Can humans smell sex pheromones?

Dr Alfredo Sansone MRSB, research associate at University College London, introduces us to sex pheromones and scientists’ 40 year quest to discover if humans can smell them.

You might have heard about pheromones in the news or in some advertisements claiming that a perfume will make you irresistible, however, many people don’t know what pheromone means. The definition of pheromone dates back to 1930s, when they were first discovered in insects. At the time it was found that a molecule, or a mix of molecules, released by an individual can affect the behaviour of another individual of the same species, often triggering a sexual response. These molecules normally function via the sense of smell. In insects the effect of a pheromone can be very straightforward, and even different for the two sexes, meaning that the same molecule can inhibit mating behaviour in a male fly, but promote mating in a female. Read more »

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Helping urban agriculture take root

Sam Lane AMRSB looks at some of the technologies and policies that will help cities grow their own food.

What if I told you there was a way to meet growing demands for food security, reduce causes of climate change, shrink supply chains and improve public health? Well, some think that urban agriculture might just be the answer, and plant biologists are in a prime position to get involved.

Where to begin?

Let’s start with food security. London, a city of nearly eight million people, only has food stores for three to four days – if supply was disrupted- which is the worst of any European city according to Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, London. Across the country, malnutrition has risen by over 50% since 2010. As more of the world’s population continues on a trend of urbanisation, urban food security is a growing issue, and the impact of poor diets is a growing legacy of ill-health. Read more »

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Plant Science at Christmas

Guest author Ian Street looks at the two occasions when the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures focused on plant science 

Inspiring future generations through science has been a key component of the Royal Institution and its annual Christmas Lectures – started by Michael Faraday in 1825. There have been two plant science Christmas lectures: one given by John Lindley in 1833 and the other given by Sue Hartley in 2009.

John Lindley was was an eminent botanist and one of the men responsible for setting Kew Gardens on a solid foundation. A professor at University College London, he headed what is now the Royal Horticultural Society and was the first botanist to present a Christmas Lecture. In 1837, when Queen Victoria’s reign began, he was the botanist who classified and described the Victoria amazonica (named Victoria regia by Lindley), a giant water lily. A little over a decade later, Joseph Paxton would get the aquatic lily to bloom in England in one of his innovative glass house designs. Read more »

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The wolves of Isle Royale

Field biologist Joshua Powell describes how a grant from the Society took him to one of the most remote national parks in the USA. Find out how to apply for the latest round of grants – open now.

The largest island on the largest freshwater lake in the world, Isle Royale is one of the most fascinating of all of the USA’s national parks. A stunning world of mist-shrouded bays and thick forest, and an International Biosphere Reserve, this is a part of North America that very few ever get to see. Incredibly difficult to reach, Isle Royale is often heralded as the most remote national park in the ‘Lower 48‘, a claim only contested by California’s Channel Islands.

Yet it was here that, with a grant from the Royal Society of Biology, I would be working on one of the longest running biological studies in the world, a long-term study of predator-prey dynamics on the island led by Dr Rolf Peterson. Part of the reason why Isle Royale is so interesting for biologists is that predator-prey dynamics on the island are comparatively simple: Lake Superior is so big and Isle Royale so hard to reach that, aside from humans, there are just two large terrestrial mammals that made it here – the moose (Alces alces) and the grey wolf (Canis lupus). Read more »

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Something in the air

By Dr Jonathan Carruthers, science policy officer at the Royal Society of Biology

We are all exposed to air pollution to some degree.

Oxides of nitrogen and particles emitted by road vehicles, trains and ships affect not just the frail, but all of us throughout our lives. These pollutants seriously harm health: they are linked with cancer, heart disease, obesity and dementia. The Royal College of Physicians states that 40,000 deaths each year in the UK are attributable to outdoor air pollution. Read more »

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The Future of Science

By Josephine Hellberg MRSB, DPhil physiology, anatomy and genetics student at the University of Oxford and science policy intern at the Royal Society of Biology.

Where do you see science in 30 years’ time?

Scientific progress is relentless, working at the cutting-edge and pushing the frontiers of our understanding. Today we have access to technologies that were science-fiction in the 1980s, allowing us to do things like synthesise complete genomes, edit individual genes at will, and generate stem cells from mature tissue.

Across decades, scientific progress goes from cutting-edge to commonplace, with the magnitude of changes becoming evident only when you juxtapose past and present. For example, 30 years ago, there was no publicly available Internet. Today, we can’t imagine life without it.

