Page 1


ISSUE 1 - February 2012 - FREE

THE GREAT IDEAS OF BIOLOGY What makes us who we are today. The ideas that define our very existence.

Are women better than men? Cephalopods: squishy intellects of the sea Ethics in Nanotechnology


Welcome to the first issue of Synapse Science Magazine, the University of

Bristol’s student science magazine. For those of you who are unfamiliar with Synapse, we are a student society aiming to promote scientific outreach and provide a freely available entertaining magazine for you all to read. In our first issue we explore a diverse range of topics, from ‘cross dressing’ critters to artificial life. Please take your time to read through. We thank the University of Bristol Students’ Union, the University of Bristol Alumni Foundation and nucleargraduates for funding us in our early stages. If you have any comments or wish to join our magazine, as a writer, editor, photographer or graphic designer please let us know by contacting

Tom Stubbs Editor In Chief

Senior Editor and Vice President

Senior Editor and Treasurer

Senior Editor and Graphic Designer

Senior Editor and Secretary

Felicity Russell Daniel Ward

Oliver Ford

Louise Brown

ARTICLE EDITORS Leslie Bicknell Erik Müürsepp Saraansh Dave Harrison Carter Georgina Maguire


Juliette Curtis Hayward Molly Bridge Becky Brooks Thomas Mitchell


On the cover


The great ideas of Biology What makes us who we are today. The ideas that define our very existence.


Are women better than men? Cephalopods: squishy

10 intellects of the sea

13 Ethics in Nanotechnology

Articles Are attractive faces 4 only average? 6

A scanner controversially


Artificial Life: Dr. Frankenstein’s Dream

Live well, live long: 8 why good genes aren’t everything 9



Cephalopods: Squishy Itellects of the sea

14 Cross Dressing in the Animal Kingdom The Great ideas of

16 Biology

From Art to Science: Dog Behaviour

Opinions Show Me Your 12 Genes: Privacy and Genetic Information 13

The Ethics of Nanotechnology

18 Bristol Science Attractions



Are attractive faces only average? The ‘Averageness Hypothesis’ of attractiveness Laura Shepstone

Physical beauty has long fasci-

nated scientists as well as poets and philosophers. Counterpointing the sonnets written by poets in honour of the perfect human visage, there have also been many theories and experimental studies trying to answer the question: what makes a face beautiful? In the 1870s, Sir Francis Galton wanted to create composite images of faces in order to identify the best and most typical example of criminals or soldiers. He did this by projecting face photographs of many different individuals onto a single piece of photographic film. He expected to find the most extreme examples of each type of face. However, when Galton showed these images to his colleagues, to his surprise, they unanimously agreed that these composite faces tended to be more attractive than the individual face photographs from which they were manufactured (i.e. the composites tended to be more attractive than their constituent faces).


In 1990, Langlois and Roggman replicated this result using modern computer technology. They found that a composite face made up of the average of 32 faces was rated as more attractive than most of the individual faces that made up the composite. They were able to use a much more advanced technique of scanning the individual constituent faces, converting them into a set of numerical values and then mathematically averaging the exact proportions of the faces. However, it has been proposed that averaged faces are only more attractive because they are more symmetrical. Symmetry has long been held to be a more attractive trait. It is true that averaged faces do have a greater amount of symmetry than non-averaged faces, but Langlois & Roggman argue that it is not just symmetry that causes averaged faces to be

rated as more attractive. They found that symmetry was not correlated with attractiveness. This was confirmed in a study by Swaddle and Cuthill (1995) where they created faces with increasing levels of symmetry using a computer programme, which finally produced a face that was perfectly symmetrical (where one side of the face was a mirror image of the other). This study reported that increasing symmetry was actually negatively correlated with attractiveness. Therefore, the claim that symmetry is the major cause of the averageness effect has not been clearly supported by empirical evidence. It has even been claimed that symmetrical faces are rated as more attractive simply because they are more average. Therefore, the secret to an attractive face must be to have one as mathematically average as possible.

The Y Chromosome Are women better than men?

The idea of males having an XY chromosome combination and females having XX is simply a fact that we accept. Surely these combinations won’t change? That’s where we could be wrong.

