Bang! ISSUE 16: HILARY TERM 2014 | ZOMBIELAND | LUNAR ORIGINS | ANIMAL ADDICTION | | SUPERORGANISMS | BEAUTY AND THE BRAIN | | DIGITAL DNA | Bang! Explains: CONTAGIOUS YAWNING |
Not all scientists have to wear white coats. †
Skills Commission, 2011
Tallulah Bygraves, Imperial College London Taught: Science Now: Founder of Bonobo Conservation Initiative UK
Just 62% of young people eligible for free school meals get a Science GCSE grade A*-C. †
Change their lives. Change yours. Please contact Margot firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like to meet a recruiter on campus.
The single most important thing you will do
teachfirst.org.uk/graduates Charity No 1098294
Faculty of Engineering
Get paid to do a PhD What areas of study? Fluid Dynamics, Bioenergy, Tissue Engineering, Materials and Tribology How much? Approx. £13,726 (tax free) a year
How many places are available? 40 for 2014 entry Who can apply? Engineering or science graduates. Funding is only available for UK/ EU students
Editorial News Bang! Explains...Contagious Yawning Lunar Origins Where Has All The Antimatter Gone? Black Death Animal Navigation Anger Management Computer Viruses Beauty and the Brain HIV Animal Addiction Famous Oxford Scientists Zombieland Bang! Talks toâ€Ś Robert Winston Digital DNA Crystallography A Bugâ€™s Eye View Superorganisms An Inconvenient Debate / Woes of a Science Student
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 10 11 12 14 15 16 18 20 22 24 25 26 28
Bang! Staff Editors in Chief Patrick Roberts & Sophie McManus Print Editor Jeremy Libre Online Editor Marco Narajos News Editor Charles Coughlan Broadcast Editor Madeleine Hurry Sub Editors Mabel Au, Anna Feeney, Alex Hawkins-Hooker, Hannah Moody, Jessica Poole, Paul Taylor, Ruolin Wang & James Wills Creative Director Nikolas Dion Susanto Artwork Director Ellen Foley-Williams Layout Director Amber Barton Colouring Director Kasia Kozyrska Creative Team Jade Barrett, April Hills, Carolyn Joseph, Sarah McGuigan, Sophia Miller, Anaelle Stenman, India Stephenson, Katherine Williams & Leoma Williams
Business Manager Laura Pollum Business Team Niloy Biswas, Leon Kong & Ankira Patel Publicity Team Catherine Joyce & Iona Twaddell Published by Oxford Student Publications Limited Chairman Jonny Adams Managing Director Kalila Bolton Finance Director Jai Juneja Company Secretary Hugh Lindsey Directors Max Bossino, Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Anthony Collins, Polina Ivanova, Christina Maddock & Stephanie Smith Cover art by Nikolas Dion Susanto Printed by Monster Media Management Copyright Bang! 2014
EDITORIAL study. Our articles range from unravelling the history of our Moon to explaining why you just can’t help but copy your yawning tute partner. We also follow the pathological history of our species; humanity’s most deadly plague is covered on page seven, while we tackle the future of HIV treatment on page 14. Scientists have always marvelled at the ingenuity of animals, and on page eight we take the time to admire their navigational skills. While we hapless humans struggle with maps and compasses (or even just a sat outlined in Animal Addiction - drunken elephants or hallucinating reindeer more. An even more alarming image is that of a real-life zombie apocalypse. See more on page 18.
Bang! also had the pleasure of talking to Lord Robert Winston about the future of reproductive research and science in Britain, as well as his truly note - it is apparently possible to run a research group, present awardwinning TV programmes and chair the Royal College of Music! Scientists are still perhaps unfairly stereotyped as hopelessly nerdy. We would hate to reinforce this, but a look at our column on the ‘Woes of a Science Student’ in the kitchen may sound familiar to some of the less culinarily-inclined among you. complemented by the work of our creative team. We hope you enjoy the wonderful artwork which makes Bang! a truly unique publication. We welcome your feedback and hope that you would like to become involved with the magazine next term, both the print edition and online. We are recruiting writers, editors, bloggers, artists, broadcast and business team members, so check the website for how to apply. Please email email@example.com with your questions, criticisms and comments - we look forward to hearing from you!
Sophie McManus & Patrick Roberts Editors
Novel bionic arm allows amputee to feel in real-time
arlier this month, a team of European scientists and clinicians reported an exciting
journal Science Translational Medicine, the group, led by Professor Silvestro Micera, announced that they had successfully designed and tested a sensory-enhanced sole subject of the study, Dennis Sørensen, lost his left hand in an accident handling real-time - even when blindfolded. creating a transduction system in the bionic hand. This allowed them to transform into an electrical current. Custom-designed computer algorithms were then used to convert coarse electrical output from the bionic limb into meaningful signals which sensory nerves could then interpret.
transneuronal electrodes inserted into the residual stretches of nerves in his left upper arm. Following surgery, Mr Sørensen was put through three weeks of intensive testing which showed that, despite nine years of inactivity in the nerves relaying touch information from his hand, he was able to accurately determine the shape and consistency of objects.
Plant genetics turned upside-down
landmark study published in Science this month promises to revolutionise our understanding of heritability in plants. Dutch and French researchers
Scientists pioneer new method of stem cell production
apanese researchers have devised a new method of induced pluripotent stem cell (iPSC) production with the potential to revolutionise regenerative and personalised medicine. iPSC production involves “re-programming” functional roles by introducing key transcription factors that control cell fate. The cells produced by this treatment display high regenerative capacity and can types. iPSCs have yielded valuable insights into developmental biology and have formed useful models of complex disease states. They also hold real potential as therapeutic tools. “Cell-loss” disorders such as type 1 diabetes and Parkinson’s disease might be “rescued” by the introduction of reprogrammed iPS cells derived from a small patient skin sample. The new method devised by Obokata and colleagues involved “shocking” isolated white blood cells from mice with acid. This converted somatic lymphocytes into so-called stimulus-triggered acquistion of pluripotency (STAP) cells capable of propagation. This result provides important clues about the relationship between cell identity and the local environment, and an exciting glimpse of a future age of personalised medicine. Furthermore, this method of iPSC production could represent a cheaper, faster and potentially safer alternative to existing techniques.
from generation to generation. For the past six decades, geneticists have emphasised the impact of inherited changes in DNA on gene expression. However, in recent years it has become “epigenetic” factors such as DNA methylation and investigation of epigenetic inheritance of complex traits in inbred strains of the model plant Arabidopsis. After observing a high level of DNA sequence conservation across inbred strains, they hypothesised stable inheritance of epigenetic marks. Using interval mapping and linkage analysis, the scientists went on to identify several quantitative trait loci, variable epigenetic marks which contribute directly to the expression of particular traits.
The scientists are now hoping to replicate
Although this result has only been obtained in single inbred species, with stable inheritance of epigenetic marks assessed over
Chris Mason, Professor of Regenerative Medicine at UCL, believes that if they succeed, “the age of personalised medicine Charlie Coughlan is a third year Medical student at Magdalen College. Art by Carolyn Joseph.
BANG! EXPLAINS... CONTAGIOUS YAWNING P
icture a lazy sunny afternoon spent Based
big yawn, and all of a sudden you
Great Darwin’s beard! You just
function of yawning is to increase
us copying observed actions are
traditionally considered to
between perception and action – we
survival depends on awareness of
of warning – baboons yawn to display
contagious yawning is not due to a
evolution of contagious yawning yawning after your fellow student in a
Chanatjit Cheawsamoot is a first year Biological Sciences student at St Hilda’s College.
Art by Jade Barrett and Carolyn Joseph.
LUNAR ORIGINS There is still plenty to learn about our nearest neighbour
body was captured
a better understanding of general
Helen Ashcroft is a second year DPhil student in Earth Sciences at St Anneâ€™s College. Art by Sarah McGuigan.
5 9 6
WHERE HAS ALL THE ANTIMATTER GONE? ...and why is there something rather than nothing?
round 13.8 billion years ago, our universe sprang into existence with the Big Bang. Out of the hot, dense conditions of the early Universe, equal amounts of matter and antimatter were created. When matter and antimatter particles come into contact with one another, they annihilate, and their mass is turned into energy. On the face of it, this means that there shouldn’t be any matter left in the Universe. Yet, somehow, in the primordial war between matter and antimatter, around one matter particle in every billion survived to form the galaxies, stars and planets we see today. How did some matter particles escape total annihilation? Part of the answer is related to charge parity (CP) symmetry. There are many symmetries in physics, which all have profound and beautiful consequences. For example, the fact that you can perform an experiment at some time, then repeat it 10 minutes later and get the same result, is an example of time-translational symmetry. This symmetry leads to the physical law of the conservation of energy. In fact, every continuous symmetry in nature leads to a similar conservation law. CP is the symmetry of matter and antimatter. It’s the product of the charge and parity transformations. The charge transformation reverses the sign of the charge of a particle. If you applied this transformation to all the particles in the universe, you would expect the laws of physics to be the same – things would be symmetric with respect to this transformation. The same is true for the parity transformation, which acts somewhat it is more powerful. If you look in a regular mirror, only one of the space
dimensions is reversed, whereas if you looked into a parity mirror all three spatial dimensions would be reversed; your image would not only be upside down! We need to apply the combined CP transformation to turn a particle into its antiparticle counterpart, for example an electron into a positron. The electron and the positron have exactly the same mass, and exactly the opposite electric charge. In fact, this is true for all particle-antiparticle pairs. Since the properties of matter and antimatter are almost identical, it is natural to expect the physics of particles and antiparticles to be symmetric with respect to this CP transformation.
