51 episodes

Science news and highlights of the week

The Science Hour BBC

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Science news and highlights of the week

    Counting the heat health threat from climate change

    Counting the heat health threat from climate change

    If the world does not curb its greenhouse gas emissions, by the end of this century, the number of people dying annually because of extreme heat will be greater than the current global death toll from infectious diseases - that’s all infectiousness diseases, from malaria to diarrhoeal diseases to HIV. This is the grim assessment of climate researchers and economists of the Climate Impact Lab in the largest global study to date of health and financial impacts of temperature-related deaths. Roland Pease talks to Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley.

    UK ecologists have new insights about how diseases jump the species barrier from wildlife to humans. With a global survey of land use and biodiversity, they’ve discovered that when natural habitats are converted to farmland or urbanised, the animal species that survive the change in greatest number are those species which carry viruses and bacteria with the potential to spread to us. This is particularly the case, says Rory Gibb of the University College London, with disease-carrying rodent species, bats and birds.

    Do past infections by mild cold coronaviruses prepare the immune systems of some people for infection by SARS-CoV-2? Could immune memory T cells made in response to these cold viruses lessen the severity of Covid-19? Alessandro Sette and Daniela Weiskopf of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology lead the team which published the latest contributions to these questions.

    Anglerfish are perhaps the weirdest inhabitants of the deep sea. Their sex lives are particularly strange because finding partners in the dark expanse of the ocean abyss is hard. Females are much bigger than males. When a male finds a female, he latches on her body with his teeth and over a couple of weeks, their flesh fuses so he is permanently attached. Her blood supplies him with all the food and oxygen he needs and he becomes an ever present supply of sperm whenever she produces eggs. But this fusion should be impossible. The female’s immune system should be rejecting her partner like a mismatched organ transplant. German scientists have now discovered that these fish do this by giving up the production of antibodies and immune T cells – essential for fighting infections in all other animals including us. It was a shocking discovery for Prof Thomas Boehm at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg.

    Anyone else had their flight cancelled? The COVID 19 pandemic has had a huge impact on air travel – air traffic in 2020 is expected to be down 50 per cent on last year. But beyond the obvious disruption to business and people’s lives, how might the quieter skies affect our weather and climate?

    One curious listener, Jeroen Wijnands, who lives next to Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, noticed how there were fewer clouds and barely any rainfall since the flights dropped off. Could airplanes affect our local weather?

    Also, did we learn anything from another occasion when airplanes were grounded, during the post-9/11 shutdown? How will the current period impact our future climate?

    Marnie Chesterton investigates this question and discovers some of the surprising effects that grounded aircraft are having: on cloud formation, forecasting and climate change.

    (Image: Relatives of heatstroke victims, their heads covered with wet towels, wait outside a hospital during a heatwave in Karachi. .Credit: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images)

    • 1 hr
    NASA rover heads for Mars ancient lake

    NASA rover heads for Mars ancient lake

    NASA launches its new robotic mission to Mars. The rover, Perseverance, will land in a 50 kilometre wide crater which looks like it was filled by a lake about 4 billion years ago - the time when life on Earth was getting started. Mission scientist Melissa Rice explains why this is one of the most promising places on Mars to continue the search for past life on the red planet.

    Japanese and US scientists have revived microbes that have been buried at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for 100 million years. Sampled from compacted mud 70 metres below the seafloor and beneath 6 kilometre of water, Yuki Morono and Steve D'Hondt admit they struggle to understand how the bacteria have survived for so long.

    Science in Action celebrates the little unknown oceanographer Marie Tharp who in the late 1950s discovered the mid-Atlantic ridge which helped to launch the plate tectonics revolution in earth sciences. It would be Tharp's 100th birthday this week.

    New research this week suggests that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans have been in bats for 40 to 70 years, and that there may be numerous and as yet undetected viruses like the Covid-19 virus in bat populations with the potential to cause future pandemics. Their message is that we should be sampling and testing wild bat colonies much more extensively than currently. Their findings provide further evidence against the unfounded claim that the Covid-19 virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Roland Pease talks to Dr Maciej Boni at Pennsylvania State University.

