biology, Developmental biology, Organ transplantation, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 18/02/2018

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, with self-reproducing crayfish, breakthroughs in developmental biology, the quantum internet, and cleaning.

A big story that’s just hit the mainstream news: scientists have managed to grow sheep embryos containing human cells: 1/10,000 of the sheep embryo’s cells were human, after 28 days of development. This offers the potential of radically improving transplants, and builds on the group’s previous success with pig embryos, but with tenfold efficiency.

An invasive crayfish spreading through Madagascar is a recent hybrid species that reproduces through parthenogenesis – as in, without mating, with the unfertilised egg developing into an adult by itself.

Researchers have found a way to artificially treat wood,compressing it in a way that substantially increases its strength and stiffness and offers more engineering possibilities for this sustainable (when managed) material.

The axolotl genome has been sequenced (open access: technical). The Mexican salamander, as it is also known, is an important model in developmental biology, with scientists keen to understand how it can regenerate it’s limbs. Already the genome has thrown up a lot of information and a few surprises: it lacks a key gene, Pax3, that is essential in other vertebrates.

Still on the subject of developmental biology: scientists are attempting to create a “human developmental cell atlas” – mapping the development of humans from embryos at a single cell level (open access, bit technical). This is in conjunction with the Human Cell Atlas, here, and made possible by modern molecular methods that allow us to minutely examine which genes are active in which cells.

A nice piece on the future of the (potential) quantum internet, long theorised by both science fiction authors and scientists.

And finally: women who do lots of cleaning at home have a greater risk of decline in lung function. Men don’t, apparently, so clearly they should be doing all the cleaning!

Featured image

Part of an experiment to investigate diamond-based systems as quantum-internet nodes at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands. Credit: Marcel Wogram for Nature

biology, General opinion, genetic modification, History of science, medicine, Organ transplantation, Science, science fiction, SF and science

Franken fears, Franken futures (part 2)

Moving from AI back to biology, how close are we to creating life out of replacement parts? Or nothing at all? Well, we could probably clone a human being any day. This really isn’t the big deal it sounds like: there have been human clones as long as there have been humans: they’re called identical twins. In terms of the ethics, I imagine the worst is that you’d just get some unhealthily grieving people trying to clone their dead Dad, which isn’t a good idea. Clone armies to wage your wars? Well, no, it’s not going to get any faster to grow a human being and raise it to adulthood, and, for the moment, we don’t have those artificial wombs (nor are we likely to, taking an embryo from the moment of conception). You’d probably go for those AI drones instead.

Making a different form of human is another thing entirely. Continue reading

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, medicine, Organ transplantation, Robotics, Science, SF and science

The future of artificial limbs

I’ve written on this blog before about how advances in our understanding and application of genetic engineering and stem cell technology is raising the realistic possibility of growing replacement human organs. What I haven’t really covered is replacing limbs. This is a somewhat different proposition: if we grew human organs in a dish (so to speak), we’d transplant them into the people that needed them. These kinds of transplant operations now have a substantial surgical history and practice behind them, so it wouldn’t require the development of new techniques. Replacing limbs, however, does not: people have instead relied on artificial prostheses. These are a staple of science fiction too: from Luke Skywalker to the 6 million dollar man to Robocop, prosthetics and – at the extreme end – full human “cyborgs” are everywhere. Replacing limbs with actual biological limbs, however, well…the first thing that springs to mind is Frankenstein, which is unfortunate. There are a few scifi societies where regrowing replacement limbs is the norm (notably lain M Banks’ Culture) but scifi seems to think prostheses are the future, as they are our present. But are they?

Continue reading

biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Opinion piece, Organ transplantation, Science

Growing human organs: we’re closer than you think

(Edit note: I somehow disappeared this whilst correcting an image, so if it’s still problematic, drop me a note!)

One of the major medical advances of the last century was that of organ transplantation: replacing diseased organs with healthy ones from donors (usually the recently dead, but there are exceptions: you can donate one kidney, or parts of your liver, for example). It is a process that has become ever more successful, with improvements in surgery and drugs that suppress the immune system, preventing it from destroying the donated organ. However, this has created a demand for donor organs that is not being met: about 100,000 people worldwide are waiting for donor organs, and many thousands die before they receive one. Continue reading