The hedgehog of inspiration

The idea that innovation in science comes only from a dry study of journal papers and very slow iterative research is just simply not true. I start with this statement because I have lost track of the number of times I see this idea come up in conversations, newspapers and TV shows. Science just as much driven by creativity as it is learning and study. One thing science and art share in common (other than a desire for pretty pictures) is the need for inspiration

Discoveries in science require two things, knowledge and inspiration. The first of these two can possibly be swapped with luck as there are several examples of people stumbling on to discoveries with little prior knowledge. Reading past papers and looking at all the previous work in a particular problem area helps focus down your attempts at finding a solution, ruling out  failed solutions and possibly hinting at missed solutions. However, all this research will still leave you with a nearly infinite number of possible answers 99% of which are likely to be total dead ends. It’s here that you need inspiration to give you some clue as to where to take your research next. Let me explain with a real world example from last year.

Problem: We were putting together a grant to design a range of new sensors that could be placed inside air systems to detect various gasses of interest. The grand idea behind the project was that if you could put, for example, pollution sensors into a building you could design a ventilation system than could smartly monitor the intake air and if there was a sudden release of toxic or hazardous gasses the system would automatically close the ventilation thus protecting those inside. Alternatively if there is a leak internally the building’s ventilation system could detect the problem and re-route the air supply venting it away from the occupants.  As previously discussed we specialised in fibre optic sensor systems which are ideal for this kind of large scale distributed sensing in ventilation systems. The only problem is that there is not a simple way to make these fibre optic systems sensitive to specific hazardous chemical components.

Solution: None found. After weeks of research I couldn’t find a single chemical or biological route that would selectively sense the toxic compounds we were interested in (polyaromatic hydrocarbons). Our only option was to start screening our vast library of potential’s sensitive chemicals for their use with sensor systems. This part of the project would have taken years with no guarantee of success, which is not a viable option for short term (2-3 year) research grants. We were stuck. That is until I had a very un-connected conversation with people on twitter which started after I read a great article on promoting yourself in science (note to adults: I had had some wine which may have helped, note to people under 18: alcohol is bad). Tweets are organised and sorted thanks to the wonderful site that is storify.

Story 1

This last tweet makes more sense if you just remove the random “do it”, I think a Nike spam bot may have got to me.

Story 2

Trust me this is hilarious if you are a biology nerd, I almost spat out my wine….

Story 3

The above is a quite enjoyably random conversation about fly genetics and using hedgehogs as little waiters for cheese and pineapple parties (if they made a cartoon about that I’d watch it). Fun but hardly much help in developing a polyaromatic hydrocarbon optical sensor. Except that it made me think about a subject I hadn’t worked on or read much about since my degree, Drosophila files. Drosophila files were the go to example for 90% of my genetics and proteins courses at university, they don’t live very long, they breed better than rabbits and researchers get less attached to them than Guinea pigs, in my text books they were referred to as the ‘perfect subject’ for genetic research. As I re-read the wiki page linked by Lou it dawned on me that those little buggers have been studied endlessly and, like bees, they are known to have a pretty powerful olfactory system capable detecting rotten meat for miles around. So If they are so well typified I wondered if anyone had expired the proteins that are involved in this particular smelling pathway.

With some googling I came across this paper about a family of proteins I had never heard of before called Odorant Binding Proteins (OBP). These OBPs are low-molecular weight soluble proteins which have a poorly understood role in the highly active sensing of odours in insects. A little more research showed that these little proteins are not widely known about but almost every paper I read seemed to indicate that they have strong semi-selective binding affinities for a wide range of vapours. Eventually through further reference linking I came across this paper by a group in Italy. They had isolated a particular mutant OBP that appeared to have some sensitivity and selectivity to the very polyaromatic hydrocarbon targets I was trying to sense.

Who knows this might be a total dead end, the protein might not be any good for the application we are looking at but, every bright idea is worth pursuing if it has a reasonable chance. I’ve e-mailed the group that wrote that final paper and I hope that with a little more work we can see if this is a possible solution to our problem, and can be included in a future project.

I think the point I’m trying to make with the above story is that while my knowledge of sensors, proteins and hydrocarbons are critical in designing new sensor, these would be useless without a little inspiration to drive the research towards particular areas. People often ask me where my inspiration comes from for my various ideas and projects, the only answer I can think of is, everywhere.

Now if you’ll excuse me there is a song on the radio that’s got me thinking about another little sensing project…

P.S. If you are looking for inspiration I would strongly recommend reading the blogs of the nice people I was talking to on twitter. They work with / talk about some cool stuff.

@AnneOsterrieder – Plantcellbiology.com

@Protohedgehog – Green Tea and  Velociraptors

@JohnRHutchinson – What’s in John’s Freezer

@LouWoodley – SPOTON event

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