Welcome to the first Sunday Science of the New Year, with carnivorous plants, injecting new life into an old vaccine, reducing schizophrenia risks (by dogs), how the UK transformed its energy supply, and how flies land upside down on your kitchen ceiling…

I’m venturing into the world of plants to start with, specifically a carnivorous one, humped bladderwort (featured image). This plant forms cup-like leaves to catch animal prey, instead of purely flat leaves to maximise sunlight trapping. Biologists have always been fascinated as to how such systems evolve. It turns out, changing the shape of the leaf isn’t as difficult as it sounds; you don’t need to evolve brand new genes to do it. In fact, all you need to do is change where a gene controlling leaf shape is switched on; by changing the regions of expression you can actually generate multiple different leaf shapes. The original paper is published in Science here (paywalled). You can also view a short little video about modelling leaf shape below.

Injecting the BCG vaccine against tuberculosis directly into the bloodstream could be more effective than the current practice of injecting into skin or muscle. Tuberculosis, which we once optimistically hoped could be defeated by vaccines, antibiotics and improved living conditions, still kills around 1.5 million people a year. The evolution of multi-drug resistant TB means and new approaches are urgently needed. The BCG vaccine is over a century old, and does well at protecting you from systemic infection, but less so from lung disease. However, it was always thought that injection into the bloodstream would limit the severity of the disease but not halt infection. A study in macaques has reveals that this may not be true: the monkeys got a better boost of immune T-cells from bloodstream infection, including in the lungs, and were more resistant to infection. This could have a massive impact if it translates to humans. Full study published in Nature here (open access).

A nice interactive from Carbon Brief, comprehensively researched, on how the UK transformed its electricity supply in a decade. The map shows every UK power plant since 2008, showing how we’ve cleaned up our electricity supply faster than any other country. Granted a lot of this is replacing dirty coal with cleaner gas, this surprised me: there have been many negative events, such as exploratory fracking being permitted, to the slashing of subsidies for renewables (particularly solar), whilst maintaining those for fossil fuels. Despite that, we now get more than half of our electricity supply from low carbon sources (wind, solar and nuclear). There are also interesting future projections.

Early life exposure to dogs reduces your risk of developing schizophrenia. People who are exposed to pet dogs by the age of 13 had a reduced risk of schizophrenia by 24%, with the benefit best if it was by the age of 3. Schizophrenia is a serious psychiatric disorder; you might think that having a pet dog is giving some beneficial psychological effect, but it’s likely to be do with the microbiome, the microscopic organisms that live on and in us. The risk of developing schizophrenia is associated with environmental effects on the immune system; beneficial interactions with dog microbes are likely the cause. Sadly, no link was found with cats. Original study published in PLOS One here (open access).

Diverging briefly into science fiction, Science magazine has a nice piece on renowned author Isaac Asimov at 100.

And finally…have you ever wondered how flies can land upside down on the ceiling? When you think about it, it’s quite an astounding feat of acrobatics. Well, wonder no more. The fun little video below shows how they initially accelerate upwards, extend their legs and rotate their body, swinging it round when they get a foothold. Sometimes they fail. Original study published in Science Advances here (open access).


Featured image

A section through the cup-shaped leaf of the humped bladderwort Urticularia gibba. Karen Lee & Claire Bushell via Science magazine. Based on Whitewoods et al, 2019, Evolution of Carnivorous traps from planar leaves through simple shifts in gene expression. DOI: 10.1126/science.aay5433

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