All posts by Stuart Rogers

Venom: Turning Toxicology on its Head

The Deathstalker Scorpion (yes, that’s its actual name) is found roaming across North Africa and the Middle East. It may only be a modest 7 centimetres in length, but this animal more than deserves its ominous title.

If you are unfortunate enough to be stung by this marauding creature you can look forward to what is described by victims as “mind splitting pain” and possible death caused by pulmonary edema; whereby your lungs to fill with water until you ultimately drown in your own body fluid.

Sounds fun, right?

Before you start posting frantically on Reddit demanding the global extermination of these eight limbed bastards from hell you may be surprised to learn that the medical community is studying the Deathstalker Scorpion with the hope of finding cures and treatments for a range of diseases.

First off though, lets look at how venom works.

Venom has been refined over millions of years, evolving independently over and over again in different species. These deadly mix of proteins and peptides are almost impossibly diverse and lacks no creativity in how it will send you to meet your maker.

In each venomous bite or sting dozens of toxins can be released, each targeting a different part of the organisms vital processes. Some affect the nervous system – paralysing by blocking messages between nerves and muscle, some kill by clotting blood and stopping the heart and others by preventing clotting and triggering a killer bleed from the bite wound itself. Some even causes Necrosis (cell death) of your skins tissue, literally causing your skin to fall off.

Charming.

I guess you could say its  like being shot, poisoned, choked and burned at the same time!

However, this spectrum of venom’s killing methods translates into a diverse range of medical applications and is currently being used to look into treatments and cures for an ever growing list of list of diseases and conditions. A whole host of venomous animals are being studied in this emerging field, from cone snails to snakes.

Recently a materials scientist, Miqin Zhang and her research team, at the University of Washington, showed that a certain compound found within the venom of the Scorpion could help in the treatment of brain cancers like Glioma.

In the current treatment process of gene therapy, doctors inject small pieces of healthy DNA that are attached to nanoparticles. These move toward the tumour site to replace and repair the cancer-causing gene mutations.

The problem is that many of the substances currently used for delivery either don’t deliver the genes efficiently or have potentially harmful side effects. In tests on mice, researchers demonstrated that their venom-based nanoparticles can induce nearly twice the amount of gene expression in brain cancer cells as nanoparticles that do not contain the venom ingredient.

This is just one example of a whole new field of research which can turn one of the most terrifying weapons of nature on its head. Snake bites alone kill at least 50,000 people a year, however it is possible that venom can be used to save more human lives than it ends.

Another avenue of venom based research is using it as a tool to understand more about how cells work.

Due to the specific metabolic pathways in cells that venom is known to inhibit, venom can be used to learn more about how certain biological mechanisms function. For example the venom of the Peruvian green-velvet tarantula has recently been employed to modify ion channels within cells in studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia.

Armed with this information researchers will be able to design drugs that specifically alter the metabolic processes of cells with the aim of derailing human and treating various diseases.

This case highlights the importance of understanding the mechanisms behind the evolution of species as hidden in this information is a gold mine of scientific innovations.

 

Great white britain: The rock star approach to conservation

In march 2014 the British press and marine conversation societies bristled with excitement as a mighty four meter Great White Shark named Lydia tagged by Ocsearch  was powering across the Atlantic Ocean on what looked like a direct course for the British Coast line .

Great white sharks have long been suspected to visit the UKs coast however this has never been proven, the Bay of Biscay in France is the closest one of these super predators has ever been confirmed to British waters.  There have been numerous reported sightings of the gigantic animal over the years (some more credible than others), however these do not count as proof of the species inhabiting our seas.

For proof of the existence of White Sharks in UK waters we need one of the following.

Specimen capture

Photographic evidence

Satellite tracking data of tagged animal

As Lydia the Shark was cruising towards UK waters, it looked as if the third on the list was going to transpire. People in marine biology circles where acting like a bunch of kids on Christmas eve  about the trans-Atlantic fish. After years of apparent sightings either turning out to be bogus or mistaken identity we would have concrete evidence that the UK is home to this iconic super predator  – I even heard of people organising shark parties to celebrate the arrival of Lydia into our waters and the proof we had all been waiting for.

Then Lydia did something unexpected:  she turned around……………..

 

1149271-picard_facepalm

As the shark swam in circles for a week and then headed back towards America the disappointment set in. Everyone had gotten a bit carried away (including the tabloid press) before the Shark had even made it into our waters.

Christmas was cancelled.

It was maybe a bit arrogant to get caught up in the hype as you cannot control nature, but people had reason to be disappointed.

Charismatic Mega Fauna is the term used to describe the rock stars of the animal kingdom.

Members of this group include the Siberian Tiger , Bald Eagle, Panda and The Great White Shark. These animals are championed by Hollywood and conservation organisations alike as they have an unparalleled ability to capture the mind of the public and therefore draw attention and support to their cause.

Our marine ecosystems face numerous threats to their biodiversity, from over fishing to sea acidification these issues urgently need to be brought into the public domain. A charismatic resident (aka Lydia) would have been a very effective way to spear head various conservations programmes and draw much needed political attention to the cause. Lydia however had other plans.

When a Great White Shark does eventually grace us with its presence, it presents an unmissable opportunity to draw attention to the  threats facing our marine ecosystem.

