Fatbergs: The monster lurking below

If you haven’t been paying attention to sewer-related news throughout the past few years, you might have missed that fatbergs are a thing. Large (sometimes hundreds of metres long), congealed lumps of fat and other substances, fatbergs have been clogging up the sewer systems under major cities like London, Melbourne, Baltimore and Cardiff.

martin-brechtl-721491-unsplashJust a quick Google search of the word ‘fatberg’ turns up a trove of related videos and news that could gross anyone out. Fatbergs now have their own museum exhibition and were even the subject of a prime time documentary, Fatberg Autopsy, which is exactly as captivating and weird as it sounds.  And just as our fascination for these grotesque reflections of modern life has grown faster than a fatberg in a sewer, so is our understanding of them.

These beasts begin to form when large amounts of cooking oils, fats and grease are dumped into drains, where they thicken. Adding to the frequency of fatbergs is the increased usage of wet wipes, which don’t break down in drainage pipes, but instead team up with the congealed cooking oils to form a monster from a subterranean horror film. Fatbergs are particularly susceptible in old pipes or pipes with rough walls where debris can get trapped and build up.

And despite its moniker, documented fatbergs are mostly made up of wet wipes, which account for 93 percent of the material blocking sewers, while actual fat and grease make up only 0.5 percent. In one case, the fatberg in London had grown to weigh as much as a blue whale, the largest animal known to have ever existed.

Studying products of human behaviour, like fatbergs, can provide a lot of information into how people in these cities live.

Simon Hudson, Technical Director of Sport and Specialised Analytical Services at LGC, has been involved with method development and analysis for many projects looking into identifying the makeup of substances found in public systems, like fatbergs. In addition to analysing samples for Fatberg Autopsy, Simon has also worked with scientists from King’s College London, Guy’s and St Thomas’s NHS Foundation Trust and King’s Health Partners, Hull York Medical School and other institutions to analyse anonymised pooled urine from UK cities.

By using various analytical methods on samples from street urinals, the scientists have been able to provide a geographical trend analysis of the recreational drugs and novel psychoactive substances (NPS) that are being used, showing the most common drugs in specific cities.

Studies on recreational drug use have traditionally been done by self-reported user surveys, which are helpful but flawed if respondents either don’t know what drugs they are taking or don’t disclose everything they’ve used. By analysing samples from urinals, these methods can be used to confirm actual drugs being used and can be particularly useful for public health initiatives in identifying new psychoactive substances that may not have been reported or known to officials yet. It also provides insight into common potential adulterants of drugs.

By taking pooled samples from street urinals near night clubs and bars, these studies provide a snapshot of what is happening inside the night life across UK cities.

Findings include everything from nicotine and caffeine to cocaine, cannabis, ketamine, methamphetamine, anabolic steroids and several uncontrolled psychoactive substances. In one specific study¹, cocaine and 3,4-methylenedioxy–methamphetamine (MDMA, Ecstasy) were the most common recreational drugs to turn up, while morphine and methadone were detected in seven and six cities, respectively.

Like his analysis of fatbergs, Simon’s work on urine samples provides insight into the hidden aspects of modern life, the things that aren’t talked about over coffee or seen while heading into the office. They’re also valuable in shaping public health knowledge and responses to potential issues.

If you’re interested in learning more about our science, head over to lgcgroup.com or read Simon’s various publications on pooled urine analysis listed below.

 

¹Archer, J.R.H, S. Hudson, O. Jackson, T. Yamamoto, C. Lovett, H.M. Lee, S. Rao, L. Hunter, P.I. Dargan, and D.M. Wood (2015). Analysis of anonymized pooled urine in nine UK cities: variation in classical recreational drug, novel psychoactive substance and anabolic steroid use.  QJM: An International Journal of Medicine. 108(12), pp. 929-933.

