Plankton named after BBC Blue Planet series

A type of plankton described as part of “the beating heart” of the oceans has been named after the BBC’s Blue Planet series.

The tiny plant-like organism is regarded as a key element of the marine ecosystem.

Scientists at University College London (UCL) bestowed the honour on Sir David Attenborough and the documentary team.

It’s believed to be the first time a species has been named after a television programme.

A single-celled algae, the plankton was collected in the South Atlantic but is found throughout the world’s oceans.

It will now be officially known as Syracosphaera azureaplaneta, the latter translating from the Latin as ‘blue planet’.

Sir David received the honour during a visit to UCL to open the newly refurbished Earth Science department, he said it was “a great compliment” and he was delighted that it would help raise awareness of the importance of plankton to the oceans.

“If you said that plankton, the phytoplankton, the green oxygen-producing plankton in the oceans is more important to our atmosphere than the whole of the rainforest, which I think is true, people would be astonished.

“They are an essential element in the whole cycle of oxygen production and carbon dioxide and all the rest of it, and you mess about with this sort of thing and the echoes and the reverberations and the consequences extend throughout the atmosphere.”

The Blue Planet plankton is only about 10 microns across – the diameter of a typical human hair is about seven times greater.

It only lives for a few days but in that brief time creates shapes of incredible intricacy and beauty.

Looking at microscope images of the plankton, Sir David joked: “I’m not sure about the likeness but it’s lovely… they’re stunning, they’re beautiful.”

About a dozen different species have been named after the naturalist and presenter himself – including a rare tropical butterfly, a flightless Indonesian weevil and an armoured prehistoric fish whose fossil was found in Western Australia.

Others have been named in honour of celebrities – a horse fly after the singer Beyonce, a lemur for comedian John Cleese and a tree frog after Prince Charles.

Brazilian scientists named a bee after a catchphrase from a TV show.

But the Blue Planet plankton is thought to be the first example of a species given its name out of respect for a documentary series.

James Honeyborne, executive producer of Blue Planet 2, said: “Phytoplankton may be tiny but they are the basis of all life in the ocean – feeding everything from baby fish to great whales – and they help keep our seas, and indeed our whole planet healthy.

“It’s a great honour for everyone in our wider Blue Planet II team: our filmmakers, camera operators, associated scientists and conservationists, explorers and support teams, to be associated with such an impactful form of life.”

Prof Paul Bown of UCL said plankton played a vital role in the ocean, supporting the lives of much better known creatures.

“In terms of the link to the Blue Planet series, we felt they were the unseen stars of the series – hidden in plain view because of their minuscule size – but representing the beating heart of the oceans, providing food and pumping carbon from the shallow ocean to the deep-sea,” he said.

He also said that because they create a hard covering “they form a constant rain of carbonate to the seafloor and form oceanic deep-sea ooze”.

That allows scientists to study an “archive” of information locked in layers of rock on the sea floor.

“We therefore have an amazingly complete fossil record stretching back 220 million years to the Triassic,” Prof Bown said, which allows scientists to study major upheavals in the past such as extinction events.

As he leant towards an image of the Blue Planet plankton, Sir David said admiringly: “Why that’s not made by a modern jeweller I have no idea…”

Follow David on Twitter.

EU member states support near-total neonicotinoids ban

Member states have voted in favour of an almost complete ban on the use of neonicotinoid insecticides across the EU.

Scientific studies have long linked their use to the decline of honeybees, wild bees and other pollinators.

The move represents a major extension of existing restrictions, in place since 2013.

Manufacturers and some farming groups have opposed the move, saying the science remains uncertain.

Neonicotinoids are the most widely used class of insecticides in the world, but concerns about their impact on bees have been reinforced by multiple research efforts, including so-called “real world” trial results published last year.

Change of heart

Back in 2013 the European Union opted for a partial ban on the use of the three chemicals in this class: Imidacloprid, clothianidin and thiamethoxam.

The restrictions applied to crops including maize, wheat, barley, oats and oil seed rape. The newly agreed Commission regulation goes much further, meaning that almost all outdoor uses of the chemicals would be banned.

Voting on the proposal had been postponed a number of times as countries were split on the move. However, Friday’s meeting saw a qualified majority vote in favour of the ban.

The action has been driven by a recent report from the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), which found that neonicotinoids posed a threat to many species of bees, no matter where or how they are used in the outdoor environment.

“The Commission had proposed these measures months ago, on the basis of the scientific advice from the European Food Safety Authority,” said EU Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, Vytenis Andriukaitis.

“Bee health remains of paramount importance for me since it concerns biodiversity, food production and the environment.”

Another key element that helped push the vote through was the UK’s change of heart on the use of these insecticides. Environment Secretary Michael Gove announced last November that Britain would now support further restrictions.

“I think it has helped the dynamic,” Franziska Achterberg from Greenpeace told BBC News.

“It has helped sway Ireland definitely, and then lately, the Germans, the Austrians and the Dutch. I think the fact the UK had come around was a good signal for them as well, that they could not stay behind.”

Growers will only be free to use neonicotinoids in greenhouses across the EU, despite some environmental groups having reservations about the chemicals leaching into water supplies. Other neonicotinoids, including thiacloprid and sulfoxaflor, will continue to be exempt from the ban.

Environmental campaigners have welcomed the ban. Some five million people around the world had signed petitions calling for an extension of restrictions.

