Tuesday, June 20, 2017

primate problems

There are around 500 primate species on our planet. Two thirds of them are threatened with extinction, because one, Homo sapiens, isn't quite as wise as the binomial name suggests. In my latest feature I have discussed some of the threatened species and the problems they are facing:

Primates in peril

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 12, pR573–R576, 19 June 2017



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Ring-tailed Lemur (Lemur catta) at Berenty Private Reserve in Madagascar. Source: Wikimedia

Friday, June 16, 2017

strings attached

In the round-up of German pieces published in May and June we have 3D-printed aliens, tattooed cucumbers, as well as entanglements of DNA and shoelaces (which, of course stand in for DNA as well):


Netzwerk Leben: Verwicklungen der Schnürsenkel
Chemie in unserer Zeit 51, 154-155
restricted access


Ausgeforscht: Tätowierung für Gurken
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 5, p619
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Ausgeforscht: E.T. aus dem 3-D-Drucker
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, p751
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Medizin: Gefaltete DNA für Diagnose und Therapie
Nachrichten aus der Chemie vol 65, no. 6, pp636-639
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Tuesday, June 13, 2017

20000 leagues under the sea

Open Archive Day

A year ago, I enjoyed reading up about the late 19th / early 20th century pioneers of bathymetry, or the measurement of ocean depth (or sea floor topography, depending on whether you prefer your glass half full or half empty). Much of it sounded like a Jules Verne novel, with the sense of awe for the as yet unexplored which we appear to have forgotten, even though the sea floor remains poorly described to this day. So the vague memory I retain of the feature I wrote is that it was all about Captain Nemo, although in truth it probably wasn't.

The feature is now on open access so you can check for yourself:

How deep are the oceans?





Friday, June 09, 2017

cellular computation

as I have been saying since I wrote a book chapter on Molecular Computation (1998), the fundamental processes in a living cell are essentially computation. This could potentially be used in two ways - building computers based on molecules and cells, or manipulating important biological processes (eg in medical or agricultural context) using computational tools.

Back in the 1990s, the molecular computer was a promising avenue, but it never quite took off. Now the other way round, programming biology, seems the more exciting prospect. This has given a major boost by the recent invention of a compiler that can translate computer code into DNA regulatory networks, which in most cases even work in the cell.

As we are increasingly becoming aware that complex regulatory networks (rather than single genes and enzymes) are the things that we need to understand and control if we want to change biological processes, this development could very well revolutionise several areas where we interfere with living beings, from agriculture to medicine.

Read all about it in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry:

Cellular computer
Chemistry & Industry Volume 81, Issue 4, pages 26–29
DOI: 10.1002/cind.814_7.x
Full text (Wiley Online Library)

Tuesday, June 06, 2017

virtual gets real

I'm not a gamer so I've happily ignored a large part of the technology developments in recent years. However, they are now reaching the point where there is significant collateral benefit for science. Virtual reality tech combined with miniaturised cameras and autonomous vehicles for oceans, air and space now allows us to explore spaces where we cannot go ourselves. Similarly, in neuroscience, VR combines with imaging technology to record brain responses to experiences that would in real life be incompatible with the study.

Luckily, the Radcliffe Science Library did a demonstration workshop just at the right time so I could try out a bit of VR myself and get an impression. And then I rounded up a few of the examples of how VR is actually becoming useful for science.

The feature is out now:

Exploring virtual worlds

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 11, pR399–R402, 5 June 2017


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Greenpeace UK has recently launched a VR app enabling smartphone users to experience the Arctic from the safety of their homes. (Photo: Nick Cobbing/Greenpeace.)

Monday, May 29, 2017

homo migrans

Open Archive Day

Science magazine published a special issue on human migrations earlier this month, underlining the points that all humans have a migration background and movement is vital for science and progress (while also sticking out their tongue to the Drumpf administration).

