Evolutionary Plasticity and the Rise of Bipedal Mice

In this episode of Rising Ape Speaks we discuss how draining almost all the water out of fish’s pool has illustrated that evolution is by no means a closed book.

This leads on to James confessing his childhood spent dreaming up unethical experiments, and how the possible explanation for Antony‘s gymless body may lie with his cheese-eating father. Later on, creationists get it in the ear. Yes, evolution may be nature’s way, but Rising Ape Speaks will always stick to its timeless winning formula! 

Paywall free article about landlubbing Birchir fish here.

LIFE ON MARS FT. MICHAELA MUSILOVA

Welcome to a night of knowledge, excitement, exploration and (ethanolic) excess.* (*Please drink reasonably, but feel free to consume knowledge and excitement in rampant abundance.) You are officially invited to join colony #001, the first human settlement on Mars.

The first task our crew will be subjected to is an Earth-style pub quiz on the topic of Mars. Indeed, a strange start to the first day on Mars. Nevertheless, you better wipe the dust off those Mars mission background briefings ESA mailed you a couple of months ago, and get studying. Your quiz team, or Tactical Life on marsTask Force, will be limited to a maximum of 4 colonists. But overall scores will be boosted with the second part of the evening—the activity. The nature of the activity is TOP SECRET, as exposing this information may lead some colonists to practice or buy ergogenic aids. Finally, once the scores have been collated and the prizes distributed to our most knowledgeable and dextrous of colonists, we will receive a 20 minute briefing from our crew’s resident astrobiologist Michaela Musilova. Michaela will talk us through exactly where the current academic thinking is on Martian life. Following this briefing we will have a question and answer session so we can all pick Michaela’s impressive brains some more.

To book tickets for this event follow the Eventbrite button in the sidebar. Alternatively, you can buy tickets at the door, subject to availability. You can even tell us you’re attending, and say hello, through the Book of the Face.

More about Michaela Musilova: Michaela is currently working as a PhD research student at the University of Bristol. Her dream is to be part of future space exploration missions searching for extraterrestrial life. Michaela Musilova’s primary interest is in extremophiles, organisms that live in extreme environments, such as deserts, deep sea vents and glaciers. They are significant to industry and medical research, since their enzymes are stable and functional over a wide range of physical/chemical conditions. Similar life could potentially be found in analogous extreme conditions on other planets and moons. Thus, they are very important to astrobiology – a multidisciplinary science exploring the origin and distribution of life in the Universe. During her studies, Michaela pursued other astrobiology related research, including: working as a research fellow at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL); simulating lunar and planetary surfaces through NASA and the UK Space Agency’s MoonLite project (funded by a Nuffield Foundation grant); searching for exoplanets at the University of London Observatory; and being selected as an analogue astronaut at the Mars Desert Research Station, USA.

Homosexuality IS natural, (according to nature)

by James Riley

One reoccurring argument constantly levelled against homosexuality is: “it’s just not natural.” Well, if you take a close look at nature, you’ll see that isn’t quite right.

(Feature Image, Original Credit: Simon Speed)

Animals partake in various same-sex sexual behaviours, ranging from frivolous romps (by the common toad) to life-long homosexual partnerships (in Chinstrap penguins).

In male fruit flies (Drosophila melanogaster) a mutation in the gene genderblind, causes a reduction in glutamate transmission, and leads males to court other males. Various other gene mutations, and social experiences, cause male-male courtships and same-sex mounting.

Bonobos, one of the closest extant relatives to humans along with the common chimpanzee, utilise sex as a method of easing social tensions. Females spend a substantial amount of time in same-sex genital stimulation. Males also engage in kissing, and somewhat intimate massages (and not just with their hands).

Numerous invertebrates also partake in homosexual behaviour, but many studies conducted on insects found this was a case of mistaken identity (must have been a rough morning). But in the animal kingdom, things are a little more romantic (if you’ll pardon my anthropomorphisation). Some male garter snakes mimic the female’s size and pheromones, leading to male-male courtships (so even drag queens are natural!). These relationships aren’t believed to be the case of mistaken identity, the courtships enable the snakes to  thermoregulate better and also provides protection (there is something nice about homosexual snakes keeping each other safe and warm, even for hardline homophobes, am I right?).

In fact, homosexual behaviour is well-documented in over 450 species, but the true number is likely to be many times larger.

I can see the counter-arguments to this already forming: “Ok, so maybe nature is rife with gay animals, but nature isn’t always moral and it isn’t always right.”

True, nature doesn’t always exhibit the most moral of behaviours, and studying nature doesn’t always show us the right way to live our lives. But, (and this is big but… I cannot lie) the point is the argument that ‘homosexuality is immoral because it is unnatural’ is absolutely false. Observing nature shows that homosexuality is natural; it is everywhere, and it is everywhere for various reasons. So if you want to maintain that homosexuality is immoral, then please level a new argument against it rather than its supposed unnaturalness. Or, just let people live their own lives.

For more scientific information on homosexuality in animals, see:

Bailey, NW. Zuk, M (2009) Same-sex sexual behavior and evolution. Trends in. Ecology and Evolution. 24:439-446.