“Banning these toxic pesticides is a beacon of hope for bees,” said Antonia Staats, from Avaaz,

“Finally, our governments are listening to their citizens, the scientific evidence and farmers who know that bees can’t live with these chemicals and we can’t live without bees.”

No benefits for bees

Many farmers are unhappy about the increase in restrictions, saying they do not believe they are warranted on scientific grounds and that the existing partial ban has not delivered results.

“The Commission hasn’t been able to find that these restrictions have delivered any measurable benefits for bees,” said Chris Hartfield from the National Farmers’ Union (NFU) in the UK.

“That has been a big question for us, and if we can’t be certain they can deliver measurable benefits why are we doing this?”

The new regulation will be adopted in the coming weeks and will be applicable by the end of the year. Some farmers believe it will have significant impacts on the types of crops grown across the Continent.

“The irony of the current restrictions is that it has led to the decline of oil seed rape being grown in the UK and that’s reflected across the whole of Europe,” Mr Hartfield said.

“We’re not decreasing our consumption of that product; we are just importing it from outside Europe, where it is often treated with neonicotinoids. I would expect to see that continue.”

Some campaigners believe that the extended ban heralds a new era for EU farmers where the needs of the environment are seen as more important than production.

“It’s a significant indication that we need a different form of farming across Europe that farms with nature and not against it,” said Sandra Bell from Friends of the Earth.

“The ban on neonicotinoids could be a really important step towards a more general questioning of the use of pesticides and the harm they are doing to our environment.”

View comments

How ancient DNA is transforming our view of the past

Prof David Reich of Harvard Medical School is one of the leading lights in the field of ancient DNA. His team’s work has cast a new perspective on human history, reconstructing the epic migrations and genetic exchanges that shaped the people of different regions worldwide. Here he explains how this revolution in our understanding unfolded.

If it seems as if there has been an avalanche of recent headlines revealing insights into the travails of our ancient ancestors, you’d be right.

From the fate of the people who built Stonehenge to the striking physical appearance of Cheddar Man, a 10,000-year-old Briton, the deluge of information has been overwhelming.

But this step change in the understanding of our past has been building for years now. It’s been driven by new techniques and technological advancements in the study of ancient DNA – genetic information retrieved from the skeletal remains of our long-dead kin.

At the forefront of this revolution is David Reich of Harvard Medical School in Boston Massachusetts. I met Prof Reich recently at the BBC while he was in the UK to talk about his book Who We Are and How We Got Here, which draws together the most recent scientific results in this field of study.

The Harvard professor, who is 43, was recently highlighted by the journal Nature as one of 10 people who mattered in all of science for his role in transforming the field of ancient DNA from “niche pursuit to industrial process”.

Reich was raised in Washington DC, by parents who were distinguished in their own fields. His mother Tova is a novelist and his father Walter is a professor of psychiatry who also served as the first director of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

“In my family, there was a premium and a strong belief placed on creativity – doing something new and interesting and edgy. Science was seen as the highest thing someone could do,” he says. “I had lots of interests, but the things I was most interested in were history and science.”

Reich says that he “fell in love” with human evolutionary history at the beginning of his PhD in biochemistry, but then moved away from the subject towards medical genetics. He explained: “The technology at the time really wasn’t very good for learning a lot about human history.”

Throughout the 1990s and early 2000s, studies of ancient DNA from our own species were highly contentious because of observations that skeletal remains were easily contaminated by the DNA of living people.

As such, there were always nagging doubts about whether a genetic sequence belonged to the long-dead individual being studied or to an archaeologist involved in excavating the remains, a museum curator who had handled them, or a visitor to the lab where they were being analysed.

However, crucial progress in overcoming these obstacles began in the late 90s with the effort to sequence DNA from Neanderthals, which was led by Professor Svante Pääbo at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany.

Pääbo’s group developed a set of protocols to prevent contamination slipping through, including having the same samples sequenced in two laboratories by different teams.

But the field experienced a revolution with the emergence of so-called next-generation sequencing technology. When an organism dies, the DNA in its cells begins to break down – over time it splits into smaller and smaller chunks, as well as accumulating other forms of damage.

It also gets contaminated with vast amounts of microbial DNA from the wider environment. The new sequencing machines could be used to isolate the human genetic material from bacterial DNA and then stitch together the tiny fragments into a readable sequence.

In 2006, Reich and his close scientific collaborator Nick Paterson were invited by Svante Pääbo to join the Neanderthal genome effort. Pääbo had been particularly impressed by a Nature paper they had authored on the complex separation of the human and chimpanzee evolutionary lineages, and thought the techniques they had used would be relevant to the question of whether Neanderthals and modern humans had interbred.

“I was working on the last 10,000 years of human history, reconstructing it on the basis of present-day people, especially in India… it was obvious the ancient DNA techniques that worked in Neanderthals were going to work even better in more recent humans,” Reich explains.

“I talked to Svante and he said: ‘This is very important but it’s not my focus. I’m focused like a laser beam on archaic humans and early modern humans.'”

Reich took a radical decision to completely re-tool his laboratory at Harvard – which had been focused on medical genetics – along the lines of Pääbo’s lab in Leipzig.

“There was a scientist in my laboratory, Nadin Rohland, who had worked in Leipzig (with Svante Pääbo) who knew how to do everything… they helped us to establish this laboratory. It was a big bet that this was a good thing to do.”

