Dr Chris Meets The Queen

What attracts mosquitoes, tracking marine animals at sea, and Mars Express: Chris Smith goes to Buckingham Palace for a special evening of science...
29 October 2006

Interview with 

John Pickett, Rothamsted Research, Ian Boyd, University of St. Andrews, and John Murray, The Open University


Buckingham Palace


This week was very exciting because Dr Chris Smith was invited to Buckingham Palace to meet the Queen!

It was part of a special Science Day being hosted at the Palace to show young people how exciting science can be and why British scientists are amongst the world's best. During the day 500 pupils came from schools and colleges right across the country to see first a fun science show, and then to chat with some of the UK's top scientists about the work that they do. And then, in the evening, the queen, together with Prince Philip and some other members of the royal family, held a special reception in the Buckingham Palace ballroom, for some of the country's scientists to chat with each other, and also to enjoy some extremely nice champagne.

One of the first people I chatted to with was Rothamsted Research's Professor John Pickett. And he's been working on the problem of why some people taste just too good, at least for a mosquito… Because he and his team have found that those of us who are ignored by mosquitoes produce a certain cocktail of volatile on our skin, which keep biting insects at bay - and now he's tracked down what those chemicals are.

John - I suppose many people will know that mosquitoes show a sort of preference for some individuals and not others, and what we've really done is investigated why that is. What we've found is that people who aren't attractive to mosquitoes produce extra chemicals.

Chris - So this makes them smell bad?

John - To the mosquito, yes. Exactly right. Not to us, but to the mosquito.

Chris - So the key question is, can you bottle that and put it into the most effective mosquito repellent known to man?

John - Well we've bottled it in the sense that we've identified the chemicals mainly responsible. We're now checking out whether we can actually use them in a way that's beneficial.

Chris - How did you actually home in on them in the first place?

John - We surveyed a number of people to find those that were very attractive and those that were unattractive. We then took the volatile chemicals from those people and analysed them using chemical analysis, but also the antennae of the insects themselves, and that's how we pinpointed the chemicals that are produced extra by the repellent people and those are the chemicals that were found to be repellent themselves.

Chris - When you say that you used the insect's antenna itself, how did you do that?

John - Well we stick very very fine electrodes into the antennae of the insect so we can kind of listen in to what the insect is smelling.

Chris - And then once you've worked out what the compounds are that produce the most profound effects, you then know that those must be the important ones in the attraction-repulsion.

John - That's right, and we've been testing those. This work is collaborative with the University of Aberdeen up in Scotland against the Scottish biting midge and we've got very nice field results there. We've done some lab work on the yellow fever mosquito and we're just about to go out to Africa to work with colleagues there on the malaria mosquito.

Chris - So the same compounds work not just in one insect but in many.

John - We're hoping that since they work very well against the Scottish biting midge and the yellow fever mosquito, that they will work for a whole range of biting insects.

Chris - And the question everyone wants me to ask is, when are you going to have this stuff on the shelf?

John - Well we've got funding for two years to develop a business plan and to work out how we're going to do this, but the proviso is that we make sure it's available to people travelling to Scotland.

Chris - Rothamsted research's John Pickett, who's trying to bottle mosquito-repelling "odeur de human". Now John mentioned one thing Scotland's famous for just now - its midges, but the University of St Andrews is a world leader in research into marine mammals like seals and whales. Professor Ian Boyd and his team have developed special satellite tags, which can be attached to the animals and used to find out where they go, how deep they dive, and where they go for lunch…

Ian - We're trying to understand how these animals operate beneath the surface of the oceans. Until very recently it was really impossible to observe them, and now with new instrumentation we're able to gather a lot of information about how these animals live in the deep, dark, high pressure world.

Chris - How are you doing it?

Ian - It's mainly using modern instrumentation. We have two basic types, which we're calling satellite tags, which have these antennae on them. When the antenna on the animal comes to the surface, it sends a message to a satellite which contains the data about the previous dive that the animal has made. There's another one over here that's in the form of a salinity sensor and that's able to provide us with information about the temperature and salinity in the water column. So we can do the same as oceanographers do but without having to take a ship to see.

Chris - Now this thing is about the size of a computer mouse. So what, would you just glue that onto the animal's head or something?

Ian - It goes on the back of the head and it goes on the fur. When the animal moults, it moults once a year, the device falls off. So the animal's not permanently marked with the device. We've got another one here which actually dispenses with the satellite link and uses a mobile phone. So whenever it comes into mobile phone range, it sends the information through the mobile phone network to us. The development of these tags will probably involve animals being able to phone each other as well, so that's interesting.

Chris - Why would they want to do that?

Ian - Well the mobile phone network only goes out to sea for a very short distance, so what we want to do is allow animals to collect the information about all the other animals there are around if they come into contact with them. So we only need to see one animal to get information about the whole network back from them.

Chris - Professor Ian Boyd, from St Andrews, who's got seals talking - quite literally. Now if you didn't think that was sufficiently out of this world, one of the most incredible things to grace the Buckingham Palace Ballroom, apart from a massive model of Einstein's head that let you cycle through his brain, was a large screen providing a 3D view of the surface of the planet Mars. It played like a movie, and looked just like you were flying across the surface of the planet in an aeroplane buzzing past impact craters and canyons. It's been produced using stereo photographs taken by the Mars Express satellite, which is currently orbiting Mars, capturing images as it goes. One of the scientists on the project is the Open University's John Murray…

John - These are images from the Mars Express spacecraft, which is the first European spacecraft to another planet. It's also the first stereo camera that's ever been flown to another planet, which is quite amazing. So what you're seeing here is a model of the surface created from these stereo images. We're flying over the surface and skimming over the mountain tops.

Chris - So this is literally like you're taking a bird's eye view of the surface of Mars.

John - That's right, yes. These are taken from a spacecraft that is orbiting Mars at this very moment and it's sending back pictures all the time. From this we can create models where you can go right down to the surface and explore and measure heights, angles of different strata, and do geological fieldwork in virtual reality.

Chris - Is the orbit such that you'll be able to get a complete comprehensive map of the surface of Mars eventually?

John - Provided we get funded, yes. We've just had the mission extended for a further two years, so we should be able to do it. We're hoping to have 100% of the planet between a resolution of between ten metres and about thirty metres. So something the size of this room would be easily visible in those pictures. So that means that we'd know the surface of Mars better than we know the surface of the Earth, amazingly.

Chris - It certainly is amazing. That was the Open University's John Murray at what I think counts, and you can shoot me down if I'm wrong, the first podcast from Buckingham Palace.


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