Monday, March 30, 2020

a moldy old story

Open Archive Day

For my features, I like make connections across time, space, phylogenetic groups, even scientific disciplines. I fondly remember this one from last year where I was able to cover a billion years and the evolutionary history of plants and fungi, around the globe of course, in the oceans and on the continents. Apparently, as I learned from this research, they were already cooperating before they even started to grow on the continents, so they may have helped each other to conquer land.

The resulting feature is now in the open archives:

The success story of plants and fungi

Over the last one billion years, fungi have evolved to co-operate closely with plants in multiple ways, from providing nutrients to aiding their decomposition. (Photo: adage/Pixabay.)

Friday, March 27, 2020

mind your exponentials

Science news special on coronavirus

Shout-out to the Financial Times for their brilliant data presentation in their daily Coronavirus updates (free access).

Only from semi-logarithmic plots (which convert the exponential growth curve to a straight line) you can make extrapolations (as our mind doesn't really do exponential), and because different countries are using very different approaches to testing, the case numbers aren't much use in international comparison, so I'm afraid the only good measure is provided by the death stats.

As the FT page doesn't have a permanent URL I took a screenshot of one of yesterday's graphs to demonstrate:

From this we can learn:

Based on the levelling off now seen in China, the curve appears to be committed to a 100fold increase at the point of lockdown, simply because of the time lag between infection and deaths. Thus, China locked down at 30 deaths and is levelling off at 3000. UK locked down (politely) at 335 deaths, so may be heading towards 33k. Earlier intervention could have saved 90% of these people.

The UK is still on the Italy trajectory but can hope to turn around earlier, because it has locked down after 330 deaths, compared to 800 in Italy.

Still, if the factor 100 observed in China holds, we are on track for 33,000 unavoidable deaths, and, what's more worrying, hundreds of thousands of people needing intensive care, some of whom may also die if they don't get the treatment they need.

90% of the committed deaths (inescapable due to the severity of the disease) and most of the collateral deaths (due to facilities overload) could have been avoided if the UK had taken measures a week earlier.

France and Spain may fare a bit better as they locked down slightly earlier (at 175 and 200 deaths, respectively) and at least in the case of France, more firmly.

It's very clear that the risk denialists of this world don't understand this kind of high school maths, but once the trajectories have run their course, they will provide a very clear set of data to judge government performance ...

Wednesday, March 25, 2020

science news 25.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Small horses got smaller, big tapirs got bigger 47 million years ago

Exceptionally-well fossilized skeletons of the ancient tapir Lophiodon (top) and the ancestral horse Propalaeotherium (bottom) from the middle Eocene Geiseltal locality (Germany, Saxony-Anhalt).
Credit: Oliver Wings/MLU

Scientists investigate why females live longer than males
... based on 101 mammal species


Humans are not the first to repurpose CRISPR
We humans are far from the first to exploit the benefits of CRISPR. Groundbreaking research at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH) has helped to redefine what CRISPR is. UCPH Researchers have discovered that primitive bacterial parasites weaponize CRISPR to engage in battle against one another. This discovery opens up the possibility to reprogram CRISPR to combat multi-drug resistant bacteria.


Singapore modelling study estimates impact of physical distancing on reducing spread of COVID-19

Wuhan study shows lying face down improves breathing in severe COVID-19

Mental health of health care workers in China in hospitals with patients with COVID-19


Whole body ownership is not just the sum of each part of the body
Differences between whole body and body part ownership were clarified using scrambled body stimulation in a virtual environment, wherein the observer's hands and feet were presented in randomized spatial arrangements. While moving, the scrambled body stimulation produces a sense of possession of limbs (hands and feet), but possession of the whole body cannot be grasped. Spatial placement is important for the illusion of whole-body ownership. Bodily self-consciousness is thus affected by the body's spatial arrangement.


From the news media:

The Guardian about that COVID-19 antibody test promised for the UK, which would be useful to allow people to go back to work when they have had the infection and developed antibodies . Not to be confused with the PCR test needed to check if somebody is currently carrying the virus.

Tuesday, March 24, 2020

science news 24.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Counteracting a legacy of extinctions
Now a new study, comparing the traits of introduced herbivores to those of the past, reveals that introductions have restored many important ecological traits that have been lost for thousands of years.

