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Watching it Burn: Soil Microbes vs. Wildfires

Posted 5 May 2014 by Stephanie Swift

Wildfires can devastate ecosystems across the world. In 2012, over 67,000 wildfires raced across more than 9 million acres of land in the US alone. Fuelled by wind and parched vegetation, wildfires burn through everything in their path: plants don’t stand a chance, and even mobile animals struggle to outpace the flames. But what impact do wildfires have on the beasties that live deep down in the soil? For example, soil-dwelling microbes, like bacteria? These incredibly important organisms help ecosystems... Read more

More evidence that red wine and aspirin protect against cancer

Posted 14 February 2014 by Stephanie Swift

Cancer is a disease of genes. DNA mutations mess with the genetic content of a cell, enabling it to escape the normal controls that restrict their growth. Now, a team of scientists led by Delphine Lissa and Guido Kroemer at the French Institute of Health and Medical Research in Paris have begun exploring ways to slow or stop the formation of cells containing multiple copies of chromosomes, which they think are an essential intermediate in cancer formation. Normal healthy cells... Read more

Where in the body do our emotions lie?

Posted 17 January 2014 by Stephanie Swift

Emotions are strange things, bursting over us as we react to life’s joys and challenges. While they might be thought of as ethereal entities with no fixed form or function, emotions actually produce very tangible physical reactions throughout the body. These emotionally-driven physical reactions are important for surviving in the real world. For example, fear generates a helpful physical response that prepares your body to fight or flee. But we don’t really know if an emotion can fuel a reaction... Read more

A Marvellous Month of Science

Posted 3 December 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Fungal extracts prevent hepatitis C virus infection Hepatitis C virus (HCV) is a huge cause of liver cancer, but current treatments are very expensive and not that great. Since HCV is a cunning little virus capable of quickly evolving drug resistance, simultaneously attacking it at several key points during its life cycle has the best chance of resolving infection. Researchers in Japan have now created and screened a library of 300 natural drugs isolated from fungi found on seaweed, mosses... Read more

Chilly temperatures help cancers grow

Posted 19 November 2013 by Stephanie Swift

At low temperatures, the human body has a hard time. As the cold sets in, blood vessels constrict to maintain heat and some body parts – like fingers and toes – begin to suffer. Metabolism ramps up to fight the cold and shivering sets in. As these conditions continue, everything becomes sluggish as the cells of your body do not work as well. The body enters a state of thermal stress and only the most vital systems, like the brain,... Read more

Pumping out Petrol with Bioengineered Bugs

Posted 1 November 2013 by Stephanie Swift

One of the terribly tricky questions in this ol’ world of ours is how to sustain a species that likes to extract toxic crude oil from the ground and use it in a way that’s disturbingly damaging to the environment they inhabit. But imagine how much closer we would be to a renewable energy eutopia if instead of sucking fossil fuel out of the earth, there was an alternative way to satisfy our hunger for fuel. Enter: microbes. We’ve already... Read more

“Grape-like aromas” keep mosquitoes at bay

Posted 18 October 2013 by Stephanie Swift

The mosquito is my dad's nemesis in the insect world. He will go to extraordinary lengths to secure his person from mosquito attack, roaming the corridors on night patrols and jamming mosquito repellent devices into every possible plug socket. Such devices are usually based on the chemical, N, N-diethyl-meta-toluamide, or DEET. The problem with DEET is it’s expensive, it has nasty effects on our own skin and mosquitos are evolving resistance to it. But replacing DEET has proven a tricky... Read more

A Marvellous Month of Infectious Science

Posted 4 October 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Cold weather helps to spread flu across the country A very cool new study from McMaster University researchers shows how weather patterns impact the spread of influenza A virus across Canada. Using outbreak data gathered over more than 13 years, the virus could be tracked over time and space. Influenza A tended to first emerge in the colder, less humid provinces of Western Canada (British Columbia and Alberta), and then spread across the country to the East. Schools also represented... Read more