Harrison Carter Physically, the Y chromosome is

an insignificant little thing next to the larger and more impressive X. However, its function is just as important in determining the proteins that lead to men becoming characteristically male. However, from its inception as the male sex chromosome from one of two identical non-sex chromosomes, the Y chromosome has suffered. When the sex chromosomes diverged from one another some millions of years ago, it was necessary to bulk all the malenessdetermining genes on a location on one chromosome, the Y, and the femaleness-determining genes on a location on the other, the X. If recombination (exchanging of genetic material) occurred between these two chromosomes, it either produced males that lacked certain genes, or females with genes that could cause them harm. But stopping recombination had the undesired effect of hiding the gene variants on the Y chromosome from natural selection and letting disadvantageous sequences accumulate. A balance had to be struck between producing fully functioning individuals of either sex and the risk of ‘hitch-hiker’ gene variants passing over to the next generation and exposing them to potential harm. As a result, the majority of the Y chromosome can’t re-combine, and this junk DNA gets an easy ride, weaving

offspring. It is certainly a sorry story for an important chromosome in the continuity of life. We all know both males and females are required for the species to survive. The outlook is negative for the Y chromosome. That’s not to suggest we face a future where males are a rare occurrence. The picture isn’t that frightening. What will happen is x and y chromosomes incredibly inconclusive and unimdown the generations in a linear aginably ambiguous. Many theories fashion. In fact, relative to its size, have been produced. The sex-dethe Y chromosome is essentially termining genes on the Y chromoredundant. some, it has been suggested, could Having already had an uncerlatch onto the X chromosome or tain path through development, others over time. The Y chromoit doesn’t get any easier for the some could spontaneously begin to Y chromosome. Whilst already remove the junk DNA and repair harbouring masses of defective the necessary genes. Or perhaps DNA, the rapid cell divisions dur- females will one day be able to ing sperm cell generation increase produce Y chromosome egg cells the risk of mutation further. The themselves, without having it in Y chromosome, having been ren- their own gene pool. dered unable to re-combine, can’t Overall, this highlights the flush out these mutations. So they fragility of systems in the body that just accumulate. we regard as fundamental. We are Even if the Y chromosome had intrinsically male or female, yet the adapted to dealing with mutated determinants of such characterissections of DNA, the chances of it tics have a choppy and uncertain actually getting into the egg cell are future. We can rest assured that still slim. We all have two copies new sex-determining systems will of each of the 22 non-sex chromo- arise, as has been the case in other somes. Only half the population animals. – the males – have a copy of the One thing’s for sure. We now Y chromosome. According to the have an answer to the time-old laws of probability it wouldn’t be question, are men better than uncommon for the male to conwomen, or vice versa? From a stantly pass down his X chromogenetic perspective, the women get some and produce female the upper-hand. Every single time.


A scanner controversially


Even though few of us have been exposed to the full body scanners employed in airports, most of us have heard of these infamous devices.

Erik Müürsepp

Even though few of us have been

exposed to the full body scanners employed in airports, most of us have heard of these infamous devices. Taking a step beyond traditional metal detectors, these scanners look for weapons, explosives and other threats hidden on a person’s body. Developed in the US and deployed in American airports in 2007 to combat the threat of terrorism, they quickly prompted concerns from the public over their potential privacy and safety risks. There are three different types of machines in use. The first relies on x-ray backscattering to produce a two-dimensional image of the person. Even though this may conjure up images of a typical x-ray machine like those utilised in our hospitals, the similarities are limited to the type of radiation used. Higher in frequency than visible or ultraviolet light, x-rays are aimed at the target, as if taking a chest scan; backscatter scanning then measures the radiation that is reflected off the person. This produces images that resemble chalk outlines of the individual’s body. The second type of technology is known as millimetre wave scanning. Although this also relies on electromagnetic radiation, the frequencies are much lower and are located in the part of the radio spectrum that is employed for everything from heating up our delicacies in microwaves, to tuning in to our favourite radio stations. In airport scanners, these low frequency waves are directed at the


the subject; again the reflected frequency is mapped into a detailed three-dimensional image of the person and anything on them. If being bombarded with radiation of any kind does not sound appealing, you will be glad to hear of a newer application of millimetre wave scanning, which picks up the radiation given off by all bodies without emitA millimetre wave scanner in an American airport ting any extra radiation itself. By distinguishing of millimetre wave scanning, which between the types of “glow” given is believed to pose no risks to huoff by human skin and inanimate man health. objects, the machine records a high Concerns over privacy are anresolution image of the person other issue being raised, because of along with any possible smuggled the nude images that the scanners items. generate. Millimetre wave scanning Backscatter scanners have produces particularly detailed caused concerns over the effect images, and in 2010 a shocking their x-rays may have on hurevelation was made that employman health. Clearly exposure to a ees of Lagos airport in Nigeria had known carcinogen such as x-rays used the scanner photos as a form should be kept to a minimum, of pornography. Privacy measures but the debate amongst experts is in the US are a lot stricter; since whether the amount we’re exposed July 2011 the scanner software to is enough of a risk to outweigh automatically detects potential the benefits of detecting security threats and displays them on a threats. In fact, after passing the generic human outline. When no security checks, an hour of flight threats are present an “OK” sign is would expose you to more than displayed. 100 times more radiation than you It appears as if full body scanreceived in the scanner. Noneners are here to stay. Further imtheless, in November 2011 the provements to safety and security European Commission banned the controls will probably be made, use of backscatter scanners in most and even though it is possible to airports until they finish carrying refuse a scan at the moment, that out safety tests sometime in March option might soon become a thing 2012. This does not impact the use of the past.

