Thursday, September 30, 2010

Europe divided on new GM crop rules

John Dalli: new regulations on GM crops criticised
Plans for new GM regulations in Europe are faltering amidst rejections from a number of large EU countries.

The proposed regulations would have allowed individual member states to decide for themselves whether genetically modified crops were grown in their territories. The regulations were floated in July by Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner, John Dalli who said that member states would be allowed to ban GM crops on grounds other than those based on a scientific assessment of health and risks to the environment .

Having received mixed reviews from both pro- and anti-GM groups, it now seems that some of Europe's major agricultural nations have noted their opposition to the proposals.

On Monday, Marco Contiero, Greenpeace's agriculture policy director in Europe warned EU countries not to be "duped into accepting the proposal as it stands and taking the pressure off the Commission to improve crop safety and prevent GM contamination".

'EU ministers should demand a moratorium' - GreenpeaceContiero called for the EU to totally rethink its strategy on GM crops: "Until Europeans and farmers can be sure that the dangers of GM crops are thoroughly addressed, EU ministers should demand a moratorium on new authorisations".

At a meeting of EU agriculture ministers in Brussels on Monday, there was significant difference of opinions on the matter, with all sides agreeing to delay any decision on how to move forward until after the proposed regulations are reviewed by the EU's legal team and the World Trade Organisation. There are concerns that the regulations could have a significant impact on the internal market which operates within the union.

Apparently, France, Italy, Germany and Spain all came out against the proposals. France and Italy would traditionally have been seen as anti-GM, while Germany and Spain would be considered pro-GM in attitude.

Italian agriculture minister Giancarlo Galan said that Italy does not support the proposal as it stands and that "Each for himself undermines the foundations of the common agricultural policy (CAP)".

His French counterpart Bruno Lemaire was equally dismissive saying that national decision making would “give a wrong signal to European citizens and a wrong signal for the CAP".

'if it's the only way to move forward it may be the least worst option'- James PaiceBritish Minister of State for Agriculture and Food, James Paice also attended the meeting in Brussels and outlined his government's opposition to the fragmented approach, but seemed open to compromise: "The idea of effectively nationalising the policy is pretty counterproductive in terms of the single market, but if it's the only way to move forward it may be the least worst option".

Commissioner Dalli hit back at a press conference after the meeting saying that the proposal "does not undermine the internal market and it is not against WTO rules". Dalli also pointed out that the regulations will be discussed by a council of Environment ministers on the 14th of October and no doubt he will be hoping from a more positive outcome for his proposals.

'GMOs or non-GMOs don't excite me all that much'- John DalliIn a recent interview with Reuters, Dalli warned of rejecting GM out of hand: "GMOs or non-GMOs don't excite me all that much - it's a question of innovation. If Europe is going to say 'no' to anything that is new, then we are condemned to backwaters".

It can be all too rare to find someone involved in the GM debate who doesn’t get “excited” about the positives or negatives of GM crops. Unfortunately, the topic is one which seems to polarise opinion across Europe and this may be the crux of the problem from Dalli’s point of view. However, in trying to introduce an ‘a la carte’ solution which is likely to see the development of blocks of member states in the pro- and anti-GM camps, Dalli risks dividing opinion even further.

What the European Commission needs to do is act on a pan-EU basis and take the decisions which have been long-fingered by successive commissioners. A piecemeal approach will put up barriers to research and innovation which would not be permitted if we were dealing with almost any other scientific topic.

From the response of governments to his most recent attempts to remove the impasse on GM crops, it seems that Europe may be stuck in the backwaters for some time to come.

Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Well done Mallow, but what about the rest of the country?

It's great news for Mallow, Co. Cork that it is to become a national centre of excellence for the teaching of maths and science. However, this news, reported by the Irish Examiner this morning, begs the question as to why just Mallow puts the spotlight on science and maths when everyone now accepts that an increase in science literacy is urgently needed as part of our economic recovery?

The town is to benefit from a range of technologies being developed at University College, Cork Institute of Technology and the National Centre for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching and Learning (NCE-MSTL) at University of Limerick.

A four-year project in Mallow's schools will see staff from the national centre work to increase the uptake of science and maths subjects, improve student achievement at all levels, up-skill science and maths teachers in the town and foster collaborative teaching between the schools.

All this is excellent, of course, but I would have presumed this was happening anyway. All interested parties should be increasing student engagement and achievements with science subjects. All schools should be working together on such initiatives and all teachers should be receiving the appropriate training to do their jobs to the highest level.

