Wednesday, 29 November 2017

A Boy Thing?


There is an interesting study in Cell Reports suggesting that the sex difference in asthma incidence in adult humans may be a consequence of the pubertal surge in testosterone (https://www.theguardian.com/society/2017/nov/28/testosterone-could-explain-why-asthma-is-more-common-in-women-than-men). In childhood, boys are more likely to develop this respiratory problem than girls but the situation is reversed at puberty, with the condition being twice as prevalent in women. The scientists involved in the study focused on a type of white blood cell, ILC2, that is produced in the bone marrow before lodging in many tissues including the lungs. When foreign proteins (such as pollen or house mite dust) enter the lungs, the ILC2 cells produce cytokines that promote anti-inflammatory immune responses (although there is evidence that there may be different sub-populations of ILC2 cells with varying responses to cytokines). Asthma may be regarded as an overly intense inflammatory reaction in the lungs to 'allergens'. The Cell Reports study used very small samples of adult human subjects but seemed to show that subjects with asthma had more ILC2 cells than non-asthmatic counterparts. No sex-differences in cell levels were seen in healthy subjects but asthmatic women had twice as many ILC2 cells than men with the condition. The researchers then turned to mice where lung samples and hormone manipulations can be carried out. Lung samples revealed that adult female mice had more ILC2 cells than males or younger mice of either sex. Castration in early life (removing the source of testosterone) resulted in male mice showing an expansion of ILC2 cells in lung tissue comparable with that seen in adult females. It consequently seems likely that testosterone has a 'dampening' effect on the development of lung ILC2 cells and this accounts for the decline in asthma incidence in men after puberty. The link between asthma and sex-steroids is, however, probably more complex than this and needs to consider the ILC2 sub-populations as well as other androgens and oestrogens.

Tuesday, 28 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1243


Just in time! A male Pale November moth (Epirrita christyi) moth appeared in Loughor.

Wednesday, 22 November 2017

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 hunting ban on Brown bears (and other carnivores) (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/22/how-the-brown-bear-became-public-enemy-number-one-in-rural-romania). It is estimated that there are around 6000 Brown bears in that country (there are paid tours to see them in the wild) but rural folk have claimed that stopping the activities of local hunting associations has destroyed the 'natural balance' between bears and people. Bears are blamed for 'attacks' on people, livestock and crops and some locals are developing poisonous baits to kill them. Getting people to tolerate potentially dangerous animals is not easy (especially if they dont see an economic benefit).

D-Days?


Vitamin D can be manufactured under the skin by exposure to UV light. People living nearer the poles (especially if they have darker complexions), are likely to have to take in more of this material, in the winter (when sunlight in weaker and clothing heavier), via their diets, if they want healthy muscles and bones. In deed, it has now been suggested that this vitamin has a beneficial effect, preventing rheumatoid arthritis, meaning that people should be encouraged to take supplements, especially when days are short (https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2017/nov/21/vitamin-d-may-help-prevent-rheumatoid-arthritis-suggests-study). Some people have even suggested that vitamin D should be added to some common foods (as iodine is added to table salt).

Monday, 20 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1242


Saw literally 100s of the alien Ring-necked parakeet (Psittacula krameri) roosting by the M4 motorway near the turn off for Windsor. Saw two of the same beasties hassling a Grey squirrel in Crystal Palace park.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Seeing the Changes 1241


There are some impressively bright lichens on the wooden bridge in Bynea.

Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Face Off?


Disturbing news that academics have apparently been able to sufficiently differentiate folk as introverts or extroverts, on the basis of a single Facebook 'like', and to subsequently get the cohorts to show a 40-50% increase in positive responses to targeted advertisements (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/13/facebook-likes-targeted-advertising-psychological-persuasion-academics-research). These academics did not have a financial interest in the research. The study seems a little preliminary as the 'likes' were associated with fairly 'blatant' indicators (such as liking the Lady Gaga site) and the targeted advertising also (for beauty products or gaming apps) seemed pretty focused to appeal to the type of personality. Having said that, a pattern of 'likes' (often over many years) could be very revealing, enabling manipulators (advertisers, politicians, trouble-makers and criminals) to focus their attentions on likely 'marks'. It is probable that this has already happened. We do seem to need to think further on such issues. Think carefully, if you are tempted to 'like' this!