while true artificial life might not be around yet, these efforts could culminate in the ability of man to make life

Artificial Life:

Dr. Frankenstein’s Dream Gunnar De Winter

In 1818, Mary Shelley wrote the

novel that immortalized her: Frankenstein; or, The Modern Prometheus. The story of the scientist who wanted to create life is well-known, not in the least due to numerous adaptations in the forms of plays, television shows and films. Some argue that it could be considered as the first true science-fiction story. And up until recently, creating life was thought to be exactly that: science fiction. But now, recent advances in scientific techniques and knowledge have nudged the possibility of man creating life closer to the realm of the possible. In general, the field of artificial life is considered to be divided into three approaches: soft, hard and wet. Soft refers to software and applies to computer programs that, according to the definition used, could be considered ‘life’. One example of these early programs is Avida, which is still being further developed by the Digital Evolution Lab at Michigan State University. This idea, of course, is very contentious: can a computer program really be considered a living entity? And if it is, doesn’t this mean your

definition of life isn’t really a good one? At the moment most scientists don’t accept computer programs as life, although some do. As the programs being developed become more complex, their number might grow. The hardware-based (or ‘hard’) approach mainly refers to robots in all their guises, and is often tied to the concept of artificial intelligence. Suppose an intelligent robot is created that is able to construct other robots, potentially able to include improvements in their design. Can we suggest this robot is alive? Why (not)? Another interesting question that arises here is whether or not life has to be carbon based? But, like the soft approach, there seems to be something, although not always easy to say what, that intuitively prevents people from accepting these robots as true instances of life. Perhaps it’s because they are so different from life as we know it (although that might not be a very strong argument). That’s where the third perspective comes in. Based on biochemistry, this certainly lies closer to our common perception of what life is. Studied within the field of synthetic biology, this approach uses the chemical building blocks of

Frankenstein’s Laboratory

life in an attempt to better understand and perhaps try and recreate it. Recently, several intriguing advances have been made in this field. In 2010, for example, the J. Craig Venter Institute (also responsible for the decoding of the human genome), announced that it had replaced the genome of a bacterium with a synthetic one. And earlier this year, a research team at John Hopkins Medical Institution introduced partially synthetic chromosomes into yeast cells. This even included a ‘mutation switch’, which allowed the researchers to influence the occurrence of mutations in the genes on the synthetic chromosomes. So, while true artificial life might not be around yet, the continued pursuit of these efforts could culminate in the ability of man to make life. This would, at last, bring the dream of Dr. Frankenstein to life. And if these advances are joined by thorough ethical reflections, this dream might not, as it did in the tale, evolve into a nightmare.



Live well, live long: why good genes aren’t everything Hazel Roberts

Before her death from a stomach

tumour in 2005, a Dutch woman known to science as ‘W115’ offered her body for medical research. In tests she was reported to have the mental skills of a 60 year-old, there were no signs of plaque build-ups in her arteries and she had never succumbed to dementia. The remarkable thing? She was 115 years old. Now Dutch scientists have sequenced her entire genome, hoping to unlock the secrets of her longevity. But is there really a gene for a long and healthy life? It’s that age-old argument of genes vs. environment, yet I would argue that environmental factors seem much more important. After all, what is ageing? Professor Nick Lane at the University College London (UCL) made the case that ageing is not something predetermined to occur over time, rather it correlates with the amount of ‘oxidative stress’ that our bodies experience. Oxidative stress is the damage to cells caused by highly reactive chemicals known as Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS). ROS are created constantly as by-products of the cell’s energy-producing reactions, but our bodies have ways of neutralising most of them before damage is caused. However, damage does accumulate over time and is worsened by the ROS produced in intense bursts as a result of inju-


ries and infections. Damage to proteins and fats in the cell can easily be fixed, but when DNA is damaged it can mutate genes, disrupting important cellular functions and leading to disease. Oxidative stress is a major contributor to the onset of age-related diseases, such

as heart disease, dementia, arthritis and cancer. We can, to some extent, influence the amount of oxidative damage that occurs within our cells. Oxidative stress is also caused by a variety of modern toxins that we (intentionally or unintentionally) consume- such as cigarette smoke, car fumes, or alcohol. A single puff of cigarette smoke contains 1015 molecules of ROS! It is no wonder then that smokers have much higher incidence of heart disease and cancer than average. Even something innocuous like eating too much sugar can accelerate ageing, as well as adding inches to your waistline. So you’ve quit smoking, curbed your chocolate addiction, and

