Thursday, January 27, 2011

Bat research: not just about bats

One of the top science stories this week has been the discovery of a type of pitcher plant in which bats rest and defaecate during the day. Bats are indeed interesting creatures.

International 'Year of the Bat' takes place (bizarrely over two years) during 2011 and 2012 and aims to educate people regarding "the essential roles of bats in maintaining healthy ecosystems and human economies", according to Merlin Tuttle, an American ecologist and bat researcher.

"Bats are found nearly everywhere and approximately 1,200 species account for almost a quarter of all mammals. Nevertheless, in recent decades their populations have declined alarmingly. Many are now endangered, though they provide invaluable services that we cannot afford to loose" said Tuttle.

But bat research isn't just about saving the flying mammals; researchers investigating how to protect bats from extinction are also working with the US air force to design unmanned aircraft based on the mechanics of bat flight. Understanding how bats are able to fly in vast crowds without injury is key to designing drones which can fly in cluttered skies.

The sounds that bats make are also of interest to scientists. Australian scientists have recently shown that bats there have distinctive regional calls. Scientists took 4,000 bat calls and analysed them using custom-made software and was able to identify different species and sources.

The bats us the calls to navigate and hunt using the echolocation technique - where sounds, inaudible to humans, hit objects and bounce back.

There is also some evidence where bats have been useful for humans, particularly in the area of medicine. Researchers in the US have looked into using an enzyme present in vampire bat saliva to thin human blood and help save brain cells in stroke patients. Desmoteplase, a drug based on an enzyme from Desmodus Rotundus have produced mixed results.

Prof. Christopher Bladin, who also works on the same enzyme in Australia, is enthusiastic about the ability of bats to impact on human medicine: "Well vampire bats, you have to love them. I mean, they've got a range of novel pharmaceutical drugs inside them, so they're an animal dear to my heart and more importantly, dear to my brain".

You can find out more about bats and the Year of the Bat here.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Speaking of Education...

Communicate Science - Guest Post

This is not an article about promoting maths to second level students. 

The Teaching Council just this week suggested that higher level maths should be a prerequisite for trainee primary school teachers. No one disputes the benefits of encouraging young people to be more fluent in basic mathematics and of persuading those with ability to study higher level maths rather than being one more person to take part in the most popular examination in the state, ordinary level maths.

In fact, my proposal for encouraging more and better prepared young people to opt for careers in engineering and science, as well as developing an essential skill for all students is to establish an English language oral examination.

I wear as a badge of honour that I once gave a presentation using acetates and an overhead projector. They were simpler times. The dream of having complete control over the flamboyance of how your new slide appeared on screen for your audience was then just a utopian vision, along the lines of the paperless office or a world where the hat was, once again, an accepted everyday item of clothing. My delivery was, I’m sure, awful. Nervous, rambling and perhaps an injustice to the work I had so diligently prepared.

How much better I have become in delivering presentations is not for me to judge but I know I have improved. This is due to a combination of practice and the professional and personal self-confidence which naturally comes with life experience.

An English oral examination is, I think, an idea worthy of further study. Perhaps it would just do what better schools have always done, to teach students how to present themselves to the world in a coherent and impressive manner. But perhaps it would put an emphasis on this skill in schools where, for whatever reason, this crucial skill is not given the recognition it deserves.

The examination might take the format of a presentation on a single topic of the students choice without slides but allowing one prop that can be carried by hand followed by a spontaneous discussion. The Leaving Certificate is often criticised for being about rote learning. A discussion based on a random glance at the morning’s letters page in the Irish Times might shake things up.

The goal is to encourage in young people the skills necessary to be able to present ones ideas confidently, to discuss specialised topics with laypeople and to hold up ones side of random, polite conversation. These are skills necessary for many career paths. One of the key competences of a scientist or engineer must be to use effective communication and interpersonal skills to work with others of all levels and to effectively present and discuss ideas. A sound basis in this skill at an early age will help people in any career path and will certainly assist students entering the science and engineering fields.

Kieran Lettice is an engineer and renewable energy consultant. 

Saturday, January 22, 2011

Government needs to fund agri-education properly

In the next seven weeks, politicians from all parties will turn up at your day looking for your vote. I know I'll be asking them all about their commitment to education.

It's worrying then, to see the effect that cutbacks are having on Ireland's agricultural development agency Teagasc and particularly on their educational remit.

