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 Nature.com, by Zhao Chuang.

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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.

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, 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