moved to the countryside. How else can you try to avoid age-related diseases? The answer is common wisdom, but there are sound scientific reasons why exercise and a balanced diet are extolled. Exercise stimulates turnover of mitochondria in cells, preventing damaged mitochondria from taking over the cell, as healthy ones replicate faster. Over-exercising can be counterproductive, however, and actually increase oxidative stress, which is partly why Olympic athletes don’t all become centenarians! Eating fruit and vegetables is also important. It is not clear exactly why they are so good for us; they are known to contain ‘antioxidants’, but studies have not yet managed to prove that eating antioxidants increases a person’s lifespan. Nevertheless, scientific studies have shown indisputably that a high intake of fruit and vegetables are key to a long and healthy life. Perhaps there are ‘longevity genes’ waiting to be discovered, and perhaps ‘W115’ will turn out to be a genetic goldmine. However, for most of us the secret recipe to becoming a centenarian is nothing more than a good lifestyle, and a little bit of luck!

From Art to Science:

Dog Behaviour Thomas Mitchell

Until recently, the study of animal

behaviour, in particular dog behaviour, was more of an Art than a Science, but now Bristol University is making up for lost time; improving the understanding of the family canine. This year a bridge between research and the dog owner has been formed with Dr. John Bradshaw’s best selling book “In Defence of Dogs”. Bradshaw, a previous member of staff at the University of Bristol, worked in the Biological Sciences department on a range of organisms from moths to dogs. Bradshaw offers an unusual insight into the mind of a dog as he has a particular interest in olfaction; he effectively studied the canine mind through its nose. His book consists of chapters studying the creation of the domestic dog, the behaviour of the dog through different life stages, emotions and olfaction of the dog, and the book concludes with Bradshaw’s take on the future of man’s best friend. A key question asked by Bradshaw is: What makes the dog man’s best friend? It is this question that for many years has been answered through misguided observations on wolves in zoos and nature parks.

This technique is fundamentally flawed for two key reasons: 1. It is based on observations of wolves out of their natural environment where, rather than packs consisting of family groups, they live in groups of unrelated individuals forced together. 2. It neglects the effect of thousands of years of domestication on dogs. For example, from observations on wolf packs, a conclusion was drawn that dogs would live in a hierarchical system and would constantly seek to raise their level within a pack, the foundation of some dog training theories. Prof. Christine Nicol, an animal behaviour researcher at Bristol and specialist in chicken behaviour, stated that in a species where an actual pecking order (aptly named from studies on chicken social structure) were to exist, each individual would in actual fact not constantly seek to raise his/her level, as there are benefits of residing at each level within the hierarchy. The answer to the question posed was eventually revealed in experiments looking at the sensitive socialisation periods of dogs. From an early age, dogs are able to develop positive associations with anything from objects, to people, to other animals. Experiments show that this is not innate knowledge; rather dogs are born with the focus to learn and develop these associations. Bradshaw acknowledges that imprinting acts as a crude

starting point for this learning, but the domestic dog possesses a greater and longer-lasting ability to learn than its ancestors. The dingo population in Australia is derived from freed domestic dogs and each dingo is fearful of humans; however, if a new-born pup is reared by humans , it can be encouraged to socialise in the same way as a pet dog, showing that this skill has a genetic basis derived from domestication. Why aren’t all dingos friendly? Because a dingo pup would typically not see a human being until at least six months of age, by that time a dog would have been through rigorous, if not intentional, exposure and socialisation within the human world and his sensitive period would have ended some time ago. The book reveals dog behaviour concepts that have never been available for the layperson’s reading; it offers everyone an opportunity for self-reflection and a moment to consider the importance of the pet-owner bond. “As a scientist as well as a dog-lover, [Bradshaw] is dedicated to assessing the best evidence available and then deciding on the most logical approach to adopt” (Bradshaw, 2011) as should we. Furthermore, as scientists, we should also be the frontline against ill-founded theories that are often detrimental to dog welfare, applying scientific method not only to our own work and studies but to our household pet, the faithful dog.




