Month: April 2018

065: Plastic-eating Bacteria to the Rescue

On this week’s show

Science news

  • Plastic-eating Bacteria to the Rescue?
  • “Warm Transplants” Save Livers and Lives
  • Ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduce dental pain more effectively than opioids
  • TESS in the search of exoplanets

Asshole of the Month!

Science News

Plastic-eating Bacteria to the Rescue?

Ladies and gentlemen, we are at war! I’m not talking about a war on terror, a rogue state or even drugs, I’m talking about something much closer to home. I’m talking about plastic. Plasti-phobia is very popular at the moment; in the last week alone the UK government have announced a policy to ban the use of plastic straws in pubs, clubs and restaurants as the national still reels from the images shown in the stunning Blue Planet 2 series. And right here on Blue Streak Science we spoke a couple of weeks about a giant island of plastic adrift on the ocean, spreading micro-plastics far and wide and into the food chain.

The reason that this war on plastic is so hard to win is that, despite these increasingly apparent environmental impacts, we just can’t quit it. It’s a bit like a guilty affair; we know that it’s reckless, irresponsible and hurts others but it’s just so convenient and easy. Especially for us in the world of science and laboratories; with our disposable pipettes tips, Petri dishes, deep well plates and culture loops. We’ve been as much a part of the problem as we have the solution.

Up until now that is. The biggest problem that plastic presents is also its greatest asset; its resistance to biodegradation. But this resistance is starting to be ground down. In 2011 a single-celled fungus called pest-alo-tiopsis microspora was discovered which can digest polyurethane and in 2016 a strain of Ideonella Sakaiensis bacteria was identified that eats PET.

This bacteria was found outside a plastic recycling plant in Japan. What amazes me about this is just how quickly these organisms have evolved to exploit this new food source. We talk about antibiotic resistance as being a fast process but antibiotics are, for the most part, still going strong 100 years after their discovery. Plastics have been with us for half of that time and we’re already seeing this shift in our microflora.

So how are scientists helping with this? Well, if you give scientists the novel enzyme that is responsible for the breakdown of PET (rather imaginatively called. PETase, we don’t mess around with naming here. We call a spade a digging tool and a rose by any other name would be Rosa kordesii and it would not smell so sweet as the cross breed known as Louise Odier because science is complicated enough without adding a bunch of artsy-fartsy names to the mix that don’t mean anything).

But I digress; if you give scientists a novel enzyme (like PETase) then they will do what scientists do and dick around with it. Prof. John McGeeham and Dr. Gregg Beckham of the university of Portsmouth and NREL, respectively, have managed to not only make PETase more efficient but have also widened the range of plastics that it works on.

They didn’t initially set out to tweak the enzyme in this way; they were merely attempting to look at its crystal structure. Knowing this would allow the enzyme to be synthesised in the same way as ones that are already being used in your laundry detergent. It was during this synthesis that the error was made, resulting in a more efficient enzyme that can now be produced to aid the plastic recycling process.

Where will this take us in future years? With the microbial world churning on, who knows, maybe one day plastic will end up being no more durable than cardboard. We’ve certainly left enough of it around for the bugs to practice on!]

The Guardian, Science News, PNAS


“Warm Transplants” Save Livers and Lives

Nevena: [Few months ago we spoke of artificial womb and how the first lamb which was carried to term in one was the proof of concept that we might be well on the way to assisted pregnancies, when for health reasons the mother might not be able to carry the fetus to the end of the necessary period.

This story, published in Nature, is about slightly different type of womb-like device. One that can help transplantation organs to reach the patient in better condition and increase the chance of the transplantation procedure being successful.

There are many hurdles to a successful transplantation of organs – often times the storage of the organ between the donor and the recipient ends up damaging the organ to an extend which increases the risk of it failing and being rejected by the patient.

Now a new device which has been tested in the randomized clinical trial described in the nature paper authored by Dr David Nasralla and his colleagues, was shown to increase the success rate of liver transplantations.

One of the main differences with previous storage devices is that in keeps the organ at 37 degrees C (the body temperature of a healthy human). So far, transplant organs are always kept on ice (4 degrees C). While there are many rational reasons keeping on ice organs taken out of the body of donors makes sense, it might actually not be the most optimal way to do it.

