Thursday, 28 May 2009

Scientist's discover route to increase crop harvest 25%

Oilseed rape is grown for its tiny black oil-containing seeds, prized for cooking oil and margarines low in saturated fat, and increasingly for biodiesel. The meal that remains after oil extraction is also used as a high protein animal feed.
Creative Commons Attribution ShareAlike Author: Rror

Known as a 'brassica', these plants normally disperse their seeds by a pod-shattering mechanism. Just before harvest, oilseed rape pods can shatter causing a 10-25% loss of seeds and up to 70% in some cases.

Although this mechanism is an advantage in nature, it is one of the biggest problems in farming oilseed rape. As well as losing valuable seeds, it results in runaway ‘volunteer’ seedlings that contaminate the next crop in the rotation cycle. If rape seeds are harvested early to get round the problem, immature seeds may be collected which are of an inferior quality.

Scientists at the John Innes Centre have discovered that by artificially introducing a hormone into the plant, they can prevent the pod-shattering process taking place. The scientists discovered that the absence of the hormone auxin in a layer of cells in the fruit is necessary for the fruit to open. Two stripes of tissue form where no auxin is present, and these separate to open the pod.

Dr Lars Østergaard from the John Innes Centre: “We need to refine the process for use in agriculture to reduce seed loss but still allowing them to be easily harvested.”

The John Innes Centre is an institute of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC). Professor Janet Allen, Director of Research, BBSRC said: “With a growing global population we must increase food production significantly within 20 years. With current yield improvements beginning to plateau, the value of this kind of fundamental research is becoming even more significant. Knowledge gained in this way will underpin future technological developments, but it takes time to do this; 20 years from lab to field is not an unreasonable expectation in terms of time scale.”

Read more: John Innes Centre

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

Rooks using tools

This BBC video shows that rooks have a remarkable aptitude for using tools.

Tests on captive birds revealed that they could craft and employ tools to solve a number of different problems.

The findings, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, came as a surprise as rooks do not use tools in the wild.

Here, the rook choose the appropriate stones to release a tasty snack from a trapdoor.

Environment YES

Environment YES (Young Entrepreneurs Scheme) is an innovative scheme to raise levels of entrepreneurial awareness, that is targeted at PhD students and post doctoral researchers working in the environmental sciences.

Environment YES will run as a 3-day residential workshop in Oxford with participants split into teams. They will attend presentations from leading figures in industry on all aspects of technology transfer and the commercialisation of science ideas. This knowledge is then used by participants to prepare an oral business plan presentation for an "imaginary" environmental or environmental technology start-up company. On the final afternoon the participants make a formal oral presentation of their business plan to a panel comprised of business, financial and academic experts taking the role of venture capitalists.

Teams taking part compete against each other for a prize which is awarded to the winning Environment YES team at the London Final.

This is an opportunity to investigate a career path you may not have considered before.
You will have the opportunity to network with a variety of professionals who will be happy to talk about their career routes with you.

Read more here

Famous Ida fossil cast to go on display at Natural History Museum

Ida’s life-size fossil cast is on display at the Natural History Museum from today: Ida at the Natural History Museum. The 47-million-year-old fossil caused a sensation last week when researchers from the University of Oslo suggested Darwinius masillae could be our earliest human ancestor. Museum palaeontologists are excited about the fact that the fossil is so complete - the fur impressions and remains of its last meal in its gut let scientists reconstruct its lifestyle as well as learn much more about a very early stage in primate evolution.

However, that the fossil has been the subject of much media attention has also raised eyebrows. The fossil was actually discovered two years ago and has been the subject of a high-profile media campaign that includes documentaries and a website to accompany the official celebrity 'unveiling' in New York. The Times this week published an article criticising the hype: The dangerous link between science and hype. And the Guardian similarly highlights the auspicious occasion: To get a glimpse of Ida fossil, the media make monkeys of themselves.

What are your thoughts? Has the science been eclipsed by the media machine? Or has it been great publicity for palaeontology and science research in general?

