Biology, digested

A bug’s life

I really appreciate macro photography –  the art of taking close-up pictures that reveal details which can’t be seen with the naked eye.  It gives us an insight into a fascinating and dramatic new world which goes largely unnoticed. Inspired by the 1998 Pixar film ‘A bug’s life’ and armed with my new camera, I took to the garden and surrounding fields! Here are my beginners attempts, see what you think!

I have always found the brain fascinating. The three-pound wrinkly mass in our heads that controls everything we will ever do, feel, think, learn and store in our memory. It controls our every movement, blink, heartbeat…

There are great number of amazing facts about the brain. It is often quoted that there are about the same number of neurones (brain cells)  in the brain as stars in our galaxy. At peak growth rate during development, an astonishing 4000 new neurons are created every second. The brain has hundreds of times more memory and processing power than the worlds most powerful super computers of today. Not only that, a brain is capable of emotion, common sense, imagination and creativity. I could go on.

 The traditional view and one that has been taught for generations is that you are born with all the neurones you will ever have and if a brain cell dies, it is never replaced . However in the last decade or so, much has been learnt about the adult brain and it has finally been accepted that this is not the case.

The first evidence suggesting that adults could grow new neurons (a process called neurogenesis) was presented in the 1960’s by Joseph Altman, who showed growth of neurons in adult rats, but these findings were generally not accepted. In the 1980’s, it was shown again that adult neurogenesis exists in rats and in birds and this set off a frenzy of research, resulting in the scientific field of neurogenesis being recognised, currently one of the hottest topics in neuroscience.

In the early 90’s, neural stem cells were identified, self-renewing cells from which new neurones are generated. In 1998 it was shown that the human hippocampus (an area of the brain involved in learning and the formation of memories), retains its ability to generate neurons throughout life and in 1999 this was shown again in adult monkeys. Recent evidence suggests that new neurons are produced throughout life in two specific areas of the brain, although probably only in numbers sufficient to replace those that gradually die and this ability decreases with age.

Recently it has been discovered that some types of anti-depressant can actually increase neurogenesis by increasing levels  of a chemical called norepinephrine. The next era in this exciting field will uncover what causes neurones in the adult brain to grow, how this is regulated, how new neurones become functional and why neurones in most areas of the brain do not regenerate. Also, very important insights into new strategies for treatment of injury, degenerative neurological disorders such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease and psychiatric disorders could emerge.

At first glance, I thought this was a knitting masterpiece and even though I don’t know how to knit, I wanted the pattern! I was wrong.

This 3-dimensional digital recreation by Ivan Konstantinov is the most detailed model of the HIV virus to date and won first place for illustrations in the 2010 International Science and Engineering Visualization Challenge.

The two-tone color scheme shows HIV (orange) attacking and fusing with a host cell (grey). The triangular cut-away shows how the virus integrates itself into the cell in order to replicate. It required the combined information from over 100 scientific publications to create!

I know we have not long crawled out from a recession, but why is it that research universities and centres in the UK and other countries are having to tighten their belts, some struggling to survive, yet groups are still receiving funding for wacky, or seemingly pointless research?!

Don’t get me wrong, quirky and daft research can provide harmless entertainment and  can spur people’s interest in science, which is important. For example, the satirical Ig nobel prizes (the american parody of the Nobel Prize, where awards are given for achievements that cannot or should not be reproduced), is entertaining and sometimes even thought-provoking. Also, curiosity-driven,  speculative research has led to some of the most important breakthroughs in scientific history, including the discovery of penicillin, relativity theory and the theory of evolution. However, research which is very unlikely to have any impact, or that seems pointless, should not be funded at the detriment of important scientific research. It is wrong to judge research purely by its economic potential and the progression of science should be highly valued. Surely some common sense must be applied to ensure that the governments science budget and other science research funding is being well spent.