Putting tissues and organ on ice for example can reduce the development of bacterial contaminations, it also is thought to induce the cellular chaperones – types of proteins which have the sole purpose of protecting the cells against stress (and if removing organ from its place is not stress, I don’t know what is). But it might appear that at least in the case of liver, putting it on ice it might damage the organ more than protect it.

The machine that was developed to try and remedy this actually supplies the liver with blood saturated with oxygen – lack of oxygen is one of the main reasons that tissues and cells fail. It also filters out immunogenic cells so as little as possible risk there is for immune response in the receiver of the organ and rejection. Additionally, the machine is equipped with a bunch of sensors which measure the performance of the organ and if by any chance, for whatever reason, it starts under performing before the procedure has taken place, the doctors can decide based on this information whether or not they should discard the liver or if it is safe to proceed with the transplantation.

At this point the downside of the machine is its price – soaring to as much as 8000 euros, this is virtually unachievable tag for most patients and it can hardly be covered by national health insurance programs.

But like all other tech, the hope is that the price tag will quickly start showing lower numbers as ways are established to use more sustainable and cheaper materials without sacrificing the performance of the machine. ]

Nature, Nature (original abstract)


Ibuprofen and acetaminophen (paracetamol) reduce dental pain more effectively than opioids

Elvis Presley, Prince, Hank Williams, Heath Ledger, Sigmund Freud; these are just a few examples of high profile people who we have lost as a result of opioid abuse. These tragedies occur because these highly addictive substances are available, legally, as they are such effective painkillers; but a new study has concluded that they are not as effective as their less dangerous alternatives, ibruprofen and paracetamol. Could it be that these celebrities’ lives could have been saved if we had known this earlier? Well, only if they had been suffering from toothache.

This unexpected discovery comes after a wide literature review. Anita Aminoshariae is one of the study’s authors and explained that the aim was to create a compendium detailing both the benefits and harms of these medications as a resource for dentists to use in their clinical decision-making, and this resources says, don’t get your patients high!

Considering the consequences that opioid use can have, it is somewhat less surprising to find that the use of ibruprofen (either with or without paracetamol to assist) produces less adverse side effects as well as being more effective at managing the pain.

The reason why opioids are such a big problem is that they a part of the same family of chemicals as endorphins and dopamine that our bodies naturally create anyway. Medicinally, this is great because they can act on the brainstem and spinal cord like an endorphin (but much more powerfully) where they can suppress pain. The downside of this that it also affects the limbic system. If you have heard of endorphins or dopamine before then you’ve probably heard that they are the thing that makes us feel good; like chemical happiness. On the face of it, this may not seem like a bad side effect, to feel happy and relaxed about everything but the consequences are all too real.

It has been said that humanity only ever suffers from one addiction, opioids. Everything that we get addicted to, be it gambling, alcohol, sex, chocolate or building spreadsheets (maybe that’s just me) these things all prompt our body to make these chemicals. All these other addictions are just the lengths that we go to to feed our opioid habit. The problem with these medicinal opioids is that you cut out the middle man and just provide the brain with an artificial alternative much more potent than anything than your body can make. Just think about it; once you’ve got used to the experience of an opioid high, a genuine, natural feeling of euphoria would just feel lacklustre.

Ibruprofen, on the other hand, is an anti-inflammatory drug. Swelling is a normal response of the body to trauma but it can also be painful. Whilst the swelling is functional and can aid the healing process, it is possible to use these drugs to reduce the swelling and relieve the discomfort. Their effectiveness can be further improved by combining them with paracetamol. Also known as acetaminophen, it may come as a bit of a shock that no one actually knows exactly how it works. The leading theory is that it blocks the brain’s ability to detect prostaglandins which are a bit like anti-opioids; they make us feel pain rather than elation. This is the same chemical that causes swelling, so ibruprofen inhibits its production and then the paracetamol limits the brains ability to pick up on what’s left.

Maybe this is why this result has been discovered. There are no nerves within teeth themselves, but they are attached to some. Dental pain is often associated with swelling and pressure on these nerves. Whilst opioids will dull this pain and make you feel a bit better about it, ibruprofen will actually do something to ease the source of the pain. But not the pain in your soul; for that that I’m afraid that you’ll just have to stick with opioids and all of the risks that they entail.


TESS in the search of exoplanets

It seems like yesterday when the SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blasted Elon’s red Tesla roadster into space, but in the meantime the Falcon 9 (it’s smaller buddy) is busy with to serious space business delivering payloads into Earth’s orbit and beyond for various private and public programs.

