Venus, Volcanoes & Virtual Clothing
In this week's programme we are going to be sharing some science highlights - sci-lights, if you will - going in depth with some of the latest science news from the past month plus some fascinating science stories. We ask researchers what policies need to be in place to protect biodiversity as we enter a decisive decade for nature and take a look at the species living in the UK which are currently at risk. New research from the week also gives us more clues about if life exists on Venus and we hear how singing lava inside a volcano could help us better predict future eruptions. Plus, with Love Island cladding its contests in second hand clothes, what else is being done to tackle the pollution caused by the fast fashion industry? Maybe worms and virtual outfits are the answer. And finally, we share the incredible story of an unsung heroine of the DNA story, and it’s not Rosalind Franklin…
In this episode
01:09 - Climate change risking these UK species
Climate change risking these UK species
It is lovely to have open spaces where nature can just be - wild flowers and grass growing way above the knees, providing habitats for different species of birds, bugs and bunnies. But around the world, climate change is having a detrimental impact on animals, including ones on our own doorstep. Science communicator Sophie Pavelle recently went on the hunt across the length and breadth of the UK to try to spot some of the species which are most at risk in the UK and recorded her findings in her debut book “Forget me Not”. She told Julia Ravey all about her travels…
Sophie - We start off looking for the marsh fritillary, which is one of Britain's rarest butterflies, and then we head to Wales and we go look for the harbour porpoise and then we head even more north in north Wales and look for sea grass. Then we head back home to Devon and I look for the Britain's rarest bat, which is the grey long eared bat, which is an absolutely amazing animal it's known as the whispering bat because it can basically be invisible and switch off echolocation, which is awesome. And then I take the reader on the longest trip, which is all the way up to Orkney's northernmost aisle called North Ronaldsay, which is probably my favourite place that I went to throughout the whole trip. And then we had all the way back down to Sussex and we go to Knepp wilding estate. I don't know if you've heard of that, this big rewilding project, and we look at dung beetles, so get down and dirty in the soil. We go to a river near me in Devon. So I tried to focus on a few local trips as well to sort of show that there's actually so much on the average doorstep, if you really look for it. And we look for Atlantic salmon, which was amazing. One of my favourites, hopped in a kayak for that one. We head back up to Scotland on the overnight sleeper train to look for the mountain hare in the Cairngorms and that's in February. And then we go to the Peak District and look for the merlin, which is Britain's smallest falcon, which was pretty cool. Finally, we are back on Dartmoor on Devon soil and looking for one of Britain's rare wrist and coolest bumblebees, called the bilberry bumblebee, which is also known as the mountain bee. And I had no idea that we had such a bee, so that was pretty cool as well. So I think what's important is that I realised that nature is nature. Nature doesn't always want to come out to play to please us. And so there was a lot of trying and failing, but then ended up realizing that it's more about the journey and the thrill of the chase, as opposed to actually succeeding and seeing a species, it's more about just immersing yourself and the adventure.
Julia - Yeah. There are a lot of species on that list and many that I haven't come across before. So which of those was the hardest to find, or that it was quite impossible to find.
Sophie - The one that was very difficult and I was a bit annoyed about not seeing it, but actually it makes perfect sense because it is just so incredibly rare was the merlin. So there are about only 30 breeding pairs of the Merlin on the Peak District at the moment, perhaps less. And they're just impossible to find, you know, there really are animals that are on their way out if we don't give them enough attention, if we don't sort of remember to look around us and realise that there's nature disappearing before our eyes.
Julia - How did you get about on this trip? Because obviously the whole book is about we're losing species to climate change, but transport is a huge contributor to climate change. So how did you try and get about, to see all these wonderful species and try and find them? What were your modes of transport?
Sophie - I couldn't really write a book about climate change and have a sort of social commentary on our high carbon lifestyles from the driver's seat of my petrol car, but it was really important to make all the travel as low carbon as possible. So yeah, I mean, I take lots of trains. I take ferries, I cycle as much as I can. I'm a keen cyclist. To see the grey long eared bat I was lucky enough to be able to do quite a beefy hike along the Jurassic coast to go see it on a farm. And then to see the salmon, I try to become a salmon and kayak down an autumnal river with an experienced friend. I was on a shoestring budget and I was able to have these incredible experiences on our doorstep in Britain, hopefully might encourage people that they can do the same.
Julia - These species are at risk. That's the whole premise of the book. What are the things that we can do to help save these species and others that are at risk because of climate change?
Sophie - I mean, a whole host of things. It can be as simple as doing the whole No Mow May as much as you can. So I don't know if you've seen on social media, there's been this great campaign this year that I think has gained a lot more traction than in previous years of people just making a bit less effort in their gardens or in their green spaces or on their window sills in their pots. And just letting nature take hold for a little bit during this most pivotal time of spring, when there's lots of new life and new growth, and that does wonders for insects. And we are in an insect apocalypse basically, where our insect populations are dangerously low and life starts at the bottom of the food chain. I also think zooming out a little bit. It's just so important to keep these conversations going. And I think just normalising the fact that nature is part of us and we are part of nature and conservation and looking after nature is much about changing the human mindset as much as it is actually doing practical things. And then if you zoom out even more, you can then encourage people to hopefully use their power as a voter in this democracy and vote for leaders who are making decisions for nature.
Julia - And what would be your number one tip for someone who wants to go out and experience a little bit of nature in their local area?
