Electric blue waves in San Diego: bioluminescence by Bethan Goodhead

Beautiful displays of light have always captured our attention, from firework displays which welcome the new year, to the Aurora Borealis (The Northern Lights). Of course, the development of the Aurora Borealis is a well-known natural phenomenon, whereby particles from the sun collide with Earth’s atmosphere causing electrons to move at a higher-energy state, when these return to lower-energy they produce light (release a photon). However, another natural formation of light, stemming from biology, is known as bioluminescence.

A typical example of bioluminescence is the firefly on a summer night. The light occurs due to a chemical reaction of oxidising beetle luciferin to form oxyluciferin. There are several reasons why a firefly glows: to act as a deterrent towards predators, to identify the opposite sex and to breed. Many marine organisms also light up, resulting in a glittering seascape. Take the deep sea Angler Fish as an example of this, where they have evolved so that lighted bait hangs in front of their mouths attracting prey to consume.

San Diego has seen rare beautiful displays of electric blue crashing waves which, but what species has caused this spectacle? According to Michael Latz – who is a bioluminescence researcher from The Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego – the bioluminescence is made up of dinoflagellates. By day, due to the colour and concentration of the organisms, they turn the water red, which is commonly known as the “red tide”, but by night the coast turns into a scene from Avatar as the water turns neon blue. The red tide does not only occur in California though, there have been reports of this event occurring all over the world, lasting anywhere between a week to a year.

It is also difficult to predict unless frequent water samples are analysed because in order for a red tide to occur the environment needs four factors. Firstly is the biology, the organism must outcompete other phytoplankton in the area. The second factor is the correct chemistry, the water must have an appropriate temperature, salinity and nutrient availability. Third are the right physical conditions so that the organisms can form a concentration. The fourth component is ecology – the presence or absence of species such as marine algae may encourage a red tide.

Although this display is beautiful to behold, some red tide organisms are toxic to other members of the marine ecosystem which can result in significant losses. These are mostly fish like trout, catfish and pufferfish, but also other species such as sea lions, turtle and manatees have also been affected. An example of a hazardous compound is saxitoxin, which is a neurotoxin with a tendency to affect humans in addition to aquatic life. This is why red tides are usually a sign not to enter the water. However, according to Latz, the species involved in the latest display do not produce dangerous toxins. Additionally, even a nontoxic red tide can be damaging to the environment, in enclosed or shallow waters (as pictured) the bloom can result in the depletion of oxygen, which also can have a big impact on the ecology in the waters.

But why have the dinoflagellates evolved the quirk of bioluminescence? Scientists are not one hundred percent sure of this. A popular theory is that the light startles the organism’s main predator, which are zooplankton, so the light acts as mechanism to protect themselves from being eaten. Nevertheless, this rare spectacle is a sight to behold, even though it has the potential to be harmful to those who dare enter the waters.


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#WCW Kalpana Chawla by Ciara Barrett

As the first Indian woman to go into space, and the holder of many awards and achievements, Kalpana Chawla is this week’s celebrated woman in science.

Born in Karnal, India, she lived in an environment that encouraged hard work and success. She was naturally curious and was known to have an interest in flying from a young age, where her school projects were based on the stars, planets and space. Although education was considered a luxury for girls in India at the time, her mother was liberal and pushed her to go to school along with her sisters. It is known that once during a maths lesson, her teacher explained a “null set” in algebra using the example of the set of “female Indian astronauts” since it was zero. Kalpana raised her hand and said that one day that set may not be empty; no one realised at that time that she would be the one to go and fill the set.

