The True Cost of an Ultimate Sacrifice (part 1)

This past Friday went by a lot of names: Armistice Day, in much of Europe; Veterans Day, in the US. Back home in Australia, and here in Canada, it was Remembrance Day. In every case, it marked 98 years since Europe descended into the madness of the Great War. It took much of the world and some 20 million lives with it.

Commemorating war is one of those essential things that a nation builds its cultural identity around. But most of us were privileged enough to born in a time and place where violent conflict is an abstract thing that happens to other people. So to try and make the tragedy of war hit home, we usually try and talk about it in terms of small-scale events. We talk about the sacrifice of the individuals who left, served, and died; kids who bravely made The Ultimate Sacrifice. We make war personal.

But this narrative of The Ultimate Sacrifice doesn’t work for me. By focussing on stories of the tragic heroes of our past, it assumes any one person would have made a difference in war, ignoring that almost all individuals died almost completely in vain. In this way, it is a myth that tries to make death meaningful after-the-fact.

In addition, celebrating our nations’ sacrificial lambs distracts us from the real cost of war: what we sacrificed. What we as a species strugglingtoday with enormous challenges requiring incredible solutions, gave up by sending a generation to hell in 1914; and what we lose every time we repeat that mistake.

We are told these people died for us. However, I think that their deaths held us back. And we’re still paying the price.

 

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The early 20th century was a time of brilliant innovation and scientific revolutions. The periodic table of elements had finally been completed, giving chemistry a launching-off point for bold new discoveries; quantum physics was revealing that solid matter and light were actually one-and-the-same; and we were about to realise that the re-discovery of the work of an obscure Austrian monk had just revealed the fundamental code of all life  –  the gene.

Scientific progress thrives in environments like this, where ideas and technologies continuously bounce and build off each other, and one discovery begets the next at an ever-increasing rate. But this perpetual-motion machine of innovation is also extremely fragile to the slightest malfunction. And when war broke out on July 27th, 1914, those who were to be the young innovators and leaders of a new century were now called on to serve and fight. It was like a record scratch across the culture.

This didn’t just put the pace of scientific discovery on hold for a few years. Braking the machine of innovation while it was still accelerating meant that the consequences would ripple out for decades to come. This is what I feel when I think of history’s great wars: what could have been if we didn’t periodically lose our minds and turn entire countries against each other? What would the world look like today if we hadn’t burned the books of some of the 20th century’s brightest minds?

Tomorrow, I’d like to look at one of these minds. They weren’t a world-striding genius, or the inventor of a brilliant new technology. They were just a very good scientist, like so many others. But it’s precisely their slightly-above-averageness which makes their story so interesting, and tragic, to me.

Until then.

 

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– J

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The long haul

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I think one of the hardest things about working in science is that it is supposed to be all-encompassing. I’ve written about this briefly before, but when you’re a scientist, you are a scientist.

I’ve been working full-time as a postdoc at the University of British Columbia for almost 5 months now, and I could not be happier. The team I am working with are amazing, I’m finding the field more interesting than I even anticipated, and I have complete control over my projects.

Scaling up from the PhD is difficult. I’m trying to push myself to think about the big questions I want to answer, and design 5 year projects that can make a tiny dent in the problem. So I’m consistently finding myself daunted. It feels sometimes like I need to do everything at once!

Which I can’t, even if I wanted to. And I don’t want to. Life outside the lab is good. I’m engaged, now, and we sit on the couch and laugh, and take our dog for a walk. Today we caught the last bit of snow on the Vancouver mountains, and it was glorious.

So it’s a vicious cycle. I feel like I should be doing everything, but I don’t want to do everything, because I need to nurture my life outside the lab, which makes me feel like I’m not doing enough, which… well, you get the idea.

I need to remember that the best that anyone can do is make a plan, and follow it through one step at a time. Nothing was ever gained by worrying about the problems that are 10 steps down the line from what I’m working on at this moment. I need to keep checking up on the future, making sure it’s still there, but if I’m not waist-deep in the present then it’ll steam-roll me when it finally arrives.

Anyway, enough introspection. I’m back to regular programming next week.