Despite the Irish food industry having a bumper year, Prof. Gerry Boyle, Teagasc Director, says that they have had turn away 250 young farmers because they don't have the staff to train them.

Speaking to the Irish Examiner, Prof. Boyle explains the effect the governments moratorium on recruitment is having: "We had around 150 contract advisors, but they have all been let go. We are down to around 240 advisors from our previous level of 400.

"As for teaching and lecturing staff, you can get by without staff in some areas, but not without teachers...Agri is being treated differently to other areas in education. For the life of me, I don't understand that.

"We have had to turn away about 250 students due to the moratorium. While I recognise that there is a need to reduce numbers in the public sector, there is a need to ring-fence specialist roles.

"We are under-resourced in beef where applied research is concerned. We need a stronger genetics input. Plant pathology is a crucial competence in managing disease resistance, but we don't even have one plant pathologist".

All this, when Bord Bia is reporting how huge an impact food and agriculture had on the Irish economy last year. Food and drink exports was worth €7.9 billion to Ireland in 2010 and that figure is set to grow again.

Aiden Cotter, Bord Bia Chief Executive was upbeat in his assessment: "In a year in which the world’s population will reach seven billion, growth in global demand is set to underpin food markets well into the future".

If this, or any government is committed to a national recovery, they must realise that food and agriculture is already at the centre of that recovery. While savings in the public sector must be made, it is not in our long term interest to stop training those farmers will be part of that recovery. Maybe mention that to the politicians when they call.

Friday, January 21, 2011

My Secret Life - Animals at Play

My latest guest post for PBS NOVA's Secret Life of Scientists blog is now online. This week's episode features engineer and product designer Judy Lee talking about her love of design and how she's sharing that love on TV.

You can read the post and watch the episode here.

In this month's post, I look at how animals can demonstrate they're playful side.

Pterosaur egg discovered

Female Darwinopterus with egg (Lu et al., 2011)
Scientists working in China have discovered a female Pterosaur fossil alongside its egg. 

The researchers believe the 3-foot long flying reptilian was caught in a storm which may have broken here wing and washed her into a lake where she died, with the pressure of the mud expelling her egg.

David Unwin (University of Leicester) whose analysis of the fossil was published in Science yesterday describes it as a "tragedy" for the pterosaur, but that the find could answer some important questions about differences in gender in the pterosaur.

The 160 million years old fossil was identified as a Darwinopterus, a type of pterosaur (flying reptile) which lived in the middle of the Jurassic.

The egg appears to have been soft, inficating it would have been buried and left after laying rather than tended to constantly like a bird's egg.

The bird lacks a bony headcrest and Unwin believes that this, along with an enlarged pelvis are defining characteristics of a female pterosaur.

Unlike dinosaurs, whose features are preserved in modern day birds, pterosaurs were an 'evolutionary dead end'.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

David Bellamy - Happy Birthday

Today is the birthday of British botanist, broadcaster and author David Bellamy who was born in 1933. Although he has some controversial views on the environment and global warming, as a science broadcaster he was ahead of his time.

Monday, January 17, 2011

'Irish Giant' Documentary

We recently covered the story of Charles Byrne, the so-called 'Irish Giant' and the recent scientific breakthroughs which have been made using his remains.

Ronin films have produced an excellent documentary (As Gaeilge) for the BBC. The documentary aired last night and the opening sequence is presented here.

Friday, January 14, 2011

Skies Light Up - Cork Celebrates Science

Dublin wasn't the only place in the country celebrating science this evening. As the RDS heaved with students, parents and teachers for the BT Young Scientist award ceremony, Corkonians were celebrating the achievements of a pioneer of scientific education in Ireland.

As part of the North Monastery 200 celebrations, the memory of Bro. James Burke was celebrated with a series of talks and presentations as well as a spectacular laser display. The display was planned to commemorate a corresponding light display which Bro. Burke arranged in 1877 to demonstrate the impact electricity could have on the lives of the citizens of the city of Cork.

Remember, this was two years before Edison invented the light bulb. One speaker this evening noted the extreme levels of poverty prevalent in the city at the time. Public lighting was by gas and domestic lighting was by candle light. The massive light display organised by Burke must have been an awesome sight for the people of Cork.