Her father encouraged her to join the Karnal Aviation Club to satisfy her love of flying. Later, she studied aeronautical engineering at Punjab Engineering College, becoming their first female graduate of this degree, before going on to study both an MSc and PhD in aerospace engineering. Her father needed some persuasion to let her study engineering since it was seen as an “inappropriate subject” for girls, but once he saw how passionate she was, he joined the rest of her family in letting her go. There was no accommodation for girls on her degree, so she lived alone in a tiny room, passing her free time by becoming a black-belt in karate, editing the student magazine and being the secretary of the college’s Aero Club and Astro Club. It took even more persuading to allow her to go to the USA for further study so she joined the course a few months after it began, but still graduated with flying colours.

She met her husband Jean-Pierre Harrison at University of Texas, who was a flying instructor, and he taught her to fly a plane. She became a licensed flight instructor and could fly single and multi-engine planes and single engine seaplanes. After graduating, she initially worked for NASA doing research on power-lift computational fluid dynamics and testing of shuttle software. Many of her findings on optimisation of efficient aerodynamic techniques have been documented in journals.

She went even further in her NASA career when she completed a year of training and evaluation in the 15th Group of Astronauts in 1995 at NASA’s Johnson Centre, and was then assigned to the Astronaut EVA/ Robotics and Computer Branches as a crew representative to deal with technical issues and testing of shuttle control software. In 1996 she became a mission specialist and lead the operation of the robotic arm on STS-87, flying in 1997. She finally went to space on the STS-87 Columbia mission which focused on studying the effects of zero gravity and observing the Sun’s atmospheric layers. In 1998 she was assigned to be a crew representative for shuttle and station flight crew equipment serving as lead Astronaut Offices Crew Systems and Habitability.


Her next mission was the 2003 STS-107 Columbia, which had been delayed for 3 years. The flight was dedicated to researching and experimentation in space where she served as a mission specialist again. The crew worked 24 / 7 on this 16-day flight in alternating shifts to conduct a total of 80 experiments successfully. The STS-107 Columbia is better known for its tragic ending, where the shuttle disintegrated on entry into the earth’s atmosphere, 16 minutes before landing was scheduled to happen. This is thought to be down to hot gas from the atmosphere blowing into the wing at high pressure causing it to shred apart. Many people recall watching the shuttle buckle as a “last garbled message was received” before the ship depressurized a minute later at 200,000 ft, killing the crew.

She logged 30 days in space over both missions and after her death, India renamed its first satellite of Met-Sat series, ‘MetSat-1’ to ‘Kalpana-1’ in her honour. Since then, a hospital, a NASA supercomputer, an asteroid and even a hill on Mars have been named after her. She remains a hero to young hard-working Indian girls with a passion for the stars, as well as all women who dream of seeing the earth from above as she did.






#Women Crush Wednesday

Inspired by the work of Jess Wade who added 270 female scientists to Wikipedia within a single year, I am planning a journey of research. Every week of term time, I shall add to a column, titled in true millennial fashion as my #WomanCrushWednesday.

Many of these women have succeeded within a STEM environment favouring the achievements of white men and as a Muslim woman studying biomedical science, I am so motivated by their perseverance and wit. As their names and works are becoming more recognised, I want to share their extraordinary lives.

For instance, did you know that as well as being an accomplished dancer, scholar and doctor, Mae Jemison was the first African American woman to travel in space in 1992? Or that despite early onset rheumatoid arthritis, Dorothy Crowfoot Hodgkin was an active crystallographer for her entire adult life, becoming the first British woman to win a Nobel Prize.

While these women were more successful, there are others like Rosalind Franklin. She produced the evidence of DNA’s helical shape but wasn’t accredited alongside Watson and Crick for the Nobel Prize for this ground-breaking discovery. Or perhaps most heartbreakingly, the film star Hedy Lamarr patented WWII technology that formed the basis of today’s secure WiFi and GPS. Without the legal ability to fight her case, her contribution was unrecognised, arguably contributing to her mental health issues later in life.

These facts merely scratch the surface of the legacies I plan on writing about, so I hope you’ll join me in admiring the women who paved the way for new generations of female scientists. If you have any suggestions or submissions of your own, do email ph7@sheffield.ac.uk.

