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Science in Action


The BBC brings you all the week's science news.

The BBC brings you all the week's science news.


London, United Kingdom




The BBC brings you all the week's science news.




The earliest traces of animal life on earth.

Do rocks found in Canada show animal life 350 million years older than any found before? And, delving to the core of Mars, the guts of cats, and into the life of Steven Weinberg. Prof Elizabeth Turner of Canada's Laurentian University reports in the journal Nature structures in some of the oldest sedimentary rocks that resemble the residue left by sponges such as the sort you might find in a bath. 350 million years older than the oldest such fossils yet identified, if they are left by such...


Your molecular machinery, now in 3D

Back in November it was announced that an AI company called DeepMind had essentially cracked the problem of protein folding – that is they had managed to successfully predict the 3D structures of complex biochemical molecules by only knowing the 2D sequence of amino acids from which they are made. They are not the only team to use machine learning to approach the vast amounts of data involved. But last week, they released the source code and methodology behind their so called AlphaFold2...


Science when the funding dries up

This week the UK parliament voted to accept the Government’s continued cap on Official Development Aid. This disappointed many researchers around the world, funded directly and indirectly through various scientific funding structures enabling international collaboration on some of the global challenges facing all of us. These funding mechanisms make for a small fraction of the overall amount, but they have been hit hard, with many projects closing altogether. There had been hope amongst the...


Human induced climate change heats up fast

Scientists say the record-breaking Pacific North-West heatwave of recent weeks must have been caused by human induced climate change, but as Geert Jan van Oldenborgh explains to Roland Pease, despite a herculean effort to analyse the event in just a week, the precise mechanism to cause such an extreme and sudden event is so far bewildering climate modellers, exceeding even worst expectations. Looking to the skies, Rosita Kokotanekova of the European Southern Observatory and colleagues have...


Insects in incredible detail

The Natural History Museum in London holds a massive collection of insects. It asked researchers at the Diamond light source, a facility near Oxford, to develop a high throughput X-ray microscope to take 3D scans of them all. Roland Pease has been to see the new technology in action. Many people seeking compensation for the impacts of climate change are turning to the law courts. Successes so far have been few. Oxford University’s Friederike Otto, who specialises in connecting weather...


Tales of unexpected DNA data

This week Jesse Bloom of Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research has published an account of some DNA sequence data he located in an internet archive, despite it having been removed from the US NIH’s Sequence Read Archive. He tells Roland Pease of its significance to our understanding of the beginning of the Covid pandemic, but also, of more general interest, to what it might tell scientists about the full availability of relevant virological evidence. Elsewhere, Elena Zavala of the Max...


Doubling Earth’s energy imbalance

Nasa scientists have observed that the Earth’s energy imbalance has doubled in just 15 years. As greenhouse gas atmospheric concentrations have risen, so too has the difference between the total amount of energy being absorbed from the sun, and the total amount being reradiated back into space. Meanwhile, as we all heat up, scientists at the LIGO Gravitational Wave Observatory have managed to do something very cool with their mirrors. Such is the precision with which the detectors have been...


Evolving viral variant trickery

Dr. Clare Jolly and colleagues have been looking at how the first of the major covid variants – alpha - evolved to be more transmissible. Whilst a lot of attention has been on the spike binding areas of the virus and the effectiveness of antibodies from either vaccine or prior infection, their preprint paper this week reports how the virus evolved an ability to inhibit our bodies innate virus response once it has infected a cell. Prof Dan Shugar and colleagues have been studying the...


Zoonotic hotspots and where to find them

Researchers map where the riskiest areas are for viruses to jump from bats into humans. Also, synthetic bacteria with unnatural DNA, and the origin of the humble watermelon. David Hayman of Massey University in NZ and colleagues have published in the journal Nature Food a study highlighting areas of the world where zoonotic transmission of coronaviruses are most likely to occur between humans and bats of the type most suspected of being the origin of the current SARS CoV2 virus. There are a...


Nyiragongo eruption

The latest Nyiragongo eruption was not entirely unexpected, the volcano’s lava lake inside the crater had been building up for years. Local volcanologists say it was only a matter of time before an eruption occurred. The big concern was where the flank of the volcano would be breached as the city of Goma rests under the volcano and there are potential fissures even within the town. However there are still questions over the effectiveness of seismic monitoring in the area, North Kivu. The...


