The top three news stories of the week, as chosen by our resident students. This week’s top stories include an ancient ‘source’ of ivory, a knighthood for leukaemia research and a new scientific advisor for Trump.
By Tommy Pallet
Gap-year Jewellery Throws Up Ivory Trade First
A team of researchers at a genetics lab based at Edinburgh Zoo discovered that trinkets purchased at a Cambodian market were made from the tusks of woolly mammoths, a species extinct for around 10,000 years. The team, which works on the WildGenes project in conjunction with Cambodia’s first conservation genetics laboratory, use a forensic-style approach to track poached items in the illegal ivory trade. The puzzle starts like this: why is the sale of ivory increasing in Cambodia whilst there is little evidence of poaching there? The answer seemed simple – trafficking. Cambodia is central to the trading routes of both African and Asian poachers, and it would seem that this is the perfect place to create a black hole of knowledge in the market. The product comes in, goes out, and there’s little information about the in-between.
To tackle this, the Royal Zoological Society of Scotland and its WildGene lab at Edinburgh Zoo set up a conservation genetics laboratory with the Cambodian government in the capital Phnom Penh. The aim was to obtain, and subsequently locate the origin, of ivory products entering the country to determine poaching hotspots across the globe. This information would then be fed to wildlife enforcement agencies to aid the fight against illegal poaching and trafficking.
The method of obtaining sample DNA was relatively simple: drill into ivory, break down the dentine and calcium, extract the cells, and sequence the DNA. The tricky task was generating a genomic database of worldwide elephant populations since you can’t drill into the tusks of living elephants. This was mainly achieved by sampling faeces, and it is now possible to match tusk DNA to its closest related population. The system worked until the team discovered something entirely unexpected. What was being sold as elephant ivory items weren’t in fact elephant in origin at all. The ivory came from woolly mammoths. Lead scientist Dr Alex Ball, who set up the lab in Cambodia points out that not only is this bizarre for the obvious reason that the species has been extinct for 10,000 years, but also because the items turned up in a tropical country. He makes a startling but evident claim: the sample must have “come from the Arctic tundra, dug out the ground.”
The legalities here are ambiguous. Mammoths aren’t endangered, they’ve been extinct for millennia. Consequently, the trading of Mammoth-based items isn’t actually illegal, and this has sparked an ivory rush in Russia, where traders have begun ‘mining’ for the precious material. And so begins a discussion on the ethical acceptability of the practice. Whilst it might in the first instance reduce the poaching targeted at today’s living elephants, such a trade continues to fuel the acceptability of the concept of ivory-based products, and this could have serious impacts on future populations of species which do still walk the earth.
For now, I can only imagine the rush of hipster gap-year travellers stockpiling this unique, morally-permissible product, talking about how they are wearing an antique over 10,000 years old. Maybe that’s reason enough to ban the trade.
A Knight in Shining Armour for Leukaemia Sufferers
Amongst the list of people to be honoured this year by the Queen is a name few households would mention around the dinner table, but whose research may save their child’s life. Sir Mel Greaves is a professor at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) and has dedicated his life to the study of leukaemia and to the previously unappreciated Darwinian evolution of cancer. And now he believes he finally has the answer to what causes child leukaemia – and a way of preventing it .The concept is remarkably simple. It begins with the concept that contraction of leukaemia is a two-stage process. The first stage is a random genetic defect which occurs during embryonic development, and the second is a genetic defect which occurs after birth due to an infection. Both stages are required for the disease to present itself, and whilst the first is random and difficult to treat or even detect, the second has a simple solution. Or so Sir Mel believes.
In order for the immune system to be developed properly, it must be primed by naturally occurring mild infections within the first few months of birth. In the absence of these infections, children can be left immune-compromised and susceptible to more severe infections later in infancy. An un-primed immune system reacts in an abnormal and hyperbolic way to ordinary infections, triggering chronic inflammation. It is this inflammation that leads to the second mutation which results in leukaemia. Mel Greaves explains that leukaemia is linked to “patterns of infection characteristic of developed society” and that perhaps rather paradoxically “the problem is not infection, but lack of infection early in life.”
The solution? Two-fold. Parents should take note that raising children in sterile environments is not the answer to their good health: they need to be exposed to microbes early. But in an increasingly sterile western society where it is already seen that there is a reduction in the biodiversity of gut microbiomes, a more direct solution might be required. Greaves is suggesting exposing children to a dose of benign microbes in early infancy, handpicked for their ability to quickly restore the microbiome and stimulate immune systems. And all wrapped up in something akin to a pro-biotic yoghurt drink.
Greaves and his team published their work in Nature Reviews Cancer back in May 2018, but the ICR have been able to garner public attention for the new pioneering approach to leukaemia prevention as a result of the knighthood. Sir Mel feels “optimistic in a five to ten-year time frame” and has now launched a fundraising appeal for the money required to develop the treatment.
New U.S. Science Advisor – An Eye in Storm Trump?
On the 2nd of January, the U.S. Senate finally confirmed the appointment of a science advisor to Trump’s administration. The nominee – who was put forward back in July, and thus stands as a testament to the inefficiency of U.S. government – was an unexpected choice from Trump. A calm, level-headed emeritus professor of meteorology specialising in extreme weather: Kelvin Droegemeier.
I doubt I need to remind the reader of Trump’s views on climate change, his appalling stance to unlocking federal funding for wildfires in California, and of the report that U.S. climate scientists have been backing up federal data onto independent servers for fear of ‘political interference’. So, has Droegemeier been picked for an impossible task? Well, we won’t find out for a while at least. He’s ironically been holed up in his home in Oklahoma due to severe winter storms, and even if he made it to Washington he would discover a sizeable portion of his agencies currently shutdown as a result of the government stalemate over the federal budget. These agencies include NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration), NSF (National Science Foundation), FDA (Food and Drugs Agency), and EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) at least.
He’s a popular choice amongst the American scientific community, as a seasoned, well-respected researcher who held the position of vice-president of research at Oklahoma University until his nomination. He has experience which provides a glimmer of hope for his new, political role too: he served as state secretary for science and technology and was a member of the National Science Board during the administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama. Speaking to the Washington Post, the Senate committee chair praised Droegemeier for his ability to “communicate effectively with both ends of the political spectrum” – a skill unrivalled in the wake of the Republicans losing control of the House in November. So, as a scientist, an administrator, someone who has worked under both Republicans and Democrats, perhaps there’s hope for science under the Trump administration. But then the Washington Post also remarks that Trump responded to a November report about the effects of climate change with simply “I don’t believe it”. As with anything in U.S. politics at the moment, who can really tell what will happen?
Despite the Oklahoma weather, it would appear that Kelvin Droegemeier is in the calm before the storm.