What is interesting about this project is the involvement of so many agencies and bodies all focused on the same goals. Intel Investor Director and Chair of the Advisory Board of Innovation Fund Ireland Damien Callaghan has explained that Mallow is now to become a "lead school district nationally for researching and piloting initiatives and developments in the teaching of maths and science" saying that "the problem-solving skills inherent in excelling at these subjects are the core competencies of entrepreneurs and employees of the future".

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Science Gallery: Wexford Wildfowl Reserve Picture Special

This weekend, Communicate Science visited Co. Wexford and the Wexford Wildfowl Reserve. The reserve is based in the Wexford Slobs - lands reclaimed from the sea in the 1840's, with the building of the sea wall and the pumphouse (pictured). A history of the land reclamation projects in Wexford harbour is available here.

The North Slobs was land reclaimed from mudflats for agricultural purposes. A long dyke was constructed to keep out the sea and the land was kept dry by the pumps housed in the pump house. The traditional use of the land for winter crops and summer grazing is still maintained.

The North Slob lies three metres below sea level so a pumping system is required to remove surplus rainwater into the harbour. In 1850, the pumphouse housed a Watt Steam Pump. This remained in use until the 1940's. In 1912, the building was extended and a Reece Wolverhampton Vane Pump was installed. This pump is still maintained as aback-up pump to this day. It has the potential to pump up to 100 tons of water a minute and is powered by a six-cylinder diesel engine.

In the 1950's this diesel engine was replaced by an electric motor, while the present Primary Electric Pump was installed in the late 1960's and can pump water from the North Slob at a rate of 64 tons per minute.

This reclamation and drainage provides a unique environment for wildlife to flourish and the reserve is supported by an excellent visitor centre (with FREE entry) maintained for the Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government by National Parks and Wildlife.

One interesting piece of information (which I picked up in the outstanding visitor centre) was that in 1951, the managing director of Guinness, Sir Hugh Beaver was shooting on the North Slob when he got into a discussion with some companions about whether the Golden Plover was the fastest game bird in Europe. This conversation inspired him to publish the first edition of the Guinness Book of Records which was published in 1955.

There is also an interesting display depicting some important stages in the evolution of dinosaurs to birds.

The North Slob and the adjacent Raven Nature Reserve are also Ireland's only hare sanctuary with up to 200 hares present at any one time.

The Raven Nature Reserve makes up the major part of the sand dune system, at the north side of the entrance to Wexford Harbour and forms the boundary of the North Slobs to the east. The dune system was heavily planted with conifers during the 1930's which means that what was once, botanically, the finest dune system in Ireland is now mostly conifer plantations with small areas of dune remaining. It's still well worth a visit and is a popular spot for walking.

J. Michael Wilson's poem The Raven captures something of the history and the biodiversity of the area:

On Nature's dunes man-planted pines-
Create a bastion to the tides.
High skies greet primroses, orchids, butterflies;
The darkness wakens badgers, owls;
While woddcock rode across the dusk
To the cries of plover, geese and seals-
Music for the toads' shrill evening song.

Friday, September 24, 2010

3 Science Poems by Emily Dickinson

Continuing our series looking at Science and Culture, the following are three science themed poems by Emily Dickinson (1830-1886).
More than 200 of Dickinson's poems make reference to scientific themes including physics, astronomy, chemistry, geology, botany, physiology, medicine and psychology. She also deals with science in general terms as well as mathmatics and the appliance of science or technology (White, 1992).

Faith is a fine invention

"Faith" is a fine invention
When Gentlemen can see-
But Microscopes are prudent
In an Emergency.

A science

A science—so the Savants say,
"Comparative Anatomy"—
By which a single bone —
Is made a secret to unfold
Of some rare tenant of the mold,
Else perished in the stone—

So to the eye prospective led,
This meekest flower of the mead
Upon a winter's day,
Stands representative in gold
Of Rose and Lily, manifold,
And countless Butterfly!

Nature, the gentlest mother

Nature, the gentlest mother,
Impatient of no child,
The feeblest or the waywardest,
Her admonition mild

In forest and the hill
By traveller is heard,
Restraining rampant squirrel
Or too impetuous bird.

How fair her conversation,
A summer afternoon,
Her household, her assembly;
And when the sun goes down

Her voice among the aisles
Incites the timid prayer
Of the minutest cricket,
The most unworthy flower.

