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Science & Innovation

We need to create more diverse paths into research and scientific innovation. Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser, Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation, explains how industry clusters and a change of mindset could help.

What do you picture when someone mentions a chemist? Maybe you see someone like you working in a lab or office with your colleagues.

But what do people at the bus stop think? What would a secondary school student say? Do they see someone like them – or do they imagine an Einstein-like figure hidden away in a dark room with crazed hair and test tubes?

One of the most interesting messages from Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser’s Fuelling the Future: science, society and the research and innovation system talk on 29 September was the need to make sure science and technology are seen as viable careers for people throughout society.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser

Prof Dame Ottoline Leyser

You don’t need to be a genius to work in research and innovation. You don’t necessarily need to be a specialist, and you certainly don’t need to be hunched over a microscope with a jumble of figures and formulae on a board behind you. An array of different people, technical and non-technical, are needed to make the sector thrive.

 

The narrow pathway of talent

Part of Dame Ottoline’s job as Chief Executive of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) is to improve access to these sectors and to make sure that great ideas aren’t lost due to daunting entry barriers.

‘It’s a huge challenge,’ she said. ‘A large part of the challenge is the narrow concept that we all have of what a researcher and innovator look like.’

Leyser spoke about the need to create diverse routes through the system rather than squeezing everyone through the same narrow path. ‘The assessment criteria we use for individuals have become narrower and narrower,’ she added. ‘Some of it, ironically, is to make the system fairer, but objectivity in creativity is a total pipe dream. You end up crushing creativity by narrowing the criteria.’

She noted that those with mixed careers – interwoven with varied experiences – are to be welcomed. ‘That’s nothing to do with compromising excellence,’ she said. ‘Real excellence comes in multiple forms.’

>> Would you like to attend more talks like this one? Check out our Events page.

 

Challenging times

However, Leyser also spoke of the need to level up the UK from a productivity perspective. One way to do this is through smart specialisation and industry clusters. She mentioned Lincoln as an area where this approach worked well. Lincoln is home to extensive agriculture and the multinational technology corporation Siemens. As such, it made sense to help make it a centre for agricultural robotics.

SCIblog - 12 October 2021 - Making science and technology more accessible - image of a wind turbine

UKRI is investing heavily in research and innovation into Net Zero energy solutions.

As the largest public funder of research and innovation in the UK, UKRI has a major role to play in funding such industry clusters and intelligent innovation. It has funded more than 54,000 researchers and innovators, and UKRI grants have generated almost 900 spinouts since 2004.

These include Oxford Nanopore, a biotech company whose DNA sequencing technology is now valued at £2.5bn. It has also cast an eye on the future, including delivering more than £1bn in R&D relevant to Artificial Intelligence and in excess of £1bn towards Net Zero energy solutions.

Leyser noted that the UKRI’s goal is to embed research and innovation more broadly across society – for it to be ‘by the people and for the people, rather than the exclusive domain of the privileged few’.

It is a grand challenge, but such sentiments are certainly encouraging.

Careers

Continuing our series on Black scientists, Dr George Okafo tells us about his journey from curious child, encouraged by family and mentors, to Global Director of Healthcare Data and Analytics with a leading pharmaceutical company.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo

What is your current position?
I am Global Director, Healthcare Data and Analytics Unit at Boehringer Ingelheim, and have been in this role for the past 10 months.

Right: Dr George Okafo

Please give us a brief outline of your role.
To build an expert team of data stewards, data scientists and statistical geneticists tasked with accessing and ingesting population-scale healthcare biobanks and then deriving target, biomarker and disease insights from this data to transform clinical development and personalise the development of new medicines.

What was it that led you to study chemistry/science and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
My interest in science stems from my parents. My father was a medical doctor, and my mother was a senior midwife. As a child, I was always very curious and wanted to know why and how things worked. This curiosity has stayed with me all my life and throughout my career at GlaxoSmithKline and now at Boehringer Ingelheim. In my current role, I am still asking the same types of questions from Big Data and these answers could have a profound impact in the development of new medicines.

Was there any one person or group of people who you felt had a specific impact on your decision to pursue the career you are in?
Yes, my father and mother, who supported, encouraged and gave me the confidence to be curious, to keep trying and to never give up.

SCIblog - 11 October 2021 - Celebrating Black scientists – Dr George Okafo - image of pipette and vials

Dr Okafo held senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development while at at GSK.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
My career journey started at Dulwich College (London) where I studied Chemistry, Biology, Maths and Physics at A Level. This took me to Imperial College of Science, Technology and Medicine (London), where I completed my Joint BSc in Chemistry and Biochemistry and my PhD in Cancer Chemistry.

I then spent a year at the University of Toronto in Canada as a Postdoctoral Fellow, before embarking on my career in the Pharmaceutical Industry, starting at GlaxoSmithKline (GSK). I spent 30 years at GSK, where I held many senior director-level roles in drug discovery and development. During my time, I made it my mission to learn as much about the R&D process and used this knowledge to understand how innovation can impact and transform drug research.

I have been very fortunate in my career to be surrounded by many brilliant and inspirational people who had the patience to share their knowledge with me and answer my many questions.

>> Curious to read more about some of the great Black scientists from the past? Here’s our blog on Lewis Howard Latimer.

Considering your own career route, what message do you have for Black people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Surround yourself with brilliant people who can inspire you. Look for people who you respect and can coach and mentor you. Don’t be afraid to fail. Work hard and keep trying.

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young Black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
No, I do not see colour as a barrier nor a hindrance to pursuing a career in science. I think it is important to look for role models from the same background to help inspire you, to answer your questions and to encourage you.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?
Have more role models from different backgrounds. This sends a very powerful message to young people studying science reinforcing the message… I can do that!

Could you share one experience which has helped to define your career path?
Not so much an experience, but a mindset – staying curious, inquisitive, always willing to learn something new, having courage that failure is not the end, but an opportunity to learn.

Careers

Marking Black History Month and following on from the #BlackInChem initiative, SCI is continuing its look back at some of the unsung Black scientists who pioneered, and made important contributions, to the advancement of science.

Today we profile Lewis Howard Latimer, much admired by his contemporaries; Alexander Graham Bell and Thomas Edison, but sadly a name, and story, that is not as well known.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Lewis Howard Latimer

Lewis Howard Latimer | Image Credit: By Unknown author - http://www.lrc.rpi.edu/resources/news/pressReleases/img/Lewis.jpg, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=2032528

Lewis Howard Latimer, the youngest of four children, was born in Chelsea, Massachusetts, on 4 September 1848. His father, George Latimer, a slave who had escaped, became something of a cause celebre when his owner recaptured him. However, abolitionists took his case to the Supreme Court and his freedom was secured.

Lewis proved to be an excellent student, with a particular flair for drawing, as well as writing poetry and stories, but lack of finance and restricted access to education meant that by 15 years of age, Lewis had joined the US Navy. The history books indicate that he was honourably discharged in 1865; when the Civil War ended.

Soon after, Latimer found work as an office boy with the patent firm Crosby, Halstead and Gould. It is here that combining his talent for drawing, and developing the skills of a draughtsman he was eventually promoted to the position of head draftsman. The history books record that Latimer’s first patent, in 1874 with colleague Charles Brown, was an improved toilet system for railroad cars.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of Alexander Graham Bell

Lewis Latimer was instrumental in helping Alexander Graham Bell file his patent for the telephone ahead of his competitors.

Latimer had many inventions, but it could be argued that his drawings for Alexander Graham Bell’s telephone, helped seal his place in science history. The story goes that Bell was in a race against time, as rivals were also looking to gain patent rights for a similar device. Bell hired Latimer who used his expertise in drawing and submitting patent applications to help Bell file his patent just hours, it said, before his rival in 1876.

By 1880 Latimer had taken up the post of mechanical draughtsman for the inventor Hiram Maxim, who was also the founder of the US Electric Lighting Company. Now focused on incandescent lighting, Latimer along with Joseph Nichols, invented a light bulb which used a carbon filament, an improvement on Thomas Edison’s paper filament. The invention, patented in 1881, was sold to the US Electric Lighting Company in the same year.

SCIblog - 4 October 2021 - Black History Month: Lewis Howard Latimer - image of light bulbs with carbon filaments

Latimer invented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs | Editorial credit: Claudio Zaccherini / Shutterstock.com

1A booklet by the Thomas Alva Edison Foundation noted; ‘Latimer invented and patented a process for making carbon filaments for light bulbs. He taught the process to company workers, and soon it was being used in factory production. Latimer also assisted in installing Maxim lighting systems in New York City, Philadelphia, Montreal and London. During the installation of lighting in Montreal, where a lot of people spoke only French, Latimer learned the language in order to competently instruct the workers. In London he set up the first factory for the Maxim-Weston Electric Light Company. That required him to teach the workmen all the processes for making Maxim lamps, including glass blowing. In just nine months Latimer had the factory in full production.’

In 1882 Latimer left Hiram Maxim and in 1884 joined the Edison Electric Light Company, where he was given the title draughtsman-engineer. In 1890 he joined the Edison Legal Department, and in 1893 testified in a case where the company said that its incandescent lamp patents had been infringed. In 1896 the Board of Patent Control of GE and Westinghouse was formed and Latimer became its Chief Draughtsman. He continued in that role until 1911 when he joined the consulting firm Edwin W Hammer.

On 24 January 1918, Latimer was named one of the 28 charter members – and the only African-American member – of the Edison Pioneers, ‘a distinguished group of people who worked to keep the ideals of Thomas Edison alive.’ The Edison Pioneers helped create the US’ electric power industry.

Latimer received patents for several inventions, including the safety elevator. He also had a passion for social justice. In a letter written in 1895 in support of the National Conference of Coloured Men, Latimer wrote: ‘I have faith to believe that the nation will respond to our plea for equality before the law, security under the law, and an opportunity, by and through maintenance of the law, to enjoy with our fellow citizens of all races and complexions the blessings guaranteed us under the constitution.’

Latimer died on 11 December 1928. Edison Pioneers historian and long time private secretary of Thomas Edison, William H. Meadowcroft wrote1 ‘Lewis Howard Latimer was of the coloured race, the only one in our organisation, and was one of those to respond to the initial call that led to the formation of the Edison Pioneers, January 24 1918. Broadmindedness, versatility in the accomplishment of things intellectual and cultural, a linguist, a devoted husband and father, all were characteristics of him, and his genial presence will be missed from our gatherings…We hardly mourn his inevitable going so much as we rejoice in pleasant memory at having being associated with him in a great work for all peoples under a great man.’

1For more information on Latimer’s life, work and legacy, see the Edison Electric Institute resource: Thomas Alva Edison Associate: Lewis Howard Latimer: A Black Inventor.

Careers

SCI’s America International group has awarded the 2021 Perkin Medal to Dr Jane Frommer. The 114th Perkin Medal was presented to Jane at the Bellevue Hotel in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, in recognition of her outstanding contribution to chemistry.

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Dr Jane Frommer

Dr Frommer is renowned for her key contributions in electronically conducting polymers and scanning probe instrumentation. Her pioneering work with scanning probes paved the way for their use in chemistry, materials science and, eventually, in nanotechnology. According to SCI America, her nanoscopic analytic methods are vital to nanostructural research and are used across many industries.

Dr Frommer began her career in 1980 at Allied Corporate Laboratories (now Honeywell), where she created the solution state of electronically conducting organic polymers. In 1986, she joined IBM where, along with other instrumentalists, she demonstrated the ability to image and manipulate single molecules using scanning tunnelling microscopy. During her multi-year assignment at the University of Basel Physics Institute in the early 1990s, Dr Frommer’s team expanded the capability of scanning probes in measuring the functional properties of organic thin films with atomic force microscopy.

Since 2018, she has worked as a science advisor for Google. In this capacity, she has sought to increase the amount of open source data available in the physical and life sciences. She also helps Silicon Valley start-ups navigate the chemical and material challenges of nanotechnology and has mentored countless students and young scientists in high school, college, and in her laboratory in recent decades.

SCI Awards - Medals - Image for the Perkin Medal - social graphic

Previous recipients of the Perkin medal include Barbara Haviland Minor, of the Chemours Company, and Ann E Weber, of Kallyope Inc.

Dr Frommer has written more than 100 referred publications and is the co-inventor of more than 50 issued patents. With her extraordinary body of work spanning more than 40 years, she is a worthy recipient of the prestigious Perkin Medal.

The Perkin Medal is widely acknowledged as the highest honour in American industrial chemistry. It was established to commemorate the 50th anniversary of William Henry Perkin’s discovery of mauveine at the age of just 18. Perkin’s creation of mauveine, the world’s first synthetic aniline dye, revolutionised chemistry and opened up new frontiers in textiles, clothing, and other industries. Perkin was a founding member of SCI and this Medal was first presented to him in New York in 1906.

For more information on the Perkin Medal and the nomination process, visit: soci.org/awards/medals/perkin-medal

Agrifood

Lilies provide gloriously beautiful and well scented flowering border plants. Choose flowering size bulbs in the garden centre or from a catalogue. Grow these through the winter potted in a general garden compost placed in an unheated greenhouse or cold frame. By March or early-April, substantial green shoots will have formed from the bulbs and they can be transplanted into the garden.

Lilies need a sunny border and very fertile soil to encourage vigorous root growth capable of supporting the flowering spike and ancillary bulbs as they are initiated. This produces magnificent flowers and an increasing colony of bulbs that will spread and become established over future seasons.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of Lilium longiflorum / Easter Lily

Lilium longiflorum, often called the Easter lily | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Regular watering and feeding with nutrients are needed, especially potassium, which encourages root and shoot growth. Stake the flower spike as it grows, giving support for the flowers because they are heavy when fully open and easily damaged by winds.

Rewards come in mid-summer with magnificent colourful flowers and wonderful perfumes on warm evenings. Apart from severe winters, lilies are hardy garden plants unless they are from groups specified as tender and requiring protection. In the autumn, simply cut down the flowering spike and remove any fallen foliage.

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Buds developed on lily scales after culturing | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

The Lilium genus has about 100 species originating worldwide mainly from north temperate areas of Europe, Asia and America. The colour range includes white, yellow, orange, pink, red and purple. Plant breeders in The Netherlands, Japan and North America have produced a huge range of multi-coloured hybrids.

Taxonomically, Lilium is divided into divisions, of which the Turk’s Caps, Martagons and American hybrids are popular. The most destructive pest is the scarlet lily beetle (Lilioceris lilii) which devours foliage, flowers and bulbs. The first signs of trouble are shot holes in the foliage. Picking off beetles and larvae is an effective means of dealing with low-level infestations.

