Last updated July 3, 2017 at 5:10 pm
Grab a pint and read the wrap up from the Adelaide 2017 Pint of Science events.
From the 15 – 17 May 2017, something truly unique happened in hundreds of pubs, in 162 cities, across 13 countries; a bunch of passionate scientists came together with some curious members of the community to share their mutual love of science over pints of beer. This event, called Pint of Science, had its beginnings in London, 2012. It has since evolved into an amazing global celebration of all things science-y, covering a range of topics. We heard about some amazing research going on in institutions in our own backyard. For those of you who missed out on grabbing a pint or few of science, here are the best bits.
Night one: Of dental plaque and doo-doo
Dr Laura Weyrich kicked off the evening with an absorbing talk about Neanderthal dental plaque and its microbiota or microbiome; which is essentially the collection of teeming microorganisms (e.g. bacteria), residing in and on our bodies, essential for the normal functioning of our human machine! Laura and her teams’ studies have tracked big alterations in our microbiome by examining Neanderthal dental calculus (the hardened growth on teeth). This has provided a ‘record’ of all the bacteria that would have been present during the lifetime of a particular individual. Laura’s research has suggested that the advent of agriculture, and of modern diets full of sugar and fat have led to the introduction of harmful bacteria into the microbiome, which have been linked to various diseases, such as obesity, cancer, and even autism spectrum disorder. Dr Weyrich thinks that studying the evolution of the microbiota from our ancient club-wielding cousins in greater depth may help us better understand a lot of the diseases that ail us today and even help find more effective, targeted cures!
To break the evening up, the amazing organisers of PoS had organised some quizzes. Not only did this test my general knowledge about scientific discoveries; it also gave me a chance to connect with some interesting people at my table! We didn’t manage to win the free jug of beer, but we sure had fun trying! And I ended up better versed in scientific trivia!
After the break, Dr Michael Conlon told us more about our unique microbial ‘fingerprint’, how the composition of our microbiome is decided by the way we enter this world, (i.e. natural birth or caesarean section) and is further affected depending on whether we are breast-fed or formula-fed. There are also ways in which we can unwittingly adversely alter the types of microbes we host, like, our lifestyle choices. Michael also told us that stress, emotions and attitudes can sometimes upset this delicate balance, and is termed the Gut-Brain link. Manipulating the microbiota for the better is a bit harder and is what he researches. He found ingesting prebiotics and probiotics can help, but in the case of certain diseases, like ulcerative colitis, treatment with faecal microbiota transplant (FMT) is needed. As the name suggests, the waste matter from a healthy donor is taken, carefully processed and then introduced into the colon of the recipient. In fact, trials underway at the CSIRO using this procedure and are showing promise! So, given the direction that gut research is headed; personalised medicine may be the future, the key to which may well be our microbial mates!
Night two: Of venom and waste
Associate Professor Briony Forbes started the evening off with platypus and cone snail props! Briony has studied cone snail venom, and found it is made up of many unique proteins, including one that is very similar to insulin. In humans, insulin is produced by our pancreas, and helps our cells utilise glucose for their daily functions. So, in the case of diseases like Type I diabetes (no insulin production), or Type II diabetes (no cellular response to insulin), a myriad of problems ensue. Interestingly, Prof Forbes found the insulin-like protein in cone snail venom was similar to human insulin, fast acting, and also stuck around for longer! She is also looking into the venom of the platypus, which she found contains proteins that stimulate the release of insulin. So, according to Prof Forbes, “By comparing genes and proteins from different species, we can get unique clues on how to build better and novel treatments for diabetes.”
While we let that information sink in, we were entertained by a game organised by the awesome PoS team. With bottles of wine used as enticements, we were asked to figure out whether some weird and wonderful scientific ‘facts’ were true or false. The audience also had a chance to bid for a chance to ‘invest’ in some South Australian science; aka locally produced beer and wine! 😉 All in all, everyone really enjoyed themselves!
Dr Justin Chalker changed the tune up for the remainder of the night with an eye-opening talk about mercury pollution from various industries and ways in which his laboratory is turning waste into wonder! He informed us that due to poorly enforced or non-existent regulations toxic mercury can leach into water tables, disperse into the air or even sink into the soil, all to be taken up by us unsuspecting humans. So, being a curious chemist, Justin wanted to find innovative solutions to this problem. He created a mixture using sulphur (waste product of the petroleum industry) and canola oil that sensed and also took up mercury, forming a non-toxic mixture. Dr Chalker concluded by saying, “We want to translate our discoveries that were driven largely by curiosity from the lab to actually make materials that are used by industry, that are made on a large scale and actually impact human health and the environment in a positive way!”
Image credit: Wikimedia/Richard Ling, 2005
Night three: Of CRISPR and controversy
What a way to finish an amazing event! PoS ended with a bang, with truly unique talks by Dr Heather Bray and Professor Rachel Burton. They tackled a contentious issue with flair and finesse, while informing and entertaining the hell out of the audience! They took a packed audience through the science AND the history behind genetically modified organisms (GMOs), specifically GMO foods; all this while acknowledging that there may well be people in the crowd that find the information hard to swallow.
Using her research with barley as an example, Rachel showed us that GM foods have been an integral part of our diet for millennia, with Mother Nature being the original manipulatory of genomes. They even used pool-noodles to explain how DNA undergoes alterations or mutations, and how these have been a part of the natural evolutionary process, i.e. blue eyes arose from mutations!
To help us digest a rather full on topic, the PoS team had organised and fun yet challenging game. This time, involving sticks and marshmallows. We had a solid plan, but unfortunately our marshmallow tower was not so solid! As always this evening too there super cool giveaways like PoS beer pints, t-shirts and of course local wine!
After the break, Heather walked us through many amazing scientific discoveries that have given us the thousands of commercially available crops, including the barley used in modern day brewing! Together, they told us about the most ingenious, specific and controversial gene editing methods called CRISPR (clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats). It already has a multitude of applications. As we speak, this technique is being trialled to help create immune cells capable of combating cancer and drought-resistant crops, which may soon be on our supermarket shelves!
After bombarding you with all that information, I will leave you with this. The one sure thing that I took away from PoS, is that the work going on in our very own labs in Adelaide, is truly remarkable and something to be very proud of! While some of this research may make people uneasy, as long as we have guidelines and regulations in place, as we do, we can rest easy and have faith in our scientists; that they really are doing what is best for us! And, I can’t wait for next year, to hear more amazing science stories!