Friday Fun Fact: The flu vaccine is usually grown in fertilised chicken eggs

This is the first of what I hope to be a weekly post, under the heading of Friday Fun Fact. Over the years I have amassed a rather large number of, what I call fun facts, little bit of information which might surprise one. So keep an eye out for my posts! Anyway, onto this weeks Friday Fun Fact.

The Flu Vaccine is Usually Grown in Fertilised Chicken Eggs


Thanks to eggs, millions of people have been vaccinated against influenza


So, why eggs I hear you ask. Well, it all started with the Spanish flu, the world-wide pandemic of 1918. Physicians tried everything and anything to restrict Spanish flu, even resorting to bleeding patients. But there was only one method that showed signs of success, transfusing blood from people who had the flu and recovered into new patients. In the early 1930’s, Ernest William Goodpasture, a physician with an interest in pathology and infectious diseases, working with others at Vanderbilt University, invented a method for growing viruses in chicken embryos and fertilised chicken eggs.

Following on from Goodpasture’s methods, the US military developed the first approved inactivated form of influenza in the early 1940’s. For those who are unaware of how vaccines work, the general idea is that a person become “infected” with a damaged form of the virus they wish to be protected against. The person’s body is fooled into thinking that this inactive version is the real deal and as such creates antibodies that attack the virus, signing the body to basically, eat them!

The Future of Flu Vaccination

One of the major draw backs of using eggs is that the vaccinations produced from them can be somewhat troublesome for people with egg allergies. But there is hope as there is ongoing research into non-egg based methods of vaccination production. One such method is to use animal cells in large vats. This would bypass the need for eggs, but also it would be rather easy to scale up the production.

The other week while I was attending ESOF2012 (my posts about the event can be found here), I attended a talk by one of the rock stars of science, Dr Craig Venter (you can see Venter’s ESOF2012 talk at here) . During the talk he talked about he work in synthetic biology, he talked about how his institute, the J. Craig Venter Institute, is sequencing flu viruses from infected animals and humans, creating a database of known viral genomes. What’s more, they are creating a programme with will predict the rate of mutation that will occur in flu viruses. Funded by the National Institutes of Health, the Institute is creating synthetic segments of these every flu virus. What this means is that when a new virus appears, it is sequenced by World Health Organization and within 12 hours of getting the sequence data, the Institute has created a synthetic copy of the genome, which is sent off for large-scale production to create the vaccination.

But the most amazing part of all this is that they think they should be able to predict what the virus will be before it occurs each year and before WHO states what the vaccination should be for that year. Meaning that the J. Craig Venter Institute would have the vaccinations ready for scale up long before it is needed. The power of science eh?


My ESOF2012: Day 4

Porridge with the Prof

Day four of ESOF2012 was an eventful one, started with meeting Prof Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, at Porridge with the Prof. I heard her talk at the “Exploding Myths on Nuclear Reactor Security, Harm Reduction and GMOs” session on day two. The questioning started with the topic of women in high positions and that while there were a large number of women going into science in university, there was a lack of women in high science positions. Prof Glover explained that she felt it was a difference in attitude towards rejection, stating that “Women wait to be asked, while men just do it.” Citing a conversation she had with another professor, who was male, about why he was always being asked to talk at conferences while she was not, his reasoning was simple. “I’m not asked to them, I ask to talk at them.”

A topic which I hadn’t heard about until attending ESOF2012 was the idea of ‘science diplomacy’, using science as a way to release tension between countries. The example she gave was how scientists in the US and North Korea work together on projects, with scientists from both counties traveling to work in the other for a number of months.

Nearing the end of the breakfast, she said that she hoped that during her time as Adviser to the President, that she would get “people [the politicians] to stand up and say why they are voting against the evidence.”

 Can We Feed 9 Billion People or Will we Starve?

This session was chaired by Bruce Osborne of UCD, and focused on water supply, and pest and disease resistance in plants. One interesting results from this session for me was an experiment which should that by watering only part of the root, while providing a high nitrogen supply, the grain yield would increase compared to other methods. A method called “Partial rootzone drying.” The other talks look at the use of Bt plants.

