Monday, July 30, 2018

crunch time for crispr

Open Archive Day

The European Court of Justice has ruled that gene editing using crispr falls under the EU regulation for GM organisms.

This is a little bit surprising, as crispr is a lot more elegant and subtle than old-style GM, which means that a) it is less likely to produce harmful side-effects, and b) it is much harder if not impossible to detect, as a crispr-induced point mutation could just as well be a random mutation.

This is why, a year and a half ago, when I wrote a feature about gene-edited crops, I was fully expecting regulators to classify these new methods separately from old GM. Clearly, they didn't read my article, which is now openly accessible:

Harvest time for crispr-cas?

Tuesday, July 24, 2018

arpeggione sonata

on my very slow crawl through the repertoire, I've spent almost six months with Schubert's arpeggione sonata. Although I'll never get it into a shape that would be presentable in public, I can play it along with Natalie Clein's version which I have on CD, and that's great fun too.

(Note for the non-cellists: the arpeggione was a string instrument half way between a guitar and a cello, which was invented in 1823 and only survived for a decade or so. Schubert's sonata, today a standard piece of the cello repertoire, is the only reason the instrument is still remembered.)

Next up, some Bach I found at Oxfam ...


Monday, July 23, 2018

bottom-up biology at Birkbeck

Way back in 2001, when I was switching to full-time writing but wanted to keep some kind of connection with the world of academia, I used to trek to London twice a week to reside at the School of Crystallography, Birkbeck College, as a science writer in residence. That was an interesting experience while it lasted, and I got some good articles out of it, but as the railway connection got worse and more expensive over time, it wasn't really sustainable in the long run. (In 1999 I had even applied for a few London-based jobs thinking the railways situation can't get worse but it did!) Moreover, as Birkbeck set up a joint Institute of Structural Molecular Biology (ISMB) with UCL in 2003 and turbo-charged its research in this field, the space I used to have just disappeared.

The ISMB hosts an international symposium every other year, and as I was there when the first one happened, I enjoy the nostalgia trip of attending the latest instalments if and when I'm organised enough to make it happen. This year I was lucky and got there for both days of the symposium. I was rewarded with an amazing meeting that covered both the distinguished history of BBK structural biology (Rosalind Franklin, Aaron Klug, JD Bernal ... ) and its very exciting present. And I got another article out of it which is out now:

Building blocks for bottom-up biology

Current Biology Volume 28, Issue 14, 23 July 2018, Pages R761–R764

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 famously dilapidated pair of Georgian townhouses, 21 and 22 Torrington Square, where Rosalind Franklin worked for the last five years of her life, were later demolished and gave way to this, the Clore Management Centre, which is where the symposium was held (own photo).


PS and I got to test-ride the new rail line Oxford to Marylebone, with Chiltern Rail, which is indeed a bit better than what we had so far.

Saturday, July 21, 2018

9 years on twitter

twitter tells me I've been on there for 9 years now - hover over the line where it says "joined in July 2009" and it will reveal the precise date and time. So many things have changed since then, but one thing I found surprisingly constant is the ratio of posts to followers, i.e. how many tweets to I have to send out to increase the number of followers by one. This ratio has been around 15 for as long as I can remember. Checking today, it is 15.04 posts per follower.

More intriguing still, the number is very similar on tumblr (15.98) where I do very different things. Much bigger on blogspot though (47), where the culture of following people never really took off. And smaller on flickr (7.13).

Obviously, for people who are more famous than I am this twitter impact ratio will be smaller, for others it may be bigger - so maybe it's a useful parameter for sociologists to study the social media pecking order (both figures that go into it are public)?


Another thing worth noting is that, since I started obsessing about the Galician language and occasionally tweeting in Galician or linking to Galician sources, these relatively rare ventures tend to spread very widely. Whenever I look at my stats, there's a Galician tweet in the top three. See for instance, from yesterday:



Monday, July 16, 2018

two years on

Open Archive Day

We certainly live in interesting times now, in the sense of the famous Chinese curse. As I write this Brexit still means chaos and Trump says Russia didn't meddle with elections because Putin told him so. Oh well.

Not sure if it's much use to look back how it went wrong, but here's my first relevant feature written just after the Brexit referendum.

Angry voters may turn back the clocks

The feature warned of a possible Trump victory, so here's one of my photos from last Thursday's anti-Trump demo at Blenheim Palace:

Monday, July 09, 2018

sequence everything

It's three decades since the Human Genome Project was organised and 15 years since it published the draft sequence, so it may be worth asking what could be the next big thing for biology.

One possibility that is being looked at is to sequence the genomes of every single eukaryotic species known to science. The Earth BioGenome project, which promotes this idea, has calculated that this could be done within 10 years and would cost no more than the first human genome did.

A crazy idea? Find out in my latest feature which is out now:

The genome sequence of everything

Current Biology
Volume 28, Issue 13, 9 July 2018, Pages R719-R721

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)



Beetles account for a substantial part of eukaryotic diversity and will keep genome sequencers busy for a while. (Photo: Tim Sackton/Flickr.)

Tuesday, July 03, 2018

chemistry stories

These days, I don't write as much about chemistry as I used to as the features for Current Biology keep me reasonably busy, but here's a couple of news stories I did for Chemistry World. The one that came out today involves Harry Anderson's lab at Oxford - I consulted him about something else and asked what he was up to these days, so I found out about this:

Most complex reaction ever triggered by atomic manipulation makes molecular wire
Chemistry World August 2018, vol 15, issue 8, page 32

And the other was something that Chemistry World commissioned while this one was sitting around waiting for the original paper to come out. This is about new ways of predicting how several elements may be combined to form new materials:


AI teaches itself to identify materials – and predict new ones too

Chemistry World August 2018, vol 15, issue 8, page 38






Image source

Monday, July 02, 2018

plight of the primates

Open Archive Day

We all know that orangutans are in trouble, and the other great apes are also having a rough time in the anthropocene. While these are our closest relatives in the animal kingdom, our extended family, the order primates, is endangered across the board, with over 60% of the species listed as threatened.

In a paper based on literature review and modelling of land use until the end of the century, researchers from the German Primate Centre (Deutsches Primatenzentrum, DPZ) highlight the plight of the primates and paint an even darker future for them.

Which chimes with the take-home message of my feature from a year ago, which is now on open access (and which happens to have the same title as the DPZ press release, but I admit it wasn't a terribly original title anyway):

Primates in peril





a male mongoose lemur (Eulemur mongoz)
Image source: Wikipedia
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