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By Katarzyna Z. Haza

So after years spent in the lab working on your PhD project, the time has finally come to write it all up. For many scientists this is the most daunting task throughout their studies, if not career. While some people love writing and will have it done in no time, others might struggle and find the process mentally draining. To my dissatisfaction, I fall into the second group, but here are some tips that helped me to write my thesis and maintain my sanity during this stressful time.

1. Make a thesis plan

The hardest part of thesis writing is the start. And starting without a clear plan is even harder. Make a thesis plan. Outline all the chapters with bullet-pointed list of results that each section will discuss. Gradually expanding the plan, one section at a time, will be much easier than starting with a blank page. It will also help you determine the structure of your thesis to make it into a consistent, coherent piece that reads well (which will make the examiners happy).

2. Set deadlines and stick to them!

Making a writing schedule and setting yourself deadlines (for example write chapter one in a week), will help you to stay on track and avoid all-nighters a week before your submission deadline. Completing and checking off sections of your schedule will also help to keep you motivated. Remember to account for the time to get feedback from your supervisors, and factor in extra time for things to run over.

3. Get feedback

After spending weeks on writing, reading and re-writing your chapters, it may be difficult to look at them with a critical eye. Ask your supervisors, lab mates or friends to objectively look at your writing to check for style and identify grammar and spelling errors. Review the feedback as soon as you receive it – this will help you avoid making the same mistakes in the next chapters.

4. Stay focused

Avoid procrastination by eliminating distractions. Switch off the internet on your phone, write in a clean, uncluttered space where you feel comfortable. If you struggle to focus for longer periods of time, use the Pomodoro technique: 25 minutes of writing followed by 5/10 min break, then repeat. Whether you’re a morning lark or a night owl, listen to your body to identify the most productive time of the day (or night) and write then.

5. Take a break

Yes, you read it correctly. Writing your thesis is an exhausting task and it is important to look after yourself. Take a time off, go for a walk, exercise, drink plenty of water. Do whatever works for you. And, as long as you stick to your schedule, don’t feel guilty for it!

About me:

I am a final year PhD student at the University of Leeds, working on modulation of function of a key protein involved in many different cancers – Ras. I am using novel molecular recognition tools, the Affimer reagents, which are non-immunoglobulin based scaffold proteins.

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Gene editing has become so prevalent in science fiction it is almost its own genre. In the film Perfect, a young man is sent to a clinic after a tragic incident, where patients are wildly transformed using genetic engineering in the pursuit of perfection. But how far away are we from this reality?

PERFECT Official Trailer (2018) - YouTube

Genome editing is not a new technology; it’s been around for decades. But it has only recently taken off in the scientific world because of the new tool called CRISPR-Cas9. CRISPR-Cas9 is a simpler, faster, cheaper and more efficient way to genetically engineer organisms. In a process called somatic gene editing, scientists are exploring ways to treat diseases caused by a single mutated gene such as cystic fibrosis, Huntington’s, and sickle cell disease. The patient’s cells in the affected tissues are either edited within the body or edited outside and returned to the patient. In both cases, the corrections would not be passed on to offspring.

The most widely debated research involves so-called germline gene editing. This process would alter sperm, eggs, and early-stage embryos to protect a child against inheritable diseases such as diabetes, Alzheimer’s, and forms of cancer. However, not only has there been an interest in therapeutic and medical applications, but there has also been interest in applications not aimed at “curing” disease but rather altering human performance who are deemed otherwise “healthy.” What CRISPR-Cas9 can do that technology couldn’t before is produce embryos with particular genes associated with desirable traits such as higher intelligence, concentration or memory. In theory, CISPR-Cas9 would allow parents to insert genes for as many desirable traits as they liked into the genome of their child. These genes could also be passed down to future generations and have unknown consequences.

There are many debates and discussions over this controversial technology and we don’t yet have the technology seen in Perfect to choose whatever desired traits we want and change ourselves to be “perfect”.  The technology is rapidly changing and what was once thought of as science fiction is slowly becoming reality. With this new technology, we need to start deciding as a society what the limitations and boundaries should be.

On 15 May 2019, Perfect premiered at the Prince Charles Cinema and Stratford Picturehouse, kicking off the 19th annual Sci-Fi London Film Festival. The Biochemical Society took part at the festival, providing an introduction to the themes explored in this film. Our thanks go to Güneş Taylor, a post-doctoral fellow from the Lovell-Badge Lab at The Francis Crick Institute, for presenting the science around human enhancement to the audience.

What do you think about the future of gene editing? We would love to hear your views on this or any other topic around the molecular biosciences. If you would like to write for our blog then please get in touch charlotte.mugliston@biochemistry.org.

By Charlotte Mugliston and Katie Crabb, The Biochemical Society

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Translational research, with the goal of “translating” laboratory results into improved human healthcare, is fundamental for progression in the field of medical research. Often through multidisciplinary collaborations, translational research can result in improved diagnostic and prognostic patient care – with the operative word here being patients. Through my experience, albeit quite limited as a recent graduate, it seems that despite having these multidisciplinary teams, patient contact is restricted to healthcare professionals.  

Working in a laboratory environment, it is often easy to lose sight of why research is being conducted; visualising a patient sample as just that – a sample. Whilst patient consent requires meticulous governance to ensure the patient fully understands the use of their samples and their rights regarding their participation, there is often a lack of understanding of why the research is being conducted through no fault of their own.

  • What potential benefit could this research have on future patients?
  • Who could be affected by this research?
  • Why is the research being undertaken?
  • And one in particular that I’d like to address – What is being done with their sample?