It most recently brought to space a NASA probe which will search for exoplanets. The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite or for short TESS is expected to deploy its solar panels as we speak and to start performing a number of internal checks before it starts collecting data.

Unlike other satellites before it, TESS will orbit Earth on a never used before orbit with a complex geometry, making two orbits around us for each orbit the Moon does. While this might seem a very random orbit to choose, surely you don’t think NASA didn’t choose it very carefully! The trick with this orbit is that it’s very stable – if for some reason the satellite goes slightly out of its way, the moon’s gravity will pull it back in place and allow it to keep doing it’s thing without having to do much maneuvering itself – talk about being sustainable in space. Also, in this orbit there’s much less space junk – something we unfortunately we have plenty of (and the cleaning of which Sophie talked about in our previous episode – go have a listen if you haven’t yet!).

Once in its place, the expectation for TESS are soaring – its equipment is building up on the Kepler telescope’s sensors and the hope is that it will discover even more exoplanets than Kepler ever could. Whatever TESS discovers, it will feed into the science that the James Webb telescope is expected to perform once it’s launched in 2020 and it reaches its sweet spot in space – the Lagrange point where the gravity of Earth and the Sun balance out so it can stay there and observe the deep space with the most powerful sensors we have ever made for space exploration. 


Asshole of the Month

The Blue Streak Science A**hole of the Month is governor Rick Snyder of the state of Michigan.

Let’s go back a few years to 2014 to Flint, Michigan. That’s when officials, in order to save money, switched the city’s water source from Lake Huron to the Flint River. Unfortunately, water from the river is 19 times more corrosive than that from the lake, according to researchers at Virginia Tech University.

That sounds bad, but in and of itself it really isn’t, unless you’re piping that water through antiquated pipes. And it didn’t take long for the water started to look, smell and taste bad.

The more corrosive Flint River water caused lead to leach from pipes into the city’s drinking water. The immediate result was people getting rashes and hair loss from the lead in their water. The long-term effects are well-known and far more dire, especially for children.

So the federal Environmental Protection Agency, the EPA, had to intervene. Also, a class-action lawsuit followed against the state’s Department of Environmental Quality alleging that they failed to properly treat the water before it was pumped through the city’s old pipes.

Since that time it has been a mess in Flint. Children with astronomically high levels of lead in their blood. Residents forced to use bottled water for virtually everything.

Stop for a moment, and imagine what it would be like for you to shut off your taps, all of them, and rely on water that you have to drive somewhere and physically pick up. Your drinking, cooking, bathing and showering, brushing your teeth, and even watering your garden. All of it. Water you had to schlep from a distribution center to your home.

But thankfully that water was being paid for by the state of Michigan.

Until now.

Last week the Michigan government announced it would no longer provide free bottled water to residents of Flint four years into this public health debacle. The closure of the state-funded water distribution centers, or free PODs, happened abruptly and surprised Flint Mayor Karen Weaver.

At a press conference this week she recalled her conversation with the governor, “When we talked about the PODs, the governor said we need to get over it. He said the water is testing well and we need to move on,” Incidentally, is it any surprise that Flint, Michigan is majority African American and has a median household income of about $28,000? Do you think this would be allowed to happen in West Palm Beach or Aspen, Colorado?

Flint still has about 12,000 homes with tainted lead service lines that need replacing. Mayor Weaver stated, “They gave us their word that they would see us through this lead and galvanized service line replacement and that we would have PODs stay open until then, and they backed out on what they said,”

According to ReWire News, locals are taking matters into their own hands as the Snyder administration once again turns its back to the plight of Flint.

Local celebrities and organizations like Michigan Citizens for Water Conservation are fighting for water rights and advocating change; a young activist called Mari Copeny, started an online campaign that has raised more than $22,500 in seven days.

Flint officials are threatening to sue the state, and so are residents looking for continued bottled water distribution.

I don’t blame them.

And for turning your back on the good citizens of Flint, Michigan…governor Rick Snyder, you are the Blue Streak Science A**shole of the Month!


Until next time…follow the science!


064: Astronomy Meets Biology, Harpoons and Nets

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto, and the Pub Quiz!