SCIblog - 21 September 2021 - Looking after your lilies - image of lily bulbil comparison

Comparison of lily bulbils growing from scale leaves, immature bulb and flowering size bulb | Image credit: Professor Geoff Dixon.

Asexual propagation is a simple and enjoyable occupation. Divide a good-sized bulb into its scales. Choose healthy scales from the outer rings and place these in a plastic box containing damp kitchen paper and place in an airing cupboard. After about 10-12 weeks, small bulbils will have formed on each scale.

Select the boldest mother scales and bulbils and plant in a tray of seedling compost and grow in the greenhouse. After two or three months the most vigorous young plants can be potted individually. Eventually these are planted in the garden and will develop into flowering size bulbs after two or three years.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Sustainability & Environment

The War on Plastic is a grand title. To most of us, it doesn’t seem like much of a war at all – more like a series of skirmishes. Nevertheless, if you look closely, you’ll see that a lot of companies are tackling the issue.

GSK Consumer Healthcare (GSKCH) is one such organisation. The healthcare brand that gave us Sensodyne and Advil has launched a carbon neutral toothbrush to reduce our reliance on fossil fuels (which create virgin plastic).

The composition of its Dr. Best tooth scrubber is interesting. The handle comprises a mixture of a cellulose derived from pine, spruce, and birch trees and tall oil, which comes from the wood pulping industry. The bristles are made from castor oil and the plastic-free packaging includes a cellulose window.

According to GSKCH, Dr. Best is Germany’s favourite toothbrush brand and there are plans to apply the technology to toothbrushes across its portfolio, including its Sensodyne brand. At the moment, GSK needs to apply carbon offsetting initiatives to make the toothbrush carbon neutral, but it says it is working on future solutions that do not require this approach.

Net zero shopping

GSK isn’t the only company that is actively reducing the use of plastics and minimising waste. Supermarket chain Morrisons has made aggressive moves in recent years to cut waste, and has just launched six ‘net zero waste’ stores in Edinburgh that will operate with zero waste by 2025.

Customers at these stores will be able to bring back hard-to-recycle plastics such as food wrappers, foils, yoghurt tubs, mixed material crisp tubes, coffee tubs, batteries, and plant pots. At the same time, all store waste will be collected by a range of specialist waste partners for recycling within the UK, and unsold food will be offered to customers at a cheaper price on the Too Good to Go app.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 1 image of Morrisons' recycling scheme

Morrisons’ proactive approach will help find a new life for hard-to-recycle packaging.

‘We’re not going to reach our ambitious targets through incremental improvements alone,’ said Jamie Winter, Sustainability Procurement Director at Morrisons. ‘Sometimes you need to take giant steps and we believe that waste is one of those areas. We believe that we can, at a stroke, enable these trial stores to move from recycling around 27% of their general waste to over 84% and with a clear line of sight to 100%.

‘We all need to see waste as a resource to be repurposed and reused. The technology, creativity and will exists – it’s a question of harnessing the right process for the right type of waste and executing it well.’

If this approach is successful, Morrisons plans to roll out the zero waste store format in all of its 498 stores across the UK next year.

>> Interested in reading more about sustainability and the environment? Check out our blog archive.

Stamping out single-use plastics

The government has also issued its latest battle cry in the war on plastics. Having defeated plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, it has turned its attention to other single-use plastics.

Single-use plastic plates, cutlery and polystyrene cups are among the items that could be banned in England following public consultation.

SCIblog - 16 September 2021 - Don’t forget your (carbon neutral) toothbrush - Caption 2 image of cotton buds

The humble cotton bud has now been retired from active service.

Somewhat surprisingly, it estimates that each person in England uses 18 single-use plastic plates and 37 single-use plastic items of cutlery each year; so, it has begun moves to cut out this waste stream.

Environment Secretary George Eustice said: “We have made progress to turn the tide on plastic, banning the supply of plastic straws, stirrers and cotton buds, while our carrier bag charge has cut sales by 95% in the main supermarkets. Now we are looking to go a step further as we build back greener.”

All in all, it’s encouraging to see that companies and the government are brushing up on their sustainable practices.

>> Curious to find out what the future looks like for lab-processed food and meat alternatives? Read what the experts say here.

Materials

A little talked about element, with the atomic mass 140, plays a surprisingly important role in everyday life. It has not only lit many a path, but can be credited with improving and saving the lives of billions of people by enabling cleaner air.

In his talk '140Ce: White light & Clean Air' Andy Walker, Johnson Matthey’s Technical Marketing Director explained why the soft, ductile silvery-white metal Cerium, deserves more recognition.

Walker began by outlining the history of SCI, celebrating its 140th anniversary this year. As an employee of Johnson Matthey, Walker highlighted that George Matthey was among the pioneers of SCI. In addition Walker explained that his PhD research had involved looking at catalysts that included Cerium.

Cerium is a lanthanide and the 26th most abundant element on earth. Indeed it was the first lanthanide to be discovered, found as its ore cerium silicate, in 1803. Cerium makes up 66ppm of the earth’s crust, which is about 5 times as much as lead. It is the only one of the lanthanides able to take on the +4 oxidation state, making it very useful in some of its applications. It is mined in the US, Brazil, India, Sri Lanka, Australian and China, with annual global production of 24 000 tonnes.

However, this straightforward look at the history of Cerium conceals a much more interesting narrative about how this element shaped the life of a number of prominent chemists of the day. Indeed Cerium was found as early as 1751 at a mine in Vestmanland, Sweden by Axel Cronstedt, who also discovered Nickel. Believing it to be an ore of Tungsten, he sent it to Carl Wilhelm Scheele for analysis. However, Scheele was not able to identify it as a new element.

This turn of events for Scheele, perhaps unfairly, helped to seal his moniker as the ‘unlucky chemist’. Scheele, a prominent chemist and pharmacist, had a number of discoveries to his name. He isolated lactic acid, and discovered hydrogen fluoride and hydrogen sulphide.

But as Walker explained, his most notable discovery was oxygen, some three years before Joseph Priestley. Sadly for Scheele; it took him six years to publish his findings, by which time Priestley had already presented his data. Putting a contemporary slant on Scheele’s misfortune, Walker added that the cautionary tale here was that getting things out into the public domain as soon as possible can be important to ensure credit goes to the right people.

Further work by Scheele led to the discovery of a number of elements including barium and chlorine, but sadly he did not receive any recognition because he didn’t manage to isolate them and identify them correctly. The chemist Sir Humphrey Davy did so, some years later, getting the credit for their discovery and isolation.

So it was in 1803 that chemists Wilhelm Hisinger and Jons Jacob Bezelius proved that Cerium was indeed a new element, naming it Cerium after an asteroid/dwarf planet which had been called Ceres. The successful isolation of Cerium took place in 1875, carried out by American chemists William Hillebrand and Thomas Norton, by passing an electric current through molten cerium chloride.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - 140 Ce: White light & Clean Air - image of Cerium

99.95% fine cerium isolated on white background

Once isolated, the earliest application of Cerium was in incandescent gas mantles. Developed by Carl Auer von Welsbach, in 1891, he perfected a mixture of 99% thorium oxide and 1% ceria, which gave a soft white light. Introducing his new mantle commercially in 1892, von Welsbach was able to monetise his development selling his product throughout Europe.

Gas mantles have been replaced, but Cerium’s importance in producing white light remains. As Walker explained, most white LEDs use a blue gallium nitride LED covered by a yellowish phosphor coating made of cerium-doped Yttrium Aluminium Garnet crystals.

In the medical arena, Cerium was used by Sir James Young Simpson, Professor of Medicine and Midwifery at Edinburgh who did a lot of work in the area of anaesthetics. Simpson found that cerium nitrate suppressed vomiting, particularly that associated with morning sickness, and well into the last century, medication containing Cerium could be bought over the counter. In addition Cerium has been the basis of treatments for burns.

Other applications for this versatile element are self cleaning ovens and mischmetal alloy, used in flints for cigarette lighters. Walker shared that the chemist and author Primo Levi, while imprisoned in Auschwitz, was able to steal cerium-iron rods from the laboratory he was forced to work in. Making them into cigarette lighter flints, he was able to barter for bread. Cerium is used to harden surfaces; it is a good polishing agent. Cerium sulphide has been used to replace the pigment cadmium red as a non-toxic alternative and Cerium is widely used across the chemical industry as a catalyst to produce a host of chemicals.

Catalysis is probably where Cerium has impacted most people as the element is the basis for the catalytic converters that have provided cleaner air for billions of people. Walker explained that the driver for the development came during the 1950s when photochemical smog was a problem in the Los Angeles Basin. Measurements at the time indicated that vehicles were responsible for the majority of the hydrocarbon and NOx emissions that led to the polluted air.

This turn of events led researchers to develop systems that could mitigate the emissions. Johnson Matthey was among those doing the early work on catalytic converters. Meanwhile, the automotive industry was pushing back on their introduction, concerned about the costs, durability and effectiveness. Working with Ricardo Engineering, Johnson Matthey carried out durability tests over 25 000 miles which also showed that the catalysts could pass US emissions tests.

The catalysts had to operate in three ways, at the same time, oxidising carbon monoxide (CO) and hydrocarbons (HC) while reducing NOx. Early catalysts, circa 1975, were based on Palladium and Platinum and focused on oxidising the CO and HC. Around 1978 a second catalyst was introduced to reduce NOx.

However, the introduction of Cerium then made it possible to develop a single catalyst that was able to carry out the functions that the researchers had wanted to achieve. Hence, 1981 saw the introduction of the three way catalytic converter with all three reactions enabled over a single catalyst. More recently ceria-zirconia oxide based catalysts have been developed with much higher oxygen storage capacity than ceria.

The impact of these developments has allowed the implementation of much more stringent air quality and emissions standards. Indeed Johnson Matthey estimates that its Cerium-based catalysts are responsible for removing around 40 tonnes of pollutants every minute of every day.

A single element has indeed impacted many lives.

Careers

Life is busy for Rhys Archer. Outside of her work as EPSRC Doctoral Prize Fellow in Biomedical Materials at the University of Manchester, she founded Women of Science to share stories about real women working in science. She has championed STEM in schools in her spare time and received the Robert Perrin Medal from the Institute of Materials, Minerals, and Mining – all before her 30th birthday.

Rhys is also refreshingly forthright in her views. She took the time to speak to us about everything from attitudes towards disability in academia, the problem with STEM statistics, and finding that sense of belonging in science.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Profile photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind telling me about your work at the University of Manchester and the research areas that interest you most?
My research interests have always been interdisciplinary – I am a bit of a magpie when it comes to research and I get excited by projects in different areas. Luckily, being a researcher in materials science means that I can apply my knowledge and skills in a wide array of areas and industries. I have recently finished my doctoral studies looking at how carbon fibre composites are damaged during impacts, and how to toughen them while keeping composites light weight, which is particularly useful in the aerospace industry. However, I have since moved over to research in biomedical materials, specifically within tissue engineering, where I am researching biocompatible composite scaffolds for tissue regeneration.

You set up Women of Science in 2016 to share stories about real people in science. How has this been?
When I set up Women of Science, I first looked at it as a personal project that could be of use in schools to young people. However, it became apparent fairly quickly that access to relatable role-models in STEM was needed, not just in schools but also for women across the STEM industry.

Since then, we have been fortunate to be awarded funding to grow the work we do and expand our audiences. One of the most important actions I have taken with Women of Science is to set up an advisory board (which includes a diverse range of women) to share ideas and to influence the direction and activities of Women of Science.

As well as the impact on others, Women of Science has had a huge impact on me personally. When I set up Women of Science I was going through a difficult period of feeling isolated, and found it difficult to feel a sense of belonging in science and in research. By reaching out and hearing other women’s stories – not just their achievements, but also their doubts, worries, and difficulties – I found that I did belong in STEM. I just had to search for it.

SCIblog - 9 September 2021 - Women of science: Rhys Archer - Group photo of Rhys Archer

Would you mind sharing some of the successes and challenges you’ve experienced in your own career?
At 29, towards the end of my PhD, I was diagnosed as autistic. Looking back, I can see that the challenges I faced, particularly because of depression, anxiety, and isolation, were due to my needs not being considered or met. Being disabled in academia is an ongoing challenge. It is still a fight to gain equitable working arrangements, opportunities, and acceptance.

However, I can also see how the successes I have had, such as setting up Women of Science, and being a part of other projects are a result of ‘being different’. My strongest quality is a diversity of perspective and experience and an eagerness to be a part of a range of different projects.

>> We’re keen to hear diverse perspectives from people working in the chemical industry. Get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org

You have championed inclusivity in STEM. Do you think academic institutions and other workplaces could be more inclusive?
Yes. I think there is a huge amount of awareness and conversation about inclusivity in academia and industry, but not nearly as much action and intervention. Often I see workplaces with inclusive policies, but with little consideration of monitoring, evaluating, or reconsidering those policies. We must move past equity, diversity, and inclusivity being a checkbox exercise. The issues faced by women in the workplace are intersectional and complex, and so require well considered, complex solutions.

According to WISE, women now make up 24% of the STEM workforce in the UK. It estimates that this number could rise to 29% by 2030. What do you think about these figures?
While the number of women in STEM is a common metric when considering equality, this does not accurately portray issues surrounding inclusion and belonging. How are women treated? Do they have the opportunity to advance? Are there equitable policies and measures in place? This is particularly true of women in STEM who identify with other protected characteristics around race, disability, sexual orientation, and class. Once you dig into the statistics (where available) further, it is clear that the numbers given are not sufficient to describe the current situation for all women in STEM.

Also, the ‘leaky pipeline’ model is often considered, that is, that the number of women in STEM fall as we follow the statistics from school, to university, and onto the workplace. However, what is not always considered is that, as with a leaky pipeline, when more women are added, rather than ‘fixing’ the pipeline, the cracks become more obvious. Eventually, we reach a point when the pipeline is fractured. We must focus on repairing these cracks, not just increasing a numerical metric.

Additionally, in this current climate, it is incredibly difficult to make predictions as to what the future holds for the number of women in the STEM workforce. A couple of years ago, we could not foresee the impact that a global pandemic would have on women. When we consider the possible effects of climate change over the next decade, can we predict the burden that will be placed on women, or how this will affect women’s choices?

What’s next for you? Are you involved in any exciting projects?
With Women of Science, we have three projects that will be launched towards the end of the year, including a new website, flashcard activities for young people, and a report on the impact of the pandemic on women in STEM. Further ahead, I would love to expand the reach of Women of Science further, working with podcasting and film, as well as reaching out to policy makers. Personally, I am excited to get my teeth stuck into a new research project and see where that leads, as well as doing more teaching, consulting, and any other opportunities that come my way!

