Penny Thoughts

The Ramblings of a Biology Lover, with a Few Surprises on the Side

Month: July, 2013

Luke Jerram- Glass Microbiology

Luke Jerram increases the microbiological world by 1 million times to show the beauty of the cells and pathogens that can both take away and create life.

Being a biology lover I get rather excited when biology reaches the art world. When I found these sculptures by Luke Jerram I couldn’t wait to share them on here.

Scultpures were made of numerous different pathogenic and non- pathogenic creatures including viruses, bacteria, and apicomplexa, including E. coli, adenovirus, malaria and salmonella. All sculptures are scientifically accurate and have even been used as a teaching tool in the fields of microbiology. The sculptures allow people to see these pathogens as large, 3D entities rather than the coloured, 2D forms most people are used to. This means people can really get a grasp of them as whole orgnisms rather than simply pictures in books.

The reason why these sculptures are so important is that they provide a accurate representation of the (lack of) colour of these pathogens. Unlike what many people may believe, these pathogens are in fact colourless, but due to the tecniques used in microscopy, the pathogens have to be dyed to be observed.

This means that the pictures of these critters that we are accustomed to seeing are false-coloured. Without staining, these pathogens could not be seen and therefore it has to be done. But Luke Jerram’s work has provided the opportunity to see the pathogens as their more transparent selves.

Members of the collection are currently residents at The Museum of Art and Desing (NYC), The National Glass Centre (UK), Pittsburg Glass Museum and Caixa Museum Madrid. If you are lucky enough to get the opportunity to go to one of these exhibitions.. do it!

If you want to find out more about these not-so-micro entities then visit the Luke Jerram Glass Microbiology website here. It is full of lots of information about the exhibitions and beautiful photos of some of Jerram’s work. I’ll share a few more photos here becuase I can’t narrow it down to a couple as they are all too stunning.

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Threatened Species of the Week- Pangolins: One of Conservation’s Hidden Stories

It’s that time again where I reveal the chosen threatened species of the week.. well strictly this week it is 2 species but you’ll forgive me for that I’m sure.

There is a great deal of media coverage surrounding numerous threats to wildlife, including polar bear hunting, the ivory trade and the timber industry. However, these problems are only part of a much larger and concerning set of challenges that the world’s wildlife is facing.

Relatively unknown creatures are being overshadowed by poster-children of conservation campaigns, regardless of the often intense levels of exploitation they face.  With little media coverage and poor public interest, there is almost negligible drive felt by governments and policy makers to take action. This is why I am doing this feature, to increase the awareness of those species under great threat that the majority of us are completely unaware of.

So what is being overlooked? The simple answer is: an awful lot, and this weeks threatened species of the week is the Pangolin. Strictly there are actually 8 species of pangolin, of which 2 are listed as endangered under the IUCN criteria; the Sunda Pangolin and the Chinese Pangolin.

Pangolins were ranked the most illegally trafficked animal in Asia in 2011, yet most people are completely unaware of them, with them receiving little media coverage. Pangolins are related to anteaters and are found across Africa and Asia. They are covered in thick, hard scales made of keratin; the same material that makes up our finger nails and the precious horn of rhinos and tusks of elephants.

Although the pangolins are protected under international law, little success is being seen in the conservation of these docile creatures.

Population numbers are decreasing in all eight species of pangolin, and two species are listed as endangered under the IUCN Redlist criteria. These declines are being driven by the increasing demand for these unique animals’ meat, scales and hide.

The biggest demand for pangolins is coming from Asia. In some Asian cultures the pangolin scales are believed to have unique medicinal properties.

With countries like China becoming increasingly wealthy the demand for these scales is ever increasing. This rapidly rising demand is pushing up prices and tempting more people into the illegal poaching trade.

This increase in poaching popularity is driving the population numbers way down. Pangolins are now so rare that they can be sold for as much as $1000 on the black market.

The co-Chair of the Pangolin Specialist Group, Dan Challender has stated that “…tens of thousands of illegally traded pangolins are seized each year”. This is still likely to be a massive underestimate with a huge number of poached pangolins escaping identification and inclusion in these figures.

As this trade is illegal there is very limited market data available, making appropriate targeting of conservation strategies increasingly difficult

If the situation remains as it is for pangolins and many other species of concern, the future for wildlife does not look bright. Nature interacts in a multitude of ways and it is not just the poster animals that are of importance; everything matters.

Sublime Science: Teaching Kids the Wonders of Science

Looking for an exciting and truly unique kids part experience? Get in touch with Sublime Science! Some great names and institutions have been raving about Sublime Science, including the BBC, ITV, the Telegraph and more.

Having finished my degree at Imperial I came home for some well deserved time off in the sun. After a couple of weeks of stress-free living I could ignore my dwindling bank balance no longer and it was time to start looking for a job.

