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BBSRC-funded science at Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition

2 July 2012

The Royal Society Summer Science Exhibition, 'Science Live', runs from 3- 8 July displaying the most exciting, cutting-edge science and technology in the UK. Three of this year's exhibits - linked to BBSRC-funding - highlight world-class bioscience at its best.

  • Mosquito genetically modified to control disease
  • Epigenetics exposed
  • Healthy ageing

Mosquito genetically modified to control disease

An exhibit from Oxford scientist shows how genetically modified mosquitoes could revolutionise insect pest control and reduce the impact of diseases like dengue fever. The pioneering use of genetically modified (GM) insects has been described as 'insect birth control'.

Insect pests cause enormous harm and economic damage, transmitting many human, animal and plant diseases, as well as feeding on important crops. The use of chemical control can be problematic due to environmental concerns and also the development of resistance in insects that can render the chemical ineffective.

This new technique creates GM "sterile insects". These sterile male insects are released so that females already living in the area mate with them. They then have fewer offspring or none at all. If enough sterile males are released over a long period, this can significantly reduce, or even eliminate, the pest population.

Genetically engineered mosquito. Credit: Oxitec Ltd

Genetically engineered mosquito. Credit: Oxitec Ltd.

Michael Bonsall, lead exhibitor at the Royal Society event and based at the University of Oxford, said: "Our approach uses advances in genetic engineering in a bid to address the challenge of insect pests. Our research draws on many scientific disciplines, from ecology to health economics, and demonstrates that it can be effective".

Luke Alphey, a BBSRC Innovator of the Year runner-up and inventor of the GM method, said: "In field trials we have seen a reduction in pest populations by about 80%. We're currently working with several partners to use this method to help control dengue fever, a rapidly spreading viral disease transmitted by mosquitoes."

Dengue fever is transmitted to humans by mosquito bites and causes extreme flu like symptoms, which in the severe form can be fatal. There are 50-100M infections each year and the disease is established in over 100 countries. More than 40% of the world's population live in areas at risk. There are no drugs to prevent or cure dengue and a safe, effective vaccine is not yet available. The new GM technique could help reduce the number of mosquitoes that spread dengue fever without the need for insecticides.

The Royal Society Summer Science exhibition provides information about the GM mosquitoes and offers the opportunity to talk to the scientists who created them. Interactive activities will also enable visitors to take part in an ecological activity to estimate how many mosquitoes are in a population and play a computer simulation game to try and control a mosquito-borne disease with the lowest cost and highest benefit.

This new insect control technique was developed with funding from the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and is currently being studied in a range of insect pests to assess the potential benefits.

Epigenetics exposed

Scientists from the BBSRC-funded Babraham Institute are studying how genes 'behave' and are influenced by the environment. 'Epigenetic marks' instruct genes when and where to switch 'on' and 'off' as we develop in the womb and later into adulthood.

Blastocyst stage embryo stained for epigenetic marks (red and green) and DNA (blue). Credit: Dr Fatima Santos, Dr Wendy Dean & Prof Wolf Reik, The Babraham Institute.

Blastocyst stage embryo stained for epigenetic marks (red and green) and DNA (blue). Credit: Dr Fatima Santos, Dr Wendy Dean & Prof Wolf Reik, The Babraham Institute.

The exhibition highlights a new understanding of how epigenetic marks arise and are removed from genes. This process happens in a programmed way during early life and ageing, but can also be influenced by environmental factors. In humans, this can affect the likelihood of developing conditions like diabetes, obesity and cancer. For plants, this can determine whether they flower in spring following a cold winter.

The researchers are currently studying how epigenetic marks are reset in mammalian germ cells allowing newly formed embryos to start anew. This enables germ cells to produce any tissue of the new body, a phenomenon known as totipotency, which is also important for stem cells. When cells differentiate in the developing body to form our organs, epigenetic marks ensure that brain cells work differently from liver cells, for example.

The scientists behind this exhibit are also studying the regulation of epigenetic marks in insects where social behaviour (for example for queens or workers) may be epigenetically determined.

The advent of powerful high-throughput sequencing technologies, which unravel epigenomes in a matter of hours, has made it possible to explore a cell's epigenetic landscape and gain deeper insight into this fascinating level of gene regulation. This knowledge has the potential to revolutionise healthcare, through personalised reprogramming of epigenetic errors and innovative regenerative medicine strategies.

Healthy ageing

Scientists from the University College London Institute of Healthy Ageing are using their exhibit to show progress in the understanding and treatment of ageing in order to be able to simultaneously treat age-related diseases.

  Dr Matt Piper (UCL Institute of Healthy Ageing) researches how food quantity and nutrient quality affect the behaviour, health and lifespan of all organisms. He uses fruit flies to investigate the relationship between protein intake and lifespan. His work is at the centre of his contribution to the Royal Society's Summer Science Exhibition.

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Video transcript - Video and audio help - Watch video on YouTube


In the last 10 years, experimental studies of laboratory organisms, such as yeast, worms and flies, have uncovered genetic and environmental treatments that can extend healthy lifespan. The same treatments work in organisms as distantly related as yeast and mice. This indicates that the work on these relatively simple organisms may provide beneficial insights into ageing in humans.

The research shows that ageing is caused by biological mechanisms that can be studied and understood - and this raises the possibility of treating ageing with drugs, just like a disease.

Research at the Institute of Healthy Ageing is supported by a range of funders, including BBSRC.

Find out more about the exhibits at: Science Live.

ENDS

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