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Money Making Moves in Climate Change, Space and Health – Our Science Round-Up

Image Credit: Richard Ling/FLICKR

Australian Government Commits $500 Million To Save The Great Barrier Reef

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has pledged A$500 million (US$379 million) to help protect the Great Barrier Reef from the mounting effects of climate change. The funds will be put towards restoring water quality, tackling the opportunistic uprising of the crown of thorns starfish, and breeding heat-resistant coral to help repopulate the damaged reef system.

The globally important reef covers an area of 134,360 square miles and studies have shown that the area generates an incredible $6.4 billion for the Australian economy per annum: providing close to 69,000 full-time jobs. Despite the clear environmental and economic contribution of the reef, this injection of funds comes at a time when the government has been under heavy criticism for not only failing to address against climate change – which is estimated to have killed up to 30 percent of the coral in the last few years alone – but actively contributing to its decline by supporting the highly controversial Adani coal mine. Coupled with this, Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions have soared over the past year, hitting the highest on record. The current regime was even accused of lobbying the United Nations to prevent the globally important reef from being listed as a heritage site “in danger”.  While welcome by those actively protecting the reef, the pledged money will simply be directed to farmers when the biggest threat to the reef is rising water temperatures. If seriously committed to protecting the Great Barrier Reef, the Australian government will need to take concrete action to tackle the nation’s greenhouse gas emissions, plastic pollution, and agricultural runoff.  

Vaping May Be Less Damaging Than Smoking… When it Comes to Your Gut Bacteria

The bacterial cells in our body outnumber our own human cells and have been found to greatly affect an individual’s health on many counts. Recent studies have linked our gut microbiome – the collections of microorganisms within our digestive systems – to everything from our weight and food cravings to our mood and sleeping behavior, all the way to the way we think. The make-up of our gut bacteria could also be responsible for conditions such as depression and autoimmune diseases such as lupus. New research published in the journal PeerJ analysed the composition of the gut microbiomes of tobacco smokers, e-cigarette smokers, and non-smokers in fecal, mouth, and saliva samples using targeted gene sampling. The results yield some good news for vapers.

The study found the most prominent differences between the three groups in the fecal samples and, therefore, the gut. Vapers exhibit a similar mix of “flourishing” gut bacteria as non-smokers. In contrast, ‘traditional smokers’ show significant negative changes to their gut flora, displaying higher levels of Prevotella bacteria – which has been linked to colon cancer and colitis – and lower levels of Bacteroides bacteria – a probiotic that lowers a person’s risk of obesity and their chances of developing Crohn’s disease.

While there has been a huge surge in e-cigarette use over the past five years or so, the health effects are only just starting to be explored. More investigation is needed to find that vaping is less damaging than smoking, much beyond this small study of just 30 participants. For now, vaping does seem to be a positive tool to help individuals quit smoking completely whilst not destroying their gut microbiomes.

NASA Funnels Funds into a Telescope That Self-Assembles in Space

Image Credit: Vadim Sadoski/Shutterstock

Building and launching a telescope into space is not without its risks. Every component must be tested before assembly, following which, the whole telescope is repeatedly tested before being strapped to a rocket full of liquid explosive and shot into space. The apparent opportunities for failure in this process led Dmitry Savransky of Cornell University to ask, ‘is it possible to build a space telescope that can see farther, and better, using only inexpensive small components that self-assemble in orbit?’

The resulting proposal of a self-assembling telescope has been moved to Phase I of the NASA Innovative Advanced Concepts (NIAC) program. The program calls for pitches of somewhat crazy-sounding ideas, backed up with a few initial calculations. Having been successful in this initial stage, the innovative telescope has become a 9-month project which includes stressing the idea with questions on feasibility. If these feasibility studies are successful, the project will move into Phase II.

The idea is to send small, inexpensive components as extra payloads of already scheduled launches over a period of months or even years. These will then navigate to where the telescope is supposed to be built and assemble into the preprogramed design. The components will navigate using solar sails that will then become the sun-shield of the new instrument. The proposed telescope will end up being more than 30 meters (98 feet) wide, bigger than any observatory currently placed in space. Whilst still in the preliminary stages of design, the telescope could completely revolutionise the way we capture images in space.

