Football – the beautiful game…made even more so by science

Love football or hate it, unless you’ve been hibernating the last few days, you will undoubtedly be aware that England got their Euro 2012 campaign up underway last night when they took on France in Donetsk.

It was certainly a mixed game, with varied post-match commentary:
It is a decent result and a decent performance at times” says a BBC Sport tactical expert.
For all the ball, we did not work the goalkeeper and never hit the target with the chances we had” says a BBC Sport pundit.
France should have done more, because they dominated the game with possession” says a BBC Radio 5 live pundit.

However, for all the shouting at the TV, cheers, groans and in-depth analysis you can’t get away from the fact that nowadays science and measurement have a huge impact on the world’s most popular sport.

Coaches rely on science for monitoring player performance, ensuring correct nutrition for peak performance, and understanding the effect of stress on fitness and injury recovery. Specially placed cameras around a football pitch and complex computers enable in-depth analysis of player performance. Player speed, distances covered, areas where they are most active, tackles made, plus loads of other stats, can all be measured during a match. Analysis on BBC’s Academy states that Wayne Rooney can cover around 11.82km during a match!

With technology producing stats like this, we can spend hours digesting our team’s or country’s performance. Statistics from last night’s game demonstrate that France had seven shots on target to England’s one, James Milner covered a distance of 11.8km and Steven Gerrard made the most tackles.

Whilst fascinating, where would football be without some good ol’ fashioned measurement? Football pitches are still measured in yards, but interestingly there is no standard length. The length of a pitch must be between 100 yards and 130 yards and the width not less than 50 yards and not more than 100 yards. Penalties are taken 12 yards from the goal and the goal is eight feet high and eight yards wide. The standard ball size has a circumference of 69 cm ± 0.5 cm.

And what is the most important measurement in football? The pint, of course! Pubs are only allowed to sell drinks in measures of a half pint, pint or half pint multiples. This is enforced by the Weights and Measurement Act. So this Friday, when you tuck into your beverage watching England take on Sweden, you can be sure you are not being sold a short measure.

Identifying geographical origin for sustainable energy

Stretch your mind back to your GCSE chemistry and you may remember isotopes are elements which have the same number of protons, but a different number of neutrons. Through natural processes, isotope ratios change from place to place on the globe. By measuring the ratio of two isotopes of the same element present in a material, for example carbon 13 and carbon 12, it is possible to discriminate between the origin of, for example, a food source, counterfeit drug manufacture or even geographical origins of a person.

Laboratories are currently using isotope ratio methods to assist with differentiating between beef origin across Britain and between Brazil and Britain. Similar studies have assisted forensic science, for example leading to geographical information on the ‘torso in the Thames’ – the case of a torso found in the River Thames in 2001, belonging to a young unidentified African boy. Post mortem on his bones, stomach contents and pollen in his lungs was used to determine his geographical origins and the length of time he had spent in the UK.

Now, researchers at LGC, the UK’s designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bioanalytical measurement, are investigating the feasibility of methods to discriminate between biofuels of different origin.

Debate around competition for land use for first generation biofuels (conventional crops) production versus food and feed production is long standing, and a clear indicator for the need for sustainability of new energy sources. Development of methods for the determination of the geographical and biological origin of biofuels is therefore important for ensuring both sustainability and commercial aspects of first generation biofuels.

Using a range of raw sample materials of known geographical origin, scientists at LGC are developing methods to evaluate the feasibility of carbon isotope ratio measurements as a tool for discriminating between biofuels of different biological amnd geographical origin. Combining LGC’s measurement capability with that of other European Metrology Institutes, the aim is to investigate which analytical tools can be used to best distinguish between biofuels of different origin.

This collaborative research will result in the identification of tools for accurate and precise determination of the geographical and biological origin of biofuels. This will impact on sustainability requirements and improve regulation and trade of biofuels.

River Thames clean up

Measurement for environmental protectionEnjoy a sunny stroll along the River Thames this time of year and you are almost guaranteed to spot some wildlife – most commonly ducks and swans, but if you’re lucky maybe a small mammal, heron or in some parts of the River Thames, even a seal! And of course there’s a multitude of insects. In fact, over 100 species of fish have been recorded in the Thames watershed.

However this wasn’t always that case. In the 1850s the River Thames was known as the ‘Great Stink’. With over 400,000 tonnes of sewage flushed into the River Thames each day – around 150 million tonnes a year, the river was biologically ‘dead’ with the fish population and the associated fishing industry entirely obliterated.

We have come along way since then, but there is still a lot of work to do and there is increasing demand by the public and environmental organisations for cleaner rivers and lakes, groundwater and coastal beaches.

The European Water Framework Directive (WFD) came into force in December 2000 and became part of UK law in December 2003, with the aim of meeting Directive objectives for River Basin Management Plans by 2015. The development of analytical reference methods and materials for priority pollutants at the European Quality Standard (EQS) levels will help implement the Directive.

In order to help achieve this, researchers at LGC, the UK’s designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bioanalytical measurement, are developing traceable methods for the accurate determination of polybrominated flame retardants (PBDEs), a priority WFD listed pollutant which has been shown to be carcinogenic.

