Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Tour your code: A is for….ATP7B: "The Copper Trader"

Happy New Year! And with the new year, I'm undertaking a new endeavour on my blog. In 2018, I'm going to be taking a tour of genes found in the human genome. There are an estimated 20,000 genes in our genetic code, so I may have to be somewhat curated list. I'm going to focus on genes that aren't as commonly known in the wide world or covered by the media but have interesting functions or links to disease of interesting history. I'll be staying away from the 'famous' list because let's face it - there's already plenty of information and blog posts regarding genes like BRCA. It also happens there's at least one gene for every letter of the alphabet. So it's not hard to make the tour 26 stops from A-Z. 

I began researching the ABCs of human genes and quickly came to the realisation that gene names are well...pretty dry and terrible. Yet the genes themselves and what they produce is endlessly fascinating. So don't be perturbed by the coded names and dry nomenclature. Your genetic code is quite amazing, there just needed to be a way to identify them in a universal way, and like most standardised things practicality is more important than fun flourishes.

Human genes are actually named according to a convention set down by the HUGO Gene Nomenclature Committee (HGNC). This name and symbol means there's a standard for official gene identification in research and clinical practice, though it's also common for some genes to have 'common' names that are used in discussion in the scientific community. Genes can also be named according to their position on their respective chromosome or through standardised catalogue numbers in the various databases scientists use.

While there's a standard for human genes, there is also some gold out there in terms of gene names in other species - Sonic The Hedgehog, Tinman, INDY (I'm Not Dead Yet) are all gene names, and are all genes from the Drosophila fly. Drosophila Melanogaster is a model organism and is one of the most studied organisms. The annoying fruit fly actually plays a huge role in scientific research! And it turns out when given the opportunity, scientists will seize it.  But I digress.... 

This week: ATP7B
Common Name:  Wilson Disease Protein (WND)

Main Features:

  • Expressed in the liver and in small amounts in the brain
  • 80 000 bases of DNA sequence in total - only 7500 bases make up the protein sequence
  • Gene is located on Chromosome 13
  • Physical Location is 13q14.3
  • Consists of 13 exons (protein coding genetic segments)
  • Consists of 1465 amino acids (protein building blocks, each encoded by 3 DNA bases)
  • Produces Copper-Transporting ATPase 2
  • Protein is 165 kDa in size
  • 8 domains
  • Functions: adds copper groups to new proteins; exports copper out of liver cells into bile
  • Disease: mutations in the gene results in defective ATP7B causing Wilson's Disease

ATP7B is a gene that encodes a protein called Copper-Transporting ATPase 2. This is as a P-type ATPase. This group of proteins transport metals. 
"I whip my domain back and forth". Copper-Transporting ATPase 2. Source: Wikipedia (CC).


Every cell in the human body, except red blood cells has a duplicated copy of the genome, but only certain genes will be activated and making proteins in certain cells. This is how humans have different organs and cell types - the genes being 'expressed' and making proteins in liver cells (hepatocytes) will be different to those making proteins in brain cells (neurons).

Proteins consist of 'domains'. These domains are what allow proteins to do their work. Usually these domains give certain properties to a protein enabling them to interact with other proteins, move through certain places, and drive reactions needed in the cell. Proteins may can have multiple domains, with numbers depending on the function. The protein of ATP7B has 8 different domains - to bind its target, interact with targets and also for energy. It's a busy protein! 

ATPases like Copper-Transporting ATPase 2 are a class of protein that can take ATP (adenylpyrophosphatase) and utilise it as a source of energy. ATP is the energy molecule of a cell. A protein that can do this is able to use ATP to drive a reaction.  The P -type indicates that ATP7B is able to use phosphorylation to drive their action. ATPases are known as 'pumps' because they act as transporters and bind and move something throughout the cell. Often this action is across the cell wall. These types of pumps are found everywhere in the body and serve many important functions from nutrient uptake in the intestine,  controlling nervous impulses to secretion in the kidneys.