Image of Bigfin reef squid

Josh Gabbatiss In 1947, funds from the Mar-

shall Plan - the US program to rebuild Europe after the Second World War - were allocated to researchers at Naples Zoological Station to study the brain of the octopus. The aim, apparently, was to help the Engineers of the US Air Force design better computers, by revealing the secrets of the strange, alien intelligence of these ‘tentacled’ creatures. The cephalopods (squid, octopuses and cuttlefishes) rely on a brain and nervous system that have evolved completely separately from those employed by vertebrates; furthermore, it


works in a very different way, with much of the processing happening away from the brain in collections of neurons in the arms. This means that, to some extent, the arms can move independent of the brain, with the brain issuing a move command to an arm and said arm taking over the signalling from there. This gives them incredible dexterity and allows them to hold and manipulate objects, which is the basis of what is possibly the most compelling evidence for higher intelligence in these creatures. The octopus is the only invertebrate that has been shown to use tools, a skill only normally seen in the most intelligent mammals and birds. The Veined Octopus has been observed assembling broken coconut shells into mobile shelters to protect itself from predators on stretches of bare seabed: an ingenious strategy that involves the octopus stiffening its tentacles and “running” along the sand whilst grasping the coconut, ready to retreat under it if needs be. It has been claimed in many experiments that octopuses can think, learn by observation, respond to conditioning and

even play. Anecdotal evidence has various octopuses juggling objects in their aquariums, using stones to smash the glass and firing jets of water at light fittings to extinguish them. One sign of the complexity of our own brains is our tendency to be left or right handed, which arises from our brain being split into two halves with one half dominant over the other. These two halves work together, splitting the mental workload

There have even been suggestions that octopuses have what could be called personalities, with some being particularly playful or curious and allowing us to process information better. Some experiments have shown that octopuses may show a similar specialisation with their eyes, some individuals preferring one over the other. There have even been suggestions that octopuses have what could be called personalities, with some being particularly playful or curious; this is a strange thought, considering that their closest

living relatives are clams and snails. More chilling than the octopus, the friendly face of the cephalopods, is the remarkable pack behaviour seen in the seven foot-long Humboldt squid, which swarm through the Eastern Pacific Ocean. Estimated by some to be at least as intelligent as dogs, these creatures swim and manoeuvre at astounding speeds through the water, communicating with

each other using lightning-fast colour changes and devouring prey with a voracious appetite – attacks on human divers are not uncommon. This need to be clever enough to outcompete their vertebrate rivals the fish and hunt down prey set the early cephalopods apart from their contemporaries, and drove their evolution around 700 million years ago. Despite this, many scientists question the real extent of these animals’ thinking abilities. The problem is that, the very thing that makes the cephalopod intelligence so fascinating and unique, is the thing that makes it hard for us to quantify how clever they are. We can’t really compare their brains with our own; after all they have evolved under completely different conditions for hundreds of millions of years. So any “human-like” signs of intelligence they show are the product of some incredible convergent evolution. We may never fully understand what is going on in the minds of these extraordinary animals.

Image of Histioteuthis sp. (Jewel Squid)



Show Me Your Genes: Privacy and Genetic Information Gunnar De Winter

Advances in knowledge of

the human genome, and the sequencing techniques used, have led to a flourishing in ‘personal genomics’ companies. Basically, you place your order, they send you a collection set, you swab your cheek, send the swab back, and voilà; a little later they send you information about your genome, such as the risk for a certain disease or a paternity analysis. But what else happens with this information? Due to the relative novelty of the phenomenon, there is little legislation concerning the subject, which opens the door for potential misuse. For example, insurance companies could check a client’s genetic risk for heart attacks, employers may obtain the genomic information of potential employees, private investigators could seek to confirm the paternity of an unknowing person, and so on. Scenarios like these are becoming increasingly more likely. So


how should we deal with this? Let’s look at some options. Option 1: Strict Laws Perhaps the most intuitive option is to craft new laws that stipulate conditions for the use of this information. An important concept here is consensual approval. So, the person undergoing genetic testing must know about it, and agree with it. Furthermore, if the company doing the test wishes to use this information for research or provide it to a third party, the person whose sequence has been determined must be informed and always have the option to decline. Option 2: Open Access However, some might argue that our society is changing through the ubiquitous use of, for example, social media, and as such, our notion of privacy must adapt to this. Proponents of this idea could perceive genetic information as public information. Basically, if you have your genome sequenced, you know that others might use this information. But since this applies to everyone, and since personal

genomics is likely to become more widespread, this means that we’re all in the same situation. Option 3: Sensible Combination

A sensible approach might be to recognize the strengths and weaknesses of both the previous options and try to combine these in order to strike some sort of golden mean. For example, genetic information might be made available for research, but only after going through a procedure that ensures anonymity of the people whose sequences are available. Or maybe online social networks can expand their profiles to include genetic information, allowing users to decide whether or not to share it, and with whom. Be advised that these potential solutions are not the only ones, but rather represent a continuum. Where we’ll end up on the scale depends on many factors. However, it is certainly an issue worth contemplating, as it is well on its way to becoming a part of our society.

