Archive for the ‘Biology’ Category

Comments Off Posted on Friday 22 October 2010 at 1:55 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Mathematics

Everyone knows that I love tearing down terrible “formula for” stories, but hopefully this one of my own won’t receive the same treatment as it is actually based on some solid maths!

Marathon runners need never “hit the wall” again thanks to a mathematical model that will help them reach the finish line in their best time.

More than 40 per cent of marathon runners will hit the wall during a race, experiencing sudden pain and fatigue as their carbohydrate reserves run low and their body switches from burning carbohydrate to burning fat. So Benjamin Rapoport at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has given runners an online calculator that will tell them how much carbohydrate they need to consume to have enough for a whole race.

Read the rest at New Scientist.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 30 May 2010 at 4:31 pm by Mia Kukathasan
In Biology, Evolution

Male crickets that grow up surrounded by the songs of many potential competitors, grow up bigger and stronger than counterparts reared in silence. It seems that the sound of masculine chirps ends up masculinising young crickets within hearing range.

Researchers from The University of California, Riverside, measured the testicular tissue mass of young male crickets that had been played cricket song, and found that they grew up to have nearly 10% more testicular mass than the youths without such auditory cues of competition. A big part of the male crickets’ mating strategy involves a long-range call. The song can be ‘parasitized’ by other males, who lurk nearby, taking credit for the masculine calls to impress arriving females. But, the males that grew up surrounded by the songs of other males were less likely to use such underhand tactics. Instead they were generally bigger, noisier and in overall better shape.

It seems mating matters to crickets, in fact so fixated are decorated crickets that they will sacrifice their health to impress the females. As part of the mating process, males offer their mates an adorably named ‘nuptial food gift’, a gummy blobby concoction that they synthesize and transfer to the females along with sperm. Scientists from Illinois State University managed to coerce some decorated crickets into producing larger food packages, which they did, despite it lowering their immune systems.

After all that effort, when the deed has been done, mating mission accomplished, there’s still no guarantee that the sperm that entered the female cricket will be the sperm that fertilises her eggs. Of course some of it will be, but with the promiscuity of female crickets, and the aggressive mating tactics of males, multiple matings with the same female are common. So, who becomes the daddy?

Researchers from Exeter university found that even after mating with up to ten males, promiscuous female field crickets can control the amount of sperm that they store from each mate, regardless of the order they mated in. Although crickets don’t avoid mating with relatives, they do reduce the chances of producing unfit inbred offspring, by using their abdominal muscles to keep hold of more of the sperm from unrelated males. Scientists from Australia and Switerland went further and found that a male’s chances of fathering “increases with its attractiveness and decreases with the size of the female”.

In the harsh world of insect reproduction, once the eggs have been laid, the little ones are on their own. Although the mothers don’t stick around, researchers at the University of South Carolina Upstate, have found that they can leave hidden maternal messages in their unborn babies, to prepare them for the harsh realities of existence. Storm and Lima (researchers, with names like comic superheros), placed pregnant crickets in enclosures with predatory wolf spiders whose fangs were tipped with wax. This meant the spiders could stalk the crickets, make them extremely frightened, but not actually kill them.

The offspring of mothers born to the spider-stalked mothers were faster to react to the danger of predators, than the control offspring from mothers kept more cushy circumstances. These offspring of ‘stalked’ mothers ran for cover more quickly and stayed in hiding for more than twice as long. They would also freeze when coming across signs of their predators, signs such as spider silk or spider faeces. Having this fear, unsurprisingly meant that they ended up with higher survival rates.

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3 Comments » Posted on Sunday 9 May 2010 at 6:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

Who needs facts?

We all know that science can be complicated and confusing, but don’t let that get you down – Fake Science is here to straighten everything out. Did you know that the periodic table is actually based on Scrabble, or that wind power uses giant fans to make wind? Science has never been so simple.

Want to lose weight? Keep it off your plate

Simply leaving serving dishes on the kitchen counter rather than bringing them to the dining table reduces the amount of food you eat, say researchers at Cornell University. They found that this simple dieting strategy reduces the temptation of second helpings, cutting the number of calories people consumed by 20%.

Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, said that the same idea can be used to promote healthier foods over sugary snacks – keeping fruit on display makes you more likely to eat it instead of reaching for a piece of cake in the fridge.

Animal privacy? Not in my backyard

Wildlife documentaries infringe an animal’s right to privacy, says Brett Mills, a lecturer in film studies at the University of East Anglia:

“We have an assumption that humans have some right to privacy, so why do we not assume that for other species, particularly when they are engaging in behaviour that suggests they don’t want to be seen?”

I’m a staunch defender of civil liberties, but even I think extending the right to privacy to animals is going a bit too far. Of course, great care should be taken to avoid distributing their natural habits or causing them distress, but I really don’t think animals mind us watching them doing what they do.

Green tax would hurt the poorest

A proposed tax on carbon footprints would hit the poorest households hardest, according to study from the University of Leeds. The carbon tax would cost low earners 6% of their annual income, while the richest households would only pay around 2%.

The difference is the result of poorer households spending more on costs such as heating and electricity – 40% of their income, compared to just 8% for high earners.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 April 2010 at 7:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Print your own skin

Researchers funded by the US military are working on a way of printing new human skin as a treatment for burn victims. What’s more, they’ve using a regular inkjet printer and cartridges filled with human skill cells:

Grow your own font

Typographer Craig Ward has developed a typeface with a difference – each letter was grown from live cells and moulded into the correct shape.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 8 April 2010 at 7:14 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Guest blog time! My fellow Imperial alumni Mia Kukathasan tells us how mice show some people may have depressive tendencies in our genes. Look out for more from Mia soon…

Scientists have genetically engineered mice with a predisposition for depression. The study aims to find out why, when faced with stressful situations, some people’s are genetically more prone to fall to depression. The mice were altered to carry a genetic change that affects serotonin transport in the brain, mimicking a change that occurs in people with the condition.

“There is a clear relationship between a short form of the serotonin transporter and a very high vulnerability to develop clinical depression when people are exposed to increasing levels of stressful life events.” says Dr. Allesandro Bartolomucci of Parma university, Italy.

Brain imaging of people with depression shows that they have greater activity in some brain areas, but the link with genetics is not as well understood. Chemical changes could be seen in these ‘knock’out’ mice in areas of the brain that regulate memory formation, emotional responses to stimuli and social interactions, such as meeting new mice. They showed physical signs of stress with changes in body temperature, body weight gain, higher levels of the ‘stress’ hormone corticosterone and lower levels of the ‘feel good’ hormone serotonin.

Depression is the number one cause of ‘disability’ worldwide, according to the World Health Organisation with 120 million people affected globally. The increased risk of hormone imbalances, heart disease, digestive problems and reduced immune response faced by depressed people makes it a formidable foe for the health services. The work from this study will help to find out how this genetic change in people affects serotonin turnover in the brain. The results published in the journal Disease Models and Mechanisms suggest that the genetic mutation causes an exaggerated response to stress.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 March 2010 at 9:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution

Man’s best friend was likely born in the Middle East, according to a paper published this week in Nature. A genetic analysis of 85 dog breeds revealed they have more in common with wolves from countries like Israel, Saudi Arabia and Iran then in any other part of the world.

An international team of scientists lead by the University of California, Los Angeles compared genetic data from more than 900 dogs and 200 wolves to create a “family tree” that shows the connections between the various breeds. Previous research suggested that dogs originated in East Asia, but that was based only on genetic changes in mitochondria, tiny structures found in all animal cells. This new work examines a much larger section of the canine genome, comparing 48,000 different locations across species DNA.

Dogs and wolves are all connected.
Dogs and wolves are all connected.
3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 9 March 2010 at 4:47 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Yesterday details emerged that China has selected its next generation of astronauts; a crew of five men and two women. However, to be one of those two women, recruiters demanded a rather unusual qualification, motherhood.

The Chinese space programme is known to be stringent in its selection of potential astronauts; even bad breath can shatter your chances. However, this requirement for maternity doesn’t stem from an inferred ability of mothers to better cope with the gruelling conditions of space. Instead China fear for what damage space-based radiation might inflict on a would-be female astronaut’s ability to have children in the first place.

Xu Xianrong, an expert at the air force general hospital, is quoted on the Guardian website as saying of the unique approach,

“It’s out of the consideration of being responsible for the female pilots. Though there is little evidence on how the space experience will affect the female constitution, we have to be extra cautious. After all, it’s unprecedented in China.”

Such things may be unprecedented in China, but the radiation dangers experienced when leaving the protective cocoon of the Earth have long been considered.

There are two main types of radiation that can cause damage to space travelers, high energy particles from the Sun, and cosmic rays arriving from the galaxy beyond. For those of us on the Earth’s surface our planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field duly shield us from these potential dangers. However, those in space can be hit with their full force, particularly when venturing to places like the Moon, which has neither a magnetic field nor an atmosphere.

In fact, the Apollo astronauts of the late 60’s and early 70’s knew full well the risks that an event like a solar storm could unleash and they travelled to the Moon anyway, albeit keeping mission length to a premium to narrow the risks. Such a storm would rain high energy particles upon the unprotected astronauts, penetrating their skin and ripping apart the DNA in their cells. Cosmic rays, coming from outside the solar system, represent a longer term threat; it is thought they could cause illnesses ranging from cancer to cataracts.

Clearly these doses of radiation harm both men and women alike, what is unclear are the effect such doses would have on female fertility. What is looking increasingly clear, particularly with President Obama’s recent cancellation of NASA’s Constellation programme, is that the next feet to scuff the lunar dust will be Chinese. If such feet happen to be female, then their obligatory offspring would be rightly proud.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 February 2010 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Weekly Roundup

My blogging schedule is all over the place at the moment, but I still have time to bring you some neat things from the world of science:

Chemical party

Chemical reactions can get pretty wild, but I bet you’ve never seen them like this:

Strength in small numbers

Check out this amazing picture of an ant lifting 100 times its body weight – that’s like me hoisting 5 cars at the same time!

This photo won Dr Thomas Endlein of the University of Cambridge Zoology Department first prize in the Biotechnology And Biological Sciences Research Council science photo competition. You can see the other winners on the BBSRC site.

Well, it works for monkeys…

Did you know that learning to climb trees has much in common with the scientific method? This quaint short film explains it all – love the use of Wikipedia as “a source of reliable information”!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 31 January 2010 at 6:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Chimp cinema

Earlier this week the BBC broadcast the first ever film shot entirely by chimpanzees:

The acting isn’t that great, and the special effects are terrible, but it’s still more interesting than some of the rubbish churned out by Hollywood! The film was part of a scientific study investigating how chimps perceive the world around them.

Mars movies

Although it seems we’re probably not going to step foot Mars any time soon, you can go there virtually today. Doug Ellison, founder of, has used data from the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter to recreate a faithfully recreated flyby of the Martian surface:

See more on his YouTube page.

Magnets…in space!

Have you ever wondered how magnets work in zero gravity? “Very well,” is the answer, according to video game developer/astronaut Richard Garriot:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 January 2010 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

In all the excitement of the new year, I forgot to explain my Just A Theory schedule for 2010. I’ve decided to post twice a week on Tuesdays and Thursdays, with the usual Weekly Roundup on a Sunday. Of course, there might be the occasional post outside that schedule, but its what I’m aiming for. Remember that you can always subscribe to the RSS feed and get notified each time a post goes up.

Fart FAQ

Everybody does it, even though sometimes we don’t want to admit it, so why not learn some facts about farts with this handy infographic?

Hold your nose and click for a larger image.
Hold your nose and click for a larger image.

Wii tech good enough for physio

A video game accessory designed to help you get fit could also be used to rehabilitate stroke victims, says a physiotherapist. Ross Clark of the University of Melbourne found the accuracy of a Wii balance board compared well to lab-grade “force platforms”, which normally cost more then £11,000.

Both pieces of equipment are designed to measure pressure from a person’s foot. The force platform aids physiotherapists in reteaching a stroke patient how to stand, and Clark found that a balance board could act as a suitable replacement, despite retailing for under £100.

Its not the first report of scientists using Wii controllers as cheap sensors in their work – see this Wired story, complete with a picture of a Wiimote in a lab stand.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 December 2009 at 5:45 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Weekly Roundup

I’ll be taking a break from Just A Theory from now until the start of next year. Now that I’m working full time I’m finding it a little harder to keep up with blogging, so I think it’ll be good to have some time off and recharge my batteries. Over Christmas I’ll be thinking about ways to improve the blog for 2010, so let me know if you have any suggestions. Enjoy the rest of 2009!

Drinking advice, straight from the source

With December 25th inching ever closer you’ve probably already been to a number of booze-fuelled Christmas parties, but have you thought about the long-term risks of drinking alcohol?

If you’re anything like me, probably not, but I did read this interview on the University of Oxford science blog with one of their scientists, Naomi Allen. She talks about the risks and benefits of drinking alcohol, and suggests middle-age women who are most at risk of breast cancer should probably hold back on the booze.

It’s good to hear the risks laid out in a clear and non-headline grabbing manner, but the interview is also an interesting example of institutional journalism. This piece could easily appear in a magazine or Sunday supplement, but Oxford have chosen to cut out the middle-man and publish themselves. We’re seeing more and more of this type of work crop up, as the media continues their struggle to reinvent themselves in a Web 2.0 world.


Who says bacteria can’t be beautiful? New Scientist have a gallery of Petri dish art created by microbiologists. My personal favourite, for obvious reasons, is this little guy:

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 14 December 2009 at 6:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

Another New Scientist article today:

Did four-legged dinosaurs gallop like a horse, run like an ostrich or hop like a kangaroo? All three have been suggested, but with only fossils to go on it’s a difficult puzzle to solve.

That’s why Bill Sellers, a computational zoologist at the University of Manchester, UK, has developed a new technique for simulating dinosaur movement and working out which gaits they most likely used.

Sellers and his team used a laser scanner to create a 3D computer model of the skeleton of an Edmontosaurus, a type of hadrosaur or “duck-billed” dinosaur, and added virtual muscles to make it move. Fossilisation does not preserve a dinosaur’s muscles, but educated guesses about how they worked can be made by studying animals alive today, such as ostriches.

You’ll find the rest at New Scientist, along with a video of the dinosaurs in action.

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 22 November 2009 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

A busy week has meant a pretty poor showing on Just A Theory, but hopefully a packed roundup will make up for it:

LHC a-go-go

The Large Hadron Collider is finally up and running again! As our CERN correspondent Emma mentioned last month, scientist in Geneva have been working on restarting the LHC after it had to be shut down last year. Their hard work paid off on Friday, and proton beams are now successfully colliding in the 27km-long ring of the world’s largest experiment. Now for the science!

What if the Earth had rings?

Speaking of rings, check out this short video showing how it would look if Earth had its own set, like Saturn.

At the equator they appear to be a thin line through the sky, but further north or south they make an amazing sight, lighting up the sky even at night. Anyway we can build these things and cover them in solar panels or something?

Field less players to win the World Cup

It seems that having a large squad to choose from can actually be a hindrance when it comes to top football. You might think fielding substitutions lets mangers pick the best players for every situation, but research shows that sticking with the top 11 is the key to success.

Bacteria that can detect landmines

Scientist at the University of Edinburgh have developed a strain of bacteria that glow green near explosives. By mixing them with a colourless solution, they can be sprayed from the air on to suspected landmine fields, turning the ground green if mines are detected.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 9 November 2009 at 8:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Cut grass, warm cakes, and dog poo. A strange combination maybe, but smelling any of the three is likely to evoke a certain memory for you. Everyone has experienced a sudden recollection after sniffing a particularly distinctive odour, and now a team of Israeli scientist have worked out why.

Graduate student Yaara Yeshurun of the Weizmann Institute of Science suspected that this memory association is formed when we first encounter a smell in a particular context. That’s why cut grass might take you back to summer’s day in your youth, but not to a walk in the park last Tuesday.

To test her hypothesis, Yeshurun and her team got 16 volunteers to look at 60 objects, each accompanied wither either a pleasant or unpleasant smell. Next, an fMRI scanner measured their brain activity as they looked over the images again and tried to recall the associated odour. Participants then repeated the test with different smells, before coming back a week later for another round of tests.

Yeshurun found that after one week, the participants showed a distinctive brain pattern when recalling the first odour – even if they remembered both equally. The scan revealed activity in the hippocampus and amygdala, the parts of the brain involved with memory and emotion, and allowed Yeshurun and colleagues to predict participants reactions based on the data from the first day of the experiment.

Investigating further, they repeated the entire experiment with sound instead of smell. Surprisingly, they found that the first-time association was not repeated. Commenting on her result, Yeshurun said:

“As far as we know, this phenomenon is unique to smell. Childhood olfactory memories may be special not because childhood is special, but simply because those years may be the first time we associate something with an odour.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 2 November 2009 at 7:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A meteorite impact may have wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, but we know a lot about them thanks to the fossils they left behind. Now it seems we might be due another extinction event, after a pair of paleontologists discovered a mistaken duplication of dinosaur species – including one named after Hogwarts, the wizard school in Harry Potter.

It turns out that scientists have been assigning different names to juvenile and adult fossils from the same species of dome-headed dinosaur, Pachycephalosaurus wyomingensis. The confusion arose because the younger ones start out with a set of horns that gradually morph into a dome as they get older.

“Juveniles and adults of these dinosaurs look very, very different from adults, and literally may resemble a different species,” said dinosaur expert Mark B. Goodwin, assistant director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Museum of Paleontology.

Working with John Horner of the Museum of the Rockies at Montana State University in Bozeman, Goodwin discovered that two species, Dracorex hogwartsia and Stygimoloch spinifer, have been misidentified. They published their research last week in the journal PLoS One.

D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.
D. hogwartsia (upper left) and S. spinifer (upper right) are actually younger versions of P. wyomingensis.

What’s more, Horner suggest these two might not be the only dino duplicates. “What we are seeing in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana suggests that we may be overextended by a third,” he said. His colleague Goodwin blames fellow scientists for skimping on the details.

“Early paleontologists recognized the distinction between adults and juveniles, but people have lost track of looking at ontogeny – how the individual develops – when they discover a new fossil,” he said.

I’m sure many will be said to see the Harry Potter-inspired species go, but it’s not the first time we’ve lost a great name to the rules of science. In cases like this scientists revert to the name of the first fossil discovered, which is why Brontosaurus (thunder lizard) became Apatosaurus (deceptive lizard). The former is a much cooler name, but the latter wins out because it was discovered first. A shame, but them’s the rules!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 November 2009 at 6:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Formulas, multiplied

For some reason the Independent have decided to publish the mother of all “formula for” stories – ten examples of the best worse science reporting there is. They include ones I’ve written about before, like the formula for the perfect pancake,but also a bunch I’d not previously seen. The best has to be the equation for the perfect sandcastle, which is OW = 0.125 x S. In other words, one part water, eight parts sand.

Lunch time at the Periodic Table

This photo of a literal Periodic Table has been doing the internet rounds recently:

Turns out it’s a piece of art work at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. It was created by two student in 2003, Nazila Alimohammadi and Anna Clark. Nice work – I’m always up for a good pun!

From coffee to carbon

Also floating about this internet this week was this interactive illustration of the size and scale of various cells from the University of Utah. Starting from a coffee bean and a grain of rice, you can zoom past human cells, bacteria and viruses before ending up at a single carbon atom. Zooming out is just as fun!

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 30 October 2009 at 4:45 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology

Researchers in China have found that by practicing fellatio on their male counterparts female short-nosed fruit bats can prolong sex.

Whilst oral sex is a common part of the human mating ritual, and occasionally observed in Bonobo monkeys, this is thought to be one of the first times that fellatio has been observed outside of the primates.

Min Tan and his team recorded females lowering their heads to lick the base or shaft of the male’s penis whilst copulation was occurring. This happened on 14 out of 20 copulations with the licking measured to last 19.14±3.45 seconds or approximately 8.7% of the duration of sex.

“We found that whether a female licked her mate’s penis during copulation had a significant influence on the duration of copulation. The pairs spent more time copulating if the female licked her mate’s penis than on occasions when females did not show licking behaviour. This result suggests that the licking behaviour may play an important role in copulation by prolonging intromission.”

The study concluded that every second of licking added a further 6 seconds to the duration of sex and suggests several reasons why this behaviour might be advantageous, including that,

“Prolonged copulation might assist sperm transport from the vagina to the oviduct, or stimulate secretions of the pituitary gland in the female and hence increase the likelihood of fertilization”

For those wishing to see the act in question the researchers supply a handy video.

Tan, M., Jones, G., Zhu, G., Ye, J., Hong, T., Zhou, S., Zhang, S., & Zhang, L. (2009). Fellatio by Fruit Bats Prolongs Copulation Time PLoS ONE, 4 (10) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0007595

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 26 October 2009 at 10:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Like many young children, I went through a phase of being obsessed with dinosaurs. I think the appeal is the idea that these monstrous animals actually existed, but are also safely locked away in the past and can’t hurt you.

Now, a new discovery by George Poinar Jr of Oregon State University shows that the dinosaurs weren’t the only monsters from the Cretacous period. He’s found a well-preserved specimen of a fly with five eyes and a horn, and it’s certainly going to give me nightmares.

An artists impression of the "monster" fly.
An artists impression of the "monster" fly.

Details of the strange creature were recently published in the journal Cretaceous Research. It’s called Cascoplecia insolitis, roughly translated as “old and unusual”. It’s certainly an apt description, as it lived from 97 to 100 million years ago and is anything but “usual” looking.

The fly and its strange horn, preserved in amber for millions of years.
Preserved in amber for millions of years.

Two of the fly’s five eyes are large and compound, like a regular household fly. The other three are smaller like a spider’s and sit atop a strange, unicorn-like horn.

It’s thought that this evolutionary specialism would have helped it see approaching predators more easily. The eye-covered horn would also aid the fly on reaching the pollen and nectar of very tiny flowers, but would have been a hindrance when larger plants evolved. With its freakish advantage lost, C. insolitis went extinct, and as far as we know its unique horn has never been seen again.

“No other insect ever discovered has a horn like that, and there’s no animal at all with a horn that has eyes on top,” said Poinar.

“One of the reviewers of the study called it a monster, and I have to admit it had a face only another fly could have loved. I was thinking of making some masks based on it for Halloween.”

I don’t know about that. If this thing rang my door screaming “trick or treat”, I’d probably run a mile. Give me dinosaurs any day!

Poinar Jr., G. (2009). Cascoplecia insolitis (Diptera: Cascopleciidae), a new family, genus, and species of flower-visiting, unicorn fly (Bibionomorpha) in Early Cretaceous Burmese amber Cretaceous Research DOI: 10.1016/j.cretres.2009.09.007

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 October 2009 at 10:29 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Painted horses teach anatomy to vets

Champion horse rider Gillian Higgins has come up with a novel way for veterinary students to learn the skeletal structure of a horse – paint it directly on to the skin. Pretty cool, if slightly creepy!

Watch the carbon clock ticking

Early this year I wrote about research showing that the Earth effectively has a carbon budget of one trillion tonnes. Emitting more than this will lead to a global temperature rise of 2°C, and we’ve already spent over half a trillion.

To illustrate our spending, Professor Myles Allen of Oxford University has created a ticking carbon clock, counting down to the release of the trillionth tonne. That’s currently set for some time in March 2045 but as our rate of emissions continues to rise, this date gets nearer by the second. It’s sobering to watch.

Fancy a drink?

This photo of an ant refreshing itself after a hard day’s work was taken by András Mészáros, and won him a prize in the 2009 Veolia Environnement wildlife photographer of the year. Take a look at some of the other winners, including a wolf caught mid-jump and a stag with a crown of bracken.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 22 October 2009 at 6:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Just A Review, Psychology

Last week saw the start of a new series of Horizon, the BBC’s long-running science documentary programme. I wasn’t particularly impressed with last year’s offering, but I decided to give the show another chance this time around.

I managed to miss the first episode thanks to a confusing BBC press release, but caught this week’s which featured the media’s go-to mathematician and not-so-recently appointed Oxford Professor for the Public Understanding of Science, Marcus du Sautoy. He submits himself to a variety of bizarre experiments in an attempt to answer a puzzling question: how do we know who we are?

Humans are one of just nine species that pass what is known as the mirror test for self-awareness. A dot is placed on the test subject’s face and they are placed in front of a mirror. If they notice the dot, by trying to look at or touch it, they’ve recognised the reflection as themselves. Otherwise, the subject views their reflection as an entirely separate individual.

Du Sautoy sees this test in action early on in the programme, and it’s quite striking. A young baby completely ignores the dot, while a slightly older child immediatly attempts to peel it off. Is this where conciousness begins? What does conciousness even mean?

The programme doesn’t have an answer – it’s still an open question in science, of course. It’s certainly interesting watching du Sautoy exploring the limits of his conciousness though. One experiment placed him under the effect of heavy anaesthetic while in an MRI scanner, his conciousness seeming to slowly slip away as he rambled in a drunken fashion. In another, du Sautoy wears a pair of video glasses that can appear to place his sense of self behind his body – or even inside another person.

I’ll admit I’m already fairly familiar with all of these experiments from my readings in the annals of popular science, but seeing them being performed really adds to the experience. A shame then that some of the programmes editing had quite the opposite effect.

Look. I understand that putting together a science programme is a difficult task – shot after shot of talking head doesn’t make for great TV. Did we really need to see du Sautoy walking around hooked up to a Steadicam as he ponders? It made him look like a cleaned up Sir Digby Chicken Caesar.

Camera gripes aside, this episode was certainly an improvement on the last time I sat down to watch Horizon. It’s worth a watch, and I’ll be making an effort to check out a bit more in the coming weeks.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 21 October 2009 at 8:00 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine

It has long been known that sleep deprivation affects your ability to remember things long term. Yet until now the exact mechanism causing these misplaced memories has been unclear.

The problem had been that the relationship between sleep deprivation and the brain is multi-faceted; it was hard to see the wood from the cerebral trees. But in a paper published in this week’s Nature, an international team of scientists report findings that suggest the culprit has been revealed.

In their study the researchers took mice that had been deprived of sleep for five hours and examined the hippocampus, the section of the brain known to play a fundamental role in long term memory.

They found that the sleep-deprived rodents had a higher level of an enzyme called PDE4 than those left to sleep normally. In order to make sure that these increased levels of PDE4 were indeed behind the long-term memory loss they tested whether the mice could recall a fear stimulus.

In mice that were treated with a drug that inhibits PDE4 production they found the effect was nullified and the sleepy mice could remember just as well as those rodents that had been well rested. Whereas the mice left with increased levels of PDE4 struggled when tested.

This research might have implications for those suffering with serious sleep deprivation such as new parents. However, further research is necessary to experiment with Rolipram, the drug used in the study, and its effectiveness combating memory problems in humans suffering with sleep deprivation.

Vecsey, C., Baillie, G., Jaganath, D., Havekes, R., Daniels, A., Wimmer, M., Huang, T., Brown, K., Li, X., Descalzi, G., Kim, S., Chen, T., Shang, Y., Zhuo, M., Houslay, M., & Abel, T. (2009). Sleep deprivation impairs cAMP signalling in the hippocampus Nature, 461 (7267), 1122-1125 DOI: 10.1038/nature08488

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 18 October 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Mathematics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Apologies for my lack of posting this week, I’m once again hepped up on Lemsip as I battle against a cold. My fellow bloggers have done a great job at picking up the slack, but I still have a collection of interesting links from the past week. Here we go:

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 15 October 2009 at 4:38 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology

Biologists have genetically altered fruit flies so that they no longer produce pheromones, leading to their fellow insects becoming less discerning in their intimate endeavours.

Published in this week’s Nature, Joel Levine and his team genetically destroyed the cells that create the fruit flies’ sex scent. This led to orgy-bound chaos in the lab with the flies no longer knowing who to mate with. Unaltered males tried getting it on with their scentless male counterparts, whilst some normal male flies become enamoured with altered female flies of a completely different species.

The team found that it was just a single molecule that creates the normal chemical barrier allowing individual insects to know who is fair game when it comes to mating, “..the same chemical signals and genes are underlying not only social behaviour in groups, like courtship and mating, but also behaviour between species,” said Levine.

Whilst acknowledging that the human courting ritual is more complicated than the fruit flies’ Levine went on to say:

“…we may rely more on the visual system, and we may have a more complex way of assessing other individuals and classifying them and determining how we’re going to relate to them than a fly does. But what we’re looking at is a spectrum across biology of a tendency to understand how others relate to ourselves. “

Despite these findings I still can’t help think that no matter what Jodie Marsh smelt like, I still just wouldn’t.

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 13 October 2009 at 8:14 pm by Seth Bell
In Biology

It was a clear moonlit night. They had been passionate together before, but when their eyes meet across the crowded swamp their desires were reignited…

Ok, I’ll probably never make it as a Mills & Boon writer, but this scenario isn’t a million miles away from the reality of alligator mating habits. According to a ten year study published in the journal Molecular Ecology, up to 70% of alligators choose to remain with their previous partners for several years, even when females are free to move through crowded male swamps.

The study provides the first evidence for crocodilian male fidelity, a characteristic they share with birds, their evolutionary relatives. Cold blooded crocodilians may not have a reputation for being caring and thoughtful, but in fact they are amongst the few reptilians which nurture and protect their young.

The study, carried out at the swamps in the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Rockefeller Wildlife refuge, surprised Stacey Lance, one of the researchers in the study:

“I don’t think any of us expected that the same pair of alligators that bred together in 1997 would still be breeding together in 2005 and may still be producing nests together this day.”

Because crocodilians like alligators are archosaurs, the study could provide insight into the ancient breeding of dinosaurs who are part of the same family; let’s hope it does because finding out more about dinosaurs is always fun (almost as fun as using the word crocodilian!)

Of course alligators probably can’t feel love, but this research suggests they are surprisingly faithful. If you’re anything like me you’ve seen the episode of Friends where Phoebe describes Rachel as “Ross’ lobster” too many times to count.  Maybe “she’s his alligator” would have been more fitting.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 9 October 2009 at 2:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Inventions & Technology, Physics

The past week has seen the announcement of this year’s Nobel Prizes. As with last year, I thought I’d wait for them to all come out before taking a look at the “science” ones:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

This prize was split equally between Elizabeth Blackburn, Carol Greider and Jack Szostak for their work in the 1980s on telomeres, the “protective caps” on the ends of the chromosomes that contain our genetic information.

These caps allow chromosomes to be copied end-to-end during cell division by protecting them against degradation. Telomeres are also a key part of the ageing process; as the telomeres shorten, cells begin to age. Maintaining telomeres through use of the enzyme that forms them (telomerase) could lead to new medical treatments.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

One half of this prize was awarded to Charles Kao for research in 1966 that lead to the invention of fibre optic cables. Kao figured out how to transmit light signals over 100 kilometers, allowing high-speed transfer of data around the world. Without his work you wouldn’t be reading this, because the internet would be impossible.

The other half was shared by Willard Boyle and George Smith for the invention of the charged-couple device (CCD) in 1969. Found in everything from digital cameras to space probes, the CCD uses the photoelectric effect (for the theorising of which Albert Einstein received a Nobel Prize in 1921) to convert light in to electric signals. As well as ushering in the era of digital photography, CCDs are used extensively throughout the whole of scientific research.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Finally, this prize was also split equally, between Venkatraman Ramakrishnan, Thomas Steitz, and Ada Yonath for their work on understanding the structure of the ribosome.

Ribosomes act as a kind of molecular interrupter, translating a DNA sequence in to the proteins that make up life. Using X-ray crystallography, the trio mapped the structure of the ribosome to generate 3D models of it in action. These are used to study the effects of antibiotics on bacterial ribosomes, and thus create new treatments for disease.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 1 October 2009 at 5:42 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The last few weeks have seen some interesting developments regarding animal research, catch up on the lastest news with Understanding Animal Research:

Lack of sleep linked to Alzheimer’s

Studies using mice suggest that lack of sleep could increase the development of toxic plaques in the brain, accelerating the development of Alzheimer’s disease.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

White blood cells found to set the pace of wound repair

After more than fifty experiments in mice, scientists have mapped out how a set of white blood cells (lymphocytes) set the pace of recovery after serious lung injury.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Gene therapy for colour blindness

A team of scientists have restored colour vision to two colour blind squirrel monkeys using gene therapy.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.


Last week two prominent scientists in America published an article about the need for change in the communication of issues surrounding animal research.

The article, We Must Face The Threats, tackles the difficult topic of animal rights extremists, and the effect they are having on the scientific community.

Animal research is always a difficult topic to discuss. Trying to present a balanced argument can be as difficult as trying to avoid a mine in a field of landmines. However, I believe that in this case, the authors of the paper, Dario Ringach and David Jentsch have managed to keep to the facts, rather than reverting to ‘mud slinging’ and ‘calling names’.

Ringach and Jentsch also describe how the public are often influenced by groups other than scientists when it comes to the topic of science. This is a problem for science across the whole of the field, not exclusively animal research

The article describes how the entertainment industry contributes to the “misperception of science, producing movies that increasingly portray humans and technology as the source of evil”. Only last night I was watching Spaced – the episode where a dog was snatched by an ‘insane’ scientist who was conducting animal research in an illegal lab – hardly how animal testing happens in this country…!

Ringach and Jentsch also voice their frustrations (which I share), at celebrities wearing AIDS or cancer ribbons one day, and then supporting PETA‘s (People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals) fundraising events, or featuring in their advertising campaigns the next. Many of you will have heard about the recent scandal with Naomi Campbell, who posed naked in the 90s as part of PETAs I’d Rather go Naked than Wear Fur campaign, but recently became the face of an advertising campaign for a luxury New York furrier, Dennis Basso. Cases like this make me wonder the reasons why celebrities support PETA – are they fully informed of all of their policies?

However, Ringach and Jentsch do well to steer clear of these questions (better than me anyway), and do not waste their time repeating what others have done before them – pointing out the countless problems with the animal-rights views. Instead, their overall message is that these issues only cause a problem because the message is being presented with little opposing force from the scientific community.

They are therefore calling for the “scientific community to make a concerted effort in condemning animal-rights extremism and in reaching out to the public to explain our work, its importance, and out commitment to the strictest ethical guidelines of animal research”.

