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, 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, 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.

biology, evolution, Miscellaneous, Science, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 08/10/17

Welcome to today’s Sunday Science, with some weird and wonderful animals, some human quirks, and future life on the oceans..

How did the weevil get its shell? Well, they have bacterial symbionts who live inside them with severely reduced genomes. These bacteria do not much more than churn out the amino acid tyrosine, needed to harden the shells. I love how nature is so weird sometimes. Link is to the full scientific paper, so fairly technical.

A fascinating account of the changes in the onset and duration of puberty, which has changed significantly over the years.

Seasteading, which means living on permanent floating artificial habitats, outside the jurisdiction of any government, seems to be taking a step forward. This long thoughtful piece examines the progress and implications of what was, until now, an idea confined to science fiction and libertarian dreamers.

And finally…did you ever collect tadpoles as a child and try and grow them to frogs? Well, toad tadpoles are less cute than they look: they contain potent heart poisons. The researchers thought this was to ward off competition from frogs, but it seems actually to be do with each other – the more toad tadpoles there are, the more toxic they get.

Credit: This week’s featured image via Nature, by Bert Willaert/NPL.

biology, Developmental biology, evolution, genetic modification, Miscellaneous, Science, Science and society, science news, SF and science, Sunday Science Stories

Sunday Science 01/10/17

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.

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.