Sophie - I would say don't overthink it. I think the best thing is just to throw yourself into it and immerse yourself. And don't worry about whether you're gonna learn anything or whether it's gonna mean something profound to you. I think just give it a go and make it yours.
07:07 - How much land is needed to help biodiversity?
How much land is needed to help biodiversity?
David Williams, University of Leeds, Angela Brennan, University of British Columbia & James Allan, University of Amsterdam
Decision making that will decisively influence the coming decade of biodiversity preservation efforts is on the horizon, and conservationists know it. The 2020 CBD (Convention of Biological Diversity) was placed on hold, like many other events, due to the coronavirus pandemic, so many in the field are awaiting the announcement of its go ahead later this year. As such there has been a recent glut of research published in scientific journals, made up of what you could call big picture global analyses. Scientists are aware their findings could make a real difference at the convention, and with previous targets not being met, such as the 2020 goal of protecting 17% of terrestrial areas which we fell short of by 2%, the very latest research is vital. Harry Lewis pulled together three of the biggest authors from this past week, David Williams, lecturer in Sustainability and the Environment at the University of Leeds, Angela Brennan, Conservation Scientist at the University of British Columbia and James Allan, researcher at the University of Amsterdam’s Institute for Biodiversity and Ecosystem Dynamics, to find out if the new speculated target of protecting 30% of land coverage by 2030 will be enough to safehouse species across the globe…
James - Our analysis shows that 44% of terrestrial area is an absolute minimum, but it doesn't necessarily have to be a protected area. And I think it's really important to make that nuance clear. When we think about how much lands at risk from conversion to human land uses the numbers become much more manageable. We're looking at an area about the size of South Africa spread across the world. You know, that's big, but it's not too big. And so we can target that. We don't need to think about half the planet, you know, 60% of the planet, et cetera...
Harry - Angela.
Angela - These numbers, they don't really address the fragmentation when habitat loss results in discrete patches of habitat and animals can move through non-habit habitat. But the data that we used in our analysis shows that movement declines with increasing pressures. So we really need to mitigate the factors that are limiting or preventing them from moving in those spaces. More than 75% of the land has been modified in some way by humans and more than 90% of the world's protected areas are embedded in that matrix of human dominated land.
Harry - And James, back to your 44% of land that requires some sort of protection. Did you look at the locations that required such protection?
James - Yeah, so we overlaid sort of maps of land use projections for 2030 and 2050 and saw where's at risk. Most of that's in Africa, sadly, which is my home continent, but that's very much the front line of the next decade. And we also tracked this under different development scenarios. So if we followed a more green trajectory in line with meeting Paris agreement 1.5 degree style targets, we actually could have sort of a sevenfold decrease there. So we've got a huge window of opportunity to do something good here. We just need to act quickly.
Harry - Yeah, David.
David - Sorry, just to comment on that as well. That's a fantastic point. So I think it it's really important that we don't just focus on this active protection if you like, putting fences up around things or managing the land in some way, but also think about kind of more passive protection. If we can stop the underlying drivers of habitat loss of deforestation, of all of these pressures, then our whole job just gets so much easier. So looking at the root causes of why we have problems is potentially even more important than actually the protection.
Harry - And again, what are those root causes?
David - James highlights, Africa, as where a lot of things are going to happen in the future. And that's really a combination of massive population growth and quite rapid increases in or projective increases in GDP. And those two things combined mean that we're gonna need to produce a lot more food with really low agricultural yields, very slowly increasing. So you need a big area to produce that food.
Harry - James.
James - Often the people living on the ground in the conservation areas around them are also losing their livelihoods, their land to these bigger, you know, forces of change such as commercial agriculture. And so conservation is a very clear win-win if you partner with them in the right way and empower local people like that.
Harry - All in all with negotiations coming up for the CBD this year, what is it that you want to see? Or what is it that you're hoping to see David?
David - The paper that I had out this week looks at whether the protected areas that we have, basically, whether they're big enough to support populations of target species of mammals in particular. And what we found is that about half of the world's mammals, we don't have big enough protected areas or well connected enough areas to actually support a population that's gonna survive in the long term. So from a protected area point of view, what I would like to see is trying to get a measure of actually keeping populations alive, not just setting land aside.
Harry - James, you got anything to add.
James - I think the targets themselves are shaping up very nicely. And whether you have a number like 25%, 30%, 40%, I don't think that matters. It's big and it's in the right direction. And one of the tragedies of the last 10 years of targets was governments sign this, and then no one does anything until they get near the deadline. And we just don't have time for that anymore. We can't sign an agreement, you know, this year and wait until five years down the track to act, it'll be too late. That's my biggest push.
Harry - Angela
Angela - From a connectivity perspective, I hope that the CBD can go big and take on the issue of connecting ecosystems and protected areas. Currently, I believe they're discussing some global connectivity indicators and there's a few that are on the table. And in our analysis we kind of put forth this indicator that describes how connected protected areas are from the perspective of moving mammals. And that's an aspect of connectivity that hasn't been captured before. In other global indicators.
13:38 - Botanic gardens create nature escape
Botanic gardens create nature escape
Hayley McCulloch, Cambridge University Botanic Garden, & Roz Wade, Museum of Zoology Cambridge
Getting out on your own doorstep and appreciating the nature all around us is an easy way of connecting with our surroundings. Julia Ravey paid a visit to Cambridge University Botanic Garden to see some of the incredible plants they grow and the animals that live there. Plus, she heard all about why these spaces are so important from Hayley McCulloch, head of learning at the botanic Garden, and Roz Wade, learning and engagement co-ordinator from Museum of Zoology...