– Fatima Sheriff

Running around like a headless… Pig? Hundreds of pig brains kept alive after decapitation – Rachel Jones

On March 28th, in a National Institutes of Health meeting on ethics in US neuroscience, Yale Neuroscience Professor Nenad Sestan announced that by experimenting on 100 to 200 brains of decapitated pigs from slaughterhouses, he could keep the organs alive using heaters and pumps to circulate the brains with artificial blood. Billions of cells were discovered to be healthy and capable of working as normal, despite decapitation. This is the first reported success in separating live brains from the bodies of large mammals without using cooling.

Sestan proposed that the brains may be used as models for treatment of diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s disease to inform on therapy for humans, since we need models with large amounts of intact brain to see the full effect of treatments. The research was initially funded to help to produce an atlas of the brain, as the connections of the brain are not yet well understood. 17 neuroscientists and bioethicists, including Sestan, published a Nature article in April 2018 proposing methods that may ensure that human brain tissue harvested using these techniques is not conscious during experimentation (experimenting on live human brain tissue is ethically complex as it is potentially conscious, making testing and termination of samples problematic). Suggestions included producing small amounts of nervous tissue known as organoids lacking capability for consciousness, preserving living human brain tissue removed in surgery and inserting human brain tissue into mice.

The immediate media response to the news was the possibility of using method in human brain transplant to keep the tissue alive between bodies. Since live brain maintenance has only been done in pigs, we cannot assume it can be done in humans, but Sestan claims that the techniques could apply to other organisms. In 1970 a successful head transplant between rhesus monkeys by Robert White produced a recipient that survived for 8 days, yet the method was discarded as connection of the spinal cords was not possible. Italian neurosurgeon Sergio Canavero announced in November 2017 that his colleague Xiaoping Ren had transplanted of the head of one human cadaver to another, as a ‘rehearsal’ for live human head transplant. Canavero and Ren have previously experimented with transplantation of live rat, mouse, dog and primate heads. Canavero and Ren predicted their first attempt at live human head transplant to be in late 2017, yet have now changed their estimate to ‘imminent’. Canavero has also alleged that he knows a method to connect the spinal cords.

However, Canavero and Ren have only managed to do human head transplants on cadavers and live head transplants on animals, so cannot claim that they are capable of performing live human head transplants. Arthur Caplan, head of ethics in the New York University medical school, does not believe that Canavero will ever receive the ethical go-ahead, and suggests that Canavero is conducting research in China as the ethics laws are more relaxed than those of the US and Europe.  Professor Sestan mentions that there is no evidence that the pig brains may regain consciousness if transplanted into another pig and has claimed no intention of using this technology to test brain transplantation. Tests suggested that the brains were not conscious, although this negative result may be due to chemicals used to prevent swelling preventing neuronal signals. Steve Hyman, director of psychiatric research at the Cambridge, Massachusetts Broad Institute has said that brain transplants are “not remotely possible”, as he is critical of the idea that we could treat the brain in the same way that we treat organs that are routinely transplanted.

Professor Sestan has refused to comment on his findings as the research is yet to be published, and he had not wished for the news to become public prior to publishing. This means that we do not know if the research will stand up to the rigorous scrutiny of a journal’s peer review. If the experiments are accepted, however, it seems that we may be conducting research on full pig brains in the future, mapping brain cell connections and testing drugs and therapies for human brains in pig brains. Testing on human brains brings up concerns including consent, the definition of death and ownership of living human brains, but using pig brains to inform us about human disease avoids these issues for the most part, so long as unnecessary suffering is not inflicted upon the animal. As for the use of these pig brains in studying human head transplants, historical experiments show that head transplants are possible in a number of animals, but even if brain transplants to lengthen life in humans becomes possible they will not be an option any time soon, due to a huge range of ethical concerns, a lack of evidence of consciousness and loss of spinal cord connection.

