Bit of physics…

Ok so I usually post about biology (seeing as that’s what I do at uni) but I found out about a bit of particle physics which seems really interesting so I looked into it a bit more aaand now I’m writing this.

So some British scientists think that they can create matter from just light. The idea for this came originally from two American Scientists called John Wheeler and Gregory Breit. They thought two ‘particles’ of light, called photons, could collide (although this happens very rarely) and create an electron and the antimatter equivalent, namely a positron. Electrons are part of atoms, they make up the peripheries of atoms. This though process was carried out during the production of the first nuclear bomb in 1934. It is a demonstration of Einstein’s famous equation, E=mc^2 (not sure how to do superscirpt :P), otherwise called quantum electrodynamics.

So how does the method actually work? Well, the first stage would be firing electrons at a slab of gold. This produces a beam of high-energy photons. The second stage would be firing a really high-powered laser into a small gold capsule. The last step is a matter of sending the first beam of photons into the gold capsule where the two streams of photons collide with one another.

But whats really exciting is that some British scientists think that they might be able to actually do this within the next year. Some of the labs around the world which think they have the technology to do this are: The Omega laser in New York and the Orion laser in Berkshire, UK.

I personally find this really interesting because it’s such an elegant example of how two things in physics which I personally though almost entirely unrelated can actually be tied to one another quite closely. Everything in science is connected!


Global Warming….. Why does noone seem to be worried D:

It’s been revealed today that The Antarctic ice sheet is dropping in weight by 160 billion tonnes of ice each year. 160 million tonnes seems like an unimaginable number to me, let alone three orders of magnitude higher. It does seem worrying that this is not major news and very few people actually know about this.

The huge loss of ice is most noticeable in the Western ice sheet in Antarctica. Here, there are 6 glaciers, all of which are melting. The cause of this great melt is significantly warmer ocean currents than usual, which are being blown towards Antarctica by stronger winds-something which scientists say is due to climate change.

The melting of the ice is causing global sea levels to rise by 0.43 mm a year, which may not seem a lot now, but we’ve all seen the world maps when the sea levels rise by half a metre or a metre in the media, and it’ll only take 100 or 200 years to reach that stage at this rate.

Antarctica holds 26.5 million cubic kilometres of ice so losing all this frozen water isn’t going to be a problem for the south pole. It’s the coastal towns and cities I’m worried for though.


Ever fancied immortality? Stupid question I know. Well, the jellyfish Turritopsis dohrnii may have the answer we’re looking for.It is one of the only animals that is capable of living indefinitely and its secret lies in a unique biological process known as cell transdifferentiation, which essentially reverts the animal back into an embryo. Don’t be too jealous though, the jellyfish often die early due to predators and disease.

Another similar organism is the hydra, a small freshwater animal which some scientists say could live forever. The method of preventing any ageing here is their production of a “FoxO gene”. Hydras injected with large amounts of this gene produce lots of stem cells, which can specialise into any cell, and aid the ability of a hydra to stop ageing.

Rather interestingly, this gene has also been found to be more prevalent in people who live to over 100 years than those who don’t. However, scientists can’t thoroughly prove this gene is the key to achieving human immortality, since this would require genetic modification, and ethical issues start arising here.

The humble lobster is another very interesting organism. It is said that lobsters’ longevity can be attributed to their continued production of a chemical called telomerase. This repairs any age-induced shortening of their genes, and helps to keep the older lobsters even more fertile than the young.

Many of the animals I have mentioned have not actually been observed to live to very old ages due to disease or predators. The oldest continuously living organism isn’t an animal but probably a colony of quaking aspen trees with one massive underground root system, known as Pando. Thought to be 80,000 years old, Pando is also the heaviest known organism.

The oldest single organism on earth is probably a tree in California that is supposedly 5,063 years old and is somewhat affectionately called Dennis. The oldest terrestrial animal ever known to have lived was a 255 year old Aldebra giant tortoise, called Adweita who died in 2006. To give some perspective, he was born before both the founding of the British museum and the Battle of Trafalgar.

Perhaps a more philosophical approach to immortality is the theory of biocentrism. The theory goes that life is at the centre of existence and reality, and it is life that creates the universe, not the universe that creates life. In other words, space, time and death are simply thoughts in our mind which we are taught and believe, but our lives are continuous.

It is possible that there are infinite universes, meaning that all possibilities are happening at once at this point in time. Thus when we die in one universe, we are born again and carry on living in another, and we carry on living in another. A respected scientist, Professor Robert Lanza, put forward this idea and has used quantum physics to provide evidence for it.

An experiment called the double slit shows that when a particle is fired toward a multi-slit barrier, and it is being watched by scientists, the particle only passes through a single slit. Whereas, when it is not watched, the particle passes through two slits at the same time.

Lanza suggests that this observation imposes reality onto the particle; we see it as only passing through one slit, much like we perceive ourselves as existing in one life. However, the particle is clearly capable of existing in two slits; could the same be applied to our view of ourselves?

This is all very interesting, but what can we do now to lengthen our mortal lives? One study found that taking a 30 minute walk three times a week can add 10 years to your life. Another found that being optimistic is the key, since stress provokes a damaging physiological response. A study from Yale University showed that people with a more positive view of ageing lived, on average, seven and a half years longer than those with negative views.

The data still showed this significant pattern even when factors such as age, gender and health were taken into account. Similarly, people who do volunteer work and help others tend to live longer, statistically speaking. In the end, just remember that the average age of nearly everyone’s body cells is just seven to ten years and only a very few cells remain throughout life. You’re younger than you think, but sadly no closer to being immortal.

