Join Teach First and help young people across the UK to raise their aspirations and unlock a different future. Take up the challenge. Teach First. www.teachfirst.org.uk
CONTENTS 3 // Editorial 4 // News in Focus: Ebola 5 // News in Brief 7 // Procrastination: Beyond Lazy 8 // Statin’ the Facts 10 // Making Medicine Cool 11 // Crowdsourcing Science 12 // Bang! Talks to... Jack Andraka 14 // Paradise Found 16 // Future Pharma 18 // Scintillating Science: Students’ Perspectives 19 // Bang! Talks to... Fred Turner 20 // Sex: Why Do It? 21 // Nature’s Bright Idea 22 // Science in Court 23 // Innovation Debate 24 // Magical Mutualisms 26 // Language: Born This Way? 27 // Dura-Cell 28 // Neurobabble
Bang! Staff Editors-in-Chief Charlie Coughlan & Marco Narajos Creative & Layout Director Mack Grenfell Deputy Editors Alex Hooker, Sophie Perry & George Gillett Sub Editors Amy Lineham, Ellen Murray, Jessica Poole, Sana Suri & Alex Hooker Art Director Leoma Williams Artists Anaelle Stenman, Becca Carr, Leah Taylor Kearney, Paavan Buddhev & Miriam Chapman Business Director Sai Ulluri Publicity Team Catherine Joyce, Kathryn Boast, Gill Reich & Thomas Barringer
Published by Oxford Student Publications Limited Chairman Jonny Adams Managing Director Kalila Bolton Finance Director Minyoung Seo Company Secretary April Peake Directors Rowan Borchers, Matt Broomfield & Max Long Cover art Mack Grenfell Printed by Symposium Design and Print Copyright Bang! 2014
hen you innovate, you’ve got to be prepared for everyone telling you you’re nuts.” – Larry Ellison, Software Entrepreneur In Issue 18 of Bang!, to welcome Oxford’s new students who dare to dream of delivering major scientific and technological breakthroughs, we chose the theme of innovation. A peek through the Oxford English Dictionary provides a definition: innovation is the “alteration of what is established by the introduction of new elements or forms.” 2014 was a year of innovation. In biotechnology, we saw the first $1,000 genome. In physics, scientists used laser beams to create a self-healing mirror. In medical engineering, the Californian Google X lab developed a ‘smart contact lens’ capable of dynamically monitoring blood glucose levels, empowering millions of diabetics. Closer to home, a breakthrough in gene therapy by scientists at Oxford’s Nuffield Laboratory of Ophthalmology literally allowed the blind to see, paving the way to a brighter future for choroideremia patients. All these (and more!) were achieved in January alone. The following months dazzled with a staggering number of innovations: the single-molecule LED, a prosthetic hand that can convey sensation, nanomotors that can be steered within living cells, a catalyst to convert CO2 into carbon monoxide, a biodegradable battery, and even a 128 GB microSD card for all those selfies you took during Freshers’ Week! This issue, we bring you ten visually-gripping pages of innovation. The series opens with an exploration of the cutting-edge field fusing physics and biology: plasma medicine. We interview the precocious 17-year-old Jack Andraka, an American scientific prodigy who invented a pancreatic cancer test, and the Oxford second year biochemist Fred Turner, who won the 2013 Young Engineer of the Year award for developing a gene sequencer in his bedroom. Our centrefold focuses on the city of the future based on a sustainable blueprint. Interviews with three students who conducted mad experiments during their undergraduate degree complete the innovation focus of our magazine. We also bring you many other stories from the world of science, each complemented by illustrations from our wonderful creative team. For all the freshers who have joined Oxford this term, a warm welcome to you. To all those returning, we hope that you continue to enjoy Bang!. We are recruiting writers, editors, bloggers, artists, and business team members. Contribute and innovate at Oxford’s premier science magazine. We dare you.
Charlie Coughlan & Marco Nara jos Editors-in-Chief
Ebola: In Focus Serum on its way as WHO steps up intervention The latest outbreak of Ebola has taken West Africa by chokehold. In the last month 1000 new cases have been reported every week, and things only stand to get worse, with the World Health Organization (WHO) predicting 10,000 new cases a week by December. In recognition of the radical action required, the WHO have proposed a new set of targets under the collective label of ‘70-70-60’. The numbers refer to the aim of safely burying 70% of people killed by the virus as well as treating 70% of people who currently have the disease within the next 60 days. This is an ambitious target but one that reflects the urgency of the situation: it was decided that a longer period could not be afforded due to the number of lives that would be lost as a result. Efforts to reduce mortality could be boosted by a new serum treatment, due to be distributed in Liberia in the next few weeks. The serum treatment uses antibodies extracted from the blood of recovered sufferers to locate and destroy cells infected with the virus. This serum can be injected into Ebola victims who do not possess the antibodies, helping them fight the infection. There are some concerns that using a blood serum could encourage the transmission of viruses such as hepatitis B and C and HIV, making it important for blood donors to be screened and for the treatment to be given in sterile conditions. This serum is expected to be distributed to patients very soon, but it is not known if there will be enough to meet demand since 10,000 people have now been infected with Ebola. The next step in controlling the outbreak will be drugs and vaccines, which are unlikely to be in distribution before next year.
Synthetic biology points way to new Ebola test A team of scientists at Harvard University have devised a new method of embedding synthetic gene circuits in ordinary slips of paper which could point the way to a rapid, low-cost, and highly portable Ebola test. Synthetic gene circuits can be programmed to carry out a range of tasks in a similar way to electronic circuits, but with the added functionality conferred by using purely biological components. However, research in this area had been held back by the requirement that these gene networks be ‘run’ in living cells or in solutions in the lab. The Harvard group’s disarmingly simple approach involved freeze-drying biological network components onto small slips of paper, which could then be stored and transported before being reactivated at a later time by adding water. This innovative breakthrough is the first example of manipulating synthetic biology technology for use in the real world. This is where the Ebola test comes in. The group’s second major breakthrough was the invention of a new synthetic gene regulator called a ‘toehold switch’. This switch can be designed to act as an accurate and flexible sensor for target RNA strands. In the space of a single day, the team combined the two new technologies to create a variety of paper-based Ebola sensors. In the presence of strands of Ebola RNA, a test slip changes colour from yellow to purple within half an hour. Although the technology is not currently suitable for use in areas affected by the epidemic, the group are confident that there will be no major obstacles in designing a test that is.
Art by Thao Do and Leoma Williams.
If implemented, paper-based testing would offer several advantages over existing methods. Not only is it quicker and more affordable, but the fact that the tests can be stored at room temperature means that it is suitable for use in areas without reliable access to electricty, in which testing has proved particularly difficult.
In bed with the Neanderthals The leg bone of a 45,000 year old human found in Ust’-Isham, Siberia, has provided the oldest modern human genome sequence known to man. Long segments of neanderthal DNA in the ancient genome suggest that humans and Neanderthals were mating between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago. What’s more, the bone itself was found in absence of any archaeological site or inference of human activity. This suggests that the hunter-gatherer in question was part of a group that roamed far and wide and that Homo sapiens could already have spread to the ends of the earth by this point.
Shocked out of solitude
A life of quiet contemplation may have been the dream of the Ancient Greeks, but a new study suggests that we’re just not cut out for it. In a series of experiments designed to test how comfortable people are doing nothing, psychologists found that the majority actively disliked the experience. In the most striking experiment, participants were left alone in an empty room for 15 minutes and told to occupy themselves with their thoughts. The subjects could also choose to receive an unpleasant electric shock at any point. Having received the shock earlier in the experiment, the participants universally claimed that they would pay to avoid doing so again. However, faced with the choice between nothingness and pain, 65% of men and a quarter of women opted to receive at least one shock.
Fertility foiled by aluminium Work carried out by Keele University has shown that the rapidly falling sperm count in the developed world over previous decades could be due to increased exposure to aluminium. Fluorescent microscopy has shown the presence of aluminium in semen and even in individual sperm, whilst a higher aluminium content in semen correlated with a lower sperm count. Art by Sophia Malandraki-Miller.
News in Brief
Neurons made from skin offer hope for Huntington’s cure In a breakthrough study published last month, scientists successfully converted human skin cells into the brain cells affected in Huntington’s disease, providing a novel platform for drug development. This elegant technique sidestepped tissue rejection risks and the controversial use of embryos, and when injected into mouse brains, the derived cells closely resembled native medium spiny neurons both structurally and functionally. Patients who develop Huntington’s rarely live for 20 years after symptom onset, and this breakthrough could overhaul research in this field.