The bet paid off in a major way. Reich used his next-generation sequencing tech to power through genome after genome. To date, the lab has retrieved DNA from more than 900 ancient individuals.

The results are helping assemble new narratives for the peopling of our world. In some cases, the results have forced archaeologists and historians to re-visit some long-held ideas, sparking no small amount of debate and controversy.

Reich’s team has helped unravel the tangled web of migration and interbreeding that set down the present-day genetic landscape of Europe. Archaeologists had long suspected that the spread of farming out of the Near East and across Europe was a formative event in the continent’s prehistory.

Reich’s work helped confirm that this meeting of rather distantly related Near East farmers and indigenous hunter-gatherers had been crucial to the mix of ancestry that characterises Europeans, but his team added a third key ingredient to the melting pot.

In a paper published in the journal Genetics in 2012, Reich and his colleagues had spotted that Northern and Central Europeans appeared to have received genetic input from a population related to Native Americans.

Further evidence from ancient DNA would confirm that this distinctive genetic signature had entered Europe for the first time during a mass migration of people from the steppe, on Europe’s eastern periphery.

These nomadic steppe pastoralists, known as the Yamnaya, moved west in the late Neolithic and Bronze Age, around 5,000 years ago. In some areas of Europe, they replaced around 75% of the ancestry of existing populations.

Theories of large-scale migrations had fallen out of favour over the years among some scholars, particularly those for whom the phrase “pots, not people” (that culture tends to spread via the exchange of ideas rather than large-scale movement) had become a mantra.

But successive papers from the Reich group and other teams working on ancient DNA, such as the one led by Eske Willerslev at the University of Copenhagen, showed that mass migrations, with the displacement of earlier populations, were not uncommon in history.

This year, Reich’s team published a sprawling study detailing how an archaeological culture known as the Beaker phenomenon transformed the genetic make-up of western and central Europe. In Britain, the Beakers replaced an astonishing 90% of the existing ancestry. The team isn’t finished with Britain, Reich is now planning to track changes that occurred in the Iron Age and Roman period.

Conflict, innovations such as horse riding, and the spread of diseases like plague to populations with naïve immune systems might all have played a role in some dispersals.

But the reasons behind these replacements remain a question for archaeologists, says Reich. “I think we’re providing data and it vividly portrays the magnitude of these events. Understanding why it happens is a little bit hard for me to say,” he explains.

Reich says that his collaborator Nick Paterson’s background in mathematics has been “absolutely critical” to teasing out the genetic relationships that underlie many key discoveries.

“My laboratory has two lab heads not one, the other is Nick Paterson. I’m not a serious mathematician: I’m numerate, a data analyst, but not a developer of techniques. Nick is a world class mathematician.”

Paterson has an extraordinary biography. Born in 1947 to Irish parents in London, his talents made him a child maths and chess prodigy. A few years after graduating from Cambridge University, he was recruited to work for the UK’s signals intelligence agency GCHQ, where he spent a decade.

After that, he worked for another 10 years at the US equivalent, the National Security Agency (NSA). After leaving the spy world, Paterson worked for the successful New York-based hedge fund Renaissance Technologies, before beginning his collaboration with Reich in 2001.

In the last few years, the Harvard team has also published studies on ancient DNA from Africa, the Middle East and Oceania. Reich is currently finalising a paper on the peopling of South Asia – a longstanding area of interest – which should get published this year. It is likely to be pored over in India, where notions of deep-rooted ancestry are linked to Hindu nationalism.

The Harvard professor recently penned an opinion piece in the New York Times which stirred controversy online, highlighting the lack of consensus on how to frame discussions of human biological variation. In his article, Reich comments: “It is important, even urgent, that we develop a candid and scientifically up-to-date way of discussing any such differences, instead of sticking our heads in the sand and being caught unprepared when they are found.” Some 67 researchers signed an open letter (published by Buzzfeed), objecting to arguments put forward in the op-ed.

For example, the letter says: “Reich critically misunderstands and misrepresents concerns that are central to recent critiques of how biomedical researchers – including Reich – use categories of ‘race’ and ‘population'”.

The researchers add: “This doesn’t mean that genetic variation is unimportant; it is, but it does not follow racial lines. History has taught us the many ways that studies of human genetic variation can be misunderstood and misinterpreted.”

Asked about the criticisms, the Harvard professor told me: “I’m actually very pleased to be part of introducing this discussion. I think that scientists have been anxious about discussing differences among populations in public fora, even though all the work that we do is about differences among populations and learning about their history. The anxiety is about possible misuse of that data – for good reason.”

He stressed the need for scientists to take charge of the narrative, lest they hand the initiative to those with less benign intentions. “The thing I have felt very strongly, increasingly over time, is that the fact that scientists are too afraid to speak up about these topics means that the vacuum… gets filled by people who don’t really know the scientific facts,” he explains.

Prof Reich says that science itself shouldn’t be considered immune from the influence of longstanding assumptions. “I think there’s a huge opportunity for interpretational bias. I think that the genetic data are very seriously constraining the models that are possible right now,” he says.

But, he adds: “There’s some advantage to coming at it from the outside… arguably, there’s something to be said for a non-Jewish European person studying Jewish population history, or a person from Africa studying East Asian population history… in my lab, I’ve pushed people to work on areas that are not their own background.”