Model is incomplete. There must be other processes that generate CP violation. In addition, we need reactions that actually produce more protons than anti-protons, more electrons than anti-electrons and so on. Although we have discovered CP violation, we have not discovered these processes yet.
n the primordial war between matter and “Ievery antimatter, around one matter particle in billion survived to form the galaxies, stars and planets we see today”
But this is not the case! CP symmetry must be broken. Otherwise, matter and antimatter would have completely annihilated after the Big Bang and you would not be reading this article. For physicists, this broken symmetry is like waving at yourself in the mirror and This phenomenon has been studied in is absolutely tiny. So tiny, in fact, that the amount of CP violation we know about in the Standard Model of particle physics falls drastically short of what is required to generate the remaining matter observed by astronomers. So far, we can only account for around 1% of the matter left over in the Universe. This has a stunning implication: the Standard
Theoretical extensions to the Standard Model predict new particles which have the properties needed to explain the matter-antimatter imbalance in the Universe. These new particles could enhance CP violation in the particles we know about, and so searching for CP violation might give us clues as to what these new particles might be. There is plenty left to discover, and particle physicists continue to search for the missing pieces of the puzzle to explain why there is something rather than nothing.
William Fawcett is a first year DPhil student in Particle Physics at Pembroke College. Art by Sophia Miller.
BLACK DEATH Could there be a fourth pandemic?
he disease known simply as “the plague” caused two pandemics, or global outbreaks of disease, that changed the course of human history. The third pandemic, however, was far less dangerous than expected. Why? To answer that, we must understand the history of this deadly disease.
of Justinian in the 6th century AD. It originated in the relative isolation of Ethiopia in 532, but spread rapidly once it reached Constantinople in 541, and soon onwards to the rest of Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. The second pandemic, known today as the Black Death, is arguably the most famous pandemic of all time. Following a similar pattern to the previous pandemic, it began in the Himalayas in 1332 and then inched along trade routes to reach the Mediterranean in 1347, where it took the lives of 34 million Europeans (30 -50% of the continent’s population at the time) and 16 million Asians in the These two pandemics, and the smaller local epidemics that followed them – much like aftershocks follow an earthquake – would devastate entire regions. Up to half a city’s population could be decimated in just one wave of the disease, and even in the 17th century, with some forms of prevention and early warning systems
DNA from the teeth of corpses buried cemetery in order to investigate this claim. They found that there were Y. pestis of the Black Plague and the Y. pestis that continues to circulate were in parts of the genome thought each of them had been seen in modern plague samples already. That is, all the genomic material of the deadly Black Death bacteria is still in circulation. Try not to worry! Something in the disease’s context, either the environment or the host (that’s us humans), has changed instead. We might have evolved a method of protecting ourselves, such as hereditary haemochromatosis. This very little of this essential mineral inside macrophages, where Y. pestis lives inside the human host. Despite the possibility of life-threatening side for people living under the constant threat of plague, and up to a third of Europeans now carry a genetic mutation that can cause hereditary haemochromatosis.
Plague has a complicated life cycle. Humans are not the preferred hosts; the bacterium survives longer and is more infectious when in rats, such as ship rats, key reservoirs for the spread of disease across commercial sea trade routes. Transmission doesn’t occur directly rat-to-rat, but via a
Y. pestis between humans, as well as between humans and rats. Because of this complexity, the course of an of factors. Environmental temperature
Y. pestis infection in the gut, while nearby wild rodents can “store” the disease between outbreaks. Social and economic factors, such as quarantine how susceptible a human population is to plague. It seems that we cannot predict or explain an outbreak by considering only the pathogen that caused it; we must understand the entire system. We owe it to the millions that have succumbed to the plague, and to the billions that could fall prey to a fourth pandemic.
Sofia Hauck is a first year DPhil student in Bacterial Genomics at St Cross College. Art by Jade Barrett.
of the population to be killed in a single outbreak. The third pandemic, which began in the Yunnan Province of China in 1855, and expanded globally after reaching Hong Kong by 1894, was dramatically less lethal – mortality rates were closer to 2-3%. Until recently, it was assumed that the bacteria that causes plague, Yersinia pestis, (a killer still responsible for about 2,000 deaths annually), evolved into a somewhat ‘gentler’ version sometime before 1855. In 2011 an international research team extracted
9 7 6
ANIMAL NAVIGATION How do they do it?
t is not hard to get lost. Luckily, we humans can read signs and follow maps in order to get where we need to go. More seasoned orienteers can use compasses, landmarks, the Sun’s position in the sky and even stars to navigate. Animals, however, are capable of navigating great distances without the use of a GPS. The Arctic tern wins the prize for longest migration on earth: an extraordinary annual round trip of 70,000 km, while sea turtles are famed for their ability to return back to the same beach on which they hatched to lay their own eggs. But how do these animals know where they are going? Finding your way around involves Humans largely rely on their eyes and remember familiar landmarks to create a mental map. However, sometimes we use our ears to track down the neighbour constantly playing noisy music in the corridor: the same concept is used by other animals. For example, the octopus has been shown to orient towards visual landmarks in order to allow successful nativation through the ocean; this is an exhibition of working
memory. Chitons, marine molluscs which live on rocks, use a rather back to their home: they leave a slimy mucus trail on their outward journey, which contains recognisable chemicals that the animal can trace. The blind a sensory organ that runs along the body which senses changes in water Remembering a series of landmarks what about a beetle in a desert full of endless sand? Dung beetles appear to use the night sky as a compass to disperse
that some form of a compass is the migrates from North America to Mexico every year in response to an particular direction for the winter. It was previously thought that they use the Sun to navigate, but recently it has may also use the Earth’s magnetic many other animals seem to utilise, called magnetoreception. Using their antennae they detect the magnetic can’t change their migration route
“It is thought that both salmon and
from turtles can detect the earth’s magnetic competitors. field using special magnetoreceptor A study in organs in their heads” which dung environment. Displacing them, say beetles could either see the starry sky, from Ontario to Calgary, causes or had their vision occluded by them to get totally disorientated, and clouds or a cap over their head, probably end up somewhere in the showed that the beetles took up to six times longer to exit an arena of competitors in The exact mechanism of the latter scenario. magnetoreception is largely a mystery. It is thought that a magnetic molecule, Some animals migrate such as magnetite, may be made by the such large distances animal in specialised sensory receptor cells. Samples of cells scraped out of the noses of trout were shown to Nearby nerve cells may pick up this spinning and transmit the information cryptochrome as a likely candidate for magnetoreception. It is found in the eyes of many animals, and produces molecules with unpaired electrons, This may allow animals to actually crypochrome called CRY2, found in humans, think it may be a reason why some people have a better sense of direction than others, even in a new environment.
navigation, or “homing”. Turtles present a classic example of true navigation: as previously mentioned, a mother will return to the same beach she hatched on to lay her own eggs. This is called natal philopatry, and is also seen in salmon. It is thought that both salmon and turtles can detect navigation seen the Earth’s magnetic
Lots of insects use the Sun as a navigation tool, but honeybees take it one step further. After searching for nectar and navigating back to the hive, the bee processes the geographical information of the position of the
feats of “T hein nature are marvellous” performs a waggle dance for the other bees. This strange dance was a mystery until Nobel
magnetoreceptor organs in their heads. After hatching, the into the ocean using the brightness of the stars. It is thought that a special type of learning, called imprinting, commits the magnetic information of the route to memory so that when the turtle is
laureate Karl von Frisch began to unravel its meaning. The bee dances in a and “waggles” its abdomen. The direction and duration of the waggle runs actually correspond with the direction and distance of The angle of the waggle run also corresponds in relation to the Sun. Amazingly, honeybees have evolved this unique way of communicating the location of promising resources to each other, using the position of the Sun in relation to the hive as a reference. All the examples above involve navigating through familiar areas, or responding to an innate genetic drive to migrate in a particular direction. If you displace any of these animals from their home, they wouldn’t be to navigate through an unfamiliar area back home is known as true
ready to lay its own eggs, it can recall where it was born. Salmon do something similar, but once they are close to their home river, they use olfaction (smell) to pinpoint the exact location. The true masters of global navigation are birds. Numerous studies have shown that birds integrate several navigation methods to produce a robust system. The direction and young birds is genetically encoded. Displacing young, naive starlings 700km from their home site caused the birds to end up in an overwintering location the same distance away from their normal migration destination. However, birds that have already migrated at least once can correct for this displacement, ending up in
their normal overwintering site. This suggests that adult birds are able to orient homewards by using a range of geographical cues such as magnetoreception, the sun, and the night sky. But another unlikely mechanism has been recently suggested to underlie the ability of birds to home in on a particular site: smell. Just like salmon, there is evidence to suggest that birds use smell to navigate over long distances; birds learn odours in the home loft. Experiments where young birds were exposed to certain smells in their home loft found that they navigated in the expected direction when the odour was dropped onto their nostrils. However, pigeons lack highly developed noses and associated brain functions, so the olfactory hypothesis is still questionable. The feats of navigation seen in nature are marvellous and the ability information points to create a “map” is slowly being understood. There is much yet to discover, but scientists of animal behaviour are continuing to carry out weird and wonderful experiments, with the result that we are slowly uncovering the many complexities of animal navigation. Madeleine Hurry is a third year Biological Sciences student at St Peter’s College. Art by Carolyn Joseph & April Hills.