Government body seizes £200,000 of study drugs A raid by the Medicines and Healthcare Products Regulatory Authority (MHRA) last week led to the seizure of £200,000 worth of study drugs from a UK-based website. The website, which is targeted especially at students, is just one of many online vendors contributing to a growing black market in drugs that enhance cognitive performance, or ‘nootropics’. Amongst the ‘smart drugs’ recovered by the MHRA were prescription drugs such as Ritalin and modafinil, as well as one completely untested drug, sunifiram. Ritalin, which is usually used to treat ADHD, and modafinil, which is prescribed for the treatment of narcolepsy have
recently established themselves as the brain-boosters of choice for students looking to increase productivity with exams or essay deadlines looming. Studies have shown that these drugs can improve performance on memory and attention-based tasks in healthy individuals, but the precise mechanisms responsible for the drugs’ cognitive effects, and the potential consequences of longterm use are currently poorly understood. Nonetheless, the current demand is such that the raid, which occurred after a tip-off from the Norwegian Medicines Agency, seems unlikely to have much effect on the booming smart drugs industry.
News by Alex Hooker and Sophie Perry.
News in #Tweets Follow us @bangscience
Beyond Lazy Would you take mind-boosting drugs to ease your essay crisis? It is almost a fad to leave things until the last minute – even as I write this piece I’m three days behind the agreed deadline. The act of voluntarily delaying important tasks, often in favour of less important errands, seems at first glance to be a simple case of laziness. However procrastination has been suggested to stem from a deeper lack of self-control. This may manifest as an inability to regulate your sense of time, or emotions, ultimately leading to a maladaptive lifestyle.
ample procrastinators delayed practice on a puzzle work when they were told the puzzle is a test for cognitive ability, whereas they showed no delay in practice when told the puzzle is meant to be fun and meaningless. Procrastination is also correlated with a lower level of conscientiousness, a personality trait describing someone who is orderly, self-disciplined and motivated to achieve. Procrastinators may show low scores along this dimension, and score highly on measures of impulsivity.
has also been linked with attention“Procrastination deficit disorders such as ADHD; these conditions are closely associated with the trait of impulsivity. “ Procrastination is often thought to simply be an inability to perceive and regulate time - you are constantly under the impression there is still plenty of time until the deadline. However, this explanation seems to be just another way of saying ‘it’s just bad time management’, and overlooks the accompanying symptoms of guilt and anxiety experienced by procrastinators. In a study where students reported their academic progress and emotional state on the five days leading up to a school deadline, higher reported levels of guilt correlated to further delays in more difficult tasks as the days went by. This suggests that people do sense the decreasing time, and that procrastination is less of an issue with time perception, but rather an inability to overcome the unpleasantness of the present task or the temptation of a diversion. Inability to regulate emotions is therefore thought to contribute to the act of procrastination. As procrastinators are prone to exhibit significantly more stress and even physical illness as a deadline approaches, procrastination has also been linked with depression and anxiety, amongst other health problems. A lack of self-control can also relate to personality. It has been suggested that procrastinators may be perfectionists in disguise, adopting a self-defeating mentality so that any failure appears to be a lack in effort rather than ability. For ex-
Another way of looking at the roots of procrastination is through neurophysiology. The prefrontal cortex, which is linked with executive functions such as attention and planning, has been suggested to be highly related to the maladaptive behaviour observed. The executive functions select and filter appropriate information for processing and as such failure in this system could explain why procrastinators are easily distracted by secondary tasks. Procrastination has also been linked with attentiondeficit disorders such as ADHD; these conditions are closely associated with the trait of impulsivity. Looking at explanations of procrastination at different levels can help us come up with interventions that target each area. For example, knowing procrastination is closely related to our emotions may help us become aware of the need to balance long-term goals and short-term rewards. It may also help to actively seek positive and worthwhile causes in tasks to stimulate emotional motivation. With respect to the connection between procrastination and inattention, procrastinators may
seek ‘smart drugs’ for an extra boost in performance. In one study, sleep deprived doctors tested on Modafinil, a vigilance promoting drug, showed improvements in cognitive flexibility and reduced impulsivity compared to those who took only placebo pills. However there is still large scope for ethical discussions surrounding the idea of cognitive enhancers as their long-term effects remain to be studied - the possible health implications are important to consider, especially for children and adolescents who are still in development. Lastly, taking these medications may also attract pressures from society, as other people may perceive you as a cheater, which may draw further effects.
Mabel Au is an Experimental Psychology student at Wadham College. Art by Paavan Buddhev.
Statin’ the Facts Does a statin a day keep the doctor away? Statins are the most prescribed drug in the NHS. Offered to patients who are at a high risk of developing diseases of the heart and blood vessels, they reduce the levels of cholesterol in the body and thus decrease the chance of developing cardiovascular disease. Considering the increasing numbers of people who are at risk, the efficacy of these drugs and their relatively low cost to the NHS, it is no wonder they are so widely prescribed. However, guidelines published last year by the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend that statins should be offered to patients whose risk of having a cardiovascular event within the next ten years is as low as 10%. This lower risk group includes approximately a quarter of all adults in the United Kingdom.
The new NICE guidelines are based on an extensive analysis of results from numerous clinical trials, compiled into a report in 2013 by the Cochrane Collaboration. Cochrane reviews are widely considered to be of the highest quality, being regularly updated and using all available data. The conclusion of this review was that in this low risk group, the benefits of treatment with statins outweighed the risk of side effects. However this contradicted a Cochrane report published two years earlier, which had stated that statins should not be prescribed to low risk patients. With such a swing in medical opinion, is it clear which reports to trust? John Abramson, lecturer at Harvard Medical School, wrote a controversial article in the British Medical Journal
exists a sizeable group of people “Therewho remain cautious about the use of statins in low risk groups“
(BMJ) criticising the more recent Cochrane report. He used calculations to try to show that the benefits of statins were smaller and the side effects were greater than stated in the analysis. His article was particularly reproached for its misuse of statistics, exaggerating the incidence of side effects caused by statins. Rory Collins, co-director of the Oxford-based Cholesterol Treatment Trialists’ (CTT) Collaboration worries that such articles may cost lives. According to Collins, they could lead to fewer people taking statins which “may well result in unnecessary heart attacks, strokes and vascular deaths”. He likened the damaging effects of Abramson’s article to those of Andrew Wakefield’s allegation of a link between the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine and autism. This now discredited claim caused a decline in uptake of the vaccine and hence a rise in cases of both measles and mumps. Nevertheless, in spite of the widespread criticism of Abramson’s claims, there exists a sizeable group of people who remain cautious about the use of statins in low risk groups. Klim McPherson, visiting Professor of Epidemiology at Oxford, claims that Collins has underestimated the side effects of statin use, in particular muscular aches and pains. The ongoing debate and lack of consensus suggests that we still don’t have enough data to unreservedly support any conclusions about the use of statins in low risk groups. Furthermore, clinical trials involving low risk groups require extremely large numbers of patients to accurately study a drug’s
most recent evidence would suggest that “The statins have greater benefits than harms. “ effects and such numbers can be difficult to obtain. One suggestion from Ben Goldacre, Guardian columnist and author of Bad Science, is to acquire the numbers needed by recruiting patients from routine appointments in general practice. Considering the quantity of patients currently taking statins in the NHS, the implementation of this idea could rapidly provide the answers we require about
these controversial drugs. The need for data is clear. Klim McPherson believes that the current situation is “absolutely unsatisfactory as it stands”. In addition, there is a need for accurate reporting and analysis of statistics. Failure to present the information properly may undo the hard work involved in obtaining the data required to study this problem. The
most recent evidence would suggest that statins have greater benefits than harms. If further data reinforces this view, it may well turn out that for a large proportion of the population, a statin a day does in fact keep the doctor away.
Michael Gach is a Medical Sciences student at Lincoln College. Art by Paavan Buddhev.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Making Medicine Cool Can plasma physics be used to save lives?
