You may have noticed the blogs and events listing for an art-science encounter called inside: TRAK. Check out this video about the exhibition on the New Scientist website.
I’m cheating on this blog with another one for a while. Please see here for recent posts on the InsideTRAK exhibition.
Many of us are carrying genes for lots of different diseases that we’ll never actually get. Crohn’s disease, for example, is an inflammatory disease of the intestinal tract affecting less than 1% of the population, but over half of us are carrying at least one gene linked to it.
Environmental triggers can help account for this inconsistency, but scientists have been unable to explain exactly how.
However, a recent study published in Cell has shown that when mice with a particular Crohn’s disease gene are exposed to a norovirus infection, they develop similar symptoms to people with the disease.
The finding was a chance discovery; Professor Thaddeus Stappenbeck from Washington School of Medicine was working with mice carrying a Crohn’s disease susceptibility gene, Atg16L1m. He moved the mice to cleaner housing, to keep them away from viruses that can affect lab mice, and found that when they were in the cleaner facility they no longer showed symptoms of Crohn’s disease.
The researchers investigated whether murine norovirus, which was absent from the clean facility, was responsible for the development of Crohn’s disease in the mice carrying the Atg16L1m susceptibility gene.
The investigators infected the susceptible Atg16L1m mice with a particular strain of murine norovirus (MNV CR6), which caused them to develop inflammation in cells of the intestine called Paneth cells. This is the same abnormality the mice had when kept in less clean conditions, and patients with Crohn’s disease have similar inflammation in Paneth cells. Mice not carrying the Crohn’s disease susceptibility gene did not develop any symptoms, and susceptible mice infected with a different strain of norovirus (MNV CW3) remained healthy.
Noroviruses are common in humans, causing gastrointestinal upset; doctors had previously noted that many patients with newly diagnosed Crohn’s disease had recently been ill with a stomach virus.
In response to this work, R.Balfour Sartor, chief medical adviser to the Crohn’s and Colitis Foundation of America, says that the research could explain why many people who have genes for Crohn’s disease don’t develop any symptoms. Sartor says that many factors are necessary to cause Chron’s disease, and that more work must be done to see whether these findings also apply to people.
The researchers’ future plans include investigating which particular viruses people with Crohn’s disease have been exposed to.
Newsnight covered the LHC last night and had a good little chit chat with Sir David King and Professor Brian Cox about whether science is worth funding. Again. Skip to 19.45 to catch all the action.
If you can’t see the above content, visit the iPlayer site.
Unbeknownst to many, 2010 is the International Year of Biodiversity. This is the year in which we as a species are meant to come together and cherish the diversity of life on this planet. We should unify over the common aim of preventing further biodiversity loss, realise how precious biodiversity is and how costly further loss will be.
Personally I have felt that this glorious year of change has passed me by somewhat. The Convention of Biological Diversity’s 2010 biodiversity targets, set in 2002, have not been met and pollution, overfishing and deforestation, to name a few, are as rampant as ever. In fact in the wake of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill, 2010 may well be remembered by many as a year of environmental calamity.
Perhaps what we are really celebrating is the raising of awareness of these issues. Our screens are filled with nature programs, politicians seem to be finally acknowledging the important of the environment and organisations such as the Wildlife Trust and the RSPB are doing their upmost to reach out to the British public. Even Edward Norton is involved (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IwbnElGXg2I). As a biology student, however, there seems a distinct difference between awareness and action (woefully seen in the Copenhagen conference earlier this year).
Despite my pessimism, many people may look out of their window and see that the sun is shining, the birds are singing and plants everywhere are displaying to us in their full glory. Even those pesky insects are still around. What is all the fuss really about?
Although it may be difficult to see, our planet is experiencing phenomenal rates of climatic change and species extinction, spurred on, it seems, by human activity. These events are occurring at such a rate that we are forging our own geological era, known as the Anthropocene, or human era. But why is this important to us? So there are a few less species, so what?
The aim of this blog is to answer some of these questions; to look at what biodiversity is and why it is important, to see how we are causing species extinctions and the impact this has, and perhaps most importantly to consider how we can stop this trend and conserve the diversity of life on this planet. I will endeavour to show you what conservation is really about, that it consists not simply of a bunch of hippies chained to trees, but of hundreds of highly trained scientists working together to try and save the gift of biodiversity.