ANGER MANAGEMENT The pharmacology of fury In psychology, anger is characterised as a basic, universal emotion; a negative feeling of aggression, irritation, or hostility. Evoked when an individual feels wronged, insulted, or threatened, of preparing oneself against the threat of attack from enemies. The neurobiological machinery responsible for perceiving anger involves a series of components and messengers, crucial in regulating the feeling of anger. When disrupted, anger can become uncontrollable and underlie some extreme behaviours that are characteristic of psychiatric disorders including depression, anxiety, compulsion, and addiction. With the development of social norms, people have come to recognise that excessive anger is harmful and have started using strategies to keep it under control. One such technique, cognitive behavioural therapy, is often delivered to groups and involves highly structured instructions from the therapist. This didactic approach presents a sequence of adaptive and coping skills, which clients are encouraged to learn in
are used to target neurochemical signalling. These drugs block the activity of the transmitters that mediate anger. It is in the amygdala, a region of the brain where activity has been associated with negative emotions such as sadness, fear and anger, that emotional salience is attached to incoming information about the environment. This is then further processed, or regulated, by cortical areas of the brain implicated in higher cognitive functions, collectively known as the limbic system. parts of the brain, is a network that modulates a person’s feelings.
Research into these neural circuits has indicated that imbalances in the neurochemistry can disrupt signalling. Greater quantities of the neurotransmitter serotonin have been correlated with less aggressive daily lives. Prof Aaron Beck and other behaviour. In fact, low levels of psychologists at the University of serotonin have been linked to a weaker Pennsylvania expanded on this by interaction between regions of the developing a more interactive approach. limbic system. A study conducted by Dr Using cooperative and investigative Luca Passamonti and colleagues at the discussions to train clients in University of Cambridge demonstrated behavioural and social skills, they found that depleting serotonin in humans that their subjects displayed a reduced resulted in a poorer modulation of maladaptive expression of anger as activity in the amygdala by frontal a consequence. Another behavioural areas of the cortex. This was done treatment, called stress inoculation, by reducing the amount of the requires the patient to recall and endure transmitter’s precursors in subjects’ angering situations while reacting diets and then using functional with an intentionally calm response. magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) All of these therapies help individuals to monitor brain activity during a task recognise anger, adjust destructive involving evaluating angry faces. thinking processes, and express themselves constructively. Another transmitter involved in mood regulation is dopamine. Reduced As a last resort, to prevent dangerous dopamine signalling is associated with anger-related behaviour. psychiatric disorders in which regulation Research found that Parkinson’s is impaired, pharmacological treatments patients, who demonstrate impaired
dopamine transmission, show less anxiety and recognition of anger in others. Correspondingly, the amygdala is activated less in Parkinson’s patients, as shown by fMRI experiments. A third chemical, adrenaline, is known to underlie the mediates the physiological arousal state linked to anger. Yet the feeling of anger seems also features. For instance, the facial feedback hypothesis suggests that movements of the face can directly impact one’s emotional experience. In support of this, a team led by Prof Luca Tommasi at the University of Chieti-Pescara observed that participants forced to frown while facing the sun scored higher on a self-reported measure of anger and aggression. In fact, another experiment demonstrated that physiological aspects of anger, such as increased heart rate, are less prevalent in aggravating conditions when a subject has the chance to express their emotional state in a questionnaire. Hence, managing anger is a multidimensional feat that draws upon our behaviour, body, and thought.
Ayesha Sengupta is a first year DPhil student in Pharmacology at Queen’s College. Art by Anaelle Stenman.
COMPUTER VIRUSES The growing danger of cyber-crime
omputer viruses are an everyday hazard of the Internet, replicating themselves and causing mayhem. Early viruses were spread by removable written as an intellectual exercise created by accident. A famous early example, the Morris Worm, was only intended to measure the size of the nascent Internet, but ended up causing chaos through its poor design. More recently, the Internet has enabled an explosion in the use of viruses for criminal gain: stealing passwords, sending spam emails, and even taking over computers completely. “Cryptolocker” made headlines in 2013. Once it infects a computer, it encrypts the entire contents to an essentially unbreakable level before demanding payment to unlock them new, but the technical sophistication of this virus is worrying, as is its
behind run into hundreds of millions of dollars. After decades of research, why do new viruses continue to plague us?
ill future research then result in perfect protection from malicious code?”
Anti-virus software uses two main is to maintain a database of known malicious code against which it can guard might remember the faces of local shoplifters and watch out for them. On its own this would be a poor defence, as any novel virus would wreak havoc for days before databases could be updated, so the second tactic is to keep an eye out for suspicious behaviour. Just as our guard would scrutinise anyone surreptitiously pocketing goods, anti-virus software also quarantines programs whose activities seem dodgy, although mistakes are sometimes made. Will future research then result in perfect protection from malicious code? The answer is no, and in fact a perfect check is logically impossible. To show this, suppose a perfect check existed which examines some code, returning a positive result if the program would cause trouble and a negative result if it is found to be harmless. We can construct a program designed to subvert this test, by behaving maliciously when found to be safe, and safely when thought malicious. We do this by instructing our program to perform the check on itself: if the check comes back positive then our code is designed to stop
immediately, but if a negative result is received then it proceeds to wipe your hard disk and steal your bank details. Against this program any test will always give the wrong conclusion, and so must be imperfect. This does not mean that current software cannot be improved, only that it will never be unbeatable. Indeed, past experience suggests that while technical defences are important, social and political responses are essential for more permanent solutions. For example, one common way of making money with viruses is to take over a large number of computers and use them to repeatedly access a target website, causing it to crash from the number of visits in what is known as a distributed denial of service attack. One Russian gang extorted $4 million from gambling websites by threatening to crash them before major sporting events. The successful response to this group included increased server capacity, but the real turning points were an industry-wide agreement by bookmakers not to give in to any future demands to money, as well as pressure applied to the Russian government to prosecute those responsible. behind it are too tech-savvy to be tracked down easily, and demanding small amounts of money from a large number of targets makes a united refusal to pay impossible to organise. in taking down the servers that the criminals use to demand payment, but while this will damage their operations in the long run it will be little comfort to you if your computer is infected. Back up your data and regularly update your anti-virus software! Paul Taylor is a second year DPhil student in Systems Biology at New College. Art by Leoma Williams.
BEAUTY AND THE BRAIN Could hallucinations have inspired some of our greatest works of art?
he recent publication of Hallucinations by Oliver Sacks takes a magnifying glass to a topic research for the last two hundred years. However, hallucinations themselves have a much longer history than that, one as old as the development of our visual cortex. Before the 1800s, hallucinations were seen as spiritual or religious from them were labelled lunatics or saints. Greatly helped by the invention of brain scanning techniques such as fMRIs, science can now suggest practical and pathological causes for hallucinations. Grouped into disturbances in brain chemistry or anatomy, these causes have been extensively studied. So too have the treatments used to combat them. Less have had on culture and art. Of the many artists with conditions by their conditions. So, what impact might these have had in the progression of art from cave paintings to Dutch post-impressionism? Entwining them with the core of all perception, Oliver Sacks asks: “do the arabesques and hexagons in our own minds, built into our brain intimations of formal beauty?”