They also emphasize the need to “acknowledge an increasing divide on how animal experimentation is perceived by the broad public.” They believe that “we should open a discourse on the topic, explaining the key role animal research plays in our work and what our society stands to lose if we were to stop it.”

To all those scientists who are sceptical of openness about their role in animal research, it should be pointed out that Ringach and Jentsch, along with their families, have suffered at the hands of extremists, therefore their conclusions come from first hand experience.

They are also out there, putting these ideas into practice. Ringach and Jentsch are members of a US organisiaion called Speaking of Research. Speaking of Research can be compared to the UK’s Pro-test, indeed Tom Holder spokesperson for Pro-test, has been in the US for the past few years getting this fledgling organization onto it’s feet. Drawing on the success in the UK, where animal rights extremism has decreased over recent years, the group aims to support and campaign on behalf of scientists against the extremists.

I believe that this paper not only makes solid points in regards to animal research, but also to the scientific community at large. Yes there are some who are already trying to stem the tide of pseudo-scinece (Ben Goldacre’s column and Sense about Science are just two examples), but they are just a drop in the ocean, and it is the scientists who must take action together, whatever their field of research. As Ringach and Jentsch conclude:

“We must prove that ‘scientific community’ means something more than the mere fact that we publish in the same journals and attend the same conferences. We must stand together to defend those colleagues under attack and defend the research we believe to be ethical and critical for our understanding of the brain in health and disease. The public is ready to listen.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 27 September 2009 at 4:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists find water EVERYWHERE

Well, not quite, but close. In a strange coincidence, the discovery of water on the surface of both the Moon and Mars was announced this week. Future astronauts could use the water to establish a lunar or Martian bases.

The findings were made by the Indian Chandrayaan-1 probe, a fantastic result for the nation’s first lunar mission. The probe detected that light reflected from the Moon’s surface was missing wavelengths known to be absorbed by water. This was later backed up by the NASA Deep Impact and Cassini probes.

NASA also made the discovery on Mars, where the agency’s Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter snapped pictures of melting water-ice that had been thrown up from under the surface by a recent meteorite impact.

Science rap returns

It’s nearly exactly a year since rapper Jonathan Chasa entertained us with his astrobiology rap, but now he’s back again as
Oort Kuiper to tell us about genes:

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 20 September 2009 at 11:21 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Amazing astronomy

Check out this set of astronomy images from flickr user victorvonsalza. This one below is my favourite – be sure to click through for the larger version!

The images were taken in Portland, Oregon, and show a variety of dramatic starscapes.

See-through frog

This little guy comes from an amphibian family known as glass frogs, for reasons that should be fairly obvious. It’s both fascinating and slightly horrifying that you can see their innards from the outside…

Wet Mars, Dry Mars

Giant cracks across the surface of Mars hint that the dusty planet had a much wetter past. Although the cracks have been observed before, it’s only now that their true origin has been revealed.

Ramy El Maarry, a PhD student at the Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research, created a computer model of the cracking process, which forms irregular shapes in the ground up to 250 metres in diameter. The marks have previously been attributed to the heating and cooling of the planet’s surface, but El Maarry’s model showed that this would only produces shapes as large as 65 metres.

He realised that the shapes resembled the “desiccation cracks” found on Earth when water evaporates to leave dry and dusty mud. Comparing the two side by side makes it a pretty convincing hypothesis:

Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
Cracks on Earth (left) compared with Mars (right).
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Comments Off Posted on Friday 18 September 2009 at 10:59 am by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Yes folks, it’s that time of week again….here’s the latest from Understanding Animal Research:

How Broccoli protects arteries

C2AFE2FF-BE37-14AC-DF9E04E0F65B3A95Researchers have discovered one reason why broccoli and other green leafy vegetables are definitely good for you. Using mice, they discovered that a chemical found in these green vegetables – sulforaphane – could protect arteries from clogging, so reducing the chance of heart attacks.

Previous research has shown that certain areas of the arteries are more prone to the build up of fatty plaques. The mouse study showed that, in these areas, a protein called Nrf2 is inactive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

Stem cell link to prostate cancer

A new study identifies a stem cell that may cause some types of prostate cancer, at least in mice. Called CARNs (castrion-resistant Nkx2.1-expressing cells), they are responsible for creating luminal cells, which secrete chemicals into the prostate.

When they inactivated certain tumour suppressor genes in the CARN cells of mice, the team saw out-of-control growth of the luminal cells, which can lead to the formation of a tumour. The study also found that, surprisingly, the cells did not rely on male sex hormones such as androgens to thrive.

To read more on this story, please follow the link.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 13 September 2009 at 6:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

Human nails are growing faster

Your finger and toenails are growing faster than they would have 70 years ago, according to the Daily Mail. It sounds like nonsense, but it’s apparantly true.

Research published in in the Journal Of The European Academy Of Dermatology And Venereology last week found that the average thumbnail grows at 3.55mm a month, compared to the 3mm a month reported by a study in 1938.

Our modern-day diet could be the cause, say researchers from the University of North Carolina. Unfortunately I haven’t been able to access the paper to read their full results, but another explanation does occur to me: perhaps the 1938 study was simply inaccurate, and nails continue to grow at the same rate they always have.

Green energy

Trees contain enough power to run a small electric circuit, scientists at the University of Washington have found. Although the energy output is very small, it could be put to use powering sensors to monitor environmental conditions or forest fires.

Using nanotechnology components which do not require much power, the team created a circuit that uses an average of 10 nanowatts. By comparison, a 100W lightbulb uses 10 billion times as much power. The results will soon be published in the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers’ Transactions on Nanotechnology.

Despite their success, the researchers don’t yet understand where the tree power comes from, according to one of the paper’s co-authors, Babak Parviz:

“It’s not exactly established where these voltages come from. But there seems to be some signaling in trees, similar to what happens in the human body but with slower speed,

“I’m interested in applying our results as a way of investigating what the tree is doing. When you go to the doctor, the first thing that they measure is your pulse. We don’t really have something similar for trees.”

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 9 September 2009 at 3:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

What happens to fat left over from a liposuction procedure? Brad Pitt might choose to turn it in to soap, but scientists at Stanford University have figured out a surprising alternative: stem cells. Induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells are highly sought after because of their ability to transform in to many other types of cells within the human body. Finding a reliable source for these stem cells has provided difficult but Michael Longaker, one of the paper’s authors, believes fat could be the perfect solution.

Longaker calls liposuction leftovers “liquid gold“, because certain cells within the fat can be readily converted to usable stem cells. What’s more, it can be done much quicker and easier than current methods. Most stem cells are derived from skin tissue, but this can take at least 4 weeks until the stem cells are ready for use. There is also a risk of cross-species contamination, because “feeder cells” taken from mice must often be used to help the human cells grow.

The new method, detailed online in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, can start producing stem cells on the same day as the fat is extraced. What’s more, it doesn’t require the use of feeder cells to get going.

Liposuction is most often used as a form of cosmetic surgery, but this development could see us all undergoing a minor form of the treatment. Removing small amounts of fat from a patient’s own body would allow for the creation of stem cells used in their treatment. For example, a person with heart disease could have fat extracted and turned into heart cells, allowing doctors to test out drugs without putting the patient at risk.

Sun, N., Panetta, N., Gupta, D., Wilson, K., Lee, A., Jia, F., Hu, S., Cherry, A., Robbins, R., Longaker, M., & Wu, J. (2009). Feeder-free derivation of induced pluripotent stem cells from adult human adipose stem cells Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.0908450106

Comments Off Posted on Monday 7 September 2009 at 5:33 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

The dissertation-ing indeed continues, bring on Friday is all I can say… but in the meantime i’m still writing for UAR. Highlights this week:

Leishmania parasites feed immune cells

W0041701 Phlebotomine sand flyResearchers using mice have shown how the leishmaniasis parasite, transmitted by sand flies, establishes infection. Leishmaniasis is a disfiguring and potentially fatal parasitic infection that affect some 350 million people worldwide.

Contrary to previous research, they found that it is not the sand flies’ saliva that helps the parasite establish an infection, but a secreted gel called PSG. It is produced by the Leishmania parasite, and forms a plug which blocks the gut. This forces the sand fly to regurgitate to dislodge the plug and feed properly, which simultaneously deposits the parasite and some of the gel into the human body.

To read further, please click here.

Diesel fumes grow new blood vessels?

New findings indicate that the link between diesel exhaust fumes and cancer lies in the ability of particles within the exhaust fumes to cause the growth of new blood vessels, which can aid tumour development.

The team reported a six-fold increase in the formation of new blood vessels in the implanted tissues and aortas of mice exposed to the diesel fumes. In the mice with reduced blood supply, they saw a four-fold increase in new vessels to the hind limbs. The formation of new blood vessels is strongly associated with tumor growth; tumours grow rapidly, consuming large quantities of oxygen and nutrients.

To read further, please click here.

Key protein in obesity related diseases

It is well known that obesity can lead to health problems such as diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and it is thought that this is due to low-grade inflammation.

Scientists believe they may have found the protein which causes this inflammation using mice. The protein, called angiopoietin-like protein 2 (Angptl2), is a fat-derived protein. The team showed that the levels of Angptl2 are raised in the fatty tissue of GM mice, especially in tissue with a low oxygen supply.

To read further, please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 28 August 2009 at 3:48 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Another week and another bunch of research headlines from Understanding Animal Research:

How do you mend a broken heart?

A team of scientists have developed a patch which could help the heart to heal after damage. Heart attacks often cause irreversible damage to the heart muscle, leaving survivors more prone to further attacks or heart failure.

In a recent study, scientists took immature heart cells from newborn rats, and placed them onto a biodegradable ‘scaffold’. They then exposed the patch to chemicals which encouraged the cells to grow, before transplanting it into the abdomens of rats.

To read more about this story please click here.

Monkeys with two mums may eradicate mitochondrial disorders

Scientists have produced four infant monkeys using a technique which could stop women with genetic diseases passing them on to their children. Faulty DNA contained within cell structures called mitochondria was replaced by healthy mitcochondrial DNA (mDNA) from a donor egg, so genetic faults were not passed from mother to baby.

To read more about this story please click here.

Low-carb diets could be more damaging than you’d think

A team studying the effect of diet on the cardiovascular system in mice have shown that a diet low in carbohydrates could lead to artery damage.

Three groups of mice each received a different diet: a standard mouse type, a western diet (high in fat) and a low-carb, high-protein version. After 12 weeks, one sixth more of the mice eating the low-carb diet had developed atherosclerosis compared with the standard diet.

To read more about this story please click here.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 22 August 2009 at 7:05 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This week’s updates from UAR headquarters:

New target for stopping colon cancer

A team of scientists studying mice have found a target that could lead to an effective way to kill colon cancer cells.

Past treatments for many types of cancer target the epidermal growth factor (EGFR). This belongs to a group of proteins that signal cells to reproduce; if the cells can no-longer reproduce, then the cancer cannot spread.

However, the drugs designed to target the receptor have shown very little effect against colon cancer,so the search is on for new targets. The new study identified the ERBB3 receptor (a close relation to EGFR) as a candidate.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

‘Magnetic’ stem cells target damaged blood vessels

Scientists have harnessed the power of magnetism to guide stem cells towards damaged tissue in rats. The team coated stem cells with iron nanoparticles.

This allowed them to be moved by an external magnet around the body, to the site of injury. It also allowed their path to be tracked using MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) scanners.

They used endothelial progenitor stem cells, which circulate in the blood and are involved in the healing of blood vessels. They become endothelial cells, the cells that line the blood vessels.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 August 2009 at 8:30 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

We’re normally warned about the dangers of exercising too little, but it seems that too much physical activity can also be a problem. A drug which causes withdrawal symptoms in heroin addicts can have the same effect in rats after excessive use of exercise wheels. Rats which exercised the most had the severest symptoms.

A study published in the journal Behavioral Neuroscience split rats in to an active and inactive group, and gave each group either one hour of food a day, or a round-the-clock feast. To examine their addiction to exercise, all rats were given naloxone, a medicine for heroin overdose that produces immediate withdrawal symptoms.

The active rats who ate for only one hour a day were the heaviest exercisers, and also the worst hit by withdrawal symptoms. Their behaviour mimicked a potentially fatal eating disorder called anorexia athletica, in which exercise undertaken to lose weight becomes as addictive as taking drugs. Inactive rats had little reaction to the drug, regardless of how much they ate.

It seems that exercising activates the same part of the brain as drugs. Working out releases endorphins and dopamine, giving a sense of reward. This research should not be used as an excuse for avoiding exercise though, warns lead author Robin Kanarek:

“As with food intake and other parts of life, moderation seems to be the key. Exercise, as long as it doesn’t interfere with other aspects of one’s life, is a good thing with respect to both physical and mental health.”

Instead, the researchers hope their work may lead to new treatments for addiction that incorporate moderate forms of exercise. Addicts could be weaned off drugs by replacing their missing sense of reward with exercise.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 17 August 2009 at 3:29 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

This weeks updates from UAR headquarters:

Buzz surrounds cancer treatment

A group of scientists has harnessed the power of bee venom and used it to kill tumour cells in mice. By arming small particles dubbed nanobees with the bee venom melittin, they successfully delivered the toxin directly to tumours.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

How infection can lead to psychiatric problems

Scientists using mice have discovered how early exposure to a common type of bacterium can lead to psychiatric disorders. PANDAS (Paediatric Autoimmune Neuropsychiatric Disorders Associated with Streptococcal infection not the furry black and white kind!) causes problems such as obsessive-compulsive behaviour, ticks and Tourette syndrome.

In this study researchers showed how a specific strain of streptococcus bacteria – GABHS – can cause PANDAS symptoms in mice.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

Delaying motor neuron disease

By blocking the production of a faulty protein in mice, researchers have delayed the onset of motor neurone disease, improved mobility, and extended life-span. Motor neurone diseases affect the cells that control movement.

To read the rest of this story please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 14 August 2009 at 1:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Picture a dog playing with a ball. The dog is alive, and the ball is inanimate. Obvious stuff, but how do we know? You might think our brains use visual cues to sort the living from the non-living, but research published in the journal Neuron this week proves it’s a little more complicated.

A team of scientists lead by Alfonso Caramazza of Harvard University found that even people who have been blind since birth use different areas of the brain when thinking about dogs or balls.

The part of the brain used to identify objects is known as the ventral stream. Previous research has shown that looking at inanimate objects like a spanner or a house activates a different part of the ventral stream to viewing animals or faces.

In an experiment with both sighted and blind individuals, participants were asked to listen to recordings of various words, including animals and tools. They then had to judge which category the word belonged to (living or non-living) and the relative sizes of the objects described.

“Using functional magnetic resonance imaging, we found that the same regions of the ventral stream that show category preferences for non-living stimuli and animals in sighted adults, show the same category preferences in adults who are blind since birth,” explains Caramazza.

The researcher caution this does not necessarily mean sighted individuals don’t use visual information to categories objects. It does however suggest that blind individuals access the same areas of the brain by using a different stimuli such as hearing or touch.

Mahon, B., Anzellotti, S., Schwarzbach, J., Zampini, M., & Caramazza, A. (2009). Category-Specific Organization in the Human Brain Does Not Require Visual Experience Neuron, 63 (3), 397-405 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuron.2009.07.012

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 7 August 2009 at 4:13 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Glaucoma reversed in rats and humans

Researchers have reversed the symptoms of glaucoma in rats using medicated eye drops. Further tests on a small number of human patients also showed promising results. Glaucoma is caused by increased intraocular pressure (pressure inside the eye). This gradually causes damage to the optic nerve, which eventually leads to blindness. Researchers used rats suffering from glaucoma to test eye drops containing nerve growth factor (NGF).

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Rodent teeth grown from stem cells

mice toothMice have grown new teeth from stem cells implanted into the jawbone. Stem cell technology has been used before to produce tissues, but in a limited way. This is the first time a study has shown that a few cells can go on to produce a fully functioning organ. The team began by removing the upper molars from five-week-old mice. They developed a seed-like bioengineered tooth tissue containing stem cells and the genetic instructions necessary to form a tooth, and transplanted the tissue into the jawbones of mice. The implanted cells developed into fully formed teeth with an identical structure to normal teeth.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

Heart stimulated to heal itself

Scientists have shown for the first time that it is possible to stimulate the heart to heal itself without the use of stem cell technology. Heart muscle cells are undifferentiated in a fetus, so are able to multiply and grow to create new heart muscle tissue. However, as the fetus develops, these cells become differentiated and, it was previously thought, no longer produce new tissue. This has consequences in adults when damage occurs to the muscle, for example in heart attacks and in congenital heart defects.

To read the rest of this story please visit the Understanding Animal Research website.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 7:11 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Yes, But When?

I guess it’s fitting that I should write a story about bacteria whilst feeling ill:

Computers are evolving – literally. While the tech world argues netbooks vs notebooks, synthetic biologists are leaving traditional computers behind altogether. A team of US scientists have engineered bacteria that can solve complex mathematical problems faster than anything made from silicon.

The research, published today in the Journal of Biological Engineering, proves that bacteria can be used to solve a puzzle known as the Hamiltonian Path Problem. Imagine you want to tour the 10 biggest cities in the UK, starting in London (number 1) and finishing in Bristol (number 10). The solution to the Hamiltonian Path Problem is the the shortest possible route you can take.

Read the rest at the Guardian

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 4:29 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

A statement by the campaign group Equal Rights for Skin Cells

Scientists have for the first time successfully cloned a mouse from skin cells reprogrammed to an embryo-like state. In a paper published online in Nature this week, Chinese scientists described a procedure in which adult mouse skin cells were genetically manipulated to turn them into induced pluripotent stem (iPS) cells. These iPS cells were then injected into a tetraploid embryo – created by fusing two embryonic mouse cells but only capable of forming placental tissue. In this environment, the iPS cells developed into a fully-fledged embryo, which was implanted into a surrogate mother. Twenty days later, the mother gave birth to a mouse that was genetically identical to the mouse from which the skin cells were taken.

This study has shown for the first time that stem cells derived from skin cells can be used to create a living creature. It surely follows that skin cells are equal in status to embryos – both can give rise to life. Just as an embryo is a human being who has not yet been born, a skin cell is a human being who has not yet been reprogrammed, injected into a tetraploid embryo, implanted into a surrogate mother and born.

Equal Rights for Skin Cells (ERSC) has been set up by those of us who believe that skin cells deserve to be recognised as human beings, just like embryos. We affirm that the government must protect the basic rights of skin cells, for each one of them could be made into a person if only a scientist took the trouble. Billions of skin cells are lost from every person every day. This means that quadrillions of potential human beings are dying every day, and the government doesn’t seem to care. Join us in our fight to put an end to this senseless loss of life.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:50 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Researchers have used mice to pinpoint what goes wrong in aneuploidy. Aneuploidy describes genetic disorders affecting chromosomes, usually resulting in an extra chromosome. Such disorders include Down syndrome and Edwards syndrome, and often cause pregnancy loss.

The researchers were looking at mutations of a particular gene in mice, to determine its role in colon cancer development. However, during the study they noticed that the mice carrying one copy of a mutation in the Bub1 gene had fewer offspring.

Further studies found that this effect was confined to female mice. If a mother’s egg had a mutation in one of the copies of Bub1 then she was more likely to have fewer offspring that survived until birth. They also found that the mutation was more harmful the older the mice were, which is the same for aneuploidy in humans.

Bub-1 works as a checkpoint in cell division, controlling the spindles which pull the chromosomes apart during cell division. It is likely that the mutation disrupts this process, resulting in extra chromosomes in the egg cells. Further tests will study the mutation in more detail to see if this is the case, and whether the mutation is present in humans.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 24 July 2009 at 2:45 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Using mice, scientists have pinpointed the molecule which is responsible for making allergic reactions more severe.

The team studied patients who had experienced anaphylaxis (a severe allergic reaction) during surgery. They found that these patients had very high levels of the hormone IL-33. Further studies using mice showed that this hormone significantly increases inflammation.

Inflammation is triggered during anaphylactic shock. This reaction is often so severe that constricts the airway, leading to breathing difficulties and even death. By blocking the IL-33 hormone in mice the researchers were able to reduce the inflammation to non threatening levels.

The next stage is to study the hormone in more detail to better understand why it causes such severe inflammation. In the future, IL-33 inhibitors could change the way we treat anaphylaxis and could save many lives.

For more information on animal testing, and this story, see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 23 July 2009 at 5:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Just a quick post today, as I’ve been struck down with some sort of illness. Thankfully it isn’t swine flu, as my temperature remain normal, but it’s still pretty unpleasant. Nevermind that though, you’ve got a cool science video to be watching:

Watching this video is the first time I’ve ever heard of a helicase, which is the amazing little biological machine that splits up a strand of DNA and copies it. As you can see, it actually works like a tiny motor, pulling the DNA apart and sticking it back together. Amazing.

4 Comments » Posted on Sunday 19 July 2009 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Mathematics, Weekly Roundup

Travelating in slow motion

The moving walkways used in airports actually slow you down, according to scientists in America. Research has found that people reduce their speed when stepping on to a travelator, making the human conveyor belts only marginally faster than walking. This is only true on an empty walkway however, as any congestion will drop your speed to less than a normal walking pace.

Manoj Srinivasan of Princeton University created a mathematical model to investigate the problem. Publishing in the journal Chaos, he found that the conflict between what your eyes see and your legs feel is responsible for the reduction in speed.

Visual cues tell the brain you are travelling faster than your legs are walking, so in order to conserve energy you slow down. This means that using an empty travelator will only save you about 11 seconds for every 100-metre stretch, compared to walking on regular ground.

But as any regular fliers know, airport travelators are rarely empty. Another study by Seth Young of Ohio State University found that delays due to other travellers getting in the way occur so often that you are better off avoiding the walkway all together. “Moving walkways are the only form of transportation that actually slow people down,” said Young, speaking to New Scientist.

Wii-ly good for you

Active video games like Wii Sports can be a good alternative to moderate exercise for children, according to a study published in the journal Pediatrics.

While not a replacement for more intensive sporting activities, scientists at the University of Oklahoma found they were comparably to a moderate walk. Children aged 10-13 were monitored as they watched television, played the Wii and walked on a treadmill. Both gaming and walking increased the number of calories burned by two to three times. As such, the researchers suggest encouraging kids to play active games instead of more passive ones.

Facebook for scientists

UK researchers have created myExperiment, a social networking site for scientists. Intended to challenge traditional models of academic publishing, it allows scientists to share “Research Objects”.

Rather than just publishing a paper, myExperiment lets users share data, files, and other information required to understand and reuse research. The site also allows the usual social networking interactions, such as messaging and groups.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 18 July 2009 at 10:23 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Health & Medicine

How can you tell that a cell is a stem cell? It’s really quite difficult. You can only really know by seeing whether they can regenerate tissue after being implanted into another animal. Either that or by showing that a single cell in culture can generate a line of genetically identical cells that then develop into a range of mature cell types.

In practice, scientists tend to infer that a cell is a stem cell if it tests positive for particular protein markers that are thought to be indicative of a specific type of cell. But according to new research, some of these tests are not very reliable.

Endothelial progenitor cells, or EPCs for short, are a type of stem cell that gives rise to the endothelial cells that line the walls of our blood vessels. They originate in the bone marrow and circulate in the bloodstream. Many scientists hope that EPCs can be used in new therapies to repair heart tissue, and they have already been used in clinical trials, but with limited success. A paper published in the journal Blood this week suggested that this could be because the EPCs they used were not EPCs at all.

Marianna Prokopi and colleagues at the British Heart Foundation Centre of Research Excellence at King’s College London discovered that the normal methods used to isolate EPCs in fact produce samples that are contaminated with platelets, a constituent of the blood. This is a problem because the protein markers used to identify EPCs are abundant in platelets. Platelets themselves are pretty difficult to confuse with other types of cell since they’re small and don’t have a nucleus. But it seems that proteins can be transferred from platelets into other cells.

Platelets readily disintegrate into “microparticles”, which get swallowed up by the bone marrow mononuclear cells that researchers are hoping to grow into EPCs. Thus the mononuclear cells acquire proteins from the platelets that make them look like EPCs.

Team leader Dr Manuel Mayr said: “Our results suggest that cells used in some clinical trials may have been masquerading as EPCs, but were actually a different type of cell. We need to develop new ways of purifying EPCs and new markers to identify them that are unique to these cells. This will help us understand the properties of the cells themselves and whether EPCs are actually able to contribute to the repair of heart tissue before they are tested in trials on people. Otherwise, we cannot be certain whether potential benefits or side effects are due to stem cells or contaminating platelets.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 July 2009 at 3:08 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have produced an artificial hormone that causes rapid weight loss in mice. Previous studies have suggested that single treatments for obesity cannot reduce weight by more than 5-10%. While surgery remains the closest thing we have to a cure, this is very invasive. So many studies are looking at ways of using hormones to reduce weight.

Researchers combined the sequences of two hormones (glucagon and glucagon-like peptide-1) to produce a synthetic molecule that activates multiple receptors. The two hormones are similar in structure, but have different functions. Their potential is the subject of current obesity research after scientists showed they can increase the use of calories by the body.

After just a week on the new hormone, the mice lost a quarter of their weight and their fat mass reduced by over a third. Follow-up tests after a month showed even greater loss – reductions of nearly a third and over two thirds respectively.

The technique of activating multiple receptors in a single treatment could prove to be a more potent treatment, opening up a whole new way of thinking about the way we treat of obesity.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 July 2009 at 7:13 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Over the next few weeks I will be doing some work at the Guardian, mostly on their science blog. Whilst I hope to still have some original Just A Theory content, I’ll also be linking to my posts over there. Here is the first, on yet another study into calorie restriction as a means of holding back the years:

The idea that severely reducing your calorie intake will help you live longer may not be as straightforward as reports last week suggested. Eating a radically restricted diet may weaken the immune system and actually shorten life.

While eating less has been shown to slow the ageing process in a variety of animals, these tests are normally conducted in artificial conditions with little or no exposure to potentially life-shortening diseases. Hence the apparent contradiction.

Research into slowing the ageing process through dieting began as early as 1934 when researchers at Cornell University discovered that rats given a restricted diet could live nearly twice as long as normal. Calorie restriction as a route to longer life has now been confirmed in fruit flies, roundworms, and most recently monkeys, but all of these studies kept the animals in unnaturally clean surroundings.

Read the rest at the Guardian.

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2 Comments » Posted on Monday 13 July 2009 at 9:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

You grip the nail tightly in one hand, a hammer ready to swing in the other. Lift it up – and bam! You’ve just hit own thumb and are now turning the air blue. Swearing is a common reaction to pain, and a new study published in the journal NeuroReport suggests it can actually help reduce the effect.

Richard Stephens, John Atkins and Andrew Kingston of Keele University investigated the science of swearing by asking 67 volunteers to submerge their hand in a bowl of ice-cold water for a maximum of five minutes. The volunteers had to repeat the swear word of their choice until they couldn’t stand the pain. As a control, they were also asked to do the same procedure whilst repeating a word used “to describe a table”.

One person had to be removed from the study because they couldn’t think of a swear word, but the rest managed just fine. The results showed that on average, men could suffer the pain for around 45 seconds longer when swearing, whilst women managed an additional 37 seconds.

Both sexes also demonstrated a reduction on the Perceived Pain Scale, which measures how much people feel pain. This is in contrast to the scientists’ initial hypothesis that swearing would actually increase feelings of pain.

It isn’t clear why swearing has this effect, though in the paper the researchers suggest swearing could induce a fight-or-flight response and nullifies the link between fear of pain and the perception of pain. All participants registered an increase in heart rate whilst swearing, which supports this theory.

As an aside, the research has unsurprisingly been picked up by various media outlets including the BBC and Daily Mail. Both reports make reference to Rohan Byrt of the Casual Swearing Appreciation Society. Intrigued as to the nature of such an austere society, I was puzzled when a Google search showed no obvious results.

It seems that the “society” is actually nothing more then a Facebook group, and Mr Byrt is the self-appointed “Sir Saysfuckalot”. If this shoddy journalism pains you, I suggest you make use of the four-letter word of your choice.

Stephens, R., Atkins, J., & Kingston, A. (2009). Swearing as a response to pain NeuroReport, 20 (12), 1056-1060 DOI: 10.1097/WNR.0b013e32832e64b1

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 July 2009 at 3:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Scientists at Newcastle University claim to have created human sperm from embryonic stem cells for the first time. Professor Karim Nayernia who led the team says their research could be used to study male infertility, but the tabloids drew slightly different conclusions.

Ethical storm flares as British scientists create artificial sperm from human stem cells‘ and ‘Are we on the brink of a society without any need for men?‘ – Daily Mail

The end of men? Scientists create sperm in the lab out of stem cells‘ – The Mirror

Chaps doomed as lab grows sperm‘ – The Sun

I can’t access the paper thus only have the press release to go on, but even without an in-depth look at the science I can safely say that these headlines are a bit alarmist.

Theoretically, these artificial sperm could be used to fertilise an egg and produce a viable embryo, though such a procedure is currently banned in the UK by the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 2008. Laws do change however, and Professor Nayernia and his team have already used the technique to impregnate mice, though the resulting offspring died soon after birth due to abnormalities.

It’s still a huge leap to go from creating sperm to eliminating men all together. For one thing, surely half of all babies born through this method would be male? Even if this weren’t the case, the researchers were not able to produce viable sperm from female stem cells. It seems that men will need to stick around, if only for their Y chromosome.

Ultimately I think that the furthest this research will go is to generate artificial sperm from the stem cells of men who can’t produce their own. We’re not even close to that yet though, and many media reports mention rival scientists questioning whether the team at Newcastle have even created sperm at all. Dr Allan Pacey of the University of Sheffield and Secretary of the British Fertility Society told the Guardian:

“As a sperm biologist of 20 years’ experience, I am unconvinced from the data presented in this paper that the cells … produced by Professor Nayernia’s group can be accurately called ‘spermatozoa’”

Whilst it is important that we have a debate about the implications of this research and create legislation reflecting the realities of science, I don’t think these headlines can be taken seriously. A dose of common sense will tell you that the majority of couples will choose to conceive in the same way as they have always done, men included, and this new technique will just be another addition to the IVF toolkit.

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3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 7 July 2009 at 9:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A common trope in science fiction: the hero is presented with two people of identical appearance, one a loyal ally and the other a dastardly villain. “Shoot him!” they both cry, “I’m the real one!”

It seems that this scenario is also played out in the natural world. A species of orb spider called Cyclosa mulmeinensis constructs decoy models of itself, in an effort to confuse predators. Ling Tseng and I-Min Tso of Tunghai University in Taiwan decided to investigate this behaviour, which they call a “Darwinian puzzle”, in a paper published in the journal Animal Behaviour.

For some animals, drawing attention to yourself works a defence, as long as you have the muscle to back it up. Wasps, the natural predator of the orb spider, advertise their stinger through their distinctive yellow and black markings. Anything that wants to feed on them know not to get involved, unless they want a nasty jab.

This explanation doesn’t make sense for C. mulmeinensis though, because it has no defences. Why encourage predator attention by offering the prospect of multiple meals if you can’t fight off an attack?

The obvious answer is that whilst having decoys increases the number of attacks on a spider’s web, less of them end up directed towards the actual spider itself. Biologists suspect this to be the case, but until now no-one had verified it in the wild. In July and August of 2003, 2004 and 2005 Tseng and Tso went to Orchid Island, 90km off the coast of Taiwan, to do just that.

C. mulmeinensis are found in abundance on the island. They build their webs hanging vertically, using webbing, eggsacs and remains of their prey to create decoy models of themselves. The image to the left shows decoys made from a) prey remains and b) eggsacs, with the spider marked by an arrow.

The researchers found the size of the decoys to be very closely related to the length of the spider who made them, implying that they were intentionally built to confuse predators. To investigate this further, they also looked at how light is reflected by both the spiders and their decoys. The results were surprisingly similar, so to the limited visual systems of the predatory wasps the decoys appear almost indistinguishable to the spiders.

Both spider and decoys show up in sharp contrast to background vegetation however, making them an easy target for the wasps. The scientists set up video cameras and found that the number of attacks on webs with two or more decoys was twice that of webs with one or no decoy.

This might make decoys sound like a poor strategy as they led to increased attacks, but most of these were made against the decoys and not the spider. Whilst the arachnid might be attracting more attention, it can often redirect it and escape without harm, leaving the unfortunate wasp empty-handed and with an empty stomach.

Tseng, L., & I-Min Tso, . (2009). A risky defence by a spider using conspicuous decoys resembling itself in appearance Animal Behaviour DOI: 10.1016/j.anbehav.2009.05.017

3 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 7 July 2009 at 7:17 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

As many newspapers reported last Friday, a study by Professor Ian Coulson of Imperial College has suggested that climate change is to blame for a decrease in the size of wild sheep in the Outer Hebrides.

The average weight of Soay sheep on the island of Hirta has fallen by about 5 per cent in the last 24 years. After studying a wealth of data on the body sizes and life histories of the sheep, the researchers concluded that global warming is the culprit. According to Prof Coulson, smaller lambs that normally struggle to survive through winter now have a better chance of making it to spring as conditions have been getting milder. Consequently, a greater number of small sheep are reproducing, and propagating their genes for small bodies.

I haven’t been able to access the paper (published in Science Express), so the best description I have of how the authors reached this conclusion comes from  the BBC:

They used a formula called the “Price equation”, which was designed by evolutionary theorist George Price to predict how a physical trait, such as body size, will change from one generation to the next.

With all of this data, the team was able to “rearrange the equation” and use it to work out how much of a contribution each driver made to the sheep’s body size.

They found that the local environment had a stronger effect on the animals than the evolutionary pressure to grow larger.

A press release put out by Imperial College reads:

Their results suggest that the decrease in average body size seen in Hirta’s sheep is primarily an ecological response to environmental changes over the last 25 years; evolutionary change has contributed relatively little.

This statement seems to underlie a bit of confusion in the press about what sort of effect we’re looking at here. If we accept Prof Coulson’s conclusion, then clearly the decrease in body size is an ecological response to environmental changes. But is it not an evolutionary change as well? Evolution boils down to a change in allele frequencies in a population (alleles being the different variants of a particular gene). If a larger number of smaller lambs are reaching reproductive maturity and passing on their genes for small bodies, then what we’re seeing is a weakening of the selection pressure in favour of larger bodies, leading to genes for small bodies becoming more numerous in the population.

