There was an interesting piece in the Guardian the other day about the “seven megatrends” that could beat global warming. I thought I’d link to it because it brings together lots of different trends, and it’s nice to see something optimistic for a change. Of course, this is in the face of another headline which indicates that, after three years of flatlining, fossil fuel emissions are set to rise to a record high this year. So is there real reason for hope?
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?
Here is the this week’s Sunday Science, including truly wearable tech, tsunami-borne sea creatures and duck penises.
Do you have one of those smartwatches which measures your heart rate when you exercise? Does your smartphone automatically keep track of how many steps you take each day. Well, the future both for this and for medical monitoring may lie more in flexible, wearable sensors, or the bodynet, as this fascinating piece in Nature of the latest merging of scifi with science fact explores.
Male ruddy ducks regenerate their penis every year, apparently, one of those glorious facts you never knew you needed in your life. However, they may grow an extra-long (as in, 18cm!) or an extra-short one (only 0.5cm), due to fierce sexual competition.
Salmon have returned to a river in Derbyshire for the first time since the Industrial Revolution.
Continuing the CRISPR revolution, it has been used to genetically engineer human embryos to study early embryo development, revealing an important role for a gene in embryo implantation and miscarriage risk.
This week’s featured image is of marine sea slugs from a Japanese vessel from Iwate Prefecture, washed ashore in Oregon in April 2015 [Image credit Mark Chapman via Science Daily]. Thousands of creatures were washed across the ocean as a consequence of the Japanese tsunami, a study published in Science magazine discovered. Such “rafting” events are natural, of course, but what’s not natural is the extent of this migration, much of which was enabled by animals riding along on our non-degradable plastic waste. Nearly 300 species have appeared on the west coast of the US and Hawaii. This is potentially setting in motion a radical ecological experiment.
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.
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.
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
• 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
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…