Stories about the people, science and research of the Medical Research Council.
11 Mar 2016
Who knew we had such pretty guts? Dr Nicola Fawcett, medic and researcher at the University of Oxford, produced these images in collaboration with photographer Chris Wood to show the importance of bacteria for our health and the issue of antimicrobial resistance. The botanical images are made from common bacteria taken from the gut and stamped in decorative patterns onto agar jelly before leaving them to grow overnight. The photographs are on display at the John Radcliffe Hospital in Oxford until 14 May 2016.
Only one left… There is a lot in the news about drug-resistant bacteria. Here you can see discs containing nine commonly-used antibiotics in hospitals. The dark-blue coloured bacteria can grow quite happily in the presence of eight of them – the antibiotics do not kill them. The bacteria are ‘resistant’ to all but one of the antibiotics we have available.
The Serendipidous Flower: Bacteria all behave differently. Some are able to produce a slime and spread out onto the nutrient jelly, looking a bit like a flower. I’d love to say this was intentional -in fact it would be incredibly difficult to get just one colony growing where you wanted. They way this turned out was just luck!
Vine leaf tip: The bacteria are stamped or painted onto the jelly, then left to grow overnight. Each dot is a single colony of bacteria, each containing millions of bacteria. There are dyes in the jelly that are only activated by the enzymes of specific bacteria; in this case, it was Escherichia coli (purple), Citrobacter (turquoise), and Klebsiella(dark blue). These dyes dissolve into the bacterial colonies, turning them different colours.
Wild vines of the gut: Growing on the surface of this nutrient jelly are three common bacteria that helpfully inhabit your gut. The plates also contain paper discs infused with antibiotics, which dissolve into the agar, and alter how the bacteria grow.
Our guts and us: Recent advances in scientific research have enabled us to study bacteria in new ways. This is showing us that we wouldn’t be able to survive in this world without bacteria – we live together, and often help one another, living together in balance.
Resistance is hard: The bacteria living near the antibiotic disc here have to work hard to try and stay alive. They are producing a lot of the enzymes that create the colour, hence the ‘rainbow’ appearance.
Competition is healthy: The tree is created out of a mix of bacteria, mostly competing for space and nutrients, so colonies can’t grow larger than pinpricks. This is similar to what happens in the gut, where ‘beneficial’ bacteria can out-compete more harmful ones and keep them under control. Towards the edges, the antibiotics are killing many bacteria, removing the competition. This means the ‘antibiotic resistant’ bacterial colonies can grow larger. By killing the sensitive bacteria with antibiotics, we have allowed the resistant ones to ‘take over’.
This work tells me to remember that the antibiotics I prescribe can sometimes cause unintended harm to the gut bacteria that are helping to keep my patient healthy. It tells me I should be careful not to use antibiotics where they’re not needed.
These pictures and captions were originally published on the University of Oxford’s Modernising Medical Microbiology site. Copyright: Chris Wood and Nicola Fawcett, Modernising Medical Microbiology under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0
We often talk about bacteria as harmful things. Images in the media, advertising, even doctors and scientists, portray a healthy, desirable world as one free of bacteria: sterile, washed and scrubbed clean. It’s becoming increasingly clear that this isn’t true. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: our gorgeous gut flora
15 Jan 2016
This week Mr John Scott, a member of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936, was able to meet his grey and his white matter in models made by the Centre for Cognitive Ageing and Cognitive Epidemiology (CCACE) and the National Museum of Scotland which are due to form part of a new gallery opening in summer 2016. Sylvie Kruiniger talks to CCACE’s Dr Simon Cox about the project.
(Image copyright: National Museums of Scotland)
How many people can say that they have held their own brain in their hands? In this picture, Mr Scott is doing just that. Its size, shape and folds perfectly match those housed inside his head. The 3D print of his brain’s outer surface will sit alongside a strikingly beautiful image of his white matter etched in glass at the National Museums of Scotland from summer 2016.
