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The Science Hour

The Science Hour

Science news and highlights of the week

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Wetlands under attack

Since its introduction four decades ago, Spartina alterniflora, a salt-water cordgrass from the USA, has been spreading along China?s coasts. Today, it covers nearly half of the country?s salt marshes. As the UN Biodiversity Conference COP 15 kicks off in China, we look at how this invasive plant species threatens native species in protected coastal wetlands. Featuring Yuan Lin, East China Normal University, and Qiang He, Fudan University. In January 2020, Barney Graham and Jason McLellan teamed up to engineer a coronavirus spike protein that now powers the COVID-19 vaccines for Moderna, Pfizer, Johnson & Johnson and Novavax. They discuss their work, a next-generation vaccine using chicken eggs, and the future of pandemic preparedness. Also, a recent Nature survey reveals the extent of abuse against scientists who speak about COVID-19 publicly. Deepti Gurdasani, Queen Mary University of London, shares her experiences of trolling and online abuse and discusses the implications for academia and scientific discourse going forward. And Tom Scott explains how his team uses novel robots and sensors to go into and create 3D digital radiation maps of the Chornobyl Nuclear Power Plant and surrounding areas. Philosophers have long pondered the concept of a brain in a jar, hooked up to a simulated world. Though this has largely remained a thought experiment, CrowdScience listener JP wants to know if it might become reality in the not-too-distant future, with advances in stem cell research. In the two decades since stem cell research began, scientists have learned how to use these cells to create the myriad of cell types in our bodies, including those in our brains, offering researchers ways to study neurological injuries and neurodegenerative disorders. Some labs have actually started 3D printing stem cells into sections of brain tissue in order to study specific interactions in the brain. Human brain organoids offer another way to study brain development and diseases from autism to the Zika virus. So, might stem cell research one day lead to a fully-grown human brain, or is that resolutely in the realm of science fiction? If something resembling our brains is on the horizon, is there any chance that it could actually become conscious? And how would we even know if it was? Host Marnie Chesterton takes a peek inside the human brain and speaks with leading scientists in the field, including a philosopher and ethicist who talks about the benefits ? and potential pitfalls ? of growing human brain models. Along the way, we'll pull apart the science from what still remains (at least for now) fiction. (Credit: Getty Images)
2021-10-15
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Youngest rock samples from the moon

n December 2020, China's Chang'e-5 mission returned to earth carrying rock samples collected from the moon ? the first lunar samples to be collected since the American Apollo and Luna missions to the moon in the 1970s. Laboratory analysis has revealed that these are the youngest samples of rocks to be collected from the moon. Lunar geologist Katherine Joy explains what this tells us about the moon?s volcanic past. Also on the programme, a recent study reveals that the hepatitis B virus has been infecting humans for at least 10,000 years. Denise Kühnert from the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History shares what the evolution of the virus tells us about human evolution, as well as the rise and fall of civilisations. In the wake of Cyclone Shaheen, we also speak to Princeton University?s Ning Lin about how climate modelling can help us predict tropical storms in the Arabian Sea, and Fredi Otto joins us to discuss the 2021 Nobel Prizes for Science. Snails are a major enemy of gardeners around the world, invading vegetable patches and gobbling prize plants. CrowdScience listener Alexandre reckons he?s removed thousands of them from his garden, which got him wondering: apart from eating his garden to the core, what?s their wider role in nature? Would anyone or anything miss them if they suddenly disappeared? And for that matter, what about other creatures? We all know how complex biodiversity is, but it seems that some animals are more important than others in maintaining the balance of life on earth. Is there anything that could go extinct without having knock-on effects? CrowdScience heads to the Hawaiian mountains, a snail diversity hotspot, to discover the deep value of snails to native ecosystems there. Researchers and conservationists are working together to protect these highly endangered snails, and their natural habitats, from multiple threats. We hear why all snails ? even the ones munching Alexandre?s petunias ? have their role to play in the natural world, and get to grips with cascading extinctions: how the loss of a single species can trigger unpredictable effects on a whole ecosystem. (Image: Getty Images)
2021-10-10
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Drug resistant malaria found in East Africa

Since their discovery in the 1970s, artemisinin-based drugs have become the mainstay of treatment for malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Researchers have identified artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites in Southeast Asia since the early 2000s, but now, there is evidence of resistance in Rwanda and Uganda. Dr Betty Balikagala of Juntendo University tells us how this resistance developed and what it means for managing malaria in Africa, which carries the greatest burden of malaria cases and deaths worldwide. We hear from some of the scientists from COVID Moonshot, a non-profit, open-science consortium which has just received key funding to develop affordable antivirals to stop SARS-CoV-2 in its tracks. Also on the programme, Dr Rakesh Ghosh from the University of California, San Francisco tells us how air pollution is contributing to 6 million preterm births globally each year, and Dr Catherine Nakalembe of the University of Maryland and Africa Lead for NASA Harvest returns to the programme as NASA/USGS launches Landsat 9. Also In the past 18 months we have heard lots about the human immune system, as we all learn about how our bodies fight off Covid-19 and how the vaccine helps protect us. But this got listener John, in Alberta, Canada, thinking about how trees and plants respond to diseases and threats. Do they have immune systems and if so, how do they work? Do they have memories that mean they can remember diseases or stressful events 5 months, or 5 years down the line, to be better prepared if they encounter the same threats again? Presenter Marnie Chesterton sets out to investigate the inner workings of plants and trees, discovering that plants not only have a sophisticated immune system, but that they can use that immune system to warn their neighbours of an attack. Some researchers are also investigating how we can help plants, especially crops, have better immune systems ? whether that?s by vaccination or by editing their genes to make their immune systems more efficient. But some plants, like trees, live for a really long time. How long can they remember any attacks for? Can they pass any of those memories on to their offspring? Crowdscience visits one experimental forest where they are simulating the future CO2 levels of 2050 to understand how trees will react to climate change. Image: Mosquito net demonstration in a community outreach centre in Kenya Credit: Wendy Stone/Corbis via Getty Images
2021-10-03
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New evidence for SARS-CoV-2?s origin in bats

Researchers studying bats in Northern Laos have found evidence that brings us closer than ever to understanding the origin of Covid-19. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic scientists have tried to pin-point the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2. But recent evidence from the Institut Pasteur has identified several novel coronaviruses with similarities to the current coronavirus in bats. Professor Marc Eliot spoke to Roland Pease about how this research could give us a better idea where Covid-19 came from. Could an oral COVID treatment be available soon? Daria Hazuda, responsible for infectious disease and bacteria research at MSD tells us about their clinical trials for an oral antiviral drug that could combat Covid-19: Molnupiravir. Early Diagnosis of Alzheimer's Roland Pease travels to Bath to meet scientists who may have developed a way to diagnose Alzheimer's in the earlier stages of the disease. Dr George Stothart, has led the team from Bath university in the development of this simple 2 minute test. Inducing Earthquakes Scientists are experimenting with artificially managing earthquakes by injecting fluid into fault lines. Professor Derek Elsworth at Pennsylvania state university explains his research into how these induced earthquakes can be more tightly controlled. This year has been a weird one for UK gardeners ? unpredictable spring temperatures meant flowers failed to bloom and throughout the rainy summer, slugs have been savaging salad crops. But why and when plants blossom is about more than just early cold spells and wet weather, and a listener in California has asked Crowdscience to investigate. Flowering is vital to both plants and us. Without it, they wouldn?t be able to evolve and survive (and we wouldn?t have anything to eat). Anand Jagatia hears that different species have developed different strategies for doing this based on all sorts of things, from where they?re located to how big they are to what kind of insects are around to pollinate them. The famously stinky Titan Arum, or corpse flower, for example, blooms for a single day once every decade or so before collapsing on itself and becoming dormant again. This gives it the best chance of attracting carrion beetles in the steamy Sumatran jungle. But other plants open their petals much more regularly, which is a process regulated by a clever internal clock that can sense daylight and night. It?s even possible to trick some of them into producing flowers out of season. Cold is also a vital step for some brassicas and trees, and scientists are starting to understand the genes involved. But as climate change makes winters in parts of the world warmer and shorter, there are worrying knock on effects for our food supply. (Image credit: Getty Images)
2021-09-26
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Ebola can remain dormant for five years

An international team of researchers has discovered that an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea in February this year was the result of re-activated Ebola virus in someone who?d been infected at least five years ago during the earlier large Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This means the virus can remain dormant in some Ebola survivors for five years or more. Virologists Alpha Kabinet Keita and Robert Garry talk to Roland Pease about the research and its implications. Also in the programme: The eruption of lavas from Iceland?s newest volcano Fagradalsfjall continues six months on. Geochemist Ed Marshall tells us how he gets up close to sample the molten rock with a long scoop and a bucket of water, and what he?s learning about this remarkable eruption. NASA?s Katie Stack Morgan updates Science in Action on the Perseverance rover?s successful sampling of rocks from Jezero crater on the planet Mars. When the specimens are eventually returned to Earth, she says they may turn out to contain tiny samples of Mars? water and atmosphere from early in the Red Planet?s history. Also...Look into my eyes. What do you see? Pupil, lens, retina? an intricate set of special tissues and mechanisms all working seamlessly together, so that I can see the world around me. Charles Darwin called the eye an ?organ of extreme perfection? and he?s not wrong! But if the eye is so complex and intricate, how did it evolve? One listener, Aloyce from Tanzania, got in touch to pose this difficult question. It?s a question that taxed Darwin himself, but CrowdScience is always up for a challenge! The problem is that eyes weren?t ever designed - they were cobbled together over millions and millions of years, formed gradually by the tweaks and adaptations of evolution. How do you get from the basic detection of light to the wonderful complexity - and diversity ? of visual systems we find throughout the animal kingdom? CrowdScience sent Marnie Chesterton on an 800 million year journey to trace how the different elements that make up the human eye gradually came into being; from the emergence of the first light-sensitive proteins to crude eye-cups, from deep sea creatures with simple pinhole eyes to the first light-focusing lenses, all the way to the technicolour detail of the present day. (Image credit: Getty Images)
2021-09-19
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Keep most fossil fuel in ground to meet 1.5 degree goal

For the world to have a decent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, 90 per cent of remaining coal reserves and 60% of unexploited oil and gas have to stay in the ground. These are the stark findings of carbon budget research by scientists at University College London. Dan Welsby spells out the details to Roland Pease. Virologist Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge describes his latest research that explains why the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is much more infectious and more able to evade our immune systems and covid vaccines than other variants. When dense fog rises from the Pacific ocean into the foothills of the Andes, oases of floral colour bloom for a few weeks or months. When the fog goes, the plants die and disappear for another year or maybe another decade. The true extent of these unique ecosystems (known as fog oases or Lomas) has now been revealed by researchers at the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew in the UK, working with colleagues in Peru and Chile. They?ve discovered that the Lomas are much more extensive than suspected. Ecologist Carolina Tovar tells Roland why the fog oases are threatened and need to be protected. A species of duck can now be added to the list of birds such as parrots and starlings that mimic human speech and other sounds in their environment. Listen to Ripper, the Australian musk duck who was hand-reared on a nature reserve where he learnt to imitate his keeper say ?You bloody fool? and imitate the sound of an aviary door closing. Animal behaviour researcher Carel ten Cate of Leiden University says that Ripper is not the only mimicking musk duck mimic but why this duck species has evolved this trick remains a mystery. Pioneering physicist Nikolas Tesla had a dream of connecting the world up through wireless communication and power. And whilst at the start of the 20th Century Tesla demonstrated that electricity could be transmitted wirelessly very short distances, the amount of power that was needed to do this made it an unfeasible venture and the idea has since lain mostly forgotten. CrowdScience listener, George from Ghana, has asked the team whether it is once again time to reconsider this means of power generation. In countries where rugged landscapes make laying traditional power lines difficult, could wireless electricity help connect those currently reliant on costly and polluting generators? CrowdScience gets talking to various scientists who are now using state of the art technology to reimagine Tesla?s dream. We speak to a team in New Zealand developing ?beamable? electricity and hear how they are using lasers to make sure they don?t harm any wildlife that might wander into the beam. We then hear how wireless electricity could help fulfil the power demands of a growing electric vehicle market. We learn how a town in the USA is turning its bus fleet electric and putting wireless chargers into the tarmac at bus stops so that the busses can trickle charge as passengers get on and off. Finally, we ask whether one day, the tangled knot of wires spilling out of our electronic devices will be but a thing of the past. (Image credit: Getty Images)
2021-09-12
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Methane - a climate solution?

