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, Miscellaneous, Science, science news

Sunday Science 26/11/17

Today in Sunday Science: diving flies, clever babies, nuclear thunderstorms and celebrity genes.

I remember being fascinated as a child by those beetles that used to dive in ponds, carrying a silvery bubble of air with them (and frequently trying to catch them – I hasten to add I always put them back). Now scientists have worked out how a tough species of fly stays dry when diving deep into the highly alkaline, salty waters of Lake Mono (featured image).

The mid-Cornwall moors have been designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest, meaning the unique wildlife there will be protected.

Babies as young as 10 months are able to form judgements about how valuable a goal is because of how much effort people are willing to put into getting it. As far as I’m concerned, this is also further evidence for the ability of young children to outwit their parents. (Study published in Science; link is to Science Daily article).

Thunderstorms can produce nuclear reactions. I had no idea, and reading this gave me that delightful sensation in the brain that happens when my understanding or perspective changes. Link is to a news and views piece, with a podcast – link to original paper is here (behind paywall).

One for the molecular biologists/geneticists: a study of the most-studied genes of all time (yes really) reveals some interesting trends in research. If you’re in the field, you can probably guess what number 1 is (I did), but there are some surprises in there. (Oh, and MTHFR isn’t short for what it sounds like it should be short for!)

 

Image credit: Floris van Breugel/Caltech, via Nature News.

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, Science, science news

Sunday Science 05/11/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday science, with some good news on antibiotic resistance, the wheat genome sequence, and gecko tails.

Some good news in the battle against antibiotic resistance: sales of the drugs for use in farm animals have shown a drop by over a quarter since 2014, beating government targets.

The wheat genome has finally been sequenced. This is no small feat: it’s five times larger than the human one, and has 6 copies of every chromosome.

This week’s featured image (from the Vikaryous lab, which performed this research) is of the leopard gecko. Some species of lizard can escape predators by detaching their tail when it is grabbed. They later re-grow it. The lab has found the cells which drive the gecko’s ability to re-grow its tail.

And finally, as if there weren’t already enough good reasons to exercise: strength-training (including simple exercises like push-ups) adds years to your life.

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, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=740877

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, Climate change, Science, science news, Space, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 15/10/17

Welcome to this week’s Sunday Science, featuring renewable energy, the results of a big study into gene expression, and rainstorms on Titan.

First, some good news. 2016 saw record growth in renewable energy, with solar energy leading the charge. New solar PV capacity around the world grew by 50%, and solar PV additions rose faster than any other fuel for the first time, surpassing the net growth in coal. China is the lead in this, interestingly. Video below, but the report from the International Energy Agency is well worth reading.

Since we learnt how DNA codes for genes, the great puzzle has been trying to figure out how you turn genes on and off in appropriate cells, such that, for example, your liver cells don’t express brain proteins. The GTEx consortium, which aimed to answer this question, now reports on the variations in gene expression between tissues and individuals. Fairly technical Nature News article with links to the original (open access) papers.

There’s a plethora of online “intelligence” tests of more or less reliability, but here’s one with a difference: Cognitron is an AI-based web server that aims to learn about human intelligence, and develop improved cognitive tests along the way. (No I haven’t done them yet but I plan to!)

And finally, Earth isn’t the only place in the solar system to have intense storms. Titan one of Saturn’s moons, has intense rainstorms – of liquid methane. Featured Image is of Titan, Saturn’s largest moon, behind the planet’s rings. The tiny moon Epimetheus is visible in the foreground.

Credit: NASA/JPL/Space Science Institute, via Science Daily.