Whilst these questions are addressed in patient information packs in plain text and are discussed with the patient when taking consent, the gap between patients and the research conducted in the laboratory remains evident. Through working in a translational research environment where the samples are collected first-hand from the ward in which they are taken, patient interaction is often a key aspect of my job role as a research assistant. I understand that this type of research environment is quite an unusual circumstance, with most research taking place across academic institutions where patient interaction is often reduced, if present at all. I was quite surprised when starting this role that one of the main questions I am asked is:

What are you going to do with it?

As this question was continually asked, it became apparent that more needs to be done to keep patients informed of research progression. This is especially important if patients are serial donators, where regular interactions often take place among patients and healthcare professionals.

So, what can be done to help this situation? Many institutions run patient engagement nights, giving patients who are interested the chance to engage with academic researchers and ask any questions they may have. Whilst not all patients will be interested in attending events like this, giving those that are this opportunity would be just one way to overcome this hurdle. Simple schematic diagrams and interesting lay summaries should be produced to present to patients either upon consent or after, another way to give those patients who are interested the opportunity to learn how their contribution to research is paving the way for improved healthcare in the future – after all, the research would not be possible without their help.

Whilst this kind of continued information could be deemed as an increased workload, I believe it is of utmost importance that patients are given the opportunity to learn about the research they are involved in. These small actions could lead to increased patient recruitment into research and clinical trials, in addition to an enhanced working/learning environment for the healthcare professionals who are working closely with the patients – ultimately creating a more united multidisciplinary team. Finally, and in my opinion most importantly, these small actions would give academic researchers the opportunity to meet the patients, whom they are dedicating their lives to help, reminding them of the reason they are conducting the work they are undertaking and ultimately fuelling their motivation for successful advances in the field of translational science.

About the author:

Name: Emma Jennings

Job Title: Research Assistant

Since graduating from the University of Leeds with distinction in my MSc (Molecular Medicine), I have worked as a research assistant on an immunotherapeutic project for understanding the mechanisms of extracorporeal photopheresis for graft versus host disease. This role, based in a UK hospital, gave me the opportunity to interact with patients in a way that I hadn’t previously experienced whilst undertaking research projects in University environments. In addition to cementing my desire to seek a PhD in cancer immunotherapy, this position has created a secondary ambition – to bridge the gap between patients and researchers throughout my future career.

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The importance of conservation is ever growing as our planet and ecosystems are rapidly changing due to pollution, climate change and various other largely anthropomorphic factors. In the UK there has been a clear decrease in biodiversity. Of particular interest in the UK wildlife sphere is the European hedgehog – Erinaceus europaeus (referred to as “hedgehog/s” in this post). Hedgehogs are solitary nocturnal insectivores (Figure 1) that live in the countryside as well as in urban areas. Unfortunately, in the UK, overall hedgehog populations are declining (Figure 2).

Figure 1. Image of the European hedgehog taken by Dave Cooper.

In urban areas, hedgehog populations are fragmented due to human developments physically separating them. The effects of anthropogenic factors causing fragmentation has not been fully understood in terms of gene flow and physical connectivity yet. Hence, further investigation is required. Monitoring and identification of hedgehogs are critical to understand their population movements and genetics, and such studies can shed light on the observed population decline. There have been conservational efforts to restore hedgehog population levels such as the People’s Trust for Endangered Species (PTES) and the British Hedgehog Preservation Society’s Hedgehog Street campaign which improved urban areas by: increasing green spaces; having gaps in fences to let hedgehogs migrate (hedgehog highways); increasing “wild” areas and log piles to facilitate insects as well as increasing the number of hedgehog houses and feeding stations in gardens. To ensure these conservational efforts are significantly effective, hedgehog populations must be monitored.

Figure 2 NGC index of Erinaceus europaeus across the UK from 1961 to 2009. Error bars represent 95% confidence intervals. The population of hedgehogs remain level until 1980 after which there is a declining trend up to 2010. Graph from Aebischer et al. 2011.

To find out more about how to help hedgehogs, please visit https://www.hedgehogstreet.org/ or https://www.britishhedgehogs.org.uk/. If a hedgehog or den is spotted in your area, please go onto https://bighedgehogmap.org/ to log it.

Figure 2 Hedgehog highway on the Hedgehog Street campaign (PTES).

To investigate and monitor hedgehog populations, reliably and accurately identifying them is key. This can be done with a well-developed DNA fingerprinting technology. A widely used method for identification in molecular ecology is using genetic markers, most commonly microsatellites, which have been used as an effective tool for researching animals since the 1990s. Microsatellites are non-coding tracts of DNA consisting of tandemly repeating units that are 1-6bp long and are ubiquitously distributed throughout the eukaryotic genome.  Microsatellites are important for the use of measuring genomic variation for linkage and association studies due to their hyper-mutability. The length of microsatellites changes at a very high rate. This rate is orders of magnitude higher than the rates of nucleotide substitution in other regions of the genome thus is much more efficient for tracking migration in populations by comparing the polymorphisms (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Diagram of microsatellites and the different alleles possible due to the variation in number of repeat motifs from Ashley et al. 2014.

The current available microsatellite marker panel for hedgehogs has been used in a landscape genetics study of UK hedgehogshHowever, for only 10 of the microsatellite loci it was possible to obtain amplified fragments, and from these, 8 out of 10 exhibited null alleles.  A microsatellite null allele, by definition, is an allele at a particular locus that consistently fails to amplify (by PCR) across the population. Null alleles are usually caused by mutations in the primer binding sites which stops the primers from annealing. Null alleles impact scoring as they cause false homozygote readings leading to incorrect scoring and may interfere with the statistical measures and thus study conclusions.

