Sunday, 22 July 2012

The science behind Spiderman

Tom Stubbs

Superheroes have amazed audiences for almost 80 years. They showcase a spectacular range of supernatural abilities; but are any of these possible? The video below examines the abilities of Spiderman. Could a retrovirus cause immediate cell mutation? Can spider-size physics be scaled to a human? Is there such a thing as 'spider-sense'? Find the answers in the video below and share with your friends.

Video from ASAP Science -

Thursday, 19 July 2012

The controversy of immortal cells

Louisa Cockbill

Did you know that it is possible for human cells to be removed from the body and survive, even multiply in number? Growing cells outside the body is known as ‘cell culture’. Cells grown in culture are often taken from tumours because tumour cells have the ability to grow infinitely when supplied with nutrients.These immortal cells are incredibly important in medical research, as they allow researchers to study and experiment on cells humanely; that is outside the body.

HeLa cells
But where do these cells originate from? I mentioned that many cells in culture are originally taken from human tumours, from biopsies or from a surgically removed tumour. Nowadays ethical permission is received from the patient to study the tumour; however medical permission forms didn’t always exist and neither did cell culture, so where did the practice of growing cells come from?

The first cells ever to be immortalised in culture were from a biopsy of a cervical mass (a tumour) from an African American woman called Henrietta Lacks from Baltimore in 1951. They were called HeLa cells and their immortalisation in culture changed the face of medical research. HeLa cells were exposed to all forms of bacteria and viruses to study the method of infection, replication etc. in order to block these processes with antibiotics, vaccines etc. Indeed Polio vaccine neutralisation tests were some of the first vaccine trials that used HeLa cells. Today HeLa cells can still be found cultured in every lab and it is estimated that 50 million tons of HeLa cells could have been grown.

I’ve always viewed cell culture from a purely scientific perspective, but since reading ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ by Rebecca Skloot I’ve started to look at cell culture from an entirely new perspective. Henrietta Lacks’ family didn’t find out about her immortal cells until 1973; 22 years after HeLa cells were first cultured. Why had no one told the family? Why is it that the Lacks family can’t afford health insurance, when their mother’s cells have driven forward frontiers in understanding disease?

The truth is that Henrietta’s cells were cultured without her knowledge or consent at a time before regulations were set in place to safeguard patient’s rights. Regulations now ensure that informed consent must be received and the patient informed of any commercial benefit that can be made from their medical donation.

Henrietta Lacks
I think what particularly struck me on reading ‘The immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ is how strange it must have been for Henrietta Lacks’ children to find that cells from their mother were alive! It has made me wonder how I would feel if cells had been taken from my Grandmother’s colorectal tumours and grown; who knows, she died in 1965 before law ensured patient consent, maybe her cells are out there. It’s a disconcerting thought.

On the other hand how amazing would it be if the cells from the cancer that killed my grandmother were used to cure the disease? Especially handy as the cancer appears to be hereditary. Indeed although the Lacks’ family are indignant at not being informed about the culture of HeLa cells for two decades and the lack of explanation given them, they are marvelled by the medical breakthroughs made possible by the cells cultured from their mother.

The story of Henrietta Lacks may have made me question certain scientific precepts but has certainly opened my eyes to better appreciate the invention of cell culture and the lives behind the cells. To read more about Rebecca Skloot’s discovery of the world of Henrietta Lacks and cell culture I’d advise you to read ‘The Immortal life of Henrietta Lacks’ which is available for loan from the University of Bristol Medical Library.

More information:

Monday, 16 July 2012

Glorious gas giant

Tom Stubbs

This spectacular photo shows Saturn’s legendary rings and two of its moons. The photo was snapped by NASA's Cassini spacecraft as it orbited the gas giant. It allows scientists to get up-close and examine the shifting motions and intricacies of Saturn's rings. The Cassini spacecraft arrived at Saturn in 2004, it recently changed orbit gaining this new perspective. Saturn is currently shining bright in the night sky so see if you can spot it.

For more information on the Cassini mission:

Sunday, 15 July 2012

Nature’s greatest illusionists

Tom Stubbs

Camouflage is one of nature’s greatest inventions. It is a mode of concealment that allows animals to remain unnoticed and blend into their environment, increasing the animal’s chances of survival. There are many common examples of camouflage, including leopard's spots and zebra's stripes. Mechanisms that increase survival and reproductive rates are strongly selected for by natural selection, this has led to the evolution of some amazing methods of camouflage that you may be less familiar with. Here we explore just a few exceptional animals that are masters of deception.

The Dead Leaf Mantis 
Dead-Leaf mimics
The Dead Leaf Mantis (Deroplatys desiccata) is a large mantis found in Malaysia. If you haven’t guessed already, it is camouflaged as a dead leaf. It achieves this using a large shield on its back, the prothorax, that is covered with a variety of colours and spots. When threatened they lie motionless in the leaf litter. This is an excellent example of crypsis. Believe it or not many people keep this species as a pet, check out the video at the bottom. While we are on the topic of dead leaves, there is also the Dead-Leaf Butterfly (Kallima inachus). It has a diet of plants and rotting fruit so it spends a great deal of time resting within the leaf litter of tropical forests. Depending on the environmental conditions the butterfly can mimic variable degrees of decay.