Science News:

  • Conservationists use astronomy software to save species
  • Scientists find signs of new brain cells in older adults
  • Hybrid swarm in global mega-pest
  • This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit

Science News

Conservationists use astronomy software to save species

An astrophysicist and a conservation biologist walk into a bar… No, this is not that kind of story, but a real one on how collaboration is the second name of Lady Science.

A work showing how space science can be used in conservation efforts for endangered species was presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in the UnKi last week.

In it, Dr Serge Wich of the Liverpool John Moores University, described how, through the power of words (!!!) he was able to land a collaboration which as a conservation biologist he never thought he would – with an astrophysicist, namely Dr Claire Burke.

What happened is that, the biologist was talking to his neighbour, explaining the troubles of this research – as you do. His main issue was that protecting animals who are active at night is even harder than the ones active when there’s light. They had to rely only on secondary clues – abandoned nests, feces, leftover food etc. But this is extremely inefficient and imprecise way to estimate the number of animals from a species for many reasons. Sometimes animals migrate to new habitats (may be due to climate change) and that’s why they leave behind nest, burrows and hideaways, meaning that they are simply not there, not necessarily that they are dead. Also, it’s not always super obvious which heap of smelly poop was left by which exactly species of giant mammal for example. And counting animals with infrared cameras is often hindered by the vegetation around, which – newsflash – also emits light in the spectrum, and you also have to be rather close to be able to detect them like that, which kind of defeats the purpose. And even if you did detect something, half of the time you can’t even tell if that warm blob you see with the infrared cam is a rhino or a hippo.

What happened next is called serendipity – the moment when scientists smell the word “Eureka” in the air, but know there’s a ton of work to be done before they get there! The neighbour, who unlike most neighbours in this case was actually listening to the story, had an idea. He knew that his colleagues use these types of softwares which actually could identify the size and age of far away stars from their heat signatures!

So they got to work, they mounted a special infrared cam on a drone and started flying it through zoos and nature reserves and teaching the software behind it to identify one animal from the other, injured animals from healthy and recently deceased from for example asleep ones. And it worked! And it can be now used for that purpose in the wild. And this is why science is awesome! ]

BBC Science and Environment, National Geographic


Scientists find signs of new brain cells in older adults

We spoke about neurogenesis a few episodes ago when we discussed a paper that suggested we lose the ability to make new brain cells as we age. Today, the tables have turned…a new paper is hot off the press that contradicts that March publication in Nature, saying that, indeed, we can make new neurons throughout the ageing process! The new paper is published in Cell Stem Cell.

SO what’s going on here? Research papers often contradict each other and our understanding of natural phenomena is a result of appraising all this different evidence. At the moment, the consensus seems to be that there is some capacity for the hippocampus to produce new neurons throughout life.

Both papers involved use of post-mortem brain samples. Yet the results differ. Maura Boldrini, the lead author, suggested this may be due to different preservation techniques, as well as the fact the brains in the Nature study came from a wider variety of patients, some of whom had had conditions such as epilepsy.

To look for signs of neurogenesis, the researchers hunted for specific proteins produced by neurons at particular stages of development. Proteins such as GFAP and SOX2, for example, are made in abundance by stem cells that eventually turn into neurons, while newborn neurons make more of proteins such as Ki-67. In all of the brains, the researchers found evidence of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus where neurons are born.  

There were some differences between young and old brains, notwithstanding the abundance of new neurons in each sample – old brains had fewer new blood vessels and apparently there was less evidence of new connections between neurons (synapses).

LA Times, Science News, Live Science


Hybrid swarm in global mega-pest

So this is a story from the journal PNAS (which for some reason Americans pronounce totally weird) and got covered in Science Daily. It’s about genetic mutants! OW YEAH! But not really… Well yeah, but not like the teenage ninja turtles, more like the hulk and not in a good way!

Do you know which is one of the main pests against which genetically engineered crops were created? It’s the cotton bollworm, which is a b*tch of pest because it feeds on more than 100 species of plants, many of which agriculturally important and is the sole reason why some years cotton farmers in India for example loose up to 80% of their harvest and in consequence – their income. It is resistant to every pesticide in the world which is why the darned GMOs are so needed in the developing world and why some denim companies (which I will not name) are total tools for refusing to buy from Indian farmers growing GMO cotton because their western clients don’t want GMO jeans on their sorry asses! ANYHOW, the damage control only for this pest costs billions of dollars every year.

