A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
Cov-Boost trial; SARS-Cov 2 infection in action; sapling guards; why tadpoles are dying
Scientists are now looking at the question of third doses of vaccines against SARS-Cov2, and this week the Cov-Boost trial was launched. It’s being run from University of Southampton and is going to be using seven different vaccines, some at half doses, in people over the age of 30 who were early recipients of their two doses. The Chief Investigator, immunologist Professor Saul Faust explains the aims of the trial.
Once we've breathed the coronavirus into our lungs, how does it spread through our bodies, despite our immune defences? Remarkably, scientists have managed to film the virus in the act of infecting lung cells and spreading between them. They then added some antibodies and watched what happened. Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute tells Gaia Vince what they saw.
The UK government has pledged to plant some 2 billion trees to help get us to net zero – and that’s an awful lot of plastic casing to be littering the countryside with. A team at the Institute of Making at UCL decided to look at the overall environmental impact of these tree protectors. This is quite a complicated calculation as it involves looking at the entire life cycle of the trees and the plastic, including the carbon and water and energy used. Gaia finds out from Charnette Chau, the life cycle assessment expert on the team, and Professor Mark Miodownik what they found.
Across the US, people have been reporting ponds full of dead tadpoles: mass mortality events. It seems that a parasitic infection previously associated with disease in marine oyster populations, may be to blame: severe Perkinsea Infection. The big fear is that it will spread further, to places like Panama in Central America, which has seen such a drastic decline in frog populations that researchers have begun captive breeding some species as “assurance populations” to protect them from extinctions.
Tom Richards, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Oxford, reports on what he discovered when he went to Panama to see if the infection had reached its precious hoppers.
Covid vaccines in children; preventing dengue; algal blooms; supersonic flight
Should we be vaccinating children in the UK against SARS-Cov 2? Children are rarely seriously ill if they catch Covid but infections mean missed school, and they can pass it onto older vulnerable people. The US, Canada, Israel and Dubai are some places that are already vaccinating the under 18s and Pfizer has recently published data from a trial of its mRNA vaccine in just over 2000 12-15 year olds, showing no safety concerns. Gaia Vince discusses the issue with Professor Beate Kampmann, consultant paediatrician and Director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
Dengue fever is a widespread tropical disease caused by a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Until now, there’s also been no way of preventing dengue aside from trying to get rid of mosquitoes, which is pretty tricky. Gaia hears from the World Mosquito Programme’s Dr Katie Anders about some positive news from a large trial in Yogyakarta in Indonesia, where mosquitoes infected with a harmless bacteria called Wollbachia, were deliberately released. The researchers found a 77% drop in cases of dengue in the areas where the infected mosquitoes were released. Hospitalisations were 84% lower.
This week the first attempt to map algal blooms globally has been released, and it also charts how blooms have changed over the last thirty years. And the news isn’t good. Henrik Enevoldsen of the UN who’s based at the University of Copenhagen, has spent thirty years studying these phenomena and he explains how the growth in aquaculture has had an impact on the rise of algal blooms in some parts of the world.
Nearly twenty years after Concorde last flew, a company called Boom is promising to bring back supersonic passenger flights in the next few years. They say it’ll all be environmentally sustainable. The company has sold some new jets to the US airline United. Gaia talks to Dr Guy Gratton, an engineer and pilot at Cranfield University, about how green supersonic flight can be.
Lab origin theory of SARS-Cov2; gene for obesity; dark matter map; rock art in Scotland
Sars Cov2, as the Covid19 coronavirus is called, probably began as the vast majority of new diseases do, when an animal virus infected a person – perhaps in a market or farm. There’s a large animal market in the city of Wuhan that sold wild as well as farmed animals, and studies have shown that different species of animals can infect each other with coronaviruses on their journey to market. But there’s also a possibility that the virus originated in one of two government laboratories in Wuhan. After all, we know that other viruses have escaped from labs, including the original Sars virus, which escaped multiple times from different Asian labs. Jonathan Ball, Professor of Virology at the University of Nottingham, discusses with Gaia Vince why the lab leak theory is again in the news.
We know that obesity runs in families but because parents and children live in the same environment and eat the same food it is difficult to tease out how much of this relationship is inherited genetically. Researchers at Cambridge University have been working with the Children of the 90s cohort of people based in Bristol, and they’ve have found that a mutation in a single gene drives obesity in some families. The gene in question is called MC4R. Professor Stephen O’Rahilly, who is one of the researchers, explains that the mutation is remarkably common and has a significant impact on individuals, from an early age.
Last week, researchers released the biggest and most detailed map of how matter and dark matter have spread across the universe since the Big Bang. The problem, is that the dark matter is more smoothly distributed than expected according to Einstein’s theory. Some are now saying physics is broken. Was Einstein wrong? Astrophysicist Catherine Heymans, who is a Dark Universe expert, and has just been appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the first woman to hold the role, talks about the implications of the new map of dark matter and her plans to encourage the public to appreciate the night sky.
For the first time figurative rock art over 4000 years old has been discovered in Scotland. Up till now all that’s been found have been marks such as cups and rings. The new images are detailed portraits of deer, with antlers, on a capstone of a burial mound, or cairn, in Kilmartin Glen on the west coast. It’s a well-studied archaeological site but the rock art hadn’t been spotted before. Gaia asked Tertia Barnett, Principal Investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland, about who may have produced this art.
Human use of plants beyond the limits of history.
