News, science news

Should we really stop taking antibiotics when we feel better?

You probably saw all that fuss in the news a few days ago about a study in the BMJ which concluded that you shouldn’t take the full course of antibiotics – or at least, that was what was reported. I was immediately suspicious that this was one of those stories that the press spins wildly out of all proportion. So let’s see what the actual study has to say…

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politics, Science, Science and society

Brexit, Euratom and the future of UK science (again)

What with all the recent furore over Euratom, it seemed a good time to consider the impact of Brexit on UK science. Regarding Euratom itself, the decision to withdraw from that shocked a lot of scientists (and others): this wasn’t something that was really considered as a real possibility during the referendum campaign. Euratom occupies a somewhat unique position: it was a separate treaty negotiated in 1957, so it is legally distinct from the EU but has the same membership, and comes under many of the same institutions. One of those institutions would be the European Court of Justice, and this appears to be the sticking point for the Prime Minister: May has drawn a red line over leaving the ECJ as a condition for Brexit. I have yet to hear a convincing reason why we need to do this. To allow big business and the government to erode our human rights, as far as I can tell. So in the fallout (pun intended) from this, withdrawal from Euratom is yet another thing that was never on a ballot paper, never discussed, not planned for, and has no positives for us.

From the government’s own research briefing (PDF download available):

The UK will have to take on a number of measures to leave Euratom smoothly
such as:
• Design, resource and implement new UK safeguarding
arrangements in line with accepted international standards;
• Replace current safeguarding commitments under the Non
Proliferation Treaty (which are also predicated on Euratom
• Identify and plan negotiation of replacement Nuclear Cooperation
Agreements (NCAs) with countries with which the UK has
ongoing nuclear trade.24
As Euratom manages inspections of UK nuclear power, the UK will need
to agree new inspections with the International Atomic Energy Agency
before the UK exits the EU.

Leaving jeopardises the supply of radioisotopes for industry and medicine, the JET fusion project (pictured), supplies of nuclear material for power stations, and, oh yes, Britain’s standing as a world leader in nuclear research.

What of the wider implications for UK science? What has the EU ever done for UK science? Well, a lot. Below follows an edited re-post of a blog I published shortly after the referendum. Continue reading

biology, evolution, Science, science news

Human evolution continues to get more complicated

A good, if slightly technical article in the Guardian today here, about the ever-contentious split between modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals. The evidence for interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals added up quite convincingly after the initial surprise discovery, probably shortly after the “Out of Africa” migration around 75,000 years ago. This article reports on results from sequencing mitochondrial DNA, which is only transmitted through the female line, suggesting there was some interbreeding between 413,000-270,000 years ago, a staggeringly long time ago. This is way before the main migration out of Africa by modern humans, and not that long after the split between the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens lineages from their common ancestor around 500,000 years ago. It seems that there may have been smaller migrations before our species successfully established itself outside of Africa.

I’ve written about human evolution before here, which gives an overview of some of the more recent findings about our relationships with other hominids. This new finding really strikes me again how migration is a defining feature of our species; it may well have been so for other hominids too. Maybe this is why our ancient relationships are just as mixed up as our modern ones.

biology, genetic modification, News, Science

Writing movies into DNA

Well, what will they think of next? A little while ago, I wrote about the possibilities of using DNA as information storage. Researchers have now managed to insert a little movie into the genome of the E.coli bacterium (the workhorse of the genetics world). They used the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique to insert the five frames of a galloping horse. Essentially, the snippets of DNA generated by CRISPR were used to correspond to pixels. Here’s the GIF:

galloping horse

Of course, you need to decode the message written in the nucleotides of the bacterial DNA to reconstruct the image (or movie), so you also have to have the ability to read it and know the code, and it’s incredibly laborious. You can’t just read it off one cell either, nor with one pass – it took several hundred thousand reads for the whole thing.

So why would you bother? Honestly, that’s a little ambiguous at the moment. Their original idea was to actually create a recording system to monitor changes happening in cells, in order, ultimately, to decipher how brain cells take on distinct identities. Instead of using indirect measurements or experimental perturbation to answer these questions, it would essentially get the cells to tell you what was happening to them themselves. They didn’t achieve that, but it’s a step towards it. Like many science advances, it’s an impressive technical feat that for now remains just a curio, but who knows where it may ultimately lead?



Shipman, S. L., et al.  Nature (2017).