This was typical of a man who truly believed that education, and science in particular, could be a force for good and a beacon of light in the world. He believed that science and technology could lift people out of poverty and give them a role to play in a new, technological age.

But what of this evenings events? It had a lot to live up to. If we recall where the city and citizens of Cork were at in 1877 (not least, in darkness) the huge beam of light that Burke produced much have been something to behold. To achieve the same effect in 2011, a demonstration of nuclear fission would be required!

Nevertheless, the organisers put on a poignant ceremony and exciting laser display which captured the spirit and imagination of Bro. James Burke. As the bust of Burke, sitting atop the building which bears his name, looked down over the city he made his home for most of his adult life, the sky was once again lit up just as he imagined it would be and proved it could be. He would have been proud.

Lab Notes: 14th January 2011

Lab Notes: a round-up of some of the top science stories in the past few days.

 'Pint-sized' dinosaur discovered
A team of Argentinian and US paleontologists and geologists have discovery a new species of dinosaur that lived in South America some 230 million years ago.
Erodromaeus (meaning "dawn runner") weighed just 10-15 lbs and measured 4 feet from nose to tail. It is believed that it was one of the first all meat-eating dinosaurs and probably a ancestor of the famous Tyrannosaurus.
Who could foretell what evolution had in store for the descendants of this pint-sized, fleet-footed predator?” said Paul Sereno of the University of Chicago.
more on this story...

 New EU rules on animal experiments
The EU are to make the first major changes to Europe's animal testing rules for a quarter of a century. The union wants to enhance the quality of the research being conducted by industry and the scientific community, while at teh same time setting the world's highest welfare standards for such experiments.
The rules will come into force from the start of 2013 and ensures that any future testing must comply with the three R's: replacing, reducing and refining animal testing.
According to EC figures, 12 million animals were used for scientific purposes in Europe in 2008. Rodents made up 80% of that figure; mice making up 59% and rats 17%.
more on this story...

Young science
The BT Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition continues in Dublin today. The event, in its 47th year, showcases the best science projects from second-level students from all around the country, with 100 awards up for grabs including the BT Young Scientist of the Year and the oppurtunity to represent Ireland in the EU Young Scientist Competition.
Interestingly, the first ever winner of the competition, John Monaghan has recently retired as Chief Executive Officer of Avigen, a US Biotech company. So, there is much in store for this year's overall winner who will be announced this evening.
more on this story...

The above image is adapted from an original by BlueRidgeKitties and used under a Creative Commons  license.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Oldest Wine Making Equipment Discovered

Scientists working in Armenia have confirmed the discovery of the oldest wine-making equipment ever found.

The group of archaeologists, including Ron Pinhasi, from University College Cork have been excavating the cave site in the Little Caucasus mountains near the Armenian border with Iran since 2007.

It is the same cave where, last June, Pinhasi announced the discovery of the world's oldest surviving shoe - a 5,500-year-old leather moccasin.

Gregory Areshian (UCLA), co-director of the excavation announced that "For the first time, we have a complete archaeological picture of wine production dating back 6,100 years".

The find was triggered when ancient grape seeds were discovered in the cave in 2007. Archaeologists subsequently found a 3 feet by 3.5 feet basin which they believe served as a wine press. It is estimated that the basin would have held around 56 litres of liquid.

While no evidence of any implement used to crush the grapes was found, this doesn't trouble Areshian: "People obviously were stomping the grapes with their feet, just the way it was done all over the Mediterranean and the way it was originally done in California".

The researchers found large quantities of grape seeds, pressed grapes, grape must and vines around the basin and paleobotanists were able to confirm that the species of grape used was Vitis vinifera - the same domesticated grape variety which is used to this day to produce wine.

6,100-year-old desiccated grape stems and dried, pressed grapes  found on and around the wine press (Photo Credits: G. Areshian) 

Up till now, the closet comparable collection of this type was made in an Egyptian tomb and dated to around 3,150 BC.

The scientists say the find is particularly important because of the level of confidence they can have that the site was used to produce wine. Radiocarbon dating of plant material, paleobotanical analysis of the fruit remains and the presence of the chemical malvidin all support the wine-making theory. Malvidin, a deep red molecule which gives grapes and wine their red colour is "highly reliable evidence of wine" according to Areshian.

However, the wine isn't thought to have been used for recreational purposes, or as Areshian says: "This wine wasn't used to unwind at the end of the day". The wine press was found in close proximity to dozens of grave sites and the wine is thought to have played a ceremonial role.

