Monday, June 29, 2015

why reduce harm

... when you could go and lock up harmless people?

Well, ahem, don't get me started on the psychoactive substances bill which is currently on its way through UK parliament and may well become law. I find it ironic that this steaming pile of b****t, which will make totally harmless substances like nitrous oxide (used in childbirth and whipping cream, no less) illegal, shows up at the same time as the commercial success of e-cigarettes demonstrates that harm reduction is possible. Sadly though, reducing harm is not what our government wants. Appeasing the Daily Mail is more important, obviously.

Anyhow. My feature juxtaposing these two issues is out now in Current Biology:

Drugs: blanket ban or harm reduction?
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 13, pR523–R525, 29 June 2015
Summary and limited access to full text
(should become openly accessible one year after publication)

Laughing gas has been safely used for over two centuries, as this cartoon from the early 19th century exemplifies.

Thursday, June 25, 2015

folding into 3D

There have been exciting developments recently involving one- and two-dimensional structures that can be induced to buckle or fold into complex three-dimensional architectures. I've explored these in my latest feature in Chemistry & Industry, which is now online:

Scientific origami
Chemistry & Industry Volume 79, Issue 6, pages 26–29, June 2015
abstract and restricted access to PDF file

A sneaky preview of the first page (as shown on the Wiley Online Library page):

On page 49 of the same issue there is also my review of the book:

The price of global health: drug pricing strategies to balance patient access and the funding of innovation

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

pee-back time

The round-up of German pieces published in June covers African genomics, gene editing, and advanced materials reflecting urine from the much peed-upon walls of St. Pauli district in Hamburg.

Crispr-Cas: Gen-Schere weckt Neugier, Hoffnungen und Ängste
Chemie in unserer Zeit Volume 49, Issue 3, page 158, Juni 2015
Abstract and restricted access to full text.
related content in English

Blickpunkt Biowissenschaften: Afrikas Genome
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63, 647-649
related content in English

Ausgeforscht: Clochemerle 2.0
Nachrichten aus der Chemie 2015, 63,751

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

little birds lost

Some large iconic bird species have recovered across Europe, but many less conspicuous ones are still declining. Even "common" species like the house sparrow have suffered dramatic declines, and ecologists have argued that their loss in abundance may make more of an impact than than the plight of the rarer birds that conservation efforts tend to focus on.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology which is out now:

Europe’s bird populations in decline
Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 12, pR483–R485, 15 June 2015
DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2015.05.057
Abstract and restricted access to full text
(should become freely accessible one year after publication)

PS In lieu of a bird picture, enjoy this beautiful dinosaur on the cover of the issue:

Monday, June 01, 2015

genome editing

Some time around 1994, I heard freshly-minted Nobel laureate Tom Cech (one of the discoverers of natural RNA enzymes, aka ribozymes) give a talk in Oxford, and he finished by saying that most of what he had presented happened thanks to his brilliant post-doc, and we should remember her name, she would go on to do great things. That post-doc was Jennifer Doudna, who now has a very good chance to get a Nobel prize herself for her work on CRISPR-Cas, the “bacterial immune system”, which Doudna and others turned into a turbo-charged gene editing tool.

Currently, researchers are still teasing out some very fundamental details of how this system works in the wild, while its application in the laboratory is turning the world of genetics upside down, as it allows gene editing with unprecedented ease. And while US scientists are holding meetings to call for a moratorium on its application to the human germline, a team in China has proceeded to to just that.

This is the topic of my latest feature in Current Biology. If I got my counts right, this must be the 100th in the new format we introduced in February 2011, when I started providing a feature for every issue of the magazine (i.e. two per month). I think I only missed 3 issues since then, so I guess it worked out quite nicely. So here’s number 100:

Bacterial scissors to edit human embryos?

