Afforestation Vs reforestation

It is well known that deforestation is an increasing global problem. Even those with little scientific background are bombarded with information through social media, specifically regarding consequences of deforestation including global warming. Indeed, many charities, schools and individuals are now taking a stand and doing all they can to tackle this problem.

The planting of trees can be divided into two categories: afforestation and reforestation. Reforestation refers to planting trees on land that was previously forest whereas afforestation refers to planting trees on patches of land which were not previously covered in forest. The general idea behind both is: as many trees as possible, wherever possible.
However, ecology is a complex science. Are we focusing too much on carbon sequestration and not enough on the planets ecosystems as a whole? Are some ecosystems being neglected and forgotten? Perhaps. This article will cover some issues associated with afforestation and reforestation.

Reforestation is beneficial when trees have been previously removed. However, these new trees will never create exactly the same ecosystem as the original forest. Indeed, the original trees which were cleared may have been hundreds, even thousands of years old meaning that it may take many years for the new trees to catch up. In addition to this, rare species lost during the original deforestation may not be replaced, meaning extinction and a reduction of biodiversity could be inevitable.

Tropical grassy Biome

Afforestation can also have negative consequences especially if the tree planters don’t consider the environment they are introducing the new trees into. The idea of afforestation is to plant trees on patches of unused, degrading land. However, land which may appear degraded may actually house its own ecosystem, for example a Savanna or tropical grassy biome. Research has suggested that tropical grassy biomes are often misunderstood and neglected. These ecosystems can provide important ecological services. In addition to this, these ecosystems could contain rare species, which could be outcompeted by the introduction of new trees.Therefore, although carbon sequestration will increase, many ecosystems will be negatively affected or lost.

It has to be noted that both reforestation and afforestation can be advantageous when tackling global warming. However, possible negative impacts must also be taken into account in order to protect the planet as a whole. This can be achieved by ensuring that deforestation is kept to a minimum and afforestation only occurs on truly degraded land. There is desperate need for more research into areas of land before trees are planted upon them. The biggest challenge today is education. Charities, schools and individuals need to be made aware of this before it’s too late. Without awareness, irreversible damage can occur unknowingly. Effective conservation work requires more than just planning trees at random and this needs to be taken considered on a global scale.
If we don’t stand up for all of our precious ecosystems, who will?

Post by: Alice Brown





Stigma and stimulants: the ADHD controversy.

screen-shot-2016-11-14-at-08-43-59In recent years, the growing number of children diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) has received a huge amount of media scrutiny. A quick Google search turns up pages of articles suggesting ADHD can be blamed on everything from less time spent outside, greater demands at school, to bad behaviour and poor parenting. Unsurprisingly, the disorder can have severe social and educational consequences, which can often affect relationships and workplace productivity throughout adult life. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that an estimated 89% of cases of adult ADHD in the USA alone are still inadequately recognised and treated.

ADHD is characterised by a combination of behavioural traits including inattentiveness, hyperactivity and impulsivity. Despite being the most commonly diagnosed neurodevelopmental disorder, there is still no global consensus on the real prevalence of ADHD. Estimates range between countries and even across states due to discrepancies in social acceptance, regulation and healthcare availability. Also, despite recognisable biological symptoms including altered brain wave activity and dysfunctions in dopamine and noradrenaline transmission, research is yet to identify a clear cause for this disorder, making it far more difficult to decipher a clear explanation for the recent rise in cases.

As more and more children are labelled with the condition, concerns have been raised by some as to whether the influx of new cases is simply the result of a society searching to medicalise disruptive behaviours. Some argue that increased diagnosis can be attributed to better awareness of the disorder. Others however, suggest that high rates of mis- and over-diagnosis of ADHD have been the cause of this apparent surge in new cases. An article published this year in the Daily Mail even claimed that ‘unrealistic expectations from parents’ were to blame for the recent rush of new cases.

Such disagreement over the validity of an ADHD diagnosis is partly to blame for the growing stigma surrounding the condition. Poor public perception results in patients often being stereotyped simply as naughty children.

This leads us to the matter of how to tackle these misconceptions. At present, diagnosis focuses on psychological assessment along with fulfilment of certain behavioural criteria. However, this form of diagnosis can be subjective. In a bid to better regulate assessment of potential cases, research is now being carried out with the aim of developing a safe and affordable routine testing method for ADHD. One promising area of research is focussed on finding brain wave biomarker for ADHD based on electroencephalogram results. Researchers are also currently in the process of testing a behavioural animal model of ADHD. This model will provide us with a better understanding of the causes of this disorder and a more accurate way of testing potential treatments.

