Wednesday, May 20, 2015

ocean worlds

A few years ago, I reviewed "The goldilocks planet" by Jan Zalasiewicz and Mark Williams, which gave an excellent fast-track account of our planet's climate history.

Now the authors have again provided a very insightful, big-picture view of our home planet, this time focusing on the oceans, which are, after all, the most important factor in making our planet habitable and setting it apart from the around 2000 other planets we know of so far:

Ocean Worlds: The story of seas on Earth and other planets.

In my latest "long-essay" review I have discussed the book in the context of astrobiology. You can find the review in the current issue of Chemistry & Industry:

Chemistry & Industry 2015, issue 5, p 48
(restricted access)

or email me for a PDF file. Or just buy the book.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

arks or prisons?

In my latest feature in Current Biology I've explored the ethical quandaries around animals being held captive in zoos and aquariums. Starting from a binary of the animal ark vs animal prison kind, I discovered that there is a third dimension to it as zoos are increasingly also using their expertise to help animal conservation in situ, i.e. in the natural habitat where they belong.

Read all about it:

Can zoos offer more than entertainment?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 10, pR391–R394, 18 May 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(article should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Expatriate animals in Lille, France (own photo).

Thursday, May 14, 2015

catching liver cancer early

It’s always great to hear from my former postdoc colleagues who have gone out into the world to set up labs and do exciting research that I can then write about, just occasionally (most of the work I report comes from people I never met). So here is the latest news from the lab of Jenny Yang who arrived at the Oxford lab just a couple of months before me, back in the olden days. She used to work around 25 hours per day, and it’s good to see that her efforts have been rewarded, as she’s now a Distinguished University Professor and associate director of the Center for Diagnostics and Therapeutics at Georgia State University at Atlanta.


Jenny’s group at Georgia State developed a protein to bind gadolinium ions, which can then be used as contrast agents in magnetic resonance imaging of cancer in the liver. Other gadolinium-based products have been available, but due to their magnetic properties (low relaxivity) and other problems, they yielded poor contrast capability , which meant that they could only detect cancers that were already quite big. The new protein now enables the detection of liver tumours (both primary tumours and metastases from elsewhere, as quite a few cancers have the habit of establishing metastases in the liver) at a much earlier stage.

ProCA32, the researchers’ newly developed contrast agent allows for imaging liver tumours that measure less than 0.25 millimeters, compared to a current detection limit of 1 cm. Thus the method is more than 40 times more sensitive than today’s commonly used and clinically approved agents used to detect tumours in the liver. (Note that a tumour 40 times larger in diameter would have 40x40x40 = 64,000 more cancer cells, which is a scary thought.)

Specifically, ProCA32 widens the MRI detection window, which is found to be essential for obtaining high-resolution images of the liver. This application has important medical implications for imaging various liver diseases, the origin of cancer metastasis, monitoring cancer treatment and guiding therapeutic interventions, such as drug delivery.

“Our new agents can obtain both positive and negative contrast images within one application, providing double the accuracy and confidence of locating cancerous tumours,” Yang said. “These agents are also expected to be much safer with reduced metal toxicity.”

The researchers have shown proof-of-concept that ProCA32 can be used to detect cancerous liver tumours at an early stage with high sensitivity. In the study, they have also demonstrated that these new agents better facilitate the imaging of multiple organs, including the kidney and blood vessels, in addition to the liver and tumours.

“ProCA32 may have far-reaching implications in the diagnosis of other malignancies, which could facilitate development of targeted treatment, along with effective monitoring of tumour burden reduction,” Yang said. “Our agent and methodology can also be applied to study the brain and monitor treatment outcomes in a number of disorders, including stroke and recovery, Alzheimer’s disease, brain tumours and gliomas.”


Protein MRI contrast agent with unprecedented metal selectivity and sensitivity for liver cancer imaging
Shenghui Xue, Hua Yang, Jingjuan Qiao, Fan Pu, Jie Jiang, Kendra Hubbard, Khan Hekmatyar, Jason Langley, Mani Salarian, Robert C. Long, Robert G. Bryant, Xiaoping Philip Hu, Hans E. Grossniklaus, Zhi-Ren Liu, and Jenny J. Yang
PNAS 2015 ; published ahead of print May 13, 2015, doi:10.1073/pnas.1423021112

This entry is based in part on the Georgia State press release.

