Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Sex on the Brain?

Yet another study showing that a) male and female brains show some subtle differences but b) you have a continuum in these features with a great deal of overlap (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/nov/30/brain-sex-men-from-mars-women-venus-not-so-says-new-study). This is hardly surprising as it has been known for decades that the developing brain is a product of genetics (largely the sex chromosomes); early hormone influences (the developing testis tends to blast the system with androgens before the ovaries get around to secreting), how people treat the maturing child seems to influence neural architecture and hormones at puberty/in adulthood play a role. Add to this that the timings of physiological (and experiential?) effects may influence the degree of change and you have a recipe for subtle variation. In deed, one could argue that such phenotypic variation would be useful to an adaptable species like our own.

Monday, 30 November 2015

The Political Climate in Paris?

The Climate Change talks in Paris probably represent a last chance to do anything meaningful about 'greenhouse gases' and their effects on world median temperature rises (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/30/obama-calls-paris-climate-talks-an-act-defiance-wake-recent-attacks). The trouble is that the meeting involves politicians and politicians are ephemeral creatures (they want to be elected/re-elected). They rarely want to tell voters that they 'may have to use less and things might cost more'. They are generally even more reluctant to tell groups that their employment may be in jeopardy and multi-nationals (who may contribute to their party finances), employing them to change their ways and expectations of profits. Furthermore, politicians are often eventually replaced (the adage 'every political career ends in failure' really applies) by someone with diametrically opposite views, so 'agreements' in Paris may not be totally binding.

Fat of the Land?

There seems to be quite a deal of organised resistance to a proposed tax on sugary drinks (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/30/tax-sugary-drinks-poorest-children-childhood-obesity) with manufacturers complaining that it will disproportionately hit the 'poor'. It appears, however, that a high percentage of excess sugar intake comes via this route and the children of the 'poor' are more likely to be classed as obese or overweight when at primary school (so they are already hit). Excess weight is, of course, linked to type 2 diabetes as well as increased risks of heart disease and stroke, meaning (in addition to the personal and family trauma) massive expense to the NHS. The tax could be used to encourage healthier life-styles and might turn people to non-sugar containing alternatives (that, in many cases already exist). I certainly think it is worth trying (accepting that it is unlikely, on its own, to 'cure' the obesity epidemic).

Friday, 27 November 2015

For the Birds?

A weird phenomenon of mass drownings by (juvenile?) Starlings (Sternus vulgaris) in the UK has been reported (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/25/scientists-unable-to-explain-starling-mass-drownings). These birds do like to do things together (they show allelomimetic behaviour in their famous flights) and they certainly like to bathe. One possibility is that juvenile Starling, lacking experience, become too water-logged by this activity.

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Meating a Need?

News that BoyaLife, a £20m company, is being created outside Beijing to develop mass cloning of animals (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/nov/24/worlds-largest-animal-cloning-factory-can-save-species-says-chinese-founder. The prime intention seems to be to clone cows to fuel a Chinese demand for beef but it is claimed that the company could also clone a) winning race-horses; b) effective sniffer dogs and c) even 'endangered' species (such as the Giant panda). I suspect that anything for which there is a demand will be cloned (pets and athletes?). I am not certain whether cloning cows is a great idea in terms of concerns about global warming (cattle are major generators of 'greenhouse gases') and some endangered species (e.g. elephant, rhinoceros and tiger) might be better helped by reducing their use in ivory carving and Chinese medicine. It does suggest that cloning is moving to a factory-style level of activity, making it very difficult to regulate.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

A New Drive Against Malaria?

The story of GM mosquitoes continues with an account of using a technology called 'gene drive' (http://www.theguardian.com/science/2015/nov/23/anti-malarial-mosquitoes-created-using-controversial-genetic-technology). This technique can apparently be used introduce a gene for producing human antibodies against the malarial parasite to the biting fly and most of the offspring of such flies would also be unable to pass Plasmodium on to their human host. Some people feel, however, that gene drive has to be used with great care because of the possibility of unintended environmental consequences.

Meating of Minds?

A debate is developing about whether it would be a good idea to impose a tax on meat consumption (http://debatewise.org/debates/1178-the-eu-should-impose-a-special-europe-wide-tax-on-meat-consumption-to-help-save-the-planet/). Certainly, the numbers of animals being reared for meat production is said to be increasing at a rate of 2.4% per annum (compared to the human population said to be 'rocketing' at 1.2%). Meat is increasingly on the menu of most folk. Meat production animals are, however, major sources of 'greenhouse gases' (carbon dioxide and methane) and water course contamination but also 'waste' some of the energy from the grain they consume (energy is lost at each trophic level). Add to this, the fact that consumption of too much meat clearly has negative effects on human health (e.g. increasing the risk of heart disease) and it is not too surprising that Sweden is currently advocating a tax to reduce the amounts of this food in the diet. Somewhat counter-intuitively, many people (but not, perhaps, the politicians who may see this in terms of votes by interest groups?) apparently can see some logic in taxing things that are 'bad for us'. The money could be used to a) reduce greenhouse gas emissions and b) to treat the consequences of excess meat consumption. It would put meat on a similar basis to tobacco and alcohol. Personally, I like meat but do appreciate the need for moderation.