Ig-Nobel Prize Winners 2021 – Ecology

Over the next couple of months, we will be publishing articles on some of the most interesting scientific finds of 2020/2021.

In a year dominated by COVID-19, the world’s media outlets very rarely paid the appropriate level of attention to some astonishing scientific research being undertaken over the global pandemic.

Which, to be honest, we think is a tragedy (to add to an already long list of tragedies over the last year).

We aim to set this right by taking some time to cover the 2021 Ig Nobel Prize winners, looking at the research that has won such acclaim, as well as hearing from some notable researchers on the teams.

What are the Ig Nobel Prizes?

The Ig Nobel Prizes were set up to honour those people and projects that make people laugh, then think. The prizes are handed out for the weird, the imaginative, the unusual – anything that can spur people’s interest in science, medicine or technology.

Usually, the ceremony is held every September as a gala-type event in Harvard University’s Sanders Theatre. Unfortunately, in a Covid blighted world this was not possible so the entire event was streamed online.

It is possible to watch the full event for free by clicking here.

Previous ceremonies have had the prizes presented to recipients by Nobel Laureates in front of the massed 1100 spectators. Thousands more watch along online.

The Ecology Prize

The Ecology Prize this year was handed to an enthusiastically chewing team of scientists from Spain and Iran, who accepted the prize with an incredible pre-recorded rendition of “All The Chewing Gum”, which was sung to the tune of the classic Beatles song – “All You Need Is Love”. The team was comprised of four individuals – Leila Satari, Alba Guillén, Àngela Vidal-Verdú & Manuel Porcar.

If you would like to see this for yourself (we would recommend you do), simply head to the free recording of the ceremony and navigate to the timestamp of 16:28.

The project that won the Ecology prize is named ‘The Wasted Chewing Gum Bacteriome’ – which admittedly provides a little context to the earlier introduction. In a nutshell, the project focussed on showing the bacteriome present from discarded chewing gums from five different countries, as well as observing microbial succession on discarded gums over a three-month period.

Background to ‘The Wasted Chewing Gum Bacteriome’

From the introduction of the paper (with references to other previous studies), it is understood that chewing gums have possibly been used for thousands of years – from wood tar in the Mesolithic and Neolithic periods, to the introduction of the first ‘modern’ chewing gum in the late 19th century. In today’s world, chewing gum is widely consumed across the globe. Surprisingly, it is estimated that Saudi Arabia and Iran have the highest consumption figures with 80% of their populations regular chewing gum consumers.

Modern chewing gums are for the most part made of two phases – the water-insoluble phase (gum-base) and the water-soluble phase which is usually made of sugar or sugar-alcohols. The water-insoluble gum-base makes up 20-30% of modern gum – this part is not only inedible, but not digestible either. This is what allows us to chew for hours upon hours without any structural modifications.

Because chewing gum cannot be swallowed and digested, it must be thrown away after a period of time. Unfortunately, this often happens in an improper fashion – a universal commonality across the globe is the presence of discarded chewing gum in sticky discoloured blotches on pavements and walls.

The popularity of chewing gums (in conjunction with their widespread and long-lasting residues) leads to a vested-interest from criminologists and archaeologists. Waste chewing gum is thought of as an environmental pollutant and the removal of blotches can be both economically expensive and time-consuming. Most studies into tackling the problem of discarded chewing gum have really only centred on the production less adhesive, water-soluble and degradable chewing gums.

As such, the initial hypothesis was formed by the prize-winning research team – what microbial community thrives in there? In fact, the researchers were a little taken aback to learn that discarded chewing gum and the bacterial communities present had not been characterised.

We were lucky enough to receive a response from one of the researchers, Manuel Porcar, who selflessly gave up his own time to answer some of our questions. Manuel is the Coordinator of the Biotechnology and Synthetic Biology Lab at the University of Valencia (one of the oldest universities in Spain) and was heavily involved in the project.

Manuel said that the team were–

“… surprised to learn that wasted chewing gum was microbiologically unexplored.”

Any findings would not be limited to a singular country, but would be of significance to all countries across the globe that face the problem of discarded chewing gum.

The team thus set about their work to research something that had never been researched before.