Love,

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– J

So this is the new year…

Before Christmas, Nature published an article asking a few headline-taking researchers from 2015 how they would change the way science is done. In it, evolutionary biologist Danielle Edwards made a case for acknowledging that the culture of science rarely allows scientists to be treated as human beings with rich, full lives away from the lab bench. Today, on the first day of the year 2016, this is resonating strongly with me as I think forward to how I want to lead my own life as a researcher, and as a person.

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The life of a researcher is not easy, particularly in the case of young students and post-doctorals. They are typically expected to work extremely long hours, often simultaneously learning and applying technical and theoretical techniques in order to produce high quality research. This is supposed to result in the publication of a steady stream of research papers, the writing of which must fit around experiments. These pressures to achieve do not necessarily come externally from professors. The reality is that science is incredibly competitive and is constantly pushing forward. It is easy to feel like a moment’s break will result in being hopelessly left behind.

Compared to young people of similar ages and experience in fields like law or economics, this is all usually done for extremely low reward; in countries like Australia and Canada, PhD students are paid below minimum wage (albeit typically tax-free). So if you work in science, you do it because you love it. Very likely it is the only thing you ever truly wanted to do.

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I entered science 6 years ago, as a 22-year-old Honours student. Like many of my fellow students I had dreamt all my life of being a scientist, so I felt blessed just to be given a chance to do actual, real life research. I quickly threw myself behind the belief that if you worked in science you had to eat and breath it. By the time I was into my PhD and had published my first paper in a good journal, I was consistently in the lab late into the night. Weekends weren’t a time for relaxation, but a great opportunity to use the fancy lab equipment that was normally booked up during the week. Thanks to incredibly patient romantic partners I barely even noticed the pressure I was putting myself under.

This all came to a head in 2015 when it was time to prepare my thesis. I wrapped up my experiments, transferred all my data to my laptop, went home, sat down to write, and… nothing. Day after day I sat down at that desk, begging my brain to formulate the 100 thousand-or-so words I needed. I fluctuated between anger and depression, furious at my helplessness. Eventually the words came, in dribbles and spurts. But every single step was agonisingly slow, like pulling teeth in treacle. By the end I was utterly burned out, convinced that the finished tome that now lay before me was nothing but a testament to my failure as a scientist and a writer.

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Looking back, I take a lot of lessons away from that time. I can see now that the way I had made myself work in the lab produced a series of bad habits that would by their nature make thesis writing an excruciating task.

I had come to trust that I knew my work well enough that I could just put one foot in front of the other to carry myself through a big day, with a little help from adrenaline.A massive amount of my self esteem was tied up in whether the next experiment would succeed or if the microscope was working that day. I looked at the postdocs and other students who seemed to be enjoying constant success, and thought that I could always be doing more.

Working like this I treated 5 minutes scrolling through Facebook as a “break”, gawping jealously at friends who were inevitably having more fun than me. This meant that when I finally went home at night I felt like I’d already had my break and hadn’t earned the right to unwind any further than that. Of course I sat down with my partner and enjoyed catching up over a hurried late dinner, but there was almost always an underlying nag that I should be back at work.

While working and thinking in this way was effective for relentlessly producing large quantities of data, it established a rigid mental structure that endlessly reinforced and repeated itself. It was almost completely automatic and mindless. I left myself with almost no room to reflect on the day, to critically examine what had worked and what I could be doing better. Naturally, when it came time to write my thesis I had almost no capacity to think creatively and synthesise all that I’d learned in the previous 5 years’ work.

Through all this I continued to compare myself to fellow PhD students and postdocs, who seemed to be pushing ahead happily with their theses. I felt ashamed of my failure, and cut off communication from them so I could complete this struggle away from their pitying gaze. It never occurred to me that many of those people were struggling in just the same I was, and by isolating myself I was burning the one support that could truly help me.

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I should stress that I wasn’t unhappy while I was working in the lab. At the time I thought I was being immensely productive. I felt the internal nagging and pressure to be powerful motivators, and was grateful to have a supportive, loving relationship outside of the lab that gave me something to look forward to coming home to every night. It’s only on reflection that I see how unhealthy my habits were, that I was forming my own mental trap, and was treating my girlfriend not as a partner but as a crutch.

