Tiny life sticking to growing green things

Communicating science to non-scientists is important, but often the jargon scientists use makes their work impenetrable, even to other scientists. So how can scientific writing become less obscure and more approachable? Randall Monroe, the creator of xkcd webcomics, gave it a go with his annotation of a Saturn V rocket blueprint. The annotation used only the 1000 most commonly used words, so instead of Saturn V the name of the rocket became Up Goer Five.

So can scientific communication in my field (microbiology and genetics) be effective using only the 1000 most commonly used words? In the interests of simplifying my writing, I wrote a summary of my PhD project using only the 1000 most commonly used words (using this text editor):

This study wants to find the ‘small pieces’ which are important for tiny life (the helping ones) to stick to growing green things. Pseudomonas tiny life are some of the best helping tiny life and one of the most well-known ones, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, can control problems in growing green things used for food. But in the field, helping tiny life show does not stick to growing green things very often or very well. This study will look at the whole set of ‘small pieces’ important for P. protegens Pf-5 to stick to growing green things. Making tiny life stick better to growing green things will help lower problems with growing green things and better the return from growing green things used for food, which are important both here and around the world.

This is hilarious and obviously oversimplified (to the point of not making sense in a lot of places). For comparison, this is the ‘normal’ version of my project summary:

The project aims to identify the essential genes for colonisation of plant surfaces by biocontrol bacteria. Pseudomonas bacteria are some of the most successful biocontrol bacteria and one of the most well-known strains, Pseudomonas protegens Pf-5, has the ability to control diseases that affect cotton, wheat, pea, maize, tomatoes and potatoes. Despite this, field trials of biocontrol bacteria show a lack of reliability and persistence on plant surfaces. This project will conduct a genome-wide study of genes essential for P. protegens Pf-5 colonisation of plant surfaces. Enabling reliable colonisation of crop roots by biocontrol bacteria will contribute to lowering plant disease and increasing crop yields, which are important both in Australia and internationally.

From this exercise I learned that some level of complicated language is important to communicate a precise meaning (important in science), but not every complicated word is necessary. Sometimes the language I choose can be off-putting to the reader, make my work harder to understand and appear pretentious even when I don’t mean it to.

So overall, science writing in my field using the 1000 most used words is not practical and makes it harder, not easier to understand (even nonsensical in places). But it’s an interesting exercise to see just how much jargon you’ve used or if a simpler word will do in place of a complicated one. And wouldn’t we all like simpler rather than complex!


Going a bit batty – How do bats withstand so many viruses?

Dr Michelle Baker from the CSIRO Australian Animal Health Laboratory spoke at Macquarie University last week about her work on bat immune systems. Her lab recently contributed to the high impact Hendra virus vaccine for horses. Dr Baker’s work has implications for disease control and prevention and management of virus spillovers into human communities worldwide.

Bats make up 20% of mammalian diversity, are long lived for their body size and are the only mammals with powered flight. Bats are vital to ecosystem functions such as pollination, fertilisation and insect control (Calisher et al. 2006). Despite these unique characteristics they are not intensively studied like most other mammal groups. Before Dr Baker’s research group focused on bats not much was known about their immune systems (Baker et al. 2013).

Figure 1. Possible virus transmission routes from bats to humans. (adapted from image presented by Dr Michelle Baker)

Figure 1. Possible virus transmission routes
(adapted from image presented by Dr Michelle Baker).

Bats act as viral reservoirs, meaning they carry a range of viruses (He et al. 2010; Ng & Baker 2013). Fatal human viruses that can be traced back to bats include Rabies, Hendra, Ebola, Marburg and the SARS coronavirus (Ng & Baker 2013). These viruses occasionally spill over from bats into other animals and that’s normally how humans become infected (Figure 1). But even with this load of up to 100 different viruses, bats are hardly ever sick (Baker et al. 2013).

The bat’s lack of symptoms from viral infections was puzzling, so Dr Baker’s team looked more closely at bat immune systems. When a viral infection occurs in other mammals the immune system quickly delivers a generic response (innate response) and then a specific response occurs more slowly (adaptive response; Katze et al. 2002). The researchers observed that bats don’t develop many antibodies in response to infections, so they thought the bat immune system might be knocking down the viruses before the immune system could mount an adaptive response (Baker et al. 2013).