Here's a different take on the same PNAS paper:
Pablo Escobar's hippos may help counteract a legacy of extinctions
When cocaine kingpin Pablo Escobar was shot dead in 1993, the four hippos in his private zoo in Colombia were left behind. Since then, their numbers have grown to an estimated 80-100 in the country's rivers. Scientists and the public alike have viewed the hippos as invasive pests that should not run wild in South America. Now a new study in PNAS by an international group of researchers challenges this view.


UM scientists play a direct role in identification of forests for protection in Borneo

A Borneo rainforest identified in the study as critical for protection.
Credit: Jedediah Brodie


Researchers observe ultrafast processes of single molecules for the first time


Stem cells and nerves interact in tissue regeneration and cancer progression
Researchers at the University of Zurich show that different stem cell populations are innervated in distinct ways. Innervation may therefore be crucial for proper tissue regeneration. They also demonstrate that cancer stem cells likewise establish contacts with nerves. Targeting tumor innervation could thus lead to new cancer therapies.

Immune boost against the coronavirus
In Germany, a vaccine candidate will be tested for its effectiveness against infections with the novel coronavirus.

climate change

East Antarctica's Denman Glacier has retreated almost 3 miles over last 22 years


How do you power billions of sensors? By converting waste heat into electricity

New material developed could help clean energy revolution
Researchers developed a promising graphene-carbon nanotube catalyst, giving them better control over hugely important chemical reactions for producing green technology and clean energy


From the news media:

Climate crisis denialists are now getting the demonstration how delays cost lives - I am cautiously optimistic that after all this people will stop trusting and voting for risk denialists of any kind. Comment piece from Jonathan Watts on this important connection.

Monday, March 23, 2020

listen to nature

As the very predictable disaster unfolds in slow motion around us, I am extremely lucky that my work isn't affected (yet). I've been working from home for the last 20 years, and the magazines I write for carry on publishing as normal, so all good.

I am following the crisis very closely of course, not least because it's mainly been caused by people in power ignoring the science behind it (it's the same risk-denialist school of thinking that is also driving climate change, only this time it's happening a bit faster!), and apparently not understanding elementary things like exponential functions or even multiplications, see my rant about that from yesterday. I've also done a feature on the animal connections of coronavirus diseases, which appears to be on open access, but if that fails, there is a magic link in this blog entry.

Apart from these, my features will continue to cover other topics than the pandemic. As I write for magazines that have at least three weeks of production time, any corona news will be ancient history by the time a piece comes out, so the evolving situation isn't a suitable topic for my work. Instead, I hope that I can distract you from the apocalyptic scenery around us with some timeless and exciting science.

Today's feature revisits the new(ish) field of soundscape ecology, which tells us how much we can learn by systematically listening to nature. This is especially true for life in the oceans, where other observation channels are of limited use, but there are also lessons to be learned from the sounds of the forests:

Eavesdropping on ecosystems

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 6, 23 March 2020, Pages R237-R240

FREE access to full text and PDF download

Many marine mammals, like the bearded seal shown here, use acoustic signals. Monitoring their vocalisations can help with conservation work. (Photo: kerryinlondon/Flickr (CC BY-ND 2.0).)

Sunday, March 22, 2020

stay home save lives

I came back from Germany on March 14 and it took me a while to realise just how badly the Coronavirus pandemic is being mismanaged here in the UK. Essentially, the UK is 2 weeks behind Italy on the same trajectory, but has done nothing to learn from the disaster unfolding in Italy.

Everything the govt has done so far has happened more than a week too late, and the exponential function of the virus spread grows by a factor of 10 every 8 days (33% daily growth rate) so stopping the spread 8 days later than you could have done means ten times as many people get infected and 10 times as many people die (possibly more, due to the health service running out of capacity).

