Did you know that nearly all of our food comes from plants? Or that approximately half of the calories eaten by humans come from grass ? These were exactly the kinds of facts that we wanted to draw attention to at our Plant Power event at Sheffield Food Festival.
On the 25th of May, 2019, BSA Sheffield volunteers gathered to run a set of fun activities all about plants. Surrounded by the beautiful foliage of Sheffield’s Winter Gardens, there couldn’t have been a more fitting location to engage the public in plant science.
Visitors got to enjoy the beauty of Winter Gardens as they completed the event’s quiz trail. Finding the clues hidden around the garden allowed visitors to discover a number of fun plant facts. Along the trail our visitors learnt that vanilla comes from a type of orchid, caffeine is actually a natural plant pesticide and that the fastest growing plant is bamboo, which can grow up to an entire metre in a single day! Visitors that found all the clues would discover a secret word that they could exchange for a goody bag full of BSA goodies. The thought of winning a goody bag made this a particularly popular activity with our younger visitors, who could be found persistently searching for clues around the garden throughout the day.
As well as our trail, we also ran a stall of exciting plant activities, including our ‘Guess the Grass’ game. A huge amount of the food we eat comes from grasses like rice, wheat, corn and barley but could our visitor identify these plants in real life? This proved to be a tricky challenge as although the corn was easy to spot with its popcorn-like seeds, some of the grasses were much harder to recognise. Telling apart the barley and the wheat was a particularly difficult challenge as these plants are very closely related and look very similar.
Alongside our ‘Guess the Grass’ game we also had some rhizotrons on display. Rhizotrons are clear containers that allow a plant’s roots to be viewed growing through the soil. Around half of a plant is hidden underground in the soil and having our rhizotrons on display allowed us to talk to our visitors about the importance of plant roots and how they can maintain healthy soils. We even had some worksheets for our visitors to take home, showing them how to make a rhizotron for themselves from old plastic bottles.
Throughout the day, we met lots of visitors passing through the Winter Gardens who were completely new to BSA events. “It was great to see not only kids engaging with the activity but also several adults came around and we had some interesting discussions” said Antonio, the Sheffield BSA branch chair who was volunteering on the day. We were given plenty of lovely feedback from our visitors who particularly enjoyed the child-friendly quiz trail and felt that the event had given them a new positive outlook into the world of plants and plant science.
Eshel, A. & Beeckman, T. Plant roots : the hidden half. Boca Ranton: CRC Press, 2013.
About the author Shauni McGregor is a PhD student at the University of Sheffield studying plant biology. Her research focuses on plant gas exchange and water use, specifically in grasses and cereals. Alongside her PhD, Shauni is a keen science communicator, volunteering regularly with the Sheffield BSA and working with the University of Sheffield to deliver fun and exciting science events for all ages. You can learn more about Shauni’s work or get in touch through her twitter page @shauni_mcgregor.
While we were watching television or pondering what to ask for a Christmas gift, a major breakthrough was reported in November.
Brain organoids or ‘mini brains’ were grown in a laboratory and have produced brain waves similar to that of a premature baby. They are deserving of the name ‘mini brains’ for they are only 4mm across. Prof Alysson Muotri and his team at the University of California used stem cells (which are fascinating because of their ability to turn into other cell types) and added a few special ingredients (like transcription factors) in order to grow these mini brains. But it took ten months for the mini brains to mature enough to produce these brainwave signals. That is a long time. Nevertheless, this advancement could help scientists understand early brain development, which has been near impossible due to the difficulty in getting foetal samples or examining foetuses in utero.
By replicating the early brain, scientists will be able to compare the differences in development, structure and function between normal brains and misfunctioning ones. Thereby leading to the study and hopeful cure of diseases such as epilepsy, autism and other diseases which are thought to occur due to abnormal electrical signalling within the brain.