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It’s now Saturday, the 2nd of January, 2016. On Monday, I start my new job    my first postdoctoral position, at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’m excited: it’s a good lab, and I’ve been given almost complete freedom with my project. But it’s an extremely competitive field, and I’m aware that there will be significant external and internal pressure on me to perform. I also have greater responsibilities outside of the lab. My partner is taking on her own incredible work burden this year, meaning I will have to be ready to pick up more than my share of domestic slack. We also have our own proto-child now in the form of a puppy(!), who demands walks and pats and intensely competitive games of tug-o’-war. So, it’s time for some resolutions for this New Year:
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  • Remember that recent studies have shown that longer work hours do not mean more work done. Because of this there is almost no way to justify being in the lab for more than 9-10 hours a day.
  • Where long experiments demand that the above point has to be ignored for more than a few days at a time, allow myself to work a slightly shorter day when the busy period is over    even if it’s just to catch up on the scientific literature or write in my lab book at a cafe or home. Remember that the greatest advantage of working in science is the ability to run your own schedule.
  • Do not compensate myself after a busy period by sleeping in and getting into the lab later. Remember that I always felt the greatest pangs of depression and guilt were when I slept in. Get in on time, and leave earlier.
  • Do not sacrifice reading and writing science for more time spent in the lab doing experiments. Remember that science is nothing without reflection and creativity. That includes maintaining this blog    try and publish at least one article a week.
  • Working weekends can be inevitable. But it is to be avoided as much as possible. Weekends are for taking time think about the week that has been, and prepare for the week to come. A long walk somewhere green is an essential part of that equation as often as possible.

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Like most people who have pursued research as a career, I define myself by my job. People like me don’t “do” science; we are scientists. It’s an incredibly fortunate position to be in, so it’s easy to trick yourself into thinking you owe the work everything you can give it. But if that can’t be sustainable, then it won’t just be your life outside the lab but your work that will suffer. Our craft, our passion for science deserves better than that.

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That’s me for now. Here’s to a fantastic 2016! I hope you find that, whatever wishes you have for the New Year, you have the ability to make them happen.

And now, here is our puppy. Whaddababe!

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babes

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– J

Sucker-punch antibiotics, DINOSAURS, and new hope for Canadian science – Sciencish News for 9/11/2015 (part 2)

The show keeps on going! For Part 2 of Sciencish News we’ve got a brilliant way to track bacteria to their hiding places, some spectacular dinosaur finds, and high, high hopes for the future of Canadian science. Read on, won’t you? (though if you missed it, here’s Part 1 of the news)

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Get ‘em where the sun don’t shine

The bacteria Staphylococcus aureus, or “golden staph” as it’s sometimes known, causes thousands of deaths every year. Outbreaks in hospitals are a problem, and resistance to most antibiotics means that small-scale infections can quickly get out of hand. Combine this with the ability to switch to a “persistent” lifestyle, wherein bacteria go covert and hide out in human cells without raising the suspicion of the immune system, and it’s no wonder that researchers are scrambling to find new ways to combat staph.

Researchers from the biotechnology company Genentech, out of San Francisco, USA, have unveiled a promising new weapon in this fight. They noted that antibiotics were often ineffective at killing staph that had invaded human host cells, where the bacteria replicate. Staph can then re-emerge after antibiotic treatment to cause a new round of infection. Genentech scientists therefore set about designing a drug that could access these reserve forces. They settled on an inactive “prodrug” derived from the antibiotic rifampicin, conjugated to an antibody. Antibodies are protein molecules naturally produced by the immune system, and work by binding tight to the surface of invading bacteria or viruses. They are also extremely specific for their target of choice, and the Genentech researchers found their antibody-antibiotic conjugate bound tightly to the surface of staph cells. In fact, it bound so tight that when a bacteria invaded a human host cell it brought any antibody-antibiotic conjugates with it. Once inside a host cell, human digestive enzymes break the bond connecting the antibody and antibiotic. This activated the antibiotic, and now the staph found themselves trapped inside a host cell along with an extremely deadly drug! Even more impressive, when staph accidentally brought the antibody-antibiotic conjugate with it into a cell that already contained “persistent” bacteria that had been hiding out, it also killed these bacteria. The antibody-antibiotic conjugate appeared much more effective than existing frontline antibiotics. Part of this effectiveness may be because, having been specifically targeted to the staph by the antibody and then brought into the enclosed space of a host cell, the antibiotic becomes extremely concentrated, as opposed to other non-targeted antibiotics that disseminate throughout the entire body. This work opens up exciting new possibilities for employing similar strategies with other pathogens.