Yet many reports implied that natural selection is not at play here. The Times said this:

The scientists attributed the change to short-term changes in climate rather than to the long-term pressures of natural selection, which would favour a larger — not a smaller — body size.

The Independent went as far as to publish a subtitle heralding ‘Darwinism turned on its head’.

The Telegraph led with a strong contender for 2009′s worst opening sentence in a science article (I welcome further nominations in the comment thread).

Survival of the fittest and natural selection usually means that species grow bigger as they evolve

It really doesn’t bode well when the article starts with a howler like that.

These misinterpretations notwithstanding, the Soay sheep study has elucidated a fairly benign effect of climate change on ecology. But the rate at which the planet is heating up means that many animals may not be able to evolve quickly enough to cope with the changes in their environment. According to the IPCC, between a fifth and a third of all species could be at risk of extinction by the end of the century as a result of global warming.

We can expect to read more stories about climate change shaping evolution in the coming years, no doubt including some that elements of the media construe as anti-Darwinian. But the likelihood is that these will be outnumbered by sad tales of species disappearing altogether.

Comments Off Posted on Monday 6 July 2009 at 7:54 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Whoops. Wrote this yesterday but somehow failed to put it on the site. Warning: incoming link dump. I’ve still got loads of interesting stuff left, so I thought I’d burn it all off at once.

Honours for UK astronauts

The British Interplanetary Society (BIS) have created an award for people from the UK who have flown in to to space – all five of them.

The silver pins were give to Helen Sharman and Richard Garriott, who were backed by private funds, and Michael Foale, Nicholas Patrick and Piers Sellers who all became US citizens to fly with NASA.

Despite UK government resistance to human spaceflight, the BIS have made up another five pins that they hope to give to future UK astronauts.

One quarter of Londoners believe in creationism

The figure falls to one in seven nationwide, which is still fairly concerning. Worse though are the one in five Londoners who have never even heard of Darwin – you don’t have to believe the guy, but at least know his name!

US Navy is building electromagnetic plane guns

As in, guns that fire planes. Well not quite, but the Pentagon has spent half a billion dollars on building a new launch system for aircraft carriers.

Currently, they use “steam catapults” to launch planes off the short carrier runways – which is pretty much what it sounds like. The new Electromagnetic Aircraft Launch System will instead use an electric linear motor to shoot the planes off in to the sky.

Self-help books don’t

A psychological study has found that self-help books can actually have the opposite effect to that intended. The research showed that people with low self-esteem actually feel worse about themselves after repeating typical self-help statements like “I am a lovable person”.

Monkeys barter and trade on a simian stock market

Instead of pounds or dollars, non-human primates use grooming as currency. Scientists from the University of Strasbourg in France examined monkey exchange rates by placing food in a box that only one female was trained to open.

An hour after she did, the other members of the group rewarded her with longer and more frequent grooming, and she reciprocated less.

Her new-found wealth wasn’t to last however. When the scientists introduced another trained monkey, the first female’s grooming “stock value” decreased as the second female’s rose. Eventually the “market” equalised and they were both groomed for the same amount of time.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:39 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Blocking the action of a gene called Sirtuin-1 reduced the symptoms of type 2 diabetes in rats, scientists have found.

People with Type 2 diabetes suffer from high blood glucose concentrations due to insulin resistance and increased glucose production. To create a similar condition in rats, the researchers put a group of rats on a four-week diet of high-fat, fructose-rich meals.

Sirtuin-1 is a gene responsible for regulating glucose production in the liver. The researchers therefore then blocked Sirtuin-1 in the ‘diabetic’ rats by injecting them with a fragment of genetic information. This fragment – called an antisense oligonucleotide – interrupts and blocks gene expression and can be targeted to specific genes.

After Sirtuin-1 inhibition, the rats were more sensitive and responsive to insulin. The rate of glucose production fell back to normal levels, resulting in a decrease in the blood plasma. Thus the scientists believe the Sirtuin-1 gene is a cause of type 2 diabetes symptoms.

The results of this study are consistent with a recent mouse study which showed that decreased expression of Sirtuin-1 led to better insulin sensitivity. The next step is to develop inhibitors targeted to Sirtuin-1 in the liver, these will be tested in rats before moving on to primates and human clinical trials if successful.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 29 June 2009 at 10:18 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Using fish, scientists have discovered a signalling pathway that could be used to treat skin cancers (melanomas). The pathway, PI3K (phosphoinositide 3-kinase) had a major effect on the progression of cancerous melanomas in zebrafish. Zebrafish are ideal for studying skin cancer as the melanomas are similar to those seen in humans, and the fish themselves are easy to observe because of their light-coloured, almost transparent skin.

Signalling pathways regulate cell division, migration and death. The pathways form a complex network to relay these various commands to cells. But when the signalling molecules mutate, the result is often excess cell division which can lead to cancer.

The team looked at two major pathways called Ras and PI3K. They found fish often developed melanomas which progressed rapidly if molecules in these pathways were mutated. The discovery that PI3K was directly involved indicates that it could be a suitable target for melanoma therapy.

The mutant zebrafish also passed on the mutations to their offspring. In this they were strikingly similar to the human inherited syndrome FAMM (familial atypical mole and melanoma).

This study highlights a potential target for therapy, but also gives scientists new insights into the mechanisms of melanomas, revealing other possible targets. But further research into these models will be needed so scientists can see whether they’re as promising as this initial study indicates.

For more information on animal research and this story, please see the Understanding Animal Research site.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 25 June 2009 at 4:25 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Getting It Right

Despite appearances, here at Just A Theory, we don’t spend all our time trying to bash the media’s representation of science. Sometimes we try to join in. This week I even managed to get something published internationally (hurray!): here is my short article in The Economist.

It’s on recent research that shows that dinosaurs were not as big as we thought. In the spirit of Just A Theory, I try to go beyond the “Jurassic Park was wrong” story and explain, with the help of one of the research’s authors, a little bit about what they say in the actual paper. Leave a comment if you can – it only takes a second to register on The Economist website. It would be great to know whether people really want to know more than just whether Brachiosaurus weighed the same as three or seven African elephants…

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 23 June 2009 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

If you want someone to pay attention, speak to their right-hand side. That’s the advice of scientists Luca Tommasi and Daniele Marzoli from the University “Gabriele d’Annunzio” Italy. They performed a series of three studies, published in the online journal Naturwissenschaften that found humans are more likely to act on a request to their right ear rather than their left.

Unfortunately this is one of those occasions where I am not able to read the paper, which is a shame because it actually sounds quite interesting, as it involved scientists going clubbing.

It seems that laboratory studies have already determined a right ear dominance, thought to be a result of the superior verbal processing of the left brain hemisphere which controls the right side of the body. In order to confirm these results in a real life environment, Tommasi and Marzoli hit the nightclubs.

The first study involved simply observation. They watched 286 clubbers involved in conversations over the loud music, and found that 72% used their right ear when listening.

In the next study, the researchers got involved. Stepping out on to the dancefloor, they went up to 160 clubbers and mumbled inaudible nonsense, waiting for their victim to turn their head and offer a particular ear. The researchers then covered their tracks by asking for a cigarette. The results showed that 58% offered their right ear, but only women had a consistent right-ear preference.

The final study saw the scientists intentionally addressing 176 clubbers in a particular ear. This time they didn’t mumble, instead directly asking for a cigarette. In the previous study, where the clubber chose which ear to offer, there was no link between the likelihood of being given a cigarette and the ear involved. With this more direct approach, the researchers found they were significantly more likely to receive a cigarette when addressing the person’s right ear.

I’ve got this wonderful (if rather stereotypical) image of lab-coated scientists running up to clubbers and whispering in their ears, all the while clutching clipboards. I’m sure it wasn’t quite like that, but it must have been fun for Tommasi and Marzoli to put in a funding request for a night on the town.

In all seriousness though, this is an interesting result because it shows once again the strange split in the two sides of our brain. This, say the authors, is one of the few studies to clearly demonstrate this difference in an everyday environment.

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24 Comments » Posted on Monday 22 June 2009 at 12:03 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

David Mitchell, as usual, wrote a very funny but also very wise column in the Observer yesterday about the Daily Mail’s ridiculous wheelie bin campaign, and about how our heightened sensitivity to injustices against us has overridden our sense of responsibility to society.

Our fear of being encroached upon has made us forget that there are few freedoms that can be fully exercised without impinging on someone else’s. The freedom to stab has long since been subordinated to the freedom not to be stabbed. But we still have the freedom not to recycle and to borrow or lend money recklessly, regardless of others’ freedom to live on a habitable planet and in a functional economy. We’ve hugely prioritised our rights over our duties because it’s only the former that tyrants try to take away.

A reader called Memoid posted a comment saying:

There’s not even been a hint of discussion about the right to have children yet, and that’s the debate we really need to have. And the world needs the vast majority of us to lose the debate.

He’s right, so let’s start the debate. There are 6.8 billion people on the planet. At the current rate, there will be 9.1 billion by 2050. Most of the increase will happen in developing countries, but even Britain’s population is expected to increase by 16 million in that time. And yet you rarely hear anyone talk about whether everyone can continue to have as many children as they like.

The Earth simply cannot provide enough food, energy and resources for that many people. And just think about the impact on the climate. How can we expect to make dramatic cuts in our carbon emissions if our population continues to grow?

People need to see having lots of children as the environmental sin that it is. You can turn all your lights off, cycle to work and insulate your house but having kids makes you more of an eco-criminal than the childless bloke next door who drives a gas-guzzler and takes 10 flights a year.

The idea of limiting one’s procreative activities will be very difficult for many to accept, for Darwinian as well as societal reasons. Surely having children is the most sacred of all human rights? I’m not advocating any government intervention in how big a family people choose to have. But I think the public needs to be more aware of the seriousness of the environmental ramifications of having children. Perhaps then more people might realise that this is one instance when our duty to society should take precedence over exercising our rights.

The Optimum Population Trust, of which David Attenborough became patron in April, runs a ‘Stop At Two’ campaign, and has a pledge that you can sign on its website. The idea will still seem outrageous to some, but I think signing the pledge is an absolutely reasonable step towards remediating unsustainable population growth.

(Incidentally, even if you plan to stop at two, it doesn’t always work out that way. My Dad found this out the second time my mum got pregnant: the egg that became me wasn’t the only one that got fertilised. As a result, my mum got her wish for three kids.)

This is all very easy for me to say. I’m 22 and single, and the prospect of having children feels almost as remote to me as arthritis. It could well be that in 10 years’ time I’ll turn out to be a massive hypocrite with three kids. But I hope, for everyone’s sake, that I will be able to restrain my reproductive urges in light of the bald truth: there are too many people on the planet already.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 20 June 2009 at 11:53 am by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

sleeping beautyScientists using mice have developed a new way to deliver gene therapies. By using hollow particles to deliver a gene into cells, they successfully reversed haemophilia symptoms.

Gene therapy can be used to treat diseases caused by a mutated or missing gene. The technique involves delivering a correct copy of the gene. However, current methods haven’t worked too well in patients;often the gene binds at the wrong place in the DNA or doesn’t integrate itself into the cell. The new technique using very small nanoparticles to deliver the genes aimed to overcome these problems. The team also used a genetic element known as Sleeping Beauty to help integrate the genes into the cells’ DNA.

Haemophilia is a blood disorder caused by a lack of a protein called Factor VIII (FVIII). FVIII helps blood clot after injury; so lack of the protein means blood cannot clot effectively. The team loaded the nanoparticles with the gene that produces the FVIII protein (along with the Sleeping Beauty element), and covered the particle with chemicals to seek out and selectively bind to specialised liver cells. They then injected the particles into mice and monitored the effect on blood clotting time and levels of the FVIII protein.

At five and 50 weeks the clotting times of the treated mice were about the same as in normal mice, and much longer than in the untreated group. At 50 weeks the levels of Factor VIII in the blood of mice given the nanoparticles were also the same as in normal mice.

Using nanoparticles with the Sleeping Beauty genetic element seems to work well, and could represent a viable way to deliver gene therapies for various diseases.

More information is available on the Understanding Animal Research website.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 19 June 2009 at 3:07 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Researchers have created a GM mouse that develops Parkinson’s disease. This mouse will allow them to study progression of the disease and test new treatments without extensive use of monkeys.

Parkinson’s disease is caused by a mutation on chromosome 12. There are a number of different mutations known to cause the disease, however the team looked at just one – LRRK2. Because the genes responsible for causing Parkinson’s are very long, traditional genetic techniques are unsuitable. So the researchers used a technique called BAC (bacterial artificial chromosome) which uses sections of bacterial DNA to introduce the gene into the mouse DNA.

The mice produced using this technique showed all the signs of Parkinson’s seen in humans. This includes slowed movement and brain cell degeneration. At 10-12 months the transgenic mice were largely immobile with severe defects in their muscle function. However, treatment with levodopa (used to treat Parkinson’s in humans) reversed these defects.

This suggests that LRRK2 is being expressed in the mice in the same way as in humans, so the mice offer the first model of Parkinson’s disease based on a known genetic mutation, replicating features of the human disease.

This is interesting research showing just how important our ability to genetically modify organisms can be. The method of using BAC was actually nicked from the Human Genome project where it was used to determine the sequencing of genes – this is the first time it has been used in this context.

If further tests show the model to be as useful as this study suggests, it could lead to significant improvements in our understanding of Parkinson’s disease. Scientists will then be able to think of more tailor made treatments for patients.

More information is available on the Understanding Animal Research website.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 June 2009 at 4:36 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Tweeters aren’t psychic

Earlier this month I reported on Richard Wiseman’s Twitter experiment which hoped to use the social networking site to study psychic ability. Now the results are in, and you don’t need to be able to see the future to predict them.

The experiment consisted of Wiseman going to a location each day, then asking people to Tweet their impressions of where he was. They would then select from five pictures of possible locations. In all four trials, the majority voted for an incorrect location. Even those who declared they had some form of psychic ability with high confidence scored zero. Sorry guys, but you’re not special.

Who Pooped?

A strange question yes, but one with an important answer. Scientists are able to determine the nature of an animal from their fecal matter alone, and now you can too in a game brought to you by the Minnesota Zoo. I guessed all three correctly, so perhaps there is a new career waiting for me.

Ten icons of science – but which is the best?

To celebrate its centenary, the Science Museum have selected 10 objects from their collection that changed the future. From the steam engine to penicillin, each invention or discovery has a huge influence on our lives today, but which one gets your vote? I think I’ll have to go for the Pilot ACE Computer – the first multi-tasking computer. So much of the modern world revolves around computers, and most importantly of all, you wouldn’t be reading Just A Theory without one!

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3 Comments » Posted on Friday 12 June 2009 at 2:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Place your hand over your heart. Now move it to your stomach. How about your thyroid? Ok, that last one is a little trickier, but I’d be shocked to meet anyone who couldn’t do the first two. Well, it’s time to be shocked.

A study published in the journal BMC Family Practice has found an appalling lack of public knowledge of human anatomy. The research, carried out by psychologists at King’s College London, aimed to discovery whether public understanding of anatomy had improved since a similar study in the 70s. It hasn’t.

Clue: It isn't D.
Clue: It isn't D.

They gave over 700 people multiple choice questions like the example above. Most were patients currently undergoing treatment for one of six types of conditions; the researchers were interested to see whether a patient with respiratory problems would be able to identify the location of the lungs, for example. The rest of the sample (133 participants) were members of the public.

In the test above, 44% of the public failed to find the true location of the heart. For cardiac patients the results were even worse, with just over half seemingly unaware of the placement of their troublesome organ.

As the researchers rightly point out, this knowledge gap poses a significant problem for doctors trying to inform patients about their illness. They point to previous studies which show that many people do not know the difference between pairs of medical terms, like heart attack and myocardial infarction, or fracture and broken bone.

I’m not too worried about that kind of knowledge – I couldn’t tell you the difference between those terms, because I’m not a doctor. What I simply can’t fathom is how it is possible for anyone to not know where their heart is. We feel it beat every second of every day. After heavy exercise, the intensity of our heartbeat is so loud that you can hear it. Other organs fair even worse: 72.9% could not correctly place the lungs. What do these people think is going on in their body?

We can take comfort reading that, as you might expect, the study found levels of knowledge increased amongst more educated participants. There was also a slight decrease in knowledge for older participants, suggesting that education is slowly improving. Perhaps public understanding of anatomy is getting better then, but this research shows that a lot more work needs to be done.

John Weinma, Gibran Yusuf, Robert Berks, Sam Rayner, & Keith Petrie (2009). How accurate is patients’ anatomical knowledge: a cross-sectional, questionnaire study of six patient groups and a general public sample. BMC Family Practice, 10 (1) DOI: 10.1186/1471-2296-10-43

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 6 June 2009 at 3:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Space & Astronomy

I’m almost tempted to leave you with just the title of this post, but perhaps a little bit of explanation is required. It seems that scientists from the British Antarctic Survey (BAS) have found a rather novel way to monitor penguin population levels in the ice region – using satellite imaging to search for their poo.

Peter Fretwell and Dr Philip Trathan of the BAS outlined their novel technique in a paper published this week in Global Ecology and Biogeography. Using images taken by space satellites they were able to identify colony locations of emperor penguins in Antarctica. Despite the image quality being too low to pick out individual penguins, they were able to infer the presence of a colony by the distinctive brown stain they left behind.

Spot the stain.
Spot the stain.

Penguin poo, or guano, stands out from the white and blue sea ice as the only brown around. By picking out these areas of discolouration, Fretwell and Trathan found a total of 38 colonies, 10 of which were previously unknown. Emperor penguins are vulnerable to changes in the sea ice, so accurate information about colony locations is important in assessing the impact of climate change on the population.

Whilst searching for poo from space might sound silly, this research actually has important consequences for animal conservation. Unfortunately this method, whilst useful for finding unknown colonies, cannot really provide accurate estimates of the number of birds at each location. As such, the researchers call for further research to determine emperor penguins vulnerability to climate change.

Fretwell, P., & Trathan, P. (2009). Penguins from space: faecal stains reveal the location of emperor penguin colonies Global Ecology and Biogeography DOI: 10.1111/j.1466-8238.2009.00467.x

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 5 June 2009 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Mathematics

Gangs of teenagers roaming the land are generally bad news, but not when it comes to ravens. Juvenile ravens hunting in packs have gotten some scientists very excited, as this behaviour was predicted by a mathematical model before ever being seen in the wild.

Dr Sasha Dall lectures in mathematical ecology at the University of Exeter, and in 2002 set out to solve an evolutionary puzzle: why do young ravens share their food? Natural selection tells us organisms should only help themselves and their relatives. It seems that no one told the ravens.

Typically, juvenile ravens spend their winters drifting in and out of communal roosts. They scavenge for food, usually sheep carcasses, by themselves. Having found a tasty meal they return to the roost and recruit other ravens for a feast the next day. These shared dwellings can house up to 100 individuals, but they don’t stick around. Each bird will move on every few days to another roost and probably won’t encounter their former roommates again.

“From an evolutionary perspective, this is a bit weird,” says Dall. The ravens are unrelated so will not pass on their genes by helping out others. They also don’t encounter the same individuals often enough to build up a sense of co-operation. Using a technique called game theory, in which many different strategies are played out, Dall built a model to explain this unusual behaviour.

The favoured hypothesis amongst ecologists was roosts act as a kind of “information centre” to the advantage of all the juveniles. Individual birds are unlikely to find a carcass by themselves, but if every bird shares information about food locations then they all benefit.

Dall’s model showed that this strategy emerged naturally when ravens try to maximise their access to food. “In the long run, they find more carcasses than they otherwise would,” he says. Bringing a few friends along also allows young birds to chase off any adults who might lay claim to carcasses in their territory.

Problem solved then – except the model didn’t provide just one answer. “I did manage to predict this typical behaviour, but my model came up with another evolutionarily stable strategy,” explains Dall. According to the model, gangs of juvenile ravens should also fly around looking for food together, and never roost in the same place twice. But no-one had ever seen this kind of behaviour.

Perhaps this would have been dismissed as purely mathematical curiosity, if weren’t for Jonathan Wright, professor of biology at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology. Wright was studying a large raven roost in North Wales when he noticed that the juvenile birds were organising themselves into hunting packs, just as Dall predicted.

“I was surprised to discover that this behaviour had been observed somewhere,” says Dall. The variables used in the model, such as the size of the ravens’ search area, matched the real world exactly. The two scientists wrote up their findings in a joint paper, published earlier this year in the journal PLoS One.

So what will Dall turn his mathematical predictions to next? “The evolution of animal personality differences,” he says. Dall plans to investigate why animals of the same species behave differently within social groups. Perhaps game theory has the answer.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 30 May 2009 at 9:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Just A Review, Physics

This review originally appeared in the most recent issue of Imperial College’s science magazine I, Science.

I’m writing this review as a break from revision, with the ideas of science philosophers Kuhn and Popper still swimming round my brain. Both men have their supporters, but with 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense Michael Brooks is definitely throwing in his lot with the Kuhnians.

Kuhn argued that science is framed by paradigms, established bodies of knowledge that define the scientific questions of the day. Eventually problems with the paradigm will emerge, and science will undergo a “paradigm shift”. 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a compilation of problems with our current understanding of the universe, and Brooks suggests that solving any one of them could lead to a paradigm shift.

A classic example of such a change is the move from Newtonian to relativistic physics, and the book begins firmly in the physics camp. Over the first two chapters dark matter is put forward as a possible explanation for both the apparent “missing” mass in the universe, and the unexplained drift of the Pioneer probes. From there we move to the prospect of varying fundamental constants (like G, the gravitational constant) and a look in to the controversial subject of cold fusion.

Next we get six chapters dealing with the troubling subject of life. Where did we come from? Is there life elsewhere in the universe? And why do we die? These are just some the questions that science doesn’t yet have an answer to, but Brooks lays out some possible explanations.

The end of the book deals with two ongoing controversies in medicine, the placebo effect and homeopathy. I was intrigued to learn about the concept of epitaxy, in which the molecular structure of one material can influence another without any chemical reactions taking place. In the same way that plasticine forced through a mould will take on a certain shape, is it possible that the molecular structure of water could be rearranged by homeopathic substances to produce healing properties? No one has done the research, so I remain sceptical, but it’s an intriguing possibility.

So far I’ve skipped over one chapter in this review; number 11, entitled Free Will. In it Brooks describes a device called a transcranial magnetic simulation, in which two electric coils create a magnetic field to induce currents in the brain. Neuroscientists can use such devices to cause unconscious bodily movements in their subjects, which Brooks experience first-hand.

It is with this evidence, along with other brain experiments, that he claims the concept of free will is nothing but an illusion. Maybe it’s just my fundamental philosophical objection to giving up free will, but I found this chapter to be on far less firm ground than the others. The experiments described just didn’t seem to say to me what Brooks wanted them to.

One dodgy chapter aside, 13 Things That Don’t Make Sense is a very good read. The chapters are short and for the most part self-contained, making it easy to dip in to, and it’s refreshing for once to read a popular science book about what we don’t know. The book looks to the future rather than just recounting the past, and left me wondering when the next new discovery will allow us to whittle the list down to a nice even dozen.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 26 May 2009 at 6:42 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Health & Medicine

“Nice jeans.” She pauses and gives the semi nude male on the bus stop poster a proper look. Then she spots the slogan at his feet: “MAYbe you’ve got Chlamydia.” She quickly stop looking and hurries on, hoping all those people waiting for the bus don’t think she has Chlamydia.  

Those behind the MAYbe screening programme this month in West London should be congratulated on a very effective ad campaign. Prompted by high rates of the infection in the capital, the MAYbe campaign hopes to increase awareness and encourage more Londoners to get tested for Chlamydia.

It might seem like Chlamydia is just a public health issue; we know how it works, how to treat it and now we just need to stop it spreading. But this week a group of UK scientists published research showing how these bacteria can still surprise us.

In Sweden in 2006, a new variant of Chlamydia appeared: one that was invisible to the tests used at the time. The new study reveals why this happens.

A single bacterium grew without part of the DNA code normally found in the plasmid – floating DNA, not part of the bacteria’s chromosomes. This bit of code was exactly what Swedish labs used to test whether an infection is Chlamydia or not.

“It turns out that this piece of the DNA is not essential to the Chlamydia. Therefore, an accidental deletion of the DNA won’t kill the bacterium, but it will stop it being identified,” explained Helena Seth-Smith, co-author of the study and researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Cambridge.

She said that they had never seen this kind of mutation before. Most cell mutations occur because of interaction between bacteria. But Chlamydia grows inside human cells. And so, bacteria have little chance to interact with one and other. 

The new type of mutation is a warning for tests on other bacterial infections. If the bacterium of another disease undergoes a similar test, “it’s possible that another chance deletion could make that bacterium invisible.” 

The researchers also identified what they think are the essential parts of the Chlamydia DNA. These make more reliable targets for diagnostic tests because if they mutate the bacterium is unlikely to survive anyway. Seth-Smith is hopeful that future tests will be better designed as a result.

This new research shows just how much we can still learn about diseases we thought we already understood. And it shows how useful these lessons can be for keeping the diseases under control.

Of course, public awareness drives are necessary. And maybe screening campaigns will help London lose its label as the UK’s ‘Chlamydia capital’. But the lesson from this study is that Chlamydia is not just a public health issue. Posters featuring designer jeans still need to be backed up by detailed genetic research.

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7 Comments » Posted on Thursday 21 May 2009 at 7:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Science Policy

Doing the rounds this week is a story about a £300,000 government-funded research project that took three years to establish that ducks like water. Sounds like a tremendous waste of taxpayers’ money, but is it? The newspapers certainly seem to think so:

Ducks like water study ‘waste of £300,000 taxpayers’ money’ – The Guardian
Boffins’ £300k study finds ducks like rain – The Sun
Farmers condemn £300,000 Defra ducks survey – The Telegraph
Just quackers! Government spends £300,000 on three-year study to show ducks like rain – The Daily Mail

The study in question, Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare, was published nearly a year ago in the journal Applied Animal Behaviour Science. The researchers, from Oxford University, aimed to investigate the welfare of ducks reared for meat, as there is currently no legal requirement for farmers to provide the waterfowl access to bathing or swimming water. Many ducks only contact with water is in the form of drinking water from so-called “nipples” – basically a small tube.

Depriving ducks of water is a bit like the much vilified battery-farming method of rearing chickens. By placing the animals in an environment very far from one they would find in the wild, farmers sacrifice animal welfare in order to make a profit.

This is not the most glamorous of scientific studies, but it could have wide-reaching implications. Approximately 18 million ducks were reared for their meat in 2006, so the welfare of a large number of animals could be affected.

With this in mind, researchers tested the effects of four different water sources on ducks. The birds had access to either a bath for swimming, a trough for dipping their heads in and splashing water on their bodies, or an overhead shower. The fourth group’s only access to water was through the nipple drinkers, which were also given to the other three groups. Over the course of a month or so, the ducks were inspected to monitor the conditions of their eyes, nostrils and feathers, as well as their behaviour and ability to walk.

The results showed that the ducks deprived of bathing water were not as healthy as the others. The condition of both their bodies and plumage were affected – surely quite important if you’re trying to rear healthy ducks for the dinner table. It didn’t seem to matter what form the ducks’ access to water came in – baths, troughs or showers all did the trick. The researchers recommend that farmers stick to showers, as they are easier and cheaper to maintain.

So yes, you could say that with help of £294,027 from Defra, (the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) scientists were able to conclude that ducks like water. It’s a bit more complicated than that, but if you actually bother to research the details then you no longer have a news story. Journalists could have gone and read the paper, which is easily understandable even to the layperson, or perhaps looked up the Defra report. But they didn’t. With the media calling for MPs’ heads to roll over the current expenses scandal, another opportunity to attack wasteful government spending is always welcome. This story isn’t really about science – it’s politics.

Piecing together the background of this story, I suspect that it has been engineered by the TaxPayers’s Alliance. This organisation campaigns for lower taxes, and criticises wasteful spending of public money.

The TPA have their own take on the story, written as if it were a response to a report in the Daily Star. Curiously though, the Star piece has a quote from Susie Squires, the TPA campaign manager. Squires appears in many of the other newspapers’ reports as well.

Despite claiming to be an “independent grassroots campaign” against “politicians of all parties”, the TPA have a distinctly Conservative streak. Two of its founders, Andrew Allum and Florence Heath were both leaders of the Imperial College Conservative association, and Allum was previously a Conservative member of Westminster City Council. The other, Matthew Elliot, has received numerous Conservative awards.

It appears to me that this “story” has been manufactured by the TaxPayer’s Alliance in order to attack the Labour government whilst it is still reeling from the expenses row. The scientists who carried out the original research have unfortunately been caught in the cross-fire of a political battle, that has little to do with the actual subject of the study.

In the grand scheme of things, £300,000 to improve animal welfare is a small amount of money. In 2004, when this research began, Defra had a budget of £3.153 billion – meaning this research accounted for less than 0.01% of the total cash available. It’s easy to mock scientific research like this, but perhaps journalists should do some research of their own before writing up their stories.

JONES, T., WAITT, C., & DAWKINS, M. (2009). Water off a duck’s back: Showers and troughs match ponds for improving duck welfare Applied Animal Behaviour Science, 116 (1), 52-57 DOI: 10.1016/j.applanim.2008.07.008

13 Comments » Posted on Monday 18 May 2009 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Despite the tobacco industry’s many decades spent telling us that cigarettes are perfectly fine, nowadays everyone understands that smoking is harmful. Research using cells from mice has found an interesting twist however: cigarette smoke may help prevent allergies.

Scientists at Utrecht University in the Netherlands extracted mast cells from mice and treated them with a cigarette smoke-infused solution. Mast cells play a key role in the inflammatory process and the body’s response to allergens.

The cigarette smoke prevented the release of proteins associated with allergic reaction, without interfering with the mast cells’ other functions. The researchers are confident that the same effect would be observed in human cells, but caution against taken up smoking to cure allergies.

Perhaps we’ll actually be seeing more people give up smoking, thanks to another study published in the June issue of Prevention Science. Researchers investigating the effect of smoking bans on employment in bars and restaurants found that so-called “clean indoor air” policies did not harm people’s jobs.

Scientists at Ohio State University and the University of Minnesota looked at eight cities in Minnesota with smoking bans, and two with no such laws. Some of the bans prohibit all workplaces, whilst others exempt bars.

They found that over a 45-month period, there was little change in the levels of employment in bars and restaurants. This puts quite a dent in smoking ban opponents, who often claim that such businesses would be aversely effected by anti-smoking laws. Lead author Elizabeth Klein is assistant professor of health behaviour and health promotion at Ohio State University, and hopes that her study will be of use in future policy decisions:

“In the end we can say there isn’t a significant economic effect by type of clean indoor air policy, which should give us more support for maintaining the most beneficial public health policies,

“The public health benefit clearly comes from a comprehensive policy where all employees are protected from exposure to environmental tobacco smoke.”

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 May 2009 at 12:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Were Neanderthals wiped out by our stomachs?

Bit of a strange one this. A study published in the Journal of Anthropological Sciences suggests a possible explanation for the disappearance of the Neanderthals – we ate them.

A Neanderthal jawbone appears to show marks similar to those found on deer remains from the early Stone Age. Lead researcher Fernando Rozzi, of the Centre National de la Récherche Scientifique in Paris, believes that this idea has been suppressed in the past. “For years, people have tried to hide away from the evidence of cannibalism, but I think we have to accept it took place.”

I’m not sure eating Neanderthals is technically cannibalism, as they are a different species, but they’re human enough to make it pretty creepy. Urgh.

Beware the “super rats”

The governing principle of natural selection is that the fittest survive. In the case of rats, those with a genetic resistance to poison will survive attempts to exterminate them, and pass on this immunity to their descendants. Before you know it, we’ll be over-run by super rats.

Ratcatchers in Swindon are reporting a 500% increase in rodent populations, and Professor Robert Smith of the University of Huddersfield thinks that Darwin is to blame:

“Natural selection means that when you have a rat population in your town, poison will kill the ones that aren’t resistant, the ones that survive may have the gene, they then have babies who can receive the gene themselves,” he said.

“There are mutations and changes in their DNA that alter the ability of rats to deal with these poisons. It appears to be moving west and has now been located in Swindon and Bristol. It is a warning of things to come.”

An appropriate photo for Sunday

You may have already seen this image circulated around the press, but it’s worth another look:

The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)
The Space Shuttle and Hubble telescope pass in front of the Sun. Photo Credit: (NASA/Thierry Legault)

Earlier this week astronauts aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis undertook a mission to repair the Hubble telescope, and photographer Thierry Legault managed to catch them in the act. The spaceships appear as tiny dots in front of the vast Sun, but you can just make out the iconic shape of the Shuttle. More pics available here.

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 15 May 2009 at 5:47 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology

About a month ago, I wrote about the surprising finding that energy drinks could improve performance in cycling time trials without even being swallowed, only tasted. This week the papers have been awash with articles deriding sports drinks as overpriced, and no more effective than cereal.

Milk and cereal as good as expensive sports drinks in boosting performance‘, claims the Telegraph. ‘Forget your costly sports drinks, try a bowl of corn flakes instead‘, advises the Mail. ‘Gym fans are better off skipping costly sports drinks for a bowl of cereal after workouts’, The Sun tells us.

The source for this story is a paper in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition (which you can see yourself for free here). The authors had 12 cyclists fast for 12 hours then do two hours of moderate exercise, after which they were given either wheat cereal with milk or a sports drink. As the Telegraph tells us:

They found that the traditional breakfast was just as good at replenishing blood sugar and insulin levels and that protein production was even better than with the so-called energy drinks.The milk also helped reduce lactic acid levels in the blood, the compound that causes stiffness after exercise.

I’m not quite sure how those results led to the headline about ‘boosting performance’, but never mind. The results don’t seem especially surprising. You go without food for 14 hours, the last two of which are spent exercising, you eat something, and blood sugar goes up. Insulin goes up too – it generally follows blood sugar pretty closely. Milk, unlike energy drinks, is rich in protein, so it’s not surprising that protein synthesis was boosted, too. I would imagine that you’d see a similar effect on these parameters if you eat anything with carbohydrate and protein in it under those circumstances. Why did the University of Texas team want to show us the benefits of eating cereal?

