On Sunday, I managed to visit New Scientist Live for the last day of this year’s show. It’s the second year for the event, being previously awarded ‘Event of the Year’ by the British Media Awards, and when I saw the range of exciting and engaging (and some quite bizarre) exhibits and talks they had on offer, I knew I had to check it out. I wasn’t disappointed – the amount of things going on was amazing.
From a pop-up planetarium to a crime scene mystery, to a stand which let you print a little 3D figure of yourself (I didn’t – one of me is more than enough). If you’re a science pro or just interested in learning more about this rock we call home and the universe its floating in, there was something for you.
What personally drew me into the event on Sunday were the talks focusing on biology; in particular, I was excited to see a presentation on antibiotic resistance by Laura Bowater, a professor of microbiology education and engagement at Norwich Medical School.
It was a fascinating session, with professor Bowater first taking the audience through the history of antibiotics, from Alexander Fleming accidentally discovering the antibiotic properties of penicillin to the explosion of new antibiotic compounds during the ‘golden age’ of discovery.
Of course, this optimistic period didn’t last too long. Professor Bowater explained why the explosion of discovery fizzled out, discussing some of the biological factors (such as the effect of antibiotics on our microbiome, and the clever ways that bacteria can avoid them) but also the financial obstacles as well.
Probably my favourite moment of the talk was an ominous video showing the progression of bacteria as they grew past antibiotic barriers of increasing concentration. Watching the resistant bacterial colonies spread was unnerving, and really drove the message home that antibiotic resistance, while an invisible threat, is still a danger that should concern every one of us.
Finding alternatives to traditional antibiotics is a vital part of our fight against the development of resistant bugs. After her presentation, I was able to ask professor Bowater if there were any strategies currently being looked at that she felt optimistic about.
“Phage therapy is one,” she replied. “That’s using viruses, because bacteria can become infected with viruses. If we can manage to find a viruses that could attack and kill the bacteria then that would be really good. Sometimes the viruses produce enzymes called holins which can enter bacterial membranes and burst them open, so they’re looking at that too. But they need to test that it’s safe and doesn’t burst human cells as well.
Another one is antibodies”, she continued. “So if you have an infection, you can give an injection of antibodies which will allow the bacteria to be targeted and destroyed. This method would be specific for certain bacteria as well, which is an advantage.”
Another talk that I found enjoyable was given by Dr Chris Faulkes from the School of Biological and Chemical Sciences at Queen Mary University of London, which focused on the naked mole-rat. This amazing animal has several qualities that more than make up for its unfortunate appearance; they can survive in environments with extremely low oxygen by copying plants and breaking down fructose rather than glucose for energy. They show a high resistance to cancer and have an incredibly long lifespan for a mammal their size, living around 10 times longer than mice.
Dr Faulkes explained the biological basis for these abilities, and also provided an overview of their complicated social and reproductive behaviours, amusingly compared to something you’d see on an episode of ‘Game of Thrones’.
Dr Samuel Turvey from the Zoological Society of London gave a sobering talk which centred on the conservation of species threatened with extinction, and how these efforts are conducted. During his presentation, Dr Turvey detailed his own experiences in work attempting to save the baiji dolphins. This species was only found in the Yangtze River in China, but after baiji populations were severely affected by hunting, pollution, environmental changes and fishing, this animal was sadly declared extinct in 2006.
He also discussed his current efforts at conserving the Hainan gibbon, a primate found only within a tiny portion of Hainan Island in China. This species is teetering on the brink of extinction – staggeringly, only around 26 Hainan gibbons are known to exist. Dr Turvey explained the difficulty in trying to protect a species with such a low population; you need to be able to gather enough information to decide the best steps to take, but how can you do this when there are so few to study? However, he still remains optimistic that the Hainan gibbon can be saved. This is definitely an area of work that I’m going to be keeping an eye on.
New Scientist Live 2017 is an experience that I’m so glad I was able to take part in. The atmosphere was great, the events and activities were interesting and exciting… and the coffee wasn’t bad either. I’ll be marking the date for next year’s show in my calendar – see you there!