The other pest in this story is the corn earworm, which is not as bad, but is still a major agri-pest. The damage it does is estimated to be only about 100 mln dollars per year, which is peanuts to what the cotton bollworm does.

Here’s the horror of this story though – recently, scientists from Australia had realised that the two species of pests had met, hybridised and gave birth (figuratively speaking) to a mega-pest, which unlike the two original species who have generally different areas of spread, is both super-mean to our crops and potentially able to live just about anywhere in the world where there’s arable land! They’ve found the mega-pest hybrid in Brazil (which by the way is one of the worst places for us for this to happen as Brazil is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of Coffee, Soybean, Soybean, Wheat, Rice, Corn, and Sugarcane).

And if this wasn’t horrible enough, it turned out that from the hybrids they studied, there were not just one new hybrid, but rather many many different hybrids between the two species. In some cases, the new hybrid had gotten almost entirely the pesticide resistant genes from the bollworm and other than that was genetically mostly earworm. Which, if we draw the short straw from this, might mean that on hybrid will be susceptible to our pesticides, but 2 will not be, and that math even I can do – it does not look good for our agricultural produce.  

And if Brazil does not sound concerning enough, I’m just going to say that 65% of the major crops in the USA are potential dinner for the pests and having such plethora of super-pest hybrids coming your way can be really, really bad! ]

PNAS, ABC, Science Daily


This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit

We have a rubbish problem in space. Literally – the atmosphere is full of space junk. Now there’s a new project to try and reduce this – time for a bit of spring cleaning of space.

A Japanese experiment in space trash removal, called KITE, had to be scrapped last year due to a technical failure. The new project, RemoveDEBRIS satellite was funded half by the European Commission, and half by a consortium of 10 companies. Lots of interest in clearing the junk! But how? Fishing, basically – the project will trial nets and harpoons.

“The idea is that the net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to, for example, going with a robotic arm,” said Guglielmo Aglietti, RemoveDEBRIS principal investigator, and director of the Surrey Space Center. He adds “The harpoon is maybe simpler…but then one might think that maybe it’s a bit more risky because you have to hit your debris in a place that is suitable to be captured by the harpoon. Clearly, you have to avoid any fuel tanks.” Clearly.

The trial involves cleaning up junk the team introduced to space themselves, rather than touching existing stuff up there, for legal reasons. Tests should be complete by the end of the year. If promising, RemoveDEBRIS will be incorporated into a big cleaning mission scheduled for 2024. We have 7500 tons of space junk (40,000 fragments, estimated) circling the Earth at the moment and this seems likely to increase without concerted clean-up efforts. There have been collisions in the past and these do pose major risk to spacecraft.

Funny, we humans really are messy – not just on our planet, but beyond. Not something you tend to think about., Next Big Future, Air and Space

The Climate Lounge

The Sahara is getting bigger… boo.

Welcome to the climate lounge, where, just like our planet, I’ve programmed the thermostat to get increasingly hotter and told the servers to randomly douse some people with a bucket of water, while removing all drinks from others. You thinking that doesn’t sound like a fun place to hang out…. That’s the point.

But first, PUERTO RICO. Not much more to add besides what I’ve said in the past. It’s a travesty that some people in Puerto Rico are STILL without power. Making matters more infuriating recently, was an article in Politico which went through the double standards in relief efforts between those in Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and those in Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria. I’m sure you can guess how. But here are some numbers from the article. Nine days after Harvey, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) approved almost 142 million in individual assistance to Harvey’s victims. That number was 6.2 million for Marias victims. It took 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas. It took 43 days for Puerto Rico. Grrrrrrrrrr. So don’t forget!

Moving onto this episodes climate story, we are staying the tropics…somewhat and talking about that big giant desert in Africa called the Sahara.

In a recent article in the Journal of Climate, scientist Natalie Thomas and Sumant Nigam looked at how climate changed over Africa during the 20th century with a focus on seasonal trends over Africa.  That’s the boring way of saying it. Said another way. They looked to see what’s the deal with the Sahara desert and how it’s changing. And they found some things *cue ominous music*

They found that the Sahara has been getting bigger. Not only was it creeping farther NORTH but it has also been creeping southward! Even worse, the farthest creep south has been occuring during the summer season, when the bulk of the rains come to areas just south of the Sahara in a region known as the Sahel.