Monday, January 10, 2011

Some intitial thoughts on the Hunt Report

The National Strategy for Higher Education document or the "Hunt Report", as it is known was published on Tuesday, January 11th.

The lengthy document covers a range of topics in the higher-ed sector; from access to third-level to standards in teaching and funding for the sector.

The 110-plus paged report, compiled by the Higher Education Strategy Group, led by Dr. Colin Hunt, was delayed for some months, although a draft version of the report had been in the public domain for some time.

So, what do I think?

Well, judging by the draft version and an early look at the final version, the document seems to have high aspirations, but the authors themselves recognise that much of the recommendations they make will be dependent on securing increased funding for the third-level sector.

That aside, the report makes a number of recommendations which are to be welcomed:

  • Teaching and Learning - the report rightly emphasises the importance of appropriate teacher training for third-level teachers. The report recommends that ,"academic staff should make full use of the range of pedagogical methodologies available to them and be qualified as teachers as well as in their chosen discipline". As the authors of the report rightly point out; teachers at other levels of the education system require qualifications - from primary to secondary. Other professions such as medicine, dentistry, law and engineering all have rigorous standards and it is  not unreasonable that teaching staff in the third-level sector should also need to be suitably qualified.

  • Funding - As unpalatable as it may be for some, there is now a growing recognition that some form of user-contribution is required to ensure a steady stream of exchequer funding for the sector. The report states that a requirement for students or graduates "to directly share in the cost of their education, reflecting the considerable private returns that they can expect to enjoy" is now "the only realistic option".

  • E-learning - The report notes that conventional teaching methods "will increasingly be complemented by e-learning (including podcasting and online discussion groups), self-directed learning, problem-based learning, and collaborative projects.” This is due recognition for those in the sector who are pioneering the use of Web 2.0 technology in third-level teaching.

  • First-Years - I've written previously about the problems students face in their first year in college when they are making the transition from the often rote learning of the Leaving Certificate to the very different culture at third-level. The Hunt report focuses particularly on the problems of first year, stressing that it should "serve as a 'foundation of learning activities entailing more enquiry-based formats and engendering employability and lifelong learning outcomes". The report specifically warns against over-specialisation in the early years of an undergraduate degree.

Whit the final version of the Hunt Report now published, its size will require some reading and analysis to see just what it is saying about third-level education in Ireland. From this early reading, it seems there is much that can welcomed in the report. However, as the authors recognise, there are significant funding issues which need to be overcome if all the recommendations are to be implemented.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

The Art of Science

The Art of Science is a wonderful creative arts competition run by the Faculty of Medical and Veterinary Sciences at University of Bristol. Researchers are challenged to look for "aesthetic beauty in their experimental work".

This year's winners and a few of the runners-up are presented here to give you a flavour of what is submitted. I think it's a wonderful idea, something that could be replicated across many research institutes and universities.

Brain Mesh by Abigail Benn

The Black Coat by Anya Sawasdichai

Skinaesthesia II by Bronwen Burton

Rose by Dr. Nathaniel Harran

Friday, January 7, 2011

Assessing Risk: GM, Food Safety and Science in Europe

Recent revelations from WikiLeaks show that the US government was deeply concerned about opposition to GM crops in Europe back in 2007. However, a recent poll suggests that just 8% of European consumers believe it is the most important food safety concern.

When respondents to the Eurobarometer survey (pdf) were asked to explain, in their own words, what possible problems or risks they associate with food and eating, there was no single, widespread concern that was cited by a majority of respondents. 

The survey found that the presence of chemicals (such as pesticides, herbicides, etc.) in the food was the concern most cited (19% of respondents). Food poisoning was the second most frequently cited (12%), followed by diet-related diseases (10%), lack of freshness (9%), the presence of food additives (9%), with other issues such as the traceability of food and ‘BSE’ (‘mad cow disease’) also being mentioned.

Eight percent of the respondents throughout the 27 EU member states spontaneously (i.e. without prompting) cited GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms) as a problem or risk associated with their food. A similar percentage of respondents “Didn’t know” of any potential risks and 9% said they could think of no problem associated with their food.