Roz - I'm Roz Wade. And I work at the Museum of Zoology in Cambridge
Hayley - And I'm Hayley McCulloch. And I'm the head of learning at Cambridge University Botanic garden. Loads of Fox gloves and things in this bed, loads of Fox gloves. So these are the bee boarders. So everything here has been planted specifically to attract bees.
Julia - Wow. So essentially this is like a bees paradise.
Hayley - Yes. So you'll see lots of things that are kind of in the sort of purplely blue end of the spectrum, because that's where bees can see. And so these are the types of flowers that bees are most attracted to.
Julia - And is that any particular type of bee or just all bees in general?
Hayley - The vast majority of bees. Yeah.
Julia - They're not picky.
Hayley - And if you come to the garden, we've got some boards and some ID kits, you can kind of have a go at seeing which different types of bees you can spot in amongst the flowers.
Julia - Is this one of your favourite parts of the garden?
Hayley - It's really hard to answer that question because it changes sort of day to day. But at this time of the year, I think the bee boarders are sort of one of the more beautiful bits of the garden. Yeah.
Julia - And what about you Roz?
Roz - It's just buzzing at the moment. I find it amazing. And just seeing the amount of wildlife that it supports is fantastic. I've already counted at least four different types of bees and I'm not a bee expert at all. So even if I can see that the amount of diversity's fantastic.
Hayley - Planting these kind purplely blue flowers in your garden, leaving areas of your garden to kind of go wild. You'll find you get a lot more native solitary bees and that they're the ones we really want to be protecting.
Roz - Yeah, it's really, that's so much wildlife. I think you don't notice it straight away because it's kind of hidden on purpose, but as soon as you start looking more closely, the more that you see, I just think it's a really special experience and a space like this is just the perfect place to do it.
Julia - Have you found any good mini beasts on your hunts recently?
Roz - Well, this morning we were doing some mini beast hunts with school kids and we did find lots of sort of little crickets and bugs and some beautiful line green spiders. The kids were calling them watermelon spiders because the abdomen had this little fantastic striped pattern on it.
Julia - And of all these plants. I mean there's so many around us now are any of these particularly important? Are any of them like protected species?
Hayley - So because obviously the purpose of the Botanic Garden is research,, conservation education. The first thing I want to say is all of the plants we have in our collection are important, but we do have several examples of things that are endangered. So we're about to go past very shortly on our left the wannabe pine that was actually believed to have been extinct. And so the small collection of them were found in the blue mountains in Australia. The tree didn't know it was supposed to be extinct. So it was growing there quite happily, but it is endangered in the wild. If you come to the garden to try and see it, it's quite a small pine tree, needle shaped leaves, very typical of a pine tree. It's not as impressive as some of our others like the giant redwoods or the black pines that we've got, but it's still worth coming to have a little look at.
Julia - What's that the plant hut?
Hayley - Very soon the shop will open that up and they'll be selling plants from there as well as from our main shop at the main entrance, you know, growing your own little bit of garden.
Julia - Yeah. A little bit of wild. I don't have a garden. I have a balcony at home, but I need to get some plants on there.
Roz - I have a balcony as well, rather than a garden. And as a zoologist, I'm gonna suggest that you put out some bird feeders and a little bit of water. Particularly at the moment it's so hot and sunny, which is unusual for a British summer, but it does mean that the birds and things like that will need some water to drink and you'd be amazed. I get so many species coming to my balcony just by having some sunflower seeds, meal worms, which is not up to everybody's <laugh> but they're fine. The starlings love them. And then some water on my balcony and it's great for the wildlife.
Julia - So we're in a bit of a shady spot. Now take a little bit of refuge from the really hot sun today. Why is it so important that we have these areas marked out for nature?
Hayley - For the local community they're really important. And this is definitely something that has become forefront of everybody's mind with everything that's happened in the last couple of years, having a little bit of green space or in our case, quite a big bit of green space where you can kind of come, it's peaceful, plenty to learn here as well. Actually more than you might imagine more than you might imagine when you first come through the gates, so much to see that you can see from sort of all over the world. So I think from a wellbeing and education point of view, really important we've we've noticed our school groups coming back in force this year and the excitement for them being out in such a big green open space is wonderful to see as well.
Julia - What about in terms of biodiversity and all the different species that live here?
Roz - The Botanic Garden's fantastic, because you do such a great job of leaving areas a bit wild as well as the more manicured places. And there's thousands of species of insect and loads of birds and things like that in this space and having the big areas of water as well. If you have a garden do put in a pond, no matter how small it is, it will support so much wildlife, both in terms of what lives in the water and what needs the water to drink. And there's fantastic areas like that in the garden as well.
20:04 - Fast fashion pollution solutions?
Fast fashion pollution solutions?
Maghan McDowell, Vogue Business & Chris Rinke, University of Queensland
For some people, one of the signs that summer has well and truly arrived is the start of the new series of hit reality TV show Love Island. Another couple of months worth of the usual sun, secrecy and scandal commenced last week, but with an added twist. Instead of being kitted out in clothes from fast fashion brands, this year’s contestants are wearing garments garnered from eBay, meaning that they are all second hand. The show has previously signed brand deals with fashion companies with a pile them high and sell them cheap strategy, which has catastrophic consequences for the environment. As fast fashion brands have shrugged off their Covid slump and begun reaping the rewards from customers with an insatiable desire for new things to wear, environmentalists are extremely concerned about the already massive problem of waste in the fashion industry. James Tytko with this report...