Some of the things I realised with great horror this week:

1) key people in govt. and some reporters don't understand exponential functions. They talk about the spread entering a different phase, accelerating, or whatever - all nonsense. It obeys an exponential function which very neatly means that every freaking day there will be 33% more infections than there were the day before. And there will be 33% more deaths than the day before.We had 233 deaths by yesterday Saturday 21.3., and we will have 2330 death by this time next week, Sunday 29.3. Nothing surprising about it, that's what happens when you let an infectious agent run wild. As significant behaviour change only really started this weekend, we're already committed to those 2000 extra deaths. Any benefits from measures we see now will only show up later.

2) That herd immunity approach that the UK govt. proposed on March 12 and then dropped allegedly after hearing of new scientific data in the report from Imperial College. In my view, all that the Imperial College people did was a multiplication of 3 numbers that I had previously done in my head and I assume everybody else with multiplication skills as well: 65 million people times 60% infection rate times 1% mortality = 390,000 people dead. Plus those who would die from lack of treatment as the health system can't cope with anything near the peak, even if it is flattened by mild precautionary measures. My reading is that BJ didn't understand this, while DC did understand it and didn't care (which is also the message of the piece in the Sunday Times that is causing a bit of a stir right now). In any case, the Imperial College people made it clear to BJ in terms that he could understand. He then realised that half a million dead people would look bad on his CV and changed course. Sadly, it was a week too late.

3) as there has been far too little testing in the UK, we don't really know how many cases we have. Based on the 233 deaths, it must have been more than 20,000 infections more than a week ago. So, that means 200,000 infections now. See, exponentials are easy. You just add a zero every 8 days.

4) Commiserations to all in the US, they may very well be heading for an even bigger disaster for the same reason.

Watch this space - I'm adding new developments here rather than having repeated blog entries on the pandemic.

* I'm seeing serious sources reporting that a sudden loss of smell is a symptom of Covid-19 infection. Knowing this can help to reduce the spread via otherwise asymptomatic carriers.

* antiviral remdesivir gets orphan drug status, slightly ironic as it might help to save millions of lives. It was originally developed against Ebola, however, which fits the bill a bit better.

So my belated message is don't wait for the govt to introduce a curfew, just stay away from other people now. Act as if getting infected could kill you. If it doesn't, it might very well kill somebody else you pass it on to before you even show symptoms.

The last gathering of more than 4 people that I attended was on March 4th. And it will remain the last for months, if not years, I'm afraid.

By lagging more than a week behind the curve, the government is causing preventable deaths. We can all save lives by doing more to stop the spread than we are being asked to do.

Related reading:

My recent feature on the animal sources of the coronaviruses that cause SARS, MERS, and the current pandemic.

A long report by John Vidal
on animal links and how nature destruction makes zoonotic transfers more likely.

Richard Horton, editor of The Lancet, on the UK govt's failure to act.

Epidemiologist William Hanage demolishes the UK govt. herd immunity plan.

A very clear summary by Devi Sridhar of the many ways in which the UK govt f*cked up the response to the epidemic so far (until 23.3.). These errors are on track towards causing tens of thousands of additional deaths.

Friday, March 20, 2020

science news 20.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


The strange orbits of 'Tatooine' planetary disks
Astronomers using the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) have found striking orbital geometries in protoplanetary disks around binary stars. While disks orbiting the most compact binary star systems share very nearly the same plane, disks encircling wide binaries have orbital planes that are severely tilted. These systems can teach us about planet formation in complex environments.


Study by international team of scientists investigates evolution during Cambrian Explosion
A new study by an international team of scientists has revealed the developmental and evolutionary mechanisms underlying the origin of a major phylum. The study investigates the questions of whether this pattern resulted from abundant ecological opportunity early in the history of life, which became dampened with competition through time, or from evolutionary shifts in growth and development that limit evolutionary innovation through time.

ecology and behaviour

Scientists learn how vampire bat strangers make friends

Loners help society survive, say Princeton ecologists
... at least in slime molds


We're getting better at wildlife conservation, AI study of scientific abstracts suggests


Lehigh University engineers unlock secrets to swimming efficiency of whales, dolphins


Coronavirus testing kits to be developed using SFU-invented RNA imaging technology
Simon Fraser University researchers will use their pioneering imaging technology -- called Mango, for its bright color -- to develop coronavirus testing kits. They're among a small set of Canadian researchers who responded to the rapid funding opportunity recently announced by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) to help address COVID-19.