However, there are some pitfalls. Firstly, just because the electrical activity is similar to that of a premature baby, it does not mean it is the same. Therefore, any results or hypothesis we generate may be instantly invalid. Secondly, to prove that the lab-grown mini brains are the same as a premature baby’s brain will also be a task because very little is known about utero baby brains and how they are wired. There could also be missing key components. So, we do not know for certain whether these brains match premature baby brains in terms of their genetic profile
Many scientists believe that consciousness begins between 24 – 28 weeks post fertilisation due to the fact that this is when the thalamo-cortical complex is developed enough to be able to supposedly generate consciousness. Furthermore, this is also when reflex reactions to harmful stimuli start occurring. This raises an ethical quandary – are the organoids conscious? We can’t really say for sure because we can’t just measure for consciousness. Muotri’s lab is planning on seeing if the organoids mature further and function as a normal cortex by connecting them to organoids of other body parts to see if it functions correctly. He would consider halting the project if there was evidence that the organoids had become self-aware, but right now they are very primitive. “It’s a very grey zone in this stage, and I don’t think anyone has a clear view of the potential of this”.
What are your opinions on this? Do you think we should be conducting this research? The future rewards may be great, but is there a hidden cost?
If this article interested you, then be sure to read my other articles.
I am currently a 2nd year Biomedical Sciences student at the University of Sheffield. I organise and I’m involved in events to spread knowledge and to get people thinking, such as Ted Talks, Change Lab and I’m on the University’s Welfare Committee. I also have a passion for both scientific and fictional writing, so if you know of any opportunities or you want to read more of my pieces, don’t hesitate to contact me via email -email@example.com or my LinkedIn account – https://www.linkedin.com/in/abdullah-iqbal/
Back in November the Huxley Summit was held in London by the British Science Association. It brought together various people in and outside of science, and the theme was the challenges and opportunities of the Fourth Revolution. The topics of single use plastics, artificial intelligence (AI) and genetic editing were used as a way to explore public opinion and perception, which is central to whether these novel technologies can be adopted. Katherine Mathieson (chief executive of the British Science Association) explores this issue in her review of the Huxley Summit 2018. But scientific engagement strongly affects public opinion. It is therefore worth going back and reviewing key talks of the British Science Festival that represent essential components of good science engagement. I had the pleasure of attending the festival in Hull for the first time back in September, and I did so with our branch’s tardigrade mascot Blu, who had his/her own adventures at the festival!
DIVERSIFY YOUR AUDIENCE (Inspiring women into science, Anne-Marie Imafidon, 11 Sept. 2018)
Diversifying the audience that you are trying to inspire is essential if you want to unleash new talent, skills and perspective. Unless you have been living under a rock you will probably already know about the problems that girls and women face in science. While it isn’t just women that we need to encourage and support in science, Anne-Marie’s talk represents the need to diversify your audience. Recognising this need, Anne-Marie co-founded STEMettes, a social enterprise to inspire and support girls into STEM. Her festival talk was a combination of her backstory, identifying the problem, and then talking about STEMettes. She largely focused on inspiring girls into engineering, so we saw a few videos of what some girls had already achieved. For example, by using an algorithm you can programme your own lights to go from study mode to disco mode! Ultimately STEMettes is about changing perception and increasing awareness of girls in science, and boosting their confidence to do it. Diversity is essential both within science and its communication, especially since the latter can influence the former, and with it we get new talent delivering the communication that will shape public opinion.
INSPIRE PEOPLE TOWARDS SCIENCE (What shapes your relationship to science? Professor Louise Archer, 12 Sept. 2018)
Good science communication through any medium will inspire people to continue to seek it out. For example, if it is taught in schools in a way that creates inspiration, it can increase children’s aspirations in science.
