BBC Inside Science
About this podcast
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
About this podcast
A weekly programme that illuminates the mysteries and challenges the controversies behind the science that's changing our world.
BBC Inside Science
Cov-Boost trial; SARS-Cov 2 infection in action; sapling guards; why tadpoles are dying
Scientists are now looking at the question of third doses of vaccines against SARS-Cov2, and this week the Cov-Boost trial was launched. It’s being run from University of Southampton and is going to be using seven different vaccines, some at half doses, in people over the age of 30 who were early recipients of their two doses. The Chief Investigator, immunologist Professor Saul Faust explains the aims of the trial. Once we've breathed the coronavirus into our lungs, how does it spread through our bodies, despite our immune defences? Remarkably, scientists have managed to film the virus in the act of infecting lung cells and spreading between them. They then added some antibodies and watched what happened. Alex Sigal of the Africa Health Research Institute tells Gaia Vince what they saw. The UK government has pledged to plant some 2 billion trees to help get us to net zero – and that’s an awful lot of plastic casing to be littering the countryside with. A team at the Institute of Making at UCL decided to look at the overall environmental impact of these tree protectors. This is quite a complicated calculation as it involves looking at the entire life cycle of the trees and the plastic, including the carbon and water and energy used. Gaia finds out from Charnette Chau, the life cycle assessment expert on the team, and Professor Mark Miodownik what they found. Across the US, people have been reporting ponds full of dead tadpoles: mass mortality events. It seems that a parasitic infection previously associated with disease in marine oyster populations, may be to blame: severe Perkinsea Infection. The big fear is that it will spread further, to places like Panama in Central America, which has seen such a drastic decline in frog populations that researchers have begun captive breeding some species as “assurance populations” to protect them from extinctions. Tom Richards, Professor of Evolutionary Genomics at the University of Oxford, reports on what he discovered when he went to Panama to see if the infection had reached its precious hoppers.
Covid vaccines in children; preventing dengue; algal blooms; supersonic flight
Should we be vaccinating children in the UK against SARS-Cov 2? Children are rarely seriously ill if they catch Covid but infections mean missed school, and they can pass it onto older vulnerable people. The US, Canada, Israel and Dubai are some places that are already vaccinating the under 18s and Pfizer has recently published data from a trial of its mRNA vaccine in just over 2000 12-15 year olds, showing no safety concerns. Gaia Vince discusses the issue with Professor Beate Kampmann, consultant paediatrician and Director of the Vaccine Centre at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine. Dengue fever is a widespread tropical disease caused by a virus spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito. Until now, there’s also been no way of preventing dengue aside from trying to get rid of mosquitoes, which is pretty tricky. Gaia hears from the World Mosquito Programme’s Dr Katie Anders about some positive news from a large trial in Yogyakarta in Indonesia, where mosquitoes infected with a harmless bacteria called Wollbachia, were deliberately released. The researchers found a 77% drop in cases of dengue in the areas where the infected mosquitoes were released. Hospitalisations were 84% lower. This week the first attempt to map algal blooms globally has been released, and it also charts how blooms have changed over the last thirty years. And the news isn’t good. Henrik Enevoldsen of the UN who’s based at the University of Copenhagen, has spent thirty years studying these phenomena and he explains how the growth in aquaculture has had an impact on the rise of algal blooms in some parts of the world. Nearly twenty years after Concorde last flew, a company called Boom is promising to bring back supersonic passenger flights in the next few years. They say it’ll all be environmentally sustainable. The company has sold some new jets to the US airline United. Gaia talks to Dr Guy Gratton, an engineer and pilot at Cranfield University, about how green supersonic flight can be.