The annual £4.6  billion science budget has been ring-fenced for the next four years, not much when you consider the billions wasted by the government each year and the fact that this is a small percentage of the GDP compared to amount spent on science research in other countries. The government unveiled plans to allocate research funding according to how much “impact” the research has in 2009. However, here are a few of the more extreme examples of studies that appear to have ‘slipped through the net’ and have actually been published in peer review journals:

Optimising the sensory characteristics and acceptance of canned cat food: use of a human taste panel. (Journal of Animal Physiology and Animal Nutrition)

Effects of cocaine on honeybee dance behaviour. (Journal of Experimental Biology)

Swearing as a response to pain. (NeuroReport)

Pigeons can discriminate “good” and “bad” paintings by children. (Animal Cognition)

Intermittent access to beer promotes binge-like drinking in adolescent but not adult Wistar rats. (Alcohol)

Fellatio by fruit bats prolongs copulation time. (PLoS One)

Are full or empty beer bottles sturdier and does their fracture-threshold suffice to break the human skull? (Journal of Forensic and Legal Medicine)

The nature of navel fluff. (Medical Hypotheses)

People argue that the findings of these studies have important implications to science, but how important can it be to understand whether pigeons in the street ‘have the ability to learn the concept of beauty’?!

For more studies, see the blog of Meredith Carpenter and Lillian Fritz-Laylin (UC Berkeley, National Center for Biotechnology Information, Rolling On the Floor Laughing), a repository for absurd published scientific papers.

Granted that not all of these studies may have required large amounts of funding or directly competed with ‘more important’ research, however there are less provocative studies doing just this. More effort should be made to judge the worth of studies and more funding should be directed towards research which is likely to have a major impact, progress science, benefit the economy, improve quality of life and prevent the major causes of death, (which probably qualifies for the other categories as well). Economical spending and continued investment are essential in order to continue world-class scientific research in the UK.

Some more reading below:

Britain faces brain drain as cuts force top scientists to leave country

Pointless’ university studies to be weeded out by new government panel

Cuts to science funding will ‘destroy UK’s potential’ as world leader

Stem cells are fascinating and stem cell research is one of the most promising areas in medicine. In recent years they have gone from being a hot topic talked about at conferences to an audience of scientists, to a household term.

In brief, a stem cell is an extraordinary, very early stage, unspecialised cell that has the potential to develop into a number of specialised cell types, generating the cells that compose all the tissues and organs in the body. For example a stem cell could turn into skin cells, liver cells, nerve cells etc. Stem cells from foetuses or embryos can develop into any type of cell, while those found in mature tissues are more specialised and develop only into specific cell types.  In adults, stem cells act as an internal repair system, constantly replacing and regenerating cells in order to maintain proper and efficient function of tissues and organs.

The term stem cell appears in the scientific literature as early as 1868, in book titled Natürliche Schöpfungsgeschichte(translated into English as The History of Creation), written by the eminent German biologist Ernst Haeckel. He used the phrase stem cell to describe the fertilized egg that becomes an organism.

Adult stem cells, derived mostly from bone marrow and umbilical cord blood, have been used in research since the 1960s, with applications focused primarily on treatments for cancer. In 1998, James Thomson (University of Wisconsin-Madison) created the first embryonic stem cell line by isolating cells from human embryonic blastocysts, (the inner cell mass of the early embryo formed by division of a fertilised egg). Cell lines are a family of constantly dividing cells which can replicate for long periods of time in an artificial environment in the lab and can be used for research.

As previously mentioned embryonic stem cells are ‘pluripotent’, that is they have not yet been programmed and can develop into many different cell types when given the specific simulation necessary. Often, embryonic stem cells are derived from blastocysts generated for IVF donated for research by couples who have undergone in vitro fertilisation (IVF) to become
pregnant and have more embryos than they need.

At the blastocyst stage, five to 10 days after fertilisation, the embryo is a cluster of 100-200 cells. Often blastocysts are judged to be of insufficient quality to use in IVF and would otherwise be discarded. Once embryonic stem cells have been isolated, the blastocyst is no longer able to develop into a foetus.

The use of stem cells derived from human embryos continues to cause ethical concerns and is prohibited by law in many countries. In the United States, a ban on federal funding of embryonic stem cell research was overturned in April 2011. In the UK, the use of embryos in stem cell research is permitted but tightly regulated.