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Surprise innovation could cut 20% off aircraft carbon emissions

The UK aviation industry has previously announced targets to reduce emissions per passenger km by 50% by 2020. Part of these savings will be made from lighter aircraft and improvements in engine and fuel efficiency. However, friction is also a major factor in fuel consumption during flights.

New research could minimise the time aircraft spend waiting for take-off. Photo courtesy of National Air Traffic Services Ltd

Photo credit: National Air Traffic Services Ltd

Engineers have known for some time that tiny ridges known as ‘riblets’ - like those found on sharks bodies - can reduce skin-friction drag, (a major portion of mid-flight drag), by around 5%. But the latest innovation, a micro-jet system being developed by Dr Duncan Lockerby and his colleagues at the University of Warwick, could reduce skin-friction drag by up to 40%.

The new approach uses tiny air powered jets which redirect the air making it flow sideways back and forth over the wing. Dr Lockerby said: “This has come as a bit of a surprise to all of us in the aerodynamics community. It was discovered, essentially, by waggling a piece of wing from side to side in a wind tunnel.”

“The truth is we’re not exactly sure why this technology reduces drag but with the pressure of climate change we can’t afford to wait around to find out. So we are pushing ahead with prototypes and have a separate three year project to look more carefully at the physics behind it.”

Read more here:

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Steve Leonard - Save Our Bees

A TV vet whose veterinary practice is in Whitchurch is calling on the public to save the bees.

Steve Leonard supports the So What? So Everything national campaign to show people how science benefits them in their everyday lives and how it is vital to meeting some of the major challenges of our time.

Part of this is using scientific knowledge to protect the dwindling bee population.

The dramatic decline in honeybee populations in the UK means the UK imports 80% of our honey.

Without beekeepers there would be no honeybees in the UK.

In the UK there are approximately 44,000 beekeepers managing around 274,000 hives, each worth about £600 to the UK agricultural economy.

Steve, who runs his practice with his brother Tom, said: “There are 250 species of bees in the UK, and they are all at risk of being lost.

“One of the reasons is that some of the bees have got a mite, a little creature living within the bee that kills it off. Another reason is the loss of habitat.

“It is such a priority to sort this out. If the bee population dies out we will be facing major problems to our agricultural economy.

“What people can do is create an environment and habitat for the bees in their own back gardens. Just let a little area grow wild. This will encourage wild flowers and be the perfect habitat for the bees.

“Also bees need places to create their nests. Tie together some snap canes, create little gaps between them and put them in the wild area.

“And I ask people to consider bee keeping. I know in Whitchurch a bee keeping group meet up in the Civic Centre once a month.”

Source: White Church Herald

Sport England - Innovation challenge

Sport England today challenged innovators – both within and beyond the sport sector – to come forward with ground-breaking concepts and solutions that will shape community sport over the next decade.

This is the opportunity to unearth the ideas that will transform grassroots sport and help create a lasting sporting legacy from the London 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games.

The best innovations, and the people who can turn them into reality, will benefit from expert support and investment through Sport England’s new Innovation Fund. £5 million of National Lottery funding is available each year, through a highly competitive process, with up to 20 projects expected to secure investment.

Sport England wants to hear about innovations that will:

  • Unlock a major barrier to participation in sport
  • Exploit technology to deliver sport at new times, in new settings or to new audiences
  • Inspire more people to take up a sport by creatively adapting an existing game.

Sport England’s Chair, Richard Lewis, said:

“Great ideas are priceless, so we need to do all we can to encourage innovative thinking if we’re to achieve a genuine breakthrough in growing sports participation.”

Applications to Sport England’s Innovation Fund will be assessed on a competitive basis by a panel of experts in sport and innovation, including a representative from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, John Denham MP, said:

“In a tough economic climate, it’s more important than ever to innovate, whether you want to improve profit margins or attract more people to sport. By supporting innovation and reaching out beyond the world of sport for ideas and expertise, Sport England will ultimately secure a better return on its investment.”

