Issue 29 Online: EuScireka!

Welcome to the new edition of EuSci Magazine! We will be posting and promoting each article from the magazine individually on our website over the next few weeks. If you want to read the magazine in its full and original form you can either pick one up from many different locations on campus or read it here.

Magic mushrooms: a treatment for depression?

Psilocybin, one of the psychoactive compounds in magic mushrooms, was found to have comparable effects to the antidepressant Escitalopram. The Phase 2 trial, conducted by Robin Carhart-Harris et al. at Imperial College London’s Centre for Psychedelic Research, was published earlier this year in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The 59 participants were all suffering from major depressive disorder and over a six-week period received either two doses of psilocybin or daily doses of Escitalopram as well as psychological support.

The primary outcome was a self-reporting questionnaire on depressive symptoms, and by this measure there was no significant difference between psilocybin and Escitalopram. However, the trial also involved several secondary outcomes including other measures of depression and related conditions. In every secondary measure, psilocybin performed significantly better than Escitalopram. 

While the results of this trial suggest that psilocybin is a promising option for treating depression, they are far from conclusive. Larger and longer trials will be required before psilocybin can be used in the clinic, but this study demonstrates that the drug certainly has potential in being a safe and effective new treatment for depression.

Written by Jacob Smith. Illustrated by Kruthika Sundaram.

Edinburgh Professor is first female Astronomer Royal

Catherine Heymans, professor of astrophysics at the University of Edinburgh, was named Astronomer Royal for Scotland in May 2021. Professor Heymans, who also serves as director of the German Centre for Cosmological Lensing at Ruhr-University Bochum, thus becomes the first female to be awarded the title dating back almost 200 years.

A world-renowned expert on the dark universe, Heymans seeks to shed light on the elusive mysteries that make up our cosmos. One of her major achievements to date is the first large-scale map of dark matter. Since its creation in 1834, the position of Astronomer Royal for Scotland was originally held by the director of the Royal Observatory of Edinburgh. From 1995 onwards it has been awarded as an honorary title. 

Professor Heymans put forward her intention to use this platform to encourage a wider engagement with science, both in amateur and professional settings. She plans to start by installing telescopes at all remote outdoor learning centres in Scotland, popular school-trip destinations. “My hope is that once that spark and connection with the Universe is made, children will carry that excitement home with them and develop a life-long passion for astronomy or, even better, science as a whole,” she said.

Written by Alkisti Kallinikov. Illustrated by Freya Aylward.

University of Edinburgh researchers discover how zebrafish repair their spinal cords

Spinal cord injuries in humans often lead to lifelong paralysis. Intriguingly, some invertebrates including zebrafish can regenerate their spinal cord after injury and quickly regain normal swimming activity. Scientists in the Becker group at the University of Edinburgh have been investigating whether the immune system can contribute to this regeneration.

By looking at the genes expressed by immune cells after spinal cord injury in zebrafish, the team identified a signal called Tnf which is secreted by a specific group of these immune cells. This Tnf can then act directly on the descendants of stem cells in the spinal cord to trigger a cascade of changes. These changes stimulate the generation of new neurons which replace those lost in injury.

When levels of Tnf or its receptor were reduced in the fish, they showed fewer new neurons after injury. The hope is that this research can be used to harness the immune system to encourage spinal cord regeneration in humans.

Written by Louisa Drake. Illustrated by Toyo Vignal.

The queen must be seen – bumble bee study challenges ideas about insect communication 

A new study has discovered that bumble bees show different responses to chemicals depending on their social context. Entomologists Margarita Orlova and Etya Amsalem of Pennsylvania State University directly monitored the importance of “who was in the room” during chemical communication between queen bumble bees and their workers.

Previous studies on pheromones may have missed the point by studying them in isolation, as these are the chemicals that social insects use to talk to each other. Margarita and Etya studied differences in worker reproduction between three contextual settings: no queen and no eggs, presence of a live queen, and presence of a live queen with eggs.

From their findings they deduced that queen pheromones work in conjunction with the queen’s visual presence and the presence of eggs to influence worker reproduction. “Our findings highlight the necessity for a broader view of what constitutes a queen pheromone,” they concluded.

Written by Nicole Martinez. Illustrated by Kate Summerson.

Glitter without the litter – pigment reinvented with sustainable, plant-based materials

Glitter is a beautiful but messy material. It is usually made from plastic or toxic and unsustainable materials, such as titanium dioxide or mica. These contribute to pollution and can be unethically sourced. Titanium dioxide is banned from food applications in the EU as a potential carcinogen.

Professor Silvia Vignolini and collaborating researchers at the University of Cambridge have produced a sustainable alternative using cellulose, a major component of plant cells. The pigment has structural colour, so the colours are created by how the particles interfere with light.

