World Metrology Day: Setting the standard for measurement

This Sunday, 20th May, is World Metrology Day, the birthday of the signing of the Metre Convention on 20 May 1875 (and pretty much the best day of the year for measurement scientists like us). This convention set the framework for global collaboration in the science of measurement (metrology). Its aim- to ensure we use uniform measurements across the globe- remains as important for industry, commerce and society today as it was over 140 years ago.

Measurement is present in everything: from food and drink safety to the efficacy of pharmaceuticals, from diagnosis and detection of disease to navigation, from air and water quality to forensics. Mobile phones and computers run on accurate measurement, and if you’ve ever had to consistently reset a clock, it was inaccurate measurement that was annoying you.

As the National Measurement Laboratory (designated for chemical and bio-measurement), LGC forms part of the UK National Measurement System (NMS) that provides the core measurement infrastructure for the UK. The measurements we make support manufacture and trade, protect consumers and enhance quality of life.

Did you know that, for all of human history, measurements have been based on actual physical weights and measures, called artefacts? Humans have been working on measurement standardisation for a long time. The ancient Egyptians used what is widely regarded as the first measurement standard, the cubit, a wooden rod that was used to determine standard lengths and heights, like for measuring flood levels of the Nile River. In ancient Babylon, the mina was created and used to measure weight, and the early Chinese civilisation used the chi. Even these standards had much variation within their societies, making wider trade and exchanges difficult. The Magna Carta in 1215 required that the same set of standards be used throughout the realm.  Finally, the International System of Units (SI) was agreed to during the Metre Convention on 20 May 1875, when representatives from seventeen countries set out to close gaps and reach uniformity of measurement around the world.

Even now, the Kilogram is a cylinder made from platinum and iridium alloy that sits in a vault near Paris. The vault is a necessary precaution to ensure the kilogram isn’t damaged, but the last time it was taken out and weighed against a copy, it actually lost weight. Think about that. Mass is always calibrated against another officially confirmed mass, but what happens when the official artefact is no longer reliable? Is the artefact the correct weight or is the copy? Does this mean all of the weights in the world are incorrect?

This could have huge consequences, especially when you consider how integral accurate measurement is to our society, which is why scientists have long been looking for a way to redefine standards, developing an independent system that means we don’t have to rely on a physical artefact which could be damaged or degraded. And the most logical way to revolutionise metrology is with math.

Scientists have been searching for a natural constant, an unchanging number present in nature that would represent each unit and would therefore make accurate measurement reproducible without physical weights. The theme for this year’s World Metrology Day is ‘Constant evolution of the International System of Units (SI)’, chosen because this year sees the culmination of that change: the four base units not defined in terms of natural constants – the kilogram, the mole, the ampere and the kelvin – are expected to be revised.

The world will come together at the General Conference on Weights and Measures in November 2018 and is expected to agree to this change. If approved, this will be the most radical change to the SI since its inception and it will hopefully improve measurement forever, providing a springboard for future innovation.

So feel free to celebrate this Metrology Day in style!

Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis: the end of the guessing game?

There are currently around 850,000 people living with dementia in the UK, and the number of people affected is expected to reach 2 million by 2051. The costs associated with dementia, estimated now at £26 billion a year, are likely to treble.

Alzheimer’s disease is the most common type of dementia, affecting between 60 and 80 percent of those diagnosed. There is no known cure, with treatments limited to preserving cognitive function. Currently, there is no non-invasive method for diagnosing Alzheimer’s disease with GP’s relying on in depth cognitive tests, with clinical confidence in diagnosis typically at 70-80%.

Doctor Helping Elderly

If confident early diagnosis could be achieved through noninvasive techniques, treatment could be introduced earlier delaying the onset of memory impairment.

The solution

The development of plaques or tangles of certain proteins (β-amyloid and tau proteins) in the brain is a known feature in Alzheimer’s disease. It is also known that abnormal accumulation of metals underlies several neurodegenerative diseases. Iron, in particular, is associated with the formation of neurofibrillary tangles in the β-amyloid plaques. The recent advances in the use of Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) for the earlier detection of neurological diseases require validation to ensure the integrity of the images obtained is adequate for diagnostic purposes.