Looking to the future, Prof Reich sees huge potential for uncovering as yet unknown human movements and gene exchange in different parts of the world.

“I think Africa is a place that’s deeply under-represented. There are maybe only 20 genome sequences in what is the most diverse place in the world – the place with the deepest and most complex human history,” said Prof Reich.

“That compares to more than 1,000 genomes from Europe right now, which is an important but small corner of the world.”

He adds: “There’s so much to do.”

Follow Paul on Twitter.

Who We Are and How We Got Here by David Reich is published by Oxford University Press.

‘Ground-breaking’ galaxy collision detected

Scientists have detected a cosmic “pileup” of galaxies in the early Universe.

Imaged almost at the boundary of the observable Universe, the 14 unusually bright objects are on a collision course, set to form one massive galaxy.

This will in turn serve as the core for a galaxy cluster, one of the most massive objects in the Universe.

The catch? This all happened over 12 billion years ago.

Looking this far across the Universe is essentially looking back in time, as the light has taken many billions of years to reach us.

The galaxies would have been in their observed configuration when the Universe was a mere 1.4 billion years old.

  • Ghost galaxy prompts cosmic mystery
  • Dozen black holes at galactic centre
  • Signal detected from cosmic dawn

    Originally detected in a wide sky survey using the South Pole Telescope, the objects surprised astronomers as they were clustered so close together.

    “We found it originally as a bright point source in the survey,” explained Yale University’s Tim Miller, an author on the study published in Nature.

    “I don’t think we were expecting something quite this spectacular but we knew it had to be exciting.”

    Star nurseries

    Known as starburst galaxies, the objects are extremely bright as they are forming stars at a high rate – up to 1,000 times as fast as the Milky Way.

    Professor Caitlin Casey, who was not involved in the study, described the findings as “extremely unusual.”

    “We often get excited when we find just two galaxies like this grouped together, because each one is already quite unusual and rare compared to ‘normal galaxies’, forming stars several hundreds or thousands of times faster than the Milky Way. To find fourteen such starbursts all grouped together is unheard of,” the University of Texas at Austin researcher commented.

    Crowded neighbourhood

    The group occupy a region of space just four or five times the size of the Milky Way, making it incredibly dense.

    “If you put all the planets into the orbit between the Earth and Moon, it’s the same sort of scale of mass concentration,” explained Dr Axel Weiß, a co-author on the study.

    The question of why such a concentration of galaxies was able to evolve in this location, and so early in the Universe’s history, remains unanswered for now.

    “This is just so early. This is before the peak of star formation,” says Miller.

    A long way to here

    So what have these galaxies gotten up to in the intervening billions of years?

    By now, models predict that they would have coalesced to form the core of an even more massive cluster.

    Miller explains that in the present day, astronomers expect the structure would be as massive as the Coma Cluster.

    Stretching across two degrees of the night sky, or over four times the visible space occupied by the full moon, the Coma Cluster is truly a giant.

    “The uniqueness of the Coma Cluster is it’s one of the most massive structures we know about in the whole local Universe. [It has about] 10,000 billion solar masses. It’s the most extreme structure that we know about,” explained Dr Weiß.

    Thus far, very few of these large galaxy clusters have been detected, but work continues on further candidates.

    Dr Weiß, who was involved in another study which revealed a similar cluster of ten galaxies, says that there are some other candidates.

    “[Though] these are certainly the most extreme ones,” said the Max Planck Institute for Radio Astronomy scientist.

    Dr Amy Barger, from the University of Wisconsin-Madison found the work to be “ground-breaking.”

    “Finding the progenitors of present-day massive clusters has always been of great importance for piecing together when and how structure grows in the Universe,” she told BBC News.

Gaia telescope’s ‘book of the heavens’ takes shape

The Gaia observatory has released a second swathe of data as it assembles the most precise map of the sky.

The European Space Agency telescope has now plotted the position and brightness of nearly 1.7 billion stars.

It also has information on the distance, motion and colour of 1.3 billion of these objects.

Gaia’s “book of the heavens” will not be complete until the 2020s, but when it is the map will underpin astronomy for decades to come.

It will be the reference frame used to plan all observations by other telescopes. It will also be integral to the operation of all spacecraft, which navigate by tracking stars.

But beyond that, Gaia promises a raft of new discoveries about the properties and structure of our Milky Way Galaxy, its history and evolution into the future.

It will enable scientists to find new asteroids and planets; and to test physical constants and theories.

Gaia should even refine the techniques used to measure distances across the wider Universe, and reduce the uncertainties we currently have about the age of the cosmos.

  • Europe selects grand gravity mission
  • Gaia clocks speedy cosmic expansion

    Gaia was launched in December 2013 to an orbit some 1.5 million km from Earth.

    Its two identical telescopes throw their captured light on to a huge, one-billion-pixel camera detector connected to a trio of instruments.

    A first tranche of measurements was released in 2016. This contained the position and brightness of “just” 1.1 billion stars, and information on the distance and motion of the two million brightest objects.

    This second data release adds 600 times more stars with distances, covering a volume 1,000 times larger and all with precisions that are 100 times better.

    “This is a unique moment,” said leading British Gaia scientist Prof Gerry Gilmore. “This is the first time that mankind has had a significant 3D map of a significant volume of the Milky Way. It really is a breakthrough moment,” he told a meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society in London.


    Gaia: How far is it to the nearest stars?