“The Search for a Deeper Understanding of Our Universe at the LHC”

Director General of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, at ESOF2012

Director General of CERN, Rolf-Dieter Heuer, at ESOF2012

The highlight of day four was the keynote address by Rolf-Dieter Heuer, the Director General of CERN. CERN has been in the news a lot the past week with the possible discovery of the Higgs boson. His keynote address, Heuer explained what CERN and the LHC was, detailed what the Standard Model was and told us why the Higgs boson was an important part of the model. What I loved about Heuer’s address was that he made it easy to understand, walking the audience step by step through the process of finding the Higgs boson.

During questioning at the end, when asked if Ireland had approached him in relation to joining CERN, he hinted towards the fact that Ireland and CERN may be already in talks regarding membership.

“From Reading to Writing the Genetic Code”

Craig Venter at ESOF2012

Craig Venter at ESOF2012

This was the keynote that I was looking forward to the most. Craig Venter is one of the most well-known scientists around. He was one of the first people of sequence the human genome, he sequenced the metagenome of both sea and air, and recently he was involved in creating the first partially synthetic species of bacterium Mycoplasma laboratoriumDuring his address, Venter detailed the past few years of his scientific life in, what I can only describe as, a very nonchalant manner.

Little known fact, Venter has two navy seal bodyguards at all times. He was drafted and enlisted into the United States Navy during the Vietnam War.

My ESOF2012: Day 3

What is the future of the PhD in the 21st Century?

Day three of ESOF2012 started off for me with “What is the future of the PhD in the 21st Century?” Here the speakers expressed how the PhD, while not broken, is not ideal either, often focusing teaching the student for a life in academia. This session aimed to provide possible answers to the problem with PhDs. Michael Lenardo, from the National Institute of Health, started his talk with a good example of how we are surrounded by technology, but often don’t know how/what to use it. Back in the early 1900’s, US President McKinley was shot a number of times in the gut while attending a technology expo. The best surgeons in the US were rush to operate on him, but alas, they couldn’t find all the bullets and he ultimately died. However, only 50 ft away from where the shooting occurred was there one of those new fangled X-Ray machine. He went on to say that as part of PhD training, we need to train people in creative thought.

The State of String Theory

American theoretical physicist and string theorist, Brian Greene at ESOF2012

American theoretical physicist and string theorist, Brian Greene at ESOF2012

The highlight of day three for me had to be the keynote address given by Brian Greene, the US string theorist. Greene gave a fascinating talk, which was designed so that people without a strong physics background could understand, a great example of science communication. This address stated why string theory is needed in light of trying to resolve the issue of general relativity and quantum mechanics. Afterwards he went on to explain that dark energy was the best explanation for why our universe in expanding at an increasing rate, rather than a decreasing one. Finishing with the idea of the multiverse, how “our universe is a single bubble in a bubble bath of universes.”

After lunch I attended Helga Nowotny’s talk “The Usefulnes of Useless Knowledge – And How to Find Uses and Users.” Here Nowotny said that there is really no such things as useless knowledge, just knowledge that people have yet to find a use for. This reminded me of the great TEDed talk given by Adam Savage entitled How Simple Ideas Lead to Scientific Discoveries.

I also attended “Saving Science Education” from kidsINNscience. Things didn’t start of well with the organiser, John Meadows of London South Bank Univeristy stating “…well we can’t.” Humphrey Jones of The Frog Blog details how lacking this talk was in his post “How Not to Save Science Education

My ESOF2012: Day 2

 Porridge with the Prof

Prof Ferguson and myself at "Porridge with the Prof"

Prof Ferguson and myself at “Porridge with the Prof”

PIt was a early start today as I was attending “Porridge with the Prof“, which brings together early stage researchers with professors and professionals from the scientific world. Today I had breakfast with Prof Mark Ferguson, Director General of SFI. Trained as a dentist, he became a professor of developmental biology with an interest in birth defects and went on to be co-founder of the biotech company Renovo.

He talked a bit about his early work on cleft palate formation in alligator and crocodiles, while doing so he discovered temperature specific sex determination. He also said that he feels that each PhD should have two PIs, preferably with slightly different backgrounds, which will allow for different perspectives.

When I asked him about Hoffmann’s comments the night before about how grants require impact statements, milestones and task packages, he said that he thought it a bit naïve saying that “you are competing with others for little money.” He said that any body can write an impact statement, we have to remember that the statement may not turn out to be wrong. Makes me wonder what the true value of those statements.

