Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Norman Borlaug: “The Man That Saved a Billion Lives”

by Toby Benham

Born on the 25th March 1914, Norman Borlaug has been described as the man that has saved more human lives than anyone who has ever lived. This truly inspirational man devoted his life to help solving world hunger by developing new types of wheat. He was quoted saying, “We are 6.6 billion people now. We can feed 4 billion. I don’t see 2 billion volunteers to disappear”. As well as being the labelled “the father of the green revolution”, Borlaug won the Nobel peace prize in 1970.

After growing up in Iowa, Borlaug went to the University of Minnesota to study Forestry, in between two stints working for the US forestry service. He later returned to the University to do a masters and PhD in plant pathology. This led to him taking a job in Mexico as geneticist and plant pathologist. Not only did this move mean leaving his job at highly respected chemical company DuPont (who had offered to double his salary), he temporarily left behind his pregnant wife and young daughter. His work in Mexico included research in genetics, plant breeding, plant pathology, entomology, agronomy, soil science and cereal technology. This was very successful leading to production of a high yielding, short strawed, disease resistant wheat. He arranged for the new cereal strains to be put into extensive production.

His work was especially influential in India and Pakistan. In fact, between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in these countries, helping to provide security for feeding expanding populations. Prime Minister Singh and President Patil, both of India, paid tribute saying, “ Borlaug’s life and achievement are testimony to the far reaching contribution that one man’s towering intellect, persistence and scientific vision can make to human peace and progress”.

He died at the age of 95 in 2009 to lymphoma. I hope that after reading this that you can appreciate what an extraordinary man Norman Borlaug was, as well as the great contribution he made not only to science, but to the world’s population. One of the greatest scientists and humanitarians that has ever lived; “the man that saved a billion lives”.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Nomenclature – What’s really in a name?

by Sam Matchette

If I were to ask you what Captain Blackbeard, the Rocky Mountains and jeggings all have in common, what would you say? No, this is not a joke – although this would make for a very intriguing start to a ‘… walked in to a bar’ gag. The answer is simple: they each have a very appropriate and informative name. Captain Blackbeard had a beard that was (probably) black, the Rocky Mountains are certainly rocky and jeggings are the most recent descriptive portmanteau to hit our vocabulary shelves! However, the art of nomenclature (naming) isn’t always as straight forward; a point very relative in the biological world with regards to naming species; formally called Binomial nomenclature.

First and foremost, binomial nomenclature itself differs depending upon the organism you are dealing with. If you are naming animals, you would consider the International Code for Zoological Nomenclature (ICZN), whereas for plants, fungi or algae you would use the – very appropriately named - International Code for Nomenclature for algae, fungi and plants (ICN). Both resources enforce a series of codes and rules that one must abide by, in order to maintain evidential consistency throughout the natural world.

Focusing upon the animal kingdom, the ICZN has six main principles. When a species is first discovered, it is described and given a name. The first principle, named binomial nomenclature, states that the name of any given animal is made up of two Latin names (binomen); a generic name and a specific name. Devised by Carl Linnaeus, this principle embodies all the species seen today, including Homo sapiens, Passer domesticus, Gibbula umbilicalis. This name must be unique, as claimed by the principle of homonymy. The discovered organism’s name is recorded on an ICZN database together with name of its discoverer and the date of discovery. For each species ever described on the database, there is usually a list of names (both generic and specific) provided after the first, long-standing name was put forward. These, essentially irrelevant, names are called the junior synonyms. They only come in to play if a re-classification occurs. If there is a species-split with a new population needing a name, the principle of priority ensures that the new specific name is the oldest available junior synonym. Those name conflicts that cannot be resolved using priority are resolved by the principle of first reviser; the first subsequent author decides which name(s) to use from that moment on. Slightly more confusing is the principle of coordination; which presents when a family-group name, genus-group name or species-group name is established, all other relevant groups must also simultaneously bear that name with relevant prefixes. For example, the family name Giraffidae was established, meaning that the sub-family name (should we need one) automatically becomes Giraffinae. Linking with this is the principle of typification. This claims that any family-group name must have a type (or representative) genus and any genus-group name must have a type species. For example, the family name of Giraffidae has Giraffa as its type genus (as in Giraffa camelopardalis).

Despite the terrifying formality of this process, if all principles are fulfilled, then the fun can begin. And boy, do scientists like to have fun! The beauty of needing to be unique (as the principle of homonymy requires) is that you can be as creative as you like. After all, as with everything, names come in all shapes and sizes; from the great evening bat, Ia io, to the soldier fly, Parastratiosphecomyia stratiosphecomyioides.

Longdong stream salamander 
Unsurprisingly, over the years, the concoction of creativity and taxonomy has produced some very interesting results. Usually, names originate from a description, a location, a person or an organisation relative to the organism’s discovery; however some have become remarkably tenuous and down-right crude. An example that springs to mind is the Batrachuperus longdongensis; a stream salamander with – you guessed it - an in-conspicuously long penis. Less subtle is the lily plant with the name Narcissus assoanus – discovered seemingly by a scientist with a phenomenal grudge. Scientists have even delved in to the world of popular media; notably the spider, Apopyllus now, who appears to be an avid Martin Sheen fan.