he fourth state of matter is responsible for some of the most spectacular phenomena in nature: lightning bolts, the luminescent northern lights and the core of every star in the universe all have their origins in plasma. The same curious properties that cause these wonders also have vital applications in medicine. he recent development of cold (below 40°C) atmospheric plasma (CAP) sources have made the transfer of plasma treatments to living tissue a possibility. The human body is a wonderful thing, capable of fixing its own problems in its own manner. Any medical treatment will ideally work in tandem with the body’s natural repair, offering only the gentlest of encouragement. CAPs do just this with no pain and minimal tissue damage. A mixture of helium and air is excited by radio waves to produce the cold atmospheric plasma at room temperature, which is confined and directed as a “plasma needle”. A plasma needle doesn’t operate mechanically, but instead acts on natural chemical stimuli known as “radicals”
produced by the body. The plasma causes a localised spike in radical concentration in the affected area. A healthy organism is abundant in these radicals, or “free carriers”, which control many physiological processes. One important class of radicals, reactive oxygen species, are involved in fighting infection, whilst another type, called reactive nitrogen species, control blood
vital proteins and even the cell’s DNA. Plasma therapy has proved tremendously effective in combating the most aggressive and common form of human brain tumour, glioblastoma. This type of tumour is resistant to both chemotherapy and radiotherapy, but treatment with CAP for just five days has shown to markedly reduce the tumour size and effects. This is far from an isolated success: in the past decade, plasma
sounds so simple. Point a beam of cold at the damage and any number “It all plasma of restorative effects are possible.“
vessel function. These molecules all have an unpaired electron, and hence are highly reactive and short-lived, which makes them perfect tools for triggering natural healing and renewal mechanisms in target tissues. It all sounds so simple. Point a beam of cold plasma at the damage and, depending on the power, plasma composition and exposure time, any number of restorative effects are possible. Possibly most remarkably and importantly, cold plasma treatment doesn’t cause necrosis – unintentional cell death resulting from a burst membrane. By preventing necrosis, cold plasma doesn’t cause any of the undesirable side effects you may get from many other treatments, namely inflammation and scar tissue. Plasma therapy is completely painless and leaves little to no trace. A major and promising avenue of plasma medicine is its use in the treatment of cancer. Cold atmospheric plasmas can be used to kill tumour cells both in vivo and in vitro by a process known as “programmed cell death” where specialist enzymes chop up
treatments have proved uniformly effective across the spectrum of cancers from skin cancers to carcinomas to brain tumours. What’s more, disinfection and noninflammatory tissue removal have obvious medical importance and could revolutionise how we treat damaged tissue. Being able to disinfect painfully inflamed sites without contact could be life saving for patients with impaired immune systems and sufferers of chronic wounds (e.g. diabetic foot ulcers). The accuracy of a plasma needle would be far greater than that of any tools we currently possess, and plasma treatment would be able to reach into the tightest fissures and cracks for use in dentistry. It is clear that plasma medicine is a field with so much potential it is difficult to know how many avenues of treatment it will improve. Although there’s an obvious temptation to implement this innovatory treatment as soon as possible, the field is still in its infancy and it is unlikely we will see it as commonplace for perhaps fifty years. Until then, it inspires enthralling exploration into the marriage of sciences that, after so long, are proving less confined to their conventional boundaries of study.
Fergus Kennedy is a Biological Sciences student at Somerville College. Art by Leoma Williams.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Crowdsourcing Science Could the cure for cancer be in your hands? This article first appeared in our Michaelmas Term ‘Innovation Issue’, but has since been amended following a request from Professor Chris Lintott, a researcher at the University of Oxford’s Astrophysics Department. We would like to take this opportunity to apologise to Professor Lintott for misrepresenting the quote he gave for the original article. A cure for cancer and the discovery of intelligent life elsewhere in the Universe may be closer than we think. The answer, according to many scientists, lies in plumbing “big data”. In this issue, we talk to Chris Lintott, Professor of Astrophysics at Oxford University and CoPresenter of the BBC’s The Sky at Night, about his experiences as a leader of the Zooniverse project. Professor Lintott’s first immersion in the field of big data came nearly a decade ago, when he arrived in Oxford as a researcher. In 2006, he and his colleagues quickly realised that they wanted to classify images of almost a million galaxies captured in the Sloan Digital Sky Survey launched at the turn of the century. This project had amassed more data in its first few weeks than all that previously collected in the history of astronomy. Although the use of supercomputers made data collection simple, a lack of manpower was holding up efforts to accurately map the skies above us. To solve this, Professor Lintott turned to crowd-sourcing. He created Galaxy Zoo, which allowed ordinary people to sign up and classify galaxies themselves. People with no relevant knowledge could sign up and identify galaxies in their spare time with just some basic training and the click of a mouse. Galaxy Zoo is now part of Zooniverse, a collection of citizen
science projects ranging in focus from papyrology to pathology. The scheme has over a million volunteers, or ‘zooites’, signed up worldwide. Some exciting discoveries have already been made, including that of a planet with four suns. So what’s next? Crowdsourced science has already come a long way. In the early days, it was a lack of effective computer processing power that represented the major hurdle in astronomy research. The launch of SETI@home in 1999 went some
way to addressing this problem, combining the donated power of computers across the world to create a supercomputer capable of analysing radio signals in the search for signs of intelligent life. A year later, Folding@ home was created, with the aim of characterising the 3-D structures of proteins. Misfolded proteins have been linked to various neurodegenerative diseases, and this project hopes to advance research in this field, and also in oncology and basic drug design. However, the passive nature of contributing in such a way leaves some craving more. Zooniverse soon gave this to the public, allowing people to become more actively immersed in the science that lay behind the research. This has since been built upon by the ‘foldit’ project, launched in 2008. Members of the public can download
Art from Bang! archives.
software designed to mimic a computer game. The aim is to find the most likely formation of an enigmatic protein, uploaded by a stumped research team. This has already achieved significant success – in 2011, the structure of an AIDS-related enzyme was solved after 15 years of unsuccessful graft from various research groups. Crowdsourced projects have spent the past decade becoming more and more complex and yet they are likely to start becoming simpler. The surge of smartphones mean many of us play complex games on our phone already, we might as well be contributing to research while doing so. Cancer Research UK worked out how to utilise this and have released the world’s first free mobile game that contributes towards oncology research. So why do people join crowdsourcing efforts? “Fame and glory?”, jokes Professor Lintott. “Most of the studies we’ve done…tell us that people want to take part because they genuinely get a kick out of spending a few minutes to do something useful, to make a contribution to science or to research. I think that’s fabulous! This idea – that people want to do something useful, that they want their contributions to count – is at the core of why me and my team spend so much time on Zooniverse, and I find it inspiring”. With big data now an area of special scientific interest, crowdsourcing could hold the answer to enigmatic questions that have plagued scientists for decades. Perhaps one day, the next big breakthrough will be made by a student idly playing a game on the bus to school.
Gil Reich is a Biochemistry student at St. Hugh’s College.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Bang! talks to...
Jack Andraka J
ack Andraka is a 17 year old who’s out to “make something cool... and change the world.” When he was just 15 years old, he invented an early detection test for pancreatic cancer, making headline news internationally. In recognition of his innovative prowess, Jack has won numerous awards, including the 2014 Jefferson Award, the 2014 Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge, the 2012 Intel ISEF Gordon Moore Award, the 2012 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Youth Award, and the 2014 Stockholm Water Prize. He also won a spot on Advocate Magazine’s 2014 40 under 40 list. What made you decide to work on the pancreatic cancer test? One day when I came home from school my mom met me at the door with bad news: a family friend who was like an uncle to me had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. I didn’t know much about the disease but when he died not long afterward I was sad and confused and decided to learn more about it. What I found shocked me: there really are no good tests for the early detection of pancreatic cancer and the statistics of
cancer survival are horrible with less than 6% surviving 5 years. Armed with teenage optimism, I decided there had to be a better way! You’ve previously said that you contacted 200 universities to help you work on your project, but only one accepted your proposition. What was your experience with contacting universities like? I would Google professors who were working on anything connected with my project and send off emails
describing my experimental design and my background and asking to meet with then and work in their labs. I would check my account daily and refine my email and send it off to the next set. Finally I got one offer to meet with me! I brought in my binders of background information - I was so prepared for this meeting and even had catalog order numbers and a budget for my material list. It only takes one yes to get started! I totally understand why the professors rejected me. I was only 14 which is underage for working
THE INNOVATION SECTION
in a lab in the US (usually you have to be 16), had no lab experience and was attempting a long experiment. I can understand why some just didn’t want to take on the task. It was cool though to present and win an award at a NIH competition and stand in front of my exhibit with my mentor and talk to the professors who had rejected me! What barriers do you think young people face today in terms of becoming an inventor or scientist? There is an age barrier because kids are still not taken seriously and although they can have good ideas, they have difficulty with access to equipment. Also another huge barrier to youth is the lack of open access to scientific journals. I needed to read so many journals to learn and many times they were locked behind a paywall. Kids and their parents just don’t have endless $35 to buy articles and after my mom found some that I had bought in the recycle bin because they werent what I needed she was so mad! People pay taxes to fund research and then have to pay to get
racking time! I really enjoy finding ways of detecting diseases or environmental problems and hope to work in public health and keep finding ways to make people and the environment healthier. I’m working on microplastics now and also continuing to work on my pancreatic cancer sensor. What do you think about open access for science? Do you think having all journals open access will promote a spirit of science innovation? How can people learn if they don’t have open access. Even big
eople pay taxes to fund research and then they have to pay to get the journals - it’s just not right.”
universities are having difficulty affording the huge fees charged by the journals and when Harvard University says it is getting too expensive to subscribe to scientific journals, imagine how out of reach knowledge is for kids like me! With the internet access to knowledge can be universal but the financial barriers
only 14, had no lab experience, “IIwas and was attempting a long experiment. can understand why some [labs] just didn’t want to take on the task”
the journals - it’s just not right and I’m trying to raise awareness of the problem and how lack of access to knowledge hurts everyone. What are your plans for the future? Will you be going to university? Are you thinking of staying in the field of inventing devices or not? I just submitted my early decision application to college. what a nerve
We understand you’re openly gay and you said in a previous interview that you didn’t have many LGBTQ models in science besides Alan Turing. Do you see yourself now as a role model for LGBTQ youth, and if so, what advice do you have to LGBTQ teens today? Perhaps people are concerned that they would have career barriers if they came out as gay so I couldn’t find many gay scientists and mathematicians in the history books. After I mentioned this problem in an article I’ve had so many LGBTQ scientists contact me and tell me
because of scientific paywalls severely limit that access. I’ve had professors write me and tell me that scientific journals can’t be understood by kids and the general public but that is just too condescending and biased - just like when people thought women or people of different races couldn’t learn. Interested people of all races and genders can learn and should have access to this knowledge. There shouldn’t be a knowledge aristocracy!