Find the paper here

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Warming feathers and giant raptors

It’s hard to believe that, when I was a kid, it was considered controversial to say that dinosaurs had feathers. Nowadays, we’ve come to accept that at least the majority of therapods – two-legged dinosaurs – were downright fabulous, and probably bore all sorts of plumage. But the purpose of feathers for these “non-avian” dinosaurs remains controversial. Now, a description of a spectacularly preserved Ornithomimus by researchers from the University of Alberta, Canada, has shed some light on the mystery. Ornithomimus (meaning “bird-mimic”) stood a little taller than an adult human, and would likely have eaten a wide variety of plants and animals (see image below). This new specimen, a 75-million year old animal that is so well preserved that even skin from the leg to the body are retained, has shown that Ornithomimus’ body and tail were covered with feathers. Like a modern ostrich, however, its legs were bare. This suggests that, like ostriches, Ornithomimus‘ body was covered with feathers to keep it warm, while bare legs allowed it to regulate its body temperature somewhat to prevent overheating. The strikingly avian-like morphology of this Ornithomimus makes the relationship between birds and dinosaurs just that bit clearer. I bet the tubby kid that Sam Neill traumatised at the start of Jurassic Park feels extra stupid now.
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Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

Credit: Julius Cstonoyi

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In other slightly mind-boggling dinosaur news, palaeontologists at the University of Kansas, USA, have described a new species of raptor that outshines almost all others. Named Dakotaraptor after the state it was found in, it is thought to have been around 5.5 metres long, and would have towered over an adult human. Like the famous dog-sized Velociraptor, Dakotaraptor would have been quick and deadly, built for agility. It is not the biggest raptor found to date – that honour stays with the 7 meter monster Utahraptor – but what is most striking is the famous sickle-shaped claw on each of its rear legs, characteristic of the raptors. It was an incredible 24 centimeters long, beating out even the beefier Utaraptor’s impressive 22 centimeters. The forearms of Dakotaraptor also show evidence of quill knobs, indicating it too was well-feathered.
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Credit: Emily Willoughby

Credit: Emily Willoughby

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Find the papers here
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New life for Canadian science

Canadian scientists were celebrating two weeks ago when the 10-year reign of Prime Minister Stephen Harper was brought to an end. The Harper administration had been repeatedly accused of ignoring scientific advice on environmental issues and climate change; of defunding chief government grants bodies; of devaluing “basic” research that did not have direct industry outcomes; and silencing government-funded scientists from speaking about their work without explicit permission. There was hope that much of that would change with the new Prime Minister and his Liberal government taking office last Tuesday.

Now, early signs indicate that there is reason to have hope. Canada finds itself with a new minister, a Minister of Science. Kirsty Duncan will be the first person to take the reigns – a medical geographer who searched for frozen samples of Spanish flu in the permafrost of Norway, and earned herself a reputation as a genuine badarse. Her ministry will oversee mainly research-driven science, which doesn’t necessarily aim to have short-term outcomes for the general population. Meanwhile, the new Minister of Innovation, Science, and Economic Development is Navdeep Bains. A former financial analyst, his ministry will concern itself more with applied research with industrial outcomes when it comes to science. I should hope that having two ministers will allow the tensions between “applied” and “basic” science to be dispelled in this country. However, it’s hard to see how much can be achieved without increasing funding of grants agencies: last year, only ~12% of grant applications submitted to the Canadian Institutes of Health Research were successful.

