biology, Climate change, Science, science news, Space, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 15/10/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, featuring renewable energy, the results of a big study into gene expression, and rainstorms on Titan.

First, some good news. 2016 saw record growth in renewable energy, with solar energy leading the charge. New solar PV capacity around the world grew by 50%, and solar PV additions rose faster than any other fuel for the first time, surpassing the net growth in coal. China is the lead in this, interestingly. Video below, but the report from the International Energy Agency is well worth reading.

Since we learnt how DNA codes for genes, the great puzzle has been trying to figure out how you turn genes on and off in appropriate cells, such that, for example, your liver cells don’t express brain proteins. The GTEx consortium, which aimed to answer this question, now reports on the variations in gene expression between tissues and individuals. Fairly technical Nature News article with links to the original (open access) papers.

There’s a plethora of online “intelligence” tests of more or less reliability, but here’s one with a difference: Cognitron is an AI-based web server that aims to learn about human intelligence, and develop improved cognitive tests along the way. (No I haven’t done them yet but I plan to!)

And finally, Earth isn’t the only place in the solar system to have intense storms. Titan one of Saturn’s moons, has intense rainstorms – of liquid methane. Featured Image is of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, behind the planet’s rings. The tiny moon Epimetheus is visible in the foreground.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, via Science Daily.

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biology, evolution, Miscellaneous, Science, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 08/10/17

Welcome to today’s Sunday Science, with some weird and wonderful animals, some human quirks, and future life on the oceans..

How did the weevil get its shell? Well, they have bacterial symbionts who live inside them with severely reduced genomes. These bacteria do not much more than churn out the amino acid tyrosine, needed to harden the shells. I love how nature is so weird sometimes. Link is to the full scientific paper, so fairly technical.

A fascinating account of the changes in the onset and duration of puberty, which has changed significantly over the years.

Seasteading, which means living on permanent floating artificial habitats, outside the jurisdiction of any government, seems to be taking a step forward. This long thoughtful piece examines the progress and implications of what was, until now, an idea confined to science fiction and libertarian dreamers.

And finally…did you ever collect tadpoles as a child and try and grow them to frogs? Well, toad tadpoles are less cute than they look: they contain potent heart poisons. The researchers thought this was to ward off competition from frogs, but it seems actually to be do with each other – the more toad tadpoles there are, the more toxic they get.

Credit: This week’s featured image via Nature, by Bert Willaert/NPL.

biology, Developmental biology, evolution, genetic modification, Miscellaneous, Science, Science and society, science news, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 01/10/17

Here is the this week’s Sunday Science, including truly wearable tech, tsunami-borne sea creatures and duck penises.

Do you have one of those smartwatches which measures your heart rate when you exercise? Does your smartphone automatically keep track of how many steps you take each day. Well, the future both for this and for medical monitoring may lie more in flexible, wearable sensors, or the bodynet, as this fascinating piece in Nature of the latest merging of scifi with science fact explores.

Male ruddy ducks regenerate their penis every year, apparently, one of those glorious facts you never knew you needed in your life. However, they may grow an extra-long (as in, 18cm!) or an extra-short one (only 0.5cm), due to fierce sexual competition.

Salmon have returned to a river in Derbyshire for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.

Continuing the CRISPR revolution, it has been used to genetically engineer human embryos to study early embryo development, revealing an important role for a gene in embryo implantation and miscarriage risk.

This week’s featured image is of marine sea slugs from a Japanese vessel from Iwate Prefecture, washed ashore in Oregon in April 2015 [Image credit Mark Chapman via Science Daily]. Thousands of creatures were washed across the ocean as a consequence of the Japanese tsunami, a study published in Science magazine discovered. Such “rafting” events are natural, of course, but what’s not natural is the extent of this migration, much of which was enabled by animals riding along on our non-degradable plastic waste. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the west coast of the US and Hawaii. This is potentially setting in motion a radical ecological experiment.

biology, Climate change, News, Science, science news, SF and science

Sunday Science 24/09/17

Here are today’s Sunday Science links, for stories you may have missed in the mainstream media.

Today’s featured image is that iconic mammal the snow leopard, which has been downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. Its fellow mammal, the Christmas island pipistrelle bat, was not so fortunate: it is the first Australian mammal in 50 years to be declared extinct. [Leopard photo Vincent J Musi/NGC, from Nature.]

Defects in next generation solar cells, made of perovskite, can be repaired using light. Perovskite is abundant and cheap, but tends to have flaws which affect its efficiency in solar cells, so this is an important step forward.

A new analysis indicates that achieving the target of limiting global warming to 1.5C set by the Paris Agreement might be more feasible than thought (if still tough going). For a far less technical report on this, there’s a decent news article here.

A dinosaur called Chilesaurus may be the missing link between the plant eaters and theropod dinosaurs, which includes the famous carnivorous ones such as T. rex.