I had entered these holidays with no intention of getting right into a high-climbing, high-paying job; I really just wanted something to get me by; whether that be in the field of science or not. I had a search about, looking at working in retail, or a bar.. I was open to most things. However, on my search I stumbled across something that appeared to be my perfect job.

This certainly wasn’t what I was expecting, and seemed far too good to be true so I had a look at the details. The job is with an entertainment company called Sublime Science who work to get kids interested and involved in science. The position was as a presenter, which involved going to kids parties, schools, nurseries etc and doing a show full of awesome tricks and experiments.

A week or so later I was told that I had an interview which was amazing news. I went along and after a light drilling of questions I was told that I had the job. I couldn’t believe my luck; I had found the perfect job for me right now, just 3 weeks after leaving university and had successfully got the jobAs I plan on getting into a career in science communication this seemed like the perfect job to start that journey. I also love performance and have worked with kids before so the perks just kept coming. So obviously I quickly filled out the application form and waited to hear any news.

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I got my training schedule in and today I attended my first session. The training basically involves going to see other presenters do their shows and each time taking over the show a little at a time until I run the whole shabang. got my Sublime Science tshirt and was told that my training schedule would be sorted asap. Obviously I was a very happy lady and decided to strut about the house in my new tshirt even if it was just the cat and my mum who were enjoying the show.

As today’s session was my first I simply had to go to a lovely 8 year old boy’s birthday party and enjoy the show! I think I loved it as much as the kids. From slime and sweet making to amazing science tricks and experiments, I almost forgot I was “working”.

The kids absolutely loved it, and so did the parents. I’m so glad something like this exists, getting kids excited about science rather than intimidated or bored.

Hopefully the rest of my training will go well and I’ll soon be running my own show with Sublime Science. If you have kids or work in a school/ nursery etc you must get in contact with Sublime Science and book a party! In a few weeks time it might even be me coming round and making slime.

Threatened Species of the Week- Tasmanian Devils and Transmissible Cancer

Welcome to the very first post in my new feature: Threatened Species of the Week!

Which species will have the honour of being the first threatened species on my list? I was thinking of ways to choose this first species and dabbled with a few ideas. I decided to look into a threatened species that comes with a very interesting story to liven things up a little.

Because of this I decided to go for.. drum roll please.. the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii)! How terribly exciting.. right so let’s give you some facts about this creature and why it is threatened by extinction.

Tasmanian Devils are listed as Endangered by the IUCN Redlist classification which is all explained in a previous post which you should have a look at if you haven’t already. These marsupials are found wild only in Tasmania, an island off the south coast of Australia.

Their numbers have been declining for some time for numerous reasons, however the most devastating culprit is a disease which is rapidly wiping out the isolated populations. This disease is called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) and is a kind of cancer. The cancer is common throughout 60% of the Tasmanian Devils’ natural range and is spreading at a rate of 7-50 km per year.

Studies of these tumours stunned scientists as they realised something very bizarre was going on. If you compare the tumours of people suffering from the same kind of cancer the DNA of the cancerous cells are specific to that individual. Essentially each person’s tumour cell DNA is different.

However, studies of the tumour cells of these Tasmanian Devils found that the DNA was almost identical. Now this makes very little sense as tumour cells are those which have mutated from that individual’s normal healthy cells. So how on Earth can all of these different diseased Tasmanian Devils have the same DNA in the cells of their tumours??

The answer to this question is that the cancer is being directly transmitted from infected individuals to uninfected individuals. But how can this be? Cancers don’t spread from person to person, they occur as a consequence of genetic and environmental factors. So this existing transmissible cancer occurring in Tasmanian Devils is something incredibly intriguing.

Research and observation soon found the key to this unusual transmissible cancer. The temperament of the Tasmanian Devil created by Warner Bros. was based on fact, with real Tasmanian Devils being incredibly aggressive creatures. They regularly fight and this characteristic is the root to why these Devils share the same tumours.

The tumours that form as a result of DFTD form on the face, commonly around the mouth and jaw. When an infected Devil fights and bites their opponent the teeth essentially act as needles, injecting the cancerous cells into the flesh of the other Devil. So these Devils are directly transmitted this cancer to each other.

In the region of Tasmania where most Devils are found, roughly 30% of the total population was lost within the first 3 years after the disease’s arrival, and the adult population declined by 50% each year. From this information it has been predicted that within 10 years of the disease’s arrival, the devils in that region will be extinct.

Already the population has predicted to have declined from 130 000-150 000 individuals in 1987 to 10 000-25 000 in 2007. Estimates of the whole Devil range predict that over 70% of the total population will be lost in less than 10 years.