Zombies: The Theoretical Pathogenesis

by James Riley

“When hell is full, the dead shall walk the Earth.”

(Feature Image, Original Credit: Gianluca Ramalho Misiti)

Are zombies real? To many people, the idea of a horde of ravenous zombies tearing through the nation is a grotesque and distant fiction; something reserved for the big screen or the comic strip. Scenes of overrun cities and desolated countryside communities don’t worry these people. But worry they should.

What is a zombie? Haitian Voodoo folklore dictates they are cursed souls, raised from the dead by witchcraft. But this explanation holds no blood. A zombie is a creature which can be explained, at least theoretically, by science. A zombie is a sick person, infected with a horrible pathogen. Lots of real parasites make nasty changes in the behaviour of their hosts, making them act in weird and wounding ways, to increase the chances of the parasite spreading. This could be a virus, as is seen in many movies, it could even be a bacterial or fungal agent.

zombie walk
(Image Credit: Gianluca Ramalho Misiti)

Could these pathologies infect and change a human into a recognisable yet horribly distinct creature? A change which would dull the brain and leave the host unable to resist the visceral urges plaguing them: the urge to kill – the urge to eat. As we project our darkest fears, we may, in cynical conclusion, bestow the label of zombie on these transmogrified souls. For if something looks, acts and bites like a zombie, then what matters the name? Known as the infected, the walking dead, carriers, biters, abominations or masticating madams; the name will matter very little when you are barricading your doors, praying the torrential horde passes through your streets without tasting the terror which oozes from your trembling skin.

Let’s explore some of the more plausible pathologies which could, under the right (or, more accurately, wrong) circumstances, confer the characteristics of the zombie on an unwitting victim; turning them into Patient Zero, the genesis of the pandemic. What follows is science, it is real, and it is scary – scarier than anything you could find dwelling in the recesses of Stephen King’s macabre mind. This is zombie science: check your pulse and delve in.

An example of a modifying microbe is the protozoan parasite Toxoplasma gondii. Toxoplasma is a strange creature with a strange lifecycle. Although it can infect, live and asexually reproduce in almost all warm-blooded animals, it can only sexually reproduce inside the intestines of cats. (Talk about being picky. As far as sexual fetishes go this one is pretty out-there, or, maybe, in-there is more apt?) The life of Toxoplasma has one central theme: get into a cat’s guts and reproduce. Through the wonders of adaptive evolution, it has developed a subtle and sinister way of getting inside the intestines of cats: by altering the behaviour of infected rodents. Following infection, via contact with infected cat feces or meat, the rodent who is normally very scared of cats and repelled by cat pheromones becomes incredibly brave, daring and actually attracted to the smell of cats. This change in behaviour leads to an increased likelihood of the rodent being eaten by its natural predator; and if an infected rodent gets eaten by a cat then Toxoplasma also gets eaten, meaning it can finally make the parents proud by carrying out its life’s ambition of romping in Mr Whiskerson’s intestines.

One of the postulated ways in which Toxoplasma is thought to bring about this change in behaviour is through the development of parasitic cysts in the brains of rodents. One paper found almost double the number of cysts in the amygdala, a centre of the brain involved in mediating fear of predators, compared to other brain regions.

toxoplasmosis cycle
Toxoplasma life cycle (Image Credit: Ladyofhats)

I know what you are thinking: this little anecdote about Toxoplasma isn’t connected with zombies at all; it’s just cat eat rat. But it is connected. It’s a parasitic organism causing a behavioural change in a host in order to maximise the survival of the parasite. And Toxoplasma doesn’t just infect rodents, it infects us too. In fact, according to research by staff at Stanford University, up to a third of the world’s population is infected with Toxoplasma. Although this is mostly not a serious problem, recent research has shown a possible causal link between Toxoplasma infection and a range of mental health problems such schizophrenia and ADHD.

We can see from the tale of Toxoplasma that parasites can alter the behaviour of their hosts in order to benefit themselves. However, to make a zombie requires some specific alterations. The movie Quarantine – the American version of the Spanish horror REC – makes use of the rabies virus as the zombie pathogen. A rabies virus which has been genetically engineered to be extremely fast acting. The wild-type rabies virus itself has some seriously scary symptoms which are designed, through evolution, to facilitate the virus’ transmission. Infected animals start out with a fever and end with cerebral and cranial nerve dysfunction, incoordination, weakness, seizures, difficulty breathing and swallowing, excessive salivation, abnormal behaviour and aggression. These symptoms are tailored to make the host transmit the virus. As the virus is transmitted through the saliva of an infected individual, excessive saliva production and in increase in aggression leads to more bites – more bites means more infections. When the virus is passed onto a new host it works its way from the site of the bite, along the nerves, to the hosts brain, where it goes about creating the zombie-like state in the new victim.

