Monday, October 24, 2016

edited crops

The genome editing method CRISPR-Cas promises genetic improvements in crops and livestock without the drawbacks of conventional GM. Regulators have given it carte blanche, but will consumers also accept it? Much depends on how this latest agricultural revolution will be communicated, and whether its potential to empower a wider range of participants (rather than encouraging a monopoly of the GM/Monsanto kind) will be realised.

I've explored these questions in my latest feature which is out now:

Harvest time for CRISPR-Cas?

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 20, pR903–R905, 24 October 2016

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The mushroom Agaricus bisporus is the first food variant edited with the help of CRISPR-Cas technology and cleared by the US Department of Agriculture. (Photo: Leif K-Brooks.)

Monday, October 10, 2016

save the elephants

Elephants have been in the news a lot recently, with two international conservation conferences calling on countries to ban all internal ivory trade in line with the international trade ban that has already been in force for decades. The reason is a new crisis in poaching and ivory trading, caused this time by buyer interest from China.

Read my take on the situation here:

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 19, R865–R868, 10 October 2016

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Confiscated ivory items displayed ahead of the first official ivory crush held by the US Fish and Wildlife Service in 2013. (Photo: Gavin Shire/USFWS.)

Tuesday, October 04, 2016


As the young cellist has moved out now, I am left to focus on my solo flute work (although there’s never a shortage of jolly company for playing a few folk tunes around here, so I’m keeping up some of those sessions as well). I’ve decided to post a musical still life for every work I’ve learned to play, starting with my very first Köchel number, K525, which is, of course, Eine kleine Nachtmusik, all four movements of it. I might play the third movement at the Festival next year, be afraid …

Next up is a work that Mozart actually wrote for flute, the Andante K315.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

butterflies decline

As our species systematically reduces the biodiversity of our home planet, many groups of species are in decline, but few have been so comprehensively observed as butterflies and moths. Other insects may be more important for ecosystem health, but butterflies are beautiful, so they get plenty of attention. Which is also good, as it enables scientists to analyse biodiversity loss across vast areas and through centuries, using the accumulated amateur observations as well as specimen collections kept in museums.

Read more about butterflies in my latest feature which is out now:

Butterflies take a well-studied tumble

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 18, pR823–R825, 26 September 2016

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Der Schmetterlingsjäger (The butterfly hunter) by Carl Spitzweg, 1840. Source.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

megadam mania

I used to think that dams and hydroelectric power plants are generally a good thing as they produce renewable energy which should more than offset any problems they may cause locally. I learned from my research for this latest feature, however, that large dams in tropical climates tend to release methane produced by fermentation of submerged vegetation and algae. In the worst-case scenario, this may mean that a large dam built in the wrong place may be no better for the climate than the equivalent gas-fired power stations. If we're very lucky, someone might find a way of collecting all that methane - by burning it one could both produce more energy and reduce its climate impact. But while this kind of solution is still in the dream stage, countries like Brazil and the Democratic Republic of the Congo keep building ginormous dams.

Read all about it:

A global megadam mania

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 17, pR779–R782, 12 September 2016

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The Three Gorges Dam in China is currently the largest power plant of any kind, but maybe not for much longer ...

By Source file: Le Grand PortageDerivative work: Rehman - File:Three_Gorges_Dam,_Yangtze_River,_China.jpg, CC BY 2.0,

Wednesday, September 07, 2016

a fond farewell

Rainer Jaenicke 1930-2016

My old professor or Doktorvater, as we like to call PhD supervisors in Germany once the title is in the bag, died at the end of July aged 85. Throughout our shared project (one year final year thesis plus three years doctoral thesis) he was a generous friend more than a boss, and remained one in the 23 years after. So, I’ll try to honour him with an obituary, which is not a format I have often had to write, but as time goes on, one does tend to have more farewells to make. Here’s my first attempt, I may add to it later.

Rainer Jaenicke was the youngest of the three sons (I think there was also a daughter about whom I know nothing) of a semi-famous chemist, Johannes Jaenicke (1888-1984), who during the Weimar Republic was the assistant of Nobel Laureate Fritz Haber, assisting, among other projects, with the doomed attempt to isolate gold from sea water to pay off Germany’s debt.