Georgia State University researchers (left to right) Shenghui Xue, Jingjuan Qiao, Shanshan Tan, Mani Salarian and Jenny Yang developed the first robust and noninvasive detection of early stage liver cancer. Credit: Jingjuan Qiao, Georgia State University.

Wednesday, May 06, 2015

feminist utopia

Book review:

El país de las mujeres

Gioconda Belli


In a small Mesoamerican country called Faguas, a volcanic eruption has enriched the air with an antidote to testosterone, turning its macho men into kind and docile human beings who don’t put up too much resistance when the feminist Partido de la Izquierda Erótica (PIE) sweeps to an election victory and its charismatic leader, famous for having exposed prominent sex traffickers in her TV show, becomes president with an all-female government promising to “clean up” the country.

In a time when much of the more imaginative writing goes in the dystopian direction and the state of the real world may also be headed that way, it is unusual and refreshing to find an unashamedly positive utopian novel. Especially for me with a political background that has quite a few connections to the author’s, the general idealism feels like home and the protagonists the PIE committee are very sympathetic characters.

I’m not entirely sure if the novel would work for anybody who doesn’t experience this huge political feel-good factor. The postmodern structure which mixes different kinds of testimonies and documents is at first a bit confusing until you’ve worked out who’s who. Until about the middle of the book it appeared gratuitously random to me and I would have appreciated a frame, maybe set in the distant future, such as the work of a future historian who explores these developments. Belli has used distant times to great effect in The scroll of seduction as well as in The inhabited woman, and it might have improved this effort as well.

As it stands, this is an interesting book and a heart-warming story for those who still have a heat-conducting heart, but maybe not quite as spectacularly brilliant as the two earlier novels mentioned above. Depressingly, there doesn’t seem to be an English translation at all, although it has been translated into German (Die Republik der Frauen), Dutch (Het land van de vrouwen) and Portuguese (O País Das Mulheres) among other languages.

Monday, May 04, 2015

migration mapped

My great-great-great-grandparents, born in the early 19th century, appear all to have been very solidly German and settled in their respective little patches of the very colourful map of that time. These 28 people (there's been a bit of inbreeding) come from 8 geographically separate regions within what would in 1871 become the German Empire, so they are a meaningful statistical sample of the German population.

I had to go back a further three to six generations to find out that the picture of settled clans rooted in their respective landscapes was completely wrong. For instance, entire villages in the Kraichgau area - one of the 8 regions where my ancestors lived in the 19th century - had been resettled with Swiss immigrants at the end of the 17th century. Elsewhere, Huguenots left their mark, as did skilled metal workers hired in from Wallonia and further migrants from Hungary, Italy, the Netherlands, today's Belgium, and probably other places yet to be discovered (I'm gradually building a collection of migration stories here).

I concluded from these findings that everybody has migration background - one just has to dig deep enough to find it. Genomics and genotyping techniques allow scientists to investigate the bigger picture of human migrations on a country, continent, and global scale with unprecedented resolution. The studies confirm the conclusion that I drew from my family research - people have always migrated to seek opportunity and flee hardship, and deep down we are all migrants.

I've had a detailed look at the new science of the genetics of human migration against the backdrop of current political haggling over migrants in my latest feature which is out now in Current Biology:

Genetic traces of mankind's migrations
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 9, 4 May 2015, Pages R345–R347
Summary and limited access to full text
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

Own photo of the Cowley Road Carnival which every year celebrates cultural diversity around here.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

the trouble with photosynthesis

If you look at plants from a technological point of view, there is a fascinating flaw in photosynthesis which is simply down to the fact that it evolved in an atmosphere with virtually no oxygen, and now it is having problems with its own waste product. Some tropical plants like maize and sugar cane have found a fix, but other crops like rice and wheat are massively inefficient at turning carbon dioxide into food, which is why various research groups are trying to improve them.