James - Synthetic polymers like nylon, polyester and polystyrene are very durable materials, and that's what makes them so useful in manufacturing cheap clothes. But it also leaves us with a big problem when we are done wearing them. These long polymer chains are difficult to break down and if they end up in landfill, which an entire rubbish truck full of clothes do every second, they degrade extremely slowly. So what can we do about the problem? Well, one option is to try and find a quicker way to degrade the microplastics present in clothes headed for landfill. Research from the University of Queensland in Australia has been observing the ability of the larvae of darkling Beatles, dubbed "super worms", to eat their way through polystyrene, survive on it and even gain weight. I spoke to Dr. Chris Rinke about how studying these tiny creatures can help us to find the solution to the issue of plastic pollution...
Chris R - The way we understand it is that the larvae, known as superworms, eat the polystyrene and mechanically degrades it into smaller particles. Ingests it.
James - By mechanical degradation, do you mean chewing?
Chris R - Yeah. The worm does the chewing, exactly (insect larvae very good mouth parts) and then feeds it to its microbiome, the bacteria in the gut. We were especially interested in those bacteria and we found several encoded enzymes for the degradation of polystyrene and then also for styrene, which is a breakdown product of polystyrene.
James - And now you've observed this going on, what's the potential? What's the long term plan here? Are we going to have maybe massive farms full of worms breaking down polystyrene?
Chris R - We really want to scale that process and what we think actually scales way better is if we focus on the enzymes in the gut. We know of some of them, we know what kind of enzymes we are looking for, we have the sequences, but the next step is we really have to prove in the test tube that those enzymes are degrading the polystyrene, and especially under what conditions they're doing it.
James - So far today, we've been talking about polystyrene and that's what you've been studying with the larvae. Is there potential, do you think for what you're coming to understand here, to be applicable to other plastics? Other thermoplastics? Other polymers? Some of the bigger polluters are materials like polyester and nylon.
Chris R - You mentioned polyester, right? That's a term for a category of synthetic polymers that contain a functional ester group. And there are actually enzymes out there, natural enzymes, that can target this ester group. So even some of the enzymes we found in the polystyrene-degrading super worms, they actually act later in the process and they can attack this ester group.
James - Using naturally occurring enzymes to biodegrade synthetic plastic is certainly a promising field in trying to mitigate the fast fashion waste problem, but it could take some years for an overhaul of the way we treat plastic waste to fully take shape. Instead, what we may be able to do more quickly is change people's habits when it comes to consuming fashion, simply buying fewer items or wearing pre-loved clothes are some of the most obvious ways, but a new branch of the fashion industry, which seeks to keep up with the insatiable demand of fast fashion consumers without harming the planet is developing. I spoke to Maghan McDowell, senior innovation editor at Vogue business magazine...
Maghan - It's a really complex problem to solve, but one that has been really interesting to cover in my career, and in the past three years has been this idea of digital fashion; designing digitally, creating clothes digitally, to actually consumers wearing them, which is kind of unexpected and interesting.
James - And I'm sure there are people who first hear that idea and think who on earth would want to buy a garment or something that they could only wear digitally?
Maghan - I think there actually is quite an audience that spans ages and especially I think in the pandemic, it was quite clear that the number of people who might have seen you wear a cool outfit going to the store or going to a restaurant, is pretty minimal compared to hypothetically the number of people who see you on Instagram or see you on Snapchat. We're starting to think about what is the value of clothing? Does it give you that dopamine hit to wear something really cool on the internet? And I think it does.
James - I suppose this is the potential future where you're going to be scrolling on Instagram or tapping through Snapchat and not knowing anymore whether the clothes people are wearing on the screen are real or not.
Maghan - Yes. Like, I have a number of images of digital fashion on my Instagram where, throughout the pandemic, I posted all these fantastical outfits that I didn't wear physically, but I got to wear them on Instagram. And I think now brands are seeing it, not just as a marketing opportunity, but as a real way of doing business.
James - I get it. And instead of trying to curb people's desire for access to new clothes at more regular intervals, this is a way to keep up with that demand, as you say, to look cool, to stand out, but in a way that isn't harmful for the planet.
Maghan - Yeah. I think that's the premise. And that's the promise beyond just when you look at the consumer uses, there's even potentially more value in the back end before it gets to the consumer standpoint. And I think a big turning point in the industry for me was in late 2019 PVH corp, which owns Tommy Hilfiger, said that by this year, 2022, they aimed to design all of their products digitally, which means when they design, sample, fit on model, send to production, all of this process ideally would happen digitally. That is a huge point of savings, both cost time and just waste. It reduces waste. And you don't even realise that it's not a physical garment that was photographed on a model. And I think that's really interesting.
27:18 - Ivory restrictions bypassed on online shops
Ivory restrictions bypassed on online shops
Victoria Gill, BBC News
Flying under the radar is a bill made in 2018, enforced only earlier this month after it faced harsh opposition. This new UK ivory regulation should help further reduce poaching on elephant species across seas. Here to tell Harry Lewis more is BBC News science correspondent Victoria Gill, who’s been on the hunt to see how easy it is to buy ivory online…
Victoria - The new ivory act was instigated in 2018, but it's finally coming to force on the 6th June 2022. And it essentially means, with very few exceptions, that it's completely illegal to trade in ivory in the UK. So the UK government’s calling it one of the toughest ivory trade bans in the world.
Harry - I remember when I was younger and used to see ivory quite a lot around, particularly my grandparents' house and their friends, but today I hardly ever see it. Is it still a massive issue?
