072: Organic molecules on Mars, slowing hurricanes, dogs and influenza

On This Week’s Show

  • New Horizons wakes up to explore the Kuiper Belt
  • Hurricanes are slowing down
  • Dogs and the flu virus
  • The Climate Lounge
  • The Pub Quiz

Science News with Nevena Hristozova and Chris MacAlister

Organic molecules found on Mars

Mars stinks. Or at least it ought to, based on the fact that in has methane in its atmosphere. Truth is though, that the concentration of methane in the martian air is almost 2000 times lower than the one on earth. But why methane is of interest to scientists is because, on earth at least, it’s existence is related to the activity of living forms. Now, methane comes again in the spotlight of researchers, because they’ve finally had a breakthrough – they’ve finally detected a pattern in the concentration variations of the gas in the martian atmosphere. Curiosity observed changes in the methane content when travelling cross the planet from north to south. The original hypothesis was that this change is due to chemical conversion of molecules with the help of the strong radiation of the Sun. The counter argument is that while this is possible, its not plausible, or at least not explaining the phenomenon in full. The models predict only about 20% increase in methane if the conversion is due to only sun-catalysed chemical conversions in the summer, while the practically observed increase is with up to 300%. Alternative hypothesis is that there might be methane deposits in the deep ice on Mars, which gets released once the ice and soil get warmed up by the summer sun. It is still very interesting to find out though where did this methane came from in the first place and future ESA missions will look exactly into that – they will be able to drill much deeper in the martian soil and analyze the carbon composition of the methane found there to establish if there’s a chance it was made/left behind by living forms.

BBC Science and Environment, LA Times, Science News, National Geographic, New York Times

New Horizons wakes up to explore the Kuiper Belt

Last week I spoke about the discoveries coming from New Horizons’ 3 year old data and before we’ve even finished with all of that data; here comes some more!

After the success of the Pluto flyby the mission was extended for further studies in the Kuiper belt, and why not; after the 9 years getting there?

Pluto’s home, the Kuiper belt may be less famous than asteroid belt between Mars & Jupiter but it is a damn sight bigger! Despite covering some 3.5 billion kms to get to Pluto, its taking New Horizons a further 3 years and 1.6 billion miles to complete this leg WITHIN the Kuiper belt!

The new target is called Ultima Thule (much catchier than its official title 2014 MU69). The name, given in March of this year, means; beyond the borders of the known world.  Ultima Thule is exciting for a couple of reasons. It could be both the most distant oldest object ever studied, it is believed to have been orbiting since the very early days of the solar system some 4.6 billion years ago.

A 20km wide rock may not seem too exciting. But if Pluto has taught us anything t is that surprises are waiting out there to be discovered. And who doesn’t get excited about exploring a new world?

I’m ready to get excited again. As with your own tech, if you’re not going to use it for some time you may switch to standby mode and this is exactly what’s happened to New Horizons. Waking it up means that it’s time for the discovery to start again. I think the mission’s principal investigator Alan Stern summed it perfectly when he simply said “IT’S HAPPENING, IT’S HAPPENING!”]

Science News, Space Flight Insider, Space.com, NASA Space Flight

Hurricanes are slowing down

I’m getting into deep waters here – this is entirely Tom’s turf but my name’s not Nevena if I don’t do my best so here goes nothing!

Yes – a paper published recently in the journal Nature shows that  hurricanes are moving slower and that seems to be a very very bad thing. Here’s why – having both typhoons and hurricanes move slower means that they drag along for longer in a specific area and respectively cause more damage. The warmer air and water also pump more water into the storm so they tend to be much more prominent and drop much more rain for prolonged periods one one place causing more frequently and worse floods. Another research paper published by the NSF analysed 22 storms and modeled how would they develop if they were to happen in the climate conditions of the late 21 century. And it was not pretty! The predictions showed that the rising global temperatures will only cause cyclones to slow down further, making them even more deadly and devastating for the areas affected by them, calculating as much as 25% more rainfall for all the biggest storms analysed in this study. Now you might think – ok rain would be worse but since it’s travelling slower at least the damage from the winds will be significantly smaller, but you’d be very wrong – the winds in the storms apparently remain with comparable speed to the ones today. And according to some estimations, this slowing down of storms transitions is very significant, some calculating as much as a third loss of speed for just over half a decade.

These two publications both point to the same outcome using two very different methods – one is analysing historical data, and the other one is making predictions based on computer modeling. The fact that both have similar disturbing conclusions is a hint at the much more versatile unexpected negative effects of global warming we are yet to discover in full.

LA Times, National Geographic, Nature, New York Times

Dogs and the flu virus

You’ve got your bird flu, your swine flu, now get ready for dog flu!

Bird flu made the case that flu is not just what you called in sick with when you have a bad cold but could actually be a serious, life threatening disease. I could talk all day about the complexities and risks of the flu virus but I won’t. Instead we’ll focus on the headline points.

Is your dog in danger? No. This story is about discovering that dogs already have many different types of flu virus in them, including some novel ones; not that dogs are dying. Are you in danger? No. So why are we even talking about this?

The reason why people get a flu shot every year is because the flu virus is eternally changing. Antibiotic resistance is not a patch on the flu virus. Flu is a pandemic on a never-ending migration and as flu season sweep around the globe it keeps on changing. It mutates, swaps genes with its hosts and it swaps genes with other varieties of flu. All of this genetic bodging means that the flu that hits you one season can be significantly different from the one that hit you last season, dodging your immune system. So your flu vaccine is guesswork, predictions of what strains will be doing the rounds in the coming season.

The reason this dog story is big news is that all these flu strains together makes for a breeding ground for new strains as they all go about swapping genetic material; increasing the chance of something dangerous like bird flu emerging. Bird flu never transferred directly between humans and was rare as you had to live closely alongside infected birds to get it. But dogs live very close with us, not only raising the potential for infection, but also giving the virus more chance of adapting to infect humans. This has led to claims that we should start vaccinating our dogs for flu, not to protect them but to reduce the number of strains that they are carrying and minimise all this mixing.

JD: This winter we had our dog, Amy, vaccinated against canine flu. It seems there was some of it going around here on the west coast of North America, and it is quite serious if your dog is unlucky enough to contract it. Also, our veterinarian told us that the series of two injections should protect her for life.

Science News, Live Science, National Geographic

Thanks to Nevena Hristozova, the mastermind behind the incubatorium blog. All things sciencey, at incubatorium.eu.

And Chris MacAlister who is the creator of Matildas Lab, whose most recent post is about strapping fake tails to chickens.


The Climate Lounge

Did you know that according to a new paper in Nature, hurricanes are slowing down because of climate change? You do? Because Nevena already covered it really well? How about that science huh? Let me look at my watch…Ok that was only 20 seconds. Give me a word!

Which connects me to… CARBON DIOXIDE. Let’s talk CO2! Because we did it guys! Woo! We are number 1! Humans Humans Humans!

This April and May, the amount of Carbon Dioxide in the atmosphere measured at Mauna Loa in Hawaii reached 410 parts per million. The highest monthly averages ever recorded. May’s average was 411.25 ppm, which is like super high.

How high is that? Well it’s likely the highest since the Pliocene around 3 million years ago. What’s the Pliocene? It’s an era of time. What’s time?Dudeeee that’s deep. Anyway, the pliocene was known to have sea levels 16 to 131 feet higher (5 to 40m), the poles were 10 C or 18F higher with global temps more like 3-4C warmer (5-7F). And giant ground sloths and mastodons roamed the planet, not 7.6 billion humans.

Suffice to say, yikes.

Now this is where I usually get into some super sciency details but I’d like to end with a story instead, if you guys don’t mind. Around 3.5 years ago I was lucky enough to get invited to give a talk at a climate resilience conference in Hawaii focusing on the Pacific Islands. And like any normal person, I extended this trip to do some sightseeing with my then pregnant wife (we had just found out a month earlier that we were expecting our first child). Our travels took us the big island, the youngest of the islands and the one that’s currently erupting. Now when you are there, the suggestions on things to do usually boil down to 1) see the volcano and 2) Get to the top of Mauna Kea to see the stars and telescopes that peer out into space. We did #1 but thought, Psshhhht space. We instead did the much less traveled adventure and drove up Mauna Loa. Because we wanted to see where the famous Keeling Curve observations (the co2 measurements that i mentioned earlier) were taken. So beforehand, I emailed the NOAA scientists up there and said “Hey, can we come visit?” They said Sure! And gave us the code to the front gate. So on a sunny typically beautiful hawaiian day, my pregnant wife and I drove a rented 4wheel drive jeep up switchback roads to the Mauna Loa observatory. We walked around the machines by ourselves for a little bit before running into one of the scientists. He showed us around making sure to stop at the old famous machines,then pointing out where the steady stream of data was coming in and finally making us sign their guestbook (which contained all sorts of more famous names). But then he surprised us and took us out onto the roof, he grabbed an air sample bottle that they obviously kept for situations like this, when random visitors show up and he let us take air samples on Mauna Loa ourselves and seal the jars. We then went back down and wrote down the current CO2 levels in ppm. 401.23 ppm. A terrifying number back then. It was a time when breaking 400ppm seem unfathomable. And now 411.25ppm, rising and my son is now 2.5 years old

I often get asked how I keep going in such a field like climate science. Communicating it can be so tough. Things can seem so polarized, hopeless. And nowadays, I don’t think we alone own that hopeless mantle. But I always say, you have to remind yourself why you keep doing what you are doing

Yes it can be tough, and on some days it can seem impossible to keep going. But on those days, I look to the shelf right above my computer at work, to the photo of my wife and I on our wedding day, to the image of my son showing off the world’s largest grin. And smack dab in between them is that little glass tube, full of that brilliant hawaiian air with ugly amounts of CO2 in it.

And as I say these words, at any minute I could get a call telling me my wife is in labor with boy #2. So even though things can seem depressing. Remember, there’s A LOT worth fighting for. Keep those things close and let’s get to damn work.

Also, don’t be afraid of bringing tourist dollars to Puerto Rico and definitely don’t forget to keep talking about the island. It’s hurricane season and lots of places still don’t have roofs.

NOAA, YaleE360


Pub Quiz

  1. What is the study of biological processes that have or could have evolved outside or away from the planet Earth?
  2. What do we call a global event that arises from large-scale interactions between the ocean and the atmosphere between the southeastern tropical Pacific and the Austral-Indonesian regions?
  3. What is the branch of biology that deals with the interactions and relationships between organisms and their environment?
  4. What do we call a subatomic particle that carries a negative charge in atoms or molecules?
  5. Microorganisms belonging to the domains Bacteria and Archaea that can live and thrive in extreme environments are called what?
  6. In thermodynamics, a closed system evolves toward a state of maximum what?
  7. Published in 1859, Darwin’s “On The Origin of Species”, probably the greatest writing in the history of the biological sciences. What was the final word of the final chapter?
  8. What do we call organisms who have relatively large cells that have internal membrane-bound structures called organelles, including a cell nucleus?
  9. When a species that once existed no longer exists anywhere it is said to be?
  10. The study of the inheritance and regulation of gene expression that is independent of the DNA sequence of an organism is called?

Recommended by the Team

We highly recommend a great podcast called “Death in Ice Valley”. It’s a co-production of BBC’s World Service and Norway’s public radio service, NRK.

In 1970, in a remote valley in Norway two girls found the body of a woman, badly burnt and surrounded by some strange objects. Her identity has remained a mystery ever since.

Investigative journalist, Marit Higraff, and British BBC radio documentary maker, Neil McCarthy, have spearheaded this most recent investigation, and their goal is to find answers that have evaded police, journalists and crime novelists for the past 47 years.

This is a wonderful podcast and I urge you to have a listen.

Death In Ice Valley


Where Have We Been?

Nevena: Last week, here in Brussels, was held the yearly international forum on food and nutrition from the BCFN foundation. It is an event founded to provide an open space for interdisciplinary discussion on issues of nutrition and sustainability. Experts, international opinion-makers and young research fellows met to share evidence, scientific data and best practices, with the goal of creating a model of sustainable food to reach the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals.

The talks and keynotes tried to lay out effective solutions on urgent issues such as the relationship between hunger and obesity, the proper use of natural resources, the reduction of food waste, the promotion of sustainable diets, the environmental impact of agriculture and the effects of climate change.

And the best part of this event was that it was free to register so anyone who wanted to attend and was fast enough could go (obv they had a somewhat limited number of seating). But talk about open science that was really it!

JD: Last week I spent a morning at Point Reyes National Seashore. This is truly a remarkable piece of land. It’s about 280 square kilometers and its peninsula juts about 15 kilometers out into the Pacific.

From the Outer Point you can see the Farallones, an archipelago that’s about 50 km away. On a clear day you can also see the top of the Golden Gate Bridge, also about 50 km distant.

There are lots of black-tailed deer, huge tule elk, bobcat, coyotes and mountain lions. I was doing some birding there and saw several peregrine falcons soaring and then swooping around the lighthouse, driving the common murres crazy. I only learned afterward that a pair of Lawrence’s Goldfinches are nesting in the area…quite rare for this location.

Chris: This week I have been building. I am building a LIMS (Laboratory Integrated Management System). Our lab records are on old Microsoft Access databases that are slowly grinding to a standstill. A colleague and I visited another lab to look at their off the shelf LIMS and we thought; there’s nothing going on here that we couldn’t build ourselves, in MS Access. So that is what we are doing; building an all-singing-all-dancing bespoke database system from scratch. Whilst this has been going on for more that the last week, last week we did build some parts of the system that we feared would be the most difficult so I’m feel remarkably chuffed with myself at the moment.

Where Are We Going?

Nevena: Another interesting event which I hope to be able to attend is a meeting called Antitrust and competition issues in the life science sector on July 3rd here in the European Parliament, in Brussels. DG COMP organises a panel to provide an overview of recent developments by DG COMP and the National Competition Authorities in the life science industry, including excessive pricing, market definition, pay-for-delay, and mergers.

This event follow the launch of DG COMP’s Pharmaceutical Sector Inquiry in 2008, in which inquiry was the interplay between competition law and the life science sector. A broad range of investigations have taken place, and a number are on-going. DG SANTE will be reporting on biologicals and biosimilars from a regulatory perspective. The event is virtually free since it's 25 euros per person but it also includes a lunch served as it's a lunch meeting followed by the report presentation.

JD: Summer is a slow time of year for lectures and such, so I have nothing planned this week. However, there’s a lot of wildlife to be seen in the area and I’m certainly going back to Point Reyes to have a look at those goldfinches, and anything else that wanders in front of my binoculars.

Chris: This week I am writing about spacesuits and the full range of jobs that they perform. Some functions of them are obvious but some are less so, which is something that is not helped by the less than rigorous application of scientific principles in the television and movie making industry.

I will also start turning some attention to this medium myself. I’ve long planned on producing video content to go alongside my blog and as yet never quite got around to it. I plan to start trying to be more active in pushing this project forward which is leaving me both inspired and full of dread in equal measures.


In Closing

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