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Backlash to Big Bang Discovery Gathers Steam

On March 17 Paul Steinhardt, a physicist at Princeton University, abandoned a theory he’d been championing for more than a decade. Known as the “ekpyrotic universe” model, it was an alternative to the prevailing theory of inflation, which says the cosmos expanded faster than the speed of light in the first fraction of a fraction of a second of the big bang. If so inflation is true, then the process should have released a burst of gravity waves; in Steinhardt’s model, they shouldn’t exist. On that day in March a team of observers announced at a major press conference at the Harvard–Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that they had indeed detected the waves, thus providing the first clear look at the universe’s earliest moments. The announcement made a huge splash. “Space Ripples Reveal Big Bang’s Smoking Gun,” trumpeted The New York Times front page. “Discovery Bolsters Big Bang Theory,” proclaimed The Wall Street Journal. Dozens of similar headlines appeared, seemingly everywhere. Steinhardt promptly pronounced his theory dead.

But now he’s not so sure. “The situation,” Steinhardt says, “has changed.” Right from the moment results from the BICEP2 microwave telescope at the South Pole were released, many cosmologists had a sense that the discovery rested on shaky ground. “I think it’s fair to say,” argues William Jones, a physicist also at Princeton, “that the claims struck a lot of people, myself included, as far overreaching what the data can support.” Charles Bennett, a physicist and astronomer at Johns Hopkins University who led research on the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe (WMAP) satellite, agrees. “Several of the plots in their paper looked odd to me,” he says.

In the ensuing two months, the doubts have only grown stronger, as physicists have attempted, and failed, to reproduce the BICEP2 team’s calculations—admittedly, without the original data, which the team hasn’t yet provided, and without the “systematics” paper, laying out the possible sources of error, which the team has promised but not yet completed. The paper describing the results themselves has not yet been published by a peer-reviewed journal, although that process is underway.

Growing doubts in the astronomical community, meanwhile, have been raised, first in private and over e-mail, then in a blog post by physicist Adam Falkowski, of the French National Center for Scientific Research, in Paris, and most recently by articles in The Washington Post, New Scientist, Science News and other outlets.

If the detection of primordial gravity waves weren’t such an enormous deal in the first place, nobody would be making such a fuss. But the BICEP2 results are crucial to verifying inflation, a cornerstone of modern cosmology. The theory was first proposed back in the early 1980s as a solution to a number of cosmological puzzles. One is the fact that the universe appears the same in all directions even though the opposite sides of the visible cosmos could never, under normal circumstances, have been in contact with one another, even at the very beginning. Another is that the universe appears to be flat—two parallel lines won’t touch even if they traverse the entire cosmos. Inflation explained all of these puzzles by positing an episode of superfast expansion long before the cosmos was a billionth of a billionth of a second old.

At first inflation was purely theoretical (although University of California, Santa Cruz, physicist Joel R. Primack said from the beginning that “no theory as beautiful as this has ever been wrong before”). A number of measurements—especially the maps of temperature differences in the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation left over from the big bang—have bolstered the theory, but the detection of the gravity waves triggered by inflation would be an especially powerful validation.

That’s what BICEP2 evidently saw—not the waves themselves, but their imprint on the CMB. Gravity waves from inflation would subtly twist light the microwaves, creating an effect called “B-mode polarization.” But the signal can also be caused by microwaves bouncing off dust in the Milky Way or by galactic magnetic fields. And according to the critics, the BICEP2 team didn’t convincingly disentangle all these effects. It’s clear they saw something, says Raphael Flauger, a physicist at the Institute for Advanced Study, who did an independent reanalysis of the BICEP2 data. “But it’s hard to assess,” he says, “how much of the signal is due to foregrounds and how much of it—or in fact whether any of it—is from inflation.”