Equity and Climate Science

Mary Robinson giving her keynote address at ESOF2012

Mary Robinson giving her keynote address at ESOF2012

After breakfast, I attended the keynote speech by Mary Robinson, who is one of ESOF2012 patrons. Her talk, “Equity and Climate Science” looked at climate change not from a science point of view, but rather in relation to human rights. She talked about how the fruits of science need to be used wisely as it can have a deadly science, such as nuclear weapons. She shared an interesting thought about all those climate change conferences that governments seem to enjoy, saying that politicians often come back with little to show for their efforts, yet they are not being challenged by the public on this. Finishing her speech, she talked about the possibility of establishing an “Ombudsman for Future Generations”, an independent person with the sole task of thinking about the world we are leaving behind.

Exploding Myths on Nuclear Reactor Security, Harm Reduction and GMOs

Next for me was the session with the above title. Nuclear reactor technology is something I have a passing interest in and being a geneticist, anything GMO related always gets my attention. First up was Dr Roland Schenkel, a German nuclear energy consultant who talked about how media reported the Fukushima Nuclear Power plant disaster finishing by saying that “to develop a technology means learning…aeroplanes of today are not like aeroplanes of 100 years ago.”

Following Dr Schenkel was Dr David O’Reilly, the group scientific director and member of the board of British American Tobacco, who talked about harm reduction in relation to tobacco use. While I feel that he might be somewhat biased, he did make a very good point about the Irish Government. Over the past number of years, despite all the Irish Government has done, the rate of smoking in Ireland hasn’t really dropped. This is an interesting point, something I think I might look into myself.

The final person to present was Professor Anne Glover, Chief Scientific Adviser to the President of the European Commission, who talked about GMO. Stating at the outset that she was “not pro-GMO, just pro-evidence”, Prof Glover talked about the myths around GM foods and that the public’s perception of GMOs came from its bad start, with a lack of information. She reminded us that GM food is more tightly regulated than anything else and that we need to inform the public about GMOs.

A Conversation With James Watson

Well, what can I say, James Watson is one of the biggest name you can get in genetics and getting to see him right in front of me was exciting to say the least. For the most part, the conversation with Luke O’Neill provided nothing major I haven’t heard before from Watson, but he did talk about the “War on Cancer” commenting on RTÉ News that a cure for cancer would be found within five years if we devote all our attention to it. But I feel that this is somewhat foolish to say. After all, cancer is not a single disorder bit a whole host of things going wrong at once and a single silver bullet is unlikely to appear any time soon.

RNA as a Key Molecule in the Origin of Life

After lunch I went to Renée Schroeder’s talk on RNA. While the lecture was basic, telling me the sort of stuff I knew from my undergraduate, it did get me thinking about how RNA could have acted in the pre-DNA/pre-Protein world.


Tomorrow is policy day at ESOF2012, and once again, I’m not sure what I’m going to just yet. Shall report back tomorrow, but now, sleep!

My ESOF2012: Day 1


The first day of ESFO2012 was light enough, with events not really starting until 1500 hrs, when the ESOF2012 Exhibition opened. When I registered, I got myself a lovely name badge and an ESOF2012 tote bag. The bag itself made of a really heavy material, so it should last me for some time. As to be expected from a conference bag, the usual promotional material from the sponsors, a copy of Nature, flyers from intel and the like. But there are a few items worth noting. There is the copy of the ESOF programme which goes into great detail about each of the sessions over the five days. It also has bios of the keynote speakers and welcome messages from the organising committee. Also included was a smaller pocket version.

SFI included their booklet entitled “Little Book of Irish Science”. While I only had a quick look, it includes both modern Irish scientists like Dr Emma Teeling along with other classic Irish scientists like Ernest Walton. Looking forward to reading that a bit more.

One somewhat surprising element was a book called “Twenty Irish Poets Respond to Science in Twelve Lines” As part of Dublin being the City of Science, Pat Boran suggested that a number of Irish poets respond to science in 12 lines. Like the SFI booklet, I haven’t had time to read over it yet, but I’ll be sure to let you know about it.

ESOF2012 Exhibition

This exhibition has a number of exhibitors from third level institutes, such as UCD, Aathus University and a number of Irish Institutes of Technology. Also in attendance are Elsevier, EMBL, SFI and NatureJobs.

I’ve hadn’t the chance to look at most of the stands in detail, but over the next few days I’m sure I’ll spend more time at them, so I’ll be sure to give you an update.

