Oxford Science Magazine 8th Edition Trinity Term 2011
The Art of Science
The challenging science and technology quiz game Special price for Bang! readers:
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Congratulations to Andrea Szöllössi, winner Untitled-1 of last issue’s creative competition. Andrea wins a copy of The Earth After Us, by Dr Jan Zalasiewicz.
My drawing is of a burnt out candle, the second the flame disappears. The concept behind it is that we can never know for sure what the Earth will be like if we are not there to see; a deep blackness seemed the most appropriate depiction to me. The candle is a symbol inspired from my undergraduate reading of an old edition of Lehninger’s Biochemistry. He was explaining very beautifully how the extremely well-organised nature of living organisms (from molecular level onwards) is against the law of entropy. However, because the Laws of Thermodynamics must be obeyed, a “compromise” has been reached: living systems (that is to say metabolic pathways) are increasing their entropy at a very slow rate. To me this suggested we do not die with a bright explosion, we steadily and silently burn out, like a candle. Andrea Szöllössi is a second year Masters student researching chemical biology.
Turn to page 21 for details about how to enter this issue’s competition.
In this Issue... 2 Editorial 3 News 4 Broken Heart? 5 Evolution or Revolution? 7 The War on Malaria 8 Queer Beasts 9 Sleep On It 11 Staying Upright 12 On the Edge 13 It’s Only Natural 15 The Birds and the Bees 16 Flower Power 17 Computing on the Brain 18 Why’s There Hair There? 19 Something in the Air 20 Zombie Ants 21 Literary Matter 21 Bug-free Bugs 22 Just Wide of Lamarck 23 Does Size Matter? 25 Riddler’s Digest 25 Try This at Home... 26 Bang! talks to... Roger Highfield 27 Patent Disregard Director - Nicola Davis Editors - Philip Bennett & Ciara Dangerfield Creative Director - Samuel Pilgrim Layout Editors - Sofia Hauck & Rebekah Pawley Editorial Team - Jack Binysh, William Brandler, Nicky Dean, Jai Juneja, Ian Polding & Alisa Selimovic Creative Team - Leila Battison, Maria Demidova, Elizaveta Gelfreykh, Inez Januszczak, Ilse Lee & Anna Pouncey Business Team - Mark Ramotowski, Thomas Stubbs & Ben Yu Website Manager - Lauren Heathcote Website Editors - Jack Binysh & Jai Juneja
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n recent months we have been relentlessly reminded of the power of Nature. The earthquakes in both New Zealand and Japan have literally shaken the world, tornadoes in the USA have swept through the southern states and even the normally benign UK has had wildfires to contend with. In each of these cases some important technological advances have reduced the impact of these disasters. These advances would not have come about if it wasnâ€™t for our instinctive curiosity about the world around us and our continual quest to progress towards a better understanding of it. Science is the instrument we use to fulfil this aspiration. The scientific method provides a rigorous framework by which we can explore new ideas; through observation and experiment we test hypotheses to their limits and reject those that donâ€™t fit with the evidence. This principle can be applied to every aspect of our lives and as such, through learning about science, we gain insight into something far deeper. Just as nature evolves to better cope with its surroundings, so our theories must change in order to best explain new evidence. In this issue, we have tried to capture this and convey the diversity and beauty of the natural world. In doing so, we have also shown the wide variety of scientific fields. These fields are not distinct from one another but are connected together just as branches of a tree are joined by a common trunk. Collaborations across disciplines are becoming more and more common in science, blurring the lines between even the elementary strands of biology, physics and chemistry. The interdisciplinary nature of science is perfectly illustrated by the articles we have chosen for the Trinity term issue of Bang!. From evolutionary biology to the philosophy of science, mechanics to ethnobotany weâ€™ve got it all for you in here, so join us in our exploration of the natural world and learn about the wonders all around you. Philip Bennett and Ciara Dangerfield Editors
Art by Leila Battison
Virtual Drug Spiders in Tests a Spin M T any drugs fail to reach the market due to adverse effects on the heart, at great cost to the pharmaceutical companies. This is in part due to the crude measures used by drug companies to study the impact of a compound on the heart’s rhythm. Through the Prediction of Drug Cardiac Toxicity project (PreDiCT), computer scientists at the University of Oxford are trying to tackle this problem by using mathematical models to improve drug safety and provide pharmaceutical companies with a quick, accurate and cheap method for testing new potential compounds. Using experimental data they have developed advanced computational models that simulate drug action in the human heart from the subcellular to whole organ level. These techniques have been used to help better understand the mechanisms by which the drugs interact with the heart, as well as providing a more reliable means of classifying drugs as safe or dangerous. Ciara Dangerfield
he mention of silk may evoke images of ties, parachutes and hell-to-wash expensive shirts; however the remarkable properties of natural silk have prompted research into its many uses in industry and medicine. The Oxford Silk Group, led by Professor Fritz Vollrath, is studying the biology of spider silks, with the aim of totally unravelling the chemistry, ecology and evolution of these remarkable materials. Most recently the Silk Group has begun examining the physical and chemical properties of silks and the tiny protein components involved in the structure-function relationships of both the finished fibre and its formation. The Silk Group are also comparing insect and spider silk spinning, providing new insights into the natural extrusion process and the importance of the controlled folding of the component proteins. It was for this type of study that the Oxford Silk Group recently featured on the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility website. In fact the Silk Group has been promoting the wonders of silk to the public for over 30 years in all forms of media, with a crew from The Discovery Channel having just finished filming in its labs. Furthermore, the Silk Group has been involved in founding spin-out companies such as Oxford Biomaterials Ltd and, most recently, Orthox. This company uses a biomaterial based upon proteins extracted from spider silk to repair cartilage tissue.
Know Your Neighbour
ancy yourself as a lunar explorer? Well now’s your opportunity to get exploring, in a virtual sense at least, with the launch of Moon Zoo. This latest Citizen Science project allows web users the chance to survey the lunar landscape in unparalleled detail, all from the comfort of their own home. This has been made possible by NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO), which is able to take images at such high-resolution that even abandoned equipment from Apollo missions is visible. As well as getting the opportunity to discover previously unseen territory, visitors to the site can also get involved by helping to answer crucial scientific questions. For example, users can count the craters they observe on the surface of the moon, which helps scientists determine the age of a certain region and the depth of the lunar soil. Understanding these craters may also prove important in identifying safe landing sites for future missions to the Moon, as Moon Zoo team leader Chris Lintott, of Oxford University’s Department of Physics points out. Participants are encouraged to alert the team to any interesting discoveries, which have so far included rolling boulders, vast pits and possible lava flows. Due to the sheer volume of images taken using the LRO, scientists have selected the most interesting images, but there are more in reserve for future use. So why not go online and follow in the footsteps of great astronauts before you, by discovering the unknown wonders of our nearest neighbour. Ciara Dangerfield
Art by Leila Battison
Broken Heart? Plenty more fish in the sea
ne in three deaths in the UK occur as a result of heart and circulatory diseases and, for the moment, there’s no cure for a broken heart. When our hearts are damaged, the muscle is unable to recover, however this is not true for the humble zebrafish. A member of the minnow family, the zebrafish is not only a popular pet but is also proving to be a useful research guide, showing us how to repair damaged heart muscle. These tropical fish are able to repair their hearts, even when up to 20% has been damaged or removed. Researchers both in the UK and abroad are now working on ways to reproduce this phenomenon in human hearts. Until recently it was thought that future treatments for heart damage would involve stem cells. These cells have the unique ability to replenish their own numbers and mature into other cell types. Hence it was thought that their transplantation directly into damaged hearts could help the heart to repair. However, research from the Centre of Regenerative Medicine in Barcelona shows that zebrafish use adult heart tissue rather than stem cells to repair their hearts.
They saw something unexpected and quite miraculous.
Izpisúa Belmonte and his team in Barcelona used the transparency of the zebrafish to their advantage. Using microscopes they were able to look at the hearts of living fish, watch them beating, and see the blood flow around their bodies. They also observed damaged hearts heal in real time, and while watching this process they saw something unexpected and quite miraculous. First, a blood clot formed over the heart wound. This happened almost
immediately to prevent death due to loss of blood. The outer membrane of the heart, known as the epicardium, then enveloped the damaged area and began to stimulate repair. The epicardium appeared to signal to the adult heart cells close to the wounded area. These adult heart cells changed shape, pulled away from their neighbours and began to divide, replacing damaged tissue. It was previously thought that as heart muscle cells are highly specialised functional cells, they would not be able to function in repair. Indeed, during our evolution, these same cells in human hearts seem to have lost their ability to respond to damage in this way. It is hoped that if we have a better
understanding of how zebrafish heart cells sense and respond to heart damage, we may be able to coax our own heart cells into a more stem cell-like state, allowing them to multiply and repair damaged heart tissue just like the zebrafish. Promisingly, this research has already shown some encouraging results. Thymosine beta-4, a zebrafish protein with a human equivalent, is to be the focus of a new heart-repairing drug. Research by Professor Paul Riley from the Institute of Child Health, University College London, has shown that this protein is involved in controlling the epicardial membrane so that it triggers new heart growth and angiogenesis (the growth of blood vessels into the damaged area). The aim of the research is to develop a drug treatment to increase the levels of Thymosine
beta-4 in the epicardium and so encourage repair. Just imagine, in the future mending a broken heart may be as routine as fixing a broken leg! “If we could find a biological way of repairing damaged cardiac muscle, it would certainly obviate the need for heart transplants for some people who have had heart attacks,” says Professor Peter
These tropical fish are able to repair their hearts when up to 20% has been damaged or removed.
Weissberg, medical director of the British Heart Foundation (BHF). The BHF have acknowledged the promise of this research and have recently announced an extra fifty million pounds to be made available over the next five years to develop the field of regenerative medicine. Advances in medical treatments has, over the last few decades, resulted in a fall in the number of deaths from heart attacks. However, an ageing population and the very fact that more people are surviving heart attacks has resulted in over 750,000 people living in the UK with the burden of heart damage. It is amazing to think that a tiny fish could hold the promise of a better quality of life for so many, and with the spawning of a new approach to healing hearts, it would seem that this research is no red herring.
