Zoonotic diseases are infections that transfer from animals to people, and include killers such as bubonic plague, malaria, ebola and a whole host of others. Trying to understand how diseases make the leap from animals to humans – so called spillover – and how outbreaks occur is a crucial part of preventing them. But outbreaks are complex and dynamic, with a huge number of factors playing a role: What animal is hosting the disease, the environment in which it lives, the changing climate, human presence and impact on the local area and many other factors. Kate Jones is professor of ecology and biodiversity at University College London, and has been tracking ebola in Africa. Her team has just published a new study that models how and when spillover might happen in the future.
On the lushly forest islands of French Polynesia, there lives a very special snail. Partula are around 100 species of tiny snails who give birth to live young and feed on decomposing plants. Each species is uniquely adapted to a particular ecological niche. But in 1967, the highly edible Giant African Land Snail was introduced to the islands as a source of food. They quickly became pests, and in response, the French Polynesian government then introduced carnivorous Rosy Wolf Snails - aka Euglandina rosea - to quell the spread of the introduced Giant Land snails. Reporter Naomi Clements-Brode picks up the story with scientist Ann Clarke, along with Dave Clarke and Paul Pearce-Kelly at ZSL London Zoo.
Finally this week, malaria is, as best we can account for it, the single greatest killer in human history. The vast majority of malaria is caused by a type of single celled protozoan called Plasmodium falciparum, carried by mosquitos. But according to new research published this week, it started out around fifty thousand years ago not in us, but as a gorilla disease, and in one particularly unlucky gorilla, two simultaneous infections prompted the mutation and rise of the plasmodium parasite that would go on to kill millions. Dr Gavin Wright from the Wellcome Sanger Institute in Hinxton lead the team behind this molecular archaeology.
Extinction Rebellion, UK net zero emissions and climate change; Nobel Prizes
Extinction Rebellion is in the news with its stated aim of civil disobedience and protest, and goal to compel governments around the world to act on the climate crisis. Meanwhile, the UK government this week announced that it was overruling its own Planning Inspectorate, by approving in principle new gas-fired turbines at the Drax power station in North Yorkshire. The Inspectors had advised that the new developments would undermine UK climate policies on carbon emissions. In the UK we are committed to reaching net zero carbon emissions by 2050, in order to comply with our ratification of the Paris agreement, which aims to limit global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees. So what are we to do? Are the government policies and commitments enough, and are we sticking to them? Adam Rutherford discusses these questions with Jim Skea, Professor of Sustainable Energy at Imperial College, London, and co-chair of the Working Group tackling reducing emissions of greenhouse gases, part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
This week has been the annual jamboree and drama of the Nobel Prizes: the announcements of the biggest gongs in science. The Physiology or Medicine Prize went to William Kaelin from Harvard University, Sir Peter Ratcliffe from the Crick Institute in London and Gregg Semenza from Johns Hopkins University for their work on how the body responds to changing oxygen levels. The Physics Prize went to James Peebles of Princeton for cosmological discoveries, and Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz, then at the University of Geneva, for the 1995 discovery of the first exoplanet, 51 Pegasi b. And the Chemistry Prize was awarded for the invention of something that we utterly rely on every day, the lithium battery. The winners are John Goodenough, University of Texas at Austin, Stanley Whittingham, State University of New York, and Akira Yoshino of the Asahi Kasei Corporation in Japan. These awards offer plenty to discuss, so Adam is joined by Lisa Kaltenegger, Director of Carl Sagan Institute & Associate Professor of Astronomy, Andrew Pontzen, Professor of Astrophysics at University College, London, and reporter and presenter Marnie Chesterton, who spent some time with chemistry laureate John Goodenough.
HIV protective gene paper retraction, Imaging ancient Herculaneum scrolls, Bill Bryson's The Body
In November 2018 news broke via YouTube that He Jiankui, then a professor at Southern University of Science and Technology in Shenzhen, China had created the world’s first gene-edited babies from two embryos. The edited gene was CCR5 delta 32 - a gene that conferred protection against HIV. Alongside the public, most of the scientific community were horrified. There was a spate of correspondence, not just on the ethics, but also on the science. One prominent paper was by Rasmus Nielsen and Xinzhu Wei’s of the University of California, Berkeley. They published a study in June 2019 in Nature Medicine that found an increased mortality rate in people with an HIV-preventing gene variant. It was another stick used to beat Jiankiu – had he put a gene in these babies that was not just not helpful, but actually harmful? However it now turns out that the study by Nielsen and Wei has a major flaw. In a series of tweets, Nielsen was notified of an error in the UK Biobank data and his analysis. Sean Harrison at the University of Bristol tried and failed to replicate the result using the UK Biobank data. He posted his findings on Twitter and communicated with Nielsen and Wei who have now requested a retraction. UCL's Helen O'Neill is intimately acquainted with the story and she chats to Adam Rutherford about the role of social media in the scientific process of this saga.