One of the strongest critiques has to do with possible dust contamination. BICEP2 can observe the sky in only one wavelength of microwave radiation, which makes it harder for the researchers to rule out this source of confusion. So the team relied on a map of dust concentrations from the European Space Agency’s Planck satellite, which is also making a map of the CMB. The Planck data haven’t been released, however: the BICEP2 team extracted the information from a pdf file  of a slide flashed at a conference. The slide reflected observations that are likely to be incorporated in a future scientific paper, but that information is very different from raw data that can be plugged into a formal analysis. It’s also different from a final map of dust concentrations that might ultimately be released by the Planck team. “It’s all we had to work with,” says BICEP2 principal investigator John Kovac, from Harvard University, by way of defense. But Princeton’s David  Spergel, who led the analysis of data from the WMAP satellite, calls the strategy “weird. It’s an unusual and risky thing to do, because the slide was not intended for that purpose.”

Spergel also says the BICEP2 team evidently failed to factor in contamination from the cosmic infrared background radiation that comes from distant, dusty galaxies. “When you do that,” Spergel says, “it’s probably enough to account for the entire signal they’re seeing. We pointed that out to them within a week of the announcement. They said they’d look into it.” He says he hasn’t heard anything since. He plans to submit a paper within a week based on Flauger’s analysis. “We’ll argue that they made a mistake.”

But Kovac rejects that claim. “The result we reported came after very careful analysis. We described the uncertainties [inherent in using the Planck slide], and it’s important to remember that this was just one of six models we used to characterize the contribution from dust. We certainly stand by our results.”

It’s important to emphasize that nobody is saying that the telescope or the scientific team are anything less than top-notch, or even that the results are necessarily wrong. But there’s widespread agreement that the results have been overstated. “I just think they got excited and overinterpreted their data,” Spergel says. For his part, Bennett says, “I wouldn’t have held a big press conference about it.”

The controversy won’t last long in any case. By early fall, the Planck team will be publishing their own results about dust polarization, and at least 10 other groups are working on polarization experiments from the ground and with balloon-borne instruments. “If the signal is there,” Spergel says, “we’ll know for sure within two or three years.”

As for the vigorous dispute over how reliable the BICEP2 analysis really is, people on both sides of the argument agree that this is how science is done—albeit usually in a less public fashion. “This,” Spergel says, “is how the sausage is made.”

How Bacteria in Placenta Could Help Shape Human Health

The placenta is full of microbes, a new study finds, raising questions about how that ecosystem and mothers’ oral health influence the risk of pre-term birth