The tragic thing about this situation is that, although the cause of decline is well understood, very little can be done to prevent it. There is no cure for this cancer and the fighting nature of the devils means that the disease will continue to spread. To make things worse devils are commonly killed by vehicles, dogs and foxes in the region and the low genetic diversity that exists as the population bottlenecks with further threaten the devils in the future.

Efforts are being done to protect the devils and attempt to limit the spread of the disease in the currently unaffected regions. The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program works to research DFTD and maintain the existing population. Devils are being reared in captivity to act as a kind of insurance population as the wild devils continue to decline. The program is also trying to develop resistance to the disease through rearing programs and also are developing a vaccine to treat DFTD, however the use of the vaccine would not be feasible for wild devils.

The situation is not looking good for Tasmanian Devils and in my opinion the wild population will become extinct and the “insurance” devils will attempt to make up for the loss with reintroductions to the wild.

Right.. well I hope you enjoyed the first instalment of Threatened Species of the Week and will be reading again next week!

NEW FEATURE- Threatened Species of the Week

As I generally blog about current biological issues I fancied mixing things up a little and decided I would create a regular feature for my blog. It took me a bit of time to decide what this feature would be, but I decided upon something that interests me and will hopefully interest you readers.

So the plan is that I will be publishing a post each week on a threatened species. This species may be an animal, plant, fungus.. whatever. My main aim is to increase awareness of those threatened species that we rarely hear about.

We are costantly being bombarded with pleas to protect tigers, rhinos, polar bears etc, but these are a mere fraction of the number of species threatened by extinction in our over-polluted and over-populated world.

I will be using the IUCN Redlist to choose threatened species so I’ll give a quick Redlist 101 for those of you unfamiliar with the classification.

So the IUCN Redlist is a list of species that are classified into varying categories depending on how threatened by extinction they are.

So there are 9 categories starting with:
1. Least Concern (LC)
2. Near Threatened (NT)

These two categories do not count as “threatened” and therefore those species classed as LC or NT will not be included in this feature. The following 3 categories describe the varying levels of being threatened by extinction and therefore, species within these 3 categories will be included.
3. Vulnerable (VU)
4. Endangered (EN)
5. Critically Endangered (CR)

There are two categories defining extinct and these are:
6. Extinct in the Wild (EW)
7. Extinct (EX)

Again those species within these categories will not be included as it is unfortunately too late for them.

So I will be looking at those species that fall into the threatened categories of Vulnerable, Endangered and Critically Endangered.

There are 2 other categories as can be seen in the picture, these are Data Deficient (DD) and Not Evaluated (NE). It takes a lot of time and effort to collect enough population data and make an assessment of species and therefore there are an enormous number of species that have not been evaluated or there is not enough data available to accurately categorise. Constant efforts are however in place to get as many species categorised as possible.

So that is all a little dry, but I wanted to make sure we were all clear on the ins and outs of the classification I was using. I look forward to posting my first threatened species very soon!

Greenpeace Activists Reach New Heights as they Climb the Shard

A group of Greenpeace activists are climbing the tallest building in Western Europe today in a protest against oil and gas drilling in the Arctic.

At 4.20am this morning, police were called to the Shard as people reported climbers scaling the side of the building. The team, made up of 6 women, although from varying corners of globe, are all united in the fight against gas and oil drilling in the Arctic.

The protesters main target is Shell, who’s headquarters surround the Shard. Shell have recently announced that they are going ahead with their plans to expand gas and oil drilling in the Arctic. This fragile continent is already dramatically impacted by climate change and therefore there is enormous concern about the direct and indirect impacts that this drilling will have.

Updates on the progress of the climb are being covered by Greenpeace on twitter. Pictures and accounts of the women scaling the sides of the 310m high Shard are regularly being posted alongside pleas for support and plans to contact Shell. These women are clearly skilled climbers if they can keep their twitter up to date while clinging to the side of the glass fortress that is the Shard.

Already over 33 000 people have signed up to show their support for the climbers and their disgust at Shell and numerous other gas and oil companies’ plans. A live broadcast by Greenpeace is also covering the event and getting in contact with scientists, conservationists and Shell.

Shell have acknowledged the event and accept Greenpeace’s opinion, however are showing no sign of changing their plans. A spokesman said that “If responsibly developed, Arctic energy resources can help offset supply constraints and maintain energy security for consumers throughout the world”. The spokesman also claims that Shell do take action to reduce environmental impacts, however no specific examples were given.

A spokesman from the Metropolitan police announced that they are doing all they can to ensure the safety of the protesters, the public and those working in the building. The climbers are currently at 150m; just under half way. All climbers are wearing harnesses and are attached to the building, with a maximum of 6m fall if an accident were to occur.

Once they complete their climb the protesters will be hanging a piece of unknown artwork to emphasise their message.

Everyone please get involved, join the fight, use the hashtag (#iceclimb) and follow the journey of these brave women!

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