Copper-transporting ATPase 2  has a domain that binds to copper.
Copper-transporting ATPase 2  is also able to bind zinc, cadmium, gold and mercury but has the greatest affinity for copper.

Copper and other 'heavy metals' are needed in very tiny amounts in our cells for proper function. If they build up they become toxic and can damage cells, and left untreated this can result in death. Heavy metals can accumulate to toxic levels not only due to fault in the cell that means there are not removed but also due to too much exposure.  Each metal, like any element or chemical can be tolerated in different amounts, and the excess will impact on different organs in different ways. Too much copper results in damage to the mitochondria of the cell (aka. the power house of the cell that produces all the ATP), and as a result the cell dies.

Copper-transporting ATPase 2 is mostly found in an area of the cell called the Golgi Aparatus. At the Golgi, proteins being made undergo their final modifications so they are ready to undertake their function. It's the finish and polish station of the cell! Copper-transporting ATPase 2 adds copper groups to proteins that require it. If copper levels start exceeding normal levles, Copper-Transporting ATPase 2 will leave the Golgi and will act to transfer copper out of the cell through the vesicles. This copper then ends up in bile and is excreted. This protein is key in avoiding toxic buildup of copper in cells.

A defect in the sequence of ATP7B can result in Wilson's disease - that is, copper accumulation due to a genetic disorder. There are over 300 mutations known to occur in the gene however only a small number result in Wilson's disease. Some mutations in the genetic code of ATP7B can mean the protein produced doesn't function correctly. These mutations can be changes to single DNA bases,  deletions or frameshifts to the 3 base pair amino acid codes tat result in a different amino acid. The  mutations are inherited in an autosomal recessive way - the condition is found on the autosomes (non-sex chromosomes) and requires 2 copies of the defect to result in the disease. Note: copper accumulation and toxicity can occur for other reasons, Wilson's disease is specifically due to the mutations in the genetic code!

Wilson's disease is characterized by a number of symptoms that arise due to copper accumulation and the symptoms usually occur in the nervous system and liver. This includes vomiting, jaundice (yellowing skin and eyes), hallucinations ad muscle stiffness. A really striking feature and symptom of copper accumulation is the formation of Kayser-Fleischer rings on the eyes - see the picture below.

Kayser-Fleischer Ring on the eye (shown by arrow). Source: Wikipedia (CC)

To confirm Wilson's disease it must be determined whether it's a problem with ATP7B rather than another way that copper is accumulating. Diagnosis is through appearance of symptoms associated with copper accumulation, liver function tests, testing of serum and urine copper levels, MRI of the brain and genetic testing of ATP7B. A further test can be done for levels of ceruloplasmin, an enzyme that carries copper in the bloodstream. There actually isn't a definitive test for Wilson's disease itself, but rather a combination of  tests, and the gold standard - a liver biopsy can determine if Wilson's disease is the cause of the symptoms and the copper accumulation. Wilson's disease is not common - it occurs in approximately 1/30,000 people. Male and females are equally affected and it may occur anywhere between 5 and 35 years of age.

And if you are wondering, there is an ATP7A gene - it's produces a related, somewhat similar protein (57% homologous) that transports copper across the cell membrane to outside of the cell. Interestingly it's expressed everywhere in the body EXCEPT the liver. It's found on the X chromosome, so is in a completely different location and is sex-linked. 

So there you have it - our first stop on a tour of your genetic code - ATP7B.