When all the children sleep
She turns as long away
As will suffice to light her lamps;
Then, bending from the sky

With infinite affection
And infiniter care,
Her golden finger on her lip,
Wills silence everywhere.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

New Sea Slug Discovered

Flabeliina goddardi with egg case
A US scientist has discovered a new species of sea slug in a Californian state park.

Jeff Goddard of University College Santa Barbara found the new species at Carpinteria Reef. It is a species of nudibranch - a group of brightly coloured sea slugs.

After observing the creature back in the lab for a few days he had it identified by a leading authority on the taxonomy of sea slugs, Terrence Gosliner who confirmed it was a new species and named it after it's discoverer.

Flabeliina goddardi was fully described in the September 15th edition of the Proceedings of the California Academy of Sciences.

Goddard said: "it was pretty exciting to find a new species right under our noses...Only one specimen was found, so now we need to find out where more are hiding, what they feed on, and whom they interact with." The creature measures about 3 cm long when stretched out and crawling.
Jeff Goddard

In the published article, Goslinger writes: "Flabellina goddardi is named for friend and colleague Jeff Goddard who found the only specimen of this distinctive species. Jeff is the consummate naturalist with superb powers of observation."

Monday, September 20, 2010

No reason for Science vs. Religion posturing

During Pope Benedict’s recent visit to Britain, relations between science and religion have been brought into focus.

Speaking at St. Mary's University College in London on the second day of his visit, the pontiff addressed 4,000 students: "Never allow yourselves to become narrow. The world needs good scientists, but a scientific outlook becomes dangerously narrow if it ignores the religious or ethical dimension of life, just as religion becomes narrow if it rejects the legitimate contribution of science to our understanding of the world."

These words will be seen by some as an olive branch to a vocal community of scientists and sceptics who have opposed this visit.(contd...)

Read the rest of this post here in the Euroscientist, the official publication of the Euroscience organisation. It publishes articles on a variety of topics based on science and science policy.

Friday, September 17, 2010

The Microscope Man

Today in 1683, Antonie van Leeuwenhoek wrote to the Royal Society in London to report his discovery of microscopic "animalcules" when he looked at plaque from his own teeth under his homemade microscope:

"I then most always saw, with great wonder, that in the said matter there were many very little living animalcules, very prettily a-moving. The biggest sort. . . had a very strong and swift motion, and shot through the water (or spittle) like a pike does through the water. The second sort. . .oft-times spun round like a top. . . and these were far more in number."
In fact, the Dutchman had discovered bacteria and protozoans by using a more powerful microscope than anyone, up until that point, had been able to construct.

In 1665, the British microscopist Robert Hooke hailed the dawn of a new generation of discoveries which would become possible: "By the help of Microscopes there is nothing so small as to escape our inquiry; hence there is a new visible world discovered to the understanding".

Van Leeuwenhoek also became involved in the debate at the time as to whether life began with the egg or the sperm (it rarely occurred to people at the time that it could derive from both). He came down on the side of the spermists and against the ovists due to observations he made through his microscope:

"having found spermatozoa in the male seminal fluid of animals, birds, fishes and even insects, I assert much more certainly than before that man arises, not for from the egg, but from the spermatozoa in the male semen"

Van Leeuwenhoek left 272 microscopes on his death but most have now disappeared. Since he kept his glass blowing and lens grinding skills secret in his lifetime, his contempories and successors were unable to repeat his discoveries.

Why I don't believe Organic is always best

It's that time of year again. Fresh coats of paint are being applied to university walls and the place is being given a good polish to make sure it's spick and span before the undergraduate students return to the hallowed halls of academia.

While preparing some 2nd-year lectures for the coming term I was struck by an interesting trend which has emerged.

Every year, I begin a module on Plant Biotechnology by putting the raw facts on global hunger in front of the students. In large, bold lettering I display a figure representing the number of people worldwide who the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation say are suffering from hunger or are undernourished.

For the last 15 years (and I haven't been teaching that long!) this figure has grown steadily up to a record of 1.02 billion people last year (the highest number in four decades). So, every year I'd diligently delete the old number and put in the new one. It's such a quick task to take care of that it often fades into the background with all the other updates and changes that I'm making to the module.

However, perhaps we need to pause a little and think of the people behind the figures. Last year, for example, I changed the figure from around 800 million to that staggering 1 billion figure. When you really think about it, that is horrific. In the space of 12 months, 200 million MORE people slipped into such poverty that they were unable to feed themselves and their families properly.