However researchers from Advanced Cell Technology (ACT) reported in November 2006 that they generated stem cell lines by plucking single cells from embryos and in February 2008 the same group reported the derivation of five stem cell lines without
embryo destruction
. The ability to create new stem cell lines without destroying embryos would address the ethical concerns of many, and allow the generation of matched tissue for children and siblings born from embryos generated by IVF and genetically screened before implantation.

In my opinion the use of stem cells is instrumental to advancing science and medicine and improving human life. However, this research must be tightly regulated and monitored and there must be sufficient evidence to support scientific claims before their use in therapy.

Much has been learnt about stem cells and their potential uses. They have potential for many different areas of health and medical research and studying them can help us understand how they transform into the astonishing range of specialised cells that make us what we are. Stem cells can potentially be used to replace tissue damaged or destroyed by disease or injury. Stem cells, directed to develop into specific cell types, offer the possibility of a renewable source of replacement cells and tissues to treat Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, spinal cord injury, stroke, burns, heart disease, diabetes, osteoarthritis and rheumatoid arthritis as well as to test new drugs in a wide range of cell types.

There is still much more of the stem cell puzzle to solve and a better understanding of normal cell development will allow us to understand and perhaps correct the errors that cause these medical conditions

Developments that have featured in the news in the past month or so include:

Liver repaired with stem cells taken from skin and blood

Skin cells ‘turned into neurons’

Retina grown from stem cells

Injecting brown fat stem cells under the skin to burn white fat and stimulate weight loss

Beating heart cells derived from a cluster of human embryonic stem cells

Muscles that make up the human heart have been made from embryonic stem cells for the first time.

Ones to watch:

US doctors began the first official trial of using human embryonic stem cells in patients in October 2010. A pilot trial is being carried out by a biotech company called Geron, based in San Francisco. The trial aims to assess the safety of cells developed from human embryonic stem cells in patients who have had a recent spinal cord injury and to see whether there is any return of movement or feeling in the patient’s lower body in the year after injection with the stem cells (

Advanced Cell Technology (ACT), a company in Massachusetts have begun a clinical trial using retinal cells derived from human embryonic stem cells to treat patients with Macular Dystrophy, a disease that causes progressive vision loss usually to the point of blindness (

The London Project to Cure Blindness, directed by Professor Pete Coffey of  University College London Institute of Ophthalmology is a 5 year research project that aims to develop a cell therapy for Age-related Macular Degeneration (

Cancer Signs and Symptoms app by Cancer Research UK

I am a sucker for gadgets and technology! Applications or ‘apps’ for smartphones are increasingly becoming integrated into everyday life, to perform functions or to provide entertainment. The iphone store alone has 350,000 apps and counting, covering a wide range of themes, from astronomy to zombie games and before long most of us will have an app-friendly phone.

There are an overwhelming number of health apps now available. Some perform genuinely useful functions, whilst others are humorous, questionable, or even downright bizarre! Apps designed to locate the five nearest venues in NYC that distribute free condoms, weight loss hypnotisers and baby gender predictors are among these!

Fresh onto the scene is a free app from Cancer Research UK , which aims to help people find out more about the signs and symptoms of cancer and encourage people to see their GP. Admittedly this app may not excite you as much as say, mobile bartender, however it could be the most important thing in your pocket. Since one in four of all deaths in the UK are caused by cancer (1), everyone should care.

Early detection of cancer can often mean simpler treatment and a much improved chance of survival. In fact, research shows that regular screening reduces deaths from breast, cervical and colon cancer (2). Even for those cancers where overall survival is poor, the chances of surviving are better if diagnosed at an earlier stage.

Will it replace going to your GP in person? No. However, if this app encourages just one person to attend their GP, leading to the early diagnosis of cancer, then surely it was worth developing. The more information people have about their health, the better.

So by all means continue to download the latest ‘Mouthoff’ App to make your child’s mouth look like a cartoon monster…

…but give this free app a thought as well!

Available for iphone and android users (3), with an IPAD version on its way.

Those of you without a flashy new phone aren’t left out though, there is also an online version available (4). If in doubt, always check that the ­information is validated by the NHS.