The answer can be found in the acknowledgements section of the paper: ‘This project was supported by Wheaties and the General Mills Bell Institute of Health and Nutrition’. General Mills, if you weren’t aware, is the giant food company that produces various cereals, including Cheerios and Wheaties.

Newspapers are supposed to be struggling for advertising revenue. It’s not surprising when they publish editorial content that gives companies a more ringing endorsement than anything they might pay the paper to put in as an advert. All General Mills had to do was cough up 12 bowls of cereal and have some scientists publish a tiny study in a not-too-scrupulous journal.

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 May 2009 at 5:07 pm by Jessica Bland
In Biology, Evolution, Physics

Like Jacob, I wrote for two outlets. It’s quite interesting to see how the story changes almost entirely for each outlet. 

For British Beekeepers Association News…

Bumblebee flight continue to astound scientists

There is an old myth that bumblebees shouldn’t be able to fly. The maths just doesn’t work. A new study from scientists at Oxford University shows that bumblebee flight is indeed more about power than finesse.

The researchers trained bees to fly along a wind tunnel erected between their hive and pollen-rich cut flowers. Smoke in the wind tunnel is disturbed by the flight, making visible the way that bees disturb the air around them. A high-speed camera captured the flight, and those images were analysed to develop a model for the motion of bees in flight.

The idea is very similar to the computer modelling used by swimmers to examine how efficient their stroke is through the water. But unlike athletes, bumblebees have not developed to move efficiently. In fact, the new study shows that the movement of air around the bee betrays a very uneconomical flying technique.

‘We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the report. He explained how a bee’s left and right wings do not flap in sync. And nor does the air flow around the two sides meet up, which would help make the flight more aerodynamic.

His colleague, Professor Adrian Thomas offered a possible reason for the evolution of such a disastrous technique: “a bumblebee is a tanker-truck, its job is to transport nectar and pollen back to the hive. Efficiency is unlikely to be important for that way of life.”

So the flight path between flower and hive resembles the slow lane on the M1 and not a quiet stretch of the Autobahn. But the brute force bees need to keep themselves going is spectacular in its own way. They are the powerhouses of the insect world, defying the mathematics that says they shouldn’t even get off the ground.

For Physicsworld…

Can bees teach us how to fly?

Scientists have shown that bumblebees use a unique technique to propel themselves through the air. In a study published in May in Experiments in Fluids, a team from the Zoology department in Oxford examined the air flow profile of a flying bee. The pattern of vortices created in the air surrounding the bee in novel.

Unfortunately, this novelty is unlikely to be useful for physicists and engineers interested in biomimetic developments in flight technology. The bee’s flying technique only makes it less efficient.

Like other insects and like aeroplane wings, a bumblebee creates a leading edge vortex during flight. It separates the air flow coming towards it at the front edge of its wings and flies by exploiting the resulting pressure difference above and below the wing.

But most insects also create other vortices, called root and tip vortices. The bee does not. Other insects and birds also co-ordinate right and left wing motion to maximise their propulsion. The bee does not do this either.

“We found that bumblebee flight is surprisingly inefficient,” said Dr Richard Bomphrey, co-author of the study. He added that the technique could have evolved to make bumblebees more manoeuvrable in the air – a facet that might be more valuable for bees than speed through the air.

So, although bees are inefficient flyers, their propulsion technique could be useful for research in other areas. If bees can be shown to have increased control over movement, then they offers a potential model for improving the control we have over airbound vehicles such as helicopters.

More research is needed before we can know if there is any application. But there is a possibility that the bumblebee, the famous example of an animal that flouts the engineering principles of flight, could help us improve our air technology.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 May 2009 at 11:25 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

This post is my first assignment for the Print module of the Imperial course. We had to write up a press release for a typical news outlet, as well as providing a second opening paragraph for alternate view on the same story.

For The Times

Bacon, sausages and pork chops are all mainstays of British cuisine, and in the last decade pig farmers have been breeding animals with less fat. Whilst this is good news for health-conscious shoppers, it comes at the cost of the meat’s flavour. Now, a new research project at the University of West England (UWE) intends to let us have our pork and eat it by breeding pigs with both healthy and good tasting meat.

Working with the Institute of Biosensing Technology, scientists at UWE intend to create a genetic test that will allow breeders to select the best pigs. Pigs bred using this test would not be genetically modified, but merely identified and then reared in the usual way.

Such a test could be widely used, according to statistics released by the United States Department of Agriculture in 2005 showing pork makes up almost half of the world’s meat consumption.

The project is entitled ‘Genetic control of fat partitioning in pigs’ and will be undertaken by PhD student Duncan Marriot, who explained the need for his research:

“Pigs need to be leaner to produce healthy meat but to carry sufficient intramuscular fat to maintain good eating quality.

“My challenge is to identify the genes controlling both the intramuscular and subcutaneous fat content in different breeds,” he said.

These two types of fat govern the quality and healthiness of meat. Subcutaneous fat is undesirable and unhealthy, but intramuscular fat gives pork its tenderness and juiciness. Without this intramuscular fat, commonly known as “marbling”, meat tends to be dry and tasteless.

For the Natural Law Party

Scientists have announced a new research project to genetically engineer British pigs. The Institute of Biosensing Technology will allow student Duncan Marriot to genetically test pigs in order to make them taste better.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 10 May 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Oxygen never looked so cute

Here is a really nice computer animation produced by Christopher Hendryx for his graduate thesis. It shows the interactions that an oxygen atom can have with other elements in the periodic table. I hope he makes more!

Just be glad they’re really tiny

An amoeba is a single-cell organism that floats around eating other smaller organisms like bacteria. It’s a bit like PacMan. Sounds pretty harmless you might thank, but I challenge you to watch this time-lapse video of an amoeba in action without recoiling in terror.

A chocolate-powered racing car

Slightly more useful than a chocolate tea pot, a team at Warwick University have constructed a car built from vegetables and powered by chocolate.

Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.
Of course, you should always eat your veg before snacking on chocolate.

The unusual construction materials were created by blending vegetable fibres with resin, in order to demonstrate that green cars don’t have to be slow. Unfortunately the car is not eligible to enter the Formula 3 races it was designed for, because chocolate fuel fails to meet regulations.

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 7 May 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Long time readers of Just A Theory will be well aware of my hatred of a well-worn science journalism trope, the “formula for” story. This vile being has a sibling which I’m surprised to realise I’ve never written about: the “gene for” story. In a way this variety of nonsense is much more dangerous, allowing people to blame their genetic makeup for their faults and vices.

A perfect example of this is a recent story in The Telegraph: “Why risk taking runs in the family – scientists find gene that makes you gamble“. The gist is scientists at University College London have discovered that people with the “short” version of a particular gene are more likely to take a gamble than those with the “long” version. In fact, that’s not what they found at all.

Suppose we play a game. I offer you £50, and a choice. You can either keep £20, and give the rest back to me, or you can take a gamble with a 40% chance of winning the whole £50, and a 60% chance of losing everything. If you don’t like that game, we can play a different one. This time I offer you £50, but if you don’t take the gamble you lose £30.

The two games are actually the same, but just framed differently. “Keep £20″ is the the “gain frame” whilst “Lose £30″ is the “loss frame”. The researchers at UCL were investigating the way this “frame effect” can influence the decision making process. Previous research suggests that the amygdala, an area of the brain involved in processing emotions, shows activity when making decisions involving the frame effect. This new research demonstrated that variation in the serotonin transporter gene, which is thought to influence the amygdala, can also influence frame effect decisions.

Thirty participants were split into two groups, those with the “short” and those with the “long” version of the gene, and both groups played a number of games like those described above. Despite being aware that the “gain” and “loss” frames were identical, all participants were more likely to gamble if presented with the loss frame. Those with the “short” gene variant were the most suscetible to the framing effect.

This does not mean that “short” gene participants are more likely to gamble! In a paper published in The Journal of Neuroscience the authors noted “there was no difference in overall risk-seeking behavior” between the two genetic groups. Dr Jonathan Roiser from the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, lead author on the paper, explains:

“This doesn’t mean that people with the short variants are risk takers,

“In fact, they were risk averse in the ‘gain frame’ whilst risk seeking in the ‘loss frame’, which implies inconsistency in their decision-making.”

The gene variation isn’t even that important of a factor in making frame effect decisions. Dr Roiser again:

“This one gene cannot tell the whole story, however, as it only explains about ten per cent of the variability in susceptibility to the framing effect. What determines the other ninety per cent of variability is unclear. It is probably a mixture of people’s life experience and other genetic influences.”

Whilst “formula for” stories tend to be what Charlie Brooker called PR-reviewed, with little basis in actual science, “gene for” stories are more normally inaccurately simplified accounts of genuine research. This is the case here, and it’s dangerous. Compulsive gambling can be incredibly destructive, and “it’s not me, it’s my genes” could allow gamblers rationalise their behaviour instead of seeking help.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 5 May 2009 at 7:20 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Yes, But When?

Would you accept an organ from a sheep? The Times reports from Tochigi in Japan that these genetically engineered animals could solve the country’s organ donor shortage.

Currently Yutaka Hanazono and team at the Jichi Medical University has only created sheep with organs suitable for chimpanzees. Stem cells extracted from chimps are grown in a sheep to create fully-formed organs such as a spare pancreas. He believes that within a decade or two the technology could be extended to create human organs as well.

“We have made some very big advances here. There has historically been work on the potential of sheep as producers of human blood, but we are only slowly coming closer to the point where we can harvest sheep for human organs,” Professor Hanazono told The Times.

That will be too long for many Japanese patients seeking donors, as the legal system in Japan has created a deficit in organs. Death is defined at the point when the heart stops, at which point organs will begin to degrade from lack of blood flow. Brain death, where all brain activity has ceased but the heart and lungs can be kept functioning, allows more effective harvesting of organs, but Japan does not allow this.

The result is an extremely low rate of donation in Japan. The US has about 27 organ donors per million people, but in Japan this figure is less than 1 donor per million people. This forces many patients to seek organs abroad, but even this “transplant tourism” will become difficult as international rules on organs become more strict.

The Japanese people have a complicated moral choice ahead of them. Either they must revise their laws defining death, or accept the possibility of growing organs on demand. Both options have serious cultural and ethical implications, not just scientific ones, but something must be done to alleviate the organ shortage.

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1 Comment » Posted on Monday 27 April 2009 at 8:29 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Before I head off for the first day of exams, here’s the next roundup.

Pope goes solar powered

No, unfortunately His Holiness hasn’t developed the ability to absorb sunlight though his skin. Vatican City soon will though, with the announcement of a €500 million solar power plant. The 100 megawatts generated by solar energy will produce more than enough to power the tiny state, making Vatican City effectively the first country in the world powered entirely by renewables. The Pope may spout some dodgy science, but this time he’s done good.

Twitter your thoughts – literally

Twitter’s opponents decry the banality of sharing your every thought with the world, but researchers at the University of Wisconsin have taken the concept one step further. Using a machine which can translate brainwaves into movement of an on-screen cursor, a team of neuroscientists can literally tweet their thoughts.

It’s not simply for a laugh, however. They hope that the technology can be used by sufferers of locked-in syndrome; people who are concious but unable to move or communicate.

A map of global warming

Even though we know it’s happening, we don’t know exactly how much the Earth’s surface will heat up due to global warming. The image below shows one possibility:

Could the Earth warm this much?
Could the Earth warm this much?

Created by Global Warming Art, a wiki devoted to bringing data about global warming and climate change to the public, it is based on data from the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Change. The map shows a world much warmer than the one we currently live in, with some areas of land warmed by as much as 6 or 7°C.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 2:12 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Problem: exams on Monday and Tuesday coupled with an ever increasing list of interesting links to share.

Solution: stretching the definition of “Weekly” to its breaking point.

That’s right folks, to give myself a bit of breathing space over the next few days, as well as to clear my links backlog, we’re going into roundup overload.

Just a little bit of GTCA

Bio-Rad, a company that creates various products for use in scientific laboratories, have come up with a quirky little advert. It’s not a science rap, but a science cover song:

My favourite part? “These letters also spell DAN”

‘Beer goggles’ are no excuse for misreporting

A recent study into the effects of alcohol on men’s perception of a woman’s age has been given a slightly different spin by many media outlets. The research was intended to examine a common claim in cases of under-age sex; being drunk made the girls seem older.

The methodology involved rating both young and mature faces for attractiveness, either under the influence or not. Results showed that attractiveness ratings for the young were not effected by alcohol, which was reported as dispelling the ‘beer goggles’ myth. However, the results also show that alcohol had a “significant” impact on making older faces with lots of make-up more attractive – the ‘beer goggles’ effect exactly.

In other words, the study showed the opposite of what the journalists reported – or at best, gave mixed results. Perhaps a study should be conducted into the effects of alcohol on journalist’s perception of a study’s attractiveness…

Paxo’s brain for research

Jeremy Paxman will be donating his brain for scientific research after he dies. His aim is to raise awareness of a campaign by the Parkinson’s Disease Society to encourage 1,000 others to do the same. Parkinson’s effects 120,000 people in the UK, and donated brains could help find a cure.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 April 2009 at 12:18 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology

We all know the stereotype that paints women as more picky about their partners than men, and men as more promiscuous. But according to a study published this week, it seems this is no more than a myth.

This well known ‘difference’ in the way women and men approach sex has been extensively studied. However, in the past, sex was much more of a taboo subject than it is in todays society. Researchers therefore relied on observations of animal behaviour, generalising the trends they found to all male animals. One such study way back in the forties looked into fruit flies, concluding that the reason for males seeking out more partners than women was to do with the availability and energy required to produce eggs compared to the relative ease of producing sperm.

However, the findings of a new study, reported in The Telegraph, has surveyed actual human beings to determine whether the long held beliefs of gender differences when it comes to promiscuity are true. They surveyed over 100,000 people in 18 countries, concluding that in countries like Britain, women and men tended to have the same number of children with the same number of partners.

It has to be said, this study probably isn’t the best indication of promiscuity, as every sexual encounter is unlikely to result in the conception of a child. But, it is more scientific than the survey reported in December last year, which involved the surveying of the readers of more magazine which concluded (young) women were in fact more promiscuous than men.

After a bit of scouting around on the subject, I found a study from back in November which bears striking resemblence to the study last week, which sent out a questionnaire for people to fill in. The questions related to numbers of sexual partners, and incidences of one-night-stands, and enabled the team to produce an index of how sexually liberal each individual was.  The results actually ranked Britain as one of the most promiscuous naitons in the western world. But surely another interesting piece of data from these questionnaires could have been the relationship between gender and ‘sexual liberation’?

Seems like as a nation though, whether we’re men or women, we enjoy sex. And there is one thing, it’s free, which is important in todays ‘economic crisis, right? The Week published an article in February which actively encouraged Americans to stay at home in the recession, and reported an increase in the sales of condoms. Maybe the next study could look at the link between recession and sexual activity.

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1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 22 April 2009 at 10:07 am by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Astrobiologists looking for the building blocks of life in the centre of our galaxy have instead found the faint aroma of rum and a slight taste of raspberries.

The team from the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy in Germany used a 30m telescope based in Spain to probe deep into the heart of our home galaxy, The Milky Way. They were looking for amino acids, thought to be a crucial factor in the development of life. Radio telescopes are perfect for this kind of astronomy as it allows you to peer through layers of cosmic dust right to the heart of the galaxy.

However, they failed to find what they were looking for. Instead their investigations yielded traces of ethyl formate, the chemical that apparently puts the taste in raspberries and the smell in rum. Whilst this isn’t as exciting as actually finding the ingredients for life, you could always make yourself a nice pavlova. And the novelty factor of this story hasn’t been lost on the national media, with the story reported in The Guardian.

So it seems astronomers are discovering quite a kitchen store cupboard in space. Now we have raspberries and rum to go with steak and beer. Sounds like we have the possibility of a three-course meal on the cards. Steak and beer for main, and pavlova for pudding. Deep fried Mars bars to start?

2 Comments » Posted on Saturday 18 April 2009 at 9:34 am by Sam Wong
In Biology

Call me cynical (many people do), but I’ve always been somewhat sceptical of energy drinks. On their website, Lucozade provide fact sheets on ‘The Science Behind Sports Drinks’. They have this to say about carbohydrate:

Carbohydrate is an important source of energy during moderate to high intensity activity. Unfortunately there is only a limited amount of carbohydrate (~ 2000 kcal) stored within the body which if depleted beyond a critical point decreases endurance performance by causing an individual to slow down. This is because they do not have sufficient energy, in the form of carbohydrate, to sustain their chosen exercise intensity for the remainder of their event.

It makes intuitive sense that giving your body a boost of readily metabolisable glucose during exercise would help you go on for longer. But studies have shown that even after an hour of intense exercise, there is still plenty of glycogen stored in the muscles, and it is this glycogen that is primarily being used as a source of energy, not blood glucose. Moreover, the amount of carbohydrate you absorb from an energy drink during an hour of exercise is relatively small, and doesn’t contribute much to your total energy supply.

Despite all this, most of the evidence suggests that energy drinks really can improve performance in events lasting around an hour, which is very puzzling to physiologists.

In 2004, researchers at the University of Birmingham found that intravenous infusion of glucose did not affect the time taken for cyclists to complete a time trial lasting roughly an hour, but performance on the same test was improved by merely rinsing the mouth with a maltodextrin solution (maltodextrin is a polysaccharide, consisting of chains of glucose). This suggests that taste can improve exercise performance, and is all the more surprising since maltodextrin isn’t sweet like glucose; in fact it doesn’t taste of anything very much.

In further work published in the Journal of Physiology this week, researchers from the same laboratory tested the effect on cycling performance of rinsing the mouth with solutions containing either glucose, maltodextrin, or a placebo, all of which were artificially sweetened. They also used functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to look at which brain areas were being stimulated by the different solutions.

Edward Chambers and his collaborators found that both glucose and maltodextrin resulted in faster times than the placebo, suggesting that we have as-yet unidentified taste receptors that respond to carbohydrates besides those that detect sweetness .

The fMRI scans showed that glucose and maltodextrin were activating areas of the brain associated with our neural reward system, including dopamine pathways in the striatum. These pathways are known to have a role in influencing motor activity. The authors hypothesise that the carbohydrates are detected by some putative non-sweet receptors in the mouth, which in turn stimulate parts of the brain that counteract the effects of fatigue.

The evidence for this is far from definitive. Among the problems with this study is the fact that the fMRI scans were done on resting athletes using much higher concentrations of carbohydrate than were used in the exercise tests. The stress of exercise might affect the way that the brain responds to the carbohydrate. But the results do show that carbohydrate solutions are sensed in the mouth, leading to an improvement in exercise performance, and suggest a possible mechanism through which this effect might operate.

The findings lend support to the ‘Central Governor‘ model: the idea that fatigue results from the brain limiting its own ability to activate muscle fibres so as to prevent damage to the heart caused by lack of oxygen. Chambers and colleagues propose that detecting carbohydrate in the mouth interferes with the central governor to reduce the perception of exertion, which fits with the finding that cyclists who tasted glucose or maltodextrin didn’t feel any more tired despite cycling faster. (Not everyone accepts the central governor hypothesis; here’s a critical review.)

Fascinating stuff. I might just give Lucozade a go the next time I play football. I probably will swallow it though – even if it’s no good as an energy source, it must help with the whole hydration business.

Comments Off Posted on Friday 17 April 2009 at 12:53 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Scientists have taken pancreatic cells, coated them with Teflon (yeah that stuff that stops your food from sticking to the frying pan) and transplanted them into mice… successfully! Whilst this might seem a bit strange at first, Teflon has been used for many years in medicine for grafts, sutures and surgical implants.

The reasoning behind this is to develop a new therapy for the treatment of type-1 diabetes. Type-1 diabetes occurs due to an autoimmune response that kills cells in the pancreas, leaving the body unable to regulate glucose levels in the blood.

One of the most promising therapies is to transplant pancreas cells into the patients. However, as with all transplants, to ensure the immune system does not destroy the new tissue, the patient must take immunosuppressive drugs. These drugs must be taken long term, and leave the patient susceptible to picking up infections. In a way, this is less desirable than the problem in the first place, and still results in the need for long term medication.

The findings of a team based in California are therefore very exciting. They report in the journal Transplant that they have developed a way of transplanting cells without them being destroyed by the patient’s immune system by coating the cells in a protective layer of polytetrafluoroethylene (Teflon).

The team took precursor cells (to pancreatic cells), coated them, and implanted them into mice. They found these cells weren’t destroyed by the immune system and grew into cells that were responsive to glucose levels.  The chief researcher Pamela Itkin-Ansari stated in the press release that “the results exceeded our expectations,” finding “no evidence of an active immune response, suggesting that the cells in the device were invisible to the immune system.”

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3 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 15 April 2009 at 12:16 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Evolution

The BBC are this morning reporting findings published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B that a species of ant has been discovered that exists without sex. The team from the University of Arizona studied the insect, better known as the Amazonian ant (picture below), and found all members of the colony to be genetic clones of the the queen ant. What’s more, upon dissection their “mussel organ” had withered, apparently rendering them incapable of mating.

Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007
Mycocepurus smithii, the ant without a sex life © Alex Wild 2007

There are of course drawbacks to completely lacking any genetic diversity, it is certainly putting all your unfertilised eggs in one evolutionary basket. As Laurent Keller of The University of Lausanne eloquently puts it, “in a colony of clones, if one ant is susceptible to a parasite, they will all be susceptible. So if you’re asexual, you normally don’t last very long.”

But there are advantages to such a mechanism too, as Dr Anna Himler explained to the BBC, “it avoids the energetic cost of producing males, and doubles the number of reproductive females produced each generation from 50% to 100% of the offspring,” she said.

And this is where the interesting part lies. In being complete clones of their female leader not only have the ants dispensed with intercourse but they have eradicated any males of the species. It is easy to see why this notion is preferred by evolution. Life in the formicary must be so much easier since the males were cut out of existence. No farting, no belching and definitely no screaming at the TV whilst the football is on. Imagine the joy of the female Amazonian ants as they can get on with life without any arse-scratching, woman-ogling, toilet-seat-leaving-up pesky males around. Surely it’s only a matter of time before you ladies have the same idea…

1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 14 April 2009 at 9:58 pm by Colin Stuart
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology

This it seems is the week of extraneous body parts. First, from Geneva, a city used to the media spotlight of late, came the news that a pensioner had developed a completely imaginary but yet perfectly working third arm. And then yesterday it was announced that Australian performance artist Stelarc would be giving a talk in Edinburgh about his third ear. An ear it is worth noting that happily resides on his forearm. I can see we are going to need some clarification so let’s start in Switzerland.

Doctors at the Geneva University Hospital have reported in the Annals of Neurology a rare case of Supernumerary Phantom Limb (SPL) syndrome in a 64-year-old stroke patient. A few days after her stroke the pensioner told of how she could not only perceive a third arm, but see it and move it as well. In fact, not only could she move her imaginary appendage but could use it to scratch a very real itch on her cheek.

Curious about the veracity of her claims, neurologist Asaid Khateb put her through an MRI machine and studied the activity of her brain. Remarkably when asked to move her ‘phantom limb’ her motor cortex was activated, suggesting that the brain thought the arm truly existed and was able to be moved. Furthermore, her visual cortex showed signs of activity suggesting she could also see this apparition.

The team in Geneva believe this to be the first case of its kind where a patient can intentionally move a make believe member.

For our second anatomical add-on we must move to Scotland, where yesterday’s Guardian website reported that Stelios Arcadiou, Visiting Professor at Brunel University, would be leading a session at The Edinburgh Science Festival. Arcadiou, better known as Stelarc, is a performance artist with a twist, that twist being an extra ear on his lower arm (see picture below) that was cultivated from stem-cells in 2006. In his talk, entitled Alternate Anatomical Architectures: Fractal Flesh Chimeras & Extra Ears, Stelarc hopes to “explore and extend the concept of the body through human-machine interfaces.” After waiting ten years to find a surgeon willing to construct his aural addition out of human cartilage, he is now trying to hook it up to the internet so that people all over the world can tune into to the delightful acoustic surroundings of his forearm.

Stelarc and his third ear.
Stelarc and his third ear.

In days gone by, people with more body parts than traditionally adorned with by nature would be cruelly toured around the world in so called freak shows, glorified circus acts. It seems to me that a modern day self promoting circus act is just what Prof. Arcadiou may be.

1 Comment » Posted on Saturday 11 April 2009 at 5:17 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology

For years, animal rights groups have campaigned for universities and other institutions to disclose information about the research they carry out on animals. In 2006 the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection (BUAV) made a request for fourteen UK universities to disclose information about their use of primates in research, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Many of these institutions complied with the request and disclosed the figures. However, five universities (Oxford, Cambridge, Manchester, UCL, and Kings College London) appealed against the decision, due to the fear that disclosing the information could endanger the safety of those carrying out the research.

Since the introduction of the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act of 1986, universities have been required to release the numbers of all animal used in research to the Home Office for annual publication. However, earlier this month, the Information Commissioner’s Office ruled that universities must also individually publish the numbers and species of primates they use.

It is easy to see why the universities were unwilling to disclose the information. For those who work in animal research, their fear of the extremists is very real. Although incidences of violence directed against researchers are decreasing, past troubles are not easily forgotten. Indeed, there are still individuals and groups out there who are prepared to use extremist methods – seven SHAC members were jailed in January for a campaign of terror against those connected with Huntingdon Life Sciences.

However, the opposition of these five universities has ultimately only worked to the advantage of the animal rights groups. They have always painted the picture of animal researchers as secretive scientists who carry out research on animals which they do not talk about, either because they are ashamed, or because they know they are wrong.

Indeed Michelle Thew from the BUAV said in The Scientist, “Risk to personal safety, though real in isolated cases in the past, is hugely exaggerated and often used as a smokescreen when researchers do no want to tell the public what they do.”

This view is strongly evident on the animal rights groups websites, and in the literature they distribute. They often quote horror stories of animal research, which are out of date, or wholly inaccurate. If scientists are too scared to come forwards and discuss the true facts of research in the public domain, these groups are only going to continue with getting away with this.

Also, is it just me, or is information about numbers of animals being used contained within published research papers anyway? Surely it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to estimate the numbers used in each institution by using these papers?

The fact that this information will now be publicly available is undeniably a good thing, however, researchers must realise that openness is the only way to successfully dispel the misinformation surrounding animal research. They must stop opposing such ideas. Openness about the research taking place is the only way that meaningful dialogue can even happen between animal rights groups and animal researchers, without outlandish claims on both sides. With the future of animal research dependent on public opinion, (MEP’s in Europe are set to vote in May on amendments to the 1986 Act) they deserve to be informed of facts not myths.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 April 2009 at 5:10 pm by Emma Stokes
In Biology, Health & Medicine

Activia, Yakult, and Actimel – what do they have in common? Yup, it’s probiotic bacteria of course, and those pesky ad campaigns that seem to dominate our TV ad breaks. Nell McAndrew is a personal favourite…are you feeling bloated?

But, do these so-called ‘friendly bacteria’ actually do anything? The consensus at the moment is that yes, they are beneficial to digestion, encouraging the bacteria that naturally live in your gut to thrive. Our own Imperial College carried out a clinical trial in 2007, showing that drinking probiotic drinks reduced the incidence of diarrhoea occurring as a side effect of antibiotic administration.

But, research this week published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences has shown that probiotic bacteria could have a new and very exciting use – in making oral vaccinations possible.

Traditional vaccinations involve injections, which can be problematic. Especially if, like me, you suffer from a fear of needles. So, the idea of an oral vaccination sounds great, but unfortunately making such a vaccine has not been as straightforward as it sounds.

The problem is that the vaccine formulation designed for injection would be quickly digested in the stomach into inactive constituents.  However, the key finding of this paper is the discovery that if the vaccine is combine with probiotic bacteria, it is protected from being destroyed by digestion.  The vaccine can therefore reach the small intestine, the optimum destination for the vaccine, leading to a powerful immune response being evoked.

To test the vaccine, they fed an oral anthrax vaccine (combined with the probiotic bacteria) to one group of mice and gave another the traditional vaccine via injection. When they exposed the mice to the anthrax bacteria, the immune response produced by the mice given the oral vaccine was much more powerful than in the mice receiving the injected vaccine.

Benefits other than being a pain-free alternative, include a lack of side effects.  Because probiotics are natural stimulators of the immune response, additives are not required in the oral vaccine. It is thought that it is the additives in traditional vaccines that are responsible for the side effects of vaccinations at the moment.

With the future of vaccinations looking more like dessert than scary syringes, make mine a strawberry yogurt!

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1 Comment » Posted on Friday 3 April 2009 at 4:49 pm by Sam Wong
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

Scientists have always worked in a perpetual state of unease concerning whether or not they would get their next grant. Recent funding cuts and the spectre of the global recession have only exacerbated worries about job security. And now this.

It was reported in Science this week that a robot scientist called Adam created by researchers from Aberystwyth University successfully identified 12 genes that encode enzymes in the yeast Saccharomyces cerevisiae. Adam generates hypotheses about the likely locations of genes that encode particular enzymes. He then devises a method to test his hypotheses. He can select the appropriate yeast mutants, incubate cells and measure their growth rates.

Meanwhile scientists at Cornell University in the US have developed an algorithm that can deduce laws of motion from observing a dynamical system (also in this week’s Science).

We’ve certainly come a long way since the days of Jacques de Vaucanson and his Digesting Duck. While the 18th century’s crowning achievement in robotics was an avian contraption with the ability to defecate, today’s automata are being devised with genuinely useful practical applications in mind.

As The Times notes, ‘robots are proving increasingly valuable because they can carry out large numbers of repetitive tests that in a person would induce boredom and loss of concentration’. In the final year of my biology degree, I decided not to pursue a career in science precisely because I found lab work so mind-numbingly tedious. If we can build machines that do all the mundane tasks for us, so much the better.

We should expect robots to make excellent scientists. The 20th century sociologist Robert K Merton came up with four ‘norms’ of science, a set of ideals to which scientists should aspire. These were communalism – the common ownership of scientific discoveries; universalism – the assessment of hypotheses on the basis of objective, impersonal criteria; disinterestedness – abstention from self-aggrandisement; and organised scepticism – the collective scrutiny of scientific endeavour. These are all qualities we should expect to come naturally to robots (providing we program them in the right way).

Not everybody is quite so enthusiastic about these developments. Understandably, many scientists are becoming slightly nervous about their future careers.

‘I believe many researchers would be threatened by this new technology’, said Daniel Goodman, a systems biologist at Imperial College, London, who also works on yeast. ‘After years of incredibly intense training, “Adams” are going to swoop in to replace human scientists who have worked day and night to get to where they are today. Open-mindness and intellectual flexibility are key attributes in a good scientists. A robot would have thrown away Fleming’s contaminated plate as trash rather than see the potential that lay within.’

Professor Ross King, who led the Aberystwyth team, played down the threat to human jobs. ‘We hope to have teams of human and robot scientists working together in laboratories’, he said. He obviously hasn’t seen The Matrix, or I, Robot.

King’s team are already building a successor to Adam, called Eve. They declined to comment on the suggestion that Eve would be more prone to breaking down than Adam and less able to perform several tasks at once.

What next? Robot writers that will keep me out of a job? Clever algorithms like this one are already rendering the Daily Mail journalist obsolete. Thankfully, intelligent blogging like that what we do at Just A Theory remains the preserve of the human. For now.

1 Comment » Posted on Wednesday 1 April 2009 at 6:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Musings

Today is of course April Fool’s Day, and both the media and internet in general just love to get involved. The Guardian claims to be switching from print to Twitter, whilst Youtube have flipped all their videos upside down.

During my daily science news read, I was sure to be on the look out for any potential shenanigans. When I came across a BBC story headlined “Baby chicks do basic arithmetic” I was certain I’d found a Fool, but after further digging I’m not so sure.

The story, which was also reported by The Telegraph, The Guardian and others, says that Italian scientists have show that newborn chicks can do basic sums.

Chicks are known to try and stay close to objects they are reared with, and will go towards groups that contain the most familiar objects. Exploiting this trait, known as imprinting, Prof. Lucia Regolin and Rosa Rugani designed an experiment to see if the chicks could count. I’m linking to their university pages to prove that they actually exist, and seem to have done research in this area in the past.

Using the little plastic containers found in Kinder eggs, which do bear some resemblance to chicks, the team hid differing numbers of containers behind a screen whilst the chick was held watching in a transparent box. Once released, the chick headed for the screen that hid three objects as opposed to two.

Even moving objects from one screen to another didn’t phase the chicks. They were able to count the difference as the containers were moved, and still pick the screen with the largest amount.

Is there any doubt then that this is real research? It would be quite unusual for multiple outlets to run the same April Fool’s Story, unless they themselves had been duped. My only concern is that the findings were supposedly published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, and yet the journal webpage makes no mention of the work. It could be that they’re just slow to update.

Let this be a lesson to scientists: if you’ve spent a long time working on something that seems even slightly wacky, perhaps it’s best not to announced it until April 2nd?

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 30 March 2009 at 1:44 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Research into video games typically examines whether they can cause harm, with scientists trying to determine whether games will turn players into psychopathic killers. It’s nice to see some positive news for a change, with a paper published yesterday in Nature Neuroscience suggesting that video games can actually be used to improve your eyesight.

Researchers at the University of Rochester in New York and Tel Aviv University in Israel were interested in looking at playing video games as a way to improve one’s contrast sensitivity, which is the ability to detect differences in shade of grey on a uniform background. Poor contrast sensitivity is one of the main reasons for bad eyesight, and whilst it can be corrected by glasses or contact lenses it is thought that changes in the brain can also have an effect.

Renjie Li lead a study comparing a group of 10 video game players to a group who did not play video games. All participants were male and aged 19 to 25. It turned out that the gamers showed a slight increase in contrast sensitivity, but that doesn’t necessarily prove anything – it could be that people with better eyesight are more likely to play video games.

To see if the effect could be replicated in non-gamers, the team asked 13 people to play games intensively for a 50 hours over a 9 week period. Six were assigned to Unreal Tournament 2004 and Call of Duty 2, both high-action first person shoot gamers that require quick reflexes in order to defeat your opponents.