Robot revolution

A brain-computer interface allows a severely paralysed patient not only to move and use a robotic arm, but also to feel the sensations as the mechanical hand clasps objects . We hear from Jennifer Collinger at Pittsburgh University’s Rehab Neural Engineering Labs. And Nathan Copeland, who has been controlling the robotic arm with his thoughts via a series of brain implants. Ralph Baric of the University of North Carolina tells us about the development of a multi-component vaccine that would...


Covid and clean air

We wouldn’t drink dirty water so why do we put up with polluted air? Researchers are calling for a major rethink on our attitude to air quality. Professor Lidia Morawska, from the Queensland University of Technology, says attention to air quality during the Covid pandemic has shown how levels of airborne disease can be reduced. Sam Wilson from the UK Medical Research Council, University of Glasgow Centre for Virus Research has been investigating genetic mechanisms associated with...


Africa’s oldest burial

Analysis of the 78,0000-year-old fossil of a Kenyan boy reveals he was likely buried with care and attention, the body wrapped and laid to rest supported on a pillow. Maria Martinon-Torres, of the National Research Centre on Human Evolution in Burgos, Spain, and a team from Kenya and Germany used techniques from paleontology and forensic science to reveal his story from the fragile remains. A promising malaria vaccine is to enter trials which could lead to it being used globally to vaccinate...


Melting glaciers, warming coffee and a Dragonfly on Titan

When Apollo 11 astronaut Michael Collins – who passed away this week – looked down on the earth from lunar orbit during those days in 1969, he saw more ice and a smaller liquid ocean than you would see today. Of the 200,000 glaciers outside of the polar and Greenland ice sheets, their melting in the last two decades accounts for about a fifth of the sea level rise we are also seeing. Thus according to a paper published this week in the journal nature by, amongst others Bob McNabb of Ulster...


Exponential increase in Indian covid cases

As Covid cases surge almost beyond belief in India, how much is to do with social distancing, and how much to do with the mutations to the original virus? Ramanan Laxminarayan talks to Roland from Delhi about ways in which the huge second wave could and could not have been predicted and avoided. Suggestions of the latest variant to make the headlines, B1.617, have got virologists such as Ravindra Gupta working hard to identify the clinical significance of the latest combinations of...


Rolling out the vaccines faster

Two weeks ago several G7 leaders called for an international treaty on Pandemic Preparedness for the future. This week 175 prominent leaders called for lifting the IP on vaccine design. And former UK PM Gordon Brown called on the G7 to finance vaccines for the world in the next two months. But are there technical difficulties that limit the pace of manufacture? Anthony McDonnell is an economist at think tank Centre for Global Development who has been looking at the problem since last year....


On the trail of rare blood clots

On Wednesday the EU’s EMA and UK’s JCVI announced a suspected correlation between vaccination and an extremely rare type of blood clot. Prof Sabine Eichinger is a co-author of a new paper suggesting a link with vaccination or the immune response to Covid vaccination and suggests the name VIPIT for the condition. One of her patients died at the end of February having presented with a rare combination of symptoms – blood clots and a low blood platelet count. Sabine tells Roland the dots they...


Post-Covid outcomes after release from hospital

After last year’s first wave of covid-19 in the UK, individuals who had been discharged after hospitalisation suffered higher rates of coronary and respiratory disorders, and even diabetes subsequently over 140 days. As Dr Ami Banerjee of University College London explains, out of 48,000 cases, patients who had had acute covid-19 were four times more likely to be readmitted and 8 times more likely to die. Ami’s team suggests in their paper published in the British Medical Journal that...


Science on the side of a new volcano

Sightseers and social media scrollers have flocked to the slopes of Fagradalsfjall, a volcano erupting 40 kilometres west of the Icelandic capital Reykjavik. Having produced less than 1 square kilometre of lava this eruption could be deemed relatively minor, allowing bystanders to get up close and personal. Among the hubbub, you might also spot Dr Evgenia Ilyinskaya from University of Leeds, just one of the researchers measuring and observing the event from an alarmingly small distance. Her...


International science at sea

In the UK thousands of scientists have signed open letters to the UK government protesting cuts to international funding announced this week. Abruptly and severely, the cuts may end hundreds of international collaborations between UK scientists and colleagues around the world working on health, climate change, disaster resilience, sustainability and many development topics. Professor Jenni Barclay is a volcanologist at the University of East Anglia, and is one of the organisers of the...