Science news and highlights of the week
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.
New Covid vaccine
Researchers at Imperial College have been working on a strategy that can make RNA vaccines stretch further. Anna Blakely explains how the new approach works and why RNA vaccines are adaptable to a changing disease.
In January 2019 a dam collapsed in Brazil, spilling 10 million cubic metres of red sludge down nearby rivers, claiming the lives of at least 259 people. An engineering report into the collapse looked at data from safety sensors around the site, and said they’d not revealed any weakening of the dam prior to the failure. But a new study using data from Earth observing satellites has found signs of subtle movement starting weeks earlier. Stephen Grebby of Nottingham University and Roland Pease discuss this finding.
An international collaboration led by Kew Gardens has just set out a list of ten golden rules for maintaining and restoring forests. The main author, Kate Hardwick talks about why the rules are necessary and why it isn’t as simple as planting any old trees.
There’s been a lot of debate about whether being bilingual is good for the brain. Does knowing more than one language take up precious capacity that could be used for better things? Or does it sharpen it, all the better to take on more challenges? Dean d’Souza of Anglia Ruskin University has been addressing this question by comparing the behaviour of infants brought up in monolingual and multilingual homes.
And, When planning to have a baby, women are expected to give up everything from smoking to alcohol, even soft cheese. But the other half of fertility comes from the sperm, usually provided by a man. So should men also give up their vices to improve the quality of their sperm, and their chances of conception?
That’s what Listener Stuart in Australia wants to know. He emailed CrowdScience after he and his wife had been trying to have a second child for two years. He gave up alcohol, and coffee, but wants to know if there is any hard science to back up the idea that this would improve his fertility.
To find out, presenter Anand Jagatia speaks with Professor Allan Pacey, a scientist who specialises in the study of male fertility and sperm. He discovers that male subfertility accounts for 50% the problems with getting pregnant. And we’re far from alone. Sperm is a remarkably diverse, but also fragile cell. Across the animal kingdom, different species have problems with male fertility, but have adapted novel ways to improve their chances of reaching the egg.
Men often struggle to speak about their fertility, and reporter Chhavi Sachdev tells Anand the impact this has on couples in India who struggle to conceive, or don’t want to. She speaks with fertility specialist Professor Nirmal Kumar Lohiya about how this reticence to speak about fertility is changing.
Viruses from Mumps to HIV have long been known to target the delicate sperm production cells in the testicles. Dr Krutika Kuppalli tells Anand why, and what we know about the possible impact of SARS CoV-2 on male fertility.
Professor Allan Pacey gives Anand and Stuart some advice for what to do while trying to conceive - don’t wear tight underwear - and get used to talking about your swimmers or even getting them checked out.
(Image: Getty Images)
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)