Monday, 28 December 2015
At last, a decent account of what the Dutch did after 1800 deaths in the 1953 North Sea floods and how water control remains a serious, ongoing issue in that country (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/27/dutch-style-delta-plan-floods-uk-netherlands) and why the UK response to, what are now annual floods, remains at the puny end of intervention. Apparently, UK politicians regularly 'flood across' to the Netherlands when we have local water issues but seem to return with only 'watered down' responses. Climate change is going to mean a much greater degree of joined up thinking.
Friday, 25 December 2015
Wednesday, 23 December 2015
Saturday, 19 December 2015
Tuesday, 15 December 2015
A report suggests that, over the last 40 years, some 45-46 of the existing 59 species of 'UK' butterflies have been in rapid decline here (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/15/decline-in-over-three-quarters-uk-butterfly-species-final-warning-says-chris-packham). The report notes that the losses are more marked in England and Wales than they are in Scotland perhaps suggesting that climate change is driving some species north (but there would be limits to such a process). The only butterfly species where there is slightly happier news are the really endangered populations where intensive conservation efforts are having modest beneficial effects and the migratory species (such as the Red admiral and Painted lady) who might be arriving in greater numbers (along with species only occasionally found on these islands). Chris Packham maintains that, if brightly-coloured butterfly species are falling in numbers, less obvious (but important) insects species (such as beetles and bees) must also be in marked decline. Farming practices and use of pesticides may also have a role.
Sunday, 13 December 2015
People are generally speaking optimistically about the climate change 'agreement' reached in Paris (http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/earth/paris-climate-change-conference/12047233/Paris-climate-change-agreement-at-a-glance.html). Whilst, clearly any agreement is much better than 'no agreement', I must admit to being a tad pessimistic. It is nice that 200+ countries can agree a common wording but much depends on what actually happens (a 5 yearly marking of one's own homework doesn't sound especially reliable). As some experts have pointed out, promises to achieve reductions 'in the future' a) will not lead to an immediate reduction in 'greenhouse gas' emissions, the melting of ice caps or rising sea levels; b) can be overturned by political changes in the governance of some of the major participants and c) might be subject to tricky 'fudges'. I suppose one can only hope for (rather than expect) the best.
Thursday, 10 December 2015
The climate change talks continue in Paris (http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/dec/09/paris-cop21-climate-talks-ambitious-proposals-protect-countries-rising-sea-levels-flawed) and parts of the North in the UK flood, following record rainfalls. The UK Government, apparently concerned about these problems a) pulls the plug on the funding of carbon capture technology; b) slashes the support for solar and wind power; c) commits to the building of several nuclear power stations (extracting the radioactive fuel and the building of the structures generate quite a lot of 'greenhouse gases'); d) insists that fracking will go ahead with or without the support of local populations and e) agonises over where to best place major airport extensions in the SE. None of this sounds especially helpful to the cause of limiting climate change and countering flood risk (especially as the designated sites for a new generation of 'starter homes' appear to be mainly existing flood plains of rivers).
The first reports of applying the in vitro technique to dog reproduction are coming in (http://www.smithsonianmag.com/ist/?next=/science-nature/these-baby-beagles-are-first-dogs-born-vitro-fertilization-180957499/). This has, apparently, proved quite difficult as the ovulated dog eggs have to mature in the oviduct before they are ready for fertilisation and the fluid for maintaining the sperm in a viable state had to be adjusted (it's actually easier in humans). The claimed utilities of the technique are to a) help save endangered wild dog species from extinction (the danger here is that they might have very little genetic diversity) and b) gene edit out some of the inherited diseases that breeders of strains have inadvertently introduced to the lines (it will be interesting to see how much of a priority this is in breeders of show dogs) and c) help dogs who find it difficult to conceive (I'm not sure how much of a real problem this is). I suspect, it will also be used to engineer characteristics of drug-searching and rescue dogs and also for people wanting perpetual pets?
Monday, 7 December 2015
A company in California (Bolt Threads) has been using genetic modification of yeast to 'grow' spider silk in vats from simple ingredients such as sugar (http://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/06/the-innovators-californian-scientists-bolt-threads-reinventing-the-web). This light but strong ('tougher than steel') material has long been prized as a potential item for use in commerce. The generated goo can apparently be converted into threads that might well end up being utilised in clothing. How this would fit with aspects of our current 'throw away' fashion society is yet to be determined (mountains of indestructible but out-dated clothes?) but some stuff you might want to wear for decades. As was pointed out in the article, however, a spider make at least 5 different types of threads with varied properties, meaning that the commercial applications might be quite wide.
Friday, 4 December 2015
Tuesday, 1 December 2015
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 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.
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
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
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
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.
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.