Bone analyses tell about kitchen utensils in the Middle Ages

'Feeling obligated' can impact relationships during social distancing


From the news media:

Thursday, March 19, 2020

science news 19.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Ancient fish fossil reveals evolutionary origin of the human hand

'Wonderchicken' fossil from the age of dinosaurs reveals origin of modern birds


Salmon provide nutrients to Alaskan streambanks
I knew that, it's in my recent salmon feature as well as in the earlier megapoo feature.

Reef manta rays in New Caledonia dive up to 672 meters deep at night

Manta ray tagging
Credit: Hugo Lassauce

Two new species of the rarely seen six-gilled sawsharks have been found in the West Indian Ocean

6000-8000 km round trip flight of migratory wading birds tracked


Digestive symptoms are prominent among COVID-19 patients
still no excuse for hoarding toilet rolls.

food and drink

New sensor could help prevent food waste

climate change

Greenland shed ice at unprecedented rate in 2019; Antarctica continues to lose mass


Mirror, mirror, on the wall
How accurately can you judge your own looks? Researchers looked at how we rate our own bodies when viewed from a first-person perspective compared to when viewed from an outside perspective. They did this by creating three virtual bodies ('avatars') for each participant. Participants rated their own body as more attractive when viewing it from a third-person perspective in virtual reality and showed that our internal representation of our own body shape is highly inaccurate.


From the news media:

Wednesday, March 18, 2020

science news 18.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


One of Darwin's evolution theories finally proved by Cambridge researcher
Specifically: In Chapter 3 of On the Origin of Species Darwin said animal lineages with more species should also contain more 'varieties'. Subspecies is the modern definition.

Mysterious ancient sea-worm pegged as new genus after half-century in 'wastebasket'


How horses can save the permafrost
bring back the woolly mammoth, I say.

Herds of herbivores preserve the permafrost -- even under strong global warming.
Credit: Pleistocene Park

For narwhals, the 'unicorn of the seas,' size matters for sexual selection

light and life

Plant water saving system works like clockwork, it transpires
If you haven't guessed it, this is about circadian clocks.

coronavirus crisis

New coronavirus stable for hours on surfaces

COVID-19: The immune system can fight back
Researchers at the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) were able to test blood samples at four different time points in an otherwise healthy woman in her 40s, who presented with COVID-19 and had mild-to-moderate symptoms requiring hospital admission.

food and drink

Urban land could grow fruit and veg for 15 per cent of the population, research shows


From the news media:

A flu drug that may help fight coronavirus, reported in the Guardian.

John Vidal about the wildlife connection. See also my recent feature on the wildlife roots of coronavirus diseases including SARS, MERS and Covid-19.

Tuesday, March 17, 2020

science news 17.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Ancient hornwort genomes could lead to crop improvement
The first hornwort genomes illuminate the origin of land plants.

Hornwort (Anthoceros) grown under laboratory conditions.
Credit: Eftychis Frangedakis


Soft corals near Virgin Islands recover from hurricanes, but stony corals declining


Bargain-hunting for biodiversity


A tale of shepherds and helices
a calcium salt crystallising on a marble relief forms a collagen-like triple helix. Could be an artistic statement ...

climate change

New research first to relate Antarctic sea ice melt to weather change in tropics


'Stealth transmission' fuels fast spread of coronavirus outbreak

Chinese case study suggests COVID-19 is not transmitted from pregnant mothers to newborns


Study suggests LEGO bricks could survive in ocean for up to 1,300 years
By measuring the mass of individual bricks found on beaches against equivalent unused pieces and the age of blocks obtained from storage, researchers estimated that the items could endure for anywhere between 100 and 1,300 years


Ancient mantis-man petroglyph discovered in Iran

Tang Dynasty noblewoman buried with her donkeys, for the love of polo


From the news media:

That coronavirus is all over the news now that the UK and US governments have come round to agree too little too late. Here's the Guardian on vaccine plans.
Also, the interface between air pollution and coronavirus is an interesting one to watch. Polluted air makes the disease more deadly, but in return I have seen several people claiming that the lockdowns leading to drastic reductions in pollution will save more lives than the virus outbreak claims.