It should be mentioned, however, that the incubation period (the time it takes for rabies’ symptoms to manifest in the host) is relatively long – between 2 and 12 weeks. Furthermore, in humans, rabies tends not to cause the hyper-aggressive behaviour seen in animals, with almost all human-human infections due to organ transplants, and not bites. Therefore, in the movies, generally the virus must be mutated in some way to produce a zombie, becoming super-fast acting or making the host hyper-aggressive such as in 28 Days Later. (Incidentally, the virus in 28 Days Later, called ‘Rage’, was a mutated version of Ebola virus, created by scientists trying to discover the cause of aggression in the brain.) This doesn’t mean that rabies isn’t a potential pathogen which could cause a zombie-like human, it just means that the wild-type rabies virus does not make us into frothing madmen (yet).

We’ve seen how mighty mice and demonic dogs have their pathogenic routes in science, but what about the zombie cow? A few years back the bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) crisis gripped the nation, leading to parents not knowing whether steaks were safe, and politicians carelessly stuffing burgers into their offspring’s mouths. BSE is caused by prions, misfolded disease-causing proteins. These prions slowly damage the brain, giving it a sponge-like appearance under the microscope. This degeneration causes stumbling, aggressive cows which are affectionately labelled ‘mad’. Although transmission of BSE is normally through the ingestion of infected meat, pathogens are found in all tissues and fluids of the body. So it is theoretically possible to transmit BSE through a cow’s bite. The human form of BSE is known as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (vCJD). vCJD symptoms include dementia, memory loss, hallucination, paranoia, psychosis, disorientated walking and slurred speech – a mumbling, fumbling, stumbling ‘zombie’.

I think we can all agree that the above diseases are somewhat zombie-like and that that pathogens can cause a change in the behaviour of the host they infect. These changes in behaviour are often caused by the alterations in the structure of the brain; whether this is by neural degeneration, the formation of parasitic cysts or other stranger methods. In order to create a zombie, specific structures of the brain must be altered by ‘zombie pathogen’, to disrupt their functions, including: the cerebellum, balance and coordination; the hypothalamus, appetite control; the frontal lobe, intelligence and problem solving; and the amygdala, anger and rage. By affecting the normal functioning of these brain areas, our theoretical pathogen would create a stumbling, shuffling, insatiably hungry, intensely dumb and fiercely angry individual which wants to eat you – a zombie!

As we have seen, some diseases closely resemble (at least in method, if not symptoms) a potential zombie infection. The idea of a shuffling, biting menace following you around deserted streets which was once a distant fiction, is now it is a distinct plausibility.

Asimov’s Amazing Assertions

by James Riley

“What will the World’s Fair of 2014 be like? I don’t know, but I can guess.”

Could you predict the future? In the wake of the 1964 World’s Fair, Isaac Asimov, prolific sci-fi writer, made some startling predictions about life in 2014. Published in The New York Times on August 16, 1964, Asimov’s article “Visit to the World’s Fair of 2014” gives us real pause for thought about our life in the Information Age. Let’s explore some of his scarily accurate speculations about the future, and today’s technologies which helped realise these prescient predictions.

“Robots will neither be common nor very good in 2014, but they will be in existence [ . . . ] In fact, the I.B.M. building at the 2014 World’s Fair may have, as one of its prime exhibits, a robot housemaid.”

Robotics has snowballed in the last decade, but the discipline is still in its infancy. What is really interesting here is the housemaid that Asimov speaks of. One such example would be the Roomba autonomous robot vacuum cleaner, sold by iRobotics, which detects dirty spots of floor, avoids falling down the stairs by detecting steep drops and actively avoids obstacles. However there are more novel robots, like TOPIO, made by TOSY, which (/who?) played ping pong at the Tokyo International Robot Exhibition in 2009.

Isaac Asimov predicts future 2014 1964

(Isaac Asimov. Image Credit: “New York World-Telegram and the Sun Newspaper Photograph Collection”/Taken by Phillip Leonian)

“General Electric at the 2014 World’s Fair will be showing 3-D movies of its “Robot of the Future,” [ . . . ] (There will be a three-hour wait in line to see the film, for some things never change.)”

This one is scary. Not only did Asimov predict 3D cinema becoming commonplace (the original 3D film technology being patented in the 1890s), but by a strange act of fate it happens that General Electric bought the controlling stake of Universal Studios in 2004. Universal being the company responsible for the last film in The Cornetto Trilogy, The World’s End, depicting ‘robots’ taking over the world, available in 3D. Of course, the film came out last year, and the invaders weren’t really robots (according to themselves), but it’s still a remarkable prediction.

“As for television, wall screens will have replaced the ordinary set; but transparent cubes will be making their appearance in which three-dimensional viewing will be possible.”

This two-fold prediction is an extension on the last. The wall screens Asimov speaks of have become common place across developed nations with newer variants of screen, such as LCD, taking over the clumpy cathode ray tube displays of the past. Many of these new variants are available with 3D technology.

“Communications will become sight-sound and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone. The screen can be used not only to see the people you call but also for studying documents and photographs and reading passages from books.”

The emergence of Skype and FaceTime have revolutionised the way in which we communicate, but the end of this statement is really quite startling. I’m sat in a coffee shop, using a tablet computer screen to read Asimov’s 50-year-old passages of predictions about me sitting here in 2014 using a screen to read passages; and simultaneously writing a document about the predictions, on the same screen which I am studying the documents containing the predictions which Asimov made. The very act of writing this article is one of validating Asimov’s claim. Baffling.

