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, genetic modification, medicine, Science, science news

Sunday Science 29/10/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science. The big science news of the past week has been the latest advance in gene editing. This deserves a longer look, so I’ll be sending out a post on that later today/tomorrow. This week I’ve got a focus on medical/biological advances.

Firstly, after many years, the first gene therapy has been approved on NHS.  This is for so-called “bubble baby” syndrome, which is a genetic condition called adenosine deaminase deficiency, or ADA-SCID. Sufferers have a severely compromised immune system and must live in a sterile environment as much as possible. It’s very rare, but usually fatal. The gene therapy replaces the faulty gene in bone marrow cells, which are then transplanted back to the patient, and is lifelong.

A new drug has been approved for treating  sleeping sickness.  This is an endemic and problematic parasitic disease in Africa, one of many “neglected tropical diseases.” This week’s featured image shows trypanosome parasites in a blood sample from an infected patient. I actually previously blogged about the potential of this drug in a piece about these diseases a while back, so it’s good to see it’s promise fulfilled. Previous treatments have had high toxicity or been difficult to administer: this is a pill to be taken orally.

Finally, a study has been done that shows for the first time how the brain maps connections from an artificial prosthetic limb, in those cases where where residual limb nerves are rerouted towards intact muscles and skin regions to control a robotic limb. (I recently blogged about prosthetics versus transplants here). There is surprisingly good control, but the brain doesn’t interpret them exactly as it does the original limb, so more work is needed to improve the mobility and sensation from these devices. Studies like this can help researchers design artificial limbs both more useful and more natural feeling to use.


Photo credit: CDC/Dr. Myron G. Schultz – CDC Public Health Image Library (PHIL), Public Domain,

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?

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biology, evolution, medicine, Science, Science and society, science news

Sunday Science Stories 19/08/17

I’ve got a regular post in the works, but for now here’s the weekly round-up of some selected science stories you may have missed in the mainstream press.

There’s been quite a lot of controversy about the use of AI lately, because the problems of it incorporating our own biases (notably racism and sexism) because the data we feed it is biased. Fortunately, some things are hard to bias. AI can be used to successfully identify plant species.

This story is something we should all know anyway, but it’s nice to have some empirical proof: Choosing “alternative” medicine makes you more likely to die from cancer. That’d be because it doesn’t work. The link is to a New Scientist short piece as the original paper is paywalled.

This is a long and slightly technical but fascinating report into the benefits of working on non-model organisms, i.e. those which haven’t been used traditionally for decades in scientific research, such as mice. They may not necessarily be as easy to work with, because of the lack of genetic tools available in particular (although CRISPR/Cas9 is changing that) but they can yield invaluable knowledge and medicines. Examples given here include a treatment for diabetes from the gila monster, and anti-coagulants from the vampire bat. Unfortunately it’s not open access, but I wanted to flag it up for those of my readers who have institutional access as it’s a great overview.

Another long and slightly technical one, but free for all and highly interesting. Can animal culture drive evolution? The main example is that of orca hunting strategies (pictured) and song in birds: can different animal cultures lead to speciation? It’s a compelling and controversial idea that is gaining some traction (not least because it was once thought only humans had “culture”). This is something for the science fiction writers to think about as well.

Finally, something to digest: historically, millets used to be an important human food source. They may now be a food for the future, building resilience and diversity into our food supply.


biology, Developmental biology, genetic modification, medicine, Science

Genetically engineered human embryos have arrived

Well, it was only a matter of time. All the major news outlets are reporting the breakthrough of a research team that managed to use CRISPR/Cas9 to edit human embryos that carried a mutation which causes cardiac hypertrophy (MYBPC3) – a thickening of the heart muscle that is the leading cause of death in young atheletes. Continue reading

Biological therapy, biology, genetic modification, medicine, News, Science, science news

A successful first for gene therapy

Who would like to hear some really good news? Thought so. One of the promises of the molecular biology and genomics revolutions was that gene therapy – replacing defective, disease-causing genes with functioning ones, or otherwise treating these diseases by genetic means – would become a reality. Even, optimistically, something commonplace. Like so many things, however, it has proved more complicated than hoped, and those longed-for treatments elusive. There has never been a therapy of any kind that alters the disease progress of a neurodegenerative disease – until now. Continue reading