Monday, March 16, 2020

long lost relatives

Open Archive Day

The more we find out about Neanderthals, Denisovans and our ancient Homo sapiens sapiens ancestors, the more complicated the family tree gets. Last year's feature told the story of multiple interbreedings between the three main branches known so far - and since then new genetic data have demonstrated the first traces of Neanderthal heritage in African populations as well as a new "ghost" lineage that mixed with the others but hasn't yet been discovered in its original form. Exciting times, and surely a story to be continued.

Meanwhile, my feature from last year is now in the open archives:

Mingling with Neanderthals

An artist’s impression of ‘Denny’, whose genome revealed her to be the child of a Neanderthal mother and Denisovan father. (Photo: © John Bavaro.)

Saturday, March 14, 2020

alla turca

After the festival, I've had a quick and dirty go at Mozart's famous Turkish March, which is the third movement of the piano sonata number 11, in A (K331). I was inspired to try this by the Ayoub sisters who arranged it as a lovely string duo (see their video here - watch out for the Scottish reel they threw in just for the heck of it). As luck would have it, has a score for solo flute ready and waiting for me. I also nicked some ideas from this performance by Ion Bogdan Stefanescu, flute with piano accompaniment.

As it's a piano piece originally, it's only fair to include our old piano in the picture, which has now been in the family for more than a century:

I might also try and learn the right hand of the original piece, although coordinating that with the left hand would probably be beyond my non-existing skills.

After this little divertimento, I am now ready to tackle another serious baroque suite from that grey book ...

Friday, March 13, 2020

science news 13.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Ammonium salts reveal reservoir of 'missing' nitrogen in comets

Arrival delayed! Water, carbon and nitrogen were not immediately supplied to Earth
We knew that, at least in principle. (The beginning of the PR is a bit misleading in that respect.)


Western gorillas may be territorial
... but they haven't really understood that the biggest threat to their territories doesn't come from other gorilla groups but from humans.

A new use for museum fish specimens

Ocean acidification impacts oysters' memory of environmental stress


How the historically misunderstood amyloid helps to store memories
For the first time, scientists from the Stowers Institute for Medical Research and collaborators have described the structure of an endogenously sourced, functioning neuronal amyloid at atomic resolution. The amyloid is composed of self-aggregated Orb2, the fruit fly version of the mRNA-binding cytoplasmic polyadenylation element-binding (CPEB) protein, which has been linked to long-term memory storage. The results of this work, published online March 13, 2020, in Science, have some very interesting implications.

Atomic structure of biochemically active Orb2 amyloid reveals the stacked three-fold helical symmetry of the filament core. Inset: A reconstruction of the Orb2 amyloid filament core was generated using cryo-electron microscopy combined with image processing.
Credit: Si Lab, Stowers Institute for Medical Research

A molecular map for the plant sciences
The title of the Nature paper is more helpful: Mass-spectrometry-based draft of the Arabidopsis proteome

Hero proteins are here to save other proteins
Would have helped to explain how these are similar to or different from well-studied heat shock proteins serving as molecular chaperones.

light and life

Plant physiology: Safeguarding chloroplasts from sunburn


Special report highlights potential therapeutic agents, vaccines for COVID-19


At 8 months, babies already know their grammar
Even before uttering their first words, babies master the grammar basics of their mother tongue. Thus eight-month-old French infants can distinguish function words, or functors -- e.g. articles (the), personal pronouns (she), or prepositions (on) -- from content words -- e.g. nouns (rainbow), verbs (to drive), or adjectives (green), according to researchers from the Integrative Neuroscience and Cognition Center (CNRS/Université de Paris).

Monty Python's silly walk: A gait analysis and wake-up call to peer review inefficiencies

Healthier and happier without Facebook
The benefits of spending 20 mins less on the site each day. (I only spend less than 20 mins normally, so can't implement this.)


From the news media:

Thursday, March 12, 2020

science news 12.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Observed: An exoplanet where it rains iron

Microbes far beneath the seafloor rely on recycling to survive

Detailed examination of rocks nestled thousands of feet beneath the ocean floor revealed life in plutonic rocks of the lower oceanic crust. Shown here is a thin section photomicrograph mosaic of one of the samples.
Credit: (Photo by Frieder Klein, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)


Coral reefs 'weathering' the pressure of globalization

The naming of the shrew
Researchers at Louisiana State University have discovered a new species of shrew, which they have named the hairy-tailed shrew, or Crocidura caudipilosa.