The remaining seven were asked to play the more sedate The Sims 2, in which players must build a house and look after a family. As an aside, participants were paid $8/hour for their time – I wonder where I can sign up to get $400 for just playing games?

After 50 hours gaming, those playing house with The Sims 2 showed little variation in their contrast sensitivity. The action gamers however showed a significant improvement, demonstrating that fast-paced games really can give you better eyesight.

The researchers noted in their paper that contrary to popular opinion, “time spent in front of a computer screen is not necessarily detrimental to vision.” They suggest it could be that video games find a place in eye clinics as a complement to existing eye-correction techniques, but I’m not expecting to be handed a controller the next time I got to the opticians.

If first person shooters can help your vision, I wonder what effects other games have? Wii Fit can certainly be used to get into shape, but perhaps other benefits are waiting to be discovered. Until then, I’ll continue playing my Xbox safe in the knowledge that my eyes are improving with with every headshot.

Renjie Li, Uri Polat, Walter Makous, & Daphne Bavelier (2009). Enhancing the contrast sensitivity function through action video game training Nature Neuroscience

Comments Off Posted on Thursday 26 March 2009 at 3:08 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Inventions & Technology

A new type of biometric identification may soon be joining fingerprint and retina scanners, in the form of X-ray photographs of a person’s knees, according to Lior Shamir of the National Institutes of Health and Salim Rahimi, a computer engineer at State University of New York.

Their report, to be published in the International Journal of Biometrics, suggests that an individual’s knees differ enough from any others to make them of use in identification. Using an algorithm known as wnd-charm, which is normally used to diagnose medical knee joint issues, the authors suggest that knee X-rays are a viable alternative to external biometrics.

Whilst it is possible to fool existing biometrics with fake fingerprints and contact lenses, the pair say it would be much harder for any would-be impersonators to spoof another’s knees. It seems that knees also stay consistent, with X-rays taken several years earlier still suitable for verification purposes.

The new technique doesn’t quite measure up to existing technology, with accuracy results lower than retina or fingerprint identification, though the researchers say refining the wnd-charm algorithm could improve this.

I say don’t bother. I think biometrics are a terrible, terrible idea. They can’t be replaced if someone succeeds in spoofing your identity, as it would be difficult to legally acquire a new set of knees. There is also the issue of those who cannot use their eyes, fingerprints or indeed knees to identify themselves, because they don’t have them. In a society where knee-ID becomes the norm, how could such people function?

Finally, X-raying people’s knees repeatedly to authenticate them sounds like a really bad idea. Multiple exposures to X-rays is incredibly dangerous, which is why your dentist will hide behind a protective screen when scanning your teeth.

The average person will be exposed to relatively small doses of X-rays during their life, so there is no need to worry about routine medical procedures. Biometric techniques however must be used all the time if they are to be of any use, and scanning knees in this way would undoubtedly cause health issues. The authors suggest terahertz imaging in the place of X-rays could offer more precise data, and it would also solve the problem of repeated exposure. I wonder though, do we really want to be asked “Can I see your knees, please?” at every security checkpoint? No thanks.

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2 Comments » Posted on Tuesday 24 March 2009 at 8:14 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

I’ve just got time for a quick post this morning before I dash off to Imperial. We are finally handing in our group projects, so the whole day will be spent watching people present – and presenting my own, of course. Hopefully I’ll have some picture up in a few days.

For now, have a look at this video which depicts protein translation using stop-motion Lego animation:

The video was created by Kathy Vandiver, director of the Community Outreach and Education Program at MIT’s Center for Environmental Health Sciences, and is just one of a series of animations about cellular processes. They’re used as teaching aids for school-aged and adult students, but whilst I think it looks pretty cool (I’m always up for a bit of stop-motion) I don’t think it’s a very good example of science communication.

For one thing, I have absolutely no idea what is happening here. For that, I have to turn to the accompanying article in Popular Science magazine:

It shows translation, which is a cellular process in which proteins are synthesized. The piece of mRNA (messenger RNA) at the bottom of the video contains genetic information for building a protein. Each codon, which is a nucleotide triplet, in the mRNA sequence codes for an amino acid, which are the building blocks of proteins.

I’m confident enough that I have a working knowledge of biology to be able to write about it, but the last time I actually studied the subject was for my GCSEs. If I don’t get it, I don’t see how students currently working at GCSE level are meant to.

Perhaps I’m being a little unfair, as the videos are only meant to serve as an introduction at the beginning of a class. In that setting, I could see how they would work. Watching them out of context however, and I’m left baffled. What do you make of it?

Comments Off Posted on Friday 20 March 2009 at 12:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Kids like sweets, and parents everywhere know that the best way to placate the screaming little darlings is to reach for the sugar. New research has show that children’s craving for sweet-tasting foods actually has a biological basis, thanks to their high growth rate.

Scientists at the University of Washington and the Monell Center investigate the preference for sweets of 143 children between the ages of 11 and 15. They also looked at biological measures of growth and physical maturation.

Their findings, reported in the journal Physiology & Behavior, indicate that when children are young and growing they have a heightened sweet tooth, which fades as they age and their growth spurts slow down.

“The relationship between sweet preference and growth makes intuitive sense because when growth is rapid, caloric demands increase. Children are programmed to like sweet taste because it fills a biological need by pushing them towards energy sources,” said Monell geneticist Danielle Reed, PhD, one of the study authors.

Using sensory taste tests, the researchers were able to classify children into two groups; those with a high preference for sweet tastes, and those with low preference. The low preference group were also found to have lower levels of type I collagen cross-linked N-teleopeptides, a biomarker associated with bone growth in children and adolescents.

They also confirmed that the onset of puberty and increased sex hormone levels were not associated with sweet preference, indicating a stronger link with physical growth.

“This gives us the first link between sweet preference and biological need,” said Reed. “When markers of bone growth decline as children age, so does their preference for highly sweet solutions.”

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 13 March 2009 at 5:51 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, may I present to you yet another science rap!

This latest addition to the ever-growing ranks of science raps is “Regulatin’ Genes” from two biologists at Stanford, Derrick Davis and Tom McFadden. Speaking to the New York Times, McFadden says that whilst the lyrics are original, the song is a parody of “Money Ain’t a Thang” by Jay-Z.

I must admit that unlike the classic LHC rap, I struggled a little in following all of the science, but perhaps that’s just because my biology knowledge is lacking!

The key idea here is Hox genes. These genes control, or regulate, the formation of the body. Without Hox genes your arms wouldn’t know where on your body to grow! For example, people who are born with extra fingers or toes have a mutated Hox gene.

In the official list of science raps, I think I’ll place Regulatin’ Genes a firm second behind the LHC rap. Can anyone knock the reigning champion from the top of the charts? These guys have some other raps, but Regulatin’ Genes is definitely their best so far. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any new material to see if they can have another crack at first place…

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 8 March 2009 at 7:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Scientists, I know it’s tricky, but please figure out a cure for the common cold at some point in my lifetime. Todays’ post is less of a roundup and more of list of links – I’m hoping that normal service will resume on Wednesday, when both my cold and essays should be a thing of the past! Here we go:

A newly discovered species of tree has been named Sorbus Admonitor or “No parking” after the sign stuck to the first known sample. Discovered in the 1930s in Watersmeet in North Devon, it is only recently that a biochemical analysis has identified it as a distinct species.

The state of Illinois has declared that Pluto is still a planet, despite the 2006 ruling by the International Astronomical Union that downclassed it to “dwarf planet”.

Don’t miss your chance to bid on Einstein’s doctorate diploma. Issued 15 January 1906 by Zurich University’s school of mathematics and natural sciences, bidding will start at around SFr20,000-SFr30,000 ($17,340-$26,000).

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 2 March 2009 at 8:01 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine

A new method for creating stem cells could see life-saving research move forwards, thanks to a team of scientists in the UK and Canada.

Stem cells are sought after because they can be turned into any type of cell in the human body, potentially providing great medical benefits. There are two types – embryonic, and adult.

Working with embryonic stem cells can be very problematic for scientists, as producing them involves the destruction of human embryos, which religious groups and others object to on moral grounds.

Up until now, scientists have attempted to avoid the issue by using viruses to revert adult stem cells to an embryonic state. This method is not without problems however, as the genetically reprogrammed cells were liable to contain genes which cause cancer, making them unusable for human transplantation.

Two teams led by Dr Keisuke Kaji from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Centre for Regenerative Medicine at the University of Edinburgh and Dr Andras Nagy from the University of Toronto worked together to eliminate the need for viruses by modifying adult human skin cells.

The new process was discovered after a chance meeting between the two men. They realised they had each solved half of the puzzle, and worked together to produce adult stem cells that behave exactly like embryonic ones.

Dr Kaji and colleagues had discovered a way to insert the four necessary genes into a cell in one go, but not how to remove them fully. Meanwhile, Dr Nagy’s team had figured out how to remove the necessary genes from a cell once they had been inserted, but not how to get them there in the first place. By joining forces, they could carry out both tasks successfully. Dr Kaji said:

“I was very excited when I found stem cell-like cells in my culture dishes. Nobody, including me, thought it was really possible. This new method will advance the field of regenerative medicine, and should help understand diseases and test new drugs.

“It is a step towards the practical use of reprogrammed cells in medicine, perhaps even eliminating the need for human embryos as a source of stem cells.”

With this discovery following President Obama lifting his predecessor’s ban on stem cell research shortly after taking office earlier this year, things are certainly looking up for scientists.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 March 2009 at 12:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

I’ve just realised that “Weekly” Roundup is something of a misnomer if I post one on a Saturday and a Sunday. Oh well!

Could “sprites” explain UFOs?

Scientists at Tel Aviv University in Israel have identified how a natural phenomenon that could explain sightings of UFOs is formed.

A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.
A sprite appears! About 30 miles high and 30 miles wide, the strange light show is a brief occurrence.

Dubbed “sprites” they were first observed by accident in 1989, and appear as brief flashes high in the atmosphere anywhere from 35 to 80 miles above the ground, unlike regular lighting bolts which occur around 7 to 10 miles up. Prof. Colin Price of the Geophysics and Planetary Sciences Department lead the research:

“Lightning from the thunderstorm excites the electric field above, producing a flash of light called a sprite,” explains Prof. Price.

“We now understand that only a specific type of lightning is the trigger that initiates sprites aloft.”

“Sprites, which only occur in conjunction with thunderstorms, never occur on their own, and are cousins to similar natural phenomenon dubbed by atmospheric electricians as ‘elves,’ ‘goblins’ and ‘trolls,’”

Why do we go grey? Hair dye I know?

Well, I know because a group of scientists have discovered that hair bleaches itself as we get older. Hydrogen peroxide, commonly used by bottle blondes, is produced naturally by hair cells. As we get older, this natural concentration increases and overwhelms the production of melanin, the usual pigment of hair. The result – grey.

The discovery was made by examining human hair follicle cells. The hydrogen peroxide build-up was caused by a enzyme that would normally break it up into hydrogen and oxygen. This has a knock-on effect on other enzymes that results in a disruption of melanin production. The research was published in the FASEB Journal.

Behind the scenes at a natural history museum

Seed magazine have an interesting article about “the hidden side of natural history museums”, and all the specimens that the public never get to see. Words are great’n'all, but what really grabbed me were the pictures from the American Museum of Natural History. Lockers of elephant feet, rhinoceros hides and a wardrobe of leopard skins await you, but this has got to be the strangest of all:

Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
Weird and wonderful. Image by Justine Cooper.
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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 28 February 2009 at 12:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

If everything has gone to plan, I’m currently enjoying a weekend in Paris. This has coincided nicely with another bumper weekly roundup, so enjoy your two-part summary fun.

Sex began even earlier than we thought

The discovery of a long-dead fish is unlikely to get many people hot under the collar, but it appears that a 380 million-year-old fossil could have a few things to teach us about sex. Scientists have found the remains of a placoderm, an armoured prehistoric fish, that contains a two-inch embyro.

The specimen had actually been housed in the collections of the Natural History Museum since the 1980s, but it is only now that the tiny bones inside the fish are believed to be its offspring, rather than its dinner! This evidence for reproduction by internal fertilization is, when it comes to fish, pretty hot stuff. You can watch interviews with some of the scientists involved here.

The science of Watchmen

If you know anything about comics, you’ve probably heard of Watchmen. Arguably the greatest graphic novel of all time, most of the heroes it features don’t have any special powers. The one exception is Dr. Manhatten, a glowing blue man who is the very personification of the atomic bomb.

For the upcoming move adaptation of the book, the film-makers enlisted physics professor James Kakalios as a scientific consultant. Having just examined the role of such consultants on my course, I found the clip quite interesting. Does anyone really benefit by Dr. Manhatten being “explained” in such detail? I’m not convinced, but make up your own minds:

Open access papers benefit developing nations

I’m a strong supporter of open access science, in which scientific papers are placed online so that anyone can read them for free. A study published in Science last week suggests that open access articles receive more citations than those in closed journals, but the effect is particularly strong in the developed world. England and Germany saw an increase of citations by around 5%, whilst in India it was almost 25% and close to 30% in Brazil.

James A. Evans, lead author of the research, spoke to SciDev Net:

“Our study shows that people who have access to journals in poor countries use them,

“If they weren’t freely available they wouldn’t use them with the same frequency, and they may not be able, as a result, to themselves publish in top journals.”

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2 Comments » Posted on Wednesday 25 February 2009 at 4:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

As you read this blog post, your brain is interpreting the squiggles on the screen in to words that form a sentence you can understand. Equally, when in conversation with another person, your ears gather the sound waves and send them off to your brain for processing. Just how is this achieved though? A study from The Netherlands suggests that we try to anticipate the end of sentence before we’ve heard it, in order to arrive at the full meaning as early as possible.

Jos Van Berkum, a psychologist at the Max Planck Institute for Psycholinguistics, use event-related brain potentials (ERPs) to investigate. An ERP is a measure of the brain’s electrical response to stimulus, such as the arrival of a word or sound from the ear, and tracking these measures in the brains of participants resulted in some interesting discoveries.

In one experiment participants were told one of two versions of the same story about a lecturer and a professor being summoned to the faculty dean. The lecturer is guilty of plagiarism, whilst the professor has faked research data. In one version of the story the two cheating academics are referred to in an ambiguous manner – e.g. “the two lecturers”, rather than the lecturer and professor – and the potential confusion that this entails resulted in a change in ERP reading. Listeners had to work harder to figure out what was going on.

A second test used the same story, but to investigate a different effect. The time, the dean tells the lecturer that there is ample reason to sack/promote him. Those who heard the “promote” version showed a spike in the ERP known as an N400 effect, because it peaks roughly 400 milliseconds after the word is spoken. This effect seems to reflect something about language comprehension – the word “promote” is unexpected, given the lecturer’s conduct!

It seems that the brain is constantly working out what the next word in a sentence could be, using heuristics and a wide variety of information sources. If the predicted word and the actual word jar, the N400 spike shows that the brain readjusts.

Van Berkum suggests that further research in this area is required, particularly in developing computer models of how meaning is constructed from words and connecting these models to neuroimaging techniques such as ERPs. Without new tools, he says, our understanding of the brain’s interpretation of language “won’t get much further”.

Jos J.A. Van Berkum (2008). Understanding Sentences in Context: What Brain Waves Can Tell Us Current Directions in Psychological Science, 17 (6), 376-380 DOI: 10.1111/j.1467-8721.2008.00609.x

Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 17 February 2009 at 12:14 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy

Two stories out of the American Association for the Advancement of Science annual meeting caught my eye, both for making claims that seem a little bit “out of this world”. Oh yes, that is a poor excuse for a gag.

Speaking at the meeting, held this past weekend in Chicago, Dr Alan Boss of the Carnegie Institution in Washington DC said that there could potentially be as many Earth-like planets as there are stars in the universe – one hundred billion trillion, according to the Telegraph, though estimates vary.

Boss predicts that with four years we will find one of these planets in our galaxy – aided perhaps by a new telescope being launched by NASA in three weeks time. Named Kepler after the great mathematician and astronomer, its mission is to seek out planets that could support life.

“We already know enough now to say that the universe is probably loaded with terrestrial planets similar to the Earth,

“We should expect that there are going to be many planets which are habitable, so probably some are going to be inhabited as well.”

If we were to send out unmanned spacecraft to take pictures of a newly discovered planet, Boss estimates it would take at least 2,000 years for us to receive them, because an Earth-like planet could potentially be 30 light years away. If you’re expecting little green men however, you’ll probably be disappointed; Boss expects any life out there to be microscopic organisms.

Also speak at the same meeting was British scientists Professor Paul Davies, who called for a “mission to Earth” in order to look for “alien” creatures who may already be here.

No, he’s not suggesting we draft in Mulder and Scully; rather Davies believes we should search for microscopic life in remote and hostile environments that could potentially have a different biochemistry to our own.

“No planet is more Earth-like than Earth itself,” he said.

“So if life does emerge readily under terrestrial conditions, then perhaps it formed many times on our home planet.

“Life as we know it appears to have had a single common ancestor, yet, could life on Earth have started many times?

“Might it exist on Earth today in extreme environments and remain undetected because our techniques are customized to the biochemistry of known life?”

Davies suggests that the discovery of a “shadow biosphere” would be “the biggest sensation in biology since Darwin”. Such a mission would be much cheaper than looking for life on Mars, and so-called “weird life” may already be lurking in deep sea vents, at the bottom of lakes, and in deserts and caves. The truth is out there…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 14 February 2009 at 11:49 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

It’s Valentine’s Day, so here’s the obligatory themed post! Helen Fisher, an anthropologist at Rutgers University in New Jersey, believes she knows why we kiss. The act of kissing is found in over 90% of world cultures, so Fisher suggests it must be the result of evolution.

“Hooking up may have evolved as a fast-acting biological strategy for mate assessment,” she said.

“Men like sloppier kisses with more open mouths and more tongue movement. The hypothesis is they’re trying to get small traces of oestrogen to see where the woman is in her menstrual cycle to indicate the state of her fertility.”

If you’re looking to get lucky with the scientist in your life, you could do worse than send them one of these Scientist Valentines from Ironic Sans. How about this one, where the recent birthday boy professes his love?

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 8 February 2009 at 12:19 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Here’s the rest of this week’s roundup.

LED the way!

I’ve always said that CFL light bulbs are only a stop-gap solution until LED bulbs are ready for commercial use. Now, New Scientist report that they could be coming soon. A team at the University of Cambridge have developed a new method for creating LEDs at a fraction of previous costs.

Currently LEDs are made from gallium nitride, which cannot be grown on silicon like other similar electrical components because it shrinks twice as fast as silicon when cooling. The solution in the past has been to use sapphire, which of course makes the result LEDs too expensive.

Colin Humphreys and colleagues at the University of Cambridge have figured out a way to grow LEDs on silicon, by adding layers of aluminium gallium nitride, which shrink much slower than any of the other materials, balancing it out. The result is a 15 cm silicon wafer costing just $15 whilst containing 150,000 LEDs – perfect for commercial light bulbs.

The FT likes science

The Association of British Science Writers points out that whilst the Financial Times’ decision to cut its sports coverage is bad news for those losing their jobs, it’s actually pretty positive for science.

Why? Well, unlike CNN, the FT clearly value their science journalists and their reporting more than that of its sports department. It’s a shame that cuts have to be made, but at least it’s not science getting the chop this time.

Time for a swim

More animal pictures from the Daily Mail I’m afraid! This time it’s the turn of polar bears.

Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Polar plunge. Photographer: Steven J Kazlowski/Barcroft Med.
Comments Off Posted on Saturday 7 February 2009 at 4:09 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Weekly Roundup

The weekly roundup has grown so big this week that it has spilled into Saturday – and that’s even with some stories not making the cut!

Up the creek with no sign of a paddle

People do some strange things in the name of science. Daniel Bennett spent seven years searching the rainforests of the Philippines for the faeces of the rare butaan lizard, a relation of the giant komodo dragon. It’s understandable then that he was rather upset when he found that his 35kg bag of poo had been thrown away by a Leeds University lab technician. He made the discovery on his return to start the third year of his PhD.

“I was surprised to find my desk space occupied by another student,” he said. “My personal effects had been carefully stowed in boxes, but there was no sign of my 35kg bag of lizard shit.

“To some people it might have been just a bag of lizard shit, but to me it represented seven years of painstaking work searching the rainforest with a team of reformed poachers to find the faeces of one of the world’s largest, rarest and most mysterious lizards.”

The university, after a 16 month wait, offered Bennett £500 compensation which he turned down in favour of legal action. He says the loss of the bag left him “reeling” and has changed his life forever. Although he was able to complete his PhD, the depression at his loss severely affected him.

Time for climate change

I came across this rather nifty timeline of climate change at the Met Office’s website. It begins in 1824, when the French physicist Joseph Fourier (inverter of a wonderful mathematical tool, the Fourier series) realised that the atmosphere can trap heat from the Sun, warming the Earth in much the same way as a Greenhouse.

From there we move through a 1938 prediction by engineer Guy Stewart Callendar that the burning of fossil fuels was responsible for warming the planet, the Kyoto Protocol, and a number of other important landmarks in the history of climate science. The timeline speculatively ends in 2100, with world temperatures expected to rise between 1.8-4.0 °C – depending on the action we take in the meantime.


I join the Daily Mail in being a sucker for some pretty picture of animals. They’ve got some great snaps of a kingfisher diving for fish in an ice river in Land Hessen, central Germany.

The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
The kingfisher grabs its underwater prey. Photographer: Gisela Delpho/Picture Press.
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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 5 February 2009 at 4:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

So big in fact that not one, not two, not even three, but four, five, six press releases on EurekaAlert! were required just to get the word out about its discovery. That’s a lot of snake. The multi-institution team discovered the 60-million-year-old fossilised remains of Titanoboa cerrejonensis in Cerrejón, a coal mine in north Colombia – hence the name, which means “titanic boa from Cerrejon”.

An artist's impression of the giant snake.
An artist's impression of the giant snake. Courtesy of Indiana University.

By comparing the size of the fossilized vertebrae with those of snakes alive today, the scientists determined that the monster was more than 13 metres long, weighed over one and a quarter tons, and at its widest point would reach the hips of a human. It preyed on giant turtles and crocodiles, the preserved skeletons of which were also found.

Size isn’t everything, however. Not content with the discovery of such a large snake, paleontologist Jason Head of the University of Toronto-Mississauga used the fossils to estimate the climate that the beast would live in, publishing the results as lead author of a paper for the journal Nature.

A comparison of the fossil vertebra with a modern day 3 metre boa constrictor. Courtesy of Indiana University.
A comparison of the fossil vertebra with a modern day 3 metre boa constrictor. Courtesy of Indiana University.

Snakes are cold-blooded, meaning that they must absorb heat from their surroundings. Based on the size of Titanoboa, Head estimated that it would requite an average annual temperature of 30 to 34 °C in order to survive. This is about six degrees hotter than current temperatures in the region. Florida Museum of Natural History vertebrate paleontologist Jonathan Bloch, one of the discoverers of the fossils, explains:

“Tropical ecosystems of South America were surprisingly different 60 million years ago,

“It was a rainforest, like today, but it was even hotter and the cold-blooded reptiles were all substantially larger. The result was, among other things, the largest snakes the world has ever seen… and hopefully ever will.”

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 4 February 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

It’s not quite Jurassic Park, but Spanish scientists have succeed in bringing an extinct species back to life – if only for seven minutes.

A Spanish ibex.
A Spanish ibex.

The Pyrenean ibex is a subspecies of the Spanish ibex (shown above), a type of wild mountain goat. The ibex, also known as a bucardo, was declared extinct in 2000 when the last-known survivor died in northern Spain.

Forward thinking scientists preserved DNA from the animal in the form of skin samples frozen in liquid nitrogen. Now, scientists at he Centre of Food Technology and Research of Aragon, in Zaragoza, northern Spain and the National Research Institute of Agriculture and Food in Madrid have used this DNA to cloned the extinct bucardo – the first time an extinct species has been resurrected.

Unfortunately, the ibex kid died seven minutes after birth due to lung defects – an affliction seen in other cloned animals, such as sheep.

Dr Jose Folch lead the research team, who used a cloning technique known as nuclear transfer, in which DNA is removed from the egg of a host species and replaced with the DNA of the animal to be cloned.

“The delivered kid was genetically identical to the bucardo. In species such as bucardo, cloning is the only possibility to avoid its complete disappearance.” said Dr Folch.

The team created 439 embryos, implanting 57 into domestic goats which served as surrogate mothers. Of these only seven resulted in pregnancy, with just one goat giving birth to the short-lived bucardo.

I’m always torn over attempts to resurrect extinct animals. On the one hand, it’s an undeniable fact that human beings play an active part in reducing biodiversity by wiping entire species off the planet. As I quoted David Attenborough yesterday, Darwin showed us that we do not have dominion over the animal kingdom, and unnecessary destruction of wildlife should not occur. Perhaps resurrection allows us to atone for our sins.

Darwin can also be used to argue for the other side. A common statistic thrown about is that 99.9% of all species that have ever lived are now extinct. Despite extensive Googling I have been unable to verify a source for this number, but let’s assume it is correct. After all, the principle of natural selection tells us that the weakest will not survive, and whether it be through predatory, environmental or simply disaster factors, species do not survive.

Some say that human evolution has already begun to stagnate, as our improvements in diet and healthcare even out the evolutionary footing. By restoring extinct species, are we not also at risk of bringing back animals that have, in a sense, failed?

One anthropocentric argument for encouraging biodiversity is that by eliminating species, we could be robbing ourselves of future benefits that they could provide – new types of drugs as a result of some unknown plant, for example. It strikes me that this argument could be turned on its head – that by allowing failed species to return (a sort of evolutionary bail-out package) we could deny future generations the opportunity to make use of emerging species.

It’s a complicated issue, and I’m still not sure on which side I fall. I’m once again reminded of Jurassic Park, with this quote from Jeff Goldblum as Dr. Ian Malcolm:

“Yeah, but your scientists were so preoccupied with whether or not they could, they didn’t stop to think if they should.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 3 February 2009 at 5:50 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Right, Just A Review

If there’s anyone who should be talking about Darwin and the theory of natural selection, it’s Sir David Attenborough. For more than 50 years Attenborough has fascinated and enchanted his audience with the wonders of the natural world. His latest programme is a one-off entitled Charles Darwin and the Tree of Life, available on iPlayer until Sinday.

Although everyone is probably sick of being reminded, let’s have it once more for those not paying attention at the back: 2009 marks the 200th anniversary of Darwin’s birth, and the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species. Indeed, I must admit I sat down to watch the programme with a slight thought of “oh, not another bloody Darwin doc”, but my mind was soon changed.

Yes, all the usual stuff was there. Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, his discoveries on the Galapagos islands, and his fear of the world’s reaction to his theory that lead to a delay in publishing, until prompted by rival theorist Alfred Russel Wallace.

Attenborough is a master of his craft however, and not content just to lead us through a potted history of evolution. Everything is explained so clearly and concisely that it is a joy to watch.

In demonstrating how one species can transform into another through the process of natural selection, Attenborough turns our attention to the more familiar artificial selection; namely, dog breeding. All dogs are descended from wolves, transformed by humans as they were domesticated.

Whilst the many breeds are technically still one species, it is clear that the massive Great Dane cannot physically mate with a Chihuahua – although artificial insemination is possible. In a sense, the two breeds are actually different species, and this is after only a millennia. Over the millions of years that natural selection occurs, it is easy to see how a species can become another.

As well as view on Darwin we also get a window into the life of Attenborough. Footage from his previous programmes are spliced into the documentary, and the juxtaposition of a young Attenborough being narrated by his present self is pleasing. In addition, we hear some about some of his time at university and as a young boy looking for fossils. Amusingly, he was once told by a Cambridge lecturer that the idea of continental drift was “pure moonshine” – this is well before the theory of plate tectonics was developed.

The crown jewel of the programme is a marvellous animation of the tree of life, showing how single-cells evolved and evolved to provide us with the diversity of life we see today. The Wellcome Trust have a website devoted to this new vision of the tree, where you can download the video in HD and even get a copy of the 3D models used to create it – all licensed under Creative Commons, meaning they can be reused and reworked by anyone. You can also watch the sequence here:

If you have the time to watch the full programme, you really should. I was left thinking how wonderful it is that science has been able to provide us with the knowledge of where we come from, and looking forward to further Darwin 200 festivities. Attenborough succeeds in every way that Dawkin’s programme last year failed – he doesn’t preach, he doesn’t berate, he merely shares. I’ll leave you with Attenborough’s closing thoughts, and an important message:

“…Darwin has shown us that we are not apart from the natural world — we do not have dominion over it. We are subject to its laws and processes, as are all other animals on earth to which indeed we are related.”

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 1 February 2009 at 4:57 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

The Flesh of Physics

Carl Zimmer over at Discover magazine has a really interesting post about biomechanics – the study of life in motion. It began in 1872 when Leland Stanford, the founder of Stanford University, allegedly placed a bet of $25,000 that when a horse is trotting there are instances when none of its legs are touching the ground. He paid a photographer to capture a horse in motion using a series of cameras and tripwires, and was eventually proved right. Thus the field of biomechanics was born.

Interestingly enough, even though we know now much about how animals move, depictions of motion are often horribly inaccurate. Apparently 41% of museum displays pose their animals incorrectly, and a shocking 63.6% of animal anatomy books depict positions an animal would never adopt in real life. Check out the full article for an interesting read.

Pretty lights and sounds

Peter Bennett, a PhD student at Queen’s University Belfast, has invented a nifty little sequencer that uses ball bearings to place the beat. It’s been doing the rounds (here’s a Telegraph article) so I thought I’d share the video:

Science on the BBC

The BBC are launching a new line up of science programmes on BBC2, starting this year with a four-part series featuring Professor Lesley Regan who will examine the science behind the marketing of drugs, diets, and other health products.

Two more will follow in 2010, with a look at The History of Science (working title), a programme presented by Michael Mosley that will take a look at some of the big scientific milestones, and Seven Wonders of the Solar System, in which Brian Cox will explore space using the magic of CGI. Apparently, another big science announcement from the Beeb is due this month.

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5 Comments » Posted on Saturday 31 January 2009 at 5:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Dolphins are such fascinating creatures, it’s no wonder that I’ve talked about their antics before. Yesterday, I learnt that in addition to their other many talents, dolphins are apparantly adept chefs as well.

Yes that’s right – chefs. Scientist from Australia and Britain observing dolphins in the Upper Spencer Gulf in South Australia were stunned to see a female bottlenose dolphin catch a cuttlefish and then prepare it to make it more edible.

The dolphin cookbook.
The dolphin cookbook

Drs Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza and Mark Norman describe the procedure in a paper published in the PLoS ONE journal, which includes some pictures as well as the rather charming diagram on the right.

The nautical Nigella chases her prey out from the seaweed and over a sandy patch of the seabed (A), before trapping it with her snout and then killing it with a sharp downward thrust produced by a beat of her tail (B). To remove the cuttlefish’s defensive ink she lifts up her meal (C) and shakes it until all traces are removed (D), and as a final preparation scrapes the fish on the sand to remove any hard and inedible bones (E) before tucking in (F).

This same dolphin’s culinary skills have been observed in both 2003 and 2007, when she was seen preparing a total of seven cuttlefish so the team are sure that this more than a one off. Other dolphins in the area are also reported to exhibit similar behaviour – suggesting that the dolphins may be teaching the technique to each other. Delia watch out – now the dolphins can cook.

Julian Finn, Tom Tregenza, Mark Norman (2009). Preparing the Perfect Cuttlefish Meal: Complex Prey Handling by Dolphins PLoS ONE, 4 (1) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0004217

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 25 January 2009 at 8:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I’m a bit pressed for time this evening, so the weekly roundup edition will be a little short I’m afraid. There are four items in today’s post thought, so perhaps that will make up for it.


The Virtual Museum of Minerals and Molecules is a pretty nifty site. If you care to browse its online exhibits you’ll be able to check out the molecular structure of various materials in full 3D. The exhibits are manipulatable and come with a number of display options, so its easy to get that perfect viewing point that every molecule-buff craves. My favourite has to be buckminsterfullerene, also affectionately known as the “bucky ball” for its football-like shape.

What’s wrong with “Rover”? It works for dogs…

NASA, in partnership with Disney’s Wall-E, are offering America school children the chance to name the latest Mars rover, due to launch in 2011. Currently known as the Mars Science Laboratory, the rover will continue the search for life on the Red Planet. It’s not as cute as Wall-E though…

The Science of Back to the Future

Pop-culture blog Overthinking It has devoted an entire week to the classic Back to the Future trilogy. I particularly liked this post on the science behind the films. In it, they cover the basic problem I have with all time travel films: when you travel in time, the Earth doesn’t stay in the same place. Annoyingly, the article is spread over multiple pages, but it’s worth a read for the entertaining diagrams alone.

It won’t be long before they take over…

Wired presents the 8 best non-human tool users, including moles that wear face masks, gorillas propped up by walking sticks, and dolphins that uses sponges. Great stuff.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 20 January 2009 at 3:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Mathematics

The mathematical formula that proves couples should NOT have sex on their first date” proclaimed a Daily Mail headline from last week. You’d have thought I would jump all over a story like this, much like I did for Blue Monday yesterday. The reason I’ve taken a few days to think about this post is because here we have a “formula” story with a difference – it’s actually science.

In a paper appearing in the Journal of Theoretical Biology entitled Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal, researchers Robert M. Seymoura and Peter D. Sozoud use a branch of mathematics called game theory to model a “courtship encounter” between a male and a female.

If you saw The Dark Knight last summer then you’ve seen game theory in action. In a re-working of a classic game theory problem, Heath Ledger’s Joker has rigged two ferries with explosives. On one, the good citizens of Gotham. On the other, a prison-load of thugs and criminals. The Joker, maniac that he is, gives the detonators of each ship to the other ship – so that the citizens can choose to blow up the criminals, and vice versa. He informs them that if they killer their counterparts in the next 30 minutes they will be spared, otherwise he’ll just blow up both ships.

Game theory informs us that the best strategy is for one ship to blow up the other – but of course, this means that both ships will be destroyed anyway, just as the Joker planned. Thankfully, dramatic forces (and Batman) intervene before anyone is harmed. If you want to know more about the maths behind it, a decent explanation is here, but my point is that game theory is a genuine branch of mathematics, and not some crackpot PR nonsense.