    • As the Earth goes around the Sun, relatively nearby stars appear to move against the “fixed” stars that are even further away
    • Because we know the Sun-Earth distance, we can use the parallax angle to work out the distance to the target star
    • But such angles are very small – less than one arcsecond for the nearest stars, or 0.05% of the full Moon’s diameter
    • Gaia will make repeat observations to reduce measurement errors down to seven micro-arcseconds for the very brightest stars
    • Parallaxes are used to anchor other, more indirect techniques on the ‘ladder’ deployed to measure the most far-flung distances

      Gaia measures anything that moves – which is actually everything that is out there.

      It sees stars’ “proper motion”, which is their general track across the heavens as they orbit the galaxy. The telescope also sees their “parallax” – their apparent looping behaviour, which is a function of Earth and Gaia changing their vantage point as they circle the Sun (It is the parallaxes that yield the distances).

      And what Gaia also sees is the stars’ movement along its line of sight – their so-called “radial velocity”, their true motion on the sky. Gaia delivers this data for the first time in the new release.

      “We now have seven million line-of-sight velocities of stars which is more than all other measurements ever done. This is a huge sample compared with the few hundred thousand that we had before,” said Prof Mark Cropper, from the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London.

      It is the radial velocities that allow researchers to make movies of the Milky Way, to run its life forwards and backwards in time, to determine, with the aid of other Gaia information, where stars were born and where they will likely end their days. It should be possible, for example, to find our Sun’s siblings – the stars that were created in the same gas and dust cloud billions of years ago but then subsequently went their different ways.

      There will be another two big data releases in the coming years. The more Gaia works, the more precise its measurements – and the more objects it will detect. There is an expectation, for instance, that tens of thousands of planets will eventually be found in Gaia’s data.

      The scale of the venture means there is too much information for professional astronomers to scrutinise, and amateurs and schools are being asked to get involved.

      An alert system operates that throws up interesting objects that brighten or dim out of the ordinary. Some of these will be exploding stars – supernovae.

      Many UK schools are now engaged in classifying these objects.

      Meg Greet, a physics teacher from Eastbury Community School in the London Borough of Barking & Dagenham, said Gaia was a fantastic educational tool: “These long-term embedded enrichment projects, rather than school trips and one-off activities, are the things that make a genuine impact on our school-children scientists, helping them to develop their creativity, their questioning skills – the kind of things they need to become the scientists of the future.”

Ethics debate as pig brains kept alive without a body

Researchers at Yale University have restored circulation to the brains of decapitated pigs, and kept the organs alive for several hours.

Their aim is to develop a way of studying intact human brains in the lab for medical research.

Although there is no evidence that the animals were aware, there is concern that some degree of consciousness might have remained.

Details of the study were presented at a brain science ethics meeting held at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda in Maryland on 28 March.

The research has also been reported on this week in the MIT Technology Review.

The work, by Prof Nenad Sestan of Yale University, was discussed as part of an NIH investigation of ethical issues arising from neuroscience research in the US.

Prof Sestan explained that he and his team experimented on more than 100 pig brains.

They discovered that he could restore their circulation using a system of pumps, heaters, and bags of artificial blood.

As a result the researchers were reportedly able to keep the cells in the brain alive and capable of normal activity for as long as 36 hours.

Prof Sestan is said to have described the result as “mind-boggling”. If this could be repeated with human brains, researchers would be able to use them to test out new treatments for neurological disorders.

But Prof Sestan is among the first to raise potential ethical concerns. These include whether such brains have any consciousness and if so deserve special protection, or whether their technique could or should be used by individuals to extend their lifespans – by transplanting their brains when their bodies wear out.

In a commentary published in the Journal Nature this week, Prof Sestan and 15 other leading US neuroscientists called for clear regulation to guide them in their work.

“If researchers could create brain tissue in the laboratory that might appear to have conscious experiences or subjective phenomenal states, would that tissue deserve any of the protections routinely given to human or animal research subjects?”, the researchers ask in the commentary.

“This question might seem outlandish. Certainly, today’s experimental models are far from having such capabilities. But various models are now being developed to better understand the human brain, including miniaturised, simplified versions of brain tissue grown in a dish from stem cells. And advances keep being made.”

The researchers say that ways of measuring consciousness need to be developed and strict limits set for them to be able to continue their work with the public’s support.

  • Brain back-up venture ‘will kill users’
  • Rules of memory ‘beautifully’ rewritten
  • Would you preserve your brain for future generations?

    Prof Colin Blakemore, of the School of Advance Study at the University of London, backs the research team’s call for a public debate on the issue.

    “The techniques, even to a researcher, sound pretty ghoulish – so it is very, very important that there should be a public discussion about this, and not least because the researchers who have some investment can tell the public why it would be so important to develop such techniques,” he told BBC News.

    “There is a paradox here, and that is – the better such methods are at maintaining a whole brain, fully functional but without connection to a body, the more useful that would be for research purposes. But the more likely it would also be for the brain to have some sentience and consciousness, which would be deeply worrying”.

    Prof Blakemore said that he was “very uneasy about the quest for immortality” by those considering preserving their brains until surgery advances, in order to place them in a new body.

    “Our planet is already overpopulated. You need space for young people and new ideas, and the notion of desperately clinging on to any mechanism possible for human beings living forever, I find very unsavoury.”

