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This blog is currently on hiatus owing to work commitments. Whilst I still keep an eye on the goings on at RiAus, and contribute to the work of the good folks at eLife, little will be added to this blog for the foreseeable future. Simon Says remains open for business, albeit at a reduced capacity. Thanks for stopping by, and I hope the archive of content found here will prove to be of interest.

Friday, 19 August 2011

Twenty years ago

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"Your commanders have ordered you to storm the White House and to arrest me. But I as the elected President of Russia give you the order to turn your tanks and not to fight against your own people."

Wednesday, 3 August 2011

Of least concern, yet not

NOW then, let’s get back into this science writing lark with a topic familiar to this blog.


To recap, the Tasmanian devil (Sarcophilus harrisii) is a species in serious trouble. In a phenomenon almost unique to science, the already small population is suffering from a transmissible form of cancer called Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD), with over 70% of the population infected. It is almost completely lethal, causing swelling in the mouth and face, leading to suffocation and starvation. 80% of the population has been wiped out since its discovery in 1996, and it is predicted that the species could be extinct within 25-35 years.

I care deeply about this for a number of reasons. First, I think that they are beautiful animals. Biologically they are important, propping up a fragile ecosystem in the self-contained, isolated biome that is the island of Tasmania, which I desperately wish to revisit. Scientifically, too, they are fascinating, being the largest remaining carnivorous marsupial on Earth. For this reason, they are also of great significance for conservation. Finally, they are important for historic reasons. In living memory, Tasmania was once home to a larger carnivorous marsupial, the thylacine, which was hunted to the brink of extinction. The last of its kind died of neglect in Beaumaris Zoo, Hobart, in 1936. Tasmania does not need the legacy of allowing another of its unique creatures to die out at our hands.

The plight of the Tasmanian devil is so unique and critical that the slightest development in the search to unravel the cause and cure of the cancer automatically generates headlines. A recent paper by Miller et al. led to a flurry of newspaper and magazine articles, and a well put editorial from New Scientist, and I’d like to comment, briefly, on the paper and its implications.