Learning from our ancestors – how early humans worked together to survive a changing climate – Emily Farrell

If Yellowstone was to erupt tomorrow, America might not make it through the night. Yellowstone is a super volcano that erupts roughly every 650,000 years; the last eruption was 640,000 years ago. So while it is not “overdue” for an eruption as some conspiracy theorists may think, there is one on the way. This could spell disaster for the continent. Last time, 1000 cubic km of rock, dust and volcanic ash was blown into the sky, blocking the light from plants, catastrophically polluting the air and massively changing the climate. This spelt disaster for the animals living there at the time and could again if it were to erupt.

But would this mean the end for human kind? Not if we follow in the footsteps of our ancestors.

Around 40,000 years ago, Southern Italy had its own super eruption in the volcanic Phlegraean fields and archaeologists have been studying a site in Liguria to see how we were affected by this. Humans had only been in this area for about 1000 years before this event occurred. It would have changed their climate and possibly other aspects such as the food available and air and water quality.

Researchers believe that this change in climate is what drove the Neanderthals out of this area. Current theories suggest that they were not especially capable of adapting and would not have survived well in a suddenly new environment.

But regardless of how well Neanderthals coped, it seems some humans survived and even flourished in these conditions. It appears that their tactic was to maintain links between groups. The evidence for this is on the Italian site. Tools, ornaments and human remains from an ancient rock shelter were analysed and it was found that some of the flint they were using came from hundreds of kilometres away. Having this network would mean that knowledge of how to cope in different situations and habitats would be shared between the groups. When the climate did change, due to a super-eruption or other conditions, the information on how to survive in an unfamiliar environment would already be available.

We can apply this theory to our communities in modern day. By learning from each other we can share the knowledge of how to cope with changes in our climate. Globalisation has increased our capacity for this, so instead of hundreds of kilometres, we can gain knowledge from our networks across the world. We can learn how to build houses on the water from the Pacific Islands, we can learn how to make the most of a limited water supply from Singapore. Why spend time creating novel solutions when the perfect one may already be in place somewhere else on the globe?

If a super eruption occurs and dramatically changes our climate, or even if we continue to change the climate ourselves, we will need to be able to adapt to make our lives sustainable and to be able to endure the changes. By networking, by sharing our knowledge, we can follow in the lives of our ancestors and survive whatever this world throws at us.

Is sitting too close to the TV really that bad for you? Ciara Barrett

“Watching too much TV will give you square eyes!” Imagine the classic 1960s rectangular box television sat in front of a few brothers and sisters watching their favourite afternoon show so they don’t miss it. Their mum walks in and exclaims this phrase to them in complete vain. Did they all grow up to need glasses?

The phrase originates from similar 1960s models of TVs which were found to emit 100,000 times the safe radiation rate so at that time sitting too close to the TV really was a health hazard but for a completely different reason than expected. The TVs were quickly recalled.

Overall, children are better at focusing on close objects than adults so are more likely to sit close to the TV or hold books near their face, but they should grow out of this, unless, of course, it is underlying short-sightedness.

Staring at a screen <40 cm from your eyes is known as ‘near work’ and most studies show that near work usually doesn’t permanently harm our eyes (although links between near work and short sightedness are being investigated), which is fortunate because of the number of screens we’re surrounded by today. However, it may cause fatigue and eyestrain. Eyestrain is something most people have experienced, see: submitting the final draft of a report you’ve been working on for the last 5 hours and your head, neck and eyes hurt but you need to finish before the 9am deadline. Or: it’s the 7th episode of that show you watch, and the screen is too bright for this time of night, but you need to keep going to find out if she killed her fiancée. If you feel personally attacked by these scenarios, then congratulations, you’ve experienced eyestrain. You probably also know that it can be fixed by a good night’s sleep.

