Tuesday, 30 August 2016
Sunday, 28 August 2016
We are used to being reminded of the dangers of bacteria developing resistance to antibiotics and what this might mean to human health (return to a pre-antibiotic era). Mycologists are now suggesting, however, that human fungal diseases are developing resistance to the very limited range (around 4) of anti-fungal agents (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/27/millions-at-risk-as-deadly-fungal-infections-acquire-drug-resistance). They believe that this is linked to the over-use of anti-fungals by farmers on their crops. People with impaired immune systems (AIDS sufferers and people undergoing organ transplantation) may be especially at risk.
Saturday, 27 August 2016
Hawaiian-born President Obama has just approved a great enhancement of the size of the Papahanaumokuakea protected marine reserve set up by President Bush (https://www.theguardian,com/environment/2016/aug/26/obama-to-create-worlds-largest-protected-marine-area-off-coast-of-hawaii-papahanaumokuakea). This will make it the world's largest such reserve with an area of more than 150 million hectares. That sounds a decent size. I expect that fisher-folk will be a tad irritated but this seems a timely response given current environmental challenges.
Studies have suggested that oligosaccharides (short chain sugars) in human and cow's milk reduce the viability of a meningitis-causing agent (Neisseria meningitidis) in in vitro studies (www.ncbi.nim.nih.gov/pubmed/16177210). Some people have suggested that the sugars (contained in the milk of about 50% of humans) encourage 'friendly bacteria' that compete with the disease agent. This has already led to the sugars being sold as dietary supplements online.
Friday, 26 August 2016
Tuesday, 23 August 2016
Monday, 22 August 2016
It's funny how we ancient academics have to be reminded about changes in technology 'downstream'. I used to mark GCSEs (in the olden days, when they were merely GCEs) and was frequently appalled by the writing (as well as being amused by occasional statements e.g. "In the earthworm, the number of segments increases towards the anus") . There is now a report suggesting a new problem for markers (https://www.theguardian.com/education/2016/aug/22/exam-markers-complain-about-students-blue-ink-scribbles). Candidates are now always instructed to complete their papers in black biro or black ink so that the scripts can be scanned before being sent to examiners for them to use their computers in marking. Apparently, some students ignore the instruction and use blue or green ink, which doesn't scan at all well. An indistinct scan, combined with poor hand writing is very difficult to interpret and could jeopardise the mark.
Sunday, 21 August 2016
Not many people seem impressed by the final form of the UK government 'sugar tax' legislation intended to help counter childhood obesity and all its attendant health consequences (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2016/aug/18/childhood-obesity-strategy-not-even-an-e-for-effort). Everyone recognises that obesity is associated with type 2 diabetes and a range of other problems (including tooth decay) in later life but the government appears to have axed key suggestions that the 'food' producers have found problematic. The 'sugar tax' only appears to apply to fizzy drinks and replacement of sweeteners by glucose, honey and some other 'natural' elements still boosts calorie intake. I have already aired my doubts on marketing many 'sports drinks' as performance-improving aids. Reducing the sugar content of other foods (including pasta sauces, bread and ketchup) now seems likely to be an optional aspiration rather than mandatory requirement. Perhaps worse of all is the backing away from the committee recommendation to prohibit the directing of advertising of unhealthy foods to young children (I appreciate that this is difficult given the range of social media but children a) often have no idea of the consequences of consumption as well as being prone to peer pressures and b) can exert considerable 'pester power' on even the most enlightened parent). I can't really see the sugar tax improving exercise levels- it's not likely to fund the repurchase of sold-off school playing fields or to increase the use of leisure centres/swimming pools that are either a) too expensive for some parents or b) in danger of being closed due to financial restrictions. All this is in stark contrast to the GB performance at the Rio Olympics- I bet our athlete's dietary intake is better looked after than that of our children!
Wednesday, 17 August 2016
Interesting news that the use of annual tree rings (dendrochronology) to determine dates of archeological events can be made more precise (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/17/traces-of-sun-storms-locked-in-tree-rings-could-confirm-ancient-historical-dates-astrochronology). A Japanese worker has found that solar storms (often reasonably well-documented) can lead to a 20-fold increase in Carbon14 in the associated ring (the age of rings-only living in their year- is generally estimated by looking at the ratio of Carbon12 to Carbon14). These 'outliers' would facilitate a more accurate recalibration of the age of rings in ancient wood sections.
Tuesday, 16 August 2016
It's not usually one of the things that you think about whilst watching the Olympic velodrome cycling on TV but one of the factors that might have improved performances is 'state-of-the-art' advice on avoiding saddle sores, especially of the women (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/blog/2016/aug/15/team-gb-cycling-saddle-sore-medals). Saddle sores were apparently something that it was difficult to get the cyclists to talk about but advice was sought from friction experts, reconstructive surgeons specialising in pressure sores and a specialist in vulval health. The main advice they came up with was to a) get a rule change allowing saddles to be angled down to a greater degree, b) convince the competitors to avoid shaving, waxing and use of depilatory creams and c) apply a soothing gel. Apparently, pubic hair is beneficial in removing sweat. Amazing what you have to do to improve your chances of winning a medal.
