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?

Are apprenticeships the future of science?

Prof Sir John Holman, president of the RSC, speaks with apprentice Krzysztof Pilec and former apprentice Amy Rogers about their roles. (© Royal Society of Chemistry/Richard Stonehouse)

This week marks the 11th annual National Apprenticeship Week, a time for organisations across the country to celebrate the success of apprenticeships and encourage more people to participate in their schemes.

Apprenticeships provide an alternative to young people who either don’t wish to or are unable to attend university, and in some cases, they can complement university studies.  These schemes give students the chance to learn on their feet in real work environments, while earning money and achieving professional qualifications. And evidence shows that they work. Ninety-two percent of apprentices feel that their apprenticeship has had a positive impact on their career prospects. But there’s still a way to go in the science community to providing these opportunities to future scientists.

In the last academic year, there were nearly 500,000 apprenticeships. Yet fewer than 300 of those are in science, which accounts for less than one percent of all apprenticeships. This limits paths to those who’d like to pursue careers in science, and if we want the best and brightest of a diverse workforce pushing science into the future, this gap needs to be addressed.

As we’ve learned through our own accredited apprenticeship programme, students welcome the opportunity to get on-the-job training and experience in a professional environment. Many of our apprentices even go on to get hired as qualified scientists with LGC.

If you’re considering pursuing a science apprenticeship, don’t just take our word for it: hear it straight from one of our own apprentices, Krzysztof Pilec, who helped us understand what his apprenticeship means to him.

What is your role at LGC?

“I’m an apprentice at LGC, completing a Level 4 Higher Apprenticeship in Chemical Science for Industry and currently, I work in the Large Molecule Bioanalysis department as an Assistant Scientist. I also attend an education program run by CSR, who specialise in training apprentices and work with LGC on their apprentice program. Out of this program I will also receive a Level 4 Laboratory and Associated Technical Activities qualification.

What are some of your day-to-day tasks?

“My day-to-day job consists of quality control checking proformas, carrying out assays, maintaining the lab and even handling data through Watson, software we use to analyse data. I’ve learned a lot of things at LGC, including how to take care and maintain the equipment we use and how the samples are processed through the facility, from delivery to the project management in the form of data. I’m still learning how to completely understand, set up and carry out an assay. I have some experience in carrying out assays, but I haven’t yet gotten the hang of how to set one up. I’m learning that now. Also, I’m learning how to write professional reports, including where to look to get the information and data to write one.”c

How do you feel about your apprenticeship?

“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. I think what I like the best at LGC is that after successfully completing the course, you get a very high chance of employment as a professional scientist, so nothing you learn here is ever going to waste.”

To find out more about our apprenticeship programme, visit our website, or register to attend our Science Apprenticeship Open Day next month.

Finding harmony in newborn blood spot screening

Every forty seconds, a baby is born in the UK. That’s nearly 775,000 births across the United Kingdom in 2016 alone. It’s important that each of these children is given their best chance at a healthy future from the moment they are born.

Currently, all parents of newborns in the UK are offered newborn blood spot screening, a test which detects nine conditions and inherited diseases, including cystic fibrosis, congenital hypothyroidism, and sickle cell disease. The level of hormones or amino acids in the blood at the time the sample is taken leads to early detection. The goal is to detect and treat conditions before they cause severe developmental problems or unnecessary suffering so children can lead as normal lives as possible.

With the number of infants tested each year and the use of nationally agreed protocols with specified cut-off values, harmonisation of methods across the 14 laboratories performing these tests is extremely vital.  Each time a sample is analysed, it should produce the same results. The cost and time of retesting samples can be great and can cause unnecessary stress to the families at an already challenging time.  Additionally, the network of newborn screening laboratories in the UK should have access to the newest, most accurate methods and data.