Orchid Mimic Mantis 
Orchid mimics
If you prefer your plants alive, then there is also the beautiful orchid mimic mantis (Hymenopus coronatus). This incredible animal uses legs that resemble flower petals to remain hidden on orchids. They can be found in rainforests of Sumatra, Indonesia and Malaysia. Many varieties of such orchid mimics are white, but some are wonderfully colourful. They are carnivorous so as well as helping them to avoid trouble this camouflage also helps the mantis capture a wide range of flying insects and small lizards. It also has the ability to change colours on a daily basis.

Sea dragons
Amazing examples of camouflage are not just found in creepy crawlies and are not just on land. There is also the Leafy Sea Dragon (Phycodurus eques).This animal is a fish belonging to the family including sea horses. It is one of the most ornamented camouflaged creatures on the planet. They possess large bodies and leaf-like appendages over their entire body, allowing them to blend in with seaweed and kelp formations. The leaves are for camouflage only and don’t help with movement. Sea dragons are endemic to the oceans of south and east Australia and feed upon tiny crustaceans such as sea lice. Again their beauty has made them popular pets and they are taken from the wild illegally.
Leafy Sea Dragon

Leaf-tailed gecko 
Leaf-tailed gecko
Reptiles have also mastered the art of disguise. The leaf-tailed gecko (Uroplatus sikorae) is one of the best examples of this. The critter is found only in the tropical forests of Madagascar and a few nearby landmasses. They have evolved moss and bark coloured scales in addition to dermal flaps that disrupt their outline. When they lay flat this cryptic colouration makes them perfectly match the branches of tropical trees when basking during the day. Like chameleons, these reptiles can also modify their colouration according to their surroundings.

More information and great videos - 

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Dangerous Results: To Publish or Not To Publish?

Gunnar De Winter

So you thought the avian flu controversy was over? Far from it. A little while ago, two studies on the avian flu H5N1 sparked some controversy. Both studies detailed how the researchers were able to produce a flu strain that, in contrast to the known natural strains, would be highly transmissible between human beings. This research has potentially dangerous consequences. Debate ensued. Should these studies be fully or partially published, or not at all? Both the National Security Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) and the World Health Organization (WHO) issued press releases describing their (different) recommendations. Editors of Nature and Science postponed publishing the respective studies. But this is part of a wider issue: should studies with potentially dangerous results be published or not? Let’s look at some options.

Don’t Publish
Simply don’t publish the studies. Problem solved. Or not? This is the least popular ‘solution’ for the problem. An even more extreme version of this option is to simply not allow research that might yield dangerous results. But luckily almost nobody seriously considers this. After all, one can’t predict potential applications of research. And besides potential misuse, there might be great benefits as well (such as vaccine development in the case of the avian flu studies). Moreover, freedom of research is at stake here. If all research that might be abused by others is suspended, surely the scientific enterprise will wither until almost nothing remains. So, this option provides no solution. Moving on, then.

Publish Partially
Avian influenza A H5N1 viruses
Publish the studies, but leave out some key methodological details (which was the NSABB recommendation for the flu studies). Intuitively, this appears to make (some) sense. But there are problems here as well. First, who decides what to leave out? Furthermore, if other researchers want to build upon the results, they should be able to acquire the omitted details. But at the moment, there is no system to properly coordinate this. Finally, some people point out that just knowing that it’s possible is enough for others to figure it out. It might take a bit longer, but they’ll get there. Well, it seems option two also has its problems. On to the final option.

Publish Completely
Just publish the studies in full (the WHO recommendation). Most scientific research comes with a risk of potential misuse. This, however, should not stop enquiry. Besides, the best protection against abuse, so some argue, is to spread knowledge about whatever is being researched. In case of the flu studies, publishing the studies in their entirety is the best chance of finding a vaccine, thereby counteracting possible abuse. Scientific research in itself is not good or bad. It’s how it is used by people, or by society. The solution therefore is not to curb research, but to promote ethically and morally sound use of scientific knowledge. Achieving this, of course, is not an easy task, and there are many questions to be addressed, but it seems to be the best option we’ve got…

For more information about the avian flu debate:

Nature’s Mutant Flu News Special (, where the latest news concerning the studies and several opinion pieces are aggregated.

A similar news and commentary collection can be found on Science’s Public Health, Biosecurity and H5N1 feature ( 

Why do our fingers wrinkle when wet?

Gemma Hallam

Look familiar?
Now you’re home from student accommodation you may have re-established access to a bathtub! And there’s nothing better than a steamy, relaxing wallow to cheer us up from this ghastly downpour, which is invading our ‘summer’ break. But upon finally emerging, you look down at your hands and feet and wonder at what point your appendages were replaced with those of an old lady!

Layers of the skin
What happens is the outer layer of skin (the epidermis) absorbs a little bit of water and expands. The layer underneath (the dermis) doesn't do this and so the skin on top buckles – folding in places – leading to the wrinkly digits we’re all so familiar with. The skin on our hands and feet is thicker than on the rest of the body and so the changes here are noticeable whereas the rest of our braised bods appear to have remained less than 80 years old!

'Wrinkle drainage'

Another idea was recently forwarded that suggested ‘pruney’ fingers are an adaptation to help humans and other primates grip in wet conditions. In this theory the wrinkles act like rain treads on tyres allowing water to drain through channels when we press our fingertips on a wet surface.

Functional or unintentional it is certainly a relief when our hands dry and return to normal!

For more information on the current theories check out this link - Are Wet-Induced Wrinkled Fingers Primate Rain Treads?

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