>> Are you interested in getting involved in Women of Science? Visit: www.womenofsci.com

Health & Wellbeing

Antimicrobial resistance (AMR), now referred to as the silent pandemic, is causing governments, regulatory and health bodies to make a lot of noise.

Issuing a statement in late August 2021, the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance called on countries to ‘significantly reduce the levels of antimicrobial drugs used in global food systems’. The Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance includes heads of state, government ministers and leaders from the private sector and civil society. It was established during 2020 to accelerate global political momentum, leadership and action AMR.

Co-chaired by Mia Amor Mottley, Prime Minister of Barbados and Sheikh Hasina, Prime Minister of Bangladesh, the Group is calling for all countries to take action to tackle the issue. Steps include: Ending the use of antimicrobial drugs that are of critical importance to human medicine to promote growth in animals, eliminating or significantly reducing over-the-counter-sales of antimicrobial drugs that are important for medical of veterinary purposes, and reducing the overall need for antimicrobial drugs by improving infection prevention and control, hygiene, bio security and vaccination programmes in agriculture and aquaculture.

SCIblog - 2 September 2021 - Taking action on AMR - image of pharmacist holding pills and pill packs

Leaders are calling for the reduction in the use of antimicrobial drugs.

Speaking at the second meeting of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance, Inger Andersen, Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations and Executive Director the United Nations Environment Programme said: ‘Already 700 000 people die each year of resistant infections. There are also serious financial consequences: in the EU alone, AMR costs an estimated €1.5 billion per year in health care and productivity costs…’ But Andersen added that now was an opportune moment to make change. ‘With concern over zoonotic diseases at an all-time high, governments can take advantage of the synergies available from tackling emerging disease threats concurrently. The Global Leaders Group has strategic access to forums to promote AMR integration in post-covid-19 plans and financing…It’s time to for us to act on the science and respond rapidly to AMR,’ Andersen said.

The Communiqué from the G7 Health Ministers’ Meeting held in Oxford, UK during June also gave significant space the AMR issue and the link with the pandemic. ‘We reiterate the need for ongoing education and reinforced stewardship of the use of antimicrobials, including avoiding their use where there is no science-based evidence of effectiveness. The pandemic has also highlighted the importance of infection prevention and control measures to tackle AMR, targeting both health-care associated and community-associated infections.’ Adding a sense of urgency the Communiqué continued: ‘We must act strongly and across disciplines if we are to curb the silent pandemic of antimicrobial resistance.’

A letter from the BactiVac Bacterial Vaccinology Network reminded the G7 Health Ministers that the 2016 O’Neill Report estimated that by 2050, 10 million lives each year and a cumulative US$100 trillion of economic output will be at risk due to increasing AMR unless proactive solution are developed now. In its letter to the G7, the Network issued this warning. ‘The headlines on AMR may have less immediate impact, but the news is no less stark. Over the long-term, AMR bacteria will cause more prolonged suffering than covid-19, with a more insidious impact on all our lives.’ Signatories to the letter included Professor Calman MacLennan, Senior Clinical Fellow and Group Leader, Jenner Institute, University of Oxford, Professor of Vaccine Immunology, University of Birmingham.

SCIblog - 2 September 2021 - Taking action on AMR - image of e.coli colonies on closed media plate

Researchers are collaborating to understand how AMR is impacted by a range of factors

The G7 also stressed the need for collaborative efforts for a better understanding of how AMR is impacted by a range of factors. Taking up this challenge; several initiatives has been put in place to study this. Most recently the United Nations Environment Programme and the Indian Council of Medical Research have launched a project looking at ‘Priorities for the Environmental Dimension of Antimicrobial Resistance in India.’ The project aims to strengthen the environmental aspects of national and state-level AMR strategies and action plans. In a similar development the European Food Safety Agency published an assessment of the role played by food production and its environment in the emergence and spread of antimicrobial resistance. Publishing the findings in the EFSA journal, the report indicated that fertilisers of faecal origin, irrigation and water are the most significant sources of AMR in plant-based food production and aquaculture.

Meanwhile, the first quarter of 2021 saw Ineos donate £100 million to the University of Oxford to establish a new antimicrobials research facility. The Ineos Oxford Institute for Antimicrobial Resistance aims to create collaborative and cross disciplinary links involving the university’s department of chemistry and department of zoology. The Institute also intends to partner with other global leaders in the field of AMR.

Partnering with India, the UK has committed £4 million to the AMR fight. With a total investment of £8 million, the partners have established five joint research projects which aim to develop a better understanding of how waste from antimicrobial manufacturing could be inadvertently fuelling AMR.

Careers

Sarah Davidson has made impressive strides in a short space of time. She has risen to Group Sustainability Coordinator for global Research and Technology at speciality chemicals firm Croda and won the Young Ambassador Award at this year’s Chemical Industry Awards.

In the first blog in our Women in Chemistry series, we caught up with Sarah for a chat on embedding sustainability in the workplace, the need for more diversity in senior roles, and the best bit of advice she received.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson Profile

Tell us about your career to date.
I loved chemistry at school, so I started off by doing a Master’s in Chemistry at the University of Sheffield. During the course I did a placement year, which was my first taste of working in industry. Once I finished my degree, I was torn between staying in academia and doing a PhD or going into industry. I chose to go into industry because I had enjoyed my placement year so much and saw where I could make an impact.

I was accepted onto Croda’s Graduate Development programme, where I had three placements around the business. Croda is a speciality chemicals company, so my placements included working as an applications scientist and synthetic chemist. However, it was my placement working with the Sustainability team that I loved the most.

After the Grad Scheme I became Group Sustainability Coordinator for Global R&D. This combined my experience in R&D and sustainability in a brand role that didn’t exist in Croda before. This role allows me to use my technical knowledge and understanding of the way the global team works to enable those responsible for Croda’s new product innovations to include sustainability as an integral pillar in new product development.

What does your day-to-day role involve?
In my role, my main focus is on getting our scientists to think about sustainability during product and process development. At a fundamental level this requires me to change their mindsets around sustainability, getting them to see it is important to what we do and understand what it means.

To do this, I have developed a number of tools including checklists, clearly defined procedures and training documents. I have been working to get these new procedures adopted over the global R&D team by fitting them into existing protocols. Another part of my role is to support our corporate targets and I am part of a number of working groups to do this.

One working group looks at how we define a consistent methodology for Life Cycle Assessments or LCA. In this group I have been doing research to understand the current methods around LCA, and what our customers want in terms of sustainability data. I also help gather data to show where we are up to with these goals, so we understand what actions we need to take to move forward. On a day-to-day basis I will have meetings to discuss the projects I am involved in, conduct research and reach out to other teams and functions to see what they are working on too.

Which aspects of your job motivate you most?
For me sustainability is the future, not only for the chemical industry but for the world. Knowing that I am having a positive impact on sustainability in my role is what motivates me the most. I try to live a sustainable life, and what I do at work is just an extension of that.

What personal challenges have you faced and how have you overcome them?
To embed sustainability into our ways of working, I need to change people’s mindsets, and subsequently their behaviour. Seeing this change in people is incredibly rewarding. However, it is also one of the biggest challenges. Some of our teams have been working in the same roles for decades without any change. So, it is my job to make these changes easier for them to adopt and persuade them of the benefits in doing so. To overcome this challenge, I have had to work on my influencing skills and know what will work with the audience I am speaking to.

What is the greatest future challenge for people in your industry and how could this be addressed.
Sustainability, and addressing the issues we face as a result of climate change, are some of the biggest challenges we will face as an industry. We are in a lucky position that we can achieve a competitive advantage with sustainability, but our main goal is to protect our planet. This gives us a big opportunity for collaboration where we may not have had one before. I think we can only solve this challenge by collaborating across the supply chain, across country borders, and between industry and academia.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson at Croda

>> Not everyone takes the standard career path into chemistry. Take a read of Claudio Laurenco’s unusual, inspiring story.

Which mentors have helped you along the way and how did they make a difference?
I feel like I have a long list of mentors and am very lucky to be able to call on so many people for advice. The best thing I have learnt from them is to pursue what I enjoy most, as people will be able to see my passion. This will help me move forward in my career. Having mentors who have confidence in me and my ability has helped me build my own confidence, something which I can lack from time to time. My mentors are great sounding boards for ideas, whether that is to do with things I want to try in my job or on the direction of my career.

SCIblog - Women in Chem - 27 August 2021 - Sarah Davidson at work

What is the current state of play within your sector with respect to equality, diversity, and inclusion – and is enough being done to attract and retain diverse talent?
I don’t think so. We need to do more to attract and retain diverse talent. We seem to be relatively diverse and inclusive at an academic level, which disappears in industry. There must be a reason for this. There may be bias within recruitment processes, or within job descriptions for senior roles, which means there is less diversity as you move up in organisations. We need to make sure that there are equal opportunities within industry for everyone and make sure everyone has a path to progression that works for them.

Is there any advice you would give to young professionals starting out in your area, especially young women?
Understand where you are different and use that as your advantage. Everyone has a unique lived experience that they bring with them into all situations. As women we have a different perspective to men. This doesn’t mean it is less valuable, it is just different. When you feel like you are in a minority as a woman, or are not being listened to, it is important to remember that our opinions are equal regardless of our background, gender or ethnicity. You have the same right to share your views, as the majority do theirs.

>> We’re always keen to hear from women who are making a real difference in chemistry. If you know someone who you think we should cover, please get in touch with us at: eoin.redahan@soci.org.

Careers

SCI was pleased to support #BlackInChem, working alongside our Corporate Partners and members to amplify the voices of our Black chemists.

SCIblog - Black in Chem 2021 - image / graphic of SCI and BlackInChem logos

We have heard stories from several Black chemists who highlighted the steps being taken by many companies to increase diversity. But we can also see that there are many more steps that can be taken to encourage the next generation of budding Black chemists and scientists.

#BlackInChem has had support from Scott Bader, an SCI Corporate Partner, with both Damilola Adebayo and Luyanda Mbongwa sharing their perspectives as employees of Scott Bader. Elsewhere, Cláudio Laurenço gave a compelling account of his journey to become a post-doctoral research associate at a leading consumer goods company.

SCI Member - Claudio Lourenco

Cláudio Laurenço worked for free and was overlooked before eventually securing his PhD and starting his career in chemistry.

These chemists are following in the footsteps of some pioneering Black scientists such as Percy Lavone Julian, who has been profiled on the SCI Blog.

Many organisations have expressed their support and shared thoughts on what steps they are taking to encourage and ensure diversity. Indeed, #BlackInChem is a global effort and companies such as GSK have shown their support as well as numerous Black chemists talking about their experiences and achievements over the last week.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Percy Lavon Julian on a stamp

Percy Lavon Julian’s pioneering work enabled a step-change in the treatment of glaucoma | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com

Over the coming months, we will be profiling other Black chemists, past and present, and continuing the dialogue around diversity.

>> We’re always keen to hear about diverse perspectives within chemistry. If you’d like to share your story, please contact: muriel.cozier@soci.org or eoin.redahan@soci.org.

Careers

For Cláudio Lourenço, the path from student to multidisciplinary scientist has been far from smooth. The Postdoctoral Research Associate reflects on the institutional challenges that almost made him give up, the mentor whose support was so important, and the barriers that block the way for young Black chemists.

Please give a brief outline of your role.
I work for a leading consumer goods company. I am a multi-disciplinary scientist contributing to the development of novel formulations for household products.

Why are you supporting #BlackInChem?
I’m supporting #BlackInChem because I am a champion for diversity. I believe that what we see from our windows in the street is what we must have inside our workplaces. In an ideal world we should all have the same opportunities, but unfortunately this is somehow far from the truth. We need to motivate our young Black chemists to aim for a career in science by providing welcoming environments and real opportunities instead of just ticking boxes. We need to showcase our Black chemists to show to the younger generation that they can also be one of us.

What was it that led you to study chemistry and ultimately develop a career in this field? Was this your first choice?
I have always been passionate about research and science. My father had a pharmacy, so I was always close to chemistry and was a very curious child. Yes, it was my first choice but the lack of opportunities and trust from universities and scholarship providers made it a long run. My motivation faded and I nearly gave up.

Was there any one person or group of people who had a specific impact on your decision to pursue your career path?
Yes, but after my degree I nearly gave up. It took me nearly two years and changing cities to find something (a voluntary position). I was always keen on taking up mentors to show me how to progress in my career. There were a few people who helped me by training me and teaching me how to navigate the scientific world and pursue a career in science.

I only got my first job (which I worked for free) because of Peter Stambrook, an American scholar from the University of Cincinnati, who I met through a friend while polishing glasses in a restaurant. This man was open and keen to put a word in for me at a leading university in the UK. He taught me so much on how to be a scientist and humbly grow up and make a career in science. Eventually, all his advice kept me on the right path.

What impact would you like to see #BlackInChem have over the coming year?
More Black students in postgraduate courses and an increase in role models to motivate the younger generations to pursue careers in chemistry.

Could you outline the route that you took to get to where you are now, and how you were supported?
Personally, my career path was far from easy. I only managed to get my PhD at 38 years of age. I needed to first prove myself. Despite all my efforts and dozens of applications, I was never considered a good candidate. I needed to work for free for two years to land a proper job in my field of choice. During that time I took on many odd jobs to support myself. I worked for a top 10 university for free and they never saw my worth or gave me an opportunity. With that experience I landed a proper job at a leading pharmaceutical company. After one year with them, they funded my PhD studies and now here I am with a career in science.

Considering your own career route, what message do you have for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Never ever give up - it is possible. Look for the right mentors and be humble. You do not need to reinvent the wheel, but only to find someone who can lend you theirs. Learn to grow from the experiences of others and be ready to fail a couple of times - we all do. Be open to learn and never be afraid of following your dreams.

SCI Member - Claudio Lourenco

>> At SCI, we’re proud to support #BlackinChem. Reach out to us with your stories.

What do you think are the specific barriers that might be preventing young black people from pursuing chemistry/science?
I think one of the biggest barriers that prevent people from pursuing careers in science is the lack of role models. If we only show advertisements for chemistry degrees with White people, it’s not encouraging for Black students to pursue a career there. The same goes for when we visit universities; role models are needed. No one wants to be the only Black person in the department. Universities need to embrace diversity at all levels. I understand that tradition sometimes prevents this, but we need to change and ignore tradition for a bit.

What steps do you think can be taken by academia and businesses to increase the number of Black people studying and pursuing chemistry/science as a career?