Sport England will only invest in innovations which, if successful, could be rolled out across the country in a way that is both cost-effective and sustainable. This will ensure that the benefits of the Innovation Fund are felt across the sporting landscape.

Scientists find evidence for potential green tea effect on osteoarthritis

In the UK, green tea is fast becoming as ubiquitous as builder's brew with supermarket shelves devoted to various flavours and varieties. Much of this growth has been down to a belief in the health benefits to be derived from drinking it. Unfortunately, evidence from scientific studies has been thin on the ground.

However, a study published this week in the journal Arthritis Research & Therapy (doi:10.1186/ar2700) has shown that a compound present in green tea may inhibit a mechanism through which osteoarthritis develops. Osteoarthritis is a degenerative joint disease that results in the painful loss of cartilage that cushions our joints.

Scientists from the University of South Carolina, examined the effect of a compound called epigallocatechin-3-gallate (EGCG), found in green tea, on a class of molecules implicated in osteoarthritis, called advanced glycation end products (AGEs). It is possible that in cartilage cells, AGEs activate a protein that causes inflammation and a gene that stimulates breakdown of the cartilage.

The study found that the compound present in green tea significantly reduced the effects of the AGEs on the cartilage cells used in the laboratory.

Although the study is not a clinical trial that tested the effect of green tea on osteoarthritis in real people, it is still exciting research that should be of interest to tea-drinkers everywhere.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Air: energy source of the future?

Two exciting research projects have highlighted the potential of air to play a key role in a renewable energy future.

Last week saw the press reporting on a new air-powered car that instead of being powered by an internal combustion engine, uses compressed air technology to drive pistons in the engine. Of course an external energy source is still needed to compress the air, but with the possibilty of this being achieved using renewable sources, and with CO2 emissions a fraction of petrol engines, it is still an exciting breakthrough.

A similar breakthrough has been unveiled today by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC): a new air-fuelled battery that may be able to give out ten times more energy than conventional designs. Oxygen drawn from the air reacts with material inside to release the electrical charge in the lithium-air battery. Not having to carry traditional chemicals around inside the battery offers the potential for more energy for the same size of battery. Reducing the size and weight of batteries has been a long-running battle for developers of electric cars.

The STAIR (St Andrews Air) cell should be cheaper than current rechargeable batteries too. The new component is made of porous carbon, which is far less expensive than the lithium cobalt oxide it replaces.

Principal investigator on the project, Professor Peter Bruce of the Chemistry Department at the University of St Andrews, estimates that it will be at least five years before the STAIR cell is commercially available.

Read more:

Friday, 15 May 2009

£155,000 Brian Mercer Award for Innovation

From the Royal Society:

A new sensor that will allow engineers to rapidly identify blockages and damage to sewer pipes has today won a £155,000 Brian Mercer Award for Innovation from the Royal Society. Professor Kirill Horoshenkov is developing an airborne acoustic sensor that can objectively measure in-pipe condition. It will offer a 100-fold improvement in the productivity of sewer inspection.

The UK's 300,000km sewer system is ageing and poorly monitored. Furthermore, it faces increasing capacity demands because of increased urbanisation, more stringent environmental regulation and the possible consequences of climate change in the form of more frequent and intense rain events. The sensor, being developed at the University of Bradford, will offer a new and effective way to monitor the condition of this system.

Professor Horoshenkov said:

"Water companies in the UK are legally required to maintain the conditions of their sewer systems and to reduce flooding incidents. Consequently, monitoring pipes for obstructions and defects forms an important part of the operational and maintenance costs. Existing sewer survey methods are limited to the interpretation of CCTV and LightLine images which are relatively slow - less than 2% of the UK network is surveyed every 5 years.

This award will allow us to develop a prototype of our sensor and ultimately provide an efficient solution to what is at the moment a very costly but neccessary operation."

The prize will be presented at the annual Royal Society Labs to Riches event tonight in London. £185,000 will also be awarded to Dr Andrew Nelson from the University of Leeds who is developing a sensor to continuously monitor levels of toxins in water. The awards are given to encourage innovation in science and technology and promote the commercial application of research.