Researchers at LGC, in collaboration with partners, have been working to establish a link between novel MRI scans and quantitative elemental mapping of soft tissues. A method of mapping the levels of iron in sections of the brain using laser ablation (LA) coupled to Inductively Coupled Plasma Mass Spectrometry (ICP-MS) has been developed, along with a novel calibration strategy and standard to support quantitative tissue imaging. Correlation of the metal content associated with β-amyloid protein and MRI images will help diagnosis of AD at an early stage, where preventative therapy will have greater impact.

LGC has developed a novel calibration strategy for LA-ICP-MS that produced quantitative images for iron in whole mouse brain sections (provided through collaboration with Kings College London and the University of Warwick) and compared them with results from micro x-ray fluorescence (μ-XRF) (provided through collaboration with Ghent University and the University of Warwick). The data showed good agreement in total iron concentrations for a selection of areas within the mouse brain sections. This finding supports the proposed method as a quantitative approach; the calibration strategy has been published in the Journal of Analytical Atomic Spectrometry¹.

Impact

The development of this method for quantitative imaging of iron in the brain has the potential to lead to techniques for earlier diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease, enabling earlier intervention, therapies and treatment aimed at delaying the onset of symptoms.

Delaying the onset of neurodegenerative disorders, such as Alzheimer’s disease, by five years could halve the number of deaths from the condition, saving 30,000 lives a year and billions of pounds in treatment costs. Reducing severe cognitive impairment in the elderly by 1% pa would cancel all estimated increases in long-term care costs due to our ageing population.

The methodology will also provide deeper understanding of the early development of Alzheimer’s disease leading the way for new treatments aimed at preventing the disease.

Heidi Goenaga-Infante, Principal Scientist for inorganic analysis at LGC, commented: “This cutting-edge research is already proving to be of significant benefit to the validation of non-invasive diagnostic tools for Alzheimer’s disease. The potential for metal imaging mass spectrometry of other biological tissues to probe the reported links between metals and disease states is now a step closer.”

If you’d like to learn more about our work and read other case studies, visit our website.

¹ J O’Reilly, D Douglas, J Braybrook, P.-W. So, E Vergucht, J Garrevoet, B Vekemans, L Vinczec and H Goenaga-Infante, “A novel calibration strategy for the quantitative imaging of iron in biological tissues by LA-ICP-MS using matrix-matched standards and internal standardisation”, J Anal. At. Spectrom., 2014, 29, 1378-1384

Delivering impact to support AIDS research

LGC is helping to ensure that research into a cure for HIV is based on sound fundamental measurements.

Over 36 million people currently live with HIV, with approximately 2 million becoming infected each year (WHO 2015). Although HIV can be successfully managed with combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), the therapy must be continued indefinitely as no cure presently exists. This can be challenging in regions with high HIV prevalence and long-term use can potentially have toxic side effects.

One barrier to curing HIV is the presence of infected host cells that are not targeted by current therapies but lay dormant (so-called ‘viral reservoir’). These cells have the potential to become re-activated so novel strategies to cure HIV aim to target this reservoir. To determine whether these new approaches are successful, accurate and robust, methods for measuring HIV DNA are required.

The Molecular and Cell Biology team at LGC perform research to support accurate and reliable measurement as part of our National Measurement Laboratory (NML) role. Recent work by NML scientists comparing different molecular methods (qPCR, digital PCR) for quantification of HIV DNA has raised some concerns around the current popular choice of calibrator used to compare results between HIV clinical studies (8E5, ATCC® CRL-8993). It appears to lose HIV DNA copies during cell growth, potentially producing misleading estimates of how much HIV DNA is present and affecting whether novel strategies towards curing HIV are deemed successful or not.

Based in part on our work, the NIH AIDS Reagent Program, which provides critical reagents and resources to support research in the areas of AIDS therapeutics and vaccine development, has recently highlighted the potential instability of the standard on its reagent database to support the research community and enable the best chances of success.

