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Sunday 28 October 2012

We’re recruiting!

Would you like to join Things We Don’t Know in explaining the questions to which science still seeks the answers?

We are creating an interactive repository where people can read about all the mysteries that science has not yet found the answer to - in other words, the rationale for current scientific research.

To help fill this repository with the "things" that we don't know, we are employing interns from universities around the world, and have a new vacancy.

We’re looking for a student currently studying Chemistry, or a related subject, to join the team on a part time basis. The role will require you to explain complex problems in simple language, and involve interviewing science researchers at your institution and writing up these pieces for the database. You will learn and develop a range of skills - improving writing skills, learn how to interview people, manage your own time etc.

The role is a paid internship, working part time (approximately 10h/wk) initially for a 3 month period, starting in January 2013.

Our main office is in London, but our team is intentionally distributed around the world and we rely heavily on digital communication and collaboration tools. As the role is intended to run concurrently with studies, we don't expect the successful candidate to be working from our London based office. Indeed, given the role requires talking to researchers at your university, it would make little sense! Therefore you will be "working from home". 

If this opportunity interests you and you think you fit the criteria please send your CV and covering letter to our recruitment team by emailing by 17:00 on Friday 30 November 2012.

Wednesday 17 October 2012

Open Questions in Embryo Development

There are many things we still don't know about the very first hours of an embryo's development. In this time, does an embryo separate its back from front? Left from right? Or is this decided later?

We know about certain pathways that are involved in the early development of embryo.  But do we have the whole picture? And how can we even try to look at it?

This is what I am interested in my work. On my daily commute people often ask what it is that I work with. I tell them I use a technique to try to look at all the proteins at once within early embryos, mass spectrometry proteomics.

"What kind of embryos?  Human (with varying tones)? Mouse? Rat?"

"No."  I reply.  "Frogs."
A frog embryo, or 'Frogspawn'
A frog embryo, more commonly known as 'Frogspawn'.
Image credit: Andrew Michaels (Creative Commons)

Wednesday 10 October 2012

Investigating Fragile X syndrome

Our research focuses on the neurons in networks in the brain and aims to understand the mechanisms that underlie the workings of our minds.

Our approach is to study how networks of nerve cells in the brain communicate together, how they connect with each other and how a change in a single gene in the brain can alter a brain network. The Human Genome Project has shown that humans have 20-25,000 different genes. We're still working on the exact number, but current estimates put it at 23,2291. Around 20,000 (86%) of these genes are thought to express in our brains2, but again, the exact count is unknown. Given these vast numbers, it may seem surprising that one gene can have a strong effect. But a single gene really can cause the difference between say a normal IQ and having learning difficulties & cognitive impairments. For example, take the intellectual disability and autism disorder, Fragile X syndrome: people with this monogenic disorder have an impairment of one specific gene3. This results in cognitive impairments, anxiety, higher levels of autism & epilepsy along with other non-cognitive symptoms. Within the brain itself, we find the structural connections made between nerve cells, the synapses, look different to those in an unaffected brain. The synapses are more immature in their development, on average, and are more abundant in the brain.

Diagram of synapses in typical and Fragile X brain networks
Synapses in a typical brain network, and those in a Fragile X network.
Image credit: Meredith lab, VU University Amsterdam

But how do we study the effects of a single gene on brain cell networks in a cognitive disorder? And is the increased number of structural connections between nerve cells in Fragile X syndrome reflected in brain function? To directly test our ideas that there are changes occurring in brain networks due to a single gene, we use brain tissue from  genetically-engineered mice to measure functional connections between nerve cells. We test if a nerve cell is connected to its immediate neighbours ('short-range') or to more distant nerve cells ('long-range' partners) using a combination of electrodes to measure neural activity and fluorescent dyes that monitor changes in brain network activity4.

Friday 5 October 2012

Do Aliens Exist?

Asking scientists if they believe we're being visited by aliens in little flying saucers is likely to get you a few funny looks. Yet there are a number of scientists interested in the question "Do aliens exist?". The key point here, is that the two questions are completely different.

Many scientists believe there is life elsewhere in the universe. Some even believe it's likely to exist on other places within our solar system, such as on Jupiter's moon Europa. That's not to say they believe in UFO's - this life could be as simple as bacteria.

The Arecibo radio telescope
The Arecibo Observatory is a radio telescope near Arecibo, Puerto Rico.
Image credit: NAIC
Scientists have been searching of evidence of intelligent life on other worlds for more than a century - a search known as SETI. The most famous aspect of this search is probably SETI@home, which allows people to download an application onto their home computers, to analyse data from the Arecibo radio telescope (left). The program has been running for more than a decade (since 1999) and has attracted more than 5 million participants. They are searching for a radio signal that might be coming from an intelligent species, elsewhere in our galaxy - the Milky Way.

But is there likely to be another civilisation out there for us to detect?