Since the previous panels’ characterisation, the hedgehog genome has been made publicly available in Ensemble, owed to improvements in sequencing technology. The in silico method of obtaining microsatellites in this project utilises the computational power of the software, MISA (MIcroSAtellite identification tool), which is far more efficient and easier than the older method which required a genomic library. The purpose of this project was to develop a high-quality panel of 10 novel hedgehog microsatellites (that do not exhibit null alleles) using in silico methods that can be used in hedgehog population studies with higher statistical power, reliability and accuracy.

Summary

MISA was used to mine microsatellites from the hedgehog genome and Primer3 was used to design primers that amplify the microsatellite loci that were selected. The primers were optimised, and PCR (Figure 4) was used to screen numerous hedgehog genomic DNA samples across all loci. These were then analysed after fragment analysis to investigate their applicability in population studies.

The overall results of this panel of hedgehog microsatellites has been promising and shows great potential as no null alleles were identified and have polymorphic information contents that reflect well on their applicability in population studies. Hence, the 10 microsatellite loci mined and characterised in my experiments will be useful in hedgehog population studies. The reliability of the current markers will be confirmed as they will be tested in more hedgehog genomic samples. In addition, more microsatellite loci developed using the same method will be added to create a robust and high-quality panel for hedgehogs. The in silico method used here has worked well and MISA should be used for microsatellite mining in other mammalian species of interest in the future.

Figure 5 Isadora Sinha preparing a PCR – photo taken by José Martins. The Bigger Picture

The robust microsatellite panel currently being developed and screened will be used in ecological studies of the European hedgehog to understand the populations movements and if the current conservation efforts are effective. This will be very useful for understanding the hedgehog populations in the UK; the only species of hedgehog in the UK is the European hedgehog. This panel could be used in in a wide range of studies, such as: hedgehog population genetics, relatedness, landscape genetics and phylogeographic studies. Thus, answering the question of how the fragmented urban areas are causing the decline in hedgehog populations and if the measures to counteract this are effective as well as several other questions about their biodiversity.

On a wide-scale outlook there are promising results. The panel also appears to work in the Algerian hedgehog (Atelerix algirus), and this will be confirmed with further testing. If useable in the European hedgehog and the Algerian hedgehog, the panel is likely to work across several or all of the hedgehog species. This means the panel could be used in cross-amplification and hybridisation studies across Europe primarily, then the globe.

Recommended Reading

Aebischer,N.J., Davey,P.D. & Kingdon, N.. (2011). National Gamebag Census: Mammal Trends to 2009 [Online]. Available at: https://www.gwct.org.uk/research/long-term-monitoring/national-gamebag-census/mammal-bags-comprehensive-overviews/hedgehog/

Ashley, M. V, Berger-Wolf, T., Caballero, I., Chaovalitwongse, W., Berger-Wolf, T.Y., Caballero, I.C., DasGupta, B., et al. (2014). Full sibling reconstruction in wild populations from microsatellite genetic markers. The Ecology of Wetlands and Sarus Cranes in Southeast Asia.

Becher, S.A. and Griffiths, R. (1997). Isolation and characterization of six polymorphic microsatellite loci in the European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus. Molecular Ecology.

Henderson, M., Becher, S.A., Doncaster, C.P. and Maclean, N. (2000). Five new polymorphic microsatellite loci in the European hedgehog Erinaceus europaeus. Molecular Ecology 9:1919–1952.

Williams, B.M. (2018). University of Reading An investigation into the factors influencing hedgehog (Erinaceus europaeus) occupancy throughout rural and urban Britain.

About me

I am in the final year of my BSc in Genetics at Cardiff University. I took a professional training year in the Department of Cancer and Genetics in the University Hospital of Wales followed by a summer CUROP research placement at the Sustainable Places Research Institute supervised by Dr Leanne Cullen-Unsworth.  I have now completed my final year project of developing novel microsatellites markers in the European hedgehog under the supervision of Professor Michael W. Bruford and Dr Mafalda Costa.

I have varying interests from bioinformatics and sequencing technology to cancer genetics and conservation. My aim is to improve my knowledge and scientific acumen with further education and experience.

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By the end of the 20th century, many of the stigmas of the tattoo culture had been dismissed, and the practice has become more acceptable and accessible for people of all trades and levels of society, including scientists…

To begin with, what is a tattoo?

Tattooing involves the placement of ink, dyes and pigment into the skin’s dermis, the layer of dermal tissue underlying the epidermis, in order to create a permanent design.  Following the initial injection, pigment is dispersed through the epidermis and dermis, activating phagocytes which then take up the ink particles as they would an invading pathogen. As the tattoo heals, pigment remains trapped in the macrophages of the upper dermis, leading to a stable, long-term design on the skin.

In modern times, the ink is injected with a tattoo machine via a single or group of needles which oscillate rapidly. The sensation can be described as similar to a cat scratch, with the level of pain experiences related to the fat: nerve content of the skin being tattooed. I have five tattoos, and found my wrists were the least painful while my foot and knee were the most.

Tattoo designs vary wildly, with different schools of art styles, from traditional to new school, realistic to watercolour and the subject matter is almost infinite!