The relatively good news is that this year's report, released this week shows the first decline in this headline figure for 15 years. Today, 925 million people are undernourished worldwide.

This week also marks National Organic Week 2010 and while I have no problem with buying organic as it has significant positive impacts on the agricultural environments; improving soil health and biodiversity, etc., one has to admit that it is a niche market which is a luxury of well-off, developed nations and does little to support those 925 million people on the UN list.

I'm not trying to apportion blame here, and global hunger has much to do with politics and warfare as well as agriculture. Organic food is, by and large, good, healthy, safely produced food, but so is non-organically prodced food. The difference is, yields with organic foods are so low that they must be more expensive and in limited supply.

If human undernourishment is to be tackled, it will be done by supporting farmers to produce food in developing countries using the best, most high-yielding technologies that are available to them. Yes, that will include such organic methods such as good crop rotation, incorporation of nutrient-rich organic matter and the maintenance of high levels of biodiversity to encourage natural biocontrol systems.

However, it may well also include the safe and controlled use of chemical herbicides and pesticides to control weeds and pest species and the use of improved plant varieties with high yields and the ability to grow under adverse conditions.

The onset of global climate change will require new plant varieties which can grow under different conditions: high temperature, high levels of moisture, high salt stress, etc. Some of these new varieties may well be genetically modified.

So, as I see it, one of the solutions to this problem is to use all available farming approaches from organic to GM. There is no reason why a combination of techniques shouldn't be used if that is what it takes to reduce that terrible figure even further.

Global Hunger 2010, Source: UN FAO

Monday, September 13, 2010

The Origin of Conor Lenihan

The news, broken by that Minister of State with special responsibility for Science, technology, Innovation and Natural Resources is to launch a book proclaiming that evolution is a hoax casts the country in a terrible light and lets-down anybody waiting on the 'knowledge-led recovery'.

The book, by Irish author John J May is entitled The Origin of Specious Nonsense and will be launched in Dublin on Wednesday evening. The event will be marked by a 'Gorillas and Girls Party' at Buswells Hotel and an after party at Lilies Bordello. The author's website says that Conor Lenihan will launch the book at 8pm.

According to the same website, the book is "a non academic attempt which is currently very popular worldwide due to the brilliant observationalist naturalist Charles Darwin's 200 year birth anniversary and 150 years celebration of his monumental laughable fantasy, "The Origin of Species" which I have read forensically and counted 1550 suppositions."

"What I am about to expose is their pretence that they possess arcane facts to support this toxic fiction," says the author.

Helpfully, the website details some of the author's research: "Incidentally four times last year I visited the brilliant Natural History Museum in London to examine the shrine to a religiously tortured excellent taxonomist Charles Darwin."

May also outlines 7 reasons why he 'detests and rejects evolution':
1: It teaches us to be satisfied with - not understanding origins.

2: It promotes the dangerous nonsense of no first cause - no supreme scientist and suggests order came from disorder.

3: It is a mataphysical speculation, a doctrine dressed up in scientific garb.

4: Anyone who teaches evolution is either ignorant or deliberately suppressing the known scientific facts.

5: It is a toxic poisonous mind virus which destroys the hearts immune system against hope and common sense.

6: It is an anaesthetic against reason.

7: It cripples sanity, promotes myths, obscures reality and elevates matter above a maker.

I'm not particularly bothered what this author believes. I don't think it's going to convert a whole generation to a non-scientific, ill-though-out view of human origins. What I object to is a Minister with direct responsibility for the governing and management of science and its funding lending his support to the sentiments expressed in the book.

Some have argued that his presence at a book launch does not mean he agrees with the contents of the book being launched. That is clearly not the case. Would he ( or any minister) attend the launch of a book claiming the holocaust never happened or that gravity doesn't exist?

You can let the Minister know what you think by emailing him at

LATEST: After a huge amount of coverage on blogs, twitter and the mainstream media over the last 24 hours, the minister will now not launch the book 
For more, see the comment section of this post.

Friday, September 10, 2010

Birds of America

Birds of America by John James Audubon is reckoned to be the world's most expensive book and is due to fetch around £6 million when it is auctioned at Sotheby's in London on December 7th.

The reference book contains 435 hand-coloured, life-size prints of 497 bird species and measures 39 by 26 inches. Only 119 copies are known to remain.

