biology, Climate change, Environment, evolution, Science, science news

Ozone recovery, covid futures and the wolf that wasn’t a wolf at all

In today’s good news story, there has been a decline in ozone-damaging CFC (chlorofluorcarbon) emissions in China. (Paywalled, unfortunately, but the abstract is free). The ozone layer is a layer of O3 high up in the stratosphere that protects life on Earth by absorbing damaging ultraviolet light. It was realised in the late 1970s that it was being destroyed by chemicals used as refrigerants in fridges, freezers etc., leaving the infamous “hole” in the ozone layer over the Antarctic. (In practical terms, there’s been about a 4% decline in ozone levels since the 1970s, and several “holes” are seen in seasonally variable patterns, but particularly at the poles). In 1986, an international treaty, the Montreal Protocol, capped emissions at 1986 levels, and committed nations to subsequent decline. Production of emissive CFCs was phased out globally in 2011, and alternative chemicals are mandated for use. This has largely been successful, and the EPA has reported a gradual trend towards “healing” of the ozone layer.

Things did seem to take a step back in 2013, however, when atmospheric monitoring revealed CFC emissions rising, largely in eastern China, suggesting illegal production. This raised a lot of alarm amongst scientists. However, it seems that the alarm was heeded and production halted, as they are now declining again. It’s a refreshing reminder that, actually, environmental problems can be fixed where there’s international will to do so and solutions exist. Climate change, whilst far more complex, is not insoluble.

Now I know I promised no bad news, and when it comes to the big C (Covid, not cancer) there’s a saturation of excellent and not-so-good content out there. Recently, however, there’s been a lot of speculation of “what happens next” once the immediate crisis is over. Is total elimination possible, or is suppression the best we can hope for? What if mutations arise that mean it “escapes” the vaccine response? And so on. On that note, Nature has an interesting and readable feature on “Covid Futures” (free to read) based on a survey of what 100 scientists working in directly relevant fields thought would happen. In particular, this infographic is very clear and useful, and indicates that, in most outcomes, the worst case scenario is avoided.

CORONAVIRUS: HERE TO STAY. Graphic showing some of the key factors that are likely to lead to SARS-CoV-2 becoming endemic.

And finally, today’s featured fabulous animal is the dire wolf (featured image). These large predators roamed North America from around 250,000-13,000 years ago, possibly dying off due to climate change. From the many available fossil skeletons, they appeared rather similar to grey wolves – just 20% bigger. However, a DNA analysis has proved elusive, until now. This new study has revealed that they’re not really wolves at all, but in a unique lineage of canids (wolves, coyotes, foxes etc) that branched off from the others nearly 6 million years ago. What’s more, they appear to have evolved in North America: the ancestors of wolves and coyotes colonised America from Eurasia later on, and did not cross-breed with the dire wolves. It’s a fascinating glimpse into a divergent branch of the evolutionary tree. You can read a news piece here, or the full genetic analysis published in Nature here.

Image Credit

By Eden, Janine and Jim – Flickr: Dire Wolf Skeleton, CC BY 2.0,

medicine, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Finally back, with a focus on good news and weird animals: today, a potential new treatment for multiple sclerosis and wombat poo.

Well, apologies for the hiatus, but it’s been a bit like that, hasn’t it? I’m still “enjoying” the challenges of pandemic working plus homeschooling/caring for a small child, so I still have no spare time. However, I have resolved to do less doomscrolling, and, in an effort to focus more on positives (and be realistic about what can be achieved), I’ve decided that this blog will concentrate on science news stories that are good news stories. These will be updated when I can, at least fortnightly again I hope – plus also weird and wonderful animals, which will be the focus of the featured images, because who doesn’t like those?

I’m going to start with vaccines. No, not coronavirus vaccines, you’re probably all experts on those by now. This is a vaccine against the autoimmune condition multiple sclerosis (MS). It is, however, based on the same principles as the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine: using mRNA to entrain the immune system. How does this work? A little background first. Every cell in your body (bar eggs and sperm) contains a complete copy of your all the genes needed to make you in your DNA-based genome. The genes code for proteins, which are both the building blocks and workers of your cells. But not all the genes are switched on at the same time in every cell. You don’t want to making digestive enzymes in your brain, or muscle tissue in your liver, right? Genes that are switched on are “transcribed” into a messenger RNA, or mRNA, sequence, which is then translated into the protein. Unlike DNA, mRNA is single-stranded (which is also why it’s so unstable and has to be stored at -70C). The mRNA-based coronavirus vaccines use this principle to inject mRNA coding for a bit of virus protein into your cells. This is then made into protein which your immune cells can recognise and make antibodies against (Moderna has some good info on mRNA technology and the basic biology behind them here).

