NATURE PODCAST

Podcast: Latent HIV, bird personalities and the Hayabusa2 mission

Anna Nagle and Shamini Bundell bring you more of the latest science news.

This week, targeting latent HIV, the breeding behaviour of bold birds, and an update on a near-Earth asteroid mission.

In this episode:

00:45 An update from an asteroid

Makoto Yoshikawa, Hayabusa2’s Mission Leader, gives us the latest news from the Ryugu near-Earth asteroid. News: Japanese rover lands on ancient asteroid for 16 hour-mission

08:34 A double hit against dormant HIV

A new drug combination shows promise for treating latent HIV in monkeys. Research paper: Borducchi et al.; News and Views: Combination treatment prevents HIV re-emergence in monkeys

14:58 Research Highlights

Meteors light up Jupiter; and a record breaking battery. Research Highlight: Jupiter takes an annual pummelling from the Solar System; Research Highlight: Record-breaking battery saves sunshine for a rainy day

17:57 Bold birds

Research shows that bolder birds meet future partners quicker. Research paper: Firth et al.

23:31 News Chat

Who are the 2018 Nobel Prize Winners? News: Physics Nobel won by laser wizardry – laureates include first woman in 55 years; News: Cancer immunologists scoop medicine Nobel prize; News: ‘Test-tube’ evolution wins Chemistry Nobel Prize

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Transcript

This week, targeting latent HIV, the breeding behaviour of bold birds, and an update on a near-Earth asteroid mission.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

Welcome back to the Nature Podcast. This week, we’ll be getting an update on the Hayabusa2 space mission, learning about the latest efforts to target latent HIV…

Host: Anna Nagle

And we’ll hear how boldness in birds affects breeding behaviour. I’m Anna Nagle.

Host: Shamini Bundell

And I’m Shamini Bundell.

[Jingle]

Host: Shamini Bundell

Scientists at the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (or JAXA) are currently hopping up and down with excitement as they receive the first images from the surface of the asteroid Ryugu, as part of a mission to help understand the origins of life on Earth. After more than three years travelling, the plucky little probe known as Hayabusa2 has started releasing its various payloads, including some oh-so-cute, smartphone-sized hopping rovers designed the navigate the surface of the asteroid in low gravity. Now, it just so happens that Noah Baker has been in Japan for the last week or so reporting for Nature and with all the excitement surrounding the Hayabusa2 mission, he couldn’t resist heading over to JAXA for an update. A note to you here listeners, this interview was recorded last week just after the first two hopping rovers were released. We join Noah on a bus on the outskirts of Tokyo.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Back in December 2014, JAXA – the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency – launched Hayabusa2, the second of JAXA’s missions to collect and return samples from nearby asteroids. Three years later, in June this year, Hayabusa2 arrived at Ryugu, a kilometre-wide asteroid orbiting the Sun between the Earth and Mars. And less than two weeks ago, one of the trickiest parts of the mission began. The Hayabusa2 mothership dropped the first two of its four payloads – rovers designed to roam, or rather hop, around the asteroid’s surface, taking pictures. It was a nail-biting time, but the rovers landed safely and have started sending back some incredible images. It was a big step, but there’s still a lot to come from Hayabusa2 – explosive impactors, sample collections and the landing of the European-designed MASCOT probe. At the time of recording, it’s not yet been released but by the time you listen to this podcast we may be getting the first signals from a successful landing. But more on that later. Right now, I’m headed to Mission Control in JAXA’s Sagamihara Campus, just outside Tokyo, to hear more about those crucial rover landings and what we can expect from the Hayabusa2 mission in the coming weeks and months.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

My name is Makoto Yoshikawa and I am a mission manager of Hayabusa2.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

That must mean that this is quite an exciting time for you.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Yes, very exciting because now Hayabusa2 tries to put small lander on the surface. Also, we will try to touchdown so now it is a very exciting period.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, it was just last week where the first two rovers landed.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Yes.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

Tell me what was that day like?

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Yes, so Thursday our spacecraft started to descent. One day later, it approached about 60 metres above the surface of Ryugu and then the spacecraft released two small rovers. So, at the time project members were very excited and also very happy to see that the separation was successful. And we get first image from small rover and we could see the surface.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And those images, I’ve seen some of them, they’ve been all over the media. They’re kind of action images which you don’t normally get from space missions. What was your reaction when you first saw them?