More on ATP7B at OMIM 

More on the HGNCand human genes

Sunday, June 11, 2017

On Learning and the Epigenome aka. Some Cool New Work Out of My Workplace

The question of how memories are made, stored and retrieved is something that has fascinated me since my undergraduate days.
Our genetic 'recipe' is far more complex than I think any one back when the first draft human genome was finished could have predicted. There's a four letter code, followed by a layer of modifications that in themselves are numerous, and the whole thing can interact with proteins and itself in time and space. It's code + 3D structure that also responds to real time environmental changes. Yes, the genome is amazing. And now, thanks to great techniques and some scientists who think big, the dynamic thing that is our genome is being shown to be linked to memory formation and maintenance.
Many of you will have heard of the term 'epigenetics'. Epigenetics is the term for the chemical modifications that are made to DNA bases that change how the bases of DNA are used. It's an additional layer to A,C,Ts and Gs of the code. And just like the code, it can differ between people, but it's not just what you inherit, it can change depending on what a person is exposed to - it also can change in 'real time'.
Neurons in the brain with visible dendrites.
Credit: Yinghua Ma, Timothy Vartanian (The Cell Image Library)
Epigenetics is quite the buzzword, and there's been some big work around it - things like cigarette smoking being linked to changes in the epigenome - so if you smoke the way your DNA is regulated is altered. And now, well, this is where it gets really, really cool - awesome colleagues of mine have just shown that learning changes a certain type of epigenetic mark in neurons.
It gets even more interesting - this particular epigenomic mark (m6dA, a modification of the adenosine, or the A base) is associated with something called fear extinction. Fear conditioning is a learned behaviour, and works just like the famous Pavlov's dog experiment, where a stimulus is associated with an outcome - except in this case it's negative, and an individual (usually a mouse) learns to associate the stimulus with something terrible and ends up showing fear when presented only with the stimulus (it can be light, noise, something they see). The mouse is then exposed to the stimulus, but nothing happens - eventually the mouse learns that the stimulus will result in nothing negative, and doesn't get scared - their fear of the stimulus is effectively extinct.
Why is this important? Because it's good to understand memory. And what makes the brain work. And we know very little about our minds! But it may also have applications when things go wrong. A leading theory of PTSD is that the mechanisms of fear extinction are faulty, and that instead of re-conditioning to no longer have a primal fear response to a stimulus, a person with PTSD goes into the fear response with no control. If we understand how fear extinction works, it gives scientists a starting point in designing ways to treat and fix this faulty mechanism. Linking epigenetic changes to learned response and fear extinction therefore, could be a key piece in treating a terrible mental disease.
So overall - this paper is awesome - not only for the fact that Li and co. have shown that this epigenetic mark exists in neurons, not only for the cool techniques used, not because it's epigenetics but also because it's one more piece in the complex puzzle of memory and adds to our understanding of what memory is and just how we could start to think about treating conditions around memory and learned behaviour. Really neat stuff and it's awesome to see them doing this cutting-edge work every day at QBI.
And for those out there wanting to read the full paper, it's up on bioarxiv!

Thursday, January 5, 2017

The TED365 Project


As we begin a new year, I'm closing off a few projects that I undertook in 2016, and planning for what I'll be doing in 2017.

One of my projects for 2016 was to watch a TED talk a day. Many may ask why, but I was curious - what could I learn from TED? Many of the presenters are well known, but at the same time, the TED format has been criticised for providing a platform to quacks, and promoting a simplified and overly glossy and excessively motivational view of research, design and innovation (see here and here).



In some regards I agree, but feel the criticisms are extreme. Having watched 365 different talks, and even then this is only a small percentage of what's available I feel that I've gotten a good idea of what the style and content of the talks are. Not every talk was well presented, not every talk had positive or motivational themes and for some, I disagreed completely with the information being presented. But that didn't mean I dismissed the platform entirely. The great thing about TED is that often complex information is presented in an engaging way without an over-reliance on gimmicks. In some talks, otherwise boring data is presented in such a way it enthrals an audience that would normally not care for statistics. Most talks are simply a person on a stage, with a few slides or a prop or two. At the very least, TED provides great methodology training on how and how not, to present information effectively.

All sources of information have positives and negatives. It's up to the consumer of said information as to what they make of that information. One hopes that individuals have enough critical thinking ability, and enough grip on reality to understand that a 15 minute talk is going to be very focused, very simplistic and likely to present the 'best' of a topic. With this in mind, I found many great leads on TED - from research I didn't know about, to new authors, to joy in art and music to concepts I'd given very little consideration to. In some cases these concepts and ideas led me down a new avenue of study, and some of the hints and tips I picked up have found a place in my daily living.