Human impact on planet earth’s plant life might be detectable several thousand years back in fossil pollen cores taken from mud columns around the world. As Suzette Flantua and Ondrej Mottl describe in a paper published in the journal Science, a rapid acceleration in the changes in pollen species goes back further than we might have expected. This matters particularly when it comes to decisions around re-wilding and re-planting areas today in the name of conservation. As they hope to build on in future work, learning more about the state of ecosystems further back into the past might prevent us making the mistake of simply recreating different types of post-agricultural situations which might not solve the problem we are trying to fix.
One of the biggest impacts on the earth’s flora today is of course influenced by our meat consumption. The BBC’s Melanie Abbott has been to see a new exhibition opening at Oxford University’s Musuem of Natural History. Produced in association with the University’s Livestock, Environment and People research programme, this exhibition “Meat the Future”, seeks to raise awareness of the issues for health and the environment around eating – or not eating meat - and is open until January 2022. At the same time, a travelling interactive experience called Meat Your Persona will be moving around the UK, starting in Cardiff. And there's an online interactive questionnaire you can try from home. See the links at the bottom of the BBC Inside Science programme page.
Researchers in the US are working on devices that might be able to connect with people’s brains to allow them to manipulate robotic or digital devices to regain abilities lost to disease or injury. As Dr Frank Willett and Prof Krishna Shenoy - both at Stanford University’s neural prosthetics translational laboratory - describe in the journal Nature, they have managed to create a device that allows one patient to create text using just thought. Rather than trying to guide a cursor over a keyboard, their technique works by learning which letter the patient is thinking of drawing by hand, despite being unable to wield a pen.
And Jacob Dunn, associate professor at Anglia Ruskin University describes his team’s work which finds that tamarin monkeys will use the “accent” of another species when they enter its territory to help them better understand one another and potentially avoid conflict. His paper, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, describes findings in the Amazon rainforest near Manaus where a species that ordinarily use quite distinct long distance calls subtly change their call to sound more like a neighbouring species’ equivalent call when they are sharing the same area of forest. Not so much an aggressive intrusion as a polite lingua franca, it may be that the shared understanding reduces unnecessary and costly territorial fights between the two species.
Presented by Victoria Gill
Produced by Alex Mansfield
Blood Clot Cure, Synthetic Fuels and Coal Mine Heat Pumps
Vic Gill talks to scientists who have cured a vaccine-induced blood clot patient, and meets a former top F1 chief engineer who wants to transform the fuel industry.
Scientists in Vienna have been continuing to look at the rare blood clots associated with the AZ Covid-19 vaccination. Paul Knoebl describes to Vic his paper describing the diagnosis and successful treatment of a patient who developed a fever whilst skiing six days after taking it. Whilst the side effect is still condsidered incredibly rare, Paul tells Vic that a relatively simple cure - after early diagnosis - should remove any lingering hesitancy of taking a vaccine.
The Science Museum reopened this week with a new exhibition looking at the science of Carbon Capture. Inside Science took former Formula One technical champ Paddy Lowe to have a look round. He is interested in Carbon Capture because he has started a new company - Zero Petroleum - that aims to do nothing less than kick start a synthetic (hydrocarbon) fuel revolution.
Using carbon dioxide captured from the atmosphere, he and colleague Prof Nilay Shah believe they can use renewable electricity and other feedstocks to tranform captured carbon into fuels, and create a whole new petrochemical supply that could close the loop on the industrial revolution - especially for those energy uses where batteries could not currently work, such as jet engines and heavy remote machinery.
Meanwhile, up in the north east of England, Charlotte Adams of the UK's Coal Authority describes progress on measures to convert disued Coal mines to geothermal heatpumps, providing reliable steady heating for new-build homes across many parts of the UK, and taking strain off the elictircal grid.
Presenter Victoria Gill
Producer Alex Mansfield
Microplastics in UK river beds
Untreated wastewater "routinely released into UK rivers" is creating microplastic hotspots on riverbeds. That is the conclusion of a study in Greater Manchester, which revealed high concentrations of plastic immediately downstream of treatment works. The team behind the research concluded: untreated wastewater was the key source of river microplastic.
Jamie Woodward takes Vic Gill wading in the River Tame in Greater Manchester to show some of the sites they studied, while co-author Rachel Hurley talks from Norway on the wider global questions of where microplastics get into our environment and what harm they do.
The origin and location of the radioactive pollution that so devastated the lives and livelihoods of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster 35 years ago is not a mystery. But recently it has become apparent that in one small inaccessible room within the massive sarcophagus at the ill-fated power station, the nuclear fission still happening is getting slightly faster.
As Neil Hyatt describes to Vic, the reason may be because the new concrete shell, unlike its predecessor, is doing a better job at keeping the rain out, and nothing to worry about for the time being.
Meanwhile, Jim Smith and colleagues have been trying to demonstrate that agricultural products could help the besieged economy of surrounding areas. Using apples grown in regions where investment is illegal, they have developed a spirit drink - called Atomik - with which they hope to demonstrate a viable market outside of the Ukraine, perhaps providing jobs and export business, and maybe even useful profit with which to help the area.
And finally, Dr Kim Dienes describes from Swansea the health and psychological benefits of something so many hundreds of millions of people in the world have been missing this year: a nice hug.
Presenter: Vic Gill
Producer: Alex Mansfield
Assistant Producer: Samara Linton.
Very enjoyable podcast about latest science news.