Jan 022014
 

Check it out!

There have been some great TV shows on this week and I’d recommend watching them on BBC iPlayer over the next couple of days.

The third series of Nature’s Weirdest Events is available and showing how events in nature can sometimes be weirder than fiction. In episode 1 they show that golf is more dangerous than you think with sharks on a golf course in Australia. If you are squeamish you might want to avoid the frog that shoots bones through its skin.

In episode 2 there are trees oozing red blood and France making multi-coloured honey. Also is that the sound of aliens?

Alien

One of the funniest, informative nature shows I’ve seen was Penguin: Spy in the Huddle. Various penguincams were used to get amazing footage. This week Polar Bear: Spy on the Ice was repeated and is currently on iplayer. The spy cameras sound like robots in Robot Wars- Icebergcam, Blizzardcam, Snowballcam, Snowcam and Driftcam. This intelligent predator isn’t always fooled by the cameras with some amusing results. There are also some amazing moments captured such as cubs emerging for the first time from dens, play fighting and courtship behaviours. Tonight the next series starts and looks at dolphins showing the amazing behaviour of dolphins in the wild. The spy cameras in this series use other animals molluscs, sea turtle and squid to get up close and personal with the dolphins.

Penguin

The Royal Institute Christmas lectures are always worth watching and this year they were very relevant to the GCSE and A level biology specifications. The first lecture asks where do I come from? This looks at how the complex human body develops from a single fertilised egg cell. The embryonic development of a worm in shown live while we learn all about cell division and developmental biology.

The second lecture asks Am I a Mutant? This is particularly relevant to the GCSE specification as it examines Darwin’s theory of evolution by natural selection. The lecture explains how the amazing diversity in our planet has come about through mutation, adaptation and selection. Darwin makes a surprising guest appearance and gets to learn a few things himself! There is an explanation of the vital genes responsible for mapping out an animal’s body-plan. We also find out when a lizard is not a lizard….when it is a snake!

The last lecture asks Could I live Forever? The only certainty in life is death (and taxes). This lecture examines cell death (apoptosis) and whether it is possible for them to live forever. The programme also examines the ethics of intervening in evolution and modifying and manipulating genes. If we could live forever would we really want to?

 

 

Sep 082013
 

Evaluating new research is an important skill tested in exams. This recent article from the BBC outlines research carried out on possible methods to control malaria (an A level topic).

Researchers say that with mosquitoes becoming ever more resistant to insecticides, different approaches will be needed to help control the disease.

More than 600,000 people died from the malaria in 2010, most African children. The number of deaths from malaria has fallen by a quarter in the last decade, largely thanks to the widespread distribution of mosquito nets treated with insecticides and the use of indoor insecticides sprays. But the insects are becoming increasingly resistant to these chemicals, so a new report by researchers at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine says authorities should also use a method called “larval source management”. This is where mosquito larvae found in stagnant water like paddy fields or ditches are killed off by draining or flushing the land before they get a chance to develop. It also involves something called larviciding where chemicals are added to standing water. The study found evidence that the method may significantly reduce both the number of cases of malaria by up to 75% and the proportion of people infected with the malaria parasite by up to 90% when used in appropriate settings.

The report’s author Lucy Tusting says the findings have important implications for malaria control policy

“The tremendous progress made in malaria control in the last decade is now threatened by mosquito resistance to the insecticides available for long-lasting insecticide treated nets and indoor residual spraying.” she says “Thus additional methods are needed to target malaria-transmitting mosquitoes. Our research shows that larval source management could be an effective supplementary intervention in some places.”

The World Health Organization says the research is not robust enough to support this method, and it is not recommended for use in rural areas where eeding grounds are hard to find. A WHO spokesperson said: “Until there is more compelling evidence, larval control should continue to be viewed as a supplementary measure for malaria control in carefully selected settings. Promoting the widespread use of larval source management in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa would be premature.” The WHO says larval source management should only be used alongside insecticide sprays and nets.

Image by bbc.co.uk

Jun 022013
 

Check it out!

In this section I post about new research relevant to the Biology specifications to help my students stay up to date. I try to tweet any Biology news (@Nicholls_Dr) as well as sometimes writing about it here. Here are some posts on Biology news:

Stem cells, cannibalism and zoonosis

Check it out!

Immortal organisms, who wants to live forever.

Apr 252013
 

Check it out!

I’m really behind on blogging about biology in the news! Today I wanted to focus on studies that have been dome using stem cells. This is a topic that is relevant at both GCSE and A level. It is also at the cutting edge of science and has lots of potential.

The coolest recent work IMHO is printing 3D organs with stem cells. See this report in scientific American. It was also reported on the BBC.

You might be interested to listen to this great Podcast from the Naked scientist. There is a section on cell therapy which uses stem cells. Do listen to the whole Podcast though. In the gene therapy section you’ll hear interviews with my former colleagues talking about their current work on gene therapy (Professor Adrian Thrasher and Dr Stephen Hart).

