January 16, 2023

Best of 2022

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Best of 2022

Mushrooms on Mars, life-saving blood from worms, cell-cultured seafood. It's been a year filled with surprise, serendipity, and everything in between. Conor, Dodi, and the podcast team look back on a fascinating year and highlight their favorite interviews and topics of the year.

Show notes

DODI: Okay, the year 2022 (a lot of twos) is about to wrap up, and that invites the opportunity to look back on all that has happened.

CONOR: Indeed, as always, we are going to pick our favorite interviews and episodes of the year.

DODI: While inviting you to tell us which were your favorites. We have discussed spaceflight science, mushrooms of course, HIV vaccines, Alzheimer's disease, plastic eating enzymes, genomic data and so much more during the year.

CONOR: It has been remarkable how much learning, interest, and fun we have packed into just 12 short months, but it's time to choose our favorite moments from Discovery Matters over the last year. So, my favorite episode of the year was 'Mycoprotein and cell cultured seafood'. We spoke with Tim Finnigan, the Chief Scientific Adviser of Quorn Foods.

DODI: You would pick an episode about fungi, no doubt. We learned that Quorn started way back in the 1960s. The fungi used in Quorn Foods was found in a compost heap in a little village only a few miles from our Cytiva offices in the UK. Talk about one man's trash is another man's treasure.

CONOR: So, what really got me excited about this episode was all the interlinking between different parts of our company, our customers, and the future of therapies. Not only was the fungus discovered close to our UK offices, but the commercialization and industrialization of it as a food took place on a site, which is now owned and run by a major CDMO, which is one of our customers that manufactures monoclonal antibodies in the northeast of the UK. So, there was a lot of linking there between the past and the future of our organization and our customers which made me get excited about this episode.

DR TIM FINNIGAN: We're harvesting the solids and not the liquid, but at the start of it is something that's quite amazing because you know, if you've ever made bread or wine at home, you open your yeast sachet, that's kind of exactly what happens at the start of each fermentation run to produce mycoprotein. Those few tiny little spores of our production strain, get brought back to life and a little bit of sugar solution and just sit there happily in about five liters, until they get to a certain growth concentration, and then they get put into the fermenter which is about 160 m2 (160,000 liters), and what a dilution that is. There it enters what's called 'the batch phase', where it grows quite happily for about four or five days and quite rapidly actually, up to a working concentration. I think, here's where the engineering magic happens because not only is that done under very sterile conditions, because you don't want anything else in there but our mycoprotein, but we're then able to hold it at that point of maximum growth and harvest at the same rate that it grows. We can do that for something like 35 days until we stop, clean down, and start all over again.

DODI: Alright, so Tim is talking about growing and harvesting and I'm just curious, how is your personal mushroom crop coping during these dark winter months.

CONOR: Ah well you see, that’s the marvelous thing about fungi, you can grow them inside in temperature-controlled environments. So, it doesn't matter what's going on outside and whether it's light or dark. You can force your shrooms to do what you want them to do whenever you want them to do it. They're the most amenable organism.

DODI: One of the things that I remember about one of the many episodes that we've done about mushrooms or fungi is just how basic they are to human existence. Without fungi we wouldn't be able to exist.

CONOR: Exactly. They have been lauded as potentially responsible for the very beginnings of complex life on Earth. The ability of plants to have soil which was originally rock broken down by ancient fungi, and then the symbiosis of algae and fungi to form complex organisms. It's just a remarkable history of the evolution of life on Earth.

DODI: Okay, my turn. In May of this year, I got on a call with Jacob Moe-Lange from California Cultured and that was our episode on 'The Future of GMOs' on genetically modified organisms. Jacob was focused on chocolate. Now I don't eat chocolate, I avoid it. But Jacob is devoted entirely to creating cell-cultured chocolate, a more sustainable version of the stuff.

CONOR: I found this absolutely fascinating because he was really looking at something that you thought was something of a luxury. But obviously, when you dig into the supply chain, it really matters that we root out the things that make chocolate an environmentally and humanitarian-ly expensive product.

DODI: Absolutely. Now, we were on a video call with Jacob and in the background, he had plants coming out of his walls. He was so passionate about life and how life survives in all kinds of environments, wherever you put it. By saying there were plants coming out of his walls, I don't mean that he had planters horizontally placed on his walls, they were actually growing out of his walls, he was surrounded by greenery. At the same time, of course, he is looking at how to simulate, and how to create life in a lab environment. He is not afraid of that. It's not even a conflict for him. Genetically modified organisms for Jacob are the way to advance science and he really believes in this science so passionately.

JACOB MOE-LANGE: This is a really challenging topic, because as a scientist, I love GMOs. I think GMOs are the future, I think there's no future in which we survive and we're not all eating GMOs on a daily basis. That's the future full stop, because traditional breeding cannot keep up with the change in the climate, the rate is just too fast, we need to be able to develop things much faster than we currently can. That said, people don't really want to eat GMO products, you can't change you know, you can't move mountains sometimes. That's just the way it is.

CONOR: I got the feeling that Jacob was sort of a little bit of a magical character something of a wizard of plant life and engineering at a molecular scale. Absolutely fantastic listen.

