Discoveries related to a laboratory accident, poisonous snails and a scientific instrument made of paper are some of the dark, extravagant or complicated advances that were awarded this Wednesday in the awards that celebrate the investigations that, ultimately, had a great impact on society, albeit unexpectedly.
Three teams of scientists have won the 2022 Golden Goose Awards, an award put on by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), for their research projects that went from “wait, huh? what?” to pioneering advances.
“The Golden Goose Award reminds us that potential discoveries can be hidden around every corner and illustrates the benefits of investing in basic research to drive innovation,” said Sudip S. Parikh, executive director of the AAAS and executive editor of the family of Science magazines.
These are the discoveries awarded this year, which illuminate the unpredictable path of science and the benefits of investing in research that may not give immediate results.
The paper microscope that breaks the rules and shakes up science
More than a decade ago, Stanford University bioengineer Manu Prakash was in the Thai jungle on a field trip for his rabies research when he came up with an idea for a cheap, easy-to-use microscope.
“I saw this $50,000 microscope in a jungle in the middle of nowhere, locked in a room. It was an ironic moment. I realized right away it wasn’t the right tool,” says Prakash, associate professor and fellow at the Woods Institute. for the environment of the university.
Why was this essential piece of scientific equipment that could help diagnose devastating diseases like malaria not used? It was bulky and awkward to transport, required training to operate, and was difficult to maintain. As delicate and expensive as the instrument was, even trained technicians could feel nervous using it, Prakash explained.
Prakash envisioned a cheap microscope that could be used by anyone anywhere but powerful enough to see a single bacterium. Along with his colleague Jim Cybulski, Prakash devised the Foldscope, a flat microscope made of paper and a single spherical lens.
“It was a huge engineering job. In that early phase, I was sitting next to labs with million-dollar microscopes. We wanted to make a microscope at a price of one dollar.”
At first, people thought the idea was a bit silly, Prakash said, and getting funding for the work was a challenge.
Fast-forward to 2022. The foldscope It doesn’t cost a dollar, but it’s pretty close: It costs $1.75 to make, which is a small fraction of the price of most lab equipment. The telescope’s final magnification is about 140 times, powerful enough to see a malaria parasite in a cell.
The instruments have been deployed around the world in an impressive range of applications. Last year in India, the Foldscope was used to identify a new type of cyanobacteria. The microscope has also helped identify fake drugs, Prakash said.
Prakash said the Foldscope, and the broader premise of frugal science, has a bigger role to play in a world awash in misinformation: “I want to put science in everyone’s hands. Make it more personal. We’ve decoupled everyday life from process of science.
A side business that transformed neuroscience
As scientists working in the Philippines in the 1970s, biochemists Baldomero Olivera and Lourdes Cruz, an emeritus professor at the University of the Philippines Diliman, found it difficult to secure adequate supplies for DNA research.
“We had to find something to do that didn’t require fancy equipment, because we didn’t have any,” Olivera, distinguished professor at the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences, said in a video produced for the Golden Goose Awards.
Olivera and Cruz came up with what they hoped would be a fruitful side project. Cone snails are common in the Philippines, and had always fascinated Olivera, who had collected shells as a child. The pair decided to investigate the nature of the poison that the snails use to paralyze their small prey.
The team discovered that the bioactive compounds in the venom were small proteins known as peptides. After moving to the United States and collaborating with University of Utah graduate students Dr. Michael McIntosh and the late Craig T. Clark, Olivera and Cruz discovered that some of the peptides in the venom reacted differently in mice that in fish and frogs. It turned out that in mammals the compounds were involved in pain sensation, rather than muscle paralysis.
“There was an incredible gold mine of compounds,” says McIntosh in the video. He is now a professor and research director of psychiatry at the University of Utah School of Biological Sciences.
Work on a type of poison compound known as omega-conotoxin led to the development of a powerful pain reliever, ziconotide, known commercially as Prialt.
His work on conotoxins also transformed neuroscience. Other scientists are now exploring the possibility of using conotoxins to treat a wide range of diseases, including addiction, epilepsy and diabetes.
How a lab accident led to a way to correct vision
The most famous laboratory accident in the history of science, when mold contaminated one of Alexander Fleming’s Petri dishes, led to the discovery in 1928 of the first antibiotic: penicillin.
Much less well known is the laboratory accident that contributed to the development of LASIK, a laser procedure to correct vision problems such as nearsightedness and farsightedness. It is a procedure that has allowed millions of people around the world to say goodbye to glasses forever.
In the early 1990s, Detao Du was a graduate student at the University of Michigan in the laboratory of Gérard Mourou, a French physicist and professor. Morou, along with Canadian physicist Donna Strickland, developed an optical technique that produces short, intense laser pulses that can pierce precise points without causing damage to surrounding material. This discovery earned Mourou and Strickland, a professor in the department of physics and astronomy at the University of Waterloo, Canada, the Nobel Prize in Physics 2018.
One afternoon while working in the lab, Du accidentally pushed up his glasses while aligning the mirrors of a femtosecond laser, then a very new type of laser that emitted an extremely short pulse of light. Du’s eyeball caught a stray beam.
“He came to my office very worried. He was afraid the lab would be closed,” says Morou, who encouraged Du to see a doctor.
Du was treated by Dr. Ron Kurtz, then a medical student intern at the University of Michigan’s Kellogg Eye Center.
“When we dilated her eye, what I saw was a very small number of very pinpoint burns, what we would call retinal burns, in the very center of her retina,” Kurtz said in a video produced for the Golden Goose Awards. “I was curious as to what kind of laser it was.”
Convinced that it might have a medical application, Kurtz met with Morou’s team and ended up investigating with Du, who quickly recovered from the injury. Within a year, they presented their findings at an optics conference in Toronto in 1994. There they met and partnered with a researcher already investigating lasers for vision correction named Tibor Juhasz, then a research scientist at the University of California. . In 1997, Kurtz and Juhasz founded IntraLase, a company focused on commercializing bladeless LASIK for corrective eye surgery.
Mourou said he never imagined his precision laser would have applications beyond physics. He also credited the university leadership, which while insisting on improved security protocols, did not shut down his lab as he feared. Instead, the authorities funded some of the research that led to the corrective eye surgery technique.
“It took an accident like this for a new field to open up,” Mourou said, adding that Du suffered no lasting effects from his injury.