Sugar and Sperm
Organised by Pint of Science
Tamesis Dock, Albert Embankment, London SE1 7TP
Monday 18 May 2015
Last week I attended a Pint of Science session entitled 'Sugar and Sperm' held at a floating pub on Albert Embankment in London - part of a worldwide festival hosting more than 600 evenings of science in 50 cities and eight countries as far afield as Australia and the USA.
Started three years ago by two Imperial College London neuroscientists who invited members of the public into their labs, the volunteer-run annual festival featured talks, demonstrations and live experiments. Its aim is to make science accessible by bringing leading researchers to your local pub to discuss and be quizzed on the latest developments. Since then, the event has grown to involve 500 UK academics from 22 universities: 'It has become like science's answer to Glastonbury', said co-founder, Dr Praveen Paul. But with tickets costing only £3 each, there was plenty of money left for a pint or two.
The event I attended involved two speakers, Dr David Miller and Dr Tony Goldstone, speaking in the lower deck the Tamesis Dock in front of an audience of around 30, with a few more listening from the railings on the floor above. In his talk, 'Will any old sperm do?', Dr Miller, reader of molecular andrology at the University of Leeds, spoke about the future (ir)relevance of the Y chromosome. He explained how the Y chromosome is ever shrinking, and how there is the future potential for it to disappear altogether. It encodes very few genes (72) compared with other chromosomes of similar size, for example chromosome 21, which encodes 477 genes.
We were then introduced to an all female species of lizard, the whip-tail, which uses parthenogenesis to reproduce and has done away with the male altogether. Could this be in store for us? Recently published research has looked at 'Why do men still exist?' and found that competition for mates helps to keep genes healthy and the male population in demand. So they are safe for now!
Dr Miller then discussed 'sticky sperm' and the HABSelect clinical trial his team is involved in. The trial is looking at how a new sperm selection process for ICSI (intracytoplasmic sperm injection) that uses hyaluronic acid can aid fertilisation through the selection of sperm with viable DNA. It is hoped this may increase success rates for couples undergoing assisted conception.
I found this section of the talk relevant and interesting to my own work as an embryologist, as the NHS clinic where I work is currently taking part in this nationwide trial. So it was an excellent opportunity to get some background information direct from the horse's mouth.
Dr Miller had plenty more to speak about regarding his research, however unfortunately we were running short on time. There were some questions from both scientists and non-scientists and it seemed that the presentation had gotten everyone thinking of the importance of 'healthy swimmers' in creating healthy offspring.
Presenting next was Dr Goldstone of Imperial College London, and also of BBC television fame, asking 'Why are we getting fatter?' This interesting discussion looked at how an interaction between hormones and our brain could be responsible for our ever expanding waistlines - and not a lack of self-control when it comes to having that second, or even third, doughnut.
Dr Goldstone explained that through MRI scanning looking at how the brain reacts differently to images of food it is possible to identify a reward-bias in the brain towards high-calorie foods in people who are non-obese and fasting - as one might expect. But if everybody should have an inherent bias towards these foods, so why are we not all obese?
Other studies have identified greater responses in regions of the brain in obese people. As Dr Goldstone explained, this could be a result of a deficiency in hormones, including those responsible for informing the body that it is full. Things can go awry when we eat foods high in sugar, as too much of it can deplete its stores in the body. So potentially the more sugar we eat, the more we want it - due in part to its addictive nature and by our concurrently dropping leptin levels.
With our brain playing such a significant role in determining what we fill our stomachs with, surgeries such as the gastric bypass seem like a stop-gap solution to inducing weight loss. However, Dr Goldstone's studies have shown that this type of surgery is in fact the most efficient way of controlling reward-based eating behaviour, due to alterations of hormones present in the gut. It is thought that as a result of the surgery, concentrations of plasma gut hormones increase and this in turn lowers the brain-hedonic responses to food. Surgery is not possible for all obese patients, of course, and that's where public health initiatives play a role in preventing obesity in the first place. Plenty of food for thought here then.
I enjoyed Dr Goldstone's presentation as it was something that I had previously known very little about. That's what makes the Pint of Science events so brilliant, and also so popular (most events sold out weeks in advance). You have the opportunity to delve into some cutting-edge research in a fun way.
The evening ended with a general science quiz, which put our knowledge (or lack thereof) to the test. No great surprise then that Dr Miller won third prize, with the clever punters picking up some Pint of Science merchandise and free pints.
I thoroughly enjoyed this event and wish I could have made it to more of the talks; and with subjects ranging from 'How to win a Nobel Prize' to 'Bugs and Drugs' and 'Robots on the Loose' - there's something for everyone. I highly recommend anyone with an interest in science to watch out for this event in May 2016.