 

 

Citation:

Busby E et al. Instability of 8E5 calibration standard revealed by digital PCR risks inaccurate quantification of HIV DNA in clinical samples by qPCR (2017) Sci Rep 7(1):1209. doi:10.1038/s41598-017-01221-5

World Immunization Week 2018: Why and how #VaccinesWork

This week is World Immunization Week, a global campaign to raise awareness of infectious diseases and to educate the public on the importance of vaccination.

Vaccines are a relatively modern tool, with the world’s first successful vaccine being developed in 1796 for smallpox.  Numbers show that when vaccinations steadily increase, rates of death from diseases like measles and polio were vastly reduced.

via WHOMeasles is a highly contagious disease and remains one of the leading causes of death for young children around the world. Before the first vaccine for measles was introduced in 1963, the disease caused 2.6 million deaths each year. However, between 2000 and 2016, the global death rate from measles was decreased by 84%, falling below 100,000 deaths annually for the first time.

Similarly, cases of polio have fallen 99% since the launch of the Global Polio Eradication Initiative in 1988, nearly achieving its goal of eradicating the disease entirely.

This illustrates that vaccinations aren’t just important to the people who take them: over time the use of vaccinations can protect entire populations from contagious disease with what’s known as herd immunity, or ‘community immunity’. Vaccines build immunity in individuals by mimicking an infection. The body’s immune system kicks in and learns to fight that particular infection, achieving immunity to that strain of disease.

In larger populations, the number of new infections decreases as individuals are vaccinated and go through this process. It’s more difficult for diseases to spread if more members of the population can’t be infected. This disrupts the wildfire-like spread of contagions and even protects more vulnerable members of the population who aren’t immune yet, like children, or cannot become immune due to medical reasons.  This only works if enough people get vaccinated though.

Making the world safer against viruses and bacteria is an important step for the future of our communities, which is why our scientists work so hard to help support immunization around the globe. We hope to play a part in the eradication of deadly illnesses by using our research capabilities to progress current research. 

Using mass spectrometry, genotyping technology, DNA/RNA extraction technology, and Next Generation Sequencing, our teams generate a broader understanding of the genetics of diseases, as well as how particular molecules behave and are characterised.

We develop biomaterials that enable researchers to develop vaccines for epidemic diseases such as the Zika and Ebola viruses. Our reference materials are used to prove the quality and purity of medicines, while our microbiology teams have a strong reputation in anti-infective research, as well as antimicrobial surveillance and drug development.

There’s still a long way to go, but in the meantime, visit the World Health Organisation’s website to learn about how vaccines work and how you can help.

Rediscovering the lost soldiers of Fromelles

The Battle of Fromelles took place on 19-20 July 1916, and is still known as “the worst 24 hours in Australian history,” as 5,533 Australian soldiers lost their lives in the battle. Most of the men were reinterred after the war, but in 2006, the remains of two hundred and fifty soldiers were discovered in unmarked graves near Fromelles.

In 2009, our specialist DNA team began to work with the Australian and British governments, as well as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to help identify these soldiers using the most current DNA methods. Using DNA extracted from remains, like teeth, we can compare samples from the remains to living relatives of World War I soldiers with a combination of mitochondrial and Y-chromosome DNA.

Earlier this week it was announced that nine more Australian soldiers who had fallen at Fromelles have been identified using advanced DNA analysis. This is a huge moment for the families of the men and all those involved in the work for the last nine years.

Vic Moore, one of our DNA experts, has worked on the project since the remains were excavated. She said, “This year we have been able to provide closure for nine different families, bringing the total number of soldiers identified at Fromelles to 159 from the 250 soldiers originally recovered.”

The battle, discovery and research is a fascinating story which also caught the attention of playwright and author Lynn Brittney, who wrote ‘Dig for the Diggers’ in 2010, just after the work had begun. The play recounts the story of the fictional Mick Feeney while two forensic scientists examine his bones.

“I got the idea for ‘Dig for the Diggers’ after reading a piece in the paper about the War Graves Commission finding more bodies and the DNA testing started on the Australian relatives. I thought it was so fascinating and then I read up about the Battle of Fromelles and was so appalled by the disaster that I felt I had to write something about it,” said Lynn. “I am deeply impressed that the scientists in your organisation were involved in the forensic work on the soldiers from the battle.”