Interview by Marco Narajos. Photo from Jack Andraka.
how their labs (NIH, Johnson and Johnson, Booz Allen Hamilton) support gay scientists. This gave me a lot of hope. I’d like for other gay youth to see me as a role model of someone who is proud of being gay and who is also interested in the hard sciences and math. In fact I’m writing a book coming out in March about my path to accepting myself as a gay scientist! Accept yourself, reach out to people who can support you and realise that there will always be people who are biased against others because of their race, gender or sexual orientation and live your life with acceptance, openness and optimism.
Jack’s book, to be published in the UK in April next year, is called ‘Breakthrough: How One Teen Innovator Is Changing the World.’
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Paradise Found I
Is this the city of the future?
n recent years, it has become increasingly clear that our way of urban life is no longer sustainable. 24/7 consumerism may give cities like New York their buzz, but growing problems of overcrowding, pollution and waste are harming human health and mother nature. Many social commentators despair at the prospects for our cities, prophesying a future of decay and the collapse of urban living. Dubai Sustainable City says otherwise: opening in 2015, this transgressive development aims to combine the highest of living standards with the most sustainable technology available in order to make it the United Arab Emiratesâ€™ first net zero energy city. Itâ€™s an ambitious project, standing worlds apart from other eco developments in Hong Kong, Germany and mainland China. The city will be jam packed with green spaces, combining a metropolitan lifestyle with environmental values such as clean air, recycling, and sustainable food production. Its progress and success will be instructive to the rest of the world in how we can combine our modern lust for high octane urban living with vital sustainable values.
An Institute for Research in Sustainable Engineering will ensure that the city remains at the cutting edge of environmental science.
Much of the cityâ€™s electricity will be produced by solar panels. All houses are designed with built in solar panels and even the parking spaces are topped with solar panelled roofs.
Green grass roofs are the norm which adds to the 50% of the city that is green open space.
A number of ecodomes and organic farms stretch the full length through the middle of the city, separating areas of residential villas and providing local crops and food. Residents can participate in community farming, helping to harvest fruit and vegetables all year round.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
“ This project in Dubai is very interesting, albeit most ambitious. If it goes well, it could help point the way to a more sustainable future. There is, however, some irony here: the project is likely to be very expensive, but nevertheless feasible for Dubai by virtue of its very large income from sales of fossil fuels!”
Lord Robert May, Oxford Professor of Zoology and former Chief Scientific Advisor to the Government, shares his thoughts on the Dubai Sustainable City.
A cooler city microclimate will be achieved by architecture designed to exploit its orientation to the wind and sun.
Forget petrol, all transportation in the sustainable city will be via electrically powered vehicles, with subsidised electrical cars made available to residents.
Outdoor pursuits are encouraged by shaded jogging, cycling and horse riding paths
Tourism is a core component of the city’s philosophy, with real emphasis placed on raising global awareness of the project. Attractions include eco-resort holiday homes, a first class sustainable hotel with a built-in natural spa centre and even a grass amphitheatre in which to hold municipal events.
Artwork by Leoma Williams. Words by Sophie Perry.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Future Pharma What are the challenges of developing the drugs of tomorrow?
ach of the trillions of cells that make up the human body taps into complex and nuanced signalling pathways. These allow the body to recognise and respond to myriad changes in the external and internal environments, forming the cornerstone for homeostasis, immunity and even social phenomena such as falling in love. For millennia, we have been unwittingly hijacking this method of communication through herbal remedies and, more recently, drugs. An
Ancient Egyptian text from over 3,500 years ago discusses the use of willow for pain, fever, and inflammation; we now know that this plant contains salicylate, the active metabolite of aspirin. While most drugs act on these signalling systems by directly enhancing or depressing their output, the drugs of the future are a true innovation. Moving beyond the traditional and myopic focus on the molecular receptor, pharmaceutical companies are developing novel approaches that will allow doctors to replace faulty genes, manipulate complex protein networks implicated in cancer and heart disease, and target specific molecules to provide lasting relief of disease symptoms with minimal side effects.
Gene Therapy In the late 20th century, the Human Genome Project was touted as the Holy Grail of molecular biology. Despite billions of pounds spent on this endeavour, few results truly evolved from our newfound knowledge. Whilst gene therapy would achieve 100% specificity in the context of what genes need to be expressed, the major barrier facing gene therapy is delivering the genes to the cells. How do you get DNA, a large negatively-charged molecule, through a hydrophobic cell membrane? How do you ensure that the gene is expressed in the right quantities? How do you specify which cells the molecule should target? What about side effects such as an immune reaction or the potential development of cancers? Despite these teething problems, gene therapy still holds considerable promise for many conditions, notably monogenic disorders such as choroideremia, cystic fibrosis, Duchenne muscular dystrophy, and retinoblastoma.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Regulating Gene Expression Whilst some conditions require the replacement of genes, others require the suppression of gene products. We have traditionally achieved this by blocking the actions of a protein using specific inhibitors or receptor blockers. But recently, scientists have looked at the complex roles played by non-coding DNA sequences, which control the expression of multiple genes and play a central role in health and disease. Short noncoding RNA sequences – “antisense oligonucleotides” and RNA mimics – could impact protein networks deranged in disease with great power and specificity. One such ‘antisense oligonucleotide’ is mipomersen, licensed for clinical use in the USA in 2013 for the treatment of high blood cholesterol. It acts to inhibit the production of proteins that act as vehicles to transport cholesterol from the liver to the rest of the body.
off. Targeting these dynamic systems to alter gene expression, thereby mitigating the spread of cancer and promoting tumour cell death, therefore represents a valid therapeutic strategy. Some molecules have already been developed for this
y targeting malfunctional pathways, and “Bfuture leaving others untouched, drugs of the will powerfully combat disease and spare patients unpleasant side effects.“
purpose, notably ‘histone deacetylase inhibitors’ like Vorinostat. Members of this drug family enhance histone acetylation to activate a range of genes, notably dormant tumour suppressors for the treatment of cutaneous T cell lymphoma.
Monoclonal Antibodies A common theme in modern drug development is an intense focus on drug specificity. By targeting malfunctional pathways and leaving others untouched, drugs of the future will powerfully combat disease
development often involves a haphazard “D rugtrial-and-error approach... with little more than pure luck on pharmacologists’ sides.”
In some diseases, like in cancer, there is a dysregulation in the epigenetic system. Epigenetics is the system by which cells can regulate which genes are switched on or off, and in cancers, there is a general ‘switching on’ of most genes, with some specific genes (such as those that suppress tumour formation) switched
This system can be manipulated in a laboratory setting, however, to produce antibodies specific to target other kinds of proteins, such as those expressed by faulty cells. For example, many cases of breast cancer exhibit marked overexpression of
and spare patients unpleasant side effects. Like gene therapy and RNA interference, monoclonal antibodies provide optimum specificity. In the natural human immune system, antibodies bind to specific proteins on bacteria and this helps to destroy the pathogen.
HER2 receptors, which allows growth factors such as oestrogen to fuel tumour growth. Thus, by specifically inhibiting HER2 receptors, these cancers can be targeted in a highly specific manner. Clinically, this has been achieved using a monoclonal antibody known as Herceptin. It is difficult to imagine that drug development often involves a haphazard trial-and-error approach where various chemicals are tested for an effect, with little more than pure luck on pharmacologists’ sides to aid in our efforts for drug discovery. To truly excel and accelerate the rate of drug development, there needs to be new and innovative ways of targeting molecules, and through gene therapy, regulating gene expression, and the use of monoclonal antibodies, the future for pharma is no doubt a bright one.