The latest IPCC assessment raised alarm about the rate at which manmade emissions are contributing to climate change. Much of the focus for action is on reducing levels of carbon dioxide, however there is a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, produced by natural and industrial processes which, as Roland Pease tells Drew Shindell of Duke University and lead author on the Global Methane Assessment, is relatively easy to target for reduction. Gut microbes and behaviour Roland speaks to neuroscientist John Cryan of University College, Cork in Ireland who is interested in the effects our gut microbes can have on our behaviour. It?s an unusual connection and one which he?s been experimenting on in mice. By feeding the faeces of younger mice to older ones he has found that the older ones? took on some of the younger ones? behaviour. Ball lightning Ball lightning is the stuff of legend and the supernatural. And yet there are many reported sightings of this phenomenon. Texas State University's Karl Stephan explains to Roland that he is keen to uncover the science behind these observations. He?s running a crowd sourcing project encouraging people to contribute video recordings of any ball lightening events they might observe. Chile mummies And Chile is home to the oldest known mummies in the World. UNESCO world heritage status has been given to a collection of around 300 mummies from Chile?s northern deserts. The mummies of babies, children and adults are thought to have been created in response to arsenic poisoning in the region around 7,000 years ago. How can smart tech tackle climate change? Humans are responsible for emitting over 40 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year ? and we all know that we need to reduce that figure to prevent devastating climate change. Listener Saugat wonders whether smart technology and artificial intelligence can help us do this more quickly? Green energy will go a long way to tackling the problem, but integrating wind and solar into our current electricity grid is complicated. Marnie Chesterton hears how AI is being used at a wind farm on the island of Orkney to predict periods of high winds, so that excess energy can be turned into hydrogen and stored, then converted back to electricity when there?s greater demand. Digital mirrors are also playing a major role in optimising performance, and scientists say cloud-based ?twins? of physical assets like turbines can improve yield by up to 20%, allowing engineers to identify problems via computer without ever having to be on site. Marnie visits an intelligent building in London?s financial district where sensors control everything from air-conditioning to lighting, and machine learning means the building knows which staff will be on which floor at any given time, switching off lifts that are not in use and adjusting ventilation to save on power. Its designer says incorporating this kind of digital technology will help companies achieve net zero more quickly. And in India, more than half the population are involved in agriculture, but the sector is plagued by inefficiency and waste. Tech start-ups have realised there?s potential for growth, and are using drones to monitor crop production and spraying, giving farmers apps which help them decide when and where to fertilise their fields. Image: Livestock farm in Brazil Credit: Photo by Igor Do Vale/NurPhoto via Getty Images Presenters: Roland Pease and Marnie Chesterton Producers: Julian Siddle and Marijke Peters
2021-08-15
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Record-shattering weather

July 2021 saw temperatures in the western US and Canada smash previous records by 5 degrees. And that?s what we should expect, according to a study prepared much earlier but published, coincidentally, just a few days later. A hallmark of rapid climate change, says author Erich Fischer of ETH Zurich, will be an accelerating number of record-shattering, and socially disruptive, events. A large new study on communications and hierarchy across a large range of our ape and monkey relatives has just been published. Lead author Katie Slocombe of the University of York explains the findings: like us, the primates live socially in groups, and there are leaders, but the more tolerant ones are also the more communicative ones. In species with ?despotic? leaders, order seems to be maintained with more menacing silence. The double helix of all DNA on earth twists in one direction. But researchers at Tsinghua University in China have made some important steps towards making mirror life, in which the DNA twists in the opposite direction. Chemistry journalist Mark Peplow discusses the significance of this discovery with Roland Pease. One of the benefits of science?s ability to read normal DNA has been to compare human genomes from across the globe ? for example in the Human Genome Diversity Project ?for what they reveal about both our health ? and our past. But sequences from the Middle East have been sadly lacking. The Sanger Institute?s Mohamed Almarri and colleagues have just rectified that, saying that the Middle East played such a key role in the human story. Today, up to 3 billion people around the world play video games, from candy-based mobile puzzles to virtual battlegrounds filled with weapons. Many people have turned to gaming during the pandemic as a way of staying connected ? but what does science really say about the impact of gaming? Does playing violent video games lead to violence in the real world? Do brain training apps really work? How much gaming is too much ? can video games really be addictive? And how can video games help us to explore difficult issues like death, grief and loss? Alex Lathbridge and Anand Jagatia look at the evidence and play some games along the way, speaking to psychologists, doctors and game designers about the power of video games to change us - for better or worse. (Photo By Tom Williams/CQ-Roll Call, Inc via Getty Images)
2021-08-08
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Insects in incredible detail

The Natural History Museum in London holds a massive collection of insects. It asked researchers at the Diamond light source, a facility near Oxford, to develop a high throughput X-ray microscope to take 3D scans of them all. Roland Pease has been to see the new technology in action. Many people seeking compensation for the impacts of climate change are turning to the law courts. Successes so far have been few. Oxford University?s Friederike Otto, who specialises in connecting weather extremes to the greenhouse effect, has just published a paper looking at the challenge in bringing successful climate lawsuits. Spacecraft will be returning to Venus in the next decade with the recent approval of two NASA missions to the planet, and one from the European Space Agency, ESA. Philippa Mason of Imperial College is a planetary geologist on that mission, Envision. She plans to use radar to peer through that dense and interesting atmosphere to follow up evidence of volcanic activity and tectonics on the surface beneath. A few years ago synthetic biologist Jim Collins of Harvard found a way to spill the contents of biological cells onto ? basically ? blotting paper, in a way that meant by just adding water, all the biochemical circuitry could be brought back to life. With a bit of genetic engineering, it could be turned into a sensor to detect Ebola and Nipah viruses. His team have kept developing the idea, and this week they report success in a smart face mask that can detect SARS-CoV-2 in your breath. Also, Food. For all of us it is a basic necessity and for those lucky enough, it is something we spend a lot of time planning and enjoying. CrowdScience listeners certainly have a lot of food related questions; in this buffet of an episode Marnie Chesterton opens the fridge door to pick the tastiest. Starting with the seemingly simple question of what makes us feel hungry, and ending in outer-space, Marnie investigates flavour, nutrition and digestion. After a year when watching TV has become a core activity for many people stuck in their homes, one listener wants us to find out if eating food whilst watching the TV affects our perception of taste. We then journey to the skies and ask if it is true that food tastes blander on aeroplanes, what does that mean for astronauts? mealtimes? Back on earth, Marnie explores whether humans are the only animals that season their food. Tuck in your napkins and prepare to feast on a smorgasbord of scientific snacks. (Image: Hairy Fungus Beetle - Prepared by Malte Storm. Credit: Diamond light Source Ltd)
2021-07-04
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Nyiragongo Eruption

The latest Nyiragongo eruption was not entirely unexpected, the volcano?s lava lake inside the crater had been building up for years. Local volcanologists say it was only a matter of time before an eruption occurred. The big concern was where the flank of the volcano would be breached as the city of Goma rests under the volcano and there are potential fissures even within the town. However there are still questions over the effectiveness of seismic monitoring in the area, North Kivu. The Goma observatory has been unable to carry out this work due to a lack of funding. And monitoring is further complicated by the region?s long running civil war, with rebel groups often camped around the volcano. We hear from Dario Tadesco and Cindy Ebinger. Who have both been monitoring developments. Cyclone Yass was the second Cyclone to hit India within a week. Are these events becoming more common and are they related to rises in global temperatures? Climatologist Roxy Koll has been monitoring the situation. Greenland?s pristine glaciers might not be so pristine. Jemma Wadham from Bristol university and her team have found unexpectedly high levels of Mercury in meltwaters - similar to those from industrial pollution. They say research now needs to focus on the impact for wildlife and people in the Arctic region. And the elusive Sowerby?s beaked Whale doesn?t travel very much despite pockets of the species being found across the Atlantic. Kerri Smith has been researching this species, which is rarely seen alive. Using samples from whales beached or caught accidentally she was able to build up a picture of their distribution. As millions more of us move to live in densely populated cities, we almost inevitably face living in closer proximity to our neighbours. Neighbour noise can certainly be a source of annoyance ? but could it even be damaging to our health? Increasing evidence suggests that unwanted noise can cause sleep deprivation, distraction and annoyance, as presenter Anand Jagatia finds out. He discovers that noise annoyance has a small but significant impact on our wider health ? including our cardiovascular system ? but that annoyance is not necessarily down to sound alone. Factors such as perception of the neighbourhood and relationships with our neighbours also play a part. CrowdScience has examined living with unwanted noises before, and we revisit our trip to the acoustics lab at the University of Salford in Manchester, UK. Here, we meet the researchers and engineers investigating the best ways to make our homes more pleasant for our ears whilst still maintaining the ?buzz? of city life. (Image: Getty images)
2021-05-30
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Robot revolution

A brain-computer interface allows a severely paralysed patient not only to move and use a robotic arm, but also to feel the sensations as the mechanical hand clasps objects . We hear from Jennifer Collinger at Pittsburgh University?s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs. And Nathan Copeland, who has been controlling the robotic arm with his thoughts via a series of brain implants. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina tells us about the development of a multi-component vaccine that would be effective not just against the current coronavirus outbreak and its variants, but also future outbreaks from SARS-like coronaviruses that we don?t even know about yet. Blood clots, thromboses, have been a problem for a small number of people following Covid vaccination Paul Knöbl, and a team of medics in Vienna have worked out the link between vaccination and clot development. They now have a method to treat such clots ? so they should not be fatal. And how did fungi and plants come to live together? Symbiotic relationships between the two are a key component of the evolution of life. Melanie Rich of the University of Toulouse has been looking at the present day genetic markers which allowed plants and fungi to help each other as they first colonised land millions of years ago. Also...You are a star. Literally. You are a carbon-based life form and those atoms of carbon in the molecules that make up your cells were formed by a nuclear fusion reaction at the heart of long dead stars. That goes for the oxygen in your lungs too. And the red blood cells that carry that oxygen to your tissues? They contain haemoglobin, and nestled at the heart of each molecule is an element (iron) formed by a supernova - the fiery explosion at the death of a star. Your body is a walking, thinking museum of some of the most violent events in the universe. This, as CrowdScience host Marnie Chesterton discovers, isn?t as special as it sounds. All of the stuff on the earth - the elements that make clouds and mountains and mobile phones ? they all have an origin story. CrowdScience tells that story, starting with the big bang and ending with physicists, creating new elements in the lab. Find out the age of the elements and the distance they have travelled to make their current home on earth. (Image: Artificial tactile perception allows the brain-computer interface user to transfer objects with a robotic arm at twice the speed of doing it without the feedback. Credit: UPMC/Pitt Health Sciences Media Relations)
2021-05-23
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Covid and clean air