1. Catherine Dapra Zawierka and Paul Zawierka opened DNA Art Forms for business in 2005. Catherine is the sole artist and designer; she received her Bachelor of Arts at Hollins University, and is currently studying at the School of Visual Arts where she is a student of Marvin Mattelson. Paul handles the science end of DNA Art and has always had an avid interest in science and technology research development.
2. These earrings by Londoner deWi are all sterling silver and represent chromosomes in early anaphase during cell division (mitosis).
3. One of my all time favourites Molecular Muse says “I thought I was going to be a scientist. I went through a lot of school, earned a PhD from Yale in Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry, and completed a postdoc at UC Berkeley (working with laser tweezers – cool!). Then my project-loving, creative side caught up with me. While I’m happy to
have had such a robust science background, my skills and interests are really best served by pursuing creative science communication projects.” I love this set of silver complementary base friendship necklaces, also available as earrings. Don’t forget to check out the other amazing molecules on offer.
4. It’s all in the genes…Skinny width 100% silk tie with a DNA double helix design screen printed in water based inks. By Projector, based in York, UK.
This is the year of Science (yes, with a capital S), the BBC and Channel 4 are awash with great primetime shows covering the history, the people and the facts of science. Those who have chosen not to watch Britain’s Got Talent or Over The Rainbow have been treated, in glorious HD, to the story of how science has shaped Great Britain: from copper-bottomed ships helping us defeat the French in the Caribbean allowing us to hold on to the valuable sugar plantations to the harnessing of steam power that drove the Industrial Revolution and code breaker Alan Turing laying the foundations for the first computer. The contribution of science to modern society is incomprehensible.
And yet numbers of students studying STEM subjects are falling, funding is being cut at our world class institutions and public trust in scientists is dwindling.
Inspiring the next generation of scientists, standing up against spurious claims and promoting the advantages of modern technology are all things that we, as young scientists, have a duty to do. As much as I’ve enjoyed The Genius of Britain, The Incredible Human Journey and Bang Goes the Theory, I realise that these programmes only reach a fraction of the audience, there are many more ways we can reach out and excite people with the wonders of science.
I recently ran a workshop for children where we extracted DNA from strawberries. The kids loved the smell of the fruit and the mess they could make with a pipette, but it was the parents who were asking what exactly DNA is for or how the same molecule can hold the instructions to make such diverse creatures as amoeba, strawberries and humans. Standing up for science is a battle that needs to be fought on all fronts, not just criticising when someone says something stupid but also engaging people so that they understand the facts of science and the issues surrounding it.
There are so many ways you can reach people who don’t usually get the opportunity to meet real scientists and find out how surprisingly normal they are! A variety of methods are needed for different ages and backgrounds, you can be fun and creative, think of unusual events, be random. Science Brainwaves are off to the Green Man Festival in August to host a stall in their Einstein’s Garden, we’ll be presenting science to inquisitive minds, young and old, whilst The Doves and Mumford and Sons play in the background.
So go out and stand up for science, in whatever way you can. What can be achieved is a society where people value science and view it as the essential foundation for the modern world. Without public support, politicians will find it too easy to slash science spending in favour of vote winning gimmicks. Science is core to all of our lives but as the voice of young science the ball is in our court to stand up and make sure it’s appreciated.
The iTRAK exhibition has been going down a storm, with a packed opening event and TRAK incidentally participating in seminars held at Access Space.
A more extended post will be coming shortly, but for now here’s a recording of Jon Chambers, one of the model’s developers, and Dora Militaru, the artist, talking to Kate Lindeholm from BBC radio Sheffield.
Pregnancy can be a magical time for women, especially for those who suffer from debilitating chronic illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis. The severity of the symptoms can reduce or disappear completely for the duration of the pregnancy.
Rheumatoid arthritis and multiple sclerosis are both diseases where the immune system tries to attack itself (auto-immune disorder). So, a team from the University of Michigan have been looking into the changes in immune response during pregnancy.
They focused their research on white blood cells (leukocytes), key components of the immune system. They analysed the blood of pregnant and non-pregnant women as well as women with pre-eclampsia (a common complication during pregnancy). A significant difference in the amount of one particular enzyme was found.
Pyruvate kinase is an enzyme which helps break down glucose into a chemical called pyruvate. The main function of this glycolysis is to release energy, in the form of a molecule called ATP, within cells to fuel more reactions. However, the team found that in the white blood cells of pregnant women the amount of pyruvate kinase is reduced compared to those who were not pregnant. Interestingly they also found that the levels of the enzyme in women suffering from pre-eclampsia were only marginally reduced.