Showcase Black chemists and inventors to motivate the younger generations and show society that Black people are not only artists and musicians. Target extracurricular activities in schools where children are from disadvantaged backgrounds. Train your staff to be open. Create cultural events that not only target Black people but also for other people to learn and see that in the end we are all equal. We all need to learn to embrace our differences and grow together.

>> As we celebrate #BlackinChem, we mark the achievements of some inspirational chemists. Read more about the amazing career of Percy Lavon Julian.

Sustainability & Environment

If you’re a vegan, do you really want to eat a ruby-red slab of plant protein that looks like lamb? If you are a health obsessive, would you opt for an ultra-processed, plant-based product if you knew it didn’t contain many vitamins and micro-nutrients? And why, oh why, are we so obsessed with recreating the taste and appearance of the humble hamburger?

These questions and more were posed by Dr David Baines in the recent ‘No meat and two veg – the chemistry challenges facing the flavouring of vegan foods’ webinar organised by SCI’s Food Group. The flavourist, who owns his own food consultancy and is visiting Professor at the University of Reading, painted a vivid picture of our changing culinary landscape – one in which 79% of Millennials regularly eat meat alternatives.

And this shift in diet isn’t just the preserve of the young. According to Dr Baines, 54% of Americans and 39% of Chinese people have included more plant-based foods and less meat in their diets. Furthermore, 75% of Baby Boomers – those born between 1946 and 1964 – are open to trying cultivated meat.

There are many reasons for this gradual shift. The woman biting into Greggs’ famous vegan sausage roll and the woman who carefully crafts her bean burger may have different reasons for choosing meat alternatives. For some, it’s an ethical choice. For others, it’s environmental or health-related. And then there are those of us who are simply curious.

SCIblog - 10 August 2021 - No meat two veg - image of pea protein powder

Pea protein powder is used in plant-based meat alternatives.

Either way it’s an industry that, if you’ll excuse the pun, is set to mushroom. According to Boston Consulting Group and Blue Horizon research, the global meat-free sector will be worth US$290 billion by 2035. They also claim Europe will reach peak meat consumption by 2025, and Unilever is aiming to sell US$1 billion-worth of plant-based meat and dairy alternatives by 2025-27.

In his entertaining talk, Dr Baines outlined the extrusion processes that turn wheat and pea proteins into large ropes of fibrous material and how soy isolates are spun into textured proteins using looms like those used in the cotton industry. He explained how calcium is used to imitate the chewable texture of chicken and how Impossible Foods is using the root nodules of bean plants to produce the red colour we recognise so readily in meat.

>> For more interesting SCI webinars on battery developments, medicinal chemistry and more, check out our events page.

So, how close are we to products with the appearance, taste and texture of, let’s say, beef? ‘I think that will come from cultured meat to start with,’ he said. ‘Where the protein is produced, it will still need to be flavoured, but the fibres will have formed and the texture is already present in some of those products.

‘It’s a big ask and it’s been asked for a long time. It’s going to be a long time before you put a piece of steak on one plate and a plant-based [product] on another and they will be visually, texturally and taste(-wise] identical.’

And what appetite do people even have for these plant-based facsimiles? ‘There are people who want plant proteins not to look like meat, and there are people who want them to look like meat,’ he added. ‘The driver at the moment is to make them look like meat, and the driver is to make it taste like meat too.’

Baines wondered aloud about the bizarre fixation some have with recreating and eating foods that look and taste like beef burgers. In contrast, he pointed to the examples of tofu and soy-based products that have been developed in South East Asia – distinct foods that do not serve as meat substitutes.

Plant-based proteins are undoubtedly part of our culinary future, but these products have other barriers to surmount beyond taste and texture. There is no getting around the fact that plant-based proteins are ultra-processed in a time when many are side-stepping processed foods. Baines also explained that these protein- and fibre-rich foods tend to have lower calorific content, but lack vitamins and micronutrients. ‘Will they be supplemented?’ Baines asked. ‘How much will the manufacturers of these new products start to improve the nutritional delivery of these products?’

SCIblog - 10 August 2021 - No meat two veg - image of vegan sausage rolls

We have now entered the age of the gluten-free, vegan sausage roll.

But it’s easy to forget that the leaps made in recent years have been extraordinary. Who would have predicted back in 1997 – when Linda McCartney was at the vanguard of the niche, plant-based meat alternative – that a vegan sausage roll would capture the imaginations of a meat-hungry nation? Who would have foreseen fast-food manufacturers falling over each other to launch plant-based burgers and invest in lab-grown meat?

As Dr Baines said: “This is a movement that is not going away.”

>> Our soils provide 97% of our food. Read more about how they are undervalued and overused here.

Science & Innovation

This week SCI is joining with business and academia to mark #BlackInChem, an initiative to advance and promote a new generation of Black chemists.

Over the coming weeks, we shall be profiling past and present Black chemists, many of whom are unsung heroes, and whose work established the foundations on which some of our modern science is built. We start with the outstanding contribution made by Percy Lavon Julian (1899-1975).

Born on 11 April 1899 in Montgomery, Alabama, US, Percy L Julian was the son of a clerk at the United State Post Office and a teacher. He did well at school, and even though there were no public high schools for African Americans in Montgomery, he was accepted at DePauw University, Indiana, in 1916.

Due to segregation Julian had to live off campus, even struggling initially to find somewhere that would serve him food. As well as completing his studies, he worked to pay his college expenses. Excelling in his studies, he graduated with a BA in 1920.

Julian wanted to study chemistry, but with little encouragement to continue his education, based on the fact there were few job opportunities, he found a position as a chemistry instructor at Fisk University, Nashville, Tennessee.

In 1922 Julian won an Austin Fellowship to Harvard University and received his MA in 1923. With no job offers forthcoming, he served on the staff of predominantly Black colleges, first at West Virginia State College and in 1928 as head of the department of chemistry at Howard University.

In 1929 Julian received a Rockefeller Foundation grant and the chance to earn his doctorate in chemistry. He studied natural products chemistry with Ernst Späth, an Austrian chemist, at the University of Vienna and received his PhD in 1931. He returned to Howard University, but it is said that internal politics forced him to leave.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Physostigmine

Physostigmine was synthesised by Julian

Julian returned to DePauw University as a research fellow during 1933. Collaborating with fellow chemist and friend Josef Pikl, he completed research, in 1935, that resulted in the synthesis of physostigmine. His work was published in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

Physostigmine, an alkaloid, was only available from its natural source, the Calabar bean, the seed of a leguminous plant native to tropical Africa. Julian’s research and synthesis process made the chemical readily available for the treatment of glaucoma. It is said that this development was the most significant chemical research publication to come from DePauw.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Calabar bean

Calabar bean

Once the grant funding had expired, and despite efforts of those who championed his work, the Board of Trustees at DePauw would not allow Julian to be promoted to teaching staff. He left to pursue a distinguished career in industry. It is said that he was denied one particular position as a town law forbid ‘housing of a Negro overnight.’ Other companies are also said to have rejected him because of his race.

However, in 1936 he was offered a position as director of research for soya products at Glidden in Chicago. Over the next 18 years, the results of his soybean protein research produced numerous patents and successful products for Glidden. These included a paper coating and a fire-retardant foam used widely in World War II to extinguish gasoline fires. Julian’s biomedical research made it possible to produce large quantities of synthetic progesterone and hydrocortisone at low cost.

SCIblog - 9 August 2021 - #BlackinChem - celebrating Percy Lavon Julian - image of Percy Lavon Julian on a stamp

Percy Lavon Julian | Editorial credit: spatuletail / Shutterstock.com

By 1953 Julian Laboratories had been established, an enterprise that he went on to sell for more than $2 million in 1961. He then established the Julian Research Institute, a non-profit research organisation. In 1967 he was appointed to the DePauw University Board of Trustees, and in 1973 he was elected to the National Academy of Sciences, the second African American to receive the honour.

He was also widely recognised as a steadfast advocate of human rights. Julian continued his private research studies and served as a consultant to major pharmaceutical companies until his death on 19 April 1975. Percy Lavon Julian is commemorated at DePauw University with the Percy L Julian Science and Mathematics Center named in his honour. During 1993 the United States Postal Service commemorated Julian on a stamp in recognition of his extraordinary contribution to science and society.

Agrifood

Main image: Pea crop | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Peas are a very rewarding garden crop. Husbandry is very straightforward, producing nutritious yields and encouraging soil health by building nitrogen reserves for future crops.

Rotations usually sequence cabbages and other nitrogen-demanding crops after peas. This is a sustainable way to use the organic nitrogen reserves left by pea roots resulting from their mutually beneficial association with benign bacteria. These microbes capture atmospheric nitrogen, producing ammonia, nitrites and nitrates in a sequence of natural steps.

Peas originated in the Mediterranean. They were cultivated continuously by ancient civilisations and through medieval times, and are now the seventh most popular vegetable.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seeds - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 1: Pea seeds | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

In bygone centuries, peas provided a protein source for the general population as cooked meals of pea soup and pease pudding helped keep famine at bay before the introduction of potatoes. In the 18th century, French gardeners working for the aristocracy produced fresh peas using raised and protected beds of fermenting animal manure. The composting processes produced heat and released carbon dioxide, stimulating rapid growth.

Generally, however, eating fresh peas only gained popularity in the 20th century as canned and then quick-frozen foods were invented, and large-scale technological development enabled mechanised and automated commercial precision cropping. In recent times, retail market demand has returned for unshelled podded peas – a manually picked crop known colloquially as ‘pulling peas’.


How to grow peas

Seeds can be sown directly (illustration 1) or transplants (illustration 2) can be raised under protection, giving an early boost for growth and maturity. Peas are cool season crops. They grow best at 13-18°C and mature about 60 days after sowing.

SCIblog - 26 July 2021 - Peas please - image of pea seedlings - photo by Geoff Dixon

Illustration 2: Pea seedlings | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Some cultivars such as Meteor can be grown over winter, preferably protected with cloches for very early cropping. The spring sown The Sutton cultivar group (CV) gives rapid but modest returns, and main crop CVs, such as Hurst Green Shaft, deliver the heaviest returns (illustration 2). This cultivar forms several long, well-filled pods at the fruiting nodes.

Sugar peas or mange tout – where the entire immature pod is eaten – is a popular fresh crop, while quick-growing pea shoots that mature in 20 days from sowing are excellent additions for salads or as garnishes for warm cuisine.

Human health benefits significantly by including peas in the diet. As well as being an excellent protein source, they produce a range of vitamins and nutrient elements. Their coumestrol content aids the control of blood sugar levels, helping combat diabetes, heart diseases and arthritis.

So, it’s certainly worth finding a spot for this versatile vegetable in your garden.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science.

Careers

SCI has selected Harriet McNicholl from AstraZeneca as the 2021 National Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year.

The national undergraduate placement symposium brings together chemistry students undertaking industrial research placements each year. Students working in organic, biological, supramolecular, physical organic, medicinal chemistry and related fields are invited to submit posters. The finalists are then selected to present orally at the virtual symposium. This year’s applicants included students from organisations such as AstraZeneca, GlaxoSmithKline, UCB, Syngenta, Charles River and more.

SCIblog - 22 July 2021 - Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year - image of Harriet McNicholl in the lab

Harriet McNicholl’s chemistry will be used to manufacture drug products to support patients in phase-II clinical trials.

As part of this symposium, Harriet McNicholl from AstraZeneca was invited to present her research to develop a safe, inexpensive and commercially viable process towards AZD5991, a candidate therapeutic for the treatment of acute myeloid leukaemia.

Encapsulating AstraZeneca’s dynamic and data driven approach to turning molecules into medicines, Harriet highlighted how the SELECT criteria, automation and High Throughput Experimentation were used to design and optimise a process. Harriet’s work aimed to maximise efficiency and sustainability, and her chemistry will be used to manufacture drug products to support patients in phase-II clinical trials.

Harriet is in the third year of her chemistry integrated Master’s degree (MChem) at the University of Liverpool and is currently undertaking a synthetic chemistry industrial placement within Chemical Development (CD) at Macclesfield.

‘I have thoroughly enjoyed my placement year within Chemical Development at AstraZeneca,’ she said. ‘It has been incredibly rewarding knowing the science I’ve worked on has the potential to fundamentally transform oncology patients’ lives. This opportunity has enabled me to develop many of my technical and soft skills and motivated me to pursue a career within the pharmaceutical industry.’

Dave Ennis, Vice President of Chemical Development for AstraZeneca in Macclesfield, said: ‘Congratulations to Harriet who has made significant contributions to our development activities in Chemical Development. It is a reflection of the quality of students we attract to our sandwich student programme; I’m proud that we give our students a great insight to drug development by being active participants in our projects, and it is highly motivating for our scientists in helping to coach and develop others - a win-win for all involved.

‘Over the past 25 years, we have had a successful rolling programme of sandwich students from a variety of universities that has helped to attract the next generation of scientific talent to AstraZeneca and the wider industry. Looking forward to our next cohort in 2021, and I’m sure they will compete for the prize next year’.

SCIblog - 22 July 2021 - Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year - image of Harriet McNicholl's poster submission

Harriet’s poster submission

Dr Andrew Carnell, Director of Year in Industry Courses at the Department of Chemistry in the University of Liverpool, added: ‘I am delighted that Harriet has been awarded this prestigious prize for her work during her placement at AstraZeneca. She is a credit to the department and to the university. Our Year in Industry students gain a huge amount from their placements, not only in terms of practical experience and technical knowledge but increased confidence and employability. Students return to us highly motivated for their final year and often go on to secure excellent and rewarding positions in today’s competitive job market.’

As part of this event, keynote speaker James Douglas (Manager of AstraZeneca’s Catalysis, High Throughput and Synthesis Technologies team) noted that his career journey started with a placement year at GlaxoSmithKline in Stevenage. James went on to describe the benefits of doing a placement year and how the skills he gained from his year in industry helped him to secure a Ph.D. at the University of St Andrews and a postdoctoral position with Eli Lilly in the United States.

This year’s competition featured many strong entries. Congratulations to runners up Daniella Hares (AstraZeneca, University of Southampton) for her presentation outlining computational techniques for drug discovery and poster prize winner Jake Odger (Sosei Heptares, University of York). The competition was hosted and organised by the Society of Chemical Industry Young Chemists’ Panel

For more on this year’s National Undergraduate Placement Student of the Year competition, visit: https://istry.co.uk/postercompetition/4/

Materials

We always hear about athletes eking out that competitive edge through subtle changes in diet or equipment. Well, when it comes to making our buildings more energy-efficient, dozens of different technologies could make a difference. Every one may not be earth juddering on its own, but each could help decarbonise our homes by degrees.