Stuart Meiklejohn is a DPhil student studying zebrafish development at the Weatherall Institute of Molecular Medicine. Art by Inez Januszczak.
Evolution Revolution? or
How philosophers interpret scientific discovery
n 1927, twenty-nine of the world’s leading physicists gathered in Solvay, Brussels for a conference on “Electrons and Photons.” Seventeen attendees went on to become Nobel Prize winners. Although invitations were only extended to those considered leaders in their fields, it is striking that the enthusiasts of such a confined scientific discipline received such repeated honour at science’s most prestigious awards. It may not seem so surprising however, given some of their pivotal discoveries.
tested by experiment and then either corroborated and integrated into the scientific model, or falsified and discarded. Through this distillation, a more accurate theory of the world crystallised.
allowing them to collectively pursue research within the framework.
However, Kuhn recognised that the intrinsic rigidity of a paradigm would lead to its inevitable failure. An accretion However, such a steady, accumulative of experimental evidence calling the model of progress does not seem to assumptions of a paradigm into question tally with the quite extraordinary, and would cause the community to enter a surprisingly rapid, advancements made by tumultuous and unguided ‘crisis’ period. small groups, such In this time, new as those at Solvay theories would in 1927 . Thomas Kuhn instigated his very be tried and old Kuhn realised this own paradigm shift ones revisited in Twenty-seven years earlier in 1894 and so, in 1962, desperate attempts Albert Michelson, a distinguished published his to search for some physicist himself, bravely asserted, “The seminal work The Structure of Scientific kind of understanding. If unresolved, more important fundamental laws and Revolutions, which offered a starkly this crisis would eventually culminate facts of physical science have all been contrasting alternative to the Popperian in a shift to a new paradigm; leaving discovered”. Nine years later, in his view. Kuhn believed that by treating the old paradigm to die, for, “to desert famous Annus Mirabilis papers, Einstein Popper’s philosophy as a realistic pattern the paradigm is to cease practising the revealed the “Principle of Relativity,” “the of scientific development, people were science it defines.” equivalence of mass and energy,” and overlooking what could be learned from described light as made of “discrete the history of scientific progress. In the 1840s the discovery of peculiar quanta.” What followed this was a rapid motion in the orbit of Uranus led Urbain period of profound and pervasive scientific Kuhn had noticed some problems with Le Verrirer to suspect a fault in the upheaval and discovery that saw many Popper’s theory. First, since all theories accepted theory of the solar system. scientists celebrated for their contributions. are inherently imperfect, they would be Rather than question the paradigm of The pace of scientific discoveries such falsified. This would leave Popperian Newtonian gravity, Le Verrier suggested as these, led philosopher’s to begin adherents with no theories to believe that an additional trans-Uranian planet wondering how the nature of scientific in. On the other hand, if the Popperians was causing the perturbed trajectory, an discoveries is best described. clung to a theory until a sufficient ‘degree idea that was validated with the discovery of falsification’ was provided, Popper’s of Neptune. An additional planet was Karl Popper absolute analysis discovered, and faith in the Newtonian was one such would be reduced paradigm was strengthened by the philosopher who The community could to a probabilistic success. Turning his attention to similar developed his own enter a tumultuous judgement. misbehaviours in the motion of Mercury, theory on scientific and unguided ‘crisis’ period Le Verrier postulated an intra-Mercurial discovery. He was Kuhn’s suggestion planet, even naming it Vulcan. No such heavily influenced was that ‘normal planet was ever found. Increasingly by Einstein’s papers, whose theories he science’ was instead conducted within a concerned by the unexplained data, felt had a real audacity which the works of framework or ‘paradigm’ of assumed facts scientists attempted other explanations his philosophical contemporaries lacked; which provided a structure of common including an aspherical sun and some Einstein’s claims had the potential to be beliefs and language. This common awkward corrections to Newton’s theory. refuted with simple observations. This structure is what allows scientists to Ultimately though, the Newtonian paradigm inspired Popper to produce his theory of collaborate without becoming bogged had been stretched beyond its limits and scientific discovery (see Bang! Michaelmas down by the imperfections of the current the ‘crisis’ eventually precipitated the shift Term 2010, p7). The idea, which proved theory, or their personal scientific views, to a new paradigm, that of Einsteinian extremely influential, was that scientists Relativity. contributed refined theories which were 5
Kuhn’s hypothesis provided an appealing explanation for these “scientific revolutions,” but was at odds with the Popperian view. Kuhn maintained that the process of a paradigm shift, for example, from Newtonian to Einsteinian physics, is not achieved by a gradual merging process. This inter-paradigm rift proposed by Kuhn emphasised that the two philosophies of Kuhn and Popper were so fundamentally different that they could not be reconciled. These clashes contributed heavily to the somewhat rocky reception of Kuhn’s work. The consequence seemed to be that it is impossible to judge which of the two paradigms is better. But the shock to the scientific community went deeper. During the 17th Century, great minds such as Isaac Newton started to replace the then widely accepted ideas of the Ancient Greeks with radical new scientific views. Kuhn’s theory saw this as a scientific revolution, or more specifically The Scientific Revolution—the period which marked the transition from primitive to mature science. Many scientists and philosophers did not warm to the possibility that such discontinuous paradigm shifts could be a feature of progress in mature sciences, and maintained that intellectual development was a process of refinement. By daring to contradict this, Kuhn was perceived to be dragging science back to the dark ages, claiming that the scientific endeavour had not only not progressed towards the goal of a complete understanding, but that since paradigms will always fail, even the notion of such a goal was preposterous.
fighting to challenge what he perceived as a misguided understanding; the establishment defended itself as vigorously as Kuhn claimed it would as he instigated his very own paradigm shift. Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions is now one of the most
cited academic books of all time, and his contribution to scientific philosophy unquestioned. As for the scientific community, notable for failing to heed the importance of historical study, it learned some valuable lessons; in Kuhn’s own words, “history, if viewed as a repository for more than anecdote or chronology, could provide a decisive transformation in the image of science by which we are now possessed.”
Isaac Newton Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica published 1687
Discovery of Neptune 1846
Albert Einstein Annus Mirabilis papers published 1905
Thus, without attempting to undermine the reputations of those twenty nine at Solvay in 1927, they are, in terms of Kuhnian philosophy, differentiated from leading scientists of any era mostly by the fact they were working in a time of scientific “crisis” when discoveries were there for the taking. Criticism of Kuhn’s stance claimed that he had swung too far in opposition to Popper in claiming that Popperian refinement was completely invalid. Duly, with age, Kuhn softened his stance, conceding that progress may not require a total breakdown of scientific framework, and later even attempted to reconcile his views with a Darwinian evolutionary tree model of scientific thought. The reactionary nature of Kuhn’s initial stance can easily be understood as the product of the context of his work. Kuhn was
Karl Popper The Logic of Scientific Discovery published 1959 Thomas Kuhn The Structure of Scientific Revolutions published 1962
Philip Crowley is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Physics at St. Hugh’s College. Art by Inez Januszczak.
The War on
alaria is about to be totally eradicated and you will never make a career, let alone a living from it”. This was the advice given in the 1950s to the aspiring malariologist, Robert Desowitz. The first Global Eradication of Malaria Programme was launched in 1955, and yet there are still 250 million cases recorded each year.
Fighting for global eradication A number of new tools have become available that have altered the ways in which malaria is controlled in the last twenty years. One of these is include artemisinin, a drug that Chinese herbalists have been using to treat malaria since the 4th
Malaria is a potentially deadly, infectious disease transmitted to humans by mosquitoes infected with malaria parasites, with symptoms including fever, renal failure and brain damage. The first Malaria eradication programme depended on use of the insecticide DDT. DDT was sprayed on the inside of houses, killing mosquitoes when they landed on walls after feeding. But by 1969 the evolution of resistance to DDT in the mosquito left the project in disarray. Additionally, DDT was the subject of controversy in the 1970s when issues arose regarding its toxicity and carcinogenic effects on humans. The insecticide was subsequently banned for agricultural usage in many countries.
Malaria remains endemic in 109 countries.
Not only have the mosquitoes fought back, so has the malaria parasite, Plasmodium, which quickly evolved resistance to some of the most effective anti-malarial drugs, such as chloroquine. In spite of these difficulties, 37 countries were declared malaria free by 1978. However, malaria remains endemic in 109 countries, kills 780,000 people annually and slows the growth of African economies by 2% a year. Since 2000, the Gates Foundation has poured more than $1 billion into malaria research, with the hope of eradicating the disease. But are we in a scientific position to once again put eradication plans in place?
through insecticide treated nets between 2001 and 2010. A key research focus of the Gates Foundation is the long-sought-after malaria vaccine. Many aspects of malaria make vaccine development difficult. First, the parasite hides in our cells, making it difficult for our immune system to locate it. Second, the parasite moves rapidly through a number of life stages, each of which must be targeted by a different vaccine. Third, there are multiple strains of the parasite, such that a vaccine against one strain is likely to be ineffective against others. Despite these challenges, a vaccine known as RTS,S has been developed. A recent field study published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimated that the vaccine results in up to 50% reduction in severe
The mosquitoes have fought back.
disease in children. If final trials are successful the vaccine could be on the market by 2013.
century. Anti-malarial drugs derived from artemisinin have filled the gap left by resistance of the parasite to chloroquine. The effectiveness of this new drug is, however, threatened by the abundance of cheaper counterfeit drugs with lower levels of the active ingredient. Low-dose drugs do not effectively eliminate the parasite from the body, allowing the survivors to pass resistance to their offspring. Another well-known tool is insecticide treated nets, which cost around £3 each and last for four years before requiring retreatment. An estimated 350 million nets are needed for worldwide, and 200 million have been delivered to African countries to date. It is estimated that over 900,000 deaths have been averted
Malaria elimination is considerably harder to achieve than control. An eradication programme may transfer resources from areas where malaria is most damaging, to areas where it is easiest to eliminate. To eliminate the last 10% of malaria requires significantly more effort and funding than the previous 10%. The World Health Organisation agrees that complete interruption of malaria transmission will require additional novel control tools, beyond those currently available. Furthermore, even if a disease can be locally eliminated, transmission can quickly be resurrected with the invasion of a small number of infected mosquitoes from another region. Bill Gates has thrown a huge amount of money at this war, yet as we can see, it will not be easily won. We can only hope that modern science will provide new weapons to outflank such persistant parasites.