In this talk, Prof. Louise Archer described the ASPIRES project she directed that looked into why children either want to go into science or don’t. The idea that some people might not see themselves as a science person means they often don’t go on to become a scientist. It was this principle in their decade-long study of children aged between 10-19 years old that they wanted to address. They identified the factors that affected children’s aspirations and coalesced them together into the concept of science capital. Science capital is basically what shapes your relationship to science. It is about what you know, who you know, how you think and what you do; all of which is affected by your social, cultural and habitus spheres. The best part of this talk was when we got to calculate our own science capital through a series of questions (such as whether we and our parents had science degrees, and hold a science job etc.). We added or subtracted points for questions, and after getting ten points you then had to stand up. After another point milestone you then had to wave your arms around. If I remember correctly, we also had to do a little dance after another milestone! This was a fun and interesting demonstration showing that most of the audience clearly had a high science capital, which would be obvious for a science festival audience! For everyone present it was clear that they had been inspired to aim high, and as a result they have returned to science. This is something that science communicators can capitalise on: Presenting topics in a particular way that grabs people’s attention so that they will want to return.
WIN HEARTS, NOT JUST MINDS (Finding truth: is science enough? Panel chaired by Andy Extance, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication is not just about facts to win people over (just think about the debate on GMO’s that has raged for decades). When it comes to controversial topics, it is quite likely that people will have an emotional investment in particular results. Thus, the question is how can we expect to win people over with facts when they have already made up their minds based on this emotional investment? We can’t, and this talk on finding truth reflects this.
The panel for this debate consisted of Dr Jane Gregory, Dr Jack Stilgoe, Dr Erinna Ochu and was chaired by Andy Extance. As it turns out, the answer to the question of whether science is enough is a lot more complicated than people think. Most of the points made here converged on this due to various factors. For instance, Jane Gregory highlighted that there are different types of knowledge; that some cultures have different priorities on knowledge (e.g. religious). This point was taking a bit further by Erinna Ochu when she said we need to consider emotional truths (aka the emotional investment) even if it doesn’t match up with the facts. (It was at this point when a lady who didn’t believe in climate change walked out of the talk!) As Jack Stilgoe explained, we need to be aware that the media is trying to sell us a particular message, but we need to identify if it is valuable for us and also their motivations behind it. The one point that came through loud and clear is that as scientists we need to respect what people know, how they know it and therefore show more understanding. It is obvious that facts are not enough. We need to work around these other issues. Through this we can win people’s hearts, and then after that use the facts to win their minds.
UNDERSTAND THE PAST TO ADAPT (Changing the face of science engagement Professor John Durant, 14 Sept. 2018)
Science communication has come along way. There are new mediums, obstacles and challenges, and we need to understand these to make decisions about how we communicate today. John Durant provided a whirlwind tour of the history of science communication starting with the 1980’s. Back then, science communication was one-sided; talking to the audience but not really listening to them, which can come across as patronising. This is not to say that science communication back then was bad. As he described, there were some good things, such as more science books and fellowships. These days science communication has evolved into a two-way dialogue model taking science communication into science engagement. He noted that there are two opposing trends. One is mainstreaming science engagement; the live science, science cafes and events. The other is the inclusivity problem where particular minority groups are excluded. But some cultures had successfully integrated science into them as he explained: At a Native American convention in Montana for instance, there was a science learning tent where they had asked scientists to get involved.
By exploring this past, John gave some science communication recommendations: We need to diversify our engagement into other groups, we need to make our science communication more targeted and private by creating a cultural connection. What is interesting here is that he makes points not too dissimilar to mine: diversifying and creating a cultural connection (which one could argue is part of an emotional connection).
BRINGING IT ALTOGETHER (The Huxley Debate: what do we do about ocean plastics? Panel hosted by Lord David Willetts, 13 Sept. 2018 and Presidential Address: The AI Revolution- hopes, fears and opportunities Professor Jim Al-Khalili, 13 Sept. 2018)
These two talks represent two different ends of the science communication spectrum when considering the above topics. On one side, we have science communication of single use plastics ticking off the majority of my aforementioned points. On the other side we have AI, which as Katherine Mathieson reports has two polarised viewpoints.
The topic of ocean plastics has had some very good science engagement behind it boosting the field, and the talk itself reflects this.