Read all about it in my feature:

Fixing photosynthesis
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 42-45
Free access to the full text

In the same issue I also have a "long essay review" of the book Fracking by Hester and Harrison (from the series Issues in environmental scince and technology)

Fracking - points of view
Chemistry & Industry April 2015, pp 50-51
limited access

Thursday, April 23, 2015

bees can't help it

Another news story on bees and and neonicotinoids. Over the last few years it has become clear that sublethal effects of the pesticides are very bad news for the success of bee colonies. The UK govt seems to think that bees could just say no to poisoned nectar.

Research from Geraldine Wright's lab now shows that they can't detect the poison with their sense of bitter taste. Worse still, they have a tendency to eat more of the toxic stuff. Full story out in Chemistry World, free access:

Bees 'prefer' neonicotinoid-laced nectar
Chemistry World 22.4.2015

own photo (not sure if I've used this one before?)

PS related news that came in just after this:

Monday, April 20, 2015

climate change at 25

I first heard about carbon dioxide causing climate change in the late 1980s. I was dabbling in a bit of local politics with the Green party in Germany and preparing a manifesto for the 1990 elections, for which I wrote a couple of pages on emission control. The emissions we were worried about back then were, of course, toxic gases that caused visible problems on short timescales, such as acid rain and Waldsterben. I remember thinking something along the lines of "what's wrong with carbon dioxide? It's not even toxic!"

But with the first assessment report on climate change published in 1990 we soon learned what was wrong with carbon dioxide, and at that point the world really should have changed course and reduced emissions, but unfortunately they kept going up. As Naomi Klein has pointed out, it was an unfortunate coincidence that climate change only became apparent in the very moment when western democracies responded to the collapse of the communist bloc by abandoning all attempts to regulate corporations and markets, and these forces took the world in exactly the wrong direction.

Anyhow, 25 years after the problem was recognised and described, we're still making no progress towards solving it, which is very frustrating. I've comemorated and analysed this depressing anniversary in my latest feature which is out today in Current Biology:

Twenty-five years of climate change failure
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 8, pR307–R310, 20 April 2015
Summary and limited access to full text and PDF file
(should become open access one year after publication)

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

an ancient copper mine

After writing about the Simon family who were miners in Fischbach (Nahe) and then 170 km further south in Markirch (Sainte-Marie-aux-Mines, Alsace), I had the opportunity to revisit the ancient copper mine at Fischbach, which is where Johann Christoph Simon must have worked before migrating to Markirch, and where some of his brothers as well as his father Nickel Simon also worked.

Specifically the five men who were linked to the Fischbach mining industry were (with made-up translations of the job titles Schmelzer, Röster, Bergschmied):

  • Johann Nickel Simon, born Niederhosenbach in 1672-3, worked as a smith and as a miner, married Anna Francisca in 1700, died 1754 aged 81.
    as well as his four sons:
  • 1701 Johann Nickel Simon jun – roaster and smelter at Allenbach
  • 1703 Johann Jacob Simon – smith at the mines in Markirch
  • 1705 Georg Nickel Simon – miner at Fischbach and Kautenbach
  • 1707 Johann Christoph Simon – smelter at Markirch

They were part of the second and final era of success for the Fischbach mine, which had a fair number of ups and downs throughout the centuries. Here’s my potted history which I also wrote up in German for Wikipedia:

According to a document from 1461, copper mining in the valley of the Hosenbach creek near Fischbach dates back to at least 1400. In 1473, the two counts whose territories met on the hill above the mines signed an agreement to split all income from mining equally between them.

In the 16th century, the mines were thriving with up to 300 miners working there. Copper was sold beyond the region, for instance to Dinant (today’s Belgium), which was a centre of brass making. Due to the 30-Years War and the difficulties in maintaining the safety of the mines and the transport of the metal produced, mining ceased from 1624.

Mining was resumed at the Hosenberg site in 1697, but not in the sites on the opposite bank of the creek. From 1730 to 1765, the industry flourished once again. Johann Christoph Simon and his brother Johann Jacob Simon must have been in Markirch already (Johann Christoph married there in 1732 Around 1750 there is also the earliest evidence of the use of explosives in mining – even though the know-how was already developed half a century earlier in eastern German mining regions such as Saxony, and migration from those areas to Fischbach has been described by Bühler and Brandt. Between 1765 and 1776, the mining business went into decline, and in 1792, war forced its closure once again. Several attempts to revive it were undertaken in the 19th and in the 20th century, but all failed, due to high costs and low yields.