Elinor Godfrey is a 2nd year DPhil student at Magdalen College and in the Zoology Department. Art by Elizaveta Gelfreykh.
Queer Beasts D
arwinian natural selection favours the fittest organisms. From an evolutionary perspective, fit animals are essentially those that survive and produce the most offspring. Homosexual behaviours occurring across the animal kingdom, from flamingos to bison, seem at odds with the latter point. Obviously, offspring cannot be produced from same-sex copulation, so fitness is reduced to zero. However, there are now numerous adaptive hypotheses reconciling homosexual behaviour with Darwinian theory. Bottlenose dolphins exemplify these theories for male-male interactions, whilst macaques do the same for female-female contact.
Macaques, in contrast, frequently indulge in female-female sexual interactions.
Off the coast of Weymouth in 2002, George the dolphin became a cause for concern when he became sexually aggressive and attempted to mate with swimmers: an extreme expression of the normally playful sexual nature of dolphins. It has recently been discovered through careful studies of pods in the Indian Ocean, that this extends to homosexual behaviour. Male dolphins in particular form small groups in which they mount each other in sexual positions or make contact with the genital area with the beak or pectoral fin. These homosexual interactions primarily appear to function in establishing long-term social structure. Trust between pod members is needed when exposing the delicate genital area to others, and this trust facilitates long-term social bonds. Also, the intimate exploration of other individuals’ physical attributes gives
Climbing and swimming out of the closet members of the group a better knowledge of the strengths and weaknesses of allies. The resultant cohesive and well organised group then gains the upper hand in competitive and conflict situations with other pods. Another potential function of close contact is to allow assessment of physical asymmetries, with repeated interactions contributing to the establishment of dominance hierarchies. If one male is stronger than the others, he can mount more often and establish himself as the alpha male, with clear benefits to his own fitness. Homosexual behaviour occurs most often amongst dolphin calves, suggesting a further, more direct sexual benefit to the calves alone. Perhaps they use homosexual interactions as practice for heterosexual activities like courtship and copulation—honing social and motor skills that can be employed in a heterosexual context later in life. So, in general, dolphin male-male homosexuality might not directly contribute to reproductive success, but in contributing to social structure it sets these mammals up to be fecund in the future. Macaques, in contrast, frequently indulge in female-female sexual interactions. Again, although these can be immediately costly for the female, they can still contribute to increased fitness in the future. For instance, these same-sex acts potentially function to attract
males that might be otherwise reluctant to mate. By mimicking the copulatory movements of rival males, a mounting female may encourage a dominant male into genuine copulation (he wants to spread his sperm before his rivals). The female benefits from his good-quality sperm. Equally, the mountee may benefit by showing she is sexually receptive and willing to mate. If the females are related, there may be some kin selection going on too: even if the interaction is costly to one partner, she may tolerate it given that her sister or mother (with whom genes are shared) will benefit.
George the dolphin became a cause for concern when he attempted to mate with swimmers.
A less altruistic alternative, though perhaps more in line with natural selection, is that the mounting female does so to remove competition for males between females. By providing an alternative form of sexual stimulation, the mounter reduces the receptivity of the mountee to future matings. Consistent with this, fertile female stumptail macaques are more likely to be mounted than less fertile females. Natural selection favours females that engage in heterosexual interactions, with obvious benefits in terms of offspring production. This behaviour may well be practised on other females, but crucially, if homosexual encounters are not particularly costly, they will not be selected against. At first glance, homosexual animals appear to violate a fundamental law of nature. But looking more closely, and remembering that animals might invest in the future as well as current sexual opportunities, suggests they may actually reap fitness benefits. Sure, the current opportunity to produce offspring is missed, but homosexual social exploitation and manipulation can provide opportunities for heterosexual, naturally-favoured sex in the future. Nigel Taylor is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences at Jesus College. Art by Elizaveta Gelfreykh.
Sleep On It
Wake up to the wonders of a good rest
e spend approximately a third of our lives sleeping. Why do we do it? What is it for? Sleeping animals are very vulnerable, so evolution would surely have selected against sleep if it did not serve some important purpose. Nevertheless, the reason why we sleep has remained elusive for many years. Recent research suggests that a major role of sleep is to consolidate memory; newlyacquired memories are strengthened and integrated with previous experience while we sleep. As we go about activities in our daily lives, such as talking to a friend in a cafe, our brain processes the sensory ingredients that make up our experience: the content of the conversation, the smell of coffee, the sound of the cash register and so on. This processing takes place in various
specialised regions in the outermost layer of the brain, called the neocortex. The separate sensory elements are rapidly bound together in an area deep inside the brain called the hippocampus. During subsequent sleep, the memory in the hippocampus is repeatedly reactivated, triggering reactivation of our memory in the neocortex. This process not only strengthens the memory, but also reorganises the way it is stored in the brain, allowing it to be integrated with existing memories. As a result, the information is stored more efficiently
Sleep can help us make connections
and can be used more flexibly; we are better equipped to identify information that is consistent across episodes (that your friend has developed a habit of complaining about their boss, for instance) and to make inferences (that your friend, who has a history of criticising people they are actually attracted to, may harbour a secret crush on their boss, for example).
This process of ‘reactivation’ is thought to happen during a specific stage of sleep called slow-wave sleep (SWS). There is a pattern of brain activity prevalent in SWS that drives reactivations in the hippocampus. Indeed, researchers have shown that artificially enhancing the slowwave using brain stimulation improved their participants’ memories on the information learnt the night before.
Reactivation Some evidence for the reactivation of memories during sleep comes from brain imaging studies. In one experiment, a group of people learnt how to navigate through a virtual reality environment and then slept in a brain scanner. It was found that the hippocampus was more active in subsequent SWS for these individuals than for people who had not been trained on the task. Thus, the hippocampus was ‘reactivated’ in SWS. Most importantly, the amount of hippocampal reactivation in the trained subjects was positively correlated with overnight improvement on the task. Observations of reactivations in humans are based on the activity of a whole brain region. However, in rats it is possible to record the activity of individual neurons. This technique has provided much stronger evidence that the actual patterns of neuronal activity associated with waking behaviour are replayed during subsequent SWS.
To be sure that such reactivations actually benefit our memory, researchers must manipulate them rather than just passively record them. Published in the prestigious journal Science in 2007, Rasch and Born at the University of Lübeck, Germany pioneered the first of a series of experiments that did just that. Their subjects learnt the locations of 15 card pairs on a computer screen in the context of the smell of a rose. Re-presentation of the odour during subsequent SWS led to reactivation of the hippocampus and improved memory for the card locations. However, you can’t just whip out some potpourri at bedtime the night before a test and expect to boost your score; Born and colleagues confirmed that the smell must also be present during learning to have this effect. Interestingly, re-presentation of the smell during wake and other stages of sleep neither benefited memory nor reactivated the hippocampus. This study suggests that when reactivations happen during sleep they consolidate our memory. It also highlights the possibility that during SWS, the hippocampus is especially sensitive to stimuli capable of inducing reactivations.
participants gained insight into the rule after eight hours of sleep compared to after equivalent periods of nocturnal or day-time wakefulness. This suggests that the gain must be a consequence of the sleeping brain re-processing information learnt whilst awake. Sleep can also help us make connections. Last year, Fischbein and coworkers at City College of the City University of New York taught people to associate each of thirty
While you are sleeping, your brain makes sense of your waking experiences.
So, you may learn something new every day, but every night helps you remember it!
objects with two different sets of faces. In a subsequent test, it was found that the subjects who had been allowed to nap after learning were better at identifying which faces were associated with one another, as they shared a link to the same object. This so-called ‘relational’ memory performance was correlated with the amount of SWS during the nap. This illustrates the power of the sleeping brain to integrate memories, allowing us to associate things that we have never actually seen together.
While you are sleeping, your brain makes sense of your waking experiences.
How much sleep should we get and when?
A recent experiment demonstrated that sleep can help you to gain insight. People were asked to process strings of digits—there was a hidden structure to the strings that meant that the answers could be reached much more quickly using a simple rule, but the participants did not gain insight into this rule during the initial training period. More than twice as many
Interestingly, you do not need to get a decent night’s sleep to consolidate your memory. In fact, some studies have shown that a nap of one to two hours can be just as good for your memory as a full night of sleep. As to when you should sleep, the time of day does not seem to matter. Studies have shown that nighttime sleep is no better than daytime sleep for consolidation of skill learning. Furthermore, researchers have
found that memories for verbal material (e.g. nonsense-syllables, words and stories) are equally affected by morning and evening naps. However, when your sleep falls relative to your waking activities is important. For instance, if you have an assignment to complete, it is a good idea to sleep between the reading and writing stages. This way, you can let your sleeping brain do some of your thinking for you. You may wake up with new insights and a readymade essay structure!
Eau de memory If you have something particularly important to learn, you would be well advised to invest in a timed-release air freshener. As in Born’s experiment, turn the air freshener on while you study. Then set the device to pump the smell into the room again while you are napping. Your brain will retrieve the associated information and strengthen your memory. To ensure that you don’t habituate to the smell, it should be delivered in pulses rather than released constantly. Don’t use a commonplace smell and don’t reuse it; this will reduce the specificity of the association and so dilute its power as a reminder. While many mysteries about sleep remain, it is now clear that replacing sleep with work is unwise if you want to remember the information in the long run. And, don’t forget, if you’re struggling with a problem, try sleeping on it!
Kathryn Atherton is a 1st year DPhil student in Neuroscience at New College. Art by Inez Januszczak.