Diagnosis of a Depressed Dutchman Van Gogh was born in 1853, in a century which saw a greater understanding of mental illness. Yet there is still no consensus on the do know for certain are the symptoms he displayed as described to his brother, Theo, in numerous letters. He
show escalation of symptoms. However, migraines are more complex due to their various associated stages, distinct from the agonizing headache. Initially, there is the prodromal stage which can be associated with changes in mood (i.e. depression) and gastrointestinal issues. Around one out of three people with migraines will then experience an aura stage kaleidoscopic or geometrically-shaped hallucinations, although complex
f the many artists with conditions affecting “O their visual perception, some were certainly inspired and influenced by their conditions” hallucinations”, depression and problems with digestion and sleep. To have been made. Epilepsy, a disease commonly attributed to the painter. Distinct from generalized seizures that cause the infamous unconscious convulsions, Van Gogh would most likely have had partial seizures occurring in one area of the brain. These seizures can have a wide
déjà vu, sudden mood changes or hallucinations. However, it is possible that migraines are a better diagnosis. Migraines and epilepsy do share many similarities: both are paroxysmal (they suddenly appear and then disappear) and both
Lilliputian hallucinations (those of little people) have also been recorded. Along with these hallucinations, a blurred area of vision (a scotoma) is sometimes seen, and both might move So how does this manifest itself in Van Gogh’s art? Take, for example, his painting Starry Night: it is impossible not to detect a momentum in seemingly inanimate objects, especially an energy in the night sky similar to distortions caused by a migraine aura. His painting Crows is another intriguing painting containing an ominous foreshadowing of something dark or painful, perhaps the oncoming migraine. It is doubtful Van Gogh actually painted in the midst of a migraine attack, but certainly elements from these episodes could act as inspiration for his art.
The Sound of Blue perception, synaesthesia must surely be the strangest, and probably most likely to inspire art. Coming from the Greek for together, syn, and sensation, , it is the involuntary synaesthesia: for example, seeing a letter or number as innately of a
Van Gogh’s Starry Night which reportedly 37% of the population experience, though they are often quickly forgotten or confused for dreams. But when noted, these hallucinations have acted as inspiration for many with revolutionary ideas. Kekulé was said to have seen a snake biting its own tail in a hypnagogic hallucination, which inspired his structure of benzene. However, such hallucinations are usually more simple visions, most commonly geometric Francis Galton, English polymath and half-cousin of Darwin, in the early 19th century, who only realised he saw these hallucinations himself after looked closely, he realised he saw “a kaleidoscopic change of patterns and forms” when going to sleep.
certain colour, e.g. the number three as orange; or experiencing colours upon hearing sounds (for example, D minor might correspond to blue). Interestingly, no two people with the syndrome have the same experience and it seems arbitrary as to what colour might be associated with what sound. Some might even experience a taste or smell with a certain sound. It’s easy to see how such a condition could act as a platform for visual art, perhaps most prominently abstract styles. Kandinsky is said to be one as early as 1911, and arguably a synesthete. Never actually diagnosed, he did however take inspiration from music, having “wild, almost crazy lines…sketched in front of [him]” at an perhaps his art pieces are better seen as melodies, with Kandinsky giving us a window into his mind and what he sees when he hears music. As such, his paintings could be the visual equivalent of a composers’ work or otherwise compositions of his own. However, it is unlikely we will ever know the sounds of his paintings. His synaesthesia was, after all, unique
to him. The closest we can get to converting the visual to auditory might be from using quotations of his, such who would express bright yellow with bass notes”. On the other hand, we
More recently, the scientist Andreas Mavromatis wrote about hypnagogia in 1991, suggesting its primitive origins. Although visual and therefore produced by the visual cortex, he suggested that they are initiated by a primitive subcortical part of the brain. Perhaps this idea can be further explored in relation to the primitive
eople scanning items on checkouts “Pwhen could hallucinate a barrage of groceries their heads hit the pillow” might have an inkling as to what his work noises be emitted from his work Contrasting Sounds.
origins of the form the hallucinations take - the universal geometric patterns, which migraine auras tend
Origins of Beauty
and not, for example, simple circles, lines or loops? One could say there seems to be an intrinsic organisation of the neurons that lends itself to these patterns and has always been present in our subconscious. Seen in aboriginal paintings, Roman design, Islamic art and the doodles of bored students, art can be found throughout history that betrays these intrinsic motifs.
Most of us are likely to have experienced the so-called ‘Tetris
hallucination of a repetitive task one has been undertaking, these visions to sleep. People scanning items on checkouts could hallucinate a barrage of groceries when their heads hit the pillow. Hallucinations when going to sleep are called hypnagogic hallucinations,
Gil Reich is a first year Biochemistry student at St Hugh’s College. Art by Anaelle Stenman
The future of HIV treatment?
n the 1980s, an unknown deadly disease began spreading from man to man. At the time, the supposed ‘Patient Zero’ was Gaëtan Dugas, suspected because he was a frequented New York and San Francisco, and therefore covered many of the initial infection points. The disease was initially isolated to homosexual men, since they were less likely to use barrier contraception, and was therefore known as ‘gay cancer’, but was renamed Acquired Immuno
worsens, leading to AIDS if treatment ceases. This causes continuous demand for new ART drugs. Despite such seemingly been the mainstay of AIDS treatment, more recent discoveries have provided hope now two-and-a-half years old, was administered unusually strong anti-
transcription, preventing the virus from progressing to AIDS. What’s more, the as it targets unchanging viral nucleic acids. A3 is present in low levels in average individuals, and although the
mid-80s after the realisation that it
Mississippi. The drugs were prescribed by child specialist Dr Hannah Gay,
Dugas died in 1983 from liver failure. His death was not ‘caused’ by AIDS. Rather, infection with Human
an individual has an elevated level of A3, enough “Ifprotein remains in circulation to prevent AIDS”
steady destruction of the immune system, which leads to AIDS, allowing opportunistic infections to develop. It is these infections that are often the cause of death. AIDS is a major public health concern that kills 3.1 million people each Though AIDS is better controlled in areas with sex education and readily available condoms, the disease remains a huge problem in Africa where 70% of AIDS deaths occur. A common treatment for AIDS is replicates in human body cells via reverse transcription, using the replication machinery of human cells to make more copies of itself. Antiretrovirals impede this process, preventing the spread of the virus in the body. Unfortunately, in the adept at mutating, thanks to increased selection pressure. The resulting resistant strains require new drugs to combat them and so the disease
who used this hardline approach due to a lack of prenatal treatment, which would normally protect the foetus from maternal medication for a year, the toddler has shown no signs of re-infection, a result that was previously unheardof. Gay suspected the timing of the treatment was more important than the drugs used, and positive results are being seen with increasing frequency when the treatment is administered immediately after contraction of the virus. An explanation for early by individuals known as “controllers”, who do not develop AIDS when infected
if an individual has an elevated level of A3, enough protein remains in circulation to prevent AIDS. Examples of normal individuals being ‘cured’ when treated within 40 hours shows that if treatment is begun quickly, reserves of A3 remain in the immune preventing contraction of AIDS. Having examined these recent advances, it seems that an answer is emerging. Knowledge of controllers indicates that reserves of A3 the virus becomes life-threatening. Administering treatment early means the virus can be targeted before it destroys all of the A3 protein in the body. Coupling this with improved health education and distribution of condoms in
medication. Research carried out by Dr Richard D’Aquila in 2011 shows that controllers could owe their
diminishing transmission rates and allowing individuals to beat the disease.
which is present in controller blood at double the normal concentration. This protein sabotages reverse
Art by Sophia Miller.
ANIMAL ADDICTION Animals falling off the wagon
ddiction, a chronic relapsing brain disease that is characterised by compulsive drug-seeking and use despite harmful consequences, is perceived as something unique to humankind. After all, news of other species falling foul to drug addiction is hardly common, yet every day we see celebrities admitting addiction and undergoing rehab. But addiction
of 70 inebriated elephants rampaged villages and left three people dead. Attacks have become more common, as elephants are learning to associate human presence with alcohol. Horses frequently become addicted to the naturally occurring substance locoweed. This legume is one of few that grows well in winter, giving horses little choice but to eat it. It acts as a mind-altering drug, causing
in the lab, they will starve to death. The fact that animals get addicted is evidence that addiction is not entirely facilitated by social reward or increased status, since unlike humans they don’t have such expectations to succumb to.
Thanks to optogenetics, which manipulates neuronal activity in the brain with light, more is being understood about addiction and the an estimated two million people are mind. Addiction occurs because currently struggling with some form neurotransmitters, the brain’s of addiction. Drug use occurs in social chemical messengers, signal that taking drugs is desirable via action and pressures, although many users of the brain’s reward centre. will also choose to take drugs to cope Normally, the reward centre is stimulated as a result But almost all of us are warned of actions which aid throughout life that drugs are bad for survival, such as us. So why do we go against eating or mating, this advice? eemingly calm and ‘wise’ elephants which releases neurotransmitters One could easily be fooled exhibit classic signs of alcoholism” such as serotonin into thinking that addiction or dopamine to give a feeling of wellbeing. This encourages although we rarely hear of animals hallucinations, and once hooked behaviour essential to the animal’s horses prefer this to grass, despite survival and propagation of the Animals do get addicted, and are its lesser nutritional value. Continued species, but when this centre is willing to go to extreme lengths to grazing on locoweed results in satisfy their cravings. Seemingly calm behavioural instability, depression, and and humans alike become susceptible and ‘wise’ elephants exhibit classic weight loss. Reindeer get hooked on to addiction. magic mushrooms, while Tasmanian charged villages to break into alcohol wallabies get addicted to opium from Addiction in humans and animals stores. In 2007 six elephants were is a common problem. Once you’re electrocuted after their aggressive the choice between cocaine and food hooked, your brain’s reward centres behaviour rendered them dangerously ‘encourage’ continued use of the drug. out of control, while in 2010, a herd Apart from instances when animals are purposely fed drugs, they tend only to stumble upon them occasionally and by accident. The same cannot be said for humans, who might decide to ‘give it a try’ and get hooked. This sadly can lead to a slippery slope of addiction, inevitably hard to escape, with severe and lasting consequences.