Firstly, the panel itself had a good gender and professional diversity to it capitalising on various skills and talent. The chair was the politician Lord David Willetts. Andy Clarke represented the business sector as the former CEO of Asda. The non-profit sector was represented by Annemarie Nederhoed of the Plastic Soup Foundation. Katy Duke CEO of The Deep came from the interface between science and engagement, and finally Professor Daniel Parsons was the academic. However, science communication has also capitalised on diversity too. It was not just David Attenborough who has spoken about single use plastics. Liz Bonnin has also talked about it on her BBC programme Drowning in Plastic, and the field itself has seen a boom in being communicated to the public.
Secondly, it is these TV shows and the likes of it that have inspired people to ensure that people return to pursue this interest. Katy Duke expressed this herself: “there hasn’t been another environmental crisis that hasn’t gotten this much people engaged”. It has appealed to everyone and moreover, it has won hearts and minds as an important global issue. What is also worth considering (and also what I think draws people back to this topic) is that people can get proactive immediately. They can make informed decisions. Such as whether they should choose tin over plastic foil considering that tin has a carbon footprint seven times higher than that of plastic as Daniel Parsons explained. Annemarie Nederhoed mentioned microfibres and its effects on marine pollution but also how we can mitigate it.
Thirdly, by adapting how we communicate this science we can change it into a dialogue, and this actually happened at the Q&A afterwards. One man spoke passionately about there having been enough feasibility studies and that we should just get on with solutions. But Andy Clarke responded that actually we need to consider the whole model; the consequences of taking action without knowing enough. The perfect example to this is the tin versus plastic choice. A few other panel members highlighted that we do need more research to fill in knowledge gaps, such as the pathway of plastics. Overall the topic of single use plastics has done very well in science communication contributing to public (and global) opinion.
Jim Al Khalili’s talk was the presidential address which was to a packed room. His AI talk was well structured as he outlined its importance, how it is defined, recent breakthroughs (such as Deep Mind) and even fears. As he explained AI is already here and doing a lot of good (e.g. healthcare), and therefore it is vital that the public understand what is happening. According to him, the field is moving so fast that no wonder the public is concerned, but he then went on to address these concerns.
This is clearly a polarised discipline and Katherine Mathieson in her Huxley review recognised this: “In the current political climate, we must acknowledge the two polarised viewpoints that surround AI and gene-editing.” When it comes to inspiring people towards this science, many already see the benefits, but it would appear that people are also drawn to it out of fear (as opposed to a need to protect our planet that single use plastics evokes within us). Understanding the past to adapt, and winning hearts and not just minds seems to be exactly the purpose of the Huxley Debate. All those different factors (emotions, allaying fears, working around ethics and politics, and learning from the past) appear to be well-embedded in her comments: “The things driving the narrative are complicated and full of nuance”; “So, what can we do in our current positions? Having these conversations now is vital…”; “By using the tools of successful campaigns from the past and present, we can help propel the world towards a positive future.” Despite the science communication that AI has had recently, it is clear that the field has yet to have the same boost in science communication and engagement that single use plastics has had over the years.
By reviewing some of the British Science Festival talks we are reminded of the essential elements that can change the public’s perception of particular science issues: Diversity capitalises on talent which increases the number of scientists who then go on to do good communication by learning from the past. Through this they inspire the public to return to them, but also establish a rapport of respect with them. In short, by bringing all these issues together effectively we can take science communication and use it for beneficial public understanding. This in turn will affect public opinion on technology, and ultimately acceptance of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.
About the Author
Danae Dodge finished her PhD at the University of Sheffield many years ago. Currently, she is re-directing herself into science communication. She volunteers for many science charities (which apart from the British Science Association Sheffield branch) includes Sense about Science, the Yorkshire regional branch of the Royal Society of Biology and The Scientista Foundation, USA. You can follow her on LinkedIn and on Twitter: @DanaeDodge
Invasive species are species that are not native to an ecosystem or country. Many have been introduced to the new area by humans, either accidentally or deliberately. There are a whole range of organisms that can be invasive, from animals and plants to tiny micro-organisms. Should we worry about them? Some invasive species can cause damage to the environment, the economy and even harm human health. In the UK alone the control of invasive species costs £1.7 billion every year (1).
