 

The new strategy is focussed on 6 key emerging national and global trends: Demographics, Urbanisation, Changing behaviours, Well- being, Technology and Consumer conscience.  It sees growth being driven by 3 key pillars: People and Skills, Supply Chains and Innovation. The Rowett Institute has a key role to play in supporting these themes. 

Jointly with Food and Drink Federation Scotland, Rowett has been co-chairing a dedicated working group developing an enhanced implementation plan to deliver the innovation strand of these three core pillars. ‘Innovation 2030: Make Innovation Happen’ was formally launched on 10th May 2017.

What is the Future for Reformulation?

On 26th April 2017 Rowett scientists led a major debate to better understand future challenges and to help shape the future of support for food and drink reformulation. The debate was held at the Scottish Parliament under the auspice of the Cross Parliamentary Group on Food chaired by Rhoda Grant MSP.

Dr Alan Rowe provided a scene setting introduction and Professor Baukje de Roos provided case studies showcasing some of the Rowett’s research in the area.   Supported by Professor Julian Mercer they then led a debate with the 30+ attendees from the public and private sector. 

The debate explored the mutual understanding of reformulation, potential conflicting issues and how these might be balanced, public and private sector drivers of change, collaborative approaches to problem solving and the potential roles of legislation and voluntary codes in driving change. Outputs from the debate will help the Food and Drink Federation Scotland and Scotland Food and Drink to identify priorities and shape support to address future trends to balance different stakeholder needs. 


Buying less and wasting less food. 

Stephen Whybrow, Graham W Horgan and Jennie I Macdiarmid

Researchers from the Rowett have tested the idea that the decrease in food energy purchased by British shoppers (over the recent recession and rising food prices) is not evident when an overall decrease in food waste is also taken into account.

Using data from the Kantar Worldpanel (who collect consumer purchase data from approximately 30000 households across Great Britain, including 3000 in Scotland) an estimation was made of the energy value corrected for differences in family ages/numbers. The researchers then used published data from WRAP (Waste and Resources Action Programme) to estimate the amount of avoidable waste produced by families and scaled this for household size.

The conclusions were that although the amount of energy purchased per person in Scotland decreased between 2007 and 2012, this reduction was balanced by a decrease in food waste. This result suggests that the estimated daily energy intakes have not varied greatly over this time. This is true across households in different areas of deprivation, even though households in more deprived areas may experience greater financial pressures on food choice.

The authors conclude that as the reduction in purchased energy by Scottish consumers is countered by reduced waste, the study highlights how crucial it is to account for waste when investigating food intakes among a population.

This work was supported by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) Division.


Investigating the UK's global agricultural land footprint 

Henri de Ruiter, Jennie I. Macdiarmid, Robin B. Matthews, Thomas Kastner, Lee R. Lynd, Pete Smith

This work involving the Rowett investigated the total global agricultural land footprint of the UK’s food supply and found that the total agricultural footprint has decreased over recent decades.

A collaboration between the Rowett, the Institute of Biological and Environmental Sciences at the University of Aberdeen and the James Hutton Institute, this research seeks to investigate the total land footprint associated with the livestock food supply using the UK as an example.  Calculations of land use for livestock takes into account grassland for grazing (and silage production) as well as cropland for feed. This figure is then compared with the total cropland footprint of crops consumed by humans to obtain the total land footprint associated with the UK food supply.

The results show that the supply of ruminant meat decreased between 1986 and 2011, but the supply of pig meat and poultry has increased. Overall the total land footprint of the UK has decreased over this study period, both ruminant meat supply and milk supply have decreased so the total area dedicated to grazing grassland has decreased.  It is this figure which has contributed to the decrease in the overall footprint.  This decrease in ruminant supply could be due to changing agricultural polices as well as outbreaks of BSE and foot and mouth.

Of course not all of the food supply is domestic, crops have increasingly been sourced overseas leading to an increased footprint abroad.  However, while the proportion of domestic cropland has decreased, the domestic share of grassland for grazing has actually increased even though the total footprint has decreased.

This work was partially funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services (RESAS) Division.


Preclinical models for obesity research

Barrett P, Mercer JG, Morgan PJ.