Lab origin theory of SARS-Cov2; gene for obesity; dark matter map; rock art in Scotland
Sars Cov2, as the Covid19 coronavirus is called, probably began as the vast majority of new diseases do, when an animal virus infected a person – perhaps in a market or farm. There’s a large animal market in the city of Wuhan that sold wild as well as farmed animals, and studies have shown that different species of animals can infect each other with coronaviruses on their journey to market. But there’s also a possibility that the virus originated in one of two government laboratories in Wuhan. After all, we know that other viruses have escaped from labs, including the original Sars virus, which escaped multiple times from different Asian labs. Jonathan Ball, Professor of Virology at the University of Nottingham, discusses with Gaia Vince why the lab leak theory is again in the news. We know that obesity runs in families but because parents and children live in the same environment and eat the same food it is difficult to tease out how much of this relationship is inherited genetically. Researchers at Cambridge University have been working with the Children of the 90s cohort of people based in Bristol, and they’ve have found that a mutation in a single gene drives obesity in some families. The gene in question is called MC4R. Professor Stephen O’Rahilly, who is one of the researchers, explains that the mutation is remarkably common and has a significant impact on individuals, from an early age. Last week, researchers released the biggest and most detailed map of how matter and dark matter have spread across the universe since the Big Bang. The problem, is that the dark matter is more smoothly distributed than expected according to Einstein’s theory. Some are now saying physics is broken. Was Einstein wrong? Astrophysicist Catherine Heymans, who is a Dark Universe expert, and has just been appointed Astronomer Royal for Scotland, the first woman to hold the role, talks about the implications of the new map of dark matter and her plans to encourage the public to appreciate the night sky. For the first time figurative rock art over 4000 years old has been discovered in Scotland. Up till now all that’s been found have been marks such as cups and rings. The new images are detailed portraits of deer, with antlers, on a capstone of a burial mound, or cairn, in Kilmartin Glen on the west coast. It’s a well-studied archaeological site but the rock art hadn’t been spotted before. Gaia asked Tertia Barnett, Principal Investigator for Scotland’s Rock Art Project at Historic Environment Scotland, about who may have produced this art.
Human use of plants beyond the limits of history.
Human impact on planet earth’s plant life might be detectable several thousand years back in fossil pollen cores taken from mud columns around the world. As Suzette Flantua and Ondrej Mottl describe in a paper published in the journal Science, a rapid acceleration in the changes in pollen species goes back further than we might have expected. This matters particularly when it comes to decisions around re-wilding and re-planting areas today in the name of conservation. As they hope to build on in future work, learning more about the state of ecosystems further back into the past might prevent us making the mistake of simply recreating different types of post-agricultural situations which might not solve the problem we are trying to fix. One of the biggest impacts on the earth’s flora today is of course influenced by our meat consumption. The BBC’s Melanie Abbott has been to see a new exhibition opening at Oxford University’s Musuem of Natural History. Produced in association with the University’s Livestock, Environment and People research programme, this exhibition “Meat the Future”, seeks to raise awareness of the issues for health and the environment around eating – or not eating meat - and is open until January 2022. At the same time, a travelling interactive experience called Meat Your Persona will be moving around the UK, starting in Cardiff. And there's an online interactive questionnaire you can try from home. See the links at the bottom of the BBC Inside Science programme page. Researchers in the US are working on devices that might be able to connect with people’s brains to allow them to manipulate robotic or digital devices to regain abilities lost to disease or injury. As Dr Frank Willett and Prof Krishna Shenoy - both at Stanford University’s neural prosthetics translational laboratory - describe in the journal Nature, they have managed to create a device that allows one patient to create text using just thought. Rather than trying to guide a cursor over a keyboard, their technique works by learning which letter the patient is thinking of drawing by hand, despite being unable to wield a pen. And Jacob Dunn, associate professor at Anglia Ruskin University describes his team’s work which finds that tamarin monkeys will use the “accent” of another species when they enter its territory to help them better understand one another and potentially avoid conflict. His paper, published in the journal Behavioral Ecology and Sociobiology, describes findings in the Amazon rainforest near Manaus where a species that ordinarily use quite distinct long distance calls subtly change their call to sound more like a neighbouring species’ equivalent call when they are sharing the same area of forest. Not so much an aggressive intrusion as a polite lingua franca, it may be that the shared understanding reduces unnecessary and costly territorial fights between the two species. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield
Microplastics in UK river beds
Untreated wastewater "routinely released into UK rivers" is creating microplastic hotspots on riverbeds. That is the conclusion of a study in Greater Manchester, which revealed high concentrations of plastic immediately downstream of treatment works. The team behind the research concluded: untreated wastewater was the key source of river microplastic. Jamie Woodward takes Vic Gill wading in the River Tame in Greater Manchester to show some of the sites they studied, while co-author Rachel Hurley talks from Norway on the wider global questions of where microplastics get into our environment and what harm they do. The origin and location of the radioactive pollution that so devastated the lives and livelihoods of those affected by the Chernobyl disaster 35 years ago is not a mystery. But recently it has become apparent that in one small inaccessible room within the massive sarcophagus at the ill-fated power station, the nuclear fission still happening is getting slightly faster. As Neil Hyatt describes to Vic, the reason may be because the new concrete shell, unlike its predecessor, is doing a better job at keeping the rain out, and noithing to worry about for the time being. Meanwhile, Jim Smith and colleagues have been trying to demonstrate that agricultural products could help the besieged economy of surrounding areas. Using apples grown in regions where investment is illegal, they have developed a spirit drink - called Atomik - with which they hope to demonstrate a viable market outside of the Ukraine, perhaps providing jobs and export business, and maybe even useful profit with which to help the area. And finally, Dr Kim Deines describes from Swansea the health and psychological benefits of something so many hundreds of millions of people in the world have been missing this year: a nice hug. Presenter: Vic Gill Producer: Alex Mansfield Assistant Producer: Samara Linton.
