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Science News Digest special edition - British Science Festival

This week we have a very special edition of the Science News Digest which looks back at last week’s British Science Festival in Aberdeen, where exciting stories from the world of science were emerging every day. 

Frozen embryos may result in fewer complications in pregnancy for mum and baby

One of the biggest stories from the Festival comes from research conducted by Dr Abha Maheshwari, Senior Lecturer at the University of Aberdeen. Her study into the practice of freezing embryos generated important results that have the potential to overturn current IVF practices.

The Guardian reported: “fertility clinics in Britain usually transfer fresh embryos into women several days after they have been given hormone injections that stimulate their ovaries to release eggs. These are extracted and fertilised before being implanted. Any embryos that are not used straight away can be frozen for use months or years later.”

The Telegraph described what the study found: “when frozen embryos were used, there was a 30 per cent lower risk of bleeding during pregnancy, 30 to 40 per cent less chance of the baby being born underweight, 20 per smaller risk of it being born preterm and 20 per cent less likelihood of it dying shortly after birth.”

The Financial Times wrote: “there are two possible explanations for the Aberdeen findings. First, that freezing and thawing somehow raises embryo quality. Second, and more likely according to Dr Maheshwari, is that the mother’s womb is in better condition to receive a thawed frozen embryo, having had time to recover from the egg extraction procedure.”


Professor Lord Krebs urges us to “do the right thing”

Professor Lord Krebs, President of the British Science Association, has criticised the use of ‘nudge tactics’ by the government and suggested we look to behavioural science to solve problems in society such as climate change and obesity.

The Guardian reported on the story: “many of our moment-to-moment decisions are made on autopilot, without much conscious reflection. By tapping into our semi-automatic decision-making, we can be subtly persuaded to change our behaviour.”

Speaking about obesity, Lord Krebs said: “ [we need] more regulation of the food industry to prevent them in their quest, in which they are immensely successful, of distilling fat, salt and sugar into perfect little gems we are all happy to eat.”

The Daily Mail wrote: “The peer said soft policy ‘nudges’ would not solve the obesity crisis alone, and called for tougher restrictions on food marketing and advertising. He praised a recent move in Australia to only sell cigarettes in plain packaging and proposals to sell them only under the counter, saying smoking and obesity required tough regulation.”


“We should undoubtedly double the science budget” says Professor Brian Cox

Professor Brian Cox had a busy day at the British Science Festival in Aberdeen on Thursday, where he unveiled a plaque dedicated to the work of physicist George Paget Thompson, spoke about the funding of science in the UK, explained the fundamentals of physics at a sold-out evening lecture and was awarded an honorary fellowship by the British Science Association.

The Daily Record said: “[the] blue plaque in memory of George Paget Thomson [was unveiled at] Marischal College, Aberdeen. During his eight years at the University of Aberdeen in the 1920s, Thomson did extensive work on the behaviour of electrons. Brian described it as ‘our theory of everything other than gravity’.”

The BBC went on to discuss Professor Cox’s thoughts on science in the UK: “[Professor Cox] considered that public engagement, in whatever guise, was absolutely key to the future sustainability and growth of British science. He said it was crucial to maintain a wider interest and to nurture children and students to be the next generation of scientists and engineers.”

Professor Cox said: “"The UK science budget is about £5.5bn each year… On a government spend of over 600 billion. That's for everything - medical research, Cern, engineering, arts and humanities… It's below most global averages, the OECD's for example.”


Theoretical new particle could explain star explosions and climate change

An exciting story to emerge from the Festival was the theory of a new particle developed by University of Aberdeen astrophysicist Dr Charles Wang.

The particle “may explain supernovas, the most energetic explosions in the universe” reported The Guardian. They continued: “massive stars collapse under their own gravity once their nuclear fuel is spent. The implosion compresses the star's iron core into neutrons. Charles Wang at Aberdeen University, and others, said the core might ring like a bell and emit ripples in spacetime that spread out like sound waves and power supernova explosions. These new waves come with an associated particle.”

Scientists working on the Isolde experiment at CERN will start looking for evidence of the proposed particle, called a ‘scalar gravitational particle’, in November.

The Financial Times reported: “In the so-called Standard Model, which particle physicists have built up over the past 50 years, the Higgs boson is crucial to explain how matter acquires its substance or mass. But it does not explain how the force of gravity acts on mass. As a candidate for the long-sought “graviton”, the particle that transmits gravity, the Wang particle could fill that gap.”

Dr Wang concluded: “There is a direct correlation between star explosions and the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere. When a star explodes, a massive amount of cosmic rays enter the atmosphere affecting the weather in space by making it cloudier. More clouds in space leads to the Earth’s atmosphere being cooler. Global warming could therefore be connected to stars exploding in our skies less frequently. We cannot control the explosion of stars, but if we can understand the process by which it happens we could potentially better predict when and where these explosions will take place, and as a result make predictions on how the Earth’s climate could change in the decades to come.”


Premature babies more likely in those with a previous abortion

A population-based study on reproduction outcomes following induced abortion has found that women whose first pregnancy ends in abortion are more likely to have a premature baby in a second pregnancy than women in their first pregnancy. Professor Siladitya Bhattacharya, Chair in Obstetrics and Gynaecology at the University of Aberdeen, presented the results at the Festival last week.

The Independent reported: “aborting a first pregnancy increases the chances of a spontaneous pre-term birth in a later pregnancy by nearly 40 per cent. However, women who suffer a natural miscarriage are at even greater risk of having premature babies later on. The study analysed medical records on 120,000 abortions, nearly 460,000 births and just over 120,000 miscarriages in Scotland between 1981 and 2001. It also compared surgical abortion, when the foetus is removed surgically, with medically-induced abortions using drugs.” 