One of the problems I faced in my research was trying to deliver gene therapy vectors to brain tissue to help with neurological symptoms. I was interested to read about this new bendable needle which was developed to deliver stem cells to the brain.

A new technique called nanokicking was developed by a research team in Scotland. This mimics natural processes that happen if we break a bone and it could help patients with spinal injuries grow new bone. The BBC report is here.

Another study looking at the division of stem cells will be of interest to my A level students as it looks at how stem cells use signal orientation to guide division. The study is looking at how to mimic the relevant signals when growing stem cells in the lab.

I have lots more articles to add but I’ve run out of time. I’ll update this so do check back. Don’t forget if you subscribe by email an email is sent emails when I add new posts to my blog.

It is well worth following me on Pinterest and checking out my boards regularly as I try to pin useful websites for pupils and parents when I find them.

 

MOM update

I know I’m only a few days in to extending my practice by having a practice in the morning but it is already starting to feel like part of my morning routine. I guess the test will be keeping it up at the weekend.

I am still thinking through the question Gillian posed about meditation prompting memories. I know I have had similar experiences but I’m not sure it was during mindfulness practice. It tends to be when I am using relaxation techniques. When I have more time I’ll try and dig deeper on this issue.

Mindfulness

Mar 252013
 

Immortal organisms

It is great to teach students who are so interested in biology that they have developed biological obsessions. I’m dedicating this article to my year 13s as they love to try to side-track me in class by discussing immortal organisms as much as possible 🙂 The question is have I really managed to find a new immortal organism they didn’t know about?

When we think of being immortal it is usually the concept of physical immortality. This is the much sought after state where you could live forever, avoiding death and remaining a conscious entity with a physical body. This remains a concept in science fiction movies and not reality. However, in biological terms we can consider some cells and organisms as immortal. To learn more about immortal cells I would recommend starting by reading the popular science book ‘The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot. Immortal organisms are those which do not age or reach a point in their life where the body stops aging. The organisms achieve this by being able to regenerate.

Most organisms are not able to achieve biological immortality. The Hayflick Limit explains why almost all cells and organisms die of old age and not immortal. This principle is that there is a limit on the number of times a cell population can go through cell division and produce healthy cells. At the end of the chromosomes there are short sections known as the telomeres. As cells undergo repeated divisions they shorten until they reach a critical length and this then stops any further division. When this happens in an organism it can no longer produce new cells to repair and replace old and damaged cells. Theorganisms that have achieved biological immortality can produce new cells while bypassing the difficulties associated with telomere shortening.

Brown Hydra

Hydras do not experience aging process and they can survive for millions of years. They are animals which live in pollutions free water you really need to view them with a microscope. Hydra do not seem to age or die of old age and they have amazing regenerative capabilities. When there is plentiful food they reproduce asexually by producing a baby hydra bud which then separates into a separate organism (a clone). Many hydra can also reproduce sexually when conditions are good. When injured or severed they can regenerate (morphallaxis) and their stem cells are capable of indefinite self-renewal.

Tardigrade

Tardigrades are also known as water bears because they look like tiny bears as they slowly lumber about in the water. They are about 1.5mm long and are simple organisms with a basic nervous system and no circulatory or ventilator system (they breathe through their skin). When conditions are bad they are able to survive in a state like a very deep sleep (Cryptobiosis) for up to hundreds of years. They basically slow their metabolism down by a huge amount. In fact it is possible that they could stay in cryogenesis for thousands of years (take that Hans Solo!!). Some can survive temperatures of close to absolute zero (−273 °C) temperatures as high as 151 °C, 1,000 times more radiation than other organisms, and without water for up to 10 days.

One of the most impressive immoral organisms is hydrozoan Turritopsis dohrnii, an immortal jellyfish.

immortal jellyfish

Their cells are able to transdifferentiate. This means that a specialised cell such as a mouth cell can return to its undifferentiated state and they differentiate to become a different cell type such as a muscle cell.  This means that in their life cycle they can revert back to an earlier stage of development. They revert to an undifferentiated ball of cells, rearrange their cells through transdifferentiation, and become a new polyp which can form new polyps and a new colony. Provided they avoid predation they can theoretically survive indefinitely in the ocean.

Pando trees

It is not just microorganisms and animals that are biologically immortal. Pando trees (a type of Aspen tree in Utah, America) are one of several immortal plants and they are about 80,000 years old. These trees are actually clonal colonies, interconnected underground by their root system. They can withstand forest fires and other environmental difficulties as the root system can produce more clones even if the organism above ground is burnt.

So the big question is has a new immortal organism been identified? The organism in question is a mouse. The mouse is not naturally biologically immortal but by using artificial cloning scientists have produced ‘immortal mice’. The research is summarised in the Scientific American issue from the 8th of March. Japanese researchers have used somatic cell nuclear transfer (the same technique used to make Dolly the sheep) to produce cloned mice. This in itself is not new but until now attempts to reclone cloned animals have not been very successful. The researchers have managed to improve the somatic cell nuclear transfer technique five times and this meant that they were able to sequentially reclone mice over 25 generations. The researchers believe they could continue to reclone the same mice infinitely. The question is that since they were made artificially should we say they are biologically immortal? Vote now and why not leave a comment to say why you decided to vote a certain way.