“Much effort will be put into the designing of vehicles with “Robot-brains”*vehicles that can be set for particular destinations and that will then proceed there without interference by the slow reflexes of a human driver.”

The Google driverless car project is doing just that. Using sophisticated laser radar technology, the car’s software creates a detailed 3D map of its environment. Many other companies have created road-worthy driverless cars. In 2010, a European Union backed initiative took four prototype electronic autonomous vans 8000 Miles, from Italy to China, proving that this technology is close to commercialisation.

image

(Google Driverless Car. Image Credit: Steve Jurvetson)

“Gadgetry will continue to relieve mankind of tedious jobs. Kitchen units will be devised that will prepare automeals, [ . . . ] Complete lunches and dinners, with the food semiprepared, will be stored in the freezer until ready for processing.”

Microwave ready meals and frozen pizza: who’d have thought the future would taste so bland? Although, he didn’t predict the obesity epidemics that this would contribute to.

“In 2014, there is every likelihood that the world population will be 6,500,000,000.”

Asimov underestimated the size of the population (only(?) by around 600 million), but he did foresee the potentially disastrous effects of this exponential rise.

“There are only two general ways of preventing [civilisation’s collapse due to overpopulation]: (1) raise the death rate; (2) lower the birth rate. Undoubtedly, the world of A>D. 2014 will have agreed on the latter method. Indeed, the increasing use of mechanical devices to replace failing hearts and kidneys, and repair stiffening arteries and breaking nerves will have cut the death rate still further and have lifted the life expectancy in some parts of the world to age 85.”

The end of last year brought about an easing of China’s one-child policy. A policy originally implemented to curb a population explosion. Asimov does correctly predict the great leaps forward that medicine has taken, furthering life expectancy in some places, such as Monaco, to almost 90 years old.

image

(Photobioreactor producing microalgae, can be used for food or biofuel production. Image Credit: IGV Biotech)

“Ordinary agriculture will keep up with great difficulty and there will be “farms” turning to the more efficient micro-organisms. Processed yeast and algae products will be available in a variety of flavors. The 2014 fair will feature an Algae Bar at which “mock-turkey” and “pseudosteak” will be served. It won’t be bad at all (if you can dig up those premium prices), but there will be considerable psychological resistance to such an innovation.”

A trip to any high street health store will confirm the use of algae as a food product, though it is not yet an international dietary staple. As for the “pseudosteak”, products such as fungi based Quorn and other meat replacements have been around for years. Last year, however, brought us the World’s first lab-grown burger; and Asimov was right about the price, with the patty coming in at £215,000. Would you like supersize?

“The world of A.D. 2014 will have few routine jobs that cannot be done better by some machine than by any human being. Mankind will therefore have become largely a race of machine tenders. [ . . . ] Mankind will suffer badly from the disease of boredom, a disease spreading more widely each year and growing in intensity. This will have serious mental, emotional and sociological consequences, and I dare say that psychiatry will be far and away the most important medical specialty in 2014.”

Asimov foreshadows our seemingly inevitable path towards unskilled labour here, and also to mentally unstimulating work. He would probably be right about the psychiatry part as well, if it wasn’t for the overwhelming abundance of cat videos on the internet (which was one thing he did fail to predict). But on a more serious note, the field of psychiatry is en route for greater leaps forward, and larger public dependence, with more and more people being diagnosed with mental health issues each year.

Asimov leaves us with a salient warning about nuclear warfare, a warning that still applies today. Let’s hope that today’s predictions of the next 50 years are allowed to be realised just as Asimov’s were, without the threat of total annihilation.

“The New York World’s Fair of 1964 is dedicated to “Peace Through Understanding.” Its glimpses of the world of tomorrow rule out thermonuclear warfare. And why not? If a thermonuclear war takes place, the future will not be worth discussing. So let the missiles slumber eternally on their pads and let us observe what may come in the nonatomized world of the future.”

Fracking: The Collision of Science and Politics

by James Riley

Policy decisions are rarely made on scientific evidence alone. In fact, science has only a small part to play in the convoluted world of policy. In this light, perhaps it is unsurprising that even though we have seen vehement anti-fracking protests across the UK in recent months, it looks like the controversial process will be going ahead as planned.

Fracking, or hydraulic fracturing, is the process by which hundreds of gallons of pressurised water, chemicals and sand are blasted into the ground to open up trapped deposits of gas. In the current controversy the focus is on shale gas extraction, although fracking can be used to extract various gases for use as fuel. The process is nothing new. It made its first appearance in 1947 and was first commercially implemented in 1949.

Fracking process

(Illustration of the hydraulic fracturing process. Image Credit: US Environmental Protection Agency)

Recent events have sparked public opposition to fracking, with many perceiving the risks outweighing the benefits. In 2011, two earthquakes struck Lancaster following prospective fracking exercises by Caudrilla Resources (the main company with fracking contracts within the UK), resulting in a nationwide moratoria while a formal investigation into fracking’s dangers took place.