Monday, 15 August 2016
There seems to be a surprising degree of local resistance, given their relaxed attitude to GM tomato paste etc, in Key Haven Florida to a trial by Oxitec intended to test whether disease-carrying mosquitoes can be eliminated using gene technology (https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/aug/14/florida-keys-zika-virus-genetically-modified-mosquitoes). The intention is to flood the area of the island with non-biting (only the females take blood meals) male mosquitoes of the species Aedes aegypti engineered to carry a gene, stopping their offspring surviving to reach maturity. This species is a human disease vector for malaria, dengue fever, chikungunya and the highly newsworthy zika virus. Female mosquitoes only mate once, so the GM males would effectively sterilise them. I don't think the release of GM males would cause any problems to humans (although, removing mosquitoes from the environment might cause problems for insect-eating fish and birds) but the chances of permanently removing the vector are, perhaps, somewhat slim. Females might be selective about males they mate with (it's their genetic investment that is at risk) and the island population could be rapidly re-populated by mosquitoes flying in from surrounding areas.
There is an interesting report (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/14/wallabies-isle-of-man-wild-australia) that Red-necked wallabies are taking over substantial areas of the Isle of Man (moving out from their former stronghold in the northern marshy area). These marsupials are apparently the descendants of animals that escaped from wildlife parks (in some cases operating like prisoners-of-war by digging their way under the fence in a mass breakout). These animals have no natural predators on the island and appear to be thriving).
Chris Packham has suggested that the New Forest is in danger of becoming degraded by burgeoning numbers of free ranging ponies (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/15/new-forest-being-destroyed-by-growing-number-of-ponies-says-chris-packham). Ponies (and other grazing animals with different eating styles) are useful in reducing scrub and helping to maintain biodiversity but the amount of such activity has to be regulated. The trouble seems to be that there are financial inducements for 'commoners' to keep more and more horses. Mr Packham is quite right that the ponies will eventually stop the forest from maintaining itself (they eat seedlings). The trouble is that the local arrangements do not seem to have effective oversight. It is, of course, difficult to know how to reduce the number ponies (who's ponies get removed and what happens to them?).
Sunday, 14 August 2016
Saturday, 13 August 2016
Friday, 12 August 2016
Interesting research has been reported by Copenhagen University workers suggesting that Greenland sharks are currently the longest-living vertebrate animals (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/11/400-year-old-greenland-shark-is-the-oldest-vertebrate-animal). These top predators can grow very large but nobody knew how long they lived. The scientists used sharks caught inadvertently by trawlers and looked at the isotopes in the lenses of their eyes, starting at the very centre (the oldest material) and finishing at the periphery (the youngest). The isotopes revealed that the big sharks could be up to 400 years old. They also found that females did not breed until they were around 150 years old.
The report that police are investigating the alledged poisoning of a British tennis player at Wimbledon raises several interesting questions (https://www.theguardian.com/sport/2016/aug/11/police-investigate-alledged-poisoning-gabriella-taylor-british-tennis-player-wimbledon). The claimed agent was Leptospira, a bacterium carried by approximately half of the UK rat population. The bacterium is found most commonly in rat urine and can be passed to humans by drinking (where it could entire via lesions in the mucosal membrane rather than passing through the stomach) or washing (again, wounds are likely to be involved) in freshwater contaminated by the rodent (this is why the infection occurs most commonly in people engaged in water sports, pest eradication and agricultural work). A more common (90%) mild infection produces 'flu-like Leptospirosis but more severe infection results in Weil's disease with organ failure and a serious risk of death. It has been pointed out by Leptospirosis experts that it is extremely unlikely that this particular case involved deliberate poisoning as the bacterium is very fragile requiring warm conditions, it is difficult to say how long would elapse before symptoms appeared (incubation ranges from days to almost 2 weeks) and the severity of the symptoms induced would be difficult to predict. It is likely that the tennis player was just unfortunate (nothing beats, however, a good, old-fashioned conspiracy theory).
Monday, 8 August 2016
Sunday, 7 August 2016
It seems that Scottish landowners of grouse-shooting moors are coming under increasing pressure from groups of conservationists who believe that they kill raptors such as the Red kite, Golden eagle and Hen harriers (https://www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2016/aug/06/glorious-twelfth-red-kites-hen-hariers). Although the birds of prey now have more legal protections, it is said that some landowners regard them as responsible for declines in grouse chicks, ear-marked for the post-12th August blast off. This is in spite of the facts that a) being a top predator, raptors are relatively few in number and b) some, like the Red kite, are mainly carrion-feeders. Health of the heathers (on which the grouse feed), disease and the decimating effects cold, wet summers might be factors more potent in changing grouse numbers. Although I have never really understood the 'pleasures' of rearing birds to shoot, I suppose that,at least, maintaining economically viable grouse moors, stops the land being used for farming or building (with a real loss of biodiversity).
Scientists report that the recently 'agreed' (Paris) attempt to limit emissions-induced global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius seems, at best, very unlikely (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/aug/06/global-warming-target-miss-scientists-warn). I am surprised that anyone is surprised as a) there is still a well-financed campaign denying the existence of climate change; b) short-termism afflicts politics so they are generally unwilling to annoy cost-conscious voters; c) the processes generating climate change appear to be very difficult to reverse (as well as not being fully understood) and d) people are easily distracted by other things (olympics, football, wars, brexit, Harry Potter etc).
Saturday, 6 August 2016
Friday, 5 August 2016
Wednesday, 3 August 2016
News that the EU has passed legislation to ban the import, keep, breed, grow, transport, release etc some 30+ invasive alien species of animals and plants from all the countries of the union (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/aug/02/raccoon-mongoose-and-cabbage-among-invasive-species-banned-from-uk). The species include the Asian hornet, Skunk cabbage, the American raccoon, the Indian mongoose and the Signal crayfish. Some of these species decimate local species or destroy local environments. The only down side I can see is that it might be difficult for scientists to study the impacts of some of these species. The slightly odd aspect is that with Brexit, the UK can elect to bring in any invasive species they like,
Yet another example of the tension between people and conservation is seen in the recent responses of people in rural Romania to a hunti...
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...