The Longitude Prize 2014 needs YOU

481459339The Longitude Prize 2014 was announced a few weeks ago to much media fanfare. After a vote, the British public decided that the prize should focus on the rise of antibiotic resistance. Joshua Ryan-Saha, Assistant Manager of the Longitude Prize, blogs here, asking members of the Society for General Microbiology to have their say on the design of the prize.

The growth of anti-microbial resistance will impact all of us. The World Health Organization estimates that antibiotic treatments add an average of 20 years to our lives. However, our overuse of antibiotics has allowed bacteria to evolve resistance, leading to the emergence of untreatable superbugs that threaten one of the cornerstones of modern medicine. How we respond to the growing global antimicrobial resistance is one of the most important science policy questions of our age.

The Longitude Prize 2014 will encourage the development of new point-of-care diagnostics that will help clinicians make better informed decisions when prescribing antibiotics, restricting their use only to those cases when they are beneficial. We know that diagnostics alone can’t solve the problem of anti-microbial resistance, but they are a central part of addressing the problem of antibiotic overuse. While the £10m prize fund is comparatively small when compared with the total global research spend in this area, a prize of this scale could make a tremendous difference in stimulating new and innovative diagnostic methods.

Over the last year, Nesta and our partners Science Practice have been working with a range of experts in this field to design a challenge prize that will encourage individuals and teams from across the world to try and solve it. In our paper for open review, we have outlined what we have come up with so far. We have tried to design this prize in a way that makes it potentially achievable within the five-year timescales, while ensuring it is challenging enough to encourage breakthrough innovations. We also hope that this challenge is accessible to a wide pool of potential competitors.

Microbiology is clearly a central aspect of antimicrobial resistance, and microbiologists will likely compete for the Longitude Prize 2014. As such, your input on the open review would be particularly valuable, both for Nesta and for members of the Society for General Microbiology. With the help of your thoughts and comments on the paper for open review we can formulate a truly effective prize.

What happens next?

Working with the Longitude Committee, we will use the responses to the open review to amend and adjust our challenge criteria. Subsequently, in October this year we will announce the full judging criteria and terms and conditions which will explain exactly what you need to do to win the prize.

At this point we will ‘fire the starter’s pistol’ for innovators and inventors from across the world to begin developing new point-of-care diagnostics that will help us preserve the efficacy of antibiotics for future generations by addressing the problem of antibiotic overuse and inappropriate use.

We believe that the Longitude Prize will be more robust and accountable after this process is complete, so please read our report and provide your feedback. The open review closes on 10 August.

Joshua Ryan-Saha

This blog was originally published by Nesta. You can read the original blog post here.

Image credit: Thinkstock
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Subduing the Hive Mind: An enemy’s enemy could become an unlikely friend

ResearchBlogging.org119614761Leafcutter ants form some of the biggest, most remarkable animal societies on Earth, living in sprawling colonies of up to 8 million individuals. These ants harvest more greenery in South American rainforests than any other animal, consuming almost 20% of the annual vegetation growth. Their voracious appetite also makes them a significant agricultural pest.

At the University of Costa Rica, Dr Adrián Pinto-Tomás and his colleagues are looking for ways to minimise the impact of leafcutter ants on agriculture in a sustainable manner, while ensuring that the region’s unique ecosystems remain balanced.

Leafcutter ants cultivate a fungus, Leucoagaricus gongylophorus, in “gardens” within their colonies; the ants feed the leaves they cut to the fungus, which is the colony’s sole food source. Leafcutter ants thus form sophisticated farming societies in symbiosis with the fungal cultivar. Each individual ant is adapted in terms of size and physiology to its specific role in contributing to the success of the fungal garden. Soldiers, for example, are the largest ants, with pincers powerful enough to bite through leather boots. Smaller ants may forage for leaves outside the colony, work as gardeners around the fungal cultivar or feed and clean the queen, the only ant in the entire colony capable of laying eggs and producing offspring. Continue reading

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World Hepatitis Day 2014

5279776905_4f0477d2fc_zToday is World Hepatitis Day, which is marked by the World Health Organization (WHO) to raise awareness of a disease that continues to claim millions of lives around the world every year. Predominantly a viral disease, hepatitis is primarily characterised by an inflammation of the liver, followed in many cases by liver cirrhosis, liver failure or liver cancer.

There are five different hepatitis viruses, known as A, B, C, D and E, which all cause a different variant of the disease. All five hepatitis viruses can cause short-term (“acute”) infection; hepatitis B, C and D infections can also be long-term, or chronic, and may cause liver cancer and liver failure. An estimated 1.5 million people die of hepatitis infections every year, with Hepatitis B and C causing the large majority of these deaths.

Besides the viruses themselves, a number of other factors can also cause hepatitis or increase predisposition to it. Long-term excessive alcohol consumption and some medications and antibiotics increase the likelihood of liver cirrhosis and liver failure. Those with impaired immune systems may experience autoimmune hepatitis, where the body attacks its own liver cells. Finally, some 40% of all babies born to mothers who suffer from hepatitis B also have the disease. A vaccination is required within the first few hours after birth to prevent a continued infection in the child.

In England, hepatitis C is the most common type of viral hepatitis, affecting some 215,000 people. It is mostly spread through sharing needles for intravenous drug use, and many people are unaware that they have the virus, as the disease rarely exhibits symptoms early in the infection. In 75% of cases, the virus stays in the body and causes chronic hepatitis C, which can lead to liver cirrhosis and liver failure. There is no vaccine against hepatitis C, and while antiviral medication does exist, it can have very unpleasant side effects.