Staying Upright How the humble bicycle defies the law of gravity
produces the stabilising effect explained above.
A similar effect can be observed even The problem, however, is that bicycles are when the bike is stationary. When you clearly much more stable when moving hold the bicycle by the saddle and then than when stationary even without a rider; lean it slightly to the right, you will find a runaway bicycle can go quite some that the wheel turns to the right of its own distance before accord. However falling over. We’ve while the bike is all seen daredevils The wheel turns to the stationary this effect riding ‘hands right of its own accord doesn’t produce off’—their bicycles any increase in are still stable but stability—it is they’re not producing this effect by turning only useful when the bicycle is moving, the handlebars, so some other mechanism because it causes the bicycle to travel must be at work. in a circular path and thus helps keep As experienced riders will know, if a bicycle it upright. begins to fall to one side, the best way That mechanism involves the turning effect to prevent toppling over is to steer the produced by the force of the ground acting Of course, there’s also some skill involved handlebars in the direction of the lean, upwards on the front wheel. This turning in staying on your bicycle. That’s because causing the bicycle to turn in that direction. effect relies on a small detail of bicycle the rider can add to these effects by The rider’s natural tendency however, is frame construction: you’ll find that the place shifting his weight around to produce to continue travelling in a straight line and where the front wheel touches the ground changes in the force exerted by the so when the bicycle is always just behind ground on the wheel, thus increasing turns one way, he the place where or decreasing the turning effect. But the will feel as though There’s some skill the steering axis phenomenon will still occur without any he is being pushed involved in staying on (the line passing intervention at all from the rider – which in the opposite through the bar explains why bicycles are still stable direction. Thus if the that connects the without a rider, and also why it’s possible bicycle is turning into the lean, the rider will handlebars to the front wheel) intersects to ride a bike without understanding the be pushed upwards, and this helps to keep the ground; this gap is known as the bikes physics behind it! him and the bike upright. Furthermore, the trail. faster the bicycle is travelling, the faster it will curve into its circular path, so the When a bicycle leans to the right, the pushing effect will be greater. This explains upwards force from the ground can be why it often seems easier to ride a bike split into two parts—one parallel to the quickly rather than slowly. wheel, and another perpendicular to it and pointing to the Upward force from left. The leftwards ground Steering axis force is acting through the point of contact, and since that point is offset from the steering Component of force axis, it produces a in plane of wheel turning effect about the steering axis, which causes the wheel to rotate to Component of force the right. Therefore perpendicular to wheel the bicycle starts Point of to travel in a contact semicircular path, Emily Adlam is a 2nd year and this path then undergraduate student at Queen’s College studying Physics and Trail Philosophy. Art by Samuel Pilgrim 11
icycles are such a common sight on the streets of Oxford that most of us barely give them a second thought. But there’s something a little puzzling about the unassuming bicycle. A stationary bike is very unstable and will fall over immediately if unsupported, but a moving bike is somehow much more stable. Where does this stability come from? Surprisingly, even though bicycles are so ubiquitous, the origins of this effect have only recently been established.
On the Edge Making a home in inhospitable locations
ife is fragile; at least, that is what experience tells us. As far as we know, Earth is the only planet in the Universe to support life despite being threatened by a multitude of dangers, from nuclear radiation to climate change. However, a few organisms are significantly less delicate. They can survive the most inhospitable of environments, including temperatures close to absolute zero and levels of UV radiation hundreds of times higher than we can. These organisms are known as extremophiles and exemplify the power of single celled organisms, as detailed in the Michaelmas 2010 issue of Bang!. The robustness of these microbes has proved important in the development of biotechnology and may even provide the key to life beyond the Earth.
Scientists coded the song ‘It’s A Small World’ into a sequence of artificial DNA
An important extremophile is the enzyme Taq polymerase, which can withstand very high temperatures and has revolutionised the study of genetics. Due to the minute amount of DNA in each cell, early geneticists frequently had problems producing enough of it to study. In order to replicate DNA, a process known as polymerase chain reaction was developed. First, the double-stranded helix is split at high temperature and then a DNA replicating enzyme is used to duplicate it. The problem was that none of the replicating enzymes worked at the temperatures required to split the strands. When Taq polymerase, which could survive such temperatures, was isolated from T.aquaticus, geneticists finally had the tool they needed. This enzyme, and others similar to it, are now used in the majority of genetic research.
Another bacterium, Deinococcus radiodurans, may prove to be important in future biotechnology. The discovery of this extremophile was rather unusual. Researchers who were attempting to develop a method of sterilising canned food by exposing it to radiation noticed that the food still went off, even with extremely high doses. The cause was D.radiodurans, which had survived the radiation. Since then, researchers have discovered that this bacterium can withstand dosages of radiation a thousand times the limit that humans can endure. Many potential uses of this microbe have been suggested, including the transformation of mercury into a less toxic form in radioactive waste. A more novel idea is to use it as a means of storing important information in case of a nuclear holocaust. Scientists coded the song ‘It’s A Small World’ by the Sherman Brothers into a sequence of artificial DNA, which was then transferred to the genetic sequence of D.radiodurans. The message was transferred from parent to offspring, creating a population of bacteria with the song encoded in their DNA, thereby safeguarding it over time. The ability of D.radiodurans to survive radiation is so exceptional that a group of Russian and American scientists proposed that the species must have an
extraterrestrial origin. As its capacity to survive radiation far exceeds conditions on Earth, they suggested that the bacterium must have evolved somewhere where radiation is much higher, such as Mars. There are major doubts over this idea, but even if it is proven false, this bacterium may one day undergo space travel anyway: a genetically modified strain that generates medicines or recycles waste would be a huge advantage for space explorers or settlers. The possibility that organisms can survive in space has implications for current theories on whether life exists elsewhere in the universe, as well as the orgins of life on Earth. If some creatures can survive for long periods in space, then life may be able to travel from planet to planet on asteroids. Through such planet hopping, an extremophile may have originally seeded life on Earth. Extremophiles suggest that life could flourish on other planets in conditions that are less amenable than those on Earth. In the past, life has endured supervolcanoes and asteroid collisions, and come back stronger than ever. Extremophiles, the most obstinate survivors, have provided us with useful biotechnology and challenged our concept of just what life is capable of living through. With increasing risks to Earth’s more fragile inhabitants, extremophiles may hold the key to helping them survive.
Jeremy Brown is a 2nd year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences at Queen’s College. Art by Anna Pouncey.
Take a walk on Britain’s wild side
It’s Only Natural
Since the Iron Age, (circa 800 BC) livestock have been grazing on Port Meadow, an area of 440 acres that lies in north Oxford. The land has never been ploughed and so contains well-preserved archaeological remains including several Bronze Age burial mounds, as well as fortifications from the English Civil War. The river Thames, here called the Isis, also runs through its eastern section. Legend has it that Lewis Carroll and Alice Liddell told the story that became Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland while rowing here.
The Jurassic Coast is a spectacular 95 mile stretch of coastline from East Devon to Dorset, popular with fossil hunters. The rocks record 185 million years of the Earth’s history with the cliffs straddling the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods. It is England’s first natural world heritage site, putting it on par with the Taj Mahal, the Grand Canyon and the Great Barrier Reef. So why not take a walk through time along this impressive coast, and discover some prehistoric treasures of your own.
The red squirrel is native to Britain, but with an estimated population of just 150,000, you would be lucky to spot one. This beautiful creature’s dramatic downfall began after the introduction of the eastern grey squirrel from North America in 1876. The grey squirrel carries the virus known as “squirrel pox,” which is harmless to the grey but deadly to red squirrels. Formby Pinewoods, on the north west coast is one of 12 squirrel refugees in Britain. Here the National Trust work tirelessly to ensure this indigenous species does not become completely extinct.
The Magdalen College Deer Park, also called The Grove, lies in the college grounds north of the bridge entrance. The deer are a recent introduction (around 300 years ago) to this beautiful meadow, which previously consisted of a mixture of gardens, orchards and bowling greens. During the civil war the area even saw action housing a regiment of soldiers.
Back in the sixties, Professor Cyril Darlington at the University of Oxford wanted to demonstrate the genetic process involved in evolution—so he cultivated the University Parks genetic garden. Now incorporated into the Parks, this experimental plot lies directly to the north of the science area. Here breeding systems, chromosome number changes and hybrids such as graft-chimaeras (a plant made from mingling tissues from two genetically different organisms) have been explored .
Words by Sofia Hauck and Ciara Dangerfield. Art by Anna Pouncey and Samuel Pilgrim.
At 2,292 km2, The Lake District is England’s largest national park. Its famous lakes and hills (referred to as fells) are popular with walking enthusiasts and artists alike. The largest lake is Windermere, which was formed 13,000 years ago and spans nearly 15 km2. If you’re planning to hike in the rocky terrain, be sure to take a copy of Wainwright’s Pictorial Guide to the Lakes, it meticulously details the fells with beautiful hand-drawn sketches that took the Blackburn council worker Wainwright 13 years to complete.