This is why we have partnered with Dr Rachel Carling, one of the country’s foremost authorities on newborn screening, and the NHS England as part of the CSO’s Knowledge Transfer Partnership (KTP), a programme that teams up leaders in healthcare with the UK National Measurement System’s lab, including the National Measurement Laboratory (NML) at LGC, to solve measurement challenges in their fields.

Through the partnership, we plan to help create methods and materials that will lead to greater harmonisation and provide a framework within which more analytes can be added to the UK’s screening programme to be able to test for new diseases at birth.

As part of the KTP, LGC’s Chris Hopley and Simon Cowen will be discussing best practice in newborn screening with the network of labs at a workshop in London this week. Together, we hope to help deliver greater efficiency and certainty for these children and their families.

Analysis for Innovators: How we can solve your measurement problem

LGC, in our role as the UK National Measurement Laboratory and Designated Institute for chemical and bio-measurement, partnered with Innovate UK to launch a new funding programme ‘Analysis for Innovators’ (A4I) last year.

The aim of A4I was simple: to solve real problems affecting productivity or performance of UK companies of all sizes using the world-leading measurement facilities available at LGC and other national laboratories (NPL, NEL, STFC).

After the success of the first round, Analysis for Innovators is opening a new round of applications in March to UK companies who wish to take advantage of our expertise, research and development to help solve a measurement problem. And this year’s round has £4 million reserved to fund 12-month projects, with up to £250,000 for each project.

Companies are asked to submit a two-minute video outlining an existing measurement problem, without providing any solutions. This gives us insight in to what the obstacle looks like, the approaches the companies have already tried, and how solving it might change their business going forward.

After watching the videos from last year’s competition, LGC scientists sat down with the competition winners and discussed the problems in more detail. This approach encouraged creative thinking from our scientists and provided companies with access to our experts even if they did not progress to the next competition stage. In fact, feedback from the first round indicated that this stage was itself incredibly useful, and as a result the initial successful outcome of the current A4I programme will be a longer consultancy session with our measurement experts before progressing on to potential projects.

Previous collaborations included developing an assay to continuously monitor cortisol for a wearable device to improve diagnosis and treatment of disease, improving the sensitivity of a novel assay developed to ensure the safety of cell therapy products, and optimising an innovative non-chemical disinfection process to provide a cost-effective system for cleaning water and other fluids.

This programme benefits companies who otherwise would not be able to consult with our scientists, but it also benefits LGC by giving us the opportunity to see the outcomes of the vital measurement work we do every day. Our scientists are at the forefront of measurement technology, so it’s exciting to see how our science can affect and change lives for the better. These applications of our expertise remind us why what we do is important and inspire us to continue.

If you’re planning on applying for the next round of funding, or if you’d just like to learn more about the programme, register to join us at one of the remaining roadshows in February and March. We’ll be there to help share the work of our collaborations and illustrate how our analysis can help solve your problem.

Science for a safer world

In the twenty-first century, science has been brought to the forefront, informing all aspects of our lives. In order for it to make our world safer, it’s especially important for science to remain steadfast, reliable and responsible. Science should not have an agenda; science is the agenda. It should not be informed by policy or opinion, but should inform policy and opinion. And at LGC, we work to ensure that our science does just that.

From our origins testing tobacco, alcohol and food products for adulteration in the 19th century, LGC has built a commitment to using science for a safer world.

This commitment underpins all of what we do. From testing drinking water and the quality of food to researching medicines and diagnostics, we work to ensure both our customers and the public benefit from our knowledge. Our scientists develop accurate methods for detecting infectious and congenital diseases and we test more than 6,000 products and supplements for banned substances, certifying that they are safe for athletes at all levels to use.  In our role as UK designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bio-measurement, we solve measurement challenges in diagnostics, food safety, cancer research and environmental testing. At the heart of everything we do is the question, How can we make the world safer?

LGC is also looking to the future, to advance research, technologies, solutions and medicines that will build a better, more secure future.

Now, through this blog, we hope to bring our science to you, shedding light on the vital work we do every day.

What does ‘Science for a safer world’ mean to you?