There May Soon Be a Vaccine Against Bath Salts Addiction

Vaccinating against drug addiction is a devilishly elegant answer to something as stigmatized as drug abuse and, even worse, relapse. The solution could train the immune system to attack molecules of the drug if it ends up in the body, defeating any chance of getting high. While the concept has been previously proposed for drugs like opioids and alcohol, the latest venture is a vaccine against bath salts. Not to be confused with your Epsom salts – which do not come fashioned with mind-altering ingredients – bath salts are a type of designer drug that generally contain a compound called a cathinone, an addictive stimulant similar to amphetamines. The drug is cheap and extremely powerful, often sought by people who usually use cocaine or meth but want a stronger high.

In the study, the researchers tested a vaccine to combat two types of bath salts — MDPV and alpha-PVP — in mice. The results demonstrated that the vaccine boosted the mice’s immune response so that the mice got much less high off the drug, felt the effects for less time, and the immune response worked for months after vaccination. Despite these positive results, there are innumerable reasons that no true drug vaccines are currently on the market. These researchers got past one of the biggest scientific elements that usually thwart these kinds of treatments: getting the immune system to respond to the right molecule. This was successful in mice, however. Several drugs and treatments, including a similar vaccine for opioids, that are efficacious in animals don’t hold the same effectiveness in humans. In addition, addiction is a complex disorder that has more than just a physical element. So while the new bath salts addiction vaccine has had success in the initial steps along the road towards becoming an FDA-approved treatment, there is still the possibility that it will join the others that have stumbled along the way.

Spotlight on Larissa Slaney: the PhD student harnessing the power of innovative footprint recognition software to save the Cheetah from extinction

One of the many cheetahs cared for by the Na’ankusê Foundation, Namibia. Photo credit: Larissa Slaney, 2017

Like many of us, Larissa’s first career did not turn out to be her calling in life. Whilst studying law in her home country of Germany, Larissa made her way to the UK to pursue an internship at a law firm in 1993. Her stint in Britain lasted a bit longer than expected: 20 years later, Larissa still resides on our little island, on which she met her husband and raised her children. During this time, Larissa’s fascination with the world of science drew her away from her original law career and into a life of scientific research.

Larissa’s new vocation began with a degree in Life Sciences at the Open University. Following this second degree, Larissa found herself volunteering with RZSS Edinburgh Zoo, alongside working for the Edinburgh International Science Festival in the UK and Abu Dhabi. Through working with the public and the various animal enclosures the zoo had to offer, she was exposed to the worlds of conservation and science communication. Her interests in these areas continued to deepen, which prompted her to approach the Head of Life Sciences at Heriot-Watt University. She requested to be given a position within any of the department’s research labs to further cultivate her understanding of the wider biological sciences field.

I thought about which area I wanted to work in and considered everything from microbes to human biology.

The university granted her a two-week placement within a plant molecular biology lab. A year later – in the same position – Larissa had honed a curiosity in genetics.

Larissa then travelled to Africa, where she spent a month working with an animal conservation charity: The Na’ankuse Foundation Wildlife Sanctuary in Namibia. At one of the organisation’s research facilities, Larissa was introduced to a novel technology developed by WildTrack to monitor populations out in the wild. It was one of the few places in the world using such technology. The Foot Print Identification Technique – or, ‘FIT’ – harnesses the knowledge of the native trackers who can read an animal’s footprint like a book. The software analyses animal footprints to reveal an individual’s species, sex and age-class with over 90% accuracy. Armed with the possibilities of the software, Larissa reflected on the current means of tracking animals – most notably, for the cheetah.

The cheetah, infamous for their speed and agility, have been classed as ‘Vulnerable’ by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Since then, the population has only continued to plummet. In 1900, earth was host to around 100,000 cheetahs. Today? The figure of the global wild population is closer to 7,000. Further research highlights that cheetahs are heading towards extinction and should more aptly be classified as ‘Endangered’. Whilst research in cheetah conservation has burgeoned in response to this crash in numbers, the focus tends to be on issues like trophy hunting and other protective forms of conservation.  A crucial piece missing from the research is the major contributing factor of genetics. Cheetahs have an approximate 99% gene identity due to their small population size. This inbreeding has led to deterioration of the population’s reproductive health, greatly contributing to the high infant mortality rate. Knowledge and understanding of the cheetah’s genetic relationship is therefore crucial for conservation efforts, especially when it comes to choosing a suitable release site for a wild cheetah that needs to be relocated, e.g. due to human-wildlife conflict. Without proper tracking of relatedness amongst cheetah populations, conservation organisations may unknowingly choose a release site for a cheetah that places it amongst a population with a similar genetic make-up, therefore encouraging inbreeding and leading to a further reduction in genetic variation. In conjunction with this, Larissa noticed that the traditional genotyping technique currently being used to monitor cheetah populations requires removing tissue samples. This process is clearly very invasive, expensive and time consuming, all of which could possibly contribute to the comparative lack of research in this area.