Phase-changing materials (PCMs) may have a role to play in reducing our reliance on power-hungry cooling and heating systems in the home. At Texas A&M University, researchers have developed PCMs to passively regulate temperatures inside buildings.

They believe their 3D-printed phase-change materials - compounds that can change from a solid to liquid when absorbing heat, or from liquid to solid when releasing heat - could be incorporated into our homes in paint or other interior effects to regulate interior temperatures.

New phase-change material composites

New phase-change material composites can regulate ambient temperatures inside buildings | Image credit: Texas A&M University College of Engineering

Their partial substitute to the heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems that predominate in many of our buildings is a light-sensitive liquid resin with a phase-changing paraffin wax powder.

According to the researchers, their 3D printable ink composite improves upon existing PCMs in that it doesn’t require a separate shell around each PCM particle. When the PCM is mixed with liquid resin, the resin acts as both the shell and building material, enabling thermal energy management without any leakage. They use an ultraviolet light to solidify their 3D printable paste and make it suitable for use in our buildings.

“The ability to integrate phase-change materials into building materials using a scalable method opens opportunities to produce more passive temperature regulation in both new builds and already existing structures,” said Dr. Emily Pentzer, associate professor in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Department of Chemistry.

To date, the researchers have only tested their materials on a small scale in a house-shaped model. Nevertheless, after placing their 3D printed model inside an oven, the results were encouraging. The model’s temperature was 40% different to outside temperatures compared to models made using traditional materials.

Illustration of an energy efficient house

From solar panels and insulation to heat pumps and phase change materials, much has been done to make our homes more energy-efficient

“We’re excited about the potential of our material to keep buildings comfortable while reducing energy consumption,” said Dr. Peiran Wei, research scientist in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering and the Soft Matter Facility. “We can combine multiple PCMs with different melting temperatures and precisely distribute them into various areas of a single printed object to function throughout all four seasons and across the globe.”

Perhaps we won’t see PCMs in widespread use in our buildings any time soon, but it’s always heartening to see the use of passive heating and cooling systems in our buildings. Anything that contributes to the decarbonisation mix is certainly worth investigating further.

Agrifood

Think of Earth as an apple and the soil as the peel. Now, imagine that more than 70% of this apple’s surface is covered in water. That veneer of peel suddenly seems very small indeed.

Dig beneath the surface and you realise that the world’s soil resources aren’t as plentiful as you first thought. When you take into account all of the uninhabitable, non-arable land on our planet, including the snow-bound poles and deserts, you’re left with just 3% of total landmass to grow all the fruit and vegetables we eat.

After reminding her listeners of some stark facts at the Soil resources in the UK: overlooked and undervalued? webinar, Jane Rickson, Professor of Soil Erosion and Conservation at Cranfield University, reminded us that soil is a precious, finite resource. “We’re dealing with a very thin resource that has to deliver all of these goods and services.”

You just need to think of your breakfast, lunch, and dinner to realise just how important soil is. Of all the food we eat, 97% comes from terrestrial sources. However, in recent decades, the many benefits brought by soil have been taken lightly. Apart from providing food, animal fodder, and a surface for football, it plays a vital role in climate change mitigation.

‘Soil is excellent for climate change mitigation,’ said Professor Rickson, recipient of the prestigious Dr Sydney Andrew Medal for 2021. ‘We know that healthy soils can support vegetation and crops and plants in taking out atmospheric CO2.’

SCIblog - 6 July 2021 - Solving soil degradation - image / graphic of soil layers

A cross section of soil layers. Unless you live on fish and seaweed, it’s likely that almost all of your food sources will come from terrestrial sources.

However, she and her colleagues at Cranfield University have unearthed some unsettling facts about the state of our soils. She mentioned that 12 million hectares of agricultural land worldwide is lost each year due to soil degradation. In the UK, soil erosion rates can be as high as 15 tonnes per hectare per year, with soil formation rates only compiling at a rate of 1 tonne per hectare per year; and, based on current rates of erosion, some soils could disappear completely by 2050.

So, what is being done to arrest this problem? The obvious mammoth in the room is climate change, with extreme weather events such as flash floods precipitating a huge amount of soil erosion. Obviously, climate change mitigation measures on a national scale would help, but adjustments to farming practices could also improve soil resilience on a more local level.

A lot of work is also being done to reduce the intensity of farming to improve soil health. The aim, according to Rickson, is to maintain a fertile seedbed while retaining maximum resistance to soil degradation. There are lots of different ways to do this.

One approach being taken is cover cropping, whereby a crop is grown for the protection and enrichment of the soil rather than for immediate sale. This enriches the soil and helps prevent soil erosion. Another approach is strip-tillage – a minimum tillage system that disturbs only the portion of the soil that contains the seed row, with the soil between rows left untilled. She also mentioned the benefits of soil improvement, with poultry manure and mushroom compost used to improve soil health by Benedict Unagwu among others.

SCIblog - 6 July 2021 - Solving soil degradation - image of covering crops

Cover crops such as vetch and oats improve the structure and fertility of the soil.

It is difficult not to have sympathy for farmers at the moment. Climate change falls heavily upon their lands, and they must battle flooding and drought to keep their farms financially viable. Professor Rickson often speaks to the farming community about soil health, with the focus placed on realistic solutions. As one farmer told her: ‘It's hard to be green when you’re in the red.’

Perhaps soil doesn’t capture the imagination the same way as an oak forest or a field ablaze with wildflowers, but its mismanagement is costing us a fortune. She estimated that the combined annual economic cost of soil degradation in England, Scotland, and Wales is £1.5 billion.

According to Professor Rickson, the US is probably the home of soil conservation following the harsh ecological lessons learnt from the Dust Bowl disaster of the 1930s. However, she believes the UK has plenty of knowhow in the area.

‘The UK has an opportunity to be world-leading in this,’ she said. ‘I think we are as good as anyone. Our scientific community understands soil and is really pushing the boundaries in terms of soil science.’

Careers

From genome mining and green synthesis, to tackling tuberculosis and computational methods to help cure malaria, the chemists of tomorrow have been busy showcasing their talents as part of the Society of Chemical Industry Young Chemists Panel’s National Undergraduate Online Poster Competition 2021.

A snapshot of these students’ talents is bottled below in their own words. So, which one of these 15 entries do you think contains the most potential?

1: Genome mining for myxobacterial natural products discovery

Emmanuelle Acs et al., University of Glasgow

Natural products have always had a privileged place in drug development programmes, but their discovery is long and tedious. Genome mining arises as a solution allowing the finding of compounds never seen before. Using an array of bioinformatic softwares, the myxobacterial genome was explored for new Ribosomally and Post-Translationally modified Peptides (RIPPs). Myxobacteria are soil-dwelling bacteria known for the number of secondary metabolites they produce, and they have proven to hide many more within their genome. Indeed, our analyses have led to the potential discovery of nine new myxobacterial natural products. The nature and class of these products is to be confirmed by biosynthesis in the laboratory.

2: De novo design of a lanthanide-binding peptide inspired by the methanol dehydrogenase enzyme active site

Olivia Baldwin et al., University of Birmingham

Lanthanides were thought to be biologically irrelevant until the discovery of bacteria containing the lanthanide-dependent methanol dehydrogenase (Ln-MDH) enzyme. There has been interest in exploiting the attractive properties of the lanthanides by the de novo design of artificial proteins, aiming to explore protein structures and functions not observed in biology. Here, a lanthanide-binding peptide, CS1-0, has been designed de novo and shown to bind to europium and pyrroloquinoline-quinone (PQQ), a key component of the Ln-MDH active site. This partial recreation of a biologically relevant lanthanide binding site is a step towards the ultimate goal of de novo design, to create functional artificial metalloproteins with simplified structures.

3: Template-directed synthesis of porphyrin nanorings: a computational and experimental study

Janko Hergenhahn et al., University of Oxford

Template-directed synthesis provides a route to achieve porphyrin nanorings by favouring ring-closure reaction over oligomerisation. A structurally new template with 12 binding sites has been proposed for the synthesis of novel porphyrin rings; however, initial unsuccessful reactions have raised questions about the binding efficiency of this template to the linear substrate. We have employed classical and quantum modelling together with experimental techniques to explore template-substrate binding in solution and shed light on this process. Titration experiments and modelling have enabled us to study the occupancy of different binding sites and quantify the influence of strain on binding, further guiding novel designs.

4: Transborylation enabled boron-catalysed hydrocyanation of enones

Kieran Benn et al., University of Edinburgh

Hydrocyanation offers an orthogonal route to synthetically ubiquitous amines. Current hydrocyanation methodologies are dominated by the use of acutely toxic hydrogen cyanide gas and transition metal catalysts. Here the application of main-group catalysis and transborylation is reported for the formal hydrocyanation of functionalised alkenes. The catalytic protocol was optimised and applied to a broad range of substrates (20 examples), including examples where chemoselectivity was demonstrated in the presence of reducible functionalities and Lewis basic groups. Mechanistic studies support a proposed catalytic cycle in which B–N/B–H transborylation was a key to catalyst turnover.

SCIblog - 1 July 2021 - image of a mosquito

Students at the University of Glasgow have used computational analysis to help tackle malaria.

5: Investigation of the structure-property relationship between hydrophobicity and the antimicrobial activity of AMP-mimic copolymers

Xiyue Leng et al., University of Birmingham

Antimicrobial peptides are increasingly employed as new-generation antibiotics, with their amphiphilic nature (contain both hydrophobic and cationic components) mimicked by polymers to enable a more cost-effective approach. However, there is a lack of a quantitative pre-experiment indicator to provide a prospect on their potency. The overall hydrophobicity represented by LogP/SA was proposed to rapidly identify candidates in future designing to reduce synthetic efforts. We show a comparison study between two computational tools used to calculate LogP/SA: ChemBio3D and Materials Studio, in terms of the predictive power and sensitivity, followed by the synthesis of copolymers with a different cationic side chain based on the calculation results.

6: Modelling potential SARS-CoV-2 VIRTAC warheads

Mirjam-Kim Rääbis et al., University of Glasgow

Traditional small molecule therapeutics in medicinal chemistry often require high doses to inhibit the target protein, leading to issues with safety and drug resistance. Proteolysis targeting chimeras (PROTACs) are a new class of molecule that combat these issues, as they can use the body’s own protein degradation systems to degrade targets even at low drug doses. Virus-targeting chimeras (VIRTACs) can use a similar mechanism to target viral proteins. This project uses molecular docking studies to explore potential VIRTAC warheads that target the papain-like protease of SARS-CoV-2, in an attempt to find a potential treatment to COVID-19 that would, among other benefits, offer a lower risk of antiviral resistance.

7: Design, synthesis and biological evaluation of anti-tubercular small molecules

Miriam Turner et al., Newcastle University

Tuberculosis remains one of the top 10 causes of death worldwide, therefore there exists an unmet clinical need for new and improved therapeutics that tackle increasing bacterial resistance and affordability issues. Previous studies indicate N-substituted amino acid hydrazides exhibit good activity against several strains of Mtb. Ongoing structure-activity relationship studies utilising isoniazid, a variety of amino acids, and the active imidazo[1,2-a]pyridine-3-carboxy moiety of clinical candidate Q203 have also demonstrated excellent activities. Herein we report the results of our continued evaluation of this architecture, using a scaffold hopping approach to explore the potential of this pharmacophore as a new anti-tubercular drug.

8: Towards a cure for malaria: computational analysis and design of PfCLK3 inhibitors

Skye Brettell et al., University of Glasgow

Malaria continues to pose a significant challenge to humanity. Resistance to several frontline antimalarials represents a considerable threat, marking the need for new drugs with novel mechanisms of action. Kinase inhibitors represent a potential new class of antimalarials. TCMDC-135051 is a hit compound with activity against malarial kinase PfCLK3 as well as potency in liver, blood and sexual stage parasites. During this project, sequential analysis of the PfCLK3 catalytic domain identified key structural differences between the target and its human orthologs. Molecular docking studies of TCMDC-135051 analogues using GOLD then yielded potential lead compounds with predicted high affinity for the target kinase.

9: Mind the gap! Through-space electronic stabilisation of dynamic azaacene-extended helicene diimides

Matteo Albino et al., University of York

The strain-induced contortion of non-planar, chiroptically-active helicenes caused by fjord steric repulsive interactions is well known. Fjord-mediated planarisation, on the other hand, is far less common and has typically only been achieved via inherently strong covalent bond formation. Herein, I present the properties and density functional theory (DFT) analysis of electroactive aza[5]helicenes exhibiting unexpected through-space π-electronic stabilisation in the reduced states as a result of non-covalent fjord bonding effects. Computational modelling of optical spectra and aromatic-induced current densities reveal that lone pair-repulsive nitrogens in the fjord promote favourable ring currents and reversible helicene planarisation.

10: Mitochondria targeted metal-chelators as potential therapeutic agents against Parkinson’s Disease

Sam Andrew Young et al., Northumbria University

The synthesis of metal chelating molecules, specifically hydroxypyridones (HOPOs), have been identified as potential therapeutic agents for treating Parkinson’s Disease (PD) as bidentate ligands at the two oxygen donor atoms. These ligands are selective for ferric iron in the body, which is expected to stop the reduction of this iron accumulated in the brains of PD sufferers, hindering the Haber-Weiss mechanism from taking place in the mitochondria of the cell and preventing the associated degeneration of the cells. The lipophilicity of these HOPOs is vital to the process, allowing the molecule to transverse the blood-brain barrier, the addition of a triphenylphosphonium group on the HOPO is thought to increase therapeutic effect.

SCIblog - 1 July 2021 - image of a close-up of a woman's skin

At Heriot Watt University, students have investigated the skin irritation potential of nanoclays using an IATA

11: Green synthesis of n-acetylcolchinol

Adelaide Lunga et al., Loughborough University

The aim of this project is to develop a short synthesis of N-acetylcolchinol using a greener and step-economical pathway. First, aldol condensation of 3-hydroxyacetophenone and 3,4,5-trimethoxybenzaldehye using ethanolic NaOH produced the respective chalcone. The product was reduced electrochemically in DMSO:MeOH (4:1) employing carbon electrodes and NEt4Cl to the saturated benzylic alcohol, which was converted to an acetamide via Ritter reaction using H2SO4 in MeCN. In the final step, the conditions were optimised to enable electrochemical oxidative coupling of the aromatic groups to give the desired N-acetylcolchinol. This novel four-steps reaction sequence avoids use of transition metal catalysts or toxic reagents.

