Features, Science

Pint of Science: If Carlsberg did genetics

Norwich was one of over a hundred cities across the world to participate in the 2017 Pint of Science festival in May, with a variety of events in Norwich pubs that brought cutting-edge scientific research out of the lab and into the city.

I visited a session on ‘Food for the Future’ at St Andrew’s Brew House. While next door the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra were playing at St Andrew’s Hall as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival, inside the pub an upstairs room had been reserved for a no less interesting ensemble of scientists.

This year’s festival, also held in countries as far afield as Brazil and Thailand, marked Norwich’s second participation in the festival. UK researchers Dr Praveen Paul and Dr Michael Motskin said that in founding the festival in 2013 they had wanted to counter scientific ideas getting “lost in translation” through giving everyone an opportunity to meet university researchers in a less formal setting.

Norwich’s events were all organised by PhD students from UEA and the John Innes Centre, which is situated at the Norwich Research Park and just across the road from the Colney Lane sports pitches. Talks were separated into several categories including ‘Planet Earth’, ‘Our Body’, ‘Beautiful Mind’ and ‘Tech Me Out’ and spread out across three days.

The first speaker at St Andrew’s was Norfolk native Jemima Brinton, who studied her undergraduate degree at Cambridge before returning to the county to study at the John Innes Centre. Her area of research is in increasing wheat yields. After sharing a surprising statistic that with the world’s population expected to exceed 9 billion by 2050 in the next fifty years as much wheat will need to be harvested as has been since the beginning of agriculture, she explained that she was looking to increase the amount of wheat that could be harvested.

Jemima told me why she got involved in the festival. She said: “I think it’s a really good thing to do to make people aware of what’s going on especially with things like food. People are surrounded by it and maybe they’re interested or keen to find out a bit more and also they have really good ideas that can feed back into what we’re doing.”

Although it was her first time speaking at a Pint of Science event, Jemima has attended the festival previously and described it as “very informal” with “a lot of really interesting science but in a very casual environment where people feel comfortable asking more and you get a lot of dialogue, it’s really conducive to that.

“One of the reasons I love talking to members of the public is because it’s a really good sign if other people are interested in the things that you’re doing, you can be sure it’s worthwhile. I think that food is such an important thing, and so it’s really important that other people have an understanding of it so it’s a transfer of knowledge that way. I always get really good ideas when I talk to the public because they come from completely different perspectives.”

After a break for, you guessed it, drinks, the second speaker of the night, Dr Eugenio Butelli from the John Innes Centre gave a presentation about the genetic modification of vegetables and his particular area of research: purple tomatoes.

Dr Butelli, who used to work in biomedicine with an interest in brain development before moving to Norwich to work on a new field of plant science, said he was “fascinated by the potential of GM technology.” He explained that antioxidants called anthocyanins, found in many purple and red foods, have been found to offer many health benefits.

Reflecting on the event and science education generally, he said: “I think it’s a very good opportunity. A lot has been done, I feel that there is a system in place that is trying to motivate young people to get more interested in science. People are doing a fantastic job to make science accessible and fascinating.

“It’s really good to engage with the general public. As scientists, we have our own language and sometimes we get really obsessed with scientific details. You also develop new ideas when you are in touch with the bigger picture. I love it!”

Dr Butelli said he would advise Concrete readers to cut their sugar intake, and recommended the benefits of purple foods. He said: “They provide fantastic antioxidant power. We still don’t know the full extent of their benefits but it’s more than antioxidant activity.”

He said: “we have been eating GM food for more than twenty years, the research has been ongoing for thirty-five years. So far I’m not aware of any single problem for human health or genetic pollution. It is safe. GM technology is evolving really fast, there are new ways of genetically modifying food that takes into consideration some of the concerns of the anti-GM camp.” Dr Butelli described an improvement in the reputation of GM foods  as “almost inevitable.”

There was a fun, informal atmosphere with speakers and student volunteers offering prizes for correct answers during the night. There was also a chance for more artistic visitors to interpret the evening’s offerings, with T-shirts and beer glasses, wheat based hair products and tomato plants for the winners. The evening of course could not be complete without the all-important novelty of Pint of Science beer mats.

After an event about cancer treatment at the Murderers on the 30 May, planning will soon be underway for next year’s edition of the festival, which is looking to expand into more scientific areas as well as expand its outreach into the city’s community.


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Tony Allen

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December 2021
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