Why is this interesting? Time to talk how deserts form. First, an important and obvious fact. Different places get different amounts of the suns energy. The equator gets the most, the poles get the least. I’ve just described for you in the simplest way possible why air moves across the planet. The earth likes to keep things in balance so it is in a everlasting battle of moving warm air to the poles. But physics makes things a bit more complicated. And we get deserts as a result.
In general, alot of the world’s deserts are located at the latitude of the downward branch of a huge atmospheric circulation known as the Hadley Cell. The Hadley cell as has a couple of components. The first is rising air in the tropics along the equator, think lots of rin. The second is sinking air farther north and south of the equator around 30 degrees in latitude. As the air rises in the tropics, it hits an atmospheric wall and spreads north and south where it eventually sinks by 30 degreeds latitude. As it sinks, it heats and drys. And thus you find alot of the worlds deserts.

As we warm the planet, we are expanding the Hadley Cell, meaning that the downward branch of the Hadley cell is moving north. So the northward expansion of the Sahara makes perfect sense… but it doesn’t explain the southward creeping.

That goes into another oscillation known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation called Billy for short….Just kidding, making sure you are paying attention. It’s called the AMO and refers to ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. They can change from warm to cold in the north atlantic ocean during phases. The warm phase (one of which lasted from 30s to 60s) brings wet conditions to sub-Saharan Africa including the Sahel and West Africa. And the cold phase which means drier conditions (one of which last from the 70s through 2000s and included an horrible West African drought in the 1980s. This cold phase AND ties to increasing greenhouse gases likely both played a part in the drought. The signals are intertwined . If this is true, it would account for the southward creep of the Sahara into West Africa.

Why is this bad? In a previous life, I used to provide weather and climate forecasts for the Famine Early Warning Network or FEWS-NET for Africa, so I am a bit familiar with this area of the world’s climate. In the summer months, West Africa sees its rainy season as the rains progress increasing northward through the summer until peaking in latitude at about 19 N in August. This peak position is located in the Sahel, an area that is “on the edge” when it comes to rainfall as it. Sometimes seasons are good, but if they are just a bit late or lower than normal, disaster can strike for farmers. It’s very very vulnerable. This research suggests that rains just aren’t making it as far north as normal during the summer, which if it continues could be devastating to those countries in the Sahel.

Now here is a BIG scientific caveat with this article. And serves as a useful example of how just because a paper passed peer review doesn’t mean it’s right. Other scientists have pushed back on these results, noting how sparse and inconsistent datasets are in Africa and critiquing just how the authors calculated the AMO.  This is how science works. Nothing is taken as gospel. And regardless of whether these results stand the test of time. Northern and subsaharan Africa remains incredibly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and climate change.

And Africa as a continent is the least responsible for all this climate change. It’s not fair. It never will be fair. And we should help out considerably. Any other choice would be a major dick move.

Washington Post,, American Meteorological Society

Pub Quiz

Today’s topic: antelopes

In Closing

Follow the science!

This episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast comes to you from San Francisco, California; Cambridge, England; Washington, D.C.; and Brussels, Belgium.

063: Introducing Cheddar Man!

Coming up on this week’s show

The Climate Lounge with Tom Di Liberto.

Science News:

  • Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US
  • Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin
  • Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it
  • Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and JD Goodwin

Tree rings reveal increased fire risk for southwestern US

So this article is about predicting the future. But in this case instead of using crystal orbs or magical stones the fortune teller is using tree rings to predict the potential for future wildfires. And his name is Dr Margolis and while with somewhat magical name, he’s based in the South West of the United States, where we only know of muggles existing so far. Actually not far from where our host is. 🙂

Basically, since the 1970s researchers have found out that they can predict the chances of having uncontrollable wildfires during the year based on the width of the tree rings from previous years. The idea is that the wider the tree ring, the more the tree had access to water during that year. And respectively, the more narrow the tree ring, the dryer the year was. In combination with the width of the tree rings researchers collected data on the scorching marks on the tree barks of those trees. This way they could basically triangulate in place and time how humid years of history were with the how and where wildfires were spreading. Based on the patterns they’ve established they are concerned about the coming year. The fact that the current snow cover in the area is very thin does not bode well for the total amount of humidity expected during the year. And the dryer the forest is the higher the chances of it bursting into flames when the heat comes.