An added bonus is that Canada’s Minister of Environment now has “and Climate Change” added to their title, giving hope that the latter issue will now have significantly more focus than the frequently denialist Harper government gave it. Catherin McKenna, a former lawyer who specialised in trade and international law, is filling the role, and has had to hit the ground running with climate talks in Paris beginning this week.

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That’s it! Hope you’re keeping well out there. Hey, I’m sorry, I’ve just been talking and talking, and I haven’t let you say anything. If you have any suggestions or questions please leave a Comment, or feel free to email me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com. Also, go ahead an follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.

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Bye for now.

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– J

Windswept Mars, antioxidant-loving cancers, and electric bacteria – Sciencish News for 9/11/2015 (part 1)

Well, it’s been a big week out there in the world of science, and I’m behind! So, we’re going with two posts today. First up, we’ve got big news from the Red Planet, stressed out cancers kept in the balance, and (more) electric bacteria.

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Mars blown dry, but glowing

NASA held a press conference on Friday, the lead up to which was full of speculation. Was life finally found? What about Matt Damon? The news when it was finally announced was a little less spectacular, but had plenty of highlights to get excited about.

It has long been thought that the arid, frigid, planet was once warm and wet back in its ancient history, with flowing streams. For liquid water to flow on Mars would seem to require a much thicker atmosphere with plenty of carbon dioxide. So, where did Mars’ atmosphere, and its water, go? New data from NASA’s orbital Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft suggests that solar winds are responsible. Solar winds are streams of particles, mainly protons and electrons, which pour out of the Sun’s atmosphere at an incredible rate of 400 km/s. When the wind encounters Mars’ atmosphere it generates an electrical field. This whips electrically charged gas molecules into a frenzy, accelerating them so fast they are ripped out of the atmosphere and shot into space (see video below). Solar winds are normally deflected by a planet’s magnetic field, but Mars’ magnetic field is extremely weak, and concentrated only around its South pole, leaving it almost entirely exposed. Understanding this process of solar stripping (or “sputtering”, as it’s delightfully called) is important if we ever try and plan to colonise Mars and give it an “Earth-like” atmosphere. The loss of atmosphere is still going on, and recent solar storms have in fact accelerated the process.

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So Mars’ weakling magnetic field has left it utterly exposed to the elements, but there is an upside to this windy bombardment: it makes the nights spectacular. Back on Christmas Day, 2015, MAVEN saw a bright auroral glow similar to the Northern and Southern Lights here on Earth. Auroras are the result of the charged particles of the solar wind smashing into particles of the atmosphere of a planet. On Earth these particles are deflected by the magnetic field, meaning auroras only appear at the poles. But MAVEN’s newest observations show that, thanks to Mars’ weaker magnetic field, its auroras span almost the entire northern hemisphere, lighting up a massive part of the night sky in greens, reds, and blues. The solar wind particles can almost penetrate much further into the atmosphere, so that an aurora would appear much closer overhead – almost twice as close as on Earth.
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Credit: NASA/GSFC


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Volatile chemicals keep cancer under pressure

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are highly volatile molecules that occur naturally during energy production in all cells. Their reactivity means they can inflict significant damage to cell components and even damage DNA, causing mutations that can lead to cancer. Cells therefore produce antioxidants that quench this “oxidative stress”, protecting against ROS’ harmful effects.

As early stage tumours lose control of energy production they typically have fairly high levels of ROS. These in turn causes more DNA mutations, some of which can help the tumour develop and start to grow out of control. But too much ROS activity stresses the young cancer – just as it would a healthy cell. Now, a new study has demonstrated that oxidative stress can even stop full-blown malignant tumours from reaching their final stage, unless they adapt. Once a cancer develops into a malignant tumour, individual tumour cells may invade the blood stream and spread to tissues all over the body, by a process called “metastasis” (see image below). But this is extremely inefficient, and most tumour cells that enter circulation die. However, researchers at the University of Texas, USA, found that tumour cells can increase their odds of survival by ramping-up production of antioxidants, which quench ROS. This suggests that the ability to deal with ROS and oxidative stress is a major factor limiting metastasis of tumour. Excitingly, they found that treating mice with drugs that inhibited production of antioxidants prevented the spread of tumours, opening up potentially powerful means of controlling tumours in patients by inhibiting their ability to quench oxidative stress. It also gives the lie to claims made by some health food evangelists that antioxidant dietary supplements and “super foods” can boost health and prevent disease. Indeed, this new data is in line with previous findings that antioxidant supplements can in fact boost cancer growth!
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Credit: Nature

Credit: Nature

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Find the paper here

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Bacteria spread the good word – electronically!