May 21, 2014
|By Dina Fine Maron


Even before a baby is born a microbial ecosystem takes up residence in the placenta, creating a microbiome that may help shape the newborn’s immune system and perhaps exert influence over premature births. The revelation, based on the genetic profile of hundreds of placentas, provides the most definitive answer to date that the life-sustaining organ, which nourishes the fetus and helps remove waste, is far from sterile.
Although the composition of human microbiota has become increasingly clear with genetic-sequencing technology, little is known about what shapes humans’ early microbial communities and exactly when an infant is first exposed to and colonized by those microorganisms.
A new catalogue of placental critters is thrusting these microbes into the spotlight, fueling questions about how they may help pull the strings for human health before birth and where a mother’s own microorganisms fit into the equation. Led by Kjersti Aagaard, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine and Texas Children’s Hospital, and published in the May 21 Science Translational Medicine, her team’s work analyzes the genetic sequences of hundreds of placental microbiomes from preterm and term infants and compares them with an existing inventory of microbiota from nonpregnant women’s skin, airways, vaginas, guts and mouths.
The work provides initial insights into what microorganisms are present in placenta and where they come from. And the placental microbiome’s apparent similarities to the smorgasbord of oral microorganisms also reignites the debate about links between the role of mother’s gum disease and preterm births. For the placenta, this new work maps out “which organisms are present, what they are capable of doing and how the placental community is likely structured,” the authors wrote. (This work does not, however, directly compare an infant’s microbiota with that of the mother.)
Earlier studies already detailed the composition of the amniotic sac, the guts of newborns in the first week of life and infants’ first stools, providing hints that microbiota may be at work before birth. Still, the placental microbiome—including its existence—remained relatively mysterious until the past couple years. “The beauty of this study is that they don’t just do gram-negative stains of the placenta. They look at the types of microbes that are present by looking at their DNA signatures, which is novel,” says Josef Neu, a University of Florida neonatologist whose earlier work found that even before babies have their first meals their stools host a diverse array of microorganisms, suggesting microbes are present and play a role before the baby is born. Neu was not an author on this new study.
Aagaard’s work finds that placental samples of 320 infants actually most closely resembled the milieu of microbes found in the human mouth—not that of the human gut, stool or vagina. So how would those microbes get there? The authors hypothesize that the microbiota from a mother-to-be’s mouth travels by blood into the placenta, upending an earlier theory that suggests microbes in the placenta and amniotic cavity originate in the vagina. “There are lots of clues to biology and development to be unfolded from little nooks and crannies that we haven’t looked at yet, and the placenta certainly has many of those,” Aagaard says. “The biology of pregnancy is certainly important if we are going to understand the health of the next generation,” she adds.
Although prior work has suggested a mother’s periodontal disease may lead to health problems in infants, efforts to treat pregnant women’s gum disease has not reduced premature births. Aagaard says her new research helps elucidate why such interventions did not work. “Even in the first or second trimester [the microbiome] is already well established,” she says. When it comes to dental care for women before pregnancy, “You would really want to be thinking about primary prevention, not secondary treatment,” she says, noting that oral health should be part of standard treatment for women before pregnancy.
In addition to drawing links to maternal oral microbes, this study also catalogued complex ecosystem differences between the placental microbiome of infants born slightly prematurely—around 34 to 37 weeks—and infants born at term. (Preterm births around this time are more common than early births at, say, 27 weeks). “We don’t know if [the differences] trigger preterm births but we do know they are associated with, and are a good predictor of preterm birth,” Aagaard says.
Differences included a higher prevalence of microbes that typically keep yeast in check among the preterm infants. Across the board, the work found that the single most prevalent microbe in the placentas was Escherichia coli—a bacterium strongly associated with sepsis in premature infants. “The metagenomic survey alone can describe the microbial communities present, but clinical context and advanced inference analyses will be required to understand the factors that affect community composition,” the authors noted.
Urinary tract infections early in pregnancy, too, may alter the placental microbiome, the study suggests. It found a difference in microbiome composition among women who had those infections versus those who did not but the study did not answer if the infection itself or the antibiotics used to treat it may have caused the variance. Moreover, it remains unclear how that microbiome change may have impacted fetal health or preterm birth.
Another interesting finding is that regardless of whether infants were born via cesarean section or descended through the birth canal (and passed through the gauntlet of accompanying bacteria), the composition of the placental microbiome appeared to be roughly the same in this analysis, indicating mode of delivery, at least for the placenta, does not alter its microbial community. The finding does not answer how that birth method impacts an actual infant, because a baby would typically swallow amniotic fluid and microbes along the birth canal during delivery. 
With the new profile of the placental microbiome, “we do not know what is cause and effect here. That will take a much longer ongoing longtitudinal samples to answer,” Aagaard says. Next up, her team plans to delve further into answering questions including how cesarean section versus natural birth influences infants’ microbiomes.

Comment: HS2 and the myth that wealth will trickle down from London

Tony Payne, director of the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI), discusses whether the HS2 rail link to London will bring economic benefits to the north of England.

The HS2 rail project is underpinned by a flawed political economy that needs challenging

by Tony Payne, 22 May 2014, posted on The Conversation

Over the years I’ve written a lot about global north-south issues. Yet until now, I’ve never said a word about the same divide within England, my own country of birth and residence. But the two overlap. Theories of global development can help us understand regional divides closer to home.