So, what are some nice examples of science tattoos? Let’s start with the tools! (Photo: Jonas Lima, used with permission from tattoo artist) At the molecular level atoms are a common motif: Simple atom, this one shows the protons and neutrons in the nucleus (Photo: edgeplot, Flickr – Published under a CC-BY-NC-SA license) (Photo: Abe Hammytats https://www.instagram.com/abe_hammytats/) Moving up to molecules, caffeine, dopamine and serotonin are popular choices as is the DNA double helix. Cells as a whole offer a great visual: Human Cell Tattoo by Tanya Magdalena (Above the Pearl Tattoo Studio http://abovethepearl.com/human-cell-leopard-bones-and-flowers-and-more-tattoos/) L) Watercolour neuron cell (Deanna Wardin, Flickr, used with permission from artist)
R) Realistic looking coloured arm tattoo of neurons (https://tattooimages.biz/picture/45381) (Photo: PaintingforCheese) And even organs!

We are all made of stars…

I’d like to end highlighting one of the best science tattoos around, in my opinion. Taking the molecular structures of amino acid and using their one-letter codes, and inspired by Carl Sagan’s quote “The nitrogen in our DNA, the calcium in our teeth, the iron in our blood, the carbon in our apple pies were made in the interiors of collapsing stars…”, came this:

P.S. My very own science tattoo!

About the author:

Following a MSc in Biomedical Sciences at the University of Westminster, I began a career in publishing and am currently the Managing Editor for the reviews journals at Portland Press. I enjoy popular culture and ‘geeky’ interests, secured the ultimate bonus points when I got married a few years ago at San Diego Comic Con in California (and no, we did not dress up in cosplay).

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By Eloise Ballard

What is Emergomyces africanus?

It is not often that completely novel pathogens are identified, but in 2013 this is exactly what happened in South Africa. The fungal pathogen identified was named Emergomyces africanuswhich is a bit of a mouthful. But, it can be broken down to mean ‘Emergo’ as in emerging, ‘myces’ denoting fungus and ‘africanus’ indicating African origin.

The fungus was identified because it was causing a range of serious systemic fungal infections in patients with weakened immune systems (specifically patients with HIV). Interestingly, Emergomyces africanus is a thermally dimorphic fungus, which means at different temperatures it exists as different forms. Namely, either a hyphae- or yeast-like form. The difference between hyphae and yeast is mainly the shape and composition of the cell type. As shown below, hyphae are long and branched whereas yeasts are single circular/oval shaped cell.

Fig 1. Diagram showing the structures of hyphae and yeasts (Source: BioRender software).


How can 
Emergomyces africanus infect patients?

It is believed that inhalation of Emergomyces africanucauses the infection and that the fungus cannot be transmitted person to person. But this requires validation.

What are the signs and symptoms?

Symptoms of this infection include skin lesions, fever, weight loss and lung disease. The number of cases of Emergomyces africanus infection reported are fewer than 100. But tragically, of these cases approximately 50% of patients have died. If diagnosed early, this infection is treatable using available antifungal agents. It is important to note that this infection only affects individuals with weakened immune systems, individuals with healthy immune systems need not worry. More information can be found on the National Institute for Communicable Diseases website.

Where is the fungus coming from?

Having identified infections caused by this mysterious fungus, researchers’ next question was to determine the environmental reservoir of this fungus. After extensive searching, researchers identified the fungus to be present in the soil. This identification was done using molecular techniques, namely polymerase chain reaction (PCR), which enables determination of whether DNA of specific organisms is present in a sample. Out of 60 South African soil samples tested using this technique, 18 contained Emergomyces africanus. The majority of these soil samples were obtained in the Western Cape of South Africa shown below. Studies have now also been done to positively identify the prevalence of this fungus in the air in South Africa.

Fig 2. Map of South Africa (Source: Wikimedia Commons).

Final thoughts

Further research is required to gain more information on this emerging fungal pathogen. There is still a lot we do not understand about this deadly fungus. Where is it coming from, how does it cause infection and importantly whether it will develop resistance to antifungal drugs? However, as the prevalence of Emergomyces africanus globally remains unknown, it is important that we monitor this fungus to prepare for potential future outbreaks. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention do a lot of work monitoring fungal infections worldwide, more information can be found on their website.

Further reading

Schwartz et alEmergomyces africanus in Soil, South Africa. Emerg Infect Dis 24(2):377-380 (2018).

Schwartz et al. Molecular detection of airborne Emergomyces africanus, a thermally dimorphic fungal pathogen, in Cape Town, South Africa. PLoS Negl Trop Dis 12(1):e0006174 (2018).

About me

I am a final year PhD student at the MRC Centre for Medical Mycology at the University of Aberdeen. My research focuses on the human fungal pathogen Aspergillus fumigatus and how it adapts to the human lung environment during infection.

Before beginning my PhD, I completed a BSc in Biochemistry at the University of St Andrews (UK). Outside of the lab, I enjoy science blogging on The Microbe Diaries.

You can find me on Twitter @eballard123.

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by Hidaya Aliouche

With the soft drinks levy six months into effect, the prevalence of sugar-averse drinks has flooded the market. Packaged under the litany of pseudonyms ranging from ‘free’, ‘diet’, ‘light’ to the classic ‘zero-sugar’, drinks companies have circumvented this sticky problem by dropping the sweet stuff from their recipes altogether. The rationale behind such a tax is undisputed; sugar consumption is a risk factor for obesity onset in both adults and children.

Obesity is a leading cause of morbidity worldwide. Quantitatively, it is defined in terms of body mass index (BMI), calculated by dividing mass in kilograms by the square of height in metres. A value of >30 indicates obesity; phenotypically, increased fat mass or adiposity is evident. In 2016, the proportion of adults classified as obese was 13%; current projections estimate that by 2030 this will reach 20%. Together with the associated economic strain obesity incurs, it has been hailed as global epidemic, and as such, presents the biggest health-related challenge of the 21st century. The aetiology of obesity is multifactorial; this, coupled with its socially contentious reception means solving the problem is complex.