However, this is not as straight forward as it sounds. Pollutants such as this can be present not only in the water, but also sediment and plant matter in our waterways. Imagine scooping a jam jar full of river water and taking a look at the variety of suspended particulate matter. Considering the low levels (low ng/L) of the maximum target levels of pollutant, as specified by the WFD, achieving maximum extraction efficiency of pollutants from the whole water sample becomes essential. LGC aims to achieve this by developing methods using various high accuracy mass spectrometry techniques to measure species-specific and element-specific compounds in whole water, as well as total elements in water containing suspended particles of different size and nature.

It is anticipated that this research will help improve detection methods of priority pollutants thereby helping companies to monitor pollution levels and reduce the presence of PBDEs to below harmful levels. The end result will be improved quality of the waterways in the UK.

Detecting explosives with measurement

Measurement for securityIon mobility spectrometry is a technique used by the law enforcement and security sectors for detecting volatile substances such as drugs, explosives and chemical weapons. The ability to deploy these instruments in the harshest of environments, including their hand-held use by the military in detecting chemical warfare agents, has resulted in ion mobility spectrometers being one of the most ubiquitous analytical instruments.

Whilst many new application areas are being investigated, deployment from military to civilian monitoring has not been totally smooth, highlighting some key areas of concern. ‘External environmental conditions’ and the ‘chemical background’ can influence the detection capability of the instruments which can often result in false positives. As such, the real potential of ion mobility spectrometry may far exceed its current uses in these specialised areas.

It is thought that the development of a range of robust calibration standards would be a good starting point to help improve the transfer, use and uptake of ion mobility spectrometry in a broader range of analysis. Currently, adverse results can be reported from the inappropriate selection of calibrants and calibration procedures, with calibration and validation of these devices varying greatly depending on their use. Police forces, for example, require standards for use in the field. Here, the use of identical molecules, as standards, to those being investigated could result in contamination of protected crime scenes. Also the presence of background chemicals on the detection of the analytes of interest is known to impact on an instruments performance. This means that standards used for portable instrumentation need to compensate for environmental differences.

Researchers at LGC, the UK’s designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bioanalytical measurement, are helping to address this by investigating the possibility of producing sets of measurement standards which will be unaffected by external environmental influences and/or compensate for environmental conditions. These standards will serve as important indicators for when changes in the background chemical matrix may be impairing or influencing the analytical result. Most importantly, the standards will enable routine recalibration of instruments.

LGC’s research is focused on working with manufacturers and end users of the instrumentation to investigate the impact of such standards in real life situations, for example, nightclub entrances and airport screening.

Gavin O’Connor, Principal Scientist for mass spectrometry at LGC explains “The development of a set of globally accepted standards will improve the confidence and reliability of results obtained from this technology, enabling wider acceptance for use in detecting a broad range of chemicals.”

Measuring DNA mutations for early breast cancer diagnosis

Measurment for patient careResearchers at LGC, the UK’s designated National Measurement Institute for chemical and bioanalytical measurement, have demonstrated new methods for improving the detection of small alterations in the human genome which could offer a more effective tool for diagnosing breast cancer.

Normally people carry two copies of each gene – one inherited from their mother and one from their father. However, alterations in the DNA may result in a cell having an abnormal number of copies of one or more sections of the DNA and this can cause underlying genetic diversity and susceptibility to certain diseases. Measurements for copy number variation (CNV) are used for routine foetal screening and in clinical diagnostics. Amplification or over-expression of the HER2 gene, for example, has been shown to play an important role in the pathogenesis and progression of certain types of breast cancer, and in recent years has become an important biomarker for the disease. However, routine testing methods require an invasive biopsy of the tumour.

Quantitative polymerase chain reaction (qPCR), an approach that uses a comparatively non-invasive blood test, has demonstrated amplified HER2 molecules in breast cancer patients, but this technique has limited sensitivity meaning it cannot measure the small differences in CNV crucial to making an early diagnosis.

However, the emerging technique of digital PCR (dPCR) has shown promise as a more sensitive approach. Researchers at LGC are collaborating with UK universities to compare directly qPCR with dPCR to assess the application of dPCR for improved precision in the measurement of breast cancer associated CNV.

Corresponding author of a recently published paper describing the research, Dr Jim Huggett, Science Leader for diagnostics at LGC, explains “dPCR offers huge potential as a diagnostic tool for the early detection of cancer. However, for this to be realised, the issues associated with the technique need to be fully understood. Our study provides a mechanism to facilitate this research.”

As dPCR becomes more established, it will offer a new level of precision and the clinical benefits of measuring smaller CNVs in more challenging samples will become possible. However, pre-clinical and translational research is necessary for this to be realised. LGC’s collaborative work facilitates this research and will enable future application of dPCR as a key diagnostic tool in genetic diseases.

Whale A, Huggett J, et al, Comparison of microfluidic digital PCR and conventional quantitative PCR for measuring copy number variation, Nucleic Acid Research, 2012, doi: 10.1093/nar/gks203