Victoria - That is an interesting question, because actually the threat of poaching is not the major existential threat to elephants now. A bigger problem for elephants is the combined threat of climate change and also a competition for space and resources with people. But as an animal welfare issue, where it is a problem, it's really nasty because these animals are killed and their tusks removed. It can be really brutal. So even in this country, in the UK, decades ago, we might have seen, like you say, in our grandparents' houses, valuable items made of ivory. Beautiful carvings with this creamy colour, this really dense and smooth and very valuable object that is something that's really lessened now. And there's demand in certain parts of the world, particularly in Southeast Asia, Vietnam is a real hotspot still for ivory objects. It's still seen as something of a status symbol, but the demand for it has certainly lessened in Europe and in the US.
Harry - And in the UK, not only are we seeing a decline in demand for that product, but also this stringent amendments come in. So we can, I assume, step back and wipe our hands of this. We've done everything we need to right?
Victoria - New York; the state law toughened up and banned the trade in ivory and people who were tracking those sales saw them move online. So that's a really big concern. And I've been looking at one of the biggest online marketplaces, which is eBay, over the last couple of years and essentially working with these ivory trade experts. We've seen that people are still listing ivory, they're just calling it something else. Now eBay itself instigated a global ban in 2009, so the company says it's been ahead of UK legislation and some of the legislation around the world that's toughening up on the ivory trade. The problem is that signs of these exchanges online suggest that's not been enforced because people are just leaving the word "ivory" off the listing and calling it something else. So back in 2018, when the researchers we were working with started tracking this, they saw out of 600 sales of ivory - that was 600 sales of an item called using one of these code words, they use code words around the term bone, because this stuff looks a lot like bone, right? It's kind of a similar colour, but it's much more valuable, high grade. There's certain clues in the listing that you can see where they list the weight and they describe the colour. You can also see growth lines in a tusk that just aren't evident on any other type of bone. They're very specific to ivory. So out of 600 sales of items that were termed "bovine bone" that these ivory trade experts tracked, 500 of them, they confirmed were ivory. We actually followed that up by buying some of this bovine bone and testing it. And two out of the three items that we bought turned out to be ivory. So there's evidence there that people are flouting a ban that's been in place for a decade. The concern now is whether there will be a continuation of that movement of trade online. If it's not enforced properly, that people will just ignore the national legislation and move to a space like an online space, where that spans international borders and continue to flout those rules.
Harry - It sounds like it's going to be quite difficult to manage in this online space. Is there anything that these organisations can put in place straight away to try and prevent this trade?
Victoria - I guess you can't replace the sort of human resource of having someone check over listings. But when you're looking at a company the size of, say, eBay, that works in as many countries as it does and has as many listings as it has - there were about 1.5 billion listings of items for sale on eBay in 2021, the scale is just enormous. But actually these researchers from the university of Portsmouth have been working on an algorithm that can spot these visual clues that I talked about; these lines that you see in ivory, the specific colour of ivory. eBay's far from the only organisation that can be exploited to advertise illegal wildlife goods. There was a recent report searching through Facebook listings and finding that animals were being advertised for sale as pets. And Meta, their parent company, have also explicitly said that they've banned that and that they've been fighting the wildlife trade and teaming up with organisations to figure out ways past it. But there are automated ways of doing this and what ivory trade experts and conservationists want these companies to do is to put those additional measures in place to recognise the fact that the scale and the international reach gives them a lot of power. And it puts people in contact across national borders - buyers and sellers - that wouldn't necessarily be able to reach each other if it weren't for these platforms. So there is, albeit unintended, a big role for these platforms in this illegal trade.
34:22 - Is there life on Venus?
Is there life on Venus?
Sean Jordan, University of Cambridge
Is there life on Mars? David Bowie and a host of space scientists have asked this question for many, many years. But what about our other neighbouring planet, Venus? Studies of our morning star have led to some strange observations about Venus’ atmosphere, which have led to speculation that maybe life might inhabit the clouds. A study published this week in Nature put this hypothesis to the test, using what we know about digestion and a computer. Sean Jordan, from the University of Cambridge, who conducted this research, first gave Julia Ravey an idea about what it might be like to live on Venus…
Sean - Venus is very, very hot and high pressure at its surface. The atmosphere is made of carbon dioxide. So when we talk about greenhouse gases on earth, like carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, we're talking about hundreds of parts per million. But on Venus, the whole atmosphere is made of CO2. So it's really, really hot. And it's also got this really thick cloud layer that's made of sulphuric acid and this cloud layer acts like an insulating blanket across the whole planet. While the surface is completely uninhabitable, we have conditions in the cloud layer that are suitable for life, as far as we know on Earth, in terms of pressure and temperature.
Julia - And so what are the hypotheses for why there are such high levels of sulfur in Venus' atmosphere?
Sean - Venus is in a regime called a stagnant-lid regime; whilst earth has plate tectonics, which helps to recycle materials from the surface and atmosphere back into the interior, all of these mechanisms for drawing down gases from the atmosphere back into the interior, Venus doesn't have this. So that means that when you have volcanoes releasing gases into the atmosphere, these gases just build up and build up and build up until they become really high pressure.
Julia - And these conditions, as you mentioned before, are potentially life-permitting. If there were to be life up in the clouds of Venus, what would that life be?