Some of our established researchers give a comprehensive review on models for obesity research; highlighting genetic models of obesity, models of diet-induced obesity as well as some of the new genetic work including epigenetics, optogenetics and chemogenetics.

This review focusses on the many resources that are available to biomedical research to allow a multidisciplinary response to the global obesity crisis. Various models of obesity are discussed including some of the traditional genetic models and the diet-induced obesity models that involve intake of human foods, food choice, meal-feeding and binge-like eating.

As new technologies have become available (including CRE-lox and CRISPR) rodent models have become more sophisticated and now allow tweaking the neural networks underpinning food intake behaviour which influences energy balance and obesity.  The strengths and weaknesses of all of these models are discussed and their ability to contribute to the knowledge base and lead to the development of new therapeutic interventions.

The authors are funded by the Scottish Government, Rural and Environment Science and Analytical Services Division, Strategic Research Programme, ‘Food, Health and Wellbeing’ Theme.


Hypothalamic signalling in response to nutrient levels

Matei Bolborea, Gisela Helfer, Francis J P Ebling and Perry Barrett

This work investigating signalling pathways in the hypothalamus has resulted in author Perry Barrett being a top cited author in the journal of Molecular Endocrinology.

The research concentrated on a group of cells in the brain known as tanycytes. This group of cells has multiple functions in the hypothalamus region of the brain, one of which is the ability to sense nutrients and metabolic hormones.  Investigating this specific group of cells in the hypothalamus, the research group used cell culture to determine the signalling pathway involving TSH receptors. These receptors are involved in the sensing of metabolic hormones.

The aim of the research was to determine the signal transduction pathway by which TSH signals in tanycytes. To achieve this the authors treated tanycyte cell cultures with TSH to induce signalling via the TSH receptors. These treated cells displayed an increase in cAMP but also a cAMP-dependent phosphorylation of ERK1/2. These molecules are implicated in signalling cascades involving protein kinases and G proteins.

In summary it was demonstrated that in cell cultures, TSH leads to an increase in cAMP, but also that TSH has the ability to activate an alternative cAMP-independent mechanism. The authors conclude that more investigation would be important as there could be unknown aspects of cell physiology that affect hypothalamic-neuroendocrine communication.

The work was support by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (UK)


Plant-bound masked mycotoxins are released in the gut

Dr Silvia Gratz

Scientists from the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute have been studying the fate of food contaminants in the human digestive system, of which little research has been previously conducted. 

Mycotoxins are fungal toxins which can be present in cereal crops, such as wheat, oats and barley. Plants bind these mycotoxins to sugars and it is unknown whether these bound or ‘masked’ mycotoxins will be released in the body after consuming contaminated food. Due to their high toxicity, the European Commission has set strict maximum levels for some mycotoxins in food, however, there are currently no maximum levels for masked mycotoxins. 

The team, have discovered that these masked mycotoxins remain stable in the small intestine however, once they reach the large intestine they are broken down by human gut bacteria and these mycotoxins are rapidly released, which could add to the overall mycotoxin exposure. The research was carried out using an in vitro artificial digestion system to mimic the conditions that prevail in the human small and large intestine.

Dr Gratz said: “This study has shown us that more investigations need to be conducted into the effects of these masked mycotoxins as they could pose an additional risk to consumers. Future work will assess the exposure of consumers to these masked mycotoxins and their release and uptake from the large intestine. 

“The findings from this study have enabled the Food Standards Agency to have a better understanding of the significance of masked mycotoxins in the diet and their fate in the human gut. The results may be used in future consideration of risks from their presence in food.”

The study was conducted in collaboration with Fera Science Ltd. and was funded by the Food Standards Agency and the Scottish Government.


Measuring the effect of increasing fruit and vegetable intake

Duthie SJ, Duthie GG, Russell WR, Kyle JAM, Macdiarmid JI, Rungapamestry V, Stephen S, Megias-Baeza C, Kaniewska JJ, Shaw L, Milne L, Bremner D, Ross K, Morrice P, Pirie LP, Horgan G, Bestwick CS

A human nutrition study at the Rowett showed that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables (to 8 portions a day) increased levels of Vitamin C, and carotenoids as well as other indicators of nutritional health in volunteers.

