Tuesday, November 20, 2018

urban mining

Urban mining sounds like a really cool trend, and it probably is one, too. Why dig up the ground in search for diminishing mineral resources, when all we need is contained in the waste we discard every day? Recycling and reuse was yesterday, in the future we call it the urban mine.

Inspired by the Urban Mine Platform which lists the mindboggling amounts of metals that go to waste in Europe, I wrote a feature which came out in C&I a couple of months ago, I just forgot to shout about it (probably because the issue wasn't yet online when I checked and then I forgot about it). Anyhow, it's all online now, and if you can't get to it, drop me a line, I have the PDF file:

Urban mining

Chemistry & Industry 82, No. 7, pp 22-25.

access via:

Wiley Online Library (paywalled)

SCI (members only)

Here's a sneaky peek at the first page:

Monday, November 19, 2018

vanishing wildlife

Mammals are generally getting preferential treatment in conservation efforts, especially if they have big eyes and fluffy fur, but they are still on track to lose significant diversity in the ongoing, man-made sixth mass extinction. Among various items of bad news from the extinction front, there was one paper recently that analysed how long it would take for mammals to recover their biodiversity. I used this as a peg for a feature on mammal conservation and extinction, which is out now:

Can vanishing wildlife evolve back?

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 22, 19 November 2018, Pages R1283-R1286

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)



The Tasmanian tiger is one of the mammalian species that suffered severe range reductions as humans spread around the planet. It finally became extinct at the beginning of the 20th century. (Photo: Osado/Wikimedia Commons.)

Saturday, November 17, 2018

all about energy

In the latest issue of C&I (issue 9) you'll find four book reviews including two long essay reviews from me, both relating to energy use, by cells and by humans, respectively. Both books cover very exciting and important material, but don't do much to make it accessible to a broader range of people who really should know about these things.

The books are:

Low Carbon Energy Transitions by Kathleen M. Araujo (Oxford University Press 2018)
review on page 38

and

Photosynthesis and bioenergetics by J. Barber, A.V. Ruban, eds. (World Scientific 2018)
page 40

Araujo covers the decarbonising and surprisingly swift energy transitions in Brazil (biofuel), France (nuclear), Iceland (geothermal) and Denmark (wind).

Meanwhile, the monograph by Barber and Ruban rounds up research around life's most important energy systems, ATP synthase and photosystem II.

Reviews can be accessed via the C&I website or through the Wiley Online Library. Both options are limited to institutional / subscriber / member access, but I'll be happy to email PDFs if you email me.



Tuesday, November 13, 2018

living on an island

Open Archive Day

As a certain Brexit secretary in the UK government seems to have realised only recently, this country is located on a group of islands, aka the British Isles. Islands are defined by their small size and surrounding waters, and their biology can be quite peculiar, as Darwin noticed when he visited the Galapagos archipelago.

Island biogeography has very successfully uncovered the rules that apply to life on islands. Intriguingly, they also apply to all sorts of other isolated locations, including, for instance, those under the water. Last year I wrote a feature on island biogeography under the surface, which is now in the open archives:

Life's islands under the sea

Friday, November 09, 2018

there's a rang-tan in my bedroom ...

So today we learned that in TV adverts in the UK you are allowed to spread all kinds of lies and unfair comparisons, but you're not allowed to say the truth about environmental problems and how human activities endanger other mammal species. How weird is that. So, while I don't normally post in support of Iceland or any other supermarket, here's the ad they're not allowed to show. The way things work these days, I expect it will get a gazillion views on youtube, maybe more than it would have had on TV:





The Guardian: Iceland's Christmas TV advert banned for being too political



Iceland’s Christmas ad was brave and necessary. It shouldn’t be banned
Opinion piece by Jessica Brown

Monday, November 05, 2018

on the edge

This year's climate feature ahead of COP24 covers lots of things going in the wrong direction including fracking in the UK, coal mining in Germany, everything in the trumpocalypse, as well as recent research analysing which countries will be most affected by climate change. It was in press while the second round of the election in Brazil happened, so this novice horseman of the apocalypse only makes a brief appearance as a possible calamity.

So, well, if you can cope with more bad news, here goes:


Counting carbon costs


Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 21, 05 November 2018, Pages R1221-R1224

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

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On the edge is where we stand right now:

Climate change protesters at Hambacher Forst, Germany, where an open cast mining operation for lignite is destroying ancient woodlands and several villages. (Photo: Leonhard Lenz.)

Monday, October 29, 2018

testing times

Open Archive Day

A year ago, reflecting the rise of certain politicians and movements aiming to reinstate old-fashioned prejudice against anybody who is different from their definition of normal, I wrote a feature on the psychology of prejudice and the implicit association test (IAT) developed by Anthony Greenwald and Mahzarin Banaji.

As things are going right now, considering recent events in the US and election results from Italy, Germany, Brazil, a test for hidden bias like this will soon become obsolete, because our real problem will be with the outspoken bias marching down the street and assaulting people. But just to be extra sure you've no common ground with the prejudiced people coming out of their caves, you could take the IAT online, and/or read my feature about bias, which is on open access now:

Can we change our biased minds?