As is the case with many mental illnesses, there is as yet no cure for ADHD. Medication is often used to control symptoms rather than target the underlying cause of the condition – with nearly a million children prescribed either Ritalin (methylphenidate) or Adderall (amphetamine and dextramphetamine) in the UK in 2014. Unfortunately, alongside symptom control, these psychostimulant drugs can come with a multitude of unpleasant side effects, including insomnia and weight loss. Concerns have also been raised about the abuse potential of these drugs, particularly at a time when availability is increasing. In 2013, it was estimated that 13% of American teenagers had abused either Ritalin or Adderall.

It is hoped that further research could lead to a better understanding of the disorder and improved treatments, perhaps mitigating the need for the prescription of stimulants. Furthermore, until a failsafe diagnostic test has been developed, questions are likely to remain concerning the accuracy and legitimacy of ADHD as a medical condition. This will leave children at risk of prejudice and stigmatisation, with potentially devastating effects on their quality of life and self-esteem.


Post by: Sarah Lambert

Sarah is a neuroscience Masters student at the University of Manchester with a particular interest in mental health and the effect of drugs on behaviour. Currently working on a project in episodic memory deficits in schizophrenia, in her free time she enjoys writing, travelling and baking.


Could fruit flies help defeat HPV-derived cancers?

In 2012 528,000 cases of cervical cancer were diagnosed worldwide. In the same year, more than half this number were estimated to have died as a result of this condition. The cause? A virus of the Papillomaviridae family, specifically one of the High Risk Human Papillomaviruses (HR-HPVs). Although mainly associated with cervical cancer in women, HR-HPVs cause an ever increasing number of head and neck, throat and genital tumours in both sexes.

Human Papillomaviruses lack an envelope, a coat made from the membrane of the host cell, possessing only an icosahedral capsid – a sturdy protein bubble that protects the viral DNA within. Viral DNA hijacks the host’s cellular machinery to produce new viral proteins which both continue virus assembly and cause cancer. It is still uncertain exactly how these proteins interact with our cells to cause cancer but some major players and pathways have been identified. Specifically, scientists believe that two particular proteins (the E6 and E7 proteins) may play an important role in this process.

These two E6/7 macromolecules can be referred as “oncoproteins”. Although quite scary, this term simply defines proteins which are involved in mechanisms that could cause a cell to behave abnormally, increasing the chances of them becoming cancerous. Specifically, these two proteins interfere with a wide variety of mechanisms that will trigger conversion to malignancy. Respectively, they either boost or block the activity of p53, Rb and E2F, three molecules that control a cell’s life cycle.

Considering the huge impact such cancers have on human life, it may seem unusual that we are still in the dark about so many aspects of HPV associated pathophysiology. Our limited knowledge is in part due to constraints implicit in this type of research. Specifically, for obvious ethical reasons, researchers are not able to study HPV associated cancers in living human subjects or deliberately induce cancers in subjects. Therefore, they must rely on model systems when studying these disorders. In the past, researches have used artificial keratinocytes (skin’s cells) and mouse models, to understand how processes work in living tissues. However, this work raises a few questions, such as: How do you compare findings in tissue alone to what you would find in a dynamic and complex living system and how well can we compare mouse models to human conditions?

Picture credits: By Botaurus, via Wikimedia Commons – CC BY-SA 2.5 (open access/open use).

We now have an answer to these questions, or at least something that marks the start of a deeper understanding. Researchers at the University of Missouri have been able to successfully develop and use living, fruit fly models. Mojgan Padash’s research team injected fruit flies with the E6 protein along with a human-derived one needed by the E6 to function. The first results show that, although abnormalities in the fruit flies’ skin were noticed, another molecule was needed in order to fully trigger cancer. Following the hypothesis that mutations in a human molecule called Ras, a family of “switch” proteins which activate cell growth-specific genes, the team introduced the latter into the fruit flies. Those “simple” abnormalities turned into malignant cancers, just as they would do in humans.

The results, published in the open access journal PLoS Pathogens, allow scientists to monitor biochemical pathways similar, if not identical, to those found in human sufferers. But why flies and not mice? Although further away from humans, sharing only 60% of the human genome against the 97.5% of mice, flies are easier to use than their murine counterpart. Fruit flies are easier to breed (so to quickly obtain new generations) and their genes can be mutated quicker than mice. Moreover, little to no ethical approval is needed to use them (they can be ordered online, with just one click!) and their easier to monitor development allows researcher to effectively model disease development. These fruit fly models, which are continuously refined and developed, have the potential to help in discovering new molecules involved in such processes.