    Listener Avalon from Australia wants to know why people use conspiracy theories to explain shocking events. Are we more likely to believe conspiracy theories in times of adversity? What purpose do conspiracy theories serve in society?

    Marnie Chesterton speaks to the scientists to explain their popularity, even in the face of seemingly irrefutable evidence.

    (Image: NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: Illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS)

    • 1 hr 2 min
    Making a Covid-19 vaccine for two billion people

    Making a Covid-19 vaccine for two billion people

    There's been encouraging news about the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine this week from a trial involving about 1,000 people. But how great is the challenge in scaling up from making a few thousand doses of the vaccine to manufacturing two billion by the end of this year? Sandy Douglas of Oxford's Jenner Institute explains how they plan to mass-produce the vaccine safely given the speed and magnitude of the scale up.

    A new kind of treatment for Covid-19 may come from an unlikely source: llamas and alpacas, the South American relatives of the camel. Camelids produce unusually small and simple antibodies against viruses, including the coronavirus. This feature may make these molecules an effective Covid-19 therapy. Jane Chambers reports on research in Chile and the UK.

    Also in the programme: what has made just a few mosquito species evolve a preference for biting humans, and the theory that 800 million years ago the Moon and the Earth were bombarded by a shower of asteroids which plunged the Earth into a global ice age - an event which changed the course of the evolution of life.

    These days we're more acquainted with soap than ever before, as we lather up to help stop the spread of coronavirus. And for CrowdScience listener Sharon, this set off a steady stream of soapy questions: how does soap actually work? How was it discovered in the first place, long before anyone knew anything about germs? Are different things used for washing around the world, and are some soaps better than others?

    We set up a CrowdScience home laboratory to explore the soap making process with advice from science-based beauty blogger Dr Michelle Wong, and find out what it is about soap's chemistry that gives it its germ-fighting superpowers. Soap has been around for at least 4000 years; we compare ancient soap making to modern methods, and hear about some of the soap alternatives used around the world, like the soap berries of India.

    And as for the question of whether some soaps are better than others? We discover why antibacterial soaps aren't necessarily a good idea, and why putting a toy inside a bar of soap might be more important than tweaking its ingredients.

    (Image: A team of experts at the University of Oxford are working to develop a vaccine that could prevent people from getting Covid-19. Credit: Press Association)

    • 1 hr 1 min
    How long do Covid-19 antibodies last?

    How long do Covid-19 antibodies last?

    Science in Action looks at some of the latest research on how response of our immune system to infection by the coronavirus. Researchers at Kings College London find that protective antibodies appear to fade away after about three months following infection whereas a team at the Karolinska Institute has discovered that although antibodies may decline, other important players called T cells in our defences do not. Dr’s Katie Doores and Marcus Buggert talk about the implications of these discoveries for the quest for a vaccine against the coronavirus.

    Roland Pease also talks to Dr Barney Graham of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States about the results from the Phase 1 trial of novel type of vaccine against the virus. NIAID have partnered with biotech company Moderna to produce the first mRNA vaccine in the Institute’s pandemic preparedness program.

    Biologist Dr Sonja Wild tells Roland about the remarkable fishing strategy devised by dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia. They chase fish into the empty shell of giant sea snails, then take the shells to the surface and tip the fish into their mouths. Dr Wild’s 7 years of research has revealed how the dolphins have learned to do this.


    Think of the oceans and an empty and peaceful expanse relatively untouched by humankind might come to mind. But is this peace an illusion? CrowdScience listener Dani wants to know if the noise of shipping and other human activity on the oceans is impacting on sea life.

    To find out, Marnie Chesterton takes a deep dive to learn how marine animals have evolved to use sound; from navigating their environments to finding a mate or hiding from prey. She then speaks to a scientist who is using acoustic observatories to track the many ways human activity - like sonar and shipping – can interfere.

    Marnie virtually visits a German lab which tests the ears of beached whales, dolphins and seals from around the world to try and ascertain whether they suffered hearing damage, and what might have caused it. What other smaller creatures are negatively impacted by underwater noise? Marnie learns that acoustic trauma is more widespread than first thought.

    As human life continues to expand along ocean waters, what is being done to reduce the impact of sound? Marnie meets some of the designers at the forefront of naval architecture to see how ship design, from propellers to air bubbles and even wind powered vessels can contribute to reducing the racket in the oceans.