The acknowledgement that a consistent energy intake that surpasses energy expenditure underpins the cause of fat gain is wholly simplistic.  Obesity is the product of a complex interrelation between biological, environmental and behavioural variables. The latter two factors form the social determinants of obesity, and it is these, rather the biological constituent, regarded as the propellants of the global rate of incidence. The time over which the necessary genetic shift that would need to occur to implicate biological factors as causative far exceeds the time elapsed thus far…

The focus on the social determinants has shifted our attention to the food we eat – which is largely influenced by our behaviour; a connection exploited by the food industry. A closer examination of this correlation is predicated on the notion that excessive sugar intake results in an imbalanced energy expenditure. Consequently, the energy balance is tipped in favour of fat mass accumulation. Excess energy intake is not a sugar-specific phenomenon, however. Intuitively speaking, overconsumption of fat, and even protein, is known to elicit the same energy imbalance. What distinguishes sugar from all other food-stuffs is its predominant liquid form.

This makes the task of overconsumption facile, resulting from the poor satiety index of beverages. Solid forms of sugar fare no better – they are notoriously energy-dense and highly palatable – cake, ice cream, chocolate, biscuits, cereals – the list is long and tasty. Unsurprisingly, a strategy for combating expanding waistlines is the reduction in energy intake from sugar. Therein lies the rise of artificial sweeteners, also known as non-nutritive sweeteners (NNSs), the empty counterpart of their energy-laced cousin, sugar.

Figure 1. Types of sweeteners of interest in context. Taken from doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.k4718 (Published 02 January 2019)

The consumption of NNS from 2008/2009 to 2011/2012 indicates that 44% of soft drinks consumed by adults (aged 19-64) were low calorie, as reported by the National Dietary and Nutrition Survey (NDNS). This is congruent with data reported by the British Soft Drinks Association who reported approximately half of all carbonated drinks sold in 2014 were low or no calorie. Further still, the British Soft Drinks Association reported a decrease in regular calorie drink consumption between 2011-2015 from 62% to 50%.

Figure 2. With the sugar tax in effect, many consumers are turning to the lighter, sweeter version of the traditional white stuff.

The EU have recently issued legislature approving the use of six artificial sweeteners, which includes aspartame, sucralose, saccharin, advantame, neotame and acesulfame potassium-k. On average, their sweetness ranges approximately between 200-500 times greater than sugar. Neotame and advantame are considerably sweeter, ranging from ranging from 7000-13000 and 37,000, respectively!

The health risk associated with their consumption is controversial.  Their alleged toxic effects are heterogeneous; migraines, type-2 diabetes, kidney function disorders, premature delivery, hepatotoxicity , cancer, weight gain, metabolic disorders, are samples of a few of the chronic manifestations of toxicity. The controversy surrounding the legitimacy of these concerns is due to the lack of consistent evidence. Furthermore, studies examining phenotypic consequences of NNS consumption utilise mouse models. Human studies have failed, for example, to implicate their role in cancer development.

The contention is augmented by studies that have examined the role of NNS is the prevention of obesity with antagonistic findings prevailing in the literature. Comparative studies between artificial sweeteners and non-artificial sweeteners or sugar provide demonstrable evidence that use of the former aids weight loss. Conversely, some studies have shown that weight gain increases in rats when fed artificial sweeteners.

Observational studies in humans have supported this outcome. These types of studies are unable to determine causality; nonetheless, they stipulate associations, which may be compounded by mechanisms to explain them. A notable long-term study highlighted the dose-dependency of NSS, administered by beverage consumption, and weight gain over a period of 8 years. Those that consumed artificially sweetened beverage showed an increased likelihood of weight-gain compared to non-consumers. The BMI from both groups were adjusted as the relationship between BMI and variables such as sex and age is non-linear. Counterintuitively the NNS consumer groups total daily energy intakes were lower despite their weight gain; a phenomenon that has been echoed in other studies. This posits a plausible explanation to explain the correlation between NNS consumption and weight gain; NNS may work to increase weight without increasing energy intake as one may intuitively assume. This same group also increased their visceral adiposity over a 9 to 10-year period, despite changes in BMI or body weight.

NNS and other health-related issues 

Other studies in humans linking the consumption of NNS with dietary choices have also demonstrated mixed outcomes. The inconsistencies in these epidemiological studies, which examine the distribution and determinants of health and disease in populations, arise due to differences in the was these studies are conducted. For example, the way in which NNS consumption is classified and how the subjects are compared. Epidemiological studies that have compared NNS consumption with various other parameters of health have been more conclusive; NNS use and type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome , cardiovascular disease, and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease have been positively correlated. Recent systematic reviews have further noted positive associations between NNS use and other negative health outcomes.

So far, the impact of NNS use on ill-health is compelling. There is an undisputed link between the two, however, a strict cause-and-effect relationship remains to be established. Despite this, the role of NNS use in weight management is still confounding – some intervention trials show that NNSs may aid weight management, specifically when participants use these in the context of calorie restriction and intentional weight loss. The inability to determine causal relationships arises from several flaws in the varied methodologies that underpin each study. For example, dietary assessments are often poorly conducted, often due to the questions used to assess the participants dietary habits, or are biased because of a phenomena termed reverse causality. Reverse causality shows a relationship between two variables, but in the reverse cause order. In this context, there is an inherent bias towards NNS use and weight gain, when in fact it is plausible that those who display overweight or obese BMI then consume NNSs to better manage their weight, thus implicating NNS uses as the cause, rather than effect of weight gain. Moreover, the context in which NNS are consumed is unreported; it is unclear whether participants are engaged in weight loss attempts and use NNS as a tool to adhere to calorically controlled diet plans. Finally, differentiated research which looks at specific sweetener effects may provide a clearer overview.

