Nature News work placement

I’m halfway through a 3 week internship with the Nature News team and am absolutely loving it! I’ve been attending meetings, going to media briefings and writing. Here are links to my articles on the Nature site so far:

News piece: “All eyes on the potato genome

Blog pieces:

Did anyone see the Horn of Africa drought coming?

Some cellulases like it hot

Academics and insurers team up to tackle tsunami risk

Swine flu vaccine and Gullain-Barre syndrome not linked

Don’t call me Polly- Parrots have individual ‘names’ in the wild

Upward trend continues for UK animals in research

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The Big Bang Science Fair

Thea modelling our beautiful "I love biology" T-shirts!

Yesterday I helped out on the Society of Biology’s stand at the Big Bang Fair at London’s ICC ExCeL. The fair is the biggest of its kind, designed to inspire young people about science and engineering. I spent the day talking to children aged 6 to 18 about studying biology, possible careers and just generally trying to demonstrate what biology is all about. It was great to see kids so enthusiastic about biology and we had a wall entitled “I like biology because…” where they could post up why they think it’s great. There were some interesting answers, ranging from the witty, “I love my designer genes,” to the classic, “I love dogs/cats/dolphins.” “I love blood” was a slightly concerning response- aspiring vampires seemed to be among the budding scientists and engineers. I blame the Twilight movies!

Yesterday marked the start of National Science and Engineering week, for more information check out the website here.

The Society of Biology stand

One of the amazing flying penguins!

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“Bitch gave me cancer”: The curious ‘tail’ of a contagious canine cancer

Image copyright Fotolia

What do you get when you cross an STD with cancer? Probably the worst disease imaginable, or so you would think; but such an infection does actually exist in dogs.

Rather ominously called Canine Transmissible Venereal Tumour (CTVT), the disease is not actually as bad as you might expect; CTVT is rarely fatal and most dogs recover without the need for treatment. It is one of a few examples of a cancer that is directly transmissible by contact; another is Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD). DFTD affects Tasmanian devils and is a somewhat more devastating disease responsible for their endangered species status.

CTVT was brought to my attention through writing an article for Imperial’s student newspaper, Felix, last week. Imperial College researchers have just published a study in the journal Science demonstrating that the contagious cells survive by exhibiting a behaviour never before seen in nature. They “steal” genes from the cells of their canine host by adopting their mitochondria. Mitochondria are often described as “powerhouses” of the cell due to their role in generating energy.

Having been taught throughout my education in biology that mitochondria can only be transmitted through maternal inheritance, this came as quite a shock, and I wanted to know a bit more about this strange cancer.

Fortunately there are no cases of these sorts of directly transmissible cancers in humans…thank goodness! The closest we have is the Human Papillomavirus, which causes genital warts and can cause cervical cancer – though in this case it is the virus that is transmissible and not the cancer itself. A few cases have been recorded of cancer being transmitted from mother to foetus and via organ transplants but these are all very different from a cancer cell that is itself infectious.

Despite being so different from cancers usually found in humans, studies into CTVT are still likely to prove important for human health. According to Dr Clare Rebbeck, one of the authors of the paper recently published in Science “[the research] opens up the potential for treatments in diseases relating to defective mitochondria”. It remains to be seen whether normal cancers also transfer mitochondria, in which case investigations into CTVT could provide insight into tumor growth in general. It is also unknown exactly how this transfer happens but Dr Rebbeck says, “our work reports yet another interesting feature of CTVT and shows just how adaptable and highly evolved these cells are.”

Therefore, although we can breath a huge sigh of relief that humans are not plagued by such a pathogen, research into the doggy disease should not be overlooked. Aside from being fascinating in their own right, these unusual cells could help improve our biological understanding of more conventional cancers.

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I believe in fairies

Before you begin to think I’ve completely lost it, let me explain. A far cry from the magical, mischievous creatures of folklore, the Fairyfly is actually a type of parasitic wasp. Although they might not have much success against Tinkerbell in a beauty contest they are fascinating insects with a life cycle more akin to a horror film than a fairy tale…

Fairyflies are a family of parasitoid wasps which include the smallest known species of insects; and they really are ridiculously small, ranging from a mere 0.2mm in length to a maximum just under 2mm. Whilst working as a research assistant at the Natural History Museum, Mymarids were by far my favourite parasitoids to work with because, despite the difficulties associated with their size, they are unbelievably striking. They look very unlike the other members of the Chalicidoids, the group of parasitic wasps to which they belong, as they have narrow fringed wings, which are thought to help them effectively “swim” through the air.

Fairyflies are probably one of the nicer characters found among the parasitoid wasps as they only parasitise the eggs of their hosts. Other, more gruesome relatives of the fairies have a life cycle that has been likened to the film Alien. The famous, disturbing sequence of cinema picturing the emergence of an alien being out of a human chest is a terrifying reality in the insect world.

Parasitoids feed and develop during their larval stage in the body of their insect host: literally consuming them from the inside out and inevitably resulting in the death of the host. The fully-grown insect parasitoid then emerges from its host ready to face the seemingly impossible task of tracking down a new victim in which to lay its own eggs. These parasitoids that develop inside the body of their host are called endoparasitoids, however there are various other types.

This paints a rather sinister picture of these insects but luckily for us they are blessed with a dual personality. As a result of their proficiency as insect-hunters they are employed in agriculture as an effective method of bio-control. They are often very particular about the species they select and so can be used to track down and kill pests without affecting non-target insects. Fairyflies have been successfully used for this purpose on a number of occasions, the best example being Anaphes nitens, which has been applied across southern Europe, South Africa, New Zealand and South America. This particular parasitoid species is recruited to protect eucalyptus plants, cultivated for paper production, from weevils; perhaps acting more like guardian angels rather than fairies for these trees.

Therefore not only are parasitoids a fascinating product of evolution, so bizarre as to warrant Hollywood fame, they are also pest-busters of little acclaim, carrying out an environmentally friendly crop protection service.

Image from: http://www.nhm.ac.uk/research-curation/research/projects/chalcidoids/mymaridae.html

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Friendly gut bacteria improve sex life

one sexy looking medfly...

Sorry to disappoint guys, but this currently only apply to flies; imagine if all it took to spruce things up a bit was a daily Yakult… Perhaps they wouldn’t have to spend so much on advertising…

Anyway, you’ve probably never wondered how to make a fly sexy but some researchers in Jerusalem have discovered that good old microflora improves sexual performance in fruit flies. Don’t worry there is actually, believe it or not, a practical application for this knowledge.

Sterile Insect Technique (SIT) is an established method of controlling pest insect populations. It involves raising millions of sterile male insects in a lab and releasing them into the environment. In theory this works because they compete with the wild, fertile males for the ladies. However, it turns out that when it came to Mediterranean Fruit-fly populations, the sterile males just weren’t cutting it.

This recently published study found that the sterilisation process disrupted the natural bacteria in the flies’ guts and consequently, by restoring the original composition via a special diet of bacteria, they could improve their sexual success. It has now become clear that insects have complex relationships with bacteria which influences a range of aspects of their lives; they can help protect against disease, enhance social interactions and even help them live longer. It remains a mystery exactly how these bacteria help attract a mate; there’s still plenty of room for speculation.

Turns out those good bacteria are important in more than one respect… if you’re a fly, that is.

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