If you would like to see Lydia s current location click this link.

 

 

Wicked Cognition: Into the mind of the Octopus

In all the animal kingdom, it’s hard to think of an animal equipped with a more extensive arsenal than the Octopus.

Respectfully named the “Devil fish” by fisherman, here is a quick list of some of the abilities of these eight limbed water gangsters.

Changing colour and texture

Shooting ink 

Venomous 

Body compression 

Marine and terrestrial (land) locomotion 

Mimicry 

Advanced problem solving 

Each one of these abilities would be deemed a Marvel style super power if possessed by a human!

However it’s the last point in that list that is the most intriguing and it possibly offers an explanation on why octopuses are geared up with all these abilities, and even has implications for a deeper understanding of human evolution.

Aquarists (people who work in aquariums not star sign bullshit) often tell tales of Octopodes (plural for Octopus) being elite escape artists, breaking out of their enclosures and having a wander around the aquarium. I have even heard stories of octopuses climbing into other tanks to devour hapless Crabs.

These stories prompted scientific research into Octopus cognition (intelligence and problem solving) and in lab tests they displayed a level of intellect not seen in any other invertebrate. Based on these findings Octopodes and other Cephalopods are the only invertebrates to be covered by ASPA.

But that’s just the tip of the ice berg, animals think with cells called neurons within our brains. Octopodes have a conventional brain just like us however two thirds of these neurons dwell in their tentacles. These tentacles have also been observed to respond in an intelligent manner when severed from the rest of the animal 

The implications of this are  staggering; consciousness might be spread throughout the entire animal. The octopus itself might essentially be a kind of mobile brain, with each of their eight arms having its own independent mind.

All this information begs the question.

What evolutionary pressure from the environment has created this multi-talented cerebral badass?

Well, here is some speculation on the matter.

These are not social creatures, in fact Octopodes straight up hate each other they cooperate briefly to reproduce but apart from that its Cripts Vs Bloods style gang warfare. Aquarists struggle to stop octopuses using their escape artist skills to climb into each other’s tanks to murder and cannibalise each other. This intense hostility has also been documented in the wild.

It is possible that a major selective pressure on these animals is themselves.

Having to constantly outwit each other in a game of marine espionage lasting millions of years could have created an arms race of cognitive ability, resulting in the bizarre genius creatures inhabiting our oceans today. I am not claiming this is the sole reason Octopodes evolved their unique arsenal, but it may be an integral factor.

This could have implications for the evolution of another of earth’s intelligent animals: Homo sapiens.

One only has to glance at the news to see that Human Beings generally don’t like each other, whether its football rivalry, differences in political ideology or direct warfare it does seem we are designed to compete with members of our own species in a very intense manner. However we are also the most intelligent and cultured animals on the face of the planet (Jeremy Kyle show viewers not included).

Maybe a vital ingredient in the recipe for intelligence is millions of years of direct competition with your own species. This could be a large piece to the puzzle of Human evolution.

 

Paleontology : A study of Scientific Imagination

I had the privilege of attending Consensus Science Talks at the London Excel on the 16th of November.

The line-up of talks included: Renowned Stand-up Comic Bill Baily, Palaeontologist Richard Fortly, Physiologist and Magician Richard Wiseman and the internationally renowned Richard Dawkins.

The event focused on the Life and work of Alfred Russell Wallace and looked to attain more academic and cultural credit to his unacknowledged role if forming the theory of evolution.

All of the speakers delivered outstanding presentations however the session that I feel really captivated the audience was not from the one of the main draws of Bill Baily or Richard Dawkins but form the modest Richard Fortly and his presentation explaining the relevance of old school palaeontology in the modern era of DNA and molecular biology.

Palaeontology is innately fascinating because it is a rare and potent fusion of both logical and imaginative thinking which is rarely seen in other scientific disciplines.

Any piece of paleontological evidence is only one tiny segment of an impossibly large jigsaw that we strive to complete within our minds eye. With ever new piece of jigsaw we gain a better picture of a puzzle that has been lost quite literally in the sands of time.

It could be speculated that this is the reason behind Dinosaurs being the only enduring fad in child culture that has been able to transcend generations. From Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to the Power Rangers (showing my age here) the T.V and toy industry has managed to forge incredibly popular brands of child culture, which are ruthlessly marketed year round to generate profits to keep the UK £2.96 Billion a year industry afloat.

However despite launches of old toy brands like Transformers and My Little Pony (not the most gender neutral brands!) none of these brands can reach the popularity or the longevity between generations as children’s fascination with Dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs appeal directly to both the inquisitive and the imaginative nature of children and because palaeontology is an actual science parents are more likely to support and nourish their interest in it over whatever the new cool toy is.

And if these Dinosaur crazy children make it into the academic field of Planetology in there later years they will harness the same logical and imaginative abilities to make their contribution to our ever expanding knowledge of the prehistoric world.

Other scientific disciplines may laugh at the extrapolations palaeontologists make with the smallest bit of evidence, the apparent discovery of a gigantic 3 foot Duck Billed Platypus that made news headlines because they found a single large tooth springs to mind (hardly the 5 sigma required for the Higgs Boson).

However imagination is just as integral an element as good old fashioned scientific data and evidence in the world of palaeontology and they can be forgiven for the occasional overzealous speculation.