After researching the battle and the present day research, Lynn was moved by the story of the brave men who were getting their names and identities back. She explained, “I chose to write about the ‘ghost’ of the first body to be disinterred and how he viewed what was happening to his remains. It told the story of Australia’s involvement through his eyes and how ‘the worst 24 hours in Australia’s history’ panned out.”

The play has been performed extensively in Australia and was even performed last week as part of this year’s One Act Play Festival as drama groups commemorate the First World War. Director Christine Mace, whose group The Athelstan Players performed the play last week, called it “very emotional and moving”.

Captain Kenneth Mortimer, one of the nine soldiers identified. Image via Australian War Memorial

It’s easy to imagine that the nine men who have been identified had much in common with the play’s fictional protagonist. One of the men, Alexander McCulloch was 35 years old at the time of his death, while Captain Kenneth Mortimer was only 20 years old.

The men will be honoured at a commemoration ceremony this July on the 102nd anniversary of the battle, and new headstones will replace the old anonymous ones, marking their identities for the first time in over a century.

“Even after 102 years, being able to provide a name to an unknown grave can have a massive impact to the families, as it allows them to finally know what happened to their loved ones, and know where their final resting place lies,” reflected Vic.

Work continues to identify the remaining 91 soldiers with the aim that one day, each of the recovered diggers will be laid to rest. Read more about the identities of the soldiers here, or watch the video to learn how our scientists solve this century-old puzzle.

Creating windows of opportunity

A company’s employees are its greatest asset. They are what push the company forward, driving its growth and development. So it only makes sense that organisations should also drive the growth of its workers. Enabling employees to be successful makes the company more successful.

This is more than just ensuring that the quality of work remains strong: it’s about letting people know that their futures are something employers are invested in.

Throughout March, our employees have been sharing their experiences and promoting opportunities within LGC that they have found helpful.

The apprentice

LGC apprentices met with Sir John Holman, President of the Royal Society of Chemistry, at the beginning of March, gave him a tour of their labs, and spoke with the BBC about what their apprenticeship means to them.

LGC apprentices Jennifer Meacock and Renato Junior met with Prof Sir John Holman. © Royal Society of Chemistry/Richard Stonehouse

“I love it. I know some people go into work and dread it but I never have that feeling, I’m always enjoying it when I’m here,” said Jenny Meacock. “They don’t treat you like you know less than anyone else; you’re instantly treated as an equal.”

National Apprenticeship Week (5-9 March) brought attention to the fact that while more options are becoming available, less than one percent of all apprenticeships are in science, meaning there’s a gap that science organisations need to address.  And this is something that Chief Scientific Officer & Government Chemist Derek Craston understands.

Government Chemist Derek Craston (centre) with Richard Holliday (left) and Danny Ho (right). © Royal Society of Chemistry/Richard Stonehouse

“It’s an important way into science – skills are really important for organisations like ours,” explained Derek. “We do complex things that need good technical knowledge and good practical knowledge. The conventional route of just going through school and going onto university, works for some people, but it doesn’t work for all.”

In a previous blog post, apprentice Krzysztof Pilec shared how the apprenticeship scheme has worked for him, saying, “Overall I don’t think it is possible to be any happier with the choice of signing up for this apprenticeship. It has been an enjoyable, fun and incredibly educational time for me at this company as an apprentice.”

Leadership

LGC employees at our Alexandria, Minnesota and Madison, Wisconsin sites teamed up for training and workshops on 14-16 March in Alexandria.  One of many sessions to be executed across LGC, the training aims to create a culture of trust and respect, where leaders learn to consciously to adapt to various communication styles and involve team members in decision making.

LGC employees attend a leadership training session in the US.

Employees found the training to be not only a great opportunity to work together, but also a positive step in their own professional development.

“The training provided immediate tools for prioritization, understanding and dealing with different personality types, and creating a respectful work culture,” said Julie Kramer, Director of Marketing at LGC’s newly-acquired Lucigen. “The only question now is, ‘What should I implement first’?”