How to: boost resistance to tuberculosis

Posted 4 October 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Most kiddies receive the very effective Bacille Calmette-Guérin (BCG) vaccine against tuberculosis during childhood, but as they grow up, the protection afforded by this vaccine wanes. Since cases of adult TB are on the rise, receiving an immune upgrade would be a great benefit to boost immune protection. One team of researchers at McMaster University, led by Professor Zhou Xing, have now developed a new booster vaccine based on adenovirus, which causes the common cold. In 26 healthy adults, they... Read more

The fairly depressing picture of pesticide pollution in British rivers

Posted 6 September 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Lots of pesticides – such as the organochlorine insecticide, DDT – that were widely used in the fairly recent past are now banned after having serious effects on the health of humans and other species. Yet old and new pollution of rivers and streams is still an issue across Europe, since waste water treatment practises don’t remove potentially harmful substances like pesticides, toxins, synthetic hormones and pharmaceutical drugs. One team of researchers wanted to assess the levels of contaminants and... Read more

Magnificently Mathematical Mussels

Posted 26 August 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Despite the ease with which mussels can be cooked and eaten with chips, harvesting these tiny shelled bivalves from the seashore requires a certain amount of industrious prising. That’s because mussels use multiple thin byssus threads to securely fasten themselves to different surfaces along the coastline. These threads have a sticky plug at one end, with the mussel’s body dangling off the other (shown below). Scientists have found it difficult to explain how mussels tolerate the forces generated by constantly... Read more

Particle accelerators: making life better since 1932

Posted 8 August 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Atoms form the building blocks of everything that exists in the world, holding chairs, rocks, water and our bodies together in strong, stable structures. But atoms themselves are made up of lots of composite parts, called sub-atomic particles. Such particles exist in high energy states, and we can find out much more about them using huge particle accelerators, like the Large Hadron Collider. In these machines, atoms are smashed together to leave behind a big pile of sub-atomic debris. This... Read more

A Marvellous Month of Science

Posted 31 July 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Taking vitamin supplements might not be as healthy as you think Credit: cc stevendepoloAntioxidant vitamins, like vitamin C and E, are thought to boost health by reducing the creation of DNA-damaging free radicals that can contribute to the ageing process. In lab mice, there is some suggestion that vitamin supplements can extend lifespan, but since laboratory-bred mice are genetic clones, such studies may bear little relevance to a hugely genetically diverse human population. Giving wild animals, such as the short-tailed... Read more

Clouds of decoy viruses help cure genetic disease

Posted 18 July 2013 by Stephanie Swift

The presence of foreign objects, like viruses, in our bloodstream is usually a bad thing. Evolution has created some extremely efficient immune cells that patrol the blood, seeking out material that should not be there, and shutting it down. Sometimes, though, viruses circulate in the blood for beneficial purposes. Gene therapies often deliver viruses as couriers to deliver new DNA to repair faulty cells. Getting viruses into the bloodstream is simple, but keeping them “active” during their time inside the... Read more

MESSENGER spacecraft helps uncover Mercury’s pummelled past

Posted 7 July 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Credit: NASA / JHU Applied Physics Lab / Carnegie Inst. Washington In our solar system, Mercury is the teeniest planet, and nestles closest to the sun. Understanding how Mercury developed as the solar system formed is an intriguing question for space science, and a surprising amount of information can be uncovered by analysing the topographical atlas of Mercury's surface. The Mariner 10 spacecraft, which launched in 1973, sent back photographs of just under half of Mercury's surface. Now, American researchers... Read more

A huge variety of fungi call your feet home

Posted 28 June 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Credit: Alex Valm, NHGRI Human skin is a hardy, water-resistant covering that keeps important biological stuff from falling out of the body. It's also a camping ground for millions of bacteria (picked out in magenta, above), fungi (seen in blue-green, above) and yeast that mostly hang out minding their own business and getting on with their lives. Sometimes, though, in particularly warm and moist areas, they grow a bit overexuberantly and cause problems. Athlete's foot and toenail infections are two... Read more

Vaccine delivers an immune double whammy to fight tuberculosis

Posted 19 June 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Vaccination is a hugely important public health intervention, perhaps the biggest in the history of mankind. While many childhood diseases are now effectively controlled by immunisation programs (as long as parents vaccinate their kids), there is still no effective vaccine for other serious infections like adult tuberculosis (TB). Most adult TB vaccines under development focus on boosting the "adaptive" immune response to generate highly activated immune cells to fight off M. tuberculosis bacteria. New research has now revealed that it's... Read more

