biology, Developmental biology, Organ transplantation, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 18/02/2018

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with self-reproducing crayfish, breakthroughs in developmental biology, the quantum internet, and cleaning.

A big story that’s just hit the mainstream news: scientists have managed to grow sheep embryos containing human cells: 1/10,000 of the sheep embryo’s cells were human, after 28 days of development. This offers the potential of radically improving transplants, and builds on the group’s previous success with pig embryos, but with tenfold efficiency.

An invasive crayfish spreading through Madagascar is a recent hybrid species that reproduces through parthenogenesis – as in, without mating, with the unfertilised egg developing into an adult by itself.

Researchers have found a way to artificially treat wood,compressing it in a way that substantially increases its strength and stiffness and offers more engineering possibilities for this sustainable (when managed) material.

The axolotl genome has been sequenced (open access: technical). The Mexican salamander, as it is also known, is an important model in developmental biology, with scientists keen to understand how it can regenerate it’s limbs. Already the genome has thrown up a lot of information and a few surprises: it lacks a key gene, Pax3, that is essential in other vertebrates.

Still on the subject of developmental biology: scientists are attempting to create a “human developmental cell atlas” – mapping the development of humans from embryos at a single cell level (open access, bit technical). This is in conjunction with the Human Cell Atlas, here, and made possible by modern molecular methods that allow us to minutely examine which genes are active in which cells.

A nice piece on the future of the (potential) quantum internet, long theorised by both science fiction authors and scientists.

And finally: women who do lots of cleaning at home have a greater risk of decline in lung function. Men don’t, apparently, so clearly they should be doing all the cleaning!

Featured image

Part of an experiment to investigate diamond-based systems as quantum-internet nodes at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Credit: Marcel Wogram for Nature

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biology, Climate change, medicine, News, Science, science fiction, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 04/02/18

This week in Sunday Science: curious facts about survival and aging, a new understanding of asthma, extra-galactic planets and 3D images projected onto thin air…

It’s well-known that, despite the vast majority undergoing the rigours of childbirth, women live longer than men. It’s why evolution favours a slightly biased birth ratio of around 105 male : 100 female births, so that the sexes are roughly 50:50 by the time they reach reproductive age. An interesting but somewhat grim study on survival under conditions of extreme mortality, such as disease epidemics and starvation, reveals that in general this still holds true – women survive better than men (generally) even under terrible conditions. The gap is largely attributable to female infants surviving better than male ones.

Also on the theme of longevity, naked mole rats (featured image) don’t have an increased risk of dying as they get older. This seems to defy what is known as Gompertz’s mortality law, which states that the risk of death for a typical mammal grows exponentially after they reach sexual maturity. This suggests that these unusual animals don’t age in the conventional sense. Original article here.

A new explanation for why the airways close up in asthma has been discovered. It’s to do with an overproduction of mucus being stimulated by immune cells. This offers another potential avenue for treatment other than steroids. Original research article here (paywalled)

Plastic waste on coral reefs not only poses a pollution hazard to animals living there, but in damaging the coral and leading to bacterial infections. Original research article here. (Science paywall I’m afraid).

Not so much news, but a thoughtful retrospective on a paper published 50 years ago that first predicted the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Astrophysicists have now detected planets that are not only not in our solar system, but not in our galaxy, which is quite astonishing.

And finally…you know how thanks to great special effects, all science fiction films seem to have some sort of sequence with what looks like a “hologram” projected in the air? Well, inspired by one of the original efforts, Princess Leia’s distress call in Star Wars, researchers have managed to do just that. It’s a photophoretic-trap volumetric display, and it’s way beyond my understanding (deservedly published in Nature), and very cool.

Excellent video below (also in the news article I linked to):

 

Image Credit

Featured image: Jedimentat44/flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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

Sunday Science 21/01/18

In this edition of Sunday science, wearable tech to monitor babies, giant bats, peregrine falcons, new blood tests for cancer, and working out how Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

The terminal attack trajectories of peregrine falcons are described by the same feedback law used by visually guided missiles. Or perhaps more accurately, since the birds were here first, the missiles use the same law. Open access, but there’s a less technical Science Daily version here.

Sussex University physicists have designed a new form of wearable tech which is small and unobtrusive, which would enable you to easily remotely monitor baby’s vital signs etc. They contain the most sensitive liquid-based devices, made from an affordable emulsion of graphene, water and oil.

A giant extinct bat that crawled on the ground has been described from fossils found in New Zealand.

Imaging brains with Alzheimer’s has shed light on the role of a key protein involved, tau, which seems to spread down highly connected neurons. Slowing down this process may help treat or stop the progression of the disease. Featured image: artist’s impression of the spread of tau filaments (red) throughout the brain, by Thomas Cope, via Cambridge university.

