biology, cancer, evolution, medicine, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 21/01/18

In this edition of Sunday science, wearable tech to monitor babies, giant bats, peregrine falcons, new blood tests for cancer, and working out how Alzheimer’s disease progresses.

The terminal attack trajectories of peregrine falcons are described by the same feedback law used by visually guided missiles. Or perhaps more accurately, since the birds were here first, the missiles use the same law. Open access, but there’s a less technical Science Daily version here.

Sussex University physicists have designed a new form of wearable tech which is small and unobtrusive, which would enable you to easily remotely monitor baby’s vital signs etc. They contain the most sensitive liquid-based devices, made from an affordable emulsion of graphene, water and oil.

A giant extinct bat that crawled on the ground has been described from fossils found in New Zealand.

Imaging brains with Alzheimer’s has shed light on the role of a key protein involved, tau, which seems to spread down highly connected neurons. Slowing down this process may help treat or stop the progression of the disease. Featured image: artist’s impression of the spread of tau filaments (red) throughout the brain, by Thomas Cope, via Cambridge university.

You may have seen in the mainstream news about a blood test that can be used to test for eight of the most common cancers. This works by detecting the presence of common cancer-causing mutations in certain genes. It’s exciting, but only really works effectively for very advanced cancers. You may not have seen another blood test that uses DNA methylation (reversible chemical modifications that alter how easy it is to turn a gene on or off) to detect and predict the spread of breast cancer:

And finally, in a first for me citing the journal Construction and Building Materials, how do make concrete that can heal its own cracks as they appear over time? Well, apparently, you might start by mixing fungi with it. A little experimental as yet, but a neat idea. This is paywalled, but you can read the Science Daily version here.

biology, evolution, psychology, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 17/12/17

This is the last Sunday Science of the year; I’ll start the series up again after the New Year, and bring some more longer posts too. This week, we have the genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, origami-inspired artificial muscles, and the psychological scars of the Industrial Revolution.

The genome of the extinct Tasmanian tiger, or thylacine, has been sequenced from a preserved specimen of a young pup. This animal died out over 80 years ago, and the genome gives hints of earlier population reduction before humans arrived, and possible reasons for why this marsupial bears such an uncanny resemblance to a dog or a wolf, despite being completely unrelated.

Engineers have designed artificial muscles inspired by origami folding.  (Pictured). Sounds a bit crazy, and looks a bit bizarre too, if you look at some of the videos in the original article, but they are flexible, light and very strong. There is a Science Daily summary here.

The industrial revolution left psychological scars. An analysis of 400,000 personality tests indicates that people living in the former industrial heartlands of England and Wales are more disposed to negative emotions. Researchers suggest this may be due to the social effects of severe work and living conditions, amongst other factors. These traits persist today given that most of these regions face high unemployment after the closure of mines and factories.

Researchers have long puzzled over why humans have such variable eye colour. It’s thought to be due to sexual selection, initially for novelty value. A hypothesis paper here points out that variable eye colour within the same species tends to occur only in humans and domesticated animals.

Lastly, one for the biochemists (and not open access, unfortunately). Rubisco, the enzyme which catalyses the first major step in the conversion of carbon dioxide to sugar molecules in plants, has been made in genetically engineered bacteria. To get a protein this large, with all its associated helper proteins, is a phenomenal achievement; it’s an incredibly complex and important enzyme, but not a very efficient one – it’s easy for oxygen instead of carbon dioxide to get into the binding site and cause a wasteful oxygenase side-reaction. Researchers have tried for years to make a better version. Now that it’s been genetically engineered into bacteria, this should be much easier to do.

Featured image

Derived from figure 1, Li, et al, “Fluid-driven origami-inspired artificial muscles.” doi: 10.1073/pnas.1713450114






biology, evolution, Explainer, Miscellaneous, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 03/12/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with pterosaur eggs, scallop eyes, sponges (of the animal kind), and some very tough women.

A huge cache of fossil pterosaur eggs has been discovered in China, giving remarkable clues as to their development and lifestyle (pictured).

A long-standing argument over the whether sponges or comb jellies are the sister group of animals may have been resolved, and it looks like the sponges are it. It does sound rather obscure, but it’s an important step forward for understanding animal evolution. That link is the original article: this did make the mainstream news (link for the non-specialist).

The largest tree-planting scheme in England for 30 years has been given the green light. Over 600,000 trees will be planted in Northumberland over the next two years. Good news for our heavily deforested country, and hopefully providing habitat for the red squirrel.