Turning insect viruses into cancer therapies

Posted 7 June 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Gene therapy is a pretty promising approach for lots of different diseases, and has already overcome a huge hurdle with the approval of the very first gene therapy product, Glybera, by the European Commission in 2012. At its core, gene therapy uses a delivery vehicle to deposit a chunk of DNA in particular cells of the body. That courier is often a virus that has evolved to penetrate cells incredibly efficiently, and its genetic payload can be designed to normalise... Read more

Fish parasite inspires sticky surgical tissue patch

Posted 3 June 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Surgeons still find it tricky to quickly and reliably stick a wet, slippery organ back together during invasive procedures. The currently available selection of 'stick-you-together' products - staples and chemical glues - do a decent job, but make a bit of a mess of nearby nerves and blood vessels, and often cause swelling, itching, scarring and, sometimes, infection. Yet lots of parasitic organisms have evolved excellent ways of entering - and sticking to - their host. The freshwater fish parasite,... Read more

It’s great to be a woman scientist; it’s challenging to be a woman scientist

Posted 22 May 2013 by Stephanie Swift

I recently volunteered to help organise an event run by the Canadian Science Policy Centre that looked at the status of women in science and technology. To be frank, I was mightily fearful about participating in such an event. I had the idea that it would quickly degenerate into a depressing evening of man-bashing. Yet, as it turned out, it was actually a wonderfully empowering, evidence-based look at women working in STEM fields (or maybe I just thought so because... Read more

How to survive the bacterial antibiotic revolution

Posted 13 May 2013 by Stephanie Swift

These days, we have a pretty serious problem when it comes to our ability to kill resistant bacteria causing serious illness. People petition governments to urge action, while drug companies lament over how those pesky bacteria evolved to defeat their beautiful antibiotics - and their projected profit margins. Yet, it's not all bad. There are a few little ways that us humans can fortify our bodies with a sturdy shield against nasty bugs. Nurture good bacteria Keeping your good bacteria,... Read more

The Science of Guns and Violence in America

Posted 26 April 2013 by Stephanie Swift

I read a Nature News article recently about gun control in the USA that horrified me so much that I now have to write a bit about this horrifying topic myself. It goes without saying that there is a huge problem in America that stems from people who should never have access to guns being able to get access to guns. In many states, people with criminal records can get a gun. People with mental health issues can get a... Read more

Stem Cells Wanted: Alive Not Dead

Posted 15 April 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Stem cell therapies are taking off, in a surprisingly unregulated way. While most humans have to go to places like South Korea to receive them, horses, dogs, cats, pigs and tigers are already being treated in North America. The most overzealous stem cell companies bluster about their currently unlicensed ability to beat down cancer, diabetes, blindness and a whole raft of other diseases, a stretch given the paucity of clinical data available, yet such therapies are nevertheless generating a new... Read more

Eating too much salt sends immune system haywire

Posted 3 April 2013 by Stephanie Swift

When it comes to knowing whether eating too much salt is a bad thing, there is a surprising lack of "verified-by-science" information available*. A certain level of salt, or sodium chloride, is a biological necessity that keeps muscles pumping and nerves firing off electronic signals. Yet lots of studies have suggested that high levels of dietary salt could contribute to problems with blood pressure and heart disease, which is why the CDC (and probably your mum) tells you to reduce... Read more

The Evolution of the Impenetrable American Bedbug

Posted 26 March 2013 by Stephanie Swift

B0008039 Bedbug (Cimex lectularius)

Most of us are quite content to share our beds with a partner or a kitty, but are less inclined to extend the same warm welcome to the common bedbug, Cimex lectularius. These parasitic insects, which feed exclusively on blood, have undergone a population explosion since the mid-1990's, with infestations recently hitting the headlines all over the globe. Buildings full of warm and cosy human nests, such as blocks of flats and hotels, are enticing bedbug havens. Although pesticide sprays... Read more

Converting weeds into flowers: artificial stem cells create a blood supply for bioengineered organs