However, the risks of fracking stretch beyond the chance of mild earth tremors. And it is these environmental concerns which activist groups like Greenpeace are desperately trying to bring to the public’s attention.

In their recent publication, “Fracking: What’s the Evidence?”, Greenpeace set out the wealth of environmental consequences aligned to this extraction technique. Greenpeace says about its report:  “From water pollution, to gas flares, to seismic activity to property prices, the report takes an in-depth look at what fracking involves, and the key social and environmental risks that should be taken into consideration as the UK Government attempts to open England up to this new form of extreme energy.”

One major concern raised over the fracking procedure is the contamination of groundwater, and the possible contamination of drinking water. In the USA this has indeed taken place, although the Geological Society has said that with proper regulations in place, the contamination of groundwater should not be an issue. Another consideration is the fact that fracking uses a large amount of water and some groups claim the water supply couldn’t take the strain. In reality fracking in the UK should only require the use of around 0.01% of the current usage.

But even without these various local environmental concerns, it would still be true that one of the major risks of fracking is our continued dependence on fossil fuels, and the inability to cut our emissions; therefore the inability to halter the seemingly glacial march of climate change. This is one of the biggest concerns anti-fracking groups can urge, and it is almost an uncontested one from the supporters of fracking. Some politicised points about shale gas producing less greenhouse emissions than coal have been made however, along with the claim that it is a “greener alternative” to traditional fossil fuels.

The UK government has agreed to a number of targets aimed at decarbonising the home economy. This includes the Kyoto Protocol, which promises an 80% reduction in greenhouse emissions by 2050. The Kyoto Protocol gave rise to the Climate Change Act 2008, which makes it the duty of the Secretary of State to adhere to cutting the greenhouse emissions laid out within the Kyoto agreement. Although large original signatories, such as the United States and Canada, have since not ratified the agreement and subsequently dropped out, the protocol is still taken seriously within European governments.

Our reduction promises are one point which anti-fracking campaigners have cited in opposition to fracking. In a world where we are committed to reducing our greenhouse emissions, should we not be more focused on alternative forms of energy such as wind farms, solar panels and tidal generators? These technologies have benefited other European economies, whilst continuing to honour the Kyoto agreement. Germany, for example, which boasts Europe’s leading economy, now produces over 25% of their energy from renewables in this way.

frack protest

(Fracking protest south of Balcombe, 18 August 2013. Image Credit: © Copyright Robin Webster and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence)

On 27th September, 2013, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) published its fifth Assessment Report and in response to this comprehensive collection of climate change science, the Secretary of State for Energy and Climate change, Edward Davey acknowledged:

“The message of this report is clear – the Earth’s climate has warmed over the last century and man-made greenhouse gases have caused much of that global warming. The gases emitted now are accumulating in the atmosphere and so the solutions must be set in motion today. The risks and costs of doing nothing today are so great, only a deeply irresponsible government would be so negligent.”

This is where the intersection of politics and science is greatly evident. Quite obviously, shale gas will be contributing to climate change. Quite obviously, it is not a green alternative. And, quite obviously, the solutions are not being “set in motion today”. Yet it seems like the government are set to launch full-scale shale extraction within the UK.

On the 24th January, 2014, David Cameron said to the World Economic Forum (Davos): “Governments need to reassure people that nothing would go ahead if there were environmental dangers. But if this is done properly, shale gas can actually have lower emissions than imported gas. We should be clear that if the European Union or its member states impose burdensome, unjustified or premature regulatory burdens on shale gas exploration in Europe investors will quickly head elsewhere.”

From Cameron’s focus on loss of investors over the environmental consequences, it is quite obvious that there are more factors in this decision than solely the scientific evidence of environmental damage and climate change contribution.

For some time now the UK, like a lot of European countries, has been trying to decouple its energy dependence from Russia. With current Ukrainian crisis highlights the fragility of the West’s relationship with the old Soviet state. Although the UK’s gas imports from Russia are now only around 1%, we still import over 40% of our coal and solid fuels from the nation.

pipeline

(Russian oil and gas pipelines to Europe. Image Credit: US Department of Energy)

Russia’s power on the world stage comes mainly from its abundance of energy resources. These are resources which Russia has exploited for power in the past. Even despite the West’s efforts to reduce our dependence on Russian power, statistics from 2010 show how Russia’s energy exports were more than twice as much as any other OECD country, and represented a massive 40% of the total OECD energy exports.

With the recent events in the Ukraine, giving fracking the go ahead seems to makes more and more political sense. Even though there may be water contamination, even though there may be earthquakes, even though it will not be a step in the direction of fulfilling our Kyoto Protocol obligations, there is a sense that somehow the scientific facts of the dangers are going to give way to possible political dangers of not acting. This is not a certainty, but it seems likely.

When calculating the risks of such a decision, it is a fine balance of deciding between two possible futures. One in which your obligations to reducing greenhouse gases helps to curb insidious climate change, which may for the most part be irreversible; and the other option, the reduction of dependence on the energy exports of a country vying for power, a country which has used its position as an energy provider for geopolitical influence and intimidation before, and could easily choose that path again. When presented as two options it becomes clear how the waters of policy can become muddied by much more than just science’s view the world. Not that these two futures are the only possible options, there is the truly green alternative. Is it not time we start to take renewable energy more seriously?