Marco Narajos is a Medical Sciences student at Christ Church. Art by Leah Taylor-Kearney.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Innovative Research in Oxford Three students tell us about their scientific contributions
Who are you? I’m Leon Kong, a second year chemist at The Queen’s College. What are you doing? Last summer, my work focused on refining existing experiments in our undergraduate syllabus and introducing new experiments with more modern techniques. Why is this important? One of the issues I targeted was the low product yield in the introductory organic chemistry experiments. Multiple repetitions of the prescribed protocol led to my discovery that a significant amount of the product is lost in the aqueous layer during the phase separation step. The addition of a simple acidification step resolved this problem and more than doubled the yield of the reaction, and will allow future first year students to have comfortable amounts of product for usage in subsequent experiments. Where do you see this project going in the future? While this work is far from cuttingedge or groundbreaking, it contributes to a good, inspiring pedagogy that is just as important to a university as its world-changing research.
Who are you? My name is Charlotte Browne and I am a third year medical student at Magdalen College. What are you doing? I am working on a study to investigate the effect of transcranial random noise stimulation on the cognitive abilities in a healthy elderly population. I hope to determine whether stimulation with cognitive training can improve numerical cognition when compared to sham stimulation. Why is this important? Studies have estimated that 1020% of those aged 65 or over have a form of mild cognitive impairment, and this project holds the possibility of improving symptoms for these individuals. Where do you see this project going in the future? This technique could transform our ability to manipulate brain plasticity to produce long-term improvements in cognitive abilities and brain functions. This would benefit individuals with forms of dementia, cognitive decline in neurodegenerative illness, some stroke patients, and individuals with arithmetic difficulties such as dyscalculia.
Who are you? Hi, my name is Andrew Griffin and I’m a third year physicist at Christ Church. What are you doing? 18 months ago, a telescope in Chile took spectra of a set of specially picked spiral galaxies 300 million light years away. I was tasked with detecting the black holes that lie in the middle of the galaxies and measuring their masses. Why is this important? Every spiral galaxy has a black hole in the centre. At first, this was merely a point of interest, a curiosity. But when astrophysicists measured a strong positive correlation between the mass of the black hole and the size of the galaxy (the M-sigma relation), things began to get interesting.for usage in subsequent experiments. Where do you see this project going in the future? Many believe the way galaxies form is from an explosive merging of two galaxies (which would lead to lots of correlations between the galaxy components). Others believe it happens by a much quieter accumulation of matter. My data will help us understand how other galaxies – including our own – were created.
THE INNOVATION SECTION
Bang! Talks to... Fred Turner Oxford undergraduate discusses his homemade Chemistry set
red Turner is a second year undergraduate reading for an MBiochem at Christ Church. In 2013, he won the Young Engineer of the Year Award for building a DNA decryption machine in his bedroom. This finally allowed him to solve an enduring family mystery - the cause of his brother’s mutant red hair.
What made you decide to work on developing a DNA decryption machine? The project started because I wanted to try some basic molecular biology at home as I didn’t have access to a proper lab and a machine capable of amplifying and decoding DNA was one of the most important bits of equipment I needed. The actual construction of the machine ended up becoming in some ways a more interesting problem than subsequently using it. The “ginger gene” testing got somewhat blown out of proportion by the competition and was really just a proof of concept that the machine was working. One of the projects I was actually trying to look at was sequencing my own mitochondrial genome and comparing it against that of a centenarian I knew to look for variations that might explain her longevity (and tell me if I carried them or not!). Unfortunately, this project was never completed because I ran out of money, but I now have about half of my own mitochondrial DNA sequence.
and get a mark for, but instead a project they’re responsible for breaking down into manageable chunks and then addressing bit by bit. In the real world, these innovators have to find a solution for all and any problems that arise, which will often just create two more problems to be solved. I think a lot of the skills involved are best learnt by actually doing interesting projects and just building things for fun, which is not encouraged nearly enough.
You won last year’s Young Engineer of the Year award and have recently been listed in the UK’s 100 leading practising scientists. Where do you get your inspiration from and what motivates you to innovate?
There are a few scientists and engineers that I find particularly inspiring, particularly Craig Venter (a leader in delivering the Human Genome Project) and Elon Musk (Tesla Motors & SpaceX). I think I just like building and tinkering Another key skill that should be with things to discover how they work encouraged more is computer or see if I can improve them in any programming. This can be useful to an way. Also, the feeling of having created inventor or scientist in so many different something new from scratch that hasn’t ways but without doing a computer been done before is difficult to beat. science degree, people are expected to There’s something incredibly satisfying teach themselves this. I think it’s definitely about starting with a pile of components something that should be taught in and ending up with a finished system, schools. especially the first time it works!
What are your plans for the future? Are you involved in any other projects? After finishing my current degree, I’m pretty sure I don’t want to do a PhD. I’d like to run a biotech startup. I can’t reveal too much about what I’m working on at the moment but there’s a significantly bigger project than the PCR machine in the works…
What advice do you have for today’s undergraduates who want to be the innovators of the future? I would say pursue what interests you. Innovating requires a lot of passion and commitment and this is so much easier to find in an area that you find deeply interesting already. Apart from that, work hard and try to spend your time doing interesting things with interesting people as this is the kind of environment where innovative ideas are much more likely to develop. But ultimately find what you love doing and pursue that.
What barriers do you think young people face today in terms of becoming an inventor or scientist? I think one of the problems is a lack of teaching using project based work in both schools and universities. An inventor or scientist doesn’t have a sheet of problems they must complete Interview by Marco Narajos. Art from Bang! archives.
Sex: Why Do It? Life without sex seems ludicrous, but does it actually make more sense?
he problem with sex is that at first glance, it doesn’t seem to make much sense. Here’s why. An organism’s genotype (i.e. its genetic makeup) is continuously being adapted to its environment by natural selection. Now introduce sex. At a cellular level, a series of biochemical reactions break up that well-adapted genome, and randomly generate novel combinations of genes and alleles. To make things more complicated, these novel
combinations are then mixed with those of another individual entirely. You’ve probably spotted the issue here. Why should fit genotypes be destroyed and reorganised every generation? Why go through the effort of finding a mate in order to
multicellular organisms “Minost have sex at some point their life-cycle... Yet, there is still no consensus on why organisms do it”.
reproduce, when one could avoid all this by reproducing asexually to create an identical clone? “This has been one of the biggest mysteries to biologists since the time of Darwin”, says Dr Kayla King, Associate Professor of Parasite Biology at the University of Oxford. “Not only do most multicellular organisms have sex at some point in their life-cycle, but sex is responsible for much of the great genetic and character diversity in nature. Yet, there is still no consensus on why organisms do it”. A possible resolution to the puzzle of sex may lie in the Red Queen hypothesis. It gets its name from the Red Queen in Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass, who says “Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place”. The underlying sentiment of the quote was originally applied to sex by Oxford’s very own Bill Hamilton. The Red Queen proposes that organisms exist in a dynamic biotic environment in which hosts and their parasites
continuously coevolve. The logic goes like this. Parasite fitness depends on its ability to infect a host: the more hosts it infects, the more common the parasite becomes. On the other hand, host fitness depends on its ability to resist being infected by a parasite. Any host genotype that is resistant to the parasite is therefore at an immediate advantage. This resistant host then increases in frequency, at the cost of the infective parasite, which slowly starts becoming rarer. But the problem is that parasites, such as bacterial pathogens, evolve much faster than their hosts. So, in response to a resistant host, the parasite can quickly evolve a new genotype that can infect the once-resistant host, and we’re back at square one. How can hosts keep pace with their parasites? Sex is the answer, it is the engine that produces sufficient genetic variation to better enable individuals to resist a parasite. By generating completely novel genotypes in each generation, sex increases the likelihood that offspring possess novel resistance traits. But, by the same token, sex also allows a parasite to more efficiently infect a host by generating a greater diversity of infectivity traits. This invariably leads to a constant oscillation of infective parasites and resistant hosts, an endless coevolutionary war of attrition in which hosts and parasites must do all the running they can to stay in the same place.
Jack Common is a Biological Sciences student at Christ Church. Art by Anaelle Stenman.
