Science Interviews


Sun, 16th Sep 2012

High fat pregnancy diet cancer risk and an in-flight observatory

Sonia de Assiss, Georgetown University
Christopher Taylor, Center for Ecology and Hydrology
Manfred Kayser, Erasmus MC University Medical Centre, Rotterdam
Erick Young, SOFIA

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Photograph of abdomen of a pregnant womanHigh fat pregnancy diet affects three generations’ cancer risk

Eating a high fat diet during pregnancy could increase the risk of breast cancer of mothers, their daughters and even their granddaughters.

Sonia de Assiss and her team at Georgetown University compared two groups of pregnant rats, one fed a high fat diet and the other fed a normal diet.

Three generations of DNA are present in a pregnant mother: her own DNA, the DNA of the daughter in her womb, and the DNA in her daughter’s eggs which are already present in the developing foetus.

The high fat group of mothers showed increased oestrogen levels, which were linked to cancer-causing chemical changes to DNA of all three generations.

This study, published in Nature Communications, will help scientists understand how breast cancers are inherited.

"The important message here is that ancestral exposures, what your parents or grandparents were exposed to, can affect your risk of disease, and in this case, breast cancer."  Sonia de Assiss


New research means weather and climate models need rethink

rainstormRain is more likely to fall over drier ground than wetter ground, a study published in Nature shows.

Christopher Taylor and his team at the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology looked at images from weather satellites around the world to track where storms happen and compared this data with measurements of local soil wetness.

Previously it was thought that the high humidity over wet ground would be more likely to seed storms. But Taylor found that the reverse is true, and the higher temperatures over drier ground is a key factor in creating storms.

This, say the scientists, pours cold water on current weather forecasting and climate prediction models.

"Rather surprisingly, we found that the models do the wrong thing in a sense that they produce rain over wetter soils rather than drier soils.  That’s quite an important problem for the simulation of droughts and also for weather forecasts, and it’s one which I think weather centres really need to start thinking about how they represent that process."  Christopher Taylor


Five genes for facial characteristics

Scientists have found five genes linked to facial appearance.

Manfred Kayser and his colleagues at the Erasmus MC University Medical Centre in Rotterdam used MRI images from thousands of people of European descent to map 48 key facial characteristics.

The genome sequences of over 4,000 people were then combed for genetic hotspots reproducibly associated with these facial landmarks, identifying regions on chromosomes 1, 3, 5 and 10. While three regions had been identified in previous studies, two were entirely new.

Kayser hopes that further work building on this study published in PLOS Genetics will lead to advances in forensic science.

"You could imagine that at some point one will be able to predict facial appearance, facial shape from a DNA sample.  So in other words, you take a DNA sample, you do your genetic analysis, and you come up with a facial image."  Manfred Kayser


Astronomy observatory on the back of a plane

And finally, a Boeing 747 with a difference will be lifting off this November. SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy will be carrying a telescope with a diameter of 2.5m and will fly at 40,000 feet into the stratosphere to view the universe in the infrared.

At this height SOFIA will be free of the cloud layer that blocks infrared light from the ground.

Erick Young is SOFIA’s Science Mission Operations Director.

"We’ll be looking at the cooler things in the universe such as planets, dust clouds, star formation regions, and external galaxies.  They give out most of their radiation in the infra-red and are too cool to give off light at visible wavelengths.  By doing this, we’re able to have a much richer view of the universe."  Erick Young



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