Engineering machines, only bil-

lionths of a metre in size, is difficult to envisage. This is the atomic level, about 1000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair. Life at the sub-atomic level had already been dreamt of by the Nobel Prize winning physicist Richard Feynman in his talk of 1959, “There’s Plenty of Room at the Bottom”: this was before the word ‘Nanotechnology’ was coined by Eric Drexler over 20 years ago, when he referred to a technology that involved building whole machines on a molecular level. The idea of Nanotechnology was initially subject to criticism, with scientists arguing that the field was too vague and general to be useful. This meant that it was difficult to argue against the radical predictions offered. However, after years of media hype, Nanotechnology is now an established branch of science under heavy research. The debates surrounding researching and implementing such technology cover many aspects. Examining the exciting benefits it could bring, working on such a small scale offers extreme potential in electronics, healthcare, energy production and other processes. The technology can be used in soaking up oil spills and even testing for arsenic. Equally, there are many potential issues with Nanotechnology. Although it is easy to focus on scientific or technological aspects, the ethics of such radical new ideas are also important. Is the potential amount of biological power that humans could gain by developing Nanotechnology “playing God”? You could argue people should not act as if they were God. People with strong religious convictions believe

Toby Benham

The Ethics of Nanotechnology Nanotechnology to be morally wrong, arguing people should not have the power to create materials that don’t occur in nature and work at an unnatural atomic level; only a deity could and should have this power. Therefore from a deontological perspective (where morality is based on rules), nanotechnology should not be developed. However the assumption that developing Nanotechnology is acting as if one is God because it is ‘outside of natural constraints’ is disputable. For example, Nanotechnology can be theoretically used to build body parts, which some understandably may see as outside of natural constraints. However natural nanomachines already exist in our bodies, such as DNA used in production of new cells. If Nanotechnology is proven to be within natural constraints, then the idea of making decisions “as if one is God” is removed and the conclusion can be disregarded. Deontology differs here from a utilitarianism approach, which bases the morality of a decision on the consequences of the decision, rather than the decision itself. This subtle yet distinct difference is highlighted in the following case. According to the World Health Organisation, the HIV infection is considered to be at

Pandemic levels, with over 33 million people believed to be living with HIV. Reacting to this pandemic, PointCare Technologies Inc, a US based medical diagnostics company, aims to provide better diagnostic care worldwide,through the releasing of two products, which use nanoparticles to help in the treatment of AIDS. Peter Singer, a utilitarian, argues that the ‘Doctrine of Acts and Omissions’ is wrong: “We cannot escape responsibility for the deaths of those we refrain from saving, when we could easily do so”. In other words, there is no moral difference between someone actively doing something to bring about a result and someone omitting to do something which brings about the same result. This would mean that nanotechnology should be developed to be used to help those in need as mentioned above. Therefore from this perspective, not utilising nanotechnology, would actually be the morally wrong decision. This article only briefly delves into the subject but as can be seen, ethics has the potential to greatly hinder the development of new sciences. Do we do what is right following the rule of society, or do we do what is right for the greater good? Or are these arguments perhaps not mutually exclusive?



Cross-dressing in the Animal Kingdom

Sepia apama from Whyalla, South Australia

Dan Titmuss

Ok, sneaky mating sounds

kind of wrong; I get that, but it really is the best way to describe some of the tactics found in the animal kingdom. Let’s say you are dancing over to a lovely lady in a bar, only to find she is boogying on down with a massive good looking male. How on earth is one meant to get through to the beautiful maiden? Perhaps take some pointers from the animal kingdom. For example, if you were a scorpionfly (Hylobittacus apicalis), the only logical explanation would be to make yourself look like a female. Bizarre answer you say? Larger males of the species catch beetles and


give them as gifts to females in return for sex; however, catching these bugs is quite hard, especially for the smaller members of the species, and their gifts are often taken by larger scorpionflies anyway. These weaker males masquerade as females in order to steal gifts to give to females, allowing them to mate without the tricky process of catching and keeping the bugs. Meanwhile, in South Australia, the giant cuttlefish (Sepia apama) is trying a different tactic. Large males defend their chosen mate against other males, who also want to mate with her. This tactic would be a bad move for smaller males

who can’t win a fight with males that are large and aggressive. The cuttlefish is famous for having an amazing ability to change colour by rapidly changing the physiology of specialized colour-changing cells in organs called chromatophores. This ‘chameleon-like’ ability can be used for social interaction, camouflage and to act as a warning to predators; however, the smaller males use this skill in a different way. Upon seeing a large male with a good-looking mate, they change the colour and texture of their skin to look like a female. The ‘in-drag’ male then swims up to the pair - its disguise allowing it to sneak