Would you include the mice in a list of biologically immortal organisms?

 

Feb 262013
 

Check it out!

Once in a while I want to do a quick round-up of interesting articles and news items. Hopefully this will encourage students interested in Biology to push their knowledge outside the boundaries of the specification and classroom.

Penguin

As I write this there are 6 days left to watch Penguins Spy in the huddle on BBC iplayer. This is real feel good TV- I defy anyone to watch this without making some ‘aaah how cute’ noises and laughing out loud! It is full of interesting information on animal behaviour and has ground breaking footage of vampire bats attacking penguin chicks. The spy cameras are hilarious and you’d never believe they’d be accepted by the penguin colonies.

BeeAt GCSE we look at how we can study population numbers such as the honeybee populations. The honeybee has been in decline and this has alarmed bee-keepers and conservationists. There is lots of research to try to find the causes of colony collapse disorder and ideas include- antibiotics, pesticides, bee-keeping techniques or a natural decline which occurs periodically. New research suggests that CCD is caused by the combination of a viral disease and a fungal disease. The combined illnesses being devastating. However, it is important to note that the decline in the honeybee is not just due to CCD and it is important to maintain healthy colonies.

It seems that we are in a never-ending battle with bacteria. As we develop antibiotics they then develop resistance. One way in which researchers are attempting to tackle this is to attempt to find the selection pressures causing the resistance to arise. If antibiotics are not present then it is costly for antibiotics to develop resistance. Yet even when antibiotics are absent a stress, such as a temperature increase, can cause antibiotic resistance to develop. Researchers hope that as we gain a better evolution it will allow them to devise strategies to cut the potential of resistance arising as they develop new antibiotics.

A BBC report explains how Cais drug and alcohol agency says that the way drugs are perceived needs to change after a number of deaths and injuries in north Walear eares and North West England. People don’t realise the potential dangers of mixing recreational drugs, contamination, underlying health conditions and the fact that you can never be sure of the dose you are receiving.

At Cornell university bioengineers and doctors have used 3D printing to make an artificial ear that looks and acts like a natural ear. They hope this could be used for reconstructive surgery for children with microtia or people who have lost and ear in an accident or due to cancer.

Med dietIt is always difficult to design and carry out studies on diet and health risk due to the difficulties of controlling other variables and of having to rely on individual compliance. A new study from the University of Barcelona add more weight to the suggested health benefits of a ‘Mediterranean diet’ for those at high cardiovascular risk. The study states that the Mediterranean diet supplemented with olive oil and nuts reduced the risk of suffering a cardiovascular death, heart attack or stroke. It also provides evidence that it is better to have this diet than a low-fat diet. Year 12s should check out the primary article to evaluate the study.

Researchers are examining reprogramming cells as a possible treatment for diabetes. They are attempting to reprogram the alpha cells in the pancreas to become insulin producing beta cells. They are doing this by altering their epigenetic state using a chemical that removes some histone modification that affects gene expression. Although this is a novel and promising idea for possible cell based therapies. The primary article will be of interest to year 13s.

Feb 162013
 

Podcasts are a great way to keep up to date with interesting developments in science. This week I recommend you try the Nature Podcast.

The podcast includes a discussion on the regulation of stem cell use after a Texas biotechnology firm offered unproven stem cell therapies to patients with inflammatory conditions such as MS. My year 12 class will remember seeing interviews with patients and Doctors involved when we discussed the use of stem cells in therapy in class. You can find an article on this here.

The Podcast also discusses some new research in nematodes (worms) which demonstrated that the polyunsaturated fats found in fish oils may promote longer life. The study proposes that the fish oils trigger autophagy, a process where cells facing starvation cannibalize some of their internal macromolecules (e.g., proteins) and even organelles (e.g. mitochondria) to re-use them.

Worms, bats and wasps

Anyone who has watched Contagion will know that bats can pass on viruses to humans in some circumstances. A new large-scale study of zoonosis (diseases being passed from animals to humans) suggests viruses are hosts to significantly more zoonotic viruses per species than rodents. Read more here.

For this all this and more listen to the podcast. I recommend you subscribe to this podcast on iTunes or subscribe using the RSS feed. It is a great way to extend your knowledge.

Feb 092013
 

Over ten years ago I spent lots of time creating an online database of useful links for pupils and for people I mentor. Unfortunately the site I was using shut down and I lost all the links I’d collected together. I’ve just started collecting them together again and hopefully they will be useful to others as well.

I’ve started with some boards for my GCSE classes. There are interesting links to help people get the hang of the theory as well as experiments and how science works. If you’re on Pinterest do leave a comment so I can check your boards out. If you click on the logo below or the Follow Me button in the sidebar you will be taken to my boards.

Pinterest_Logo