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Spanning the globe to bring you the constant variety of science... the thrill of discovery... and the agony of failed experiments... the human drama of scientific advancement... This is the Blue Streak Science Podcast!

Apr 20, 2018

Science News


Conservationists use astronomy software to save species

An astrophysicist and a conservation biologist walk into a bar… No, this is not that kind of story, but a real one on how collaboration is the second name of Lady Science.

A work showing how space science can be used in conservation efforts for endangered species was presented at the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science in the UnKi last week.

In it, Dr Serge Wich of the Liverpool John Moores University, described how, through the power of words (!!!) he was able to land a collaboration which as a conservation biologist he never thought he would - with an astrophysicist, namely Dr Claire Burke.

What happened is that, the biologist was talking to his neighbour, explaining the troubles of this research - as you do. His main issue was that protecting animals who are active at night is even harder than the ones active when there’s light. They had to rely only on secondary clues - abandoned nests, feces, leftover food etc. But this is extremely inefficient and imprecise way to estimate the number of animals from a species for many reasons. Sometimes animals migrate to new habitats (may be due to climate change) and that’s why they leave behind nest, burrows and hideaways, meaning that they are simply not there, not necessarily that they are dead. Also, it’s not always super obvious which heap of smelly poop was left by which exactly species of giant mammal for example. And counting animals with infrared cameras is often hindered by the vegetation around, which - newsflash - also emits light in the spectrum, and you also have to be rather close to be able to detect them like that, which kind of defeats the purpose. And even if you did detect something, half of the time you can’t even tell if that warm blob you see with the infrared cam is a rhino or a hippo.

What happened next is called serendipity - the moment when scientists smell the word “Eureka” in the air, but know there’s a ton of work to be done before they get there! The neighbour, who unlike most neighbours in this case was actually listening to the story, had an idea. He knew that his colleagues use these types of softwares which actually could identify the size and age of far away stars from their heat signatures!

So they got to work, they mounted a special infrared cam on a drone and started flying it through zoos and nature reserves and teaching the software behind it to identify one animal from the other, injured animals from healthy and recently deceased from for example asleep ones. And it worked! And it can be now used for that purpose in the wild. And this is why science is awesome! ]

BBC Science and Environment, National Geographic



Scientists find signs of new brain cells in older adults

We spoke about neurogenesis a few episodes ago when we discussed a paper that suggested we lose the ability to make new brain cells as we age. Today, the tables have turned...a new paper is hot off the press that contradicts that March publication in Nature, saying that, indeed, we can make new neurons throughout the ageing process! The new paper is published in Cell Stem Cell.

SO what’s going on here? Research papers often contradict each other and our understanding of natural phenomena is a result of appraising all this different evidence. At the moment, the consensus seems to be that there is some capacity for the hippocampus to produce new neurons throughout life.

Both papers involved use of post-mortem brain samples. Yet the results differ. Maura Boldrini, the lead author, suggested this may be due to different preservation techniques, as well as the fact the brains in the Nature study came from a wider variety of patients, some of whom had had conditions such as epilepsy.

To look for signs of neurogenesis, the researchers hunted for specific proteins produced by neurons at particular stages of development. Proteins such as GFAP and SOX2, for example, are made in abundance by stem cells that eventually turn into neurons, while newborn neurons make more of proteins such as Ki-67. In all of the brains, the researchers found evidence of newborn neurons in the dentate gyrus, the part of the hippocampus where neurons are born.  

There were some differences between young and old brains, notwithstanding the abundance of new neurons in each sample - old brains had fewer new blood vessels and apparently there was less evidence of new connections between neurons (synapses).

LA Times, Science News, Live Science


Hybrid swarm in global mega-pest

So this is a story from the journal PNAS (which for some reason Americans pronounce totally weird) and got covered in Science Daily. It’s about genetic mutants! OW YEAH! But not really… Well yeah, but not like the teenage ninja turtles, more like the hulk and not in a good way!

