I have recently written an essay for the British Society for Gene and Cell Therapy and it won the 1st prize in BSGCT science writing competition. I am reposting the essay below and the original essay can be found on the BSGCT blogs page.
This was my recent talk about DNA origami for the FameLab competition. In some places nerves got the better of me and I made some mistakes, but I still hope the talk is worth the 3min of your time to listen. I include some references below, in case you want to learn a bit more about this amazing DNA origami technology.
Over the last two years Zika virus has emerged as one of the major global health threats. Even though the virus has been known since 1947, when it was first isolated from a rhesus monkey in Zika forest in Uganda, only recently has it become a major research interest. Generally, Zika virus infections in healthy individuals are quite mild, with a few non-specific symptoms, which is why for the most part the interest in Zika was more a scientific curiosity than a treatment necessity. However, when the first reports from Brazil in 2015 noted the links between neurological abnormalities and Zika virus infections, scientists have rushed to study and better understand this once-ignored virus. We now know that, if the Zika virus crosses the placenta in a pregnant mother, it can cause microcephaly in newborns. In addition, in some rare instances, adults infected with Zika can acquire the Guillain–Barré syndrome, a condition where a person’s immune system starts attacking its own nerve cells.
I have written about bacteriophages (or simply phages) quite a few times before on this blog. It seems to me that phage research often doesn’t get enough attention. It is somewhat ironic that phages are often overlooked, even though they are the most abundant type of organism on our planet.
Phages come in all shapes and sizes and they are the viruses that only infect bacteria. I’ve heard someone describing the classical T4 phage as the Apollo Lunar Module in miniature. Perhaps Thomas J. Kelly, who designed the lunar lander, did indeed get some inspiration from biology (wouldn’t be the first time for NASA), or it may have been (and quite likely was) a complete coincidence, but I still like the idea. Even though phages are so abundant, our understanding of how they affect the communities and environments they live in is relatively poor. For example, over the last several years the term ‘human microbiome’ has become almost a catchphrase and the study of the microbes living in and on human body is now a very trendy topic in research. However, with all this microbiome hype, most of the studies on the human microbiome completely ignore the presence of phages in us. When I looked at how many papers on PubMed database where published on the human microbiome in 2016 the number was 6,014, but if I added the term bacteriophage to the search bar only 195 articles came up, and that’s throughout all the available years.
Mitochondria are organelles that are often referred to as the powerhouses of our cells. Mitochondria are the sites where ATP molecules are made, and ATP is the energy unit allowing many processes in the cells to take place- replication, signalling, cell death and many other pathways require ATP. Mitochondria are also the only organelles in our cells which have their own genome, therefore, all our cells actually have two genomes- the nuclear genome (which is what people usually refer to when they talk about cellular genome) and the mitochondrial genome. The mitochondrial genome is much smaller that the nuclear one. The human nuclear genome is has around 3 billion base pairs, which are all contained in 23 chromosome, whereas the mitochondrial genome has only 16 569 base pairs and is maintained as a circular chromosome of a double-stranded DNA.
We owe a lot to the honeybees. These amazing little creatures are not just producers of the sweet honey they are also responsible for a large part of the food on our plates. The bees pollinate more than 100 different plant species, including apples, rapeseeds, almonds, and many others. And do the bees it all for free! In fact, the estimated global cost of the pollination service that the bees provide is around 215 billion dollars.
The term ‘vector-born disease’ refers to infections that are transmitted from one animal to another by a vector. These vectors are usually small blood-sucking organisms such as insects and alike. And yes, perhaps the most annoying blood-sucking insect known to mankind- the mosquito, is also a major vector for many diseases. Malaria, Chikungunya, Dengue, Yellow Fever, Zika and many other diseases are transmitted by mosquitos. Generally, these diseases are transmitted when a mosquito bites one infected animal (e.g. a human that has the malaria parasite in his/her blood), takes up the parasite with the ingested blood and then injects this parasite to the next person as it takes a subsequent blood meal. In the case of malaria, the parasite a mosquito transmits belongs to Plasmodium genus. Plasmodium parasites replicate in liver and red blood cells of the infected hosts and cause these cells to burst and die. Recurrent bursts of parasite growth in red blood cells are what leads to the waves of high fever, which is a typical symptom of malaria.
Any form of addiction can become a vicious circle. From an outsider’s point of view, drug addiction may seem like a completely irrational behaviour why on Earth would anyone want to spend money on something so damaging and dangerous? But for regular drug users this question, while still present, is no longer interpreted in the same way and it is not because they chose it so but because the drug abuse has tweaked the brain circuits responsible for survival instinct.
What is the link between plants, frostbite, artificial snow and clouds?
Bacteria may not be the first thing that come to mind, at least it wasn’t for me, but then again, considering the abundance and diversity of microbes, it may not be the most surprising of answers.
Recently I came across an article which contained a term “ice-nucleating bacteria” in its title and as I knew little about ice nucleation and nothing about its relation to bacteria I decided to investigate further. As ever, the amazing feats of microbes did not leave me disappointed!
Marine tubeworms are sessile organisms found in variety of ocean ecosystems. Among the many different species of tubeworms some are real record breakers. If you ever heard of a tubeworm then you most likely have heard about Riftia pachyptila, usually called the Giant tubeworm, which can reach more than 2m in length and lives near deep-sea volcanoes and hydrothermal vents. The Giant tubeworms can experience temperature changes from the near boiling waters coming off the hydrothermal vents to just above freezing temperatures of the deep-sea waters. Tubeworms don’t have digestive system and rely on microbes to provide ready-made nutrients. In a special organ, called trophosome, tubeworms harbour thousands of symbiotic bacteria which provide them food. In the case of the Giant tubeworm these bacteria are adapted to metabolise sulphur-rich compounds (coming from the vent fluid), which ultimately leads to production of organic molecules that are taken up by the tubeworm.