Sentinel tracks ships’ dirty emissions from orbit

The new EU satellite tasked with tracking dirty air has demonstrated how it will become a powerful tool to monitor emissions from shipping.

Sentinel-5P was launched in October last year and this week completed its in-orbit commissioning phase.

But already it is clear the satellite’s data will be transformative.

This latest image reveals the trail of nitrogen dioxide left in the air as ships move in and out of the Mediterranean Sea.

The “highway” that the vessels use to navigate the Strait of Gibraltar is easily discerned by S5P’s Tropomi instrument.

“You really see a straight line because all these ships follow approximately the same route,” explained Pepijn Veefkind, Tropomi’s principal investigator from the Dutch met office (KNMI).

“In this case, we also looked into how many big ships there are in the region [at the time], and there’s really not that many – around 20 or so, we estimate – but each one is putting out a lot of NO₂.”

  • Shipping in ‘historic’ climate deal
  • Oceans Sentinel goes into orbit
  • New Sentinel satellite tracks dirty air

    Nitrogen dioxide is a product of the combustion of fuels, in this instance from the burning of marine diesel. But it is also possible to see in the picture the emissions hanging over major urban areas on land that come from cars, trucks and a number of industrial activities. NO₂ will be a major contributor to the poorer air quality people living in those areas experience.

    Sentinel-5P is the next big step because of its greater sensitivity and sharper view of the atmosphere.

    “Shipping lanes are something we’ve seen on previous missions but only after we’ve averaged a lot of data; so, over a month or a year. But with Tropomi we see these shipping lanes with a single image,” Dr Veefkind told BBC News.

    “The resolution we got from our previous instruments was about 20km by 20km. Now, we’ve gone down to 7km by 3.5km, and we are thinking of going to even smaller pixels.”

    Eyes in the sky

    Analysis by David Shukman, BBC Science Editor

    Far beyond the horizon, steaming through the remote High Seas, the great fleets of global shipping have for years been too distant to be observed.

    Only in port can anyone catch sight of the plumes of dark smoke rising from the vessels’ engines. But added together, the greenhouse gases from the world’s 50,000 ships make this industry the world’s sixth largest emitter, and most of it is unseen. This has long fuelled suspicions among environmental campaigners.

    Exempt from the Kyoto Protocol and then the Paris Agreement, shipping acquired a reputation as a sector that dodged its responsibilities on climate change. That’s why the landmark deal earlier this month for a cut in emissions of 50% by 2050 received so much attention. But it also raised a host of questions about policing: who would keep watch, and how?

    Europe’s Sentinel programme is part of the answer. Suddenly, at just the right time, the world’s shipping lanes are in full view.

    S5P’s availability is timely. The shipping sector has just signalled its intention to make big reductions in its emissions over the next 30 years, in particular of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide.

    At the moment, those emissions are calculated in a “bottom-up” fashion.

    By knowing the size of the global fleet, where it moves, the ships’ specifications and how much fuel they are likely consuming – it is possible to estimate how much CO₂, or indeed NO₂, is being pumped into the atmosphere from exhausts.

    But this all involves quite a few assumptions, and so the models need to be audited by some top-down analysis as well – which is where satellites come in.

    S5P-Tropomi does not see CO₂, although its NO₂ observations can act as a tracer in the sense that wherever nitrogen dioxide turns up on shipping lanes, there will be CO₂ present, too.

    But the best solution would be a dedicated carbon-monitoring satellite.

    This is why the EU has asked its technical agent on space matters, the European Space Agency, to design a Sentinel specific to the task.

    Dubbed Sentinel 7 by many people, because that is the next available number in the series, this future mission should fly in the 2020s.

    The aim is to be able track CO₂ down through the atmosphere on a scale of around 3km by 3km, but over a wide area. That would make Sentinel 7 a forceful partner for Sentinel 5.

    Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

Rolls-Royce and Boeing invest in UK space engine

Reaction Engines Limited (REL), the UK company developing a revolutionary aerospace engine, has announced investments from both Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

REL, based at Culham in Oxfordshire, is working on a propulsion system that is part jet engine, part rocket engine.

The company believes it will transform the space launch market and usher in hypersonic travel around the Earth.

The new investments amount to £26.5m.

Included in this sum are contributions from Baillie Gifford Asset Management and Woodford Investment Management.

It lifts the total capital raised in the past three years to about £100m. The British government has already put in £60m. BAE Systems initially injected £20m in 2015 and has invested new funds in this latest financial round.

“Rolls-Royce and Boeing – these are really big names, and it’s fantastic to be in this position,” said REL CEO Mark Thomas.

“Rolls are super-positive about the technology. They want us to be independent and innovative, and to push our technology as hard as possible. And Boeing – that’s amazing. They are the world’s biggest aerospace company, have decades of expertise and future plans that, for us I’m sure, will be really exciting,” he told BBC News.

REL is developing what it calls the Sabre engine. This power plant is designed to push a vehicle from a standing start all the way to orbit in a single step.

It would work like a conventional jet engine up to about Mach 5.5 (5.5 times the speed of sound) before then transitioning to a rocket mode for the rest of the ascent.

Key technologies include a compact pre-cooler heat-exchanger that can take an incoming airstream of over 1,000C and cool it to -150C in less than 1/100th of a second. This would permit Sabre to use oxygen direct from the atmosphere for combustion instead of carrying it in a tank with the weight penalty that implies.