We wouldn?t drink dirty water so why do we put up with polluted air? Researchers are calling for a major rethink on our attitude to air quality. Professor Lidia Morawska, from the Queensland University of Technology, says attention to air quality during the Covid pandemic has shown how levels of airborne disease can be reduced. Sam Wilson from the UK Medical Research Council, University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research has been investigating genetic mechanisms associated with susceptibility to Covid infection. His team has identified a molecule that detects SARS-COV-2 when it starts to replicate in our cells. However, not all humans have this protective mechanism, which may help explain why some people become very ill with Covid and others have little if any symptoms. Many Europeans lack this protective molecule, whereas the vast majority of Africans have it. The difference can be seen in cell cultures. However, the lack of diversity in the cells used in experiments worldwide can be a serious problem when looking at genetic differences as Samara Linton reports. Nuclear material buried beneath the doomed Chernobyl nuclear power plant is becoming more active Neil Hyatt Professor of Nuclear Materials Chemistry at Sheffield University says it?s a small increase but needs to be monitored. And There are over 400,000 species of plant on earth, they?re on every continent including Antarctica. But humans only regularly eat about 200 species globally, with the vast majority of our nutrition coming from just three species. Many of the fruits, leaves and tubers that other plants grow are packed full of toxins that are poisonous to us, and would make us very ill if we ate them. But could we take out the poisons and create new, edible crops? That?s what CrowdScience listener Marija wants to know. Crowdscience dives into this topic, and uncovers the that many crops are poisonous, and why so few plants are eaten globally. Host Anand Jagatia finds that even the modern scientific processes of crop breeding are very slow. But science can now engineer plants at the genetic level by adding, silencing or removing specific genes. This ?genetic modification? is hugely controversial but can be highly effective. Anand finds a man who has spent decades making cotton seeds edible by removing the poisons they naturally produce in their seeds. This GM crop could help fend-off starvation. But sometimes introducing poisons can be as important as removing them, as we find in the genetically modified ?BT eggplants? in Bangladesh. The new gene makes the vegetable toxic to a major insect pest, so they are much easier to grow. But GM crops are not the perfect solution. They have problems of gene escape, can increase the use of environmentally damaging herbicide, and can be open to monopolisation. In some countries, particularly in Europe, GM crops are hugely controversial. Anand finds out whether these concerns stand up to science and looks at the counterpoint in developing countries in Africa, South Asia and elsewhere, where local farmers like Patience Koku in Nigeria have little time for some of the concerns around GM, particularly as they see poor harvests, poverty and starvation as the more pressing problems. (Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images)
2021-05-16
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Africa?s oldest burial

Analysis of the 78,0000-year-old fossil of a Kenyan boy reveals he was likely buried with care and attention, the body wrapped and laid to rest supported on a pillow. Maria Martinon-Torres, of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, and a team from Kenya and Germany used techniques from paleontology and forensic science to reveal his story from the fragile remains. A promising malaria vaccine is to enter trials which could lead to it being used globally to vaccinate children. Merheen Datoo, Oxford University?s Jenner Institute, explains malaria vaccines have been in development for 100 years. Research from these helped covid vaccine development and the success of covid vaccines may now help to speed up the rollout of malaria vaccines. Covid vaccines may also help to treat those who have symptoms of long covid ? a range of immune system issues that develop sometimes months after the initial infection. Yale University immunologist Akiko Kawasaki is embarking on a research project to assess the impact. If you?d like to take part, have yet to be vaccinated, and live in Connecticut in the US, email [email protected] And in India scientists are calling on the government to make all data on Covid more widely available. At present Indian bureaucracy means statistics on infection rates, variants and recovery are not distributed widely. Science journalist TV Padma says greater access to the data could help more scientists come together to work on solutions to India?s Covid crisis. And, Have you taken classes to learn a new sport or musical instrument or a language? It?s hard work! Why is it that as children we effortlessly absorb new skills and we don?t as adults? That?s what 50-something listener Gary Grief wondered about playing guitar. Do you need to play more frequently as an adult to attain the same level of expertise? Does the 10,000-hours theory still apply? Presenter and budding tabla-player Anand Jagatia embarks on a musical journey to discover what neuroscience can tell us about muscle memory and learning. Do musicians and sportsmen share the same challenges? By understanding what?s happening in the brain, can we learn how to learn better? With tabla-teacher Satvinder Sehmbey, neuroscientist Dr Jessica Grahn, viola-player Dr Molly Gebrian and sports scientist Prof Yannis Pitsiladis. (Image: An artist?s interpretation of Mtoto?s burial Credit: Fernando Fueyo)
2021-05-09
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Uncovering history with Little Foot's skull

One of our most complete ancient ancestor?s fossils has been transported to the UK from South Africa in order to be scanned at the Diamond Light Source. Roland Pease investigates what these scans could reveal about the human story. Professor Corinne Le Quéré explains how she managed to look past the 7% reduction in human emissions caused by the pandemic in 2020 to reveal the impact of the Paris Climate agreements, and explains what more needs to be done. Roland speaks with anthropologist Dr. Rolf Quam, who has studied the inner ears of fossilised Neanderthal skulls to reveal they may have evolved the ability to hear the complex sounds of spoken language separately to our own species. Dr. Emma Hodcroft discusses the Brazilian P1 COVID 19 variant that is spreading around the world. And, The sudden agony of stubbing a toe or burning a finger can make even the most polite among us swear our heads off. It?s like a reflex, a quick-release valve for the shock. But why do expletives give us such a sense of relief? Why does it sometimes feel so good to swear? We set out to explore the science of swearing, prompted by a question from our listener Gadi. Psychological studies have shown bad language can relieve pain, or even make us stronger; we test out these theories for ourselves, and try to figure out why certain words are charged with such physical power. We don?t just use strong words in shock or anger, either. They can help us to bond with others, to express joy, solidarity, or creativity. And although people curse all over the world, it?s not quite the same everywhere. We hear what people like to swear about in different countries, and whether swearing in a second language can ever be quite so satisfying. (Image: Little Foot Skull. Copyright: Diamond Light Source Ltd)
2021-03-07
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Waste not, want not

Although vaccines will go a long way to reducing the number of cases of Covid, there?s still a need for other approaches. One of these could be an engineered biomolecule, designed by virologists Anne Moscona and Matteo Porotto, that blocks SARS-CoV-2 precisely at the moment it tries to enter cells in the nose and upper airways. Roland Pease talks to Anne Moscona about this ?molecular mask?. We?re already beginning to see really encouraging analyses showing that Covid vaccines are performing as well in the real world as was promised by last year?s trials. Shane Crotty of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology discusses progress so far and the question of one dose or two with Roland. Lives can be saved if there?s an early warning system for earthquakes and tsunamis. Seismologist Zhongwen Zhan at CalTech has been experimenting with a newly installed 10,000 km cable laid along the Pacific coasts of north and south America by Google, all the way from Los Angeles to Santiago. What he was looking for were subtle changes in a property of light that?s important to IT engineers, and can detect subsea earthquakes. We are still sending too much waste to landfill sites. At the Commonwealth Science Conference this week Veena Sahajwalla of the University of New South Wales explained how she is creating small scale factories that can use discarded objects such as ceramics and textiles to make new products. Listener Paula from Kenya is a computer scientist, she can?t help but notice the inequality in her workplace. With only 1 in 10 countries having female heads of state, there is no doubt that men are in charge. Paula wants to know if there is any scientific underpinning to this inequality? Perhaps it can be explained by our brains and bodies? Or does evolution weigh in? Or maybe it is all down to society and the way we raise our boys and girls. The toys and ideals we give our children must surely have an impact. And most importantly, if we want a world run by men and women equally, how can we get there? We hear how Iceland became the most gender equal country in the world. Presented by Marnie Chesterton. Produced by Caroline Steel for the BBC World Service (Image: Getty Images)
2021-02-28
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Weird weather

A paper in the BMJ shows that deaths from Covid 9 are being massively overlooked in Zambia. The new data come from post-mortem tests at the University Hospital mortuary in Lusaka, showing that at least 1 in 6 deaths there are due to the coronavirus; many of the victims had also been suffering from tuberculosis. Chris Gill of Boston University?s Department of Global Health, and Lawrence Mwananyanda, chief scientific officer of Right to Care, Zambia, discuss their findings with Roland Pease. New variants of concern continue to be reported, such as the one labelled B 1 1 7 in the UK, or B 1 351 identified in South Africa. Geneticist Emma Hodcroft, of the University of Bern, talks about seven variants that have been found in the US. Although all these variants are evolving from different starting points, certain individual mutations keep recurring ? which suggests they have specific advantages for the virus. Her co-author Jeremy Kamil, of Louisiana State University Health Sciences Center in Shreveport, explains how he can watch the viruses replicating inside cells. Much of the United States, as far south as Texas, and Eurasia, has been gripped by an extraordinary blast of Arctic weather. Roland hears from climatalogist Jennifer Francis, of the Woodwell Climate Research Center, about the Arctic?s role in this weird weather. Life, in the form of sponges, has been discovered hundreds of metres under the thick ice surrounding Antarctica, where it?s dark, subzero and barren. The British Antarctic Survey?s Huw Griffiths reveals how it was spotted unexpectedly in pictures colleagues took with a sub-glacial camera. It?s the stuff of fairy tales ? a beautiful cottage, with windows, chimney and floorboards ? and supported by a living growing tree. CrowdScience listener Jack wants to know why living houses aren?t a common sight when they could contribute to leafier cities with cleaner air. The UK has an impressive collection of treehouses, but they remain in the realm of novelty, for good reasons. Architects are used to materials like concrete and steel changing over time, but a house built around a living tree needs another level of flexibility in its design. That doesn?t mean it?s impossible and CrowdScience hears about a project in the Ethiopian capital Addis Ababa, where architect Ahadu Abaineh made a three-storey, supported by 4 living Eucalyptus trees as a natural foundation. Host Marnie Chesterton meets some of the global treehouse building fraternity, including builder of over 200 structures, Takashi Kobayashi, who adapts his houses to the Japanese weather. In Oregon, USA, Michael Garnier has built an entire village of treehouses for his ?Treesort?. He?s developed better ways of building , including the Tree Attachment Bolt, which holds the weight of the house while minimising damage to the tree. Professor Mitchell Joachim from Terreform One explains the wild potential of living architecture, a movement which looks at organic ways of building. He?s currently building a prototype living house, by shaping willow saplings onto a scaffold that will become a home, built of live trees. (Image: A man walks to his friend's home in a neighbourhood without electricity as snow covers the BlackHawk neighborhood in Pflugerville, Texas, U.S. Credit: Reuters)
2021-02-21
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Perseverance approaches Mars

On 18th February the Perseverance rover should land on Mars. Katie Stack-Morgan of NASA?s Jet Propulsion Lab tells Roland Pease about the technological advances that mean that the spacecraft should be able to land in Jezero Crater. Imperial College geologist Sanjeev Gupta discusses what this crater can reveal about the history of life on the red planet. After months of negotiations, and weeks of work on the ground, a team brought together by the World Health Organisation has just concluded its first attempts to find out the origins of SARS-Cov2 in Wuhan. Peter Daszak, who has worked closely with Chinese virologists in the past, briefed Roland Pease on what had been discovered. The South African government has announced that it will not be rolling out the Astra Zeneca Covid vaccine as it appears it is not very effective against the dominant strain in the country. Helen Rees, of Witwatersrand University and a member of South Africa?s Health Products Regulatory Authority, explains that the ?ban? is an overstatement. At least 35 people died in a flood disaster in the Himalayan state of Uttarakhand in India on February 6th. The details are still unclear, but the trigger seems to be associated with a glacier overhanging an upstream lake in the steep valley. Rupert Stuart-Smith of Oxford University, who has just published an analysis of a glacier melting disaster in waiting in the Andes, talks about the impacts of climate change on the stability of mountain glaciers. And Do you find your bearings quickly or are you easily disorientated? Do your friends trust you with the directions in a new city? Finding our way in the physical world ? whether that?s around a building or a city - is an important everyday capability, one that has been integral to human survival. This week CrowdScience listeners want to know whether some people are ?naturally? better at navigating, so presenter Marnie Chesterton sets her compass and journeys into the human brain. Accompanied by psychologists and neuroscientists Marnie learns how humans perceive their environment, recall routes and orientate themselves in unfamiliar spaces. We ask are some navigational strategies better than others? Marnie also hears that the country you live in might be a good predictor of your navigation skills and how growing up in the countryside may give you an wayfaring advantage. But is our navigational ability down to biology or experience, and can we improve it? With much of our modern map use being delegated to smartphones, Marnie explores what implications an over-reliance on GPS technology might have for our brain health. (Image: An illustration of NASA?s Perseverance rover landing on Mars. Credit NASA/JPL-Caltech) Presenter: Roland Pease Producer: Deborah Cohen
2021-02-14
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Mixing Covid vaccines

