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The Science Hour


Science news and highlights of the week

Science news and highlights of the week


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Science news and highlights of the week




Wetlands under attack

Since its introduction four decades ago, Spartina alterniflora, a salt-water cordgrass from the USA, has been spreading along China’s coasts. Today, it covers nearly half of the country’s salt marshes. As the UN Biodiversity Conference COP 15 kicks off in China, we look at how this invasive plant species threatens native species in protected coastal wetlands. Featuring Yuan Lin, East China Normal University, and Qiang He, Fudan University. In January 2020, Barney Graham and Jason McLellan...


Youngest rock samples from the moon

n December 2020, China's Chang'e-5 mission returned to earth carrying rock samples collected from the moon – the first lunar samples to be collected since the American Apollo and Luna missions to the moon in the 1970s. Laboratory analysis has revealed that these are the youngest samples of rocks to be collected from the moon. Lunar geologist Katherine Joy explains what this tells us about the moon’s volcanic past. Also on the programme, a recent study reveals that the hepatitis B virus has...


Drug resistant malaria found in East Africa

Since their discovery in the 1970s, artemisinin-based drugs have become the mainstay of treatment for malaria caused by the Plasmodium falciparum parasite. Researchers have identified artemisinin-resistant malaria parasites in Southeast Asia since the early 2000s, but now, there is evidence of resistance in Rwanda and Uganda. Dr Betty Balikagala of Juntendo University tells us how this resistance developed and what it means for managing malaria in Africa, which carries the greatest burden of...


New evidence for SARS-CoV-2’s origin in bats

Researchers studying bats in Northern Laos have found evidence that brings us closer than ever to understanding the origin of Covid-19. Since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic scientists have tried to pin-point the exact origin of SARS-CoV-2. But recent evidence from the Institut Pasteur has identified several novel coronaviruses with similarities to the current coronavirus in bats. Professor Marc Eliot spoke to Roland Pease about how this research could give us a better idea where...


Ebola can remain dormant for five years

An international team of researchers has discovered that an outbreak of Ebola in Guinea in February this year was the result of re-activated Ebola virus in someone who’d been infected at least five years ago during the earlier large Ebola epidemic that swept through Guinea, Sierra Leone and Liberia. This means the virus can remain dormant in some Ebola survivors for five years or more. Virologists Alpha Kabinet Keita and Robert Garry talk to Roland Pease about the research and its...


Keep most fossil fuel in ground to meet 1.5 degree goal

For the world to have a decent chance of limiting global temperature rise to 1.5 degrees, 90 per cent of remaining coal reserves and 60% of unexploited oil and gas have to stay in the ground. These are the stark findings of carbon budget research by scientists at University College London. Dan Welsby spells out the details to Roland Pease. Virologist Ravi Gupta of the University of Cambridge describes his latest research that explains why the Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2 is much more...


Hurricane season intensifies

When hurricane Ida struck the coast of Louisiana last weekend, almost to the day that Katrina did 16 years ago, comparisons between the two events were soon to follow. As the latest storm continues to wreak havoc and death further north in the US, Suzana Camargo of Columbia university talks to Roland Pease about the similarities and differences, the better forecasting available now, and the grim reality that climate change suggests for this and future hurricane seasons. A couple of weeks...


World’s first DNA Covid-Vaccine

Indian authorities have approved the world’s first DNA-based Covid vaccine for emergency use. Not all the data that has led to the opening of the phase 3 trials is yet publicly available, but as public health policy expert Chandrakant Lahariya explains to presenter Roland Pease, it could be a real help in India’s, and the world’s, fight to get things under control. WHO Wuhan expedition The origins of the Covid virus were investigated last winter by a WHO team sent to Wuhan – where the first...


Seismic citizen science in Hispaniola

The epicentre of the tragic earthquake in Haiti last week was just 100km from that of the even more deadly 2010 one. Unlike then, a network of small cheap seismic detectors run by volunteers is currently monitoring the aftershocks. As Eric Calais says, the suspicion is that this could be the latest in a sequence of quakes, echoing previous clusters over the last few hundred years. Is ‘Blue Hydrogen’ all that green? Hydrogen is being much touted as an alternative to natural gas as a source of...


Methane - a climate solution?

The latest IPCC assessment raised alarm about the rate at which manmade emissions are contributing to climate change. Much of the focus for action is on reducing levels of carbon dioxide, however there is a more potent greenhouse gas, methane, produced by natural and industrial processes which, as Roland Pease tells Drew Shindell of Duke University and lead author on the Global Methane Assessment, is relatively easy to target for reduction. Gut microbes and behaviour Roland speaks to...


Record-shattering weather

July 2021 saw temperatures in the western US and Canada smash previous records by 5 degrees. And that’s what we should expect, according to a study prepared much earlier but published, coincidentally, just a few days later. A hallmark of rapid climate change, says author Erich Fischer of ETH Zurich, will be an accelerating number of record-shattering, and socially disruptive, events. A large new study on communications and hierarchy across a large range of our ape and monkey relatives has...


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 near enough 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 only last week, they released the source code and methodology behind their so called AlphaFold...


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...


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...


Doubling Earth’s Energy Imbalance

On Science in Action this week 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 re-radiated 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...


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...