References

P Bolton (2013) Energy Imports and Exports. House of Commons Library. Social & General Statistics. 30th August 2013

D Cameron (2014) World Economic Forum (Davos): Speech by David Cameron. Cabinet Office. 30th January 2014

K Cumming (2013) Fracking: What’s the Evidence? Greenpeace. Available at: | http://www.greenpeace.org.uk/fracking-evidence-report. Accessed 10/03/2014

E Davey. (2012) New controls announced for shale gas exploration. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United Kingdom Government: Published 13th Dec 2012.

E Davey, (2013) Response to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report (AR5): The Latest Assessment of Climate Science. Department of Energy and Climate Change. United  Kingdom Government. 27th Sept 2013.

Royal Society (2012) Shale Gas Extraction in the UK: A Review of Hydraulic Fracturing. Royal Society Policy Projects. June 2012

The sun has got its spot on, hip-hip-hip-oh-no!

by James Riley

Imagine having a giant spot moving across your face, making its way around the back of your head over a 27-day period. I’m sure most of us might start thinking about contacting the doctor (or even consider investing in some facial scrub).

As the spot comes closer to circumnavigating your face it explodes violently with a burst of radiation – now you’re worried. But this is far from over. On the morning of the 28th day you wake up and see the spot has made its way, from the rear, around to the front of your head again. You hold tight for another slow 27-day trip, hoping another explosion doesn’t come. Your hopes aren’t answered. Another massive magnetic explosion of radiation spews from the spot. After frantically grabbing inside your pocket for your mobile to call the doctor, you see that the screen is blank. The spot’s explosion has destroyed the electronics inside.

This isn’t a nice image, but it is close to what the sun has been experiencing early in 2014 with the emergence of a new sunspot AR11944. Sunspots are dark areas of the solar surface. They are cold, well, colder than the rest of the sun in any case. At around 4000c they are around 2000c less than the rest of the solar surface, giving them their dark characteristic. Sunspots have strong magnetic fields which cause massive solar flares and coronal mass ejection (CME) events, the most powerful explosions in the solar system.

Image

(A giant sunspot appeared on Feb. 25, 2014, for its third trip across the face of the sun. This blend of two images from NASA’s Solar Dynamics Observatory shows the sunspot in visible light and an X-class flare observable in ultraviolet light. Image Credit: NASA/SDO/Goddard Space Flight Center)

As we used to have no telescopes monitoring the far side of the sun, it was hard to fully establish that the old sunspots which disappeared over the sun’s horizon were the same as the new ones emerging on the opposite side. This meant astronomers renamed the sunspot on each full navigation, even if the new emerging spot was thought to be the same as the old one.

The new sunspot which appeared on the 25th Feb 2014 has been labelled AR11944, it’s previously trip was labelled AR11967, and it was originally christened AR11990. And this multi-named sun-trotter hasn’t made its journey quietly. During its voyage it has released two of the strongest classes of solar flare which can be produced – the (incredibly Star Trek sounding) X-Class.

The regularity of these events raises questions over our technological infrastructure. High intensity solar flares don’t only cause the beautiful auroras which people flock to see, they can disrupt electronic systems, and we rely on an abundance of electronic systems every day. We are so dependent on electronic communications – from phones to pylons, computers to cars, submarines to satellites, and not forgetting the internet – if a massive solar flare wiped out a large chunk of our electronic communications, the world may very well come to a standstill.

This apocalyptic sun-ray isn’t just the spouting of hard-line conspiracy theorists. Research published in Space suggests that we have a 1 in 8 chance of experiencing a catastrophic solar mega-storm within the next decade.

The last huge event which we had, dubbed the Carrington Event, caused widespread damage to the telegraph system. Being the most widely depended upon communications system at the time, this was quite worrying. It was also reported that people awoke in Australia thinking it was morning, and others could read their newspapers by its light in New York.

If this kind of event happened today, it is no doubt that our infrastructure would suffer serious damages. Almost every communications channel we depend upon is based on electrical systems, and without developing solar flare resistant electronics, we place ourselves at risk of a communications breakdown. Is it time to have a rethink?

It’s not just a girl thing: A health crisis that’s being ignored

By Alex Hale

A sex induced epidemic could be sweeping across the western world. 80% of people get some form of a human papillomavirus (HPV) infection at a point in their lives. This is one of the most common sexually transmitted diseases and is the cause of many preventable types of cancer, but why are only women vaccinated against it? The HPV vaccine is in widespread use to help prevent cervical cancer and several other types of cancer in women. However, it’s now widely accepted that this fantastic vaccine could also benefit males by reducing cancers in areas like the mouth, anus and penis. Should men be vaccinated for the savour of their manhood’s?

The human papillomavirus has over 120 different types, which are generally fairly mundane in nature. It is mostly transmitted by sexual activity of all varieties and although it currently isn’t curable, it clears itself up within a year in 90% of cases. When the more malicious types are present however, diseases like genital warts and skin warts develop, usually these are treatable by doctors. In some uncommon cases, the infection progresses and causes some cells to turn cancerous.

