Kiss me I’m a Scientist

(September 29th, 2015) This year’s Ig Nobel Prizes honour studies on mammalian urination mechanisms, the promiscuousness of a mediaeval emperor and the health benefits and possible applications of kissing research.

On September 17th, Harvard University, once again, hosted the Ig® Nobel Prize Ceremony; this year for the 25th time. As in previous years, the Ig Nobel prize honours ”research that makes people first laugh and then think”. The man behind the prize is Marc Abrahams, a Harvard alumnus (applied mathematics) and founder of the magazine ‘Annals of Improbable Research’. His mission is to make people more interested in science, medicine and technology by celebrating the most exceptionally unusual and imaginative work. Every year, he awards the Ig Nobel Prize in altering categories. Taking place in Harvard's Sanders Theatre, the spectacular ceremony attracts more than 1,100 guests and even some real Nobel Prize laureates who hand the Ig Nobels to the lucky winners.  

The Medicine Prize, this year, went to teams from Slovakia and Japan for several experiments investigating the “biomedical benefits or biomedical consequences of intense kissing (and other intimate, interpersonal activities)”. Representing the Slovak team, Jaroslava Durdiaková and Peter Celec took the flight from Bratislava to Harvard on their own expenses. The two contributed to one of the award-winning papers, which looked at DNA transfer through intense kissing. Unfortunately, the first author of the paper, Natalia Kamodyova, could not attend the ceremony – she had her wedding planned for that weekend. “This shows that the kissing research was really productive,” Jaroslava Durdiaková and Peter Celec joke.

In their Ig Nobel-approved work, the Slovak scientists demonstrated that male DNA can be found in women’s saliva even one hour after intense kissing. This kind of studies might sound funny in the first place (one prerequisite of Marc Abraham’s “improbable research”!) but it actually has many important applications (laugh and then think!). Peter Celec and Jaroslava Durdiaková explain: “First of all, salivary DNA is used for large genetic studies and kissing seems to be an important potential source of contamination. It also has impact on our search for foetal DNA in saliva that might be usable for prenatal diagnosis. And last but not least, it might also be of interest for forensic genetics. Saliva after kissing could be used for identification of criminals if samples are taken quickly.” The researchers admit that, of course, this study was fun but it was also an important part of a serious research project.

This is true for most of the “improbable research projects”. However, the biologists from Bratislava have a fondness for these kinds of studies. Peter Celec confesses: “To be honest, we have conducted several other studies that could have received the Ig Nobel Prize. For instance, we have found that men have something like the menstrual cycle; that children with a very high IQ have lower testosterone due to genetic variants and that long-term cola drinking could decrease blood glucose. But unfortunately, the jury overlooked these publications.” Still the team was very surprised when they received the message that they had won an Ig Nobel Prize. Some group members even marked the email as spam. “Of course, we are now very proud and happy to have received the prize this year,” Jaroslava Durdiaková adds. She thinks that kissing is virtually neglected, when it comes to research - even in life sciences, “although it is an important and enjoyable part of life”.

“Life” was, by the way, also the motto of this year’s Ig Nobel Prize ceremony, featuring a new mini-opera titled “The Best Life” about “a competition to choose the best species of life”. Unsurprisingly, everybody expected the Slovak team to demonstrate the kissing experiment for their acceptance speech. “But we had only one minute and the volunteers in the study had to kiss for two minutes. In addition, intense kissing in an US-based academic institution could be dangerous...,” Peter Celec and Jaroslava Durdiaková joke. Instead, they told the audience that they are now experts in kissing: “If you have any trouble, just ask us.” The kissing experts received their Ig Nobel Prize from the Nobel Prize laureate Carol Greider, who discovered that telomeres and the enzyme telomerase protect chromosomes. Peter Celec remarks that “this is indeed partially related to our research, focusing on the biological effects of foetal DNA. It was an honour to see all the Nobel Prize winners. We appreciate being able to stand in front of such an audience.”

Back home at Comenius University in Bratislava, Celec and Durdiaková want to get back to their research as quickly as possible. “The prize and the interest in our work is, of course, a great motivation to continue and work even harder,” concludes newly-minted Ig Nobel Prize laureate Peter Celec.

Karin Lauschke

Photo: Siedlecki (red lips), (ceremony)

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