Other publications:

  1. R. H Archer, P. I. Dargan, S. Hudson, S. Davies, M. Puchnarewicz, A. T. Kicman, J. Ramsey, F. Measham, M. Wood, A. Johnston, and D. M. Wood (2013). Taking the Pissoir – a novel and reliable way of knowing what drugs are being used in nightclubs. Journal of Substance Use. 00 (0), pp. 1-5.
  2. R. H. Archer, P. I. Dargan, H. M. D. Lee, S. Hudson & D. M. Wood (2014) Trend analysis of anonymised pooled urine from portable street urinals in central London identifies variation in the use of novel psychoactive substances, Clinical Toxicology, 52:3, 160-165, DOI: 10.3109/15563650.2014.885982

Revolutionising cancer treatment one Array at a time

While the science of pharmacogenomics has been around for years, its popularity is starting to pick up steam as precision medicine and how we treat individual patients becomes more and more common place in the medical world. Geneticists and doctors are fully embracing the fact that our individual genes make us all unique and that these genes hold clues to how each patient’s body will metabolise medications.

Pharmacogenetics, or the study of how people respond differently to medicines due to their genetics, is making a splash lately thanks to companies like Minneapolis, MN-based OneOme, which co-developed its RightMed test with Mayo Clinic. The company collects a patient’s DNA sample using a simple cheek swab that is then analysed at OneOme’s lab with PCR – in this case on LGC’s IntelliQube® – to determine the patient’s genetics.  This information is then used to determine whether the patient has any genetic variations that may cause them to have a certain reaction to a medication. These results give doctors “graphic genetic pinpoint accuracy” on the medications that should work and those likely to be less effective. In simplest terms, these tests, combined with PCR instruments are empowering patients and doctors with information that may not only make their lives better, but also safer. Or as we like to say, science for a safer world.

Take a look at just how much pharmacogenomics is impacting and “revolutionizing” patient care by watching the video here, or visit our website.

 

This story was originally published on the Biosearch Technologies blog.

What’s funny about your honey?

Ensuring the safety and authenticity of the food we eat is of paramount importance and there is growing concern, both at the EU and global level, to ensure the quality control of food to protect the health and safety of consumers. And during the National Measurement Laboratory’s thirty years, we’ve done a lot of work to support reliable measurements in food testing and authentication.

Honey is known to have multiple health and nutritional benefits and is in high demand among consumers. It is defined as the natural sweet substance produced by bees and there is significant regulation around the composition and labelling of honey in order to protect consumers from food fraud. However, due to the declining numbers of bees, the impact of weather conditions on supply and the high costs production, honey is expensive. This makes it a prime target for economically-motivated food fraud.

StockSnap_97LJAKWL36Some research suggests that humans began to hunt for honey 8,000 years ago, and the oldest known honey remains, dating back to between 4,700 – 5,500 years ago, were discovered in clay vessels inside of a tomb in the country of Georgia.

The ancient Egyptians used honey to sweeten dishes and to embalm the dead, while the ancient Greeks actually practised beekeeping so much that laws were passed about it. Honey was prevalent around the ancient world, being used in ancient India, China, Rome and even among the Mayans. It even plays a role in many religions, representing the food of Zeus, an elixir of immortality, and a healing substance.

And just like any other important product, fraudsters have been faking it since it’s been in use. Ancient Greeks and Romans both mention honey adulteration, and back in 1889, Dr Harvey W. Wiley testified in front of Congress that it was the most adulterated product in the U.S.

Honey is still one of the most adulterated food products globally, with a report last year citing that more than 14% of tested samples were adulterated.

There are two types of food fraud associated with honey: adulteration and fraudulent labelling. Honey adulteration typically occurs by substituting honey for cheaper sweeteners such as high fructose corn syrup, cane or beet sugar syrup. Fraudulent labelling occurs because honeys from a particular geographic or botanical source, such as Manuka, command premium prices amongst consumers.

Detecting these types of fraud presents a significant measurement challenge for food regulators: adulterated products show very similar physical and chemical properties to pure honey and mis-labelled products are, in fact, pure honey, just of lower quality. Several reports indicate that there is more Manuka honey being sold than Manuka bees can  produce, which illustrates how often lower quality honeys are passed for premium ones in order to maximise profit.

