Friday, February 29, 2008

Nature Chief Editor talks to master students in Barcelona

Yesterday I attended a conference by Dr. Philip Campbell, Chief Director of Nature. The occasion was the inauguration of a Master in Scientific, Medical and Environmental Communication that is given by the UPF, and the title of the talk was “Communicating science to researchers, science's stakeholders and public”.

He raised some interesting points and mentioned some anecdotes that I think exemplify the importance of scientists communicating their work to society.

Example 1: A law was ready to pass in Switzerland (where the constitution can be changed if enough people ask for it in a referendum) to completely ban any type of GMO from the market. This was avoided only because scientists joined forces and created a lobby to start explaining to the public the benefits of GMO in some fields (such as medicine), to convince them, to make them understand why the job they were doing was important.

Point 2: how can the public treat uncertainty in science and yet maintain their trust in science? i.e. how can people believe in what scientists say and at the same time understand that nobody is actually sure that what they are saying is true? Should we (science communicators, be either scientists or journalists or others) not talk about the uncertainty part in order to avoid chaos and mistrust? He said no, and I totally agree. That would be a patronising attitude, and we should not treat the public as if they were stupid. They are perfectly able to understand – if WE are able to explain it to them properly – that biology or medicine are not exact sciences; that research means coming up with theories, finding evidence that supports them or goes against them and that there is contradictory evidence (life is contradictory, everyone can understand that!) and some theories or some experiments may take years to be proven or replicated (Philip mentioned an example of an experiment in angiogenesis that nobody was able to replicate for years, but that ended up proven to be right). And that despite this, research is good; that science makes the society advance; that it is good to know ‘the truth’, even if it is to find out later that it wasn’t exactly right; that step by step (and even if some of these steps are backwards) we are going in the right direction.

Idea 3: Philip said scientists should be more willing to make a stand about things that are important. He mentioned evolution vs. creationism, and for him evolution is not a theory anymore, but a fact, since we have now enough fossils to not have any big gaps in the evolutionary history explanation. Another example was climate change, and he directed us to a the website This is website “about climate change by climate scientists”, in which scientists working in the field write comments, in an easy to understand way, about recently published papers related to climate change. This is to try to avoid misunderstandings or overstatements by the general media. Before these have a chance to change the story, real scientists give their expert opinion on the matter directly.

He talked about many other things but these were the three main messages I took home and wanted to share here. Be an active communicator, don’t be patronising, make a stand!!!

Thursday, February 28, 2008

Harvard "joins" PRBB

It is in everyone’s mouth that Harvard University faculty of Arts and Sciences has approved an open access policy for scholarly research. By default, research articles will be published on-line and available for free. The faculty member will retain copyright and can opt out of the system.

I am, of course, extremely happy to hear that. Harvard is a very high profile and prestigious university, and this policy will hopefully give the Open Access (OA) movement a big thrust.

As I have mentioned in a previous entry, we at the PRBB have been doing something similar for the last six years. Any person interested in the research taking place in any of the PRBB’s six public research centers has been able to search for all articles published by the 840 scientists associated with them. The approximately 550 papers published per year can be found through a search engine on the PRBB website that simply retrieves a free, immediately accessible PDF copy of the full-length article.

I am glad that Harvard has decided to take a similar step forward, and I hope that this is just the beginning and that people who want a wider, opener, more just and more sensible scientific knowledge dissemination will start to take a stronger stance for Open Access.

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

Cell division

This is a photography by Luis Bejarano, from Dr. Isabelle Vernos’ group (programme of cell and developmental biology, CRG). SP5 confocal microscope from Leica.

Confocal microscopy allows to visualise the structures within a cell, in this case one that is about to divide into two daughter cells. The microtubules (the green filaments) organise the chromosomes (in blue) before sharing them out between the two daughter cells.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008

A code for translational timing is unravelled by CRG scientists

DNA, mRNA, protein. This is the basic gene expression cycle, and an organisms’ wellbeing depends on its proper regulation in time and space. Scientists at the CRG have recently published in Cell a code that regulates how, when and in which amounts the mRNAs will be translated into proteins.

Some mRNAs – such as those implicated in oocyte maturation or synaptic plasticity – are stored until its time for their translation. There are three signals in the mRNA sequence that determine when it is ready to be translated. The scientists directed by Raúl Méndez have found a code that determines which combinations of these signals establish whether translation activation or repression will occur, as well as how and in which amount the mRNA will be translated.