Do you know which is one of the main pests against which genetically engineered crops were created? It’s the cotton bollworm, which is a b*tch of pest because it feeds on more than 100 species of plants, many of which agriculturally important and is the sole reason why some years cotton farmers in India for example loose up to 80% of their harvest and in consequence - their income. It is resistant to every pesticide in the world which is why the darned GMOs are so needed in the developing world and why some denim companies (which I will not name) are total tools for refusing to buy from Indian farmers growing GMO cotton because their western clients don’t want GMO jeans on their sorry asses! ANYHOW, the damage control only for this pest costs billions of dollars every year.

The other pest in this story is the corn earworm, which is not as bad, but is still a major agri-pest. The damage it does is estimated to be only about 100 mln dollars per year, which is peanuts to what the cotton bollworm does.

Here’s the horror of this story though - recently, scientists from Australia had realised that the two species of pests had met, hybridised and gave birth (figuratively speaking) to a mega-pest, which unlike the two original species who have generally different areas of spread, is both super-mean to our crops and potentially able to live just about anywhere in the world where there’s arable land! They’ve found the mega-pest hybrid in Brazil (which by the way is one of the worst places for us for this to happen as Brazil is one of the world’s biggest producers and exporters of Coffee, Soybean, Soybean, Wheat, Rice, Corn, and Sugarcane).

And if this wasn’t horrible enough, it turned out that from the hybrids they studied, there were not just one new hybrid, but rather many many different hybrids between the two species. In some cases, the new hybrid had gotten almost entirely the pesticide resistant genes from the bollworm and other than that was genetically mostly earworm. Which, if we draw the short straw from this, might mean that on hybrid will be susceptible to our pesticides, but 2 will not be, and that math even I can do - it does not look good for our agricultural produce.  

And if Brazil does not sound concerning enough, I’m just going to say that 65% of the major crops in the USA are potential dinner for the pests and having such plethora of super-pest hybrids coming your way can be really, really bad! ]

PNAS, ABC, Science Daily


This Space Junk Removal Experiment Will Harpoon & Net Debris in Orbit

We have a rubbish problem in space. Literally - the atmosphere is full of space junk. Now there’s a new project to try and reduce this - time for a bit of spring cleaning of space.

A Japanese experiment in space trash removal, called KITE, had to be scrapped last year due to a technical failure. The new project, RemoveDEBRIS satellite was funded half by the European Commission, and half by a consortium of 10 companies. Lots of interest in clearing the junk! But how? Fishing, basically - the project will trial nets and harpoons.

“The idea is that the net, as a way to capture debris, is a very flexible option because even if the debris is spinning, or has got an irregular shape, to capture it with a net is relatively low-risk compared to, for example, going with a robotic arm,” said Guglielmo Aglietti, RemoveDEBRIS principal investigator, and director of the Surrey Space Center. He adds “The harpoon is maybe simpler...but then one might think that maybe it’s a bit more risky because you have to hit your debris in a place that is suitable to be captured by the harpoon. Clearly, you have to avoid any fuel tanks.” Clearly.

The trial involves cleaning up junk the team introduced to space themselves, rather than touching existing stuff up there, for legal reasons. Tests should be complete by the end of the year. If promising, RemoveDEBRIS will be incorporated into a big cleaning mission scheduled for 2024. We have 7500 tons of space junk (40,000 fragments, estimated) circling the Earth at the moment and this seems likely to increase without concerted clean-up efforts. There have been collisions in the past and these do pose major risk to spacecraft.

Funny, we humans really are messy - not just on our planet, but beyond. Not something you tend to think about., Next Big Future, Air and Space



The Climate Lounge


The Sahara is getting bigger… boo.

Welcome to the climate lounge, where, just like our planet, I’ve programmed the thermostat to get increasingly hotter and told the servers to randomly douse some people with a bucket of water, while removing all drinks from others. You thinking that doesn’t sound like a fun place to hang out…. That’s the point.