It comes to no surprise that such information could impact heavily on future treatment, and even the prevention of pathologies caused by this increasingly dangerous family of viruses. So, next time you think about killing a fruit fly in your kitchen … maybe think twice.

Post by: Paolo Arru – @viraleclair

screen-shot-2016-10-10-at-19-43-41Paolo is currently a final year student in Microbiology at the University of Manchester, UK. Science communicator wannabe, he has a keen interest on everything related to HPV, viral oncology and parasitic infections to just say a few. Every bit of his free time is used for planning and getting involved in new projects, baking and getting lost in museums. You can follow him talking about science festivals, geeky stuff and bake off on



Woody Plants and pharmaceutics

Take a moment to think about your health over the last year. How often have you taken a painkiller to manage that headache or fever? These powerful tools have the ability to save you from a day of pain, allowing the survival of that long shift at work or half-marathon which has slowly crept up on you. How many relatives or friends have had their health improved through life saving medications such as chemotherapy or anti-depressants. There are a large variety of medications widely used today that have transformed our lives and we would struggle in a world without them. Many are aware that it is advances in medical research which have enabled the development and availability of these. However, it is often forgotten that when developing such drugs scientists will usually take their inspiration from similar compounds found in nature. But where? This article gives much deserved recognition to nature’s own pharmacologists. After all, these magicians are our true heroes.

So, what natural marvels are responsible for these compounds? – mainly plants, animals and fungi. This article will focus primarily on woody plants and their ability to produce useful chemicals. The extraction of compounds from plants goes back years. From tribes making herbal remedies to the scientific extraction of the chemicals we use today. Below are a few examples of how woody plants have completely transformed our lives:


screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-20-04-45Aspirin is a silicate sold as an over the counter medication. Its main purpose is to reduce pain and inflammation. The active ingredient in this common drug originally comes from willow tree bark and has actually been used for about 6000 years. So, how does this drug work? Willow bark contains a substance called salicin which the body transforms into salicylic acid. This acid reduces the production of certain prostaglandins in our nerves. Prostaglandins are produced in response to tissue damage or infection, their role being to facilitate the healing process. However, alongside their healing properties they also cause pain, therefore reducing their production can minimise the pain associated with the healing process. It can subsequently be deduced that willow trees do much more for us than just creating a gorgeous aesthetic landscape!


screen-shot-2016-09-19-at-20-05-23Irinotecan is a chemotherapy medication primarily used to treat colon and rectal cancer. The active ingredients within this medication include camptothecin, pentacyclic quinolines and 10-hydroxycamptothecin, which are derived from Camptotheca Trees, Camptotheca acuminata. The mechanisms by which these compounds interact with the human body are complex. They inhibit DNA topoisomerase I which is important for the replication of cancer cells. It would therefore make sense that without this substance, cancer cannot thrive. This is because type 1 topoisomerases are catalysts for the transient breakage of DNA and for the re-joining of the strands following this during cell replication. Without this catalyst, replication would occur at a very slow rate. Cancer is a devastating disease and advances such as this are hugely important.


Top: Normal heart activity. Bottom: Heart fibrillation
Top: Normal heart activity. Bottom: Heart fibrillation

Digoxin is well established in the treatment of heart arrhythmias including atrial fibrillation. It is extracted from the leaves of the common foxglove plant, Digitalis purpura. It works by slowing down the heart alongside improving ventricle filling which increases the blood supply available for each pump. The heart is one of the most important organs in the body, subsequently reflecting the importance of this medication and its lifesaving qualities.

These are just three examples of how woody plants have transformed our lives. However, there are still many unidentified species that have not yet been discovered in our ecosystems which have the potential to contain life-saving chemicals. In addition, there is the potential for the availability of medication that has fewer side effects to those currently in use. Unfortunately, many biomes are currently being destroyed at such a rate new species, and perhaps medically active chemicals, are being removed before any possible benefits can be uncovered. Therefore, the increased rates of deforestation may be destroying more than just habitats, they may be taking with them a wealth of potentially undiscovered medicines. This is just one more example of why conservation work is so important and I urge that it is taken seriously. Effective conservation is clearly vital to improve the lives of our future generations. It can be concluded that plants have played a huge role in our lives over many generations and continue to help us on a daily basis thus reflecting the importance of conserving them.