Johannes Jaenicke spent much of his long life meticulously compiling material for a biography of the great chemist and controversial figure (Haber’s ammonia synthesis process produces half the nitrogen contained in the bodies of the world population, but he also pioneered the use of chemical weapons), but, as he lost his eyesight with age, he ended up being unable to write it. All existing biographies of Haber are based on Johannes Jaenicke’s extensive collection, which has been archived by the Max Planck Society.

His three sons all became professors of some kind of chemistry. Walther Jaenicke (1921-2011) of physical chemistry at the University of Erlangen-Nürnberg; Lothar Jaenicke (1923-2015) of biochemistry at Cologne, and Rainer Jaenicke of biophysical chemistry at Regensburg.

The one thing I know about Rainer Jaenicke’s childhood in Frankfurt is that at a very young age, 11 or so, he teamed up with a young pianist who accompanied his flute playing, Agathe Calvelli-Adorno. They lived happily ever after, as they say, and played music together for over 70 years.

Both families had partial Jewish background and suffered for it during the Nazi time, but made it through. Her Jewish grandmother was deported to concentration camp Theresienstadt and died soon after liberation. The Jaenicke brothers saw their career options limited by being 1/8 Jewish according to the Nazi arithmetics (through their mother, Erna Buttermilch, 1895-1961), but made up for it after the end of the “1000 years”.

Rainer Jaenicke married his pianist just before he obtained his PhD in physical chemistry with Hermann Hartmann (1914-1984) in Frankfurt, started a family, and got his Habilitation in 1963. With their children, they set off to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, where he worked with Max Lauffer (1914-2012) until 1969. Soon after his return he secured a professorship at the newly founded University of Regensburg, Bavaria. He took the chair for biophysical chemistry, which he held until his retirement in 1999. I believe he also served on the committee that commissioned / chose the around 30 major artworks that are scattered around the campus. For a project of this size it was a legal obligation to have a certain amount of “Kunst am Bau”, and there is a nice little book, called “Rund um die Kugel,” discussing all the artworks.

From the US, he brought back the research interest of protein assembly systems such as tobacco mosaic virus (TMV) – a classical system to study self-assembly which in my student days was still used in the practical biochemistry course in his department. From there, his research interests widened to protein folding and stability, including stability under extreme physical conditions like salinity, high and low temperatures and high pressures, which is where my thesis happened.

By the 1990s, one of his trademarks was to keep old-fashioned physical methods of analysis alive, especially analytical ultracentrifugation. This method involves spinning a sample so fast (40,000 rpm would be a typical speed) that large molecules such as proteins are gradually pulled out of solution by the centrifugal force. And this happens in a transparent cell, such that one can shine light through the sample and actually watch the molecules go down.

During my time in the lab (1989-1993) he kept two Beckman model E centrifuges alive and spinning, which was an achievement in itself, as the company had stopped making and indeed servicing these instruments, each the size of a generously-proportioned wardrobe, some time in the 1980s. Several dead machines in the basement were cannibalised for spares. As he was reluctant to persuade students to dedicate three or four years of their lives to an extinct technology, he did many of the centrifugation runs himself, and had great fun fiddling around with the machines.

And right he was too, because around that time, Beckman changed their mind and decided to develop a new instrument from scratch. I vividly remember Howard Schachman (1918-2016 - he died a week after RJ) visiting the lab, another model E aficionado, recalling how the company asked him for advice. As they had closed down the relevant department many years ago and fired everybody who knew anything about analytical ultracentrifuges, they were facing an uphill struggle trying to build a new one. But they got there in the end, and the instruments are now a bit more compact, so they can sit on a lab bench and feed their results to a computer.

As a supervisor, he was very generous with ideas, suggestions and help in establishing collaboration opportunities. I had collaborations with five labs outside Regensburg, four of which he enabled with phone calls to the relevant group leaders (the fifth was someone I met at a conference). While always ready to offer this kind of help and support, he never ever told me what to do – I had a rather painful awakening when I moved on to a postdoctoral fellowship in the UK and lost some 95% of the freedom I had been used to.

Part of the reason for my freedom was in the fact that during my doctoral thesis I was the only person in the lab working on the effects of high hydrostatic pressure. There were crowds of protein folding people and of those doing thermal stability, a few looking at salinity. Thus, there was no need for higher level co-ordination, there was no risk of my work overlapping anybody else’s, and I could basically do whatever I wanted. In this situation, as my own sub-group leader, and as I was also writing my own papers from day one, I put the asterisk indicating the correspondence author behind my name, just on the naïve assumption that he wouldn’t want to be troubled with the paperwork. He never queried that – only when we wrote a review together after I left the lab did he regain the asterisk, which any other professor would have claimed as their statutory right throughout.