Nature’s Bright Idea Shedding some light on the dark ocean’s depths
ipping your toes in the sea, rock pooling, that field trip involving rivers, large stripy poles and wellies, and of course the goldfish bowl with aptly christened ‘Jaws’; our experience of aquatic environments is limited to those that are brightly lit. However, following generations of children, we ask the question: what happens when we turn off the lights? What monsters will we uncover? There is a common misconception that the deep ocean, reached by little if any light, is a place devoid of life. Quite the opposite is true; a simple Google search of deep sea life shows a wide array of weird and wonderful creatures. Many of these deep ocean organisms are bioluminescent, which describes living things that emit their own light. Creatures as diverse as bacteria, jellyfish such as Aequorea victoria, from which ‘Green Fluorescent Protein’ (GFP) was identified, ribbon worms, starfish, and even lantern sharks emit bioluminescence. It is harnessed by both predator and prey species, proving that the well-known paradigm of predator-prey dynamics is as relevant thousands of metres below the surface as above it. Bioluminescence is used extensively as a defence mechanism by prey species in the
ocean depths. One method used is a bright, close-up flare of light, which is thought to momentarily stun predators, enabling the prey to make a quick getaway. Bioluminescent mucus is secreted by organisms such as vampire squid in a manner similar to a smoke screen preventing predators from following the direction of the prey’s escape. Some organisms even shed a body part, which moves and emits light, distracting the predator,
“Bis ioluminescent mucus secreted by vampire squid to deter predators.”
and securing the preys escape. It has also been suggested that a shed body part could continue to emit light within a predator, making the predator at risk to predation itself. These ‘sacrificed’ limbs are likely to grow back once they have been discarded. In a mechanism termed the ‘burglar alarm’, the prey’s bioluminescence illuminates the predator, revealing its presence and making it vulnerable to other predators. Bioluminescence is also used by deep-sea predators to weigh the odds of catching prey in their favour. Like moths gathering around a light, organisms such as anglerfish use bioluminescent light as a lure to their prey. Similarly, it is thought that sperm whales trigger bioluminescence in their environment, and that squid are attracted to this light, and the whales’ pale mouths. Some predators, such as dragonfish use bioluminescence as a headlight to search for their prey.
Bioluminescence is also thought to be used to communicate between individuals of the same species; separate from predator-prey interactions. However, bioluminescence has many applications in other areas of scientific research, and indeed our daily lives. As mentioned, GFP is a protein found in jellyfish that is used extensively to determine gene expression within organisms, and for live-cell fluorescent microscopy. This has direct implications in public health, in which antibodies tagged with a luminescent protein can show the presence of proteins associated with a particular disease. Luminescent proteins can also be introduced into bacteria, which subsequently produce light when they come into contact with dangerous chemicals such as arsenic. This technology can be used to detect arsenic in water supplies, and therefore help provide safe drinking water. The application of bioluminescence to agriculture is being researched, in which diseased or dehydrated crops emit light, enabling farmers to take appropriate action.
Eloise Orton is a Biological Sciences student at Lady Margaret Hall. Art by Anaelle Stenman.
Science in Court! Could genetics revolutionise sentencing in our justice system?
n the late 1970s, an exasperated woman consulted a team of doctors in the Netherlands about a problem that had been bothering her for some time: the men in her family. She reported harrowing tales of the exhibitionist, impulsive and violent behaviour of her brothers and a son, all of whom had struggled academically in school and had gained a great deal of notoriety amongst their neighbours. One of her male relatives had tried to tried to rape his own sister; another attempted to run over his boss after an argument about performance at work. Anecdotal reports handed down from mother to daughter suggested that this “curse” dated back more than century, and extended across five generations down the male line. More than a decade later, a pioneering study performed by the Dutch geneticist Han Brunner revealed that all affected males in this family carried a genetic mutation on their X chromosome that substantially reduced the activity of an enzyme responsible for digesting monoamine signalling molecules in the brain. Monoamines
such as dopamine and noradrenaline have been extensively linked to attention deficit and hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and shown in several animal studies to contribute significantly to aggression and behavioural inhibition. This fascinating piece of research - the first to forge a strong association between gene variants and violent criminal behaviour - raised a crucial question that has been addressed in several court cases since. Can criminals with a genetic predisposition to commit criminal acts truly be considered culpable for their actions? After all, we cannot be held accountable for the sins of our parents. In 2010, the American Bradley Waldroup pleaded guilty to violently attacking his estranged wife and brutally murdering her friend. With his confession and abundant evidence at the crime scene, it appeared inevitable that he would be sentenced to death. However, in a case that was the first of its kind in the USA, the defence successfully argued that Brunner, who possessed the same gene variant described in the family above, and was subjected to prolonged abuse as a child, was especially vulnerable to committing violent acts. The judge agreed, and his sentence was commuted to thirty years imprisonment. The trend for legal counsels introducing scientific evidence into the courtroom to prove a defendant’s innocence or guilt has peaked in recent years. Putative genetic associations, brain scans and even novel “lie-detection” tests have been submitted to juries, and with many members of
the public convinced of the virtues of science - notably its mis-perceived objectivity and infallibility - these forms of evidence carry substantial weight. It seems inevitable that the criminal justice system will be revolutionised as our understanding of the genes, environmental factors and brain states that contribute to criminality improves. Ultimately, however, Brunner’s syndrome is vanishingly rare, having been described in just three families worldwide. Clearly, the vast majority of impulsive, violent acts are not committed by people in possession of this particular allele, and yet, mitigating genetic circumstances may still apply to vast numbers of criminals. Every year, more and more gene variants are linked to complex behaviours overrepresented in repeat offenders, such as impulsiveness and psychopathy, frequently through convoluted gene-environment interactions. Possessing these variants has a small, but significant impact on a person’s propensity to commit criminal acts, raising the intriguing prospect of future sentences stratified in part on the basis of an individual’s genetic background. Finally, with genetic screening becoming progressively cheaper and more integrated in modern medicine, could “natural born killers” identified at birth soon be placed in corrective classes to curb their potential criminal tendencies? While the answers to these questions remain hazy, it is clear that the exciting frontier between science and the courtroom threatens to disturb our established concept of free will, and serves to illustrate the continued importance of an age-old nature vs. nurture debate.
Charlie Coughlan is a Clinical Medicine student at Magdalen College. Art by Rebecca Carr.
This House Believes that No Innovation P Has Been Better than Sliced Bread
robably like that of the wheel, the invention of sliced bread was courted by controversy and conflict. When Otto Frederick Rohwedder first invented his first bread-slicing machine in 1912, it was destroyed by a fire; he did not perfect the machine until 1928, when pre-sliced bread began to be sold in the US.
Pre-sliced bread was marketed as “the best thing since bread was wrapped”, and since then, the phrase “the best thing since sliced bread” has been used to describe many different innovations. This description has not once been used truthfully. Nothing is better than sliced bread.
he first sliced bread sold to the general public is widely believed to be a plucky little white loaf sold by the Chillicothe Baking Company of Missouri, USA, on July 7 1928. I set out in this argument to expose the sliced loaf for the wicked beast that it is. The first slicing of bread was a pivotal moment in the history of civilization, it paved the way for a host of labour saving devices that made our day to day lives ‘easier’. One definition of a labour saving device is “a gadget or machine that reduces the amount of work required from a human to carry out a given task”. This covers everything from blenders to vacuum cleaners and even the mothership itself: the bread machine. But with all these labour saving devices around, are we becoming a lazier and less skilled bunch than our parents’ generation? Sliced bread started the rot of this modern decline in activity, and we are now suffering the consequences of this with rising levels of obesity and increased incidence of ‘lifestyle diseases’. There has been research conducted somewhere, I think, that shows an increase in life expectancy for those who run to the shop to buy unsliced bread compared with those who drive for the sliced variety. I do acknowledge however that sliced bread may have been an important initial discovery in a long line of other, great innovations by the human race. Since July 7, 1928 there have been a plethora of innovations in science. In 1966 a new high yielding rice crop was introduced raising world production by over 20%. In 1973 the MRI scanner was first used for medical diagnosis, MRI and the NMR science that underpins it has been the subject of 6 Nobel Prizes!
The simplest way to prove the superiority of the invention of sliced bread is to show that, just as all philosophy is a load of footnotes to Plato, it is clear that all subsequent inventions after sliced bread are simply footnotes to the invention of sliced bread. Teflon? Mainly used to make frying pans – the same frying pans in which we fry delicious sliced bread. The electronic computer? Well, I mainly use my computer to look up new and interesting sandwich recipes (and the fact that I’m a half-philosophy student means that I’m comfortable extrapolating from sample sizes of one), so that must be the central purpose of computers: to improve our sliced bread. Nuclear fission? For years, used by the West to defend our glorious capitalistic society from the ravages of the evil Reds. And what was the crowning signature of our society for all of those years, which embodied the needless excessive convenience provided by the free market so fittingly? I’m told you’re clever people. Take a guess. The truth is obvious: sliced bread is the sign of a truly advanced civilisation. It is my utterly sincere opinion that no invention since 1928 has surpassed it.
In fact hundreds of thousands of innovations since July 7th 1928 are more worthy of praise than the sliced loaf. I would be sad to see the sliced loaf preside over these other inventions as king. Whilst I concede it is handy to be able to slap together a butty in under twenty seconds and dash off to your next lecture, pause for just a moment to consider the way in which civilization has benefited from these many other inventions. The bread knife, for example.
Matthew Jamshed is a Chemistry student at Keble College.
Tom Barringer is a Mathematics and Philosophy student at St Hugh’s College.
Ten Magical Mutualisms A countdown through the 10 BFFLs from the natural world
he world is full of magical mutualisms, without which life as we know it would vanish like a rabbit into a top hat. Nature is teeming with species who co-operate with each other to form a ‘magical’ interaction, leading to innovative problem solving, the likes of which candidates on the apprentice could only dream. The driving force behind such creativity? Evolution. So without further ado, I shall reveal 10 top magical mutualisms that will bewitch the mind, ensnare the senses and leave you utterly astounded at the ability of evolution to produce the appearance of design in the natural world.