The Birds and the Bees Why does nature favour sex?
he natural world revolves around sexual reproduction. Through it, the majority of species guarantee their survival. If we are to believe Freud, it also drives our own behaviour. It may come as a shock then, to realise that some of the best minds in the field have struggled to explain why sexual reproduction exists. There are a number of families of species that breed asexually. One group of these are the Bdelloid rotifers. These water-dwelling, microscopic animals have been abstinent for the last eighty million years. To asexually reproduce, the female produces an embryo identical to itself without fertilization. As there are no males in the population, every individual can bear young. This potentially allows the population to grow at twice the rate, because no resources are wasted on males who cannot produce offspring.
males and females respectively. Gametes are produced when a single cell containing two copies of each chromosome (one from each parent of the individual) divides to form two new cells that carry single copies of each chromosome. Each chromosome in a new gamete is a unique combination of maternal and paternal genomes. This is the reason why we are similar, but not identical to our siblings. In
There are even cases of asexual reproduction amongst reptiles and birds. Turkeys and Komodo dragons are just two of the species that can produce offspring without fertilization. contrast, asexual species pass This form of reproduction carries a number down genes from a single individual and of benefits. Asexual individuals need not as a result produce identical offspring. worry about finding and attracting a mate, competing with rivals, or the risk of sexually In the case of sexual reproduction, natural transmitted selection will result diseases (STDs)— in the spread Turkeys and Komodo costs which we as of mutations of dragons are just two of humans are prone beneficial effect the species that can produce to struggle with. throughout the offspring without fertilization. population. Given these In an asexual disadvantages, population, each why does nature bother with sexual mutation occurs in one individual and its reproduction? A possible answer is progeny. Different lineages have different that sexual reproduction produces a beneficial mutations. Because there is faster means of evolution, due to the no exchange of genes between these recombination (mixing) of parental lineages, it is impossible for the population genomes, which is lacking in asexual to accumulate all the positive mutations reproduction. at once. Instead, the lineages compete with each other. The lineage with the most In animals, sexual reproduction involves beneficial mutations outcompetes the the meeting of sperm and ova (collectively known as gametes), which are produced in 15
others, causing their extinction. While this provides a reason for sexual reproduction, it is unlikely that the benefits are sufficiently large to overcome the problems that sex entails. Several other theories have evolved in an attempt to understand nature’s preference for sex. One of the most prominent is the “Red Queen hypothesis”, named after the scene in Lewis Carrol’s classic where the Red Queen tells Alice, “It takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. The evolution between parasites and their hosts is an example of this: parasites evolve ways to exist undetected, while their hosts evolve immune mechanisms to avoid them. Parasites target the most common genotype in a host population, hence efficient exchange of genetic material in the host species is favourable as it results in a rapidly changing common genotype, offering protection against parasites. This could only occur via recombination, which, in turn, occurs through sexual reproduction. Given the benefits of sexual reproduction, the existence of asexual species seems odd. In fact, asexual reproduction allows the survival of species in extreme circumstances—for example, the female Komodo dragon will reproduce asexually when there are no potential mates. However, in general, sexual reproduction is the rule and asexual reproduction is the exception. While there is not yet a generally accepted theory to explain this, it seems likely that the ability of sexually reproducing species to acquire multiple genetic advantages through recombination plays a key role.
Jeremy Brown is a second year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences at Queen’s College. Art by Anna Pouncey.
Flower Power Harnessing nature’s healing properties
t has been recognised for thousands of years that some plants have healing properties and can be used to treat a wide variety of illnesses, ranging from minor ailments to life threatening diseases. Many plants are still used by herbalists in traditional medicine, and while it is easy to shrug off herbal remedies in favour of pharmaceuticals, one must remember that many important drugs, including aspirin, tamiflu and taxotere come from compounds found in plants which originated as traditional medicines. In fact, over 70% of the world’s poorest inhabitants still depend on medicinal plants for primary healthcare.
the lab on isolated pathogens of interest to determine which ones are most effective. After a potential new drug is identified, the process of drug development, which can take many years, proceeds. This involves extensive testing on laboratory animals, such as mice, to ensure the compounds have the desired effect against the disease within an infected host. During subsequent clinical trials the new drug is first tested on healthy volunteers, and then on patients affected with the target illness. Methods of synthesising the drug from scratch, which is much more cost effective than harvesting the compounds from their natural sources, also have to be developed.
have similar effects to the hormone oestrogen when consumed, to treat the symptoms of menopause. This would be an alternative to widely-used Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) drugs, which have several undesirable side effects including an increased risk of breast cancer. Studies have shown that phytoestrogens may have beneficial effects on bone density and cholesterol levels, and some even suggest that a high consumption of phytoestrogens actually lowers the risk of breast cancer. However, it is still unclear whether their use is more effective or lower risk than HRT, and there needs to be more research in order to address these questions.
Plants can help to provide breakthrough treatments for some of the world’s most widespread and unmanageable diseases. For example, several chemotherapy In recent years, scientists have continued drugs are derived from plant compounds. to identify new Moreover, a medicinal plants recent screening by collecting Several chemotherapy of compounds plant species drugs are derived taken from and screening from plant compounds marine plants and their compounds animals collected for anti-fungal, in Fiji revealed antibacterial or antiviral properties. that the red alga Callophycus serratus, Such surveys are central to finding produces antifungal compounds called novel compounds with medicinal bromophycolides that can kill malarial properties. Ethnobotanists, who study parasites, even those resistant to the the relationships between different existing anti-malarial drug chloroquine. cultures and their uses of plants, aim to The most effective of these compounds document knowledge on species used are currently being tested on mouse for traditional herbal remedies in remote models, and ways of synthesising and regions where mainstream therapies are mass producing them are also being unavailable. Following a recent survey investigated. This exciting discovery of plant remedies used in rural Namibia, could provide a valuable weapon in the ethnobotanists identified two tree species fight against the global malaria pandemic (Pergularia daemia and Tragia okanyua) (see ‘The War on Malaria’ p7). used to treat weakness, dizziness and cardiovascular disorders that could have Plant remedy enthusiasts even argue that useful applications in modern medicine. it is sometimes preferable to use plant Their next step would be to identify the compounds rather than mainstream active compounds and assess their treatments to treat ailments. A research effectiveness and suitability for use as group at the University of London’s Centre drug treatments. for Pharmacognosy and Phytotherapy is investigating the benefits of using Once active compounds which have the phytoestrogens, plant compounds which desired disease-fighting properties are extracted from a plant, they are tested in 16
While the effectiveness of many plants used for traditional remedies lack solid scientific evidence, it is clear that the plant kingdom has equipped us with a range of novel compounds. These provide us with some of the tools needed to fight various diseases. Plant-derived treatments continue to play an important role in modern medicine, and past success stories have taught us never to underestimate the power of plants.
Emma Stoye is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Biological Sciences at Somerville College. Art by Maria Demidova.
Computing on the Brain Modelling neurons for artificial intelligence
cientific knowledge of neurophysiology in the 1940s covered only a small fraction of what we know today. However, enough was known for a group of scientists led by Warren McCulloch and Walter Pitts in Chicago to develop a mathematical model of neural networks in the brain. This in turn led to the development of Artificial Neural Networks, an exciting field of computing that is gaining momentum.
industry emerge. Today we rely on, and trust, computer algorithms such as artificial neural networks to do a wide range of tasks for us.
The simplest example of an artificial neural network is something that classifies an input into one of two categories. The input to this ‘classifier’ is a number. If the number is above a certain threshold then the input is classified as being in class At the time of McCulloch and Pitts, it was A. If the number is below the threshold known that the human brain is made up then the input is in class B. Such an of discrete cells called neurons. Neurons artificial neural network could be used have a branch-like structure that conducts to distinguish between the hand-written electrical pulses, allowing transmission of characters ‘a’ and ‘b’. In this case a good signals to hundreds, or even thousands, choice of input would be the ratio between of neighbouring neurons via junctions the height and the width of the handcalled synapses. It was assumed, albeit written character. If the threshold height falsely, that neurons behaved in an ‘all-orwas chosen appropriately, the artificial nothing’ fashion: either they were on, and neural network would reliably distinguish firing electrical pulses, or they weren’t. between an ‘a’ and a ‘b’. This important McCulloch and Pitts attempted to use feature is known as adaptivity. For this knowledge to example, the handdescribe the brain written character mathematically. Artifical neural classifier can be According to the networks can be adapted to different McCulloch-Pitts used for speech recognition people’s handmodel of the brain, and missile guidance. writing by varying neurons act as the height threshold logic gates; that parameter. is, they receive binary inputs (e.g., on/ off or 0/1) from a number of pre-synaptic The adaptivity of artificial neural networks neurons, and perform logical operations makes them good for problems where the producing a binary output. In McCulloch precise relationship between the input and Pitts’ view, neural networks in the and output is not known in advance and brain work in much the same way as to problems where characteristics of the elementary electrical circuits. input change over time. A good example is speech recognition, a process where Nowadays the McCulloch-Pitts model of the level and nature of background noise the brain is dead and buried, and their varies over time. goal of understanding the brain in terms of mathematical structures and computational Unfortunately, artificial neural networks do algorithms remains elusive, both because not always give the right answer. However, of limited computing power and a they can be made more sophisticated, limited knowledge of neurophysiology. and are commonly used by engineers and However, their work inspired the field of statisticians for a wide range of practical artificial neural networks in computing; applications including speech recognition, an important field that is flourishing as practical applications in science and 17
credit card fraud detection and missile guidance. The faculties of artificial neural networks remain limited in comparison to humans, but can we ever expect artificial neural networks to perform as well as our remarkable brains which inspired their creation? One of the main obstacles lies in development of computing power. Current computing power limits the size of artificial neural networks to thousands of neurons. By comparison the human brain contains roughly 1010 neurons. At the moment, humans have much greater computing power than artificial neural networks, but who knows when the tables will turn?
Philip Maybank is a 1st year DPhil in Systems Biology at Linacre College. Art by Elizaveta Gelfreykh and Samuel Pilgrim.