Posted 19 March 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Regenerating the human body by growing whole new organs or patching up damaged ones from just a few cells scraped from your own tissues is a fascinating area of science known as bioengineering. Every living cell in such an organ is sustained by the blood, which supplies food and gases and flows through a conduit network of hollow vessels. Successful organ bioengineering relies on establishing such a system of blood flow capable of reaching and supporting the energy demands of... Read more

Ivory DNA sequencing tracks elephant poaching hotspots

Posted 6 March 2013 by Stephanie Swift

The illicit trade in elephant ivory has been a ridiculous problem since the 1980's, when Asian and African elephants were decimated to such a level that they made it onto Appendix One ("most endangered species") of CITES. While all trade in their ivory was banned in 1989, poaching is still a huge issue, especially in the dense forests of Africa that camouflage a multitude of illegal activities. Large seizures of black market ivory have been made over the years, but... Read more

Supporting Miss. Muffet in the sixth millenium BC

Posted 25 February 2013 by Stephanie Swift

I love cheese. Oh, how I do. Hard cheese, soft cheese, hole-y cheese, crumbly cheese, squidgy cheese - all of them will find a warm and welcoming home in my mouth. While deliciousness alone seals the place of cheese at my table, historically, converting milk into a processed dairy product like cheese had a lot of benefits. Cheese kept a lot longer without going off (a big deal when you didn't have any way to keep food cool and fresh),... Read more

Semi-retired cells repair our damaged hearts

Posted 19 February 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Repairing or replacing damaged cells keeps our organs in tip top working condition. For a long time, we thought that only the incredibly rare stem cells in adult organs were able to create brand new cells to replace injured ones and fix damaged areas. Yet some tissues definitely don't conform to this autocratic model: following liver damage, for example, mature hepatocyte cells that normally exist in a semi-retired state re-engage their cell cycle and undergo a huge amount of cellular... Read more

Antibiotics hit your gut microbes hard

Posted 11 February 2013 by Stephanie Swift

These days, most doctor's are acutely aware of the problems of overprescribing antibiotics. Historically given as more of a placatory gesture - 'I have to prescribe something, else this patient will think I'm an incompetent buffoon' - their overuse almost single-handedly drove the rapid development of antibiotic-resistant bacteria, like MRSA. Yet we're becoming more and more aware that antibiotics don't only drive huge reactive changes in the bugs that we're trying to kill, but also in our own bodies. Because... Read more

24 hours in the life of HIV

Posted 4 February 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, only emerged in humans relatively recently, yet already represents a big public health threat. When HIV enters the human body, often through sexual contact or the sharing of needles between drug users, it shows a remarkably focussed preference for infecting a certain population of immune cells, known as CD4+ T cells. Since these cells usually play a major role in vanquishing a viral foe, this is the perfect spot for HIV to hide out, since... Read more

The journey to parasite egg paradise

Posted 24 January 2013 by Stephanie Swift

The parasite, Schistosoma mansoni, is a remarkably cunning and efficient worm. It spends the first part of its life infecting freshwater snails, where it vigorously multiplies to bulk up numbers. This parasite army then marches out of the snail and into the river, encounters an unsuspecting human, latches on to their skin and burrows its way inside, more often than not through a hair follicle. Schistosomes infect more than 200 million people a year, in many parts of the world,... Read more

What makes the smallpox vaccine so great?

Posted 17 January 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Perhaps one of the most incredibly effective vaccines ever used, against smallpox, has completely eradicated a terribly nasty human disease. Yet the way in which vaccinia virus, the live poxvirus contained in the smallpox vaccine, actually orchestrates a protective immune response is still mostly unknown. The live virus component is a major reason why the smallpox vaccine is so good - instead of having some crusty bit of dried up dead protein in there, there is a real virus that... Read more

Sexy times don’t help induce labour in late pregnancies

Posted 11 January 2013 by Stephanie Swift

Even though I've never been pregnant, I've lived in the world long enough to have absorbed random nuggets of wild information, like there are lots of ways to try and bring on labour in women at the end of their pregnancies - eating tinned pineapple or really spicy curries being among the more popular. Most of these theories are passed on as old wives tales, and haven't really been rigorously tested by science. Then again, when you're 37 weeks into... Read more

