Science round-up: what am I looking at this week?

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been a bit distracted from the blog because of boring things like writing papers, book chapters and reports. And I am aware of the irony that all of those things will probably not get read as frequently as my blog does. However, I’ve been looking at various things, and here are four sciency-based items that caught my attention (for various reasons) over the past week:

  • Oceans are acidifying faster than ever before (very bad news if you’re calcium carbonate-based);
  • Lyme disease is encroaching northward in North America (“here’s a drawing of a spirochaete!” – Ralph Wiggum, The Simpsons);
  • A new species of frog has been discovered in the middle of New York City (no, it’s not a voracious predator of overpriced hotdogs); and, finally, in the realm of awful first-world problems:
  • How to make ice cream smoother and with fewer icky ice crystals (yes, really).

It's a spirochaete! Image credit here.

Oceans getting acidic

Published in Science and reported by New Scientist, the pH of our oceans is dropping by 0.1 per century. This rate is faster than any historical acidification rate, which itself was assessed by examining chemical profiles of marine rocks over 300 million years. The speed at which the acidification is occurring, coupled with other climate change-induced impacts such as water temperatures rising and dissolved oxygen decreasing, means that no-one is really quite sure what these effects will have on marine life. Entire marine ecosystems are threatened by this trio of processes.

Lyme Disease moving north

Spotted in Scientific American, there is a nice story on Lyme disease. Prevalence of the disease is predicted to increase over the northern hemisphere summer, there is also mounting evidence suggesting that the distribution of the disease will increase northward, into Canada. How, you say? It’s due to a complex mix of factors including, amongst other things, high prevalence of the disease in Wisconsin and Minnesota (both neighbours of Canada), spikes in populations of reservoir hosts (white footed mice, Peromyscus leucopus and white tailed deer Odocoileus virginianus) and favourable conditions for tick (Ixodes scapularis) dispersal/survival. For the uninitiated, Lyme disease is a tick-borne bacteria that causes a nasty disease in humans. The bacteria amplify in the white tailed/footed reservoir hosts and when a larval tick bites them, the tick sucks up some bacteria as well as blood. Then the larva moults, becomes a nymph and bites a human. When it does this, it spits out some bacteria as it sucks up human blood. As far as I can tell, Lyme disease has been present in southern Canada for some time, but never in high prevalence. Warming climatic conditions will cause the reservoir hosts to  move around, and allow ticks to survive where previously they may not have been able to.

New frog in the Bronx

News websites (such as this one) have trumpeted the discovery of a new species of leopard frog in New York City. OMG, right? Published in Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution, this study actually does not describe a new species, merely uses molecular data to determine that the leopard frog genus Rana, in the New Jersey, New York and Connecticut areas comprises four species, as opposed to the previously held view of three species being present. Yes, using molecular data, it is sufficiently different at species level, and they even mention physical differences between this new frog and the others (they make a different sound, apparently) but this information does not a new description make. From a taxonomy viewpoint, I’d wonder why the authors had the audacity to write a news release about research that is clearly incomplete.

Ice cream, now with less crystals!

Yes indeedy, we’re well in the realm of the ridiculous now. From BBC News, we have word that researchers at the Institute for Snow and Avalanche Research in Switzerland have teamed up with Nestle to examine the structure of tiny ice crystals that form in ice cream as it melts and refreezes. As the ice cream carton is repeatedly taken out of the freezer and put back in again, the temperature changes cause ice crystals to form and this makes the ice cream “icier, harder to scoop and less pleasurable to eat” (their words, not mine). Yes, that should be a research priority. I understand that not everyone can cure cancer (hell, I name worms for a living! How pointless is that?!), but concentrating how to make my ice cream less icy seems rather lightweight in the research stakes.

So there you have it. Some things I liked, and some things I didn’t. For me, good science is more important than flashy science or fashionable topics. Which is probably why I’m struggling to get funding….. 🙂


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