The game considered in this paper consists of a male and a female (of any species) engaging in courtship. As time goes on, both parties pay a “cost” for participating in the game. In a human context, this might be a man paying for dinner, whilst the woman he is dating suffers a “cost” to her time – i.e., she might be wasting the evening with an unsuitable mate when she could be finding someone more to her liking. The model also takes into account other species however, for example a male bird singing to a female.

The game ends either when one of the two quit playing (give up to try with someone else) or the female accepts the male as a mate. It is also assumed that males are either “good” or “bad” from the female’s perspective, but she isn’t able to tell good from bad directly. It is only when the pair mate that the female receives a positive payoff from a “good” mate, or a negative payoff from a “bad” one.

The research shows that when the game plays out, a “good” male will participate longer than a “bad” male, allowing the female to weed out a suitable mate: the longer they hang around, the more likely it is that the male will be “good”. Now, this is quite far off from the Daily Mail headline, but the point is that in this case the science is sound. The authors admit that their generalised species model probably doesn’t fit well with humans, especially in a society where contraceptive is readily available. What this research provides is a possible explanation for the evolution of lengthy courtships in many species, including humans. It may not be earth-shattering, but it is science.

R SEYMOUR, P SOZOU (2009). Duration of courtship effort as a costly signal Journal of Theoretical Biology, 256 (1), 1-13 DOI: 10.1016/j.jtbi.2008.09.026

1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 18 January 2009 at 2:25 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Education, Evolution, Weekly Roundup

Hugs on the inside AND the outside

Haven’t you always wished for something a bit more exciting than a teddy bear for your child to cuddle up too at night? Something…anatomical…perhaps? Well look no further: I Heart Guts have everything you need.

Hes a friendly little guy
He's a friendly little guy

They sell cuddly versions of many of your own internal organs. There’s the brain, the heart, and even the pancreas – or why not go the whole hog and purchase the entire set? Beware though: the uterus is being recalled as a potential hazard to children…

Genetic modification – it’s a laugh

GM food is always a hot issue these days, but new research shows that in the past, farmers may have breed their animals to produce new coat colours for their own amusement. The study, published in the online journal Public Library of Science Genetics, looked at how the genetic cod of wild and domestic pigs has altered over the years.

Other suggestions for the farmers’ selective breeding include changing the coat colour to eliminate camouflage, making the animals easier to to keep track of, or perhaps to mark out the animals with the best traits. Dr Greger Larson, one of the researches at the University of Durham, had this to say:

“The Mesopotamians had different-coloured farm animals 5,000 years ago and, in that regard, they were no different to Paris Hilton, who has a pink Chihuahua, or anyone else with animals with unusual coat colours.

“This study demonstrates that the human penchant for novelty stretches back thousands of years.”

Killing jelly babies – it’s for science, honest

The other day I stumbled across this video, which demonstrates the “death of a jelly baby” experiment. Apparently a favourite of school chemistry teachers, it involves dropping the sweet into a heated test tube of potassium chlorate, and then sitting back and watching it “scream” as it burns. It’s supposed to demonstrate the principle of oxidation of sugar, but you confectionery-murderers aren’t fooling anyone.

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 10 January 2009 at 5:21 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

As a precursor to tomorrow’s weekly roundup, may I present three stories about our aquatic friends:

Live shark dissection

It’s not often you get to see the insides of a shark – and I’m not talking about being eaten! Earlier this week, the Auckland Museum in New Zealand held a live dissection of a great white shark. Marine scientists preformed the necropsy in front of 4,000 visitors to the museum, whilst a further 10,000 watched online.

During the dissection marine specialist Tom Trnski of the Auckland Museum and Clinton Duffy, a shark expert from the New Zealand Department of Conservation, discovered a fishing hook (line still attached!) inside the female shark’s stomach. No doubt that particular fisherman would be glad to have the shark be the one that got away!

Dr Trnski, speaking to Times Online, was “astounded” at the level of public interest:

“It’s quite interesting being a scientist and doing something that we consider fairly routine and not that exciting, to then catch the imagination of the people in New Zealand, Australia and internationally, we were all really astounded by the attention,” he said.

You can watch a short clip in the Times article linked above, or the whole dissection on the museum’s website. I must admit to not watching the whole thing – I’m a bit squeamish!

Fish have a three second memory? Not so fast

Fish are commonly believed to have three second memory, explaining why they will happily swim around in circles for hours on end. Not so, say scientists at the Israeli Technion Institute of Technology in Haifa, who discovered that they can remember for at least five months.

They spent a month training young fish to associate their feeding time with a certain sound, and then released them into the wild. When the sound was repeated five months later the fish returned, presumably expecting grub to be up.

The research could allow fish to be farmed in the wild, by training them whilst young and then summoning them at a later date to be caught for consumption.

“Four-eyes” uses a mirror to see

A fish which appears to have four eyes has been discovered to be the only vertebrate to use a mirror to produce an image. Known as Dolichopteryx longipes or the brownsnout spookfish, it actually only has two eyes, which are both split into two parts.


One part of the eye looks upwards and uses a lens to focus light from the sun, in much the same way as a human eye. Stranger though is the downward facing part of the eye, the mirrored surface of which collects light from the deep ocean and focuses it on the retina. It is thought that mirrors are more efficient than lenses in low-light, because a lens absorbs light as it passes through.

Professor Julian Partridge of the University of Bristol discovered the tiny mirrored plates, thought to be made of guanine crystals:

“In nearly 500 million years of vertebrate evolution, and many thousands of vertebrate species living and dead, this is the only one known to have solved the fundamental optical problem faced by all eyes — how to make an image — using a mirror,”

“It’s an extraordinary animal. It is absolutely unique for a vertebrate. With mirrors it can make a very bright, high-contrast image.”

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 5 January 2009 at 8:41 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Evolution, Just A Review

Well, we’re less than a week into 2009 and already the Darwinmania has begun. This week Radio 4 present a season of all things Darwin, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of his birth this year. Amongst other programmes on the great man’s life and work is Dear Darwin, a five-part series broadcast every day this week at 3.45pm, which allows five modern-day scientists to write a letter to Darwin to tell him about the impact of his work.

The first episode today featured Dr Craig Venter, who popped up in TIME magazine’s top 10 scientific discoveries of 2008 for his work towards creating artificial life. He is most well known as being one of the researchers to first map the human genome.

Dr. Venter uses his letter to tell Darwin about the discovery of DNA, and how ideas from the Origin of Species can now be confirmed with modern genetic analysis. Looking at the similarities between human and chimpanzee DNA (which I talked about a couple of days ago), it is very clear that we must share a common ancestor as Darwin predicted. Dr. Venter tells him that we differ from the chimps by only 5-6% of our DNA – and some large stretches by only a little over 1%.

Darwin has clearly been a huge inspiration to Dr. Venter. He tells of following in Darwin’s footsteps on a voyage similar to that of the Beagle, but the goal of his expedition was to look for micro-organisms that would have been invisible to Darwin with the tools available at the time. The ocean provides an unimaginable bounty for the interested explorer; 1 million bacteria and 10 million viruses are to be found in every litre of sea water.

The letter also touches on the discovery of oil, and the effect that it has had on our world. Many of the species that were alive in Darwin’s day are now extinct, in part due to industrialisation. Now, Dr. Venter says, we must take control of evolution if we are to solve the problems of climate change, and engineer bacteria to suck up all our waste CO2.

At its heart, the programme has quite a nice idea. I’m sure Darwin would be amazed at the work that has been done today as a result of his natural selection. Unfortunately however, it doesn’t really make great radio! Dr. Venter’s voice is rather monotone, and uninterrupted for the entire course of the programme. As a letter, that’s how it has to work I guess, but I was glad that it only lasted 15 minutes!

If I haven’t put you off, here is the obligatory iPlayer link, and as I said above the other episodes will be every day this week on Radio 4, at 3.45pm.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 3 January 2009 at 7:31 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Musings

I’ve just read a piece by Richard Dawkins about the possibility of a “hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee”, and how such a creation could effect our world. It was originally published on as part of their What will change everything? series. I saw it on the Guardian, where you’ll also find some other comments. Here are mine:

Dawkins makes the very true point that, currently at least, the division between humans and animals is an absolute. He uses the example of pro-lifers, who in actuality are pro-human-life – after all, “Abortion clinic bombers are not known for their veganism”. In some way, humans are seen as completely separate from other animals, perhaps simply because we are the ones making the distinction.

This idea, however, runs completely counter to evolutionary theory. Go back far enough in the evolutionary chain, and you will find a female who was mother to two offspring. One would eventually lead to humans like you and me, and the other to modern day chimps.

Dawkins thinks that a “practical demonstration” would change everything, and presents four possible scenarios that would challenge the status quo:

  1. The discovery of a long lost tribe of Homo erectus. Unlikely, given our extensive knowledge of the world.
  2. Successful hybridisation between a human and a chimpanzee, described by “a distinguished biologist” as “the most immoral scientific experiment he could imagine”.
  3. A chimera, creating in a lab and consisting of an equal number of human and chimp cells. Chimeras, named for the mythical creature, are made by physically mixing the cells of two different species. Human/mouse chimeras are already being created as part of normal genetics research, but are destroyed long before they develop beyond a bundle of cells
  4. We know the full human and chimpanzee genomes. It wouldn’t be too difficult to look at the two and create a sort of “average” genome, though using this genome to create a living organism would be much more difficult. Dawkins believes it will be possible during the lifetimes of those alive today.

Dawkins doesn’t make it clear either way if he would support any of these endeavours, merely stating that it “would require further thought”. For myself, although I find the concept of such a hybrid to be inescapably interesting, I hope never to see such a being created.

The reason is simple: the feelings of the poor creature itself, if it were capable of human emotion. A hybrid would either spend its entire life in secret captivity, doomed to a lab-bound existence, or else if exposed to the world it would be subject to an endless media frenzy and calls for its destruction. Either would sheer misery.

Science can give us wonderful solutions to seemingly impossible questions about the world, but there are some questions that should not be answered. I feel that this is one of them.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 1 January 2009 at 12:00 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Space & Astronomy, Yes, But When?

…0! Happy New Year! Sorry if you’re a bit confused due to the reverse chronological nature of blogging, but I’m actually finishing the countdown of the previous post from moments earlier. How exciting. Well, let’s see in the new year with some predictions of what 2009 holds for science. The Telegraph spoke to some leading scientists to find out what’s in store.

Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Professor of Cosmology and Astrophysics and Master of Trinity College at the University of Cambridge (phew, deep breath) points out that it is both 400 years since Galileo first wielded his telescope, as well as Darwin’s bicentennial. I expect we’ll see a little competition between these two scientific greats in 2009, but Rees hopes that we will gain answers to a question “equally interesting to astronomers and to Darwinians” – is there life on other planets? In 2009 the search for exoplanets will continue, and Rees hopes that we will figure out where we should be looking.

The editor of New Scientist, Roger Highfield, expects that commercial space travel will be big in 2009, with Virgin Galactic beginning their test flights. The space agencies of the US, Russia and the rest will also be looking to increase our knowledge of the heavens, with missions to Mars and the launching of telescopes on the cards. Highfield also looks forward to the publication of the Neanderthal genome, the relaunch of the LHC, and the 40th anniversary of the moon landing.

Colin Pillinger, Head of Planetary and Space Sciences at the Open University, thinks that the credit crunch will scupper any space-based plans, and that most of the year will be spent looking back at past achievements. Pessimistic perhaps, but we shall see. Baroness Greenfield, Director of the Royal Institution, is a little more positive, hoping to see advances in the field of neurodegeneration, including treatments for brain diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s.

Professor Sir John Bell, President of the Academy of Medical Sciences also hopes to see further cures by searching for genetic links using the human genome project. Finally, science minister Lord Drayson had a rather dull and on message prediction:

“My predication for 2009 is that the Government will continue to invest in science despite the global economic downturn.”

Only time will tell. If you’re still not quite ready to let 2008 go, have a crack at the Guardian’s Science Quiz 2008. I’m afraid to say I scored a measly 10 out of 20! Other than that, all I have left to say is happy 2009!

1 Comment » Posted on Monday 29 December 2008 at 6:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Health & Medicine

Sense About Science, an independent charitable trust set up to promote science in public, has released its third annual “celebrity audit”. The document details the claims of those in the public eye in relation to science, and highlights that celebs all too often don’t have their facts straight. Whether you like it or not, celebrities hold power in our society, so we should really encourage them to get their science right.

During the US presidential campaign I praised both Obama and McCain for their views on science, but it seems that they have both linked the MMR vaccine with autism – a big no-no. Despite the controversy around the vaccine, it has been shown again and again to be safe. Obama said of autism:

“Some people are suspicious that it’s connected to the vaccines. This person included. The science right now is inconclusive, but we have to research it.”

Sorry Mr President-Elect, you may be the saviour of the world, but that’s just not good enough. Continuing in America, Scientologist wacko Tom Cruise hit out against psychiatry in a video leaked to the internet:

“Psychiatry doesn’t work. [...] When you study the effects it’s a crime against humanity.”

This is despite the millions of people helped by psychiatry. Really, when you release movies like Mission Impossible III, I don’t think you have any right to throw the phrase “crime against humanity” around lightly…

Over in the UK, it seems our celebrity chefs have been doing their parts to muddy the scientific waters. Nigella Lawson has been supporting the Mind Meal, said by the charity Mind to help people with mental health problems. The Domestic Goddess said:

“The Mind Meal is an excellent idea – good, simple food that can help you to feel different about life”

Dietitian Catherine Collins suggests that the “specialist allergy foods and expensive ingredients” are “an unnecessary expense”, and not worth promoting.

Meanwhile, Delia Smith wants to cut out sugar from our nation’s diet in order to curb obesity. In contrast, Lisa Miles, senior nutrition scientist at the British Nutrition Foundation says that sugar is actually an important part of a balanced diet, and is found naturally in foods such as fruit and milk. She also says that the causes of obesity are “much more complex”.

Sense About Science suggest that any celebrities looking for scientific advice would do well to call them first. I don’t think we should discourage famous people from speaking out on science, but I do think they should know what they’re talking about!

1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 25 December 2008 at 4:24 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

I hope you’ve had an enjoyable day so far. By now (if you’re anything like me) you’ve stuffed yourself full of turkey and all the trimmings, and have crawled to the sofa to doze until Doctor Who comes on. Just what is it about a full Christmas dinner that can make you so sleepy?

Gobble gobble. Yum.
Gobble gobble. Yum.

Well, yesterday I decided to find out. Sorry to break the fourth wall of blogging, but as I said I’m currently lying on the sofa. Through the magic of technology, I’m posting from the past. Still, if you’re doing the same and have a laptop perched atop your full belly, perhaps you’ll enjoy a bit of science.

After doing some extensive research (i.e. hitting up Google) I found this article from Scientific American last year. It seems that turkey contains tryptophan, a naturally occurring amino acid that can be used by the body to produce serotonin. This neurotransmitter has been shown to play a role in sleep.

That’s not the whole story, however. Serotonin levels aren’t necessarily boosted by eating turkey, because the bird contains many other amino acids besides tryptophan, which happens to be the least present in each forkful. All these amino acids try to crowd into the brain at once, transported by special proteins across the blood-brain barrier. Poor little tryptophan can’t even get a look in.

It’s suggested that dessert is the real sleepy culprit, as the sugar in such treats causes insulin to be produced in order to allow the absorption of amino acids. Tryptophan is unaffected by insulin however, allowing it to slip more easier into the brain and start the production of serotonin.

Thing is, (and before I get angry comments, I know that personal anecdotes are not very scientific!) in my house we’re normally so stuffed that we forgo dessert until much later in the day. I’m still very sleepy, however. What gives?

It could simply be the sheer volume of food ingested. It has been suggested that a stretching of the small intestine and a stomach full of fat and protein both can cause sleepiness. Also, with more blood rushing to you digestive system to fuel the work there, less is available for the muscles and brain to keep you active.

Finally, there’s one more culprit: alcohol. I won’t say no to a few drinks with Christmas dinner, and after a bit of tipple it’s very easy to lean back into a comfy chair and fall asleep. So, have another drink, relax, and enjoy the rest of your day!

Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 24 December 2008 at 2:07 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Health & Medicine

Now call me a cynic if you like, but when I read a story about a blind man navigating a maze that he cannot see my bullshit meter immediatly starts to tingle. As it happens, I’m right – to a certain extent at least.

The news is that man known anonymously as TN has successfully walked along a corridor full of obstacles, despite having been left blind by a series of strokes. This phenomenon is known as “blindsight”, the strange ability of some blind people to perceive objects that they cannot actually see.

Now, as I understand it, there is nothing physically wrong with TN’s eyes. Rather, his brain has been damaged in such a way that he can no longer control vision. He had already been noted to react to people’s facial expressions, so something must be getting through. Clearly, TN experiences a very different form of blindness compared to those who have sustained damage to their eyes.

I’m not suggesting TN is faking his blindness in any way – he really is genuinely blind. I would compare his condition to a digital camera with a broken screen. Such a camera can still take pictures, but with out a screen to view them on the camera is effectively ‘blind’. Contrast this with a camera that has a working screen, but a broken lense, and you can see the distinction I’m making here. What TN’s brain has effectively done is find a USB cable to hook it up to his brain and allow him to view the pictures – even if he doesn’t actively realise.

Why does this distinction matter? It’s all in the way these stories are reported. ‘Blind man can see’ is a very newsworthy story, but it is also cruel to misrepresent the facts to those with a different kind of blindness to TN. With that in mind, let’s see how the mainstream media reported the findings.

For once, they’ve actually all done pretty well. Each story makes it more or less clear that TN’s blindness is due to brain damage, and that his eyes are still fully functional. They all also include a quote from the study leader, Professor Beatrice de Gelder, who makes it pretty clear what’s going on:

“This is absolutely the first study of this ability in humans.

“We see what humans can do, even with no awareness of seeing or any intentional avoidance of obstacles. It shows us the importance of these evolutionarily ancient visual paths. They contribute more than we think they do for us to function in the real world.”

So, Merry Christmas guys; you all receive a Just A Theory “Getting It Right” badge of approval. Try and keep it up in 2009!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 18 December 2008 at 2:23 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Oh all right then, a better sense of taste. This is just one of many revelations emerging from a Danish study which also found that one in three schoolchildren prefer soft drinks which are not sweet, and 70% of them like fish. Ok, it’s hardly world-changing science, but I’m more interested in the way the results were collected. The study was a joint effort between Danish Science Communication, The Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at University of Copenhagen, and 8,900 Danish schoolchildren.

Rather than just being willing volunteers for the study, the kids were active participants in the research, as part of the Danish natural science festival. Schools were sent kits of taster samples and instructions on how to conduct experiments, the goal of which were to measure the ability of children to identify sweet and sour tastes of various concentrations in order to establish which they prefer and how many tastebuds they have.

Bodil Allesen-Holm, was head of the project and is in charge of the Sensory Laboratory at the Department of Food Science at LIFE. He was particularly impressed with the way the children carried out their investigations:

“What is most surprising is that the results are so clear and of such a high quality,

“The trends are very clear in all the answers from the many primary and secondary schools; the pupils and teachers have been very thorough and accurate.”

As for the results themselves it seems that although boys and girls have roughly the same number of taste buds, the girls are better at recognising tastes, with boys requiring an average of around 10% more sourness and 20% more sweetness to detect the taste. The researchers suggest that the food interest should take these findings into account, and develop more varied foods in order to accommodate different (wait for it…) tastes.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 14 December 2008 at 6:38 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Health & Medicine, Inventions & Technology, Weekly Roundup

Google + Magazines = Moogle?

Earlier this week, Google added a large collection of magazines to their already extensive Book Search catalogue. Of particular interest for the scientifically inclined is the entirety of Popular Science magazine, right back to the first issue published in May 1872. If nothing else, it’s quite fun watching the cover design evolve over the decades. You can also check out the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, which for much of its history featured the Doomsday Clock on the cover.

No, you can’t call him Batman

Researchers at Purdue University in Indiana are auctioning the chance to name a newly discovered bat. The winner of the bid (which will start at $250,000) gains the scientific naming rights to a species of bat found recently in a Central American forest. Proceeds will be used to fund environmental research in education at the university, and in the animal’s country of origin.

Dr John Bickham, professor of forestry and natural resources at Purdue and discoverer of the bat, is being cagey about the exact location of its habitat, but the winner of the auction will be invited on an expedition to the area with Dr Bickham. They better have a serious name, however:

“We want this to be a serious thing. Anyone willing to put up this kind of money would probably not do so just to be flippant,” said Dr Bickham. “In science, we name species after someone who we wish to honour. We want to find someone who’s passionate about the environment and issues of biodiversity. This is about doing something meaningful.”

Watch the chocs at Christmas – dark will fill you up quicker

Everyone loves a bit of chocolate, but at Christmas it’s easy to over do it. Over at the Faculty of Life Sciences (LIFE) at the University of Copenhagen, they’ve found that dark chocolate may be the solution. Scientists at the Department of Human Nutrition got 16 young men to fast for 12 hours, then offered them 100g of chocolate. One session used milk, and another later on on used dark.

Two and a half hours after the chocolate feast, participants were offered as much pizza as they liked, and instructed to eat until full. It turns out that in the dark chocolate session, they ate 15% less pizza, and reported feeling less like eating sweet, salty or fatty foods.

Dark chocolate has already been shown to have health benefits over milk, what with its healthier fatty acids and antioxidants, but it seems it could now also stop you from overeating. It probably is still to hard to resist that second helping of stuffing, however…

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 13 December 2008 at 3:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Space & Astronomy

TIME magazine, as part of their “Top 10 Everything of 2008″ series have released the ten most impressive scientific discoveries of the year. “Discoveries” might be stretching it a bit for some of the entries – accomplishments, perhaps? Semantics aside, let’s have a look at the list:

1. Large Hadron Collider

No surprises here. The LHC was the biggest thing in science for most of the year, with extensive coverage in the mainstream media. Even here at Just A Theory I’ve written quite a bit on everyone’s favourite particle accelerator. Unfortunately, there won’t be any discoveries made at CERN for a while yet – a helium leak soon after it was started means the collider won’t be up and running again until sometime next June.

2. The North Pole of Mars

Well, we already knew it was there, but this year in May NASA’s Phoenix probe landed in Mar’s far northern region. No signs of life were found, but we now have further confirmation that Mars was once a wet planet, much like our own Earth.

3. Creating Life

Geneticist J. Craig Venter, instrumental in mapping the human genome, wrote the genetic code for an entirely new type of bacterium, Mycoplasma laboratorium. He and his team put together 582,000 base pairs that make up the genetic information of the new species. Next, this DNA must be inserted into a living bacterium to see if it can take over, effectively creating artificial life.

4. China Soars into Space

The world’s biggest country made new strides into space this year, with the first Chinese spacewalk spacewalk. Pretty impressive, since it’s only their third mission in a space programme that began in 2003.

5. More Gorillas in the Mist

For once, some good news on animal conservation. It turns out that previous estimates of the number of western lowland gorillas were too low, and the Republic of Congo is now thought to contain 125,000 gorillas – twice as many as previously thought.

6. Brave New Worlds

The discovery of extrasolar solar planets continued at a rapid pace this year, with 45 new worlds announced in June by Swiss astronomer Michel Mayor. Later on in November, we got the first ever pictures of planets around another star thank’s to good ol’ Hubble.

7. The Power of Invisibility

Scientists at Berkeley, University of California, announced the invention of an invisibility cloak. Nanotechnology and metamaterials make it possible for an object to completely vanish, but don’t expect your own cloak soon – it’s far from ready to be practical yet.

8. Cenozoic Park?

In Novemeber, biochemistry professor Steven Schuster of Penn State University revealed 80% of the genome of the ancient woolly mammoth, painstakingly recovered using fossilised hair. This lead to speculation we might one day be cloning the furry creatures – has no one seen Jurassic Park?!

9. Can You Spell Science?

Between 1979 and 2006, the percentage of science literacy in adults has doubled to 17%. It’s not that great news though – according to the survey by the University of Michigan, a quarter of the US population count as “civic scientifically literate”. In other words, three in four adults will struggle to understand science stories printed in the media – I wonder if that includes this blog?!

10. First Family

Finally, we have the discovery of the first “nuclear family”. In Saxony-Anhalt in central Germany, a 4,600-year-old grave was discovered to contain the remains of an adult male and female, and two boys aged 8 to 9 and 4 to 5. DNA evidence confirmed their relationships: they are indeed the First Family.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 8 December 2008 at 12:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Fear, that is. A study out of Stony Brook University in New York State has found that people can unconsciously detect stress of fear in others by smelling a chemical pheromone released in sweat.

Dr Lillianne Mujica-Parodi and her team enlisted 20 first-time skydivers to aid them in their research. Strapping absorbent pads to the participants armpits, the team collected the sweat from before and during the jump. As a control, sweat was also collected as the participants ran on a treadmill for the same length of time and at the same time of day as the jump.

The sweat was then mixed with air and given to volunteers to breathe in (yuck!). At the same time their brains were scanned, and the results showed that the amygdala and hypothalamus, which are brain regions associated with fear, were more active in people who breathed in sweat from the skydive. They weren’t able to actively distinguish between the two types of sweat, however. Mujica-Parodi wrote in a conference presentation last year:

“We demonstrate here the first direct evidence for a human alarm pheromone … Our findings indicate that there may be a hidden biological component to human social dynamics, in which emotional stress is, quite literally, ‘contagious’.”

She could not give any further comment however, as the study is currently under peer-review for publication in a scientific journal.

The research was funded by the US Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency, suggesting a possible military application, perhaps causing fear in enemy troops. DARPA has denied any such plans, and says it will not be funding further research in the field.

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2 Comments » Posted on Sunday 7 December 2008 at 4:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Shell I never

A photo from the Boer War has revealed that a tortoise named Jonathan is one of the world’s oldest living animals, at age 176.

Jonathan in 1900, aged around 70, on the island of St Helena

It’s crazy to think that this tortoise was born in 1832. The same year saw the birth of Lewis Carroll (author of Alice in Wonderland) and the death of the mathematician Évariste Galois, whose pioneering work in group theory ended when he was killed in a duel. Of course, Jonathan has no connection to this events, but still – he’s pretty damn old.

LHC still broken, but not broke

Poor Large Hadron Collider. You just don’t seem to be able to catch a break. It seems that when the particle accelerator leaked helium earlier in the year, the damage was quite extensive. Repair costs will be almost £14m, and the LHC won’t be ready to turn back on until next summer.

Now, £14m isn’t much compared to the £4.4 billion it cost to build in the first place (yes, £4.4 billion, not million as The Telegraph is reporting…) but it’s still a fair chunk of change. LHC haters shouldn’t have to worry about the begging bowl being passed their way however, as CERN hope to meet the costs within their existing budget.

£250m for training new scientists

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), the UK’s funding body for science and engineering, has pledged £250m to invest in training the scientists and engineers of the future.

The money will allow the creation of 44 training centres across the country, and give funding to more then 2,000 PhD students. Lord Drayson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, was enthusiastic about the centres:

“Britain faces many challenges in the 21st Century and needs scientists and engineers with the right skills to find answers to these challenges, build a strong economy and keep us globally competitive,” he said.

“This is an exciting, innovative approach to training young researchers and will help build a better future for Britain.”

It’s nice to see that even in these times of economic woe, scientists aren’t being forgotten!

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 December 2008 at 8:11 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

A couple of months ago I wondered whether we were seeing a new development in science communication; namely scientific rapping. First there was the Large Hadron Collider Rap, which was then followed by the Astrobiology Rap. Alas, it seems that no further offerings have emerged.

All is not lost, however, as it seems we have a new form of communication: dance. A while ago, the journal Science put out a call for scientists around the world to share their Ph.D research in the form of interpretive dance – an unusual request, I grant you, but one that has resulted in some interesting compositions.

Prizes were awarded in four categories: Graduate Students, Postdocs, Professors, and Popular Choice. I’ve embedded the videos for you below; see what you make of them and then click through to the article to find out what they’re all about. Warning: I may have purposely miss-categorised this post to confuse you!

Graduate Students



Popular Choice

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1 Comment » Posted on Sunday 30 November 2008 at 12:03 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

We’ve got another one…

It’s the latest in a series of creepy animals! I’m not sure if it’s the Blair Witch style camerawork, or the fact that its tentacles are so long that the continue down to the bowels of the earth, but the Magnapinna squid is possibly the worst of the bunch.

No, no, NO, DON'T EAT ME!!!!!

One of Magnapinna‘s strangest features is that it appears to have elbows. Elbows, I ask you! We actually don’t know very much about ol’Magnapinna, and this video wasn’t captured by a team of biologists. In fact, it was oil company Shell who found the strange creature as they searched for new sources of fuel, two and a half kilometers underwater. So don’t worry, it’s not close enough to get you…yet.

Do cars have personalities?

I’m sure you’ve all noticed that the front end of cars often look like faces. Now, researchers at Florida State University have confirmed this to be true – and not only do we ascribe facial features to cars, we also give them personalities.

In a study published in the December issue of the journal Human Nature, 40 people we asked to view 3D computer reconstructions and printed images of 38 cars. A third of participants saw a human or animal face in at least 90% of the cars. They were also asked to rate each car on 19 personality traits such as dominance, maturity, gender and friendliness. It seems that people generally agreed in their ratings, suggest a universal way of reading faces.

Cars viewed as “powerful” had elongated hoods, pronounced lower bodies relative, and more angular headlights reminiscent of a frown. On the other end of the scale, those seen as submissive had headlights with their upper edge relatively close to the middle, and higher sides, suggesting a smile. It seems that even in inanimate objects, we can’t help but see a face.

Polar bear in lack-of-penis shocker

Oh, this is a very silly story, but I just couldn’t help myself. It seems that Japanese zoo keepers have made an interesting discovery: Tsuyoshi, a four-year-old, 200 kg, polar bear isn’t quite the stud they were expecting. The bear was introduced to a female at the Kushiro Municipal Zoo in the hope that the pair would mate, but it turns out there was a slight problem: Tsuyoshi is a she-bear.

“We thought he was a male, so we never had any doubts as we took care of him,” said Masako Inoue.

“But one day we realized that the two bears urinate in the same way, and we thought, is that how males do it? And once we started to look at things that way, we weren’t quite so sure.”

It seems it’s not unusual to confuse the gender of a polar bear, as their long hair can make it difficult to properly identify them, especially when they are young. Poor Tsuyoshi has been living as a boy ever since the tender age of three months.

For now, the Zoo plans to talk to others in the area, to see what to do about the breeding plan. I’d suggest that Tsuyoshi might not be as helpful as they thought…

Comments Off Posted on Saturday 29 November 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A while ago I wrote about the record breaking 100 metre dash of Usain Bolt at this year’s Olympic games. Video analysis by a group of Norwegian scientists suggested that Bolt’s 9.69 seconds record could possibly be brought down to 9.55 seconds. Now, Mark Denny of Stanford University (a keen marathon runner) has revealed that 9.48 seconds might be with in future athletes’ grasp.

In a paper published yesterday in the The Journal of Experimental Biology, Denny analyses the locomotion of three species: dogs, horses and humans. Using historical data from races dating back to the 1920s for greyhounds and the 19th century for racehorses and human athletes, he was able to construct a statistical model of each species’ performance.

The results suggest that the speed of dogs and horses is no longer increasing. Horses reached their peak sometime in the early 1970s, whilst man’s best friend hit top speed slightly earlier in the late 60s. Predictions for an absolute maximum speed only show around a 1% increase on the current speed for both species.

When it comes to humans however, it seems that there are still gains to be made – at least, for men. Denny’s findings show that women may have already very nearly reached their limit, but they could potentially reach a time of 10.19 seconds for the 100 metre dash one day. Male athletes have slightly better news – an increase of 0.23 m/s over Bolt’s speed would allow a 9.48 seconds record.

Turning now to marathon runners, between 2min7s and 4min23s could be cut off the current world record held by Haile Gebrselassie, who two months ago to they day beat his own record with a time of 2h3m59s. For women, Paula Radcliffe’s record of 2h15min25s is very close to Denny’s prediction of 2h12min41s. He believes that female marathon runners may be the first to approach his theoretical limit, and looks forward to putting his models to the test.

For all his calculations however, Denny says we still don’t know what physiological factors limit the speed of a runner. Hopefully, further work will find out exactly what the limits of human locomotion are. The paper also raises important questions about the future of racing, and whether artificial improvements such as drugs or genetic modification could (and indeed should) be used to push performance even further.

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2 Comments » Posted on Thursday 27 November 2008 at 2:39 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education

Early this week the Natural History Museum launched a new project in the hopes of engaging future bio-scientists. The Open Air Laboratories (OPAL) will allow members of the public to take part in scientific surveys in their local area – even in their own back gardens.

The first of these surveys kicks off in March 2009, and will see people up and down the country hunting for earthworms. For such a common feature of gardens everywhere, surprisingly little is known about the wriggly creatures and the soil that makes their home.

You can reserve your survey pack at the OPAL website. It will contain a guide to performing the survey, along with a chart of common earthworm types for easy identification. Results can will be entered on to the website and instantly be added to an interactive map, where you’ll be able to view other people’s findings as well. It’s mostly aimed at schools and community groups, but individuals can register as well.

The OPAL project has been awarded £11.7 million by the Big Lottery Fund, in order to encourage people to spend more time outdoors and exploring their local environments. Future surveys will cover air, water, biodiversity and climate. My home away from home, Imperial College, will be collecting the data gathered during the project and present it for publication in 2012. These will take the form of a formal scientific report and a more accessible format for those who took part.

So, if you fancy hunting for worms and doing a bit of science, reserve your survey pack and be ready to get your hands dirty!

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 23 November 2008 at 5:43 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Four months without a heart

In what is really an amazing story, D’Zhana Simmons, a 14-year-old girl from South Carolina, USA, spent 118 days hooked up to a machine that kept her blood flowing – because her heart had been removed. It is believed that this is the first time such a young person has been kept alive this long without a heart.

On July 2nd of this year Ms Simmons underwent a heart transplant operation at Miami’s Holtz Children’s Hospital, but the operation was unsuccessfully and the new organ had to be removed. Artificial substitute heart chambers were implanted and hooked up to two blood pumps, until she was was strong enough to have another, successful, transplant.