Sean - Well, that would be microbial life. Nothing like you or me., not even things like birds flying around, it would just be tiny little microbes and they would be living inside of the cloud droplets. And basically the whole biosphere would have to be in this permanently aerial regime where you have microbial life in the droplets, replicating, metabolising, doing all of its processes that it needs. And then when they fall to the hotter region at the base of the cloud deck, the cloud droplets would evaporate, the microbes would turn into spores and then some proportion of those spores would get uplifted back up to the cloud layer. And it would repeat this cycle.
Julia - If life was in Venus' atmosphere, what would we expect to see in terms of alterations to the gases that are present there?
Sean - It would have to use the chemicals in the atmosphere in order to generate energy via some sort of energy metabolism. And then if that life is sufficiently abundant, it would have to be altering the chemistry of the atmosphere via that energy metabolism, by the loss and gain of different chemicals from the atmosphere. So what we would expect to see is some depletion or some release of gases in the atmosphere that isn't otherwise consistent with an atmosphere without life.
Julia - And are there any models which you can use to test if there is life out there and it's changing the atmosphere in this way?
Sean - There have been energy metabolisms proposed that life on Venus, if it exists, would be able to use based on what we know is in the atmosphere and based on known terrestrial metabolisms that some microbes on earth use. So what we can do is we can test whether life is there and altering the atmosphere via these metabolisms by doing computer simulations, where we couple the metabolism occurring due to a biosphere in the crowd layer with the full atmosphere of Venus. And we can see what effects that biosphere would have on the atmosphere.
Julia - And you've done this. So what did you find?
Sean - We found that the main feature in the sulphur chemistry in the clouds of Venus that currently is not fully explained, where sulfur dioxide is kind of sucked out of the atmosphere in the cloud layer; this is exactly the kind of feature that could potentially be indicative of a biosphere using the suggested metabolisms. And when we ran the models, we found that actually whilst each metabolism that was proposed could, in principle, reproduce the observations of this sulphur dioxide being sucked out of the atmosphere, what it meant was that other species in the atmosphere would then be violating their observational constraints. And so we can rule out the hypothesis that life is responsible for sucking this SO2 out of the atmosphere in the cloud layer.
Julia - Does this mean that there isn't any life on Venus?
Sean - Well, not necessarily. It just means that we can place an upper limit on how much life could potentially be there using the suggested metabolisms before violating the observational constraints. And that upper limit turns out to be quite small. So it's only possible that a relatively small biosphere or low biomas biosphere could be there in the clouds, but you could never rule out the possibility that there's any life there. The other implication is that even if our own Venus in the solar system turns out to not have life in the clouds, if it's possible, even in principle that you could have this kind of life that lives permanently within a cloud layer, then that also has enormous implications on life elsewhere in the universe, because that means that we might be able to find life on planets whose surfaces are too hot to be habitable, but which will also have cloud layers that could be at the right pressures and temperatures.
40:30 - Singing lava helps predict volcanic eruptions
Singing lava helps predict volcanic eruptions
Marie Edmonds, University of Cambridge
Down below the ground, the sound of volcanoes might give us a clue as to if they are about to erupt. New research this month has opened our ears to the bubbling lava beneath the surface, and used this is models to make predictions about volcanic activity. Harry Lewis went to find out more about these studies from volcanologist Marie Edmunds at the University of Cambridge, and they caught up in a location with quite the opposite acoustics to an active volcano…
Marie - We are sitting in the library in the department of earth sciences, surrounded by centuries-old books.
Harry - There's been a couple of really interesting pieces of research in the field. Are there any physical attributes that we can measure to predict when a volcano might erupt?
Marie - There are two papers in particular that have been published in the last month that show our ability to forecast eruptions, I think really nicely. So the first one was published in Science Advances this month, and it's all about the volcano Kīlauea in Hawaii. What they've done is they've managed to develop a really complex model to understand how magma de-gasses, as it comes up to the surface. So magma vesiculates - just like when you pop the cork from a bottle of champagne - all the bubbles start to form in the magma. As the magma comes up towards the surface, all of these big bubbles form and make the magma less dense. Scientists can measure seismic waves coming through the magma and it turns out that this gas really affects the seismic velocity through the magma. And it actually causes these really strange seismic signals called very-long-period events. It turns out that these VLP events, very-long-period events, actually show us when there's a big influx of gas-rich magma at depth, which might mean that an eruption is going to happen, or it might mean that an ongoing eruption is going to slightly intensify for a short time.
Harry - And we've got the clip of this sound - it's been sped up so that we can actually hear it. Take a listen to this. [SOUND] How on earth do you go about getting that recording and accumulating that data?
Marie - Usually networks of seismometer are placed around a volcano and to get really good data, they need to be close to the source and to locate the seismic event, you need a network of them so that you can actually work out how deep the source is and how big it is.
Harry - And is it that we might be able to tell exactly when the volcano might erupt just from this one piece of data?
Marie - Well, that is a really great question because in fact, what it turns out is most useful is if you collect lots of different kinds of data at the same time. So there's the seismic data, but there's also really precise GNSS data, which is global navigation system data, or you might know it as GPS data. That allows scientists to measure very precisely how the ground is moving. So sometimes it inflates like a balloon and other times it deflates. And it turns out that these VLP events often coincide with periods of short-term inflation at the volcano, and essentially is telling us that really gassy magmas coming in at depth and recharging the chamber. There's a second paper published this month and this one's focused on one of the volcanoes in the Galapagos islands. And what they've done is they've created, again, a really sophisticated model to explain how the stress state of the crust, that is the country rocks around the magma chamber, changes in response to magma being pumped into a chamber in the crust. So again, you can use the analogy of a balloon being pumped up and that's causing pressure to build inside the balloon, but it's also stressing the rocks in which the balloon is sitting in. And combining that with very detailed measurements of inflation and deflation on the Earth's surface, they've looked at a particular eruption that happened at Sierra Negra and they were able to forecast it really quite precisely within a few months of the eruption happening. And when they looked all the data in hindsight, of course, they were able to predict it really precisely.