One of my personal favourites – from a devilishly, imaginative view point – is the Thorny Devil. This lizard’s scientific name is Moloch horridus; honouring the heaven-rebelling demon Moloch known to devour children, aptly comparative to the lizard’s diet of unsuspecting ants. Furthermore, many scientists have dabbled in creative word-play; creating such scientific names as the leafhopper family, Cicadellidae, which is officially the longest word with all its letters twice, or the palindromic beetle, Orizabus subaziro.

Thorny Devil
For the narcissistic among you, it may be disappointing to hear that it’s just ‘not cricket’ when you name a species after yourself. However, there are ways and means of overcoming this. The obvious being to find a friend that shares your desire to have a species named after them, and then each simultaneously discover a species that can be named after the other person. Undoubtedly fiendish, but no less true as the taxonomists Reichardt and Lange-Bertalot evidently proved; honouring each other with name-bearing species in a Diatom genus.

So, if you’re the buddy biologist type endeavouring for a life of research, you may just want to take a moment and think: what would my species name be? It may be more fun than you think. Now, “Captain Blackbeard, the Rocky Mountains and some Jeggings walk in to a bar…”

Wednesday, 13 November 2013

Ten Extinct Animals you wouldn't want to meet in a dark alleyway

by Rob Cooper

1. Daedon: the ‘terminator pig’

Nicknamed the ‘terminator pig’ this hulking brute of an animal was a member of the ungulate family that today includes pigs, giraffes and deer. It had enormous bony flanges similar to the warts of the warthog which accompanied its titanic jaws giving this predator a bone crushing bite in addition to its fearsome tusks.

2. Titanoboa: the giant snake

This great serpent emerged just after the demise of the dinosaurs in the Paleocene epoch and was estimated at 15 meters long and a weight of 1135kg making it easily the largest snake that has ever existed which would not be vexed in the slightest by swallowing a comparatively measly human.

3. Deinosuchus: 'terror croc' 

One of the three largest crocodilians to have ever existed Deinosuchus could have reached lengths of twelve meters and lived alongside tyrannosaurs such as the fabled T.rex and is theorised to have predated upon the dinosaurs that unknowingly came to drink from cretaceous watering holes. Okay, maybe it wouldn't have fitted in a dark alleyway but such a creature does not deserve to be neglected. 

4. Argentavis: the largest flying bird

The largest flying bird to have ever lived had a wingspan of around seven metres and would have likely scavenged and displaced Miocene predators from their kills. It’s skull morphology suggests it was suited to swallowing prey whole so whilst humans may lie someway from its preferred prey it would still make for an intimidating site emerging from the darkness. 

5. Gigantopithecus: the real yeti 

The legend of the yeti has fascinated many people throughout history and there seems to have been no better candidate than Gigantopithecus. This ape stood at around three meters tall and while its teeth indicate it was exclusively vegetarian an unexpected encounter with such an enormously powerful ape would be far from desirable. 

6. Arctodus simus: the giant bear

Arctodus Simus, the giant short faced bear could look you in the eye whilst still remaining on all four legs. If the titan deigned to stand it would have easily reached three meters in height. Around 11,000 years ago Arctodus Simus is proposed to have filled the niche of a kleptoparasite; intimidating smaller predators such as dire wolves, Smilodon and American lions from their kills with its enormous size and strength.

7. Utahraptor: flesh eating dinosaur 

There had to be at least one theropod (clade to which all carnivorous dinosaurs belong) dinosaur in here. Considering T.rex or Giganotosaurus would find it near impossible to fit inside an alleyway we’ll take the lesser known Utahraptor. The Velociraptor in Jurassic park may have been greatly exaggerated in size, being in reality the size of a turkey, but Utahraptor dominated even these exaggerated raptors reaching seven meters in length and with a sickle claw nine inches in length clearly indicating this 126 million year old predator could disembowel a human with consummate ease. 

8. Megalania: giant monitor

The size of this giant monitor lizard is difficult to determine as several studies place the weight anywhere from 300kg to nearly 2 tonnes. Regardless Megalania is still a monster compared to any modern day lizards. With heavily built limbs and a huge skull full of viscously serrated teeth it is proposed to have hunted Australian megafauna such as Diprotodon the ‘giant wombat’. If that wasn’t bad enough it seems likely Megalania, akin to modern monitor lizards such as the komodo dragon, was venomous making Megalania not only the largest terrestrial lizard but the largest venomous vertebrate to have ever existed. 

