Themes of the last fortnight have been the weather, further research into epigenetics and the many uses of 3D printing.
When is it not dull to talk about the weather? When it’s causing hundreds of millions of pounds worth of damage across the country. Weather, weather, weather, constantly. It’s a journalist’s wet dream. If you haven’t yet heard the reports, there’s bad weather in the UK.
It’s caused by the rapid movement of the Gulf Stream across the Atlantic resulting in Britain being hit by a series of storms. The rapid movement of the stream was caused by a polar vortex in the United States, which in turn was caused by an unusually quick jet stream across the Pacific that was down to unseasonal floods in Indonesia. So everywhere from South East Asia to Europe has been having extreme weather.
This is at a time when California is experiencing drought; a drought that some fear may last as long as the 10-year drought that Australia has just suffered, which culminated in their hottest year on record in 2013. These trends are set to continue across the world: predictions made in 2007 said that Australia will have 7-20% less rainfall by 2030, but these figures are already being revised, and the wrong way if you’re an Australian farmer.
As reported in the Guardian, Ed Miliband pointed out that in 2012 the UK had the second wettest winter on record, and we’ve just had the wettest. Taken alongside the temperature busting years of the last two decades, he seemed quite balanced with his dice comment: “If you keep throwing the dice and you keep getting sixes then the dice are loaded”. The Telegraph reported that David Cameron said he ‘very much suspects’ that the flooding is linked to climate change. These positions taken by the leaders of opposing political parties seemed far more balanced than a piece about the extreme weather on the BBC World Service, which ended by emphasizing that we don’t know if there is a link between the latest weather events and climate change.
Elsewhere, Nicholas Stern delivered a reminder that these kinds of meteorological changes were exactly what the 2006 Stern Report predicted and the extreme weather is set to get worse – there’s a 75% chance that El Niño will come this year and the anomalous weather event typically brings higher-than-average global temperatures. So after a wet and disruptive winter, we could be in for an uncomfortably hot and humid summer too.
Esteem for epigenetics
A fortnight ago this blog described how the cause of peanut allergies could be at least partially rooted in epigenetics. The subject of epigenetics has remained in the news regularly since then. Roger Highfield in the Telegraph gave a charismatic explanation of epigenetics, liking the genome to an instrument, such as a piano keyboard, and epigenetics to the choice of notes played and their duration. It’s the playing of these ‘notes’ that determine a cell’s development. We assume his metaphor continues with life being the music that pours forth.
And tests on genetically identical twins have shown that pain sensitivity of two genetically identical individuals can vary. This implies that level of pain results from the expression of genes rather than the hard coded sequence of the genome itself. Expression can by switched on or off by the addition of a methyl group and in the pain experiment, researchers isolated a series of genes that are responsible for pain sensitivity. The most important of these was TrypA1 – a 10% increase in the methylation of this gene led to the feeling of pain being reduced by two degrees on a lab-devised pain scale. This research may help with individually tailored painkiller programmes but, perhaps more importantly, it helps to build a picture of the epigenetic process.
A recent paper in Cell Trends suggests that cognitive differences we currently attribute to gender may also have some epigenetic foundation. The idea of the paper authors is that a young boy’s brain develops with more male qualities such as, for instance, task mindedness because that’s the way the boy is treated by the adults around him when his brain is developing. Likewise, society expects young girls to behave in certain ways that may determine the development paths of parts of their brain. The variety witnessed in the cognitive development of young boys and girls across nations and across cultures seems to add weight to their theory.
So researchers are now looking into whether autism and schizophrenia could be the result of epigenetics, rather than genetics. A recent study of Alzheimer’s seemed to support the idea that epigenetics contributes to the disease. It found that the build up of tau protein, a protein that is characteristic in Alzheimer’s sufferers, could be the result of switching off gene dusp22, a tau protein regulator. This leads to questions such as will switching it back on solve the problem? Will regulating gene expression be more important than repairing the genome for curing some diseases in future? These studies suggest that our genetic codes may not be as rigid as we once supposed.
Versatile 3D printing
And finally, the scope of 3D printing never ceases to amaze. Ever since it became clear the president of the US probably wouldn’t be assassinated by a 3D printed gun (à la John Malkovich’s evil character from In The Line Of Fire) the first ever 3D printed gun has been welcomed into the weaponry hall of fame – read Olivia Solon’s account of how Cody Wilson’s original handgun became part of a Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition in London.
And now 3D printing technology is being used to study architecture from 800 years ago. The bricks of the Bourges Cathedral in France are being scanned and printed 50x times smaller than the originals and then painstakingly placed together in the correct formation. The purpose of constructing an accurate miniature model is to determine the stability and so the safety of this popular tourist attraction. The 3D printing procedure will be much easier than the alternative, which would be to close the cathedral and erect a lot of scaffolding inside so the walls could be properly examined. With the 3D printing technique, the bricks were scanned with lasers and then quickly reproduced. This is just one of many applications that we might find for this technology over the coming years, and that would justify the prediction that 2019, the 3D printing industry could to be worth over $7bn.
IMAGE: Wikicommons/William Putman/NASA Goddard Space Flight Center