Incidentally, he didn’t try to steer his children into a certain direction either. His daughter became a nurse, his sons an actor and an artist. He always highlighted their career choices – very unusual for a family of chemists – with pride, contrasting them to the children of colleagues (presumably including, though not mentioning, his brother) who were groomed to follow in the scientific tradition.

During my Regensburg years, I gained the impression that he had never really adapted to the Bavarian temperament of the people around him. Regensburg being a modern university serving a regional constituency (as opposed to the ancient universities like Heidelberg which attract students from all of Germany and indeed abroad), even most of the faculty colleagues had a conspicuous regional accent. He probably found he had more in common with the many international visitors he invited to Regensburg than with his immediate colleagues and next-door neighbours.

Thus, even though regulations for professors of his generation would have enabled him to use university facilities as an emeritus indefinitely, it was no big surprise to hear that in the late 1990s, after retiring at 68, he moved to the small town of Schwalbach am Taunus, within S-Bahn commuting distance of the city of Frankfurt, which he routinely referred to as home. The couple bought a bungalow – modest looking on the ground floor, but with a basement doubling the area and providing an impressive exhibition space for works of their artist son, Alexander Calvelli, as well as other graphic works which they collected. There were also guest rooms complete with musical instruments – visitors had the choice of sleeping in the presence of a harpsichord or a grand piano.

For nearly two decades, they kept a busy social and musical life at Schwalbach. The last time I visited, in the spring of 2014, the onset of memory loss was noticeable, although he could still play music. His condition gradually worsened to cut him off from the outside world, with the impressions from music remaining the last connection.

some items from my collection of RJ memorabilia ...

Friday, September 02, 2016

5 languages in search of an author

review of

Elena Lappin
What language do I dream in?
Virago 2016

Elena Lappin (nee Biller) was born in Russia, grew up in Prague speaking Russian at home, emigrated to Germany as a teenager after the suppression of the Prague Spring, then went to Israel to study, lived in Canada, Israel again, and the US, before ending up in London. This book is not so much about what language she dreams in, but about how she could become a writer after having to leave the country of the language she felt most connected to, which was Czech. After many wanderings, she decided that English was the one.

Only after she was already settled in London and in English as her writing language, she found out that she was not related to the man she believed to be her father. Her biological father – the son of a minor Soviet agent in the US who had to flee to Moscow – was a native English speaker, giving her language settlement a kind of retrospective biological justification.

Another intriguing aspect of her story is mentioned only in passing: her younger brother, Maxim Biller, facing the same problem, came to a different solution – he stayed in Germany and is now a fairly well-known German writer.

Along with her own quest for the right language to write (and dream) in, Lappin also discusses some of the famous examples of émigré writers adapting to new languages, including Vladimir Nabokov (and his memoir, Speak, Memory, which also deals with this issue), Joseph Conrad, and Milan Kundera. She forgets to mention Kurt Tucholsky, who fell silent during his exile in Sweden and died from an overdose of sleeping pills in a presumed suicide after realising he couldn’t continue to be a writer after being separated from his native language.

Thus, in a mixed-up world, everybody has to find their language for themselves, and some may fail to do so. In Lappin’s case, each of the languages not only stands for a specific culture and geographic area, but also for a subset of her extended family – there is no language that all her relatives share, so with her five languages she is the only link that connects the family network fragmented by migrations and language changes.

As a fellow writer also juggling half a dozen languages I found her memoir very relatable. Failing that, readers will also discover an intriguing and warm-hearted account of the global migrations of Jewish families from Eastern Europe, reminding me that most people have migration background of some kind.

Monday, August 22, 2016

talking to animals

Inspired by the recent news of mutual communication between honeyguide birds and humans, I have had a look at our exchanges with other animals, including barking and meowing ones. The resulting feature is out now:

Talking with animals:

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 16, pR739–R742, 22 August 2016

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The Yao in northern Mozambique cooperate with honeyguide birds to raid bees’ nests, which the birds locate and the humans then break up to provide food for both. Humans and birds have specific calls for their joint honey-hunting expeditions, which have been established for several centuries at least. (Photo: Claire N. Spottiswoode.)