Take home message: Next time you take that aspirin in a moment of despair, take a moment to really appreciate the unsung heroes of pharmacy – woody plants. It is a shame that whilst many plants save us, we thank them by cutting them down, destroying biomes and causing extinction.

Post by: Alice Brown



Dian Fossey and the ‘Gorillas in the Mist’

Dian Fossey is one of those rare biologists in that her name and work are known by a vast proportion of the general public. Nearly everybody knows of her work, perhaps by the title of the book she wrote describing her scientific career, “Gorillas in the Mist“.

Dian Fossey. Image provided via CC BY-SA 2.0 by Flickr user mary-lynn. Originally provided by ‘danisolas’

Fossey’s incredible 18-year study of Rwandan mountain gorillas and her conservation work are testament to the passion she had for her work. However, it isn’t just the work for which Fossey is best known that I wanted to draw people’s attention to in this post. Fossey’s early career also featured defining moments that many of us will recognise from our own lives and lessons from which we can learn.

Career Choices

Like many young people, Fossey took a rather meandering route to finding her ideal job. She was encouraged by her stepfather to study business at college but, after one year, she decided to foster her love of animals by switching to a pre-veterinary course. Somewhat surprisingly, given her famous career, Fossey shortly changed courses once more thanks to struggles with her Physics and Chemistry modules. After eventually completing a course in Occupational Therapy, Fossey began a career working with tuberculosis patients and then crippled children.

It wasn’t until she was 31 years old that Dian Fossey discovered her real passion. In 1963 she fulfilled a long-held dream and went travelling around Africa. There she met a pair of wildlife photographers – Joan and Alan Root – in Uganda who were photographing mountain gorillas in the Virunga mountains. It was at this point that she began to transform into the Dian Fossey we are familiar with. The Roots took her with them to watch the gorillas and, when it came time to leave, Fossey had resolved to return and learn more about the species that had so captivated her during her time there.

Many young professionals worry that they don’t know what to do with their lives. I see Fossey’s life as an encouraging reminder that even some of our most celebrated individuals only worked out what they wanted to do at a relatively late age.

Gorillas in the Virunga Mountains. Image provided via CC BY-SA 3.0 by Cai Tjeenk Willink.


During her time in Africa, Dian Fossey met archaeologist and naturalist Louis Leakey, who was funding research into the great apes at the time. When she returned home, Fossey wrote three articles about her time in Africa, which she had published in local newspaper, ‘The Courier-Journal’. Her eagerness to tell the world about this subject that so fascinated her would turn out to be a great aid in achieving her goal.

In 1966, Leakey gave a series of lectures that brought him to Fossey’s home of Louisville. Upon speaking to her again and being impressed by the articles she’d had published, Leakey invited Fossey to lead a long-term field project in Africa to study the gorillas; the only stipulation being that she would have to have her appendix removed first. Fossey willingly went ahead with the operation only the find out that Leakey had just been trying to see how enthusiastic she was about the project!

This goes to show just how much fervour for one’s work can pave the way for even greater success. Had Dian Fossey not spent her free time writing about her trip to Africa and had she not being willing to go ahead with the appendectomy, she might not have been given this life-changing opportunity. Now, I wouldn’t encourage anyone to go around offering up bodily organs in exchange for research grants, but Fossey is a prime example of how pushing yourself that bit further than other people can pay dividends in a big way.

Gorillas in the Mist

Dian Fossey was finally able to begin her studies into the mountain gorillas in early 1967. Based in the Kabara meadow in the Congo, Fossey would venture into the forests to track and observe the gorillas. Through careful study and considerable patience, she identified three distinct social groups of gorillas in the region, which she was able to get close to by mimicking their grooming, grunting and eating habits so they were more accepting of her presence.

When Fossey’s work was disrupted by a civil war in the Congo, she relocated to a national park on the Rwandan side of the mountains in September 1967. There she established the ‘Karisoke Research Centre’, naming the camp after the two volcanoes in-between which it was nestled. This move to Rwanda would eventually inspire Fossey’s famed conservation work as the gorillas in this region were under constant threat from poachers.

Laws prohibiting poaching were rarely enforced in the park, with bribery of conservation staff rife. Given her love of, and fascination with, the gorillas, it is easy to understand how Fossey was affected when she came across areas in which the apes had been slaughtered. Consequently, she financed her own team to destroy poachers’ traps and assisted in several arrests.