Sir Peter Williams, Vice-President of the Royal Society said:

"Science has the potential to solve some of the greatest challenges facing the world at the moment but only if we continue to invest in good ideas. We need to be on a constant look-out for the next big thing and then willing to support it when it comes along.

Monitoring pipes for obstructions and then removing them could form an important part of an effective programme to reduce sewer flooding. Professor Horoshenkov and his team are working on a truly novel technology which may a very positive impact on the condition of our sewer systems. The Royal Society is pleased to help move this technology a step closer to reality."

Science and Innovation Minister Lord Drayson, who will be presenting the award, said:

"It is great to see the Royal Society giving such a high profile to applied research. This sensor demonstrates the fundamental importance of basic acoustic research to developing tomorrow's tools for the benefit of society and the economy. Both the projects will prove crucial to guaranteeing and improving environmental health. And personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see engineering doing so well at these awards."

The Labs to Riches event will also see the award of 9 Brian Mercer Feasibility Awards of up to £30,000 each to projects including a sensor for detecting hydrogen gas on the ocean floor and a new low-energy natural ventilation system for buildings. Six of the awards are funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and a further award in electrotechnology is supported by the ERA Foundation.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

Herschel and Planck ready to launch

In preparation for what the BBC describes as the biggest European spaceflight launch in history, the two satellites Herschel and Planck are on the launch pad ready for lift off today at 1312 GMT.

Carrying the largest telescope to be flown in space, the Herschel Space Observatory will view the Universe at far infrared wavelengths. The Planck satellite will study the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) - the relic radiation from the Big Bang. Its mission is to understand the origin and evolution of our Universe and look for the seeds of modern day structures, such as galaxies and galaxy clusters, in the subtle variations in the CMB.,0.JPG
Photo credit: ESA

The satellites are at the launch site in French Guiana ready to be taken into space by the European Space Agency rocket Ariane 5, used for launching satellites into geostationary orbit, medium and low-Earth orbits and sun-synchronous orbits.,0.jpg
Photo credit: ESA S. Corvaja, 2009

Like NASA's recent shuttle launch, the ESA will be broadcasting the launch live online for free. To watch click here.

More info see the European Space Agency website

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

UK awards £16m for research into future health care solutions

Ten research grants to help solve some of the biggest health problems facing the UK have been awarded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

The projects focus on developing new techniques for screening and treating major public health issues such as cancer, stroke, AIDS, influenza, MRSA and dementia.

The grants, worth £16.5m, have been given by the EPSRC, acting as the lead Research Council in a cross Research Council Programme called “Nanoscience through Engineering to Application.”

• Scientists at Swansea University are leading a project with Boots the chemist to produce the first affordable home based stroke detector. 750,000 people in the UK are currently on anti-coagulant drugs due to risk of stroke. The new device will be first tested by the NHS and could then be available to the public within five years time.

• Middlesex University are developing an affordable cancer screening device for use in local health clinics. The scanners could be a cheap and accurate alternative to expensive MRI scanners which often have a long waiting list.

• Newcastle University has a team working on a hand-held sensor system to test people for infectious microorganisms such as MRSA.

John Wand, EPSRC Head of Nanotechnology & Next Generation Healthcare, said: “The research we are funding is about using nanotechnology to develop healthcare solutions for the future. It’s about working in partnership towards cheaper, more effective treatments, when you need them.”

Further additional funding for three years has been earmarked for the most successful projects with the expectation that the technology will be sufficiently advanced to secure further finance to advance application of the new technologies.

Nanotechnology became a key strategy for the EPSRC in 2006. The EPSRC Nanotechnology Grand Challenge, under which these grants have been made, is part of the Research Council UK’s (RCUK) broader nanotechnology programme aimed at realising a transformational impact in areas that are important to society such as energy, healthcare and the environment.

