Labs, lipids, peptides and pores – what happened on day one

So, last week I travelled up to Leeds to visit the team doing the research into membrane disrupting peptides that is behind my commission. This post is really a brief skip across my time spent in the labs, the basic narrative of the three days spent in the lab environment. There will be other posts about some of the conversations, some of my impressions and my thinking as it develops – in these days of Coronavirus isolation, I am taking my time to process my thoughts – it appears there’s no rush at the moment so I am going to make the most of that!

I arrived at the Uni around midday to be met by Paul, and we had an hour or so to catch up before he had organised a group meeting so i could get to know the rest of the team and start to try and understand the project, the research and the basics of the science behind what they are doing. Before I go any further, I should say that everyone was welcoming, super-patient with all my (often daft) questions and bent over backwards to help me understand and be inspired. Everything that follows in this post (and others) is my interpretation of what I learned, and I must say that any mistakes or strange extrapolations are all mine.

Can you see me?

Over a sandwich, Paul took me through some of the very basics about the science of membranes and the chemistry of lipids. We talked about morphology, hydrophobia and hydrophilia, and heads and tails. We wandered through the basics of peptides, the specific peptide they are working with (which I now know as MP1) and peptide variants. We talked about the effects of soap on membranes – super topical in the developing Coronavirus context. And then we went to the group meeting.

Dyes and Lipids

The group working on the project on a day to day basis is the coming together of two perspectives. Paul and Andrew, based in the School of Chemistry, come from what I think of as the ‘molecular point of view’, focusing on the behaviour of the lipids, peptides structurally and chemically. Tom and Arindam focus on the ‘biological perspective’, working with cell lines and 3D cell clusters (spheroids and similar), testing the peptide on live cells rather than vesicles created out of specific cocktails of lipids. That’s actually quite a simplistic way to look at it, but at present it provides me with a mental framework that sparks ideas. But more of that later.

That evening, Tom and I went out to eat pasta and chat about science, art, northern towns, biology and the funding of scientific journals – a bleedin’ shocker as far as I’m concerned, which I am sure I shall come back to in due course. If anyone is interested in some of the background in the meantime though, I would recommend reading this Guardian Long Read about the history and development of science publishing.

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