Unlike previous studies, Vignolini’s team made plant-based glitter at large scale. They made films of cellulose nanocrystals using a roll-to-roll (R2R) system which is a common processing system in industrial manufacturing. Heat treatment allows the films to be ground into glitters that keep their colour and are long-lasting, and the temperatures involved are much lower than in traditional pigment processing and so use less energy.

The result? A sustainable, non-toxic, vegan glitter that is completely biodegradable and suitable for many applications. “We believe this product could revolutionise the cosmetics industry,” said Vignolini in a news release.

Written by Madison MacLeay. Photo by Nixx Studios on Unsplash.

Fake data found in paper about honesty

In an ironic turn of events, the honesty of a top dishonesty researcher is under question. Their 2012 paper claimed that signing a statement of honest intent at the top, rather than bottom, of insurance papers decreased dishonest behaviour. Dan Ariely, a behavioural scientist at Duke University, received the dataset from an insurance company. Now accused of falsification, he no longer has any proof that he received the data as-is.

After the group were unable to replicate the findings, the data were deposited into an open directory in 2020. From here, anonymous data sleuths got to work. A simple data quality check was enough to convince the Data Colada blog of wrongdoing. Digging deeper, they found that the dataset was most likely completely fabricated.

After reading the revealing blog, co-authors of the original paper retracted it from publication. As no email trail remains, and Ariely won’t name the company, this may be the most action we can expect. Cases like this erode trust between academics and with the public. Open science practices, like depositing data online, can help catch data fraudsters. In the meantime, you might want to archive those important emails.

Written by Katie Dubarry. Illustrated by Vishal Gulati

Brain cell differences could improve AI

Researchers at Imperial College London have conducted research suggesting that artificial intelligence systems could be improved by making them more like the human brain. By studying networks of individual electric “cells”, they found that having differences between cells led to more stable and robust learning.

Neurons in the human brain are heterogeneous – they each process information at a different speed. However, the cells used in electronic neural networks are usually homogeneous, meaning that they all operate under the same time constant which is how long the cell takes to decide what to do based on the decisions of its neighbours. By individually tweaking the time constant of each cell, the networks were enabled to learn faster and with fewer cells, making them more efficient.

Most AI systems use homogeneous neural networks, but this new research will help to improve their efficiency and accuracy for everyday tasks such as speech-to-text transcription and image identification. First author Nicolas Perez, a PhD student at Imperial’s Department of Electrical and Electronic Engineering, said “Our work suggests that having a diversity of neurons in both brains and AI systems […] could boost learning.”

Written by Feargus Jamieson-Ball. Illustrated by Amy Perks.

Bacteria’s biological weapons under investigation

Researchers have comprehensively identified the molecules released by E. coli bacteria, in a bid to find new drugs. Bacteria secrete a variety of molecules, including individual proteins and tiny spheres called outer membrane vesicles (OMVs). OMVs can interfere with a host’s immune system to help the bacteria hide and survive or contain digestive enzymes and fuse with host cells.

A study at Clermont Auvergne University in France has characterised the secretions of Escherichia coli O157:H7 (which causes both food poisoning and bloody diarrhoea) under different growth conditions. The secreted proteins and OMVs were identified using mass spectroscopy. To predict how the proteins were secreted, researchers looked for “barcodes” on the proteins known as secretion signals which normally help the bacterium localise proteins within the cell. The researchers also characterised proteins that may be used as novel drug targets to treat an E. coli infection.

Written by Alistair Scott. Illustrated by Yen Peng (Apple) Chew.

Paralysed mice walk again

Using a mouse model of severe spinal cord injury (SCI), Samuel Stupp (Northwestern University in Chicago) and his team found that injection of a protein “scaffold” into the spinal cords of mice with paralysed hindlimbs resulted in the recovery of their ability to walk. The scaffold is composed of monomer protein units which assemble themselves into long chains. When injected, these chains form a gel at the site of injury.

The recovery is mediated by bioactive parts of the protein scaffold which promote neuronal regeneration when detected by receptors on spinal cord cells. The researchers also experimented with the non-bioactive part and found that increasing the intensity of motion within the structure was related to enhanced neuron survival, blood vessel regeneration, and functional recovery from SCI.

The findings of this study are promising and could be a step towards curing paralysis in people. This remains a major challenge, however, as this kind of spinal cord regeneration is yet to be seen in adult humans.

Written by Hannah Smith. Illustrated by Laura Cooper.

Can you confirm your identity without revealing it?

Keeping personal information secret is tougher than ever, as we all increasingly rely on digital technology for everything from buying a house to buying a cup of coffee. Counteracting digital prying eyes is an ongoing goal for cybersecurity experts worldwide. 

Researchers at the University of Geneva, Switzerland, have developed an experimental way to put a blinder on those eyes and prove your knowledge of personal information, like your name or birthdate, without actually sharing it. 