Which invasive species do we find in the UK, and how did they get here? According to the GB Non-native Species Secretariat, over 3000 species in the UK are listed as invasive. Species have been introduced to the UK from all over the world, excluding Antarctica. They have spread to the UK through a variety of different methods including: escaping from the pet trade, accidental transport in cargo ships, planes, trains, or lorries and even some deliberate introductions to new habitats without consideration of the environmental or economic consequences.
The grey squirrels you see in the local park or garden are descended from North American or Canadian squirrels. They are causing the local extinction of the red squirrel (the UKs native squirrel species) by competing with them for food and transmitting squirrel pox – a deadly disease. They may be colourful, but ring-necked parakeets are also invasive in the UK and can cost the agricultural industry a lot of money by eating their way through ripe fruit. They also carry diseases that can infect chickens and some diseases that can infect humans in close contact.
Invasive species can also be found in aquatic environments. For example, signal crayfish originally from North America are pushing UK species of crayfish towards extinction by competing with them for shelters and spreading disease. Signal crayfish also dig deep burrows that can cause riverbank erosion and even influence flooding. Plants can be just as bad as animals when it comes to the impacts of invasions. Japanese knotweed for example can have structural impacts on both biological communities and habitats. Controlling Japanese knotweed is predicted to cost hundreds of millions of pounds every year around the world.
Scientists study a whole range of topics to help us understand more about invasive species: from studying their DNA, to mapping their range and spread in the new environment, and recording their behaviour. By doing so they assess the impacts invasive species have on the environment, and make predictions about the threats and conservation concerns invasive species can cause.
What can you do to help?
There are lots of different actions you can take if you want to help prevent the spread of invasive species. These range from contributing to citizen science by reporting when and where you detect an invasive species on a mobile application or a website (for example iRecord Ladybird or PlantTracker), to helping out at a local event to eradicate invasive species from an area. It also helps to remember to “Check, Clean and Dry” any equipment that has been in water as aquatic invasive species can be transported on unclean equipment (www.nonnativespecies.org/checkcleandry/).
Apart from the volunteer comments, this piece was written by Caroline Wood and collated by Danae Dodge
The Sheffield Food Festival is where it all began for BSA Sheffield – our first ever outreach event was ‘The Secret Life of Tomatoes’, which took place at the 2017 Food Festival. Food is a language that everyone understands, so it is an excellent medium to demonstrate how important science is for modern society. With the Sheffield Food Festival such an established community event that attracts thousands, it is also a brilliant opportunity for us to engage a range of new audiences with our work.
So this year on Saturday 26th May at the Winter Gardens, we were keen to introduce the science behind some of the emerging food trends that many may have seen in the headlines, including edible insects, hydroponic plants and lab-grown meat. Given the enormous challenge we will have to feed the growing population, it is vital that the public understand the different options available so they can make informed decisions about their future diets.
We divided our activity stand into different areas, each dedicated to one of these themes and led by BSA Sheffield volunteers who had a real passion for their subject:
Shauni McGregor on ‘What Happens If Bees Go Extinct?’
“Commercial honey bee populations in the UK are estimated to have fallen by 25% within the past thirty years so we decided to highlight the importance of bees and other pollinators in producing our food. We presented our visitors with a shopping basket filled with fruit, vegetables and even some household items and asked them to sort the basket into products that required bees and those that didn’t. By the end of the activity only two items were left that didn’t need bees making for a very sorry looking shopping basket! Fortunately, we had some wildflower seeds kindly donated by Grow Wild UK for our visitors to take home to plant in their garden or in a window box providing pollinators with a vital source of food. A lot of our visitors were surprised by how much of our food requires bee pollination and it is an issue that clearly resonates with people: I had a lot of interesting conversations about why bee populations are struggling and what people are doing in their own gardens to help bees the best they can.”