A new trial is about to start in the UK, seeing if different vaccines can be mixed and matched in a two-dose schedule, and whether the timing matters. Governments want to know the answer as vaccines are in short supply. Oxford University?s Matthew Snape takes Roland Pease through the thinking. Despite the numbers of vaccines being approved for use we still need treatments for Covid-19. A team at the University of North Carolina is upgrading the kind of manufactured antibodies that have been used to treat patients during the pandemic, monoclonal antibodies. Lisa Gralinski explains how they are designing souped-up antibodies that?ll neutralise not just SARS-CoV-2, but a whole range of coronaviruses. Before global warming, the big ecological worry that exercised environmentalists was acid rain. We?d routinely see pictures of forests across the world dying because of the acid soaking they?d had poisoning the soil. In a way, this has been one of environmental activism?s success stories. The culprit was sulphur in coal and in forecourt fuels ? which could be removed, with immediate effect on air quality. But biogeochemist Tobias Goldhammer of the Leibniz Institute in Berlin and colleagues have found that sulphur, from other sources, is still polluting water courses. There?s been debate over when and where dogs became man?s best friend. Geoff Marsh reports on new research from archaeology and genetics that puts the time at around 20,000 years ago and the place as Siberia. Could being happier help us fight infectious disease? As the world embarks on a mass vaccination programme to protect populations from Covid-19, Crowdscience asks whether our mood has any impact on our immune systems. In other words, could being happier help us fight infectious diseases? Marnie Chesterton explores how our mental wellbeing can impact our physical health and hears that stress and anxiety make it harder for our natural defence systems to kick in ? a field known as psychoneuroimmunology. Professor Kavita Vedhara from the University of Nottingham explains flu jabs are less successful in patients with chronic stress. So scientists are coming up with non-pharmacological ways to improve vaccine efficiency. We investigate the idea that watching a short feel-good video before receiving the inoculation could lead to increased production of antibodies to a virus. And talk to Professor Richard Davidson who says mindfulness reduces stress and makes vaccines more effective.
2021-02-07
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Saving the Northern White Rhino

Northern white rhinos are extinct in the wild and there are just two females in captivity in Kenya. Conservationists are working on an artificial breeding programme, using eggs from the females and sperm from a deceased male. Now five embryos have been created. Thomas Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin explained the research. President Biden?s first executive order was what?s being called the hundred-day mask mandate. The day before the inauguration a massive analysis of mask-wearing and COVID rates demonstrated a clear, if small, benefit. Epidemiologist Ben Rader told Roland Pease that it got over 300,000 opinions by using the online questionnaire, SurveyMonkey. After the alarming series of record-breaking heatwaves last year, global warming is causing specific problems in the innumerable lakes around the world. Lakes are ecologically particularly vulnerable to extremes. The European Space Agency?s Yestyn Woolway has been analysing past trends, and modelling the future. 2020 delivered a record year in hurricanes, which caused around $60 billion dollars in damage to the US alone, according to one estimate. A new technology called Airborne Phased-Array Radar promises to improve the measurements that are currently made by planes that fly right into the eye of the hurricanes, and make the missions safe. It?s being developed at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research and Roland discussed the new technology with the Director of NCAR, Vanda Grubi?i?. And Covid-19 has prompted a cleaning frenzy. CrowdScience listener William works as a personal trainer in a gym, and while cleaning?s always been part of his job, it?s now taken over much of his working day. He?s constantly wiping down equipment and doing regular deep cleans, and he reckons he can sanitize his hands 40 times in one shift. This kind of routine might strike a chord with many of us, and it?s certainly vital to take hygiene seriously during times of pandemic. But could there be any downsides to all this extra cleaning? There?s a whole world of microbes out there: some, like SARS-CoV-2, make us sick, but others are essential for our health. A rich microbiome is linked to a healthy immune system, while ?good? microbes help keep ?bad? ones at bay. And what about the chemicals in cleaning products ? do they have any unintended consequences for our health? CrowdScience turns to the experts to ask whether our supercharged hygiene routines could damage our immune systems, or promote the spread of superbugs. And we hear why, as long as we have a good diet, plenty of fresh air, and ideally a furry pet, we don?t need to worry too much about being too clean. (Image; Najin and Fatu, the only two remaining female northern white rhinos graze in their paddock. Credit: Tony Karumba/AFP via Getty Images)
2021-01-24
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Gravitational waves and black holes

After collecting data for more than twelve years the North American Nanohertz Observatory for Gravitational Waves (NANOGrav) announced it may have detected new kinds of gravitational waves caused by colliding supermassive black holes. Professor Chiara Mingarelli of the University of Connecticut tells Roland Pease why this is such an exciting discovery. Supermassive black holes are at the heart of galaxies and they are the engines of quasars, the brightest light sources in the heavens that can be seen across the expanse of the Universe. A team including Professor Xiaohui Fan of the University of Arizona has identified the oldest quasar in the universe. The SARS-CoV-2 virus looks much like bat coronaviruses, but the mostly likely route into humans involved some other infected animal. Roland talks to Dr Dalan Bailey of The Pirbright Institute about how he has been looking for possible intermediaries. A new study that looks into the genetics of twins and their families in Iceland shows that identical twins aren?t really identical. Kari Stefansson of the Icelandic genome company, DeCode, explains that the differences can appear when the twins are at the embryonic stage. And , When it comes to speed, humans have got nothing on cheetahs - or greyhounds, kangaroos or zebras for that matter. It?s over long distances we really come into our own: when running for hours or even days, our body structure and excellent sweating skills make us able to outpace much faster mammals. But what are the limits of human endurance? Can we run ever further and faster, and what?s the best diet to fuel such ambitions? This week?s questions come from two CrowdScience listeners in Japan who already know a fair bit about stamina, having run several marathons and long-distance triathlons between them. We head to Greece, legendary birthplace of the marathon, to witness an even more arduous challenge: hundreds of athletes following in the footsteps of the ancient Greek messenger Pheidippides, to run an astonishing 246km across the country. The ever-so-slightly less fit CrowdScience team do our best to keep up, and try to discover the secrets of these runners? incredible endurance. (Image: Representative illustration of the Earth embedded in space-time which is deformed by the background gravitational waves and its effects on radio signals coming from observed pulsars. Credit: Tonia Klein / NANOGrav)
2021-01-17
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New variants of SARS-Cov2

Mutant strains of SARS-Cov2 have been identified not only in the UK, where it was first identified, but also in at least 30 other countries. And to complicate matters, another alarming variant, with some similar mutations, has arisen in South Africa. Roland Pease talks to Ravi Gupta, a virologist at Cambridge University and Tulio de Oliveira of the University of KwaZulu Natal about these new strains. There?s only so much that can be learned about the virus by looking at the patients it infects. Thanks to techniques developed to study HIV, Ebola, flu and other viruses in the past, researchers have methods for growing key parts of viral structures in the lab and watching closely how they behave in cell cultures. Jeremy Luban of the University of Massachusetts and Alli Greaney at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center talk to Roland about how they are studying the biology of the mutations to discover how the new strains might respond to vaccines. And, one of the more surprising consequences of the pandemic has been the trend for people wanting to move out of cities and back to the countryside. Not everyone has that privilege of course, but undoubtedly for some living in urban areas during lockdown, the lack of access to green spaces took its toll on their mental health and physical well-being. Now, with renewed hope of a global vaccine roll-out, ensuring more people have better access to nature is more important than ever, especially in cities of glass, steel and concrete. Italian CrowdScience listener Enrica loves nothing better than walking along the verdant riverbank near her home after a hard week at work. But is this activity doing more than making her feel good? Is it having an actual effect on her health? Presenter Anand Jagatia meets Enrica and visits a radical scheme in the city of Milan, where officials have been working hard to increase urban green features and have committed to planting 3 million trees and building twenty new parks by 2030. One such idea is the innovative Bosco Verticale - or vertical forest, planted up the side of two high rises apartment blocks. Amongst other benefits It?s hoped it could provide cooling microclimates to reduce the dangers (Image: Swab test. Credit: Getty Images)
2021-01-10
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Coping with Covid

This has been an incredible year for scientific advance and collaboration, epitomised by the roll out of vaccines that didn?t exist a year ago, against a virus that no one had ever heard of . And yet at the same time its been a year of incredible frustration. We are stil largely using the same methods to counter the virus that were used in past pandemics, going back a hundred years. Here we look back at key the findings on who is most susceptible and why, and ask how to improve the strategies for reducing transmission. As regular listeners may recall, CrowdScience has delved into the strange world of fungi before, as we dug down into the forest floor to reveal how plants and trees are connected to the vast mycelial network known as the ?wood wide web?. But what makes this network possible and how might it have evolved? Fungi are incredible clever, or at least , it appears that they?re capable of displaying complex behaviour that gives them the appearance of intelligence. In this episode, we speak to fungal ecologist and author of a new book, Merlin Sheldrake, about fungal ?brains?, the evolution of magic mushrooms and zombie insects ? the astonishing way certain fungi can take over the bodies of ants and wasps in order to sow their spores above ground. (Image: Getty Images)
2021-01-03
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A year with Covid -19

It was the end of December 2019 when reports of a new flu like infection first came out of China. Within weeks millions of people were in lockdown as the virus took hold around the world. In this programme we look back and revisit the scientists who were ready, those who had been studying bat coronaviruses and warning of their pandemic potential. The scientific response was immediate. The coronavirus tests now used across the world were being developed within a few hours of news of the outbreak in China, and the vaccines we now have licenced for use began to be formulated just a few days later. At Christmas, is there a better gift than knowledge? CrowdScience has cooked up its own version of 'secret Santa', with members of the team setting one another the challenge of answering surprising questions from all over the world. Are humans the only animals to exercise? Can you get colder than absolute zero? Why are sounds louder at night? When it comes to food dropped on the floor, is there such thing as the "three-second rule"? And, does honey really have healing properties? Producers and presenters from the CrowdScience team speak to all manner of experts, from zoologists through to material scientists, to find the answers. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-12-27
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Covid -19 ? Mutations are normal

This week the UK Health secretary raised concerns over a new variant of SARS- CoV-2 currently spreading across Europe. Viruses mutate all the time so it?s no surprise that a new form of the one causing Covid -19 would emerge. However, virologist Ravi Gupta who analysed the new strain says we need to be weary in case future strains mutate in ways that could overcome vaccines. Immunologist Akiko Iwasaki is part of a team looking at the impact of Covid -19 on our immune system. Her research has uncovered autoantibodies linked to infection with the virus. These are responsible for a number of autoimmune diseases. The finding goes some way to explaining the symptoms seen by some people long after a Covid -19 infection. And how clever are ravens? According to behavioural scientist Simone Pika at the Max Planck Institute for Ornithology in many ways they are up there with chimps or young children. She found they performed well in tests designed for primates. Following the dinosaur destroying meteor strike where was the best place for life to develop a new? Geologists, David Kring and Tim Bralower, think they?ve found the answer hidden in plain sight. CrowdScience listener Simon has a problem. He?s always bumping into things, dropping tools and knocking stuff over. And he?s sick of it. He wants to know what is going on. Was he born like this? Or is it contagious? And most importantly, can he doing anything about it or is he going to be the proverbial ?bull in a china shop? for the rest of his life? Host Anand Jagatia gets on the case, investigating the complex coordination needed for the simplest movements, like throwing a ball and catching it. With help from Dr Andrew Green, an exercise physiologist from Johannesburg University, he delves into our secret ?sixth sense? ? proprioception, which helps us locate our limbs without looking. Anand discovers that an easy task, like kicking a football, needs multiple parts of the brain to coordinate in order to work smoothly. Assistant Professor Jessica Bernard from Texas AMU studies the brain, particularly the cerebellum, a part that controls smooth movements. Dr Bernard explains how tiny glitches and larger lesions in different parts of the brain can make us clumsy in different ways. And how we use our thinking powers to stay balanced; a reason why, as your memory goes with old age, you?re more prone to falling over. Our listener is not alone. Around the world, there is an under- diagnosed condition that affects millions of us. Developmental Coordination Disorder (DCD), also known as dyspraxia is a motor coordination condition that affects 5% of the global population. As Professor Amanda Kirby from the University of South Wales and CEO of Do-It solutions explains, if you can?t tie shoelaces, catch a ball and your handwriting is awful, there?s a chance that you have DCD. There?s a large genetic component, so you are likely to come from a clumsy family. There?s no cure for DCD/Dyspraxia but all of us are capable of becoming better at a chosen task, and there?s a common pathway to mastery, whether that?s bike mechanics or open heart surgery. Professor Roger Kneebone is the author of Becoming Expert, and he talks to Simon about possible solutions to clumsiness, including accepting and living with it. [IMAGE: Getty Images]
2020-12-20
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The unchecked spread of Covid-19 in Manaus

