Science news and highlights of the week
Waste not, want not
Although vaccines will go a long way to reducing the number of cases of Covid, there’s still a need for other approaches. One of these could be an engineered biomolecule, designed by virologists Anne Moscona and Matteo Porotto, that blocks SARS-CoV-2 precisely at the moment it tries to enter cells in the nose and upper airways. Roland Pease talks to Anne Moscona about this “molecular mask”.
We’re already beginning to see really encouraging analyses showing that Covid vaccines are performing as well in the real world as was promised by last year’s trials. Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology discusses progress so far and the question of one dose or two with Roland.
Lives can be saved if there’s an early warning system for earthquakes and tsunamis. Seismologist Zhongwen Zhan at CalTech has been experimenting with a newly installed 10,000 km cable laid along the Pacific coasts of north and south America by Google, all the way from Los Angeles to Santiago. What he was looking for were subtle changes in a property of light that’s important to IT engineers, and can detect subsea earthquakes.
We are still sending too much waste to landfill sites. At the Commonwealth Science Conference this week Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales explained how she is creating small scale factories that can use discarded objects such as ceramics and textiles to make new products.
Listener Paula from Kenya is a computer scientist, she can’t help but notice the inequality in her workplace.
With only 1 in 10 countries having female heads of state, there is no doubt that men are in charge.
Paula wants to know if there is any scientific underpinning to this inequality? Perhaps it can be explained by our brains and bodies? Or does evolution weigh in?
Or maybe it is all down to society and the way we raise our boys and girls. The toys and ideals we give our children must surely have an impact.
And most importantly, if we want a world run by men and women equally, how can we get there? We hear how Iceland became the most gender equal country in the world.
Presented by Marnie Chesterton. Produced by Caroline Steel for the BBC World Service
(Image: Getty Images)
A paper in the BMJ shows that deaths from Covid 9 are being massively overlooked in Zambia. The new data come from post-mortem tests at the University Hospital mortuary in Lusaka, showing that at least 1 in 6 deaths there are due to the coronavirus; many of the victims had also been suffering from tuberculosis. Chris Gill of Boston University’s Department of Global Health, and Lawrence Mwananyanda, chief scientific officer of Right to Care, Zambia, discuss their findings with Roland Pease.
New variants of concern continue to be reported, such as the one labelled B 1 1 7 in the UK, or B 1 351 identified in South Africa. Geneticist Emma Hodcroft, of the University of Bern, talks about seven variants that have been found in the US. Although all these variants are evolving from different starting points, certain individual mutations keep recurring – which suggests they have specific advantages for the virus.
Her co-author Jeremy Kamil, of Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, explains how he can watch the viruses replicating inside cells.
Much of the United States, as far south as Texas, and Eurasia, has been gripped by an extraordinary blast of Arctic weather. Roland hears from climatalogist Jennifer Francis, of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, about the Arctic’s role in this weird weather.
Life, in the form of sponges, has been discovered hundreds of metres under the thick ice surrounding Antarctica, where it’s dark, subzero and barren. The British Antarctic Survey’s Huw Griffiths reveals how it was spotted unexpectedly in pictures colleagues took with a sub-glacial camera.
It’s the stuff of fairy tales – a beautiful cottage, with windows, chimney and floorboards … and supported by a living growing tree. CrowdScience listener Jack wants to know why living houses aren’t a common sight when they could contribute to leafier cities with cleaner air. The UK has an impressive collection of treehouses, but they remain in the realm of novelty, for good reasons. Architects are used to materials like concrete and steel changing over time, but a house built around a living tree needs another level of flexibility in its design. That doesn’t mean it’s impossible and CrowdScience hears about a project in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where architect Ahadu Abaineh made a three-storey, supported by 4 living Eucalyptus trees as a natural foundation.
Host Marnie Chesterton meets some of the global treehouse building fraternity, including builder of over 200 structures, Takashi Kobayashi, who adapts his houses to the Japanese weather. In Oregon, USA, Michael Garnier has built an entire village of treehouses for his “Treesort”. He’s developed better ways of building , including the Tree Attachment Bolt, which holds the weight of the house while minimising damage to the tree.
Professor Mitchell Joachim from Terreform One explains the wild potential of living architecture, a movement which looks at organic ways of building. He’s currently building a prototype living house, by shaping willow saplings onto a scaffold that will become a home, built of live trees.