Eleanor Marshall on ‘Lab Grown Meat’
“I was helping run the lab grown meat activity which involved children pretending to be scientists and making their own ‘lab grown meat’ using a petri dish, rubber band and pipette, which they really enjoyed. Many people had not heard about it and were interested to learn more and many said they would be open to trying it in the future (that was before they saw the price!)”
Caroline Wood on ‘Hydroponics’
“Unsustainable farming practices are destroying our soils at an alarming rate, so scientists are exploring new ways of growing crops. These include hydroponics (growing plants in liquid solutions) and aeroponics (where the roots are suspended in air and sprayed with a mist of nutrient solution). We wanted to show that this doesn’t always need technical equipment: in fact anyone can have a go at home! On the day, we gave out lots of do-it-yourself ‘hydroponics kits’ to grow a bean plant just using a plastic cup, a piece of filter paper and water. I also brought along some of the plants I grow hydroponically for my PhD studies – most people had never seen hydroponic cowpea before and were very curious!”
Penelope Hill on ‘Edible Insects’
“As part of BSA’s activities at the Food Festival, Danae and I built our stand around ‘Insects as a Food Source’. Our initial idea was to create Top Trumps cards, comparing traditional protein sources to different species of insects, so that the children and their parents could learn about the nutritional profiles of common edible insects. As we started to research more, we were amazed by how sustainable some insects were as a food source; for example, 1kg of crickets take only 1g of greenhouse gases to produce, compared to 2,850g of gases to produce 1kg of beef.
Once we were armed with the facts, we knew the proof would be in the pudding. We were lucky to have the opportunity to work with Eat Grub, who offer a brilliant range of edible insects, including Peri Peri and BBQ roasted crickets. I also used some cricket protein powder to make biscuits, which was a new challenge for my baking skills. They turned out to be very popular with one child telling us they were ‘better than normal biscuits’! The samples worked as a great way to intrigue curious kids and parents, and engage them in conversations about sustainable foods and their opinions on edible insects. We even had some particularly brave kids coming back for seconds and thirds!
The children really enjoyed running around the Winter Gardens to find the hidden Top Trumps cards, so that they could complete their insect quiz. We also had some very insightful conversations with parents and elderly people about sustainability, climate change, food privilege and even generational shifts in attitude. Overall, it was a successful day, and I feel we helped to plant a few seeds of curiosity and spread the word about the insect revolution!”
You can view our gallery of photographs from the event on the BSA Sheffield Facebook Page here. With special thanks to Grow Wild, for providing free packs of native wildflowers to give away as part of our ‘What would we do without bees?’ stand, and Eat Grub, for providing discounted materials for our edible insects activity.
Apart from the volunteer comments, this article was written by Danae Dodge
When our treasurer approached our blog editor about the idea of having a science of cocktails event at the Pint of Science this year, it helped that the treasurer Lynette Hodges was already a co-ordinator of the annual event and that the blog editor already had a cocktail kit! The idea developed into an interactive demonstration which initially was to be held at one location, but later evolved to two locations.
We were the Mixology Laboratory and here two of our volunteers (one from each location) give their review of how their demonstrations went down.
