biology, medicine, Science, science news, SF and science, Space, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 18/03/18

Lots of interesting stuff in this week’s Sunday Science, with syncing brains, false news, pets and depression, Jovian cyclones, predicted futures for the oceans, and more besides. Continue reading

biology, Climate change, medicine, News, Science, science fiction, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 04/02/18

This week in Sunday Science: curious facts about survival and aging, a new understanding of asthma, extra-galactic planets and 3D images projected onto thin air…

It’s well-known that, despite the vast majority undergoing the rigours of childbirth, women live longer than men. It’s why evolution favours a slightly biased birth ratio of around 105 male : 100 female births, so that the sexes are roughly 50:50 by the time they reach reproductive age. An interesting but somewhat grim study on survival under conditions of extreme mortality, such as disease epidemics and starvation, reveals that in general this still holds true – women survive better than men (generally) even under terrible conditions. The gap is largely attributable to female infants surviving better than male ones.

Also on the theme of longevity, naked mole rats (featured image) don’t have an increased risk of dying as they get older. This seems to defy what is known as Gompertz’s mortality law, which states that the risk of death for a typical mammal grows exponentially after they reach sexual maturity. This suggests that these unusual animals don’t age in the conventional sense. Original article here.

A new explanation for why the airways close up in asthma has been discovered. It’s to do with an overproduction of mucus being stimulated by immune cells. This offers another potential avenue for treatment other than steroids. Original research article here (paywalled)

Plastic waste on coral reefs not only poses a pollution hazard to animals living there, but in damaging the coral and leading to bacterial infections. Original research article here. (Science paywall I’m afraid).

Not so much news, but a thoughtful retrospective on a paper published 50 years ago that first predicted the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet.

Astrophysicists have now detected planets that are not only not in our solar system, but not in our galaxy, which is quite astonishing.

And finally…you know how thanks to great special effects, all science fiction films seem to have some sort of sequence with what looks like a “hologram” projected in the air? Well, inspired by one of the original efforts, Princess Leia’s distress call in Star Wars, researchers have managed to do just that. It’s a photophoretic-trap volumetric display, and it’s way beyond my understanding (deservedly published in Nature), and very cool.

Excellent video below (also in the news article I linked to):


Image Credit

Featured image: Jedimentat44/flickr, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0

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, 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, Climate change, medicine, Robotics, Science, science news, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 07/01/18

Welcome to the first Sunday Science of the new year; I’m planning now to do this series fortnightly, instead of weekly, to allow me more time to write posts on more specific topics. So, due to the holiday, this week we have a bumper issue, featuring neural networks, artificial sperm, bionic hands, science fiction speculation and more.

An utterly lovely and fascinating set of interviews in Nature with some luminaries of the science fiction field, discussing “Science fiction when the future is now.” Well worth reading.

Neural networks are making it much easier to process biological images. This could be a quiet game-changer: when I was doing research not so long ago, one of the main stumbling blocks was trying to quantitatively analyse vast amounts of high quality image data. We collaborated with mathematicians, but it was a slow process to get a workable programme.

A year late, but now the data is in, it turns out 2016 was the first year in which there were less than 100,000 measles deaths a year – thanks to vaccination, which is estimated to have prevented over 20 million measles deaths between 2000-2016.

It turns out, as researchers have long suspected, that the push to produce papers for the Research Excellence Framework (REF), which determines university funding, leads to quantity over quality as it forces researchers to squeeze their work into REF cycles.

Neonicotinoid pesticides have been implicated in the decline of honeybees, but now it seems that common fungicides may also be seriously impacting bee health. (Link to original research article).

Weather fluctuations can be used to predict changes in the numbers of asylum applications (yes you read that right). On a serious note, this is more evidence for the negative effect of climate change on societal stability, and its role in promoting human conflict. Regrettably, this is behind Science’s paywall. For an earlier example of climate change driving human migration, there’s an interesting study of 19th century migration from Germany to the US here, with an accessible news feature here.

Sequencing of the sooty mangabey genome sequence (featured image) has given clues to natural AIDS resistance, as these monkeys are infected by Simian Immunodeficiency Virus (from which HIV evolved) without suffering disease. Image and more info from here.

One from the mainstream news: scientists have taken a step closer to making artificial sperm.

Finally, I’ve blogged before about the incredible advances in artificial prostheses. Now scientists have developed an artificial hand capable of providing sensation that can be used outside the laboratory (Ignore the flowery frame – the video is good).

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.