Larissa decided to address the lack of monitoring of relatedness in cheetahs and now leads a novel campaign on Crowd.Science entitled, ‘Fit Cheetahs.’ The project aims to compare the traditional genotyping technique with the ability of FIT technology to distinguish “relatedness” amongst cheetahs. If successful, FIT could become the staple tech to increase genetic variability and reduce disease in species in a non-invasive manner and, therefore, increase the genetic ‘fitness’ of populations. The project also hopes to collect more data on the cheetah and use this to negotiate better funding for global cheetah conservation from governments and other organisations.

If FIT could establish relatedness, it would make an enormous difference to cheetah conservation because it would give us a non-invasive technique that is cheaper and quicker than genotyping.

Larissa is currently working with a group of captive cheetahs in Namibia to carry out this research, with the goal to involve as many zoos and cheetah subspecies as possible in the study. Incredibly motivated by her idea, she decided to pursue the project as a self-funded PhD with Heriot-Watt University in Scotland. She has drawn on her years in science communication and unusually given her PhD project a brand, which can be found here.  

I had not planned on doing a PhD but when I had the idea for this research project, I felt so passionate about it and realised how big a project it is, I thought I am just as well to do it as a PhD. I have put most of my savings into this project – about £12,000.

Despite her unfaltering financial commitment to her work, Larissa is now at the stage where she needs support to continue. Lucky for us, she is a big ambassador of crowdfunding science.

Crowdfunding science addresses a key issue. The combination of raising funds and connecting to the public and getting them to engage in your project is the very definition of science communication. I recently went to a school to ask for funding for my project and seeing the willingness to support an animal conservation project was truly inspiring. The children were very interested – asking questions and coming up with ideas. Even the teachers learned a lot. […] The money is secondary here, but connecting with these kids and inspiring them, as well as teaching about conservation, cheetahs, and biology. The school committed on the spot.

Overall, Larissa will require £85,000 over three years, £20,000 of which she seeks to raise on Crowd.Science. Given that FIT software is currently used to track other species, determining its effectiveness in discerning relatedness will have a positive impact on animal conservation in general. Larissa hopes to apply her work to other species beyond the cheetah, identifying opportunities for the white rhino, jaguar and polar bear. Given that in less than 120 years, we have lost near 90% of the cheetah population, now is the time to get behind Larissa’s work. To see a video on FIT Cheetahs, see here and anyone who supports her campaign will have the opportunity to follow her project from start to finish through access to her research blog, which will be updated on a monthly basis.

Larissa pictured here with one of the captive cheetahs that she works closely with. Photo credit: Larissa Slaney, 2017

Our Weekly Science Picks: Australia nears the eradication of cervical cancer whilst Arnold Schwarzenegger – of all people – wages war on climate change

Hi there – Marian Shivji here, back from a sunny month away in Ecuador, to round up the latest in the wonderful world of science for you. This week features everything from remarkable strides in cracking the secrets of Jupiter to a bag of human hands washed ‘ashore’ on a Russian riverbank.

Australia edges closer to becoming the first-ever country to eradicate cervical cancer

Every two minutes, a woman dies of cervical cancer. Behind 99.9 percent of these cases is the human papillomavirus (HPV) as the fatal pathogen. Since 2007, The Australian federal government has run a massive vaccination programme against the virus. The programme initially distributed vaccinations to girls aged 12-13, free of charge, before extending its remit to adolescent boys in 2013. Now, the programme also covers girls and boys under nineteen for two free doses of the vaccine.

According to a new study, these efforts have reaped resounding success as HPV prevalence among Australian women aged 18 to 24 has plummeted from 22.7 percent to just 1.5 percent over the last 10 years . Remarkably, only 53 percent of all women in Australia have been vaccinated against HPV. The marked decline in prevalence can therefore be explained by “herd immunity”. This form of immunity occurs when a significant portion of a population is vaccinated, which hinders the spread of a disease enough to protect the unvaccinated population. Taking this vaccination programme in conjunction with extensive cervical screening – and the recent introduction of a more advanced screening test by the Australian government – positions Australia to become the first country in the world to eliminate cervical cancer entirely.