(Image: A man walks to his friend's home in a neighbourhood without electricity as snow covers the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S. Credit: Reuters)
Perseverance approaches Mars
On 18th February the Perseverance rover should land on Mars. Katie Stack-Morgan of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab tells Roland Pease about the technological advances that mean that the spacecraft should be able to land in Jezero Crater. Imperial College geologist Sanjeev Gupta discusses what this crater can reveal about the history of life on the red planet.
After months of negotiations, and weeks of work on the ground, a team brought together by the World Health Organisation has just concluded its first attempts to find out the origins of SARS-Cov2 in Wuhan. Peter Daszak, who has worked closely with Chinese virologists in the past, briefed Roland Pease on what had been discovered.
The South African government has announced that it will not be rolling out the Astra Zeneca Covid vaccine as it appears it is not very effective against the dominant strain in the country. Helen Rees, of Witwatersrand University and a member of South Africa’s Health Products Regulatory Authority, explains that the ‘ban’ is an overstatement.
At least 35 people died in a flood disaster in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India on February 6th. The details are still unclear, but the trigger seems to be associated with a glacier overhanging an upstream lake in the steep valley. Rupert Stuart-Smith of Oxford University, who has just published an analysis of a glacier melting disaster in waiting in the Andes, talks about the impacts of climate change on the stability of mountain glaciers.
And Do you find your bearings quickly or are you easily disorientated? Do your friends trust you with the directions in a new city?
Finding our way in the physical world – whether that’s around a building or a city - is an important everyday capability, one that has been integral to human survival. This week CrowdScience listeners want to know whether some people are ‘naturally’ better at navigating, so presenter Marnie Chesterton sets her compass and journeys into the human brain.
Accompanied by psychologists and neuroscientists Marnie learns how humans perceive their environment, recall routes and orientate themselves in unfamiliar spaces. We ask are some navigational strategies better than others?
Marnie also hears that the country you live in might be a good predictor of your navigation skills and how growing up in the countryside may give you an wayfaring advantage. But is our navigational ability down to biology or experience, and can we improve it?
With much of our modern map use being delegated to smartphones, Marnie explores what implications an over-reliance on GPS technology might have for our brain health.
(Image: An illustration of NASA’s Perseverance rover landing on Mars.
Presenter: Roland Pease
Producer: Deborah Cohen
Mixing Covid vaccines
A new trial is about to start in the UK, seeing if different vaccines can be mixed and matched in a two-dose schedule, and whether the timing matters. Governments want to know the answer as vaccines are in short supply. Oxford University’s Matthew Snape takes Roland Pease through the thinking.
Despite the numbers of vaccines being approved for use we still need treatments for Covid-19. A team at the University of North Carolina is upgrading the kind of manufactured antibodies that have been used to treat patients during the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies. Lisa Gralinski explains how they are designing souped-up antibodies that’ll neutralise not just SARS-CoV-2, but a whole range of coronaviruses.
Before global warming, the big ecological worry that exercised environmentalists was acid rain. We’d routinely see pictures of forests across the world dying because of the acid soaking they’d had poisoning the soil. In a way, this has been one of environmental activism’s success stories. The culprit was sulphur in coal and in forecourt fuels – which could be removed, with immediate effect on air quality. But biogeochemist Tobias Goldhammer of the Leibniz Institute in Berlin and colleagues have found that sulphur, from other sources, is still polluting water courses.
There’s been debate over when and where dogs became man’s best friend. Geoff Marsh reports on new research from archaeology and genetics that puts the time at around 20,000 years ago and the place as Siberia.
Could being happier help us fight infectious disease?
As the world embarks on a mass vaccination programme to protect populations from Covid-19, Crowdscience asks whether our mood has any impact on our immune systems. In other words, could being happier help us fight infectious diseases? Marnie Chesterton explores how our mental wellbeing can impact our physical health and hears that stress and anxiety make it harder for our natural defence systems to kick in – a field known as psychoneuroimmunology. Professor Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham explains flu jabs are less successful in patients with chronic stress.