When specifically asked about  genetically modified organisms, the percentage of respondents worried about GMOs in their food ranges from under half of the sample in Ireland (46%), Sweden and UK (both 48%) up to 81% in both Greece and Lithuania. Overall 66% of the total EU respondents said they were “very worried” or “fairly worried” about GMOs in their food. This ranked in fifth place when compared to 16 other possible risks that respondents were specifically asked about.

In fact, GMOs in food and drink was a topic found to fit into the “Medium Levels of Worry” list in the survey, alongside such topics as the quality and freshness of food; the welfare of farmed animals; and the risk of food poisoning.

The survey also found that European consumers are almost evenly divided over whether they believe scientific advice on food related risks is independent of commercial or political interference.  The results pose interesting questions for scientists across Europe, particularly in light of the WikiLeak revelations.

Just 47% of respondents agreed that such scientific advice was “independent of commercial or political interests”. A significant minority of 41% of consumers disagreed on this point.

The survey found that consumers felt most confident about information regarding food safety that they obtained from health professionals (84% totally confident) and family and friends (82%). 73% of consumers were totally confident about such information being provided by scientists. In contrast, 19% of respondents were “not very confident” in information of this type from scientists and 4% were “not at all confident”.

The highest levels of total confidence in scientists were in the Czech Republic (87%) and Finland (86%) with the lowest levels of confidence in Germany and Slovenia (both 65%). The EU average was 73%.

While a high level of trust in scientists appears to exist across Europe on this issue of food safety, the results should be seen in light of findings published in June (pdf) of this year where 53% of Europeans felt that because of their knowledge, scientists “have a power that makes them dangerous”.

Consumers appear to be reluctant to rely on the media for information about food safety, with 48% of respondents citing mainstream media (TV, newspapers, etc.) as a source of information they would have confidence in, compared to “the internet” which was a trusted source of information on food safety for 41% of respondents. 

Interestingly, the report shows that when consumers hear news about unsafe or unhealthy food, 25% of them worry about the problem but ultimately don’t do anything about it, by changing diet, etc. Approximately another quarter ignore the news story and do nothing about it. 

The most common reaction (approx one third of respondents) was to avoid the food mentioned for a while, but then return to eating it. Just one in ten said that they permanently changed their eating habits in response to a news story.

The results of this survey indicate that, while GMOs are a concern for European consumers, they are by no means at the top of the list when it comes to concerns about food. Europeans appear to be much more worried about, what we might call ‘traditional’ food concerns like food poisoning and pesticide residues, than the presence or absence of genetically modified organisms in the food chain.

Despite some misgivings, scientists are seen by European consumers as being the third most trustworthy grouping from which to obtain food-safety information. This makes the need for scientists to communicate effectively about the issues involved in food safety all the more important.

Thursday, January 6, 2011

Irish 'Giant' DNA Link

Scientists say they have uncovered the genetic mutation which caused an 'Irish Giant' Charles Byrne to grow to 7ft 7in tall.

The 18th century 'giant', from Northern Ireland, went to London in the 1780's and worked as a 'freak', exhibiting himself as a curiosity. However, after developing a drink problem, he died aged just 22 in 1783.

DNA taken from two of his teeth show that a mutant gene caused tumours on the pituitary gland. The gland, located at the base of the brain, controls growth and tumours can cause abnormal growth such as thickened skin, enlarged hands and feet and overgrown organs.

The scientists, led by a team at The London School of Medicine and Dentistry, noticed that a number of living patients of Irish descent also carried the mutated form of the gene. However, only about 30% of those with the mutation, actually go on to develop the tumours.

Prof. Marta Korbonits, who led the research estimates that between 200 and 300 living people might suffer from the same abnormality today - most located in a small (and secret) area of Co. Derry near where Byrne was born.

The scientists estimate that Byrne and the families had a common ancestor around 1,500 years ago who originally developed the mutation.

Charles Byrne's skeleton remains in a glass case in the Royal College of Surgeons in London. Purchased by John Hunter, a surgeon, after his death, the body was boiled in acid to remove the flesh and he was put on display, just as he had been during his brief lifetime.

Frightened that doctors would try to dissect him after his death, he had requested, on his deathbed that he be buried at sea. Alas, it wasn't to be and according to one contempory report, his death was followed by "The whole tribe of surgeons put in a claim for the poor departed Irishman and surrounded his house just as harpooners would an enormous whale."

Byrne's skeleton now resides at the Hunterian Museum at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

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