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

So, at first, we saw the image, we think that we could feel the dynamic motion of rover and also, we saw the sunlight. So, we are very surprised to see such a beautiful image.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And one of the things that the rovers are going to be doing is to continue taking images from Ryugu.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Right. So, we can see many parts of the surface of Ryugu, close up image and so many small rocks and no sun. In that sense, we were also surprised to see the real surface of Ryugu.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

These rovers are not like the rovers people might imagine if they think of the Mars rover or something. They’re somewhat smaller and they move in a very unique way. Tell me about that.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

It can hop. It can jump. Inside the rover there is one motor and the motor rotates a weight. Then because the gravity is very small, the reaction of weight motion, the entire rover can move.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So that’s the first two rovers, but there’s more to come. Tell me what’s next.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa So, Hayabusa2 has four rovers and lander, so now we released two of them and the next one is a little big one called MASCOT. MASCOT lander was made by the DLR and CNES - Germany and France – and we will release MASCOT lander October 2nd. And after that, MASCOT has a battery and it lasts only 16 hours or so.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And so that’s three landers now, but that’s still not done. There’s still more to come. What’s next?

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Yes. So, last one is also very small rover. Maybe we will release it at the end of the mission, before summer of next year.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And the very final bit of the mission is one of the biggest challenges you have yet, and that is to collect a sample from the asteroid to bring back. And you’re not just getting a sample from the surface of the asteroid, it’s actually from inside the asteroid and you have to get inside the asteroid first. Tell me what’s going to happen there.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Ah, yes. So, after releasing lander, next big challenge is to get the sample from the surface. So, spacecraft will make a touchdown to the surface late October. So, at first we get the surface material, but next year we will try to make a small crater on the surface of Ryugu. Hayabusa2 has an impactor.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

And this impactor is essentially an explosive device.

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Right. It has a two-kilogram copper and this will be accelerated to about 2 kilometres per second. The impactor mission is very risky and so when impactor explodes, Hayabusa2 spacecraft hides behind the asteroid and if a spacecraft hides behind the asteroid, we cannot see the impact event. So, before Hayabusa2 hides, it will release a small camera so the small camera can watch the impact. So, this is a very complicated and risky mission but a very exciting mission.

Interviewer: Noah Baker

So, from what you’ve told me, this is a very elaborate and complicated mission with many, many stages. What are you trying to find out?

Interviewee: Makoto Yoshikawa

Our main purpose is to study the organic matter because Ryugu is a C-type asteroid and normally C-type asteroids have organic matter and also water. The organic matter we will get from Ryugu is before Earth’s life born. I mean, maybe we can study the original material that create the life on the Earth.

Host: Anna Nagle

That was Makoto Yoshikawa of the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency talking to Noah Baker. We’ll be sharing some of the awesome Hayabusa2 images on our Twitter (@NaturePodcast) and you can find out more on the mission at nature.com/news.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Next up, Benjamin Thompson has been finding out why two drugs can be better than one.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The world today is still in the midst of an HIV epidemic. The latest data show that tens of millions of people are still living with the virus. But many of these people are able to live healthy lives by using antiretroviral therapies to control the levels of virus in their body. These medications have revolutionised the management of HIV, but they’re not a cure. In the vast majority of cases, these drugs need to be taken for life and when they’re not, HIV levels can quickly rebound. The virus’s ability to bounce back from undetectable levels comes from the way it infects immune cells in the body. Here’s Dan Barouch from the Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, and Harvard Medical School.

Interviewee: Dan Barouch

Basically, when humans become infected with HIV a subset of the infected CD4+ T cells are infected and become latent. In other words, the virus essentially goes to sleep in those cells and those latently infected cells are the reason why we cannot cure HIV infection with current drugs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

The dormant HIV hiding in T cells isn’t affected by antiretroviral drugs, so if a patient stops taking the drugs, the virus can quickly re-emerge and re-establish an active infection. Finding a way to target this so-called latent infection would be a huge milestone in efforts to eliminate HIV. In a paper in Nature this week, Dan and his colleagues have been investigating a way to target latent viral infection in monkeys. Their approach is to combine two steps. The first wakes up the dormant virus, making infected cells easier to detect and target. The second step destroys the infected T cells.