Fossey’s efforts protected the gorillas in her study area for a decade, whilst those outside of her protection suffered extensive poaching. Having been able to interact with some of the apes in her area, again by mimicking their actions, Fossey also grew rather attached to them; forming a particularly strong bond with a male she named Digit. Tragically, on New Year’s Eve in 1977, Digit’s group was attacked by poachers and he died protecting the other gorillas. Digit was decapitated and his hands were severed so they could be sold as ashtrays.

The Dian Fossey Gorilla Fund International. Image provided via CC BY-SA 4.0 by ‘azurfrog

In the wake of Digit’s death, Fossey set up the ‘Digit Fund’ to finance anti-poaching patrols. Now renamed in some countries, this fund still works to protect mountain gorillas and operate Fossey’s Karisoke Research Centre. In its formative years, Fossey used the fund to great effect, destroying nearly 1,000 traps in one 4 month period. The fund acts as her legacy since her untimely death in December 1985, when she was found murdered in her mountain   cabin in a case that has never been solved…

Post by: Ian Wilson

One, Two, Tree

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.04.55For centuries trees have defined our landscapes and proved homes for our ancestors. However, when walking through a busy town center or university square, it can be very easy for us to forget that trees even exist. In fact, when trees are acknowledged it’s usually just in terms of what they can do for us i.e providing clean air or a making places look prettier. But, trees are far more than just picturesque garden features, or soldiers against global warming. So, here is a list of little-known tree facts which prove that trees are much more in-tree-guing than we give them credit for.

Mother trees feed their young: One large tree can be connected to many others in a forest via an underground network of fungi associated with their roots. Studies have shown that older, more established, trees can provide young ones with carbon, water and nutrients through this fungal network to aid survival. Rather like a mother passing food through her umbilical cord to her offspring! Without this motherly nurture, many young trees would not survive. Resources can also be assigned depending on which individual needs them most.

Trees leave a will: Just as relatives pass money down the generations, studies have shown that dying trees can also donate their resources to the next generation before they die and collapse.

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.04Trees warn each other about danger: Studies have suggested that trees can communicate via chemical signals which travel through the air. A study from Pretoria University has found that Acacia trees emit warning signals to other trees in the area when they are being attacked. It is suggested that the attacked tree emits ethylene into the air which can travel up to 50 yards. Nearby trees can pick up on this signal, giving them time to produce leaf tannins, which can be lethal to the their biggest predator the antelope.

Trees cry:  It has been shown that trees can make sound when under stress. Zweifel, R and Zeugin, F (2011) carried out a study in Central Valais, Switzerland, which found that trees release Ultrasonic acoustic emissions (UAE) under drought conditions. The study suggested that this may be due to the collapsing water columns in the flow path resulting from high tension, due to drought. Although, these sounds cannot be heard by humans, a thirsty tree could be crying out for water, so go grab a watering can.

Trees look very good for their age: The oldest age documented for a human is 122 years and 164 days. However, one bristlecone pine tree in California’s White Mountains beats this by miles as it is thought to be almost 5,000 years old. So, respect your elders!

Screen Shot 2016-03-20 at 09.05.13So, there you have it, trees are much more than just a pretty picture, or a way out of global warming. They are living beings in their own right and should be respected! We can learn a lot from trees: they show that cries can be silent, that good mothering may involve sacrifice and that teamwork can be crucial to look after one another. The secret to aging slower is still unknown, but if anyone finds out, they’ll make a fortune on beauty products.

So, go hug a tree! – Although avoid the Manchineel tree, found in the Caribbean and Central America, whose sap can cause skin irritation and blistering on contact.

Post by: Alice Brown


A Spinal Emulator for Medical Training

The complexity of the human body requires medical practitioners to have an astute working knowledge of anatomy and physiology. It’s no surprise then, that pursuing a degree in medicine is challenging and costly pursuit!

One of the most enigmatic and challenging regions of the anatomy to diagnose is probably the spine. To diagnose problems with the lumbar (lower region) of the spine, a doctor will lay a patient flat on his/her stomach (to achieve what’s called a lordotic spine shape). The doctor will then use the pisiform (bony region at the bottom of the wrist) to apply pressure to each of the lumbar vertebrae. By feeling how the vertebrae respond, the stiffness and how far they move, an experienced doctor can diagnose problems. In case you can’t visualise that, check out this demonstration.