The workshop was aimed at first-time managers and anyone who felt that they could be a leader, but Rob Brazas, Senior Product Manager at Lucigen, believes that this type of leadership training shouldn’t be limited to just managers.

“It focused on communication skills that are valuable whether you’re in management or not. All employees would benefit from this training,” explained Rob.

Whether you implement apprenticeships, encourage your team to develop their leadership skills, or help employees realize their potential in other ways, the goal should be to create an empowered culture where leaders have tools to communicate and have a sense of ownership in the company’s success.

The women of LGC

March was Women’s History Month, which also saw the celebration of International Women’s Day on 8 March. Diversity and equal opportunity have become, rightfully, hot topics throughout various industries, but specifically in science and technology as well. Science organisations should really be at the forefront of the fight, because scientists of all people know that just because something is the way it is doesn’t mean that’s how it should be.

LGC’s own history is full of brave and brilliant women, trailblazing the way forward for others like them. On 18 July 1916, in the wake of World War I, the Government Laboratory hired its first female scientist, Miss E.M. Chatt¹. PW Hammond and Harold Egan, authors of Weighed in the Balance, state that this was “part of a general move to place women in the lower ranks of the civil service to replace men being drafted” in the war effort.

They also recounted how Miss Chatt was silently watched by her new all-male coworkers as she was first brought in to the laboratory. Described as a ‘bachelor of science’ by the poet Richard Church, she paved the way for all of the other female scientists who joined the Laboratory during this wave of incoming women. By the end of the war in 1920, more than half of the junior analytical staff were women.

 

Nearly one hundred years later, in 2011,  became the first female Deputy Government Chemist in 136 years. She told IFST, “There is now, global acknowledgment in the importance of having equality in the workplace, at all levels… I think there will be many more opportunities for female food scientists in the future.”

 

LGC’s senior scientist Marcela Soruco describes how this very same trailblazing spirit is what attracts her about science to begin with. “To me, science is the art of revealing the unknown. As scientists, we can either uncover something that was previously unknown or create something that did not exist before. Both of these discoveries have the potential to change the course of human history, which is incredibly powerful and rewarding.”

If you want to read more about the women of LGC, head on over to the Biosearch Technologies blog, where Marcela, senior scientist Dusty Vyas, and application scientist Erin Steer share which scientists inspire them, how they found their passion for science, and what science means to them.

¹Weighed in the Balance, by PW Hammond and Harold Egan, 1992, pg 179-180.

Helping athletes stay safe and clean with Informed Sport

The use of drugs in sport goes back a long time- all the way back to the invention of sport itself, when ancient Olympians would take herbal medicines, potions and drugs to enhance their performance. Chariot racers in Ancient Rome are believed to have fed their horses hydromel, while gladiators took stimulants to improve their abilities. But the Ancient Romans, advanced as they were, did not have mass spectrometres.

More recently, drug use in sport, or doping, has become one of the biggest problems facing sport. It’s now understood to not only oppose the spirit and integrity of sport, but also poses a danger to the athletes themselves.  And as science has moved forward, becoming more accurate and precise, we are well-placed to tackle this issue head on.

Sport is a multibillion pound industry, spanning nearly every continent and reaching billions of people, so it’s easy to forget sometimes about the individuals participating in it. A sport is only as great as the people who dedicate themselves to it and drive the sport. The industry’s top priority should be to protect these athletes and their health and integrity, which is why transparency and certification programmes like Informed Sport are so important.

 

The responsibility to stay clean rests with the athletes, who can be banned for several years, or even lifetime, from their sport if they test positive for a banned substance, whether they knowingly took it or not. Worse still, banned substances can pose serious risks to a person’s health, causing heart attacks, liver damage, and other problems.

But if people don’t know what’s in the supplements they use, how can they possibly have confidence in them or know which dangers to avoid? Surveys carried out on non-Informed Sport-certified supplements that were being sold in supermarkets suggest that as high as ten percent contained banned substances, which mean the products would not pass our certification.

The WADA banned substances list is not closed; items are added as and when new drugs are caught. So there is no way to absolutely guarantee that a product is free from these illegal ingredients, but there are definitely steps that will vastly minimise the risk posed to athletes. Ensuring that products are tested and certified is the first of these steps.

