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The Science Hour

Podcast The Science Hour
Podcast The Science Hour

The Science Hour


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  • Red blood cells’ surprising immune function
    We’ve talked a huge amount the past 18 months, for obvious reasons, about the way that white blood cells protect us from infection. But red blood cells – it’s probably among the earliest things I learned in human biology that they’re simple bags for carrying oxygen around the body. But over recent years, immunologist Nilam Mangalmurti, University of Pennsylvania, has been finding several clues to challenge that dogma – including molecules on the surface of red blood cells known from other parts of the immune system. The Last Ice Area, home to the oldest and thickest ice in the Arctic, is expected to act as the last refuge for ice-dependent wildlife as the rest of the Arctic melts. Kent Moore, University of Toronto-Mississauga, tells us that the formation of a 3,000 square kilometre rift in the area means the ice is not as resilient as we once thought. Also on the programme, an obituary for the renowned Dutch climate scientist and physicist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh (October 22, 1961 – October 12, 2021), and, Dominique Gonçalves, Gorongosa National Park, explains how ivory poaching during the Mozambican civil war led to the rapid evolution of tusklessness in African elephants. 'To be or not to be' was never your decision. No one alive today is an 'exister' by consent - your parents made that call for you. But who can blame them? Animals are hardwired with strong impulses towards their procreative goals, and we humans, by and large, are no different. But for some conscientious people alive today, this most fundamental of biological impulses is butting up against a rational pessimism about the future... With apocalyptic scenes of natural disasters, rising sea levels and global pandemics causing existential dread and actual suffering, it's understandable that CrowdScience listener Philine Hoven from Austria wrote to us asking for help her make sense of what she sees as the most difficult question she faces - should she have children. In this episode, presenter Geoff Marsh helps Philine to predict what kind of a world her hypothetical child might inhabit, and explores the impact their existence, or indeed non-existence might have on society and the planet. Plus, we'll explore how medical ethicists can help us to navigate the moral landscape of the unborn. Brooding or broody, this is essential listening for any prospective parents. Image: Confocal microscopy of CpG-treated human RBCs stained for Band 3. Credit: Mangalmurti Lab / Nilam Mangalmurti, MD)
  • 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)
  • 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)
  • 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
  • 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)

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