Audubon was a French-American ornithologist, naturalist, hunter and painter. He travelled to the UK in 1826 where he became a minor celebrity and raised enough money to begin publishing the drawings he brought with him.


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Thursday, September 9, 2010

James Watson: A Geneticist's View of Cancer

At 82 years old, you might imagine James Watson would be taking life easy. After a spectacular scientific career, during which he was part of a duo which made , as his fellow Nobel Laureate Sir Peter Medawar described it, "the greatest achievement of science in the 20th century", a relaxing retirement might be in order. Not so for Watson, it seems.

Speaking at University College Cork last night, while presenting the inaugural Cancer Lecture of the Cork Cancer Research Centre (CCRC), Watson told a packed audience of his ongoing research into finding a cure for cancer at the Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York where he is now Chancellor Emeritus.

Striking a highly optimistic note, the Nobel Laureate bemoaned some pessimistic cancer researchers who he said were more interested in merely researching cancer and didn't realise that they had an obligation to cure people and to save lives.

"We are nearly there", was his message for the evening, having suggested that the medicines to do the job might already be in use for a variety of ailments, but that doctors and scientists may not have recognised their anti-cancer properties yet.

Watson explained how he initially became interested in cancer research early on in his career. So much so, that he included a whole chapter on cancer in the first edition of his seminal textbook Molecular Biology of the Gene, which was originally published in 1965. The book was based on a a ten-lecture series he had been giving at Harvard for six years to introductory biology students and its format was ground-breaking at the time.

In the preface to the 1965 edition, Watson proclaimed that "it is time to reorient our teaching and to produce the new texts that will give the biologist of the future the rigor, the perspective, and the enthusiasm that will be needed to bridge the gap between the single cell and the complexities of higher organisms. The we may expect hard facts about today's most challenging biological problems: the structure of the cell, the nature of cancer, the fundamental mechanism(s) of differentiation, and how the ability to think arises from the organization of the central nervous system".

Writing in the final chapter of the first edition, Watson explains his hopes for elucidating the causes of cancers and beginning to treat them effectively. In "A Geneticist's View of Cancer", he writes that scientists at the time were just beginning to understand the genetic makeup of the diseases.

 "If we are still a colossally long way from understanding a healthy animal cell at the molecular level, have we any chance of gaining an insight into the diseased cell?"

Even at the time, just over a decade after the publication of the double-helical structure of DNA, Watson was optimistic that "an understanding of at least some aspects of uncontrolled cell growth may soon be achieved at the molecular level. Such optimism arises from recent, spectacular results on the induction of tumors by viruses".

'Only today are we beginning to gain some confidence that we are close to understanding the essential molecular features upon which the life of even the simplest bacterial cell depends' - James Watson, 1965As a young scientist, at the time, he recognised the obstacles that lay ahead: "Only today are we beginning to gain some confidence that we are close to understanding the essential molecular features upon which the life of even the simplest bacterial cell depends. The jump to an attempt to understand the much more complex vertebrate cell with its thousandfold greater amount of DNA has only begun".

Born in Chicago in 1928, James Dewey Watson received his degree from the University of Chicago in 1947, having enrolled in university at the age of just 15. A PhD from Indiana University followed in 1950 and the young scientist then spent two years doing postdoctoral work in Copenhagen before moving to the Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge University.

In the Spring of 1953, while still at Cambridge, Watson and his colleague Francis Crick published the results of their collaboration - the elucidation of the double helical structure of DNA.

Watson has had several high-profile roles over the years, including serving as the director, president and chancellor of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York where he focused on the study of the genetic basis for cancer. He resigned as chancellor in 2007 after a controversy erupted over comments he made in an interview regarding race and intelligence. He was also involved in the Human Genome Project and was only the second person to publish his full genome publicly online.

'I think the ethics committees are out of control' - James Watson, 2010Prior to receiving an  Honorary Doctorate from University College Cork last evening, Watson spoke to journalists telling them that he was in favour of less regulation for clinical trials as this could speed up the process of finding a cure for cancer: "We're terribly held back on clinical tests by regulations which say that no one should die unnecessarily during trials; but they are going to die anyway unless we do something radical. I think the ethics committees are out of control and that it should be put back in the hands of the doctors. There is an extraordinary amount of red tape which is slowing us down. We could go five times faster without these committees".