Early burials, diversity in Tudor England, a malaria vaccine, and rogue brain waves
Despite being home to our early ancestors, attempts to find evidence of early burials in Africa have proved unsuccessful. That is until now. Professor María Martinón-Torres explains how findings from a 78,000-year-old Kenyan grave shed light on how our ancestors related to the dead. In keeping with the theme of clues from the past, Cardiff University academics have been studying the remains of crew who drowned on King Henry VIII’s favourite ship, the Mary Rose. As it turns out, Tudor England was more ethnically diverse than we previously thought. Victoria Gill speaks with University of Oxford researcher Dr Mehreen Datoo about a promising new malaria vaccine which was shown to be 77% effective in early trials. And Dr Nir Grossman, explains how his team at Imperial College London has been synchronising electrical pulses with rogue brain waves to treat tremors.
Dragonfly on Titan, Retreating Glaciers, Surge Testing, Acoustic lighthouses
Now that NASA engineers have successfully flown a helicopter remotely on Mars planetary scientists are exploring how to use the technology elsewhere. Marnie Chesterton talks to Elizabeth "Zibi" Turtle, from Johns Hopkins University who is working on a mission to fly a drone, called Dragonfly, above Titan, one of Saturn's moons. A new report that has measured the state of over 200 000 of the world's glaciers has just been published. Bob McNabb of the University of Ulster explains why it's not good news as glaciers are melting at a faster pace than before. He says it could have a particular impact on people who live in low lying areas. At the start of April cases of the South African variant of SARS-Cov 2 were found in a number of London boroughs. In order to stop the further spread of these variants, a programme of surge testing was announced. It’s just come to an end and Marnie finds out from Public Health England’s regional director for London, Professor Kevin Fenton, how it worked. Birds aren’t very good at adapting to human additions to the landscape, particularly tall buildings. Could extra sonic elements - so-called acoustic lighthouses - help? From William and Mary University in Virginia, Timothy Boycott and John Swaddle joined Marnie to explain how these can make a difference.
Coronavirus variants and vaccines, climate change resistant coffee, dare to repair and how to get rid of moths
This week has seen a huge surge in Covid- 19 in India leading to concern of a "double mutant" variant, but what do we know about this B.1.617 as it is otherwise known. It was first described in October and is now in other countries including the UK. Virologist Dr Muge Cevik looks at the emerging evidence around vaccines and new variants. Climate change threatens coffee crops so it's exciting to know that researchers have found an ancient coffee variety that is drought resistant and can tolerate higher temperatures than the highly prized Arabica coffee used to make your latte - but it wasn't easy to find. In Sierra Leone Daniel Sarmu spent 4 years searching for it and Dr Aaron Davis from Kew helped to track it down using historic samples from the Herbarium at the Royal Botanic Gardens. Clothes moths do enormous damage to our jumpers and carpets, Marnie finds out how best to protect your clothes. And we hear from Mark Miodownik about the right to repair.
Blood clots, grieving and the emotion of screams
The story of what we understand about the rare cases of blood clots associated with certain Covid-19 vaccines is constantly evolving. In today’s programme Professor Beverley Hunt looks at the emerging evidence. How have the restrictions due to Covid 19 affected how we grieve? Professor Claire White, an expert in grief and mourning, is investigating what it means to the grief process when the traditional ways of acknowledging death are changed. Sascha Fruholz has the unenviable task of listening to people scream all day, but he has made some surprising discoveries about which types of scream people are best able to identify.