Mr Scott’s brain has been imaged numerous times over the past decade as part of studies of the Lothian Birth Cohort 1936 (LBC1936). The team, led by Professor Ian Deary (whose office we have visited in a previous post), used different types of MRI scan generated by the University of Edinburgh’s Brain Research Imaging Centre to generate the two objects for the museum’s collection. His white matter was mapped by a diffusion tensor MRI and, for the 3D print, his cortical surface was mapped by a standard structural scan. [...]
Continue reading: Behind the picture: When Mr Scott met his brain
31 Oct 2015
The 2015 MRC Max Perutz Science Writing Award was won by MRC PhD student Emily Eisner from the University of Manchester. In her winning article she explains her research investigating how smartphone technology might help identify when people are at risk of a psychotic episode.
Emily Eisner was presented with the Max Perutz at a ceremony in London
I am lying on my office floor. Swirling vision and shimmering lights have just begun. These are warnings. I know that if I take painkillers and rest I can avoid the intense pain of a migraine headache. The trick is to intervene early.
My research is not about migraines, but the rationale is the same – you’ve got to spot the signs. [...]
Continue reading: A ‘smart’ way to spot schizophrenia signs
16 Sep 2015
Dr Donald J. Davidson is an inflammation biologist and MRC Senior Non-Clinical Fellow at the MRC Centre for Inflammation Research. Here he tells us about his working life, and why he considers communicating research just as important as doing it.
Career in brief
- Medical degree, followed by two years as a lab technician
- Self-funded part-time PhD in cystic fibrosis pathogenesis at the MRC Human Genetics Unit
- Four research fellowships, including four years in Canada
I never really mapped out my career. The main thing that brought me into science was a natural curiosity – I always want to know how things work. Planning is important, but it helps to be flexible and I’ve taken opportunities as they’ve arisen, even if they’ve seemed a little unconventional at the time. Everyone from my clinical professors to my bank manager thought I was making the wrong choice when I gave up my clinical career, but it was the correct decision.
Despite my clinical training I follow a non-clinical scientist route now. I’d really enjoyed science at school, but I felt that I should do medicine. There was lots of rote learning, I didn’t enjoy the way the course was taught, and ultimately I wasn’t convinced I wanted to be a doctor, so I left medicine when I graduated in 1992. I did return briefly to complete my clinical training in order to get a clinician scientist post – but by then I had discovered medical research science! [...]
Continue reading: Working life: Dr Donald J. Davidson
14 May 2015
How often do PhD students get to meet patients with the disease they spend hours toiling away trying to combat? Probably not often enough. Here Alex Binks, an MRC-funded PhD student at the University of Glasgow, tells us about how an encounter with patients and some coloured balloons helped him step away from the lab bench and think about his research in a new way.
Alex Binks (Copyright: Alex Binks)
I didn’t quite know what to expect when I was told I had to prepare a ‘project pitch’ for the MRC patient engagement event. The task required us to communicate our research in three minutes or less to a room full of bright-eyed patients, who were genuinely interested in what we do.
This is the first year of my PhD and, maybe rather surprisingly, nothing I had been taught during my undergrad degree had forced me to think about science and research in this way. Not only did I need to think about how to make the attendees understand why I do what I do, but I needed to make it interesting too.
My research focuses on using viruses as potential anti-cancer drugs, and the ways in which they lead to cancer cell death. But how to capture that in a three-minute talk? [...]
Continue reading: Engaging with patients: stepping outside the research bubble
1 Oct 2014
Christoffer van Tulleken
In his winning article for the Max Perutz Science Writing Award 2014, Dr Christoffer van Tulleken tells us what a chicken has got to do with HIV, and how his research studying how the virus interacts with machinery inside our cells may, or may not, lead to new drugs.
The most important chicken in medical history was a Plymouth Barred Rock Hen from New York. The chicken’s name is not recorded but in 1911 she was brought by her owner to a young pathologist called Peyton Rous because of a large tumour growing out of her neck.