Figure 2. The Black Flying Fox, Pteropus alecto.

Figure 2. The Black Flying Fox, Pteropus alecto.

To test this idea the researchers sequenced the genomes and studied the immune responses of two species of bat: Myotis davidii, a micro bat, and Pteropus alecto, a megabat (Figure 2). They found the collection of immune genes in bats is different to other mammals. For example, bats have fewer genes for interferon production (Papenfuss et al. 2012).

Interferon is a protein produced by the immune system in response to the detection of viral invaders. It starts a signaling cascade that creates an anti-viral state in cells (He et al. 2010; Figure 3). High interferon levels can be toxic for cells, so normally the interferon level is very low. When a viral infection is detected, the interferon level is dramatically increased which signals cells to start fighting the infection (Katze et al. 2002). There are multiple types of interferon, but the type Dr Baker spoke most about is interferon alpha (IFNA).

Figure 3. Interferon signaling cascade - causes expression of immune system genes and creates an antiviral state in cells (Katze et al. 2002).

Figure 3. Interferon signaling cascade – causes expression of immune system genes and creates an antiviral state in cells (Katze et al. 2002).

In contrast to expectations, bat cells were found to have their IFNA genes constantly switched on and there is no increase when cells are infected with viruses (Figure 4). Even with this high IFNA level the toxicity effect observed in other mammals isn’t seen in bats. This IFNA level in bats may be part of the reason they can carry so many viruses, but don’t often get sick from them. Other research groups have found that bat IFNA genes have been positively selected which means they must have been beneficial to bats as they lived with viruses in the past (Calisher et al. 2006; He et al. 2010). Recent work has hypothesised that there is a link between the evolution of flight and the ability of bats to harbor viruses without becoming sick (Zhang et al. 2013; O’Shea et al. 2014).

These findings were very new and unexpected so there were lots of questions from the audience after the seminar. It seems like everywhere Dr Baker turned there were more questions! These are the ‘top 5’ questions asked:

  1. Why aren’t the bats harmed by high levels of interferon in uninfected cells like other mammals?
  2. What triggers the spillover of viruses into other animals that cause outbreaks?
  3. Could there be a link between the interferon level and their long lifespan relative to their body size?
  4. What is the bat immune response to bacterial infection?
  5. Why doesn’t the bat immune response completely wipe out the viruses? How come the viruses can persist and then spill over into other animals?
Figure 4. Interferon alpha levels in infected and uninfected cells in bats and other mammals  (adapted from image presented by Dr Michelle Baker).

Figure 4. Interferon alpha levels in infected and
uninfected cells in bats and other mammals
(adapted from image by Dr Michelle Baker).

So much is currently unknown about how bats can carry so many viruses without being sick. Dr Baker and her team are working to find answers to these questions and more. As human populations increasingly overlap with bat habitats there is more chance of spillover events affecting human and animal populations. Dr Baker’s research could be used to understand human responses to viruses and develop anti-viral treatments in the future.

Learn more:

Baker ML, Schountz T & Wang L-F (2013). Antiviral Immune Responses of Bats: A Review. Zoonoses and Public Health, 60, 104-116. doi: 10.1111/j.1863-2378.2012.01528.x

Calisher CH, Childs JE, Field HE, Holmes KV & Schountz T (2006). Bats: Important Reservoir Hosts of Emerging Viruses. Clinical Microbiology Reviews, 19(3), 531-545. doi:  10.1128/CMR.00017-06

He G, He B, Racey PA & Cui J (2010). Positive Selection of the Bat Interferon Alpha Gene Family. Biochemical Genetics, 48(9-10), 840-846. doi: 10.1007/s10528-010-9365-9

Katze M, He Y & Gale M (2002). Viruses and interferon: A fight for supremacy. Nature Reviews Immunology, 2(9), 675-687. doi: 10.1038/nri888

Ng J & Baker ML (2013). Bats and bat-borne diseases: a perspective on Australian megabats. Australian Journal of Zoology, 61, 48-57. doi: 10.1071/ZO12126

