Gareth Griffiths, Ari Helenius,
C. Specker, J. Ellenberg, K. Ribbeck, A. Helenius, G. Griffiths, K. Müller
A. Helenius, K. Müller, J. Ellenberg
This year’s John Kendrew Award winner, Katharina Ribbeck, captivated her audience with her niche subject – something essential to all of us, yet understudied: slime, as she likes to refer to it; or mucus, as it is more commonly known; and biological hydrogels, to get technical. Katharina is on a mission to correct the common view that mucus is a waste product: “On the contrary, it has very important functions for biology and human health.”
“About 200m2 in our body is lined with mucus”, Katharina explains. “Mucus is in our eyes, nose, oral cavity, throat, lungs, stomach, intestine and the female genital tract, with different consistencies and functions in each location relevant to the way it protects the different organs. One central role is to defend us from pathogens by forming a tight barrier. Unfortunately, this is not always perfect, and certain viruses and bacteria can break through and cause damage, from a mild flu to cancer formation,” she continues. It is this important and diverse role that has motivated her to understand how mucus protects us from pathogen attack, and the mechanisms that certain pathogens have evolved to break through the mucus barrier.
Katharina’s work has won her much publicity, from a recent publication in Current Biology to newspaper articles that bring her work to the wider public. Recently, she has embraced YouTube in an effort to fill the gaps in educational sources on mucus – watch Katharina introduce her research at http://youtu.be/uYuPranLS1k. In addition to other clips aimed at younger audiences, she has prepared text for a children’s book, and invites budding artists from the EMBL community to help her illustrate it.
Before presenting Katharina with her award, alumnus Ari Helenius referred to the community of current and past EMBL staff as an “underground network of connections that has helped European science.” He emphasised the importance of “connecting with EMBL people that you know and don’t know.” Much like mucus, it seems, the EMBL network (though not slimy!) has a valuable function that shouldn’t be underestimated.