To become competent at this takes time. In fact in medical circles it’s seen as a skill that takes years of practical experience, rather than something that can be picked up in an three hour workshop… But back problems are becoming pretty commonplace, especially with our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, so this is not a skill that should be in short supply!

But why is it such a difficult skill to acquire?

6dcf55_b9902d2be5924629ba07c2cf267ea78a.jpg_srb_p_410_410_75_22_0.50_1.20_0.00_jpg_srbWell, currently medical students learn to diagnose spinal problems by practising on lifeless, unrealistic plastic models.

That is, pushing down onto plastic vertebrae that don’t move or feel anything like a real spine. Following this medical students will then continue to try it out on each other. But, how can you teach students exactly what, for example, a degenerated disk feels like? Short answer, you can’t learn the realistic feel of it without trying it out on a real patient.

Not only that, how can a professor teach his students how fast or hard to press down on the spine, without knowing exactly how hard or fast a student is applying pressure?

My solution

The crux of this problem is that we’re currently using ‘low tech’ to teach this method. This project involves using some simple, low cost technology to create a spinal emulator, that a student can use to learn this method by simulating both a healthy and an unhealthy spine.

Something like this, which I have designed as an initial prototype…


At the top of this model are five lumbar spine vertebrae, the sacrum and the coccyx. Four of the lumbar vertebrae are mounted on flexible metal bars to provide passive “springiness”. But one of the vertebrae (Lumbar 3) is not. This vertebrae is mounted onto a linear actuator (basically a motor system that can move up and down – it’s the black thing in the design above). Underneath the linear actuator is a load cell, a sensor that can measure force.

So we have a system where one of the vertebrae can be electrically moved, and the pressure applied can be sensed. Hopefully you can see where I’m going with this. We can use some embedded electronics to move the vertebrae up or down, according to the amount of pressure being applied to it. With some control algorithms, we can essentially simulate what a real vertebrae would feel like, by simulating a force-displacement ratio (stiffness ratio). We can go further, and simulate varying stiffness profiles to correspond to specific spine problems. In other words we can, in theory, simulate any spine problem in theory.

Why are we only simulating one vertebrae?

Simple answer: cost. This is just a prototype, our budget is small, so it’s a proof of concept. If it works we’ll be looking to create a fully actuated spinal emulator.

So will it work?

Hopefully. But the real value of the system will be in how well it can simulate the real feel of a human spine. And that depends a lot on the algorithms I use… Seems I’ll need to learn the method before I can even attempt creating software to simulate it – any volunteers?

Guest post by Josh Elijah: @yoshelij

aBs7TWXT_400x400Josh is an electronics engineer with a passion for robotics and control systems. He is currently working on a range of projects at Manchester University before embarking on a PhD.

Citizen science: the power of the crowd

Have you ever thought about being a scientist?  The growing movement of citizen science encourages public volunteers to contribute towards ‘the doing’ of scientific research, all without giving up the day job, undergoing extensive training or putting on a white coat. Topics and activities involved can vary widely, but typically ‘citizen scientists’ get involved in collecting, processing and/or interpreting data in some way, all under the direction of professional scientists or researchers.  For example, you could be asked to record observations about the natural environment, track human or animal behaviours, perform logging or mapping activities, or interpret images and patterns.

Galazy Zoo (a study to investigate the properties and histories of galaxies) is regarded as one of the most well-known and successful citizen science projects.  Launched in 2007, the project started life as a website that invited members of the public to sort images of galaxies into different categories (ellipticals, mergers and spirals).  Stunned by the speed and scale of the initial response (over 70,000 classifications received within 24 hours), the project has continued to attract an army of willing volunteers who perform ever more skilled tasks. Furthermore, they have developed a growing number of online resources to engage schools and the general public in astronomy.  Meanwhile, in Old Weather, volunteers delve into and transcribe the contents of historical logbooks from ships. Transcribing handwritten entries about weather readings taken at sea from thousands of logbooks into a digital (and analysable) format would clearly be a mammoth, and potentially impossible, task; yet, opening it up to the public has made it feasible.