O’Shea T, Cryan P, Cunningham A, Fooks A, Hayman D, Luis A, Peel A, Plowright R, & Wood J (2014). Bat Flight and Zoonotic Viruses. Emerging Infectious Diseases, 20(5), 741-745. doi: 10.3201/eid2005.130539

Papenfuss AT, Baker ML, Feng Z-P, Tachedjian M, Crameri G, Cowled C, Ng J, Janardhana V, Field HE, Wang L-F (2012). The immune gene repertoire of an important viral reservoir, the Australian black flying fox. BMC Genomics, 13:261, doi: 10.1186/1471-2164-13-261.

Zhang G, Cowled C, Shi Z, Huang Z, Bishop-Lilly KA, Fang X, Wynne JW, Xiong Z, Baker ML, Zhao W, Tachedjian M, Zhu Y, Zhou P, Jiang X, Ng J, Yang L, Wu L, Xiao J, Feng Y, Chen Y, Sun X, Zhang Y, Marsh GA, Crameri G, Broder CC, Frey KG, Wang L-F & Wang J (2013). Comparative Analysis of Bat Genomes Provides Insight into the Evolution of Flight and Immunity. Science, 339, 456-460. doi: 10.1126/science.1230835

Silhouette images in Figure 1 sourced from: horse, bat, pig, humans.

Storytelling in Science

I’m always looking for that something extra to make my presentations more interesting and stand out from the rest of the crowd. I like to think I’ve mastered the standard recommendations for improving presentations such as:

  • Not too many slides – about one per minute is good
  • Don’t just read out your slides, add something extra to your talk
  • Reduce the number of words on each slide, and make sure to use a big font size
  • Use images to illustrate concepts if possible, but don’t add irrelevant pictures
  • Look at the audience (they’re not as scary as you’ve made them out to be in your head – they’re probably either scared witless about doing their own presentation in a minute or not even really listening)

Randy Olson’s TED talk about adding story to science presentations was something new for me. He’s a science professor turned filmaker and science communicator who is passionate about bringing more ‘story’ into science communication to increase the general public’s engagement with science.

He desribes the standard model for scientific presentations as ‘here’s my data and here’s my results and here’s a graph and here’s another graph and here’s my conclusions’. This makes for clear communication, but it’s not very interesting.

Randy’s idea is for science presenters to use the AND, BUT, THEREFORE rule to create a story and more interesting talks, not just a boring bunch of facts. See Randy’s presentation at TEDMED 2013 here. I’m going to try it out in my next presentation and see how it feels.

Don't be such a scientist

He’s also written a book called ‘Don’t Be Such a Scientist‘ which discusses the idea that the general public doesn’t ‘speak science’ and how to communicate science ideas with ‘more heart and less head’. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Understanding scientific evidence is in everyone’s best interests

After having a conversation today with some researchers about how science (mostly bad or badly portrayed) is being used in the current Australian federal election campaign(s) I realised again how much trust I place in the word of people in positions of authority. This authority can be in the form of powerful people or people I perceive as being an authority on a topic.

I’m not gullible but I’m also not all the way at the other end of the cynical spectrum. I’m somewhere in the middle where I don’t actively question the motives of people and the evidence they are presenting (except in the form of advertising where these are just blatantly obvious). Maybe I do it subconciously, Ill have to keep an open mind to that possibility.

question marks
Image courtesy of Master isolated images / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

So when I came across an article about scientific evidence from The Conversation it was particularly poignant and I appreciated again that it’s not just me who doesn’t actively question or ponder the evidence. If I have a science degree and I’m not in the habit of doing this then I’m scared worried nervous about what the rest of the population is doing. There is so little scientific literacy in the community – how many people even know about:
– objectivity and bias
– validity and accuracy
– peer review
– interpreting evidence

Increasing scientific literacy would benefit so many parts of everyday life for all of us and reduce the misinformation, misunderstanding and conflict about the need for conservation, water resource management and coping with climate change (and sooooo many other things).

Read more:

Scientific evidence: what is it and how can we trust it? by Manu Saunders