12: Towards the synthesis of small-molecule probes to measure endosulfatase activity

Yi Xiao et al., University of Oxford

Human endosulfatases (SULFs) are enzymes on the cell surface and in the extracellular matrix that hydrolyse 6-O-sulfate on glucosamine units within heparan sulfate proteoglycans. SULFs are involved in growth and development, muscle regeneration and tumour growth via various signaling pathways, with untapped therapeutic and diagnostic potentials. However, profiling SULFs remains a challenge. Antibodies detect their presence, but do not indicate their activity state. The current activity assay is a global sulfatase assay and is not selective in a biological sample. We propose a novel small-molecule probe to profile SULF activity by exploiting the formation of 1,6-anhydrosugar, which can be potentially used in isolated proteins and in vitro.

13: Developing machine learning models to predict the Hansen solubility parameters

Alexander Pine et al., University of Greenwich

Solubility parameters are important for pharmaceutical formulations, paint formulations and new material development. There is a need to improve the accuracy of solubility calculations, and to be able to make rapid predictions of the solubility of new molecular structures. In this project, a range of Python plugins, and open-source codes have been used to develop a Lasso linear regression machine learning model to predict the Hansen solubility parameters (HSP) - δd, δp and δh, which represents dispersion forces, dipole-permanent dipole forces and hydrogen bonding respectively with the intention of making faster and more accurate prediction in solubility.

14: The cycloaddition between cyclononyne and mesyl azide

Alexander David Robertson et al., The University of Glasgow

This research considers computational modelling of a SPAAC reaction involving cyclononyne. DFT calculations were performed on the strain promoted reaction between cyclononyne and mesyl azide. Three low energy conformers of cyclononyne with Cs, C2 and C1 symmetry were found with similar energy. The transition structures for the corresponding cycloaddition with mesyl azide were found and the C2 conformer was the lowest in energy. Product structures were found leading to the identification of the thermodynamic product of the reaction. Distortion/interaction analysis showed that the cycloalkyne was already significantly pre-constrained to its reacting geometry.

15: The assessment of skin irritation potential of nanoclays using an IATA

Holly King et al., Heriot Watt university

Clays are natural nanomaterials consisting of mineral silicate layers. They have several functional uses in everyday life. An example of nanoclays that carry out a wide range of roles is smectites which include montmorillonite (MMT), bentonite and hectorite. These nanoclays can be used in cosmetics, altering their appearance and in pharmaceuticals as drug carriers and wound dressings. Integrated approach to testing and assessment (IATA) aim to collect all relevant data into one easy to understand format that can be used to group materials. Using an IATA dedicated to skin irritation/corrosion it was found that MMT was safe for use. However, hectorite was found to be toxic at high doses indicating that it is a possible irritant to the skin.

Many thanks to the sponsors of this year’s competition: GSK, AstraZeneca, TeledyneIsco. The event runs until 9 July, so let us know what you think of the entries on Twitter at #SCIPosterComp.

If you’d like to see these students’ full posters, go to: https://istry.co.uk/postercompetition/5/?date_example=2021-06-28

Science & Innovation

Which technologies will propel industry forward and give companies that competitive advantage? According to digital consultancy McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends Index, several technologies will have a profound and disruptive impact on industries including the chemical sector. So, which ones will have the biggest effect on the way you work in the coming decade?

1: Automation

By 2025, more than 50 billion devices around the world will be connected to the Industrial Internet of Things (IIOT) and about 600,000 industrial robots a year will be in place from 2022. The combination of these, along with industrial processes such as 3D and 4D printing, will speed up processing and improve operational efficiency.

According to McKinsey, 50% of today’s work practices could be automated by 2022 as ever more intelligent robots (in physical and software form) increase production and reduce lead times. So, how does this change look in the real world?

SCIblog - 22 June 2021 - Top 4 technology trends - image of a 3D printer

According to the McKinsey Tech Trends Index, 10% of today’s manufacturing processes will be replaced by additive manufacturing by 2030.

According to the Tech Trends Index, one large manufacturer has used collaborative robots mounted on automatic guided vehicles to load pallets without human involvement, while an automotive manufacturer has used IIOT to connect 122 factories and 500 warehouses around the world to optimise manufacturing and logistics, consolidate real-time data, and boost machine learning throughput.

2: Next generation computing

An almost incredible 368,000 patents were granted in next generation computing in 2020. Advanced computing will speed up the processing of reams of data to optimise research and cut development times for those in the chemicals and pharmaceuticals industries, accelerate the use of autonomous vehicles, and reduce the barriers to industry for many eager entrants.

‘Next-generation computing enables further democratisation of AI-driven services, radically fast development cycles, and lower barriers of entry across industries,’ the index notes. ‘It promises to disrupt parts of the value chain and reshape the skills needed (such as automated trading replacing traders and chemical simulations, reducing the need for experiments).’

According to McKinsey, AI will also be applied to molecule-level simulation to reduce the empirical expertise and testing needed. This could disrupt the materials, chemicals, and pharmaceuticals industries and lead to highly personalised products, especially in medicine.

3: The Bio-revolution

It doesn’t take much investigation before you realise that the bio-revolution has already begun. Targeted drug delivery and smart watches that analyse your sweat are just two ways we’re seeing significant change.

The Tech Trends Index claims the confluence of biological science and the rapid development of AI and automation are giving rise to a revolution that will lead to significant change in agriculture, health, energy and other industries.

In the health industry, it seems we are entering the age of hyper-personalisation. The Index notes that: ‘New markets may emerge, such as genetics-based recommendations for nutrition, even as rapid innovation in DNA sequencing leads ever further into hyper personalised medicine.’ One example of this at work in the agri-food industry is Trace Genomics’ profiling of soil microbiomes to interpret health and disease-risk indicators in farming.

4: Advanced materials

It’s no secret that we will need to develop lighter materials for transport, and others that have a lighter footprint on our planet. According to McKinsey, next generation materials will enhance the performance of products in pharma, energy, transportation, health, and manufacturing.

For example, molybdenum disulfide nanoparticles are being used in flexible electronics, and graphene is driving the development of 2D semiconductors. Computational materials science is another area of extraordinary potential. McKinsey explains: ‘More new materials are on the way as computational-materials science combines computing power and associated machine-learning methods and applies them to materials-related problems and opportunities.’

SCIblog - 22 June 2021 - Top 4 technology trends - image of virtual intelligent traffic

5G networks will help take autonomous vehicles from tentative - to widespread use.

So, which sorts of advanced materials are we talking about? These include nanomaterials that enable more efficient energy storage, lighter materials for the aerospace industry, and biodegradable nanoparticles as drug carriers within the human body.

These are just four of the 10 areas explored in the fascinating McKinsey Digital’s Tech Trends report. To read more about the rest, visit: https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/mckinsey-digital/our-insights/the-top-trends-in-tech

Agrifood

The iris family (Iridaceae) provides gardeners with a glorious array of colourful and frequently well scented flowers. Originating from both tropical and temperate regions, some such as freesias are best cultivated under protection. Others such as gladioli and crocus are reliable garden plants.

Iris, or fleur-de-lis, is one of the larger genera, offering colour and interest from the very earliest springtime through to May and June. The earliest and always most welcome is Iris unguicularis (previously Iris stylosa). Flowers (see illustration 1) emerge in the darkest days of December, encouraged by the warming effects of climate change.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa)

Illustration 1: Iris unguicularis (syn Iris stylosa) / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Originating from North Africa, it thrives in south facing dry borders, preferably under a wall where winter sunshine encourages proliferous flowering. Every few years, lift and divide the clump of small rhizomes after flowering has finished. Remove older growth and replant younger roots with a modest handful of compost and water well. Established clumps can be cut back, removing dead leaves during late spring.

By contrast Iris pseudacorus, the water flag, thrives in wet, boggy places or even when immersed in water. Found across Europe, it is a British native plant producing vivid yellow flowers that are rich sources of nectar. In parts of Scotland it forms large expanses of natural growth that are favoured by nesting corncrakes. It can be cultivated as part of water purification programmes since nitrogen and phosphorus are extracted by the vigorous root systems.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris germanica

Illustration 2: Iris germanica / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The prima donna is Iris germanica, the flag or bearded iris. These are stately plants, producing flower spikes up to one metre high and furnished with multicoloured flowers (illustration 2). Upright standard petals can contrast completely with the falls which bear a beard of yellow pollen bearing stamens. Fertiliser should be applied as the flower spikes appear. It should be applied again after flowering, stimulating root growth in anticipation of a colourful display in the next season.

SCIblog - 14 June 2021 - Irises by Geoff Dixon - image of Iris Rhizome ready for division

Illustration 3: Rhizome ready for division / Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The rhizome is a large swollen ground-creeping stem from which side shoots develop with a terminal area of older tissue (illustration 3). Every four or five years, the rhizomes should be lifted and divided by removing the terminal tissue and splitting off side shoots with a sharp knife. These and the main rhizome should be replanted carefully, ensuring that they rest on the soil surface with their fibrous roots buried beneath them. Multiplication eventually provides a border filled with very colourful displays that can persist for a month since flowers frequently emerge along most of the spike.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Health & Wellbeing

Watching plants grow in a hydroponic contraption is an education. The plants sit in foam under UV light while their roots feed on water fortified by plant feed. There is no soil. No thirst. No room for death by lazy gardener. The results, as any hydroponic enthusiast will tell you, are startling.

So, what if we were to adopt this targeted, optimised approach to our own nutrition? What would happen if he were to ditch that delicious Sunday roast in favour of a shake that contains all the vitamins and minerals your body needs? Admittedly, it sounds terrible, but people do something similar already. Many gym obsessives take protein shakes religiously to feed their bodies’ impressive musculature, while others skip meals entirely in favour of such drinks and supplements.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of an organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

An organic hydroponic vegetable cultivation farm

A recent study conducted by the Cherab Foundation, which featured in the Alternative Therapies journal, concludes that nutritional supplements may also help boost our brain function. After giving 77 people a vitamin and meal replacement product called IQed Smart Nutrition, the researchers from the non-profit organisation found that the supplement boosted brain function in a range of areas and could help people with autism, apraxia, and ADHD.

Almost 84% of participants reported deficits in speech and communication prior to taking the nutritional supplements. After taking the product, more than 85% said their expressive speech had improved while 67% of respondents reported improvements in other areas including focus, language understanding, oral motor skills, and physical and behavioural health.

Overall, 64% of participants reported positive changes within two weeks. According to the Cherab Foundation, the research aims “to guide future research into the dietary interventions and potential management of neurological conditions using natural food products, vitamin and mineral supplements”.

So, what ingredients are in the supplement-infused chocolate shake that will replace the wood-fired pizza you’re due to have next Friday evening? According to IQed, its powdered chocolate offering contains everything from brown rice, apple fibres, turmeric, and green tea, to copper gluconate, amalaki, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds.

SCIblog - 8 June 2021 - image of superfoods

Turmeric, cayenne pepper, and chia seeds have hopped onto the superfood bandwagon in recent years.

Some will dismiss these supplements as hocus-pocus, but the potential benefits of optimised nutrition are exciting nonetheless. If some wince-inducing elixir makes us healthier, stronger and live longer, perhaps it’s worth investigating further?

The Cherub Foundation works to improve the communication skills, education, and advocacy of children on the neurological spectrum. To read more about its study, visit: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/32088673/

Agrifood

Farmers today are under pressure to produce more food with fewer resources and without damaging the environment around them. Faced with factors such as land pressures, soil fertility, pest management and agricultural policy, farming today is all about efficiency, time and energy saving technology, and the drive to make solutions as sustainable as possible.

This obviously poses the question: what can the agrochemical industry do to increase output on one hand and protect the environment and improve applicator safety on the other?

Formulation technology is becoming increasingly important in answering this question. By designing innovative formulations, agrochemical products can become more effective as well as safer. Without the right formulation, even the best active substance is worth nothing.

Most pesticidal active ingredients are not water soluble or water dispersible, yet the most common mode of delivery is via spray applications of aqueous dilutions. It is necessary to create a formulation of the active ingredient in a way that makes it easily dispersible in water and able to maintain stability over the application time period. Changing what goes into this formulation alongside the active ingredient is crucial in how effectively that material is delivered to where it needs to be.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of EC Formulation

Demonstration of an EC formulation.

Two of the most common types of agricultural formulations that tackle this issue are emulsifiable concentrates (ECs) and suspension concentrates (SCs). EC formulations are suited to active ingredients that are oil soluble and have low melting points. As they are purely a solubilised active ingredient in an oil or solvent with the presence of emulsifiers, they are simple to manufacture and relatively easy to stabilise. The presence of an oil also enhances the biological activity of the application, making them more efficacious in the field.

SCIblog - 1 June 2021 - The role of formulations in agriculture - illustration of SC Formulation

SC formulation, with an indication of what occurs upon dilution into the spray tank prior to application.

SC formulations, on the other hand, are suitable for insoluble active ingredients and those with higher melting points. Crucially, as water is the continuous phase, they are also typically safer and more convenient in use for the operator; there is an absence of dust, flammable liquids, and volatile organic compounds.

Built into each of these formulations alongside the active ingredient are formulation additives. Formulation additives, referred to as inert ingredients, are critical to provide the long-term stability to agrochemical products and their ability to mix effectively in the spray tank, making them suitable for [field spray] applications.

While the formulation type targeted is often dictated by the chemical characteristics of the active ingredient, the formulator has the ability to change every element of the spray quality characteristics and agrochemical delivery through selection of formulation additives. Changing both the formulation type and the additives within will habitually have a dramatic effect on the field efficacy of that application and subsequent yield and quality of the crop. Selecting the correct formulation additives is essential in creating a successful formulation, arguably making them as significant as the active ingredient itself.

How formulators learn to map the complex effects within formulations for improved crop protection is just one facet of today’s agriculture challenge.

Interested in learning more about how the formulation of agrochemicals plays its part in feeding the world? Visit: www.crodacropcare.com

Sustainability & Environment

As silicon reaches its solar ceiling, perovskite has emerged as one of the main materials of choice in the next generation of solar panels. Indeed, Oxford PV’s much anticipated perovskite-silicon solar cell could take conversion efficiency well beyond what is currently achieved on the roofs of our homes.

The benefits of perovskite are well known at this stage. It could increase the energy we harvest from the sun and improve solar cell efficiency, and its printability could make fabrication cheaper. However, as with almost everything, there are drawbacks.

According to researchers at the SPECIFIC Innovation and Knowledge Centre at Swansea University, the solvents used to control the crystallisation of the perovskite during fabrication hinder the large-scale manufacture of printed carbon perovskite cells. This is due to the toxicity and potentially psychoactive effects of these materials.