Alexander Wolfe at Hallamshire House
“At the Mixology Laboratory, we explored the science behind four classic cocktails: the Woo Woo, the Vodka Martini, the White Russian, and the Vodka Gimlet. For the Woo Woo and Vodka Martini, we showed the effect of chilling the cocktail in various ways, specifically the effect that shaking with ice (a wet shake) versus stirring over ice has on the final balance of the cocktail. Traditionally, the Woo Woo is wet shaken, and the Vodka Martini is stirred. Shaking a cocktail dilutes it more than a simple stir does, and so the shaken martinis were more dilute than their stirred counterparts, and the stirred Woo Woos were very strong compared to their shaken variants. The White Russian was used as an example of the various techniques that are employed to layer a cocktail. These include temperature differences, solvation, and special pouring techniques. Most of the techniques worked by widening the density gap between each layer, and the pouring techniques helped reduce the effect that mixing had on the layers. The Vodka Gimlet served as an example of how a foam cocktail can be created. Egg whites were used to create the characteristic foam, as the proteins within the egg whites help stabilise it by trapping bubbles of air. This is achieved by dry shaking (without ice) the egg whites with a small amount of the cocktail for flavour and texture.
It was absolutely amazing showing the public how science can help you make great cocktails! As both a chemist and mixologist, the science of cocktails is quite near and dear to my heart, and it was great to share this with others. One of my lecturers, Prof. Jim Thomas was presenting at the Hallamshire House where I was stationed, and several of my peers came to the evening. It was really good to show how our subject is incredibly pervasive throughout all parts of the world, and it was especially fun talking to other chemists in more detail about the science behind what we were showing! The talks themselves synergised well with the activities- two of them were on food chemistry, so that gave us additional things to talk about. I personally had a few very interesting chats with all three presenters, and we had some very fruitful discussions with the public as well! I think that overall the event was a massive success. We had several people ask us to go into more detail than what we were given as a basic explanation, and hopefully that means there would be interest in a similar event in the future. I for one would certainly be more than happy to help run one!”
Nadejda Tsokova at Tamper Sellars Wheel Coffee House
“I volunteered to participate in the Science of Cocktails event as part of the Pint of Science. As I was a novice with no previous experience in making cocktails, I went to the training session and was impressed with others’ knowledge, and I thought “Oh dear what have I put myself into!” Other people are so experienced, how will I manage on the day? Oh dear how wrong I was! Never should I doubt it! My fellow cocktail scientists were so helpful and supportive. We made four cocktails in total. Two of which were made under the title of ‘Shaken not Stirred’ (how wrong or cool are you James Bond!)
We were warmly welcomed by the organisers and the Tamper staff were so helpful allowing us to use the ice making machine. It seems like people were very interested in one of the cocktails (although not my creation) and when I tried it I realised why; it was a perfect blend of alcoholic coffee and cream. However, my cocktail the Vodka Gimlet (under the title of ‘Foaming in the Mouth’) with the egg white foam on top was really well received, and provoked loads of scientific questions, including food safety using raw eggs. I started talking with a PhD student that had just passed his viva that very same day, and while I was explaining the science behind the cocktail he introduced me to the archaeology crew at the stand next to ours. All evening we were very busy with ‘serving’ cocktails and chatting that we almost missed the talks. But one of the talks grabbed my attention – how excavated animal bones from all over the world can reveal the most common religion. Fascinating stuff! And roll on next year’s Pint of Science or any other cocktail events although this time I will do my homework properly beforehand! Cheers!”
A big thanks goes out to the Pint of Science organisers: Lynette Hodges, and the other members of the Public Engagement Team at Sheffield University, and Devon Smith. I would also like to thank the Pint of Science volunteers who participated in the demos: Ella Bradfield (Tamper), Georgina Starling (Hallamshire House), Swakshadip Sarkar (Hallamshire House); the other Pint of Science volunteers who supported at both locations especially Gemma Stephens, and of course to Tamper and Hallamshire House for allowing us to use their facilities!
About the Pint of Science Festival:
Pint of Science is an international series of festivals bringing world class research to a pub near you. With strands in Europe, Australia, Asia and North America it has grown yearly. Sheffield’s first Pint of Science took place in 2016 in 4 pub venues in the city and in 2018, the third festival comprised three consecutive nights in six venues in the city centre. The festival activities in Sheffield were organised by the Public Engagement team and Sheffield Co-ordinator Devon Smith, along with the help of 16 University of Sheffield postgraduate students. This team of staff and students worked with 50 University researchers to create a programme of 47 talks and more than 50 activities for the festival. In 2018 the Sheffield festival attracted 785 attendees.