Both articles are by Sophie Perry, a second year Biological Sciences student at St Peter’s College. Art by Leoma Williams.
As a tribute to the University of Oxford’s science alumni, we bring centuries of teaching and research at Oxford
ur tour of famous Oxford science alumni begins in the 16th take hold across Western Europe. William Harvey, born in 1578, became the Warden of Merton College,
and properties of blood being pumped to the brain and body by the heart. Robert Boyle came to Oxford in 1654 from Ireland (charmingly termed: “a barbarous country where chemical spirits [are]...misunderstood and chemical instruments...unprocurable”) and is known for a number of disportional to volume. Alongside 11 other scientists, Boyle founded the Royal Society in 1660. He employed ied at Wadham, and is perhaps one of our most famous polymaths. His observations of fossils made him an early proponent of evolutionary theory, and he also described how matter expands upon heating. The 19th ford at the age of 17, at a time when very few women were allowed to study. She read History, but worked Mesopotamia, Asia Minor, and Arabia, and was one of the few early archaeologists to actively pursue the wellbeing of those in countries in which she was working.
EVENTS Great Medical Discoveries: 800 Years of Oxford Innovation: 22/11/13 - 18/05/14 highlight the central role played by Oxford scientists, philosophers and clinicians in the great medical discoveries of Dunn School of Pathology, both in person and online. Visit http://www.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/bodley/whats-on/upcoming-
g you selected scientists and their success stories from the last four d; consider their stories something to aspire to! Frederick Soddy studied at Merton before becoming a researcher there between 1898 to 1900. Specialising in radiochemistry, Soddy explained, with Ernest Rutherford, that radioactivity is due to the transmutation of elements, now known to involve nuclear reactions. Soddy also proved the existence of isotopes of certain radioactive elements. He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for this work in 1921. The 20th Dame Janet Vaughan studied medicine at Somerville. As a young pathologist at Hammersmith Hospital in tion and storage were named after her. Lord Howard Walter Florey studied BA and MA degrees at Magdalen in the early 1920s, before becoming Professor of Pathology at the University in 1935. Florey shared the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1945 with Sir Ernst Boris Chain and Sir Alexander Fleming for his role in the making of penicillin. Although
capable in the 21st century to attract scientists to carry out cutting-edge research and teaching in a number
Art by Amber Barton. Crystals: Beauty, Science, Structure: 07/11/13 - 30/03/14 tion made by X-ray crystallography to many aspects of our lives today. Since opening in the summer of 2013, the Oxford Martin School, situated at the bottom of Catte Street, has hosted a www.oxfordmartin.ox.ac.uk/
Could Hollywood’s worst nightmares become a reality?
he past few years have seen a massive increase in fascination with the idea of a zombie apocalypse, be it in scream-inducing, big screen horrors like World War Z or in weekly doses such as The Walking Dead. But would such a pandemic actually be possible? Could a zombie apocalypse really happen, and if so, what sort of zombies would we be up against? The standard “zombie” that springs to mind is the rotting, shambling corpse that requires a swift shot in the head to neutralise. These nightmarish monsters are impervious to injury and the only thing that can stop them is destruction of the brain. In reality, the brain is only able to survive with oxygen; no pathogen could overtake the nervous system while still allowing for co-ordinated movement without the neurons still being alive and fully functional. This suggests that zombies couldn’t really survive a shot to the heart or lungs, or any major wound, as it would prevent blood and oxygen reaching the brain, causing death. So, if a zombie pandemic were to occur, it seems more likely that it would involve zombies who have
28 Days Later. Perhaps the disease would damage the frontal lobe (the region responsible for ‘higher’ brain function) and cause a release of rage-inducing hormones from the hypothalamus, resulting in infected people who mindlessly attack healthy individuals, as opposed to undead corpses hungry for brains. In this case they could still appear impervious to non-fatal wounds, as they could lack self-preservation/pain perception. Given that, potential zombies are probably still going to be fast and vicious, but more easily dispatched than their movie counterparts. Having established this, what could cause a zombie disease?
Many pathogens alter the host behaviour in order to increase the spread of the disease, so the notion of zombies biting humans in order to pass on the infection makes perfect sense. There are fascinating examples of parasites that take over the brains of
Fortunately, real life diseases have a much longer incubation period, ranging
the host and alter their behaviour, such as cordyceps fungi (see “Zombie Ants” on www.bangscience.org). Viruses also change host behaviour. Rabies is invariably fatal once symptomatic, and causes hyper-aggression in infected individuals, making them more likely to bite others and pass on the disease.
people wouldn’t bite each other before the onset of symptoms, and so the disease would not spread in such a short time.
in the case of HIV, or even years in some parasitic or bacterial infections. With a longer incubation period, while they may still be contagious, infected
iruses also change host behaviour; rabies is “Vhyper-aggression invariably fatal once symptomatic, and causes in infected individuals”
Viruses, however, are a slightly more concerning contender in the zombieinducing category, due to their ability to mutate. While viruses such as rabies are very stable, allowing us to create vaccines against them, every year At present, scientists are preparing for when H5N1 virus (popularly known as from human to human; already some cases have appeared in humans who had close contact with birds, and there has been a 50% mortality rate. Take a rabies-type virus that alters behaviour and causes hyper aggression and give and a zombie apocalypse could be just a few mutations away! Bacteria also adapt rapidly, but viruses can undergo far larger genetic changes over much fewer generations due to their simplicity and extremely rapid division. But would a zombie pathogen passed solely through biting spread fast enough to cause an apocalypse? Films such as World War Z and 28 Days Later certainly allow biting to cause an extremely rapid spread of the virus.
However, if the virus were transmissible through saliva or blood without biting, that would be another matter entirely. Infected individuals could spend weeks passing on the disease through kisses, organ donations, blood transfusions, and so on. Were the virus to become airborne, it would spread even more rapidly. If there was an incubation period of a few weeks, millions could be infected by the time patient zero developed symptoms, and there would not be time to create a cure before a huge amount of the population was our love of long-haul travel, it would already be too late for containment – the world could have a full-blown zombie pandemic. The potential spread of a zombie pandemic, and how best to prevent it, has been studied by researchers at the University of Ottawa, along with Carleton University in Canada. They used mathematical modelling, in addition to the general features of zombies in zombie-lore, to decide whether the living or the zombies would win in a zombie apocalypse. They also added features seen in other infections, such as disease resurfacing years after infection (such as chicken pox). They concluded that humanity’s survival would depend on “hitting them hard and often” until the zombies were
known as walking corpse syndrome, causes individuals to lose their ability to recognise faces and gives them extremely strong beliefs that they are dead, that their brain is missing, and that their internal organs are putrefying. The symptoms are thought to originate from damage to a part of the brain called the fusiform gyrus (an area of the temporal and occipital lobes that aids processing and recognition of both oneself and the outside world), and can be managed and often cured by psychotherapy and drug treatment. In the case of our hypothetical rage-style zombie apocalypse, where zombies can be killed by more than just a head-shot, between Quislings and infected people. To conclude, it’s probably not possible
the virus were transmissible through saliva or blood “Ifwithout biting, that would be another matter entirely” wiped out, as opposed to containment or a cure. This study was published in the book Infectious Diseases Modelling Research Progress, and has a serious use in providing a good model of how any lethal and highly infectious pathogen might spread. However, as it was based on the slowmoving undead type, not the fast and furious rage type, it is debatable how applicable this model is to a potential real-life apocalypse. the idea of individuals who, despite
not being infected, believe so strongly that they are zombies that they begin acting like them, appearing impervious to non-fatal injuries and showing strong cannibalistic tendencies. The bookWorld War Z covered this phenomenon with “Quislings”, humans who begin to behave like zombies as their minds are simply unable to cope with the horrors of a zombie apocalypse. Though this may sound far-fetched, a not-dissimilar psychological disorder is already known. Cotard’s syndrome, also
moan for brains and rise from the dead could exist (at least not due to any known pathogen). A mutated form of a rabies-type virus with an incubation period of several weeks, transmitted through blood or saliva, and causing hyper-aggression and destruction of the frontal lobe, is a possibility. Although this is unlikely, with globalisation such a virus could spread around the world within a matter of days, giving you one big zombie pandemic! UPDATE – As Bang! went to print, reports were received of a strangnkjjhol;lddoozxzxzzzxss&* Zoe Evans is a second year Biomedical Sciences student at Lady Margaret Hall. Art by April Hills and Ellen FoleyWilliams
Bang! talks to...