Rous subsequently performed a series of experiments so elegant it is hard to believe he didn’t know what he was looking for. He showed that the filtered extract from the tumour, containing no actual tumour cells, could cause more tumours in another chicken. Rous had discovered a type of virus that can cause cancer called a retrovirus. [...]
Continue reading: How 100-year-old research could help patients with HIV
24 Sep 2014
It’s been more than a year since we launched Worm Watch Lab, a citizen science project in which people watch videos of tiny nematode worms. So what’s been spotted in the intervening year? Vicky Butt, a summer student in the Behavioural Genomics Lab at the MRC Clinical Sciences Centre, brings us up to date and explains why we need your help more than ever.
It’s been a busy year for the Worm Watch Lab. Since going live on 25 July 2013, 6,500 people have watched videos of nematode worms laying eggs almost 200,000 times.
Just like other Zooniverse projects ― such as Galaxy Zoo ― anyone can sign up to be a worm watcher. The idea is that they watch 30-second videos of the worms, Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans), and press ‘z’ on their keyboard whenever they see the worm lay an egg.
Impressive worm-tracking cameras attached to microscopes make videos of each worm strain. There are more than 300 strains, each with a different mutation. But why are we looking at the worms like this? It’s because looking at how the mutation affects egg-laying is an easily visible way of getting clues about what the mutation does. [...]
Continue reading: Worm Watch Lab: one year on
29 May 2014
Martin Christlieb (Image copyright: Martin Christlieb)
MRC researchers get involved in all kinds of activities that help members of the public engage with medical research. From extracting DNA from strawberries to looking at cells under a microscope, there is an array of hands-on experiments to guide people through. But Dr Martin Christlieb, the public engagement manager for Oxford’s Department of Oncology, thinks that engagement works best when researchers introduce people to their own research. Here he explains why.
If you want to engage people with science you’ll need to entertain and convince as well as inform and educate. That takes passion. You’re most likely to display passion if you feel it, and that means talking about the science that gets you out of bed each morning.
That means talking about your work: you care about your work, right? You know that what you do is important, and that what you do is part of a bigger picture of understanding how to tackle disease.
The money that funds research comes from public sources; funding councils distribute money taken in tax, and charities the money they collect in donations. A scientist’s part of the deal must be to make an effort to communicate what we’re doing, how it’s going, and what impact it might make. [...]
Continue reading: Let’s talk about me ― making your science the focus
23 Jan 2014
A version of this article was first published in the Winter 2014 edition of Network. [...]
Continue reading: What’s in a work space? Jimmy Bell and art, fencing and fat
19 Dec 2013
2013 has been a big year for the MRC, marking 100 years since our founding committee met for the first time to plan the spending of public money on medical research. We’ve achieved much since then, and throughout the year we celebrated the past, present and future of the MRC. Here Centenary coordinator Adrian Penrose provides a snapshot of highlights from our Centenary year, shoehorned into a familiar format …
Twelve groups celebrating
We’ve held 12 events this year in the UK celebrating our Centenary with MRC staff and our wider community. The MRC is a large organisation, funding and carrying out such a range of research, so we wanted to get people together to share their knowledge. Activities included the broadcast of films about past and present MRC research at the London event, hands-on fun activities in Edinburgh, a Centenary Quiz and photography competition in Cambridge, and a special sciSCREEN-style screening and discussion of The Nightmare Before Christmas in Cardiff.
Eleven scientists writing
We shortlisted 11 MRC-funded early-career researchers for this year’s Max Perutz Science Writing Award held at the Science Museum in London. Minister of State for Universities and Science, David Willetts MP, presented the £100 Centenary Prize to Helen Keyworth for her article Running Away from Addiction, while Peter Kilbride won the Centenary challenge of describing where his research area would be in 100 years. [...]
Continue reading: The 12 days of the MRC Centenary