UK's black squirrels' genetic heritage; nuclear fusion in the UK and the Royal Society's science book prize
Perhaps you’ve been lucky enough to spot the uncommon black grey squirrel in the UK. The bizarre mutation that causes a change in fur colour has finally divulged its historic evolution. Dr Helen McRobie at Anglia Ruskin University studies the black version of the introduced grey squirrel. She explains to Gareth Mitchell how the grey squirrel might have got the genetic mutation for black fur back when it was in North America. She describes how she stumbled across a finding that questions how we define a species.
Nuclear fusion – it’s the energy source of the future, and always will be! Yes, it’s one of those technologies that was about thirty years away in the 1980s when they built a massive fusion lab in Culham in Oxfordshire. And, thirty years on, they’re still trying to crack it. Part of the challenge is building containers that can handle some of the hottest, and trickiest, matter known to humans – plasma. At the Joint European Torus (or JET), they’ve been busy revamping their thirty-five-year-old kit. It’s to keep the fusion research going whilst the scientists wait for a shiny new facility to open up in Southern France. It’s all about working on reactions like those that fuel the Sun – squashing atoms together rather than pulling them apart. A brand new series of landmark tests at JET is kicking off in the months ahead. Roland Pease went to the labs to find out just where the UK is in fusion right now.
The 2019 Royal Society Insight Investment Science Book Prize winner will be announced in late September. The shortlisted authors will be announced next week but before then Adam Rutherford chats to two of the judges, Professor Sir Nigel Shadbolt, and best selling fiction author, Dorothy Koomson, about what makes a great popular science book and what in particular the judges are looking for in this year’s competition.
Producer - Fiona Roberts
UK power cut, Huge dinosaur find in Wyoming, Micro-plastics in Arctic snow
Following the simultaneous outages of two UK power plants last Friday, affecting nearly 1 million people across the country, we at Inside Science wanted to get back to the basics of electricity and get our heads round how the National Grid keeps the nation running. Keith Bell explains the difference between AC and DC (Alternating and Direct current), and why it's essential to keep the frequency of the grid steady at 50Hz.
They’re calling it ‘Mission Jurassic’. A site so full of dinosaur bones that it would most probably keep a thousand palaeontologists happy and enormously busy for a thousand years. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis (TCMI) has signed a 20 year exploration lease on a parcel of the Wyoming dinosaur site, calling on the help of UK associates from the University of Manchester and London’s Natural History Museum (NHM) to assist with the excavations. BBC science correspondent Jonathan Amos was invited to the top secret location to take part in what is arguably the country’s biggest dino dig in decades.
There's now good evidence that micro-plastics are present in our oceans and are accumulating in our food chains, but surely they aren’t present in the last pristine environment on Earth? Melanie Bergmann and her team based in Germany compared snow samples from two dozen locations, ranging from the Arctic ice floes and the Norwegian archipelago Svalbard to the north of Germany. Surprisingly, they found 10,000 plastic particles per litre in Arctic snow. But how is the plastic getting there? Melanie provides insight into her ground breaking research unearthing how micro-plastics are capable of travelling such great distances.
Producer: Fiona Roberts
Making the UK's dams safe, AI spots fake smiles, How many trees should we be planting?
In the light of the evacuation of the Derbyshire town of Whaley Bridge due to damage to the Todbrook reservoir dam and the threat of a catastrophic collapse, questions inevitably arise as to how ‘future proofed’ UK dams are? This is doubly worrying in light of climate change and the increasing likelihood of extreme weather events. With the average age of UK dams being over 100 years and the UK climate forecast to become wetter and warmer, should we be concerned? Gareth Mitchell speaks to Rachel Pether from the British Dam Society and Craig Goff, Technical Lead, Dams and Reservoirs from HR Wallingford, who explain the science and engineering involved in monitoring and safely managing UK dams in a changing climate.
When someone smiles at you, how can you tell whether that smile is genuine or fake and why would you want to know? According to Professor of visual computing at the University of Bradford, Hassan Ugail, it’s all in the eyes! Humans are notoriously bad at picking up fake smiles, because we tend to focus our vision on the upturned corners of the mouth. Focus on specific movement of the eyes and the dynamic progression of a smile, however, and that’s when a genuine smile is evident. Hassan explains how computers are over 90% successful at being able to detect fake smiles, and examines the purposes to which this facial recognition technology may be applied in our daily lives.