I found the TED365 experience one that left me thinking; sometimes in favour of the material presented and sometimes not. But for me to be left with something I could find connection with, and generally could understand the topic, and leaving knowing something new, I feel was time well spent. TED has its place in the big realm of information out there; considering it is free for people to access, the talks are engaging and not overally long, it is one more source thes masses have in accessing information. And it is a source I feel that is very effective. Much of the information comes from people who have lived the experience, or experts, right through the movers, thinkers and shakers in the world, many of who otherwise the average person would never come across. If that gets people questioning, thinking, discussing and inspired then that is great.  We shouldn't criticise the platform as an attempt to vet ideas that individual presenters have that we disagree with. Instead the likes of TED should be used to initiate discussion around such topics. Overall, I recommend having a look at the vast array of information and presenters that can be found on TED, but of course, remember the style and context.

Discussion of the approach of TED aside, I must now move to what I actually watched. The array of presentations was huge and covered all aspects of the lived experience from psychology, art, music to advanced technologies, science and futurism. I was drawn to talks around my own interest in science, but also followed my interests in music, philosophy, psychology and even watched a few presentations on topics I had no idea of. And 365 talks barely scratched the surface of what is available, and new presentations are added regularly, so there's also more ideas to be shared. It's well worth checking out TED if you have an interest in a particular field - chances are there's some presentations on your interest that will help springboard further investigation. 

As the year has 12 months, I've chosen my top 12 from the year. It must be said, this was not an easy list to create as I had around 30 talks covering art, science, music, literature, design and philosophy that really stood out for me. Deciding what made a talk standout complicated the process of choosing a list - sometimes it was content, sometimes it was the speaker's style and sometimes it was the humour, passion or emotion conveyed.  

So here's my top 12, in no particular order:



If you are interested in my full TED365 list, a downloadable list is here (.pdf).

So does TED live up to it's slogan of "Ideas Worth Spreading"? I think so, from my TED365 project I learnt much, not only about various topics but also in what makes for a good presentation. I discovered many new ideas, discovered many great projects, learnt about people I'd otherwise not have encountered and had my own thoughts and conclusions challenged. TED is an incredibly valuable resource, even when presentations are about things we disagree with, as it's important not only our own worldview challenged, and ideas rationally discussed, but sources such as TED allow a place to also to address the need to discuss and contest ideas. 

Friday, October 28, 2016

Short Attention Span Segment #11


Five awesome things every Friday. This week:

  1. 99% Invisible: On Average.  The world was not built for you, it was built on measurements around the concept of the average. But what is average? A great exploration about the origins of this statistical measurement. 
  2. If you have been watching "Westworld" you may recognise this: "Paint It Black"gets the orchestral treatment.
  3. Zen Wisdom and KATZ! Dropping Ashes on the Buddha 
  4. Shakespeare on the silver screen: Fassbender as MacBeth, Cotillard as Lady MacBeth, and exquisite set and costume design. 
  5. Every human suffers from cognitive bias, so it's best to be acquainted with your humane flaws. This is a brilliant "Cheat Sheet" for understanding and identifying cognitive bias. 


Sunday, October 16, 2016

Mental Health Week: A List for Change

This past week in Australia has been Mental Health Week. There have been some wonderful outcomes demonstrated this week; from researchers showcasing breakthroughs in understanding complex mental illness to recognition of advocacy groups,  however it's also been made very clear that there is a still a big problem around mental health. Too few of us admit when we are mentally unwell and too few of us know that it is a common.  

Until  attitudes change, until we change as a society how we treat those with mental illness, no initiative will be truly successful. People will continue to suffer in silence. People will continue to feel like their illness is not valid and will struggle. This is unwarranted and unacceptable when for many, treatment exists and could mean the difference between life and death.