LORD ROBERT WINSTON Lord Winston is current Professor of Science and Society at Imperial College, London. As Professor of Fertility Studies at involves a collaboration between the California Institute of Technology and Imperial College, London. This has a genetic focus, aiming to improve the production of stem cells from embryonic tissue,as well as reducing genetic abnormalities in embryos.
You are founding Chairman of the Genesis Research Trust. What research is currently undertaken by the Trust?
obviously an easy way of doing it. The reason I’ve persisted with this is largely because all my colleagues told me it was impossible. The other
Well, it’s pretty varied. We’ve got
work on preimplantation diagnosis; that was not funded by a Research
so we’re looking a bit at modifying stem cells using the usual epigenetic processes. We’ve got a major thrust on prematurity, which of course is the biggest killer of babies in the United Kingdom, and we’ve done a lot of work over the years on brain damage in small babies. The trust has got quite a distinguished record; this was the place that invented ultrasound. were done there, by Professor [Ian] Donald, who was my predecessor. He came back from the RAF as a bomber navigator and realised that you could see things underwater, so he thought you might be able to see a baby underwater, with ultrasound. He had a very crude piece of apparatus which he built, and then he departed up to Glasgow and he developed it up there. And then, of course, the other the work on the cancer smear test, the cervical smear test. What else are we working on...? Well, the work I’ve been doing recently is just published online and I think is in print this month, which is something I’ve actually been working on intermittently for about 13 years. It is a way of introducing genetic material into the germline, with a rather novel technique, which doesn’t involve embryos or eggs, which actually
at the Royal Society, was completely impossible and we shouldn’t try and do it. So it made me feel very clear that I should try, being a bit cussed. Where do you think the future lies for reproductive research? I’m very worried about reproductive research, actually. Typical reproduction is highly commercial, to the point of vast fees are charged, huge sums of money are made, and the consequence is that people go into reproductive medicine because they want to live has been devastating, because it has meant you can’t get young academics incomes - the last private [IVF] clinic to be sold in London was quite a long time ago, and that was sold for about £400 million. Do you think there needs to be some sort of regulation? Well, there is regulation, there’s the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Authority, and it doesn’t work. And I don’t think regulation is the right way - I mean we’ve structured the health service wrongly. The huge
and (b) much easier and cheaper,
mistake that was made was to allow IVF to go into the private sector, and actually I think the regulatory authority was a counterproductive event, because by having regulation, well, if you’re regulating this treatment, doesn’t that mean that it’s in some way disreputable? And therefore it shouldn’t be funded through the public purse. As a life peer, would you say the dialogue between politicians and scientists has improved recently? I think the dialogue between politicians and scientists has improved, and I think it’s partly because we are inclined to be slightly less assertive as scientists. Not [assertive] enough, but we are getting there, and politicians are beginning to realise that science literacy is rather important. In the old days you went into politics having read Greats at this University, or Law, and you’d usually come from Balliol - in the House of Lords that’s still true, actually. Most of the people at a senior cabinet level, like the Prime Minister himself, read very much a I don’t think [David Willetts, the science minister] read science. There is an issue in the whole of Parliament. In my view, there is a big issue about our politics. Increasingly we are encouraging people into politics who haven’t seen the real world at all. If you have so many people at a senior level in politics, they’ve never really done a proper job. That’s not healthy. ...Of course it’s resulted in politicians not being trusted, and I think to some
calls on the family, on your feeling of wellbeing, you’re reviled a lot of the time, you work crazy hours. [You’re] constantly under public scrutiny. Go into a disreputable shop in Soho and you’ll get photographed, that sort of thing. ...We haven’t got it right. It may not seem relevant to your question but actually it really is. The number of people who’ve got a really good PhD in the House of Commons - a science PhD - they’re not people bench science over a long period of time. They’re people who’ve done a PhD and then immediately left research. A PhD is only a basic We always used to say that at Hammersmith...actually your basic undergraduate degree. You won’t really be a scientist till you’ve got a DSC! And the issue is always [that] journalists ask “should politicians In general, probably not, because politician has to weigh up a whole So when David Nutt* complained about not being taken seriously over Class A drugs, I’m afraid he was wrong. Equally of course, the Home Secretary was being arrogant. But I do feel we were unwise…[it’s] partly public perception, which is tricky. You just mentioned public perception, you’ve obviously spent a great deal of time communicating science to the public; if the dialogue between scientists and politicians hasn’t improved, would you say that public perception of science has improved recently? I think it really has improved, and I’m not quite sure why. People often cite television programmes that we make, but I don’t think the television I know that people use to say very grandiose things about my television series and I did so many of them, but I think they’re more entertainment really, even though there’s quite a lot of serious science.
there’s a growing realisation that if we’re going to compete in the modern world we’ve got to be science-literate.
Biology, and he said, “tell me, are shouldn’t they be? Everything you eat
replied, and I had to spend ages with ourselves about our education system him, persuading him that actually there I’m not convinced it’s as bad as people say; I think we are still producing good was no evidence that GM was anything other than digested. I said to him, “you scientists. It’s interesting because the eat cabbage, doesn’t mean to say you Royal Society has a committee talking about STEM education, I’m on that isn’t that shocking? And that’s from committee, and it’s about to report in a teacher! And of course in primary March - I’d better not say what I think schools, the report he reason I’ve persisted with this is we’re going will say! largely because all my colleagues to have - but told me it was impossible” teachers I don’t who think it gets to the real nub of the issue. from University, mostly, and haven’t ...I think that if we’re really going to even done an A-level in science. change our society, then we need to do something that Michael Gove Interview by Sophie McManus. doesn’t seem prepared to do. He’s prepared to be radical, and that’s *Bang! spoke to Professor Nutt in Issue encouraging in some ways, though 14; see our website for the podcast, as well as the the unabridged video of Lord issue is surely to leave secondary Winston’s interview. education to its own devices. I think that’s increasingly getting better. The Art by Ellen Foley-Williams. A-levels are probably too easy! As you know, if you
three A*s doesn’t really mean anything! You still have to be good at problemsolving. But the real issue is we’re losing people at the age of 10. I would invert the triangle and put far more investment into primary teaching. There is a problem with teaching. This morning I was talking to a group of schoolkids who were 16 and their senior science master came up, who was the teacher for
I think what’s really happening is that
Scientists look to DNA to tackle the issue of storing a digitised world
n our increasingly digitised world, the need for a more compact form of data storage is becoming ever more apparent. Scientists are now turning to the oldest form of information storage on the planet for the answer - DNA. DNA certainly has a proven track record as a way of storing information - it encodes all the information needed for life - and scientists have been working on the idea that it could be used as a store of digital information since around 1988. However, it is only in the last couple of years begun to be made. Scientists in two retrieved the information with superb accuracy, showing that there’s an exciting possibility to exploit nature’s own method of information storage in a practical way. in storing information over the existing solutions such as hard drives, magnetic example, DNA is a very dense store of information. All the information being is held in the six picograms of DNA contained in each cell of the human body, a picogram being only a millionth of a millionth of a gram. At a theoretical maximum, it has been estimated that DNA could be used to store up to 455 exabytes (1 exabyte = 1 billion gigabytes) of information per gram of single-stranded DNA! Although successes from recent studies haven’t achieved anywhere near this level of information density, some impressive achievements have already been made.
every 10 years. Amazingly, intact DNA fragments have been recovered from prehistoric creatures (such as woolly mammoths) that died 60,000 years ago. Kept in cold, dry and dark conditions, DNA could survive and maintain the information stored within it for even longer than that, which in storing rarely-accessed data over
zeroes and the original information is retrieved. As the DNA is not stored inside an organism, it isn’t at risk of mutations that could change the code. Harvard were one of the groups to recently demonstrate the potential of using DNA in this way. They were successful in storing and retrieving the
t has been estimated that DNA could be used “Iper to store up to 455 exabytes of information gram of single-stranded DNA!” incredibly long periods.
