This week in Sunday Science: a genetic risk factor for chronic back pain, “orca apocalypse”, flexible biosensors, Brexit, swarm biology, rock art, and wishy-washy feelings…

More developments in flexible biosensors: there have already been many sensors developed that are thin and flexible, but the issue has become trying to fix their requiring a bulky external power source. Reported in Nature this week, a heart monitoring sensor with ultra-thin solar cells. Link is to a news and views article: original research (technical) is here.

One very concerning story that has made the main news: over half of orcas are at risk of extinction due to the buildup of toxic chemicals called PCBs in their tissues, particularly affecting their reproductive organs and passing through breast milk to the calf. Although PCBs have now been banned from use, they continue to leak into the environment, and become concentrated the further you move up the food chain. A salutary warning about the risks of environmental pollution. Original research paper in Science here, though it is paywalled.

An intriguing paper that makes an attempt to map the “feeling space” of subjective human emotions. I know, I know, it sounds very wishy washy, kind of like it might have been written by Deanna Troi…

…but actually it’s quite interesting. The picture below is from the third figure, which maps the various feelings onto bodily sensations:

Nummenmaa, et al: Maps of human subjective feelings. 

Still sort of on the abstract, this week’s featured image is of the oldest rock art yet discovered: 73,000 years old, which is quite incredible. Our species, for comparison, is in the order 150,000-200,000 years old. It was found on the shore of South Africa. What’s particuarly interesting is that it appears to be an abstract design: a series of cross-hatched markings, rather than a depiction of a human or animal, for example. A nice Nature news commentary here.

Do you suffer from chronic back pain? Are you worried that this sounds like the start of a snake oil sales pitch? Fear not! Actually, some research has identified potential gene variants that may be associated with the risk. This is from a “Genome Wide Association Study”, which I’m always a little wary of, because, done badly, they can pull out lots of non-specific mutations that aren’t specifically linked to that disease, but just generally cause damage in the embryo. However, this has at least one convincing result, in the gene SOX5, which is known to be involved in skeletal development. Original paper here.

Nature’s editorial makes the case that Brexit is already damaging British science (as any scientist working here could tell you). There’s also a link in there to a thoughtful perspective piece featuring the voices of individual scientists caught up in this process.

Emergence is a big thing in systems biology at the moment: a property that appears when a number of simple agents operate in an environment according to simple rules that results in the formation of more complex behaviors as a collective. Here’s a nice illustration of this in a bee swarm: the bees respond to mechanical shaking of the swarm by making simple adjustments, which results in a complicated dynamic movement of the swarm to compensate for the external force. Paper here (for the hardcore physicists!)

And finally: many of us are familiar with the sensation of being at a conference, and sitting through a really boring talk that seems to go on forever. An amusing correspondence in Nature reports a researcher who timed “boring” versus “interesting” talks at a conference and found that it’s not just a subjective feeling: the boring talks really do go on longer.


Featured image

Rock art from 73,000 years ago. Credit: Craig Foster via Nature.


Nummenmaa, et al: Map sof human subjective feelings. 

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