Only a handful of countries across the world have a widely available, fully financed vaccination program against HPV. In 2016, 78.6 percent of 15-year-old Australian girls and 72.9 percent of 15-year-old Australian boys had received vaccinations to HPV. In America, however, only 50 percent of girls between 13 and 17 and 38 percent of boys between 13 and 17 had received the vaccination, as per data published by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation. In the US, the HPV vaccine can cost as much as $450 for the full regimen, according to the Association of Reproductive Health Professionals. Two-thirds of the world’s population of women don’t have access to what Australian women do. The situation in the developing world is especially dire, where papillomavirus incidence rates remain high. The efficacy of the Australian example along with other successes in other accessible vaccination programmes, such as a recent trial that took place in Bhutan, truly exemplify how these seemingly expensive programmes can yield a lucrative ROI in the case of easing the burden of cervical cancer later down the line.

Fisherman goes out for a stroll along a Siberian riverbank only to discover a bag of 54 human hands

Source: The Siberian Times

Whilst ambling along the frigid expanses of south-eastern Russia, perhaps the last thing one may want to encounter is a severed human hand on his path. Earlier this week, however, a fisherman made such an unfortunate discovery on the banks of the Amur River. The man first stumbled across one hand, reported The Siberian Times, before uncovering a bag filled with 54 single human hands – or 27 pairs, if you prefer.

The latest reports detail that the hands are not the result of a sinister government regime or the workings of a criminal enterprise. In fact, the hands were just the result of a lazy medical forensics lab in the Russian city of Khabarovsk, clearly lacking in proper protocol for disposal. This is according to a statement made by the Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation. Further, medical bandages and those plastic shoe covers characteristic of hospitals were also found near the severed hands, suggesting they were indeed connected to a medical facility. Though the means of dumping of the hands was clearly far from legitimate, the committee maintains that there was no foul play in originally removing the hands from their bodies.

With little clarity on the medical process behind the detached hands, the discovery is still causing suspicion. While it remains unclear as to why a forensic lab would reasonably need to cut off hands, their removal in this sense is not necessarily unusual. During autopsies, various organs are often removed – whether temporarily or permanently – while causes of death are being established. At this stage, though, it’s not clear why so many hands would be placed in a single bag as a part of some medical exercise. It’s all very Greek* to me.

* Read – Russian.

Finally, a true climate hero waiting in the wings… And it’s Arnold Schwarzenegger?

We previously reported on New York’s plans to sue five of the world’s largest oil companies over climate change, as lead by Mayor Bill De Blasio. We are now even more thrilled to report that the former Governor of California – or perhaps better known for bulging biceps and the Terminator – Arnold Schwarzenegger has jumped on the band wagon, setting out his ambitions for similar action. Of course, it wouldn’t be Arnie without injecting some characteristically bold phrasing and movie-like flare into his endeavour.

Speaking at SXSW in Austin for Politico’s Off Message podcast, Schwarzenegger announced his intentions to prosecute various oil companies for “knowingly killing people all over the world” through global warming.

He went on to compare the oil and tobacco industries, both in terms of their clear harm to society and in their attempts to mislead the public on the danger of their products. “To me it’s absolutely irresponsible to know that your product is killing people and not have a warning label on it, like tobacco,” he told Politico. He then added, “if you walk into a room and you know you’re going to kill someone, it’s first degree murder. I think it’s the same thing with oil companies.”

Oil companies have an established reputation for obscuring the clear detriment of their industry, whether it be their greenhouse gas emissions and other pollutants to the secondary environmental damage produced via their extraction processes. One landmark study examining ExxonMobil found that the powerful conglomerate regularly suppressed the findings of their own scientists while churning out editorials that dismissed anthropogenic connections to climate change.

Whether Arnie has a solid link between this obfuscation and first degree murder is yet to be seen. Perhaps the best hope at this stage, as referenced by Schwarzenegger himself, is forcing fossil fuel companies to acknowledge the dangers of oil and coal, in the same way tobacco companies must legally do so now. It would be naïve, however, to believe that oil conglomerates will simply give up their side show of misdirection and lobbying campaigns.

Not one, but four steps closer to understanding the ever-elusive gas giant, Jupiter


Until recently, scientists knew surprisingly little about the deep interiors of gas giants, such as Saturn and Jupiter. This week saw a range of advances in this area, stemming from the observations of NASA’s Juno spacecraft. One of the major goals of the Juno mission, whose focus turned to Jupiter in July 2016, has been to study the planet’s interior, explicating the inner workings below its cloudy surface. During each flyby, Juno soars low over the planet’s cloud tops, probing beneath its external layer to study its auroras to learn more about the planet’s origins, structure, weather layer and magnetosphere.