Speaking in an introductory address to the gathered audience, Prof. Gerald O'Sullivan of CCRC praised Watson: "His accomplishments and contributions transcend boundaries, disciplines, and generations. One of the greatest scientists ever, he is also a respected leader, a gifted administrator, a brilliant author and a beacon in the Gaelic Diaspora". Watson mentioned his mother's family during his speech who left Co. Tipperary during the famine.

Prof. O'Sullivan continued, "Hopefully mankind will also constructively use its increasing technical capability to live peacefully. If so,  the humans in future millennia  may not know of  many from our time but they will know of the structure of DNA and of Watson and Crick as by then the ramifications of its discovery will have impinged on life in ways that we cannot yet imagine".

The Inaugural Cancer Lecture of the Cork Cancer Research Centre by James Watson is available as a series of video clips here.

An edited version of this article appears on the Science Blog. You can read it here

Parts of the post were also reported in the Wall Street Journal. You can read it here

Wednesday, September 8, 2010

It's murder on the dancefloor

Scientists using 3D motion-capture technology have identified key dance moves that make male dancers look good in the eyes of female observers.

The research, conducted at Northhumbria University led to the creation of computer avatars depicting "good" and "bad" dancers by filming 19 male volunteers (who volunteers for these things!) and gauging female reaction.

Dr. Nick Neave of Northhumbria University says "We now know which area of the body females are looking at when they are making a judgement about male dance attractiveness. If a man knows what the key moves are, he can get some training and improve his chances of attracting a female through his dance style".

There has been some debate online as to whether this constitutes a worthwhile scientific endeavor. So, just for the record: Do I consider this an important scientific breakthrough? No. Do I consider these videos hilariously funny? Yes!

A "good" male dancer:

A "bad" male dancer:

Communicate Science and the Irish Web Awards

Thanks for the nominations in the Irish Web Awards 2010. We were nominated in the Best Web Only Publication category. Fingers crossed, but we are up against some fine competition. Judging and shortlisting is due to begin soon and the winners are due to be announced on October 16th in Dublin's Mansion House.

Reaping what you sow: Irish education spending

University College Cork: climbed 23 places to 184th
The latest QS World University Rankings are out and they make for mixed reading for the country's third-level institutions. While TCD and UCD both dropped down the rankings, UCC and NUIG have improved their ranking since last year.

Trinity College Dublin is still Ireland's highest ranked university in 52nd place worldwide, but this is down from 43rd last year. University College Dublin remains second highest in Ireland at 114th place, but this is again down from 89th place in 2009.

On the plus side, NUI Galway increased its ranking from 243rd place, up to 232nd. At University College Cork (still ranked third in Ireland), the worldwide ranking was improved from 207nd place in 2009, up to 184th place this year.

The rise of UCC is one of the high points of the ranking system. Annual rises since 2006 have seen the university rise from 386th position to 184th.

The results come as the latest OECD (Organisation for Economic Development) reports confirm that the government spends just €12,631 for every third-level student. This figure is below that in 30 other developed countries studied.

When measured against GDP, Ireland's total spend on education is just 4.7%, which places it in 25th place out of 28 OECD countries. This is significantly less than the OECD average of 5.7% and below the EU19 average of 5.3% of GDP.

What is most disturbing about the OECD data is that the results are based on data from 2007, before the huge raft of cutbacks ordered by the Government were implemented.

Concerning too is the news that, at primary-level, just 4% of pupils time is spent on science education. This compares to 29% spent on reading and writing (including Irish). The time spent on science in primary schools here is just half of that in other EU countries.

Combined with this bad news for science, just one-eight of pupils' time at primary-level is spent learning maths. This is the lowest of all countries measured. And we wonder why maths achievement at Leaving Certificate level is so low!

One wonders whether Irish universities can sustain such rankings given more cutbacks planned for next year.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Researchers stating the bleeding obvious

In a not unexpected development, newly published research suggests that people who fail to dry their hands properly after washing them may be more likely to spread disease-causing bacteria.

The researchers say that paper towels are the best way to reduce bacterial numbers when drying hands. Dr.Anna Snelling, one of the papers authors, says: "Good hand hygiene should include drying hands thoroughly and not just washing. The most hygienic method of drying hands is using paper towels or using a hand dryer which doesn't require rubbing your hands together".

No doubt this came as good news to the company that funded the research: Dyson Limited, who produce the Airblade, a dryer which uses air 'blades' to strip water from still hands. The paper found that the Airblade was "superior to the warm air dryers for reducing bacterial transfer."