Although Sabre is usually talked about in the context of an orbiting spaceplane, it could also be fitted to a vehicle that flies at very high speed from point to point on the Earth’s surface.

This is an application that clearly interests Boeing, whose investment arm, HorizonX Ventures, is driving the tie-up in what is its first investment in a UK-based company.

“As Reaction Engines unlocks advanced propulsion that could change the future of air and space travel, we expect to leverage their revolutionary technology to support Boeing’s pursuit of hypersonic flight,” said HorizonX vice president, Steve Nordlund.

Those who have followed the REL story over the years will be aware that Rolls-Royce is not really a newcomer to the project. The aero-engine giant was involved in Sabre’s precursor years – a spaceplane concept back in the 1980s known as Hotol.

When that hit technical difficulties, Rolls-Royce let its interest go, as did British Aerospace. Both are now back, the latter in its current guise as BAE Systems.

“We are delighted to become a strategic investor in Reaction Engines Limited, an innovative UK company that is helping push the boundaries of aviation technology,” Rolls’ CTO Paul Stein said in a statement.

“We look forward to working with REL and assisting with the development of their technology, and we plan to incorporate this technology into our own future products.”

REL is approaching important demonstration milestones.

In Colorado this summer, it will begin further testing of the pre-cooler technology, confronting it with conditions that simulate the very hot airstreams encountered when vehicles move at hypersonic speeds.

This will be done under contract with the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Also this summer, REL should take control of its new test facility in the UK at Westcott in Buckinghamshire. It is here that the company will mount a demonstration in 2020 of the full Sabre cycle.

Assuming this goes well, REL would then look to put the technology on some kind of flight vehicle.

The company is expanding fast with more than 160 staff at its Culham HQ. The new investments will allow it to continue the recruitment.

“The team here is outstanding. We have some of the most talented engineers I’ve ever worked with, a high percentage of whom are women engineers; and we have a great apprenticeship programme. It feels like we’re a good-news story and I want to keep it that way,” said Mark Thomas.

Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos

View comments

Space agencies aim to deliver rocks from Mars to Earth

The US and European space agencies are edging towards a joint mission to bring back rock and soil samples from Mars.

Nasa and Esa have signed a letter of intent that could lead to the first “round trip” to another planet.

The move was announced as a meeting in Berlin, Germany, discussed the science goals and feasibility of a Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission.

The venture would allow scientists to answer key questions about Martian history.

Those questions include whether the Red Planet once hosted life.

Scientists at the Mars meeting said that there was only so much they could learn from Martian meteorites and from the various rovers and static landers sent to the Red Planet.

The next step had to be a mission that would retrieve samples from the Martian surface, blast them into space in a capsule and land them safely on Earth.

  • Europe’s Mars rover takes shape
  • Probe despatched on methane quest

    They could then be subjected to detailed analysis in laboratories, using instruments that are too big and power-hungry to carry as part of a robotic rover’s payload and techniques that are difficult to perform from 55 million kilometres away.

    Making the announcement at the ILA Berlin Air and Space Show, which is taking place at the same time as the Mars science meeting, Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, Nasa’s associate administrator for science, said: “We want to partner with the European Space Agency, but also with other partners.”

    He said this included potential link-ups with the commercial space sector, adding: “We will at every point look at what is available in the commercial market. Nasa has no interest whatsoever in developing things that we can buy.”

    Dave Parker, director of human and robotic exploration at Esa, commented: “It’s very important that every mission we send to Mars discovers something slightly unusual. It’s on the basis of that that we tend to plan the next mission or next missions.”

    Nasa’s 2020 rover mission is expected to help pave the way for Mars Sample Return, by drilling into the surface and caching the cores in containers. But this is intended as a demonstration.

    A mission design would need to be drawn up in coming years. Previous sample return concepts envisaged a rover storing geological samples from scientifically desirable locations on Mars.

    The cached samples would then be loaded on to an ascent vehicle which would lift off from the Martian surface. After the cruise back to Earth, a descent module would parachute down through Earth’s atmosphere, delivering the first retrieved Martian samples directly into the hands of experts waiting on the ground.

    Dr Caroline Smith, head of Earth sciences collections at London’s Natural History Museum, is attending the Berlin meeting. “I would say it’s a reinvigoration of the process,” she told BBC News.

    “Numerous studies have said the only way it’s going to be achieved is through international co-operation. So I think this is a really good message from Nasa and Esa, that we are really going to work together to achieve this – the next frontier of exploration of the Solar System.”

    She added: “There’s a real buzz in the room. I’ve spoken to my colleagues and they’ve said: ‘Wow, we’re really going to do this’!”

    Protecting the planet

    If life existed in the past on the Red Planet, it would likely have been microbial in nature. Scientists want to first know whether conditions were right for life to get started in the past and, if so, whether evidence of fossil microbes remains. They also want to resolve whether there’s life on the Red Planet now. “We’ll only be able to conclusively answer those questions by bringing samples back,” she explained.

    The current high levels of cosmic radiation on Mars’ surface – a consequence of its thin atmosphere – would create a hostile environment for any organisms. But there are ways life might be able to cling on. The possibility that organisms live in the Martian subsurface today means the mission would be subject to strict quarantine, or “planetary protection”, measures.