Monday, 13 November 2017

The Codger's Cogitations 1.


I had a very interesting conversation recently with a  younger person who claimed that they "believed in Science, as they didn't believe in anything else". Age slows down the mental responses but I wish I could have made the following points (not because I don't value Science also but because lay people need reminding) at the time. The first is that Science has no role in 'magical thinking' (this is one reason why some mathematically-based studies, like Economics, are not really, in my view, the province of Science). The second is that Science deals in probabilities (and probability and risk are poorly understood issues by some scientists as well as the general public). This means that your scientific 'fact' might always (however, improbably) be wrong. This is a feature actually used to attack Science by people who want a world of absolutes. The third is that scientists are, by their training and predispositions(?) nit-pickers, so you can always find someone who takes a contrary view or places an emphasis elsewhere. Add in the fact that Science, as presented to the public, generally involves simplifications and you have a somewhat confusing mix!

Sunday, 12 November 2017

Museums in a Time Warp?



It is disturbing to note that, even with potential support from the National Lottery and other bodies, around 40% of regional museums have been forced, by financial restrictions, to cut their opening hours (https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2017/nov/12/new-battle-hasting-save-museums-cuts-reduce-opening-hours). Museums (along with libraries) are institutions that are ripe for cutting when local government funding becomes inadequate (most cannot charge general admittance as they have been designated as being 'free' ). Another way of enthusing the next generation outside the capital consequently appears to be in serious jeopardy. Museums are not simply, in my view, replaced by apps.

Scratching the Bottom


The great success of Blue Planet 2 on BBC has apparently provided a big boost for companies offering commercial submarine tours in many parts of the globe (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/nov/12/blue-planet-submarines-tourism-oceans-tourism). Tours may shortly be available to view the wreck of the Titanic deep in the Atlantic as well as to marvel at marine life in the Pacific, the Arctic and the Antarctic. In one sense, it is nice that people are enthused by the programmes but there are some downsides to this trend. Rather obviously, the increased submarine activity might well further damage (mechanically and by chemical and light pollution) some of the chosen locations. In addition, the punters may well not realise that the action in the programme is, in many cases,  the result of careful editing of hundreds of hours of recording  (they may consequently be disappointed by what they see). Finally, some of the new aquanauts are likely to be physically and emotionally problematic submariners.

Seeing the Changes 1240


In spite of the cold, a Feathered thorn (Colotois pennaria) appeared outside my Loughor house.

Friday, 10 November 2017

How Long Can the Luck of the Creatures From the Dark Side Last?


A recent study by 2 Japanese scientists has found that the dinosaur extinction was a very unlucky event (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/09/unlucky-dinosaurs-no-extinction-if-asteroid-had-hit-almost-any-other-part-of-earth). The 9 km-wide asteroid thumped into what is now the Yucatan peninsula of Mexico and, at that time, it was part of only 13% of the Earth's surface where there were enough hydrocarbon reserves to generate a dust cloud sufficient to produce the world-wide climate change (with a chronic cutting off of sunlight and a 10 degree Celsius reduction in average temperature). This led to more than 3/4 of animals on land and in the sea being driven to extinction. Of course, what was bad news for the dinosaurs was very good news for the Mammals (whose retinal structures were rod dominated, suggesting that, whilst dinosaurs were around, had been limited to a nocturnal life-style). And so, we have the age of the Mammals. It is interesting to speculate that, if the asteroid had hit almost anywhere else, we would not now be potentially facing a mass extinction event largely driven by human activities (the so-called Anthropocene).

Wednesday, 8 November 2017

It's Nuts!