The researchers quantified the effects of hand drying by measuring the number of bacteria on different parts of the hands before and after different drying methods. Volunteers were asked to wash their hands and place them onto contact plates which were then incubated to measure bacterial growth. The volunteers were then asked to dry their hands using either hand towels or one of three hand dryers, with or without rubbing their hands together, and levels of bacteria were re-measured.

However, the results also suggest that "if people use conventional warm air hand dryers for at least 30 seconds, then it is likely that the hygiene benefit will be similar to that achieved with 10 s use of the Dyson Airblade"

Expecting conventional dryers to function effectively using the reduced drying time for the Airblade is hardly reasonable. Obviously, if equipment is not used as designed, it will not function effectively.

Expecting the conventional dryers to work using a 10 second drying time, just because Dyson's latest gadget does is missing the point. When used for the recommended duration, the conventional dryers worked just as well as the new product.

When the A5 and Turbodry (the two conventional driers used in the study) were used for their recommended times of 30 and 35 seconds respectively, there was no significant difference in mean log bacterial count numbers compared to the that present when the Airblade was used for 10 seconds.

The work carried out at the University of Bradford also found that rubbing hands together while using traditional hand driers could actually increase bacterial numbers by bringing bacteria to the surface that usually reside within the skin. These bacteria can then be transferred to other surfaces.

However, this study used a drying time of 15 seconds for all dryers, significantly less than that recommended by the manufacturers of the conventional dryers.

What this paper has shown is that the Airblade does its job effectively in a relatively short duration of 10 seconds. But, what it also shows is that if you use a device incorrectly it won't work properly. That's hardly surprising, is it?

The paper is here.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Sleep, Diet and Life Expectancy

Sleep seems to be on the mind of lots of scientists over the last few days with a number of intriguing sets of results being published.

According to a study published on Tuesday in PLoS Biology, when flies are starved they are able to stay awake for long periods of time without feeling the downsides of going without a nap.

The experiment was conducted by starving some flies while allowing others to feed normally and then providing a physical jolt to prevent them from nodding off. The starved flies were less susceptible to the effects of sleep deprivation such as cognitive impairment.

The scientists also made use of mutant fruit flies which lack the 'canonical clock gene cycle'. Such flies normally die within 10 hours of being deprived of sleep, but when starved they lasted nearly three times as long.

The authors believe that two genes recently shown to control the response to starvation in fruit flies brummer (bmm) and Lipid storage droplet 2 (Lsd2) also have a role to play in sleep regulation.

"brummer mutants, which are fat, show exaggerated response to sleep loss. In contrast, mutants for Lipid storage droplet 2 are lean and are able to stay awake without becoming sleepy or showing signs of cognitive impairment" the authors write.

"Given that metabolic pathways are highly conserved between mammals and flies, it will be interesting to determine whether lipid [fat] metabolism also plays a similar role in mammals".

Meanwhile, a recent study reported in the September 1st issue of Sleep found that men with serious sleep problems had much higher mortality rates.

The study of 1,742 men and women, who were randomly sampled in Pennsylvania and studied for 14 and 10 years respectively found that the overall mortality rate was 21% for men and 5% for women.

'in men who experienced insomnia, that mortality rate was significantly increased' However, in men who experienced insomnia (who slept for less than 6 hours a night), that mortality rate was significantly increased. In women, on the other hand, mortality was not found to be associated with insomnia and disrupted sleep.

Of the men who were studied, 51% of insomniacs died during the study period, compared to just 9% of normal sleepers.

“Insomnia has potentially very severe side effects,” said study co-author  Edward Bixler. “It needs to be treated, and more effort needs to be put into sorting out better treatments.”

More evidence of sleepless nights being bad for your health came from a report also published on Wednesday (Sept. 1st) in which US researchers found that teenagers who sleep for less than 8 hours a night during Monday to Friday eat more snacks and fatty foods then those who get a solid eight hours.

The study analysed 240 teenagers and asked them to wear wrist monitors that measured sleep duration. During the study period, researchers discussed eating habits with the participants twice a day to monitor their food intake.

'teens who did not sleep well consumed 2.2% more calories from fat' The results, also published in the September issue of Sleep, showed that teens who did not sleep well consumed 2.2% more calories from fat compared to those who slept for eight hours. Girls were more prone to this than boys; consuming 3.3.% more calories from fat compared to 0.9% in boys.

Teenagers who slept for eight hours or more a day during the working week consumed 1,723 calories per day, with 1,968 calories being consumed by those who  slept for less than eight hours.

