Monday, 30 November 2020

Molecular Origami

Proteins make up 50% of the dry mass of living tissues. Scientists know of the existence of about 200 million different proteins. The shape of a protein is determined by the folding of its necklace-like chain of bonded amino acids, using their variable side-chains. Four kinds of interaction (hydrogen bonds, ionic bonds, disulfide bridges and hydrophobic twists) produce the protein's 3-dimensional shape, which determines its activity (e.g. as acting as an enzyme or a hormone). It is possible for biochemists to establish the 3-D shape of a protein but this is a laborious, time-consuming process. Step into the ring, DeepMind, a computer known largely for its success in games against humans such as chess and Go. The computer has now been 'trained', using 70,000 proteins whose shapes are known, to develop algorithms which can predict the 3-D arrangement of any protein ( ). This is effectively solves a challenge for Biology that has been around for 50 years. People are suggesting that the new knowledge produced should enable scientists to tease apart the mechanisms underpining some diseases, design medicines, develop more nutritious crops and even produce enzymes that can break down plastics. This seems to be a better use of Artificial Intelligence than playing games.

Sensible Celebrities?

It is suggested that the NHS (is it really that organisation or a government nudge group?) will use 'sensible celebrities', who are 'known and loved', in a drive to encourage Covid vaccine take-up. ( I would argue, that you can't be a celebrity without being known and there's a strong probability (whatever your weird characteristics?) that someone will 'love' you. A difficulty is, that 'influencers' (people with lots of 'hits' and 'shares' from their online activities) are, reportedly, the biggest disseminators of antivaxxer sentiments. Singer, Madonna and actor, Woody Harelson have both been recently criticised for their support of the rubbish claims, linking Covid-19 to the mobile 5G system. Suggestions that members of the British Royal Family would all be trustworthy are also highly debatable (Prince Andrew?). Nobody (certainly not me) could object to Marcus Rashford who has also been suggested. He seems, however, to have enough on his plate and, I suspect, would not claim to be expert on vaccines. There is a danger of any campaign of this nature resulting in a matching our 'sensible celebrities' against your 'weirdos'. I think the advice would be better coming from Doctors.

Inquest on Air?

It will be a landmark decision, if the inquest of 9 year-old Ella Kissi-Debrah rules that 'toxic' levels of atmospheric nitrogen dioxide were a factor in her death, in 2013. ( Ella was asthmatic and lived near London's South Circular road. It is clear that the levels of this pollutant from vehicular exhausts, exceeded legal limits. The UK government had signed up to 'safe' values of air pollution. If the coroner decides the gas played a role, ministers (and others?) might well be accountable.

Adding Ecocide?

A group of International lawyers have been convened by an organisation (the Stop Ecocide Foundation) to determine whether the criminal destruction of the world's ecosystems can be added, like genocide, to the list of prescribed actions ( The idea has been enthusiastically supported by a number of small, island nations (including Vanuatu and the Maldives) which might well disappear with climate change. Some encouragement has also been offered by the French and Belgian (but not, currently, the UK) governments. I suspect that it's not going to be easy to a) define precisely what ecocide is (much of current farming, extraction of hydrochemicals or even running an airline might come into consideration if certain definitions prevailed) and b) get the idea adopted by larger nations (they generally operate under the assumption that 'their land' is theirs to do as they like). We should clearly not forget damage to the planet's oceans but it might well be harder to identify a miscreant in those cases. Presumably, any laws could not be retrospective or the Victorian British might be ontrial for starting the Industrial Revolution. I do think that there are serious issues here. However, distinguishing between activities which cause 'allowable' damage to ecosystems from those (e.g. destruction of the Brazilian rainforest) that strike a majority of people as clearly reprehensible, is not going to be easy. After that, getting the 'ecocriminals' to court and extracting meaningful penalties (that put right the damage?) is also going to be hard.

Meanwhile, Down on the Farm

It is generally acknowledged that the European Union's Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) has been a disaster for biodiversity. CAP essentially awards subsidies to farmers solely on the basis of their land area. In England, 70% of the land surface is given up to farming and a few, very rich folk (including the Queen and James Dyson) cream off most of the £1.6bn of subsidies ( Post-Brexit, the UK government claims, they will alter the basis of subsidies, so that environmental issues, such as increasing biodiversity, play a much bigger role. Megafarms largely reduce the range of species by concentrating on monocultures, with their attendant herbicides and insecticides. One of the reasons why military training land is biodiverse, is that it excludes farming. There remain some areas of concern. The plan says little about how money will help maintain 'wild areas' on holdings like moorland and salt water bogs (that, formerly, tended to be converted into low grade farmland). It also a bit worrying to read, that the intention is to eventually aim for agricultural subsidies (of any kind) to be phased out. The initial redirecting of the £1.6bn is also going to be unhelpful, if we end up with improved land management in the UK, only to have land (and animal welfare?) degradation in 'foreign' locations. This would inevitably materialise, if the current obsession with 'trade deals at any price', resulted in UK farmers being undercut by cheap imports. We might end up with a 'green and pleasant land', whilst we feast on chlorinated chicken and hormone-treated beef.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

Vaccine Wars: All Quiet on the Eastern Front

China seems to be using its technical abilities in a form of 'vaccine diplomacy'. It appears to hope, that this will restore the damage caused by its perceived tardy response to the outbreak of the Covid-19 pandemic and the making of some shoddy personal protective equipment ( China appears to have a 3-pronged approach. Firstly, it has 5 vaccines undergoing testing but a shortage of people infected with the virus in China. The Chinese are consequently conducting the required mandatory testing on their vaccines in trading partner countries with major outbreaks (Brazil, Indonesia and Turkey), with mutual benefits. Secondly, they are getting kudos by entering into agreements to preferentially supply trading partners with validated vaccines (and the means of making them theirselves). For example, they have promised that 6 million doses of CoronaVac (made by Sinovac) will reach Brazil by January. Thirdly, they have promised to help finance the obtaining of vaccines by countries that cannot afford the outlay. They have also (unlike the USA, which seems to have been intent on buying up vaccine only for its own population) joined the scheme to distribute vaccines to the less developed parts of the world. This is needed, if Sars-CoV-2 is to be actually eradicated from the world stage. The policy seems astute, as it is likely to cement China's position as a world leader in technology and trading. The 'Silk Road' appears to be rising again.

Climate Change and Having Kids

A relatively small study of 600 (atypical?) people, between the ages of 27 and 45, has been carried out by a Dr Schneider-Mayerson of Yale-NUS College in Singapore. All the individuals were 'already factoring climate concerns into their reproductive choices' ( The group was self-selected, lived in the US, were largely white, more highly educated and liberal (all from the University?). Some 'dry' concerns about the life-time carbon footprint of each child were expressed. The vast majority of the respondents appeared, however, to be more concerned about the welfare of their children in a climate-changed world. In deed, some were choosing not to have children, as they feared leaving them to struggle in a dying world. This illustrates how environmental considerations can impact upon people. It would be of interest to know whether the impact of climate change fears varies in different cohorts (including religions and political affiliations) of folk.

Molecular Origami

Proteins make up 50% of the dry mass of living tissues. Scientists know of the existence of about 200 million different proteins. The shape...