Thursday, August 18, 2016

never too late

Never too late: My musical life story
by John Holt
Delacorte 1978; Da Capo 1991

After years of troubling the family class at the Oxford Music Festival in a duo with the young cellist, I also tried my luck as a solo flautist in the late beginners class this year. As I produced my first note on the flute at age 35, I considered myself qualified for this event. The adjudicator made lots of encouraging noises and recommended John Holt’s book to the class, consisting only of me and a pianist, mentioning that the author had taken up flute and cello at a similarly advanced age.

Closer inspection revealed that Holt had started the flute at 35 and the cello at 40, which quite closely matches the ages at which I got involved with the same instruments, so I just had to read the book to find out how he got to that point. (Part of my trajectory is outlined in this blog entry about our family cello.)

So I found out that the author had no exposure to music at home (must be bad when he writes down the five notes that his grandfather used to whistle as a musical influence!) and discovered singing when he joined the glee club late in high school. Having had no luck with music at college, he briefly sang in a barbershop quartet in his 20s, later taught himself three chords on the guitar, still blissfully unaware of what the #s and bs were for. Asked a musician what orchestral instrument to learn and was recommended the flute. Got on alright but dropped out when life got busy, then discovered the cello and threw himself into learning it. At the time of writing (in his early 50s) he was busy playing in three different amateur ensembles every week and practicing four hours a day.

In real life, Holt tried teaching, got disillusioned, and ended up writing books about education policy, home schooling and “un-schooling”, so he also has interesting observations on the process of learning in people of all ages. The important messages in this book are that 1) the widely held beliefs that many people are “tone-deaf” and that the ability to learn a musical instrument to amateur proficiency is rare are plain wrong, and 2) while an early start has its advantages, a late start also has some.

Like the adjudicator I would recommend the book to any grown-up toying with the idea or feeling the urge to learn an instrument. It’s the perfect protection against those who try to tell you you’re too old – as the head of a council music school told me at the ripe old age of 16. Holt’s story shows that it’s never too late.

Tuesday, August 09, 2016

exoplanetary chemistry

In my latest feature for Chemistry & Industry I have covered some recent developments in the discovery and chemical analysis of exoplanets, as well as the Breakthrough Listen programme, aiming to detect communications from their inhabitants.

Life among the stars

Chemistry & Industry vol 80, issue 7 (Aug. 2016), pp 18-21.

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In other astrobiology news, Germany now has a scientific society dedicated to this field, the Deutsche Astrobiologische Gesellschaft (DAbG). The founding meeting will be at the workshop "Astrobiology: Life in the context of cosmic evolution." at Berlin-Adlershof, Aug 31 to Sep 2. Programme.

Poster of the event.

Monday, August 08, 2016

progress ends here

As a non-British EU citizen living in the UK and likely to be affected by Brexit if and when it happens, I've had to spend a few weeks reading up on the referendum and all the other crazy things happening in the world right now, so I was glad to get the opportunity to write up what I think I understood in a feature for Current Biology. (Always handy when obsessive reading magically turns into valuable research.)

The theme that links Brexit to the rise of Trump, Le Pen, and other populist candidates appears to be that developments of the last three decades like scientific and social progress, European unification, globalisation, etc. have left far too many people behind, who now constitute the angry voters that are ready to elect populists offering reactionary recipes and simple lies in response to the complex questions of today's world.

For a somewhat more detailed analysis, read:

Angry voters may turn back the clock

Current Biology Volume 26, Issue 15, pR689–R692, 8 August 2016

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Large pro-EU demonstrations, unheard of before the referendum, were held in London and other cities after the vote. The narrow margin of the result as well as the false promises that were withdrawn the day after the vote led to calls for a new referendum based on an actual plan of how an exit might work. (Photo: höRticuLtora/flickr.)

Monday, July 25, 2016

disappearing forests

My latest feature is about deforestation in Eastern Europe - of the legal kind in Poland and of the illegal kind in Romania. Oh, and I also managed to get a mention in for Chernobyl - at least one place in Europe where wildlife is left in peace.

Europe's last wilderness threatened

Current Biology
Volume 26, Issue 14, pR641–R643, 25 July 2016

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Białowieża forest,Poland (Photo: Ralf Lotys/Wikipedia.)

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