Prof. Rory Duncan

Institute Head

+44 131 4513414


Heriot-Watt University


EH14 4AS


Professor Rory Duncan works in the field of membrane trafficking and has made a substantial contribution to our understanding of regulated exocytosis. He specialises in the quantification of protein-protein interactions in living cells, applying physics approaches such as time-correlated single photon counting (TCSPC). Duncan spent the last 15 years at the University of Edinburgh Medical School, first as a Catalyst BioMedica (the commercial arm of the Wellcome Trust) Principal Investigator, then latterly as a Wellcome Trust Fellow.

During this time he established and streamlined the biophysical techniques required to probe the interactions, conformations, dynamics and nano-scale positions of large cohorts of proteins and lipids in living cells. Duncan established the LSI Laboratory in Heriot-Watt University in November 2010, where a group of approximately 11 researchers continue the work already established in Edinburgh, in state-of-the-art surroundings within the School of Engineering, Physics and Chemistry of Heriot-Watt University.


Real time analysis of SNARE protein dynamics during exocytosis

The SNARE proteins are essential for secretion, and so normal physiology. Unfortunately, the techniques required to analyse the function of proteins at the molecular level in living samples have been severely limited until recently, so our understanding of their functions, locations and dynamic interactions remains limited. This project will address these questions, analysing SNARE protein molecular dynamics in living neurons. A combination of quantitative in vitro biochemistry and advanced imaging approaches will tell us how the proteins’ functions are regulated by calcium, in real time, with high spatial accuracy.

(In collaboration with Colin Rickman and Luke Chamberlain (Strathclyde). Funded by the Medical Research Council)

Molecular spatio-temporal dynamics of neuronal Sec-1

nSec-1, also known as Munc18-1, is one of only 4 proteins absolutely essential for secretion in cells. As secretion is central to normal physiology (for example, it is faulty in diabetes, schizophrenia, epilepsy etc), understanding how these proteins work is a key aim. Biochemists have told us about the proteins involved in secretion and their interactions, but the ‘wheres’ and ‘whens’ of the actions of these molecular machines in cells remain largely speculative. This project will determine where munc18 acts in a living cell, where and when it interacts with its binding partners, how it is distributed, and how this is regulated, all at the level of single molecules in living cells.

(In collaboration with Colin Rickman. Funded by the Wellcome Trust)

Imaging large cohorts of single molecules in 3-Dimensions

Current single molecule imaging approaches (2011), although extremely impressive, are limited in the main to 2-D, often at the cell membrane. This project aims to use the optical tools developed by Professor Alan Greenaway  to permit the axial ranging of molecules in 3-D. In short, we expect to be able to localise the positions of single molecules with an accuracy of <20 nm in the XY plane, and <50 nm in Z. This is an enormous improvement on the current state-of-the-art, will be compatible with any commercial fluorescence microscope, and is relatively simple and inexpensive.

(Funded by the Royal Society)

Secretory Vesicles

This project utilises novel imaging approaches being developed by Professor Alan Greenaway, to increase the rate of acquisition of 3-D stacks using a widefield microscope. This is important, because our present acquisition rate, of approximately 1 entire cell stack per second, is too slow to permit accurate tracking of fast-moving organelles. By using Alan’s novel optical techniques, we can increase the rate 3, 6 or perhaps even 9-fold - this will permit real-time, 4-dimensional analyses of live-cell dynamics.

(In collaboration with Alan Greenaway and Colin Rickman. Funded by the STFC)

Group Members

Dr Kirsty Martin

Deirdre Kavanagh

Charlotte Hamilton

Alison Dun

Annya Smyth

Katia Hiersemenzel