Freddie Fungus & Alice Algae Took a ‘Lichen’ to Each Other Surprisingly, an individual lichen isn’t just one living organism. Lichen is actually a composite organism made up of a fungus and an alga interacting together. The alga provides organic molecules via photosynthesis, while its long term fungal partner offers protection and shelter. Together they make a resilient couple, producing an organism which is very different in appearance from both of its parts. Their dedication is so strong that Lichen mutualisms can be found in some of the most extreme environments on earth!
Going to the Zoo, Zoo, Zoo… First things first, despite their branching, plant like appearance corals are actually animals. The confusing bit is
if the conditions are right. As a result of this, a coral can contain multiple different types of zooxanthellae with different properties. What’s cooler is that corals can swap which zooxanthellae species is most ‘active’ at any moment, which will change the properties of the coral itself!
Giant Tubeworms and Resilient Bacteria Some of the harshest environments for life on earth include the hydrothermal vents at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. Despite the extremely anoxic, high temperature and high pressure conditions, many animals have been able to adapt to exploit these areas by teaming up with bacteria. The Giant tube worm, Riftia pachyptila, which can grow up to 2.4m in length, has a mutualistic relationship with a bacterium which it stores in a special organ called the trophosome. In return for a home and nutrients the symbiotic bacteria take the molecules obtained from the outside world (dissolved in the fluid of the tube worm’s vascular system), and convert their chemical energy into a form the host can use to make organic molecules for growth. Without these chemosynthetic bacteria, the giant tube worm and other
have domesticated aphids which “A nttheyspecies rear in open pastures and farm.” that whilst being animals they are able to photosynthesise like plants. This is because each coral has a photosynthetic partner which comes in the form of a set microscopic algae called zooxanthellae. A single coral gets its set of zooxanthellae at ‘birth’, from its parents. The coral can later take up additional zooxanthellae partners from its external environment
deep sea creatures would not be able to survive in such an extreme environment.
The Honey Guide, the Honey Badger and the Hadza Honey Guides are a family of birds that use their navigational skills and ability to retain local spatial information to guide large vertebrates, such as the Honey
Badger, or even humans such as the Hadza peoples, to bees’ nests. Both the honey guide and its partner in crime feed on the wax and the honey respectively. However, honey guides cannot access the wax until the nest has been disrupted and the bees driven away. So, in return for promising to be ‘the muscle’ of the operation, the Hadza and honey badgers will be led by the beeseeking-satnav to the nest.
The Toilet and the Tree Shrew Found in the montane cloud forests of Borneo, the Low’s pitcher-plant has evolved to catch the droppings of tree shrews in order to acquire sufficient nitrogen. The plant takes the shape of a toilet bowl with a lid that secretes a white buttery substance that can only be accessed when the tree shrew is present. Tree shrews get a regular food source and the plant gets to access a source of nitrogen from the shrew’s droppings.
The Ants and the Myrmecophytes Myrmecophytes are plants which have a mutualistic association with a colony of ants. The thorns of the plant are homes to ants and in return, the ants aggressively defend their host tree against both large and small herbivores and parasitic fungi and plants. Ants can also carry out seed dispersal for the plants.
Now Bring us Some Figgy Pudding Fact: Fig trees are amazing! But they would be nothing without their obligate pollinators, the fig wasps. The tree depends upon the female wasp for pollination and the wasp lays and
developes its eggs within the fig. Female fig wasps enter the fruit through a narrow one-way tunnel and pollinate the hundreds of tiny microscopic white flowers inside whilst laying their eggs in the flowers. The mother never leaves the fig and will die within one or two days. The tree then forms structures called galls, some of which contain male waspsa and others female wasps. The males hatch first and use their strong mandibles to cut through the females’ eggs so that they can impregnate them before they leave. The males use their mandibles to dig through thewalls and then die inside the fig. The impregnated females disperse in search of new receptive fig trees carrying pollen that they’ve passively or actively collected. Figs actually being wasp mass graves may seem a little harsh but this interspecific relationship has existed for over 87 MILLION years.
Got Milk? It’s not actually true that humans were the first animal to ‘invent’ agriculture. A variety of ant species have domesticated aphids which they rear in open pastures and farm for a substance known as ‘honeydew’ which is excreted from the aphid’s backside. Ants milk the aphids by stroking them with their antennae, leading to the excretion of the sugar-water like residue which, like our cattle’s milk, is very nutritious. To facilitate milking, aphids’ bums have evolved to resemble ant faces, as ants naturally pass liquid food to conspecifics via their mouths. In return for providing
nutritive substances the aphids receive protection against their natural predators.
an individual to provide resources or services for another they get something in return from their partner – tit for tat. This ultimately leads to increased reproductive success/direct fitness for both of them. Consequently, mutualisms are actually reciprocal exploitation and the interaction will continue as long as
Working at the Car Wash If you’ve ever seen the film Shark Tale you’ll actually have already observed a mutualism that is one of the most widespread ecosystem services found on reef systems. ‘Cleaner fish’, such as blue wrasse, he bobtail squid is effectively man ‘cleaning stations’ able to disappear in the water” where significantly larger ‘client fish’ congregate to have ectoparasites and dead skin both parties gain a sufficient benefit removed. In return, the cleaners get a from the interaction that outweighs the good meal! cost of providing for the other. If over exploitation or ‘cheating’ occurs then the Now You See me, Now You Don’t… mutualism is at risk of breaking down The Hawaiian bobtail squid and its unless the overexploited party is able to luminescent symbiont Vibrio fischeri have evolve protection mechanisms to prevent a mutualistic association that allows the it losing out. Since both parties directly bobtail squid to camouflage itself from benefit from the interaction, mutualisms predators through a process known as evolve by a process called co-evolution: counterillumination. The bacteria are are when reciprocal adaptation occurs bioluminescent - capable of producing repeatedly over a period of time. light. In return for their light production the bacteria are provided with sugars The idea that such ingenious and efficient and amino acids. By regulating the levels solutions to problems like nutrient of light produced to match the levels of acquisition, pollination and defence moonlight coming from above the squid is have arisen as a consequence of a able to effectively disappear in the water. process lacking in intention, in a world Now that’s a vanishing act. biased towards disorder, is astounding. Evolution really does give us the So now you’ve had your magic greatest show on Earth. show I bet you’re dying to know how it was done! How can co-operative behaviour exist at all, when Darwin’s theory stated that organisms who acted selfishly and outcompeted others would have greater reproductive success? Why would it benefit one organism to help another?
When two organisms of different species help each other, they co-operate and both gain a direct benefit as a result. Although it’s costly for
Emma Parkin is a Biological Sciences student at New College. Art by Leoma Williams.
Language: Born This Way? Exploring the genetic basis of language
he average two year old human has already achieved an understanding of linguistics that no member of any other species will ever achieve; they can clearly pronounce around 50 words and are well on their way to a full comprehension of the grammatical complexity that underlies language. However, although they learn their given language from their environment, research has shown that their ability to process language is genetically hard-wired. Studies into diseases that affect the linguistic ability of their victims and the development of new languages have proven this to be true. With nearly 7,000 languages existing worldwide providing an infinite range of vocabulary and grammatical structures, it is clear that the languages we speak cannot be written in our DNA; otherwise we would also speak in a universal dialect. In reality, languages have sprung up organically in isolated communities and become corrupted and bastardised as they’ve been passed down verbally from generation to generation. Evidently, nurture is supplementing nature to some extent. However, on a rare occasion that linguists observed the formation of completely new language, they were shocked at extent to which nature was able to take over. Before 1977, deaf people in Nicaragua were kept at home and would have little to no opportunity to communicate with other deaf people. However, upon the founding of a school for deaf children, a pidgin sign language was created by the students almost immediately. This language was initially very crude, but linguists hired by the school to try and decipher the language quickly noticed that the sign language used by younger
students was significantly more complex and grammatically consistent that the one used by the language’s creators. It seemed that it was only once the language had gone through a generation of children that it started to become flexible and consistent – giving it the usability of a spoken language. This suggests an innate ability to understand, organise and process language – a ‘language instinct’.