 The ‘Wasted Chewing Gum Bacteriome’ – Simplified

For the purpose of this article the findings of the research paper have been simplified, with parts omitted. If you would like to read the full paper (which we recommend you do), you can find a link here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41598-020-73913-4

The researchers collected eight chewing gum samples from five different countries to be analysed. The samples were collected from France (Paris and Disneyland), Spain (Two samples from Valencia), Singapore (Singapore 1 and Singapore 2), Greece (Spetses Island), and Turkey (Istanbul).

The analysis of the pool of 16S rRNA genes revealed mostly similar bacterial profiles with some differences in the genera present. One sample from Singapore displayed incredible biodiversity in comparison to the other samples – with 427 taxa identified.

Although the number of samples from each location would need to be scaled up before any geographical conclusions are made, the research still represents a world-first at attempting to understand the ‘chewing gum bacteriome’.

Figure 1. Taxonomic profiles of chewing gum samples from France, Spain, Greece, Turkey, and Singapore. (Satari, Guillén, Vidal-Verdú and Porcar, 2020)

The researchers also analysed a chewing gum sample from an outdoor carpark from the Scientific Park of the University of Valencia. This sample was collected in three separate sections, split into upper, medium, and bottom layers of residue. Analysis of this sample revealed that the taxonomic profile throughout the discarded gum remained largely identical. Interestingly, the surface layer showed a higher abundance of chloroplasts (which are involved in photosynthesis). As the surface layer is the most exposed to environmental conditions, this would be largely expected.

Further experimentation was carried out to observe the bacterial colonisation process of discarded gums. The researchers placed thirteen chewed gum samples on an outdoor pavement for a period of 12 weeks, and through high-throughput 16S rRNA sequencing managed to follow changes in the bacterial contents of samples – effectively observing microbial succession in real-time.

Unexplored territory presents unique challenges

As with all projects, scientific research or otherwise, it is very rarely plain sailing.

Because the team were the first to attempt such research, there are very few similar studies to refer back to for guidance.

When asked what the most surprising or challenging aspect of the study was, this issue reared its head. Manuel states –

“To be the first ones to precisely define how oral bacteria from the chewer were detectable during weeks on the gum stuck to the pavement, while a totally different “soil-inhabiting” microbial community took their place”

The existence of microbial succession is something that made characterising the bacterial communities a little tricky. It is a very tough task to ascertain which bacteria are present as a result of oral transmission, and which are from the surrounding environment.

Experience of previous research projects helped to tackle this issue. Earlier studies orientated around coffee machines and solar panels show similar conclusions, Manuel states that –

“… Microorganisms live on micro-niches, which are similar in different countries/climates. It is the niche (gum, glass of the solar panel) what shapes the microbial community, more than the specific location.”

There is still so much to learn on how microbial communities are shaped by the micro-niches they exist in, with the only limiting factor for forming similar studies being imagination. The direct benefit of this study is that the micro-niches above hold bacteria with serious potential for the biotechnology industry, so it is more than likely there will be continued research here into this area in the future.

What next?

But the interest in bacterial communities does not end with the conclusion of this research…

When asked what the future holds for him, Manuel told us he is working with –

“Bacteria isolated from car parts with the potential to biodegrade diesel.”

This is another incredibly interesting study to keep an eye on, especially from a UK point of view. The UK is committed to transitioning fully to electric vehicles by 2030 (planning on banning the sale of new diesel and petrol vehicles from 2030) so in terms of scalability potential, this project looks set to be of great importance.

The reaction to ‘The Wasted Chewing Gum Bacteriome’

It can be difficult to capture the attention of the wider public with scientific research, with most of the general public not entirely sure of link between scientific studies and their everyday life.

However, studies like this really do help to change this notion – by basing their research on something so commonly consumed and thrown away with little thought, and exploring what this means at microbiological level.

Manuel himself describes the project as –

“Exciting, fun, microbial ecology”

Which reinforces exactly what the Ig Nobel prizes are about at heart – projects that make people laugh and then think. When science is communicated in such a way, the returned response is always positive – this study in particular already receiving

“A massively enthusiastic reception”

Who said science couldn’t be fun?

A special thank you…

To Manuel Porcar for giving up his time to answer questions about this project. Although only a short interaction, his openness, and politeness cannot be understated.

When asked what advice he would give to any young scientists hoping to be involved in a project like this –

“Valencia is a wonderful place to live in. Contact me.”

Without his responses to our questions, this article would not have been possible. We wish Manuel and the other researchers the very best of luck with future research projects.