Bronze Age diet and farming strategy reconstructed using integrative isotope analysis


From the news media:

The New York Times about what that coronavirus does to your body.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

science news 11.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Paper sheds light on infant universe and origin of matter


Disease-causing virus manipulates crop plants to favor its vector

Grad student names new treehopper species after Lady Gaga

Kaikaia gaga has features of both Old World and New World treehoppers.
Credit: Photo courtesy Brendan Morris

Some domesticated plants ignore beneficial soil microbes


Research shows mangrove conservation can pay for itself in flood protection

Planet's largest ecosystems collapse faster than previously forecast
New research has shown that large ecosystems such as rainforests and coral reefs can collapse at a significantly faster rate than previously understood. The findings suggest that ecosystems the size of the Amazon forests could collapse in only 49 years and the Caribbean coral reefs in just 15 years.


Knowing more about a virus threat may not satisfy you
People who rate themselves as highly knowledgeable about a new infectious disease threat could also be more likely to believe they don't know enough, a new study suggests. In the case of this study, the infectious disease threat was the Zika virus. But the authors of the new study, published recently in the journal Risk Analysis, say the results could apply to the recent novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak.


From the news media:

The Guardian on the demise of the Hauraki Gulf marine protected area in New Zealand.

Tuesday, March 10, 2020

science news 10.3.2020

Today's selection of science news. Links are normally to press releases on EurekAlert (at the bottom end I may also add a couple of newspaper stories). I include quotes from the summary in italics in cases where the title alone doesn't reveal what the story is about. My own thoughts appear without italics if I have any.


Safety zone saves giant moons from fatal plunge
Numerical simulations showed that the temperature gradient in the disk of gas around a young gas giant planet could play a critical role in the development of a satellite system dominated by a single large moon, similar to Titan around Saturn. Researchers found that dust in the circumplanetary disk can create a 'safety zone,' which keeps the moon from falling into the planet as the system evolves.


Ancient shell shows days were half-hour shorter 70 million years ago


Male size advantage drives evolution of sex change in reef fish


Sea turtles have a deadly attraction to stinky plastic


Research uncovers a new way of making chiral catalysts

The chiral rotaxane catalysts selectively produced one hand of the target
Credit: University of Southampton

Researchers map protein motion
Cornell structural biologists took a new approach to using a classic method of X-ray analysis to capture something the conventional method had never accounted for: the collective motion of proteins. And they did so by creating software to painstakingly stitch together the scraps of data that are usually disregarded in the process.

light and life

Cryo-EM reveals unexpected diversity of photosystems

coronavirus crisis

New study on COVID-19 estimates 5.1 days for incubation period


'Deceptively simple' process could boost plastics recycling
This is about a catalytic method to rearrange the branching in polymers - doesn't sound revolutionary to me but every little helps, I guess.

New study presents stretchable and colorless solar cells, using Si microwire composites


From the news media:

Have some archaeology for a little light relief - here's a Roman amphitheatre being dug up in Kent.

Monday, March 09, 2020

how the pandemic began

The time my features spend in limbo between submission and publication is 18 days, and a lot of things can happen in that time span if you have a virus outbreak becoming a pandemic. Thus, when I'm trying to address the corona crisis in a feature I cannot say much about the current events or what people should do about them, but what I can write about is how and why the problem originated, and in this context I can think of lots of things that people shouldn't have been doing, and which contributed to this virus becoming a problem. Like hunting endangered pangolins and selling them on markets.

Virus diseases like SARS, MERS, and the various brands of flu come from animals, they are zoonoses, and the first time they spread in a human population that hasn't been exposed to them before, they can be quite devastating. Over time, human populations build up a level of immunity, and the viruses mutate a bit, so both sides learn to live with each other.