Interviewee: Dan Barouch

The idea has been around for a while and a number of groups are pursuing it. Some people call it the ‘shock and kill’ approach or the ‘kick and kill’ approach. Basically, the concept is that if you use one compound that might be able to stimulate or wake up the latent viral reservoir, then you might be able to deliver another hit that will be able to see those cells and eliminate them.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

In this work, Dan and his colleagues gave the monkeys two drugs. The first was an innate immune stimulant, which stimulated the overproduction of lots of different types of immune cells and has previously been shown to wake up a dormant HIV infection. The second drug was a broadly neutralising antibody that targets the HIV virus. This group of antibodies are of great interest to researchers, as they’re able to target multiple strains of HIV. To test how this drug combination might affect the latent viral reservoir, Dan and his colleagues infected a group of rhesus monkeys with a hybrid simian-human immunodeficiency virus called S-HIV or SHIV. The monkeys were then given a long-term course of antiretrovirals to control their infection and split into four groups.

Interviewee: Dan BarouchThen we administered either the antibody, the innate immune stimulant, both or neither. We then allowed a period of time for the antibody to wash out of the system and then we stopped antiretroviral drugs.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

In the monkeys that received neither drug, SHIV levels rebounded very quickly after the antiretrovirals were stopped. The same was true in most of the animals that received only one drug. However, in the group given both drugs, things were rather different.

Interviewee: Dan Barouch

These animals had fivefold delay in the time to rebound. The amount of virus that rebounded came to much lower viral loads, and 5 out of 11 animals actually did not rebound at all with 200 days of follow up.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

In these 5 animals, the researchers were unable to detect any SHIV virus after stopping treatment with antiretrovirals.

Interviewee: Dan Barouch

So, this study demonstrates that a broadly neutralising antibody together with an innate immune stimulant might be a viable strategy for targeting the latent viral reservoir.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Although this is just one study and is proof of concept work, Sharon Lewin from the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity, who wasn’t part of the research, says the results are encouraging.

Interviewee: Sharon Lewin

Yeah, really positive. This is definitely a very exciting study. No intervention has looked as promising as this, yet, in monkeys. And you know, it’s in a field that’s extraordinarily difficult where we’ve had lots of negative results so far, but still some caveats about the exact mechanism of how these interventions are working.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

One of the caveats, Sharon points out, is that the monkeys were given antiretrovirals just 7 days after being infected with SHIV. This meant that the level of infected cells in their system was pretty low to begin with. This is unlikely to be representative of what happens in the real world, where people might not start taking antiretroviral therapy for months or even years after infection. And that’s not all.

Interviewee: Sharon Lewin

At the moment, they’re probably let the monkeys out for 6 months after stopping treatment – that’s a pretty long time. But we do know that in rare cases in humans who have stopped treatment, occasionally you can have very late rebounds, so it will be interesting to watch and to follow these monkeys even longer. Although, they really did go to quite extensive efforts to prove that they couldn’t find virus in these monkeys where rebound didn’t occur.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Dan also raised these caveats and he is keen to do more work to understand the mechanism by which these drugs function together, and to figure out whether the combination might work in humans. Finding treatments that target latent viral infection would be a huge step forward in the fight against HIV, but we’re not there yet.

Interviewee: Sharon Lewin

In the meantime, the best treatment for people living with HIV is long-term antiretroviral therapy, which really does work, and while we’re investigating ways to cure HIV, the most important thing for people living with HIV is that access to treatment and to stay on treatment lifelong.

Host: Anna Nagle

That was Sharon Lewin. She’s written a News and Views article on this work over at nature.com, where you’ll also find Dan Barouch’s research paper.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Coming up in the show, we’ll be getting the lowdown on all the latest Nobel Prize winners.

Host: Anna Nagle

Hey Shamini, did you hear about the scarecrow that won a Nobel Prize? He was out standing in his field.

Host: Shamini Bundell

That’s coming up in the News Chat. First though, Matthew Warren is here with this week’s Research Highlights.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Matthew Warren

Spare a thought for Jupiter, which scientists have discovered is receiving a bit of walloping. As meteorites hurtle through Jupiter’s atmosphere, they produce brief flashes of light. Five of these flashes have been caught on camera over the past eight years and now, a group of amateur and professional astronomers have combined forces to figure out just how common they are. By analysing the videos, the team predicted that between 10 and 65 objects must slam into Jupiter every year, ranging in size from 5 to 20 metres wide. Less than half of these impacts are visible from Earth, so stargazers will need a fair amount of luck to catch a glimpse of them. But Jupiter’s current path along its orbit is making it more visible to astronomers in the Northern Hemisphere, so more collisions may soon be spotted. Read this impactful research over at Astronomy and Astrophysics.