The Nanotechnology Grand Challenge was developed in close consultation with members of the public and took account of their aspirations and concerns relating to potential nanotechnology applications for healthcare.

The EPSRC is working closely with other Research Councils and the Technology Strategy Board to ensure the delivery of this important programme.

£6.7m was allocated as part of the Energy Nanotechnology Grand Challenge in May 2008. The third EPSRC Nanotechnology Grand Challenge, with £5m to look at how nanotechnology can help the environment, will be announced later in 2009.

EPSRC website

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Science festivals and fairs are a great way to engage people of all ages in the value of science and technology

The British Science Festival is one of Europe's largest science festivals, taking place each September. The festival is in a different location in the UK each year and their week long, programme offers thousands of people the opportunity to join in talks, plays, debates, hands-on activities and more.

The Times Cheltenham Science Festival 2009, which will take place from 3-7 June 2009, will see some of the world’s top leading scientists answering some of the most press science questions. The festival features a sparkling line up of leading scientists in their fields, well-known science figures including Professor Lord Winston and Alice Roberts and celebrities with a passion for science and engineering, such as Heston Blumenthal, James Cracknell and Richard Hammond.

And smaller organisations are also realizing the potential; Dalziel High School in Scotland ran their first science fair last June 2008 and are currently planning their second fair, scheduled for next month. As part of the event, pupils will research areas of science and technology then build a device to demonstrate how these items work. The students then get the chance to display these devices to the local community. The school was overwhelmed with the positive response from both the community, parents and the pupils, all of whom were excited by the fair. To see their Science Fayre 2009 website: click here

So whether large or small, science festivals and fairs give a great opportunity for people of all ages to get stuck in to learning more about science in a fun and engaging way. Why not look out for a science festival near you using the Science: So What? So Everything calendar.

NASA space shuttle mission photos

Here are some of the latest photos from NASA's current space shuttle mission STS-125 on its way to service the Hubble Space Telescope:

In the White Room on Launch Pad 39A at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, Mission Specialist Andrew Feustel, left, is helped by the closeout crew putting on his harness.
At right is Pilot Gregory C. Johnson. They are preparing to enter space shuttle Atlantis through the open hatch in the background.
Photo credit: NASA/Sandra Joseph-Kevin O'Connell
May 11, 2009
Photo credit: NASA/Fletcher Hildreth
May 11, 2009
Image credit: NASA television May 11, 2009

To follow the progress of the mission visit:

Friday, 8 May 2009

Glasgow University Science Festival 2009

Running from the 2nd May until 18th June 2009, the University of Glasgow's science, arts and learning festival offers a huge range of lively and interactive activities for adults and children.

For adults there are a series of free weekly public lectures which kicked off this week with Dr Roger Wardman talking about 'Smart fabrics and interactive textiles'. Future lectures include 'A history of Astrophysics in Scotland' and 'Science is Fun'. There are also many other short courses, exhibitions and special events over the next six weeks.

Youngsters will have the chance to build their own solar car, view the stars inside an inflatable planetarium and take part in a rocketry session in the Children's Garden at the Botanic Gardens.

Dr Rebecca Crawford, of the festival team, said: "The Science Festival is about showcasing the everyday applications of science and engineering, especially cutting-edge research, and making it understandable and fun for children and adults.

"Hopefully, we might inspire the next generation of scientists."

Read more:

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Indian and UK students team up for bio-science project

Scientists and Phd students from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), University of Leeds and the Indian Agriculture Research Institute have received a one-million pound grant from the UK government to develop sustainable, anti-parasitic crops through new bio-technologies. The crops will have to be new, parasite-resistant, sustainable and ecologically safe.
The Indian Institute of Science. From

The programme is important as global crop losses to parasites are huge, estimated at potentially $125billion. UK and Indian scholars say the research will have great value for farmers in semi-arid peninsular and western India, where climate change is likely to have its largest impact.