This theory is backed up by numerous cases of language disorders which are caused by genetic defects. Most of these disorders are classified under the broad umbrella of SLI (Specific Language Impairment), which is diagnosed when a child displays language-related deficits unrelated to hearing loss or other causes of developmental delay, such as autism and cerebral palsy. It is thought that SLI affects up to 7% of school age children, and it manifests as an inability to comprehend simple grammatical rules such as suffixes and tenses. For example, instead of saying “she rides the horse”, an SLI child might say “she ride the horse”. Several studies have hinted at a hereditary basis for the disease. More recently, gene sequencing on a case-by-case basis has identified multiple mutations in a range of genes that seem to converge on a
common set of symptoms, suggesting that our ‘language instinct’ may arise from complex gene-gene interactions. One particular gene has been pinpointed for having a direct and essential effect on speech and language acquisition: a small stretch of DNA found on chromosome 7 known as FOXP2. This gene encodes a transcription factor – a protein ‘master-regulator’ that fine-tunes gene expression in certain areas of the body. As well as the lungs, liver and heart, FOXP2 is found in large quantities in areas of the brain linked to speech and language development. Mutations in FOXP2 affect the way it binds to DNA, fundamentally changing its ability to influence downstream targets and gene-gene interactions. These mutations have been strongly linked to Developmental Verbal Dyspraxia (DVD), a speech disorder characterised by difficulties learning and producing movements relating to the mouth and the lower part of the face. This makes speech articulation particularly difficult for sufferers, who also struggle to comprehend various grammatical rules. Clearly, genetic defects can have a startling impact on our ability to produce and understand speech, hinting at a strong underlying genetic basis for language. But where can we go from here? Current research aims to integrate linguistics, neuroscience and genetics to further unpick the secrets of human language that lift its efficiency, economy and complexity above that of the rest of the animal kingdom.
Alice Farrell is a Biological Sciences student at Balliol College. Art by Miriam Chapman.
Dura-Cell Turning to prokaryotes for our electrical demands
umans have an insatiable appetite for electricity, one that has floodlit continents and made our presence on this planet visible from space. With primary energy sources such as coal, oil and gas fast drying up, the race is on to find viable alternative sources of electricity to keep Earth aglow. The answer may lie in the seemingly infinite possibilities of bacterial metabolisms. If there is any conceivable metabolic process you want doing, chances are there is a species of bacteria out there already doing it. The discovery of Taq polymerase in a hot spring species revolutionised genetic sequencing.
f there is any â€œI conceivable metabolic process you want doing, chances are there is a species of bacteria out there already doing it.â€?
Perhaps even more exotic is the bacterium with the Midas touch, D. acidovorans, which turns toxic compounds into 24-karat gold. Now the first microbial fuel cells (MFCs) are beginning to look sustainable, and better yet, they run off any organic waste from sewage to pollutants, and in turn produce fresh drinking water. A microbial fuel cell is a nonconventional means of generating electricity that uses bacteria to produce electrons from the organic compounds in sewage. It involves hijacking the natural activities of the bacteria that are not fussy when it comes to their nutrient sources. The process relies on a partnership between two different types of bacteria, Geobacter and Chlorobium, and how their metabolisms complement each other. The lightsensitive Chlorobium is a green sulphur bacterium which, when illuminated, will photosynthesise and feed electrons to the Geobacter. The
Geobacter can then do something quite remarkable. While we can use oxygen to rend carbon compounds into carbon dioxide and water, Geobacter can respire metal oxides for the same purpose. In essence, Geobacter breathe metal and rock, for instance the metal at one end of a circuit, in order to generate a current when under a light source. It seems such a convenient solution to our energy crisis. The bacteria are performing a costly decontamination process for us whilst giving us a power source in return. Furthermore, removing organic pollutants means less eventually winds up flowing into our rivers and oceans. Assuming this technology becomes industrially viable, we may also see it improve the world in a number of other ways. Breweries and food manufacturers are looking to MFCs as an efficient way of treating their wastewater, which is rich in the organic compounds that these microbes usually feed on. The Australian company Fosters have recently installed the very first small-scale industrial microbial fuel cell for treating its wastewater (no, not their beer) and, with the power it generates, it is expected to pay for itself within just ten years. MFCs may also allow us to transform seawater into fresh drinking water. A normal microbial fuel cell will produce clean water as a waste product, but by adapting it to hold a compartment of seawater bound by a semi-permeable membrane it is possible to draw salt out of the water. This can be achieved with no external energy input. The best removal efficiency currently accomplished is around 90%, which is far from drinking quality, but promising nonetheless.
Yet another potential application of MFC technology could ultimately prove to be the most significant: the production of hydrogen. For many years we have found it difficult to produce pure hydrogen. Having a single electron and a propensity for forming strong covalent bonds means we almost always find hydrogen stuck to something else, such as oxygen to form water. Keeping both terminals of the microbial fuel cell anaerobic whilst introducing a small electric current cause hydrogen gas to bubble at the negatively charged terminal. This requires just a tenth of the energy of conventional hydrogen production, meaning the MFC is not only the most efficient method but also the kindest to the environment. Microbial fuel cell technology is adaptable, resourceful and environmentally friendly. However it is unlikely that microbe-made electricity will ever be enough to replace nuclear or coal-fired power stations. Nevertheless, as an area of research it offers a lesson in creative renewable energy solutions, and will help inspire a more sustainable future for us all. Fergus Kennedy is a Biological Sciences student at Somerville College. Art by Leoma Williams.
Oxford neuroscientists babbling about the brain
eurobabble is a neuroscience blog run by four DPhil students. Covering a wide range of topics from strange animal behaviours to science policy, Neurobabble has been featured in national and international media like IFLScience, The Conversation and The Independent. We asked the babblers about their research in Oxford...
I work with Oxford’s Translational Neuroimaging Group, studying genetic risk factors for Alzheimer’s disease (AD). By the time AD is clinically diagnosed, the brain is already severely damaged. A rapidly growing area of research, therefore, is aimed at developing early interventions for the disease. My DPhil work focuses on understanding why some people may go on to develop AD, while others lead relatively long and healthy lives. Using magnetic resonance imaging, I examine how both “risk” and “protective” genes differently affect brain function. Our long-term goal is to use the information we get from studying blood flow to the brain, and the brain’s structure, to design early-stage, and non-invasive methods of identifying individuals who are most susceptible to developing AD. Thus, when novel neuro-protective agents do eventually become available, we will be able to predict who would be most in need of, and most likely to benefit from, early preventative treatment.
I study how antidepressant drugs change the way people process emotional information. When a person suffering from depression starts taking antidepressants, it can be several weeks
before their mood improves. However, my lab has found that mere hours after the first dose, people begin to process emotional information in a more positive way, for example, becoming better at recognising happy faces or remembering positive words. People might need time experiencing the world with this altered emotional bias before they start to feel better, and this could account for the delay in response. My DPhil work involves using fMRI to study how these changes are represented in the brain. Our research opens up exciting prospects for drug development. Very few new antidepressants have been developed in recent years, despite the fact that many patients don’t benefit from existing drugs. In the future, we might be able to use behavioural assessments and brain imaging to test new drugs for these early effects on emotional processing.
The cells that make up our organs have evolved to perform specific functions but little is known about the roles performed by different types of brain cells. This research has been limited both by the functional complexity of the brain and the fact that these cells are entangled in anatomically complex networks. In the last few decades, tools have been developed that allow scientists to target specific cell types based on the genes that they express, providing a way to begin unravelling how the brain works, piece by piece. In my research, I am investigating the hypothesis that a particular type of brain cell acts as a volume control for the signals that are processed by other neurons in the surrounding area. These
cells, known as parvalbumin positive (PV+) interneurons, are the second most common neuronal subtype in the cerebral cortex and are damaged in autism, schizophrenia and epilepsy. Understanding the function of subtypes of brain cell in health and disease will pave the way for a new generation of circuit level therapies for neurological disorders, where specific cell types can be targeted and repaired using the same genetic techniques that make this research possible.
Dopamine is that neurotransmitter that pops up in the news as the ‘happiness molecule’ and as the chemical culprit responsible for addiction. While dopamine is involved in the effects of addictive drugs and is linked to pleasure (although not as directly as the popular press might have us think), it also plays a role in many other brain functions, from movement to decision making to memory. Dopamine’s multiplicity of functions is due in part to the complexity of the dopamine system, which projects to sites all over the brain that each play their own role in regulating mental processing and behaviour. My DPhil project aims to unravel this complexity by investigating how dopamine transmission is regulated in different regions and how the dynamics in one area impact dopamine elsewhere in the brain. Understanding the intricacies of this circuitry should help uncover the neural basis of the behaviours that dopamine mediates and of the diseases in which dopamine processing goes wrong.
Follow the babblers...
Find Neurobabble on neurobabble.co.uk and on Twitter @neuro_babble.
We would like to thank the babblers for their contribution to the Innovation issue.
Bang! Crossword Find the answers throughout the magazine
Across 5. The biology version of your tute partner 6. Controversial way to lower cholesterol 7. A new target for therapy 8. West African epidemic 9. Innovation at its best - or is it? 11. One way to tackle big data Down 1. The reason why we have sex 2. Studies show plasma can be used to treat this condition 3. Secretly used by all Mertonians 4. Underwater headlights from jellyfish 10. Rock-eating microbe
Bang Science Magazine - The Innovation Issue