Ailsa’s theme this week was inspired by news of Beijing’s pollution crisis. There are many deplorable environmental issues affecting the health of the world and its inhabitants. They are incredibly saddening!
I’ve decided to write about a natural epidemic that is affecting people across the world because of contaminated water. There is much that could be done to reduce outbreaks of disease by providing clean sources of water for drinking and washing to the millions, who risk their lives on a daily basis, without the essentials that so many of us take for granted!
I firmly believe that access to clean, safe water is one of the basic rights of every single human being! Some of the difficulties are geological and political which makes it hard for us to make a difference, individually. There are, however, many charities who work internationally to achieve these goals and we can help by helping them! Some charities also offer opportunities for people to join a project that is bringing clean water to a particular community, perhaps by building wells or sanitation blocks.
Anyway, I expect you’re still wondering what on earth my image is all about? In 2008 I teamed up with my friend Zahida, a parasitologist, to create a visual representation of a snail’s immune cells attacking the parasite Schistosoma mansoni. Using Zahida’s scientific images of the parasite, snail cells and DNA profiles I created the above image, a multi-layered photomotage, in Photoshop. The disease Schistosomiasis kills thousands every year! Science could provide the ultimate solution.
Our image was displayed in the Darwin Centre at The Natural History Museum as part of the 2008 art competition and exhibition. We called it rEvolution: the unnatural selection, “Scientists can create or eliminate elements of the natural world by interfering with natural selection and thus altering evolution; greatly aided by new technologies. Artists push the boundaries of design through different technologies; art and science are often seen as polar opposites here the two disciplines collide.”
Essay for New Science: The Super Snail!
Zahida Zahoor, Faculty of Science, School of Life Sciences, Kingston University and Wolfson Wellcome Biomedical Laboratories, The Natural History Museum, London.
We’ve all heard of genetically modified plants, but what about creating a genetically modified snail? Why would you want to do a thing like that, I hear you ask. Well a range of snails can harbour specific parasites. Parasites are organisms that need to be in close relationship with another organism in order to survive. Certain parasites can develop and reproduce in certain snails and some parasites are released into water where they can potentially infect humans and mammals that drink or paddle in the water. For example the parasite Schistosoma mansoni uses the fresh water snail Biomphalaria glabrata to complete its life cycle. It estimated that annually 20,000 people in Africa, Asia and South America will die from the disease Schistosomiasis, by coming into contact with infected waters. Infected humans usually have range of unpleasant symptoms including; diarrhoea, fever and malnutrition. This has huge implications on the countries economical growth because millions of people are unable to work due to ill health.
How would you start dealing with such an epic problem? Provide patients with anti-parasitic medication, yes, but what about when drug resistant parasites develop? Then use molluscides, but how would you differentiate between parasite infected and non-infected snails and the number of other snail species that don’t carry the parasite? The short answer is you can’t. That’s why we are looking into novel ways of controlling the disease.
Coming back to our idea of a genetically modified snail, what if we could strengthen the defence response of a B. glabrata snail therefore allowing it to fight off parasitic infection, the parasite can’t then complete its life cycle! Before we open the bottle of champagne and pat ourselves on the back, you’ve might have already guessed that it’s not as simple as it sounds. At the moment we are still struggling to find out how the parasite is able to suppress the snails’ defence system, allowing its own survival and development to take place.
There is some good news; we are in a position to investigate what snails genes the parasite might be switching on or off once the snail has been infected. This means the presence of a parasite might be indirectly affecting the physiology of the snail causing its defence system not to work as efficiently. At the moment our information is limited as the snail genome project is still ongoing. Where does this leave us? We may have some interesting genes that may hold the key in producing that parasite resistant snail but what consequences this may have on other aspects of the snails’ life such as mortality and reproductively is a question that will also need to be addressed in time. Not to mention the public’s reaction to a genetically modified organism that might be sitting in their ponds!
- The Schistosomiasis Control Initiative website: http://www.schisto.org/
- Lockyer A.E., et al., Biomphalaria glabrata transcriptome: Identification of cell-signalling, transcriptional control and immune-related genes from open reading frame expressed sequence tag (ORESTES). Developmental and Comparative Immunology, 2007. 31(8):p. 763-782.
- Lockyer A.E et al., Schistosoma mansoni: resistant specific infection-induced gene expression in Biomphalaria glabrata identified by fluorescent-based differential display. Experimental Parasitology, 2004. 107:p 97-104
- Biomphalaria glabrata genome initiative website: http://biology.unm.edu/biomphalaria-genome/
I’ve always had a keen interest in the sciences as well as art. I often considered myself to be a Naturalist. Some of the worlds greatest scientific minds were naturalists, Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace among them. A large part of what they did was art, observation and drawing of their subjects. We wouldn’t have wonderful places like The Natural History Museum without these great explorers and collectors.
Today, our piece, rEvolution hangs in Kingston University and we hope it will bring inspiration to future generations of scientists, studying and working toward a better future for us all.