biology, evolution, medicine, News, Science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 19/11/17

This week: Giant otters, axolotls and new pain killers.

An otter the size of a wolf that lived 6 million years ago may have been a dominant predator. A new analysis indicates that it had a much more powerful bite than anticipated.

Axolotls, the Mexican salamander (pictured), are a favoured model organism because of their astonishing ability to regenerate their limbs. They are also popular pets. Unfortunately, they are heading towards extinction in the wild.

Not exactly news, but certainly topical: Nature videos has produced an excellent animation detailing how CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing works, and the potential useful modifications, including some newer ones I detailed in a recent post on gene editing. 



The opioid epidemic in the US is causing several thousand deaths a year. These drugs give powerful pain relief, but have the side-effect of suppressing breathing: fatal overdoses usually kill because the person stops breathing. So many research groups are designing drugs that preferentially cause the pain relief without the respiratory depression, and a new paper in Cell this week (link to perspective article) identifies some possibilities that could be even more effective than those currently in clinical trials. This is behind the paywall, unfortunately, but there’s a news piece here.

Climate change, Science, Science and society

Climate change: (Some) reasons for optimism

There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day  about the “seven megatrends” that could beat global warming. I thought I’d link to it because it brings together lots of different trends, and it’s nice to see something optimistic for a change. Of course, this is in the face of another headline which indicates that, after three years of flatlining, fossil fuel emissions are set to rise to a record high this year. So is there real reason for hope?

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biology, evolution, genetic modification, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 12/11/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with skin regeneration, bees and pesticides, evolving bacterial ecosystems, and sensitive robot skin.

First up, a major breakthrough which did make the mainstream news was the story of a boy with a lethal condition which had resulted in the loss of most of his skin, who had genetically engineered skin grafts (pictured) and is now living essentially a normal life. There’s a Nature opinion piece here which has a more scientific slant, putting this research in context. The original research article is here, and open access (be warned it has a distressing photo of the child pre-treatment). Although extremely rare, these genetic diseases do affect nearly half a million people worldwide, and are agonising and often fatal.


I’ve blogged before about  “soft robotics” inspired by biology. A couple of stories I missed earlier include this piece on an artificial “skin” for robots that can be stretched and detect vibration and shear forces, crucial for handling objects. Also, other scientists have developed robotic skin that can change shape and colour, inspired by cephalopods, which is rather cool. (Research article may be found here, but it’s behind the Science paywall).

There has been an ongoing long-term experiment observing thousands of generations of the bacteria E.coli, to observe evolution in action. The latest results reveal that – even in bacteria – ecological interactions arise spontaneously, and the bacteria form little specialised sub-populations. Link is to an opinion piece; the full-text article link can be found from that for the technically minded.

There’s been a lot in the press recently about calls to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. The UK has long resisted efforts in the EU to ban them – now it seems that it will push for a full ban.  There’s a thoughtful opinion piece here that weighs up the evidence behind this. (I should note a disclaimer in that Prof Dave Goulson, quoted in the piece, works at my institution).


Photo: Nature Press.

biology, Science, science news

Sunday Science 05/11/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday science, with some good news on antibiotic resistance, the wheat genome sequence, and gecko tails.

Some good news in the battle against antibiotic resistance: sales of the drugs for use in farm animals have shown a drop by over a quarter since 2014, beating government targets.

The wheat genome has finally been sequenced. This is no small feat: it’s five times larger than the human one, and has 6 copies of every chromosome.

This week’s featured image (from the Vikaryous lab, which performed this research) is of the leopard gecko. Some species of lizard can escape predators by detaching their tail when it is grabbed. They later re-grow it. The lab has found the cells which drive the gecko’s ability to re-grow its tail.

And finally, as if there weren’t already enough good reasons to exercise: strength-training (including simple exercises like push-ups) adds years to your life.

biology, genetic modification, medicine, Science, science news

Sunday Science 29/10/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science. The big science news of the past week has been the latest advance in gene editing. This deserves a longer look, so I’ll be sending out a post on that later today/tomorrow. This week I’ve got a focus on medical/biological advances.

Firstly, after many years, the first gene therapy has been approved on NHS.  This is for so-called “bubble baby” syndrome, which is a genetic condition called adenosine deaminase deficiency, or ADA-SCID. Sufferers have a severely compromised immune system and must live in a sterile environment as much as possible. It’s very rare, but usually fatal. The gene therapy replaces the faulty gene in bone marrow cells, which are then transplanted back to the patient, and is lifelong.

A new drug has been approved for treating  sleeping sickness.  This is an endemic and problematic parasitic disease in Africa, one of many “neglected tropical diseases.” This week’s featured image shows trypanosome parasites in a blood sample from an infected patient. I actually previously blogged about the potential of this drug in a piece about these diseases a while back, so it’s good to see it’s promise fulfilled. Previous treatments have had high toxicity or been difficult to administer: this is a pill to be taken orally.

Finally, a study has been done that shows for the first time how the brain maps connections from an artificial prosthetic limb, in those cases where where residual limb nerves are rerouted towards intact muscles and skin regions to control a robotic limb. (I recently blogged about prosthetics versus transplants here). There is surprisingly good control, but the brain doesn’t interpret them exactly as it does the original limb, so more work is needed to improve the mobility and sensation from these devices. Studies like this can help researchers design artificial limbs both more useful and more natural feeling to use.


Photo credit: CDC/Dr. Myron G. Schultz – CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL), Public Domain,

biology, evolution, Robotics, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 22/10/17

I am aiming to write a “proper” blog post soon (however, being in the usual mid-term work frenzy, possibly not that soon). So in the meantime, here’s this week’s Sunday Science, featuring spiders and robots, because how can you go wrong with those two things in the same sentence?

Firstly, in honour of the new Blade Runner, a short opinion piece on whether we could ever build a replicant. I note with interest that this also flags up soft robotics, which is a field I’ve been watching with interest for some time now.

And whilst we’re on the subjects, watch the following video and see if it doesn’t remind you of the T-1000 in Terminator 2:

This is research being done at Sussex, my university. Their news piece here.

Now for the spiders, the lovely spiders. Firstly, a nice piece on how modern genetic methods are helping untangle the rather complicated evolutionary history of these marvellous animals. That may be one more for the biologists. For everyone, however, is a fascinating article on the applications of synthetic spider silk: I didn’t know, for example, that they offer great promise for medical grade implants, because bacteria don’t stick to them and the immune system has trouble recognising spider silk due to its structure of repeating small amino acids. This week’s featured image shows vials of synthetic spider silk (Kiyaoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images and Science). To finish, have a nice graphic about that marvellous material as the golden orb-weaver spider makes it.


spider factory
From Science magazine, 2017.