Manny and Sid Reunion?

Many tens of thousands of years ago, the tundra landscape of Northern Eurasia and America was significantly different. It was part of a high pressure system, giving a more temperate climate, leading to a greater biodiversity than the present day. The picture would typically be of herds of woolly rhinoceroses, bison and wild horses grazing on shrubs and herbaceous plants. However, the dominant animal here was the massive woolly mammoth. These impressive mammals grew up to 3.4 metres tall and weighed in at perhaps as much as 6 tonnes. The most striking feature of these animals was their huge tusks, some as long as 4.2 metres.

The reason these animals hold the public imagination (more so than other remarkable creatures, such as the giant sloth) is that many specimens have been immaculately preserved in ice. This is also why the mammoth is one of only two extinct organisms to have had its DNA sequenced (the other being Neanderthals). This sequencing has opened many intriguing possibilities.

Firstly, the DNA of the mammoth had to be extracted. This stage was done using 20 balls of hair found frozen in Siberian permafrost. The hair was more advantageous to use than bones for two reasons: less contamination because the keratin (the protein found in hair and nails) protected the DNA, and the DNA was more easily removed.

Next the DNA was sequenced. Essentially DNA is the genetic code for all organisms. It consists of ‘bases’, of which there are four, called A, T, C and G. Previously, mammoth DNA had only been sequenced from the mitochondria in the cell (only 13 of the 20,000 genes are here). However this experiment studied the nuclear DNA, which codes for the actual physical characteristics of the mammoth. The research was carried out by biologists at Penn State University.

The results of the experiment yielded many interesting observations. The first was that the mammoth population split into two different sub-populations around 2 million years ago. One of these populations went extinct 45,000 years ago, whereas the other about 10,000 years ago. The data also showed that mammoths had a low genetic diversity, which meant that they were much more susceptible to a particular disease, which is a possible cause of extinction. Perhaps we owe the cavemen a sincere apology for blaming them?

The question most will now be asking themselves is evident: using this data, is there the possibility of bringing the mammoth back to life? The answer, in short, is yes, but there are obvious stumbling blocks. There are two feasible methods which would allow for the recreation of the species.

One method would involve taking an elephant egg cell, removing the genetic material and replacing it with the nucleus from mammoth tissue. This fertilised egg (or zygote) would then be inserted back into a female elephant, and the calf would be a clone of the mammoth whose DNA was used. This method is virtually identical to that used to create Dolly the sheep in 1996. The method is known to work, since it was employed in 2011 when the first ever extinct animal, the Pyrenean Ibex, was brought ‘back to life’. However, the new-born kid (baby goat) only survived for seven minutes after birth due to lung defects. This is a reminder of the difficulties faced in cloning complex animals. It took 277 attempts to make Dolly.

The second method would involve the artificial insemination of an elephant egg cell with the sperm cell from a frozen mammoth. The offspring would be a hybrid of an elephant and a mammoth (perhaps a mammophant?!) but after successive cross-breeding of the hybrids, an almost pure mammoth would result. A problem with this method is that sperm cells of living mammals are potent for 15 years at most after deep-freezing.

Despite the difficulties, a team of Japanese, Russian and U.S scientists have aimed to create a mammoth within 6 years, using the first method (using the information from the DNA sequencing). Questions have been raised as to how ethical the result would be: mammoth were very sociable animals and may not be happy without a herd. Secondly, the mammoth’s habitat is much colder now (unfortunately for 20th Century Fox, Manny and Sid from the Ice Age films may never have seen snow). Some people have, therefore, argued that it would be a better use of money to protect the endangered elephants of Africa.

To conclude, the idea of recreating the mammoth is fraught with ethical and technical difficulties, but may provide one of the most testing yet satisfying challenges in modern biology. I suppose in the end, all we really know is that if you cross-bred a mammoth with a kangaroo, you would end up with huge holes in the ice (!)

Uneducated Genius’s

Was thinking, and I thought why is it that so many people that have made HUGE discoveries in biology don’t have any formal training in the subject?? 

A few examples I can think of are:

  • Charles Darwin (studied divinity at university)
  • Gregor Mendel (was an abbot at a monastery in the Czech Republic)
  • Alfred Russel Wallace (was too poor to afford an education)
  • Carl Linnaeus (who came up with many of his classification ideas from his expedition)

I suppose it goes to show you only need a brain to succeed, and you shouldn’t mix intelligence with education 😉

“The culling of…

“The culling of badgers is absolutely obscene. The largest ever study found that it would make things things worse not better, yet they still push ahead towards the meaningless destruction of our wildlife”

Wendy Turner Webster said this AND SHE IS NEVER WRONG.

I don’t know if the badger cull is a good or bad thing HELP

Variation in biology

Just a quick post on my thoughts about evolution by natural selection……

I think evolution is an incredibly amazing idea courtesy of Charles Darwin and Alfred Russel Wallace, and makes our lives so incredibly fulfilled through the knowledge of how we got here.

My one confusion is how the variation occurs. I think it is kind of a paradox how one species, say a platypus, would always give birth to the same species, i.e. another platypus, and so then this species would give birth to another and another and another and so on. In this way an evolutionary chain is set up whereby all the generations should be the same species, but they aren’t, obviously since we have so many life forms from a single cell billions of years ago.

I find it hard to understand this, but I suppose if you think of it as gradual changes over a huge period of time, then the ‘species’ will change so much from its ancestors that it could not longer interbreed with them to create fertile offspring, if they were both alive at the same time.

Feel free to write your own comments about evolution, I would be very interested 🙂