In the global context “north” and “south” have always been contested concepts. They sought to capture what has long been deemed to be an important binary distinction between modernising and backward areas, between developed and developing parts of the world, between rich and poor countries.

The language has altered over the years, but the core idea has persisted and was given its “north-south” expression most famously on the cover of the Pan edition of the Brandt Commission report of 1983. This depicted a Peters Projection of the globe with a red wavy line running along the US-Mexican border, through the Mediterranean, across the southern perimeter of the USSR and then dropping sharply downwards to sweep up Australia and New Zealand with the USA, Europe and the USSR into the developed, so-called “north”.

In Sheffield, we know that we are located in the north of England. This is a matter of geography. You can argue, as Owen Jones has recently done, that “the north-south divide is a myth – and a distraction”, highlighting the obvious reality that the divisions of power and wealth in England actually play out in much more complicated ways. But no-one can deny that northern England is a different part of the country from southern England and that sometimes you have to travel between the north and the south. This is what brings us to trains and the vexed matter of the HS2 project.

On March 28 The Guardian published a letter signed by the political leaders of eight major northern cities – York, Liverpool, Derby, Nottingham, Sheffield, Newcastle, Manchester and Leeds. It called upon all the main political parties to commit definitively to the HS2 project, to champion it and to focus on its delivery. What’s really interesting, though, is the reasoning the leaders advanced. HS2, they wrote, is “a once-in-a-century chance for our cities to realise their enormous potential and to make an ever greater contribution to the wider prosperity of the UK”. HS2 offered “growth”, “jobs”, “prosperity”, “a step-change in productivity”, all of which had to be grasped “at the earliest opportunity if our country is to remain a global leader”.

In short, the big city northern leaders take the view that HS2 will bring hugely significant economic advantages not only to their cities but also to the north of England as a whole. Indeed, their support is now widely proclaimed by proponents of HS2 and presented as a key argument in its favour. The key questions therefore become: why do these northern leaders think this and are they right?

I’ve been looking since at some of the official representations made by the HS2 lobby and can’t actually find much said in an explicit way about the political economy supposedly underpinning the project. But, even so, I think I can see what the unspoken argument is. I recognise it as the spatial equivalent, if you like, of the “trickle down” notion that has long sat at the heart of theories of development. The idea is essentially that wealth and prosperity will somehow just “spread out” from core centres of economic production, however defined, to other geographic zones that are – and this is critical – well connected to the cores.

The problem is that this generally does not happen as easily and as automatically as supposed. Even the pro-free-market Institute of Economic Affairs is not convinced, as it has recently released a report that looked at East Kent (as a beneficiary of HS1) and Doncaster (as the possessor of a fast rail link to London for several decades) and showed that these places have hardly witnessed extensive economic regeneration as a consequence.

What’s more, this is not surprising from the perspective of development theory. As long ago as 1957 the eminent Swedish economist, Gunnar Myrdal, argued that when fast growth occurs in one part of an economy, it is just as likely – in fact more likely – to “suck out” enterprise, investment, people and ideas from less fast-growing regions with which it is connected. He described these as “backwash effects”, not “spread effects”. Myrdal himself was quite an orthodox economist, but his argument about the potential draining effect of growth on some regions linked up powerfully with a whole school of more radical development theorists who went on to argue throughout the 1970s and 1980s that core-periphery relationships in the global economy benefited cores, not peripheries, and were in fact designed precisely to do so.

You may ask whether these various theories of dependency and forced underdevelopment have not been undermined by the fast growth and development of so much of East Asia over the past few decades. The answer is yes, in the sense that many of the theories exaggerated the periphery effect by asserting that it determined development, rather than simply being a necessary condition; but also no, as many of these countries managed to engineer their own development and re-orient their ties with the Western core. They did so by setting up “developmental states” to plan their various routes to growth and development in strategic and sustained ways over several decades. They didn’t just seek to improve their connections to the core parts of the global economy.