DODI: So, putting together our Discovery Matters podcast involves a few other members of the team. So, Beth, who is our content planner and does all the prep work and shares the research with us and puts together the show notes (that I know you are looking at if you are listening, dear listener). We ask Beth for her favorite episode.

BETHANY: At the beginning of the year, we spoke with Discovery Maker Mustapha Bittaye, who was at the time working as a postdoctoral researcher at the Jenner Institute working on Oxford/AstraZeneca vaccine, obviously a really massive and important discovery. His story took us from The Gambia to the UK to study microbial proteomics on a scholarship. From there he has continued to make truly amazing discoveries about human health globally. But what really drew me to his story was that it was very personal, he gave us his personal story on why he went into the field and why it matters so much to him that there has to be equitable access to vaccines. It was just a really beautiful story.

MUSTAPHA BITTAYE: I lost my elder brother to measles and the only reason why Measles is no longer a major health problem in low- and middle-income countries is down to the widespread use of the measles vaccines in those parts of the world through the expanded program from the WHO. So, for me, it's down to a passionate encounter I had in life and the impact I see in real life growing up that vaccines have in terms of improving child mortality in low- and middle-income countries, particularly in my country in The Gambia.

CONOR: What a great story there. Then of course, last but not least, let's not forget about Tom Henley, who is our editor, and has worked so hard this year to produce such polished episodes, irrespective of the quality of sound that we managed to record.

DODI: We make Tom's work very challenging.

CONOR: But he has a favorite too.

THOMAS: For me one of the greatest joys of putting a Discovery Matters episode together is when I get to hear the history behind certain discoveries. Take our episode about wastewater monitoring for example. There, Dr. Kate Farkas of the Bangor, University of Wales gives us a comprehensive and fascinating insight into the history of wastewater monitoring, which kind of blew my mind.

KATA FARKAS: Scientifically speaking, the surveillance of water bodies and wastewater have been going on for decades, the first studies that were like comprehensive and looked into this problem, was the 50s, and 60s. So, ever since then, we know that there is this issue and there's something we scientists can do about it. For instance, wastewater-based epidemiology, which is now being used for COVID-19 largely in the UK but all around the world, we've been using that for poliovirus surveillance for four decades. So, it's not like a completely new tool, we just now have better systems, better processes, better ways to detect viruses and so on. But the concept is not new. Also, it can be used for certain chemicals or other pathogens too.

DODI: It’s time to introduce a new segment to our podcast, which you're going to hear throughout 2023. Conor, it is based on your motto that 'every day is a school day'. So, let's talk about the best thing I learned this week. And we're going to share something that we read or watched or listened to, that really grabbed our attention. So, do you want to share something from your week?

CONOR: So, this week, I have been listening to a new audio book on my dog walks, it's by the renowned oncologist and cell biologist, Siddhartha Mukherjee. It's called 'The Song of the Cell'. And he has very clearly explained, and I think I understood this, but I've never had it explained to me quite so clearly, that actually almost everything that goes well or goes wrong for us in our health is something to do with the function or dysfunction of a cell. And those can be affected by things as complicated as the microbiome, or as simple as lacking a particular capability to produce a protein. But essentially, it all boils down to life, all that goes well, and all that goes wrong with it is down to cellular biology.

DODI: That sounds like a good read or a good listen.

CONOR: Absolutely a fantastic read and a great listen.

DODI: I have also been listening and because we are in the darker months of the year, it was recently All Saints Day, I listened to the Smithsonian's podcast, which is called 'Side Door' about all the ghosts that are floating around the halls of the Smithsonian Institution. It's quite marvelous, because that is a highly regarded scientific institution in the United States and the host of the podcast is going around asking people about the ghosts that wander the halls of the Smithsonian. So that was one episode. She's a marvelous host. She goes around really exploring all kinds of topics that give you a backstory, and extra color around things that are shown and preserved at the Smithsonian. I also want to mention that you and I shared a new experience this week in virtual reality.

CONOR: We did and that was absolutely extraordinary. Remember about you'd been in there a little bit longer than I had? I think probably you'd been doing a lot harder work learning to fit the flow kits to the chromatography system.

DODI: I did learn to do that.

CONOR: You got a little bit nauseous toward the end.

DODI: I sure did.

CONOR: I thought that was down to how used to it you had to the environment you might be, but you know what, when I hit about 90 minutes in that space, I also got a little bit nauseous. It's that disconnect between what your body is doing and what your mind or brain thinks your body is doing. That maybe leads to that weird, nauseous Virtual Reality feeling. I mean, how was it?

DODI: Well, I think we should invite our listeners to tune in to the episode that we're going to create of you and I going into that virtual reality environment. So, that will be one of our episodes in 2023. We also have cued up episodes on CRISPR technology, underwater discoveries, and ribosome toe printing, which must be one of your interviews Conor because I have no idea what that is.

CONOR: It's exciting! The ribosomes are such a marvelous structure inside the cell.

DODI: ...And brain cells playing computer games and so much more. It's going to be a fantastic year of Discovery Matters in 2023.

CONOR: We look forward to a roaring year with that have a fantastic end of 2022 and a happy new year we'll see what we come back with.

DODI: Discovery Matters is produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster. Editing, mixing and music by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions. I am Dodi Axelson.

CONOR: I'm Conor McKechnie. Rate us wherever you get your podcasts and have a Happy Holiday!

DODI: Happy holidays.

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