Disobedient particles, noisy gorillas, sharks and fictional languages
In 2016, an accelerator physics centre called Fermilab acquired a massive circular 50 foot magnet from a lab in New York. Too big for the roads, the magnet had to take a 2000km detour via New Orleans to get to its new home. This was the start of the “muon g-2” experiment. Last week, Fermilab announced some of their results, and they don’t quite add up. UK experiment lead Professor Mark Lancaster from Manchester University tells us what they have discovered about the tiny particle that is disobeying the laws that govern how our entire universe fits together. Mountain gorillas are among the most impressive and powerful primates alive today. Living in the dense forests of eastern and central Africa, they are able to communicate with other gorillas a mile away by cupping their hands and beating their chests. Primatologist Edward Wright and colleagues have been studying male silverback gorillas and explains how gorillas use chest beating to attract potential mates and suss out competitors. And Professor Corey Bradshaw from Adelaide, South Australia sheds light on a more fearsome animal: sharks. His research has investigated the likelihood of shark attacks around the Australian coast into the future, up to 2066, and asked what would happen to those figures if everyone wore an electrical emitter that interferes with the sharks electrical senses. He finds that shark attacks are remarkably low already, but these emitters could reduce bites by up to 3000 over the next 50 years. Super fans around the world have learned to speak fluent Klingon, a fictional language originating from Star Trek. In a quest to understand the science behind these languages often dismissed as gobbledygook, Gaia Vince has been speaking to some of the linguists responsible for creating these languages. It’s time for her to relax the tongue, loosen those jaw muscles and wrap her head around the scientific building blocks embedded in language and what languages like Klingon tell us about prehistoric forms of communication. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Rory Galloway
Science funding cuts; Mice get Covid-19; Native oyster reintroductions
Scientists were delighted earlier this year to find they would still have access to the EU Horizon 2020 funding and collaborations. Now, it has been revealed that membership of this group, which was previously paid for through fees to the European Union, may come directly from the science budget, at a cost of about £15 billion over the next 7 years. That’s £1-2 billion a year. Marnie Chesterton speaks with Beth Thompson, head of policy at the Wellcome Trust about the implications, and Roland Pease asks scientists working around the world how the previously announced ODA cuts are affecting their work. Native oysters help to filter coastal waters of the UK of pollutants including nitrates, while also providing habitat for other species. But their numbers have declined by 95% throughout their British range. Now, the Zoological Society of London is placing thousands of mature oysters under pontoons in marinas across the UK to let them breed, and encourage the return of the species to their former numbers. And the new coronavirus mutations that are worrying us all have been found to affect mice in experimental studies at the Pasteur Institute in France. Marnie asks if this change to the infectivity of the new variants has implications for human health and our ability to combat the virus. Presented by Marnie Chesterton Produced by Rory Galloway
Halfway to net zero; hydrogen as a fuel; Fagradalsfjall, Iceland’s active volcano
The UK is reportedly halfway towards meeting its 2050 target of "net zero" carbon emissions. How did we get there and how will we achieve the next stage? ‘UK greenhouse gas emissions in 2020 were 51% below 1990 levels, according to a new Carbon Brief analysis. This means the UK is now halfway to meeting its target of “net-zero” emissions by 2050.’ Simon Evans explains his predictions from the report, outlines how we define net zero and what is required from the next few decades to ensure that the UK meets its 2050 goal. Much of Europe is attempting to replace fossil fuels, transforming transport and domestic heating to run on electrical alternatives, such as batteries and heat pumps. But where electrification isn’t possible or cost effective, such as in many homes, an alternative is still needed. Natural gas is responsible for over 30% of the UK’s total carbon emissions. Hydrogen would, theoretically, appear to be the perfect alternative, as combustion only produces water as a by product. Gaia discusses the options with hydrogen strategist, Dr Jenifer Baxter, and Dr Angela Needle of Cadent explains the pilot projects the company is carrying out to introduce 20% hydrogen into gas going into our homes. Last Friday, Fragradalsfjall began erupting for the first time in 800 years. The volcanic system is located in the West of Iceland close to the capital city of Reyjkavik. Dr Evgenia Ilynskaya of Leeds University has been out measuring the gases emitted by the eruption and she describes the experience of working on an active volcanic system.
