Sunday Science 10/12/17

In this week’s Sunday Science: more CRISPR refinements to treat human disease, confused narwhals, disease-carrying bats, and a trio of studies on bias, fake news and psychological targeting.

CRISPR gene editing advances seem to be getting published almost every day at the moment. This latest study manages to refine the technique such that it can reliably alter gene activity without cutting the DNA (which risks introducing mutations). They also tested it to successful treat mouse models of diabetes, acute kidney disease and muscular dystrophy. The original paper is here (probably only intelligible if you have at minimum a molecular biology degree).

The probable origin of the deadly SARS virus has been found in a bat cave in China. I just wanted to write bat cave, to be honest.

One of my lectures of this term covered the molecules that mediate the classic “fight, flight or fright” response to a threatening event. Well it seems that narwhals have a bit of a confused response to a threat they are encountering with greater regularity: humans. In a typical ‘freeze’ response, the heart rate slows, whereas in a ‘flee’ response, it speeds up. After being freed from entanglement in nets, the whales made rapid deep dives — i.e. fleeing — but their heart rates dropped as low as 3–4 beats per minute. In a normal dive they’d do this to conserve oxygen, but in this situation they were swimming far more rapidly, which used a lot of oxygen, a huge stress on their systems. Oh, and the article includes a sound recording of a narwhal’s heartbeat, if you ever wished to listen to one.

Finally, three links relating to bias, psychological traits and fake news.

(1) Targeted advertising could take a new step: mass persuasion based on people’s psychological traits is highly effective. This has already been used to some extent in e.g. targeted Facebook ads during the US election last year.

(2) A thoughtful, objective piece about the phenomenon of fake news, how it can be detected and what can be done about it.

(3) A study of scientific peer review, here, regarding the merits of single-blind review, in which anonymous reviewers know the authors of a paper and their affiliations, compared with double-blind review, in which this information is hidden. This analysis, in the field of computer science, shows that single-blind reviewing confers a significant advantage to papers with famous authors and authors from high-prestige institutions.

Image credit.

Paul Nicklen/NGC/Getty via Nature News.

biology, evolution, Explainer, Miscellaneous, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 03/12/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with pterosaur eggs, scallop eyes, sponges (of the animal kind), and some very tough women.

A huge cache of fossil pterosaur eggs has been discovered in China, giving remarkable clues as to their development and lifestyle (pictured).

A long-standing argument over the whether sponges or comb jellies are the sister group of animals may have been resolved, and it looks like the sponges are it. It does sound rather obscure, but it’s an important step forward for understanding animal evolution. That link is the original article: this did make the mainstream news (link for the non-specialist).

The largest tree-planting scheme in England for 30 years has been given the green light. Over 600,000 trees will be planted in Northumberland over the next two years. Good news for our heavily deforested country, and hopefully providing habitat for the red squirrel.

Prehistoric women were strong and tough. As in, really strong and tough, with better arm strength than elite rowers, a new study has found. This isn’t just a novel finding – it’s important to understanding the heavily overlooked history of female manual labour. (A news story based on this study may be found at Daily Science News here.)

And finally, scallop eyes work like teeny tiny telescopes:


Featured image via, by Zhao Chuang.

biology, Miscellaneous, Science, science news

Sunday Science 26/11/17

Today in Sunday Science: diving flies, clever babies, nuclear thunderstorms and celebrity genes.

I remember being fascinated as a child by those beetles that used to dive in ponds, carrying a silvery bubble of air with them (and frequently trying to catch them – I hasten to add I always put them back). Now scientists have worked out how a tough species of fly stays dry when diving deep into the highly alkaline, salty waters of Lake Mono (featured image).

The mid-Cornwall moors have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, meaning the unique wildlife there will be protected.

Babies as young as 10 months are able to form judgements about how valuable a goal is because of how much effort people are willing to put into getting it. As far as I’m concerned, this is also further evidence for the ability of young children to outwit their parents. (Study published in Science; link is to Science Daily article).

Thunderstorms can produce nuclear reactions. I had no idea, and reading this gave me that delightful sensation in the brain that happens when my understanding or perspective changes. Link is to a news and views piece, with a podcast – link to original paper is here (behind paywall).

One for the molecular biologists/geneticists: a study of the most-studied genes of all time (yes really) reveals some interesting trends in research. If you’re in the field, you can probably guess what number 1 is (I did), but there are some surprises in there. (Oh, and MTHFR isn’t short for what it sounds like it should be short for!)


Image credit: Floris van Breugel/Caltech, via Nature News.

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.