[Jingle]

Interviewer: Matthew Warren

Here on Earth, we’re generating more and more electricity thanks to solar power. But how can we harness the Sun’s energy when it’s not shining? One group of researchers think they have the answer – an all-in-one device called a solar-flow battery that can both capture and store solar energy, saving it for a rainy day. The new device consists of a solar cell paired with a high-voltage battery. The energy harvested by the cell is captured by the battery which stores it in chemical form. The solar energy can then be released later as electricity. This isn’t the first integrated device but it is the most efficient so far, able to convert 14.1% of incoming solar energy into electricity. The researchers say that with further improvements, their battery could be used to store energy at sites that aren’t connected to the electrical grid. Charge over to Chem to find out more.

[Jingle]

[BIRD NOISE]

Host: Anna Nagle

This is the call of the great tit, a small song bird found all over the world. One of the places that this species has made its home is Wytham Woods in Oxford, in the south of England. Since 1947, scientists from the University of Oxford have been researching the biology and behaviour of the great tits found here, making them some of the best understood bird populations on Earth. This week, a paper in Nature Ecology and Evolution describes how personality traits in great tits are linked to their breeding behaviour. Reporter Anand Jagatia spoke to lead author Josh Firth about the study, and started by asking what exactly personality means in a bird.

Interviewee: Josh Firth

It’s basically how bold they are when they first are introduced into a novel room or introduced to a novel object, how fast they’ll approach it, how much they’ll move around and just a basic level of activity. And that seems to be fairly consistent within individuals, so if you release them and then capture them again at a later date and bring them back into the room, they display the same behaviour.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

So in this paper, you wanted to look at the link between this personality and the breeding behaviour. So how do great tits breed? Are they monogamous?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Yeah, so just like 90% of different bird species, great tits are also socially monogamous. So come springtime, they form these pair bonds that breed in a nest box together and, you know, these pair bonds are really important to these birds because it’s impossible for them to raise their brood without having a partner.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

And do they form these bonds for life and are they like 100% faithful?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Interestingly, about 50% of the pairs who stay around from year to year will actually divorce come the next winter, and also you do see occasions of cheating during the breeding season as well.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

So we’ve kind of known about bird personality for a while. People have studied breeding behaviour as well for a while, but no one has sort of looked at how those two things are related before. Why is that?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Yeah, so it’s the first time that we’ve looked at how the formation of these pair bonds can actually be related to like an individual level trait, and it was actually really hard to do this because you need three levels of data basically. First of all, you need to know the birds’ personalities of the individuals. Second of all, you need to know who they’re breeding with when it comes to the spring. And then third and probably most uniquely to this, is you need to know their social interactions.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

How did you go about collecting those three levels of data then?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

So, since the 1940s, every great tit that has been caught in Wytham put a small unique ring on their leg, so we can see every year which bird is breeding with which other bird. We’ve got birds that we can trace back 50 generations now. And then the social network data is done by putting a radio-frequency identification device on the leg, so by tracking which birds are interacting with which birds, you know, every year we get a social network of say, a thousand different individuals and we know how much time each of them spent with each other and who they were connected to.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

So, what did you find then when you looked at the birds’ personalities and how that affected the formation of these pair bonds?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

What we found in this work is that it’s the bold males, the ones who we find have bold personalities, seem to choose their partners sooner, so they’ll meet them faster and then start spending more and more time with them quicker, compared to the shy males who seem to take longer to choose a partner in the first place and then even when they do meet them, they spend less time with them than the bold males. So the shy males have the benefit of sampling lots of other females right up until the breeding season begins so they might end up actually getting a better suited mate rather than just leaping in initially and trying to form that pair bond like the bold males seem to do.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

In that case it seems then that being shyer or kind of playing the field seems like a better option, so why do you think that the bolder males are kind of taking this other approach?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Well, it’s difficult to say which strategy might be best. You can imagine in some circumstances it might be better to just find a partner and start building up your pair bond so that you’ve got a really strong pair bond by the time the spring comes along when you’ve both got to work together to raise your young. And then in other situations, for example if there were lots of females around, it might be better to play the field a bit more and really wait and then find an optimum mate at the last minute and then breed from there.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