Human embryo research and ethics; sperm whale social learning; Antikythera mechanism
We still know very little about exactly how the embryo forms out of a mass of dividing cells in those crucial first weeks after conception. This is also the time when many miscarriages occur, and scientists want to understand why. Couples going through IVF donate spare embryos for research and scientists are permitted to study them in a test tube, or in vitro, allowing them to grow and develop for up to 14 days. This 14 day rule is abided by globally, and it’s enshrined in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act in the UK. Thirty years ago no-one could keep these embryos alive for more than a few days but recently the techniques have moved on and they have been cultured for nearly 14 days. So should the 14 day rule be extended? Gaia Vince discusses this question with bioethicist professor Insoo Hyun of Case Western University and Harvard Medical School. There are other ways of studying this early development that don’t involve growing an actual embryo, and that’s by using just a few stem cells from it. These are cells that haven’t yet specialised into any type of body cell and so they have the potential to become any cell type. Researchers can grow these cells into structures that resemble embryos, although they could never survive inside a woman’s womb, and these artificial embryos aren’t subject to the 14 day rule. Gaia talks to Dr Naomi Moris of the Crick Institute in London about her work on what she calls gastruloids. Whaling was a huge industry in the 19th century, and populations of sperm whales plummeted, as hunters sought the oil in their heads that was used everywhere for lighting. The whalers who were hunting in the North Pacific kept meticulous records that have been recently made public. Biologists have been studying them, and picking out unexpected changes in the patterns of whale capture. Dr Luke Rendell of St Andrews University explains how he and his colleagues worked out that that the whales seemed to be learning from each other how to avoid the boats. A piece of intricate Ancient Greek engineering called the Antikythera mechanism, that was found by sponge divers in 1901 in the Mediterranean, has fascinated many people. Last week a team from University College London published the latest explanation of how the device worked. Science writer Jo Marchant herself became so obsessed with the mechanism that she published a book on it called Decoding the Universe and she talks to Gaia about the object and what the new research tells us about how the Greeks understood the cosmos two thousand years ago.
China's green growth plan
On Friday 5th March China published a draft for its 14th five-year plan in Beijing. The document acts as a national economic blueprint and was expected to provide an outline as to how the world’s biggest emitter of greenhouse gas emissions planned on tackling its target of reaching net zero emissions by 2060, put forward by President Xi Jinping last September. It appears that greenhouse emissions could continue to increase by 1% or more each year up until 2021. Sam Geal, acting CEO at China dialogue, explains how influential Chinese efforts are when combatting climate change. Since the late 1980s conservationists have used captive breeding to prevent the extinction of North America’s only native ferret species, the black footed ferret (Mustela nigripes). Now, an individual called WIlla, who died without leaving any offspring over 30 years ago has been cloned. Her genes represent 300% of the current genetic diversity of the species, and could help boost the chances of these animals. Dr Bridget Baumgartner works with one of the teams that took part in the successful cloning project, she describes how this novel process could bolster and prop up the genetic diversity of the dwindling population. How does one get a closer look at nutrient cycling and water temperature in marine Antarctic conditions? You could always recruit some of the local inhabitants, elephant seals! That’s exactly what Yixi Zheng at the University of East Anglia did. Her furry research assistants have revealed that surface water temperatures around the ice shelves and glaciers of Antarctica are warmer than expected in winter, and this holds implications for nutrient cycling and the productivity of the southern ocean. And finally, after an ancient rock seized the attention of the residents of Winchcombe in Gloucestershire, Professor Sara Russel discusses the rarity of finding meteors here on earth, let alone finding one early in the morning sat on your driveway. We hear what the nearly 400g of space rock that's been found this week could reveal about the origins of our solar system. Presented by Gaia Vince Produced by Rory Galloway This programme was made in association with the Open University.