The lesson for the leaders of England’s northern cities is surely clear enough. Even the IEA got it partly right in arguing that they should focus on improving infrastructural links between northern cities, rather than to London. More broadly, they should work together to think through and insist upon the establishment of a Northern Development Agency with the capacity to plan the integrated development of the North of England as a coherent regional economy. They ought also to be moving on with this with urgency, because, whatever happens in the Scottish referendum in September, the political position of the north within England will thereafter be even more exposed and vulnerable than it is at present.

MySwan (Australia)

MySwan (Australia)
Image: Courtesy of Ed Dunens, via MySwan.org.au.

In order to study the movements and breeding of Melbourne’s Black Swans, researchers began fitting collars to Albert Park swans in 2006 and continue to this day, with around 300 wearing collars so far. The MySwan project is one of the longest-running bird studies in the world, and it’s dependent on input from the public. Researchers find that public reports contribute very substantial and largely accurate data, and consider the potential of Web-based interactive tools to encourage public participation in science.

Thus far, researchers (with help from citizen-science observations) have determined several things about the black swan. Whereas the old adage that they mate for life is true, these birds also have affairs with other swans, for example. By testing the DNA of cygnets and their parents, it was revealed some young were not the offspring of both their parents at all.

Project Details

  • PRINCIPAL SCIENTIST: Raoul Mulder, Associate Professor
  • SCIENTIST AFFILIATION: University of Melbourne Department of Zoology, Australia
  • DATES: Ongoing
  • LOCATION: ALL – Australia
  • PROJECT TYPE: Fieldwork
  • COST: Free
  • GRADE LEVEL: All Ages

    Have you seen a swan wearing a neck collar? By reporting the details of a sighting, citizen scientists can make a valuable contribution to research on the behavior and movements of swans. Step through the questions on the site to provide details of the sighting, and press ‘submit’. Those reporting get an instant report about the swan, with interesting information about its history and recent movements.

See more projects in
All Ages.

Vitamin C Helps Pregnant Smokers Have Healthier Babies

60-Second Health

Children of smokers who popped vitamin C during pregnancy had better lung function than kids of other women who also smoked during pregnancy. Dina Fine Maron reports
May 20, 2014
|By Dina Fine Maron


Smoking during pregnancy poses numerous dangers. Nicotine and other toxins can harm a fetus’s lungs, cause other lasting health problems or trigger preterm birth. Yet some 11 percent of pregnant US women still smoke during the final trimester.
Now a study shows that vitamin C supplements can help alleviate at least some of that in utero harm.
Researchers randomly assigned 159 pregnant smokers to take either daily vitamin C pills or placebos. They found that, compared with kids of the placebo group, children of moms popping vitamin C were in better health—they wheezed less through their first year of life and had better overall pulmonary function.
And, at least so far, there have been no negative side effects from the pills for mom or child. The study is in the Journal of the American Medical Association. [Cindy T. McEvoy et al, Vitamin C Supplementation for Pregnant Smoking Women and Pulmonary Function in Their Newborn Infants: A Randomized Clinical Trial]
The finding, if confirmed, would offer a cheap and simple preventative therapy in cases where a mom-to-be just can’t quit.
Of course, vitamin C will not eliminate the other long-term health risks linked to tobacco exposure in the womb. So quitting is still far better for the baby. And mom, too.
—Dina Fine Maron
[The above text is a transcript of  this podcast.]

Comment: European elections and long-term trends in government support

As Europe goes to the polls, Professor Charles Pattie from our geography department predicts the results will have far-reaching implications for European politics.

Kicking the rascals? Euro-elections and long-term trends in government support

by Professor Charles Pattie, 30 April 2014, posted on A World to Discover blog

I know this puts me in a very small and rather anorak-y minority, but I must admit I am beginning to experience election fever as the 2014 European Parliament election approaches. How will I contain my excitement? All joking aside, the upcoming Euro-poll promises to be a corker, and is likely to send political shockwaves around the continent.