In four new studies published separately in Nature (hereherehere, and here), the latest results from the spacecraft have been revealed. While they focus on different areas of research, they largely have a similar theme. While previous studies of Jupiter focused on the planet’s most obvious features – its dark bands, bright zones, and big red spot –these four studies use small signatures from the gas giant’s gravitational field to dig much deeper, providing incredible insights into what life is like below the clouds on Jupiter’s surface.

In one study, Luciano Iess and colleagues found that the planet’s unusual gravitational field, lacking north-south symmetry, is owing to wind flows in its atmosphere and interior. In the second, Yohai Kaspi and colleagues confirmed that Jupiter’s atmospheric jet streams extend as far as 3,000 kilometers (1,860 miles) down from the cloud tops. The group also determined that Jupiter’s atmosphere accounts for 1 percent of its total mass. In the third, Tristan Guillot and his team went even deeper to determine what lies below these jet streams. Their analysis suggests that 3,000 kilometers into Jupiter is a fluid mix of hydrogen and helium that rotates like a solid body. Finally, Alberto Adriani and colleagues took a closer look at the cluster of cyclones encircling Jupiter’s poles. While scientists have known the existence of these cyclones for quite some time, the study reveals where they come from or and why they never manage to merge, the latter of which owes to the polygonal patterns formed by the cyclones.

NASA’s Juno mission has clearly made invaluable strides in our understanding of Jupiter. We now know that the planet’s environmental pressures and patterns has given rise to hiding cyclones that create stunning patterns, deep-diving jet streams, and a rigid, yet fluid, body. These studies do more than greatly increase our understanding Jupiter, though. They could tell us more about similar planets, such as Saturn, and maybe even help us understand the origin of our solar system.

Our Weekly Science Picks: Surfing the Web Through Augmented Reality to Collapsing Dark Matter

Hi there – Marian Shivji here with your weekly dose of science facts and fascinations. This week features an injection of augmented reality into your web browser, up to a giant monument that converts air pollution into jewellery. Doctor’s orders below.

Your Web Browser’s Latest Plugin? Why, Augmented Reality Of Course!

Augmented reality (AR) is currently best-known for its gaming applications, such as the once ever popular Pokémon GoA new trend is now on the rise, however, of companies pushing this seamless blending of the digital and physical worlds for more mainstream purposes, as opposed to just the gaming novelty that AR is today. The latest innovation in AR comes from Google, who’s latest venture explores how to invigorate static content, such as a news article on mobile and PC web browsers, with AR. Google has dabbled in AR for the past few years now, through Tango and ARCore.  While Google has previously explored implementing AR into its own Chrome browser, the search engine giant is now looking to extend its cross-platform edge. This week, Google debuted the novel product Article, a 3D model viewer that can integrate AR into most web browsers. On mobile phones, an AR button appears when the user reads about an object that the browser can bring to life. Tapping this button activates the phone’s camera, allowing the user to project the object into the physical world, as represented by the space suit ‘object’ below. The Google blog post explained: “The unique power of AR is to blend digital content with the real world. So we can, for example, surf the web, find a model, place it in our room to see just how large it truly is, and physically walk around it.” Article will also allow such capabilities that were previously limited to devices like smartphones to be available on desktop computers. Article is just one in a series of prototypes and there’s a lot left to explore. As the AR matures, much more impressive applications will be unveiled, which could help the tech to go from novel to transformative.

Dark Matter May be More “Matter-Like” Than Once Thought

Source: L. CALÇADA/ESO (CC BY 4.0)

Our current understanding of dark matter is that it surrounds entire galaxies as spherical “halos” of invisible, unidentified massive, as illustrated by the blue surrounding the milky way above. This ‘featureless blob’ theory of dark matter’s existence is supported by the observation that an extra source of mass, astronomers can’t explain the motions of the stars in galaxies and why they move at the speeds they do. The ‘halo of mass’ version of dark matter might be only part of the story, however, as recent research by theoretical physicists Mathew Buckley and Anthony DiFranzo suggests that dark matter could collapse into smaller, more complex structures. This behaviour would render it more like the ‘normal’ matter that condenses into stars and planets. To collapse, dark matter would need a way to lose energy, slowing particles as gravity pulls them into the centre of the clump, so they can glom on to one another rather than zipping right through. The electromagnetic forces that dictate this process of energy loss for ‘normal’ matter have been ruled out for the most commonly proposed types of dark matter particles, such as weakly interacting massive particles (WIMPs). Buckley and DiFranzo imagined what might happen if an analogous “dark electromagnetism” allowed dark matter particles to interact and radiate energy in the form of dark photons, a dark matter analog to particles of light. In Buckley and DiFranzo’s scenario, it is unlikely that the dark matter can squish down to the size of a star and likely reach a point where they can’t lose any more energy long before then, rendering a single clump to be hundreds of light-years across. Thousands of clumps of dark matter could therefore be lurking, undetected in the halo surrounding our galaxy. The latest figure suggests that dark clumps constitute 10 percent of the Milky Way’s dark matter. By looking for the effects of unexplained gravitational tugs on stars, scientists may be able to determine whether galaxies are littered with dark matter clumps. “Because we didn’t think these things were a possibility, I don’t think people have looked,” Buckley says. “It was a blind spot.”