Pictures of coffins and mass graves seen by satellites showed that Manaus has been badly affected by Covid- 19. Now analysis of blood samples shows the extent to which the virus took hold in the Amazon city earlier this year. Investigators Ester Sabino and Lewis Buss from Brazil?s University of Sao Paulo discuss how and why the virus spread. Humanity has been modifying the environment for millennia, but have we now reached a point where it?s all too much? An analysis by Emily Elhacham from Tel Aviv University shows the amount of stuff produced by humanity, from plastics to buildings now has a greater mass than all natural biomass on the planet. And China has been to the moon. Space watcher Andrew Jones tells us how the robotic mission mimics the manned missions of the 1960s and 70s. The space between stars is usually measured in light years, but this makes it less easy to acknowledge the true scale of the distance. Even the closest star system to Earth, Proxima Centauri, is 4.2 light years or 40.13 trillion kilometres from Earth. If we are ever going to bridge the gap between the stars, we will have to have some very fast spaceships, with extremely reliable, long-lasting technology on board. So does science allow for these spacecraft to exist? That?s what listener Allan wants to know, and to find out, Presenter Anand Jagatia speaks with Tracy Drain, a systems engineer at NASA JPL responsible for overseeing the development and missions of multiple unmanned interplanetary probes including some around Jupiter and Mars. She tells us the challenges involved with simply keeping our spacecraft working for the long-haul. Even if we can overcome issues of wear and tear over time, powering a ship to other star systems will not be easy. Today?s chemical rockets are too inefficient for the job, so we speak with Rachel Moloney, a researcher in electric propulsion to ask if this relatively new technology could power ships through interstellar space. Faster than light travel is the solution most often found in Science Fiction, but it goes against Einstein?s laws of relativity. Is there a way around it? Theoretical physicist Professor Miguel Alcubierre thinks there may be, and he describes the way a spaceship may be able to create a bubble of spacetime around itself to move faster than light without breaking these fixed laws. But there?s a catch... (Image: Getty Images)
2020-12-13
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Freak weather getting even freakier

This year?s Atlantic hurricane season has seen a new record for severe storms says Climatologist Michael Mann. He says warming oceans are one of the drivers. And Australia has seen spring temperatures hit new highs. Climate scientist Sarah Perkins ? Kirkpatrick says it?s all the more remarkable as weather patterns are currently in a cycle associated with cooler temperatures. Where exactly did SARS- COV-2 emerge from? That?s one of the questions for a WHO fact-finding mission to China looking into the origins of the Virus. Peter Daszak has worked with Chinese scientists for many years, looking for bat viruses with the potential to jump to humans. He tells us how the mission hopes to map out the event which led to the initial spread of the virus. And the Japanese Hayabusa2 space probe is due to return to earth. Masaki Fujimoto Deputy director of the Japanese Space Agency JAXA, tell us what to expect when a cargo of material from a distant asteroid lands in the Australian desert. From dumping raw sewage into rivers to littering the streets with our trash, humans don?t have a great track record when it comes to dealing with our waste. It?s something that CrowdScience listener and civil engineer Marc has noticed: he wonders if humans are particularly prone to messing up our surroundings, while other species are instinctively more hygienic and well-organised. Aasre we, by nature, really less clean and tidy than other animals? Farming and technology have allowed us to live more densely and generate more rubbish - maybe our cleaning instincts just aren?t up to the vast quantities of waste we spew out? CrowdScience digs into the past to see if early human rubbish heaps can turn up any answers. We follow a sewer down to the River Thames to hear about The Great Stink of Victorian London; turn to ants for housekeeping inspiration; and find out how to raise hygiene standards by tapping into our feelings of disgust and our desire to follow rules. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-12-08
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Vaccines ? the Covid confusion

While developing new treatments drug companies usually release little useful information on how the clinical trials are progressing. However with the world?s attention on potential vaccines against Covid -19, the usually dull data on the progression of each trial step is subject to huge scrutiny. It doesn?t help to clarify things says epidemiologist Nicole Basta when that data raises questions about the rigour of the trial itself. This seems to be what happened with the latest Astra Zeneca, and Oxford University trial ? where the best results were reportedly due to a mistake. The link between locust plagues and extreme weather was demonstrated once again when cyclone Gati hit Somalia ? dumping 2 years worth of rain in just a few days. This creates a perfect environment for locusts to breed to plague proportions. And this will be the third time in as many years that cyclones will trigger such an effect says Keith Cressman from the UNFAO. However thanks to the previous recent locust plagues in East Africa the countries most in line for this returning locust storm are better prepared this time. A study of tree rings from Greater Mongolia suggests the region is now drying out rapidly, the past 20 years have been drier than the past thousand says climate scientist Hans Liderholm. This points to potential desertification in coming years. And the death of a scientific icon. The Arecibo observatory, featured in the films ?Goldeneye? and ?Contact?, and responsible for the Nobel Prize winning detection of gravitational waves is facing demolition. Sitting in a crater in the jungles of Puerto Rico this 57 year old radio telescope dish has suffered severe storm damage and is in danger of collapse. Astronomer Anne Virkki, who works at the telescope and science writer Shannon Stirone explain its significance. This year, dramatic wildfires wreaked havoc across the globe from Australia to Siberia. CrowdScience listener Melissa wants to know the extent to which climate change is a factor in blazes that appear to be increasing in both frequency and intensity. Presenter Anand Jagatia hears how scientists use alternative worlds in computer models, to understand the role that global warming plays. After Siberia?s hottest ever year on record, he discovers the impact of increasing temperatures on boreal forests ? and how they could help release huge stocks of carbon that has been stored in the soil. But is there anything we can do to prevent this happening? He visits the UK?s Peak District region, where conservationists are re-wilding a massive area with a special species of moss, which may offer a solution to an increase in infernos. (Image: Credit: Getty Images)
2020-11-29
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Covid- 19 ? Good news on immunity

Tests on patients for up to 8 months following their infection with SARS- CoV-2 suggests an immune response can persist. Alessandro Sette and Daniela Weiskopf at the La Jolla Institute in California are optimistic this could mean vaccines would also confer long lasting immunity. An analysis of samples from Kenya?s blood banks by Sophie Uyoga at the KEMRI-Wellcome Research Programme reveals far more people in Kenya contracted the virus than was previously know. The figures mean Kenya has similar levels of infection to many European countries. And a study of mosquitoes by Louis Lambrechts of the Pasteur Institute in Paris reveals why Zika, a virus originating in Africa is much more prevalent in other parts of the world. We also look at the future of the Nile. Ethiopia is building a massive Dam which will have consequences for Sudan and Egypt who are reliant on the Nile?s waters says hydrologist Hisham Eldardiry from the University of Washington, Seattle. Every year, Western Afghanistan is hit with a fierce 120-day wind, and listener Hamid wants to know what causes this phenomenon? He?s from the city of Herat, where what starts as a gentle breeze in the morning can pick up to become a dangerous gale just a few hours later, devastating buildings and causing power outages. The BBC?s Abdullah Elham in Kabul tells us the country has plenty of other ?friendly? wind but this one is considered ?fierce?. CrowdScience talks to Professor Amir Aghakouchak to discover more about the phenomenon, and learns about the pollution problems Herat?s summer storm causes in neighbouring Iran. But it?s not all bad news. Professor Lorraine Remer explains how NASA used satellites to map how wind transport Saharan sand almost half way round the world, fertilising the Amazon rainforest. [IMAGE CREDIT: Getty Images]
2020-11-22
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Covid-19 defeats US Marines

The WHO is working with China to try and pinpoint the source of SARS- COV-2. Sian Griffiths, Emeritus Professor of Public Health at the Chinese University of Hong Kong says there are lessons we can learn from the investigation she led into the original SARS outbreak back in 2003. That inquiry revealed how SARS had spread from bats to humans via civet cats. A Covid-19 vaccine claims to be 90% effective. It uses genetic material, messenger RNA. Daniel Anderson of Harvard MIT Health Science tells us about the huge potential of mRNA to provide treatments for many medical conditions. However, rolling out such a vaccine globally faces a huge range of economic and practical obstacles as ethicist Nicole Hassoun of Binghamton University explains. And a unique experiment shows despite a vast range of precautions including being isolated US Marines have contracted Covid -19. Stuart Sealfon, Professor of Neurology at Mount Sinai Hospitals says this study shows we need testing to be integrated more thoroughly into everyday life and that many of the precautions we currently use may not be enough to prevent transmission. We all feel pain on a regular basis; when we stub a toe, break a bone or even experience heartbreak. Bebeto from Cameroon wants to know how to cope with a pain in his wrist that just won?t go away. Does a positive mindset help? Or perhaps meditation? Marnie Chesterton speaks to psychologists and neuroscientists to find the answers. We hear from two people with very different experiences of pain. Lucy has fibromyalgia and experiences pain all over her body every day. While Stephen has a rare genetic condition which means he doesn?t feel physical pain at all. But they both argue that pain shouldn?t always be unwanted. Perhaps we need to embrace and accept our pain in order to beat it. (Image: Credit: Getty Images)
2020-11-15
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Coronavirus spreads from mink to humans

All the farmed mink in Denmark are to be killed. Around 17 million. This is because they have SARS COV-2 coronavirus circulating among them and some humans have contracted a new strain from the animals. The scientific detail is sketchy, but Emma Hodcroft at Basel University pieces together a picture of what this means for tackling the virus. Typhoon Goni and hurricane Eta are two very powerful tropical cyclones. But the way these storms are recorded differs by geographical location and recording style. We speak with Kerry Emanuel, a professor at MIT in Boston, USA. The magnitude 7 earthquake that hit the Mediterranean last Friday (30/10/20) was 70 miles away from the city of Izmir, but despite this, there was devastating loss of life due to collapsed buildings. Earthquake engineer Eser Çakt? from the Turkish University of Bo?aziçi, and Tiziana Rossetto from University College London talk us through the damage. Migratory arctic animals are a weathervane for how the world is coping with climate change. Scientists have now pulled together monitoring data for these species? movements into one accessible bank. Sarah Davidson tells us how this can help us understand the impact of Arctic climate change. CrowdScience listeners come in all shapes, sizes and ages. This episode is dedicated to our younger listeners who, as we?ve learned before, are experts at asking those superficially obvious questions that for parents, are anything but easy to answer. To start off with, Sylvia, asks why elephants are so big? As we hear from our expert ? mammals were at one time, much larger ? so perhaps the question should be, why aren?t they bigger? We investigate what drives body size in the animal kingdom. Presenter Marnie Chesterton, together with our ?cub? reporter Arlo, goes in search of the most brilliant scientific minds to respond to a slew of other queries. Shambhavi, from Singapore wonders why humans have five digits on each hand? And Benni from California asks why dogs don?t get sick when they drink from muddy puddles? Do dogs have some amazing ability to fight off viruses and bugs? Beyond the confines of our planet, we?ve also got a question from Olivia, from Sydney, Australia, who regularly contemplates the universe: what is the biggest object in it she wonders? Marnie and her experts do their best to solve these mysteries. (Image: Credit: Getty Images)
2020-11-08
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Osiris Rex stows asteroid material

Last week NASA?s Osiris-Rex mission successfully touched down on asteroid Bennu?s crumbly surface. But the spacecraft collected so much material that the canister wouldn?t close. NASA systems engineer Estelle Church tells Roland Pease how she and the team back on Earth performed clever manoeuvres to remotely successfully shut the lid. As winter draws on in the North, and people spend more time indoors, there?s considerable debate about the conditions in which SARS-Cov2 is more likely to spread. Princeton University?s Dylan Morris has just published research exploring the coronavirus?s survival in different humidities and temperatures. Indian agriculture in some areas uses vast amounts of water. Dr Vimal Mishra of the Indian Institute of Technology in Gandhinagar has discovered that this irrigation, plus very high temperatures, is causing not just extreme discomfort amongst the population but also more deaths. In the 1930s serious dust storms over several years ruined crops and lives over a huge part of Midwest America. The dustbowl conditions were made famous by the folk songs of Woodie Guthrie and in John Steinbeck?s novel Grapes of Wrath. Now a study in Geophysical Research Letters suggests that levels of dust have doubled in the past twenty years. Roland Pease asks researchers and farmers if they think the dust bowl is returning. We?ve probably all got a friend who sings along wildly out of tune - or maybe you are that person. But why are some of us apparently tone deaf, while others can hold a melody? Can you train yourself to sing in tune, or is it mostly down to raw talent? These musical questions, from CrowdScience listeners Jenny and Anastasia, certainly struck a chord with us. Anastasia loves to sing but her friends tell her she?s off-key - or that ?a bear trod on her ear,? as they say in her native Russia. Is it possible for her to improve her singing voice, and what are the best ways of going about it? Both musicians and scientists help us tackle these questions, and explain what?s going on in our ears, brains and throats when we try to sing the right notes. We learn about congenital amusia, a condition which makes it almost impossible to tell if you?re in tune or not, and attempt to tease out the relative influence of our genes and our environment when it comes to musical ability. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-11-01
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Nasa probe Osiris Rex lands on asteroid

