This Blog is part of our “Get to Know Our Ambassadors” Series. Each week, we’ll highlight a new Ambassador to help students understand more about the diversity of people and research projects available to students.

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Nature has long understood the power of signals to protect and preserve life; from knowing friend from foe, and who makes a worthy beau.  Only recently has humanity harnessed these fundamental biological principles in the quest to protect ourselves from deadly diseases, through the research and development of vaccines.

Growing up, my understanding of vaccinations comprised three beliefs:  

  1. They were scary, 
  2. sometimes painful, and 
  3. apparently essential for keeping me healthy. 

It was only until starting my postgraduate research journey that I developed a deeper appreciation for how vaccines leverage our body’s immune response to protect us from disease. By introducing a small, harmless piece of a germ into our body, we train our immune system to recognise and respond to the real germs if we ever encounter them. 

The vaccines I work on are particularly exciting because they aim to universally protect against all existing and emerging variations (or “strains”) of a nasty respiratory bug. To achieve this, we use dead versions of a bacteria in their whole-cell form. This allows these dead versions to closely mimic their live counterparts and present an array of immune-stimulating surface molecules shared among all the different strains. 

Scientists call these immune-stimulating surface molecules “antigens”. These antigens combine to generate a strong signal that informs our body a foreign entity has invaded. The stronger the signal, the better our immune system recognises features of the bug, enabling it to mount a stronger and faster defence against it. It’s really amazing how our immune system works!

Making sure that the body can tell the difference between self- from non-self-signals is an important criterion for vaccine development because germs can often skilfully hide themselves from our bodies.

A perfect example is our current Covid-19 vaccines. These vaccines require constant updating to be able to keep up with newly emerging variants of the virus as it continues mutating. Other bugs may alternatively camouflage themselves with molecules that mimic those of our own cells to avoid being detected. This is why developing broad-spectrum vaccines that target a wide variety of conserved antigens is so important: they offer robust buffering against any changes in the antigenic landscape.

Now as Arludo’s ambassador for the game ‘Spinder’, I get to help students understand how the concept of signal recognition universally translates across nature. In spinder, students create peacock spiders with different traits to impress a female spider. As they advance through the levels, they build an understanding of how animals process and recognize different signals or traits, and how different signals carry different types of information. They also gain insights into the potential repercussions difficult visual search tasks have in nature, which can be a matter of life or death – just like the case of our immune systems struggling to identify a new infection.

If signal recognition is an area you’re eager to explore with your class, please don’t hesitate to organise a virtual incursion with Arludo and I!

Written by Carla Gallasch 

Carla is a PhD student researching how to make broad-spectrum vaccines against nasty respiratory bugs. She has worked on a variety of STEM projects in areas of biochemistry, microbiology, immunology and science communication.

Book a virtual incursion with Carla!