54,000 words of a book (authored by
The concept of using DNA long term becomes increasingly appealing when you consider that DNA’s importance to life means that biologists will always want to study it. As a result,
amounted to around 700 kilobytes of data, which was replicated to produce billions of copies, storing a total of around 700 terabytes in DNA.
will always be in use and undergoing constant improvement. Other stores of information eventually become obsolete as they’re replaced by newer technologies and the machines capable of reading the data fall out of use,
At around the same time, Nick Bioinformatics Institute in the UK had been achieving similar success. to store all of Shakespeare’s 154
the total transfer of information stored – an expensive and laborious process. The practice of storing digital information in DNA code begins with the conversion of the data from its binary format (ones and zeroes) into the four bases that make up shorter, overlapping strings and DNA molecules are then synthesised in a machine. Bases are added to the ends of the fragments to act as an index - a way of making sense of the order of
stability that the double-helical
the code back together. To retrieve and read the information, the DNA
tapes, currently the best option for storing data long-term, degrade
that gives the order of the bases. This is then converted back into ones and
the double-helical structure of DNA, was later decoded to give perfect Although the experiments of the two groups have proven that the principle of storing and accurately retrieving information from DNA works, it isn’t likely to replace current data storage solutions in the near future. molecules is currently very expensive in practice. It has been estimated that, per megabyte, it currently costs around $12,000 to encode data and $220 to read it back. While at this cost it’s obviously not a viable method of data
storage, the costs of these processes are falling exponentially. DNA begins solution over longer time periods, as it only needs to be written once. At
600-5,000 year period. However, if the current trends in the costs of the writing and reading of DNA continue, it may become a viable option for storing data for 50 years or less within the next decade. Other technologies involve the constant costs of rewriting data onto new formats as they arrive.
zettabytes (that’s four million million
Another reason DNA may be better suited to the long-term storage of data is that the process of writing and reading the information it stores is currently very slow. In the case of
information. It’s certainly amazing to think that nature’s own information storage system – the very system that allowed our evolution – is now what we’re looking towards to solve the problems of the digital revolution.
days to synthesise the molecule and a week to decode it. It’s also currently read-only memory: once the DNA molecule containing the data has been synthesised it can’t be wiped over (a new molecule would need to be created). As a result, we’re likely to see DNA used to store information long-term (for things like government records) before there’s any chance of it replacing the rapidly accessed and re-written data stored on the
is ever increasing! This promising work indicates that whilst a long way the potential to serve a practical role in storing this
Tom Hardwick is a third year Biochemistry student at Wadham College. Art by Leoma Williams.
very system that allowed our evolution “Ttheheis problems now what we’re looking towards to solve of the digital revolution” our phones and laptops. In the near currently store around 90 million gigabytes of data - are among the a use for DNA as a more economical method of storing their information. All the digital data on the Internet currently amounts to around four
CRYSTALLOGRAPHY No need to Bragg!
early one hundred years ago, two British scientists were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering what has become a crucial discipline in modern science – crystallography. William Henry Bragg and William Lawrence Bragg were a unique father and son team, who shared remarkable intellect coupled with charisma that would inspire generations of British scientists. Born in 1861 in Cumbria, William Bragg was a prodigious student who went on to read Mathematics at Cambridge. Despite studying little Physics in his time there, he applied for a professorship in Adelaide with the help of J.J. Thomson, who would himself win the Nobel Prize in 1906 for his discovery of the electron. He was awarded the professorship and remained in Adelaide for over twenty years, investigating the nature of radiation. Lawrence Bragg was one of his three children with Gwendoline Todd, a talented painter. The younger Bragg was as sharp of his mother. He took a degree in Mathematics at the age of fourteen, year, William Bragg was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society and returned to England to take up a Professorship in Leeds, whilst Lawrence went to Cambridge to begin his career. Radiation was the fashionable choice for research at the time, from Marie Curie’s nuclear radiation to Roentgen’s X-rays, which he began to discover in use X-rays to photograph bone, after the young Lawrence Bragg had broken his arm. Max von Laue, working in Germany in 1912, discovered that if you shone X-rays at a crystal, the emerging William Bragg and his son set about devising experiments to explain these
patterns, but were unsuccessful, and it was this setback that led the younger Bragg to his groundbreaking conclusions.
in which he sought to convey his understanding and delight of science.
illiam Bragg was the first to use X-rays “W to photograph bone, after the young Lawrence Bragg had broken his arm” It took Lawrence Bragg’s extraordinary ability to visualise what he could not see, to realise that the incoming planes of atoms in the crystal, and this gave way to the beautifully simple Bragg relation. With the help now look inside crystals to deduce their structure on the smallest scale. structure of sodium chloride (table salt) and to understand the incredible strength of diamond through looking at its structure. Three years later, in 1915, Lawrence Bragg was awarded the Nobel Prize, alongside his father, at the tender age of 22. He remains the youngest ever Nobel laureate. It was while in the trenches at Ypres that Lawrence Bragg was informed of his Nobel Prize and he went on to make a huge contribution army’s sound-ranging technique to target the German missiles, whilst his father used his expertise in detecting submarines.
Lawrence Bragg became head of the Cavendish Laboratory, which was home to many of the 20th century’s most crucial discoveries, including the elucidation of the structure of DNA, which would have been impossible stop there. From the structure of table salt to increasingly complex molecules, such as Dorothy Hodgkin’s penicillin, and even entire viruses, the technique has been a feature of twenty-nine Nobel Prizes, and is still developing today. 2014 is the Year of Crystallography: celebrating over one hundred years of progress and innovation, thanks to two of Britain’s most brilliant scientists.
After the war they set about reinvigorating British science. As President of the tired Royal Institution, William Bragg made it once again a centre for notably for crystallography. In the 50s and 60s, Lawrence Bragg would follow in his father’s footsteps and become revered for his public lectures,
Chloe Coates is a fourth year Chemistry student at Keble College. Art by Sarah McGuigan.
A BUG’S EYE VIEW How does a fly see?
ne of the stranger features of an insect is the structure of its eyes: a strange mosaic of often oddlycoloured hexagonal shapes. In the movie The Fly (1958), Hollywood falsely portrayed a compound eye as a mosaic of identical images, each similar to what our own eye sees. However, the compound eye is much more than a crude collection of human eyes, and is a wonderful example of the complicated structures natural insects are very visually-dependent, as visual information is the best way to quickly acquire spatial information environments. In the evolution of the eye the main compromise is between optimal resolution and sensitivity. Sensitivity dictates the amount of light an eye needs to form an image; a highly sensitive eye doesn’t need much light to form a useful image. Resolution, or visual acuity, is the ability of an close together; high-resolution eyes individual units in an image. One type of compound eye is called the apposition eye. Apposition eyes each lens border (but not overlap) the views of the surrounding lenses, and have a high resolution but low sensitivity. They are often found in as during daylight hours – when there is plenty of ambient light – sensitivity ommatidium is the basic unit of an
an individual facet (piece) of the eye. Light is focused down the centre of the cone, which is lined with approximately eight light-sensitive cells (photoreceptors). The entire cone is sheathed in light-absorbing pigment, ommatidium doesn’t interfere with neighbouring ommatidia. Each ommatidium ‘views’ its own unique part of the visual neighbours. Neurons then carry the light signals from the eight receptors to the optical lobe of the insect, where they are processed. Ommatidia only transmit the spectral information of what they process; scramble the spatial information. This is key to understanding an insect’s view of the world. Insects integrating information between nearby ommatidia to detect movement using changes in brightness and contrast. The human experience of exist - or is lost early on in neural processing of many insects. Superposition eyes are much more sensitive than apposition eyes. They can make images over a thousand times brighter than apposition eyes can. They do this by breaking the oneto-one correlation of apposition eyes between photoreceptor and lens. In superposition eyes, photoreceptors
compound eye ... is a wonderful example of the “T hecomplicated structures natural selection can design” apposition eye; there may be 3050,000 ommatidia in each eye. Each ommatidium is an extended coneshaped structure. The base of the cone is the corneal lens, which forms
collect light from a few hundred to a few thousand lenses by allowing light to travel through the lens of one ommatidium and into the
photoreceptors of neighbouring ones. However, the increased sensitivity reduces resolution. Flies have evolved an advanced apposition eye called a neural superposition eye. As the name suggests, the eye uses a second layer of neural cells to integrate information sensitivity and still have apposition type ommatidia, so there is no loss are the extra layer of neurons and the separation of individual photoreceptors, which reduces the that information from each can be preserved and summed up between ommatidia independently. There are also many unmentioned improvements to what has been described that allow for insects to expand greatly on each eye’s abilities. The exact way insects integrate interest to researchers working to imitate (or better) nature. An example of a possible application is the attempt to miniaturise drone technology. So, we now appreciate that an insect’s view is much complicated than Hollywood’s vision of multiple identical images, which could have technology. Matishalin Patel is a third year Biological Sciences student at Lady Margaret Hall. Art by Kasia Kozyrska.
SUPERORGANISMS Strength in numbers
oes a network of electrical currents moving through the Earth between organisms sound familiar? The movie Avatar is a Gaia-inspired work, in which the Na’vi people of Pandora are part of a biological neural network linking them with the trees, as well as all other elements of the biosphere. Back on Earth, sulphureating bacteria, Shewanella, that inhabit muddy sediments of the ocean, are inter-connected by a network of nanowires, some over ten times their linkages allow long distance transport of electrons between bacteria, so that direct cell contact.