As Mental Health Week comes to a close, it's important we remind ourselves that this issue is far more than hashtags. This is a major health issue that has far too many stigmas and stereotypes attached to it.  There are unfortunately only so many dollars that can go around, and thus we need to enact the changes ourselves as a community, and not over rely on already stretched resources and ignorant governments who cut funding. A little change by many individuals adds up to massive  collective shift in a society. 

While Mental Health Week has done much to raise awareness, it is up to us to continue the change the other 51 weeks of the year.  So with the end of Mental Health Week here, it's a good time to list some things I feel need to be shared in relation to mental health: 

  1. Mental illness is legitimate and real
  2. Mental illness is common (1/5 will suffer a mental illness in their lifetime)
  3. Most people with mental illness have jobs, families, dress neatly and have nice. It is not unusual to be 'high functioning'. Sometimes the highest functioning people are in fact, the most ill.
  4. Mental illness requires the expertise of medical doctors and allied health professionals who work in evidence based practice. Homeopathy, alternative medicine and natural supplements are not evidence based - in fact some can be dangerous to those taking certain medications associated with treatment of mental illness. Don't recommend them despite what you have read on the internet.
  5. Please do not refer to those with schizophrenia as 'schizophrenics' or those with depression as 'depressives' . We don't refer to people as 'broken boned' or 'the infected' when talking to someone diagnosed with a physical illness. People are not defined by an ailment, they are person suffering an ailment.  Mental illness is not the definition of a person, it is a condition a person has.
  6. The stereotype of the deranged and deluded is not a defining feature of mental illness. It is rare and if someone admits to you they are mentally ill, you have no reason to be afraid for your life. Part of the reason people don't say they are mentally ill is the stigma and fear  of being labelled as 'insane' or 'crazy'. In order to talk about it more and see improvements and support we need to stop this immediate judgement and fear.
  7. Someone can recover from mental illness. Just like you can heal from a physical disease with the right treatment.
  8. Going for a walk in nature will help cure a bad mood or feeling low. It will not cure depressive disorder. There is a big difference between feeling depressed and suffering with major depressive disorder.  Please stop spreading simplistic memes, they do nothing but guilt those who are suffering.
  9. Related to the previous point: OCD is not being 'neat', it is debilitating condition and is far more complex than the stereotype of an overly tidy person. You do not have OCD if you have a neat house, you have OCD when cannot leave the house without scrubbing your hands raw or doing some other kind of time-consuming, life-interrupting ritual because you have an irrational fear. OCD can be life-destroying. Please stop spreading these phrases and memes, as they invalidate the true nature of this awful condition.
  10. If someone advises they are taking medication, you are not qualified to comment on the validity of that medication. Unless you are the board registered psychiatrist  treating that person.
  11. NEVER and I repeat NEVER, advise someone to stop taking their medication. I don't care what you have read on the internet or what book you have read, advising this can be incredibly dangerous. If someone tells you they are having side effects get them to a qualified medical doctor IMMEDIATELY.
  12. If someone confides in you that they have or have had a mental illness, do not judge. Support them. They are still the same great person you know, they are not 'crazy' or 'insane'. Don't gossip about their condition. They won't go mad and bring an axe to work and kill everyone. They probably think you care for them and need a little support. Gossiping, fear mongering and spreading nonsense based on stereotypes is the exact opposite of a caring person. If you have questions, ask them. If you need further information, check out the great websites I've listed below or talk to a medical professional.
  13. If someone comes to you and advises they are struggling, think they  have a mental disorder or are having severely negative thoughts, assist them to seek professional help. Most of us are not trained in the best procedures for mental health treatment, just as many of us aren't trained to perform surgery to keep someone alive in the event of organ trauma.
  14. Think about  your responses. Think about whether you are being dismissive. Think about how you would respond to a fellow human if they tell you they're struggling. If you are responding in a dismissive way or inciting guilt, ask yourself, would you dismiss someone who was bleeding or who had just broken a leg? If you answer yes, please keep these views to yourself and refer that person to one of the great resources below.