It was also 30 years ago that the Campaign for Science and Engineering (CaSE) was founded. Since then, the organisation has grown into a leading advocacy organisation for science and engineering in the UK – providing science with a voice in politics. On the occasion of the organisation’s 30th anniversary, CaSE organised an event on shaping the future of science.

Read more »

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TEF vs. REF: are teaching and research now adversaries?

By Henry Lovett, policy & public affairs officer, The Physiological Society

Lord Willetts and Bridget Lumb

At the recent Labour, Conservative and SNP party conferences, The Physiological Society asked  policy makers to consider an important question: ‘TEF vs. REF: Are Teaching and Research Now Adversaries?’

The successful fringe events discussed how the Government’s development of a Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) will relate to the already existing Research Excellence Framework (REF). TEF is a way to measure the strength of teaching at UK universities and reward the institutions accordingly with a rating, and perhaps more importantly, a fee increase. This should then provide prospective students with some more information on which to base their choice of institution. Another consequence may be that universities start to see their teaching as a more important indicator of their stature, whereas in the past their research strength has been the largest contributor to their reputation.

These sound like laudable aims; indeed, who would argue against better courses and informed choices? Not us. However, as is so often the case, there is the risk of unintended consequences. With the separate Teaching and Research Excellence Frameworks, the actual teaching and research activities going on in universities risk becoming entirely separated as well. Staff may be railroaded into only teaching or only researching, moving away from the tradition of ‘scholarship’ covering both areas. Changes to courses as a result may lead to them bearing no relation to the specialisms at the university where they are taught, which could give the students a reduced insight into the cutting edge of their field. Courses could also become much more didactic, putting students into the mind-set of turning up, learning some facts, and leaving to get a job; rather than engaging in self-directed inquiry and learning the transferable skills of a rounded education and experience of research. Read more »

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Using smartphones to detect Parkinson’s Disease before symptoms arise

By Reham Badawy, PhD student at Aston University, in collaboration with Dr. Max Little, Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Smartphones and healthcare

Smartphones have become a pivotal tool in all aspects of our lives, impacting the way we communicate with one another and revolutionising the way in which we shop and bank. But what could be the impact of smartphones on healthcare? Smartphones are the perfect tool for monitoring an individual’s health because we carry them around with us everywhere we go, and so we can easily measure how symptoms fluctuate throughout the day. What if smartphones could be used as health monitoring tools to detect the early symptoms of a disease?

Smartphones come equipped with a large variety of sensors to enhance our user experience. A standard smartphone sensor known as an accelerometer, which measures movement, has been successful in distinguishing patients with Parkinson’s Disease from healthy individuals, solely by measuring their walking pattern. Read more »

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What is dining going to look like in the future?

By Professor Les Firbank FRSB, University of Leeds.
Professor Firbank is speaking on the expert panel at today’s 
Come Dine With The Future event, organised by the RSB and NRN-LCEE in Cardiff.

We know that our meals change over time; we are now offered a range of dishes far greater than at any time in history. For tonight’s challenge of creating a ‘future menu’, I thought, let’s not look too far ahead. In a few decades time dining will not have changed in the way it looks and tastes – but perhaps the way it’s produced.

There’s a lot of demand for food that is tasty, sustainable and ethically produced. So what might satisfy this demand at a time of climate change and increasing focus on local food production, whether for ethical reasons or to avoid post-Brexit tariffs? Read more »

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Clathrin: maintaining cell health in geometric style

By Dr Corinne Smith, reader in structural biology and biophysics, and director of the Research Technology Platform in Advanced Bioimaging at the University of Warwick. Dr Smith was recently awarded a Royal Society Leverhulme Trust Senior Research Fellowship for her work on clathrin.

I am intrigued by a protein called clathrin. It consumes my interest in a unique way and has done for quite a large number of years. Why would something as functional as a protein prove such an attractive object of study?

Clathrin cage structures. Kyle Morris and Corinne Smith, University of Warwick

The first reason is that it is actually attractive to look at.  It has the unusual property of being able to form geometric lattices both as part of its function in cells and in a test tube as purified protein. Geometric structures are surprising to see in nature. When they do occur they look, well, unnatural. Just look at the lattice structures formed by these fungi, indusiata and clathrus ruber.

Indusiata and clathrus ruber

We expect biological material to be messy and irregular, and of course this often appears to be the case.

Read more »

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