You may have seen in the mainstream news about a blood test that can be used to test for eight of the most common cancers. This works by detecting the presence of common cancer-causing mutations in certain genes. It’s exciting, but only really works effectively for very advanced cancers. You may not have seen another blood test that uses DNA methylation (reversible chemical modifications that alter how easy it is to turn a gene on or off) to detect and predict the spread of breast cancer:

And finally, in a first for me citing the journal Construction and Building Materials, how do make concrete that can heal its own cracks as they appear over time? Well, apparently, you might start by mixing fungi with it. A little experimental as yet, but a neat idea. This is paywalled, but you can read the Science Daily version here.

biology, General opinion, genetic modification, History of science, medicine, Organ transplantation, Science, science fiction, SF and science

Franken fears, Franken futures (part 2)

Moving from AI back to biology, how close are we to creating life out of replacement parts? Or nothing at all? Well, we could probably clone a human being any day. This really isn’t the big deal it sounds like: there have been human clones as long as there have been humans: they’re called identical twins. In terms of the ethics, I imagine the worst is that you’d just get some unhealthily grieving people trying to clone their dead Dad, which isn’t a good idea. Clone armies to wage your wars? Well, no, it’s not going to get any faster to grow a human being and raise it to adulthood, and, for the moment, we don’t have those artificial wombs (nor are we likely to, taking an embryo from the moment of conception). You’d probably go for those AI drones instead.

Making a different form of human is another thing entirely. Continue reading

biology, genetic modification, Opinion, Opinion piece, Robotics, Science, Science and society, science fiction, SF and science

Franken fears, Franken futures, part 1

It’s the 200th anniversary of the publication of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s hugely influential Frankenstein this year, which numerous news outlets are obviously picking up on. If you’ve never read it, do; it’s astounding, even today. (I’d recommend the first edition, as being more forceful than later editions). I’ll consider a few thoughts on the fears it still touches on today, then move onto the science of how we might replace human parts, or the whole, in part 2. Continue reading

biology, Climate change, medicine, Robotics, Science, science news, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 07/01/18

Welcome to the first Sunday Science of the new year; I’m planning now to do this series fortnightly, instead of weekly, to allow me more time to write posts on more specific topics. So, due to the holiday, this week we have a bumper issue, featuring neural networks, artificial sperm, bionic hands, science fiction speculation and more.

An utterly lovely and fascinating set of interviews in Nature with some luminaries of the science fiction field, discussing “Science fiction when the future is now.” Well worth reading.

Neural networks are making it much easier to process biological images. This could be a quiet game-changer: when I was doing research not so long ago, one of the main stumbling blocks was trying to quantitatively analyse vast amounts of high quality image data. We collaborated with mathematicians, but it was a slow process to get a workable programme.

A year late, but now the data is in, it turns out 2016 was the first year in which there were less than 100,000 measles deaths a year – thanks to vaccination, which is estimated to have prevented over 20 million measles deaths between 2000-2016.

It turns out, as researchers have long suspected, that the push to produce papers for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which determines university funding, leads to quantity over quality as it forces researchers to squeeze their work into REF cycles.

Neonicotinoid pesticides have been implicated in the decline of honeybees, but now it seems that common fungicides may also be seriously impacting bee health. (Link to original research article).

Weather fluctuations can be used to predict changes in the numbers of asylum applications (yes you read that right). On a serious note, this is more evidence for the negative effect of climate change on societal stability, and its role in promoting human conflict. Regrettably, this is behind Science’s paywall. For an earlier example of climate change driving human migration, there’s an interesting study of 19th century migration from Germany to the US here, with an accessible news feature here.

Sequencing of the sooty mangabey genome sequence (featured image) has given clues to natural AIDS resistance, as these monkeys are infected by Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (from which HIV evolved) without suffering disease. Image and more info from here.

One from the mainstream news: scientists have taken a step closer to making artificial sperm.

Finally, I’ve blogged before about the incredible advances in artificial prostheses. Now scientists have developed an artificial hand capable of providing sensation that can be used outside the laboratory (Ignore the flowery frame – the video is good).

biology, evolution, psychology, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 17/12/17

This is the last Sunday Science of the year; I’ll start the series up again after the New Year, and bring some more longer posts too. This week, we have the genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, origami-inspired artificial muscles, and the psychological scars of the Industrial Revolution.

The genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has been sequenced from a preserved specimen of a young pup. This animal died out over 80 years ago, and the genome gives hints of earlier population reduction before humans arrived, and possible reasons for why this marsupial bears such an uncanny resemblance to a dog or a wolf, despite being completely unrelated.

Engineers have designed artificial muscles inspired by origami folding.  (Pictured). Sounds a bit crazy, and looks a bit bizarre too, if you look at some of the videos in the original article, but they are flexible, light and very strong. There is a Science Daily summary here.

The industrial revolution left psychological scars. An analysis of 400,000 personality tests indicates that people living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions. Researchers suggest this may be due to the social effects of severe work and living conditions, amongst other factors. These traits persist today given that most of these regions face high unemployment after the closure of mines and factories.

Researchers have long puzzled over why humans have such variable eye colour. It’s thought to be due to sexual selection, initially for novelty value. A hypothesis paper here points out that variable eye colour within the same species tends to occur only in humans and domesticated animals.

Lastly, one for the biochemists (and not open access, unfortunately). Rubisco, the enzyme which catalyses the first major step in the conversion of carbon dioxide to sugar molecules in plants, has been made in genetically engineered bacteria. To get a protein this large, with all its associated helper proteins, is a phenomenal achievement; it’s an incredibly complex and important enzyme, but not a very efficient one – it’s easy for oxygen instead of carbon dioxide to get into the binding site and cause a wasteful oxygenase side-reaction. Researchers have tried for years to make a better version. Now that it’s been genetically engineered into bacteria, this should be much easier to do.

Featured image

Derived from figure 1, Li, et al, “Fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles.” doi: 10.1073/pnas.1713450114