So, citizen science can be a valuable way of both advancing scientific inquiry and engaging the public in science.  The general public can indulge their own interests whilst getting the feel-good factor of knowing they’ve contributed towards science. Basically, it’s a win-win situation.  Or is it?  Cynics may argue that some projects are little more than crowdsourcing, enabling scientists to achieve what would otherwise be too expensive, time consuming or intensive for researchers working alone.  Whilst it’s true that there may be pragmatic reasons for using citizen science approaches, projects can offer opportunities for genuine dialogue and collaboration between scientists and the public.  For example, members of the public with hay fever are now involved in designing #BritainBreathing, a citizen science project aimed at understanding more about seasonal allergies such as hay fever. So far, individuals have been involved in ‘paper prototyping’ workshops, to sketch out the design of a mobile phone app that will capture data about allergy-related symptoms such as sneezing, breathing and wheezing. Hence, the goal is to engage citizens in multiple roles whereby they can act as co-designers and collaborators, and not just as passive sensors.

More than just sensors: as part of #BritainBreathing, workshop attendees try out ‘paper prototyping’ to design a mobile phone app to capture data about hay fever symptoms.
More than just sensors: as part of #BritainBreathing, workshop attendees try out ‘paper prototyping’ to design a mobile phone app to capture data about hay fever symptoms.

Citizen science is not a new concept. Indeed, the first project has been traced back to 1833, when the astronomer Denison Olmsted invited the public to submit first-hand accounts of a spectacular meteor shower. Nonetheless, the term ‘citizen science’ only entered the Oxford English Dictionary In 2014 and it is enjoying a ‘boom period’ at the moment, with an explosion of projects emerging.  Why the sudden popularity, you might ask?  Two factors stand out.  First, advances in information technology and the widespread availability of internet-enabled devices (e.g. smartphones and tablets) have enabled individuals to contribute data online in real-time, on the move, and with minimal effort.  Second, there is growing recognition that the public have a stake in science and that research should be more democratic, shaped by the interests and needs of the people.  Whilst the former is certainly useful in enabling projects, personally it is the latter that most excites me.  Citizens have more opportunities (and power) than ever to shape research to generate the knowledge and solutions we want for our futures.  So go on, indulge your inner scientist. Power to the people.

Guest post by: Lamiece Hassan

Lam headshot 2Lamiece is a health services researcher and public involvement specialist at The University of Manchester.  With a background in psychology, her research has explored topics such as health promotion, mental health in prisons and psychotropic medicines.  Her current work focuses on how we can use digital technologies and health data in trustworthy ways to empower patients and improve health.

Why do mangos taste like pines?

4818759374_29e1e0a716_qHaving grown up in a South Eastern European country, where fruits are abundant and make up probably about half of our diet during the summer, I’m used to many different kinds of fruit. However, a banana was probably the most exotic fruit that I came across until the age of about sixteen.  So, I was pretty intrigued when a couple of months ago a friend of mine bought a mango for us to try. We googled ‘how to eat a mango’, cut it into those cute hedgehogs like they do and tasted it. But, since neither of us had ever tried this fruit before, we didn’t realise that it wasn’t ripe, so the taste was far from nice. Except for the part just around the pit it was like chewing on pine needles. Since then I have learned how to pick more or less ripe mangos and developed quite a taste for them but, I still can’t help noticing a hint of pine in the flavour. Every time this makes me ask myself, what is it that makes two plants that are so different in terms of their habitat and their taxonomic position taste or smell similar?

To get to the bottom of this lets start by looking at how the sense of taste operates and how it is linked to the sense of smell. The flavour of our food is determined by these two senses
combined: try holding your nose whilst eating, you’ll find even familiar foods don’t taste right. Our tongue, the roof, sides and the back of our mouth are covered with taste buds – small receptors sensitive to so called flavorants. The receptors that allow us to detect and recognise odors are somewhat similar to these taste receptors. The two systems rely on chemoreception, which means that the receptors involved are able to capture the chemical compounds that make up a certain smell or taste and transform this information into a nerve impulses in the brain. Information regarding both taste and smell combine in your brain allowing you to enjoy a multi-sensory flavour experience.

4402795295_013a780bbb_zNow back to the mango/pine problem. I decided to start my investigation by finding out what chemicals produce the familiar smell of pine. A quick trip to the nearest pharmacy and a scan through the ingredients of pine-scented essential oils revealed that the main components were: α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene, camphene cadinene with very little variation from one brand to another. These compounds belong to a larger group known as terpenes, or more precisely monoterpenes, which are most commonly, but not exclusively, found in the resin of coniferous trees.

More than thirty different chemicals make up the flavour of mango and, surprisingly enough, α-pinene, β-pinene, limonene, myrcene and camphene are among them. So, five out of six compounds that are found in pine needles are also found in mango pulp.

