Rory Duncan


+44 (0)131 451 3414
Room 1.51A David Brewster Building Heriot-Watt University

Our research focuses on the process of exocytosis (secretion) in cells. This is central to normal physiology, as it is the only way cells in the body communicate with each other. The proteins involved have been well described, in both neurons (for neurotransmission) and neuroendocrine cells (for hormone secretion, such as insulin), but the spatio-temporal dynamics of the process in cells remain speculative.

We apply advanced imaging approaches (TIRFM, TCSPC-FLIM, FCS, PALM) to address these questions. By using fluorescent fusion proteins, expressed in living neurons or neuroendocrine model cells, we are able to quantify the localisations, interactions, conformations and concentrations of large cohorts of single molecules or organelles. The combination of molecular imaging, in vitro biochemistry, cell culture with these imaging approaches provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to probe cell biology.

These techniques generate an enormous volume of quantitative data. We collaborate with colleagues in the departments of physics, chemistry and mathematics as part of the wider 'Life Science Interface Theme' in Heriot-Watt University ( This programme aims to foster inter-disciplinary collaboration, and is centred on our extremely well-equipped and funded laboratories in the Perking Building. Current active funding (2011) is from The Wellcome Trust, The MRC, The Royal Society and the STFC, supporting around 11 researchers in the Life Science Interface Laboratory.

For further details please see the Life Science Interface Laboratory webpages.

Selected publications
  1. Smyth, AM, Rickman, C, Duncan, RR “Vesicle fusion probability is determined by the specific interactions of Munc18” J Biol Chem 285: 38141-41 (2010)
  2. Rickman, C, Medine, CN, Dun, AR, Moulton, DJ, Mandula, O, Halemani, ND, Rizzoli, SO, Chamberlain, LH, Duncan, RR “t-SNARE protein conformations patterned by the lipid microenvironment” J Biol Chem 285: 13535-41 (2010)
  3. Smyth, AM, Duncan, RR, Rickman, C “Munc18-1 and Syntaxin1: unravelling interactions between the dynamic duo” Cell and Molecular Neurobiology 30: 1309-13 (2010)
  4. Rickman, C and Duncan, RR “Munc18/ Syntaxin interaction kinetics control secretory vesicle dynamics” J Biol Chem 285: 3965-72 (2010)
    Soriano, FX, Martel, MA, Papadia S, Vaslin, A, Baxter, P, Rickman, C, Forder J, Tymianski, M, Duncan R, Aarts M, Clarke P, Wyllie DJ, Hardingham, GE “Specific targeting of pro-death NMDA receptor signals with differing reliance on the NR2B PDZ ligand” J Neuroscience 28: 10696-710 (2009)
  5. Medine, CN, Rickman, C, Chamberlain, LH and Duncan RR “Munc18-1 prevents the formation of ectopic SNARE complexes in living cells” J Cell Sci 120: 4407-15 (2007)
  6. Duncan RR, Bergmann A, Cousin MA, Apps DK, Shipston MJ “Multi-dimensional time-correlated single photon counting (TCSPC) fluorescence lifetime imaging microscopy (FLIM) to detect FRET in cells” J Microscopy 215: 1-12 (2004)
  7. Duncan RR, Greaves, J, Wiegand, UK, Matskevich, I, Bodammer G, Apps DK, Shipston MJ, Chow RH “Functional and spatial segregation of secretory vesicle pools according to age” Nature 422: 176-80 (2003)

Professor Rory Duncan (cell biology): is a biophysicist who works in the field of molecular membrane biology. As part of an independent research programme 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, consistently publishing in high-ranking peer-reviewed journals, including Nature. He spent 15 years in the University of Edinburgh Medical School, funded by successive personal Fellowships from Catalyst BioMedica (the commercial arm of the Wellcome Trust) and the Wellcome Trust, establishing and developing a variety of single molecule resolution imaging and spectroscopic approaches for use in living samples. During this time, Duncan established and directed a highly successful, self-funding imaging facility at the Centre for Integrative Physiology which provided instrumentation and data analyses for >30 PI groupings, resulting in >100 high-impact publications between 2007-10.

Duncan joined Heriot Watt University in November 2010, establishing the Life Science Interface Laboratory at that time with a substantial investment by Heriot Watt and external funders ( This unique suite of laboratories brings together every live cell, single molecule approach in one place, with substantial input from physicists, mathematicians and engineers to drive both the development of next generation imaging and spectroscopic techniques for the life sciences and also to provide expert image data signal processing essential for modern biomedical science.

This activity led to the formation of the Institute of Biological Chemistry, Biophysics and Bioengineering (led by Duncan; in January 2012, which brought together >20 truly interdisciplinary PI Groups with the unifying aim of applying advances in the physical and engineering sciences to address fundamental life science questions and develop novel imaging and data analysis approaches, with current research funding from the Wellcome Trust, the MRC, BBSRC, STFC, EPSRC, NERC, EU FP7, the Royal Society and commercial partners. In the first 9 months since establishment, this new Institute has won >£4.5M in external funding.

Notably, IB3 is central in the formation of the ‘Edinburgh Super-resolution imaging consortium (ESRIC;’ which has brought together > 100 principal investigators from across Heriot Watt and Edinburgh Universities and serves as a platform for knowledge exchange, high quality post-graduate training, interdisciplinary research and funding proposals. ESRIC was funded by the MRC (£2M; Duncan PI) and provides every live cell, super-resolution imaging and spectroscopic technique available, under one roof.

This strong reputation and skill base in imaging and imaging technology development led to the establishment of an Inter-disciplinary research centre (IRC), between the Universities of Edinburgh, Bath and Heriot-Watt University, with £9.5M of funding from the EPSRC. This IRC is developing novel in vivo imaging and molecular sensing devices for improved rapid diagnostics in acute medicine. Duncan is one of four Heriot-Watt academics involved, bringing live cell fluorescence lifetime imaging expertise.

Duncan currently sits on Canadian funding committees, providing expert commentary on imaging and imaging infrastructure funding proposals and delivered the Keynes Lecture on ‘Single molecule imaging approaches’ at the prestigious EMBL ‘Advanced imaging’ Summer School in April 2012. He is Keynote Speaker at the 40th Anniversary ‘Scottish Microscopy Group’ meeting in November 2012 and Session Chair and co-organiser of the 2013 ‘World Congress in Molecular Biology’ in Shuzou, China. He also serves as Heriot-Watt Principal investigator and funding committee member on a joint HWU– University of Edinburgh MRC ‘Confidence in Concept’ funding committee, disbursing £700K of MRC funds to joint, interdisciplinary biomedical proposals in the areas of diagnostics and medical devices throughout 2012-13.

Duncan is also Director of Edinburgh Biosciences Ltd, based on Heriot-Watt Research Park. This company was founded by Des Smith, FRS, to commercialise biophotonics devices and technologies.