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.

Sunday, 22 November 2015

Seeing the Changes 1015






A bit of a late show in Bynea with Yarrow (Achillea millefolium); Common ragwort (Senecio jacobaea); Wild radish (Raphanus raphanistrum); Common evening primrose (Oenothera biennis) and Ox-eye daisy (Leucanthemum vulgare) all in flower.

Good News From the Germ Warfare Front?


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

Birder's Bonus 158


I should have reported that I spotted a Red kite (Milvus milvus) mooching over the Loughor estuary whilst approaching Gowerton on Monday 16th November.

Me Old China


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

Bacteria Have More Intelligence?


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

Mass Hysteria and Mass Media?


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?

Web of Consequences


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

Are We There Yet?



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.

Spikes


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).

Bear-faced Robbery?

Yet another example of the tension between people and conservation is seen in the recent responses of people in rural Romania to a hunti...