Thus, until future studies mitigate the effects of these limitations by considering the characteristics of participants; particularly their patterns of NNS consumption and reasons for use, determining whether NNSs are helpful for weight loss and maintenance will remain unclear. Further still is the limitation of considering only NNS containing beverages. Investigations that broaden the scope of NNS use to include food and condiments may provide a ‘real-life’ context in which to examine the relationship between NNS use and weight loss.

NNS still remain shrouded in uncertainty. The choice is with the consumer. At this point, the most sensible advice is to exercise moderation, and consider curbing the sweet cravings with nutritive sweeteners such as stevia or xylitol. Do so with caution; although technically sugar-free, these substances are still a type of carbohydrate. Whilst their lower energy content are attractive, they pose an insidious means to accidentally boost your caloric intake!

Further Reading: 

  • Fowler SP, Williams K, Resendez RG, Hunt KJ, Hazuda HP, Stern MP. Fueling the obesity epidemic? Artificially sweetened beverage use and long‐term weight gain. Obesity (Silver Spring) 2008;16:1894‐1900.
  • Bright OM WD, White MS, Bleich SN, et al. Research priorities for studies linking intake of low calorie sweeteners and potentially related health outcomes. Curr Dev Nutr 2017;1:e000547.
  • Whitehouse CR, Boullata J, McCauley LA. The potential toxicity of artificial sweeteners. Aaohn J. 2008;56:251–61.
  • Blackburn, G.L.; Kanders, B.S.; Lavin, P.T.; Keller, S.D.; Whatley, J. The effect of aspartame as part of a multidisciplinary weight-control program on short- and long-term control of body weight. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 1997, 65, 409–418.
  • Whitehouse CR, Boullata J, McCauley LA. The potential toxicity of artificial sweeteners. Aaohn J. 2008;56:251–61.

About the Author:  

I am a postgraduate student at the University of Manchester.  Having completed a degree in Biochemistry I am now working as a clinical and research project assistant. In my spare time, you can find me sweating it out outdoors, crocheting in a corner and baking up a storm (not necessarily in that order…or at the same time).

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By Alberto Conti, University of York

It was 1981, when doctors in the US started noticing strange patterns across their patients: in Los Angeles, some started contracting Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia; while in New York, cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma suddenly went on the rise. Oddly, in both instances, young and previously healthy individuals were being affected by diseases found exclusively among patients with weakened immune systems.

Reports like these ones became more common every month, and the number of people killed by these diseases started to increase at a worrying rate. It was soon clear that something was spreading across the population, and it was doing it fast. However, scientists were puzzled: they had never seen something like this, and had no way to prevent its spread – let alone treat it.

The scientific community quickly turned its interest towards this growing menace. Soon, researchers started to learn about the spread and development of the disease. Whatever it was, it seemed to severely weaken the host’s immune response. This feature lead to what became the official name of the disease: AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), first used in 1982. Scientists also noticed that most infections occurred within defined groups of the population, such as gay man, patients receiving blood transfusions (like haemophiliacs) and intravenous drug users.

Figure 1: Marchers on a Gay Pride parade through Manhattan, New York City, 1983.

These hints allowed Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Dr Luc Montagnier and colleagues at the Pasteur Institute, and Dr Robert Gallo’s lab at the National Cancer Institute, to independently discover a retrovirus in AIDS-derived blood in 1983. This is a type of virus comprising RNA (DNA’s more unstable cousin) as its genetic material, and after its link to AIDS was confirmed, it received the name we all know today: human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

The race for finding a suitable treatment was on – and it was desperately needed: an estimated 2.4 million people worldwide were living with HIV just by 1985, a trend that was clearly on the rise. The urgency of the epidemic led to scientist testing existing drugs in the hope of finding a suitable candidate – something that occurred in 1985 with azidothymidine (AZT, for short).

       
Figure 2
: A) Dr Luc Montagnier (left) and Dr Françoise Barré-Sinoussi (right) after receiving the Nobel Prize for medicine in 2008. B) Electron microscopy of HIV budding an infected CD4 T-cell, a type of immune cell responsible of coordinating the immune system.

Surprisingly, AZT was a compound designed for fighting cancer, not viruses. Why would it be effective against HIV then? Well, both diseases have a common underlying objective: make DNA. Cancer requires cells to divide; while HIV needs to convert its RNA into DNA. This is an essential step in retrovirus life cycle, as it allows them to integrate their genetic material within the genes of our immune cells.

There is no need of extensive chemical knowledge to see the similarity between AZT and thymidine, one of the four letters in our DNA (Figure 3). In fact, they are so similar that not even the HIV reverse transcriptase (the machinery responsible for turning RNA into DNA) can distinguish them. This allows AZT to be introduced into a growing DNA chain, but prevents any DNA assembly after it.

Figure 3: Comparison between the chemical structures of thymidine and AZT.

This turned out to be a very efficient strategy – so efficient, in fact, that it only took 25 months for AZT to be released to the market (a process that generally takes over a decade!). However, despite its efficacy, HIV resistance quickly started to emerge. As the understanding of the disease increased, new drugs targeting different parts of the virus life cycle improved the treatment options, and in 1995, a highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), comprising a combination of drugs complementing AZT-like medication, was approved.

