Inside eLife, July 2013

16 July 2013

Interview with

Peter Rodgers, eLife Features Editor

eLife LogoFeatures editor Peter Rogers has a selection of some choice morsels he discusses with Chris, that have appeared this month in the journal.

Peter -   Okay, well I'm going to talk about three papers.  The first is actually a point of view article by Ian Boyd who is the Chief Scientific to DEFRA, The Department of Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs in the UK.  Now, Ian Boyd is very busy at the moment with issues related to bovine TB.  But the article he's written for eLife is a more general piece about how scientists interact with government and are involved in the making of government policy.  It's called 'Making Science Count in Government'.

Chris -   What points does he make?

Peter -   I have described it to people as tough love and it doesn't pull his punches when he tells scientists what they need to do.  I'm just going to read directly from the article.  He says, "His experience suggests to me that there can be confusion amongst some scientists about their role and also about how they can bring their influence to bear most effectively."  And the thing he stresses is that, science is just one of many inputs that have to be taken into account on government sent policy and they're sort of social and electoral, ethical, cultural, legal, all sorts of other issues which need to be taken into account.  So that it might seem to scientists that their concern aren't foremost in decision - which is a reality because there are other things that need to be taken into account as well.  It gives an example of the complexity and the difficulty of the whole area in bovine TB where he says, "within the UK and Ireland, there are actually 4 different policies being followed to treat the problem, all presumably based on the same scientific evidence".  So, in England, it's proactive badger culling and Wales, it's vaccination, in Northern Ireland it's test and then vaccination, and then in the Republic of Ireland, it's reactive badger culling.  There's not one single correct solution to many of these problems and they are quite complex.

Chris -   How has that gone down with the scientists?

Peter -   Well, we've just published the article a couple of days ago, so we're still waiting for the reaction.

Chris -   How do you expect it to go down with the scientists?

Peter -   Well, I think it will come as a surprise to them in the first instance, but he speaks very clearly and very plainly.  He is at the heart of government involved in the setting of these policies.  So, I think they'd be well-advised to listen and pay attention to what he has to say.

Chris -   A lot of scientists think that government doesn't understand science and they think that they're not very well listened to.  So, is he saying the scientists need to be more vocal and be more forthright or is he just saying, "Just accept the fact that your voice is one of many.  Don't stop saying what you're saying, but don't expect always to be heard."

Peter -   I think he's saying that there is sort of an apparatus and a mechanism of advisory committees and chief scientific advisers like he himself and that scientists should go through these bodies.  They should recognise that the decisions won't always be what the scientists may want them to have been and that if they complain too much when that happens, it risks being counterproductive and maybe the scientists won't be asked for their advice in the future.

Chris -   I shall have to check out the article in my own mind up which is very important science.  Now, moving on to look at some of the other research that's been published this month, you have an item on ammonium sensing.

Peter -   That's right, yeah.  So, ammonium is the ion of ammonia.  So, the chemical formula is NH4 and it's positively charged.  It's a very important source of nitrogen.  Ammonium can be moved in and out of cells either by transport proteins or through ion channels that move lots of other ions and water molecules in and out of cells.  So, to actually get the grips with the levels of ammonium, Wolf Frommer and his colleagues at the Carnegie Institute of Science developed a sensor based on green fluorescent protein which they introduced into one of these transport proteins that moves the ammonium within the cells.  The level of intensity coming out from this protein sensor basically changed in response to the levels of ammonium.

Chris -   Is this in eukaryotic cells or prokaryotic cells - bacteria?

Peter -   They did it actually in a variety of cells.  They did it in frog cells and yeast cells.  One of the other things that's interesting about this is that some of the mechanisms for the transport of ammonium to be conserved throughout many different types of cells.  And the hope is that this technique will be able to use wide variety of species.

Chris -   And talking about conservation of things through evolutionary time, you also got some stuff on glucose and how cells use that.

Peter -   That's right.  So, Dawn Thompson and our colleagues at the Broad Institute have been studying gene regulation which is a process by which genes are switched on and off in cells.  What they did is they measured profiles of messenger RNA and 15 different species of yeast evolve from a single ancestor over the past 300 billion years.  So, the patterns of gene regulation have sort of diverged over time as you might expect, but the change particularly following either changes in the lifestyle of the yeast are events called whole genome duplication events which as the name suggest, during meiosis, the whole genome is just duplicated.  They find those two things are the biggest influence on the gene regulation. And there's an interesting connection which they sort of elude to and it needs further work.  Most cells use glucose as a source of energy that doesn't lead to the cell proliferating and dividing.  But some of these cells use glucose to divide and proliferate which is very like what happens in cancer.  So that there were interesting parallels which could be explored and might tell us something more about cancer as well.

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