Following on from last week’s talk of electrical creatures, another story came up this week regarding the amazingly versatile uses that bacteria can put electricity to. Many species of bacteria grow in tight-knit communities called “biofilms”. Belonging to a biofilm can have many advantages for vulnerable single-celled organisms like bacteria, including increased resistance to antibiotics and environmental stresses like drying and heat. Biofilms can therefore cause stubborn infections, and be a serious problem in hospitals where they might coat surfaces or surgical instruments. However, bacteria are normally solitary single-celled souls, meaning that if they want to belong to a community they have to learn how to get along and communicate with their neighbours. In multicellular organisms like animals and plants, cell-cell communication is often achieved by the flow of charged atoms, called “ions”, into and out of cells via specialised ion channels. Bacteria are known to possess ion channels, but a role for them in signalling has never been demonstrated.

Bacillus subtilis lives in biofilms that go through periodic cycles or growth where the colony starts to expand very rapidly, before slowing to a halt. The reasons for this were unclear, but researchers from the University of California, USA, proposed that cycles of starvation played a role. They hypothesised that when B. subtilis biofilms grew too fast, bacteria stuck in the centre of the colony start to run out of nutrients as bacteria on the periphery eat them up, especially the essential amino acid glutamate. Glutamate starvation means interior bacteria can’t produce ammonium, another nutrient that all bacteria in the biofilm rely on, meaning that growth of bacteria at the periphery also halts. Growth then can’t re-start until interior cells can access glutamate. Investigating how bacteria in biofilms might communicate these changing nutrient requirements across the colony, researchers observed fluctuating waves of potassium ions spreading out from the centre of biofilms (see image below). These appeared to be due to central bacteria releasing potassium from their cell into the biofilm environment. Neighbouring bacteria responded to this rise in environmental potassium in turn, by triggering release of their own potassium stores. Potassium ions have a positive electrical charge, and the membrane that encases all bacterial cells maintains a tight control on the balance of positive and negative charge between the interior of the cell and the exterior (what’s known as the “electrical potential”). These waves of potassium release therefore reduce the electrical potential across the bacterial cell membrane as they move through the biofilm. Since uptake of glutamate and ammonium relies on the cell electrical potential, this would prevent bacteria at the periphery from hogging it all, allowing those at the biofilm centre to catch up. The researchers confirmed their findings by showing that experimentally starving bacteria of glutamate induced these potassium waves, while gorging on glutamate dampened them. This is a fascinating example of how single-celled organisms can act as a multicellular whole, with individuals at the biofilm periphery cooperating with this electrical signalling and even sacrificing their own growth for the good of the biofilm.
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Credit:

Credit: Prindle et al. (2015) , Nature

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Find the paper here

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That’s is for part 1 of the news – but check back shortly for stealth drugs, dinosaurs, and high hopes for Canadian science…

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– J

Death bacon, tractor beams, and all electrical creatures! – Sciencish News for 29/10/2015

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural edition of the Sciencish News, where I pick out what’s caught my eye. Let’s get stuck in.
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Hamming it up

News that meat will kill us all swept across social media yesterday after the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) released its most recent paper that, if you were to believe the headlines, classed processed meats like bacon and sausage as being as dangerous to health as smoking and drinking. Except, of course that’s not true. The IARC report doesn’t rank potential carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) as being better or worse for health, but instead simply ranks them according to how confident scientists are that they do or do not contribute to cancer. So, smoking probably causes cancer, and kale probably doesn’t. The IARC report never states that eating processed meats is equivalent to smoking, except as far as we are now confident that they both do contribute to cancer, making them both “Group 1 carcinogens”. But their actual contributions are very different. As pointed out by Cancer Research UK, while some 86% of lung cancers are caused by smoking (amounting to 19% of all cancers), this most recent data suggests that processed meats contribute to 21% of all bowel cancers, the equivalent of only 3% of all cancers. Meanwhile, red meats have been classed only as “Group 2A” carcinogens, meaning they only “probably” contribute to cancer. It’s currently unclear what a “healthy” amount of red and processed meat is, however most government bodies recommend less than 70g per day.