Science in Action talks to Nasa researcher Hannah Kaplan who is part of the team for the space agency?s sampling mission to the asteroid Bennu. Mission scientists were overjoyed this week when the probe Osiris Rex momentarily touched the asteroid and sucked up some of the sand and grit on its surface. What might we learn when the sample is returned to Earth in three years' time? There is some not-such-good news about a theory about immunity to the pandemic coronavirus, and medical researchers in the UK announce the world?s first study that will deliberately infect volunteers with the novel coronavirus. The so-called challenge study is planned to begin in London in January. The purpose is to speed up the quest for effective Covid-19 vaccines but will it be safe for the participants? And there?s a new green chemistry breakthrough for tackling the world?s plastic waste crisis. And All living things are related to each other, from elephants to algae, e-coli to humans like us. Within our cells we hold genetic information in the form of DNA or RNA. But despite viruses sharing these molecules, many scientists don't consider them to be 'life'. Viruses cannot reproduce on their own, but some can insert their DNA into a host to pass genes sideways through the branching tree of life. As a result, viruses? relationship with life is.... complex. Two of our listeners had viruses on the mind, so they sent in the same question to CrowdScience. Senan from Singapore and Melvin from South Africa want to know how viruses began to see if this can tell us whether they shared a common ancestor with humans. To dig into this complexity Marnie Chesterton speaks with an expert on Koala genetics ? Dr Rachael Tarlinton. Koalas are in the middle of tackling a retroviruses, a type of virus that plants DNA into our cells as a reproduction strategy. Her research could reveal why humans life has so much viral DNA within our genomes. Marnie speaks with a computational biologist Professor Gustavo Caetano-Anolles, who has found a new way to trace the family tree for billions of years using proteins common to all life on earth, and speaks with Professor Chantal Abergel who paints a picture of how viruses went from being the losers of evolution, to being highly successful parasites of cells. (Image: Nasa probe Osiris Rex lands on asteroid. Credit Nasa)
2020-10-25
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Covid -19 mortality

Why is there such a range in the number of deaths from Covid -19 between countries? A study of the data across 21 industrialised countries reveals a wide discrepancy. Preparedness and the point at which countries went into lockdown were key factors says Epidemiologist Jonny Pearson- Stuttard Recurring illnesses which show up sometimes months after a Covid -19 infections are being more commonly reported. The Uk?s National Institute for Health research has launched a major initiative to better understand this long term effect of the disease, Candace Imison tells us more. And another reported case of Covid 19 reinfection raises questions about widely held beliefs on immunity Microbiologist Sarah Pitt helps us separate the science from the fiction. We also take a look at a black hole as it swallows up a star or at least at what?s detectable. Katy Alexander has trained radio telescopes at this distant event. Curious CrowdScience listeners have suddenly been struck by the oddity of their behaviours. Elise ponders why she blushes. Thankfully, listener David is a vascular surgeon and knows a thing or two about blushing, as he performs operations on people debilitated by constant red-dening. He has some answers for us, but asks why did blushing evolve? In the past, red cheeks have been linked to necrophilia, repressed cannibalism, and even a de-sire for men to experience menstruation! Thankfully, research has come a long way since then, as blushing experts Peter de Jong and Corine Dijk explain. Scientists believe that it evolved as a nonverbal signal to show someone you?re sorry or that you care about what they think. This would have important for our survival in the group, en-suring we didn?t get into a fight or get kicked out the group. Anand Jagatia gets to grips with blushing and other bodily behaviours ? including a question from Thai listener Nitcha who wonders why we yawn as well as a question from Mohamed in Ghana and Biana in Trinidad and Tobago who both asked why people scratch their heads when they think. To answer these questions, Anand?s joined by yawning researcher Andrew Gallup and Sophie Scott as well as body language expert Blanca Cobb. [Images: Getty Images]
2020-10-18
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Do Covid?19 mutations matter?

Data from clinical investigations has suggested that a specific mutation in the SARS-Cov -2 virus has made it more transmissible. This finding is now supported by molecular biology work. Ralph Baric from the University of North Carolina led a team comparing the form of the virus which first emerged from China with the mutated type now prevalent word wide. Bats are known to carry many different types of viruses, horseshow bats specifically carry coronaviruses, apparently without any ill effects to themselves. However some viruses do affect or even kill bats. Daniel Streicker from the University of Glasgow says more research in this area may help find those bat viruses most likely to jump to humans. Malaria is no stranger to Africa, but largely keeps out of urban centres as it?s difficult for the mosquitoes which carry the parasites to survive there. However an Asian mosquito which is better adapted to life in the city is now threatening to move in. Entomologist Marianne Sinka Has been looking at how and where it might spread. And the Nobel prize for chemistry has been won by the inventors of the Crispr gene editing technique Gunes Taylor is a genetic engineer who used this technique at the Crick Institute in London tells us why it is now so central to biological research. Crowdscience solves a range of listeners? cosmic mysteries, from the reason we only ever see one side of the moon, to why planets spin, and discover the answer can be found in the formation of the solar system. We talk to astronomer Dr Carolin Crawford to understand how stars are made, and investigate the art of astronomy with journalist Jo Marshall, hearing how the ancient Greeks came up with a zodiac long before the invention of a telescope, revealing an intimate relationship between humans and the night sky. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-10-11
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Are children the biggest Covid-19 spreaders?

An analysis of Covid-19 data from South India shows children more than any other group are transmitting the virus both to other children and adults, Epidemiologist Ramanan Laxminarayan tell us the data also shows the situations in which the virus is most likely to spread, public transport is of particular concern. The WHO has launched an initiative to roll out rapid testing, particularly to countries that don?t have access to lab based tests, Catharina Boehme who leads one of the WHO?s partner organisation in the project tells us the test, which looks similar to home pregnancy tests should give results within fifteen minutes. Andrea Crisanti led a ground-breaking testing initiative in Italy which eliminated Covid-19 in a small town in a matter of weeks. We look to the lessons learned. And in California residents have been in a kind of self- enforced lockdown, not because of Covid ? 19 but due to wildfires fires. Molly Bentley from the Seti Institute podcast ? Big Picture Science? tells us about how the fires have created an atmosphere of toxic smoke, even in the cities. Also, What makes things sticky? Listener Mitch from the USA began wondering while he was taking down some very sticky wallpaper. Our world would quite literally fall apart without adhesives. They are almost everywhere ? in our buildings, in our cars and in our smartphones. But how do they hold things together? To find out, presenter Marnie Chesterton visits a luthier, Anette Fajardo, who uses animal glues every day in her job making violins. These glues have been used since the ancient Egyptians ?but adhesives are much older than that. Marnie speaks to archaeologist Dr Geeske Langejans from Delft University of Technology about prehistoric glues made from birch bark, dated to 200,000 years ago. She goes to see a chemist, Prof Steven Abbott, who helps her understand why anything actually sticks to anything else. And she speaks to physicist Dr Ivan Vera-Marun at the University of Manchester, about the nanotechnologists using adhesion at tiny scales to make materials of the future. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-10-04
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Why Covid -19 vaccines may not stop transmission

While vaccines against Covid -19 are being developed at unprecedented speed, none of them have been tested to see if they can actually stop transmission of the virus. They are designed to stop those who are vaccinated from developing Covid -19 disease, but not becoming infected. This says Virologist Malik Peiris from Hong Kong University means while vaccinated people themselves may be protected they might also spread the virus. Cells produced in the bone marrow may be responsible for an extreme immune response to Covid 19 in some people. Immunologist Lizzie Mann from Manchester University says this finding may help predict who will develop serious disease symptoms, and also provide a target for future treatments. Extreme ice melt in the Arctic this summer may have a long term impact on the region says glaciologist Julienne Stroeve. She spent the winter in the Arctic and tells us about the environment she encountered. And climate change is also impacting the tropics, research in Gabon from Ecologists Emma Bush and Robin Whytock shows a reduction of the amount of fruit available which is now impacting the health of forest elephants. And why am I embarrassed to be naked? Chumbuzzo in Zambia wonders. And what would happen if we ditched our clothes and embraced nudity? Presenter Anand Jagatia and Producer Caroline Steel spend the day naked with other naturists to see if they can shift their embarrassment. Maybe there are good evolutionary reasons to cover up or perhaps we are contributing to inequality and negative body image by hiding our real selves? Marnie Chesterton explores different cultural attitudes to nudity and finds out about the science behind embarrassment. Clothes optional. (Image Credit: Getty Images)
2020-09-27
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Malaria resistance breakthrough

Some East Africans have a genetic mutation which gives them resistance to Malaria. Investigations into how it works have produced a surprising finding. As researcher Silvia Kariuki explains it?s all to do with the surface tension of the red blood cells. SARS-CoV- 2 can pass from people in the very early stages of Covid -19, before they show symptoms. New research shows identifying cases at this early stage is crucial to controlling the pandemic. And yet most testing regimes require symptoms to show before testing. Luca Ferretti did this latest analysis. And how about getting up close with virus? That?s what Camille Ehre has done, using an electron microscope to produce remarkable pictures of the virus as it attacks lung tissue. Carl Wunsch tells us of a technique he developed in the 1970s to measure changes in global ocean temperatures using sound waves. Revisiting this method may give us insight into the impact of climate change on the deep ocean. And Many of us willingly subject ourselves to pain and irritation by eating chilli. CrowdScience listener Tina wonders what?s driving this apparent masochism: why does ?feeling the burn? make so many of us feel so good? It?s just one of several tasty questions we tuck into in this episode. Also on the menu is stew: why does it taste better the next day? Listener Helen?s local delicacy is Welsh cawl, a meat and vegetable concoction. Tradition dictates it should be eaten the day after it?s made, but is there any science behind this? And we finish the meal with cheese. Listener Leander asks what makes some cheeses blue, some hard and crumbly, and some run all over your fridge. How is milk transformed into such radically different end products? (Image: Getty Images)
2020-09-20
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Covid -19 science versus politics

With the announcement in the UK of investment in rapid testing for people who may not have Covid -19 we ask why is this only happening now? For months on this programme we?ve featured scientific research suggesting such a strategy would be the quickest way to end the pandemic. We speak with Connie Cepko and Brian Rabe who have developed a rapid test and Manu Prakash who is currently rolling it out to countries in the global south. Could a huge motorcycle rally really have been the source of over a quarter of a million Covid -19 infections? That?s the finding of a study by economist Andrew Friedson he tells us how mobile phone data helped to determine that figure. And the politics of vaccines, Many health officials in the US have spoken out against president Trumps claim that a vaccine may be ready before the November presidential election. Helen Branswell from Stat news tells us why there is so much concern over political attempts to manipulate science. And Many of us enjoy cooking ? but when did we switch from eating our food raw, to heating it? Listener Logan enjoys his beef burgers rare, but wants to know why he still feels compelled to grill them? Presenter Anand Jagatia travels to a remote South African cave where our ancestors first used fire at least a million years ago, which one man says could help prove when our species started cooking. And he talks to a scientist who shows how the composition of food changes when it?s cooked, to allow us more access to give us more access to calories - and hears how a completely raw food diet could have disastrous consequences for health. (Image:Getty Images)
2020-09-13
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Nyiragongo - is Goma under threat?