    “We have to be careful we’re not contaminating Mars with material from our planet, and we want to make sure we’re not accidentally contaminating the samples in a way that would interfere with experiments we want to do on Earth,” explained Dr Smith. She added: “If there’s something hazardous on Mars, we don’t want to accidentally release that into Earth’s biosphere.

    “We are used to handling hazardous materials, whether they be biological or nuclear. There are technologies that exist to be able to handle these in a safe way.”

    Dr Zurbuchen said the sample return mission could also be crucial for later planned human exploration of Mars, which he said Nasa should start thinking about in the 2030s.

    “I can imagine a lot of scenarios where the samples are actually critical for how we explore as humans,” he said.

    For example, scientists want to sample dust from both the atmosphere and soil, because it could have an important impact. If future human “bases” were to rely on solar cells, atmospheric dust might block out sunlight – hampering electricity generation.

    It might also cause problems inside the crew habitats. Dr Smith commented: “If that dust is ubiquitous, and gets everywhere and you’ve got people living there who are breathing in the dust, is it going to be a potential hazard to astronauts?”

    While rocks relevant to the life question are an obvious target for sample return, igneous rocks formed by magma from Mars’ interior are also on the wish-list. “By collecting igneous rocks, we get to understand the geochemical evolution of the planet Mars, we get to know when lavas were being erupted,” said Caroline Smith.

    Analysis of these rocks could help provide a much more accurate chronology for the Red Planet, which currently relies in part on values worked out from studies of the Moon.

    In 2009, Nasa and Esa agreed to collaborate on the Mars Joint Exploration Initiative, which would have culminated in the recovery of samples in the 2020s. But in 2011, Nasa cancelled its participation amid a budgetary squeeze.

    The 2nd International Mars Sample Return Conference is taking place from 25-27 April 2018 in Berlin.

    Follow Paul on Twitter.

    View comments

Earth’s magnetic ocean tides mapped from space

This is the European Space Agency’s spectacular new view of ocean tides as they sweep around the Earth.

The movie shows not the bulging movement of water directly, but rather its magnetic signature.

As the Moon pulls the salty seas through our planet’s global magnetic field, electric currents are generated.

And these currents then induce their own magnetic signals, which have now been mapped in exquisite detail by a trio of Esa satellites known as Swarm.

It is a remarkable achievement because the effect is actually very small.

“It’s a really tiny magnetic field. It’s about 2-2.5 nanotesla at satellite altitude, which is about 20,000 times weaker than the Earth’s global magnetic field,” Nils Olsen, from the Technical University of Denmark, told BBC News.

The professor was speaking at the European Geosciences Union General Assembly (EGU) in Vienna, Austria, where a clutch of new Swarm results have been released.

  • When we discovered how the Earth really works
  • Iron ‘jet stream’ sensed in Earth’s core
  • Design call for ‘solar sentinel’ mission

    The mission was sent into orbit in 2013 to bring fresh insight on Earth’s magnetic behaviour.

    Most of the global field is produced by convection of molten iron in the planet’s outer core. But there are secondary components that contribute to the overall signal – such as that coming from the oceans.

    Other satellites will sense the tides as a change in sea-surface height. What is different about the Swarm trio’s magnetic view is that it reveals the movement of the entire water column, right down to the seabed.

    This is important for climate studies. The oceans store and transport vast amounts of heat energy, and getting the more integrated perspective from Swarm enables scientists to build better models of the Earth system.

    There were hopes before Swarm launched that it might even be possible to tease out the magnetism related to specific currents as well, such as the famous Gulf Stream that shifts warm waters across the North Atlantic.

    The desire is still there, but Prof Olsen is a little pessimistic. It is the well-known periodicity of the Moon’s orbit around the Earth that helps betray the tidal signature.

    The Gulf Stream, on the other hand, is a steady flow, and this consistency helps to keep its individual magnetism hidden amongst the much stronger components of the global field.

    One of these bigger signatures is the magnetism retained in the planet’s surface rocks. And Swarm’s most detailed map yet of this aspect was also released at the EGU meeting.

    It incorporates four years of Swarm measurements, data from a previous German spacecraft called Champ, and information gathered by aeroplanes and ships. Regional features as small as 50km across can be discerned.

    Easy to spot are the famous “zebra stripes” at mid-ocean ridges where upwelling magma creates new seafloor and locks the prevailing magnetic field into cooling rock minerals. The discovery of the stripes in the 1960s was a major proof in the theory of plate tectonics.

    “Magnetic fields are one of the keys to understand the sub-surface of the planet, in combination with other pieces of information such as gravity and seismic measurements,” said Rune Floberghagen, Esa’s Swarm mission manager.

    “In the end this will allow us to determine the best ever model of the upper layers of the planet. This is the very clear, sworn ambition of the Swarm mission.”

    The EGU General Assembly has been treated to a bounty of Swarm results to fascinate the specialists. But there is one observation that will certainly have more general interest – that of the position of the north magnetic pole.

    Most people know that it is not aligned with the geographic north pole and instead drifts around.

    Recent decades have seen it shift in a direction that is taking it away from Canada towards Russia. Swarm is watching this movement closely.

    “This year we are in a rather special situation because in 2018 the magnetic pole will be at its closest to the geographic pole. There is a separation of only 390km. The magnetic pole moves at a speed of about 55km per year,” said Prof Olsen. The expectation is that the gap between the two versions of the pole will widen again from next year.

    Jonathan.Amos-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk and follow me on Twitter: @BBCAmos