Inside Science listener, Thomas from New Zealand, has noticed the sudden surge in nations encouraging mass tree planting and reforestation. But how much of a difference is it all making? Professor of Agriculture, policy and development at the University of Reading Dr Martin Lukac discusses the impacts of, the soot and ash from the recent forest fires in Siberia, deforestation and even makes an educated guess at much forest you would have to plant to counteract the CO2 emissions emitted after using your family car for the year.
Producer - Fiona Roberts
Lovelock at 100; Hydrothermal vents and antibiotic resistance in the environment
James Lovelock is one of the most influential thinkers on the environment of the last half century. His grand theory of planet Earth - Gaia, which is the idea that from the bottom of the Earth's crust to the upper reaches of the atmosphere, Earth is one giant inter-connected and self-regulating system, has had an impact way beyond the world of science. As Lovelock celebrates his hundredth birthday (he was born on 26th July 1919) he is still writing books and thinking about science. Science writer Gaia Vince spoke to him about his work and how he came to his famous but controversial theory.
Most hydrothermal vents are in deep water far from land, making them incredibly inaccessible to divers. But in a fjord known locally as Eyjafjörður, off the coast of Iceland, is the hydrothermal vent Strytan. It's close enough that it can be accessed by scuba divers, and the algae and animals living in the hot chemical-laden plumes can be sampled. Geoff Marsh heads out with a team of scientists from the Natural History Museum in London and the University of Southampton to collect creatures living both in the hot vent water and in the icy cold fjord. The idea is to sample the genes to see what adaptations to temperature are evolving.
We are hearing more and more about antibiotic resistance. Overuse of antibiotics has led to more and more bacteria evolving and adapting ways to survive antimicrobial treatments. But did you know that the genes coding for this resistance can also float freely in water and on surfaces in the environment? A couple of recent studies have been sampling freshwater bodies and commonly touched surfaces (like handrails and toilet seats) in and around London and the amount of antibiotic resistance genes (either freely floating or in bacteria) is quite alarming. Environmental engineer at UCL, Professor Lena Ciric, explains to Marnie Chesterton what this means and whether we should be concerned.
Producer: Fiona Roberts
False positives in genetic test kits, Impact of fishing on ocean sharks, Sex-change fish
Dr Adam Rutherford uncovers the worrying number of false positive results that the DNA sequencing technologies used by 'direct to consumer' genetic test kits are producing. Many of these tests offer analysis on your ancestry, but some also offer to check you out for the likelihood of you being at risk of some genetic diseases like cystic fibrosis or certain types of breast cancer. The tests look for variants in your genome, little changes in your DNA that alter the risk of developing a number of genetic diseases. The trouble is the rarer the variant, the more likely it is to be disease-causing. But the rarer the variant, the more likely the simple genetic tests are to get it wrong. And with more and more people sending off their raw genetic data to third-party websites for analysis and annotation, the risk of a false positive result increases to up to 80%. It's a small number of people affected, but a serious one if you're told out of the blue that you are at extreme risk of a serious disease. The advice is to keep an eye on family disease traits and if you are worried, go and see your doctor and get a proper diagnostic test.
Deep sea pelagic sharks, like the great white, silky, tiger, porbeagle and blue are much more vulnerable than their scary reputation suggests. In fact, many shark species are in decline as a result of industrial fishing rapidly encroaching upon their territories, and an increased value of the sharks themselves. The oceans are big and sharks range far and wide, so understanding these movements is not easy. Professor David Sims, from the Marine Biological Association of the UK and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton, is part of a huge international consortium of marine biologists who have been tracking 11 species of shark all over the high seas using satellite technology. We’ve been fishing for more than 40,000 years, but our exploitation of the seas got serious in the last 50 years.
In nature, sex can be quite fluid, and in some species, sex changes are just a normal part of every day life. Especially in fish. This type of behaviour is called sequential hermaphroditism, and is common in fish. It's been known about for years, but the underlying genetic mechanisms are mysterious, which is strange for such a radical transformation. In the Blueheaded wrasse, when a dominant male is lost from the shoal, the largest female will immediately begin transforming into a male. Neil Gemmell from the University of Otago in New Zealand has lead a study which for the first time has uncovered the genetics of how the sex change happens.
Producer: Fiona Roberts