In 1975, the mine was opened to visitors. Guided tours around the impressive network of man-made caves are offered all year round. Above ground, there are also exhibits demonstrating copper smelting, as well as a sight-seeing circuit.

Back to the family history – Bühler and Brandt note that the Fischbach miners were highly respected professionals, as evidenced by the fact that they married into well-known families of nearby market town Kirn. However, my Fischbach ancestors and those in Kirn represent completely different lineages and cross-links between them have yet to be found. We have a few more generations of Simon ancestors, back to Mathes Simon, born around 1600 in Allenbach, but no details of what they were doing while the copper mine was closed.

Fischbach copper mine with life-size figures of miners, own photo.

Thursday, April 09, 2015

solutions for everybody?

In my round-up of German pieces I mentioned my review of the film "Better living through chemistry" which was part of the annual April fun and games section in Nachrichten aus der Chemie. Here comes a shorter version of my thoughts on this film, in English:

One question puzzles viewers of this film from the beginning to the end: Why on earth is it narrated by Jane Fonda? I think I worked it out at last – she’s the agony aunt of some third class waiting room magazine and the question she’s answering this time is something along the lines of: “I spend my life being everybody’s doormat – can chemistry improve my life?” And, according to agony Aunt Jane, it can.

In the fairy tale that Auntie Jane tells us to make her point, she’s equipped the protagonist with a small-town pharmacy, to make sure he has a good supply of chemicals to experiment with. At the beginning, he doesn’t quite know what to do with that, other than quietly enjoying the intimate information he has about lots of people in the town.

In the course of an evening delivery to a posh address he meets a very conventionally attractive woman in a very transparent negligee, who describes herself as a trophy wife and complains of the terminal boredom that comes with this job. She has the bright idea that the pharmacists, who has “solutions for everybody but himself” might find the formula to change his life on the shelves of his workplace. The drugs work magic on him, lifting his love life, sporting achievements, and even his hair.

What else can you do with chemistry? Oh, yes, murder people. The chemically enhanced couple have a half-hearted go at that, but the scriptwriters (Geoff Moore and David Posamentier, who also direct) clearly shied away from the dark side and hastened to return to the safer ground of lesser crimes.

What is disturbing about the movie is its morality about drugs, reflected not only in Auntie Jane’s voiceover recommending misuse of prescription drugs but also in the reckoning at the end. Watch out who gets punished and who gets away. And perhaps you shouldn’t follow Auntie Jane’s advice.

It appears the film went straight to DVD in Europe, and deservedly so.

Sunday, April 05, 2015

layers of gold and plastics

In the round-up of German pieces published in March / April we find structures folded and intertwined, deposits of gold and plastics, and reflections on a chemistry-related movie.

Pop-up im Mikromaßstab
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 2, page 94, April 2015
Abstract and limited access to full text

Hauptsache, die Chemie stimmt
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 433-434
review of "Better living through chemistry", English version here.

Was macht der Müll im Meer?
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 443-444

Ausgeforscht: Eine Hölle mit goldenem Boden
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 63, 503

Molekularer Drudenfuß und Davidstern
Spektrum der Wissenschaft Nr. 3, 10-12
first paragraphs of the article and limited access to full text

... oh, and a new Wikipedia entry as well.

macro-scale origami birds (own photo)

Monday, March 30, 2015

robot march

It may be an age thing, but I am getting increasingly skeptical of the general direction that technology is evolving towards. I was very happy with the tech we had until 2006 or so, and then came the unstoppable rise of facebook, smartphones that broadcast your every move, search engines trying to read your mind, drones, self-driving cars, and e-readers that tell their corporate motherships what pages you've read and which passages you've highlighted. I'm beginning to think that a dystopia of the Brave New World kind has already sucked us in.

After reading The Filter Bubble and filter-feeding on all the robotic news that comes in on a daily basis now, I've written another feature about all this, which is out today. Health warning: the content may frighten you.

The unstoppable march of the machines
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 7, pR255–R258, 30 March 2015
summary and limited access to full text and PDF file

(own photo, taken at an innovation event at Said Business School last year)

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