A new survey of the volcano's activity suggests there may be an eruption in the next 4 to 7 years. It's a particular concern for the populations of Goma and Gisenyi, two cites between the volcano and lake Kivu. As we hear from the director of the Goma Volcano Observatory Katcho Karume, the city of Goma in particular has expanded so much that many people now live right next to fissures in the flank of the volcano through which any eruption would likely occur. Hurricane Laura made landfall in Louisiana's main area of swamp land, missing big urban areas to either side. It was a lucky escape for many, but as hurricane historian Jill Trepanier tells us such extreme weather events do seem to be more frequent and potentially more destructive. And wildfires ravaging California and other Western US states may have been intensified by changes to global weather systems . Climate scientist Bill Lau says those weather systems in turn have been modified by man-made climate change. In November 2018 a Chinese scientist announced he had edited the genes of twin girls. The announcement was greeted with horror by many researchers in the field. Now a way to regulate gene editing internationally has been proposed by some of the world's leading scientific institutions. Kay Davies co-author of their report explains the plan. What does science say about controlling urination, and other bodily functions? We tackle three queries about peeing triggers, pooing positions and missing sweat. This episode CrowdScience presenter Marnie Chesterton poses some of the best listener follow-up questions that have landed in our inbox to a panel of experts. Listener Samuel in Ghana is wondering why watery sounds seem to induce urination. Producer Melanie Brown heads out to survey whether this is the case for individuals in an actual crowd at a public fountain in London. And urologist and trustee of the International Continence Society Marcus Drake talks Marnie through how he uses the sound of running water during his work as a hospital doctor helping patients with common but distressing peeing issues, and the limitations of research into this question. And he's not the only listener who wants us to dig deeper into topics we've explored on the show before. Anna in Tokyo also got in touch after hearing our show about toilets, to ask if there is a toilet design that is most 'natural' for our health. Gastroenterologist Anton Emmanuel explains why small changes in people's posture whilst pooing can have a significant impact on their quality of life. Finally, listeners Stelle, James and Joel emailed [email protected] after hearing Marnie investigate hyperhidrosis: Sweating too much. They and their relatives experience the opposite. (Main Image: Sunset, Goma, Democratic Republic of Congo. Credit: Shamim Shorif Susom / EyeEm / Getty Images)
2020-09-06
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Covid-19 Therapy Controversy

This week Science in Action examines the evidence around the Trump Administration?s emergency use authorisation of convalescent plasma therapy for the treatment of Covid-19. Donald Trump described its US-wide roll-out as ?historic? but the majority of scientists and doctors disagree, questioning the scientific basis for the government?s decision. Roland Pease talks to Mayo Clinic?s Michael Joyner, the leader of the convalescent plasma therapy study on which the action was based. The Mayo Clinic trial involved a large number of patients but none of them were compared to Covid-19 patients who were not treated with convalescent plasma. Trials that incorporate that comparison are the only way to properly assess the therapy?s effectiveness. Roland talks to Martin Landray of the University of Oxford who is testing convalescent plasma therapy in the UK?s Recovery randomised control trial, and to medical ethicist Alison Bateman-House of the New York University Grossman School of Medicine. We also talk to nanotechnologist Marc Miskin about the million-strong army of microscopic robots he?s creating in his lab at the University of Pennsylvania. The idea of creating underwater habitats has captured the imagination of writers, thinkers and scientists for decades. However, despite numerous grand visions, these dreams of aquatic metropolises have not yet come to fruition. Crowdscience listener and scuba enthusiast Jack wonders whether - given improved technology and the growing environmental pressures facing humans on land - it is time to reconsider the ocean as an alternative permanent living space for humans. Marnie Chesterton dons her flippers for Crowdscience in search of the oceanographers and architects who have dedicated their lives to designing vessels, labs and underwater habitats. She explores whether oceanic cities remain a sci-fi dream or a realistic solution to some of our modern challenges. Can the oceans? largely unexplored resources be harnessed to support living underwater? (Main image: New York lab tests serum from recovered covid-19 patients for possible therapy. Credit: Misha Friedman / Getty Images)
2020-08-30
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Trouble in Greenland

Has the loss from Greenland?s vast ice sheet reached a tipping point? According to glaciologist Michalea King, the rate at which its ice flows into the sea stepped up about 15 years ago. The process of glacial retreat is outpacing the accumulation snow and ice in Greenland?s interior and the loss of Greenland?s ice to the Ocean is set to continue for many years to come. An international study of past climate changes during the last ice age reveals how fast changes to weather patterns and climate states can reverberate around the world. During the last ice age, when temperatures rose suddenly in Greenland a series of changes to the climate in Europe and the monsoons in Asia and South America occurred almost simultaneously - within decades of each other. Climate scientists Eric Wolff and Ellen Corrick have discovered this through studies of stalagmites from caves around the world. It?s a demonstration of how rapidly and dramatically the Earth?s atmospheric system can change when it?s perturbed. Was the hottest temperature ever on Earth recorded last weekend? A weather station in Death Valley in California recorded a temperature of 54.4 degrees C. Roland Pease discusses the controversy with extreme weather historian Christopher Burt. Andrea Dupree of Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics reveals the latest on the giant star Betelgeuse which to everyone?s amazement dimmed dramatically at the beginning of the year. At the time some people wondered whether it was about to explode as a supernova but Andrea?s new findings suggest an event at the star which is almost as extraordinary. If you?re one of the millions of people who used lockdown to try something new like baking sourdough bread, you may well be wondering what?s happening chemically inside your loaf, especially if the end result keeps changing. Well, you?re not alone. Listeners Soheil and Sean are both keen bakers but want to know more about the thing that makes bread rise: yeast. What is yeast? Where does it come from and can you catch it? And how hard is it to ?make? yourself? Soon after lockdown took effect, commercial supplies of the stuff disappeared from supermarket shelves across the globe. The shortage also affected brewers the world over. A big fan of yeast in most of its forms, Marnie Chesterton took on the challenge of creating her own. She talks to the brewers who hunt rare strains to create the perfect beer, and hears from the biologist who says these amazing microbes, used for thousands of years, could be used to make food production more sustainable. And she discovers how this simple ingredient could be instrumental in the fight against climate change. (Image: Masses of ice break off from the edge of a glacier. Credit: Press Association)
2020-08-23
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Putin?s Covid-19 vaccine

Russia?s President Putin announced the registration of a vaccine for coronavirus. This was reported with widespread alarm amid concerns over safety, but as BBC Russian Service?s Sergei Goryashko, tells us the announcement was a political move to capture the headlines. Investigations by Alexandra Reynolds and Hooman Poor at New York?s Mount Sinai Medical Centre have revealed why some Covid 19 patients have low oxygen levels, but don?t have breathing difficulties. The answer came when looking for signs of stroke in the brain. Nisreen Alwan, a specialist in public health at Southampton University is concerned about the quality of life of people who have had a Covid -19 infection. Being classed as recovered is not enough she says and we need to look more at recurring health problems associated with the disease. And Cardiff University?s Haley Gomez has news of a tantalising discovery. The detection of a neutron star hidden in a dust cloud for more than 30 years. Squelching into the science of slime, Chhavi Sachdev seeks to find out why it took so long for listener Helen Tyson to remove slime from her fingers, after she picked up a tiny slug while gardening. This unfortunate and hugely repulsive experience set Helen to wonder what it is about the structure of slug slime that makes it gloopy, so she sent Chhavi to meet with slug slime expert Professor Andrew Smith who reveals how the complex molecular structure of this pervasive fluid makes it so difficult to scrub off. Slime is used by all sorts of creatures including the Giant African Land snail, which invaded India by hitching a ride on imported timber. But invasive species biologist Dr TV Sajeev reveals that these snails are themselves giving a lift to another meningitis-causing parasite that can infect people. Chhavi looks for these massive molluscs in her own garden in Mumbai. Marine biologist Helen Scales describes how animals can use slime for catching food, mating, defence, or even transportation, and Chhavi speaks with Dr Adam Celiz who has been inspired by this slimy adaptability to create a tool that can provide new cells to replace damaged heart cells after a cardiac arrest. Slugs, snails and even fish keep a variety of useful chemicals in their slime. Some make them taste bitter, and others numb the mouth of predators, but they may also prevent the animals from contracting infections. Dr Sarah Pitt has investigated these compounds in the slimy mucus of a garden snail and discovered an antibiotic that is brand new to science. Slime is pretty disgusting, but it?s also completely fascinating. (Image:President Putin. Credit: Reuters)
2020-08-16
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Counting the heat health threat from climate change

If the world does not curb its greenhouse gas emissions, by the end of this century, the number of people dying annually because of extreme heat will be greater than the current global death toll from infectious diseases - that?s all infectiousness diseases, from malaria to diarrhoeal diseases to HIV. This is the grim assessment of climate researchers and economists of the Climate Impact Lab in the largest global study to date of health and financial impacts of temperature-related deaths. Roland Pease talks to Solomon Hsiang of the University of California, Berkeley. UK ecologists have new insights about how diseases jump the species barrier from wildlife to humans. With a global survey of land use and biodiversity, they?ve discovered that when natural habitats are converted to farmland or urbanised, the animal species that survive the change in greatest number are those species which carry viruses and bacteria with the potential to spread to us. This is particularly the case, says Rory Gibb of the University College London, with disease-carrying rodent species, bats and birds. Do past infections by mild cold coronaviruses prepare the immune systems of some people for infection by SARS-CoV-2? Could immune memory T cells made in response to these cold viruses lessen the severity of Covid-19? Alessandro Sette and Daniela Weiskopf of the La Jolla Institute for Immunology lead the team which published the latest contributions to these questions. Anglerfish are perhaps the weirdest inhabitants of the deep sea. Their sex lives are particularly strange because finding partners in the dark expanse of the ocean abyss is hard. Females are much bigger than males. When a male finds a female, he latches on her body with his teeth and over a couple of weeks, their flesh fuses so he is permanently attached. Her blood supplies him with all the food and oxygen he needs and he becomes an ever present supply of sperm whenever she produces eggs. But this fusion should be impossible. The female?s immune system should be rejecting her partner like a mismatched organ transplant. German scientists have now discovered that these fish do this by giving up the production of antibodies and immune T cells ? essential for fighting infections in all other animals including us. It was a shocking discovery for Prof Thomas Boehm at the Max Planck Institute in Freiburg. Anyone else had their flight cancelled? The COVID 19 pandemic has had a huge impact on air travel ? air traffic in 2020 is expected to be down 50 per cent on last year. But beyond the obvious disruption to business and people?s lives, how might the quieter skies affect our weather and climate? One curious listener, Jeroen Wijnands, who lives next to Schiphol airport in the Netherlands, noticed how there were fewer clouds and barely any rainfall since the flights dropped off. Could airplanes affect our local weather? Also, did we learn anything from another occasion when airplanes were grounded, during the post-9/11 shutdown? How will the current period impact our future climate? Marnie Chesterton investigates this question and discovers some of the surprising effects that grounded aircraft are having: on cloud formation, forecasting and climate change. (Image: Relatives of heatstroke victims, their heads covered with wet towels, wait outside a hospital during a heatwave in Karachi. .Credit: Rizwan Tabassum/AFP via Getty Images)
2020-08-09
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NASA rover heads for Mars ancient lake

NASA launches its new robotic mission to Mars. The rover, Perseverance, will land in a 50 kilometre wide crater which looks like it was filled by a lake about 4 billion years ago - the time when life on Earth was getting started. Mission scientist Melissa Rice explains why this is one of the most promising places on Mars to continue the search for past life on the red planet. Japanese and US scientists have revived microbes that have been buried at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean for 100 million years. Sampled from compacted mud 70 metres below the seafloor and beneath 6 kilometre of water, Yuki Morono and Steve D'Hondt admit they struggle to understand how the bacteria have survived for so long. Science in Action celebrates the little unknown oceanographer Marie Tharp who in the late 1950s discovered the mid-Atlantic ridge which helped to launch the plate tectonics revolution in earth sciences. It would be Tharp's 100th birthday this week. New research this week suggests that coronaviruses capable of infecting humans have been in bats for 40 to 70 years, and that there may be numerous and as yet undetected viruses like the Covid-19 virus in bat populations with the potential to cause future pandemics. Their message is that we should be sampling and testing wild bat colonies much more extensively than currently. Their findings provide further evidence against the unfounded claim that the Covid-19 virus originated from the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China. Roland Pease talks to Dr Maciej Boni at Pennsylvania State University. Listener Avalon from Australia wants to know why people use conspiracy theories to explain shocking events. Are we more likely to believe conspiracy theories in times of adversity? What purpose do conspiracy theories serve in society? Marnie Chesterton speaks to the scientists to explain their popularity, even in the face of seemingly irrefutable evidence. (Image: NASA's Perseverance Mars rover. Credit: Illustration provided by Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Handout via REUTERS)
2020-08-02
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Making a Covid-19 vaccine for two billion people