This certainly marked a turning point in the HIV epidemic, decreasing the number of new infections and HIV-related deaths, and making the disease more manageable. However, despite the advances made since the virus was first discovered, a definitive cure is yet to be discovered. It is fundamental to remember that many people still suffer from this disease, with 5,000 new infections occurring every day, and most of them in regions with limited access to treatment. For this reason, supporting the fight and research against HIV remains as vital as it was back in the 80’s.

About me:

I am a third-year undergraduate student at the University of York, currently in a placement year in GlaxoSmithKline. I work within the Immunoinflammation department, focusing on the role of dendritic cells in autoimmune diseases. When I’m not in the lab, I enjoy learning stuff like guitar or programming. I also play American Football, and frequently practise how to avoid getting tackled.

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British Science Week is always an exciting week at the Biochemical Society, with several annual events taking science to Westminster. In addition, this week has been extraordinary for UK politics, so we thought we’d give you a quick round-up of some of the highlights from science in Parliament this week.

Voice of the Future

The eighth Voice of the Future was held on Tuesday (12 March). This unique event turns the tables on MPs and ministers, requiring them to answer questions from students and Early Career Researchers from across STEM disciplines in Select Committee-style.

The line-up of politicians this year was all the more impressive given the commotion elsewhere in the House, with the event opened by the speaker John Bercow. The panels featured members of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, the Government Chief Scientific Advisor, Science Minister and Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation.

Unsurprisingly, the “B-word” was featured in many questions and answers alluding to its potential impact on Science and Innovation in the UK. Other topics included air pollution, research funding and widening participation both in research and politics. Several of the panellists emphasised the importance of researchers engaging with politicians including Carol Monaghan MP calling on people to contact their MPs, and be a nuisance!

Chi Onwurah MP, Shadow Minister for Industrial Strategy, Science and Innovation answering questions from Early Career Researchers. Photo credit RSB.

We were represented by six biochemists from across the UK, including Maelíosa McCrudden from Queen’s University Belfast who said after the event:

“Personal highlights of the day included the opening address delivered by Speaker of the House, Rt. Hon. John Bercow MP, who managed to educate and entertain the assembled scientists in equal measure, and hearing the views and opinions offered by Carol Monaghan MP, who acquired 20 years of science teaching experience before she chose to embark on her political career.

For those of us who often feel more comfortable in a laboratory than in a political arena, “Voice of the Future” serves to highlight the interlinking of science policy and politics, dispelling some of the myths surrounding political decision-making.”

For more details on the event, see this article by the Royal Society of Biology, or you can listen to a recording on Parliament TV. Look out for a future blog post from one of our representatives at this year’s Voice of the Future.

Photo credits RSB. STEM for Britain

On Wednesday (13 March), the annual STEM for Britain poster competition took place. This is the largest event that brings scientific research directly into the Houses of Parliament. Organised by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, it gives MPs the chance to meet with their constituents and other young researchers to hear about their work.

The research displayed in all categories exemplified the quality of research in the UK, particularly showing the inter-disciplinary nature of research today.  A huge congratulations to all of the poster presenters who had been selected from submitted abstracts. Prizes were awarded within each of the disciplines, culminating with the award of the Westminster medal to Sophie Morse from the Engineering section. For full list of winners see the STEM for Britain website, or check out #STEM4BRIT19 on twitter.

Dr Mark Roberts, member of the Biochemical Society Education Committee and Policy Advisory Panel was one of the judges in the Biological and Biomedical Sciences section. Commenting on STEM for Britain, he said:

“It was a pleasure to act as a judge on Wednesday. The posters displayed showed-off the fantastic breadth of research in bioscience! Considering what a busy day it was for them, it was great to see so many MPs come in to chat with scientists and have an insight into UK science.”

Keep an eye out for the call for abstracts to be part of this special event next year.

Spring Statement

Wednesday also saw Philip Hammond give his Spring Statement, in which the Chancellor announced the exemption of PhD-level occupations from the cap on high-skilled visas from Autumn 2019. In addition, field-research performed overseas will count as UK residence and can therefore be used by researchers applying for settlement in the UK (Indefinite Leave to Remain).

The Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) have been leading the way in calling for these changes, and you can find their response to the statement here. Last year the Biochemical Society co-signed CaSE’s letter to the Prime Minister with 44 other organisations calling for the removal of the Tier 2 visa cap.

Commenting on these changes, Dr David Pye, Honorary Policy Officer at the Biochemical Society said:

“These changes to visa regulations will hugely benefit UK molecular bioscience and means researchers will no longer be unfairly penalised for conducting work overseas. The steps announced today are welcome news for science and innovation and I hope that the government will continue to consider the sector’s needs in the Immigration Bill currently before Parliament. It will be crucial to combine these developments with an open approach to continuing to attract people to work in the UK.”

Also announced in the statement was the news that the £700 million package of reforms, announced in 2018 to help small firms take on more apprentices, will be brought forward to the start of the new financial year.  The hope is that this will help to boost apprenticeship numbers, alongside other developments in technical education, including the new T-level system, which is on track to deliver the first three routes in 2020, with the health and science route due to be introduced in 2021.

Brexit Voting frenzy

It’s no secret that Brexit is important to the molecular bioscience community, and the debates taking place added extra excitement to being in Westminster this week. As the 29 March fast approaches, here is a brief summary of what happened this week.

Tuesday: MPs decisively rejected the Prime Minister’s deal despite the changes since January.