Blue carbon; inside Little Foot's skull; reading locked letters
With global warming continuing to increase at an alarming rate, we need all the help we can get to lock up the carbon that we’ve released into the atmosphere. Fortunately, plants have evolved to do just this, but there’s a whole class of plants that often get forgotten: the mangroves and seagrasses that grow between land and sea, which are among the planet’s most effective carbon sinks. Gaia Vince talks to Fanny Douvere, head of the marine programme at UNESCO, about its new report that shows the importance of blue carbon locked up in its marine World Heritage Sites. And Professor Hilary Kennedy, of Bangor University, explains why seagrasses are so effective at locking up carbon. Roland Pease reports on the secret journey made by one of the most valuable of human fossils, Little Foot, from Johannesburg to Oxfordshire, where it was scanned at the Diamond Light Source facility – one of the most powerful X-ray machines in the world. He talks to some of the main players about the hush hush voyage, and what they’re hoping to discover. There are few things more intriguing than an unopened letter, but what about one from 300 years ago? The Brienne Collection is a Postmaster's trunk containing more than 2000 letters sent to the Hague between 1680 and 1706, and more than 600 are still unopened. In the days before envelopes, people used elaborate folding techniques to secure letters, even tearing off a bit of paper and using that to sew the letter shut, effectively locking it. It makes reading those letters very tricky indeed, especially as antiquarians don't want to risk opening them. Instead, researchers hatched a plan to scan the letters in their untouched, still folded state, and generate a 3D image of their insides of such detail it could be used by an algorithm to unfold it virtually. David Mills from Queen Mary University London tells Gaia about how he used a microtomography scanner to peek inside the unopened letters. Presented by Gaia Vince.
Good COP Bad COP, Shotgun Lead Persistence, and Featherdown Adaptation
On Thursday, The UN Environmental Programme published a report called Making Peace With Nature. It attempts to synthesise vast amounts of scientific knowledge and communicate “how climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution can be tackled jointly within the framework of the Sustainable Development Goals”. But it also offers clear and digestible messages that governments, institutions, businesses and individuals can act upon. Concluding BBC Inside Science’s month-long look at some of the challenges ahead of COP26 in Glasgow later this year, and its sister biodiversity meeting in China, Vic speaks with the report’s co-lead Prof Sir Robert Watson FRS and the Tyndall Centre’s Prof Rachel Warren, also a contributing author. Can all the ills of the natural world really be tackled at once? Game-shooting, for sport and food, has traditionally used the toxic metal lead for ammunition. In other parts of the world its use has been banned for the dangers to the human food chain and to the pollution in natural environments, and even deaths of wildfowl from poisoning. But not so in the UK. A year ago, as reported on Inside Science at the time, the shooting community announced a voluntary five year transition period to alternative shot materials. But researchers including profs Rhys Green and Debbie Pain from Cambridge University have discovered that a year on, little seems to have changed. Gathering game sold for food across the UK, they found that all but one bird in their sample of 180 contained lead shot. Meanwhile, up in the Himalayas, Smithsonian scientist Dr Sahas Barva was enjoying the scenery on a cold day off in 2014 when he saw and heard a tiny Goldcrest, thriving in temperatures of -10C. Wondering how such a tiny thing could keep its body insulated, he decided to investigate feathers, and utilizing the huge numbers of specimens in the Smithsonian’s collection he found some striking commonalities in the thermal properties and adaptations of birds everywhere. The higher up they live, the fluffier their coats. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in association with The Open University.
Nasa's Perseverance - will it pay off? And spotting likely hosts for future pandemics.
On Thursday 18th Feb 2020 Nasa’s Perseverance Rover is due to touch down – gently and accurately – in the Jezero crater on Mars. Using similar nail-biting Sky Crane technology as its predecessor Curiosity, if successful it will amongst many other things attempt to fly the first helicopter in the thin Martian atmosphere, and leave small parcels of interesting samples for future missions to collect and return to earth. Unlike previous Martian landings of course, there are no mass-landing parties to be held because of Covid. So Vic Gill invites you to join her and current Curiosity and future Rosalind Franklin (ESA’s 2023 Rover) team scientists in nervously awaiting the signal of success. Dr Susanne Schwenzer was so tense during Curiosity’s final approach in 2012 that she managed to draw blood from her own hand from clutching her mobile phone too hard. BBC Inside Science expects nothing less this time round. Dr Peter Fawdon has been part of the team seand examining the landing site for ESA’s Martian lander and Rover, currently slated to launch in 2022. The project has had a complicated history, having been delayed several times. But with so much at stake, it’s worth getting right. Meanwhile, at Liverpool University, computer scientist Dr Maya Wardeh and virologist Dr Marcus Blagrove have been collaborating to see if Machine Learning and AI can help predict which mammalian species are more likely to harbour the next big coronavirus. Pitting traits and genomes, species similarities, lifestyles and ecosystems of mammals and viruses, they highlight in a paper published in Nature Communications some of the potentially most potent combinations where different coronaviruses could meet and spawn a new breakout. Not just looking for the more quotidian viral mutations the world is increasingly and unfortunately aware of, they have been looking instead for those species where something called homologous recombination between two different viruses, producing a third completely novel type, may occur. It turns out there are many possibilities beyond just bats, which are highly suspected of being the crucible in which SARS-CoV2 was smelted. To spot whatever comes next we should keep an eye on camels, rabbits, palm civets and even hedgehogs, according to the algorithm. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with the Open University.