9. Kelenken: terror bird 

Picture a three meter tall bird with a skull 28 inches long, 18 inches of which was composed of a beak that was used in the same manner as an axe to inflict debilitating injuries on its prey and you get a rough idea of why it might be a good idea to stay the hell away from Kelenken. Belonging to the aptly named ‘terror birds’ this particular animal had the largest head of any bird known and was theorized to have either delivered viscous hammer blows to crush the bones of large prey or grab hold of smaller prey and shake them in much the same way that a dog might shake a rat today with the small addition that Kelenken would usually end up breaking the back of the unfortunate organism.

10. Euchambersia: Permian predator

By far the smallest animal on this list Euchambersia was a reptile that lived before the dinosaurs in the Permian period 250 million years ago. Euchambersia was a member of the therapsid order of reptiles which included the ancestors of modern day mammals and are often referred to as the ‘mammal like reptiles’. Despite its small stature this predator had an ace up its sleeve… Venom. The large canine teeth clearly exhibited by Euchambersia had venom grooves connected to venom glands in a very similar way to modern snakes in order to inject venom into the prey upon biting down. This killing strategy made Euchambersia a force to be reckoned with in the Permian deserts of South Africa.

Do you have any other suggestions? Let us know in the comments section.

Monday, 11 November 2013

The science of mind reading

by Tom Ridler

The idea of someone being able to tell exactly what we are thinking is no doubt a scary one, but don’t worry, we’re not there yet. This said, the electroencephalogram, or EEG has been used for some time to measure brain activity in human patients and there is a great deal of information to be obtained from all those wiggly lines.

How does EEG work? Our brains are made up of billions of neurons, communicating with each other all of the time. Brain cells “talk” through synapses, creating tiny electrical signals. With so many cells in the brain, this produces masses of electrical activity and it can be measured by placing sensors on the surface of the skull.  This is usually done with the familiar EEG cap, containing a great number of sensors, meaning that different areas of the brain can be measured simultaneously.

What can you see? What we find when we record this brain activity is that the signal within the brain oscillates in wave-like manner. These brain waves may originally seem confusing and random, but analysis has shown that they can be isolated into discrete frequency bands. You can think of the brain like an orchestra, with all the individual instruments creating different sounds that all come together into one complex piece of music.

What does it all mean? These common frequencies may represent differences in brain states. For example, when you are in deep sleep slow oscillations are seen (called delta waves) or during high levels of concentration fast waves (such as beta or gamma oscillations) may occur, signifying intense thought processing. How about some meditation? Well you won’t be doing that without plenty of alpha waves, associated with relaxation and reflection.  

How can it be used? EEG can be used in a great number of ways. We can diagnose some conditions such as epilepsy by recognising seizure activity. There is also potential to help suffers of locked in syndrome (a condition where sufferers, while totally conscious, cannot move or communicate). On a lighter note, many people have been working on ways in which we can control objects with our minds. Just imagine, a brain-machine interface would be able to control a robot, unlock a car or turn on a home appliance just through the power of thought. This isn’t so far of, your own portable (and affordable) EEG machines are available to buy, allowing you to play games and even control the plot of a film through changes in your brain waves. 

Sunday, 10 November 2013

Lake turns animals into petrified statues

Greek mythology will tell you that Medusa was beheaded a long time ago, so those of you rooting for a supernatural or spiritual explanation I am sorry to disappoint. The real cause of this mummification is no less fascinating. Lake Natron, a vast death swamp located in northern Tanzania gets its name from Natron which is a naturally occurring sodium carbonate compound. The compound is sourced from volcanic ash which when collected by surface runoff, flows into the lake and provides the lake with an unnaturally high alkaline content.

Calcium is more readily precipitated from alkaline solutions so over time high amounts of calcium can be precipitated along the shoreline. When animals die and are immersed in the deadly waters of the lake they become petrified and turn into a bizarre and horrific spectacle. Oddly, the lake isn't completely lethal and is home to flocks of daredevil flamingos that return to nest on an annual basis. I should point out that the poses in the photographs are artificially created by photographer Nick Brandt.

by Danny Stubbs

Sunday, 3 November 2013

Synapse Science News #1 #Nov2013

Too busy to keep track of all the science news during the week? Don’t fear Synapse is here. Check out this week's news.

Doomed Planet gives hope for other Earths – Kepler-78b is the first exoplanet discovered which shares both a similar mass and composition to earth. Unfortunately, it is far too close to its star making it burning hot and inhospitable. However, despite its position, it’s similarity to Earth gives new hope to astronomers that other earth like twins are waiting to be found. Read more here.

Cheating Light defies Newton’s 3rd Law – A team of researchers found that laser pulses may accelerate themselves around optical fibre loops seemingly defying that every action must have an equal and opposite reaction. Such behaviour may only be applicable in light but provides a possible source for improving electronics and communications in the future. Find out more here.

Final phase of dark matter hunt imminent  Particle detector LUX has been shown to be the most powerful detector of its kind but it failed to detect any dark matter during its first run. In 2014 its second run is set to probe deeper once again which, if our theories about dark matter are correct, should ensure that dark matter is indeed detected. Read more here.

Rachel Greenwood