Summer of Science

Electric greenhouses boost crops by up to 40% in China (Source: Wikipedia)
A wrap-up of the biggest headlines in science that have hit the news since July

By Holly Giles

So much has happened this summer that it’s hard to summarise in one article but this is a
wrap-up of the biggest headlines and topics that have hit the news since July.

Biomedical Scientists have made some huge advances this summer with particularly large
strides in nutrition, mental health and drug research.

Anorexia is a well-recognised condition affecting between 0.9 and 4 per cent of women and
0.3 per cent of men; a figure which equates to over 100,000 people in the UK alone. Despite
its prevalence it is a condition we know relatively little about and still “don’t understand the
underlying causes” explains Cynthia Bulik at the University of North Carolina. Bulik and her
team have been researching into the genetic components of anorexia and have pinpointed
eight locations across the genome which are likely to play a role in the condition. This was
concluded from a study of 17,000 people with diagnosed anorexia and 55,000 without. It
has also been noted by doctors that sufferers of anorexia “have a really hard time sitting
still” says Bulik. This was previously believed to be a psychological symptom resulting from
an effort to lose weight, but the study uncovered correlations with body fat, BMI and
insulin-resistant genes suggesting anorexia may have a more metabolic component. This not
only changes our understanding of the condition but “may suggest other ways beyond
psychological treatment to help people gain weight”.

Following the field of nutrition, there have been multiple screaming headlines over the
summer of what we can and can’t eat and key foods that cause cancer. These headlines are
confusing and, as discussed by journalist Clare Wilson, most food groups have been praised
at one point and punished at another meaning nutritional science often leaves us without
clear answers. She asked Amy Teuter, an obstetrician, who concluded “If you overeat
massively, that’s going to be unhealthy. And there’s a floor beneath which you really can’t
go. But if you do everything in moderation, you’ll be fine.” So essentially anything used
sparingly is fine to eat!

An exciting development in drug research this summer has occurred regarding Alzheimer’s.
Previously, it has been accepted that the condition is likely to be due to a build-up of toxic
plaques in the brain made of amyloid. However, new findings suggest this may be a side
effect rather than the cause of the condition as treatment targeting the bacteria responsible
for gum disease (Porphyromonas gingivalis) correlated to a reduction in the brain
inflammation of Alzheimer patients. The study was too small for significant findings but is
highly promising and, as a result, the firm has now embarked on a twelve-month study with
570 patients.

Also grabbing the headlines this summer has been the various strides taken by
environmentalists and ecologists on ways to improve our planet. This was kicked-off in July
by Greta Thunberg’s speech to parliament in which she mentioned her “hundreds of hours
in trains, electric cars and buses” over the last six months whilst travelling around Europe
due to the fact that trains only emit 15% of the emissions of planes. And there began the swedish flygskam campaign, also known as flight shaming, where people were urged not to
fly unless really necessary in order to lower carbon emissions. For those who have to fly for
work there began a scheme to offset the carbon emissions of flying from elsewhere. This is
where the amount of carbon you emit is equalised by a reduction in carbon emissions from
other sources such as reforestation or renewable energy projects. Politicians agree that
offsetting does have a role to play in reducing carbon emissions but as detailed by scientist
Benjamin Sovacool “it is good to offset but better still would be not flying or taking the train.
What we really need to change is our behaviour.” It’s hard to assess the full impact of this
movement but over the last two years Sweden has seen a decrease in air travel and an
increase in the number of train and bus passengers.

While one finding urges us to cut back on emissions, plant scientists in China are cranking up
the electricity current through findings of increase crop yields when exposed to electricity.
On the outskirts of Beijing are multiple commercial greenhouses which seem no different to
any other except for the hum of electrics. Biophysicist Ellard Hunting says, “the mechanisms
that underpin these findings remain largely elusive but there is definitely a very interesting
interaction between plants and their electrical environment – time will tell how this will
benefit agriculture”. Essentially plant scientists currently can’t ascertain why plants react so
well to electricity but lettuce and cucumber crops in these greenhouses have shown an
increased yield of 40%. Since 2017 this has equated to an extra revenue of nearly 1.2 million
yuan (£137,000). With an ever-increasing population resulting in a growing demand for
food, findings like this could revolutionise food production across the world.

Finally, a new study published this summer has added to the mounting evidence that air
pollution is affecting our mental health. This study looked at 151 million people in the US
and 1.4 million people in Denmark. This large-scale study found that there was a strong
correlation between poor air quality and rates of bipolar disorder, schizophrenia and major
depression. It goes further, scientists concluded that the strongest predictor of being
diagnosed with bipolar disorder was living in an area with poor air quality. The reasons for
this are currently unclear but one theory is that poor air quality is associated with traffic
noise which increases stress and disrupts sleep, both of which are factors known to
contribute to poor mental health. There is also another theory that small particles can pass
through the blood brain barrier and result in inflammation but this is yet unproven. This
research adds to a growing number of findings on the unforeseen effects of pollution on our
health and our minds.

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