Sunday, 22 November 2015
Some actually encouraging news from the 'super-bugs'/antibiotic resistance front (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/nov/20/antibiotics-apocalypse-research-resistance-threat-breakthrough) in that bacteriocins appear to have medical possibilities. Most antibiotics are 'wide spectrum' meaning that they are initially active (until resistance is acquired) against a range of bacteria (including those living symbiotically in our guts). This means that current antibiotics produce collateral damage to our overall health as well as potentially producing 'wide-spectrum' resistance in lots of microbes. Bacteriocins are much more specific in that they are produced by bacteria to suppress only one competitor species. Until recently, it was suspected that they could not be given to patients as these foreign proteins would cause an immune response. Recently reported research suggests that the body is much more tolerant to them than was thought. Perhaps bacteriocins specific to Staphylococcus aureus and other problem infectives can be developed?
Thursday, 19 November 2015
Disturbing news (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/health-34857015) that several species of bacteria that are resistant to the antibiotic of last resort (the agent-Colistin- is given when all other available antibiotics have failed) in livestock, fresh meat and human patients in studies carried out in China. It appears that the gene for this attribute can be passed between bacterial species, meaning that there is no way of knowing where it will subsequently appear. In deed, there are also indications that some of these 'super-bugs' have already spread to Malaysia. What people don't seem to realise is that around 2/3rds of antibiotics are used in farming as growth enhancers in a wide variety of livestock, providing perfect conditions for developing antibiotic resistance. This development could eventually mean that we would have no effective treatments for bacterial infections (even minor surgery, including tooth extraction, would be hazardous).
Monday, 16 November 2015
A report by Public Health England has confirmed that there has been a big increase in the use of 'drugs of last resort' over the past 5 years in attempts to counter infections from antibiotic resistant strains of bacteria. They suggest that, even formerly routine operations, may be endangered by this development. In spite of this, the World Health Organisation has found, in a recent survey, that more than 60% of people still believe that antibiotics can cure viral infections (such as those associated with 'flu and the common cold) and 76% think that humans (rather than bacteria) become resistant to antibiotics. It does seem that very little progress has been made in educating people about these issues (or are they simply perverse in their ignorance?).
Saturday, 14 November 2015
The recent outbreak of mass faintings at a Rippon school 'poppy-day' memorial day is only the latest example of apparent physical illness caused entirely by psychological means (http://www.theguardian.com/science/head-quarters/2015/nov/12/the-ripon-ripple-of-anxiety-and-mass-hysteria). The hall where the ceremony was taking place was reported to be stuffy and initially caused a handful of pupils to faint, leading to a domino effect on others. It eventually resulted in around 40 causalties. Such mass events have apparently also been seen historically e.g. at 'witch trials' and in factories as rumours swept the local populations. The only aspect that is somewhat different, is the attempt to link the latest event to mass media (e.g. Facebook and Twitter- although actually these platforms are likely to be a bit 'old hat' for the young folk involved). The argument seems to be that rumours can spread even more efficiently via the medium, making it less easy to reassure people after establishing that there is no real threat (e.g. a poison gas or food poisoning). Yet something else we can blame on the www?
One small step for arachnid kind (http://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2015/nov/13/false-widow-spider-infestation-closes-two-london-primary-schools)? There are reports that two primary school in London have been forced to close for a week as a consequence of infestations by the alien False black widow spider (Steatoda nobilis). The species is thought to have reached the UK in consignments of bananas and, although its bite does not kill humans, its nips are painful. Primary schools, warm with many insect prey, might be good locations for the spider that can generate loads of spiderlings relatively quickly. I hope that their presence doesn't increase rates of arachnophobia!
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
A recent report suggests that we are more than half way towards the 2 degrees Celsius elevation in global temperatures where climate changes becomes truly dangerous (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-34763036). The first thing to note about this is that the 2 degree 'maximum' is entirely arbitrary and there is no real binding evidence that lesser increases will not produce catastrophic (and irreversible?) changes. It is remarkable, given the accumulated evidence that people still argue that humans can carry on doing what they are doing to increase levels of greenhouse gases. Apparently (in spite of declining prices), Middle East oil extraction has hardly changed.
There are apparently moves to make the Hedgehog (Erinaceous europaea) Britain's national beast (http://www.thetimes.co.uk/tto/environment/wildlife/article4609482.ece). I suppose it does have some of our national characteristics (small, prickly and given to inadvisably archaic behaviour under changed circumstances?). Having said that, there is something a bit dodgy about adopting a mammal that is reportedly in such a dramatic decline as the front runner. Hedgehogs don't do well around roads, in gardens where slug pellets, where gardens are converted into hard-standing for car parking, in competition with some of our pets et cetra. So they might be being adopted by their greatest challenge (I suppose it could make us more understanding of their plight).
Saturday, 31 October 2015
There is a somewhat odd finding that highly toxic Pumpkin toadlets from Brazil apparently cannot hear their own mating calls ( https://w...
A combination of night rain and day-time sun has resulted in more Bynea blooms. The Southern marsh orchid ( Dactylorhiza praetermissa...
A study ( https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/feb/01/special-spit-is-the-secret-of-uniquely-sticky-frog-tongues-study-reveals ) has...
It is always sad to hear of problems occurring at places you have used for teaching and the outbreak of h5n8 avian influenza at Abbot...