To do this, they have used frog eggs, in which they studied 5 mRNAs that contained the three signals. By modifying their number and the separation between them they have defined which combinations give rise to which patterns of translational control. This could be confirmed with the help of Roderic Guigó (CRG) through a computational search for genes with these signals. In most cases (> 90%) the translation pattern was shown experimentally to be the one predicted by the new code. They also found that the specific pattern of each gene was conserved across 14 species. Also, using the code, the scientists were able to generate tailor-made translation patterns in synthetic mRNAs. “We are now wondering whether defects in the cellular machinery that reads the code could be implied in pathologies such as cancer”, says Méndez.

Friday, February 15, 2008

splicing - or how we generate more than 150,000 different proteins from about 25,000 genes

Even though the human genome contains only about 25,000 genes, these can produce more than 150,000 different proteins, making the immense human complexity possible. One of the explanations for this contradiction is splicing, a molecular phenomenon that five research groups at the PRBB are studying.

And what is it about? It helps reading the genes. Genes, the instructions to create an organism, are formed by some bits that make sense (full sentences or exons), and bits that are nonsense (random words or introns). Splicing eliminates introns, facilitating the reading of the instructions. Understanding splicing is fundamental, because without it, having the sequence of all genes, (the human genome) would be like having a book and not being able to read it.

And how does splicing help increasing protein diversity? Thanks to alternative splicing. Different cells, or the same cell in different conditions, can decide to include or not a specific exon (sentence) in the final instructions of a gene, the protein. And this decision modifies proteins giving them different actions, even opposite ones. The fact is that we know that nearly 30% of genetic diseases, such as neurofibromatosis, are due to splicing problems.

It is still a mystery how and why cells decide whether to include or not a specific exon in a protein. What is known is that each gene can generate between 2 and 5 different proteins – the most extreme case known is the Dscam gene from Drosophila, which can generate up to 32,000 different proteins.

Monday, February 11, 2008

“Science should help creating a more sceptic society”

I completely agree with the above sentence, one of the things Miguel Beato told me during an interview I did to him. If people understood the nature of science, of the scientific method, that nothing is ever set on stone but that to do research means to question everything that you thought you knew, that you can perhaps prove that something is wrong, but never, fully, that it is right. Then we would have far less problems with the overstatements of the media.

Here is a transcription of my interview to Miguel Beato, director of the CRG, which appeared in the PRBB journal ellipse:


Miguel Beato is one of the most internationally acclaimed researchers on the mechanisms of hormonal action, gene expression and breast and endometrial cancer. He studied Medicine at the Universitat de Barcelona in 1962. At a time where it was unusual to study abroad being so young, he left to Germany to do his PhD. There he lived and worked most of his life, until he came back to his country of origin nearly 10 years ago. A painting and photography lover, this self-taught scientist has helped to the creation of three research institutes: one in Germany, one in Seville, and the last one, of which he is currently the director, within the context of the PRBB in Barcelona: the CRG.

How did you become interested in science?
It runs in the family. My father was a gynaecologist, but also because due to the civil war he was not able to be a scientist, which was his real passion and the one he always tried to instil into me…

And you followed his steps…
Yes, I studied gynaecology and obstetrics, and I even worked in the Clinic he had in Burgos. Actually, in the two years I worked there I participated in about 500 labours! It was good fun, and I would have loved to be a male midwife. And it was an adventure, to get to the isolated villages sometimes I had to go by horse or donkey…

Why did you then decide to leave the practice of medicine?
I liked to dedicate time to my patients, but it was impossible, I had a minute and a half for each of them! So, I decided to go into a laboratory to do pathological anatomy, first in Madrid and then in Germany, where I did my PhD.

Why in Germany?
It was also due to a family tradition. My father did his PhD there, and met my mum there….

And from there, you moved to the US…
In the 70’s I went to Columbia, New York, where I stayed for 3 years, until I got an offer in Germany and I went back. This time I stayed there for nearly 30 years.

Why did you finally leave Germany?
After the German reunification there was a strong economic crisis. So I started looking for other things, ideally in a place with more light…

Such as Barcelona…
Well, first I created an institute in Seville and I also started other initiatives, but the most interesting thing was when Jordi Camí invited me to help them build the human biology faculty at the UPF. I thought it was a fantastic thing they were doing, it was an unsuspected project: a university that recruited internationally, not by the typical public official exams but instead by the objective selection of good candidates, etc. After this Andreu Mas-Colell, who was at the time the University Councilor, came with the idea of creating a basic research centre with a big critical mass next to the university. That was precisely what I wanted, so we created the CRG, which has since been an unforeseen chain of successes.

Which has been the best moment of your career?
The day I decided to come back to Barcelona.