Why’s There Hair There? W
ith the advent of the genomic era, scientists are looking more and more closely at the genetic traits that make us human. But looking at phenotypes (the observable characteristics of an individual) alone highlights some pretty obvious differences. Why, for instance, do humans have so little hair compared to our close relatives living in warmer climes? Why are chimps and gorillas so hairy, while we’re stuck with a few discrete patches? The oldest hypothesis is perhaps the most obvious: as our ancestors evolved from tree dwellers to roamers of the African plains around 3 million years ago, keeping cool as we ran around in the intense sun became more important. A naked body is clearly cooler than a hairier one, not least as evaporation of sweat is more efficient. Interestingly, this hypothesis could explain why we have particularly luxuriant hair on our heads: as protection for our scalp which would otherwise sizzle in the sun. Yet, being cool during the day comes at a cost of being cold at night. Perhaps this explains the rarity of the transition to nakedness in mammals. Those that have become undressed all have some way of dealing with this problem of night-time cold. Naked mole rats keep their burrows at a fairly constant temperature, whilst the oceans provide a bath of constant temperature for whales and dolphins. For our primate ancestors, culture was critical: in absence of hair, we built fires and shelters to keep ourselves warm at night. So, perhaps the inability to keep warm overnight prevents our primate cousins from becoming naked too? Cultural warmth was probably important even if hair loss evolved for other reasons, such as, perhaps, in response to parasites. A loss of hair would remove a habitat for
The evolutionary story behind our near-nakedness ticks and lice. These still (literally) hang on to our heads, but we can’t lose this hair because of the counteracting selection pressures for scalp UV protection. Such interacting selection pressures may explain why there’s hair (or a lack of it) on certain parts of our bodies. Parasites may also interact with sexual selection to favour hair loss. Females can more accurately and reliably determine the parasite load of a naked man than a hairy one. In the 1980s, Hamilton and Zuk at the University of Michigan, suggested a low parasite load may be maintained by immunological or behavioural adaptations. If these are heritable, it is in the interest of the female to choose a male with few parasites: her offspring may also be resistant to parasites. So, the advantages of nakedness, in humans at least, are clear; but what of those discrete patches? Have they an important evolutionary purpose too? Again, sexual selection may provide a good explanation for why we keep hair where we do.
Only wellcoordinated males can keep a tidy beard.
A well-kept beard may be an indicator of male neuromuscular condition—only well-coordinated males can keep a tidy beard—and it is these coordinated males which will be the best hunters to provide for their female. While this may seem like a rather convoluted leap, the more general case of male ‘ornaments’ being signals of their quality is well-founded. Additionally, long head hair might bear witness to its owner’s general physiological
state through its condition and lustre, and would be an especially strong signal from afar. Perhaps ancient humans in tribal family groups looked from a distance, and selected the best quality mates in other families on the basis of their hairstyles, much as we do today. And finally, pubic hair. In both sexes, this hair may serve to attract attention to, and exaggerate, the reproductive organs. Or, could it just be there to prevent friction when we walk or reproduce, with a similar explanation being satisfactory for the existence of armpit hair? Or, as per your standard biology textbook, is this hair really there to wick away sweat from the especially active glands under our arms and/or waft around scents to attract the opposite sex? Probably the answer is a combination of these factors. There are so many potential explanations for our relative nakedness, from obvious thermoregulatory ones to elaborate sexual ones. It seems both sexual and non-sexual selection are important. Our fire-making abilities allowed us to lose most of our hair, unlike our primate relatives, but the need to stay sexy means we must keep some of it. So perhaps we should ditch the razors and wax strips, and take pride in our gorgeous hair! Nigel Taylor is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Biology at Jesus College. Art by Maria Demidova.
Something in the Air Discovering the complex roles of plant emissions
o striking is the blue haze which rises above mountainsides on hot days that it features in the names of mountain ranges around the world—from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, to Jamaica’s Blue Mountain Peak and the Blue Mountains of New South Wales. The phenomenon is not new, the journals of Leonardo da Vinci note the haziness of the Tuscan hills, but it was only 50 years ago that plant physiologist Frits Went postulated that emissions from plants were behind this spectacle, scattering sunlight to create the familiar blue haze. People have been searching for explanations for these plant emissions—their answers are numerous, complex and fascinating. Initially, it was assumed that plant emissions simply represented the release of unwanted metabolic byproducts. Yet, as the loss of these volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can represent over 30% of the carbon assimilated by photosynthesis, it makes plant metabolism seem extraordinarily inefficient! More recently, numerous hypotheses rationalising VOC production have been put forward. In the 1990s, observations of a link between emissions and plant tissue damage, led to the suggestion that VOCs
could defend plants from herbivore attack. One key finding was the discovery that chemicals in the oral secretions of herbivores induced the release of VOCs from some plants, and that these had powerful repellent effects on attacking species. Further work revealed even more complex ecological interactions associated with VOC emissions. Whilst plants may use repellent chemicals as ‘direct defence’ mechanisms, more commonly they are found to attract the
Plants may use repellent chemicals as ‘direct defence’ mechanisms.
predators or parasitoids of herbivores (parasitoids, unlike parasites, always kill their host), in a so-called ‘indirect defence’ approach. These interactions are remarkably sophisticated; plants can detect herbivore eggs on their leaves and initiate a response which reduces herbivore numbers by up to 90%. Even more exciting was the discovery that plants ‘eavesdrop’ on the VOC emissions of their neighbours, gleaning information on the abundance of herbivores nearby. VOCs from damaged plants lead undamaged ones to ‘prime’ themselves, ready to mount a larger defence when the risk of herbivore attack is high. Lima beans, for example, prepare themselves by secreting more nectar, attracting ants which devour herbivorous insects. Another form of VOC emission with which everyone is familiar underlies floral scent. Plants do not produce their fragrances for our enjoyment but to attract the animal pollinators on which they depend for
seed production. Recent work has demonstrated that in some cases the release of these chemicals is even more important than floral display and, through complex mixtures of different compounds, can act both as attractants to effective pollinators and repellents to poor ones, enabling highly specific, and efficient, pollinator interactions. Finally, after plants have successfully defended themselves from herbivores and attracted pollinators to their flowers, they must spread their seeds. A strong correlation has been demonstrated between the ripeness of fruits and the presence of VOCs. This is likely no coincidence; plants lose out if their fruits are eaten before they are ripe, so unripe fruits are often distasteful. Conversely, VOCs make ripe fruit so attractive that animals go to great lengths to acquire and disperse them. Indeed, we humans fly, ship and drive them all over the world. In recent years plant VOCs have become the focus of intense interest, as their importance and range of functions raises the prospect of manipulating their metabolism for our own benefit. For example, researchers have already engineered plants with enhanced protection from unfavourable environmental conditions. However, even with thousands of different compounds recognised, we still have a long way to go before our understanding of all their roles is anywhere near complete. At present it can perhaps best be described as hazy!
Charles Brabin is a 4th year D.Phil. student studying the molecular genetics of cell proliferation and differentiation in the nematode C. elegans (round worms). Art by Maria Demidova.
An extreme case of a parasite manipulating its host
plant, where it is protected from the wind. Here, the temperature is consistently low and humidity consistently high, perfect for fungal replication.
forces it bite down on a leaf and then kills it. Over the next two weeks, the fungus grows a spore-dispersal structure from the base of the ant’s head, transforming the ant cadaver into a launch pad for missile-like spores. These are actively discharged over short distances, creating an infectious killing zone of approximately 1 m² below the dead host. To maximise the likelihood of spores landing on oblivious passing ants of the correct species, spore production needs to be constantly maintained. To feed it during this process the fungus must protect Zombie ants, created by the fungus the resource pool provided by the ant’s Ophiocordyceps unilateralis, provide body. Brown external fungal filaments, one of the most dramatic examples called hyphae, are grown to cover the found in nature. The ‘zombie–fungus’, carcass, which both protect the fungus’ as it is nicknamed, specifically infects food supply and act to further secure the tropical rainforest the body to the leaf. dwelling carpenter Chemicals with antiant, Camponotus The ant cadaver is malarial and cancer leonardi and transformed into a launch fighting properties manipulates its pad for missile-like spores. have been isolated behaviour to from these hyphae, facilitate its own suggesting that they reproduction. It is a relative of the fungus also provide protection against invasive from which LSD is derived, and uses a microbes that would compete with O. powerful combination of chemicals to unilateralis. control the ant brain. The precision of ant positioning by the Colonies of C. leonardi are found in fungus is truly astounding. Bodies of the rainforest canopy, where climatic infected ants are almost without exception conditions are highly variable; but infected found exactly 25 cm off the ground, ants are directed by the fungus to climb clamped onto a major vein of the underside down to a shrub closer to the forest floor of a leaf. Incredibly, the chosen leaf is where conditions are perfect for fungal always on the north-northwest side of the replication. Using solar cues, the fungus steers the ant to the perfect position, 20 he evolutionary arms race between parasites and their hosts is a never ending competition; each player constantly adapts in an attempt to overcome the other, resulting in ever more complex relationships between the two. It represents a struggle between competing sets of co-evolving genes that develop adaptations and counter-adaptations against each other. Observation of interactions between parasites and their hosts allows us to see a snapshot of evolution in progress.
In response, carpenter ants have evolved defences against the fungus. The predominant way of avoiding infection appears to be by staying as far away from victim ants as possible. Studies have mapped the distribution of dead ants and found that they occur in high density aggregations known as ‘graveyards’. Remarkably, one graveyard was found to contain 2,243 dead ants and only 2 live ants. It is speculated that the ants make their nests high in the forest canopy as an adaptive response to avoid fungal breeding zones. The principal foraging routes of C. leonardi are aerial trails running between tree canopies. The ants only occasionally descend to ground level and when they do it is for no more than a few minutes. It is thought that C. leonardi ants avoid the forest floor as a defence mechanism and only descend when aerial trails cannot bridge gaps in the canopy. This is just one intriguing example demonstrating the complexity of the parasite-host interaction, but many more exist in nature. A relationship in constant change, it provides a fascinating insight into the forces of evolution and triggers speculation about what the next move in the arms race will be. Indeed, there have been four new species of zombie-fungus identified in Brazilian rainforests just this year, so who knows what else may lie out there.
Emma Houghton-Brown is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Biology at St. Hugh’s College. Art by Ilse Lee.