A Giant Smog-Sucking Hoover in Poland Converts Air Pollution into Jewellery


92% of the world’s population live in areas of poor air quality. Given that figure basically equates to the entire global population, tackling poor air quality could be a lucrative market. A giant air purifier created by the Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde is currently being installed in a park in Kraków, Poland. Known as ‘the Smog Free Project’, the purifier stands at a whopping seven-metres and will be able to clean the air around the park at a rate of 30,000 cubic metres per hour whilst only consuming the same amount of electricity used by a water boiler. Most notably, the Smog Free Tower filters out the ultra-fine and very harmful PM2.5 particles – created by cars, tires and even trains – that can become lodged deep within the lungs. The tower took three years to develop and has been touring the world for the last two years. Its last year-long stay was in China, where it was shown to reduce air pollution by up to 55% in its surrounding area. While its functional use is clear, Roosegaarde also designed the purifier as a centrepiece for raising awareness around air pollution. Its stationing in Krawkow is as part of an exhibition that challenges our views on air pollution. As such, the fine carbon particles that are collected by tower can then be condensed into tiny cubes of ‘air pollution’ which can then be bought. As I said, lucrative.

MIA for 8 Decades, the Eastern Cougar is Now Officially Extinct


The eastern cougar once roamed the forests, mountains, and grasslands in every American state east of the Mississippi. For the past eight decades, however, the cougar has gone off grid. This led the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) to open a review into the status of the mountain lion in 2011. After years of research, federal wildlife biologists finally concluded in 2015 that there was no scientific or physical evidence of a viable population left. The big cat had been on the Endangered Species Act since 1973 and at this point, the researchers recommended that the search for the cat be put to bed. This week finally saw that happen as the subspecies (Puma concolor cougaris now officially extinct. This declaration of extinction might – paradoxically – be a good thing. States that have been prevented from reintroducing animals from the western population for decades should now be allowed to do so. Large predators, such as the mountain lion, play a crucial role in the wider ecosystem. According to a recent paper detailing these benefits, not only do cougars reduce the number of ticks by killing deer, but they also save lives by reducing deer-car collisions. Putting it into perspective, if pumas were reintroduced across the US, collisions from deer-car incidents would likely be slashed by 22 percent, saving 115 people and preventing over 21,000 accidents, altogether saving the economy an impressive $2.12 billion.


Our Weekly Science Picks: France Transplants a Face While Capetown Braces for Water Crisis

Hello there– Marian Shivji here with your weekly round-up of the latest in science, data and peculiarities. This week features a double face transplant, a city on the brink of dystopia, and a look at how data and machine learning are currently being used for weird and wonderful purposes.

Surgeons in France Just Performed the First-Ever Double Face Transplant

Face transplants have the potential to tackle a wide-range of medical conditions from genetic disorders to assaults. Plights of the face can go beyond disfigurement to result in a loss of function, hindering one’s ability to breathe, eat or speak. Twelve years ago, a man from France became the first person to ever receive a facial transplant. Fast forward seven years, his body rejected the new face, leaving him without a suitable alternative ever since. In a risky move, surgeons decided to attempt a second face transplant, making the Frenchman the recipient of not only the first face transplant but now the first ever double face transplant. These operations are a risky game and by no means close to routine practice. Fewer than 40 face transplant operations have ever been performed, so statistics on long-term outcomes for patients are lacking. Since its introduction, six people have died from the facial procedure. Many medical experts believe that rejection will be an inevitable consequence of face transplants for the foreseeable future. As a preventative measure, patients must typically take immunosuppressive drugs for the rest of their lives after the procedure. A patient by the name of Isabelle Dinoire suffered rejection of her transplanted face, which caused her to lose feeling and usage of her lips. She later died of cancer in 2016, which was thought to have been caused by the immunosuppressant. It will still be weeks before doctors can determine whether this secondary transplant proves successful. If it is, it could give the other transplant recipients hope that further procedures could be an option in the case of chronic rejection.