During our thirty years as the National Measurement Laboratory (NML) for chemical and bio-measurement, our scientists have conducted several reviews and studies of methods for detecting honey fraud1. For instance, nearly forty years ago, scientists began to use stable carbon isotope ratio mass spectrometry (IR-MS) to detect high fructose corn syrup in honey.  As our scientists found2, it is possible to identify food fraud in honey using IR-MS, which measures small but observable variations in the ratios of the two stable isotopes of carbon (C-13 and C-12). Sugars, although chemically identical, have a different isotopic signature depending on the way in which the plant processes carbon dioxide. As the majority of honey-source plants use a different pathway than plant sugars typically used as honey adulterants, it is possible to detect adulteration using IR-MS. The specific geography of the plants also plays a role in the isotopic fingerprint and IR-MS can be used to determine where honeys originated.

However, in order that these types of measurements are robust and reliable in detecting food fraud across the supply chain the comparability of results is critical. To support this, LGC co-ordinated an international comparison study in 2016 for isotope ratios in honey involving 6 national measurement institutes (NMIs) and 6 expert laboratories (contacted via the Forensic Isotope Ratio Mass Spectrometry (FIRMS) Network) and the results between participants showed good comparability.

Demonstrating the comparability of isotope ratio measurements is crucial to detecting many types of food fraud and supporting food authenticity claims, of which honey is just one example. The international study coordinated by LGC demonstrates the measurement framework is in place to support food fraud regulation in the future.

 

1 D. Thorburn Burns, Anne Dillon, John Warren, and Michael J. Walker, 2018, A Critical Review of the Factors Available for the Identification and Determination of Mānuka Honey, Food Analytical Methods, https://doi.org/10.1007/s12161-018-1154-9.

2 Helena Hernandez, “Detection of adulteration of honey: Application of continuous-flow IRMS”, VAM Bulletin, 1999, Vol 18, pp 12-14.

Food Safety Week and beyond: LGC’s long history in food testing

Food Safety Week, organised by the UK’s Food Standards Agency, is an opportunity to learn more about current food issues, including food crime, compliance and food hygiene. This year’s campaign celebrates “the people who protect your plate” – the workers who ensure the UK public can trust the food they eat, including inspectors, local authorities, and public analysts.

Also at the forefront of the fight for food safety are chemists, who analyse food, drinks and supplements to ensure manufacturers can verify the safety of their food products.

tea_world food day

The original Government Laboratory plaque and tea samples.

Consumers trust that when they buy food and drink, they are getting exactly what they’ve been told they are getting.  Each food has a distinct composition, much like its own fingerprint, and with the right expertise and tools, it’s possible to study these foods to determine their authenticity.  LGC has been involved in food testing for over 175 years. In fact, it’s the very reason we were established. In 1842, the Board of Excise needed a scientific authority to see that goods, like tea, tobacco and spirits, were not adulterated for profit, and so it created the Government Laboratory.

The Government Chemist role was created in 1909, to ensure the Laboratory of the Government Chemist could work independently of the Inland Revenue department (which provided staff to the Laboratory) and the Board of Customs and Excise (which controlled it). Nowadays the Government Chemist oversees the statutory function of referee analyst, resolving disputes over analytical measurements, particularly in relation to food regulatory enforcement.

As LGC grew, so did our roles involved in food and feed testing. Not only are we involved as the referee analyst for disputes in the food industry, we also provide products and solutions to food safety-related issues.

In order for food producers to know with certainty that their food is authentic, it’s necessary to compare what they’ve produced with a known and verified version of the food – this is called a reference material, or standard.  Currently, we have over 15,000 reference materials for food analysis, for everything from allergens, contaminants, and toxins to food flavourings, dyes and proteins, and much more.