Finally, a sweet little piece on the science in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, including a couple of neat examples of fiction predicting scientific advances (although the psychology stuff I think is a bit unconvincing). Trivia: Holmes is the only fictional character to be made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

 

biology, evolution, Science

CCR5 delta 32: the story of a gene, a mutation, and two of the worst diseases in human history

During the 1980s, there was widespread fear of the AIDS epidemic that was sweeping Northern Europe and America. I was a young child at the time and don’t remember much about it, but by the 1990s my fellow teenagers and I were certainly very well aware of this terrible disease and the importance of safe sexual practices. It seems rather strange (and alarming) to me that there is a whole generation of people here who have grown up without that spectre hanging over them. Modern treatment for HIV, the virus that causes AIDS, has transformed it from a certain death sentence to a something that, with combination antiviral therapy, can be lived with for (so far) a normal lifespan. This is a scientific triumph. The story in less wealthy countries of the world, particularly the ongoing pandemic in Africa, is far less rosy, with a million people worldwide dying of the disease last year.

During those turbulent times, stories emerged of people – usually European or American homosexual men, who were the main victims among those populations at that time – who never got the disease, despite repeated exposure. Of course, it’s usually the case that there are resistant individuals to diseases in human populations, but this was a brand new disease spreading, and mutating, incredibly rapidly. Whatever was different about their genes, it was present at their birth, long before the pandemic started. What was this genetic change that meant they could survive what was then unsurvivable, and even not to catch it all?  Continue reading

biology, News, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 17/09/17

Another “proper” post will be coming soon, but in the meantime, here’s my Sunday Science links. You’ll have noticed by now that when I say “science” in this context I mean everything even tangentially related to it.

It’s the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the ozone layer. (Link includes a youtube video). It’s worth noting that implementing the protocol not only saved the ozone layer, it saved thousands of lives, and billions of pounds. We can see the same principle applying to the problem of climate change now: not doing something will cost far more than doing something (probably it already is). The featured image shows the thickness of the ozone layer over time, with warmer colours indicating greater thickness (credit NASA/NOAA: for full details see bottom of post).

Directly following on from that, I’m pleased to see that the UK has become the first nation to commit to the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, committing us to reducing hydrofluorocarbon greenhouse gases (HFCs) by 85% between 2019 and 2036. These don’t harm the ozone layer, but have a global warming potential thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. (Thanks for doing something good for once, Michael Gove MP).

And while I’m on climate change, here’s an interesting idea about an insurance levy to fund climate adaptation and mitigation. I confess I’m not enough of an economist to know if this is viable, but it sounds like an interesting idea.

Another potential use for AI: detecting Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain years before symptoms emerge.

Yet more evidence of the complicated inter-relationships between microbes, our immune systems and us. Two studies in mice have provided evidence that certain infections can provoke an immune response which affects the developing embryo, increasing the risk of autism.

I’m including this random link here as I find it an interesting study, but it’s behind Science’s paywall, annoyingly. Is an environmental pollutant masculinising crocodiles? 

Finally, this isn’t really a science story, but it’s a stonking piece about the crazy week one scientist had that led to her being awarded the grant for the work that would lead to the discovery of the BRCA1 inherited breast cancer gene. There’s a youtube video of her telling her story here if you prefer. Hat tip to Dr Laura Flinn Whitworth for linking that.

Featured image credit NASA/NOAA
This shows the thickness of the Earth’s ozone layer on January 27th from 1982 to 2012. This atmospheric layer protects Earth from dangerous levels of solar ultraviolet radiation. The thickness is measured in Dobson units, in this image, smaller amounts of overhead ozone are shown in blue, while larger amounts are shown in orange and yellow.  These ozone measurements begin with the Nimbus 7 satellite; continue with the Earth Probe Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (EP TOMS); the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard the Aura satellite; and the most recent, the Ozone Mapper Profiler Suite (OMPS) aboard the satellite Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). Suomi NPP is a partnership between NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.

biology, News, Science, science news, Space, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science stories 03/09/17

This week in Sunday Science links…

(1) Doubts have been raised about that Nature paper that used CRISPR to correct a lethal heart mutation in human embryos. Whenever a landmark paper is published, you often get some hard questions – significant breakthroughs require significant evidence. The criticisms raise valid questions, but I suspect the answer will be: “We need more evidence..and we’ll get it.”

(2) Where is all the plastic in the oceans going? The amount of plastic we discard and that ends up in the oceans is vast and horrifying. This is why some governments are mooting ideas such as a desposit-return scheme for plastic bottles. However, we still don’t know where in the oceans it’s all ending up. This article had a number of surprises for me: I did not know such a vast amount of the plastic in the ocean was discarded fishing gear, for example.

(3) And finally, this week’s featured image is a still from NASA’s grand finale short video of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn. The spacecraft is nearing the end of it’s epic mission and will execute a planned burnout in the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th. There is more information, including that video short, which is like a trailer for an epic scifi movie and is absolutely beautiful, here. The video linked below is the much longer NASA news conference:

 

Image credit: NASA/JPL