Tuesday, 23 February 2016
There is a timely article on using the sense of smells of rodents to solve human problems (www.theguardian.com/science/2016/feb/23/rats-who-sniff-out-tubersulosis). It has been known for some time that dogs (and pigs) can be trained to detect truffles, illegal drugs and even prostate and skin cancers. People have been relatively slow to consider other animals to provide cheap, chemical detection devices (almost preferring to try to develop robot 'noses'). Many of the candidate animals essentially live in a world of smells rather than visual input, so it is hardly surprising that they are finely 'tuned' to chemical detection. Rodents, like the Mongolian gerbil shown above (being generally nocturnal and burrowing), certainly should be considered. The article largely deals with the claims of the African giant pouched rat (Cricetomys gambianus), a large rodent that can be around 1kg in weight and can be restrained on a lead. In their native Africa, these animals were successfully trained to detect traces of TNT issuing from buried land-mines (they are too light to set them off). As the funding for medical equipment is often restricted in such countries, they have now been used there to screen patients for tuberculosis (said to have a 'tar-like' smell). Animals have a variety of senses that are either a) more sensitive than or b) cover a different range from that seen in humans. There would seem to be lots of potential for employing their particular skills (or are we too hung up on electronics?).
Sunday, 21 February 2016
There is no doubt that scientists can be as whacky, deluded, devious and self-serving as any other group in our society. Having said that, I am disturbed by reports of plans to write a new clause into UK government-funded grants, effectively banning their holders from campaigning from changes to the 'law' on the basis of their findings (www.the guardian.com/2016/feb/20/scientists-attack-muzzling-government-state-funded-cabinet-office). The claim is that (like the embargo placed on charities) government-provided money should not be used for the campaigning but, in such cases, it would be very difficult to 'unpick' precisely what funds had actually been used. So, if a scientist, thought that particular legislation or policy was having detrimental effects on an issue (e.g. endangering human health, decimating important natural habitats or adding to growing environmental concerns), they would not be allowed to say so too loudly. Science is, however, mean't to encourage its participants to report what they think their data means as well as providing other scientists with the means to check the conclusions (without career-development and funding issues being major factors). That is already difficult when much of research is funded by commercial interests (I totally advocate recipients, in such cases, making it very clear where the support came from as there is clearly a possibility of bias creeping in). I appreciate that I am a 'dinosaur' but I used to think that the small amounts of money that universities used to put aside annually for staff to do genuinely independent research was an important safeguard for society.
Sunday, 14 February 2016
Yet another gardener-mediated disease spread (www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/14/uk-alert-phony-peach-disease)? The bacterium (Xylella fastidiosa) seems to block the xylem conduction vessels in a very wide range of plants. It is certainly possible that it will decimate tree populations (including Olives) over much of Europe.
There is an interesting article on the Zika virus, pointing out that it was first described (hence the name) in the Zika Forest near Entebbe in Uganda (www.theguardian.com/global-development/2016/feb/13/zika-uganda-world-most-dangerous-viruses-malaria). The interesting thing is that this relatively small area (densely-packed with animal species) is home to some 70 species of tree-living mosquitoes and, via a test tower, virologists have identified their carrying numerous pathological diseases (along with the ubiquitous malarial parasite). Modern travel of people, along with movements of materials in trade (especially via horticulturalists), makes it very likely that other agents will move continents. I remain unconvinced by the reported attempts to control Zika and its mosquito vector in Columbia and Brazil.
Sunday, 7 February 2016
Thursday, 4 February 2016
Wednesday, 3 February 2016
Reports that lightening-strike caused fires on the elevated plateau of Tasmania have destroyed much of the ancient forest, thought to be a remnant of the original Gondawana, (www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/jan/27/world-heritage-forests-burn-as-global-tragedy-unfolds-in-tasmania ) is disturbing. The loss of Pencil and King Billy pines along with cushion plants would also be expected with climate change as these high altitude plant are not, like e.g. Eucalyptus, adapted to dealing with fire. Having said that, like Joni Mitchell's 'Big Yellow Taxi' song we may need to create a 'tree museum' (so we can charge everyone 'a dollar and a half just to see 'em').
Tuesday, 2 February 2016
There is no doubt that mothers giving birth to microcephalic babies is a personal (as well as family) tragedy and a great financial imposition on stretched health services. Having said that, I am not certain that the putative link between this condition and mosquito-carried Zika virus in Central and South America is really in the same category as Ebola (http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/01/zika-virus-world-health-organisation-declares-global-health-emergency) as claimed by WHO. For a start, human to human transmission is not involved in Zika and the level of mortality resulting from infection is much, much lower. There is certainly evidence that the mosquito vector species of the virus is extending its range but Malaria (also mosquito-borne) has been widespread in Africa for hundreds of years and causes much greater mortality (especially in children) without quite attracting the same accolades. I am not convinced that photo opportunities of soldiers distributing insecticides to kill the odd mosquito (even if they are allowed access to anyone's property) will have much effect, as the insect larvae can breed in the tiniest collections of rainwater (in foot-prints, old tin cans or roofs of buildings and holes in trees). Perhaps the criticism of the WHO over the Ebola outbreak in Africa, the siting of the Olympic games in Brazil and the potencies of the images of babies have all combined to play a role in the media reaction to Zika?
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