Symptoms of eyestrain are a product of Computer Vision Syndrome. This is when you’re looking at a screen for too long and stop blinking enough which affects tear flow and can in turn cause headaches, dry eyes and difficulty focusing. This isn’t permanent damage and can be amended with taking breaks by concentrating on something else and blinking more often. Some cases have been studied where extensive video game play or TV watching caused damage to the watcher’s retina or cornea, but this is unlikely.

When you see something, light travels through the dome-shaped cornea at the correct angle to hit the retina that interprets the image at the back of the eye. The ciliary muscle bends the cornea to the right angle and, like any muscle, can begin to hurt if you keep it in one position for too long and, combined with squinting from the light, causes the discomfort of eyestrain. This close focusing also stops us blinking as often as we need to so the outer layer on the cornea gets dry causing foggy vision.

As mentioned, none of these symptoms are permanent but are better to be avoided. One possible way of remembering is to use the 20-20-20 rule: after being in front of a screen for 20 minutes, look at an object 20m away for another 20 minutes, which is impractical for your 5am essay endeavours but a good guideline nonetheless. Another useful measure is to get a good night’s sleep (another possibly unachievable suggestion) but will help your eyes and overall health in the long run. If all else fails, try changing the brightness, glare and text size on your screen. However, if you regularly need to sit closer to the screen then it could be a sign of short-sightedness.

The mothers from the 1960s who coined the phrase are going to need a stronger argument than square eyes, it seems, as the effects of sitting close to the TV or watching too much of it really aren’t that bad or permanent. Just don’t forget to blink.

 Further reading:




Why do we procrastinate? Emily Farrell

Everyone procrastinates. No one wants to write that essay, or clean the bathroom. If it’s not food, sex or sleep, your body is just not interested. Sure, in the long run you might need to write that essay, to get that degree, to get that job, to earn money to buy food to survive. But your body doesn’t understand, or care, about that. Your body is a thing made in simpler times. It is built for when survival entailed going off to pick some plants to eat, some reproducing and maybe a bit of sleep afterwards. But modern, western lifestyles are a horrible mismatch for this way of living. Imagine giving a caveman a long, boring, task to do such as moving numbers from one column to another (maybe with sticks, it could take a while to explain the concept of computers). Why should he do it? He gets no food from it. He gets no joy from it. Doing this task does not make him any more attractive to cavewomen who might then want to have his babies. It takes a reasonable amount of energy that is better spent in other labours. So why should he do it? To him, the answer is he shouldn’t. And this is the thought process your brain goes through when faced with a task. While the conscious parts of your brain know the real reason for the task, your ancient parts of the brain, which we share with our ancestors and other animals, do not.

Think about it. How do you procrastinate? Making a snack? (means you won’t starve to death) Taking a nap? (means you won’t be too tired to see the tiger of death headed your way) Talking to friends? (maintaining social bonds which one day might lead to you making tiny replicas of yourself vis someone else’s genitals) Watching cat videos? (evolution can’t explain the internet, but taking joy from something which takes away no resources you may have gained from the other tasks means your body agrees to it).

Cleaning your own room is therapeutic and has actually been shown to improve your mood while doing it and afterwards when you’re in your nice clean room. But when it comes to the gross shared bathroom every uni student has encountered, you put it off for longer. You procrastinate away from it. This is because you gain no real benefit from it. It’s not dirty enough to give you diseases (yet), and you don’t spend enough time in it for it to benefit your mental health. If you can’t see an immediate advantage, you won’t do it.

Procrastination is all about cost and benefit and finding the balance between the two. If the immediate payout does not equal or outweigh the energy expenditure required to perform the task, then the inclination to do it will disappear.

Think about this the next time you put something off and do something else instead. Would what you are putting off benefit a caveman? Would he benefit by doing what you are doing now? But don’t listen to your inner caveman. Listen to your inner modern human who wants that essay done, because they know that you really need to do it. Don’t let them in only at the last second to write it. Go and do something productive! Go!