In the northern hemisphere, today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day of the year.

The Solstice normally falls on either the 21st or the 22nd, the date changing based on the exact position of the north pole in relation to the sun. This is the same reason why we have leap years – our calendar year doesn’t match up with the solar year, and so we have to add a day on every four years in order to recalibrate our calendars with our position in space. This year, 2015, the point at which the north pole is furthest from the sun falls on the 22nd December. Continue reading “Solstice”

Parasitoid wasps and GM butterflies

A parasitoid wasp parasitising a caterpillar
A parasitoid wasp parasitising a caterpillar. USDA photo by Scott Bauer

Foreign pieces of DNA are found in the genomes of many animals – these ‘Genomic parasites‘ are pure, genome hopping pieces of DNA code which embed their lifecycle within the DNA in our own cells. You could call this genomic parasitisation a form of genetic modification, just as scientists in labs the world over use simple molecular biology techniques to insert useful genes into genomes to better understand biological processes. However, most of the time, genomic parasites like transposons have no function in their hosts and simply hitch along for the ride, reproducing as the host reproduces. This doesn’t fit our usual understanding of the meaning of genetic modification, which involves humans and active manipulation of the genome, in most cases to improve it.

However, a recent piece of research shows another form of natural genetic modification which also doesn’t involve humans – and this form does affect the life of the host and can confer some advantage. Continue reading “Parasitoid wasps and GM butterflies”

Circadian clocks in the great outdoors

We’re all aware of our natural body clock pattern: some people are early birds, some people are night owls, a phenomenon known as your chronotype. You can override this with alarm clocks and coffee, which is especially important for shift workers. But have you ever noticed your chronotype shift when you go on holiday, especially when you holiday in the great outdoors?

Researchers from the University of Colorado wondered exactly that and described in 2013 interesting findings on the influence of natural and artificial light on human circadian clocks. Continue reading “Circadian clocks in the great outdoors”

Why does Mozambique have a picture of a coelacanth on one of its coins?

Like the currency of many African countries, the notes and coins of Mozambique feature images of some of the majestic animals of Africa: the elephant, the rhino, the lion. But one Mozambican coin features a rather more obscure animal, the coelacanth.

A Mozambican 2 Meticais coin
A Mozambican 2 Meticais coin
CC-BY-SA 4.0 Andrew Beale

Continue reading “Why does Mozambique have a picture of a coelacanth on one of its coins?”

Science in Africa with TReND, AuthorAID and a few connections

Just over a year and a few months ago I moved to a small town in the northern provinces of Mozambique to support my wife in her work in community development and water and sanitation. I went with a willingness to help out where I could, but with no real background in development, what was there to do for a research scientist in rural Africa?

African animals on a research paper (can you make out the title?)
African animals on a research paper (can you make out the title?)

Continue reading “Science in Africa with TReND, AuthorAID and a few connections”

Surprised by the UK election results? What happened?

The UK General Election result in May surprised me; I did not expect a Conservative majority, nor did I expect UKIP to get so many votes. But why was I surprised?

Maggie Simpson and the exit poll map of the UK (real result had a bit more Plaid Cymru)
Left: Maggie Simpson. Right: the exit poll map of the UK.
(final result had a bit more Plaid Cymru)

Being in Mozambique, most of my UK news comes through the few news websites I visit (BBC News and The Guardian), Twitter and Facebook. In the lead up to the election, nearly all of these sources told me to expect a multi-party coalition, a form of government that we haven’t had for many years, and perhaps a farewell to the usefulness of first-past-the-post in the 21st century. I became convinced; the more I read, the more I expected this result. From the fallout and vocal complaints made by many left-leaning people, it seems like they too expected this result, and the Conservative majority shocked them into protest. The Guardian lead with headlines like “David Cameron wins surprise majority in general election”.

I asked myself, “How could this be?” Disbelief that my views are only shared by 30% of the population, that the rest didn’t respond to the social justice narrative I had consumed in my daily online news updates. A friend shares her similar experience on the election night, and my Facebook was filled with much of the same.

A new paper in Science sheds light on these ‘surprise’ results, using US data from Facebook (links shared and ideological affiliation) to explain the phenomena that has lead to people like me being so unprepared for the results of a national election.

Continue reading “Surprised by the UK election results? What happened?”

Shifting your clock: shift work and the circadian clock

To many people, the phenomenon known scientifically as the circadian rhythm is bleeding obvious. We sleep in the night and are awake during the day, long-haul flights like those from the UK to Australia gives you jetlag, and night shifts are a right pain in the bum. Detailed explanations involving transcription-translation feedback loops and phase response curves don’t change those facts, they’re a fact of life when we live on a rotating world. But many scientists, myself included, are fascinated in the details, and some scientists, like Céline Vetter and colleagues at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Ludwig-Maximilian-University in Munich, use this eye for detail to find out how we might best cope with our biological timing in a 24-hour society.

Coffee: Are you an early bird or a night owl?

Continue reading “Shifting your clock: shift work and the circadian clock”