Harry - Is this a particular outlier in the field of volcanoes in general? Or could we do this with every volcano that there is?
Marie - What these two volcanoes have in common, Kīlauea and the Galapagos, they're both magmas that don't have a huge amount of water in or gas. So that means that when magmas sitting in the crust, all of the inflation signal that you see at the surface is caused by magma coming in or out. Now it's a much more complex picture at subduction zone volcanoes; those volcanoes that tend to erupt really explosively with big ash-rich gas columns. To model and forecast those kinds of eruptions, it needs a rather more sophisticated model. But certainly eruptions like Hawaii, Galapagos, Iceland, and even the Canary islands, we saw eruption there recently just before Christmas, these sorts of approaches and models are really powerful.
Harry - One question that sticks in my mind is that throughout history we've been aware of these eruptions, is it really important to be able to predict them still? Because surely nobody's in the close vicinity anymore. Haven't we learned from those previous eruptions?
Marie - Unfortunately not. I mean, many of these really hazardous volcanoes are located in regions of the world where people feel the need to live close to the volcano. And that could be for lots of different reasons. It could be because the ground is more fertile around the volcanoes. It could be that the volcano itself is affecting the water table, which makes it a good thing to live close to them. So unfortunately, eruption forecasting remains really important.
Julia - Thanks to Marie Edmunds for guiding us through that brilliant research. The sound of those very-long-period seismic events were provided by Leif Karlstrom, one of the researchers behind that first publication Marie mentioned, in Science Advances.
46:52 - Crohn's treatment repackaged into pill
Crohn's treatment repackaged into pill
Vipul Yadav, Intract Pharma & Louise Barker, CPI
Crohn’s and Ulcerative colitis - the two main types of inflammatory bowel disease - Infliximab is the first-choice biologic treatment to control the disease. This therapy is usually administered by intravenous infusion, requiring 2 hours in hospital each time, which can be painful, invasive, and cause adverse effects. Now, non-for-profit organisation CPI are working with Intact Pharma to successfully repackage the biologic drug infliximab into a more effective and more convenient oral capsule. Julia Ravey spoke with Dr Vipul Yadav, CEO of Intract Pharma, and Louise Barker from CPI, who lives with Crohn’s herself…
Louise - There's a saying that no two people experience Crohn's or colitis in the same way. In essence, it does affect you on a day-to-day basis. It can affect pain levels, fatigue, and other common symptoms that come through with Crohn's and colitis is bleeding, having things like abscesses, fissure, fistulas, which can be life threatening, because they cause severe infection and the cause damage through the bowel and into other areas of the body as well. You need injections of certain vitamins. There is no cure. So one of the key things is trying to get your body into remission and that's through different techniques through tablets, biologic treatment or surgery.
Julia - What are the current treatment options that you have if you have Crohn's or colitis?
Louise - For myself at the moment, I take an immunosuppressant in addition to a drug called infliximab, which is currently given intravenously in hospital. And I have the two drugs together as a dual therapy, which in essence, when you take the infliximab intravenously, your body can actually build up antibodies to it, which makes it less effective and your body doesn't respond to it. I take immunosuppressants, a drug called azathioprine, which then suppresses my immune system so my immune system doesn't end up actually creating that antibody to it. The idea is that will make it more effective. However, there are consequences of doing that, unfortunately, because what that means is that your body is severely compromised in terms of an immune system.
Julia - It sounds like a complex form of treatment that not only impacts your health in other ways, but also it's potentially quite invasive if you're having to have intravenous treatment. So Vipul, how are we trying to revolutionise this treatment?
Vipul - Our company's focused on developing a pill-based form for these drugs that currently patients like Louise have to go to a hospital and take an infusion for hours. We are trying to develop a pill-based technology that takes that drug out of that injection into a pill that you can take at home. Our technology is designed to release this potent medicine directly at the site of your intestine where the disease is, and it prevents the drug from getting into your circulation, so you don't get all the adverse effects and potentially, your immune system creating antibodies against the drug. We completely prevent that.
Julia - How do you target it to the disease site?
Vipul - It's like a film quoting that you can apply on the outside of a tablet or a capsule and that film quoting will prevent this drug from being released in your stomach and your upper small intestine where you digest food and absorb nutrients. We bypass that entire region with the help of that film coating and that coating only dissolves in your large bowel, where you have the right conditions like the pH and the bugs, and that's where the drug is released and gets taken up.
Julia - Where are we at with this drug?
Vipul - So we are still at the testing stages, but what we as a company have done is partnered with another big company who is already manufacturing this drug in the form of an injection. So we are partnering with them to take that already effective drug as an injection to then apply that into our pill form. So we are currently scaling this technology up and that's where we collaborated with CPI, the consortium who really helped us in optimising the formulation of this capsule and developed the manufacturing processes that will help us to take this product quicker into clinical trials.