The Herculaneum Library is perhaps the most remarkable collection of texts from the Roman era. Discovered two centuries ago in the villa of Julius Caesar’s father in law, many of the papyrus scrolls bear the writings of the house philosopher, Philodemus. Others are thought to be the works of the philosophers and poets he admired. However, the big drawback is that the villa was buried in the eruption that engulfed Pompeii, and the heat from the volcanic ash turned them all to charcoal. To make life even more difficult, the ink the scribes used was also made of carbon – think black on black. However, now a team from the University of Kentucky are hoping to decipher the texts using X-rays, and have just scanned two complete scrolls, and some fragments at the Diamond Synchrotron in near Oxford.
When renowned author Bill Bryson decided to apply his unique eye for anecdote and trivia to the human body he thought he's start at the head and work down. But as he reveals to Adam, it's a lot more complicated and interconnected than that. His book "The Body - A Guide for Occupants" is an indispensable guide to the inner workings of ourselves.
Producer: Fiona Roberts
Oceans, ice and climate change; Neolithic baby bottles; Caroline Criado-Perez wins RS Book Prize
The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's special report on the oceans and cryosphere makes pretty grim reading on the state of our seas and icy places. Ocean temperatures are rising, permafrost and sea ice are melting, sea levels are rising and marine life is either moving or suffering the effects of temperature changes and acidification. Dr Phil Williamson, research fellow at the University of East Anglia, worked on the report and he explains to Adam Rutherford how the watery and icy parts of the planet connect to the atmosphere and climate.
It's a good job the small, round, spouted clay vessels found in 3000 year old baby graves in Bavaria weren't washed up very well. Crusts of food deposits have shown that these early baby bottles were used to give infants milk from ruminants such as cows, goats and sheep. This discovery, and previous discoveries of even earlier spouted vessels in Europe, indicate that settling down from hunter-gathering to agriculture in prehistoric Iron and Bronze-Age people impacted all ages. Dr Julie Dunne, organic geochemist at the University of Bristol, thinks that this more settled lifestyle with domesticated animals and cereals to supplement a baby's diet, led to earlier weaning and maybe more babies.
Caroline Criado Perez’s ground-breaking gender bias exposé wins the 2019 Royal Society Science Book Prize. 'Invisible Women: Exposing Data Bias in a World Designed for Men' by writer, broadcaster and feminist campaigner Caroline Criado Perez, becomes the 32nd winner of the prestigious Royal Society Insight Investment Science Books Prize. Caroline explains to Adam how a range of case studies, stories and new research highlights ways in which women are ‘forgotten’ on a daily basis. From government policy and medical research to technology, media and workplaces, she exposes the lack of gender-specific data that has unintentionally created a world biased against women
Producer - Fiona Roberts
MOSAiC Arctic super-expedition, Likely extinction of the Bahama nuthatch, Tim Smedley's book on air pollution
On Friday, 20 September, a powerful icebreaker called The Polarstern will set sail from Tromsø, Norway, with the aim of getting stuck into the polar ice. The plan is for the ship to spend the next year drifting past the North Pole, and this should enable scientists to collect unprecedented data on the Arctic. The Polarstern is the ‘mothership’ of a substantial international collaboration called the Multidisciplinary drifting Observatory for the Study of Arctic Climate (or project MOSAiC). Scientists from over seventy research institutions across 19 different countries are involved, and a total of six hundred experts will be aboard throughout the expedition. They plan to construct a ‘research city’ around the vessel with different neighbourhoods, each focused on a particular scientific area including: ecosystem, bio-geo-chemistry, ocean, atmosphere and sea ice. Adam spoke to UCL’s Professor Julienne Stroeve, who will be aboard The Polarstern for two months during the Arctic winter, looking at the depth and density of snow in order to improve our understanding of the Arctic, and enhance our ability to predict effects of global climate change.
The residents of the Bahamas are still struggling to come to terms with the devastation of Hurricane Dorian (which hit 2 weeks ago) and also with the additional impact of Tropical Storm Humberto which reached the islands on Friday night, bringing more heavy rain and more strong winds. But the human population is resilient and they will eventually rebuild and resume their lives on the Caribbean islands. But for the Bahama nuthatch, it’s thought that Dorian was the final straw. The endemic bird, is (or was) one of the rarest birds in the western hemisphere, in fact it was already thought extinct (after the damage wrought by Hurricane Mathew in June 2016) until last year when Professor Diana Bell and her team of conservationists from the University of East Anglia rediscovered it. But now, after the hurricane it is feared lost forever, and it may not be the only irreversible ecological loss for the Bahamas.
Tim Smedley's book 'Cleaning the Air: The Beginning and End of Air Pollution' is shortlisted for the Royal Society's science book prize. Tim tells the full story of air pollution: what it is, which pollutants are harmful, and where they come from. It's scary stuff, but there is good news that air pollution can be avoided and drastically reduced with sensible measures.
Producer - Fiona Roberts