In an ideal world would you then be able to link this data with the breeding success and the kind of survival fitness of those pairs?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Yeah, so our next step now is basically, looking at how both their personality and their pair bond that they’re forming through winter relates to their reproductive success. And then we can also look at how their personalities might drive the amount of pair bonding in the system and actually structure the society in general.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

We’ve talked about personality of the male birds here, but did you also look at whether it was affected by the female personality traits?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Yeah, so another interesting part of this work is that we actually didn’t find a significant effect of female personality on pair bonding so it wasn’t the case that bolder females behaved differently from the shy females in terms of how much time they spent with their future partner or how soon they met them. So we really need to do more work into the different roles of personality depending on the sex.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

And is there any link that you know of between like the personality of the birds and whether they’re more or less likely to cheat on their partners?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

Yeah, so really interestingly as well, they have actually found in the past that the bolder males are actually more likely to cheat on their partners than the shyer males. It might be that when it comes to the breeding system they might feel like they’ve got a less optimal mate than what they could have had because they’ve rushed into it more, and that then might mean that they’re more likely to cheat.

Interviewer: Anand Jagatia

What’s kind of next for you? It seems like this is like an amazing resource and you can kind of just keep building and keep looking at future generations. What other kind of upcoming work are you excited about?

Interviewee: Josh Firth

So, we’ve got quite a few plans. Obviously, we want to do more and more experiments where we can actually control which birds are allowed to feed with which other birds, so we can actually control which ones form flocks together so then we can actually control the social networks and test the consequences in that way. And then we’ve also got some other plans to see how these individual level behaviours like personality do actually scale up to shape the structure of the population in terms of how well-connected it is or how cooperation might propagate through the population as well.

Host: Anna Nagle

That was Josh Firth from the University of Oxford talking to Anand Jagatia. You can read Josh’ study over at nature.com/natecolevol.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Now we’re welcoming Benjamin Thompson back to the studio for a very special Nobel News Chat.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yes, thanks Shamini. I’m here with Flora Graham, editor of Nature’s Briefing, and we’re going to talk all things Nobel. Well, a year’s gone by already Flora, I can’t quite believe it, and things are a bit different with the prize winners this year. Listeners, I’m sure you remember, last year the prizes were predominantly won by US researchers and exclusively won by men. But things are a bit different this year.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Absolutely, exciting times, particularly for Canadians!

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, listen, let’s get on to Canada in a little bit I think, Flora! But let’s start with the first prize which was announced on Monday, and that was of course the 2018 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine, and this was shared between two researchers.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

That’s right, the prize went to Tasuku Honjo from Kyoto University in Japan and James Allison from the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center, and both of them are pioneers in immunotherapy.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Yeah, and they work in the field of cancer biology and the Nobel Committee said that their work was “an entirely new principle for cancer therapy.”

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Absolutely. This is the idea that you can harness the body’s own immune system to behave differently in order to attack the tumours in the body.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

I mean I’ve heard described as taking the brakes off of the immune system so it can attack the tumour cells rather than kind of directing treatment at the tumour cells themselves.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Right, so in the 90s, Allison was one of a few scientists who studied this checkpoint protein, so that’s why his therapy is called the checkpoint inhibitor, and it actually stops immune cells from attacking tumours. So, what he and his colleagues did was they engineered an antibody that stopped those brakes from being put on and kind of set the immune system free to do its business. Now, independently from that, Honjo discovered a different immune cell protein which also acts as a brake on the immune system, and this has become really effective in several different cancers including lung cancer which is obviously a major killer.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well that is fantastic news. What I would say though, if you go to our website, nature.com/news, listeners, you will see a lovely picture of the two groups here and certainly Honjo’s group all giving the thumbs up and their excitement on hearing that their boss won the prize, but maybe things didn’t quite go as smoothly for Allison.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Yeah, apparently, Allison was in New York for a conference and he was woken up at 5.30 in the morning from his son, giving him the good news, and apparently by 6.30 his colleagues were banging on the door with the champagne ready to party.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well Flora, what are people saying about these winners?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