Which reminds me that I had a feature on migrations published two years ago, which is now in the open archives:

Genetic traces of mankind’s migrations


Wednesday, May 24, 2017

armchair and time travels

A few months ago, I found the booklet about Colombia in a charity shop - but they didn’t have any other countries I was interested in.

Colombia - a booklet from the “Around the World Program” from the American Geographical Society. Copyright 1959, 1964.

printed in greyscale with green as additional colour throughout. At least 29 colour photos are glued in manually (numbered but not in order, so I may have overlooked one).

Now, at a fleas market, I’ve found a few more to start a collection. At the moment, I’m not quite sure if I’m collecting countries I’ve visited (neither Paraguay nor Uruguay) or Latin American ones, in which case Algeria would be the odd one out. Climate zones also vary - looks like I'll just have to schedule a trip to the 'guays.

I’ve actually read the Colombian one (a few more pics of it inside and out are here). I found it touching how the 1950s perspective is blissfully unaware of essentially all problems the country would face in the following decades. Will also read the other ones at some point.

I was wondering if this was based on some kind of subscription / collection model. Somebody on tumblr suggested they came as sets in slip cases, possibly a set for each of the continents that have several countries (wouldn't quite work for Australia, Antarctica).

Monday, May 22, 2017

recycling retroviruses

Last October I went to an epigenetics conference at the IMB Mainz, and one of the things I discovered there was the importance of KRAB zinc finger proteins. This sounds terribly technical and I probably ignored the relevant papers when I saw them in Nature or Science, but as two speakers explained at the conference, it offers a fascination way of understanding how evolution repurposes things. These proteins evolved as defence against retroviruses before our fish ancestors left the oceans, and over time they and the sequences descended from the former viruses became an integral part of our gene regulation.

Fascinating if slightly complex stuff, read all about it in my latest feature:

How our genome’s foes became its helpers

Current Biology Volume 27, Issue 10, 22 May 2017, Pages R365–R368


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The large family of KRAB zinc finger transcription factors goes back to a defence mechanism that originated in a common ancestor of humans and coelacanth (Latimeria chalumnae). (Photo: Mordecai 1998, CC BY-SA 4.0.)

Thursday, May 18, 2017

musical connections

At first glance, my great-grandfather Heinrich Groß (1882-1958), who played oboe and tuba in the military until 1918 and then the cello in an amateur string quartet until the mid 1930s, looks like a one-off on that side of the family tree. His only child, my grandfather, didn’t play anything (although he left a modest record collection including several recordings of Dvorak’s cello concerto). My father only found out about his grandfather’s musical past when another cellist turned up at Heinrich’s funeral to play the Ave Maria.

But stepping sidewise and looking at the (half-) siblings of both the cellist and his wife as well as their offspring, we find an astonishing number of people who played or worked with music in some form or shape. The cellist himself had one sister, with three great-grandchildren (ie my generation but younger), one of whom studied singing and early music and now works as a soprano and music educator.

Heinrich also had a half-brother from his mother’s previous marriage. His niece (the half-brother’s only child, I think) married into a dance school, a tradition which is now running in the fourth generation.

The cellist’s wife, Maria Pfersching (1881-1961; see also this entry on the origins of her paternal ancestors), was also from a relatively small patchwork family, with three half-siblings from her father’s subsequent marriage after the early death (in 1886) of her mother. Her two half-brothers, Heinrich and Fritz Pfersching, were amateur musicians who used to play for local dance events, although we’re not sure what instruments they played.

Among the descendants of her half-sister, Anna Pfersching, we have three professional musicians, with instruments including viola da gamba, bass trombone and cello. I understand they credit their talents to the Pfersching lineage, as the family of Anna’s husband reportedly had no musical inclinations.