What do you think of research in Spain and Catalonia compared with other countries?
Catalonia is better positioned than Madrid, despite its smaller critical mass, but the whole of Spain is in a quite bad shape, because most of the science is done by civil servants, and this way it cannot work. But I do believe that we are at an expansion point that, if all goes well, will help to put us in the place we belong to. We must stop consuming from the others and start producing knowledge ourselves. The culture of the 21st century is science. And society must advance along with science, so we scientists have the moral obligation of doing good science communication to the public.

What is the best thing about science?
The search for the truth. The most important thing that scientists can offer to society is their respect for the truth, the passion of the scientist who, when realising that he or she was wrong, is glad and says “now I am wiser”. The scientific method is what is important in science, that people learn to have an sceptical attitude towards reality.

Friday, February 8, 2008

Inner ear of a chicken embryo

Here's another beautiful scientific image. It's by Andrés Kamaid, from the Developmental Biology Unit of CEXS-UPF, and it shows a 20 µm (twenty-thousandth of a millimetre) section of the chicken inner ear, the sensory organ responsible for the perception of sound and equilibrium, at seventh day of development. The image shows the hair cells (red), and the innervating fibres (green) that connect them with the brain. Hair cells are depolarised by sound and release neurotransmitters to the fibre endings, which in turn propagate impulses to the central nervous system. The nuclei of the cells are stained in blue.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Three CRG young researchers receive recognition from the EU

The European Research Council (ERC), a funding body set up a year ago to drive European research policy by promoting scientific excellence, has recognised three young group leaders at the CRG as some of Europe's most promising new talents. Mark Isalan (I talked about him in a previous entry), Ben Lehner and Hernán López-Schier (the author of the nice zebrafish pic on one of my earlier blog entries) have been the recipients of an ERC Starting Grant. In the first year of this initiative they had to compete with more than 9,000 scientific proposals for the 300 existing grants. Finally, 24 of them went to Spanish centres, with more than half of these (15, or 5.3% of the total) recognising researchers at Catalan institutions.

The 300 bright minds selected are recent PhDs with an average age of 35, and 74% of them are male. The awarded budget is up to 2 million euros, and they have 5 years to carry out their projects. In the case of the three CRG researchers, Lehner will be trying to understand biological networks and their evolution; Isalan will be engineering zinc fingers to target cancer hub genes; and López-Schier will be studying regenerative innervation and neuronal circuit remodeling of sensory organs.

Monday, February 4, 2008

Researchers from the UPF develop a vaccine against foot and mouth disease

(an article from the PRBB newspaper, El·lipse)

The proteomics and protein chemistry group at CEXS-UPF, directed by David Andreu (in the picture), together with collaborators of the CSIC and the INIA, has developed a vaccine against foot and mouth disease. In pilot assays in pigs, the vaccine has given 100% protection against the infection.

Conventional vaccines, based on inactivated viruses, have disadvantages such as the need for a cold chain and the inherent risk to any infectious agent. In contrast, “new vaccines do not use the whole virus, but viral subunits” – says Andreu. “Our vaccine, for example, combines peptides that reproduce different antigenic regions of the virus”. By avoiding the infectious agent, the vaccine is completely secure and allows for an easy serological distinction between a vaccinated animal and a diseased one, says Andreu.

Foot and mouth disease is the animal disease with a higher economic incidence worldwide. For example, to eradicate the 2001 outbreak in the UK, 8 million cows and pigs were sacrificed, with a cost of more than 10,000 million euros. The consortium UPF-CSIC-INIA has requested the international patent for the vaccine, and will start the clinical assays in 2008, with the funding of Genoma España. Ironically, the no-vaccination policy of the EU implies that, so far, the vaccine won’t have a market in Europe. But it will have one in Latin America, where the clinical assays will take place, and in Asia and Africa.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Fast food and obesity risk

Researchers from the IMIM-Hospital del Mar have confirmed the relationship between the consumption of fast food (like burgers and fries) and the increase in the risk of suffering obesity in a Catalan population, in the first population study of the type done in Europe.

The researchers analysed data from 3,054 people from Girona, who were between 25 and 74 years old and from all socioeconomic levels. Their usual food ingest was collected, the energy value of their diet was calculated and other variables, such as physical activity and alcohol consumption or smoking, were taken into account. About 1% of the population studied consumed fast food more than once a week; they presented a lower dietetic quality which was not compensated by a balanced diet on the rest of the meals. Also, their risk of suffering obesity increased 129%.

American studies had already demonstrated the association between this diet and obesity, but according to Helmut Schröder, principal researcher of this study, “it is necessary to put the effects of the change in habits of our population in context, according to our life style”. Now it will be necessary that these results are taken into account when developing strategies to fight the increasing levels of obesity in Europe.