biology, Explainer, genetic modification, Science, science news, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday science stories 13/08/17

An absolutely fascinating account about human breast milk, which turns out to be an incredibly sophisticated substance full of beneficial microbes, antibodies and even cells. Made me feel a lot less abnormal about my still-breastfeeding 2 1/2 year old!

Genetically modified salmon have been approved for human consumption in Canada These fish continuously produce growth hormone so they reach maturity (and hence marketability) much sooner. I wouldn’t be worried about eating it, but I do have some concerns about escapees – would they potentially out-compete wild salmon?

What should you buy if you have the cash to spare? Time, apparently, as opposed to things. Buying time makes you happy. This is the link to the actual scientific paper, hence a bit dry, but it’s not hugely technical.

Finally, this week’s featured image shows the FlyPi, a 3D printed fluorescent microscope system based on a Raspberry Pi computer system that has been developed by the Baden lab here at Sussex University. They can be built for less than 100 Euros, compared to the 1000s that even a basic microscope usually costs. Website includes link to the original paper, with full technical detail, and other resources.




Science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science Stories

I’ve decided to start a little weekly feature in which I link to a few of the science stories I’ve read over the past week that I’ve found interesting. Quite often as I browse the tables of contents of scientific journals, I read things that I’d quite like to mention, but not enough to write a full blog post on. A lot of these won’t be mentioned in the mainstream press, of course, and so don’t reach a wider audience. So I thought it would be nice to share storiess I’ve found interesting. I’ll try and give a mix of the types of articles I link to, and wherever possible make sure they’re open access so you can read the full article for free.

To get started, here’s three from this week:

(1). A very interesting read on the challenges and importance of archiving modern scientific research.  This is a fascinating piece on how the discoveries of today will become the history of science tomorrow; of how archivists choose what is of value to conserve, and preservation of the digital data of today.

(2). An opinion piece on the big challenges facing modern biology. Be warned this is quite technical, and quite long, but would definitely appeal at least to those with a biology background.

(3). This is an  obituary of a woman you’ve probably never heard of,  unless you’re a cancer researcher, I would imagine. Angela Hartley Brodie developed a class of breast cancer drug that has been literally life-changing for thousands of women. It’s a lovely little piece reflecting on a scientific life very well lived.

Finally, the cover photo for this week’s Sunday Science is a photograph of a high power plasma pulse in JET modelling a candidate scenario for future high yield fusion. It’s by Dr David Keeling, a plasma heating physicist at Culham Centre for Fusion Energy, who kindly sent it to me in response to my piece on Euratom and UK science after Brexit.

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

politics, Science, Science and society

Brexit, Euratom and the future of UK science (again)

What with all the recent furore over Euratom, it seemed a good time to consider the impact of Brexit on UK science. Regarding Euratom itself, the decision to withdraw from that shocked a lot of scientists (and others): this wasn’t something that was really considered as a real possibility during the referendum campaign. Euratom occupies a somewhat unique position: it was a separate treaty negotiated in 1957, so it is legally distinct from the EU but has the same membership, and comes under many of the same institutions. One of those institutions would be the European Court of Justice, and this appears to be the sticking point for the Prime Minister: May has drawn a red line over leaving the ECJ as a condition for Brexit. I have yet to hear a convincing reason why we need to do this. To allow big business and the government to erode our human rights, as far as I can tell. So in the fallout (pun intended) from this, withdrawal from Euratom is yet another thing that was never on a ballot paper, never discussed, not planned for, and has no positives for us.

From the government’s own research briefing (PDF download available):

The UK will have to take on a number of measures to leave Euratom smoothly
such as:
• Design, resource and implement new UK safeguarding
arrangements in line with accepted international standards;
• Replace current safeguarding commitments under the Non
Proliferation Treaty (which are also predicated on Euratom
• Identify and plan negotiation of replacement Nuclear Cooperation
Agreements (NCAs) with countries with which the UK has
ongoing nuclear trade.24
As Euratom manages inspections of UK nuclear power, the UK will need
to agree new inspections with the International Atomic Energy Agency
before the UK exits the EU.

Leaving jeopardises the supply of radioisotopes for industry and medicine, the JET fusion project (pictured), supplies of nuclear material for power stations, and, oh yes, Britain’s standing as a world leader in nuclear research.

What of the wider implications for UK science? What has the EU ever done for UK science? Well, a lot. Below follows an edited re-post of a blog I published shortly after the referendum. Continue reading

biology, evolution, Science, science news

Human evolution continues to get more complicated

A good, if slightly technical article in the Guardian today here, about the ever-contentious split between modern humans (Homo sapiens) and Neanderthals. The evidence for interbreeding between humans and Neanderthals added up quite convincingly after the initial surprise discovery, probably shortly after the “Out of Africa” migration around 75,000 years ago. This article reports on results from sequencing mitochondrial DNA, which is only transmitted through the female line, suggesting there was some interbreeding between 413,000-270,000 years ago, a staggeringly long time ago. This is way before the main migration out of Africa by modern humans, and not that long after the split between the Neanderthal and Homo sapiens lineages from their common ancestor around 500,000 years ago. It seems that there may have been smaller migrations before our species successfully established itself outside of Africa.

I’ve written about human evolution before here, which gives an overview of some of the more recent findings about our relationships with other hominids. This new finding really strikes me again how migration is a defining feature of our species; it may well have been so for other hominids too. Maybe this is why our ancient relationships are just as mixed up as our modern ones.

biology, genetic modification, News, Science

Writing movies into DNA

Well, what will they think of next? A little while ago, I wrote about the possibilities of using DNA as information storage. Researchers have now managed to insert a little movie into the genome of the E.coli bacterium (the workhorse of the genetics world). They used the CRISPR/Cas9 genome editing technique to insert the five frames of a galloping horse. Essentially, the snippets of DNA generated by CRISPR were used to correspond to pixels. Here’s the GIF:

galloping horse

Of course, you need to decode the message written in the nucleotides of the bacterial DNA to reconstruct the image (or movie), so you also have to have the ability to read it and know the code, and it’s incredibly laborious. You can’t just read it off one cell either, nor with one pass – it took several hundred thousand reads for the whole thing.

So why would you bother? Honestly, that’s a little ambiguous at the moment. Their original idea was to actually create a recording system to monitor changes happening in cells, in order, ultimately, to decipher how brain cells take on distinct identities. Instead of using indirect measurements or experimental perturbation to answer these questions, it would essentially get the cells to tell you what was happening to them themselves. They didn’t achieve that, but it’s a step towards it. Like many science advances, it’s an impressive technical feat that for now remains just a curio, but who knows where it may ultimately lead?



Shipman, S. L., et al.  Nature (2017).

biology, Developmental biology, Explainer, Opinion piece, Science, Science and society, SF and science

Will we ever have artificial wombs?

A few years back I attended the annual conference of the British Society for Developmental Biology. There was a discussion session towards the end of the day concerning future developments and directions in our field of research, namely how one goes from the early embryo to, ultimately, the adult human (or other organism). Into a lull in the conversation, my then-boss, who was heavily pregnant with twins and very uncomfortable, interjected the following question: “I only want to know one thing right now: when are we going to be able to grow babies in artificial wombs?” Good question…

Continue reading