The benefit of eating fruits and vegetables is attributed in part to antioxidants, vitamins and phytochemicals, which may protect against vascular disease and cancer. This study investigated whether increasing daily intake of fruits, vegetables and juices from low (approximately 3 portions), to high intakes (approximately 8 portions) impacted on indicators of nutritional and clinical health. Barriers to achieving the recommended fruit and vegetable intakes are also investigated.

The results showed that blood plasma levels of vitamin C, folate, α- and ß-carotene and lutein were significantly increased. However, there were no significant changes in antioxidant capacity or markers of oxidative stress, suggesting that the circulating increases in beneficial nutrients does not induce protective biochemical changes.

Further to the lab research, another goal of the study was to investigate perceived barriers to increased fruit and vegetable consumption. Despite all being aware of the UK Government dietary recommendation of “5-a-day” most respondents reported eating only 3 – 4 portions per day. The main reasons for not eating an increased level of fruit and vegetables were inconvenience (during the study all produce was delivered to them), variation in amount eaten seasonally and cost.

This work was funded by The Scottish Government Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Sciences Division (RESAS) and supported by the Rank Prize Funds.


The Hunger Games. How the brain rules our appetite

A scientist from the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute has been awarded almost £1M as part of a prestigious Career Development Award from the Medical Research Council to investigate what makes us hungry and what it is that tells us when we are ‘full up’. 

A team, led by Dr Guiseppe D’agostino, hope to understand what makes us hungry or full and how this information can then be used to help develop novel therapeutic strategies to treat obesity and eating disorders.  Obesity increases the risk of developing major illnesses such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, cancer and numerous other conditions and it is associated with a reduction in lifespan by approximately 8 years, on the other hand several other medical conditions are associated with a harmful loss of appetite.

The team will study a brain region called the nucleus of the solitary tract (NTS). This region acts as a gateway between the gut and the brain, interpreting meal-related information and funnelling it to the right brain regions so a decision can be made on whether we have eaten the right amount of food.  They hope that this research will help us to understand this gut-brain ‘cross-talk’ and to decode how hunger and satiety information is passed on between different regions of the brain.

Dr D’agostino said: “It is the brain that rules our appetite. Key regions of the brain are responsible for receiving and processing meal information to maintain the equilibrium between hunger and fullness, and to achieve this, specialised nerve cells are wired together in mind boggling networks within our brain.

“What I am looking to find out is what happens if more food than the body requires is regularly consumed. Not unlike tolerance to alcohol or a medication, it is possible that the NTS develops a tolerance to nutrient signals and therefore it takes more food to be consumed before the brain tells us that we are full. The contrary can also be true; overly active signals of fullness could be triggers for the loss of appetite that is associated to some psychiatric conditions or because of medical treatments, such as chemotherapy”

“Overall, my team aims to decode the function of specific nerve cells whose function is to decipher and elaborate gut signals, clarifying the chemicals they make, and the networks they build within our brains to control appetite - an area of knowledge critical to our understanding and treating the obesity epidemic, eating disorders, and improving human health.”

Guiseppe is the recipient of a prestigious Career Development Award from the Medical Research Council.

Community Engagement

Breakfast on the bus

As part of ‘Techfest’ in September last year (Aberdeen’s science festival), we borrowed a London double-decker bus from our colleagues in Campus Services (as one does) and parked it outside our new building! Guests enjoyed a healthy and satisfying ‘breakfast on the bus’, specially designed by researcher Dr Alexandra Johnstone and research dietitian Karen Taylor.  Prof Julian Mercer joined Alex to discuss some of their research on appetite control and behaviour change. Next stop Westminster or Oxford Circus!

Doors Open Day

Last September the Rowett opened its doors to the public as part of the annual “Doors Open Day” event. People were invited to join one of the tours around our new facility highlighting our superb human nutrition unit, our highly specified laboratories, as well as the state of the art analytical chemistry department and seeing some of our heritage artefacts incorporated into the new building.  We had a very successful day; despite running only four tours and taking bookings for 12 per tour, we nevertheless had over 150 interested members of the public through our doors!  Looking forward to a bigger and better event this year.

