Technology has come a long way in a short time. Mobile phones, interactive gaming and electric cars, to name a few. But radical changes have also been seen in the lab. In 1990, the Human Genome Project set about sequencing all the genes of human beings and putting them in the right order. It was an ambitious task that took 13 years and cost $2.7 billion. Today, similar projects are more in the region of $1,000 and take only a few weeks, and it is predicted that prices will drop to $100 in the future. Generating these vast sequencing datasets quickly means that we also need to understand what they mean and any potential implications. And this is where the relatively new scientific field of bioinformatics steps in.
Bioinformatics is where computer power, programming and modelling is used to decipher huge and complex biological datasets. Sequencing data are just one great example of this.
Zoe Lonsdale is a Bioinformatician at Waltham. She plays a pivotal role in processing complex biological datasets, extracting value from up to potentially millions of pet related measurements. To get where she is today, Zoe started her journey with an integrated Masters degree in Biological Science. This is when she began to understand the different ways in which complex biological data could be generated and to explore programming languages to analyse them. Not done with her passion for complex data, Zoe did a PhD at The University of Leicester exploring modifications of functional DNA units (genes) in the buff-tailed bumblebee.
Zoe joined Mars in 2018 with the ambition to see the global impact of her work. With a year's experience behind her, Zoe says an industrial setting offers "more opportunity to see the direct use and implementation of your findings, which I find very motivating. My work alongside other experienced scientists and professionals has the potential to allow animals around the world to live more healthy lives". And that is exactly the Purpose of Mars Petcare- to create: A Better World for Pets.
Associate development is central to the culture at Mars. With longer term commitment, Zoe's personal growth comes in the form of a new challenge where she'll be co-supervising a PhD student. "After completing my PhD not too long ago, I have an understanding of the problem solving and perseverance required to complete a PhD programme. My hope is that my experiences will be helpful in ensuring that our new student develops their skills to successfully traverse the challenges of a PhD and enjoy their time making a novel and original contribution to science."
The PhD project, a collaboration between Waltham and Aston University, will enhance Mars Petcare science in characterizing the gut microbial communities (microbiomes) in cats and dogs. The microbiome is important to the normal and healthy functioning of many environments. In the gut, it is not only involved in digestion of nutrients, but it interacts with the immune system and is key to many other aspects of health. In people, disturbances in the microbiome have long been linked to diarrhoea and disorders of the gut, but are now seen to be linked to weight gain, high blood sugar and cholesterol and even mental health disorders such as depression.
Research into many aspects of pet health and nutrition have shown differences to humans and as such Waltham aims to develop specific insights that help us to understand the uniqueness of pets. The PhD project with Aston University will offer the opportunity to better understand whether associations exist between the microbiome and health in our four-legged friends. Since we know that there are many and varied microbial cells all living within a dynamically changing system which has to maintain a balance to keep our pets healthy, we anticipate lots of normally, unmanageable data being generated. But with the expertise that Zoe has developed through her academic and professional experience, this becomes an easier challenge to unravel and question to potentially resolve. What interesting findings might we uncover about many of the bacteria in cat and dog guts? …To be continued!