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







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.