Results of the study were detailed by The Telegraph:  “women who aborted their first pregnancy were 37 per cent more likely to have a subsequent premature birth than those in their first pregnancy. However, they were 15 per cent less likely to have a subsequent pre–term birth than women who had previously suffered a miscarriage.”


Could soup help childhood asthma?

A new study conducted by Professor Graham Devereux from the University of Aberdeen has looked at whether soup specially boosted with natural vitamin E containing food ingredients can help fend off childhood asthma. Researchers have collaborated with Scottish producer Baxters Food Group on three soups that have had their ingredients carefully selected to enhance levels of vitamin E. The soups have been designed to increase the vitamin E intake of pregnant women from the current national average of 8 mg/day to the optimal recommended daily allowance of 15 mg/day.

Earlier research has shown that pregnant women who have a diet low in vitamin E are more likely to have children who develop asthma by the age of five. The researchers’ latest study is the first of its kind to use dietary rather than vitamin tablet supplementation to see if enhanced vitamin E levels can help prevent childhood asthma.

The Independent reported on the modified soups: “the team added natural ingredients containing the vitamin, such as sun-dried tomatoes, sunflower oil, beans and lentils, to canned soup.”

A range of similar looking and tasting placebo low vitamin E soups have also been designed.

The Irish Times explained: “the mothers will be asked to do no more than have a serving of soup three time a week throughout their pregnancy.”

The effectiveness of the soup addition to their diet will be tracked by measurements of the newborns lung function.


Food Addiction

Research on food addiction from the £5million EU research project NeuroFAST was presented at the British Science Festival last week by Professor Julian Mercer from the Rowett Institute of Nutrition and Health, University of Aberdeen, and Dr. Özgür Albayrak of the University of Essen, Germany.

The Daily Mail reported: “food addiction could be responsible for the rising number of people suffering from obesity and eating disorders, scientists believe… as many as one in 200 people could be suffering from the condition and are investigating the possibility that in many cases over-eating is caused by behavioral addiction.”

The issue of whether food can be classified alongside addictive substances such as alcohol and drugs is a hot topic of debate. msn.com said: “currently such patterns of behaviour are categorised as ‘impulse control disorders’ rather than addictions. But this is set to change with publication of the latest version of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorder (DSM), which lays out diagnosis rules for psychiatrists. 

The Independent reported that the next steps following the announcement: “In the next five years, the NeuroFast project will bring together experts from across Europe to determine if overeating should be treated similarly to other addictive behaviour. If we can reach a consensus on how overeating should be classified, this could lead to major changes in treatment and public policy surrounding obesity.”


Parasites on contact lenses could cause eye problems

It was warned that contact lens wearers who rinse their lenses in tap water are at risk of damaging their eyes through exposure to a parasite that can cause blindness.

Dr Tara Beattie of Strathclyde University said: “millions of people wear lenses and don't have a problem. We don't want people thinking ‘we can't wear lenses anymore.’ That's not the case but what they need to do is be diligent about keeping them clean.”

The Daily Mail reported: “the British Science Festival in Aberdeen heard that Acanthamoeba, a tiny single-celled parasite, feeds on bacteria found on dirty contact lenses and cases. When the lens is put in the eye, it starts to eat its way through the cornea, the outer layer of the eyeball and breeding as it goes.”

The Belfast Telegraph detailed treatment as requiring “hospital admission and round-the-clock administration of disinfecting eye drops. If this fails to work, a corneal transplant may be needed, but in the most serious cases, the organism is so deeply embedded it cannot be removed and blindness results.”

The problem only affects a small number of people however the 3.7 million contact lens wearers in the UK are at risk.

Assessing the situation The Daily Mail continued: “The British Contact Lens Association advises against wearing contact lenses while swimming, unless goggles are also worn. And if contact lenses are kept in while showering, eyes should be tightly closed.”

The BBC reported that new computer models suggest that the universe could contain far more habitable planets than previously believed.

Estimates of habitable planets have been based on the likelihood of them having water – crucial for life as we know it – on their surface. The new model, developed by scientists at the University of Aberdeen, allows the identification of planets with underground water, which is kept in a liquid form by planetary heat.

This model contrasts with the previous idea that to be capable of holding life, the planets should lie within a ‘Goldilock’s zone’ – not too close to the sun that they should lose their surface water through evaporation, and not too far from the sun that water existed only as ice.

Taking into account the heat generated inside the planet, Professor John Parnell and PhD student Sean McMahon believe that there can be a significant habitat for microorganisms to exist, even several kilometers below the surface of a planet, that would not typically be considered to be in the ‘Goldilock’s zone’ capable of bearing life.


And finally…

Professor Barry Smith, University of London, explained at the British Science Festival why the taste of a particularly delicious smelling food doesn’t always live up to expectations.

Explaining to the Daily Mail, Professor Smith uses coffee as a typical example of this. As coffee brews, we smell it when the aroma goes up through the nose and blows across a sheet of cells. This information is sent to the brain, and interpreted as smell. When we take a sip, however, the scent is pushed up from the throat towards the same sheet of cells, but this time wafts across them in the other direction. This second sense of smell is sent to a different part of the brain where it is interpreted differently. Combined with the effect of saliva on many of the important molecules in the coffee, Professor Smith believes that this is why taste can so often disappoint, compared to smell.

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