Louise - For me personally, I just think this treatment could absolutely be revolutionary for patients like me. The key things for me is the travel to and from hospital to have the IV treatment. And that's quite an invasive process to actually have IV treatment as well. You need dedicated IBD specialist nurses with you when you’re having that treatment. We go for a blood test before we're about to have that as well to make sure that there's no infection in the body. On top of that, as I said earlier, I'm on immunosuppressants, which means that I actually do alter my behaviour because of those immunosuppressants. Going on holiday, for example, I was just explaining that I tend to look for where would the nearest hospital be if I did get an infection, what kind of travel routes I want to take to minimise contact and things like that. You do alter your behaviour with the treatment that you are on. So the thought for me of just being able to have a tablet, which means I don't need immunosuppressants, I don't need to travel into hospital and I can literally just wake up on a morning, go downstairs and take my tablet for me, could actually be life-changing, as corny as that might sound, but it is actually quite a life-changing treatment for people like me
52:22 - Florence Bell: An unsung heroine of DNA
Florence Bell: An unsung heroine of DNA
Kersten Hall, University of Leeds
This is the story of a woman who was pivotal to the discovery of DNA. A name lost to time but is now started to be recognised for her pioneering work. Here to tell her tale is Kersten Hall, a science historian based at the University of Leeds, and Julia Ravey. This tale starts with a physicist called William Astbury, who was the star of Kersten’s 2014 book “The Man in the Monkeynut Coat: William Astbury and How Wool Wove a Forgotten Road to the Double-Helix”. Astbury’s link to the DNA story came about in a somewhat unconventional way…
Kersten - He was using x-rays to try and work out the structure of the fibres in wool. Wool's been at the heart of the Leed's economy, and Astbury had come here in 1928 to use this new method of x-ray scattering to try and work out the molecular structure of wool fibres.
Julia - To do this Asbury wanted to study proteins; chains of amino acids, which form the building blocks and molecular machines powering our cells and everything around us.
Kersten - And what Asbury showed was that some proteins, these chains are folded up into very precise shapes, and that's what allows a protein to do its job. So hemoglobin can bind oxygen, because its molecular necklace, if you like, is folded up into a precise shape. So Astbury's taken these proteins from seeds, and he'd found that with a certain chemical treatment, through like an active molecular origami, you could unravel their protein chains and refold them. And he had this idea that maybe that would provide the ideal substitute for wool in the textile industry.
Julia - This discovery led to the production of Ardil; a material derived from unfolding proteins from peanuts, which could be used as a wool alternative.
Kersten - And that really put him on the map internationally. It established him as the authority in using x-rays to work out the structure of large biological molecules. And so as a result of that, he was sent a sample of some DNA.
Julia - But Asbury didn't work alone on this project.
Kersten - He put his research assistant Florence Bell to work on them. Now for my money, Florence Bell is the unsung heroin of the DNA story.
Julia - If you've heard the DNA story, you'll probably thinking, hang on, that title goes to Rosalind Franklin, the scientist who use x-rays to unravel the structure of DNA, crucial to Watson and Crick's discovery of the double helix. For a long time, Franklin's pivotal role in this finding was neglected. But now we tell her story widely and she's even had a Mars Rover named after her. So regarding an unsung hero now...
Kersten - I think the times come for that mantle to pass to Asbury's research assistant Florence Bell, who 13 years before Rosalind Franklin, so 1938, Bell took the very first x-ray images of the DNA structure
Julia - From this image, Bell and Astbury came up with a model structure for DNA.
Kersten - You know, they got quite a few things wrong about that model, but they also got some important things right
Julia - Like the spaces between the bases which make up the DNA ladder, an observation that provided Watson and Crick with a crucial foothold
Kersten - The most important thing Bell did was she showed that you could use this x-ray method - studying the scattering of x-rays - to reveal the regular ordered structure of DNA. And I think in that way, she very much laid the foundations for the later work of Rosalind Franklin, and of course James Watson and Francis Crick's success.
Julia - So what happened to Florence Bell?
Kersten - Just as the DNA work was picking up momentum, it was brought to an abrupt halt by events in the wider world, because of course the second world war broke out and in 1941, Bell was called up for war service. So she went into the women's auxiliary air force. William Asbury was gutted. He did not want to lose her. He wrote in desperation to the war office pleading saying she is just too valuable, I need her in my lab, but they weren't listening.
Julia - Bell ended up marrying a US serviceman and moved stateside.
Kersten - The trail just goes cold. I mean, she didn't leave much in the way of letters, historical sources anyway, but when she goes to the US, the paper trail just dies out. What we do know is she had quite a senior position as an industrial chemist, at a petroleum company in Texas. And then she gave her career up. She gave it up to look after four children who she adopted.
Julia - So why is it that Bell's story has been lost in time? Maybe in the 1930s, being a woman in science was just too much to comprehend.
Kersten - I came across this newspaper clipping that I think it took me about a good five minutes to recover from laughing after I'd seen it. It was from 1939; so this is a year after Bell's done the work on DNA and Asbury thought really highly of her, he really valued her intellect and her ability. So much so that when the Institute of Physics held this conference in Leeds in 1939, Asbury got Bell to present the work of his lab, and the local newspapers of the day reported on it. The headline that they ran just says, "Woman scientist explains." And there's this implicit sense of shock. Like it sounds as if they think they've just discovered some zoological specimen previously unknown to science, you know, this sense of being stunned.
Julia - Finally though, Bell's story is being told and hopefully she's starting to get the recognition she deserves...
Kersten - But she has got a seminar room named after her, in the new Brag building, which houses the school of physics and astronomy at the university Leeds here. And we just had the official opening of that building this week. So she's got a seminar room, as I say, not a Mars Rover, but it's a start. Baby steps.