Beer, Football and Science, a Winning Combination

(August 19th, 2014) Fortune-telling animals are a phenomenon whenever 22 men meet on a grass field during an international tournament. For this year’s World Cup, scientists in Dresden tested the prophetic ability of some of their research subjects, including, flies, yeast and zebrafish.

It all started on a sunny afternoon in a beer garden in Dresden just before the World Cup. After a glass of beer, Jochen Rink, based at the Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics (MPI-CBG), had the brilliant idea to use his group’s model system planaria to predict the outcome of Germany’s football games. The concept spread through the entire institute like wild fire and, soon after, the first ever competition of oracle model systems was born. Aspiring clairvoyants included flies, frogs, beetles, planaria, worms, yeast and zebrafish.

And the best fortune-teller was ... yeast, or the “yeastacle”, with five correct predictions out of seven games involving Germany, from the initial qualifying games all the way to the final. The principle behind yeast’s success was simple: it appears these organisms were somehow capable of deciding how to “manoeuvre” the gas produced during fermentation to ensure that a ball placed over a paraffin film covering the flask would drop and safely land on a box with the winning team’s flag (see image). “That seemed to work perfectly,” says Pavel Tomancak, who fielded red flour beetles and Drosophila virilis flies.

Some labs took the challenge a little bit more seriously than others. Simone Reber, supporting her froggy team, developed a complex algorithm to calculate how many Xenopus laevis frogs to place in an aquarium for each game: the number of “players” was based on the average number of goals scored between the two teams in official games, multiplied by statistical factor 1.5.

For the opening Germany vs Portugal, for example, Reber placed four frogs in the tank, after 17 previous games with an average 2.4 goals per game. “I put four frogs into the tank and all four frogs decided to go onto the German flag,” says Reber, “so they became famous because they predicted the score.” However, these amphibians were used to quieter lives and didn’t adapt to their newly-found celebrity status. This was the only game they predicted correctly.

In contrast, the TransgeneOme lab took a much less scientific road to divination. “Other labs used the same set-up throughout,” jokes Mihail Sarov, “but not us.” The TransgeneOme team decided to play around with various worm “pitches” but, nevertheless, the main principle remained: let C. elegans swim to one of two goals, clearly labelled with team flags, “immobilise them by a mild anaesthetic” and count them. Although worms predicted some of the winners correctly, they never actually reached the same level of enlightenment as the amphibian team and never got the score exactly right. “That does not mean that the worms were wrong,” defends Sarov, “I blame it on the football players.”

With big plans for his flies, Tomancak wanted to take this approach to a whole new whacky level. The aim was to find the “divination gene”, by taking only the flies, which had made the right predictions and propagate them for the next game. Unfortunately for all betting aficionados, these plans never actually materialised, as the team was using a homogeneous population with no genetic variation to choose from. “Next time,” warns Tomancak, “We will use wild strains and then sequence the flies to find out whether there is a genome wide association for their ability to predict the game.”

“Any fair coin can be as good,” concludes Sarov, “but of course much less fun!” There might even be some use for these experiments, as the worm supporter explains: “One could use these fun exercises to teach kids about the nature of randomness, the importance of controls and independently repeated experiments - and the fact that scientists can also have a decent sense of humour.” He continues, “I hope nobody took it seriously enough to bet real money on our predictions.”

Alex Reis

Photos: Vastenhouw group, Alberti group, Tomancak group (Max Planck Institute of Molecular Cell Biology and Genetics)

Last Changes: 09.25.2014