In the case of this MS vaccine, however, it is being used to train the immune system to tolerate myelin, the nerve cell coat that is degraded in MS, rather than attack it. Your immune system has to learn not only to recognise things that are harmful, like bacteria and virus proteins, but harmless everyday things it shouldn’t worry about and learn to ignore. When this doesn’t work, you can get problems ranging from allergies (e.g. reacting to harmless pollen) or autoimmune disease, in which the immune system starts attacking the body’s own tissues. In the case of multiple sclerosis, this is the insulating coating of the nerve cells, made of myelin. The MS vaccine contains an mRNA encoding a myelin-like protein, and reduces severe disease in a mouse model. Yes, it’s just a mouse model so far, but it’s promising. mRNA vaccines look like they’re going to be an exciting new field of research, and I am going to be very interested to see if this could be applied to more autoimmune diseases. Original paper published in Science here (paywalled, alas, but you can read a Nature opinion piece here).

Todays’ wonderful animal is the wombat (featured image). These delightful marsupials can run as fast as human, dig burrows (and have backwards-facing pouches so they’re babies don’t get dirt shovelled on them) and use their backsides for defence. No, they don’t fart in your general direction; it’s made of tough cartilage that a predator has a tough time getting a bite out of. They also produce cube-shaped faeces. Apparently this is because it stops it rolling away, and wombat poo is important in marking territory and communicating with other wombats. But it’s always been a bit of a mystery as to how they do it: how do you make square poo from a tubular intestine? Via careful contraction of the walls it seems. They have “two stiff and two flexible” regions which help shape the faeces into the characteristic cube shapes. And if you’re thinking that this is a waste of research money, it would actually be quite useful to know how to do this for some manufacturing processes. The best thing about this research is that it is published a journal called Soft Matter. And a group of wombats is a wisdom of wombats, which I think we can all get behind. Not the square poo though. That’s all theirs.

MS treatment & wombats

Featured image:

Southern Hairy-nosed Wombat (Lasiorhinus latifrons). Author Stygiangloom.


PSA: intermittent/suspended blog posting

I generally aim to post science stories every 2 or at least every 3 weeks on this blog, so regular readers can expect a (semi!) reliable output. However, due to the demands of now having to work from home full time but also look after a small child full time, this is currently proving near-impossible. If I get a few moments to post something exciting or interesting, I will do so, but regular blog posts are realistically not going to be happening for a little while. Apologies all!

biology, medicine, Science, Science and society, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Super-sensing dogs, crafty cuttlefish, whale migration, and please wash your hands…Sunday Science 08/03/20

Lots of clever animals in this week’s Sunday Science, with cuttlefish connoisseurs, super-sensing dogs, and whales who go the distance for a good skincare regime….plus: self-promotion in science, and how washing your hands really is the best individual tactic against coronavirus… Continue reading

biology, cancer, Environment, evolution, genetic modification, medicine, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Coronavirus, albatross police, biodiversity declines, and why it’s never too late to give up smoking…Sunday Science 16/02/2020

A slightly belated Sunday Science, due to term hitting with unusual force three weeks back. More on coronavirus, CRISPR against cancer, using albatrosses to police illegal fishing, giant fossil beasties, and why it’s never too late to give up smoking.

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biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, medicine, News, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Coronavirus, how stress turns your hair grey, culturing snake venom, and global human cooling…

In this week’s Sunday Science: some facts on the new coronavirus that is spreading through China (and abroad); how stress turns your hair grey; how scientists are stressed (so we’ll all go grey early); how human body temperatures are falling, and growing your own snake venom…. Continue reading

biology, Climate change, Developmental biology, evolution, medicine, Science, science fiction, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Carnivorous plants, BCG vaccine, dogs & schizophrenia and how flies land upside down: Sunday Science 12/01/2020

Welcome to the first Sunday Science of the New Year, with carnivorous plants, injecting new life into an old vaccine, reducing schizophrenia risks (by dogs), how the UK transformed its energy supply, and how flies land upside down on your kitchen ceiling… Continue reading

biology, evolution, medicine, Science, Sunday Science Stories

Fighting rabies, whale heartbeats, artificial leaves, ancient wolf-dogs, and saving elephants: Sunday Science 01/12/19

In this week’s Sunday Science stories…a step forward in the fight against rabies, ancient dogs, an artificial leaf, why legalising the ivory trade won’t save the elephants, and measuring the heartbeat of the biggest animal on the planet…

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biology, cancer, evolution, medicine, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Flesh-eating bacteria, antibiotic resistance, 3D displays, key cancer drug, bad psychology & more…Sunday Science 17/11/19

In this week’s Sunday Science: apes might have evolved upright far earlier than thought; a new drug against the most common cancer mutation; cooperative flesh-eating bacteria and a test for antibiotic resistance. Also: 3D Star Wars style displays, bad psychology, and a celebration of 150 years of publication of Nature magazine…. Continue reading