Expanding further on this research, Margolis and his team could even cross check the spread of wildfires in the history of states like Arizona New Mexico and Texas with various ocean circulation Cycles in the Pacific.
The hope of the researchers is if they have enough data on the frequency of wildfires in combination of the frequency of occurring circulation in the Pacific they would be able to predict when and where are the next wildfires going to strike and hopefully be able to act on it.

Well wildfires are natural and necessary for ecosystems to survive, the increasing frequency of extreme Weather caused by global warming makes wildfires become uncontrollable forces which spread much wider than ever before threatening lives and causing billions of dollars of damage.

Based on the most frequent predictions of the team, this year might be the turn for a big fire in the Sangre de Cristo mountains. According to  statistics the forest hasn’t burned in more than 100 years which is unnaturally long dormancy for this type of system.
And is if fire wasn’t bad enough, a further concern is that the area with destroyed vegetation would be also vulnerable to flooding that will only increase the threat to the inhabitants of these areas, as we already saw in 2017.



Cheddar Man: DNA shows early Briton had dark skin

Have you heard about the Cheddar Man?

If you’re expecting a story about cheese I’m sorry to disappoint. This is about Britain’s oldest complete skeleton, which was discovered in 1903 in the Cheddar Gorge of Somerset. And yes, he’s known as Cheddar Man. So researchers at London’s Natural History Museum extracted DNA from the skull of Cheddar Man.

Researchers from University College London analyzed Cheddar Man’s genome for a facial reconstruction. By the way, no Briton of this age has had their genome analyzed like this. And research over the last century shows that Cheddar Man was about 1.65m tall, and likely died in his early 20’s

This new research found that Cheddar Man had dark hair, possibly curly. He had blue eyes and skin that was dark brown or black. There are pictures in the BBC article and I must say, this is one good looking, rakishly handsome guy! He looks like the front man in a rock band.

Cheddar Man’s genome shows he was closely related to other Mesolithic individuals, Fred Flintstone, Barney Rubble. No, he was related to the so-called Western Hunter-Gatherers – who’ve been analysed from Spain, Luxembourg and Hungary. The genomic results also suggest Cheddar Man could not drink milk as an adult. This is a trait that only spread much later, after the onset of the Bronze Age.

Short, dark, handsome, with Paul Newman blue eyes, lactose intolerant…and pure British.

The Cheddar Man!

BBC News: Science and Environment, The Guardian, Washington Post


Wikipedia has become a science reference source even though scientists don’t cite it

This is an article from Science News, talking about Wikipedia as a science reference source which is severely undecided in the scientific literature.

The peace talks about the fact that many people, including plenty of scientists, consult this particular information source and even include knowledge from it in their scientific works and publications, but never include citations to Wikipedia directly is a primary source of information.

Some language experts head gone through incredible lengths to be able to establish the Frequency with which language from Wikipedia find its way almost entirely unedited into scientific publications. And while in science formal education we have always been thought that Wikipedia is not a citable source, their argument is that if someone uses the online encyclopaedia as a source they should cite it as one as well.

From High School through graduate School students are actively advised against using Wikipedia. But we all know that we all do and even the teachers who taught us not to use Wikipedia. It is a good place to start with an unfamiliar or little familiar topic.

Well, I agree that a lot of the information on the website is well referenced ( much like in a scientific publication) and based on that merit only, it should be included in references. But, I believe that the authors of the peace in Science News omit an important detail in this discussion. And that is – wikipedia while more and more trustworthy and exhaustive, is not a primary source of information. Even the more creative editors and the ones who are specialists on certain topics they develop, include published scientific articles, books and textbooks as references for different information on the website. That’s the whole beauty and usefulness of it – that you can for the most part check the information published on a wiki page and if there’s no citation, be at least skeptical about its value. In scientific writing one of the first rules is that you should always reference the original source of the information which you include in your work. This means that according to the dogmas of scientific publication process, scientists who had referred to Wikipedia at any point of their writing process should source the references used in the Wiki article they read rather than the wikipage itself.

That being said, I couldn’t agree more that in general Wikipedia should be recognised is a valuable and trustworthy source of information for both young and advanced scholars. A way around that could be including the reference to the web encyclopaedia in the acknowledgement section of theses and scientific articles. And as with all other sources used in someone’s research we should recognise the value of an open source encyclopedia, especially when it’s so obvious and easy to establish whether an article is of high quality information or not (based on the citations included and some other factors).

