Mitochondria and us: Transdisciplinary stories from science and society on the powerhouse of the cell

Mitochondria are the sites in our cells responsible for making the energy needed to sustain life. They are involved in controlling the function of cells but also in determining how cells die. Mitochondria dysfunction underpins diseases like cancer, neurodegeneration and diabetes, and primary mitochondrial diseases are complex, incurable and often misdiagnosed.

Mitochondrial research over the years

Mitochondria research has provided seminal discoveries that span decades and have had broad ramifications for cellular health. Recent examples include advances in precise editing of the mitochondrial DNA, the important role of mitochondria dynamics and modifications of internal mitochondrial architecture, the roles of mitochondria in signalling processes, the emerging role of mitochondria in infection and immunity and the malleability of mitochondria biogenesis and links to cellular metabolism in response to stress. Many of these advances have resulted from an astute interdisciplinary approach, involving chemistry, physics, and data science and applying these to fundamental questions of mitochondrial biology with a view to provide therapeutic advances in mitochondrial medicine. This is an exciting time for mitochondria research, which is impactful, international and highly interdisciplinary.

Looking towards the future

It is important to ask, what do we know and still need to learn about mitochondria, and what effects do mitochondria have on people’s lives? It’s equally important to ask who should we bring together to understand this and what it means for society?

In the 20th century, the arts and the sciences were largely polarised, described as ‘two cultures’ by CP Snow in his famous 1959 Rede Lecture. They were regarded as having sufficiently different languages and world views as to be separate universes. The 21st century has seen a realignment of the arts and sciences in the pursuit of new knowledge, with university research at the vanguard of rapid technological and scientific developments, new intellectual fields and cross-fertilisation of ideas, disciplines and perceptions. Research into the radical consequences of new medical technologies is dependent on collaboration between the natural sciences, social sciences, and arts and humanities. According to sociologist Bruno Latour (1991), this is part of an ongoing process of ‘crossovers’, of cultural hybrids – assemblages resulting from the intersection of nature, science, technology and representations.

Mitochondria and Us: Interdisciplinary Stories from Science and Society on the Powerhouse CEO of the Cell

For Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week (13–19 September 2020), we are organising an international online event to share a crossover of interdisciplinary expertise, practice and personal experiences to explore the impact of mitochondria research and related disorders on society. Mitochondria and Us: Interdisciplinary Stories from Science and Society on the Powerhouse CEO of the Cell will highlight stories from across the sciences that shed light on how mitochondria are made, how they sustain cell life under stress and how they control cell death. The hope is to bring together patient groups, educators, biopharma industry experts, social scientists and designers, so that they can share stories of what the understanding of mitochondria means for people and society.

The event is being organised by the Mitochondrial Biology Laboratory (University of Glasgow) and the Innovation School (Glasgow School of Art) and supported by the Royal Society of Edinburgh and the Lily Foundation (event details below). This event is building on a previous workshop collaboration between the Glasgow School of Art and the Biochemical Society to explore the potential for exchanges between design and biochemical sciences. Our previous crossover workshops brought together eight biochemical scientists and eight designers to share disciplinary expertise and perspectives through single images, artefacts, design activities and provocative discussions in order to identify ‘crossovers’ and opportunities for future collaborations.

From the many crossovers found during the workshop, three key themes were identified for further opportunities for collaboration between biochemical sciences and design:

  • understanding and caring for invisible diseases and conditions and how this could inform care practices
  • community STEM education using design approaches in more inclusive, creative and relatable ways
  • bringing transdisciplinary scientific and designerly knowledge and ethics domains together in more sustained and rigorous ways.

Through these compelling and yet challenging areas for exploration, this Mitochondrial Disease Awareness Week event aims to communicate science in creative and engaging ways and to join up traditionally siloed scientific, critical, communication and creative disciplines in ways that could stimulate new inquiries and reach new audiences.

Mitochondria and Us:
Interdisciplinary Stories from Science and Society on the Powerhouse CEO of the Cell
17 September 2020
2pm – 4pm BST
Zoom details TBC


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Published: 05 Aug 2020
Category: Meetings update

About the author

Kostas Tokatlidis

Kostas Tokatlidis currently holds the Cathcart Chair of Biochemistry at the University of Glasgow. His research over the past 20 years has involved understanding mitochondria biogenesis and how it underpins human diseases such as neurodegeneration, cancer and diabetes. 

Michael Pierre Johnson

Michael Pierre Johnson is an AHRC funded Innovation Leadership Fellow at The Glasgow School of Art.  His research interests include making the effects and viability of Design Innovation approaches, and the preferable changes they seek to serve, more explicit within complex collaborative contexts through visual mapping methods.

Elio Caccavale

Elio Caccavale is a Reader in Transdisciplinary Design Innovation at the Glasgow School of Art. His research is an exploration into new visual and three-dimensional design vocabularies for thinking about ethical and social issues in the sciences, and aims to contribute to the ongoing methodological debates in bioethics, science communication and the sociology of emerging scientific knowledge.

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