Unfortunately, doctors believe that her troubles are not over yet. Although her prognosis, is good, there is a 50% chance she will need another new heart before she turns 30.

Live longer and prosper

Increased amounts of telomerase, a naturally forming protein, in the body could prevent cells from dying and extend your lifespan, according to a team at the Spanish National Cancer Centre in Madrid.

Telomerase protects a cell’s chromosomes, but as we age and cell division activity increases this protection can get worn out, causing cells to die. By increasing natural levels of telomerase, scientists hope to stop this from happening.

The theory was tested with genetically engineered mice, whose bodies produced 10 times the normal levels of the protein, and as a result lived 50% longer than normal mice. Lead researcher, Maria Blasco, was optimistic but cautious about the results:

“You can delay the ageing of mice and increase their lifespan,” she said.

“(But)I think it is very hard to extrapolate data from mouse ageing to human ageing.”

One problem to overcome is that telomerase can lead to increased risk of cancer, but Dr Blasco believe that this could be overcome by combining the treatment with cancer drugs.

Lost in space

NASA has lost one of its astronauts aboard the International Space Station – but thankfully, it’s not one of the human crew. One of two spiders that were launched into orbit on the Endeavour last week has gone for its very own spacewalk.

After finding it absent from its tank, NASA managers insisted that the spider was not lost; it just couldn’t be found. So says Kirk Shireman, NASA’s deputy space station programme manager:

“We don’t believe that it’s escaped the overall payload enclosure,

“I’m sure we’ll find him spinning a web sometime here in the next few days.”

Efforts to search for the spider in its neighbour’s tank have been scuppered, because the poor creature is so confused by the zero-gravity environment that it has filled it with a dense web, making any search difficult.

The two arachnids had been sent into space by the University of Colorado, who hoped to answer schoolchildren’s questions about spider webs in space. It’s clearly a very sticky issue.

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Comments Off Posted on Friday 21 November 2008 at 9:56 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Gratuitous cultural reference time: The Clangers. This children’s animation featured space mice who communicated through a series of whistling noises. Well, so what?

A piece of research on “Sine-Wave Speech” has been doing the rounds on the internet recently. It’s actually nothing new, but you know how it is; one site posts a link, another picks it up, and before you know it we’re all talking about the Sudanese man who was forced to marry a goat again. I swear, that story seems to crop up around once a month on the BBC’s “most read” list. Surely everyone has seen it by now?

Sorry, tangents. Back to The Clangers and sine-wave speech. SWS degrades an audio recording to the point of being unrecognisable – in fact, the result sounds much like The Clangers. Unlike these strange creatures however, SWS can be understood if you first listen to the original audio recording, and then the SWS version (a number of examples are found on the webpage). As if by magic, the sentence will “pop-out” of the previously incomprehensible beeps and boops.

Researchers believe this is an example of “perceptual insight”, as your brain learns to process the unusual sounds into something you can understand. If you listen to a few of the examples, you might find that you can actually interpret the SWS without having to listen to the “clean” version first. It’s a pretty cool effect – and who knows, maybe if you listen hard enough you’ll be able to understand The Clangers.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 19 November 2008 at 3:16 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Yes, But When?

Spanish surgeons have performed the worlds first transplant using a tissue-engineered organ. A windpipe grown from the patients own stem-cells was transplanted allowing the medical team to return 30-year-old Claudia Castillo to perfect health. Without the procedure, she would have lost a lung due to tuberculosis. Five months later, she is able to lead a normal life once more.

Scientists in Bristol grew the organ for transplant, tailoring it to Ms Castillo’s immune system. This means that the transplant is also the first to not require anti-rejection drugs. They began with a donor windpipe, or trachea, and then used chemicals to wash away any traces of the original cells, leaving only a framework of fibrous protein. Adult stem cells, which can be grown into many other types of cells, were taken from her bone marrow, and encouraged to grow on the framework which was placed inside a rotating bio reactor.

In conjunction with cells from her original organ, these cells coated the new trachea in just four days, ready to be implanted. Professor Paolo Macchiarini of the Hospital Clínic of Barcelona performed the operation last June:

“I was very much afraid. Before this, we had been doing this work only on pigs.

“But as soon as the donor trachea came out of the bioreactor it was a very positive surprise.”

He was not the only one to be afraid. As is understandable with a never-before performed procedure, the patient had some nerves as well:

“I was scared. I had the illness for four years and in January they told me they had to operate,” said Ms Castillo.

“He told me that it was a trial that had never been carried out before and that this would be the first in the world.”

The resounding success of the operation put all fears to rest, however. Ms Castillo encourages the team to continue the work, and help others in the same way as her. Professor Martin Birchall, who helped grow the new trachea and is professor of surgery at the University of Bristol, certainly plans to. He believes that in 20 years time, nearly any organ for transplant could be grown in this way:

“This will represent a huge step change in surgery.

“Surgeons can now start to see and understand the potential for adult stem cells and tissue engineering to radically improve their ability to treat patients with serious diseases.”

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 13 November 2008 at 12:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

The phrase “google-fu” is used by some as a description of one’s ability to efficiently use the famous search engine, but it’s not to be confused with the recently released Google Flu.

Google have used their gigantic databases of search terms to come up with something quite interesting: predicting levels of flu activity in the United States. By aggregating data on flu-related searches, the search giant was able to get accurate results up to two weeks faster than the Epidemiology and Prevention Branch of the Influenza Division at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Google's flu predictions match the CDC's surprisingly well.

By speeding up predictions, Google can provide an early warning system for influenza outbreaks. The CDC report that each year in America, 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from the disease – although these is some debate about these figures. In an early version of a paper that has been accepted for publication in the journal Nature, Google researchers state:

Up-to-date influenza estimates may enable public health officials and health professionals to better respond to seasonal epidemics. If a particular region experiences an early, sharp increase in ILI physician visits, it may be possible to focus additional resources on that region to identify the etiology of the outbreak, providing extra vaccine capacity or raising local media awareness as necessary.

Google is also keen to reiterate it’s company’s unofficial motto: Don’t be evil. Using search engine data in this way brings up questions about privacy issues, but Google assures its users that they can not be identified from the data used in Google Flu. Which is nice. Now if they could just invent Google Where In The Damn Hell Did I Leave My Keys

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 3 November 2008 at 2:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Research published last week in the International Journal of Epidemiology suggests that mothers who drinking “lightly” during pregnancy are not putting their unborn child at risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits, when compared with children of abstinent mothers. In some cases, light drinking was actually shown to be beneficial, according to lead author Dr Yvonne Kelly of University College London’s Epidemiology & Public Health department:

“The link between heavy drinking during pregnancy and consequent poor behavioural and cognitive outcomes in children is well established. However, very few studies have considered whether light drinking in pregnancy is a risk for behavioural and cognitive problems in children.

“Our research has found that light drinking by pregnant mothers does not increase the risk of behavioural difficulties or cognitive deficits. Indeed, for some behavioural and cognitive outcomes, children born to light drinkers were less likely to have problems compared to children of abstinent mothers, although children born to heavy drinkers were more likely to have problems compared to children of mothers who drank nothing whilst pregnant.”

The study defines light drinking as 1-2 units of alcohol per week or occasion. This confuses me; what counts as an occasion? If a mum-to-be likes to party every day of the week, does this mean that she’s fine as long as she restricts herself to 1-2 units each night? Of course not, so why not just stick to the amount consumed per week?

I worry that this confusion could be spread to pregnant women by the reporting of the story in the mass media. The stated 2 units amounts to a single 175ml glass of wine of around 11% alcohol strength per week. Personally I would consider this “barely” rather than “light” drinking, which to me seems more like two or three glasses of wine week for a total of 4-6 units per week – still well under the recommended limit of 14 units per week for women. I wonder how many women might have a similar interpretation of “light”, and drink too much after reading this story.

The Times were the most cautious in their reporting, with “Drinking alcohol occasionally when pregnant ‘does no harm’“, and in the second paragraph define “occasionally” as “one to two units, or a single drink a week”. You’d be hard pressed to come away from reading their story thinking a bit of a binge would be ok.

Similarly, the BBC said “Light drinking ‘no risk to baby’“, but said that the study defined “light” as “two drinks a week”, not 2 units. The study itself is unclear on this matter, sometimes switching between 2 units and 2 drinks. I can’t think of any reasonably sized serving in which 1 unit = 1 drink. For the calculations to work out, we’re talking a measly 100ml of 10% strength wine. I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who defined such a measure as a “drink”.

The Telegraph falls somewhere in the middle with “Pregnant women ‘can drink a small glass of wine a week’” – a decent headline, but they go on to say “Guidelines on what constitutes a unit has since been changed and only a small (125ml) glass of 12% ABV white wine is the equivalent to one unit.” I’m not sure what guidelines they are referring to – one unit is 10ml of pure alcohol, so their example would be (125 * 0.12) / 10 = 1.5 units. In other words, women following the Telegraph’s advice might be at risk of drinking more than 2 units.

Finally, both the Guardian (Light drinking in pregnancy may be good for baby boys, says study) and the Daily Mail (Pregnant women who drink ‘lightly’ could have brighter, better-behaved babies) were perhaps overly optimistic in their reporting of the study, stressing the potential positive benefits. This stance makes for good headlines, but could it mean women don’t think twice before reaching for another glass – after all, it might even be good for the baby!

Ultimately I blame the press release from UCL which went with the headline “Light drinking in pregnancy not bad for children, says UCL study“. Even though the first line immediatly defines the meaning of “light”, it’s just encouraging over-confident reporting by the newspapers. After all, that’s pretty much the point of these press releases – enticing science writers to cover the latest breakthrough. Journalists love an eye-catching headline as much as any reader.

Scientists use very exact language for a reason: if you don’t, it gets you in to trouble. It’s very hard to reproduce someone’s results if their methodology is written like a cook-book (“take a pinch of copper, add a dash of hydrochloric acid…”), so being specific is important. When stories get picked up by the mass media, these specifics are often lost or glossed over – after all, no one really cares how many protons are in a carbon nucleus (for example) other than scientists, right?

The trouble is, when it comes to research such as this, the specifics are pretty important. If your definition of “light” drinking is different to that of the study’s authors, the university press officers, or the newspaper editors, you could be putting your baby at risk. Sometimes it’s ok to dumb down the science, and sometimes it really isn’t.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 30 October 2008 at 6:32 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Hearing about a disease in newspapers and on TV makes people overestimate its severity and the risk of catching it, a study from McMaster University in Canada has found. Diseases such as anthrax and SARS are considered to be more deadly than other similar afflictions with a lower media profile.

“The media tend to focus on rare and dramatic events,” says Meredith Young, one of the study’s lead authors and a graduate student in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “When a certain disease receives repeated coverage in the press, people tend to focus on it and perceive it as a real threat. This raises concerns regarding how people view their own health, how they truly understand disease and how they treat themselves.”

The researchers conducted three experiments in order to discover the effect media reporting can have. In the first, 53 undergraduate psychology students were asked to rate 10 medical conditions for level of seriousness,the likelihood the condition represented a disease, and the chances of someone catching it.

Of the 10 conditions selected for the study, five had a heavy media profile (anthrax, West Nile virus, avian flu, SARS and Lyme disease) whilst the other half were less well known (tularemia, yellow fever, hantavirus, lassa fever and human babesiosis) but chosen to closely match one of the widely reported diseases. The results were a strong correlation between the perceived seriousness of a disease and its media profile.

The team wondered if a more medically knowledgeable study group might show different results. The experiment was repeated with 43 first year medical students, and surprisingly the findings were very similar. It seems that even a more medically oriented person is susceptible to the influence of the media.

Interestingly when more details such as symptoms or method of transmission were provided along with the name of the disease, participants rated high and low profile diseases much closer.

“Another interesting aspect of the study is when we presented factual information about the diseases along with the names of them, the media effect wasn’t nearly as strong,” says Karin Humphreys, one of the study’s authors and assistant professor in the Department of Psychology, Neuroscience & Behaviour. “This suggests that people can overcome the influence of the media when you give them the facts, and so objective reporting is really critical.”

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 28 October 2008 at 10:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

It’s normally football that is known for dramatic challenges against the referee’s decision, but new research out of the University of California, Davis suggests that things may be about to change. A team at The Department of Psychology and the Center for Mind and Brain found that professional tennis referees are more likely to call a ball “out” when it is “in” than vice versa.

The mistake arises because of the way a person’s eyes and brain interpret moving objects. Scientists already know that the people can make mistakes about an objects position, depending on its motion and the motion of other objects in the area. The team decided to look for a real-world example of this phenomena, and settled on tennis due to a new rule allowing players to challenge a referees decision.

If a player makes a challenge and the referee is found to be incorrect, the player is allowed to make further challenges. If the ref was right all along, however, the player is no longer permitted to question their judgement. This means that knowing when a referee is more likely to have made a mistake can give a player the advantage.

There are two kinds of mistake a tennis referee can make. As the ball flies towards the edge of the court, the referee must carefully observe where it lands. If it’s behind or on the line – even by a tiny fraction – then the ball counts as in. When the referee judges a ball to be out when it was actually in, this is known as a “predicted” error, whilst a ball judged to be in when actually it was out is called an “unpredicted” error.

If a referee was completely unbiased, we would expect them to make both kinds of errors equally. After all they’re only human, and a few mistakes here and there are not to be unexpected. By analysing 4,457 tennis points randomly drawn from Wimbledon 2007 the scientists discovered 83 referee errors, and observed that 70 of the errors reported the ball in being shifted in the direction of the ball’s motion, a predicted error. In other words, referees are calling the ball out instead of in much more than the other way round.

This suggests that players should challenge close-calls as often as possible, because the referee is more likely to have made a mistake. On the other hand, if a player believes the ref has erroneously called a ball in then they should keep quiet – because there’s only a small chance that they’re right! The authors suggest that ideally every shot in a tennis match should be objectively reviewed by instant replay – but given that this is unlikely, the adoption of clay courts (on which balls leave marks) as used by the French could solve the problem all together.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 26 October 2008 at 7:47 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

Does your name decide where you work?

When I first read the press release that psychologists in Belgium have discovered that a person’s initials have a link to the company they work for, my immediate thought was “yeah, whatever.” I thought that the conclusion had probably come about because some letters in the alphabet are more common than others, so a Mr E was more likely to work for E Inc. simply because there are more “E”s floating about than any other letter.

On reading the actual paper however, I can’t fault their methodology. It really does seem that a persons name can unconsciously effect their choice of work place. The phenomena is known as the name-letter effect, and has been demonstrated in other areas, for example a Jack is more likely to live in Jacksonville than in Philadelphia. It just goes to show that whilst scepticism is healthy, it’s not always right!

Now you seem them, now you don’t

The Daily Mail have some wonderful pictures of camouflaged animals. Yes, it’s a bit of a fluff piece, but they’re really quite something. My personal favourite is this one:

I'm not telling you what it is, you'll have to guess!

It came from outer space

A couple of weeks ago, The University of Western Ontario Meteor Group caught a falling meteor on camera. The team of astronomers are now looking for local residents who might have seen meteorites break off and crash to Earth.

The meteor streaks across the sky in this time-lapse image

Videos of the meteor are available online. I’ve never managed to see one of these space rocks in real life, so it’s pretty cool to be able to catch one on film.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 21 October 2008 at 9:40 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Last night Channel 4 broadcast Extraordinary Animals in the Womb, a sequel to last years plain-old Animals in the Womb, in which the reproductive process of dolphins, elephants and dogs were investigated in detail. This time it’s the turn of sharks, penguins, kangaroos and wasps.

Using a combination of real footage, computer generated imagery, and good ol’ fashioned models, the film tracks the baby animals from conception to birth. The effect is stunning; you feel like you’ve somehow gained x-ray vision and the ability to see directly into the animals’ wombs.

The animals really are extraordinary. They might well have chosen to call the documentary “Aren’t Animals Pretty Damn Amazing?” – that’s how I felt as I watched. We learn that male sharks shoot “sperm bullets” into the female to impregnate her, and the fetuses eat their unborn brothers and sisters in order to survive in the womb. Kangaroos leave the womb after just a few weeks gestation and crawl up to their mothers pouch, where they will suckle for 6 months as they continue to develop. The male penguin incubates the egg, not the female, who must return to the sea after the stress of laying.

The fascinating facts pour thick and fast, but it’s never too much to take in. What some might find too much, however, is the parasitical wasp. This nasty little creature lays its eggs in an unsuspecting caterpillar, and when the larvae develop they eat their way out of the poor thing whilst it is still alive. It’s a genuine “watching through your fingers” moment. What’s worse, a “biological weapon” in the form of a virus originating from the wasp’s DNA rewrites the caterpillars brain, and it actually sticks around to help it’s unwelcome guests as they transform in cocoons.

As the program tells us, when Charles Darwin found out the lifecycle of these wasps, it shook his belief in a benevolent God. They were also (unsurprisingly) the inspiration for the movie Alien. The narrator is quick to point out however that “nature is morally blind”, and these reproduction strategies exist simply because “they work”.

Initially the film roars along, with “24″ style transitions between the four species’ storylines (sorry, no Jack Bauer though) and intriguing hooks that keep bringing you back for more after the ad breaks. Unfortunately, past the hour mark I began to feel things were a little dragged out – a shame, as I thoroughly enjoyed it for the most part.

It’s available to watch online until November 20th, so if you have a spare hour or so, I definitely recommended it. Just be prepared for a slightly meandering ending, and watch out for parasitical wasps!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 19 October 2008 at 5:30 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong, Space & Astronomy

Now that’s what I call a sticky situation

The world’s longest stick insect has been discovered in the rainforests of Borneo. A member of the species Phobaeticus chani, the specimen measures 56.6cm, beating the previous record holder Phobaeticus serratipes by over a centimetre.

As you might imagine, it looks like a stick.

If you want to check it out for yourself, it will soon go on display in the Creepy Crawlies exhibition at the Natural History Museum.

‘Perfect shower’ is far from it

Yet another “formula for” story, with “scientists” developing a “mathematical formula” for the perfect shower. Apparently “The balance of privacy, pressure, time and temperature in the shower all need to be carefully moderated to create the perfect shower experience.”

The “research” was of course sponsored by someone – surprise surprise, a shower manufacturer. Neuropsychologist Dr David Lewis of Mindlab International had some nonsense to spout which I won’t bother repeating here.

You know what the worse thing is? They didn’t even include the bloody “formula” in their press release.

What does space smell like? Steak, apparantly

News about the aroma of space is doing the rounds at the moment. Supposedly NASA have hired fragrance firm Omega Ingredients to recreate the smell of space, to help astronaut training feel more realistic. Right…

Astronauts de-suiting after a space walk have reported “particular odours”, such as fried steak and hot metal. Surprisingly, the Sun is alone in reporting that this is most likely “non-scents”, with Sir PatricK Moore weighing in:

“These odours may have come from astronauts’ suits or spaceships. The vacuum of space is unlikely to have its own scent. It is more likely to be reacting to man-made equipment. There is nothing in space and nothingness cannot really have a smell.

“Boys or girls attempting to go to space because they think there is fried steak flying about might be disappointed.”

That looks pretty hot

And finally, some beautiful pictures of the sun (our star, not the newspaper discussed above, that is), perfect for brightening up any cold autumn morning. Enjoy.

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 16 October 2008 at 5:06 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

If yesterday you had a few too many drinks, it might be time to hit up Google. Scientists at the University of California, Los Angeles have found that for older web users, searching the internet activates the parts of the brain in charge of decision-making and complex reasoning.

Stretching your mind is important as you get older. As the brain ages changes such as reduced cell activity take place – and as we saw yesterday, the brain shrinks by a suggested 1.9% each decade. In the past people have used crosswords and other brainteasers to sharpen their mental abilities, but with advances in modern technology scientists are now investigating alternatives.

They study looked at 24 volunteers between the ages of 55 and 76, half of whom had searched the internet before whilst the other half had no experience at all. The participants preformed searches as well as book-reading tasks whilst being scanned with an fMRI, which tracks blood flow in the brain as an indicator of cognitive activity.

All of them showed increased activity during the book-reading task, with the scan showing the use of the language, reading, memory and visual abilities parts of the brain. These are located in the temporal, parietal, occipital regions, along with other areas.

Internet searches, however, highlighted a difference. Whilst all participants appeared to be using the same parts of their brain as during the reading exercises, those with previous web experience showed additional activity in the frontal, temporal and cingulate areas of the brain, which are used in decision-making and complex reasoning.

Dr. Gary Small was chief investigator on the study, and is a professor at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior at UCLA as well as UCLA’s Parlow-Solomon Chair on Aging. He had this to say on the findings:

“Our most striking finding was that Internet searching appears to engage a greater extent of neural circuitry that is not activated during reading — but only in those with prior Internet experience,”

“The study results are encouraging, that emerging computerized technologies may have physiological effects and potential benefits for middle-aged and older adults,”

“Internet searching engages complicated brain activity, which may help exercise and improve brain function.”

So why does reading on the internet engage your brain more than just curling up with a nice book? It’s because the internet is so vast, a read has to make active choices about what to click on and where to go next. This is where decision-making and reasoning factors in.

Small believes that the less experience internet users weren’t using these parts of their brain because they didn’t fully understand the tasks set to them – a common problem when introduced to something new. He suggest that with more time on the internet, they could show the same level of cognitive function as the more experienced group.

The researchers hope that further studies will look at both the positive and negative effects of emerging technology on an elderly brain.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 15 October 2008 at 10:45 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A study in the latest issue of the Archives of Neurology suggest that – shock horror – drinking alcohol may have detrimental effects on your health.

The research looked at a link between alcohol consumption and brain volume, i.e. does how much you drink effect the size of your grey matter? A group of scientists from Massachusetts and California investigated data recorded from 1,839 participants who had been part of a larger study.

Scientists already know that the size of your brain will decrease naturally as you grow older; it’s estimated that this shrinkage occurs at the rate of 1.9% per decade. Excessive drinking has also been shown to effect cognitive ability, and can lead to Korsakoff syndrome which causes amnesia amongst other effects on the brain. Moderate consumption of alcohol however has been linked to improved mental capacity and a lower risk of Alzheimer disease. This new research hoped to find a link between the two.

Brain volume was measured for each person in the study, and then adjusted to account for natural differences in body size. Participants were also quizzed on their level of alcohol intake, and assigned to one of five groups: abstainers, former drinkers, low (1-7 drinks per week), moderate (8-14 drinks per week), and high (more than 14 drinks per week).

Those who drank more had a smaller relative brain volume. Copyright AMA Publications

“Most participants reported low alcohol consumption, and men were more likely than women to be moderate or heavy drinkers,” say the authors. Women also showed a stronger link between alcohol consumption and brain size, as heavier drinkers had larger reductions than their male counterparts.

One potential pitfall that the researchers suggest is the self-reporting of a participants alcohol consumption. I know when I’m asked how much I drink on a medical form, I tend to knock a few pints off the total! This under-reporting however would actually mean the true association between drinking and brain size is stronger than the link discovered in the study.

Summing up, the authors call for more research. The data used was not originally meant for this purpose so they can’t conclusively say that “DRINKING WILL SHRINK YOUR BRAIN!!!” as the Daily Mail might put it, but they hope to send a message to the public that drinking excessively is bad for your health.

Carol Ann Paul; Rhoda Au; Lisa Fredman; Joseph M. Massaro; Sudha Seshadri; Charles DeCarli; Philip A. Wolf (2008). Association of Alcohol Consumption With Brain Volume in the Framingham Study Archives of Neurology, 65 (10), 1363-1367

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 14 October 2008 at 8:37 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment

The banking crisis is, as ever, pretty big news. Even yesterday the British government dished out another £37 billion of taxpayers money to beleaguered bankers. I’ve written previously on what science communication can learn from business reporting, but a new report from the EU suggests that science still has a lot to learn if it is to grab headlines like the business world.

The Economics of Ecosystems and Biodiversity (Teeb) has suggested that global economy loses more annually from the erosion of the world’s natural forests than it has from the banking crisis. Yet, I don’t see bankers being told to shove off and retrain as tree surgeons. Pavan Sukhdev was the leader of the study, and told the BBC the scale of the loss:

“It’s not only greater but it’s also continuous, it’s been happening every year, year after year,”

“So whereas Wall Street by various calculations has to date lost, within the financial sector, $1-$1.5 trillion, the reality is that at today’s rate we are losing natural capital at least between $2-$5 trillion every year.”

These losses are calculated by modelling Mother Nature as a service provider. We’re essentially provided with forests “for free”, and they offer services such as absorbing carbon dioxide and so on, but as they fall in to decline the human race has to pick up the bill to cover the shortfall, or simply go without. Either option entails an economic cost. It’s a bit like a bank withdrawing a great mortgage policy and refusing to lend to anyone – either taxpayers have to step in and pay up to get the money flowing again, or people will be unable to borrow money to buy a house.

The question is, if the cost to the global economy is potentially as much as five yearly credit crunches, why aren’t we seeing rainforest bail-out packages? Where are the runs on garden centres, as people try to stock up on saplings? The problem is that dying trees are seen as Somebody Else’s Problem.

If you’ve just been made redundant, your home is being repossessed, and your pension is worth nothing because the stock market has crashed, why should you care if a few trees are hard done by? According to the study, it actually turns out that the people who are worse off are the most effected by the loss of biodiversity, especially in tropical regions where peoples’ livelihoods are more dependant on the forests.

By presenting the loss of natural resources in terms of cold, hard cash, Sukhdev and the other authors of the report hope to make governments and business sit up and take notice:

“Times have changed. Almost three years ago, even two years ago, their eyes would glaze over.

“Today, when I say this, they listen. In fact I get questions asked – so how do you calculate this, how can we monetize it, what can we do about it, why don’t you speak with so and so politician or such and such business.”

Hopefully politicians will be influenced in time to halt the decline of our forests, before the economic pinch is felt.

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Comments Off Posted on Monday 13 October 2008 at 9:35 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Physics

Those of you who actively follow science news might have been wondering this past week why I hadn’t yet commented on the Nobel Prize announcements. No, I haven’t forgotten in all the course-starting excitement – I just thought it would be more useful to wait until all of the prizes had been announced. Before the results however, a bit of history.

The Nobels have been awarded for over 100 years, with the first prizes given out in 1901. The Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel, wishing to to atone for his inventing dynamite, specified in his will that his fortune should be used as a fund that would celebrate intellectual achievement. He decreed there should be awards given annually to five disciplines: Chemistry, Physics, Physiology or Medicine, and Literature. Later in 1969, a prize for Economics was created in honour of his memory.

I always wondered why there is no Nobel for Mathematics. A story I’ve often heard is that Nobel’s wife cheated on him with a mathematician, but it turns out this story is completely unfounded – for one thing, Nobel was never even married. There is no concrete reason as to why Mathematics was omitted, but many feel it is because Nobel viewed it as a science with little practical benefit for humanity. So there! On to this year’s prizes:

The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine

Half of this prize was awarded to Harald zur Hausen “for his discovery of human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer.” The second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer is estimated to cause 253,500 deaths worldwide each year. The work done by zur Hausen has lead to vaccines that provide greater than 95% protection against infection by two high risk strains of human papilloma viruses, HPV types 16 and 18.

The other half of the prize was split between Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier “for their discovery of human immunodeficiency virus.” By isolating and cloning HIV, their work allowed other groups to prove the virus’s link to acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Working with the virus to create diagnosis methods and antiviral drugs would not have been possible without the pair’s discovery.

The Nobel Prize in Physics

Yoichiro Nambu received half of the prize “for the discovery of the mechanism of spontaneous broken symmetry in subatomic physics”, whilst one quarter each went to Makoto Kobayashi and Toshihide Maskawa “for the discovery of the origin of the broken symmetry which predicts the existence of at least three families of quarks in nature.”

Symmetry breaking is responsible for the universe around us – without it, we wouldn’t be around to award Nobels! When the universe was created, matter and antimatter particles annihilated each other in a great cosmic battle for supremacy. If there had been an equal amount of particles on both sides, the universe would have been left empty as both matter and antimatter were completely obliterated. It’s thanks to the “breaking” of this matter-antimatter symmetry that matter was able to achieve dominance and lead to the universe we see today. Even one extra particle of matter for every ten billion of antimatter was enough to break the symmetry.

Nambu was the first to mathematically model how this symmetry breaking could occur at the subatomic level, and in doing so helped refine the standard model of particle physics. The symmetry breaking model formulated by Kobayashi and Maskawa suggested an extension of the standard model was required to explain some observations in particle physics, and they hypothesised the existence of third family of quarks, the fundamental particles that make up many matter and antimatter particles. Their model predicted in the 1970′s particles that weren’t observed until the late 1990′s.

The Nobel Prize in Chemistry 2008

The Chemistry prize this year was split an equal three ways, by Osamu Shimomura, Martin Chalfie and Roger Y. Tsien “for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP.” First observed in the jellyfish Aequorea victoria in 1962, this protein is used by scientists around the world to learn more about biological processes.

Pigs with GFP modified DNA glow green.

By modifying a subject’s DNA to attach GFP to another protein as marker, scientists can visually follow the progression of the protein around an organism as it glows green. It can be used to watch the growth of nerve cells, or observe the development of cancer. Following the discovery of GFP, other colours were added to a biologist’s toolkit, allowing further flexibility in their use. One group of researchers even marked the different nerve cells in a mouse’s brain with a multitude of colour, without harming the mouse in any way.

The Nobel Prizes in Literature and Peace and The Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences in Memory of Alfred Nobel 2008

Whilst great achievements, the other Nobel Prizes fall a bit too far outside the “science” umbrella to discuss here. Nevertheless, congratulations to Jean-Marie Gustave Le Clézio “author of new departures, poetic adventure and sensual ecstasy, explorer of a humanity beyond and below the reigning civilization”, to Martti Ahtisaari “for his important efforts, on several continents and over more than three decades, to resolve international conflicts”, and to Paul Krugman “for his analysis of trade patterns and location of economic activity.”

Indeed, congratulations to all of the Nobel Lauretes (the Nobel foundation does not like to call them winners, because it’s “not a competition or lottery, and therefore there are no winners or losers”) on their fantastic achievements. Who do you think should be up for the honour next year?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 12 October 2008 at 4:10 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Weekly Roundup

1.38588913 Leagues Under The Sea

A joint team of UK and Japanese scientists have filmed a shoal of living fish at the record depth of 7.7 km. They found 17 Pseudoliparis amblystomopsis in the Japan Trench in the Pacific Ocean, smashing the previous record, though to be around 7 km. The deepest any fish has been record is more than 8 km down in the Puerto Rico Trench trench, where an Abyssobrotula galatheae specimen was dredged up, but died before reaching the surface.

The fish live in total darkness, using vibrations in the water to navigate and find food. Professor Monty Priede of the University of Aberdeen was surprised at their discovery:

“We certainly thought, deep down, fish would be relatively inactive, saving energy as much as possible, and so on,” said Priede “But when you see the video, the fish are rushing around, feeding accurately, snapping at prey coming past”

“Nobody has seen fish alive before at these depths – only pickled in museums – and by the time they come up from the depths they look in a pretty sorry state.

“But these fish are actually very cute.”

Deep-sea fish - "actually very cute"

The discovery was part of the HADEEP project, a collaboration between the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab and the University of Tokyo’s Ocean Research Institute. Funded by the Nippon Foundation and the Natural Environment Research Council, the research aims to discover more about life in the Hadal region of the ocean, which is anywhere from 6 km below the surface. The team even have their own blog.

Journey (0.0000004% of the way) to the Centre of the Earth

American scientists have found life 2.8 km beneath the Earth’s surface, in a gold mine near Johannesburg, South Africa. The bacterium Desulforudis audaxviator is the only living species at this level, making it the first known single-species ecosystem.

Capturing and analysing the bacterium was an extremely collaborative process, with scientists from the U.S. Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab), Joint Genome Institute (JGI), and Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL), working with colleagues from Princeton University, Indiana University, National Taiwan University, Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), Florida State University, the Desert Research Institute, and the University of Western Ontario.

D. audaxviator lives deep within the Earth's surface

The bacterium lives so far down that it has no access to the sun’s life giving energy. Instead, it survives by using hydrogen and sulphate produced by the radioactive decay of uranium. This ability is reflected in the organisms name: Desulforudis comes from the Latin for “from sulfur” and “rod,” whilst Jules Verne’s Journey to the Center of the Earth contains the Latin message “descende, Audax viator, et terrestre centrum attinges,” – “descend, Bold traveler, and attain the center of the Earth.” It looks like D. audaxviator is well on its way.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 8 October 2008 at 7:17 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

Three press releases on obesity and weight loss coming out of the Obesity Society’s annual scientific meeting caught my eye recently, so I thought I’d combine them all in to one post.

From Duke University Medical Center comes findings that even a small amount of exercise can improve quality of life for severely obese people. Under one hour a week was enough to benefit participants in the study of 1,200 by the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

Those who increased their activity levels felt they had a better quality of life, and their ability to perform daily tasks as measured on a physical function scale was also boosted. Martin Binks, research director at the Center, hopes that the findings will encourage people to exercise, no matter how overweight they are.

“These folks weren’t reporting high levels of activity yet they still felt better,” he said. “This supports what we’ve been teaching for years – no amount of exercise is too little to have an impact. And it’s beneficial no matter what you weigh.

“When you are 100 pounds overweight, as the average participant in our program is, people often feel defeated. They have trouble moving, and they think ‘why bother.’ This study shows why they should bother. It shows the value of starting to move no matter how overweight you are.”

Meanwhile, researchers at Duke Children’s Hospital have found that reading can actually help obese children to lose weight. Obese girls aged 9 to 13 years old were given Lake Rescue to read, a novel written with the aid of paediatric experts to include “specific healthy lifestyle and weight management guidance, as well as positive messages and strong role models.”

After six months, the 31 girls who read the book had lost weight according to their Body Mass Index (BMI) score, which fell by an average 0.71%. By comparison, the BMI of 14 girls who had not read the book saw a gain of 0.05%. Both sets of girls were enrolled on a weight loss program before participating in the study.

Although the numbers are small, director of Duke’s Healthy Lifestyles Program Sarah Armstrong finds the results encouraging. Typically, BMI will increase as children grow, so a decrease is a good sign for those trying to lose weight.