For my feature I looked at the animal sources of the recent coronavirus outbreaks (SARS, MERS and Covid-19) and kept discovering shockingly stupid things that people do with animals. The trouble is that in this day and age, everybody in the world is connected to Wuhan in China through a very short chain of contacts. So if people insist on selling palm civets, pangolins, bats and snakes on a market in Wuhan, this is not just a conservation problem, it is a danger to the whole globalised human population.

Conversely, if you want to run a global economic system, you'd better not make it too dependent on a place where people do stupid things to wild animals or live very closely with their domesticated poultry, which has the habit of breeding new flu strains.

So, well, my slightly more coherent thoughts on this are in the feature which is out today (although the scale of the crises has worsened since I wrote the first para, the title is still true):

Virus outbreak crosses boundaries

Current Biology Volume 30, Issue 5, 09 March 2020, Pages R191-R194

Open access

This illustration shows the ultrastructural morphology of the novel coronavirus responsible for the 2019–2020 outbreak of the COVID-19 coronavirus disease. (Photo: Alissa Eckert, MS, Dan Higgins, MAM.)


PS Here I'll collect some of the important things I've learned since submitting the piece, mainly concerning the public health aspect:

* Why large events should be cancelled sooner rather than later becomes obvious if you look at this analysis of the 1918 Spanish flu - PNAS paper from 2007, Fig 1 in particular has been widely shared.

* Cell Press journals have combined their Coronavirus publications in this Open Access Resource Hub

* see my blog entry on the disastrous UK govt response from March 22nd for further new developments.

Sunday, March 08, 2020

Angelica Kauffman

There is a brilliant exhibition of the 18th century portrait and history painter Angelica Kauffman (German spelling: Angelika Kauffmann) on at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf. I must have seen several of her works before, including a portrait of Goethe, and must have walked under four of her painting on the ceiling of the Royal Academy at Burlington House, but somehow never joined the dots and explored her life which was quite remarkable. So after seeing the exhibition earlier this week, I am now reading her biography to catch up.

In her time, she was famous as a portraitist, honing her skills first in Italy, where she allegedly painted "all the Englishmen" passing through on their Grand Tour, as well as other celebrities. Thanks to the contacts with the travelling Englishmen she was then able to move to London, establish herself as a history painter and became a founding member of the Royal Academy of Arts.

The portraits are amazing, but what really makes her relevant to our times is the depiction of gender in her history paintings - she shows the heroes of Homer's epics as soft and feminine figures torn by hard decisions, and women like Penelope as strong forces for peace in a world shaped by male views of heroism and conflict. So she really did manage to impose her own viewpoint, in spite of some critics (like Schlegel) grumbling about her "inability" to paint proper male heroes.

This pioneering feminist perspective apparently helped her rediscovery and appraisal in the late 20th century (the biography I'm reading, written by Waltraud Maierhofer, dates from 1997), but I completely missed the memo back then. Partly explained by the fact that many of her works are in private collections still or in obscure museums, and exhibitions are few and far between. So go and see her work either now at the Kunstpalast Düsseldorf (until 24.5.2020) or later this year at the Royal Academy London (28.6.-20.9.2020).

The artist torn between music and art - I can relate to that ...
[image source]

Check this thread of women painted by women ...

Monday, March 02, 2020

catching viruses

Open Archive Day

I'm noticing a surging interest in viruses, even the UK's prime minister has taken time out of his busy lifestyle to worry about them for a bit, so I'll re-plug my first feature about zoonoses (diseases we catch from animals that are able to spread among humans), written in 2014 on the occasion of an Ebola outbreak.

Essentially, what causes the problem is that since the origins of agriculture, we have started to live in big, vulnerable human populations, but many of us still get in touch with wild animals (often for stupid / illegal reasons, like killing animals that are or should be legally protected). Ancient hunter / gatherers were in closer contact with animals, of course, but they had small population sizes, too small for a pathogen to establish a permanent presence - as Covid-19 is probably doing right now.

So, anyhow, I have a feature on the current problem in the pipeline, but while we're waiting for that to appear, my ancient piece on zoonoses is in the open archives, free for all.

Our shared burden of disease

The precautions necessary to prevent the spread of Ebola look spectacular, but if the disease had received more attention on its first occurrence in the 1970s, it might be less of a problem today. (Photo: Used with permission from Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)