France has become the first country to attempt a double face transplant. Getty Images

In Less than 90 Days, Cape Town Could Become the First Major City to Run Out of Water

Cape Town and the surrounding region has been battling droughts for nearly three years now, resulting in a dangerous drop in the levels of its water-supplying dams. Located in a geologic bowl historically fed by heavy winter precipitation, the coastal South African metropolis was once regarded to be an abundant haven of natural water. Now, in less than 90 days, Cape Town might become the first major city in the world to run out of water. April 21 has been marked as the potential “Day Zero,” the day on which experts have predicted that the dams will drop below 13.5 percent of their combined capacity. With little rain on the horizon, the city’s mayor has impeded a “drought charge” in order to fund water recycling projects such as the construction of three desalination plants, which they hope to have in operation by March. The city has also enforced a water limit on its 3.7 million residents of 23 gallons per person per day, drastically cutting their water consumption.If these measures fail and the dystopian, Mad Max-like future prevails, all the city’s taps (except in the poorest neighbourhoods) could be shut off by April. Capetonians would be forced to queue for their daily ration of water of 25 litres (5.5 gallons) from one of 200 government-organized collection sites. This crisis arose from a few compounding factors. While the El Niño weather pattern exacerbated the earlier part of the drought in 2015, experts are now pointing towards poor city management, a growing urban population, and – rather unsurprisingly – climate change. The latter threatens many more “Day Zero” occurrences globally. Scientists have estimated that North Africa and the Middle East could become so hot and dry that they will be uninhabitable in the near future, even if the targets of the Paris climate agreement are met. Another study found that nearly three-quarters of the world’s population will experience life-threatening heatwaves by the end of this century. If nothing else, the Cape Town drought and its implications serve as a stark reminder that climate change is no longer a distant concern.

Pornhub’s Data Provides a Comedic Perspective of the False Missile Alert in Hawaii

How would you spend your last moments if you thought that you only had a few hours left to live? It’s the age-old question that many of us have considered from time to time, but that question became a reality for residents of Hawaii when a false missile alert was circulated last week. As you would expect, people panicked – rushing for the nearest shelters and following protocol to a T. As a follow-up question, what would we then expect people to do upon being told that everything was going to be fine after all? The website Pornhub” released data that paints a picture of the situation from start to finish. The minute the missile alert went out, Hawaii’s traffic to their website dropped by almost 80 percent of their usual Saturday levels. When the second message went out at 8:45am local time, the hilarity ensued. As it happens, Hawaiians celebrated the fallacy of the alarm by giving themselves a little love. By 9:01am, traffic to Pornhub then skyrocketed, with hits surpassing the usual Saturday by 50 percent. Whether this was truly out of celebration or as the island’s means to relieve stress after the looming threat of death would require further study. Though an unlikely suspect for event driven data analysis, this isn’t the first time Pornhub has released such data. A few weeks ago, the site scrutinised its traffic during the Great American Eclipse, which shows just how committed the Americans are to star gazing.

The AI That Prepared Astronauts for Space Revolutionises Crime Fighting in Belgium

The Artificial intelligence systems that were created to prepare astronauts for space now provide a promising approach for solving crimes here on earth. The Space Applications Services company developed the software for astronauts-in-training in the European Space Agency (ESA) Columbus research laboratory, which had them respond to queries such as “What is this?” and “Where is this?” The origins of this machine-intelligence date back almost 15 years. The technology has advanced rapidly since, leading to the recent engineering of an intelligent mobile crew assistant. This bot is scheduled to undergo testing later in 2018 with Alexander Gerst, the next ESA astronaut to be sent into space. The potential for AI to reduce ground operations and associated costs, as well as the possibility that it could lower risks for human personnel has been paramount for space agencies. While that initial crew training project of 2003-05 is a relatively small step in artificial intelligence, the same integrated approaches to machine learning are now leading to feats in a completely different domain: security. Space Applications Services began to pivot the AI toward security applications when it developed a tool that allowed it to answer most factual questions and to display the results visually. The technology does the laborious parts of a crime analyst’s job with a single click. For instance, the machine intelligence became capable of combing through thousands of hours of security camera footage and pulling up specific video feeds upon request. Further sources of data that can be semi-automatically scanned by the software include written records, footage and social media – all within seconds. It can detect suspicious patterns, reconstruct scenes and highlight promising avenues of investigation. Belgian police are currently evaluating software for cost-effectiveness which could become a commercial product by the middle of this year. Belgium is just the latest country to use the hottest tech on the market to keep its citizens safe, following in the footsteps of China and Dubai.

