The Small Things in (Soil) Life

Imagine for a moment that you’re a plant. Each day your leaves harvest energy from sunlight to make sugars. What do you chose to do with this precious energy? You could grow more leaves to catch more sunlight. Or grow more roots to access deeper water and more nutrients. Or store it up to use later. Or make as many seeds as you can so you can to produce more children. These are all things that plants do with their energy, but another option, which you probably didn’t think of, is to release it into the soil. Up to 5-21% of the carbon a plant fixes by photosynthesis is secreted into the soil by its roots. It’s the plant’s way of contributing back the the community that it lives in. These secretions are called exudates, and can be composed of amino acids, organic acids, sugars, proteins, and other organic compounds. Exudates make the soil surrounding the roots (known as the rhizosphere) more beneficial for the plant in several ways:...
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What lurks in the cold and dark?

Antarctica; the coldest continent on Earth. During summer the land is bathed in hours of sunlight, in winter you’d be lucky to see the sun for a few hours each day. Of the five hundred or so people that travel to the Australian Antarctic base each summer, only about 80 people stay through the winter. The harsh conditions, with temperatures regularly dropping to -40°C and wind speeds up to 300km/h make it very difficult to do anything outside during the darkness of Antarctic winter. It’s no surprise that most of the scientific sampling and data collection occurs in summer, leaving a serious gap in our knowledge about what happens over the winter months. One thing which had remained a mystery for years is whether CO2 fixation occurs during winter. CO2 fixation is the process of converting inorganic carbon from the atmosphere into a form which can be used by living organisms. This process is usually done by plants and algae using...
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“It’s not a phase, mum!” – dinosaurs aren’t just for little kids

“It’s not a phase, mum!” – dinosaurs aren’t just for little kids “It’s not a phase, mum!” She screamed in agony, throwing her plush ceratosaurus to the ground with a Tyrannosaurus-level groan of anguish. She folded her arms across her Jurassic Park t-shirt and stomped on the ground in her Velociraptor-foot fluffy slippers. Her mother gazed about the bedroom – “Do not feed the dinosaurs” poster on the wall, stegosaurs on the duvet, at least twelve guides to palaeontology on the bookshelf. “It’s the real me!” I’ll be frank with you – that’s a tad exaggerated. But believe me, if I had access to Velociraptor slippers, a plush ceratosaurus and a decent collection of dinosaur-emblazoned clothing and my mother was less cool with my obsession with dinosaurs, it would have been quite accurate. But funny as it is, I’m not here to tell a funny narrative about a girl who acts like she’s in a goth phases except it’s a dinosaur phrase; I’m here...
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Pluripotent stem cells: the baby Jack-Jack of the human body

At the end of the movie Incredibles, baby Jack-Jack (while thought to have been a normal baby with no powers) with the right motivation is suddenly able to set himself on fire, levitate, teleport and turn himself into a strange mini-devil. He is much like a pluripotent stem cell, which is a precursor of normal cells, that can further differentiate into a specific type. Depending on which genes are turned on and off, they can produce any type of cell in the body, from skin to lung cells. They can also be edited to produce a perfect genetic match to patients needing transplants, eliminating the worry of rejection or having to be on immunosuppressant drugs for years. These pluripotent stem cells can be made by taking a normal body cell and, using a virus, introduce transcription factors to activate specific genes and ‘turn it’ into a pluripotent cell. They are now being investigated in a large number of ways, mainly to be...
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Of Rice and Men: China’s New Salt-Resistance Staple Crop.

Long before the Pharaohs of Egypt, the farmers of the Far East have cultivated rice, a crop which can produce nearly double the calories of wheat, the main growth in Europe at the time. As a matter of fact, archaeologists today can map exactly where and when ancient societies in India and South East Asia had an expansion in rice cultivation that led to a rapid rise in population. Rice held back one thing from the ancients though; it could not tolerate saltwater and therefore detested the salty marshes that dotted the Orient’s river deltas. Across East Asia today, this is more than 1,000,000 square kilometres of natural quagmires. Last year, researchers in the city of Qingdao announced to the world that they had developed a strain of rice which could tolerate saline water at 20% of seawater concentration. The rice, “Yuan Mi” (You and Me?), is named after the leader of the research project Yuan Longping. Of more than 200 samples of...
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Virus Essay

Personalised medicine using viruses, and the bio-hacker who just wants a slice of pizza.           [1] Some of the most extraordinary innovations in recent years have been advances in personalised medicine. Every individual is unique in the way they develop a disease and respond to treatment. Hence, the growing paradigm of personalised medicine is to design medications and interventions that allow for a customised treatment plan best suited to that individual. This gives patients more control over their medical decisions and could lead to improved outcomes when tackling illness. Examples of these wonderful innovations include the adoption of wearable health monitoring technologies, bespoke diets, and healthcare apps for cancer and diabetes patients. Personalised medicine has the potential to fundamentally change how we view healthcare; the end goal is to develop medicine responsive to an individual’s own physiology, rather than therapy based on data from whole populations.   One area of medicine in which an individual focus is paramount is in gene therapy, an emerging field...
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CRISPR. Not the name of your favourite chips.

Genetic engineering is reaching a stage where modern science is rivalling science fiction. The ability to genetically redesign plants, animals and even humans for optimal functionality is on the horizon. Genetically modified organisms have been in existence since 1982 and are an area of concern among the wider community. These early modifications took years of research and thousands in funding, however, the ability to perfectly edit parts of a genome in a simple, cost-effective and quick manner has arrived, CRISPR-Cas9 technology. This technology consists of a targeting molecule and a cutting molecule. 1) The cutting molecule is an enzyme called CRISPR Associated Protein 9 (Cas9). It can cut double stranded DNA (allowing for additional techniques to be used to add, modify or remove genes). 2) The targeting molecule is called the guide RNA (gRNA), and is a designed RNA molecule that has complementarity to the target gene. The gRNA ‘guides’ the Cas9 enzyme to the exact location where DNA needs to be cut in...
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In love with Science

“Do you love Science?” This question was asked by a lecturer in the School of Biotechnology and Biomolecular Sciences (BABS). People tend to think of Science as the subjects of Chemistry, Physics, and Biology, but what about Computer Science or Pharmacology? Do they count as Science? Well of course! The lecturer also said that if you love Science, you can do well with it. It may take a couple of weeks to wrap your head around that difficult concept, but you’ll get there! BABS subjects can look daunting: Cell Biology, Human Biochemistry, and Biotechnology. This is because we are trying to link together several different concepts. If you are studying Medical Physics, you need a background in Cancer, Cell Biology, and Radiopharmaceuticals. So how do you have the energy to get up in the morning to attend your 4-hour long lab, followed by 6 hours of lectures and 5 hours of assignments each day? Love. Love is the greatest...
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