Simon Richardson of GCN visits LGC.

Global Cycling Network recently visited our labs to see first-hand how sports nutrition products are tested for banned substances.  Watch to learn for yourself how exactly our Informed Sport programme takes steps to protect athletes, giving them the option to see exactly when that protein bar they’re eyeing has been tested by experts.

We can all do our part. If we expect athletes to be informed about what exactly is going into their bodies, then supplements companies should strive to demonstrate that their products are safe.

The importance of iodine – are you drinking enough milk?

Ensuring the safety of the food we eat is of paramount importance. Iodine is an essential element naturally found in some foods. Insufficient amounts of iodine in the diet results in low levels of thyroid hormones, which are responsible for regulation of metabolism.

In pregnant women and infants iodine is of particular importance as it plays a critical role in brain development. The primary sources of iodine for most people are milk and dairy products but due to increases in dairy intolerance and changes in diet, milk-products are being increasingly substituted for non-milk alternatives.

To identify the impact that such dietary changes might have on iodine levels across the population, an understanding of the levels of iodine naturally present in milk is necessary. This includes the effects of seasonal variations or fat content and any processing effects of pasteurisation which might reduce the iodine content. These variations have been investigated by the Nutrition Innovation Centre for Food and Health (NICHE), Ulster University, with milk samples collected over a 12-month period. However, these differences needed to be measured accurately in order to properly determine the influence different conditions have on iodine content.

As part of the UK’s National Measurement Laboratory (NML) role, scientists at LGC have developed a high accuracy quantitative method (inductively-coupled plasma mass spectrometry) for the analysis of iodine in milk and milk-products to support the regulation on iodine levels in infant formulas. Using this expertise, we were able to support the work being done at Ulster University, providing the analytical capability required to determine the levels of iodine in milk under a variety of conditions.

Of the collaboration, Maria O’Kane, lead author on the paper, said: “LGC facilitated my visit to the laboratory in Teddington and enabled me to undertake analysis of the milk samples collected using high accuracy ICP-MS. The expert staff at LGC supported my learning and enabled me to develop a greater knowledge and understanding of ICP-MS analysis.”

The findings were recently published in the Journal of Nutrition, where Maria concluded that consuming additional cow milk can significantly increase the amount of iodine observed in the urine of women of childbearing age.

This work will help our understanding of current iodine intake and support future research in this area and clearly demonstrates the impact the UK’s National Measurement Laboratory (NML) can have on real-world problems, protecting human health and ensuring the safety of our food.

Our top 5 favourite scientific breakthroughs in history

British Science Week kicked off on the 9th March and this year’s theme is ‘Exploration & Discovery’, which encompasses the spirit of scientific enquiry. The week is a ten day celebration of science, technology, engineering and maths.

As humans, we love to celebrate big moments in history and retell stories that help us understand our own story. Famous thinkers often become legends who attain ‘larger than life’ status. But it’s important to remember that our heroes of science pursued science every day and dedicated themselves to their work. Innovations are often accomplished over the course of lifetimes with the help of many scientists.

We are constantly building on the knowledge of the past to take science into the future, and it’s exciting to think that we could each play a part in something big. After all, there are often just a few steps between ‘business as usual’ and ‘making history’. So keep up the good work!

To celebrate the spirit of exploration and discovery, here’s a look at our top five favourite scientific breakthroughs:

Genomics/DNA: While the term ‘genomics’ was only coined in 1986, by geneticist Tom Roderick, the actual study of the human genome is more extensive than that. A genome is defined as all the genetic information of an organism, and therefore genomics, the study of the complete genetic material of these organisms.

Gregor Mendel

Selective breeding has been practiced for thousands of years, but it wasn’t until the Augustinian friar Gregor Mendel undertook his studies in the mid-19th century that modern genetics as we know it was born. Do you remember practicing Mendel’s laws in school, determining traits in offspring based on dominant and recessive traits? It was the most fun to be had in biology.

