Cooking, hiking, and beekeeping lead to breakthrough advances

These scientists found inspiration for their research in their hobbies.

Research is not a profession known for its excellent work-life balance—though plenty of scientists are pushing to change that. But for these three researchers, it was when they looked up from their benches, walked away from their work, and dove into their hobbies, that inspiration struck.

Failure in the kitchen reveals key to measuring cells’ strength

Photo by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering

Biomedical engineer Chris Moraes was trying to make cotton candy in his kitchen at home. It was not going well. “The sugar has to be cooked perfectly, so that it is not too hard, not too soft. That day, I messed it up. I ended up with burnt, tar-like candy that tasted awful,” said Moraes. He emptied the hardened sugar mixture into the sink to slowly dissolve. While the candy-making endeavor had been a failure, it came with a silver lining: the solution to a research problem.

Moraes, who was at the time working in Shuichi Takayama's research group at the University of Michigan, had been investigating how cells generate force and remodel their surroundings, for example during scar formation. To measure this, the team needed to mold an extraordinarily soft material for the cells to exert force against. “Individual cells are weaklings,” Moraes explained. “They can only change the shape of very soft materials.” Frustratingly, removing something so delicate from its mold destroyed it. That’s where the sugar dissolving in Moraes’s sink at home came into play. It occurred to him that he could try making the molds out of sugar, so they could be gently dissolved away with water. “Turns out that worked rather well,” he said.

When he started his own lab, Moraes brought the technique with him. He’s also trained other labs to use it, though he no longer needs the sugar molds for his own research. “We moved on to more challenging problems in tissue engineering that can’t be solved with candy,” he said. But he and his students continue to find inspiration from the world around them. “Playing with soap bubbles led us to a new technique to map forces in three-dimensional tissues,” he reports. Another technique, which uses a heated tool to shape plastic systems for microfluidic cell cultures, was inspired by a warmable butter knife. And the team is now working on a new design strategy for advanced biomaterials that grew out of what Moraes calls a “near-obsessive” fascination with Velcro.


A researcher’s hiking trip proves meat allergy can be caused by ticks

Photo by Sanjay Suchak, UVA

When patients claiming to be allergic to meat first started appearing in allergist Thomas Platts-Mills’ office, he told them it wasn’t possible. He suspected the symptoms were psychosomatic. But his perspective changed when an outside project landed on his desk at the University of Virginia. A new cancer drug, Cetuximab, had been giving patients severe allergic reactions. Platts-Mills was tasked with finding out why. He identified a sugar in the drug called galactose-alpha-1,3-galactose, or “alpha-gal,” as the culprit. Alpha-gal is also found in the blood of all non-primate mammals—cows have it, pigs have it, humans don’t. When we eat meat, we’re eating alpha-gal along with it. Sure enough, when Platts-Mills tested patients who’d reported meat allergies, he found they reacted to alpha-gal.

With part of the mystery solved, many other questions remained. Chief among them was why the allergic reactions—both to the cancer drug and to meat—were happening almost exclusively in the American South. “It was a ridiculous thing to have a drug that was dangerous in one part of the country and not in others,” said Platts-Mills. A lab technician started comparing maps and realized the area overlapped with that of Rocky Mountain fever, a tick-borne disease. This got the team thinking: could ticks be to blame? They talked to patients, many of whom confirmed they’d been bitten, but the researchers had no way to prove there was a connection.

That is, until Platts-Mills went hiking in the mountains near his home in Virginia and stumbled across a cluster of baby ticks. “I suddenly realized my legs were itching and they were covered in tiny little black things,” he said. Sensing a unique opportunity, Platts-Mills rushed back to his lab to have his blood taken and document what happened next. He tested his levels of IgE, the antibody that causes the symptoms of an alpha-gal reaction, for the next two months. They rose steadily.

Four months after the hike, Platts-Mills was having dinner—specifically lamb chops—at the Royal Society of Medicine. “Six hours later, I was standing in my hotel room looking at myself covered in hives,” he said. He was having the very reaction he’d doubted in his patients years before. But this time, it had been documented every step of the way. “It was like hitting a homerun,” he said. “Now we’d seen the whole thing. We’d actually watched the date on which the tick bites occurred, watched the blood level go up steadily, then done a food challenge.”

Now, Platts-Mills and his colleagues are working to determine exactly how tick bites trigger sensitivity to alpha-gal. He’s also heard from some former patients. “People came to see me after we discovered it and said, I told you that story and you didn’t believe me,” he said. “I had to admit, I didn’t.”


Plastic-eating caterpillar found in researcher’s beehive

Photo by César Hernández, CSIC

Used primarily for disposable packaging, polyethylene is one of the most ubiquitous plastics. It’s also notoriously slow to break down after it finds its way into a landfill—a plastic bag can take 100-400 years to biodegrade. With plastic pollution becoming an ever-growing problem, Federica Bertocchini and her colleagues started looking for ways to speed up the process.

Bertocchini found a promising solution not in her lab, but in her beehives. An amateur beekeeper, she discovered that some of her hives had been infested with wax worms, a common parasite. “In cleaning the beehives, I put the worms in a plastic bag,” she explained. “After a short while, they had escaped, and the plastic bag was full of holes.” Bertocchini immediately began wondering what happened to the parts of the bag the worms had chewed away. Could this be the solution she was looking for?

“We started moving right away,” she said. Initial experiments suggested the worms’ digestion process was breaking polyethylene’s chemical bond and converting it to ethylene glycol, a compound that biodegrades in a few weeks. Other researchers aren’t so sure, saying the analysis may have been a false positive. Either way, the beehive discovery opens the door for Bertocchini and her colleagues to dig deeper into wax worms’ chemistry. “Wax and polyethylene have a similar chemical structure,” she notes. They hope to find a molecule that can be isolated, reproduced, and used to degrade plastic waste at a large scale.


Featured image: Takayama research group's sugar molds in a water bath. Photo by Joseph Xu, Michigan Engineering