There are many questions still remaining about the adaptations the body makes during pregnancy and the reactions going on inside the unborn child. The team seem hopeful that this research could lead to potentially new medications that target the enzyme for sufferers of rheumatoid arthritis or multiple sclerosis or even new methods of diagnosing pre-eclampsia earlier.
Original paper: Xu Y, Madsen-Bouterse SA, Romero R, Hassan S, Mittal P, Elfline M, Zhu A, Petty HR. Leukocyte pyruvate kinase expression is reduced in normal human pregnancy but not pre-eclampsia. Am J. Reprod Immunol 2010.
Welcome to the beginning of InsideTRAK – a three-week long exhibition in Sheffield, with a brand new artistic concept and fusion of science and the arts.
What is TRAK?
TRAK is a robotic ‘eye’ – more specifically, it’s a camera mounted on a pan-tilt frame. It can move around with roughly the same degrees of freedom as our own eyes can. The really interesting thing about TRAK though, is that it is driven by a computer simulation of the human ‘oculomotor’ system. This is the part of our brain which decides what to look at, and directs our eyes to look at it. At the exhibition, you can interact with TRAK, and try to influence the way it looks around the room.
Why is that interesting?
While the problem of where to look might not seem difficult, it is actually a phenomenally complex task. Our visual environment is extremely rich, often ambiguous, constantly changing, and full of information – some of it important, some of it not. Somehow, we are able to ignore the not so important and be ready to respond to unexpected and possibly life-saving visual information. Our brains solve this problem in a remarkably efficient way, though a significant proportion of the brain is involved in solving this problem, and many different sub-functions are brought together. Some of the brain regions involved are:
V1, or ‘primary visual cortex’. This is at the brain’s surface, at the lower back of the brain. It deals with very primitive visual information, like edges.
IT or ‘inferotemporal cortex’. This is also a surface structure, but at the sides of the head. This deals with more complex visual information, and is important for object recognition.
Basal ganglia. This is a group of structures buried deep in the brain. The basal ganglia are believed to be involved in solving the ‘action selection’ problem, or deciding which action to perform at any given time. In this case, we’re looking at where to move our eyes.
LIP, or ‘lateral intraparietal cortex’. Again at the brain’s surface, this is involved with locating the position of interesting things in our visual field.
What’s all this got to do with robots?
By simulating these and other brain regions involved, we are able to create a system that drives the robot eye to look around its environment in the same way that we do. This is not like building an artificially intelligent robot eye. The really interesting this about TRAK is that it might make the same mistakes that a human would, and get confused about what it’s looking at if the environment is too ambiguous. It will also get bored of repetitive, predictable things happening, so you have to mix it up!
Sounds like it performs worse than an ordinary computer program. Why bother?
‘Worse’ is the wrong way of looking at it. We’re not trying to design a perfect system. An important part of studying brain systems is being aware of the ‘bugs’ in them. Only when we see the same bugs in our simulations can we be sure we’re really beginning to understand how those brain systems work. Building computer simulations is thus a really interesting and important way of testing how good our knowledge about these systems really is. If our systems don’t work the same way brains do, we’ve done something wrong and we need to revise our theory.
Okay, you’ve convinced me on the science. What about the art?
The simulated brain activity that is observed as TRAK’s visual environment changes and as it looks around can be seen in the form of ‘maps’ of TRAK’s visual field. Depending on the brain region, these maps will show different types of neural activity. They’re pretty exciting to look at. We’ve projected them onto a big sculpture of the brain. So not only can visitors to the exhibition interact with TRAK by visually stimulating it providing an artistic concept, they can also see the results of that interaction projected across the brain, providing an aesthetic visual element too.
Sounds brilliant. Where can I find it?
It’s on at Access Space, 1 Sidney Street, Sheffield, S1 4RG. Access Space’s website can be found here. They’re a new media lab and worth checking out in their own right.
And when is it on?
It starts tonight, 9th July, at 5:30pm. It’s on until 30th July.
Where can I find out more information about it?
The exhibition has a dedicated website here, with information about the clever people involved in setting it up.
The University of Sheffield has kindly put up our press release covering the exhibition, too.
TRAK is also tweeting – do follow for updates.
And of course, this blog and the Brainwaves events page will be updated as the exhibition progresses.
Anything else I should know?
There will be some talks and workshops by the developers and artistic team on Friday, 16th July from 2pm.