And with that rather strongly worded list, as I say farewell to a big week of initiatives and awareness,  I implore you - think about what you say and do in relation to mental illness. We all must ensure we don't stop at the hashtags. We all need to address the ingrained notions and the stereotypes with a passion to overturn them. We need to change our own perceptions around mental illness and act for the change. It begins with support not judgement between individuals. Only then can awareness have its true impact. 

Some excellent resources if you or anyone else is struggling is in need of support or would like to learn more:

Lifeline Crisis line: 13 11 14

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

The Other Nobel Prize

It's that time again - the awarding of the Nobel Prize. It's a once a year ceremony that honours the most excellent work in science, literature and economics.  It is the most coveted of scientific awards, and is reserved for those that make the moon shot, career defining discoveries. This prize rewards the discoveries that cure diseases, that change our understanding of space and time and that alter the course of humanity.  Most people have heard of the Nobel, and associate it with prestige, authority and the peak achievement of a scholar or researcher. The winners often go on to enjoy rock star status amongst not only their peers but also the general public. And so they should as the work they do defines fields, it saves lives and pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It's the reward for those that make the leap and bounds, the grand discovers, the ones who write the principles in the textbooks. But along with all that ceremony, all the glamour, it all seems just a little bit....safe. You know it will be a big discovery that will win, and often the only surprise for experts in their field is who will win when. 

Most of us will never have one. Image: Wikipedia Commons

But there is another prize, deserving of as much publicity as the Nobel. And it's one that scientists should also aspire to win. It's far more humble and doesn't come with prestige or big prize money, but it highlights the quirks of science. It's the Ig Nobel. A couple of weeks ago the 2016 awards were announced, and once again I was reminded of why I love this award, and feel it is important to science beyond a few laughs.

The Ig Nobel I feel, began as a bit of joke. It was meant to pick out the obscure, the pedantic and the near silly research that is overlooked and often buried in the masses of published articles, and allow researchers to have a bit of a giggle at themselves. It was started as a parody of the Nobel - while the Nobel is all about the big discoveries that move the world, the Ig Nobel rewards the exact opposite. It's about finding the most tedious,tiny result that matters only to the most specialised.  But the Ig Nobels have moved beyond a few laughs and highlighting just how obscure discovery can be.  This award is rapidly turning into something else with a bit more meaning. It's becoming a reflection on the reality of most of science and is a yearly celebration of the less glorious science. The  reality of science is that most research isn't big grand discoveries; it's a gradual, tedious piece by piece collection of knowledge.  It's three step forward, and two back. It's people who spend their lives engrossed by tiny steps in an enzymatic pathway, or a beetle found only on a tiny island or a motion of a planet lightyears away. The Ig Nobels represent all that is real about discovery. 

Finally, an award that represents most researchers. Image: IgNobel website

This year's Ig Nobel awards have once again highlighted questions we've all pondered, and the often obscure things that some people tackle as their life's work. The Ig Nobel motto is "designed to make you laugh, then think", and really I believe, more research needs to apply this motto. Once you get past the initial randomness or hilarity of a question, you realise there's actually a lot more depth there, and that seemingly silly or odd questions can produce surprising data. Big ideas do drive the overall scene, but the devil is in the detail, and so science moves slowly. Big ideas are great, but they aren't the reality of research. People need to know this, and appreciate it and sometimes the small and odd can have big answers or unexpected applications, and what better way to highlight this than an award that makes people laugh? The Ig Nobel prizes are therefore, important to public awareness of science, promotion of discovery and encouraging curiosity

While the Nobel prizes represent the big movers and shakers, these are effectively the 1% of the research world. The other 99% are collecting those tiny bits of knowledge that make the collective body of science, and thing is, they are equally vital, and they go hand in hand with the big discoveries. While it's important to have grand moves, without filling in the details, without the little bits of knowledge we never get a collective body of knowledge, we never confirm, and those leaps and bounds have no springboard. Those details, those random finds, they also deserve recognition.  The Ig Nobels represent the truth of science in all its obscurity, hilarity, frustration and brilliance.  