Current Biology Volume 25, Issue 11, pR439–R442, 1 June 2015

Abstract and restricted access to full text

(should become open access one year after publication)

Monday, May 25, 2015

busking protest

We had great fun last Thursday busking "non-compliantly" to protest against Oxford City Council’s plans to use a new Public Space Protection Orders (PSPO) to attach the threat of large fines and a criminal record to “non-compliant busking” i.e. anything that their staff consider to be in violation of the busking code. Much like the notorious ASBOs (Anti Social Behaviour Orders), the PSPOs are a malicious trick to criminalise behaviours that were previously considered minor misdemeanours. (They also wanted to do the same to criminalise rough sleeping and charge homeless people fines, but the public outcry made them reconsider that part of the plan. NB they're not even the only Labour council to try that.)

The code as such isn’t all that bad. Apart from the much-ridiculed requirement to smile while you're playing (impossible for flautists and other wind players!), I think the ban on CD sales should be removed. It’s been ignored for years, but when the council started to police it last summer, they scared away some of the best busking acts we had, including PerKelt.

Green Party councillors were very supportive and patient listeners. I think the council is still going to debate the changes on June 11, so maybe the Greens can still persuade the Labour majority to fix the problems and withdraw the threat of criminalising harmless musicians?

own picture. A selection of seven pictures appears on my street music blog on tumblr.

 

Further info and updates (newest at the top):

On 11.6., the scheduled decision day, as we held another protest busk, the news broke that a legal intervention from Liberty delivered the same morning had succeeded in persuading the council to think again. Let's hope they arrive at a better conclusion when they're done with it. Oh, and here's a recording of the busking protest orchestra performing "Creep" by Radiohead. I think this was the first attempt, it got better by the third time round.

2.6. The scrutiny committee has unanimously passed the recommendation that the code of conduct should be reviewed before it can be hitched up to the PSPO. However, only 3 (out of 12 or so) members supported a motion to remove non-compliant busking from the PSPO altogether.

ITV coverage broadcast regionally on 29.5.

The next busking protest jam session will be on June 11, meet Cornmarket Street at 3pm.

Scrutiny committee meeting on PSPOs will take place on Tue June 2nd, 6 pm, town hall.

BBC news item with a photo of me tooting my flute

Daily Telegraph coverage - I understand this was on the front page of the paper on the day after our protest.

21.5. event page on facebook

Keep Streets Live

online petition

Paula Cocozza about PSPOs.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

oxford alumni divest

In my recent feature on “25 years of climate change failure” I reported among other things the ongoing campaign of Oxford students to persuade the University to divest its massive £ 3.8 billion endowment from all fossil fuel investments.

After deferring the decision in March, the university’s governing body has last Monday chosen a path of the smallest possible action which, with a lot of good will, could be spun as “doing something”. Specifically, the university has asked its money people not to buy any investment in coal or tar sands in the future, as these are the dirtiest kinds of fossil fuels. As I understand it, the university doesn’t hold any such investments at the moment anyway, so it’s not divesting from anything, it’s just promising not to commit any major crimes against our climate in the future. (While they’re sorting out their ethics, maybe they could also pledge not to buy or sell any slaves?)

Nearly 70 Oxford alumni have now protested against this failure to act more decisively by handing back their degrees. The photos below are from a slightly improvised reverse degree ceremony held today outside the University Offices in Wellington Square (proper degree ceremonies are held at the Sheldonian Theatre hence the pun “Shelldonian”). The 59 degrees sent in beforehand were lined up at the start of the event, to which the nine participants added theirs in the course of the ceremony. At the end, the alumni successfully divested from the black stuff, namely the gowns and mortarboards.

Prominent alumni who have pledged to hand their degrees (although I’m not sure if they already have) include environmental campaigner George Monbiot and solar entrepreneur Jeremy Leggett.

All photos my own.

Further reading

Other reports on the university's decision:

Damian Carrington in the Guardian

Miriam Chapman on Fossil Free UK

Similar problems elsewhere:

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.”

reference:

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

(2010)

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.

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