So scientists are coming up with non-pharmacological ways to improve vaccine efficiency. We investigate the idea that watching a short feel-good video before receiving the inoculation could lead to increased production of antibodies to a virus. And talk to Professor Richard Davidson who says mindfulness reduces stress and makes vaccines more effective.
Saving the Northern White Rhino
Northern white rhinos are extinct in the wild and there are just two females in captivity in Kenya. Conservationists are working on an artificial breeding programme, using eggs from the females and sperm from a deceased male. Now five embryos have been created. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin explained the research.
President Biden’s first executive order was what’s being called the hundred-day mask mandate. The day before the inauguration a massive analysis of mask-wearing and COVID rates demonstrated a clear, if small, benefit. Epidemiologist Ben Rader told Roland Pease that it got over 300,000 opinions by using the online questionnaire, SurveyMonkey.
After the alarming series of record-breaking heatwaves last year, global warming is causing specific problems in the innumerable lakes around the world. Lakes are ecologically particularly vulnerable to extremes. The European Space Agency’s Yestyn Woolway has been analysing past trends, and modelling the future.
2020 delivered a record year in hurricanes, which caused around $60 billion dollars in damage to the US alone, according to one estimate. A new technology called Airborne Phased-Array Radar promises to improve the measurements that are currently made by planes that fly right into the eye of the hurricanes, and make the missions safe. It’s being developed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research and Roland discussed the new technology with the Director of NCAR, Vanda Grubišić.
And Covid-19 has prompted a cleaning frenzy. CrowdScience listener William works as a personal trainer in a gym, and while cleaning’s always been part of his job, it’s now taken over much of his working day. He’s constantly wiping down equipment and doing regular deep cleans, and he reckons he can sanitize his hands 40 times in one shift.
This kind of routine might strike a chord with many of us, and it’s certainly vital to take hygiene seriously during times of pandemic.
But could there be any downsides to all this extra cleaning? There’s a whole world of microbes out there: some, like SARS-CoV-2, make us sick, but others are essential for our health. A rich microbiome is linked to a healthy immune system, while ‘good’ microbes help keep ‘bad’ ones at bay. And what about the chemicals in cleaning products – do they have any unintended consequences for our health?
CrowdScience turns to the experts to ask whether our supercharged hygiene routines could damage our immune systems, or promote the spread of superbugs. And we hear why, as long as we have a good diet, plenty of fresh air, and ideally a furry pet, we don’t need to worry too much about being too clean.
(Image; Najin and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos graze in their paddock. Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)
Gravitational waves and black holes
After collecting data for more than twelve years the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) announced it may have detected new kinds of gravitational waves caused by colliding supermassive black holes. Professor Chiara Mingarelli of the University of Connecticut tells Roland Pease why this is such an exciting discovery.
Supermassive black holes are at the heart of galaxies and they are the engines of quasars, the brightest light sources in the heavens that can be seen across the expanse of the Universe. A team including Professor Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona has identified the oldest quasar in the universe.
The SARS-CoV-2 virus looks much like bat coronaviruses, but the mostly likely route into humans involved some other infected animal. Roland talks to Dr Dalan Bailey of The Pirbright Institute about how he has been looking for possible intermediaries.
A new study that looks into the genetics of twins and their families in Iceland shows that identical twins aren’t really identical. Kari Stefansson of the Icelandic genome company, DeCode, explains that the differences can appear when the twins are at the embryonic stage.
And , When it comes to speed, humans have got nothing on cheetahs - or greyhounds, kangaroos or zebras for that matter. It’s over long distances we really come into our own: when running for hours or even days, our body structure and excellent sweating skills make us able to outpace much faster mammals.
But what are the limits of human endurance? Can we run ever further and faster, and what’s the best diet to fuel such ambitions?
This week’s questions come from two CrowdScience listeners in Japan who already know a fair bit about stamina, having run several marathons and long-distance triathlons between them. We head to Greece, legendary birthplace of the marathon, to witness an even more arduous challenge: hundreds of athletes following in the footsteps of the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, to run an astonishing 246km across the country. The ever-so-slightly less fit CrowdScience team do our best to keep up, and try to discover the secrets of these runners’ incredible endurance.
(Image: Representative illustration of the Earth embedded in space-time which is deformed by the background gravitational waves and its effects on radio signals coming from observed pulsars.
Credit: Tonia Klein / NANOGrav)
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