Welcome to the first Faculty of Life Sciences’ Tuesday Feature. We’ll be here each week with somebody connected to the Faculty, be it a researcher, an alumni, a postgrad, or an undergrad, finding out more about their interests, what makes them tick, and how they got to where they are today.
As a Professor of Zoology with a very interesting and unique research subject, who has also written books on hugely differing subjects, we thought Prof Matthew Cobb would be the perfect person to start with.
Hello, Professor Cobb. Thanks for joining us. We’ll start with an easy one – can you please explain your research, for the layman, in ten sentences or less?
I study the sense of smell because I want to know how we’re able to detect different smells. A human being has about 4 million different smell cells divided into about 400 different types, so it’s very difficult to study humans and understand how the process works. So I study the maggot.
A maggot is very simple, it has only 21 smell cells, but the way the maggots brain and nose are wired up are essentially the same as ours. Because these are very special, very tiny maggots that we understand the genetics of, I can make a maggot with just one smell cell. I can record from that cell and see exactly how the maggot responds to different odours and how the whole organism moves when stimulated.
The idea is to try and grasp a very complicated process, which we understand very poorly, using a simple model system.
How could your research benefit the people reading this blog?
Well, I don’t think there’s any applied aspect to what I’m doing. It’s possible that the kind of research I’m engaged in may help us understand anosmia, which is the loss of the sense of smell. If you can’t smell, you can’t taste and people who smoke or have a cold know that stuff just doesn’t taste as nice.
This is a major issue, especially with an increasing aging population. As you get older the smell cells in your nose fail to regenerate and gradually you lose your sense of smell; things don’t taste as nice and your jeau de vivre in general declines. So it’s possible that the research I’m doing, in the end, may contribute to this general problem. But that’s not the focus of my research; it’s more a pious hope.
It’s obviously quite a specific subject, can we ask how you first got interested in this research area?
There are two aspects to what I do. The first is the subject I study; the sense of smell. The second is the organism which I use to study it; the tiny maggot and the fly that produces it. I became interested in studying the genetics of the fly, and the genetics of behaviour using the fly, while reading a very small piece in New Scientist as an undergraduate. It described a study that had just been done in America in which they had made a fly that was stupid; a mutant fly that couldn’t learn. I was a young student studying psychology at the time, very interested in behaviour, and I thought right, that’s what I want to study. And so for the last forty odd years, that’s exactly what I’ve been doing.
I got interested in the sense of smell when studying sexual chemical signals between flies as a way of understanding their mating behaviour. Then we decided, in the late 1980s, to move into olfaction – the sense of smell in general. The person I was working with said I should try and use maggots instead of flies. I told him that was stupid and I didn’t want to do it. That maggots were boring and didn’t do anything. What I was in fact describing was the reason for studying them. They are very, very simple. They only move in two dimensions. They’re not interested in sex. They’re only interested in feeding, which means their sense of smell is a very important drive of their behaviour.
The person I was working with basically told me to experiment and see if it would work. I put my maggots on a little dish of jelly. I put them in the middle. I put the smell on one side and the maggots all moved towards the smell. The difference in that very strong response, compared to the very difficult responses I was getting when studying sexual behaviour in flies, instantly convinced me that this was what I wanted to study.
Do you have science heroes? Who inspired you?
I think I was probably inspired most by one of my lecturers at The University of Sheffield, Professor Kevin Connolly. He was, on the one hand, one of the UK pioneers of the behaviour of this tiny fruit fly, but he was also somebody who was more interested in child development and a lot of other aspects of behaviour. Firstly, he provided me with the opportunity to study this fly – if I’d been virtually anywhere else in the UK I wouldn’t have been able to do that at the time. Secondly, he also inspired me with his lectures. In particular a very intriguing one that I still recall in which he showed that if rats were deprived as pups, which means simply not being held by their parents, they later showed their own strange parenting behaviours. They displayed a non-genetic transference of behaviour and their offspring became deprived as well. That intrigued me at the time and has continued to do so.
Could you tell us a little about your interests outside your research area?
I’ve written two books about the history of science, one about the 17th century and our discovery of eggs and sperm and another about the history of the genetic code which will be published soon. I’ve also written two books about the history of the Second World War, one about the French Resistance in general and one about the liberation of Paris. They’re aspects of history that interest me outside of science.
And that’s it from the first of our Tuesday features. We’re off to learn more about maggots and buy a book about the French Resistance. Many thanks go to Matthew Cobb, and we hope you’ll join us next week when we’ll be chatting to Faculty Alumnus Matt Paul about his research in New York! Thanks for reading.
Interview by Fran Slater, video by Theo Jolliffe, Image courtesy of Nicholas Ogden