Meeting Mars, Melting Ice, Ozone on the Mend Again, and A Sea Cacophany
Victoria Gill and guests discuss the signs and symptoms of melting ice and anthropogenic climate warming, illicit CFC production and the racket we make in the seas. As two robotic missions from UAE and China arrive at Mars , and a third from NASA arrives next week, UK astronaut Tim Peake talks of the international collaboration in Mars research that is to come. And continuing BBC Inside Science's look at some of the issues facing COP26 delegates to Glasgow this autumn, Victoria is joined by cryosphere scientist Dr Anna Hogg, Anna studies – sometimes from space - how polar and Greenland ice sheets are melting and shifting as our climate warms. But those giant volumes of ice and concomitant rising sea levels might not be the only threat to people’s lives. It may be that the recent deadly flash flood in India was a result of a swiftly melting Himalayan glacier. The Montreal treaty - prohibiting the production of CFCs to allow the man-made polar hole in the Ozone layer identified back in the 1980s to repair - has long been cited as the classic example of an effective international agreement to protect earth's environment. But just a few years ago in 2018 Luke Western and colleagues identified not just that CFC production was suddenly and unexpectedly rising, but that it was mainly emanating from an area in eastern China. It was speculated then that their use in foams for buildings was happening illicitly on a large scale. This week, they happily announce that those emissions seem to have ceased, and that the target of a healthy ozone layer is back on track. The oceans are, since man first took to the waves, a noisy place. In a comprehensive paper published last week in the journal Science Carlos Duarte and colleagues describe how huge an impact the many anthropogenic noises that echo for miles across the sea beds have on virtually all aquatic life. He argues that it is one stressor, rather like CFCs, that we could and should take swift and effective action to address, that the time for that is ripe, and that doing so will see a swift rebound in many aquatic ecosystems. Humans are not naturally adapted to hear the noise underwater, but to illustrate the point, co-author digital artist Jana Winderen has made an acoustic demonstration for your benefit, of quite how noisy neighbours we are Also, for listeners on BBC Sounds, the BBC's Roland Pease gives an update on where and how scientists think the covid-19 epidemic began, after a WHO team of scientists report on their recent mission to Wuhan and the infamous market. As Roland and WHO delegate Peter Daszak surmise, we still don't quite know, but it wasn't in a lab. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in Association with The Open University.
Putting a number on biodiversity
Ahead of the COP summit in Glasgow at the end of the year, this week an important study was published that attempts to enumerate the value of biodiversity in the economics of humankind. Prof Sir Partha Dasgupta's review makes it clear how essential and yet vulnerable it is. Trees play a large part in the biosystems of the planet, and replanting them is often touted as a solution to many of the carbon challeneges of the next century. But a paper and forthcoming conference hosted by Kew points out just how carefully reforestation - let alone aforestation - must be done, Kew tree expert Kate Hardwick tells Victoria about their 10 golden rules of planting trees. In a forest in Borneo, trees have been planted that will extract the highlevels of Nickel from the local soil. It is hoped that the biomass from the trees can then be used to harvest the nickel. It is an attempt to commercialize successfully the dreams of "phytomining" - finding specific crops or traits in plants that can act to "hyperaccumulate" minerals and metals from soils. As Inside Science's Harrison Lewis reports, it might just now be bearing heavy fruit. But finding the plants that do what you want does not mean they should be planted just anywhere. Lulu Zhang from United Nations University in Dresden, Germany tells Victoria about the Chinese experience of a few decades ago when the Black Lotus tree seemed to be just the ticket for reforesting huge areas of China to stabilize and neutralize soils. Unfortunately, nobody realized how thirsty the monocultured forest would be, and it deprived the area of much of the water for humans and agriculture. Meanwhile this week scientists have published work looking at how even the noise from traffic on the roads can disrupt animal behaviour. Chris Templeton describes how bird's cognititve abilities can be affected. And Adam Bent from Anglia Ruskin University has been studying how crickets' mating choices can be adversely affected by recordings of the A14. Presented by Victoria Gill Produced by Alex Mansfield Made in association with The Open University