Due to their strong smell, high viscosity and antiseptic properties, terpenes act as a repellent that drives away herbivores and insects, thus protecting the plant from predation. The native land for mangos is South and South East Asia and, while there are several varieties of pines that grow in the same part of the world, these plants are only distantly related. Pines are gymnosperms – even though they produce seeds, they develop neither a flower nor a fruit. Mangos on the other hand are flowering plants. From an evolutionary point of view they are considered to be more advanced than gymnosperms since they have flowers that facilitate pollination and their seed is protected by a fruit. Flowering plants diverged from gymnosperms more that 200 million years ago. So how did such different plants develop such a similar defense mechanism?

The first thing that pops to mind is convergent evolution. It is very common in nature for different animals which occupy very different habitats and never even come near each other to develop similar adaptations when faced with a similar obstacle. A classic example is the structure of an eye of vertebrates (e.g. mammals) and cephalopods (e.g. octopus): both these groups have independently developed camera eyes astonishingly similar in their structure and way of functioning. Therefore, an efficient system is very likely to develop in parallel across unrelated species.

So, in the case of pines and mangos, terpenes provide not only a reliable defense against predators but also a mind-bending taste anomaly.

Guest Post by: Daria Chirita.

unnamedOriginally from Moldova, I am currently in my second year at university in France, Université Jean Monnet , St Etienne, studying Biology. My scientific interests include Molecular Biology and Genetics, in which I am hoping to pursue a Master’s degree. Other than that I enjoy learning and speaking foreign languages, knitting and cinema.

Don’t be left in the dark: eclipse facts.

A solar eclipse is one of the few astronomical events that actually gets people on mass to look up and think about what happens in the heavens. In this article, I want to indulge your astronomical interests with five interesting eclipse facts alongside a few of my own images of todays eclipse.

1. We can all agree that an eclipse is a pretty rare event, but you may not know that todays eclipse is especially unusual! This is because it occurred on the spring equinox and also reached the North Pole. This is the first time the North Pole has seen the sun for over 6 months; meaning that anyone, or anything, up at the Pole would have had to endure an extra few minutes of darkness because of the eclipse.

2. The movements of celestial objects are amazingly regular and cycles of movement can be predicted long in advance. Solar eclipses, like the one we saw today, are the result of ongoing cycles which repeat every 18 years, these are called Saros cycles. Many Saros cycles run simultaneously and todays eclipse was part of cycle #120. That means that, although the next eclipse in cycle #120 will not occur for another 18 years, similar eclipses will occur as part of other cycles. Therefore, there will be another total eclipse next year, this will be part of another Saros cycle (#130) and will be visible over Indonesia and the Pacific ocean. These cycles do not continue repeating forever actually, after about 1300 years, each Saros cycle stops, and a new one takes its place. Sadly, despite the wealth of Saros cycles running right now, we wont actually see another total eclipse in the UK until 2090.

3. Solar eclipses occur because of an amazing coincidence. The Sun is about 400 times larger than the Moon but the Moon is about 400 times closer. Therefore both appear to have the same size in the sky (about 0.5 degrees of arc, which is approximately the size your thumb when you extend your arm). – As explained perfectly here by Father Ted Crilly.

4. Eventually we will no longer witness any Solar eclipses. This is because the Moon is slowly moving away from the Earth; but why? The Moon exerts a gravitational force on the Earth that ‘deforms’ the oceans. We notice this affect in the form of tides. Over time, this deformation of the oceans exerts a small gravitational force back on the Moon which accelerates it, pushing it away from the Earth whilst also slowing down the Earth’s rotation. Eventually the Moon will be too far from the Earth to fully cover the face of the Sun and the solar eclipse will become history.

5. Solar eclipses allowed physicists to test general relativity. When light travels close to a massive object (such as a galaxy) its huge gravity actually bends the light slightly towards it. When you calculate this bending affect, using old Newtonian physics and newer general relativity, you get different answers. What was needed was a test. In 1919, Sir Arthur Eddington found that if you could measure the position of a star whose light past near the Sun then you could calculate the true light bending affect of the Sun’s gravity. He could only perform this measurement during a solar eclipse because most of the Sun’s glare is blocked out by the passing Moon, meaning that he could observe stars appearing near the Sun. He found that their positions, relative to other night sky objects, changed very slightly when they were influenced by the Sun’s light-bending gravity. Indeed, the amount of bending was found to agree with…you guessed it…general relativity.

Today’s eclipse viewed from Bury Lancashire.

Guest post by: Dr. Daniel Elijah