Although, considering how Heinrich wrapped up his cello and never played again nor mentioned it to his grandchildren, I would argue that you can never know if you had some cryptic musicians in your family tree. I find this more shocking the more I find out and think about it. Surely, with the number of musical people on both sides and some variety of serious music-making happening in all five branches of the extended family, it is fair to assume that some kind of musical interest must have played a role when Heinrich and Maria got together. (They had a double wedding together with Heinrich's sister, and there are plenty of songs in the "wedding journal" of which I have a copy.) A musical family just falling into silence is a scary thought.

All’s well that ends well, though: Heinrich’s cello (now also known by the name of Heinrich) has seen a lot of excitement since the young musician in my family grew into it in 2009, including everything from quartets to barn dances. I will write up its adventures some other time.



Heinrich's string quartet, photo by his son who was a keen photographer. We still don't know who the other members were.


Monday, May 15, 2017

merian memories

Open Archive Day

Maria Sibylla Merian died 300 years ago, in January 1717. Ahead of the anniversary, I wrote a feature on the role of illustration in the life sciences using her hugely influential work as a prime example.

This feature is now on open access:

Putting biology in the picture



Image source: Wikipedia

Saturday, May 13, 2017

old books

My tumblr blog has a focus on everything bookish, and in this spirit I have also photographed and shared some of the antiquarian books on my shelves. As these photos are diluted with lots of other bookish stuff on tumblr, I decided to share photos of my collection here as well, under the antiquarian tag.

It isn't a very systematic collection, but I inherited some antiquarian books from my great-aunt many years ago, rescued some from a skip, and bought a few at charity shops and fleas markets, so over time, they have accumulated. Moreover, as the years clock, up, some of the books that I once bought new are also beginning to look a bit antiquarian.

To start the new series, here is a lovely appreciation of Oxford by D. Erskine Muir with watercolours by Jack Merriott, which I recently discovered at the antiques fair on Gloucester Green. A bit of googling revealed that the D. in the author’s name stands for Dorothy, and the book appears to date from the 1950s. I actually read it in its entirety, it was hilarious in a “plus ça change” kind of way.


Thursday, May 11, 2017

galician magic

I have been playing Galician folk music for nearly two years now, and (as Pablo Casals famously said about his cello practice in his 90s) I'm beginning to notice some improvement. In the last few weeks I have been spoilt with opportunities to improve further. There was a Galician session at the Folk Weekend, then the the regular monthly one, and a week later, advertised only by word of mouth, a special one, with a special guest. Only two days before the event I found out that the special guest was the most special one you could imagine.

If you read up about Galician folk anywhere, eg in this recent feature in the Economist, the one musician whose name will definitely appear is Carlos Núñez. So, well, he was around visiting friends in the UK, and he came to our special session to listen to us playing and then to join in, playing his whistles (not the bagpipes he's famous for), dancing, chatting and generally being amazing. People in attendance were a mixture of the regulars from the established sessions in Oxford and Cardiff, as well as a delegation from the newly launched Galician session in London, which also set the event apart from our regular sessions.

So, I think everybody (including the paella cook and a stray Morris dancer) felt it was a magical night, and rather than raving on, I'll link to my videos here:

0) Pablo Gonzalez sings Camariñas (before Carlos got involved - any wrong notes on the flute are mine)

1) some dancing

2) A rianxeira

3) Mazurca dos Areeiras (David, who played the whistles at the far side of the room in this video, also recorded a clip of this in which I appear, see embedded video below)

4) an Argentinian chamame, I am told

(These videos are "unlisted" meaning they can only be accessed via these specific links and will not show up in searches.)




Carlos Núñez talking to our group of pandeireteiras (tambourine players). The guy in white at the back is a stray Morris dancer - his side had a dance-out just before our event and he stayed on, playing the spoons.


Mazurca dos Areeiras, the view from the other side of the room:





PS more magic to follow soon. O Arame, the second ever opera to be written and performed in the Galician language will be premiered in Oxford in June, conducted by Tamara Lorenzo Gabeiras. You can see her dancing in my video no. 1). I spent the entire session standing close to her without realising who she was, even though I had seen her in a recital a year before.




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