Literary Matter Bedside reading for the intellectually curious Ciara Dangerfield reviews Symmetry and the Monster by Mark Ronan.
n this book Mark Ronan takes the reader on a voyage of discovery in the quest for the ‘Monster’ of symmetry. Ronan, an honorary Professor of Mathematics at University College London, was personally involved in this exploration, allowing him to give an intimate insight into this fascinating piece of mathematics. The book focuses on a complex branch of mathematics called group theory, with the story following the discovery and classification of all simple groups. The largest of these is the ‘Monster’; not actually a monster at all but rather a bizarre structure in 196,884 dimensions. The author explains the connections between this symmetrical beast and the other branches of mathematics in an eloquent
osquitoes are arguably the most dangerous animals on earth. Mosquito-borne pathogens cause many diseases, including malaria, dengue fever, and yellow fever. They transmit disease to more than 700 million people annually, killing millions. Malaria alone kills 780,000 every year, more than 2% of deaths worldwide. However, a novel technique is currently being researched which does not aim to eradicate the mosquitoes, but rather render them harmless. To achieve this, scientists propose to prevent pathogens from infecting mosquitoes using a harmless bacterium called Wolbachia. When fed blood infected with dengue virus, mosquitoes artificially infected with Wolbachia had no detectable virus particles except when given an artificially high dose. Additionally, when given Chikungunya (a virus which causes similar symptoms to dengue fever) infected blood, only 12% of Wolbachia infected mosquitoes had detectable virus particles after four days, compared to 75% for uninfected mosquitoes. There is also evidence
way, leaving the reader to question the significance of such links. While Ronan takes great pains to initially explain in simpler terms the basic mathematical ideas, towards the end it can begin to feel he is bombarding you with concepts which may be confusing to those who are not of a mathematical disposition. While at times slightly too technical, the author manages to hold the readers’ interest with his historical storytelling, which really brings the intriguing characters of mathematics to life. From the tragic life of Galois, who the night before his death in a duel at the tender age of 20, scribbled thoughts on a piece of paper which became the beginning of the quest, to the Norwegian giant Sophus Lie whose work took group theory into new territory, there is much to be learned from the beautiful description of the historical events that surround the quest for the ‘Monster’.
For the group theory enthusiasts, this is a book for you. While someone with a less technical background may struggle to grasp some of the ideas, this is an intriguing story that involved one of the biggest collaborations between mathematicians across the world, and is sure to keep even the most mathsphobic readers enthralled.
Win a copy of Symmetry and the Monster Grab your camera and get creative. We want you to take a picture on the theme: Symmetry and the Monster. Let your imagination run wild! Send your entries to email@example.com by Friday of 8th week to be in with a chance of winning. Good luck and get snapping!
Bug-free Bugs Taming mosquitoes with bacteria of Plasmodium (malaria) inhibition by Wolbachia. The mechanism of action for this reduced pathogen load is currently the subject of research. Two possibilities have been identified that, combined, are believed to suppress the pathogens. First, Wolbachia is known to initiate the innate immune system of the mosquito, allowing the immune system to attack other invaders. Second, Wolbachia may compete for scarce resources with the pathogens, preventing pathogens from replicating inside the mosquito. Unlike most bacteria Wolbachia live inside the mosquitoes’ cells and are inherited
from mother to offspring rather than being transmitted horizontally between individuals. Wolbachia also have evolved the ability to spread into a population by manipulating the hosts’ reproduction: infected male mosquitoes cannot reproduce with uninfected females, giving infected females an advantage. As a testament to their spreading ability, Wolbachia naturally infect over half of all insect species tested. Could this natural biological control agent spell an end to mosquito borne disease? Upcoming field trials will hopefully mirror the laboratory results and may finally provide us with an effective means of combating mosquito-borne pathogens. Marcus Blagrove is a 2nd year DPhil in Zoology at Green Templeton College. Art by Ilse Lee.
Just Wide of Lamarck A profile of the eccentric French naturalist
orn into an aristocratic family as the youngest of eleven in 1744, JeanBaptiste Lamarck had a fairly eclectic early life. Not wishing to pursue his father’s plans for him in the clergy, he soon abandoned his theological studies to follow his brothers into the French army. The only accounts of Lamarck the soldier, written by his devoted daughter, somewhat predictably tell of a valiant and audacious young recruit. Medical complications soon ended his military career, and so Lamarck began his brief pursuits in medicine, music, and banking before the esteemed naturalist Georges Buffon encouraged him to persist with his interest in botany for long enough to publish his book Flore Française. The work was a meticulously prepared catalogue of French plant species, and became a standard resource for the botanical sciences. In researching the catalogue, Lamarck had overseen the doubling of recorded species of French flora. The publication constituted a fifth of known plant species—a significant
contribution. It is these scientific exploits that saw Lamarck (undoubtedly assisted again by Buffon) elected to the prestigious Academie des Sciences, a platform which allowed him to willfully engage with the scientific community. Lamarck was a prolific thinker and dabbled widely in scientific discussion, publishing on the topics of atmospherics, meteorology, acoustics, planetary dynamics, geology, branching out as far as psychology and metaphysics, but most memorable is his treatise on evolution. Widely accredited as the first fully formulated evolutionary theory, Philosophie Zoologique presented Lamarck’s hypotheses for the origin and development of species. The theory, which he formulated during his extensive cataloguing of invertebrates, was inspired by the similarities between organisms which led Lamarck to believe that species are interconnected. In contrast to his mentor Buffon, who had earlier suggested that new species are a result of degeneration and simplification of earlier ones, Lamarck’s theory explained how evolution was caused by the effect of two forces; first, a ‘complexifying force’ which acts spontaneously to introduce new complex structures into creatures, and second, an ‘adaptive force’ which reinforced useful characteristics while causing disused ones to diminish and eventually disappear. Lamarck believed that characteristics were acquired during an animal’s lifetime and could be passed on to its offspring. He reasoned, for example, that giraffes’ necks have lengthened as successive generations have stretched for higher and higher branches. Over time, these acquired
characteristics would cause an organism’s descendants to become progressively more complex and better adapted to their environment. Lamarck initially realised that this implied that the world’s creatures thus made up a direct evolutionary lineage— they represented a continuous biological history of the world from the simplest organisms to the most advanced: humans. Lamarck struggled to try to reconstruct this lineage and eventually settled on the idea that would become central to evolutionary theory; that of a branching structure.
Lamarck showed no reserve and dabbled widely in scientific discussion
Lamarckian evolution, though widely discussed, did not become a generally accepted theory. This was in part due to a persistent lampooning from prominent zoologist Georges Cuvier. Cuvier’s enmity for Lamarck was such that, convinced that the falsehood of Lamarck’s theory was blindingly evident, Cuvier publicly suggested that Lamarck’s failing sight was due to his own principle of disuse. With the hindsight of Darwin’s theory of evolution, it is easy to dismiss Lamarck simply as the man who got evolution wrong. However, this is a great discredit to a man who showed prowess as a soldier, musician, doctor, and most importantly, a naturalist. His contributions to the classification of species were staggering and it gave him great joy to be praised for it in his dying days. Even his theory of evolution, although no match for Darwin’s, attracted important peers including Robert Edmond Grant, the teacher of Charles Darwin himself. The posthumous remembrance Lamarck saw him become a hero figure in the history of French science, an attitude typified by one historian who wrote “Lamarck, like a secular saint…was the unknown soldier of truth”.
Philip Crowley is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Physics at St. Hugh’s College. Art by Elizaveta Gelfreykh.
Does Size Matter? Why the strongest, toughest, deadliest species are more likely to be found under a microscope than in the zoo.
hen it comes to size, bigger does not necessarily mean better. Nowhere is this more true than in the natural world. We might marvel at the dangers of great whites, pythons and big cats, but it’s actually the world of microorganisms that contain the real bad-boys of nature. With bacteria that can survive a nuclear disaster 1,000 times worse than Fukushima, microorganisms pound-for-pound stronger than an elephant, and pathogens deadlier than any snakebite, let me introduce you to the real superheroes of the natural world.
crawl along surfaces and attach to cells. Research conducted by Michael Sheetz and his colleagues at Columbia University, New York, found the bacterium were capable of bundling these pili together in order to produce long, stronger pulls that were ten times more powerful than an average ‘grab’ and could last for several hours. Although the actual force exerted is tiny, relative to its body weight this bacterium has super-strength.
Some animals are capable of surviving, and even thriving, in some of the world’s The world’s largest land animal, the most extreme conditions. The polar elephant, is a clear candidate for the bear is the largest terrestrial title of the strongest organism. Elephants carnivore, with an adult male consist of over 5 tonnes of pure brawn, are weighing up to 680 kg. These capable of lifting a tonne and can drag 20 stocky animals are kept warm times their body weight. When stampeding by an insulating layer of blubber or during a drastic testosterone rise known up to 10 cm thick, and a dense as ‘musth’ (Persian for ‘intoxication’) coating of fur. Excellent as both elephants have been known to crush swimmers and hunters it seems and kill other land mammals, including these creatures are incredibly well humans and even adapted rhinoceros. The The miniscule to extreme bacterial world Neisseria gonorrhoeae conditions. may seem an bacterium is capable of But these unlikely place to find pulling up to 100,000 times adaptations nature’s strongmen its own body weight. pale in but, relative to their comparison size, they can pull to their forces of epic proportions. The miniscule tiny (very) distant cousins, the Neisseria gonorrhoeae bacterium, water-bear. These microscopic, cause of the common STI gonorrhoea, water-dwelling tardigrades are is one such species. This bacterium is eight-legged invertebrates, more capable of pulling up to 100,000 times closely related to arthropods its own body weight, the equivalent of a such as spiders and insects human being able to pull 2,000 African than polar bears. They have a Elephants. The bacterium achieves this CV stocked full of impressive by the production of what are known as and amazing adaptations. If dehydrated, ‘type IV’ pili—filaments ten times as long they can curl into a ball and reduce their as the bacterium itself that are used to
metabolic activity to less than 0.01% of the normal levels. Like an extreme version of hibernation, tardigrades are able to be rehydrated and ‘wake up’ after periods as long as 10 years. But that’s not all. These micro-organisms are also capable of withstanding temperatures from -200 to 151 °C, a lack of oxygen, lethal doses of X-ray radiation, and even the vacuum of space. Not bad for a 1 mm long invertebrate. Another master of survival is the hyperthermophile. A type of bacteria, these singlecelled micro-organisms
are known for their love of scorching hot environments, such as deep-sea hydrothermal vents. One such example is Pyrolobus fumarii. A species usually found in ‘black smokers’, chimney-like hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Atlantic, which reach temperatures of around 113 °C— temperatures that would quickly kill even your most heatresistant desertdweller. Not even other hydrothermalvent-dwellers such as the Pompeii worm can compete. Despite being the second most heat-
resistant complex animal known (behind tardigrades, of course), the Pompeii worm can survive temperatures no higher than 80 °C.