“How cross-dressing helps male members of the animal kingdom find that lucky lady”

past the larger male who presumably thinks himself lucky that he has two mates fighting over him - and mates with the female. This tactic is remarkably successful. Some stag beetles (family Lucanidae) employ similar tactics. Some of the male stag beetles are born to look like female beetles, often producing pheromones to convince other males that they are fit, female mates. There have even been some reports of these beetles actually mating with other males in order to get the rival’s ‘seed’ out of the way, leaving the sneaky beetles to mate with

prospective females. But it’s not all about sex is it? Can’t we just have a cuddle at night to keep warm? Of course we can. In Canada, garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis parietalis) hibernate over winter. According to zoologist Robert Mason, “they’re cold to the bone” when they emerge in spring. What is the answer to getting warm? Some males actually pretend to be females so that males come to warm them up over the first few days after awakening from hibernation. I think I might give some of this a go!

Male Lamprima aurata



The Great ideas of Biology according to Sir Paul Nurse Louisa Cockbill

On the 21st of November 2011 the annual Sir Anthony Epstein lecture was taken by Sir Paul Nurse. Our knight for the evening is a geneticist and cell biologist by trade who holds the position of Chief Executive and Director of the Francis Crick Institute (the UK centre for medical research and innovation). He is also the President of the Royal Society while still finding time to run his own research lab. Along with his colleagues Hartwell and Hunt, Paul Nurse was awarded the 2001 Nobel Prize in Physiology and Medicine for the discovery of the proteins that control cell division. This breakthrough affects many areas of cell biology, not least cancer research where disruption of these very proteins is essential for aberrant tumour proliferation.


Sir Paul Maxime Nurse, PRS (born 25 January 1949) is a British biochemist.

Keep it simple In the diagram below are the four great ideas of biology according to Paul, and his proposal of a fifth that he made to the packed audience in the great hall of Wills Memorial Building. The talk started with a focus on the work of Hooke and then Grew who both observed plants under high magnification which led to the discovery of ‘the cell as the basic unit of life’; as the first proposed great idea of the evening. These simple observations were made possible by the advances in microscopy and helped Paul begin to illustrate that experimentation with simplistic systems has aided the better understanding of complex systems over history. This emerged as a theme for the talk, with Paul himself as a prime example, utilising relatively simplistic yeast in his Nobel Prize winning discovery. According to Paul the work of Gregor Mendel, who he affectionately referred to as the ‘great gardening monk’, was another master of simplicity. Paul clearly had great respect for the systematic approach that Mendel took to understand the particulate theory of hereditary through studying the simple characteristics of pea plants to expound an abstract theory which he went on to prove in a quantitative manner. Mendel is also known as the founder of genetics and helped to form Paul’s second great idea of biology, as ‘the gene as the basis of hereditary traits’.

Learning from physics and chemistry Talking of Mendel led Paul onto another theme; that biologists should learn from physicists. Not the most popular idea, but our prominent speaker argued that instead of obsessing over infinitesimal details that biologists should look at the bigger picture, and not be afraid in daring to suggest outrageous theories. For instance, Darwin published ‘On the Origin of Species’ a book which proposed ‘evolution by natural selection’. This was proposed as the third great idea of the evening which again came from simple observations, this time of finches on the Galapagos. In the fourth great idea of biology, ‘Life as chemistry’, Paul argued the importance of the chemical reactions within cells for the mechanistic basis of life. Again this discovery was rooted in simple observation, this time by the chemist Antoine Lavoisier observing the similarities between guinea pigs breathing and coal burning which led him to draw a connection between respiration and carbon dioxide intake. Louis Pasteur then worked with yeast, leading to the birth of biochemistry- the chemical reactions and processes within the biological system. In the slightly more controversial fifth great idea of biology Paul explained how he felt that ‘biology as an organised system’ is an important principal to grasp. The speaker compared biology to circuit boards where there are many interconnecting networks which may seem mind boggling but all the connections fit together to make the electrical item function.

It is our job as biologists to not only pick apart a single strand of the circuit, an incredibly complex job as any researcher well knows, but to also bear in mind how this one process contributes to the network. The audience were warned that in discovering biological networks it is important not to force the easiest or most logical conclusion on our work but to adopt abstract reasoning like a Physicist in order to uncover the true mind blowing possibilities that Biology seems endlessly capable of.