Prehistoric women were strong and tough. As in, really strong and tough, with better arm strength than elite rowers, a new study has found. This isn’t just a novel finding – it’s important to understanding the heavily overlooked history of female manual labour. (A news story based on this study may be found at Daily Science News here.)

And finally, scallop eyes work like teeny tiny telescopes:


Featured image via, by Zhao Chuang.

biology, evolution, medicine, News, Science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 19/11/17

This week: Giant otters, axolotls and new pain killers.

An otter the size of a wolf that lived 6 million years ago may have been a dominant predator. A new analysis indicates that it had a much more powerful bite than anticipated.

Axolotls, the Mexican salamander (pictured), are a favoured model organism because of their astonishing ability to regenerate their limbs. They are also popular pets. Unfortunately, they are heading towards extinction in the wild.

Not exactly news, but certainly topical: Nature videos has produced an excellent animation detailing how CRISPR/Cas9 gene editing works, and the potential useful modifications, including some newer ones I detailed in a recent post on gene editing. 



The opioid epidemic in the US is causing several thousand deaths a year. These drugs give powerful pain relief, but have the side-effect of suppressing breathing: fatal overdoses usually kill because the person stops breathing. So many research groups are designing drugs that preferentially cause the pain relief without the respiratory depression, and a new paper in Cell this week (link to perspective article) identifies some possibilities that could be even more effective than those currently in clinical trials. This is behind the paywall, unfortunately, but there’s a news piece here.

biology, evolution, genetic modification, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, science news

Sunday Science 12/11/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with skin regeneration, bees and pesticides, evolving bacterial ecosystems, and sensitive robot skin.

First up, a major breakthrough which did make the mainstream news was the story of a boy with a lethal condition which had resulted in the loss of most of his skin, who had genetically engineered skin grafts (pictured) and is now living essentially a normal life. There’s a Nature opinion piece here which has a more scientific slant, putting this research in context. The original research article is here, and open access (be warned it has a distressing photo of the child pre-treatment). Although extremely rare, these genetic diseases do affect nearly half a million people worldwide, and are agonising and often fatal.


I’ve blogged before about  “soft robotics” inspired by biology. A couple of stories I missed earlier include this piece on an artificial “skin” for robots that can be stretched and detect vibration and shear forces, crucial for handling objects. Also, other scientists have developed robotic skin that can change shape and colour, inspired by cephalopods, which is rather cool. (Research article may be found here, but it’s behind the Science paywall).

There has been an ongoing long-term experiment observing thousands of generations of the bacteria E.coli, to observe evolution in action. The latest results reveal that – even in bacteria – ecological interactions arise spontaneously, and the bacteria form little specialised sub-populations. Link is to an opinion piece; the full-text article link can be found from that for the technically minded.

There’s been a lot in the press recently about calls to ban neonicotinoid pesticides. The UK has long resisted efforts in the EU to ban them – now it seems that it will push for a full ban.  There’s a thoughtful opinion piece here that weighs up the evidence behind this. (I should note a disclaimer in that Prof Dave Goulson, quoted in the piece, works at my institution).


Photo: Nature Press.

biology, evolution, Robotics, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 22/10/17

I am aiming to write a “proper” blog post soon (however, being in the usual mid-term work frenzy, possibly not that soon). So in the meantime, here’s this week’s Sunday Science, featuring spiders and robots, because how can you go wrong with those two things in the same sentence?

Firstly, in honour of the new Blade Runner, a short opinion piece on whether we could ever build a replicant. I note with interest that this also flags up soft robotics, which is a field I’ve been watching with interest for some time now.

And whilst we’re on the subjects, watch the following video and see if it doesn’t remind you of the T-1000 in Terminator 2:

This is research being done at Sussex, my university. Their news piece here.

Now for the spiders, the lovely spiders. Firstly, a nice piece on how modern genetic methods are helping untangle the rather complicated evolutionary history of these marvellous animals. That may be one more for the biologists. For everyone, however, is a fascinating article on the applications of synthetic spider silk: I didn’t know, for example, that they offer great promise for medical grade implants, because bacteria don’t stick to them and the immune system has trouble recognising spider silk due to its structure of repeating small amino acids. This week’s featured image shows vials of synthetic spider silk (Kiyaoshi Ota/Bloomberg via Getty Images and Science). To finish, have a nice graphic about that marvellous material as the golden orb-weaver spider makes it.


spider factory
From Science magazine, 2017.
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.