There's been encouraging news about the Oxford Covid-19 vaccine this week from a trial involving about 1,000 people. But how great is the challenge in scaling up from making a few thousand doses of the vaccine to manufacturing two billion by the end of this year? Sandy Douglas of Oxford's Jenner Institute explains how they plan to mass-produce the vaccine safely given the speed and magnitude of the scale up. A new kind of treatment for Covid-19 may come from an unlikely source: llamas and alpacas, the South American relatives of the camel. Camelids produce unusually small and simple antibodies against viruses, including the coronavirus. This feature may make these molecules an effective Covid-19 therapy. Jane Chambers reports on research in Chile and the UK. Also in the programme: what has made just a few mosquito species evolve a preference for biting humans, and the theory that 800 million years ago the Moon and the Earth were bombarded by a shower of asteroids which plunged the Earth into a global ice age - an event which changed the course of the evolution of life. These days we're more acquainted with soap than ever before, as we lather up to help stop the spread of coronavirus. And for CrowdScience listener Sharon, this set off a steady stream of soapy questions: how does soap actually work? How was it discovered in the first place, long before anyone knew anything about germs? Are different things used for washing around the world, and are some soaps better than others? We set up a CrowdScience home laboratory to explore the soap making process with advice from science-based beauty blogger Dr Michelle Wong, and find out what it is about soap's chemistry that gives it its germ-fighting superpowers. Soap has been around for at least 4000 years; we compare ancient soap making to modern methods, and hear about some of the soap alternatives used around the world, like the soap berries of India. And as for the question of whether some soaps are better than others? We discover why antibacterial soaps aren't necessarily a good idea, and why putting a toy inside a bar of soap might be more important than tweaking its ingredients. (Image: A team of experts at the University of Oxford are working to develop a vaccine that could prevent people from getting Covid-19. Credit: Press Association)
2020-07-26
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How long do Covid-19 antibodies last?

Science in Action looks at some of the latest research on how response of our immune system to infection by the coronavirus. Researchers at Kings College London find that protective antibodies appear to fade away after about three months following infection whereas a team at the Karolinska Institute has discovered that although antibodies may decline, other important players called T cells in our defences do not. Dr?s Katie Doores and Marcus Buggert talk about the implications of these discoveries for the quest for a vaccine against the coronavirus. Roland Pease also talks to Dr Barney Graham of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in the United States about the results from the Phase 1 trial of novel type of vaccine against the virus. NIAID have partnered with biotech company Moderna to produce the first mRNA vaccine in the Institute?s pandemic preparedness program. Biologist Dr Sonja Wild tells Roland about the remarkable fishing strategy devised by dolphins in Shark Bay, Australia. They chase fish into the empty shell of giant sea snails, then take the shells to the surface and tip the fish into their mouths. Dr Wild?s 7 years of research has revealed how the dolphins have learned to do this. Think of the oceans and an empty and peaceful expanse relatively untouched by humankind might come to mind. But is this peace an illusion? CrowdScience listener Dani wants to know if the noise of shipping and other human activity on the oceans is impacting on sea life. To find out, Marnie Chesterton takes a deep dive to learn how marine animals have evolved to use sound; from navigating their environments to finding a mate or hiding from prey. She then speaks to a scientist who is using acoustic observatories to track the many ways human activity - like sonar and shipping ? can interfere. Marnie virtually visits a German lab which tests the ears of beached whales, dolphins and seals from around the world to try and ascertain whether they suffered hearing damage, and what might have caused it. What other smaller creatures are negatively impacted by underwater noise? Marnie learns that acoustic trauma is more widespread than first thought. As human life continues to expand along ocean waters, what is being done to reduce the impact of sound? Marnie meets some of the designers at the forefront of naval architecture to see how ship design, from propellers to air bubbles and even wind powered vessels can contribute to reducing the racket in the oceans. Main image: Abs COVID-19 antibody - Viral Infection concept. Credit: Getty Images
2020-07-19
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Rwanda?s game changing coronavirus test

African scientists have developed a reliable, quick and cheap testing method which could be used by worldwide as the basis for mass testing programmes. The method, which produces highly accurate results, is built around mathematical algorithms developed at the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences in Kigali. We speak to Neil Turok who founded the institute, Leon Mutesa Professor of human genetics on the government coronavirus task force, and Wilfred Ndifon, the mathematical biologist who devised the algorithm. The virus is mutating as it spreads, but what does this mean? There is particular concern over changes to the spike protein, part of the virus needed to enter human cells. Jeremy Luban has been analysing this mechanism. So far he says ongoing genetic changes seem unlikely to impact on the effectiveness of treatments for Covid -19. And Heatwaves are increasing, particularly in tropical regions, that?s the finding of a new analysis by climate scientist Sarah Perkins ? Kirkpatrick. Worms are not the cutest of creatures. They?re slimy, often associated with death and tend to bring on feelings of disgust in many of us. But listener Dinesh thinks they?re underrated and wants to know whether earthworms could be the key to our planet?s future agricultural success? He?s an organic farmer in India?s Tamil Nadu province who grows these annelids to add to the soil, and he wants Crowdscience to find out exactly what they?re doing. Anand Jagatia dons his gardening gloves and digs the dirt on these remarkable creatures, discovering how they can help improve soil quality, prevent fields from becoming waterlogged, and improve microbial numbers, all of which has the potential to increase crop yield. But he also investigates the so-called ?earthworm dilemma? and the idea that in some parts of the world, boreal forest worms are releasing carbon back into the atmosphere, which could have dangerous consequences for climate change. Main image: People stand in white circles drawn on the ground to adhere to social distancing in Kigali, Rwanda, on May 4, 2020, Photo by Simon Wohlfahrt / AFP via Getty Images
2020-07-12
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Covid-19 and children

Studies in children who have been severely affected by Covid-19 in Italy, Britain and the US are showing the same thing ? a range of symptoms linked to an overactive immune system. Elizabeth Whittaker from London?s Imperial College discusses the similarities in these cases and possible reasons for this syndrome with Shanna Kowalsky from Mount Sinai hospital in New York. How much should drugs for Covid-19 cost? Remdesivir, which has shown promise against the virus, has been priced at over $2000 for a course of treatment, but drug price analyst Andrew Hill says the cost of production is actually below $10. And how about some really alternative energy? Marion Cromb at Glasgow University has run an experiment to simulate a spinning black hole. In theory, a rocket sent to an equivalent real black hole could use its rotation as a power source. Shoes are a surprisingly recent human invention. But running isn?t. That means for most of our time on the planet, we?ve run barefoot. Today, in most countries, it?s rare to see people out in public without shoes, let alone running. But might our aversion to the free foot be causing us pain? CrowdScience mega-fan Hnin is an experienced runner - she enjoys ultra-marathons back home in Australia. But about six months ago she developed extreme foot pain, the condition Plantar Fasciitis, and this meant she had to stop doing what she loves. She reached out to CrowdScience presenter Chhavi Sachdev, to find out if barefoot running could reduce her pain and improve her performance. Simply put, is barefoot running better? In an attempt to find Hnin some answers, Chhavi hits the ground? running. Literally throwing off her own shoes on the streets of her home city of Mumbai, India, to see how feeling the ground can change her whole gait. And with Prof. Dan Lieberman, Chhavi learns what sets the human runner apart from other species, while uncovering the strange form our feet have. She speaks with Dr Peter Francis, a researcher whose life?s work has focused on curing the pain in his own feet and learning how to help others. But performance is also important for runners. Biomechanics and shoe expert Dr Sharon Dixon explains how modifications to the sports-shoe are helping marathon runners set records, and blade-running athlete Kiran Kanojia shows Chhavi how the technology behind her two prosthetic legs let her emulate either natural walking or natural running. (Image: Getty Images)
2020-07-05
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Record high temperatures ? in the Arctic

A record summer temperature in Siberia is an indication of major changes in the Arctic climate. Changing weather patterns there have a knock on effect for other parts of the planet says Climatologist Steve Vavrus Chile appeared to get Covid-19 under control, but in reality the virus was spreading uncontrollably through poor areas, As we hear from our correspondent in Santiago Jane Chambers, the lockdown has tightened but cases continue to rise. And could mass testing using new saliva tests help control or even end the epidemic? Epidemiologist Julian Peto tells us about his plan which is designed to contain the virus within individual households and stop community spread. Experiments to investigate dark matter have produced some tantalising results, Physicist Laura Manenti says it?s not confirmation of detection, but potentially close. If you put one person?s blood into another person , sometimes it?s fine and sometimes it?s a death sentence. French physician Jean-Baptiste Denis discovered this when he performed the first blood transfusion back in 1667. He put the blood of a lamb into a 15-year boy. The teenager survived but Denis?s third attempt killed the patient and led to a murder charge. In 1900, Austrian doctor Karl Landsteiner discovered the reason for this lottery ? blood types. The red blood cells in our bodies are decorated with different marker molecules called antigens. These define us as A, B, AB or O blood type. And this is just one of 38 different systems for classifying our blood. CrowdScience listeners have discovered that we aren?t the only animal with blood types and want to know more. Dogs have 12 different blood groups, so how do they cope when they need a transfusion? CrowdScience meets some very good dogs who donate a pint to the pet blood bank in return for a toy and a treat. Each pint saving up to 4 other dogs? lives. We also hear how examining our blood types can tell us more about our links to our ape-like cousins and how the human species spread around the world. And what about the future of blood types ? can we use science, and animal blood to get around the problems of transfusions? (Image: Rural Scene in Verkhoyansk. Credit: Dean Conger/Corbis via Getty Images)
2020-06-28
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Covid -19 hope for severe cases

A multi arm trial testing a range of drugs has shown that readily available steroids can be lifesaving for people severely ill with Covid-19. Max Parmar, head of the UK Medical Research Council?s clinical trials unit says the trial design, where many potential drugs can be tested against the same controls, is key to producing results quickly. As it spreads around the world SARS-CoV-2 is mutating. But what does this mean? These mutations are part of a natural process and some researchers are finding they make no real difference to patient outcomes so far, but others are concerned the virus may become more dangerous. Neville Sanjana from New York University has been running lab tests on the mutant virus. Measles mutated from an animal virus, developing the ability to jump from cattle to human around 2,500 years ago. Sebastien Calvignac-Spencer from Germany?s Robert Koch Institute tracked its origins using preserved lung samples from centuries old measles victims. Covid -19 has become a magnet for conspiracy theorists. A common unfounded claim is that the virus was deliberately manufactured. During the boredom of lockdown such ideas have taken off online, with conspiracy videos receiving millions of views. We speak to scientists who have been targeted, and become the subject of this online misinformation. Also What exactly it means to be conscious has long been a question of profound debate amongst philosophers, and more recently, scientists. There are no easy answers, and it gets even trickier when you start asking whether animals are conscious: how can you find out about their subjective experience when they can?t tell you about it? Never afraid to tackle the impossible, CrowdScience is looking for answers after listener Natalie got in touch. She has lived with her cat for years and has a strong sense that he has thoughts and feelings: he has his own personality, acts in complex ways, and even has ?grumpy days?. But is this consciousness? Is there any way of scientifically testing for it? How different from our own inner world is that of a cat, an octopus, or a bumblebee? And if we can find any answers to these puzzling questions, how does that affect the way we treat animals - not just our pets, but all the animals we share our planet with? We meet Natalie and her cat, and discover how scientists have explored the minds of pigs, cows and cuttlefish. Helping us ponder the elusive question of animal consciousness are philosopher Peter Godfrey-Smith, neuroscientist Anil Seth, animal welfare expert Donald Broom, ethicist Jessica Pierce, and comparative psychologist Alex Schnell. Featuring David Seddon as the voice of Chicco the Cat. (Image: Doctor examines Covid-19 virus patient. Credit: Getty Images)
2020-06-21
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