Those cancerous cells originate in the sensitive parts of the body that the virus is most prone to infecting like skin cells and mucosal membranes. The mouth and vagina are perfect example of mucosal membranes, they cover areas of the body that are involved in secretion and absorption and have outside exposure. This makes a perfect environment for the virus to live and then get passed on. Sex makes that process so much easier as most of the mucosal membranes susceptible to HPV infection happen to be pleasure related as well.

Vaccination. Image Credit : Yanivba
Vaccination. Image Credit : Yanivba

The vaccine for the most malevolent forms of HPV was introduced in 2008 to help prevent the second most common cancer in women, cervical cancer. As many as three quarters of all cervical cancer cases are caused by two specific types of HPV, types 16 and 18. The new vaccine defended against those two types as well as types 6 and 11, which are the cause of 95% of genital warts. On top of massively reducing the chance of getting this horrible disease, the vaccine also reduced the chance of getting several other types of cancer including vaginal, vulval, anal, oral and penile cancer in men.

With the mention of anal, penile and oral cancer, there is obviously some vested interest for males here as well. Oral cancer is a major problem for men around the world. There are four times as many male oral cancer sufferers than there are women sufferers, with almost a third of those being caused by HPV. A big push towards vaccination could help a massive group of people by protecting them from this disease.

Who needs protection?

The idea that is being discussed in government now is that all boys should be vaccinated at around ages 11 to 12, before sexual activity starts. The campaign to vaccinate girls at the same age has gone really well in the UK with the government claiming 80% coverage of girls last year. This full coverage in girls raises the question of whether vaccinating the boys is really worth it and affordable. So called ‘herd immunity’ is an effective way of controlling rising infection levels, the greater the proportion of people who are resistant, the smaller the probability that a susceptible person will come into contact with an infectious person. Six years into the programme and a substantial amount of the teenage girl population is now immune to the virus and wouldn’t be able to be infected or be infectious to anyone else.

Nevertheless, the vaccination of men and boys should not be ruled out. There are still a substantial number of adult men and women unprotected that could easily be exposed to the virus; the vaccine should be available to all if they want it. The other group that would be unaffected by a virus free female population are homosexual males who are 20 times more likely to be diagnosed with anal cancer, which affects about 2 in 100,000 people, than a heterosexual male. It wouldn’t be possible to know which boys will become homosexuals at 11-12 so how can they be protected? Statistics like that would never be enough to convince a government to vaccinate all boys though.

Dr Krupar Patel, a GP and sexual health specialist from Dorset would like to see the vaccine available widely and freely. “It’s so frustrating every time I see young people come into my surgery with entirely preventable diseases” she said “I see a lot of patients about HPV related illnesses, mostly it’s people with things like genital warts but I do Pap smears [the test for cervical cancer] for ladies and I know several men with oral cancer. I’m not even allowed to give out the vaccine when I think someone could benefit from it, they have to pay privately and not everywhere offers that” she added. Krupar considers having the HPV vaccine available to everyone as a “vital step forward” in both reducing the number of sexually transmitted diseases and in reducing the number of cancers in the general population. “To be honest with you, I don’t think giving all boys the vaccination is worth it, especially not in today’s financial climate” she went on to say “but I would really love the option to give it to anyone who needs it”.

Some other options?

What else can the government do to help reduce the levels of infection then? Increasing pressure is being put onto policy makers to use sex education and public awareness campaigns to increase the public’s knowledge of this virus. It’s fairly common knowledge that HPV is the cause of most cervical cancers, the media frenzy around the vaccination of girls made sure of that.  An increase in the general knowledge around HPV infection could help both reduce the chance of infection and allow more people to make an informed decision on whether they want to be vaccinated.

Dr Patel said “I would love to see a big campaign letting everyone know that they can be protected from it [HPV], it’s just a shame the politicians keep stalling over what to do”. She went on to outline some other methods that could be used in increasing general knowledge of the disease and for getting more people vaccinated. “…it could be a mandatory vaccine to get into secondary schools. England doesn’t have any mandatory vaccinations for schools at the moment but some other countries do like the US [USA], I know Greece has compulsory HPV vaccinations for school”.

Mandatory vaccination to get into secondary schools would certainly make sure parents got their children vaccinated but it does raise questions of compulsory mass medication. The government always wants to avoid any rumours of that sort of thing, it smells too much of political totalitarianism. If you use the public water fluoridation debate as an example, the media and the public rebelled heavily against any suggestion that they couldn’t be in control of what went into their bodies. Programmes like this are potentially very expensive though and the cost to the government may not be worth it compared to the cost of treating the patients in hospital or cheaper, easier programmes like ad campaigns or better education in schools.

