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, 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, Explainer, genetic modification, News, Opinion piece, Science, Science and society, SF and science

Our genetic future is arriving

The rapidly expanding field of gene editing had another breakthrough this week, which was excitedly reported in the news  as a potentially revolutionary new way of treating genetic disease. Is this a real possibility, or just hype? And what have the researchers done that’s so special?

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biology, Climate change, News, Science, science news, SF and science

Sunday Science 24/09/17

Here are today’s Sunday Science links, for stories you may have missed in the mainstream media.

Today’s featured image is that iconic mammal the snow leopard, which has been downgraded from “endangered” to “vulnerable” on the IUCN Red List of endangered species. Its fellow mammal, the Christmas island pipistrelle bat, was not so fortunate: it is the first Australian mammal in 50 years to be declared extinct. [Leopard photo Vincent J Musi/NGC, from Nature.]

Defects in next generation solar cells, made of perovskite, can be repaired using light. Perovskite is abundant and cheap, but tends to have flaws which affect its efficiency in solar cells, so this is an important step forward.

A new analysis indicates that achieving the target of limiting global warming to 1.5C set by the Paris Agreement might be more feasible than thought (if still tough going). For a far less technical report on this, there’s a decent news article here.

A dinosaur called Chilesaurus may be the missing link between the plant eaters and theropod dinosaurs, which includes the famous carnivorous ones such as T. rex.

Finally, a sweet little piece on the science in Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories, including a couple of neat examples of fiction predicting scientific advances (although the psychology stuff I think is a bit unconvincing). Trivia: Holmes is the only fictional character to be made an honorary Fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry.


biology, News, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 17/09/17

Another “proper” post will be coming soon, but in the meantime, here’s my Sunday Science links. You’ll have noticed by now that when I say “science” in this context I mean everything even tangentially related to it.

It’s the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Protocol on Substances that deplete the ozone layer. (Link includes a youtube video). It’s worth noting that implementing the protocol not only saved the ozone layer, it saved thousands of lives, and billions of pounds. We can see the same principle applying to the problem of climate change now: not doing something will cost far more than doing something (probably it already is). The featured image shows the thickness of the ozone layer over time, with warmer colours indicating greater thickness (credit NASA/NOAA: for full details see bottom of post).

Directly following on from that, I’m pleased to see that the UK has become the first nation to commit to the Kigali amendment to the Montreal Protocol, committing us to reducing hydrofluorocarbon greenhouse gases (HFCs) by 85% between 2019 and 2036. These don’t harm the ozone layer, but have a global warming potential thousands of times more potent than carbon dioxide. (Thanks for doing something good for once, Michael Gove MP).

And while I’m on climate change, here’s an interesting idea about an insurance levy to fund climate adaptation and mitigation. I confess I’m not enough of an economist to know if this is viable, but it sounds like an interesting idea.

Another potential use for AI: detecting Alzheimer’s-related changes in the brain years before symptoms emerge.

Yet more evidence of the complicated inter-relationships between microbes, our immune systems and us. Two studies in mice have provided evidence that certain infections can provoke an immune response which affects the developing embryo, increasing the risk of autism.

I’m including this random link here as I find it an interesting study, but it’s behind Science’s paywall, annoyingly. Is an environmental pollutant masculinising crocodiles? 

Finally, this isn’t really a science story, but it’s a stonking piece about the crazy week one scientist had that led to her being awarded the grant for the work that would lead to the discovery of the BRCA1 inherited breast cancer gene. There’s a youtube video of her telling her story here if you prefer. Hat tip to Dr Laura Flinn Whitworth for linking that.

Featured image credit NASA/NOAA
This shows the thickness of the Earth’s ozone layer on January 27th from 1982 to 2012. This atmospheric layer protects Earth from dangerous levels of solar ultraviolet radiation. The thickness is measured in Dobson units, in this image, smaller amounts of overhead ozone are shown in blue, while larger amounts are shown in orange and yellow.  These ozone measurements begin with the Nimbus 7 satellite; continue with the Earth Probe Total Ozone Mapping Spectrometer (EP TOMS); the Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard the Aura satellite; and the most recent, the Ozone Mapper Profiler Suite (OMPS) aboard the satellite Suomi National Polar-orbiting Partnership (NPP). Suomi NPP is a partnership between NASA, NOAA and the Department of Defense.

Miscellaneous, News, Science, Science and society, science news

Sunday Science links, 10/09/17

Does some music send a chill down your spine and give you goosebumps? If so, you may have a special brain architecture. A study has shown that people that report experiencing “chills” whilst listening to music have higher white matter connectivity between the parts of their brains responsible for hearing and those involved in emotional and social processing. Interestingly, it didn’t correlate with ethnicity, gender, personality or musical training. Link is the to the full open access study.

Are humans still evolving? It’s a thorny question that still vexes researchers. A new study (open access) suggests that gene variants that shorten lifespan, such as the APOE4 variant, which is associated with Alzheimer’s risk, are being selected against. The most interesting – and surprising – finding is that genes for delayed puberty and childbearing are associated with longevity. There’s a readable news summary of it here.

I’m putting a link here to a fascinating and illuminating essay on pseudoscience. Unfortunately it’s not open access, but if you do have institutional access, it’s well worth a read.

Finally, in light of the recent unprecedented hurricane activity in the Caribbean (pictured), I thought I’d put some links up about the supporting science from reliable sources. There’s a quick piece at FactCheck here about Hurricane Harvey, and how much can be attributed to climate change, and an extensive site with data and links to original research from the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory here. It has an executive summary on the front page which is good. Regarding that extensive data…the language of scientists is always cautious, which is perhaps why many people find them unconvincing, compared to the certain, simplistic soundbites of politicians and the media. This is because the nature of our work demands accuracy. We don’t say something is certain when it’s 90% probability, because only 100% is certain. The fact remains though, that increased hurricane strength and frequency due to rising global temperatures has been predicted for many years, for sound theoretical reasons as well as being apparent from trends in the recorded data. What we are seeing now we were warned against. It’s up to us what we do about it.

Satellite image from NASA.

biology, News, Science, science news, Space, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science stories 03/09/17

This week in Sunday Science links…

(1) Doubts have been raised about that Nature paper that used CRISPR to correct a lethal heart mutation in human embryos. Whenever a landmark paper is published, you often get some hard questions – significant breakthroughs require significant evidence. The criticisms raise valid questions, but I suspect the answer will be: “We need more evidence..and we’ll get it.”

(2) Where is all the plastic in the oceans going? The amount of plastic we discard and that ends up in the oceans is vast and horrifying. This is why some governments are mooting ideas such as a desposit-return scheme for plastic bottles. However, we still don’t know where in the oceans it’s all ending up. This article had a number of surprises for me: I did not know such a vast amount of the plastic in the ocean was discarded fishing gear, for example.

(3) And finally, this week’s featured image is a still from NASA’s grand finale short video of the Cassini spacecraft over Saturn. The spacecraft is nearing the end of it’s epic mission and will execute a planned burnout in the atmosphere of Saturn on September 15th. There is more information, including that video short, which is like a trailer for an epic scifi movie and is absolutely beautiful, here. The video linked below is the much longer NASA news conference:


Image credit: NASA/JPL