Lots of the resources we use today have a high environmental impact. We all know about the scale of plastic pollution, and how food waste has increased in recent years. Even our clothes, our building materials and our furniture have a significant footprint. It is a fact that the things we have are seldom carbon-neutral.
But what if there was a way we could make objects and clothes out of a readily available, 100% natural, low cost and low impact material?
Well, that is what California based start-up Mycoworks is doing. A diverse team of scientists, engineers and designers are working to solve world issues – like climate change – through fungi. They use mycelium, the threadlike part of fungi that we rarely get to see.
The mycelium is a complex network of individual filamentous strands called hyphae. It lies beneath the ground, takes up nutrients and produces the fruiting body of the fungus.
Mycoworks uses mycelium to grow useful products. Their main creation, the most developed and the one with the most scope currently, is leather.
The process of developing animal leather is costly, drawn out and has a significant impact on the environment, particularly in the case of cowhide leather. A large piece of pure leather that is undyed and unshaped would take around two years to produce. Dying the leather or making it into a wearable piece of clothing would more require even more time and money, and create more waste.
In contrast, a piece of mycelium leather of the same size would take two weeks. While the cowhide leather would produce almost 15kg of carbon dioxide, the mushroom leather is carbon neutral.
Growing the fungal leather is a closed loop. Any waste is 100% biodegradable and simply used as food to grow the next batch. Essentially, the fungi are infinitely renewable. Of course, animals reproduce and could be considered infinitely renewable too, but not without significant cost and impact.
Different sizes and shapes of fungal leather can be grown, too. As for making the leather a bit more unique – Mycoworks have found that they can simply grow different colours and patterns into the fungus itself, eliminating the need for dye. Fasteners like buttons or toggles can also be grown into the material. The leather is also constantly being tested for its strength. It is already as strong as deer skin and stronger than sheep and synthetic leather.
Considering how many greenhouse gas emissions are attributed to livestock, what Mycoworks is doing could really help the planet should mushroom leather catch on.
As CTO Philip Ross says in this short YouTube video, “[Mycelium] can go on to replace so many aspects of our generated world right now that we extract from things that can’t be regenerated”.
The company is also looking at using fungi to create building materials. This is not necessarily a new idea. In 2014 an exhibit at MoMA PS1 (a prominent art institution in the United States) was a tower built out of mushroom based materials. However, the bricks were made by adding mycelium to crop waste. Whilst still quite environmentally friendly, the carbon footprint of the crop waste is unlikely to be lower than that of the mycelium.
Ross has developed a 100% mycelium brick strong enough to dent metal. These bricks have the potential to replace normal construction materials in certain cases. They are resistant to water damage and mould and are stronger than concrete pound-for-pound. The bricks can also be grown in such a way that they are able to float on water. Fire-resistance is another property of these bricks, which is not only desirable but could save lives.
While the demands of the construction industry are too great for this to become a widespread material right now, who knows where we might be in 10 years? In the same video as above, Ross explains how his hopes for the future extend beyond bricks and leather jackets: “My hope is that this will become a globalized industry… Eventually you will be growing your solar panels, telephones and other types of things like that at a fungus based substrate”.
It looks as though this vision might be realised. Several companies have expressed interest in exploring the usefulness of mycelium in the automotive industry. It is also been looked as a replacement for Styrofoam in order to reduce the negative impact of packaging. Says Ross in another video: “The possibilities of what you can do with mycelium are scarily endless”.
About the Author
I’m an MSc Science Communication and BSc Biological Sciences graduate having studied at the Universities of Sheffield and Birmingham. I’ve got a particular interest in microbiology, immunology, mycology, and how they often overlap! I’m passionate about science communication and am involved with a local radio show focused on science and technology (https://web.sheffieldlive.org/shows/the-live-science-radio-show/