Edinburgh International Science Festival

Visitors to the Edinburgh International Science Festival at the Royal Botanic Gardens in April were treated to many engaging activities showing how our bodies are ideally suited for “Harvesting for Health”. Researchers Wendy Russell and Madalina Neascu highlighted some of the bioactive molecules in several types of beans, seeds and pulses, with an opportunity to model some of these chemicals as well as try some tasty snacks made with these ingredients. There was a representation of the human gut so that children might appreciate how we “harvest” our food as explained by microbiologist Alan Walker. This was followed with modelling of gut microbes and games of “gut twister”. Our diet can affect the health of our heart, and Dr Frank Thies was on hand to demonstrate how blood flow and pressure are affected by blood vessel health. It was a very busy but rewarding couple of days, and all our visitors enjoyed their day. 

The Royal Highland Show 2017

Staff from the University of Aberdeen Rowett Institute had a busy time taking part in the Royal Highland Show.

This annual event at Ingliston, Edinburgh, is the pinnacle of the agricultural calendar, involving over 1,000 trade exhibitors and around 2,150 livestock competitors.

A team from the Rowett were based in the show’s Discovery Centre, which offers an education programme for children of all ages. Here youngsters were able to find out more about gut health in a fun and engaging interactive exhibition called ‘Microbes and me’. Together with other members of the SEFARI collective (Scottish Environment, Food and Agriculture Research Institutes) Rowett researchers gave visitors a fascinating insight into the role of bacteria in the gut

Dr Alexandra Johnstone teamed up with the ‘Kilted Chef’ Craig Wilson in the ‘Aberdeenshire Village’, part of this year’s "President’s initiative" and entertained the crowds with some healthy cooking demonstrations.  Vegetable bhuna with monkfish, and spicy beef flatbreads were among the delicious dishes cooked and discussed by this dynamic duo. 

Dr Jennie Macdiarmid lent her nutrition expertise to an expert panel to judge the first Scottish Bread Championships. From blind tasting of 49 entries across six categories, Scottish Sourdough baked by Woodlea Stables was announced as the overall winner. Runner up was a sourdough loaf by Baikhous. Jennie said “This was a fun experince –  definitely something a bit different from the day job.  It was good to see nutrition and sustainability being taken account of in the judging”.

Professor Peter Morgan, Director of the Rowett Institute and Chair of SEFARI, spoke at a key Reception hosted by the Cabinet Secretary for Rural Economy and Connectivity, Fergus Ewing.  The Reception, coordinated by SEFARI highlighted the vital role of research in supporting Scotland’s food and drink industry.  At the reception, the Cab Sec launched a new collaborative innovation fund to promote translation of research into the industry.

Professor Morgan commented: “The Royal Highland Show is an exceptional annual event in the calendar of the agricultural and food and drink industries and I am delighted that the Rowett was once again able to showcase the work of the Institute. In addition, we were able to show how the Rowett, as part of the SEFARI collective, is important to the success of Scotland’s food and drink industry.

“Our team put a lot of hard work and effort into their demonstrations and exhibits and I would like to thank them for this.”

Some more excellent photos from the day can be seen here->

Volunteering for a nutrition study

Established to provide a metabolic research centre to study the relationship between diet and health in humans, our new human nutrition unit is a superbly equipped, one-of-a-kind facility. We can measure your resting metabolic rate and body composition in the clinical area; there is very comfortable overnight accommodation should a study require it, and we have a bright volunteer's dining area adjacent to a fully equipped kitchen. There are many different studies running at any one time, and we are always looking for volunteers to take part. Two of the most recent studies for which we are recruiting are the Diabetes and Health study (looking at gut bacteria in people with Type 2 diabetes), and the Crab and Health study in which we are investigating levels of nutrients in consumers of crab meat. Our volunteers always find taking part in a study worthwhile, let them tell you in our volunteer story video ->

For more information visit our website


Dr Russell Betney (Science Engagement Officer)                     Dr Sue Bird (Knowledge Exchange Manager)
Rowett Institute                                                                                       Rowett Institute
University of Aberdeen                                                                         University of Aberdeen
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