Opening Ceremony: Céad Mile Fáilte

On the way to the opening ceremony I happened to see Prof Cunningham, Minister Sherlock and Minister Bruton greeting each other at ESOF2012

Prof Cunningham, Minister Sherlock and Minister Bruton greeting each other at ESOF2012

Prof Cunningham, Minister Sherlock and Minister Bruton greeting each other at ESOF2012

The Opening Ceremony was MCed by Dara O’Briain and started with a speech from Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins. Stating that “We must aspire to turn the best of ideas into living realities for all of our people, realising our limitless possibilities…” the President went on to talk about John Deane’s poem “The Moon and the Stars” which “captures the wonder of science – that ‘giant step into the new world.’” He finished by talking about possibly the next biggest challenge for scientists, feed the growing population, stating that “The challenge will continue to be finding ways to increase production with fewer resources.”

Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins giving his opening speech at ESOF2012

Uachtarán na hÉireann Michael D. Higgins giving his opening speech at ESOF2012

After Uachtarán na hÉireann came Professor Patrick Cunningham, the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Irish Government. He praised both the last government and the current one for keeping up their containing support of science during “…these difficult times.” He finished by saying that science is like alpha and omega. On the alpha side, he said that only last week CERN announced the Higgs boson, delving into the microscopic scale of the universe. While on the omega side talked about Square Kilometre Array, a radio telescope with 70% being build in South Africa and 30% in Australia, to gaze into the depths of our universe.

Speeches by the president of Euroscience Enric Banda, the European Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, and Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation,  Richard Bruton followed. One of my personal favourite lines from the evening was from MC Dara O’Briain talking about how ESOF was more than just a single event, stating that “ESOF2012 has set up remote locations around the city. We know them as pubs.”

After the speeches, the delegates where treated to music, dance, the bodhrán and uilleann pipes thanks to Rhythm Corporation.

Irish dancers at the opening of ESOF2012

Irish dancers at the opening of ESOF2012

After all the song and dance, it was time for the “…first bit of real science.” This was the Keynote Address by Jules Hoffmann, who shared the Nobel Prize in Medicine or Physiology in 2o11 for “…discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” His address entitled “From insects to mammals: reflections on a European journey through basic research on immune defences.” After his lecture on the gene Toll, involved in the mammalian innate immunity, he finished with some personal reflections. He said that he started research due to curiosity. He pointed that when he started in research, when writing grants, there were no milestones to meet nor need to find what down stream applications the research might yield. From talking to grant holders, I hear that there is more of a move by awarding bodies towards looking of immediate applications. Often, research has no immediate application, no apparent use (much like the laser) but can yield advances in the long run.

Day 2

Not sure what I shall be attending tomorrow, however in the morning I shall be sitting down to breakfast with Mark Ferguson, Director General of SFI and Professor in Life Sciences for “Porridge with the Prof”

ESOF2012 and Me

Euroscience Open Forum 2012

Euroscience Open Forum 2012

Today is the start of the five day Euroscience Open Fourm, which is being held in the Convention Centre in Dublin. ESOF is a Europe wide general science meeting held every two years in some European city. It aims to showcase advances in science and technology, create debate on what role science plays in society and it aims to provoke public interest in science.

This will be my first time attending ESOF, but there is a wealth of activities, from seminars and debates, to Science-2-Business and “Porridge with the Prof“, to keep me busy.

Throughout the event I shall be tweeting about it on my account @plavin1922 using #esof2012. Also at the end of each day I shall be writing a blog post on this very site about what I got up to and what I heard.

Today is a light enough day. Delegate registration starts at 1100hrs, with the “Fáilte Reception” taking place at 1600hrs. Afterwards is the Opening Ceremony, followed by a keynote address at 1800hrs. The keynote address “From insects to mammals: reflections on a European journey through basic research on immune defenses” is being delivered by Jules Hoffmann, who in 2011 shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the “…discoveries concerning the activation of innate immunity.” Should be interesting.

I shall report back tonight about the first day!

The Science Bit

One of the major categories of the blog will be this science section where I shall talk about science in the news, explain basic scientific concepts and comment on anything I think is worth commenting.

I’ve outlined why I have started this blog on my welcome post, so hopefully this will help in some way. This section will be a bit rough around the edges for the first few posts, until I get a feeling as to what is a worthy post. But hopefully this won’t last too long and written at a level that all can understand.