This is an award I think all of us scientists should aspire to. The Ig Nobels represent all that is great about research - odd questions, delving into the unknown, and having fun along the way. It's an award that inspires creativity and a being a little off beat, thus bringing a little fun to rigours of research. It is another way we can show the public the realities of science, and that it's not big leaps and bounds, but small and slow. But despite how it sounds, there's a lot of joy and beauty in that too.  And we have to face it, most of us scientists will never come close to taking a place on the Nobel stage. While it's nice to dream, we have to exist in reality. The random questions we ask ourselves are much more likely to result in an Ig Nobel than our chances of all making huge discoveries that change the scope of a scientific discipline. So for scientists, the Ig Nobel is important, it represents why we do science, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there is fun in discovery. Even better,  because it is so random really anybody can win, as the only requirements are that the research makes you laugh and it makes you think. Definitely easier than wrangling a Nobel committee member to nominate you! 

So remember, no question is pointless. The Ig Nobel prizes highlight even the most obscure of questions can lead to awards, and that the tedious daily grind that makes up the majority of research can be celebrated.  No question, no matter how obscure, is truly off limits.

And just in case you are not convinced about how great the Ig Nobel prize is, I'll let the research speak for itself, with one of my favourite winners.  
The Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2011 was awarded to group who discovered jewel beetles (found in Western Australia) have a major case . It turns out the male beetles have a problem with how they perceive reality, and were mistaking the bumps on the bottom of beer bottles for female beetles, and were copulating with the bottle. But it didn't end there, the males actually had a preference for the bumps, and would refuse move even when attacked. This literally was a real world case of beer goggles. The researchers published and shortly after the bumps on beer bottles disappeared, though it's not confirmed whether the bottle manufacturers were concerned their design might lead to declining populations of the beetle, or it was just a coincidence. Sometimes what appears obscure, in fact, can have real world implications. Without those researchers who decided to examine just  what the jewel beetle was up to, who knows? We may have lost another species to extinction for a very obscure reason. You can read all about this awesome piece of work here, and here, and here.  

So I offer congratulations to both the winners of the 2016 Nobel prizes and the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes. You're both, although in very different ways, equally valuable to the scientific community. 

For more on both awards:

The Other Nobel Prize

It's that time again - the awarding of the Nobel Prize. It's the once a year ceremony that honours the most excellent work in science, literature and economics.  It is the most coveted of scientific awards, and is reserved for those that make the moon shot, career defining discoveries. The type of discoveries that cure diseases, that change our understanding of space and time and that alter the course of humanity.  Most people have heard of the Nobel, and associate it with prestige, authority and the peak achievement of a scholar or researcher. The winners often go on to enjoy rock star status amongst not only their peers but also the general public. And so they should as the work they do defines fields, it saves lives and pushes the boundaries of human knowledge. It's the reward for those that make the leap and bounds, the grand discovers, the ones who write the principles in the textbooks. But along with all that ceremony, all the glamour, it all seems just a little bit....safe. You know it will be a big discovery that will win, and often the only surprise for experts in their field is who will win when. 

Most of us will never have one. Image: Wikipedia Commons

But there is another prize, deserving of as much publicity as the Nobel. And it's one that scientists should also aspire to win. It's far more humble and doesn't come with prestige or big prize money, but it highlights the quirks of science. It's the Ig Nobel. A couple of weeks ago the 2016 awards were announced, and once again I was reminded of why I love this award, and feel it is important to science beyond a few laughs.