Enough horror-films have been produced for us to know there are some dangerous Even radiation is no match for some creatures in the sea. One of the most types of bacteria. famous underwater Deinococcus killers is the Tardigrades are radiodurans can ferocious Great capable of withstanding White Shark. They survive levels of a lack of oxygen, lethal radiation thousands have an estimated doses of radiation, and even of times greater biting force of up the vacuum of space. than the peak level to 18,000 newtons, observed during the the equivalent Fukushima nuclear of being crushed crisis (see ‘On the Edge’, p12). In contrast, under the force of a falling Land Rover. humans could not survive But you don’t necessarily have to have exposure for more than monstrous jaws and rows of teeth to be an a few hours. When it effective hunter. The bacteria Bdellovibrio, comes to survival, found in river water and soil, feeds on bacteria have been other bacteria. They attack their prey by the best in the colliding with them at speeds 13 times business for billions faster than a cheetah, relative to body of years. length. They then kill their prey by entering their cells, digesting them from the inside out. Bdellovibrio’s methods might be less bloody than a shark, but they are just as nasty.
Whether it’s strength, survival, or killer instinct, the best, or possibly worst, things come in small packages. Holly Youlden is a 1st year undergraduate reading Biological Sciences at Keble College. Art by Anna Pouncey.
Cerebral amusement for the modern scientist
Above is one of the most famous photos in the history of physics: the attendees of the fifth Solvay Conference, on “Electrons and Photons” in Brussels, October 1927. Of the twenty-nine physicists shown, seventeen were or became Nobel Prize Laureates.
Can you spot the five differences?
Try This at Home... Real world science in your kitchen Make your own slime
Why is the sky blue?
What you need Cornflour Water A bowl and spoon for mixing Food colouring (optional)
What you need A bottle Water Milk or powdered milk A dark room A torch
What to do 1. Put some cornflour into the bowl. 2. Add water a little at a time and mix slowly until you have a thick paste, add food colouring to make the slime of your choice. 3. Stir the mixture really slowly, this should be easy. 4. Stir the mixture really fast, this will be difficult. 5. Punch the mixture hard and fast, it should feel like a solid. Push it slowly and it will feel like a liquid. What’s happening The slime you just made is what is called a non-Netwonian fluid, which, unlike most fluids, has a different viscosity depending on the force you apply to it. The cornflour slime viscosity increases the faster you try to stir it, which is why when you stir it fast it seems like a solid. This is opposite to ketchup, another non-Newtonian fluid, which becomes less viscous the more force you apply—that’s why it’s best to be aggressive when extracting ketchup from a glass bottle!
What to do 1. Fill the bottle with water and add a little milk or powdered milk. 2. Shake it up until you have a cloudy liquid. 3. Go into a dark room and shine the torch into the bottle from below. The liquid should look blue. 4. Now shine the torch through the bottle from behind (the torch should point at you). The liquid should look red.
What’s happening The difference in colour that you see is caused by an effect called Rayleigh scattering. White light, which the sun produces, contains all the colours of the rainbow. Blue light has a shorter wavelength than red light which means that it is scattered more. So when you look up into the sky you are actually seeing scattered blue light, while the red light continues on in the original direction.
Bang! talks to...
We caught up with the former Oxford chemist, Daily Telegraph science editor, and current editor of New Scientist at the Oxford Literary Festival You have recently published a collaborative book with Professor Martin Nowak, how did this collaboration come about?
our natural resources today, I think we need to start cooperating to a greater degree.
Yes and no— it should be made fun if possible, but equally Do you think the examples of people do have a natural curiosity and Martin’s team at Harvard models evolution cooperation in nature are truly a much higher tolerance for complex mathematically, but I first encountered selfless? science than we give him in the early 90s when he was at them credit for, so Oxford, working on AIDS, and I was at There is always long as the idea It’s so hard to predict The Daily Telegraph. Over the years I a cost but even what science journalism you are explaining found myself writing about his work on so, cooperation is is interesting. I think will be like in five years. I language evolution and the origins of life. always beneficial people get fed up just hope I’m still part of it! I found his research incredibly interesting to the individual to with it always being so I spoke to him and suggested we could some extent. dumbed down for write a book together; Supercooperators them because they sometimes want to is the result. Science communication is becoming get a sense of what is really happening more internet-based, what are your in science. What is Supercooperators about? feelings about this? Who has been the most influential We are trying to challenge the traditional It’s very tough in print journalism at the scientist on your life or career? view of Darwinian evolution—that it is moment. When I commuted into London simply a case of survival of the fittest 20 years ago, the carriage would be a sea For me Barry Blumberg has been a source and competition. We can see there is of newspapers and magazines. Today of great inspiration. I first met him when a significant amount of cooperation in it’s all phones and tablets. Everything is studying at Oxford where he was Master nature. This is something that Darwin changing so rapidly that when I’m asked at Balliol, and quickly realised what a truly himself realised but never fully explained. to give advice about pursuing a career in extraordinary individual he was. In his Martin does, with the help of mathematics. science journalism, I hesitate to suggest career as a researcher he developed whether the word ‘career’ applies at all. the world’s first successful anti-cancer Is the book a challenge to Darwin’s vaccine, one to treat Hepatitis B, and won theory? Having said that, there’s still something the Nobel prize for his work. He saved wonderful about print—the design is far millions of lives and remained a warm Most people think more sophisticated and unpretentious person. Sadly he died of evolution as than what is found a few weeks ago; truly a great man who a combination The book is trying to online. Another will be sorely missed. of mutation and challenge the traditional issue is that selection, but we view of Darwinian evolution with blogs and Roger Highfield and Professor Nowak’s see cooperation Facebook, the book Supercooperators: Evolution, as another factor in normal rules of Altruism and Human Behaviour or, Why evolution. So we think journalism don’t We Need Each Other to Succeed is it is a natural extension to the theory to always apply. It’s so hard to predict what available now. say that it’s not just about the struggle science journalism will be like in five years. for existence. For example, the origin I just hope I’m still part of it! of language—the second information revolution (after genetic material)—could Do you think it is important to make not have happened without cooperation. Given the extent to which we are exploiting
Patent Disregard The latest controversy to envelop stem cell research
t the end of April 2011, the European Court of Justice recommended the prohibition of patents involving human embryonic stem cells on ethical grounds. This decision is potentially disastrous for what is by far modern science’s most controversial area of research. Stem cells constitute the developing embryo, emerging soon after fertilisation. They differ from adult cells in two important ways. At the initial development of the embryo, its cells have no specific function but crucially have the potential to develop into any and all the cells which make up the human body. Their second unique property is the ability to divide beyond the normal limits of adult cells and so replenish damaged cells around them. Stem cells fall into two categories: pluripotent and totipotent cells. Totipotent cells appear in the first few days after fertilisation, known as the blastocyst stage, and it is these cells which individually are capable of developing into a complete human being. Pluripotent cells on the other hand cannot develop into a complete human being, but can divide to generate many of the organs which make up the body. It is hoped that stem cells could provide medical scientists with a powerful therapeutic tool—for example, if a patient has sustained damage to their spine, stem cells directed to grow into spinal chord tissue could be introduced to the affected area, inducing the damaged tissue to regenerate. They could provide a renewable source of human tissue, eliminating the need for unreliable organ donations. In 1998, the human embryonic stem cell (hESC) line was established; those cells capable of developing into any of the 200 tissues of the human body were isolated from blastocysts on a large
scale and sold to scientists all over the world. This gave researchers the basis to develop techniques for growing more specific, functional human cell types. Scientists working in this field quickly realised the commercial potential of their research. In 1991, Oliver Brüstle, a pioneering stem-cell researcher, took out a patent on the technique he developed to generate neural precursor cells from hESCs. He hoped these could be used to treat sufferers of Parkinson’s disease. His patent gave him exclusive rights to use of the technique for the term of the patent, which is usually 20 years. Patenting an invention or technique is common in scientific research. It allows the inventor exclusive rights to sell his/her product and recoup the money invested, while also providing a guarantee for potential investors. However in 1999, Greenpeace challenged Brüstle’s patent
on the grounds that it is contrary to public order and morality. They argued that stem cell research leads to the destruction of human embryos and thus human life, while the use of human embryos for industrial or commercial purposes is contrary to
European law. Despite Brüstle’s argument that the cells needed for his technique were only pluripotent and thus do not fall under the legal definition of an embryo, the Advocate General recommended that all treatments derived from hESCs were contrary to public order and morality and thus patenting them should be made illegal. This recommendation was upheld by the court in April 2011 and is almost certain to become law.
Without of patents, this potentially revolutionary life-saving industry will cease to exist in Europe.
The court’s decision has caused outcry amongst much of the scientific community. Far from being immoral, stem cell researchers say it is their ethical duty to explore the treatment of disease. It is feared that, without the incentive of patents, this potentially revolutionary life-saving industry will cease to exist in Europe and investment will move to more patent-friendly countries such as the US and Japan. In a letter of protest to the journal Nature, Austin Smith, director of the Wellcome Trust Centre for Stem Cell Research, together with twelve cosignatories wrote, “Scientists working in stem-cell medicine will not be able to deliver clinical benefits without the involvement of biological industry” and, “…innovative companies must have patent protection as an incentive to become active in Europe.” Stem cell research is clearly an issue with huge ethical and philosophical implications that should be carefully regulated, but an outright ban on patents in this area could terminate an important area of research at its embryonic stage of development. Philip Bennett is a 2nd year Organic Chemistry DPhil student. Art by Rebekah Pawley.
I enjoy writing and debating as well as tackling technical concepts
I love science but I donâ€™t want to work in a lab for the next twenty years
Iâ€™d like a challenging career but I also want to enjoy life!
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