Chemists also study new methods of authenticating foods, including via mass spectrometry, which is considered to be the gold standard in analysis, especially when combined with chromatography. Mass spectrometers analyse a sample’s elemental molecular weight, which is its ‘fingerprint’.  The tools and expertise of the National Measurement Laboratory at LGC allow our measurement scientists to be accurate about the content of a sample to up to one part per quadrillion. In other words, we can detect one lump of sugar dissolved in a bay.  These capabilities allow us to work on specific projects, tailoring our research to benefit many different sectors and solve specific problems.

This was particularly evident during a recent case studying selenium within food products and supplements.  It is essential that the correct amount and species of selenium is present in order for fortified food products and supplements to be safe for human consumption.  Selenium-enriched foods and supplements have become more prominent in Europe since it has moved to using more wheat that is naturally low in selenium.

However the accurate measurement of total selenium in food and food supplements presents analytical challenges due to the complex nature of food samples. Furthermore, selenium speciation analysis presents additional challenges due to the low levels of each specific selenium species and the molecular complexity of such samples.

LGC’s measurement research team for inorganic mass spectrometry has extensive experience in selenium speciation and was able to develop and characterise a range of reference materials, including a matrix selenium-enriched wheat flour standard, to support the food industry.

With over 175 years in the food testing arena, we have a lot to say about the subject, so if you want to learn more, head over to our website where you can read case studies and learn about our reference materials.

You can also join us at next week’s Government Chemist Conference, where we will be discussing current food safety issues at length, including Brexit, food authenticity, and food regulation, with many experts in their fields, including the FSA themselves. Visit the conference website to view the entire programme and register.

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.

What makes a good LC-MS/MS bioassay?

Liquid chromatography linked to tandem mass spectrometry (LC–MS/MS) is the ‘go to’ method for pharmacokinetics and metabolism studies across drug development with recent advances in separation, throughput and methods for analysing protein biotherapeutics.

But not all LC-MS/MS assays are created equal. There are many pitfalls that await even experienced scientists developing and validating, for example, a new bioassay. However, with experience and knowing what pitfalls to look out for, these issues don’t need to stand in the way of producing a robust bioassay and achieving analysis goals for your compound in good time.

Choosing the right method approach

When selecting your LC-MS/MS method approach it is worth doing your homework. Pick an assay format that is best suited to your compound and consider factors such as matrix type, analyte structure, choice and availability of reagents, and the sensitivity and specificity you need.

What about sample preparation? Will protein precipitation or solid phase extraction be enough or should you consider enrichment, for example using affinity capture steps? Use the simplest approach available to the required selectivity/specificity, sensitivity, accuracy, and precision in the intended matrix and species.

LGC blog What makes a good LC-MS_MS bioassay

Common pitfalls

Accuracy, precision, reliability, throughput and sensitivity all make for a good assay. But what are the common pitfalls you should be on top of when commissioning a new LC-MS/MS assay?

The increase in sensitivity of recent LC-MS/MS instruments and the use of wide calibration ranges can make carry over and contamination an issue, but these can be avoided if detected and addressed during validation.

The retention factor of the analyte needs to be optimised in order to allow for the analyte to have sufficient time to interact with the stationary phase on the column. This will allow for the best sensitivity to be achieved and for the analyte to elute from the column before any other matrix interferences in the sample.

LC-MS/MS has a well-deserved reputation for excellent selectivity but interference from the sample matrix (matrix effect) or metabolites can catch you out. Careful validation is key to optimising methods to eliminate or minimise these issues¹.
Best recommendation? Find a partner with expertise in a wide range of LC-MS/MS methodologies

LGC has extensive experience developing LC-MS/MS bioassays for many different compounds and applies an intelligent, streamlined process to new method development that highlights issues at an early stage and creates a solid basis for future troubleshooting. Read our poster ‘A step-by-step guide to developing a robust assay in bioanalysis using LC-MS/MS’ to learn about LGC’s proven approach to developing industry-leading LC-MS/MS bioassays.

 

References
1. Matuszewski BK, Constanzer ML, Chavez-Eng CM. Strategies for the assessment of matrix effect in quantitative bioanalytical methods based on HPLC− MS/MS. Analytical chemistry. 2003 Jul 1;75(13):3019-30.

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.

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.

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?