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, 29 March 2013

RiAus: Defying the laws of nature. Again.

EXCITING news! I am now a blogger for the Royal Institution of Australia (RiAus). My first post, 'Defying the laws of nature. Again.' is now up, and can be accessed here. As it was my first post, I couldn't resist the temptation to bring in a few old friends: the thylacine and the Tasmanian devil. I am looking forward to the many future opportunities this position with RiAus will offer, and the challenges they set me!

Defying the Laws of Nature. Again. by Simon Bishop for RiAus

Monday, 18 March 2013

Monday Science: Look at his happy, happy face

IN THE beginning, there was the mouse. There was also the nematode worm (Caenorhabditis elegans), the African clawed frog (Xenopus laevis), the fruit fly (Drosophila melanogaster), thale cress (Arabidopsis thaliana) and the zebrafish (Danio rerio), and, to a lesser extent, chickens, rabbits, guinea pigs and daphnia. These were the model organisms of science. Now, it seems, there's a new member of the club.

Say hello to this chap:


Doesn't he look happy? He's an axolotl, a curious species of endangered amphibian that lives only in the lakes around Mexico City — lakes that are being threatened by pollution and competition by invasive species. Fully grown axolotls are neotenic salamanders, 'adults' that are stuck with juvenile features because they never went through metamorphosis. Other species of salamander lose their gills and move on to land as they develop, and the happy-go-lucky, flapping external gill form of the axolotl can be induced to do this by the artificial application of thyroid stimulating hormone, but in its natural environment the axolotl is content to stay in a larval state for the duration of its life. Think of it as a tadpole that has grown its legs, but never becomes a frog.

Axolotls are not a new model in science, but a recent push into research in regeneration and injury repair has seen a flurry of articles and interest in using the threatened amphibian. Because of its perpetual larval state, the axolotl is able to regenerate lost limbs, instead of forming a scar. February was a bumper month for axolotl developmental biology papers, so I picked one, and now I’m going to tell you what it said.

Tuesday, 12 March 2013

Exciting Tasmanian Devil News!

REGULAR readers of this blog will know that I am a big fan of the Tasmanian Devil. It is a black and white ball of fur, underneath which is a marsupial carnivore, one so keen on its food that once it starts eating nothing can distract it, and nothing will be left once it is finished (its blood-curdling squeals of delight are the origin of its name 'devil', when heard by early settlers at night). It is also dying.

This from a previous post of mine:
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 have previously covered the discovery that the low genetic diversity in the species has existed in the population for at least 100 years and how this has implications on how we decide which species to invest conservation efforts on. I also introduced the disease and explained why low genetic diversity in the species could be a blessing or disaster for its survival, and how, biologically speaking, the cancer is utterly remarkable — it is contagious and makes its own myelin, a protein usually seen only in the nervous system, which the immune system never attacks.

I hurry through these details because there is new news. It is covered very nicely here and here by Ed Yong, but I shall cut to the chase:

Monday, 11 March 2013

Monday Science: There Be Dragons, Says Bloke

IT was the news that I had been waiting for for years. ‘Antarctic Lake Vostok yields 'new bacterial life'’ claimed BBC News Online last Thursday. ‘Unclassified Life Found in Antarctic Lake’ claimed RIA Novosti. ‘‘Unclassified and unidentified’ life found in Antarctic lake’ claimed the Telegraph. My eyes widened, and my heart started to beat a little faster.

Russian scientists have been drilling into Lake Vostok, a lake that has been sealed beneath 2.3 miles of permanent Antarctic ice for between 14 and 25 million years, since 1998. What they might find in the waters it contains piqued the interests of scientists around the world, myself included. Imagination ran wild as the possibilities were considered — if anything lived down there (and early tests suggested it might) it relied on an unknown energy source, since no light can penetrate the glacier above, and it would have been geographically isolated from other life forms for so long that it would likely have diverged on to its own evolutionary path. In short, if anything lived down there, it would be unlike anything we have ever seen.

But drilling was slow progress, held back by the triple whammy of isolation (Vostok Station is extremely isolated, even by Antarctic standards), inhospitality (it is the location of the coldest ever recorded temperature on Earth, a frightening -89⁰C) and concerns over contamination of the lake by the drilling process. Researchers got within 50 metres of the lake surface in 2011, and to the lake surface itself in 2012, but were forced to withdraw before analysis could begin as Antarctic winter drew in.

After 15 years of painstakingly slow work, teasing followers hoping for news, it was therefore a disappointment that a team from the United States beat the Russians to the achievement of being first to drill into an Antarctic lake, accessing Lake Whillans, which is covered by a not insubstantial 800 metres of ice. Furthermore, initial water samples showed that Lake Whillans “definitely harbours life”, according to a researcher on the team. A British team also came very close to accessing Lake Ellesworth, 2.1 miles beneath the ice.

Now, finally, samples from Lake Vostok are now on the research vessel Akademik Fyodorov, which will depart Antarctica for Russia in May. On arrival, water and ice samples will be sent to institutes in St Petersburg and Irkutsk for further analysis, estimated to be published later in the year or early 2014. But herein lies a problem: analysis is not yet complete, nor verified, and yet the news has already been broken to the wider world. It is now established: life has been found in Lake Vostok.

Or has it?

Monday, 4 March 2013

Monday Science: Snake Venom is a Natural GPS Tag

Source: badgerbadgerbadger.com, obviously
IT MUST be difficult being a snake.

Everyone thinks you're ugly, frightening or just plain mean. You have no legs. You have to keep yourself warm. Nobody will talk to you at parties.

But perhaps the most difficult thing about being a snake is finding food. Without limbs you can’t catch, trap or use tools. You’re a funny shape, limiting the places where you can hunt. You’re also surprisingly defenceless – no body armour, save scales; and no appendages to use to fight back against reluctant prey while you’ve got your teeth stuck in.

Given such disadvantages, snakes have had to acquire some of the most efficient hunting techniques in nature. In non-venomous snakes, mechanical constriction and jaw-holding are used to great effect, whereas some venomous snakes are eye-wateringly lethal beasties. Sea snakes are some of the worst. I once had a sea snake thrown at me, an experience I am not keen to repeat.

Two tactics are employed by venomous snakes to ensure that lunch is served. First, there are the strike-and-hold behaviours, like that employed by the cobras, clinging on to the prey while the venom takes effect, but this has inherent risks if the prey itself has sharp claws and a propensity to go down with a fight. Then there are the strike-and-release behaviours of the rattlesnakes and vipers, when prey are left to wander off and suffer their final moments alone. This is safer for the snake, but adds a complicating factor: once the venom has done its job, how does the snake find its prey once more, particularly when there may be trails of other suitable, but very much still alive and feisty, prey nearby?