    Main image: Abs COVID-19 antibody - Viral Infection concept. Credit: Getty Images

    • 53 min
    Rwanda’s game changing coronavirus test

    Rwanda’s game changing coronavirus test

    African scientists have developed a reliable, quick and cheap testing method which could be used by worldwide as the basis for mass testing programmes.

    The method, which produces highly accurate results, is built around mathematical algorithms developed at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Kigali. We speak to Neil Turok who founded the institute, Leon Mutesa Professor of human genetics on the government coronavirus task force, and Wilfred Ndifon, the mathematical biologist who devised the algorithm.

    The virus is mutating as it spreads, but what does this mean? There is particular concern over changes to the spike protein, part of the virus needed to enter human cells. Jeremy Luban has been analysing this mechanism. So far he says ongoing genetic changes seem unlikely to impact on the effectiveness of treatments for Covid -19.

    And Heatwaves are increasing, particularly in tropical regions, that’s the finding of a new analysis by climate scientist Sarah Perkins – Kirkpatrick.

    Worms are not the cutest of creatures. They’re slimy, often associated with death and tend to bring on feelings of disgust in many of us. But listener Dinesh thinks they’re underrated and wants to know whether earthworms could be the key to our planet’s future agricultural success? He’s an organic farmer in India’s Tamil Nadu province who grows these annelids to add to the soil, and he wants Crowdscience to find out exactly what they’re doing.

    Anand Jagatia dons his gardening gloves and digs the dirt on these remarkable creatures, discovering how they can help improve soil quality, prevent fields from becoming waterlogged, and improve microbial numbers, all of which has the potential to increase crop yield.

    But he also investigates the so-called ‘earthworm dilemma’ and the idea that in some parts of the world, boreal forest worms are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, which could have dangerous consequences for climate change.

    Main image: People stand in white circles drawn on the ground to adhere to social distancing in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 4, 2020, Photo by Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP via Getty Images

    • 1 hr 8 min
    Covid-19 and children

    Covid-19 and children

    Studies in children who have been severely affected by Covid-19 in Italy, Britain and the US are showing the same thing – a range of symptoms linked to an overactive immune system. Elizabeth Whittaker from London’s Imperial College discusses the similarities in these cases and possible reasons for this syndrome with Shanna Kowalsky from Mount Sinai hospital in New York.

    How much should drugs for Covid-19 cost? Remdesivir, which has shown promise against the virus, has been priced at over $2000 for a course of treatment, but drug price analyst Andrew Hill says the cost of production is actually below $10.

    And how about some really alternative energy? Marion Cromb at Glasgow University has run an experiment to simulate a spinning black hole. In theory, a rocket sent to an equivalent real black hole could use its rotation as a power source.

    Shoes are a surprisingly recent human invention. But running isn’t. That means for most of our time on the planet, we’ve run barefoot. Today, in most countries, it’s rare to see people out in public without shoes, let alone running. But might our aversion to the free foot be causing us pain?

    CrowdScience mega-fan Hnin is an experienced runner - she enjoys ultra-marathons back home in Australia. But about six months ago she developed extreme foot pain, the condition Plantar Fasciitis, and this meant she had to stop doing what she loves. She reached out to CrowdScience presenter Chhavi Sachdev, to find out if barefoot running could reduce her pain and improve her performance. Simply put, is barefoot running better?

    In an attempt to find Hnin some answers, Chhavi hits the ground… running. Literally throwing off her own shoes on the streets of her home city of Mumbai, India, to see how feeling the ground can change her whole gait. And with Prof. Dan Lieberman, Chhavi learns what sets the human runner apart from other species, while uncovering the strange form our feet have. She speaks with Dr Peter Francis, a researcher whose life’s work has focused on curing the pain in his own feet and learning how to help others.

    But performance is also important for runners. Biomechanics and shoe expert Dr Sharon Dixon explains how modifications to the sports-shoe are helping marathon runners set records, and blade-running athlete Kiran Kanojia shows Chhavi how the technology behind her two prosthetic legs let her emulate either natural walking or natural running.

    (Image: Getty Images)

    • 1 hr 3 min

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