Dr Patel’s colleague, Dr Roland Sedoo agreed with most of the Dr Patel’s

Condom. Image Credit: KONDOMI
Condom. Image Credit: KONDOMI

comments but had one major point to make that he thinks could make the difference if done by everyone. “I’m a big believer in the condom, it’s just so easy to use, super cheap and almost 100% effective” he said “the other doctors in my surgery think I’m a bit excessive but I hand out a ludicrous amount of them. I like to think that the more you give out the higher the chance that people will use them”. He went on to talk about how a big push to increase the use of condoms in young people could mean the world of difference. “Condoms have been around for ages now and there was a brief period a few years ago when there was a big push to get people to use them, especially in kids. But it’s sort of trailed off a bit now and I get lots of people come to see me who tell me they’ve never used a condom. Mostly it’s people in their twenties who have forgotten their sex education lessons at school and then went and had a great time at university or something”.

The Future

There are bigger problems and more serious problems in the world, no one is denying that. This however, is not something to be ignored. The Department of Health recently stated that “there are currently no plans to extend HPV vaccination to males, based on an assessment of available scientific evidence”. Does there need to be detailed scientific evidence if there are very few risks and the potential to save many lives? Dr Patel and Dr Sedoo are both optimistic however, “we think that give it a few years and we will at least be able to give out the vaccine to at risk patients, maybe the boys won’t need it. We will just have to wait and see”.

The efficacy of the vaccine in stopping the spread of the virus will take several more years for the full effect to be seen. Those girls who first had the vaccine in 2006 will be coming up to 20 years old now, so it will be a while before the vaccinated population will make an impact on cancer incidence rates. The true test of whether the girls only vaccine is enough is time.

Option or obligation: an opt-out donation issue

By Alex Hale

“Every right implies a responsibility; Every opportunity, an obligation, Every possession, a duty”   John D. Rockefeller

Not everyone wants to donate their organs. Sadly, in our aging, obese, drug addicted nation, the demand for organs is on the rise. The keep our nation healthy. People seem happy enough with the default position: a full two thirds of people have decided not to opt-in to the register. What is less clear is whether this is laziness or an ethical position.

The organ donor register is a beautifully simple system. All you need to do is sign-up, select which organs you’re happy to donate when you die and then forget about it. But the signing up step seems to be a barrier as only a third of people in the UK have joined the list. Thousands of sick people are currently waiting desperately for the right organ which is so frustratingly hard to find. As I type, over 7,000 patients around the country are waiting for a donor organ and this number just isn’t going down.

20 million sounds like an ample amount of people to help save the lives of 7,000. That 20 million are the third of the UK that are on the organ donor register but it still isn’t enough, there are so many factors that get in the way of someone getting that life saving organ. The donor has to have healthy organs at the time of death, so this excludes the many that die from illness and whose organs aren’t healthy enough for transplant. There is also a chance that the recipient’s immune system could reject the new organ because it would recognize it as foreign, making them even sicker and ruining the new organ. The donor needs to have the same blood type as the recipient as well as similar cellular markers called major histocompatibility complexes, the more markers that are similar, the less likely rejection is. Sadly, finding an exact match is almost impossible so recipients usually need powerful drugs to suppress their immune systems after the operation.

Could fear, ignorance or misunderstanding be the reason that the medical community is in such dire need of new donors? One answer is the infamous opt-out system that’s been making the rounds in political, social and ethical discussion circles for years. Opt-out would mean you join the register automatically once you reach a certain age and then would have the option to unregister if you wanted to whenever you like. Wales has recently chosen the opt-out system and Austria has had the system for years. The result? Austria has eight times as many donors as neighboring Germany.

In general, one of the main contributors to organ donations comes from the unexpected death of healthy people, like in a car accident or extreme sports. Sadly, these sorts of deaths are associated with younger people but they often don’t end up being donors. They haven’t had thoughts of signing up yet and of course no one expects to die young. Under the opt-out system, the tragic death of one could help save the life of another.

What else could be done if the opt-out method is opposed? Economists have suggested that maybe a monetary incentive could be offered and the cost of this would be recovered by allowing so many more people to not depend on expense medical treatments. This however, could be seen as venturing into the unsavory world of organ sales and trafficking, a black market trade that has cost many people their lives around the world. A monetary incentive would also the raise the question of whether the kind people who have already joined the register would receive the compensation as well.

LifeSharers uses social incentives to encourage people to sign up to their private donor list; in return, donors are assured priority if they ever need an organ. This privatization is probably something the government would back as it would save them money but it suffers from several major drawbacks. If everyone signs up then they obviously can’t guarantee them first choice of organ when they need one, essentially invalidating the entire process. The small pool of donors that LifeSharers has also means that it would be much harder to find an organ that matches your immune system; if it’s hard to find a match with 20 million, imagine how hard it would be with much fewer.

Our aging, smoke and alcohol addicted, obese nation needs to make a decision soon on these issues. The health statistics that point to half the UK being obese by 2050 means a much higher number of people potentially needing heart and pancreas transplants. The ‘binge drinking society’ will be in need of liver transplants in a few years’ time and all those smokers are going to need new lungs. The list of people that need new organs will be never ending and ways to fix that are a different topic all together. The main concern is time, something everyone seems to be short of. How long can we let people wait for the organ that could change their life? Signing up today could mean the difference to someone’s life tomorrow.