Signs at the moment are that, in the aftermath of the post-2008 economic meltdown, the Eurozone crisis, and prolonged periods of austerity policies, mainstream political parties in most EU member states face the threat of heavy defeats, while a rag, tag and bobtail army of fringe parties (some from the left, like the Greek Syriza party, and many more from the radical and even extreme right, such as the French Front National) look set to make major advances.

The EU’s political map, as represented by the make-up of the European Parliament, is likely to be not just revised in the light of the election, but shaken up radically. Given how many of the rising parties hold strongly Eurosceptic views, there may be interesting times ahead for the EU: the Commission may have to deal with a far less compliant Parliament than in the past.

Here in the UK, too, the Euro-election is likely to produce some startling results with potentially far-reaching implications for British politics. UKIP, the main voice of hard-line British Eurosceptic sentiment, seems to be on the brink of a substantial electoral breakthrough.

For the first time in years – possibly for the first time in the history of modern opinion polling in the UK – a minor party with no Westminster MPs has a good chance of winning a nationwide election. For some months now, opinion polls asking about vote intentions in the upcoming Euro-elections have shown UKIP in a close second place behind Labour, with the Conservatives and (even more so) the Liberal Democrats in distant third and fourth places.

In recent days, some polls have actually put UKIP in first place, ahead of Labour. A YouGov poll conducted on 24 and 25 April 2014 puts UKIP in the lead, with 31% saying they intend to vote for the party in the Euro-election (Labour are on 28%, the Conservatives on 19% and the Lib Dems on only 9%).

In truth, this UKIP lead is within the margin of error for most polls: the true position at the moment could be a UKIP lead, or it could be a neck-and-neck battle for first place between Labour and Nigel Farage’s insurgent band. But even if UKIP do not end up on top in Britain’s Euro-election results, the sheer fact they are doing so very well is remarkable in itself.

Continue to the full post on A World to Discover blog

Female pigs can recognise the sex of sperm and influence the sex of their offspring

21 May 2014

  • Female pigs recognise whether a sperm will produce a boy or a girl.
  • Sex ratio of offspring in humans can be affected by the age of the mother and environmental factors like famines and wars.

Female pigs’ reproductive systems recognise whether a sperm will produce a boy or a girl before it reaches and fertilises the egg, and their oviduct (fallopian tubes) change in response, according to new research from the University of Sheffield and University of Murcia.

Scientists think this may be a way females unconsciously influence the sex of their offspring.

The findings, reported in the open access journal BMC Genomics, show that different genes are active in female pigs’ reproductive system cells in experimental conditions when all X (female) or all Y (male) sperm are present.

Female pigs can recognise the sex of spermAlthough in nature the ratio would normally be 50:50, this suggests females might be able to change the environment of the oviduct to favor one sex over the other, giving that sperm a better chance of winning the race to the egg.

Studies of humans and animals have shown that the sex ratio of offspring can be affected by factors such as the age of the mother, or environmental factors like famines and wars. How and when this happens is unclear.

The international research team from the University of Sheffield and University of Murcia wanted to discover if the sex ratio is influenced in the early stages, before the sperm have even fertilised the egg.

To find out whether females can differentiate between female and male sperm, they inseminated female pigs with sperm that was either all X or all Y. They then analysed the pig oviduct gene expression – the genes that were switched on in the oviduct cells. They found that 501 genes consistently produced proteins in differing amounts depending on whether X or Y sperm was present.

Researchers are still not sure why this ability has evolved, but they speculate that if females can recognise the sex of sperm and change in response, they might be able to create an environment that favors boys or girls.

This could explain how females unconsciously influence the sex ratio of their offspring, but more studies are needed to confirm this.