The SPECIFIC team claims to have found a way around this after discovering a non-toxic biodegradable solvent called γ-Valerolactone. They say this replacement solvent could be used without affecting solar cell performance. Furthermore, they say it is non-toxic, sustainable, and suitable for large-scale manufacturing.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of solvents used to make solar cells, one toxic, one green

Left - solvent normally used to make solar cells, which is toxic.
Right - new green solvent developed by Swansea University researchers from the SPECIFIC project
| Image Credit: Swansea University

‘This solvent problem was a major barrier, not only restricting large-scale manufacture but holding back research in countries where the solvents are banned,’ said research group leader Professor Trystan Watson. ‘We hope our discovery will enable countries that have previously been unable to participate in this research to become part of the community and accelerate the development of cleaner, greener energy.’

As the conversion efficiency of solar panels improves, cost is also key. What if you could create the same solar panels in a more cost-efficient way? That was part of the thinking behind another recent innovation in Singapore, where Maxeon Solar Technologies has created frameless, lightweight rooftop solar panels. These solar panels can be adhered directly to a roof without racking or mounting systems and allegedly perform just as well as standard solar panels.

SCIblog - 25 May 2021 - Sharpening Solar - image of the new Maxeon Air technology platform

The new Maxeon Air technology platform from Maxeon Solar Technologies

‘For close to 50 years, the solar power industry has almost exclusively used glass superstrate panel construction,’ said Jeff Waters, CEO of Maxeon Solar Technologies. ‘As solar panels have increased in size, and the cost of solar cells has been dramatically reduced, the cost of transporting, installing and mounting large glass panels has become a relatively larger portion of total system cost. With Maxeon Air technology, we can now develop products that reduce these costs while opening up completely new market opportunities such as low-load commercial rooftops.’

The idea is to use these peel-and-stick designs on low-load roofs that cannot support the weight of conventional solar systems; and they will be rolled out in 2022. Time will tell whether the innovations in Swansea and Singapore have a bearing on companies’ solar systems, but they provide more evidence of the ingenuity that is making solar power cheaper and more efficient.

Sustainability & Environment

We’re starting to see those silent cars everywhere. The electric vehicle evolution is gradually seeping onto our roads. Every month or two, we also seem to read about another wind power generation record in the UK, or some super solar cell. Pension funds and big corporations are coming under great pressure to divest from fossil fuels. The clean power revolution is well underway.

And yet the third biggest polluter of the planet - after power and transport - awaits the seismic shift that will shake it to its foundations. Indeed, cement production still accounts for roughly 8% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The problem is that creating cement is an energy-intense, polluting process with firing temperatures of 2,700 degrees Fahrenheit needed to create it, and plenty of CO2 released during processing.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Image of a crane and construction site

Green cement and concrete are needed to reduce emissions in construction and other industries.

But there are signs that the processing could become cleaner. A recent report released by Market Research Future (MRFR) predicts that concrete (of which cement is a key ingredient) use could get appreciably greener over the next six years. It estimates that the global green concrete market size will grow at a 9.45% compound annual growth rate from 2020-27.

MRFR attributes this rise to several factors. First, there is a growing demand for green or recycled concrete (that incorporates waste components) within the construction industry. For builders, it enhances their environmental credentials and will increasingly become a business-savvy investment as governments seek to reduce carbon emissions.

Green building codes and the creation of energy-efficient infrastructure will also help propel this growth, and changing building regulations in massive markets including China, India, and the Middle East will result in many manufacturers looking to develop different material combinations. Increasingly, we’re seeing manufacturers turning to less energy-intensive manufacturing methods and investigating which waste materials could be used to create a greener cement or concrete that doesn’t compromise on performance.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology, in Sweden, have even been developing a rechargeable cement-based battery. If it ever comes to pass, this could be used to create buildings that store energy like giant batteries. Some manufacturers are also looking into the electrification of kilns, which isn’t feasible yet, and carbon capture and storage has long been mooted as a means to reduce industrial emissions.

SCIblog - 18 May 2021 - Cementing a Greener Legacy - Chalmers University graphic

Imagine an entire twenty storey concrete building that can store energy like a giant battery. This could be possible if Chalmers University’s cement-based rechargeable batteries come to fruition. | Image Credit: Yen Strandqvist/Chalmers University of Technology

The good news is that we don’t just have people all over the world working on low-carbon materials and manufacturing methods; experts in the UK are tackling the issue right now. On 2 June, speakers at the SCI’s free webinar, Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future, will examine some of the exciting initiatives underway.

These include an award winning, industry accepted ultra-low carbon alternative to traditional cement, which could result in CO2 savings of up to 78%, and the potential of using offsite manufacturing to provide commercial projects with a sustainable structural frame solution.

As with transport and power, cement is getting greener increment by increment. But with drastic climate change consequences dangling above us like the Sword of Damocles, now is the time for concrete action.

Register for Ultra-low carbon concrete, a sustainable future today at: https://bit.ly/33WfjkN.

Agrifood

Perennial bush soft fruits are among the crown jewels of gardening. Gooseberries, red currants and blackcurrants when well established will annually reward with crops of very tasty ripe fruit which provide exceptional health benefits. These bushes will mature into quite sizeable plants so only relatively few, maybe one to five of each will be sufficient for most home gardeners or allotment owners.

Header image: Gooseberries | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

The art of successful establishment lies in initial care and planting. Buy good quality dormant plants from reputable nurseries or garden centres. Plunge the roots deeply in a bucket of water and plant as quickly as possible. These crops need rich fertile soil which is weed free and has recently been dug over with the incorporation of farmyard manure or well-rotted compost. Each bush requires ample growing space with at least a one metre distance within and between rows.

Take out a deep planting hole and soak with water. Place the new bush into the hole, spreading out the root system in all directions. Add mycorrhizal powder around and over the roots, which encourages growth promoting fungi. These colonise the roots, aiding nutrient uptake and protecting from soil borne pathogens. Carefully fold the soil back around the roots, shaking the plant. That settles soil in and around the roots and up to the collar which shows where the plant had grown in the nursery. Tread around the collar to firm the plant and add more water. Normally, planting is completed in late winter to early spring before growth commences.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of redcurrants

Redcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

As buds open in spring, keep the plants well-watered. It is crucially important that the young bushes do not suffer drought stress, especially during the first summer. Supplement watering with occasional applications of liquid feed which contains large concentrations of potassium and phosphate plus micro nutrients. Remove all weeds and flowers in this first year. That concentrates all the products of photosynthesis into root, shoot and leaf formation for future seasons. Clean up around the plants in autumn, removing dead leaves that might harbour disease-causing pathogens.

These plants will flower and fruit from the first establishment year. Each bush will produce fruit which is a succulent and rewarding source of health-promoting vitamins and nutrients.

SCIblog - 10 May 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of blackcurrants

Blackcurrants | Image credit: Geoff Dixon

Blackcurrants are a fine source of vitamin C and have twice the antioxidant content of blueberries. Redcurrants are sources of flavonoids and vitamin B, while gooseberries are rich in dietary fibre, copper, manganese potassium and vitamins C, B5 and B6.

Blackbirds also like these fruits so netting or cages are needed! Continuing careful husbandry will yield a succession of expanding and rewarding crops.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Sustainability & Environment

Sometimes, when you try to solve one problem, you create another. A famous example is the introduction of the cane toad into Australia from Hawaii in 1935. The toads were introduced as a means of eliminating a beetle species that ravaged sugar cane crops; but now, almost a century later, Western Australia is inundated with these venomous, eco-system-meddling creatures.

In a similar spirit, disposable face masks could help tackle one urgent problem while creating another. According to researchers at Swansea University, nanoplastics and other potentially harmful pollutants have been found in many disposable face masks, including the ones some use to ward off Covid-19.

After submerging various types of common disposable face masks in water, the scientists observed the release of high levels of pollutants including lead, antimony, copper, and plastic fibres. Worryingly, they found significant levels of pollutants from all the masks tested.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of mask fibres

Microscope image of microfibres released from children's mask: the colourful fibres are from the cartoon patterns | Credit: Swansea University

Obviously, millions have been wearing single-use masks around the world to protect against the Covid-19 pandemic, but the release of potentially harmful substances into the natural environment and water supply could have far-reaching consequences for all of us.

‘The production of disposable plastic face masks (DPFs) in China alone has reached approximately 200 million a day in a global effort to tackle the spread of the new SARS-CoV-2 virus,’ says project lead Dr Sarper Sarp, whose team’s work has been published on Science Direct. ‘However, improper and unregulated disposal of these DPFs is a plastic pollution problem we are already facing and will only continue to intensify.

SCIblog - 7th May 2021 - No masking the pollution problem - image of woman disposing of mask in bin

The presence of potentially toxic pollutants in some face masks could pose health and environmental risks.

‘There is a concerning amount of evidence that suggests that DPFs waste can potentially have a substantial environmental impact by releasing pollutants simply by exposing them to water. Many of the toxic pollutants found in our research have bio-accumulative properties when released into the environment and our findings show that DPFs could be one of the main sources of these environmental contaminants during and after the Covid-19 pandemic.’

The Swansea scientists say stricter regulations must be enforced during manufacturing and disposal of single-use masks, and more work must be done to understand the effect of particle leaching on public health and on the environment. Another area they believe warrants investigation is the amount of particles inhaled by those wearing these masks.

‘This is a significant concern,’ adds Sarp, ‘especially for health care professionals, key workers, and children who are required to wear masks for large proportions of the working or school day.’

Careers

In the latest blog in our SCI Mid-Career group series, Dr Jessica Gould, Applications Team Leader of Energy Technologies at Croda International, speaks about finding time for career development and the importance of taking on responsibilities outside her normal job role.SCI Members - Mid-Career Perspective - Jessica Gould

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I started off my chemistry career with a Master’s degree in Chemistry from the University of Liverpool, during which I spent a year working in the chemical industry at Cognis Ltd. Following my undergraduate degree, I began a PhD at the University of Nottingham that looked at developing novel coordination polymers for hydrogen storage as part of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s Centre for Doctoral Training in Hydrogen, Fuels Cells and their Applications.

After completing my PhD, I started work at Croda in 2013. I have predominantly worked as a research scientist in the UK Synthesis team, specialising in acrylic polymerisation. However, in early 2020 I changed roles to work as the Team Leader of our Energy Technologies Applications team. This area focuses on developing additives for the renewable energy sector, looking at electric vehicles, EV fluids, wind turbines and battery additives.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Compared to early career development, where the focus is on learning the key skills required for your job, at a mid-career stage other skills such as networking become more important. I do this by attending events both inside and outside my workplace. I also use various online platforms such as Microsoft Teams and LinkedIn to maintain and foster relationships within my network.

I also think that taking on responsibilities from outside your normal job role is important in managing your career at the mid-stage level. This allows you to continue to learn new skills even if you feel you are well settled in your main role. My manager helps me identify these opportunities and manage them within my current job role. My organisation also provides training courses that allow me to further develop these skills.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
From my perspective, the challenge around mid-career support is finding time within your existing schedule for career development. People can often feel like they’ve stagnated if it takes a long time to progress or if they see limited job opportunities above them. Training, courses, networks and other experiences can help them learn and feel challenged. These provide an excellent way to maintain development at a mid-career level.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
Mentoring is an excellent way for people to feel supported in their career development. Expanding and continuing our mentoring scheme would be a great way for SCI to support its members.

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Sustainability & Environment

Every tin can dropped into our recycling bins is a small act of faith. We hope each one is recycled, yet the figures take some of that fervour from our faith. According to UK government statistics from 2015-2018, only about 45% of our household waste is recycled. Similarly, the UN has noted that only 20% of the 50 million tonnes of electronics waste produced globally each year is formally recycled. So, it’s fair to say we could do better.

Thankfully, thousands of people around the globe are working on these problems and two recent developments give us grounds for optimism. The first involves upcycling metal waste into multi-purpose aerogels, and the second involves fully recyclable printed electronics that include a wood-derived ink. 

Upcycling metal waste

Researchers at the National University of Singapore (NUS) claim to have turned one person’s trash into treasure with a low-energy way to convert aluminium and magnesium waste into high value aerogels for the construction industry.

To do this, they ground the metal waste into a powder and mixed it with chemical cross-linkers. They heated this mixture in an oven before freeze-drying it and turning it into an aerogel. The team says this simple process makes their aerogels 50% cheaper than commercially available silica aerogels.

Aerogels have many useful properties. They are absorbent, extremely light (hence the frozen smoke nickname), and have impressive thermal and sound insulation capabilities. This makes them useful as thermal insulation materials in buildings, in piping systems, or for cleaning up oil spills. However, the NUS team has loftier goals than that.

Mount of metal recycling at centre

There is a great need for less energy intensive ways to recycle metals

“Our aluminium aerogel is 30 times lighter and insulates heat 21 times better than conventional concrete,” research team leader Associate Professor Duong Hai-Minh whose research has been published in the Journal of Material Cycles and Waste Management. “When optical fibres are added during the mixing stage, we can create translucent aluminium aerogels which, as building materials, can improve natural lighting, reduce energy consumption for lighting and illuminate dark or windowless areas. Translucent concrete can also be used to construct sidewalks and speed bumps that light up at night to improve safety for pedestrians and road traffic.”

The aerogels could even be used for cell cultivation. Professor Duong explains: “Microcarriers are micro-size beads for cells to anchor and grow. Our first trials were performed on stem cells, using a cell line commonly used for testing of drugs as well as cosmetics, and the results are very encouraging.”

Whatever about these speculative applications, this upcycling method will hopefully help us find new homes for all types of metal waste including metal chips and discarded electronics.

Recyclable printed electronics

A team at Duke University has also made interesting progress in reducing electronic waste. The researchers claim to have developed fully recyclable printed electronics that could be used and reused in a wide range of sensors.

The researchers’ transistor is made from three carbon-based inks that can be printed onto paper, and their use of a wood-derived insulating dielectric ink called nanocellulose helps make them recyclable. Carbon nanotubes and graphene inks are also used for the semiconductors and conductors, respectively.

3D printing device

A 3D rendering of the first fully recyclable, printed transistor.
CREDIT: Duke University

“Nanocellulose is biodegradable and has been used in applications like packaging for years,” said Aaron Franklin, the Addy Professor of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Duke, whose research has been published in Nature Electronics. “And while people have long known about its potential applications as an insulator in electronics, nobody has figured out how to use it in a printable ink before. That’s one of the keys to making these fully recyclable devices functional.”