And here I would like to put a shameless plug the Guerilla Skeptics Group which takes on educating systemically people interested in editing Wikipedia how to improve on or write from scratch entries, so that they are regarded as high quality information sources which readers know they can trust.]

Science News


Elon Musk’s Falcon Heavy rocket launches successfully

In case you were on another planet last week you probably heard about the launch of the Falcon Heavy rocket by SpaceX.

It happened about 3:50 PM local time at launchpad 39A last Tuesday.

The Falcon Heavy is essentially three Falcon 9 rocket boosters strapped together, and was the most powerful rocket launched since the Saturn V

The goal is to use the Falcon Heavy to send humans into space. SpaceX is also developing another rocket, called the BFR, that may be the ticket to Mars.

Did you see the two boosters land back at the Cape?

The center core booster wasn’t as fortunate. It ran out of fuel and slammed into the ocean at about 300mph. A small setback, all considered.

Of course, the other awesome part of this story is the cargo. It was carrying Elon Musk’s red Tesla Roadster.

Don’t Panic. Space Oddity.

Oh, and the next launch of the Falcon Heavy will be in about 3 to 6 months

BBC News: Science and Environment, The New York Times, Science News

The Climate Lounge

Wait, there is WHAT in permafrost?

Thanks JD, And before I go into another crazy horrible thing lurking in the Arctic. Let me first talk about an absolutely horrible and crazy thing going on right now. A quarter of Puerto Rico is STILL without power. STILL!  Now the US Government finally passed somewhat of a budget deal that included billions in relief for hard hit areas in Texas, Florida and Puerto Rico but still! It’s over 140 days since hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico. It’s a disgrace. And don’t get me started on that other story about how FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, gave a contract for 30 million meals to be delivered to Puerto Rico to a 1-person company with a history of failed contracts who was nowhere near up to the job.  And now I’m all riled up again. The lounge has been a rowdy place of late.

Ok, ok, back to this story. Now whenever we talk about the Arctic and climate change, we make an effort to remind folks that the Arctic is one of the fastest warming places on the planet due to climate change. And that’s one reason why I dislike talking about climate change as if it’s a future problem. It’s here now and no place knows that more than people who live in the higher latitudes.

And one thing we know with arctic warming is that due to climate change, permafrost–ground that remains below freezing for at least two consecutive years-is melting all across the arctic. This can have major impacts on infrastructure as roads and buildings can often be built upon permafrost. Once that soil melts, the land beneath highways and buildings can become much less sturdy leading to collapse.

Another major issue with melting permafrost is what that melting releases. Dragons…..Just kidding. Permafrost is made of up carbon rich soil. By melting it, you risk increasing microbial activity to break down that plant material, releasing a huge store of carbon dioxide right into the atmosphere… which would increase warming…which would melt more permafrost….which will release more carbon dioxide…. You get it.

But an article in the Washington Post by Chris Mooney, highlights a brand new worry hiding away in permafrost… mercury. Not the planet, but the highly toxic element. According to the study published in the Geophysical Research Letters, there is twice as much mercury in permafrost as” the rest of all soils, the atmosphere and the ocean combined.” In total there is 32 million gallons worth of mercury trapped within the permafrost according to the study led by Dr. Paul Schuster a scientist with the US Geological Survey along with 16 other colleagues.

The scientists took cores through the permafrost in Alaska and then extrapolated their findings to include the rest of the permafrost across the globe. In normal circumstances, mercury naturally binds to plant materials. As the plants die that mercury is released into the atmosphere. However, in colder environments, the plants don’t fully decompose, trapping the mercury under layers of soil.  As the permafrost melts, this mercury can finally be released.

And then what happens? Good question. Scientists don’t exactly know. Some may wash out into streams, some may go into the atmosphere to eventually be rained or snowed out.

The issue with this much mercury entering the natural ecosystem is that once it’s there, it can enter the food chain by micro-organisms before reaching larger predators like fish and animals that eat those fish, including us or other large predators like Polar Bears or Narwhals.

But this study is just the first step, because frankly, the scientists don’t know what the impacts are going to be.. As stated in the article by one of the scientists “We expect a bunch of it to be released, but we don’t know exactly how much, and when, and where it will be released,” Schaefer said.

Basically, we don’t know the magnitude of the risk. And that’s not a comforting place to be.

Washington Post

In Closing

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This episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast comes to you from San Francisco, California; Washington, D.C.; and Brussels, Belgium.

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