151026-Tobacco-vs-Meat-TWITTER_400551

Find the report here.
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Moved by sound

Researchers at Public University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain, have developed a working sonic tractor beam, that can move objects through the air. Similar technologies in the past have relied on at least two speakers. These use interfering sound waves to create pockets of low pressure air, in which small objects can sit. Opposing high pressure pockets can then push or pull the object. The Pamplona team achieves the same result with just one flat stack of speakers, creating 3D patterns of sound waves on top of the speakers which they call “acoustic holograms”. These patterns are extremely flexible, acting as anything from cages to tweezers to move small polystyrene beads in three dimensions. Because human bodies can conduct sound waves, the researchers hope this technology could be used to move a drug through a patient’s body right to the site where it would be move effective, such as right up to the edge of a growing tumour. However because the system relies on sound waves, it’ll be a long time before any spaceships are being dragged to their doom with tractor beam technology – after all, sound needs an atmosphere to work.

Find the paper here.
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Supercharged eels

It seems that electric eels (or, more awesomely in Latin, Electrophorus electricus), know how to make the most of what they’ve got. When attacking prey, E. electricus emits 1 millisecond, high-voltage pulses. This causes muscle contractions similar to a TASER that temporarily immobilise the victim, after which it is swallowed whole. The eel body can be thought of as having two ends like a battery, with the head and tail being the positive and negative ends, respectively. Attacks are usually “monopolar”, with the positive head-end being the major source of the electric field. However, eels could theoretically double the strength of their attack by joining their head and tail together, completing the electric circuit. Now, a researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, has shown E. electricus does precisely that when dealing with larger, more troublesome prey. This induces debilitating muscle fatigue, giving the eel ample opportunity to move its victim into a better position to be devoured. A hand please for the most awesome, best-named creature around: Electrophorous electricus.

Find the paper here.
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Electric union

Finally, levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane in Earth’s atmosphere are known to significantly rely on events that take place deep under the sea. Here, microorganisms break down methane that is released from the seabed, using it as a food source in the otherwise harsh environment. This has the bonus effect of keeping global methane levels, and global warming, in check. This process relies in particular on two highly specialised microorganisms: a bacterium called deltaproteobacteria; and a bacteria-like microbe known as anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (or ANME). These distantly related microbes are often found living together in dense colonies, and appear to cooperate to break down methane. Each species performs one half of the energy-intensive chemical reaction: indeed neither can do the job on its own! However, researchers have been unable to identify how exactly they achieve this teamwork. Now, two independent papers from groups in Japan and Germany have shown that deltaproteobacteria and ANME may interact through electrical connections. Microscopic wire-like structures called “pili” were observed connecting ANME and deltaproteobacteria, and ANME appears to secrete iron-rich haem proteins into the space between it an deltaproteobacteria which may help to conduct electrons. This may allow ANME to electrons in its half of the methane oxidation reaction, which it then donates to deltaproteobacteria for use in its half of the reaction.

Find the papers here and here.

That’s it for today! Please leave any comments below, or email me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.
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– J

The Sciencish Blog – Welcome!

Hello, hi, how are you? It’s so good to meet you!

So, this is the “breaking ground” post for The Sciencish Blog (barring a couple of very awkward placeholders of Justin Trudeau’s face). With this space I’m hoping for nothing more than to have an outlet for my writing, to practice putting my ideas together, to force me to read outside and beyond my field, and to have a little fun doing it!

I’ll aim to do news highlights 2-3 times a week (ideally Tuesday and Friday), and at least one original article every week (probably Sundays).

If you happen to stumble across this space, and like something you see, please let me know by leaving a comment, emailing me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com, or tweeting me @Sciencish.

Until then: love you!

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– J