Lead author Professor Alireza Fazeli from the Department of Human Metabolism at the University of Sheffield said: “What this shows is that mothers are able to differentiate between the sperm that makes boys and girls. That on its own is amazing. It’s also of great scientific and evolutionary importance. If we understand how they can do that, this can revolutionise the field.”

Additional information

The Battle of the Sexes starts in the oviduct: modulation of oviductal transcriptome by X and Y-bearing spermatozoa
C Almiñana, I Caballero, P R Heath, S Maleki-Dizaji, I Parrilla, C Cuello, M A Gil, J L Vazquez, J M Vazquez, J Roca, E A Martinez, W V Holt and A Fazeli BMC Genomics 2014, 15:293

The article available in full at BioMed Central

BMC Genomics
BMC Genomics is an open access, peer-reviewed journal that considers articles on all aspects of genome-scale analysis, functional genomics, and proteomics.

BioMed Central  is an STM (Science, Technology and Medicine) publisher which has pioneered the open access publishing model. All peer-reviewed research articles published by BioMed Central are made immediately and freely accessible online, and are licensed to allow redistribution and reuse. BioMed Central is part of Springer Science+Business Media, a leading global publisher in the STM sector.

The University of Sheffield
With almost 25,000 of the brightest students from around 120 countries, learning alongside over 1,200 of the best academics from across the globe, the University of Sheffield is one of the world’s leading universities.
A member of the UK’s prestigious Russell Group of leading research-led institutions, Sheffield offers world-class teaching and research excellence across a wide range of disciplines.

Unified by the power of discovery and understanding, staff and students at the university are committed to finding new ways to transform the world we live in.

In 2011 it was named University of the Year in the Times Higher Education Awards and in the last decade has won four Queen’s Anniversary Prizes in recognition of the outstanding contribution to the United Kingdom’s intellectual, economic, cultural and social life.

Sheffield has five Nobel Prize winners among former staff and students and its alumni go on to hold positions of great responsibility and influence all over the world, making significant contributions in their chosen fields.
Global research partners and clients include Boeing, Rolls-Royce, Unilever, AstraZeneca, Glaxo SmithKline and Siemens, as well as many UK and overseas government agencies and charitable foundations.


For further information please contact:

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Media Relations Officer
University of Sheffield
0114 222 9859

Blood from Stone

See Inside
Special Editions Volume 23, Issue 2s

Mounting evidence from dinosaur bones shows that, contrary to common belief, organic materials can sometimes survive in fossils for millions of years

For more than 300 years paleontologists have operated under the assumption that the information contained in fossilized bones lies only in the size and shape of the bones themselves. It was thought that when an animal dies under conditions suitable for fossilization, inert minerals from the surrounding environment eventually replace all the organic molecules—such as those that make up cells, tissues, pigments and proteins—leaving behind what is essentially a “cast” of the once living bones, now composed entirely of mineral.

My first indication that this fundamental tenet of paleontology might not always apply came when I was a relatively new graduate student at Montana State University, studying the microstructure of a Tyrannosaurus rex bone. As I peered through the microscope, what I saw—small, round, red and apparently nucleated structures, restricted to the blood vessel channels coursing through the bone—had not been previously noted, to my knowledge. They looked similar to the nucleated red blood cells of nonmammalian vertebrates. But seeing dinosaur blood cells was impossible, according to the conventional wisdom that shaped my discipline. After I sought opinions on the identity of the red spheres from faculty members and other graduate students, word of the puzzle reached Jack Horner, curator of paleontology at the museum and one of the world’s foremost dinosaur authorities. He took a look for himself. Brows furrowed, he gazed through the microscope for what seemed like hours without saying a word. Then, looking up at me with a frown, he asked, “What do you think they are?” When I replied that I did not know but that they were the right size, shape, location and color to be blood cells, he grunted. “So prove to me they aren’t.” It was an irresistible challenge, and one that continues to help frame my research.