The experiment sets up a dual verification process from a pair of users that are physically separated. Each user provides the solution to a “zero-knowledge proof” that is mathematically complex to solve but can be easily demonstrated by the user. The security of the proof depends on the verification being provided at the same time by the separated users. The authors compare this approach to the police interviewing two suspects in separate locations at the same time to see if their stories match.

Like most good detective stories, further evidence is needed to prove the usefulness of this approach.

Written by Maureen Whalen. Illustrated by Vishal Gulati.

Curing Covid – pills enter the race

Pharmaceutical companies have been working tirelessly to find drugs to treat severe Covid-19 symptoms. Recently, two oral antiviral drugs have emerged with exciting results: molnupiravir and Paxlovid from pharmaceutical giants Merck and Pfizer, respectively.

Molnupiravir reduced the risk of hospitalisation by up to 50% and it may even reduce viral transmission. It was approved for use in the UK (marketed as Lagevrio) on 4 November 2021 and is the first oral antiviral for Covid-19.

Hot on the heels of molnupiravir, Pfizer has shown that Paxlovid is 89% effective in reducing hospitalisation or death when taken three days after the first appearance of symptoms; there have been calls for the drug to be fast-tracked to the approval stage in the US.

Participants in both global trials were required to have an underlying medical condition or be over 60 years old, making them extremely vulnerable to severe Covid-19 related illness. Both drugs have been proven to be successful against the different SARS-CoV-2 variants and also other coronaviruses. Oral administration is hugely advantageous, as other approved antivirals are either administered intravenously or injected. Alongside the vaccines, these drugs look promising in the global fight against Covid-19.

Written by Kevin Boyle. Illustrated by Kruthika Sundaram.

The Secret Life of Mussaurus: The Earliest Evidence of Social Behaviour in Dinosaurs

A bumper Argentinian fossil haul is the latest step in uncovering the mysteries of dinosaur behaviour, as Hady George reports.

Illustration by Adalaide Grosse

Imagine travelling 190 million years into the past and beholding herds of spectacular dinosaurs performing sophisticated social behaviours. A team led by Dr Diego Pol, an Argentina-based palaeontologist, have discovered the earliest record of complex social behaviour in dinosaurs that precedes the previous record by a staggering 40 million years. Unlike previous research that attempted to determine social behaviour from fragmentary and controversial fossils, this new research is based on evidence gathered from over 100 fossilised eggs and 80 specimens of the dinosaur MussaurusMussaurus lived in what is now southern Patagonia, Argentina, around 190 million years ago. It was an ancestor of the famous and ridiculously long-necked Diplodocus and Brachiosaurus. Despite being smaller, Mussaurus would still likely have reached six meters in length and possibly weighed over a ton.

Dr Pol and his team found hundreds of eggs that were seemingly laid in the same place and at the same time. This suggests that dozens, if not hundreds, of Mussaurus gathered together to lay eggs in the same place, a behaviour which can be observed today in herons and storks. Colonial nesting has its benefits: it provides protection from predators as large adults guard the eggs, and soon-to-be hatchlings are placed close to food sources. However, it’s unclear how often the mothers were laying eggs in the nesting site and whether or not they stayed near the eggs afterwards.

The team also concluded that each Mussaurus lived together in groups of a similar age. This was determined from their discovery of similar-aged Mussaurus that were fossilised together. The scientists revealed how old the dinosaurs were when they died from both their size and how developed the inside of their bones were.

The phenomenon of social groups being formed by individuals of the same age is referred to as age segregation and can be seen in modern mammals, such as bighorn sheep. It is known that adult and juvenile bighorn sheep feed on different shrubs and greenery and worry about different predators. So, the adults tend to aggregate with other adults who have found sufficient food sources and safety, and the juveniles do the same with other juveniles.

Mussaurus might have had an age-segregated social structure for the same reasons. However, there are limitations to this evidence. Firstly, fossils only show us who died together, not who lived together. Secondly, the fossils containing the juveniles might not have preserved any adults that were rearing the juveniles, and the fossil of the two adults might not have preserved any youngsters that might have been living with them. Therefore, it is still possible that social groups were not age-segregated.

What Dr Pol and his team have discovered not only sheds light on the social behaviour of Mussaurus but also of dinosaurs in general. Since Mussaurus is a fairly primitive dinosaur, it’s likely many of the larger and more formidable dinosaurs that succeeded it retained these social behaviours. Some may have had even more advanced social behaviours such as segregating groups based on age and sex.

There is still a lot we don’t know about dinosaur behaviour though. There’s uncertainty surrounding the relationships between mothers and their hatchlings, and we don’t know to what extent individuals within a social group interacted with each other. Future studies will hopefully unravel these mysteries.

Hady George (he/him) is a master’s student researching palaeontology and geobiology.

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