The authors of this study have suggested that sleep may be the "missing link" in the fight against obesity, which up to now has focused on diet and exercise.

From this handful of recent studies it seems that diet and sleep are certainly closely linked and that more research is required to find out exactly the nature of that link.

One thing is for sure, if the results of the the mortality study is anything to go by, the outcome of cutting back on sleep time (either by choice or not) can be serious effects on your health and life expectancy.

Thimgan MS, Suzuki Y, Seugnet L, Gottschalk L, & Shaw PJ (2010). The perilipin homologue, lipid storage droplet 2, regulates sleep homeostasis and prevents learning impairments following sleep loss. PLoS biology, 8 (8) PMID: 20824166

Vgontzas AN; Liao D; Pejovic S; Calhoun S; Karataraki M; Basta M; Fernández-Mendoza J; Bixler EO (2010). Insomnia with short sleep duration and mortality: the Penn State Cohort SLEEP, 33 (9), 1159-1164

Weiss A; Xu F; Storfer-Isser A; Thomas A; Ievers-Landis CE; Redline S (2010). The association of sleep duration with adolescents’ fat and carbohydrate consumption SLEEP, 33 (9), 1201-1209

Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wheat and Apple genomes provide hope for food security

The recent sequencing of two major crop genomes is good news for plant protection and for food security.

With the full genetic sequence now available for wheat and apple, scientists will have more information at their fingertips for the improvement of these crops to fight plant diseases and to ensure that growing human populations have adequate food resources in the future.

On the 26th of August last, a team of researchers in the UK released the 'first draft' of the wheat genome. While further work needs to be done to produce a fully annotated genome, the work is a major step forward for plant science.

The team of researchers responsible for the the wheat genome publication were funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC) and come from the University of Liverpool, the University of Bristol and the John Innes Centre.

The first draft (basically the raw data from the sequencing work) will need to be further annotated and assembled into the individual chromosomes and is based on a reference wheat variety called Chinese Spring. Information on this reference variety will be key to unlocking the genetic information behind other commercial varieties of wheat.

Prof. Mike Bevan from the John Innes Centre says that "The sequence coverage will provide an important foundation for international efforts aimed at generating a complete genome sequence of wheat in the next few years".

The information should lead to improvements in current wheat varieties to ensure that high yields can be maintained in the face of changing environmental conditions and an increased threat from a variety of plant pathogens.

'By understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different traits we can start to develop new types of wheat' - Prof. Anthony HallProf. Anthony Hall of the University of Liverpool hopes that the new information will allow scientists to probe differences between wheat varieties with different characteristics: "By understanding the genetic differences between varieties with different traits we can start to develop new types of wheat better able to cope with drought, salinity or able to deliver higher yields. This will help to protect our food security".

Meanwhile, just this week, an international team of scientists announced that they had published a draft sequence of the domestic apple genome. The genome was published in the current issue of Nature Genetics.

Apple is the main fruit crop of the world's temperate regions and is a member of the plant family Rosaceae which includes many other important species including cherry, pear, peach, apricot, strawberry, and rose.

Much like with the wheat genome, this new information will allow scientists to identify genes which provide desirable characteristics to the crop such as higher yields and disease or drought resistance.

The work by scientists from Italy, France, New Zealand, Belgium and the US was based on the well-known golden delicious apple.

'the scientists were also able to delve into the apples mysterious past'As well as looking to the future of apple production, the scientists were also able to delve into the apples mysterious past. For years they have argued about where the domestic apple came from and now they know. The data published this week shows that the ancestor of the modern apple in Malus sieversii, a plant native to the mountains of southern Kazakhstan.

Prof. Doug Kell, Chief Executive of the BBSRC, who funded the wheat project, points out that "The best way to support our food security is by using modern research strategies to understand how we can deliver sustainable increases in crop yields, especially in the face of climate change. Genome sequencing of this type is an absolutely crucial strategy.

"Knowledge of these genome sequences will now allow plant breeders to identify the best genetic sequences to use as markers in accelerated breeding programmes" said Prof. Kell.

Both the apple and wheat genome work have been made possible by huge advances in sequencing technology. As Prof. Hall of University of Liverpool notes: "Sequencing the human genome took 15 years to complete, but with huge advances in DNA technology, the wheat genome took only a year. The information we have collected will be invaluable in tackling the problem of global food shortage".

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