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Poetry Poster Sucks Up Smog

60-Second Earth

A building-sized poem shows how billboards could help cut pollution from car. David Biello reports
May 19, 2014
|By David Biello



Can poetry fight air pollution? Turns out it can—with the help of nanotechnology.
Tony Ryan is a polymer chemist at the University of Sheffield. He works with tiny particles of titanium dioxide, which can use sunlight to suck up smog-forming pollution and purify the air.  
To demonstrate the effect, Ryan attached a poster 20 meters tall and 10 meters wide to the side of a building in Sheffield on May 14th. The poster is coated with titanium dioxide and can consume the nitrogen oxide exhaust of about 20 cars per day. He argues that every billboard could be similarly treated to suck up pollution at an extra cost of just a few hundred dollars.
The Sheffield poster comments on its own function. Written on it is a new work by poet Simon Armitage entitled “In Praise of Air.” I’ll give him the final words: “… on days when thoughts are fuddled with smog / or civilization crosses the street / with a white handkerchief over its mouth / and cars blow kisses to our lips from theirs / I turn the key, throw back the lid, breathe deep. / My first word, everyone’s first word, was air.”
—David Biello
[The above text is a transcript of this podcast.]

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Senators Sound Off on Electronic Cigarettes

Decades ago regulators banned cigarette advertisements that targeted young people in an effort to prevent them from growing up to smoke tobacco products. Today, with the science still unsettled around the health effects of smoke-free electronic cigarettes, controversy surrounds the idea of television advertisements for the nicotine-laden products that often come in kid-friendly flavorings. That swirling fog of unknowns was on full display at a Senate Committee hearing on May 15, where lawmakers pressed for answers about the potential benefits and pitfalls of e-cigarette regulations.
On the question of health effects, Mitch Zeller, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s director of the Center for Tobacco Products, said that his agency is funding “dozens” of studies assessing the potential dangers of the devices. The FDA is analyzing the emissions in e-cig vapor, the devices’ recipe and by-products, and the actual behavior of e-cig users, he said. But to date, the only conclusion he feels comfortable making about the popular devices is, “They have the potential to do good. They have the potential to do harm,” he said.
On the good side, advocates of e-cigs believe the devices can help smokers break their dangerous habit. For that reason, at the hearing before the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee on May 15, Sen. Richard Burr (R–N.C.) said that he worries that regulating e-cigarettes could stifle innovation that may help smokers move away from harmful tobacco products.
With the “harm” side in mind, Zeller said his priority is ensuring that FDA has the jurisdiction to regulate e-cigarettes as needed. His testimony was the first from the FDA since the agency proposed to regulate e-cigarettes late last month (see related coverage). The proposed rule, which is subject to public comment until July 9, has drawn fire from some lawmakers and public health experts who maintain that it does not go far enough to protect children from the devices. The rule, if enacted, would ban minors from using the devices but stop short of barring e-cigarette advertisements or certain flavors that might appeal to youth. (FDA officials have said that it is possible they may issue additional rules on those issues in the future).
Meanwhile several cities, including Chicago and New York, have taken action to bar e-cig use in indoor spaces. States including New York and Maryland are also considering enacting statewide bans on public indoor use.
Sen. Tom Harkin (D–Iowa), chair of the HELP Committee, said that the proposed regulations do not go far enough. “Anyone that claims that these products are not explicitly targeting kids is clearly blowing smoke,” he said, pointing to several flavored e-cigarette products he brought to the hearing, including cotton candy, gummy bear and rocket pop. “We can’t keep kicking the can down the road,” Harkin said. “For kids, I’m pretty clear about what’s happening here and how [e-cigarette makers] are marketing [their products].”
Protecting children from e-cigarettes is important for reasons other than ensuring they are not a ”gateway” to conventional tobacco products, added Tim McAfee, director of the U.S. Centers for Disease Control’s Office of Smoking and Health, in his testimony. Nicotine is addictive, he said, and that is reason enough to help kids stay away from the devices.