biology, evolution, Miscellaneous, News, Science, science news

Sunday science 27/08/17

A mixed bag for this week’s Sunday science, with dinosaurs, microbes, toilets and, er, voters (today’s challenge: put those four things in a sentence that makes sense!).

The featured image is an artist’s impression* of three dinosaurs in a new fossil that were found huddled together, possibly for warmth. They may have engaged in “communal roosting” like some bird species.

Hotter weather is known to increase incidents of violence. Now it seems it can influence voter behaviour (link to original research article). I find it somewhat ironic that Al Gore, famous for his work warning on climate change, might have won the 2000 presidential election if it had been just 1C hotter in Florida that day.

A technical one for the microbiologists. Sequencing of microbe DNA fragments in human blood has revealed that hundreds of unidentified species that live on or in us.

Finally, a weird one from Science Daily in July: mixed sex toilets reduce queuing time. I’m fascinated by this primarily because there are people in existence who are “queueing theorists.” Can you imagine the “So what do you do for a living conversation?”

*Illustration by Mike Skrepnick for Nature.

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biology, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, SF and science

The future of artificial limbs

I’ve written on this blog before about how advances in our understanding and application of genetic engineering and stem cell technology is raising the realistic possibility of growing replacement human organs. What I haven’t really covered is replacing limbs. This is a somewhat different proposition: if we grew human organs in a dish (so to speak), we’d transplant them into the people that needed them. These kinds of transplant operations now have a substantial surgical history and practice behind them, so it wouldn’t require the development of new techniques. Replacing limbs, however, does not: people have instead relied on artificial prostheses. These are a staple of science fiction too: from Luke Skywalker to the 6 million dollar man to Robocop, prosthetics and – at the extreme end – full human “cyborgs” are everywhere. Replacing limbs with actual biological limbs, however, well…the first thing that springs to mind is Frankenstein, which is unfortunate. There are a few scifi societies where regrowing replacement limbs is the norm (notably lain M Banks’ Culture) but scifi seems to think prostheses are the future, as they are our present. But are they?

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biology, evolution, medicine, Science, Science and society, science news

Sunday Science Stories 19/08/17

I’ve got a regular post in the works, but for now here’s the weekly round-up of some selected science stories you may have missed in the mainstream press.

There’s been quite a lot of controversy about the use of AI lately, because the problems of it incorporating our own biases (notably racism and sexism) because the data we feed it is biased. Fortunately, some things are hard to bias. AI can be used to successfully identify plant species.

This story is something we should all know anyway, but it’s nice to have some empirical proof: Choosing “alternative” medicine makes you more likely to die from cancer. That’d be because it doesn’t work. The link is to a New Scientist short piece as the original paper is paywalled.

This is a long and slightly technical but fascinating report into the benefits of working on non-model organisms, i.e. those which haven’t been used traditionally for decades in scientific research, such as mice. They may not necessarily be as easy to work with, because of the lack of genetic tools available in particular (although CRISPR/Cas9 is changing that) but they can yield invaluable knowledge and medicines. Examples given here include a treatment for diabetes from the gila monster, and anti-coagulants from the vampire bat. Unfortunately it’s not open access, but I wanted to flag it up for those of my readers who have institutional access as it’s a great overview.

Another long and slightly technical one, but free for all and highly interesting. Can animal culture drive evolution? The main example is that of orca hunting strategies (pictured) and song in birds: can different animal cultures lead to speciation? It’s a compelling and controversial idea that is gaining some traction (not least because it was once thought only humans had “culture”). This is something for the science fiction writers to think about as well.

Finally, something to digest: historically, millets used to be an important human food source. They may now be a food for the future, building resilience and diversity into our food supply.

 

biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday science stories 13/08/17

An absolutely fascinating account about human breast milk, which turns out to be an incredibly sophisticated substance full of beneficial microbes, antibodies and even cells. Made me feel a lot less abnormal about my still-breastfeeding 2 1/2 year old!

Genetically modified salmon have been approved for human consumption in Canada These fish continuously produce growth hormone so they reach maturity (and hence marketability) much sooner. I wouldn’t be worried about eating it, but I do have some concerns about escapees – would they potentially out-compete wild salmon?

What should you buy if you have the cash to spare? Time, apparently, as opposed to things. Buying time makes you happy. This is the link to the actual scientific paper, hence a bit dry, but it’s not hugely technical.

Finally, this week’s featured image shows the FlyPi, a 3D printed fluorescent microscope system based on a Raspberry Pi computer system that has been developed by the Baden lab here at Sussex University. They can be built for less than 100 Euros, compared to the 1000s that even a basic microscope usually costs. Website includes link to the original paper, with full technical detail, and other resources.

 

 

 

Science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science Stories

I’ve decided to start a little weekly feature in which I link to a few of the science stories I’ve read over the past week that I’ve found interesting. Quite often as I browse the tables of contents of scientific journals, I read things that I’d quite like to mention, but not enough to write a full blog post on. A lot of these won’t be mentioned in the mainstream press, of course, and so don’t reach a wider audience. So I thought it would be nice to share storiess I’ve found interesting. I’ll try and give a mix of the types of articles I link to, and wherever possible make sure they’re open access so you can read the full article for free.

To get started, here’s three from this week:

(1). A very interesting read on the challenges and importance of archiving modern scientific research.  This is a fascinating piece on how the discoveries of today will become the history of science tomorrow; of how archivists choose what is of value to conserve, and preservation of the digital data of today.

(2). An opinion piece on the big challenges facing modern biology. Be warned this is quite technical, and quite long, but would definitely appeal at least to those with a biology background.

(3). This is an  obituary of a woman you’ve probably never heard of,  unless you’re a cancer researcher, I would imagine. Angela Hartley Brodie developed a class of breast cancer drug that has been literally life-changing for thousands of women. It’s a lovely little piece reflecting on a scientific life very well lived.

Finally, the cover photo for this week’s Sunday Science is a photograph of a high power plasma pulse in JET modelling a candidate scenario for future high yield fusion. It’s by Dr David Keeling, a plasma heating physicist at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, who kindly sent it to me in response to my piece on Euratom and UK science after Brexit.

biology, Developmental biology, genetic modification, medicine, Science

Genetically engineered human embryos have arrived

Well, it was only a matter of time. All the major news outlets are reporting the breakthrough of a research team that managed to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos that carried a mutation which causes cardiac hypertrophy (MYBPC3) – a thickening of the heart muscle that is the leading cause of death in young atheletes. Continue reading