Hepatitis B, which is mainly transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids, is one of the most widespread infectious diseases worldwide. The WHO estimates that 240 million people suffer from chronic hepatitis B and 780,000 die every year, making it a major global health problem. Continue reading

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Microbe Talk: July 2014

493374987Dr Bryn Dentinger, a researcher at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, bought a packet of dried porcini mushrooms in a local shop. Being an expert in fungi, Bryn wanted to know what species of porcini he had purchased, so he sequenced the dried mushrooms’ DNA (obviously) and was rather surprised at the result. Ben went to Kew to talk to Bryn about fungi and about his discovery…

Also on the podcast this month, we interviewed Artemis Louyakis, who studies Thrombolites: tough, rock-like structures, which are actually macrocolonies of bacteria. Artemis tells us about her research and the practical uses that these structures might have in space travel.

Show Notes:

  • Bryn’s paper ‘What’s for dinner?: Undescribed species of porcini in a commercial packet’ via PeerJ.
  • Bryn’s homepage.
  • Information on Thrombolites in Australia.

If you’re accessing this page on your iPhone and can’t see the podcast player, you can subscribe to Microbe Talk on iTunes.

Benjamin Thompson

Image Credit: Thinkstock
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We’ll have no bananas?

BananasReports of the imminent demise of the world’s most popular fruit have surfaced repeatedly over the course of the last decade. Bananas, particularly those grown in large monocultures for the hungry markets of the EU and the US, are vulnerable to a number of diseases, and fears are mounting that the tide is turning against our prevention and mitigation strategies. How much stock should we put in these reports – are the days of the banana truly numbered? Jon Fuhrmann investigates.

A fungal disease called Fusarium wilt, also known as Panama disease, is causing the most concern among banana producers. In the last 20 years, a new and particularly dangerous strain called Tropical Race 4 (TR4) has infected the Cavendish banana, the only widely available banana type in western supermarkets. Reports of the disease are now coming in from the Middle East and East Africa, a long way from the disease’s Southeast Asian origins.

Panama disease itself is not an unknown entity. In the first half of the 20th century, a different strain (Race 1) effectively wiped out the Gros Michel-type banana, which dominated the world markets at the time. Those who have tasted Gros Michel wax lyrical of its superior taste and texture, sweeter and more delicate than the Cavendish-type bananas we buy in supermarkets today.

Indeed, the Cavendish bananas are merely a second-best solution, adopted after Panama disease rendered Gros Michel commercially infeasible. The big banana exporting companies clung to Gros Michel because consumers preferred the taste and their hardiness meant lower transport costs compared to those needed for the Cavendish fruit. While possibly apocryphal, the song ‘Yes! We Have No Bananas’ may relate to the difficulties that American consumers faced after Panama disease destroyed the Gros Michel crops that supplied the US.

As a result, Cavendish bananas, which are resistant to the fungus, became the bulk of worldwide trade and have remained so for the past sixty years. During this time, a variety of bacterial and fungal diseases have plagued banana plantations and prompted ever more extreme levels of fungicide spraying, which affects both plants and plantation workers – but Cavendish continues to dominate. Continue reading

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New to Science: July 2014

BambooEach month, the Society for General Microbiology publishes the International Journal of Systematic and Evolutionary Microbiology, which details newly discovered species of bacteria, fungi and protists. Here are a few of the new species that have been discovered, and the places they’ve been found. The full papers are available to journal subscribers, but the abstracts are free to read.

While summer is well and truly upon us in England, many of us are staying in to watch the plethora of fantastic sporting events that are keeping us glued to our television sets. While Wimbledon and the Tour de France brought numerous world-class athletes onto British soil, the football World Cup in Brazil will nevertheless remain the focal point of global attention until its conclusion on Sunday 13 July.

Despite the proceedings in the country’s stadia, Brazilian scientists remain hard at work cataloguing our planet’s microbes. In the Amazon rainforest, researchers from Rio de Janeiro teamed up with colleagues from Belgium and Australia to identify Bradyrhizobium manausense in cowpea, an important food crop in the area. The new species is named after Manaus, the biggest city in the Amazon rainforest (and the site of England’s defeat to Italy in the World Cup). Continue reading

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Opinion: The Longitude Prize and antibiotic research funding

methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus and a dead human neutrophilCash prizes have long been the drivers of scientific innovation, be it in the development of synthetic blue pigment in 19th century France, or the XPrize’s continuing efforts to award those developing “radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity”.

This year, Nesta relaunched the Longitude Prize, first offered by the British Government in 1714 as a reward for solving a major problem of the day – determining a ship’s longitude. The original prize was won by the clockmaker John Harrison, who received around £15,000 for his efforts, which equates to over £1.8 million in today’s currency.

300 years later, the reborn 2014 Longitude Prize is even bigger – offering a fund of £10 million to those interested in solving the major problems that affect mankind today. The prize opened with a vote that allowed the public to decide which challenge they thought was most deserving. As Chief Executive of the Society for General Microbiology, I’m delighted to say that the winning challenge of the Longitude Prize 2014 is ‘Antibiotics’.

The prize’s website says the fund aims “to create a cost-effective, accurate, rapid, and easy-to-use test for bacterial infections that will allow health professionals worldwide to administer the right antibiotics at the right time.”

This mirrors a call made in the Society for General Microbiology’s recent report Microbiology and the challenge of sexually transmitted infections, in which we state that the development of rapid point-of-care diagnostic devices will have a major impact in slowing the spread of antimicrobial-resistant bacterial infections, some of which – for example, gonorrhoea – threaten to become resistant to all available drugs and, ultimately, untreatable. Continue reading

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