26 Jan 2015

A twisted bug's life

You wait for one giant inflatable gut to appear at a festival and then two come along at once! Gemma Wattret tells us about her trip to the Great British Bioscience Festival.

In November last year, a group of us headed down to the BBSRC’s Great British Bioscience Festival with our 'A twisted bug's life' exhibit. The festival was a 3-day event held in Museum Gardens, Bethnal Green to showcase some of the best bioscience work in the UK. Our exhibit, which focused on our Campylobacter research, was joined by nineteen other fun and interactive exhibits from across the UK. The team was led by Dr Elli Wright, and included IGH researchers Dr Amy Wedley, Dr Lizeth Lacharme-lora, Dr Christina Bronowski, Dr Gemma Wattret, Dr Jo Hardstaff, and Nicola Frost. Colleagues from the University of Manchester Prof Daniel Rigby, Dr Caroline Millman and Dr Miroslava Hukelova also joined us.

Pupils taking part in the Campylobacter puzzle challenge
Campylobacter is the most common bacterial cause of human diarrhoeal disease in the developed world. Infection occurs mostly through eating undercooked chicken or cross-contamination in the kitchen, but can also occur through recreational contact with the environment. Chickens become infected during rearing and can carry very high numbers of the bacteria in the gut, which contaminates the carcass during slaughter. Our research on the ENIGMA project is investigating the presence and survival of Campylobacter in the farming, countryside and park environments; its interaction with the chicken gut; and the mechanisms that make chickens susceptible to infection. Understanding the role of the environment and environmental exposure on the behaviour of Campylobacter is crucial to understanding this bacteria and how best to eliminate it from the food chain and, therefore, reduce illness in humans.

Some of the Twisted Bug's Team
Part of our exhibit consisted of a giant walk through gut complete with Campylobacter, E. coli and neutrophils. Visitors were encouraged to explore our giant gut and discover how Campylobacter infects us, how it makes us ill and how our immune system responds to this challenge. The walk through gut was extremely popular, but it wasn't the only one! The University of Reading and University of Oxford had their own walk-through gut as part of their 'Friends in Low Places' exhibit which focused on ‘good’ probiotic bacteria. So it was really nice that visitors could explore both a healthy gut and our Campylobacter infected one!

Our giant inflatable gut was eye catching!

Whilst we found that our giant walk through gut pulled in the crowds, some of the simpler activities we had were also really popular. Never would I have imagined the draw of racing to complete one of our three jigsaws against one of your classmates or siblings to win a pencil topped with a Campylobacter shaped pipe cleaner.Another activity which worked really well was our tub of rice showing the number of Campylobacter on a raw chicken and then a small dish containing the number of Campylobacter thought to make you ill. Visitors were shocked at how few bacteria were required to make you ill.

Our giveaway fridge magnets were popular!
Our take home message from the exhibit was to Wash your Hands, Not your Chicken,as by washing your chicken you are splashing the bacteria round your kitchen and cross contaminating work surfaces. It was interesting to talk to our visitors and see how many people still wash their chicken prior to cooking. We explained to visitors why you should not wash your chicken and visitors were given one of our magnets to take home and display the message on their fridge. A few colleagues from the University of Manchester who are also part the ENIGMA project joined us at the festival too. They allowed visitors to contribute to real research with their hazards perception video challenge to help us understand whether or not people perceive microbiological hazards in the kitchen and the countryside.
When we first heard the event was going to be held in a park in Bethnal Green we were concerned we would not get many visitors to the festival. However we needn’t have worried as over the 3-days over 6,500 visitors flocked to the Festival! Some visitors even visited our exhibit and the festival on more than one day, and the feedback they gave was excellent. In particular people from the local area were pleased to have such an exciting event on their doorstep!

A festival goer contributing to real research by doing our video challenge!
We were busy the whole time!
Having so many visitors made for some long and tiring days. However I think it is safe to say we all enjoyed the event and it was nice to be out of the labs and to be able to speak to the visitors about our research. We also got some time off to explore the other exhibits, which were part of the festival. Some of my personal favourites were the University of the West of England’s 'Many bugs make light work' which had a blackout tent where visitors could view agar plates of glowing bacteria and add household antibacterial products to observe how rapidly the biosensor light level was reduced, and the University of Bristol’s 'Electrostatic interactions between flowers and bees' which had live bees on display and showed how bees use electricity to pollinate flowers.  I was also interested in the Queen’s University Belfast exhibit, demonstrating their microneedle, which can take the pain out of needles. Despite the long days, we still managed to relax in the evenings with a visit to see the poppies at the Tower of London and a trip to Brick Lane for a curry!

The poppies at the Tower of London

Dr Gemma Wattret is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Infection and Global Health. Further links The BBSRC has produced a short video showing all the highlights from the Great British Bioscience Festival. Our Twisted Bug's Life exhibit features- see if you can spot us!

Further links

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