“If their BMI percentile goes down, it means they are they are either losing weight or getting tall and not gaining weight. Both are seen as positive indicators in kids who are trying to lose weight,” she said.

I have to question whether it is really “reading” that is helping these kids lose weight, or simply exposure to information in an accessible format. It could be that a film or video game about weight loss could be just as useful, however anything that can help obese children can only be a good thing. Studies by the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) show that 16% of children aged 6 to 19 are overweight or obese, a threefold increase since 1980.

Finally, Temple University has found that the presence of vending machines in schools are encouraging children to consume more calories than they need. No surprise there really, but I thought I’d just highlight one comment by Amy Virus, the senior health services coordinator for the study by the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University:

“Contrary to common belief, fruit juice is not a healthy snack, if drunk in excess. It should be limited to about 6 ounces per day, but it’s common to see more than one serving in a bottle.”

It’s counter-intuitive, but fruit juice can actually be pretty bad for you. Juice can contain large amounts of sugar, which people often dismiss as “natural” – but sugar is sugar, and with it come calories. Even worse than juice are smoothies, which have gained in popularity of the recent years. Per 100ml, Coca-Cola contains less calories than a typical fruit smoothie. A 250ml serving of Coke contains 105 calories, whilst the smoothie has one third more at 140 calories.

Really, these findings can be boiled down into three simple steps towards weight loss: exercise, educate yourself, and check the labels on your food!

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 5 October 2008 at 11:43 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Climate Change & Environment, Inventions & Technology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Better luck next year

Everyone has heard of the Nobel Prize, one of the highest achievements a scientist can win, but what about the Ig Nobel Prize?

The organisers say they honour achievements that “first make people laugh, and then make them think” – and winners have certainly come up with some of the strangest discoveries in science. This year, the 18th Ig Nobel Prize ceremony was held last Thursday at Harvard University.

Highlights include Marie-Christine Cadiergues, Christel Joubert, and Michel Franc of Ecole Nationale Veterinaire de Toulouse who discovered that fleas on a dog can jump higher than those on a cat, and Dorian Raymer of the Ocean Observatories Initiative at Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Douglas Smith of the University of California who mathematically proved that a heap of string will inevitably tangle into knots. You can view the full list of winners here.

It’s the freakiest show snow

It’s not quite “Life On Mars”, but maybe David Bowie would consider changing the chorus of his classic song – NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander has found snow falling from clouds on Mars. Using a laser sensor from the planet’s surface, the plucky little probe detected snow 4 kilometres above its landing site. Whilst the snow evaporated before hitting the ground, scientists think it might be possible to find signs that snow has reached the surface in the past.

Another experiment that analysed soil samples has also found suggestions of calcium carbonate (which makes up chalk) and possibly, clay. These substances tend to form only in the presence of liquid water here on Earth, giving further evidence that Mars had a “liquid past”.

Could future cars be used for electric storage?

The popularity of hybrid cars such as the Toyota Prius continues to increase as drivers become more environmentally concious – so much so that the Prius actually goes up in value, as hybrid enthusiasts are prepared to pay over the odds for a second hand car.

Hybrids work by using a traditional petrol-based engine in combination with a recharging battery that captures energy from wasteful actions such as braking, but plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (PHEVs) take this one step further, allowing you to hook up the car to a socket and charge from the National Grid.

Scientists at the University of Michigan have come up with a cunning idea to use PHEVs as overnight batteries, storing excess energy in your car whilst you sleep, and then releasing back into the gird when it is needed. Storing electricity until it is needed can often be costly and inefficient for power plants, but using this distributed model would allow the electric companies to keep up their supply without wasting energy. They’ll even pay you for the privilege of using your car’s battery – if the system ever takes off, that is.

Round ‘em up boys – it’s the carbon capturers

Carbon, carbon, carbon. Life as we know it could not exist without carbon, but this poor little element has a bad reputation these days. Really, it’s only when carbon gets together with two of it’s oxygen friends to form carbon dioxide (CO2) that the trouble starts. Now, a team of climate change researchers at the University of Calgary have invented a machine that pluck CO2 straight out of the air.

Although CO2 only makes up around 0.04% of the Earth’s atmosphere, it is the main contributor to global warming. Removing CO2 molecules from the air would help slow down climate change. The new machine uses less than 100 kilowatt-hours of electricity to remove one tonne of CO2 from the air, and can capture the equivalent of a US citizen’s average yearly emissions – around 20 tonnes CO2 per annum – on one square metre of scrubbing material. Team leader David Keith is optimistic about the technology’s prospects:

“This means that if you used electricity from a coal-fired power plant, for every unit of electricity you used to operate the capture machine, you’d be capturing 10 times as much CO2 as the power plant emitted making that much electricity,”

At the moment, however, the machine is still in its early stages. The current cost of capturing CO2 is too high to make it commercially viable, but work continues on bringing the technique to market.

Tiny pictures, big prizes

You can now vote for your favourite entry in the 34th Annual Small World Photomicrography Competition. Some stunning pictures of the very small have been entered, so I encourage you to take a look. Winners will receive thousands of dollars worth of Nikon photography equipment, and personally I’m going for this strange looking chicken embryo.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 4 October 2008 at 9:13 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

I recently heard about Thaumoctopus mimicus, the Indonesian Mimic Octopus, and when I saw what it could do I decided to share this fascinating creature with you.

The Indonesian Mimic Octopus - he's watching you.

The octopus has the ability to mimic many other aquatic creatures, altering its shape, colour and movement to impersonate more than 15 different species, such as flatfish and sea snakes. It does so in order to fool predator into viewing it as greater threat than it actually is – a great survival technique.

It’s even possible that the octopus changes its mimicry depending on it’s attacker – scientists have observed that when threatened by a damselfish the octopus will pretend to be a pair of sea snakes – the most common predator of the damselfish.

You really have to see it to believe it and of course thanks to the wonder of YouTube, you can. Enjoy this footage of the mimic octopus as it impersonates its way across the ocean:

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 2 October 2008 at 9:05 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Space & Astronomy

Following on from the LHC rap, postgraduate student Jonathan Chasa (aka Oort Kuiper) has created a rap explaining all about astrobiology, the study of the possibility of life elsewhere in the universe.

I have to admit I prefer the LHC rap (indeed, I actually found myself humming it at one point…) but Chasa’s effort is a good one, with lots of scientific language presented in an accessible way. Commissioned by NASA’s Astrobiology Magazine European Edition, the rap was reported on by the BBC and already has over 65,000 views on YouTube. Watch it for yourself:

Which scientific topic will be next for the rap treatment, I wonder?

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 28 September 2008 at 6:02 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

In “bad thing turns out to be good, but only in small amounts” news

Chocolate lovers rejoice; new research shows that eating 6.7 grams of dark (not milk, sorry Cadburys) chocolate a day could help protect against heart disease. A joint study by the Research Laboratories of the Catholic University in Campobasso and the National Cancer Institute of Milan investigated the link between the levels of C reactive protein in the blood and a persons chocolate intake. The amount of the protein in the body increases during inflammation, which is a risk factor for heart disease amongst other conditions. The researchers hypothesised that antioxidants in cocoa seeds could help fight inflammation:

“We started from the hypothesis,” says Romina di Giuseppe, lead author of the study “that high amounts of antioxidants contained in the cocoa seeds, in particular flavonoids and other kinds of polyphenols, might have beneficial effects on the inflammatory state. Our results have been absolutely encouraging: people having moderate amounts of dark chocolate regularly have significantly lower levels of C-reactive protein in their blood. In other words, their inflammatory state is considerably reduced.”

Unfortunately this isn’t an excuse to pig out just yet: 6.7 grams a day works out to a small square two or three times a week. Sorry!

Turns out, he couldn’t actually see the Great Wall

China conducted its first spacewalk over the weekend, in only the country’s third manned space mission. The honour fell to Zhai Zhigang, who’s words of welcome were broadcast live: “I am here greeting the Chinese people and the people of the world.”

Just three nations have demonstrated the ability to launch people in to space: the US, Russia (and the USSR before it) and China, who first sent a man into space five years ago. It seems that we have the beginning of another space race on our hands, with both China and the US aiming to send manned missions to the Moon by 2020. The last space race, although militaristic in origin, brought with it many technological marvels that still benefit us to this day such as frozen food and GPS tracking systems. Bring it on, I say!


An artist's impression of Dasornis, a gigantic bird which once flew over Britain.

Britain was once home to birds that were nearly the size of a small plane, a newly discovered fossil skull has shown. The species has been known for nearly 150 years, but the skull found on the Isle of Sheppey is one of the best preserved examples of Dasornis. This bird lived 50 million years ago and ith a 16 ft wingspan and a beak full of sharp teeth, it’s slightly more intimidating than its modern-day relatives of ducks and geese.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 21 September 2008 at 11:16 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Psychology, Weekly Roundup

Ants from Mars

No, it’s not evidence of extraterrestrial life, but another example of creatures that will come for you in the night.

Seriously, I can barely write about this thing, I find it so creepy.

The newly discovered species of ant, Martialis heureka – which translates as contestant for silliest name ever: “From Mars! Wow!” – is a bit of an evolutionary throwback. Blind (because it has no eyes) and pale, its DNA has changed the least compared to its other ant cousins, ever since they emerged 100 million years ago. It won’t be popping up in your back garden any time soon however, as they live completely underground, and in Brazil. Thankfully.

Gamers are fit, but depressed

The stereotypical gamer image of an overweight teen with one hand on a mouse and the other in a bag of crisps may not be the case, a study by researchers at the University of Southern California, Palo Alto Research Center, and the University of Delaware has found.

They analysed 7,000 players of the popular massively-multilayer online role-playing game (MMORPG, to those in the know) EverQuest II. In the game, players join together to fight monsters and find treasure. One such treasure is the Greatstaff of the Sun Serpent, offered to those who completed a survey on their physical and mental health.

It turns out that adult gamers are actually fitter than a typical American, with a body mass index of 25.2 compared to the national average of 28 – though both figures are in the “overweight” category of the scale. The survey also found that the average gamer exercises once or twice a week, more than the general American public. The researchers suggest this could be because those with the education and wealth to afford expensive gaming machines are more likely to be health concious.

They also found that players were more likely to be in their thirties than their twenties, and older players spent more time with the game. Additionally, whilst less women play the game than men, those who do typically spent longer in game.

Unfortunately gamers were also more likely to be suffering from depression, and to be substance abusers. Scott Caplan, of the University of Delaware, suggested players “may be drawn to use the game to help deal with emotional distress.” The MMORPGs that I have played tend to take up a lot of time, and can be extremely addictive, so I can understand the correlation with drinking or drugs. Still, I always like to see some positive press on games – they’re probably represented in the media even worse than science is!

John Cleese on genes

Finally, John Cleese (who my brain still can’t accept as looking so old) tells us all about genes:

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 18 September 2008 at 4:27 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Psychology

Scientists at the University of Southampton are launching the “largest-ever” study of near-death experiences – in which people with no heartbeat or brain activity see bright lights or feel as if they are watching their own body from on high.

The BBC reports that to test these “out of body” experiences, researchers will place images on high shelves in hospital resuscitation rooms – in such a way that only a person floating high above the ceiling could view them.

It all sounds a bit silly to me, but leading the study is Dr Sam Parnia, an expert in such matters, who explains that there is more to death than you might expect:

“Contrary to popular perception, death is not a specific moment. It is a process that begins when the heart stops beating, the lungs stop working and the brain ceases functioning – a medical condition termed cardiac arrest, which from a biological viewpoint is synonymous with clinical death.

“During a cardiac arrest, all three criteria of death are present. There then follows a period of time, which may last from a few seconds to an hour or more, in which emergency medical efforts may succeed in restarting the heart and reversing the dying process. What people experience during this period of cardiac arrest provides a unique window of understanding into what we are all likely to experience during the dying process.”

Apparently 10-20% of people who experience this type of clinical death report some kind of near-death experience. This study could help work out if people really do leave their bodies and float around the room, or if it’s just their brains making things up in much the same way as dreams. I know which outcome my money is on…

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 7 September 2008 at 2:00 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Right, Getting It Wrong, Mathematics, Psychology

Something doesn’t sound quite right

The type of music you like could be linked to your personality, suggests a study carried out by Professor Adrian North of Heriot-Watt University. Apparently fans of country and western are “hardworking, outgoing” whilst indie lovers are “low self-esteem, creative, not hard working, not gentle”. Sounds like a bunch of nonsense to me – what if you like both country and indie? I haven’t been able to find a published paper on the research, which might validate it a little more, but I’m not holding my breath.

Because I say so

In the latest of a series on statistics in the media, Michael Blastland talks about the pitfalls of causation and correlation. Just because event A occurred before event B, it does not mean that A caused B – and yet so many stories in the media report just that. One you should always watch out for, so have a read.

Fruit for thought

Finally, some amazing photos of fruit taken using a scanning electron microscope. The colours may be false, but its all still very pretty.

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1 Comment » Posted on Thursday 4 September 2008 at 5:37 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

A short post today, but before we get into it, you may have been wondering what the “Research Blogging” icon on the previous post means. Research Blogging is an organisation that “allows readers to easily find blog posts about serious peer-reviewed research, instead of just news reports and press releases.” A few other blogs I read use the service, so I thought I’d give it a go. A fair number of visitors seem to have come across from the website, so welcome to any new readers!

Right, and now for the actual post: whilst browsing today I came across this video of a Mitsukurina owstoni, or goblin shark – so called because of its snouts resemblance to the nose of a goblin. Little is known about this deep sea shark, which normally lives between 100 and 1000 metres under water. This specimen was found in Japan, but died shortly after being caught due to differences in water pressure.

The reason for me posting this video is this shark’s terrifying jaws, which pop right out of its face, to eat you in your nightmares (or perhaps just fish). It’s pretty cool, but I certainly wouldn’t want to meet one any time soon…

Comments Off Posted on Monday 1 September 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Education, Evolution, Getting It Right, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

As promised, here is the roundup for the past week

Live like a Pharaoh in Dubai

Would you like to share you home with 1 million other people? A Dubai-based firm Timelinks has announced plans to build a gigantic futuristic pyramid, designed to hold an entire city whilst only taking up 2.3 square kilometres. The Ziggurat, as it is known, is the latest in a series of wacky developments in Dubai. What’s more, Timelinks claim the whole thing will be carbon neutral. I’ll believe it when I see it – and not just as a rendered mockup:

Home of the future?

An evolving education

Here’s a great article from the New York Times we learn what it is like to teach evolution to highly religious students in America. Richard Dawkins could stand to learn a few things from high school teacher David Campbell, who starts his classes with the “evolution” of Mickey Mouse, from Steamboat Willy to the present day. A highly recommended read.

I’m not sure if I should say “Aww” or “Urgh!”

Finally, we have a video of Tan Tan, a giant panda giving birth to the first baby born as a result of artificial insemination in Japan in the past 20 years. It’s both cute and disgusting at the same time.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 24 August 2008 at 12:05 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology, Physics, Psychology, Weekly Roundup, Yes, But When?

Going, going, found!

A new species of insect was found this week – on eBay. Dr Richard Harrington, vice-president of the UK’s Royal Entomological Society, paid £20 for a 40-50 million-year-old fossilised insect trapped in amber. After struggling to identify it he sent the purchase to Professor Ole Heie, an aphid expert in Denmark, who confirmed it was a previously undiscovered type of aphid.

Professor Heie named the insect Mindarus harringtoni after its purchaser, but Dr Harrington himself had wanted to go for something slightly more unorthodox. “I had thought it would be rather nice to call it Mindarus ebayi,” he said. “Unfortunately, using flippant names to describe new species is rather frowned upon these days.”

Because you can’t just have one…

If you are trying to lose weight, going for a small bag of crisps rather than a larger one might seem the obvious route, but researchers from the Technical University of Lisbon and Tilburg University in the Netherlands have found that this may not be the case. Participants in a study were asked to complete a questionnaire on body satisfaction and dieting, then weighed and measure in front of a mirror in order to active their “dietary concerns” – in other words, to get them to watch their weight. Along with a control group who had not had their “dietary concerns” activated, they then watched episodes of Friends (aside: why Friends? Perhaps due to its constant looping on E4…) and were asked to evaluate the adverts.

In fact, the researchers were watching their consumption of the crisps that had been provided. Available in large or small packaging, the study found the “dietary concerns” group given large packages at the fewest number of crisps. The conclusion was that large packages made participants think of overeating and dieting, but small packages were “innocent pleasures” that did not trigger dieting concerns. My conclusion: I now want some crisps.

Power adaptor tyranny could soon be over

If you’re anything like me, you’ve got a few gadgets. When ever I travel anywhere I have to take a mess of power adaptors to feed my phone, mp3 player and Nintendo DS – I’m just thankful I don’t have a laptop to add to the mix. It’s also easy to forget to plug the damn things in, leaving me to play the “do I have enough battery life to make this call?” game. I’ve often thought of a solution – a “power pad” on my desk, where any electrical device would charge simply by being left there and forgotten about.

The technology exists – your electric toothbrush is charged not by wires, but by magnetic induction. Flowing electrons in a circuit generate a magnetic field which in turn induces electron flow in nearby circuits – bam, wireless electricity. I had assumed that the process was too slow to be of use with general electronics, and left it at that.

Turns out I should have got to work on a prototype, because MIT and Intel have found a way to make it work – and not just in close contact. They demonstrated a 60-watt light bulb powered by an energy source three feet away, with no wires in sight. The technology is at least five years away however, especially one-quarter of the energy is lost in transmission. In a world increasingly looking to improve energy usage, 75% efficiency is pretty unacceptable. Still, I can’t wait to get rid of those chargers.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 20 August 2008 at 4:15 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology

The Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society has observed a wild dolphin “tailwalking” off the coast of Adelaide in Australia. Taught by dolphinarium trainers everywhere, but rarely seen in the wild, tailwalking is a trick where the dolphin launches itself vertically out of the water and then moves along the surface using only their tail. Incredibly, the dolphin (known as Billie) has been teaching the trick to others in her group.

Tailwalking in the wild

It appears that Billie learnt to tailwalk during a short time in captivity in the early 1980s. Trapped behind a marina and unable to return to the sea, she was captured and taken to the local dolphinarium. On her release to the wild three weeks later, she was branded with a ’3′ to make her easily identifiable.

She was never trained during her stay at the dolphinarium, but must have learnt to tailwalk after observing other dolphins around her. When she left captivity, she retained the skill and is now passing it on the others. Dr Mike Bossley, of WDCS Australia said:

“I have observed all the local dolphins over a number of years, and have watched Billie occasionally performing tailwalks in the years since her release, sometimes in the bow wave of large ships, which is an awesome sight!

“About five years ago another female dolphin called Wave began performing the same behaviour, but does so with much greater regularity than Billie. A third adult female dolphin has also been seen tailwalking.”

The scientists at WDCS do not know why the other dolphins have begun to tailwalk, since they are not rewarded with food as captive dolphins are, but they suspect it may be a form of play or communication. It could also suggest a form of “culture” amongst the dolphins – a behaviour developed by a group and passed between individuals, ultimately defining the group in the same manner as language in humans.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 19 August 2008 at 12:53 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Mathematics

If I remember anything from my days of learning foreign languages, it’s how to count. Not very impressive I grant you, but I can still knock out an “un, duex, trois” or an “ein, zwei, drei” when required. Counting is such a basic and universal skill that it is hard to imagine life without it, but certain aboriginal communities do not have words or gestures to represent numbers. A study by University College London and the University of Melbourne of children from two such communities has found the lack of words is not a hindrance to counting.

The study looked at children aged four to seven from two aboriginal groups, one speaking a langage called Warlpiri whilst the other used Anindilyakwa. Both have words for one, two, few and many, and Anindilyakwa uses numbers up to 20 in rituals but children are not taught these. As a control group the team also worked with an English-speaking indigenous community.

Professor Brian Butterworth of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience was lead author of the study, and details the difficulty in designing questions that the children could answer:

“In our tasks we couldn’t, for example, ask questions such as “How many?” or “Do these two sets have the same number of objects?” We therefore had to develop special tasks. For example, children were asked to put out counters that matched the number of sounds made by banging two sticks together. Thus, the children had to mentally link numerosities in two different modalities, sounds and actions, which meant they could not rely on visual or auditory patterns alone. They had to use an abstract representation of, for example, the fiveness of the bangs and the fiveness of the counters. We found that Warlpiri and Anindilyakwa children performed as well as or better than the English-speaking children on a range of tasks, and on numerosities up to nine, even though they lacked number words.

It appears being able to count is an innate skill. This could explain why children with dyscalculia, a form of dyslexia relating to mathematics, find arithmetic so difficult to learn. Even with our counting system of “one, two, three” to aid them, a lack of this innate skill causes sufferers to struggle. Professor Butterworth is conducting another study in order to find the differences in brains of people with the disorder.

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Comments Off Posted on Sunday 17 August 2008 at 4:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Physics, Weekly Roundup

Nanoscientist Chad A. Mirkin use a new technique called Polymer Pen Lithography to create the microscopic Olympic logos, shown below. The technology allows a single device to print at three different sizes and could be used in a range of industries, from computing to medicine. The Olympic logo perfectly demonstrates the use of these differing scales. The text is made up of around 20,000 dots that are 90 nanometres in diameter, whilst the Olympic rings and stylised athlete are made from approximately 4,000 dots that are 600 nanometres in diameter. The switch in scale is made possible by applying increasing pressure to the nano-pen, which causes the tip to deform and become wider. For finer work, it snaps back into place when the pressure is released.

Tiny Olympic logos, 70 micrometers long and 60 micrometers wide.

If you have a terrible singing voice, it might not be because you’re tone deaf – you could just be a bad singer! Neuroscientists at the State University of New York at Buffalo and at Simon Fraser University have suggested that poor perception of tone is just one possible explanation for awful singing. You could also have poor control of your vocal chords, the inability to imitate what it is you hear, or simply a bad memory. The research has shown that being unable to reproduce a note that you have heard is the most likely explanation – your ears, brain and vocal chords just can’t get coordinated. Something to bear in mind for your next solo in the shower!

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Comments Off Posted on Thursday 14 August 2008 at 4:48 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Inventions & Technology

What constitutes a brain? Scientists at the University of Reading have connected neurons from the foetus of a rat to a bank of electrodes which control a small robot. You can watch the robot learning to turn in this video:

This experiment has been widely reported by the media as a “rat-brained robot”. This instantly conjures up the mental image of a B-movie experiment gone horrible wrong – “Rat-Brained Robots…FROM SPACE!” perhaps – quite far from reality.

Neurons are the cells that make up the majority of the nervous system, including the brain. There are around 100 billion of these cells in a human brain. The robot is controlled by 300,000 rat neurons, less than 2% of the 21 million in a rat brain. Do these randomly connecting neurons make a brain? Clearly one neuron cannot be call a brain – it’s just a single cell after all. At what point do you go from a clump of neurons to a fully fledged brain? The Reading team themselves are unclear on this point, using phrases such as “brain material” and “brain culture” along with just plain old “brain”.

What is clear is this experiment is not “cruel”, as many commenters on the news websites seem to be saying. They haven’t cut the brain from a living adult rat and placed it into a robot in some kind of twisted transplantation – for one thing, I imagine they would have no idea how to hook up a rat brain to a robot. The neurons aren’t even physically attached to the robot, as their organic nature requires a temperature-controlled environment. Instead, communication takes place with the robot via Bluetooth.

So what’s the point of it all? Once the robot has learnt to navigate its environment and recognise its surroundings by forming connections between neurons, the researchers plan to disrupt these connections in an attempt to recreate conditions that cause memory loss such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. In other words, they aren’t trying to build an army of robo-rat slaves.

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Comments Off Posted on Wednesday 13 August 2008 at 3:52 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Getting It Wrong

Prince Charles has once again struck out at genetically modified crops because he believes they will cause the “biggest disaster environmentally of all time.” This of course comes after his extensive testing of the effects of GM crops on the environment. Oh no wait, it doesn’t.

The Prince’s latest outburst completely ignores scientific consensus – a study lasting from 1996 to 2006 found that GM crops provided both economic and environmental benefits. A short summary:

  • GM crops have resulted in fewer greenhouse gas emissions, a major contributor to global warming, because the crops need less attention and farmers can use their tractors less. In 2006 this meant a reduction of 14.8 billion kg of carbon dioxide – the equivalent of removing over 6 million cars from the road for a year.
  • Economic benefits to farms planting GM crops totalled $33.8 billion over the study period, with an increase of $7 billion alone in 2006. Of the $33.8 billion, 43% of this was due to an increase in harvest thanks to insect resistant and herbicide tolerant engineered crops. Nearly half of this income (49%) went to farmers in developing countries.
  • Since 1996 an extra 53.3 million tonnes of soybeans and 47.1 million tonnes of corn have been produced. This extra production has meant lower prices and thus more affordable food for everybody.

What opponents of GM crops don’t seem to understand is that by turning public opinion against research is condemning millions of people to starvation and death. Crops can be engineered to grow more easily and with higher yields, as has already been demonstrated.

To those who say this will lead to “Frankenfoods”, I ask what they think of selective breeding. For millennia, farmers have selected the crops with the strongest resistance to disease, the fastest growing time, or the tastiest fruits, and breed them to encourage these characteristics. This is nothing more than brute force genetic modification, since genes are what determine a plants characteristics! Almost everything we eat has been “genetically modified” since agriculture began – and not always for a “good” reason.

Consider the humble carrot. Eaten in the millions every day, this innocent looking root vegetable hides a dark, dark past, for it was not always as it appears today. The carrot, that most orange of side dishes, used to in fact be purple – or even black, red, or yellow. It continued to be so until patriotic Dutch carrot farmers – evil genetic scientists that they are – decided to genetically modify an orange carrot by selective breeding, making it tastier in the process.

So the next time your crunch down on a carrot – beware! Its genetically modified attributes will turn your brain to mush and your liver to pudding. Or maybe it won’t, I don’t know. Ask Prince Charles, because he’s the expert.

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Comments Off Posted on Tuesday 12 August 2008 at 11:59 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology

You may have recently read about the discovery of the world’s smallest snake. With an average length of just 10cm it looks more like a worm than a snake and it was found by Dr Blair Hedges, a biologist from Penn State University, under a rock on the island of Barbados.

Or was it? It appears that residents of Barbados have been angered by Hedges’ claims of discovery, because the snake has long been known to locals in the area. The decision to name the snake Leptotyphlops carlae after his wife Carla has not gone down well on the island.

“If he needs to blow his own trumpet … well, fine,” said 43-year-old Barbadian Charles Atkins. “But my mother, who was a simple housewife, she showed me the snake when I was a child.”

“How dare this man come in here and name a snake after his wife?” said the writer who identified themselves as Margaret Knight.

Hedges’ has responded through the Associated Press, stating that whilst he sympathises with the Barbadians, standard scientific practice is for the first person to fully analyse and describe a species to name it. He pointed out that mostly newly “discovered” species are indeed well known to locals, and establishing a genetic profile in the laboratory is essential the true meaning of a new species discovery.

Who is in the right here? It’s a tricky one. There don’t seem to be any reports of a local Barbadian name for the snake, so whilst the existence of the snake may have been common knowledge, it appears that there was no thought as to whether it was particular member of one species or another. Having said that, if I saw a small snake in my back garden I’d probably think “hmm, interesting” and then not give it another moments thought. I certainly wouldn’t start checking out herpetology books in an attempt to discover a new species.

This lack of formal classification is precisely why a scientist needs to step in and do the hard work. I’m sure if there is a Barbadian name for the snake that people will continue to use it, because Leptotyphlops carlae is quite a mouthful. Oh, and apologies for the alliterative title. I just couldn’t help myself.

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1 Comment » Posted on Tuesday 5 August 2008 at 5:59 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Evolution, Getting It Wrong, Just A Review

Last night Channel 4 showed the first part of a three part series, The Genius of Charles Darwin. Presented by biologist Richard Dawkins, it celebrates the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s great work, On The Origin of Species. If you missed it, you can watch it on the Channel 4 website for the next 7 days.

I found the programme interesting, but not without flaws. I know that Richard Dawkins is a militant atheist, but the manner in which he presented was sure to immediately annoy any religious viewers he was attempting to reach. The statistic is that 40% of the UK population reject Darwin’s theory of evolution, and these would be the people best served by the programme. I imagine he lost quite a few of them after the following opening:

I want to persuade you that evolution offers a far richer and spectacular view of life than any religious story. It’s one of the reasons I don’t believe in God.

He might as well have said “the cultural and spiritual traditions you have been brought up with are wrong, and you should immediatly turn you attention to me, for I am far, far more intelligent than you.” In fact, this is more or less what he said to a group of 16-year-olds as he attempted to teach them about religion. He had a fair point; just because you were brought up with a particular belief system does not make that belief system right, and if presented with reasonable evidence to the contrary any rational person should change their mind. The trouble is he was so confrontational that the students weren’t at all receptive to his message.

I am not religious in the slightest, indeed I am no fan of religion in any form. However, religious beliefs are so ingrained into the people who follow them that anyone disrespecting those beliefs are not likely to hold their interest for very long. If Dawkins’ aim was to communicate science, then why not leave room for God as the creator of natural selection? If you choose to believe that then you can agree with evolution without compromising your beliefs. I fear that at times during the programme science took a back seat to Dawkins’ agenda, and atheistic evangelism is just as distasteful as the religious variety.

Once we get past all this there is some nice content. Dawkins chronicles Darwin’s voyage on the Beagle, and follows in his footsteps to the famous Galápagos Islands where Darwin made many of his incredible discoveries. When we go back to the students, Dawkins has taken them to a beach to search for fossils. None of them look very impressed or interested – hardly the sign of someone learning.

Dawkins then visits Darwin’s own house, and uses his piano to illustrate the vast length of time over which evolution takes place. At one end of the piano, the origin of life. At the other, modern day. Up until just over half way along the keyboard, life consisted of nothing but bacteria. Dinosaurs are about 10 notes below the highest, with their extinction a mere five notes later. Apes and monkeys arrive on the highest note, and the whole of human history occupies a space less than the width of a piano string. It’s a great explanation, and not a mention of religion in sight.

Later on in the programme, Dawkins is talking to genetics with Craig Ventor, one of the scientists who mapped the human genome. They discuss how similarities in genetic code between species provide one of the greatest proofs that all life on Earth is related. Ventor utters “to me it’s not a theory any more.” How I wish he hadn’t. Evolution isn’t “just” a theory, it is a theory. The theory of evolution is our explanation of the observed phenomenon of natural selection. By saying “it’s not a theory any more” you play right in to the hands of anti-Darwinism and those who love to say “just a theory”. To his credit, Dawkins also seems a bit annoyed by this, stating that evolution is fact – which it is, as well as a theory.

In the end we return to the students. A few already agree with evolution, others may have been convinced, but some still dismiss it in favour of their religious beliefs. If they didn’t before, they now see evolution as a direct challenge to religion – which it is not, even if both Dawkins and fundamentalists wish to portray them as such. Sadly, Dawkins has failed to communicate to them the wondrous ideas behind evolution.

Next week’s episode looks to be about evolution as applied to human society – a subject I found myself wondering about as I watched this weeks episode. Do our advances in medicine and technology mean that “survival of the fittest” no longer applies to the human race? I look forward to finding out – just please, leave the religion bashing at the door.

Comments Off Posted on Sunday 3 August 2008 at 9:47 am by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Chemistry, Space & Astronomy, Weekly Roundup

I have decided that Sunday’s post will be a roundup of all the links that didn’t quite make the cut during the week. Enjoy.

The NASA Phoenix lander has found water in a soil sample on Mars. Previous probes had observed water-ice, but this is the first time actual water has been analysed by a probe. Apparently the White House has been briefed to expect a more “provocative” announcement than just the discovery of water, but I don’t think we can expect little green men any time soon.

A study of bees could help police hunt serial killers. The thinking is that bees create a “buffer zone” around their hive in which they do not forage for pollen, in order to avoid predators finding their home. Similarly, those who commit a series of murders tend to stay close to home, but not in the immediate area around their house. Scientists at Queen Mary, University of London tagged bees with coloured markers in order to track them as flew around a field of fake flowers filled with artificial nectar. Using “geographic profiling” – a technique used by police to hunt serial killers – they were able to identify the buffer zone and pinpoint the location of the bees nest. The study allowed them to refine the geographic profiling technique, which in turn will allow more accuracy for deceives in the search for a killer

Nearly all Spanish bank notes are contaminated with cocaine. I’d heard this one before (for British bank notes) but I didn’t actually think it was true. Chemists at the University of Valencia found the notes contained an average concentration of 155 microgrammes of cocaine, the highest in Europe. A full study has not been conducted on British notes, but data exists suggesting between 40% and 51% of bank notes are contaminated with 0.0011 microgrammes of cocaine per note.

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Comments Off Posted on Saturday 2 August 2008 at 3:04 pm by Jacob Aron
In Biology, Yes, But When?

Imagine being able to “exercise” whilst sitting on the sofa with your feet up. It sounds too good to be true, but researchers at the Salk Institute have found two drugs that could allow you to do just that. The first, known as AICAR, allowed mice given the drug for four weeks to run for 44% longer than those left untreated – and without any exercise at all.

For the slightly more energetic amongst you, the second drug GW1516 lead to a 77% increase in endurance amongst mice who ran for up to 50 minutes on a treadmill whilst undergoing the treatment.

The scientists were looking for a way to active a genetic switch known as PPAR delta, which had previously been flipped in mice through genetic engineering. These engineered mice became super-runners, and also became resistant to weight gain. Dr. Ronald M. Evans who led the team at the Salk Institute’s Gene Expression Laboratory said “We wanted to know whether a drug specific for PPAR delta would have the same beneficial effects.”

Performance enhancing drugs are always a temptation for athletes, not just those looking to avoid exercising, but Evans is one step ahead of anyone attempting to use his research to gain an edge in sporting competitions. He has developed a technique that will detect both AICAR and GW1516 in blood and urine, and is working with the World Anti-Doping Association who hope to have a test ready for the Olympics in Beijing which are due to start next week.

So, if (and it’s the usual if) the drugs turn out to have no nasty side effects, one day you could be working on your muscles whilst relaxing in front of the TV. If only…

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