who first began to argue evolution. Indeed it appeared that the scientific knight found the exploits of the grandfather in many aspects rather more interesting than that of the grandson, as he owns several of Erasmus Darwin’s scientific poetry books! Sir Paul brought a historical account alive through his deep interest in the tales of the great scientists, in whose footsteps he seems set to follow. For instance by becoming the President of the Royal Society, an organisation established in the 17th Century that encourages scientific discussion and debate which so many of the founders of science were also members of. Throughout the humorous historic tale Paul clearly aimed to show the audience the bigger picture of biology through giving ‘the great ideas’ the emphasis they deserve. His goal seemed to be highlighting what has worked in the past in order to stimulate scienMicroscopic Image of sperm trying to tific discovery for the future. penetrate an egg At the end of his seminar, when Sir Paul calls the audience in the great hall of Will’s Memorial to remember that asked what area of biology the one day we all looked like this. highly intelligent speaker would Taken from the lillypad chronicles advise their child to study, Paul answered that it must be an area they The great history of biology are passionate in, a quality that he Throughout the talk passion and humour were used to persuade the clearly contains in vast quantities. He also expounded that on going audience of the ‘great ideas’. For instance, to emphasise the impor- into research that the interrogatance of the cell, a picture of sperm tor’s child should pick an area that is ‘amenable’. It is no surprise trying to fertilise the egg was displayed and Sir Paul challenged that through Paul’s own personal everyone present to remember that experience and his evident great interest in the history of biology at one time they all looked like this. This drew quite a laugh from that he would recommend research in a simplistic system as holding the hall and Paul went further to the best potential for discovery of stimulate and challenge people’s other, great ideas of biology. perspective through bringing to our attention the fact that it was in fact Darwin’s grandfather, Erasmus



Bristol: Science City By Louise Brown

Bristol is internationally renowned for being a centre for first class scientific-research in the university sector, with the majority of this taking place in our very own University, as well as Bath and UWE. But, what’s going on in Bristol today that reflects this? SYNAPSE investigated the events, attractions and venues that are bringing science to the people of Bristol that you can get involved with. Explore-@Bristol @Bristol is a hands-on centre for science exhibitions and shows, located right by the Harbourside. Although targeted at families, pretty much anyone can go along and enjoy the fantastic displays or one of the live presentations. Alternatively, you could work behind the scenes. The centre ask for volunteers or employees throughout the year to give talks or presentations to the public and school visits, so if you love to pass on the science you know, then see the website for more details.

Bristol Zoo Gardens You don’t have to be a Zoologist, or even be doing a science-related subject at all, to love the Zoo; a day spent with eerie Aye-Ayes, the cheeky penguins, Jock the mighty silverback gorilla or the frankly weird Okapi (think giraffe crossed with horse crossed with zebra) is one not to be missed. You can also find out the conservation work to zoo in involved in, and there are opportunities for students to carry out Bsc, Msc or FdSc Zoo or conservation research projects there. The Zoo also offers ‘Phobia Sessions’, so if any of you would like to be able to look at a spider or hold a snake without freaking out, book yourself in!


Blue Reef Aquarium Centred on a breath-taking underwater ocean display, the aquarium is filled with impressive walkways and tanks, literally swimming with UK and exotic marine life. Puffer fish, turtles, starfish, squid and sharks could be floating around any corner; make it for feeding time and you’ll be in for a real treat (though hopefully won’t become the treat if the Hammerheads are still peckish…)

University Botanic Gardens

Science Cafes Science Cafes are informal meetings that anyone is welcome to attend to discuss various topics, news and debates within science with guest speakers. These are usually held in the Tabacco Factory or in AtBristol and happen every couple of weeks or so; recent discussions include “Dreams-what is the mind telling the body while you’re asleep?”, “Why are there not enough young people going into Science and Technology”, and “Mars-Could there be life there?”.

The University Botanic Garden has been created right by Stoke Bishop; filled with shrubs, flowers and trees reflecting flora throughout the ages from all corners of the globe. The ‘Evolution of Land Plants’ collection allows you to take a walk-through and see living plant representatives of what would be around in the various ages of the Earth, such as Mosses of the Devonian or Magnolias of the Cretaceous. The ‘Useful Plants’ collection demonstrates sources of herbs used in Chinese medicine or cereal crops that feed the world. Go on a clear day and take a camera. City Museum and Art gallery As well as historical and cultural displays, the museum also houses its own natural history collection. You can get 5 inches away from birds, monkeys, tigers and other animals; no fear as they are all beautifully preserved, stuffed and mounted. There is an impressive collection of fossils and precious rocks and stones, though the highlight has to be Scelidosaur. This is the most complete dinosaur skeleton ever found in Britain, loaned from a professional collector, and makes up the centrepiece of the dinosaur collection that takes you far back in time. And hello students, entry is free and about 5 minutes walk away from the Biological Sciences building, so no excuse not to check this one out one lunchtime.


Synapse Science Magazine#1  

The first issue of the University of Bristol's student popular science magazine

Read more
Read more
Similar to
Popular now
Just for you