Crops dying due to parasites affects farmers and ultimately consumers as it hits at growth, livelihood and food supply. Dryland farmers are the worst hit in India as unfavourable conditions sometimes don't permit them even hand-to-mouth living, let alone taking supplies to the market. Researchers from the three institutes will look at developing technologies that will help crops grow and sustain, particularly in dry areas where there is no other source of livelihood.

Throughout the research, there will be movement of Phd students between UK and India via projects. Students registered in the UK will gain first-hand insight and awareness of the need for translational and strategic research, and students from Indian institutes will benefit from training in the UK. This interaction will also help them develop their academic career.

Read more: Times of India

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

UK scientists set sights on Universe

On May 14th, ESA's Herschel and Planck satellites will be launched together into space where they will collect the most detailed information yet about the birth and evolution of our Universe and its stars and galaxies. The UK is playing major roles in both missions, with funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Artists impression of Herschel (credit ESA) from

Carrying the largest telescope to be flown in space, the Herschel Space Observatory will view the Universe at far infrared wavelengths. It will peer through obscuring clouds of dust to look at the early stages of star birth and galaxy formation; it will examine the composition and chemistry of comets and planetary atmospheres in the Solar System; and it will be able to study the star-dust ejected by dying stars into interstellar space which form the raw material for planets like the Earth.

UK participation in Herschel includes leadership of an international consortium that designed and built the SPIRE instrument. The UK SPIRE team is also responsible for the development of software for instrument control and processing of the scientific data, and will lead the in-flight testing and operation of SPIRE.
Artists impression of Planck (credit ESA) from

By studying the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) - the relic radiation from the Big Bang - the Planck satellite will allow us to travel back in time, nearly 14 thousand million years, towards the beginning of space and time as we know it. Its mission is to understand the origin and evolution of our Universe and look for the seeds of modern day structures, such as galaxies and galaxy clusters, in the subtle variations in the CMB.

The information gathered could also tell us more about the nature of the mysterious dark matter and dark energy, which constitutes most of the Universe, and help us understand more about the future of our Universe and whether it will continue its expansion forever, or collapse into a Big Crunch.

UK groups are involved in building the two focal plane instruments for Planck and UK astronomers are also posed to work on the scientific observations that Planck will make.

Read more here:

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Natural Capital Initiative launched

As climate change and population growth force us to consider how best to use and preserve the dwindling services provided by the environment, the Natural Capital Initiative believes there is a need to start understanding the value of all the services the environment provides us with. The UK Government is therefore developing frameworks that consider whole ecosystems, and has recently commited to implementing the 'ecosystems approach'.

The Natural Capital Initiative aims to help inform Government’s implementation of this new approach by identifying the gaps in science, policy and its implementation that are preventing an ecosystem approach being applied – and encouraging them to be filled. To achieve this aim they are working with government departments and agencies, NGOs, the private sector and scientific bodies.

The first meeting of the Natural Capital Initiative heard from speakers setting out their vision for a truly holistic ecosystem approach to managing our natural resources. Speakers including the Rt Hon Eliot Morley MP, Lord May of Oxford and Professor John Beddington, Government Chief Scientific Advisor, took to the stage to urge policy-makers, natural and social scientists to work far more closely together to tackle climate change and biodiversity loss.

Presentations from Tesco, Eurostar, Centrica, Water UK and the National Farmers Union highlighted private sector action towards improving its impact on the environment. Business responds to consumer demand, but Richard Brown, CEO of Eurostar, stressed that business should also be leading the way and not waiting for legislation to force companies to take action.

The organising partners of the Natural Capital Initiative are the Institute of Biology, Centre for Ecology & Hydrology, British Ecological Society and the Science Council.

Read more here:
Natural Capital Initiative
British Ecological Society

Spiders’ extreme mating caught on camera

A male spider that injects sperm straight into a female's body after piercing it with his fangs has been discovered in Israel. The mating technique, called 'traumatic insemination' (TI), has never before been seen in spiders, and is every bit as gory as it sounds. Below is one of three videos of insemination in action. See the rest of the videos on the Royal Society's website.

Video courtesy Milan Rezac from