I think people are really appreciating that at one point, although this is now one of the hottest areas in cancer research, at one point not that many people were that into it, so people are really appreciating that these few immunologists have kicked off an area that’s going to be really helping a lot of people, and apparently these two guys are the obvious picks from that group.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on then, Flora, to our second prize and that was announced on Tuesday, and that was the Physics prize which was shared this time by three researchers. Who were they?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

That’s right. It went half and half. Half of it went to Donna Strickland and Gérard Mourou, and the other half went to Arthur Ashkin.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, there’s a lot to unpick in this one I think. Let’s start with Donna Strickland. She’s only the first woman in 55 years to win this prize and only the third ever to have won it.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Yes, that’s right. It’s very exciting. She follows on the heels of Maria Goeppert Mayer who won in 1963, and of course Marie Curie in 1903. She’s also the fifth Canadian to win the Nobel Prize in Physics, and to see a Canadian won, I must admit as a former physicist myself and a Canadian, it does kind of warm the cockles of my Canadian heart.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well I guess if she’s North American, she must have been woken up in the middle of the night with the announcement too.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

That’s right. She’s at the University of Waterloo and she says that when she got called she thought it was a prank call but then she figured considering it was actually Nobel day, nobody would be mean enough to do that to her.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well Flora, let’s talk about what Strickland and Mourou won this half of the prize for. What can you tell me about that?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Well, it’s all about lasers. So, Mourou and Strickland won for ultra-short pulse lasers. These are lasers that can capture things so fast and so tiny that previously we never thought we’d be able to resolve them. These lasers also can act as the sharpest of scalpels, so these are the lasers that are used in laser eye surgery to cut into the human eye.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Let’s think about the other side of the prize then, and that was won by Arthur Ashkin who at 96 is the oldest ever Nobel laureate. What has he won for?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Well, Ashkin really invented what we had longed hope for: the ability to move objects with light. He calls it ‘optical tweezers’, and they can grab and control tiny microscopic objects, for example, viruses, cells, things that you couldn’t grab any other way.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, let’s move on to the final prize, and this is always announced at the eleventh hour before the show gets put to bed – quite literally, it was about 11 o’clock this morning! But this is of course the Chemistry prize, and I think this year it’s definitely got a bit of a biochemistry flavour. Our three winners have, according to the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, “harnessed the power of evolution”.

Interviewee: Flora Graham

That’s right. Half the prize went to Frances Arnold from the California Institute of Technology and she has done some amazing work, which she likens to breeding racehorses, but in her case its enzymes. The other half was awarded to Gregory Winter and George Smith who pioneered a method called phage display that uses bacteria infecting viruses to evolve new proteins.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Let’s look at what they actually do then. What’s kind of the broader scope of their work?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

I think what’s interesting is both of these techniques have really created a chain reaction in the field that’s allowed people to kind of run with this, to create the enzymes, the proteins, the other things that they need to then push the field further. So, for example, Winter created a company that evolved antibodies adapted for uses in human therapies so they can do things like neutralise toxins or counteract autoimmune diseases.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well, if both sides of this prize have provided the foundation for lots of research, where does it go next?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

Well apparently, Frances Arnold has said that one of her favourite applications of directed enzyme evolution has yet to be realised. She says that one of her dreams is to create an enzyme that can take carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and convert it into materials and fuels.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Well listeners, I’m sure we’ll keep an eye out for that one. If you want to hear the latest Nobel news, I would head over to nature.com/news, and of course, if you want to get the very latest science updates straight to your inbox, I would sign up for the Nature Briefing. Flora, where can listeners do that?

Interviewee: Flora Graham

That’s at nature.com/briefing.

Interviewer: Benjamin Thompson

Perfect. Well, that’s it for this year’s Nobel roundup. Anna and Shamini, back to you.

Host: Anna Nagle

Thanks Ben. Well that’s it for this week and my first time hosting the Nature Podcast.

Host: Shamini Bundell

It’s been great having you Anna. Where can our listeners find you usually?

Host: Anna Nagle

If you really want to find me, you can follow me on Twitter @AnnaLewcock, or occasionally they let me loose on the @NatureNews feeds on Twitter or Facebook.

Host: Shamini Bundell

Well, that’s all for now. I’m Shamini Bundell.

Host: Anna Nagle

And I’m Anna Nagle. Thank you for listening and we’ll see you next time.

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