But first, PUERTO RICO. Not much more to add besides what I’ve said in the past. It’s a travesty that some people in Puerto Rico are STILL without power. Making matters more infuriating recently, was an article in Politico which went through the double standards in relief efforts between those in Texas impacted by Hurricane Harvey and those in Puerto Rico impacted by Hurricane Maria. I’m sure you can guess how. But here are some numbers from the article. Nine days after Harvey, FEMA (the Federal Emergency Management Agency) approved almost 142 million in individual assistance to Harvey’s victims. That number was 6.2 million for Marias victims. It took 10 days for FEMA to approve permanent disaster work for Texas. It took 43 days for Puerto Rico. Grrrrrrrrrr. So don’t forget!

Moving onto this episodes climate story, we are staying the tropics...somewhat and talking about that big giant desert in Africa called the Sahara.

In a recent article in the Journal of Climate, scientist Natalie Thomas and Sumant Nigam looked at how climate changed over Africa during the 20th century with a focus on seasonal trends over Africa.  That’s the boring way of saying it. Said another way. They looked to see what’s the deal with the Sahara desert and how it’s changing. And they found some things *cue ominous music*

They found that the Sahara has been getting bigger. Not only was it creeping farther NORTH but it has also been creeping southward! Even worse, the farthest creep south has been occuring during the summer season, when the bulk of the rains come to areas just south of the Sahara in a region known as the Sahel.

Why is this interesting? Time to talk how deserts form. First, an important and obvious fact. Different places get different amounts of the suns energy. The equator gets the most, the poles get the least. I’ve just described for you in the simplest way possible why air moves across the planet. The earth likes to keep things in balance so it is in a everlasting battle of moving warm air to the poles. But physics makes things a bit more complicated. And we get deserts as a result.
In general, alot of the world’s deserts are located at the latitude of the downward branch of a huge atmospheric circulation known as the Hadley Cell. The Hadley cell as has a couple of components. The first is rising air in the tropics along the equator, think lots of rin. The second is sinking air farther north and south of the equator around 30 degrees in latitude. As the air rises in the tropics, it hits an atmospheric wall and spreads north and south where it eventually sinks by 30 degreeds latitude. As it sinks, it heats and drys. And thus you find alot of the worlds deserts.

As we warm the planet, we are expanding the Hadley Cell, meaning that the downward branch of the Hadley cell is moving north. So the northward expansion of the Sahara makes perfect sense… but it doesn’t explain the southward creeping.

That goes into another oscillation known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation called Billy for short….Just kidding, making sure you are paying attention. It’s called the AMO and refers to ocean temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean. They can change from warm to cold in the north atlantic ocean during phases. The warm phase (one of which lasted from 30s to 60s) brings wet conditions to sub-Saharan Africa including the Sahel and West Africa. And the cold phase which means drier conditions (one of which last from the 70s through 2000s and included an horrible West African drought in the 1980s. This cold phase AND ties to increasing greenhouse gases likely both played a part in the drought. The signals are intertwined . If this is true, it would account for the southward creep of the Sahara into West Africa.

Why is this bad? In a previous life, I used to provide weather and climate forecasts for the Famine Early Warning Network or FEWS-NET for Africa, so I am a bit familiar with this area of the world’s climate. In the summer months, West Africa sees its rainy season as the rains progress increasing northward through the summer until peaking in latitude at about 19 N in August. This peak position is located in the Sahel, an area that is “on the edge” when it comes to rainfall as it. Sometimes seasons are good, but if they are just a bit late or lower than normal, disaster can strike for farmers. It’s very very vulnerable. This research suggests that rains just aren’t making it as far north as normal during the summer, which if it continues could be devastating to those countries in the Sahel.

Now here is a BIG scientific caveat with this article. And serves as a useful example of how just because a paper passed peer review doesn’t mean it’s right. Other scientists have pushed back on these results, noting how sparse and inconsistent datasets are in Africa and critiquing just how the authors calculated the AMO.  This is how science works. Nothing is taken as gospel. And regardless of whether these results stand the test of time. Northern and subsaharan Africa remains incredibly vulnerable to changes in precipitation and climate change.

And Africa as a continent is the least responsible for all this climate change. It’s not fair. It never will be fair. And we should help out considerably. Any other choice would be a major dick move.




Pub Quiz


Today's topic: antelopes



Thank you, and follow the science!