What a mitochondriac does, in the simplest language possible

As I’m hoping this blog will attract ‘real people’ in addition to those who find this funny, I always wanted to properly explain what my research is about to see what said real people thought of it. (For the record, I am not a real person, as this and this caused me to fall out of my chair. Repeatedly.)

If I were an enzyme, I would be a DNA helicase so I could unzip your genes.

If you are not smiling right now, you are my target audience.

Lo and behold, the gods of the Internet, presided over by the supreme xkcd, have provided the perfect opportunity: a challenge to explain a complex topic using only the 1000 most common words in the English language (in Twitterspeak, this is called an #upgoerfive). To put that in perspective, the only words in your average scientific abstract that overlap with this set are articles and prepositions. While only the best of us can explain rocket science under such constraints, I decided to give it a shot to explain my research on the systematic approaches we take to mitochondrial diseases, the chemical and genetic therapeutic strategies we screen, and the potential intervention points we discover. If that didn’t make sense to you, I hope it does after this:

My job is to study the parts of us that change our food into power that helps us live, understand what happens when people get sick because those parts don’t work, and find ways to make these people better. Sometimes there are wrong letters in the directions our bodies have to change food into power. Since we all need that power to live, people can get very sick and die if their power directions are wrong. The problem is that we don’t know how to fix power directions (or any directions for that matter), even if we know exactly which letters are wrong. Also, different wrong letters can make different things go wrong. In fact, so many other things can go bad when power directions are wrong, that it’s hard to know where to start fixing things and because of that, we don’t have many ways to help these power-sick people. 

This means we need new ways, and to find those we need to understand everything else that goes wrong when someone is power-sick. Figuring out what those other things are is very important but pretty hard, especially because we couldn’t see many of them for a long time and don’t know what they have to do with each other. These days it is becoming easier to see more types of things that go wrong, so we’re trying to put all of them together, understand them as a whole picture, and look for what’s different between power-sick people and power-okay people. Knowing how things are supposed to look can help you figure out how to get there.

There’s lots of stuff out there you can give to sick people that might make them better, but how do we know what would work for power-sick people? We can’t just throw everything possible at them – so instead, we take tiny little parts of them (without hurting them) which also can’t make power out of food very well. Then we try all the ways we can to fix these tiny little parts. If we find ways that work, we try to find out exactly how they work – we look at all the things they do and fit them into our picture. Sometimes this can help us understand better what happens when people get power-sick, and that in turn can show us even more ways around the problem. Our hope is that the ways we find to help some power-sick people and understanding how they work will help many other power-sick people too.

Yay, I get to use real words again! And just in time, as my brain is now jelly. So I’d like to use my last remaining neurons to say I hope that made sense, and I’d love to know what all of you made of it. From my side, it was incredibly challenging but wonderfully clarifying. I would encourage everyone, especially scientists, to try it out on your own projects. In these ridiculously overcomplicated lives we’ve constructed for ourselves, simplicity can be very satisfying.


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