Monday, October 22, 2018

say cheese

In a widely publicised paper this summer, researchers claimed to have dicovered the world's oldest cheese in an Egyptian tomb. Only that the remains of that cheese were mainly sodium carbonate, and that two weeks later, traces of cheese were discovered that were twice as old. I wrote a column poking fun at the short-lived "oldest cheese in the world" but in the process discovered that the paper about the earlier cheese traces was really interesting, because it pushes the origins of cheese-making in Europe to a time that is earlier than the arrival of lactose tolerance. Which means that cheese, containing less lactose than fresh milk, may have been the gateway of ancient Europeans to the benefits of using nutrients from milk beyond early childhood. And then, being culturally prepared to use milk and milk products, ancient Europe was a fertile ground for the lactose tolerance genes when they arrived.

The whole story is now out in feature format:


On the origins of cheese

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 20, 22 October 2018, Pages R1171-R1173

Restricted access to full text and PDF download

(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
(first seven weeks only)



Europeans enjoy an overwhelming variety of cheese products. Interestingly, the earliest evidence of cheese making in Europe now predates the arrival of lactose tolerance genes, suggesting that cheese may have paved the way for dairy use. (Image: Ted Drake/Flickr by a CC BY-SA 2.0 licence.)

Monday, October 15, 2018

another COP coming up

Open Archive Day

As another climate conference is coming up in December, it's the numbering that really gets to me. COP24 means, above all, that we have now spent more than a quarter century not getting any better at averting catastrophic climate change. I usually write a climate-related feature ahead of the conference (watch this space), so here's one I prepared earlier, in the run-up to the Paris conference of 2015.

How nature copes with climate change





Tuesday, October 09, 2018

latest buzz

I've been covering bee problems for well over a decade now - since the crisis around colony collapse disorder in the mid-00s. Progress has been made in terms of recognising the subtle kinds of damage that neonicotinoids can do to pollinators. But the fundamental paradox remains - we depend on insects for our nutrition (never mind to maintain a residue of a natural environment), and yet we put tonnes of insecticides into the environment.

Three neonics are now being banned EU-wide, but one of the products that may replace them is now also implicated in (bumble)bee problems. One day we'll have to acknowledge that the problem isn't insects, it's monocultures. And we'll have to learn agriculture from scratch again as our ancestors did some 12,000 years ago.

Anyhow, my latest buzz on bees is out now:

Bee worries beyond neonicotinoids

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 19, 8 October 2018, Pages R1121-R1123

Restricted access to full text and PDF download
(will become open access one year after publication)

Magic link for free access
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(Own photo, taken at Chelsea Physics Garden, London.)

Monday, October 01, 2018

epic genomes

Open Archive Day

There are so many exciting discoveries coming out of the analyses of ancient DNA - ranging from recent history back to the times when Neanderthals, Denisovans and our sapiens sapiens ancestors coexisted - that one could easily write about these all the time. However, remembering that I write for a general biology journal, I make sure that stories about humans don't take over and that animals, plants and microbes also get their fair share.

While I can't catch everything, here's one ancient DNA story I did a year ago, and which is now on open access, covering the early civilisation in the Eastern Mediterranean and providing some genetic context for sources like Homer and the Bible:


Roots of Mediterranean civilisations



Figurine of an ox and driver, from Phylakopi, a site on the island of Milos related to Mycenaean culture, which dominated mainland Greece and some Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. (Photo: Zde/Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 4.0.)of an ox and driver, from Phylakopi, a site on the island of Milos related to Mycenaean culture, which dominated mainland Greece and some Aegean islands in the Bronze Age. (Photo: Zde/Wikimedia Commons by CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2018

threads and patterns

O club de calceta
María Reimóndez
Edicions Xerais 2006

This book has been translated into Spanish, Italian and French, but apparently not into English. If it was, I would call it the knitting circle, rather than club, as I imagine the six protagonists sitting in a circle and knitting, but more importantly each telling the story of her life. As we go round the circle, the joint story also advances, as it becomes clearer what connects these women and how they can help each other, so while the movement is circular, it is also going forward. Like knitting a sock, I suspect. Threads and patterns are important, too.

The cast makes me think: Why hasn’t Almodóvar made the film yet? We have a prostitute fed up with the profession she inherited from her mum, a one-legged woman who wants to become a bus driver, a secretary with the ambition to be her own boss, a cleaner haunted by the ghost of her aunt, a political activist (communist?) in remission, and an old lady who spent her life looking after the local church (dressing the saints, as I think they say in Galicia).

Six women on the verge of a major breakthrough, because knitting does change the world. Six lovely stories with convincing voices that we would not normally hear. In the final chapter the whole thing is tied together maybe a little bit too neatly, but never mind. You don’t want to have any loose threads dangling when you’re knitting a masterpiece.

PS The Galician edition of Wikipedia tells me there has been a TV adaptation, but I still want to see Almodóvar’s take on this. Wiki also reveals that the story is set in the city of Vigo (whose literary fame was secured by Martin Codax in the 13th century).

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