Later, British Nobel Prize-winners James D. Watson and Francis Crick published the discovery of the helical structure of DNA, based on work done by Rosalind Franklin and Raymond Gosling, and then molecular biologists began to sequence nucleic acids. By 2001, the Human Genome Project completed a rough draft of the human genome, a feat which is being replicated with the 1000 Genomes Project. Now, scientists are using genomics to forge the way forward in personalised medicine, conservation, synthetic biology and gene editing. This all within the relatively short space of 150 years!

Domestication of plants & fermentation: Perhaps not a ‘discovery’, the domestication of plants definitely changed the course of human history, allowing populations to settle and grow. Plant domestication first occurred about 10,000 years ago in the Middle East. This change from hunter-gatherer societies to agricultural societies is largely seen as the beginning of the rise of civilisation.

Often, crops would go bad before they could be consumed, so in order to make the yields last longer and feed more, humans began to use a chemical process called fermentation in the Neolithic Age. This process converts sugars and carbohydrates to acids, gases or alcohol, and it was used to preserve food and beverages. Some of our favourite food and drinks were invented thanks to fermentation, including beer, wine, yoghurt, kimchi and sauerkraut (not that this is the only reason it made the list).

Alexander Fleming in his St Mary’s lab in London

Penicillin/antibiotics: Discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming, penicillin became the world’s first true antibiotic. By the time Fleming made this discovery, scientists had reported the antibacterial properties of some moulds, including penicillium. But they were unable to successfully harness these properties. For his part, Fleming recounted that his historically famous discovery was a lucky accident. After mistakenly leaving a Petri dish containing Staphylococci exposed in his lab, he returned from holiday and noticed it had grown a blue-green mould. The mould slowed the growth of the bacteria around it, and after studying this effect, Fleming was able to use his ‘mould juice’ (blegh) to kill a range of harmful bacteria.

Ultimately, this discovery has greatly reduced the number of deaths from infection, playing an enormous role in improving the mortality rates around the globe. Today, antimicrobial resistance is a growing concern, and medical professionals warn that if we do not discover new classes of antibiotics, infections could kill as many as ten million people a year by 2050. But scientists are looking for new antibiotics in unexpected places, like toilet seats, dog food bowls, and even laptop keyboards.

Steam engine: Another British invention, the steam engine is not so much a scientific breakthrough as it is a series of breakthroughs over the course of one hundred years, and it certainly changed the course of human history. This invention has roots in Roman times, but it wasn’t until the 17th century when Englishman Thomas Savery developed a model of the steam engine that it became a promising innovation. Soon after, another Englishman, Thomas Newcomen, and Scottish engineer James Watt made the design more efficient and the rest, as they say, was history.

James Watt’s steam engine at the Thinktank museum in Birmingham (© Copyright Ashley Dace)

Connected to a piston and cylinder, a boiler filled with water is heated until the water turns to steam. Once the steam expands, it travels through the cylinder and moves the piston first forward, and then, once the steam is cooled, backward. This back-and-forth process, attached to a larger machine, moves the machine forward, in what must be one of the most rudimentary explanations ever of this amazing process. This engine was adapted for use in boats, cars, and, of course, trains. The idea that people began to cross continents in record time just by turning a liquid into a gas over and over is pretty bonkers when you think about it.

Periodic table: This one may be last on our list, but it’s definitely not last in our hearts. Chemists have spent a lot of time throughout history on the classification of chemical elements, but when Russian chemistry professor Dmitri Mendeleev got hold of it, things changed. He published his version in 1869, much to the chagrin of German chemist Julius Lothar Meyer, who published his version just one year later in 1870 and probably thought we’d all be talking about “Meyer’s Table” right now.

Like others before him, Mendeleev saw when elements were listed in order of atomic weight, elements at certain intervals shared physical and chemical properties. But Mendeleev left gaps in the table, predicting where an element hadn’t yet been discovered and it’s properties. He also took care to classify elements into ‘chemical families’. And just like any good developer, he released an updated version in 1871. Adjustments have been made from time to time, when new elements have been discovered or to make the table more easily readable, but Mendeleev is still considered the Father of the Periodic Table.

What are your favourite breakthroughs?