Colonised livestock transmit MRSA to farmers

Posted 4 January 2013 by Stephanie Swift

These days, most people are aware of the increasing development of antibiotic resistance in bacteria that cause human disease, which is at least partially driven by the overprescription of antibiotics. Even our most robust antibiotics, active against a wide range of bacterial species, are not up to the task of controlling certain infections, making the push to develop new ones - or antibiotic alternatives - particularly compelling. One exceptionally well-publicised antibiotic-insensitive bacteria is the methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus (MRSA), which spreads... Read more

Zinc takes the sting out of jellyfish venom

Posted 27 December 2012 by Stephanie Swift

For me, there are three extremely good reasons never to go to Australia - huge furry-bodied poisonous spiders, venomous lightning fast snakes and sharks with great mouthfuls of serrated teeth. After reading a recent article, I am now happy to add a fourth to the list: the Australian box jellyfish. Your average run-of-the-mill jellyfish sting is definitely an unwelcome arrival, delivering a sharp, searing pain and leaving your skin all red and puckered, but it doesn't usually require medical intervention.... Read more

British Sheep vs. Chernobyl Radiation

Posted 18 December 2012 by Stephanie Swift

The explosion of reactor number four of the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in 1986 is widely regarded as the worst radiation disaster in human history. The radioactive fallout spread from Northern Ukraine throughout Northern Europe, dispersing large quantities of radioactive elements, including two caesium isotopes, Cs-134 and Cs-137. In the United Kingdom, this radiocaesium-laden cloud mingled with heavy rain falling in mountainous areas of North Wales and Cumbria, depositing substantial quantities of radioisotopes in uplands areas and introducing radioactivity into... Read more

The science behind FIFA’s footballs

Posted 16 June 2014 by Stephanie Swift

Lovers and haters of the World Cup alike can’t fail to be amazed by the skills of some professional footballers. Like David Beckham or Cristiano Ronaldo. But while some footballers have been blessed by biology, it’s not just the combined genetic talent of a player or a team that leads to a stunning win or a sorry loss. According to scientists at the University of Tsukuba in Japan, the aerodynamic performance of a football can introduce a skill set all... Read more

Swimming with Viruses

Posted 21 April 2014 by Stephanie Swift

You can find viruses everywhere: in the soil, in the clouds and in animals. According to scientists from the University of Oldenburg in Germany, there are also a ridiculous number of viruses buried at sea, in the sediments of the oceans. These sedimentary viruses don’t lie dormant on the seabed, but actively replicate down in the fathoms, even in the gyres of the ocean where most forms of life can’t be sustained since organic carbon is a scarce commodity. By... Read more

Bright Night Lights: Tracking Light Pollution from Space

Posted 3 February 2014 by Stephanie Swift

The creep and sprawl of artificial urban lighting is probably the most pervasive technological innovation of the 20th century. Keeping track of how artificial light is changing Europe’s nightscape is important, since more light is typically associated with greater economic development and urban expansion, but moderating light consumption helps to stabilise the ecosystem and energy security. Scientists have recently used satellite night images going back as far as 1992 (publicly available from the Defense Meterological Satellite Program databank) to analyse... Read more

Antibiotics release death sugars that help bad bugs to grow

Posted 23 December 2013 by Stephanie Swift

In the 1940’s, antibiotics were hailed as wonder drugs. “Syphilis is now curable!”, ran the posters. Yet in modern times, several dark sides of these drugs have come to light. The widespread overuse of antibiotic therapy has driven the emergence of superstrong bacteria, like MRSA, that resist the activity of conventional antibiotics. Antibiotic therapy is also troubled by the problematic core concept that it lacks specificity, and wipes out good and bad bugs alike. This is particularly worrying as we... Read more

Creepy crawly centipedes are a source of new high-strength painkillers

Posted 8 November 2013 by Stephanie Swift

I'm dreading the day I get knocked up, since I know that my incredibly low pain threshold will have trouble dealing with the crazy horror that is childbirth. That’s why I was overjoyed to hear of some new research from Australia, where a new high-strength painkiller has been isolated from the venom of the Chinese red-headed centipede, Scolopendra subspinipes mutilans. In the insect world, centipedes are king of the hill – their venom is debilitating to their prey, helping them... Read more