Alexander Gerst follows instructions from the computer during his mission to ISS in 2014. Image Credit: ESA/NASA

Our Weekly Science Picks: From Space to Spiders

Image credit: wallpaperzzz.com

Top Story: New York Disinvests then Sues Five of the World’s Largest Oil Companies

Good morning – it’s Marian Shivji here with the first of many weekly digests from us here at Crowd.Science. We will be using this opportunity to round-up the hottest topics circulating the world of science and crowdfunding so that we can deliver it all to you in one handy blog.

Bill de Blasio is done paying for climate change. The NYC mayor made an official announcement early last week that the city will be the first to divest the entirety of its pension funds – a total of $191 billion – from fossil fuels. This funneling away of $5 billion worth of investment from fossil fuel is reportedly the largest of any municipality to date. This stride brings the overall disinvestment movement’s value to exceed a whopping $6 trillion, making it, arguably, the fastest growing campaign of its kind in history. In conjunction with withdrawing funds, the city triggered full-blown legal action against ExxonMobil, Chevron, BP, Royal Dutch Shell, and ConocoPhillips. The city is asking that they pay for the defensive measures the metropolis is having to put in place to stave off climate-associated damage, claiming each was involved in harming the environment by continuing to burn fuel despite knowing its harmful effects and “intentionally misled the public to protect their profits.”

Speaking of climate change decimating our current living situation…

More Water on Mars!

We already knew of water’s existence on Mars, but recent research highlights just how close a significant amount of water ice is to the surface in mid-latitude regions on Mars. This discovery could be paramount for future exploration missions to Mars, allowing astronauts to use such ice for water and fuel. A lack of craters in the ice also hints that they are extremely young – relatively speaking – being less than a million years old. Further, the ice appears to be layered, much like the sedimentary layers on Earth, which could therefore elucidate different geological periods in the history of the planet. The findings were led by Colin Dundas from the US Geological Survey in Arizona. The team writes, “this ice… is expected to preserve a record of climate history, influences the planet’s habitability, and may be a potential resource for future exploration”.

Bill Gates Thinks Cancer Therapies Could Serve a Much Wider Purpose

In 2016, an estimated 445,000 people died from malaria, 1 million from HIV-related illness, and 1.7 million from TB (including 0.4 million with HIV). If the immunotherapy used to treat cancer patients in the world’s more prosperous nations could eventually be used to control infectious diseases in its poorest, whilst helping to treat those already infected, we could see a significant decline in these figures. But cancer research is just the start when it comes to using the solutions of “rich-world markets” to address the ailments of the poorest. For example, research into neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s could be useful for treating the hundreds of millions of children with cognitive development issues due to growing up in poverty, while researchers in Africa and South Asia attempting to address mal​nutrition may glean valuable insights from obesity research. This was the message of Bill Gates’ keynote address at J.P. Morgan’s Annual Healthcare Conference in San Francisco. As Gates concluded, reaching this goal of health equity in our lifetime by building bridges between the private sector and global health isn’t just a possibility — it’s an imperative.

Lastly, we go to a group of Brazilian biologists with a penchant for literary fantasies…

Seven New Species of Spider Discovered – Seven Opportunities to Nail the Name

Seven new species of cave spiders were discovered by a team of Brazilian arachnid biologists in a system of caves formed of iron-rich sediment deposits in the state of Pará. All seven spiders are of edaphic trogophile decent​, meaning that they live in dirt and have adapted to spending all their time in caves. The group’s paper, represents five years of work studying the spiders in the field and the collection of approximately 2,000 specimens. These biologists may also have a flare for literature and popular culture, given the names of these new creatures. The first two were “namely” inspired from J.R.R. Tolkien, being Ochyrocera laracna and Ochyrocera ungoliant. The first monstrous arachnid is named for Laracna, the Portuguese translation of Shelob, a giant cave spider and immortal ancient creature that guards one of the passages into Mordor. The second is named for Shelob’s mother, Ungoliant, the primordial spider who “desir[ed] only to be a mistress of her own insatiable craving to devour all light, to feed her everlasting emptiness.” A third spider, Ochyrocera varys was named after Lord Varys from the A Song of Ice and Fire series by George R. R. Martin. Varys, a master of espionage, who is called the Spider because of his skill at cultivating a web of informants.

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