The Ig Nobel I feel, began as a bit of joke. It was meant to pick out the obscure, the pedantic and the near silly research that is overlooked and often buried in the masses of published articles, and allow researchers to have a bit of a giggle at themselves. It was started as a parody of the Nobel - while the Nobel is all about the big discoveries that move the world, the Ig Nobel rewards the exact opposite. It's about finding the most tedious,tiny result that matters only to the most specialised.  But the Ig Nobels have moved beyond a few laughs and highlighting just how obscure discovery can be.  This award is rapidly turning into something else with a bit more meaning. It's becoming a reflection on the reality of most of science and is a yearly celebration of the less glorious science. The  reality of science is that most research isn't big grand discoveries; it's a gradual, tedious piece by piece collection of knowledge.  It's three step forward, and two back. It's people who spend their lives engrossed by tiny steps in an enzymatic pathway, or a beetle found only on a tiny island or a motion of a planet lightyears away. The Ig Nobels represent all that is real about discovery. 

Finally, an award that represents most researchers. Image: IgNobel website

This year's Ig Nobel awards have once again highlighted questions we've all pondered, and the often obscure things that some people tackle as their life's work. The Ig Nobel motto is "designed to make you laugh, then think", and really I believe, more research needs to apply this motto. Once you get past the initial randomness or hilarity of a question, you realise there's actually a lot more depth there, and that seemingly silly or odd questions can produce surprising data. Big ideas do drive the overall scene, but the devil is in the detail, and so science moves slowly. Big ideas are great, but they aren't the reality of research. People need to know this, and appreciate it and sometimes the small and odd can have big answers or unexpected applications, and what better way to highlight this than an award that makes people laugh? The Ig Nobel prizes are therefore, important to public awareness of science, promotion of discovery and encouraging curiosity

While the Nobel prizes represent the big movers and shakers, these are effectively the 1% of the research world. The other 99% are collecting those tiny bits of knowledge that make the collective body of science, and thing is, they are equally vital, and they go hand in hand with the big discoveries. While it's important to have grand moves, without filling in the details, without the little bits of knowledge we never get a collective body of knowledge, we never confirm, and those leaps and bounds have no springboard. Those details, those random finds, they also deserve recognition.  The Ig Nobels represent the truth of science in all its obscurity, hilarity, frustration and brilliance.  

This is an award I think all of us scientists should aspire to. The Ig Nobels represent all that is great about research - odd questions, delving into the unknown, and having fun along the way. It's an award that inspires creativity and a being a little off beat, thus bringing a little fun to rigours of research. It is another way we can show the public the realities of science, and that it's not big leaps and bounds, but small and slow. But despite how it sounds, there's a lot of joy and beauty in that too.  And we have to face it, most of us scientists will never come close to taking a place on the Nobel stage. While it's nice to dream, we have to exist in reality. The random questions we ask ourselves are much more likely to result in an Ig Nobel than our chances of all making huge discoveries that change the scope of a scientific discipline. So for scientists, the Ig Nobel is important, it represents why we do science, and sometimes we need to be reminded that there is fun in discovery. Even better,  because it is so random really anybody can win, as the only requirements are that the research makes you laugh and it makes you think. Definitely easier than wrangling a Nobel committee member to nominate you! 

And just in case you are not convinced about how great the Ig Nobel prize is, I'll let the research speak for itself, with one of my favourite winners.  The Ig Nobel prize for Biology in 2011 was awarded to group who discovered jewel beetles (found in Western Australia) have a major case . It turns out the male beetles have a problem with how they perceive reality, and were mistaking the bumps on the bottom of beer bottles for female beetles, and were copulating with the bottle. But it didn't end there, the males actually had a preference for the bumps, and would refuse move even when attacked. This literally was a real world case of beer goggles. The researchers published and shortly after the bumps on beer bottles disappeared, though it's not confirmed whether the bottle manufacturers were concerned their design might lead to declining populations of the beetle, or it was just a coincidence. Sometimes what appears obscure, in fact, can have real world implications. Without those researchers who decided to examine just  what the jewel beetle was up to, who knows? We may have lost another species to extinction for a very obscure reason. You can read all about this awesome piece of work here, and here, and here.  

So I offer congratulations to both the winners of the 2016 Nobel Prizes and the 2016 Ig Nobel prizes. You're both, although in very different ways, equally valuable to the scientific community. 

For more on both awards: