On This Week’s Show
- More Nobel Prizes
- A new immune system strategy for treating cancer
- A Geyser in Yellowstone spews rubbish
- Good news for any of our listeners who happen to be bitten by a black mamba
- The Climate Lounge
- Pub Quiz
Caltech Scientist Among Three Awarded Nobel Prize In Chemistry
If you tuned in last week then you would have heard about some of this year’s Nobel Prizes, and we’re not finished with you yet! The final science award to be announced this year is the Chemistry prize; and it’s a chemistry prize with a very biological feel to it.
Our good friends the Creationists often like to point out that Darwin never won a Nobel prize (largely on account of there being no Nobel prize for biology and him dying over 20 years before the first Nobels were awarded). But now, 3 people have been awarded a Nobel Prize for applied evolution.
Whilst humanity have been sculpting species through artificial selection for millennia, this award for two separate projects marks a significant shift in our utilisation of it.
The first was for Frances Arnold of Caltech and her efforts to create an enzyme that could break down the milk protein casein in an organic liquid. The current enzyme works in water and rather than do it herself, she decided to outsource the R&D; to bacteria.
She engineered bacteria that would produce the existing enzyme for breaking down casein, but replicated this with various mutations. Once set up, she let nature take it course; selected the best performing strains and at the end of the line collected her newly forged enzyme. Clever huh?
The other project is less easy to get your head around and involves phages. They went to Gregory Winter and George Smith of the universities of Cambridge and Missouri respectively.
Bacteriophages are viruses that infect bacteria and Smith has used them to develop a method called phage display, where the these viruses allow you work out what genes are responsible for creating specific proteins.
And this is where Winter came in. The backbone of our immune system are antibodies. These are the things that recognise infections in our bodies and kickstart the immune response. Winter used the phage expression technique, not to produce produce proteins that can be correlated to genes, but to produce antibodies.
Using a similar selection techniques to Arnold he fine tuned an antibody that could bind to a target molecule. What this does it that it paves the way for the production of off-the-shelf antibodies. Miss that vaccination and caught the infection? No worries, we’ll just administer a dose immune response.
Immune System Reveals Potential Treatment for Cancer
First story covers research that concerns potential blocking of some of the complex signalling pathways present in cancer.
A hallmark of cancer is overproduction of growth factors, which–you guessed it– leads to abnormal degrees of cell division. One such growth factor is epidermal growth factor, or EGF.
We have current therapy options such as Erlotinib, that block EGF signalling (in some lung and pancreatic cancers), but an issue with these is that the patient can develop drug-resistant mutations.
A possible new option is presented by Salvador Guardiola and colleagues – camelid‐derived single‐domain antibodies developed. Camelid is the family of animals that includes the camel (!) llama and alpaca. Who’s your favourite, Chris, JD, Tom?
Anyway. This is a nice example of lateral thinking in research…it links quite nicely to my next story as well.
A Geyser Erupted in Yellowstone and 80 Years of Human Trash Poured Out
We’ve all had those experiences, where you have a bit of a spring clean; clear out that Monica cupboard and think; huh, so that’s where that went!
Well it looks like the Yellowstone National Park has been having a little spring clean of its own; specifically the Ear Spring geyser.
This geyser has just delivered its most powerful eruption in 60 years and when this happens you get more than just geothermally heated water gushing out. The most common thing to accompany it is rock, but on this occasion there has been something a little more interesting. So interesting, in fact, that curators are taking an inventory of all the things that were jettisoned.
Probably the least surprising things found in this hawl are coins. Lots and lots of coins, many rusts scorched and crumbled. But there’s more.
Whilst many see the Yellowstone geysers as one of nature’s marvels it appears that others see them as one of nature’s dustbins as the contents include; a large chunk of cinderblock, a broken bottle, some old aluminum cans, plastic cups and cigarette butts.
Then we get to the less common waste. A rubber heel insert, which begs the question; where is the other one? Some metal warning signs, which presumably said something “Warning: geysers”, A vintage pacifier from the 1930s; now this one really fascinates me since the last big eruption was in the 1950s! Who even takes a 20 year old dummy to a national park; let alone dump it into a geyser! The final item of note was a 20 cm long drinking straw. I’m hoping that this was just another result of lazy littering and not some kind of drinking challenge gone wrong.
Lighthearted approaches aside; before you go getting ideas about what could possibly go down a geyser that could give people a laugh in 60 years time, remember that there is a reason that water gets so forcibly ejaculated from these geysers; and if they become so blocked that they water can’t come straight out then that pressure will find another way to escape; in something called a hydrothermal explosion! And that's a term that doesn't sit comfortably in any sentence. ]
Breakthrough in Treating Snake Envenomation
Snakes are brilliant! They can also be deadly.
Two million people are bitten by snakes each year, and 100,000 of these people die, while 400,000 require amputations. Snake bites and their repercussions are mainly a problem for poorer countries. There might be some positive news, however. A paper released in the journal Nature Communications describes a promising step forward in developing human antibodies that neutralise black mamba venom.
This is particularly promising given that the black mamba is a very venomous snake, highly feared in many African countries. While shy, like most snakes, if it feels threatens it will strike multiple times and inject potent neuro- and cardio-toxins. Before the development of antivenin, anyone bitten by a black mamba would die within 20 minutes. Antivenins are comprised of antibodies (proteins) that bind to the venom and neutralise further damage in the body – they do NOT reverse the effects already suffered via a bite.
So today we do have antivenin, but this is derived from large domestic mammals, which are injected with small amounts of the venom in question. The domestic host then produces antibodies against the venom which are harvested from the blood and purified for use in clinic. This is not ideal for a number of reasons. People receiving antivenin can suffer from side-effects (such as serum sickness). However, when bitten by a highly venomous snake, you don’t get a lot of options.
The “proof of concept” research described in Nature Communications identified key components, including dendrotoxins, in the black mamba’s venom which contribute to venom toxicity. Human antibodies were generated to these dendrotoxins using IONTAS Phage Display Technology and cocktails of IgG-formatted human antibodies were then shown to protect mice from dendrotoxin-mediated neurotoxicity in vivo.
The Climate Lounge
IPCC 1.5˚C report
Tom Di Liberto
The Lounge was buzzing over the last couple of days. A large swarm of bees got in somehow. But once that was taken care of, all of us Climate Loungers dove head first into the latest report released by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change or IPCC on the feasibility of keeping temperature rise to only 1.5˚C and the impacts that would global temperature rise would on the planet.
You know how I’ve been doing some fun, less depressing climate stories in the lounge recently. This is not that. First, the stats, this report was edited by 91 scientists from 40 countries who looked at more than 6000 scientific studies, white papers and policy studies. Note I didn't say blog posts, or media diatribes, or rantings of the unqualified. I said scientific studies.
Specifically, 1.5˚C (2.7˚F) was looked at as a threshold over the more generally considered 2C due to requests from the heads of small island nations over fears of sea level rise wiping out their countries.
If you've heard of the 2C threshold, or anything threshold, it’s important to know that threshold is in quotations, bunny ears. There is no on switch that goes off once you pass that number. Climate change impacts are a spectrum and dont magically get turned on all at once but grow gradually. And recent research has suggested that they are getting worse faster.
We are expected to reach 1.5˚C by 2030 to 2052, And at that global temperature rise many island nations will become uninhabitable due to sea level rise, 70-90% of the worlds coral are dead, Wildfires will increase, poverty will increase. It just sucks. Thats my scientific bottom line. 1.5˚C sucks. Especially for the, you guessed it. The Poor.
What will it take to get there? A reduction in GHG by 45% from 2010 levels (that’s 58% by 2015 levels) by 2030 and100% by 2050. By 2050, coal has to go from almost 40% to 1-7%. Renewable energy will need to increase from 20% to two thirds during the same time. In response, the world coal association said..wait, who gives a shit what they said. Moving on. In sum, let me quote Gain Schmidt of NASA’s Goddard Institute of Space Studies about this report, “The key thing to remember is that it’s clear that the best time to reduce emissions was 25 years ago. But the second best to reduce emissions is right now.”
This transition would involve an investment of $2.4 trillion annually from 2016-2035. Which is a ton more than we currently are spending. But, on the flip side, this report attempted to put a price tag on the effects of climate change, which were $54 trillion from 1.5˚C to $69 trillion from 2˚C and increasing ever after.
But even with that said 1.5˚C is still better than 2˚C. It could reduce the number of people exposed to climate related risk and susceptible to poverty by up to several hundred million by 2050, which is better than 3˚C which is better than 4˚C, which is better than [cue clock music], which is better than… you get the point. But in case you don't, there will ALWAYS be a need to fight climate change and stop our emissions of greenhouse gases, regardless of how much warming happens. So let's have none of this, it's too late business. That’s nonsense. It’d be like taking a test and not knowing the first question, so instead of taking the rest of the test, you just give up and hand it in. A 90% is a lot better than a zero folks.
In conclusion, We are already halfway to 1.5˚C. And we only have roughly 20 years to when we might reach 1.5˚C. That may seem like a lot of time. But it’s not. 20 years ago Saving Private Ryan was released. If that doesn’t seem like a long time, than 2040 isn’t a long time away either.
I’m angry. I’m pissed. And you should be too. I’m angry at our political leaders. I’m angry at the general populace for not caring. I’m angry that I’ve been hearing the same damn thing, roughly, from scientists for decades and yet here we are. But anger isn’t going to do anything. If you’re angry, Vote! Vote for people who don’t have their heads in the sand and actually care about our future. If you’re angry, volunteer! Spend your time with any number of organizations helping those who can’t prepare, adapt. If you're angry, GREAT! Turn that anger into the courage to speak up to anyone who will listen.
And now I will go rage-scream into a paper bag. Be back in a few.
- This past weekend the Hubble Space Telescope was put into “safe mode”. Why?
- On 8 October in Nature Geosciences researchers report that a type of structure called penitentes may be present on the surface of Jupiter’s moon Europa. Describe these structures.
- On 3 October astronomers reported in Science Advances that the Hubble Space Telescope may have spotted a type of object for the first time ever. Hint: it orbits around a planet…but not a planet in our solar system. What is it?
- A spike in the occurrence of the bacterial disease typhus has been reported in the Los Angeles area this year. What animal is the vector?
- Swallowing a vibrating capsule could help relieve what common ailment?
That’s it for the Pub Quiz.
And today’s winner is: Chris!
How did YOU do?
In Next Week’s Episode
In next week’s episode the Blue Streak Science Podcast will be giving endorsements to candidates who will put science into their decision-making.
We’ll tell you who these candidates are and why you should cast your ballot to put them into Congress.
That concludes this episode of the Blue Streak Science Podcast.
If you have any suggestions or comments email us at firstname.lastname@example.org
If you have an iOS device like an iPhone or an iPad you can get the Blue Streak Science app from the App Store.
This show is produced by the Blue Streak Science team, and edited by Pro Podcast Solutions.
Our hosts today were Chris MacAlister, Sophie McManus, and Tom Di Liberto.
I’m JD Goodwin.
Thank you for joining us.
And remember…follow the science!