There are lots of angry folk complaining that the makers of Nutella spread have 'sneaked in' changes to the formula (https://www.theguardian.com/business/2017/nov/07/choc-horror-fans-outraged-by-nutellas-secret-recipe-change). The company have reportedly basically increased the sugar content from 55.9% to 56.3% and the fat content (by the addition of skimmed milk powder) from 7.5% to 8.7%, whilst reducing actual hazelnut content. People don't like such changes but the changes are hardly converting a superfood into a health hazard (the sugar content of both versions is 'off the scale'). Given the incidence of obesity and type 2 diabetes, one might have thought the pressure was to reduce sugar content!

Following the Herd?


Sheep don't have very good PR, generally being regarded as being passive and lacking any interest in their surroundings. Having said that, it has been known for many years that mother sheep can distinguish the bleat of their lamb from all others in the herd. Scientists at Cambridge have now demonstrated that Welsh Mountain sheep, not only can visually recognise the facial characteristics of their handler but can be taught to distinguish celebrities (e.g. Barack Obama and Emma Watson) from other folk with accuracies approaching those seen in humans (https://www.theguardian.com/science/2017/nov/08/is-it-baa-rack-obama-sheep-able-to-recognise-celebrities-say-neuroscientists). This is not only a finding that gives sheep more personality but may also be used to gain a better understanding of Huntingdon's disease (a strain of sheep with this condition has been derived).

Tuesday, 7 November 2017

Limpet Mine?


Uses seem to have been found, by the Biofirm Mikota, for the alien Slipper limpet (Crepidula fornicata) that is now almost ubiquitous on Welsh beaches (www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-41787855). The mollusc can be 'mined' for its respiratory pigment, haemocyanin, that can be used in the treatment of breast and bladder cancers. In addition, the collagen from its muscular foot can be extracted for use as a 'packing material' in restorative medicine. They might even manage to get the numbers down.

Foodies Prepare for Brexit?


There has been a spate of stories about people attempting to grow high value food ingredients in the UK. I have recently heard about the growing of the flowers to produce the spice, saffron (repeatedly said to be 'more valuable than gold on a weight for weight basis'). Other folk are encouraging the growth of black truffle fungi in the root systems of imported oaks. Tea is now grown in Cornwall. This, of course, is not to mention the activities of British vineyards.

Sunday, 5 November 2017

Climate Change Pessimism Viewed a Crime?


There has been a rather sad account by the birder and essayist, Jonathan Franzen, who clearly feels that he has been attacked by components of bodies concerned about climate change, not because he is a denier, but mainly because he has no belief in 'the 10 years to save the planet' argument (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/nov/04/jonathan-franzen-too-late-to-save-world-donald-trump-environment). He basically argues that the 10 year figure has been quoted for decades, in spite of the situation worsening over that same period. He also thinks that bodies such as the US Audubon Society are too quick to jump to climate change as the peril for birds when habitat loss and hunting are more immediate threats. He is clearly pessimistic about humans getting their collective act together to limit climate change, pointing out that no country has actually committed to leave 'their' hydrocarbons (in the form of oil or gas) in the ground. He apparently believes that countries are driven by short-term financial issues and that even environmental bodies use the 10 year argument to drive recruitment and increase donations. It seems that there is no space for a pessimist (realist?). 

Marine Rag and Bone Men


There is a disturbing report that many of the marine war graves of Asia are being rapidly illegally stripped of the metals (https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/nov/03/worlds-biggest-grave-robbery-asias-disappearing-ww2-shipwrecks). The graves in question, associated with the remains of hundreds of bodies, are sunken American, Australian, British and Japanese vessels from World War 2. What I did not appreciate is that steel from such ships has increased value as, being produced prior to 1945, is radiation free. The metal is consequently very desirable  for use in the production of Geiger counters and other scientific instruments.

Treatment for Headcases?

It has recently been demonstrated that a cheap and easily-available drug, transexamic acid, used to treat knife and gunshot wounding, ben...