Shewanella is one of many species which may be described as a superorganism, a collaboration of many individual organisms acting as one being, each with a specialised role contributing to keeping the group alive, such that none could survive without the others. It seems superorganisms are more common in nature than previously thought. Just like on Pandora, the biosphere is beautifully connected to form the superorganism of life. The Shewanella bacteria obtain energy by
the eusocial insect colony. The Hymenoptera (ants, bees and wasps) and the Isoptera (termites) orders high level of division of labour that the Queen is the only reproductive female, and only a few of the males contribute to the gene pool. Specialised castes, which are allocated according to postnatal environment, include workers, sterile females that gather pollen, and drones, which are males that live in the hope of fertilising the Queen and work only towards the reproductive success of the colony. This is an evolutionary oddity, but natural selection ultimately acts upon genes rather than individuals, so among highly-related individuals sterile castes can evolve. A bee colony can be viewed as a single organism; the individual bee is the cell and each caste is an organ, with the Queen as the genitalia. The genius of the superorganism is that it can develop traits that the individuals themselves do not possess; the group intelligence of a bee colony is higher than one alone. Several sterile worker bees, who do not expend energy on reproduction, forage for food sources and communicate
uniting, organisms of limited intelligence can “B ypool their resources to accomplish higher goals” reducing hydrogen and sulphate to hydrogen sulphide, but this is toxic and needs to be oxidised (through loss of an electron). Bacteria several centimetres below the surface of the sea bed do not have access to the oxygen necessary for this reaction; therefore they send electrons up through the network to other bacteria, which have more access to oxygen. This electrical symbiosis inspires us to think about bacteria in a completely The model superorganism is
them to each other, which is an the colony. By uniting, organisms of limited intelligence can pool their resources to accomplish higher goals.
Myxogastria slime molds are another example of a superorganism being greater than the sum of its parts. When confronted with starvation, single-celled amoebae in the soil unite into one single slug-like superorganism that is capable of moving further than any individual
can. This creature crawls to the surface of the soil where it grows into a mushroom-like structure. Some future and form the stem that holds up the fruiting body. This reproduces and releases spores that are carried by the wind to a more gastronomicallysatisfying habitat. Many people are fooled by the Portuguese Man O’War, Physalia physalis. Those that think this feel foolish. It looks and acts like actually thousands of tiny planktonic individual organisms, called zooids, acting as one physiologically integrated siphonophore. Zooids have one of four types of highly-specialised role in the colonial creature and can no longer survive alone. For example, gastrozooids make up the digestive system, whilst dactylozooids are a defensive army, forming long, stinging tentacles. Human society can be viewed as a superorganism on a similar level to the social insects. There is a high level of reliance in modern society. Imagine being sent out into the wilderness alone: you probably do not know how to make a shelter, hunt, and forage for food, and though you may survive, you are unlikely to do so with the same success as you would if living within society. microorganisms living like one organism. Bacteria use quorum sensing, a chemical signalling system that allows them to assess their collective density. They assemble using pili (long appendage-like growths) to pull themselves together, and build a 3D city by secreting slimy
often communally undertake multistage processes such as digestion of
shelter for food and immune protection. In mammals, the microbiome is passed between generations from mother to microorganisms to increase our capabilities. For example many carbohydrates, including glycans found in milk, are indigestible by man alone, while bacteria produce the enzymes necessary for their degradation.
However, new evidence suggests that the microbiome also contributes to a variety of chronic diseases including heart disease, diabetes and multiple sclerosis. The microbial composition of overweight people is very
ach person harbours around one trillion bacteria in their gut alone ... we’re really more microbe than man!”
insoluble nutrients. The rumen, one of the cow’s four fungi, bacteria, archaea and protista: a digestive consortium that breaks down plant cellulose that would otherwise pass straight through the animal. produced the aggregated conditions necessary for the origin of multicellular life.
they are still capable of living alone, but by viewing them as one rather than as individuals or species, our ability to combat them is enhanced. is vital; 60% of hospital-acquired and antibiotic resistance genes can spread quickly through their tight-knit communities. New drugs that interfere with the vital
formation, could help prevent these infections. Seaweed Delisea pulchra very similar to the chemicals used in quorum sensing, displacing them from their receptors so that communication is blocked. Researchers are hoping we can copy this defence mechanism to develop new drug therapies. Humans and their microbiome, the community of microorganisms with which we share our bodies, could be considered to be a superorganism. Each person harbours around a trillion bacteria in their gut alone – ten times the number of human cells in the body – we’re really more microbe than man! The bacteria make up a community that acts like an organ though it is combined with our own, is called the hologenome. Most of the symbioses are mutually
malnourished, and it may be possible to treat both by altering a patient’s microbiome. Bacteria have been found which suppress a hormone that promotes fat storage and an enzyme that inhibits fat burning, and they can be supplied via transplantation of a small amount of faeces from a healthy person. This shows what a vital contribution our inner ecosystem makes towards our health and happiness. Does this allow us to be called superorganisms?
India Stephenson is a third year Biological Sciences student at Lady Margaret Hall.
CLIMATE CHANGE : AN INCONVENIENT DEBATE One of the greatest political debates of the an intellectual Berlin Wall. On the one hand it is clear that human emissions contribute last few decades has been that on global to the warming of our planet, which leads to warming. ice sheets melting and rising sea levels, and that these emissions should therefore be On the one side, virtually the entire curbed. On the other hand, some scientists, such as Freeman Dyson, have argued that reached a strong consensus that global any change is minimal relative to the history surface temperatures have in-creased in recent decades, and that the trend is caused of the Earth’s climate. primarily by human-induced emissions While they are entirely correct that climate of greenhouse gases. On the other side, among those who deny the reality of global change has happened before and will happen again, with or without human assistance, one fails to see how their triumphant trumpeting of the possibility of natural increased warming or the covering climatic predictions, data, and the relevance of the European continent with ice is any less daunting for policy-makers or the of human input. world’s population. The impasse now reached by this debate, Similarly, policies recommended with demonstrated by the blame-games and regards to climate change should be pursued regardless of human or natural culpability. meeting of world leaders in Copenhagen, is highly inconvenient at a time when policy Irrespective of whether less burning of coal, oil and gas will reduce carbon emissions and therefore climatic warming, transferal to climatic and environmental conditions. renewable energy will be essential for those Both sides undeniably have points of worth of us that do not wish to go back to candles that, frustratingly, could be usefully placed and making toast over a bundle of twigs into policies rather than being used to erect when fossil fuels inevitably bite the dust.
for me, but hitting an obstacle is rarely a problem. I just ask one of a whole team of experts for assistance. Unfortunately, in the kitchen I can hardly stick my hand up and ask Jamie Oliver why the chicken is refusing
domestically-inept scientist, portrayed in popular shows such as The Big Bang Theory, is by no means a universal truth, I can appreciate why Sheldon Cooper and
prepare my kitchen too, so that I wouldn’t start cooking a bolognese before realising that I’d forgotten to buy mince, or to eliminate the risk of throwing the carrot, instead of the peel, into the bin. Days in the lab never go entirely to plan
thanks to the melting of Himalayan ice of serious arid spells in the past decade, sea-levels continue to rise as glaciers and of extreme weather events. Frankly, who cares whether these changes are humanthey’re happening and millions will be left displaced or killed. history humans have faced climate change. The study of this has indicated that good and bad, yet in the information age, and at the peak of modern science, we seem determined to do, well, nothing.... Patrick Roberts is a first year DPhil student in Archaeological Science at St Hugh’s College. Art by Ellen Foley-Williams
problem when I don’t understand what’s going on. However, when I encounter trouble in the kitchen and call in reinforcements, Mum will inevitably start with the “Oh Jeremy, you’re studying physics and you can’t even chop an onion/ cook pasta/ switch on the toaster” routine on the other end of the phone before she helps me out. must admit how bizarre it is that I know produce a proton, yet I’m incapable of combining my spices in such a way as to
the kitchen. When I arrive at the lab, all of the apparatus I’m going to need, together with a detailed set of instructions, is already set up on the desk waiting for me. If only
One of the most frustrating things about this debate is that policy-makers have used the impasse as a green light for inertia. Why should a dispute over the cause of the problem prevent us from addressing
WOES OF A SCIENCE STUDENT Having forgotten to book into dinner tonight, I face every science student’s worst nightmare - cooking. Much like the Star Wars saga, today can only end disappointingly.
Why does my stew taste fowl?
and wouldn’t dream of mocking my ineptitude. With the help of Delia Online, to brown evenly on both sides. I’d ask my housemate for help, but she studies physics I can now boil, fry and even poach an egg! too, and so is about as useful as a chocolate On second thoughts, I should just frying pan. remember to book into dinner. The main issue is that it’s often assumed Jeremy Libre is a fourth year Physics student at Oriel College. Art by Carolyn Joseph.
visit us at www.bangscience.org