Wednesday: After a narrowly passed amendment, Parliament voted to avoid the UK exiting the EU without a deal under any circumstances. However, it’s important to remember that while it may be influential, this vote was not legally binding and therefore No-Deal remains the legal default unless either a deal or an extension to Article 50 is agreed.

Thursday: MPs voted in favour of extending Article 50. The motion presented two options; either a short extension if a deal is agreed by 20 March, or, if not, a longer extension may be requested which could involve the UK taking part in the European elections in May.

The results from this week suggest that the Prime Minister will potentially present her deal to MPs for a third meaningful vote next week. For further information, the BBC have a guide to what might happen next and also have a handy Brexit jargon buster.

A No-Deal Brexit is still possible, and would have a large impact on science and innovation in the UK. This was highlighted in a recent consultation by the Science and Technology Committee, to which we fed into RSB’s response. CaSE have also done lots of work looking at the impact of Brexit on science and engineering in the UK.

We remain committed to representing the molecular bioscience community in Parliament and highlighting the importance of continued close collaboration as Britain prepares to leave the EU. To help us with our work, please get in touch with your experiences. We are particularly interested in any case studies involving international collaboration.

To hear more about our policy work, and to have the opportunity to feed into our consultation responses, Biochemical Society members can join our Policy Network. For more information visit https://bit.ly/2stNjSX.

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by Julie Light, Olga Suchanova, Gareth Morgan, Jill Mueller, Sasi Conte and Andrew Atkinson

It was late May 2018, and the new Nuclear Magnetic Resonance Facility at King’s College London was due to open formally in September. Wellcome and British Heart Foundation had both made significant investments into new equipment for the Facility alongside King’s itself.  Director Sasi Conte and Centre Manager Andrew Atkinson were looking for a novel and appropriate way to mark the occasion. Having taken part in an art-science exchange day earlier in the year with interdisciplinary artists at Central St Martins MA in Art and Science, co-organised with The Biochemical Society, Sasi decided to investigate the possibility of a collaborative interdisciplinary project to create an artwork that would celebrate the new facility.

Fig 1. A view of the NMR Facility at Kings College London

That’s when four artists – Olga, Jill, Gareth and Julie – got involved. We had all been at the art-science exchange day and were keen to see where the project could lead.  The six of us got together several times during June and July to bounce about different ideas, and after experimenting with approaches involving sculpture, illustration, text and print, we settled on developing Olga’s fantastic idea for a lenticular etching – a print that would show a different image depending on the angle from which it is viewed. The etching would feature two different types of image produced by the NMR Facility.

We also wanted to create a bespoke frame to complement the work and to incorporate the text that would commemorate the launch, so we started to design a hand-crafted zinc frame onto which the text would be etched. Frequent conversations between all six of us over email and in person meant that everyone could express their thoughts and input into the process. Bringing together so many perspectives – art and science from a number of different viewpoints – was challenging but always constructive.

A frenzied few weeks followed as we artists tested different images, identified the best paper to fold to create the lenticular effect and experimented with finishes for the frame.  Meanwhile we also tried several versions of one image and none of us – artists or scientists –  felt any of them were quite right. Andrew decided to run a new experiment overnight especially for the project, a NMR spectrum that demonstrated the possibilities of the equipment whilst also having specific aesthetic qualities – and that version worked perfectly.

Fig 2. A test for the lenticular print (digitally printed)

From then on it was all systems go with etching the plate for the print, running off the final print and folding the image. The frame was cut, etched and riveted. And the whole piece was put together, ready for the launch event at King’s College London on 4th September.

Fig 3. Olga in action with the printing press

At the event, the print was unveiled to an audience of over one hundred scientists at the launch conference by the Principal of King’s College London. A video onscreen showed the audience the lenticular effect and drew gasps of appreciation.

Fig 4. Unveiling the artwork at the Launch Symposium – Professor Sasi Conte with President & Principal of King’s College London, Professor Edward Byrne AC and Professor Metin Avkiran (BHF)

So what were the benefits of getting a group of scientists and artists working together on a project like this? At the most basic level it provided a totally original way of commemorating the opening of a major new facility, but there was much more to it than that. It was also an example of the value of bringing together a variety of perspectives and knowledge about different aspects of the work – from the value, purposes and capabilities of the invaluable NMR spectrometers to the ins and outs of etching and printing. Combining all those points of view created a far richer outcome than working within disciplines. And in the end the artwork was a metaphor for this, encompassing as it does two potentially different viewpoints that form a united whole.

Fig 5. The interdisciplinary group – left to right: Jill Mueller, Andrew Atkinson, Gareth Morgan, Sasi Conte, Olga SuchanovaJulie Light – on location at Thameside Print Studio

About the Authors:

The artists:
Olga Suchanova, Jill Mueller and Julie Light recently completed the MA in Art and Science at Central St Martins and all specialise in interdisciplinary art drawing on scientific themes. Gareth Morgan has an MA in Drawing from Wimbledon College of Art, building on his previous career as a cell biologist. You can find out more about each artist here: Gareth Morgan, Jill Mueller, Julie Light

Instagram: olgasuchanova01


The scientists:
Sasi Conte is Professor of Structural Biology and Director of the Centre for Biomolecular Spectroscopy at King’s College London.  Andrew Atkinson is Manager of the NMR Facility at King’s College London. Both are experts in the NMR methodology to investigate structure and function of molecules important for life.

You can find out more about Prof. Conte’s profile and research and the activities of the Centre at the websites below:

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/lsm/research/divisions/randall/research/sections/structural/conte/contesasi.aspx

https://www.kcl.ac.uk/innovation/research/corefacilities/smallrf/biospectroscopy/index.aspx

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