The team has developed a way to suspend these nanocellulose crystals (extracted from wood fibres) with a sprinkling of table salt to create an ink that performs well in its printed transistors. At the end of their working life, these devices can be submerged in baths with gently vibrating sound waves to recover the carbon nanotubes and graphene components. These materials can be reused and the nanocellulose can be recycled just like ordinary paper.

The team conceded that these devices won’t ruffle the trillion dollar silicon-based computer component market, but they do think these devices could be useful in simple environmental sensors to monitor building energy use or in biosensing patches to track medical conditions.

Read about the Duke University research here: https://www.nature.com/articles/s41928-021-00574-0
Take a look at the NUS study here: https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10163-020-01169-1

Careers

In this blog series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.

SCI Committee - Mid-Careers - Dan Smith

In our latest interview, we hear from Dan Smith, Head of Portfolio at CatSci Ltd.

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
I have more than six years’ experience at CatSci, an SME that specialises in process development for the drug development programmes of our partners. In my current role as Head of Portfolio, I oversee the delivery of our customer projects and support the technical qualification of new business and resourcing across our technical team. Previously, as Principal Scientist I led projects focused on route optimisation for Phase I-II and greatly enjoyed contributing to CatSci’s growth from four practical lab scientists to a current team of 24.

Prior to CatSci, I focused on both applied catalysis and fundamental research in both the UK and US as a postdoc for five years, including at the University of York and Texas A&M University. This provided an opportunity to explore and develop a range of skills such as computational modelling and basic programming that I have found useful since. In terms of earlier education, I have both PhD and Master’s degrees in Chemistry from Durham University.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
As one begins to specialise or diversify at the mid-career stage, often there is a less well defined path. However, that comes with a multitude of possibilities. A lot of my current learning is focused on broadening my skillset across disciplines, such as finance, that help contextualise a wide range of business activities. Relative to early career development, there can be fewer individuals to draw on for their greater experience, especially in smaller departments or organisations. Instead, actively engaging those outside of one’s day-to-day environment for their views can be very helpful.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
One of the biggest challenges is around time, and setting aside time to reflect on larger strategic objectives. Ring fencing time is often difficult. However, conferences can provide this free space to focus on opportunities and engage others for different perspectives.

What additional support could SCI give to mid-career professionals?
In the evolving shift to a more virtual world, change has accelerated due to the pandemic, and digital technology is of even greater importance to virtually all areas of work. SCI members may benefit from support in these areas, specifically in relation to new ways of working in the chemical industry.

Related Links:

Sustainability & Environment

To some, the almond is a villain. This admittedly tasty nut takes an extraordinary amount of water to grow (1.1 gallons per nut) and some in California say almond cultivation has contributed to drought.

And so it is no surprise to see the almond lined up in the rogue’s gallery of the thirstiest foods. In a study in the journal Nature Food, University of Michigan (U-M) and Tulane University researchers assessed how the food we eat affects water scarcity.

Meat consumption was found to be the biggest culprit in the US, with the hooves and feet of livestock accounting for 31% of the water scarcity footprint. Within the meat category, beef is the thirstiest, with almost six times more water consumption than chicken.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of almond farm, almond harvesting

Almond crops in California have come under heavy criticism due to their heavy water consumption

However, the picture is a little more nuanced. Lead author Martin Heller, of U-M's School for Environment and Sustainability, explains: “Beef is the largest dietary contributor to the water scarcity footprint, as it is for the carbon footprint. But the dominance of animal-based food is diminished somewhat in the water scarcity footprint, in part because the production of feed grains for animals is distributed throughout less water-scarce regions, whereas the production of vegetables, fruits and nuts is concentrated in water-scarce regions of the United States, namely the West Coast states and the arid Southwest.”

Certain types of diets drain the water supply. People who eat large quantities of beef, nuts such as the infamous almond, walnut, and cashew, and a high proportion of water-intense fruits and vegetables including lemon, avocado, asparagus, broccoli, and cauliflower take a heavy toll on the water footprint.

SCIblog 19 April 2021 - How thirsty is your food? - image of a bowl of roasted brussel sprouts

The Brussels sprout is not just for Christmas… it is a less water intense option for your dinner table.

“The water-use impacts of food production should be a key consideration of sustainable diets,” adds study co-author Diego Rose of Tulane University. “There is a lot of variation in the way people eat, so having a picture with this sort of granularity – at the individual level – enables a more nuanced understanding of potential policies and educational campaigns to promote sustainable diets.”

So, what do you do the next time you feel a pang of water guilt? According to the researchers, you could swear off asparagus and that crushed avocado on your toast and replace them with less water intense foods such as fresh peas, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, and kale (but maybe not on your toast). Those beef steaks and hamburgers could make way for other protein sources, such as chicken, pork, and soybeans, and you could graze on peanuts and seeds instead of those honey roasted almonds you love so dearly. Just think of all those gallons of water you’ll save.

For more on this study, visit: https://www.nature.com/articles/s43016-021-00256-2

Energy

Bit by bit, the green hydrogen revolution is coming to our shores. The news that a planning application has been filed for the UK’s largest electrolyser in Glasgow could be a boon for hydrogen evangelists, the local communities, and the political class.

The 20MW electrolyser will form part of the green hydrogen facility on the outskirts of Glasgow near Whitelee, the UK’s largest wind farm. The proposed project would produce up to 8 tonnes of green hydrogen each day – the equivalent of 550 return bus trips from Glasgow to Edinburgh.

If approved, the scheme would be delivered by ScottishPower, BOC, and ITM Power as part of the Green Hydrogen for Scotland Partnership. BOC would operate the facility using solar and wind power produced by Scottish Power and ITM Power would provide the all-important 20 MW electrolyser. Renewable energy would power the electrolyser, which would split the water into hydrogen and oxygen gas. The hydrogen produced by this process could then be used in various applications including transport.

Fundamentally, the people who will benefit most are the people of Glasgow, with the project aiming to provide carbon-free transport and clean air for people across the city area, while satisfying some industrial hydrogen demand. And we can all rest easy now that we know politicians will be pleased about it too, for the project coincides nicely with the United Nations 26th Climate Change Conference, which will be held in Glasgow later this year.

SCIblog - 15 April 2021 - Glasgow’s green hydrogen evolution - image of whitelee windfarm eaglesham moor scotland

The new facility will be based beside a plentiful renewable energy source, Whiteless wind farm in Eaglesham Moor. | Editorial credit: Maritxu / Shutterstock.com

If all goes swimmingly, the facility will supply hydrogen for the commercial market by 2023. “Whitelee keeps breaking barriers, first the UK’s largest onshore wind farm, and soon to be home to the UK’s largest electrolyser,” says Barry Carruthers, ScottishPower’s Hydrogen Director. “The site has played a vital role in helping the UK to decarbonise and we look forward to delivering another vital form of zero carbon energy generation at the site to help Glasgow and Scotland achieve their net zero goals.”

Tumbling renewable prices

This exciting news follows on the back of some bold green hydrogen claims made in a recent Bloomberg New Energy Foundation (NEF) report: the 1H 2021 Hydrogen Levelised Cost Update. According to Martin Tengler, BloombergNEF’s Lead Hydrogen Analyst, the report authors believe the cost of renewable hydrogen could fall 85% by 2050, 17% lower than they had previously predicted. This, he says, is due to falling renewables prices.

SCIblog - 15 April 2021 - Glasgow’s green hydrogen evolution - image of solar panels aerial view

It is becoming cheaper all the time to produce solar and wind power, which is good news for those producing green hydrogen.

Tengler also says that renewable hydrogen should be cheaper than blue hydrogen (when natural gas is split into hydrogen and CO2 via processes such as steam methane reforming) in many countries by 2030. Furthermore, Bloomberg NEF predicts that green hydrogen will be cheaper to process than natural gas in many countries by 2050.

With the prices of solar and wind power constantly tumbling, it would be no surprise to see the authors of these reports revising their projections even further in the coming years. In the mean-time, we welcome the green shoots peeking through outside Glasgow.

Health & Wellbeing

Many of us have contemplated buying a reconditioned phone. It might be that bit older but it has a new screen and works as well as those in the shop-front. I’m not sure, however, that any of us have thought of investing in a reconditioned liver – but it could be coming to a body near you.

Researchers based in São Paulo’s Institute of Biosciences have been developing a technique to create and repair transplantable livers. The proof-of-concept study published in Materials Science and Engineering by the Human Genome and Stem Cell Research Centre (HUG-CELL) is based on tissue bioengineering techniques known as decellularisation and recellularisation.

SCIblog - 12 April 2021 - A reconditioned liver? - image of a traffic jam

The organs of some donors are sometimes damaged in traffic accidents, but these may soon be transplantable if the HUG-CELL team realises its goal.

The decellularisation and recellularisation approach involves taking an organ from a deceased donor and treating it with detergents and enzymes to remove all the cells from the tissue. What remains is the organ’s extracellular matrix, containing its original structure and shape.

This extracellular matrix is then seeded with cells from the transplant patient. The theoretical advantage of this method is that the body’s immune system won’t rile against the new organ as it already contains cells from the patient’s own body, thereby boosting the chance of long-term acceptance.

However, the problem with the decellularisation process is that it removes the very molecules that tell cells to form new blood vessels. This weakens cell adhesion to the extracellular matrix. To get around this, the researchers have introduced a stage between decellularisation and recellularisation. After decellularising rat livers, the scientists injected a solution that was rich in the proteins produced by lab-grown liver cells back into the extracellular matrix. These proteins then told the liver cells to multiply and form blood vessels.

These cells then grew for five weeks in an incubator that mimicked the conditions inside the human body. According to the researchers, the results showed significantly improved recellularisation.

“It’s comparable to transplanting a ‘reconditioned’ liver, said Mayana Zatz, HUG-CELL’s principal investigator and co-author of the article. “It won't be rejected because it uses the patient’s own cells, and there’s no need to administer immunosuppressants.”

SCIblog - 12 April 2021 - A reconditioned liver? - image of the extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver

Extracellular matrix of a decellularised liver | Image Credit: HUG-CELL/USP

Obviously, there is a yawning gap between proof of concept and the operating theatre, but the goal is to scale up the process to create human-sized livers, lungs, hearts, and skin for transplant patients.

“The plan is to produce human livers in the laboratory to scale,” said lead author Luiz Carlos de Caires-Júnior to Agência FAPESP. “This will avoid having to wait a long time for a compatible donor and reduce the risk of rejection of the transplanted organ."

This technique could also be used to repair livers given by organ donors that are considered borderline or non-transplantable. “Many organs available for transplantation can’t actually be used because the donor has died in a traffic accident,” Caires-Júnior added. “The technique can be used to repair them, depending on their status.”

Even if we are at the early stages of this approach, it bodes well for future research. And for those on the organ transplant list, a reconditioned liver would be as good as a new one – complete with their very own factory settings.

Read the paper here: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0928493120337814

Careers

In this new series, members of the SCI Mid-Career group offer advice on career management and how to overcome career challenges.

SCI Member David Freeman

In our latest interview, we hear from David Freeman, Research & Technology Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.

Please tell us about yourself and your career journey.
After a PhD in organic chemistry, I started my career with ICI Paints in Slough in 1998, working in a product development role. Within a couple of years, I moved to another ICI business, Uniqema, and had various technical roles around the chemical synthesis or process development of new materials.

These early roles – and the people I worked with during this time – had a big impact on me in terms of ways of working and how to deal with people. I subsequently joined Croda in 2006 and have since had further technical roles – initially around the technical management of Synthesis programmes in Croda, then technical management of Applications programmes, and finally on to my current role of R&T Director for Croda’s Energy Technologies business.

This last transition was probably the most interesting and challenging as it forced me to think much more strategically about the “what” rather than the “how” and what leadership versus management was all about. I see this area as being hugely important to the Mid-Career group.

What are your keys to managing your career at this stage?
Development remains really important to me from a personal perspective. I have always driven my own development, but been well supported by the organisations I’ve worked for: both by technical management teams and HR teams. At the mid-careers stage, there are lots of important things to think about but I consider the following to be key:

  • (i) Self-understanding and feedback: make sure you understand your strengths and weaknesses and how these manifest themselves with colleagues by seeking open and honest feedback
  • (ii) Get external perspectives on your areas of interest and expertise. This for me is really key in challenging thinking and bringing new ways of working and innovation to your role
  • (iii) Understand the big picture: make sure you’re clear about what’s going on in the world at a high level and the part you and your organisation have to play in meeting these challenges.

What challenges are there around mid-career support?
I feel very fortunate to have worked for organisations where development is extremely important – support is always on hand when I need it. The key challenge is a personal one and it’s about making enough time to focus on the right development areas. We are all busy but if we want to develop ourselves enough, then we will find that time!

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Sustainability & Environment

When you live in a cold country, you think of hot days as a blessing. Air conditioning units are for those in far-away places – humid countries where the baked earth smell rises to meet you when you step off the plane.

But cooling comes at a cost. According to the UN Environment Programme, it accounts for 7% of global greenhouse gas emissions. Some of us are visual learners; so, the sheer cost of cooling really hit me when I stared up at an apartment building in Hong Kong with hundreds of air conditioning units perched above the windows like birds.

And it isn’t just the Hong Kongers feeling the heat. The cooling industry as a whole is under pressure to cut its greenhouse gas emissions. The International Energy Agency expects emissions from cooling to double by 2030 due to heat waves, population growth, urbanisation, and the growing middle class. By 2050, it forecasts that space cooling will consume as much electricity as China and India do today.

SCIblog 1 April 2021 - The Cool Coalition feels the heat - image of Air conditioning units cling to a building

Air conditioning units cling to a building

All of this was captured by the Cooling Suppliers: Who's Winning the Race to Net Zero report released by the Race to Zero campaign, the Kigali Cooling Efficiency Program (K-CEP), Carbon Trust and other partners in the UN Environment Programme-hosted Cool Coalition.

This report's authors found that only five of the 54 cooling companies they assessed have committed to net-zero targets. The document outlines three areas that must be addressed on the Cooling Climate Pathway: super-efficient appliances, ultra-low global warming refrigerants, and the widespread adoption of passive cooling measures such as clever home design and urban planning.

So, while builders adjust window sizes, introduce trees for shading, and choose materials (such as terracotta cooling systems) thoughtfully to temper the sun’s gaze, others are availing of different methods.

For example, the COP26 (the 2021 UN Climate Change Conference) Champions Team has just released its Net Zero Cooling Action Plan that includes a Cool Calculator tool to help companies and governments run simple calculations to see where they could decarbonise their cooling systems. Similarly, the UK's Environmental Investigation Agency (EIA) has launched a net-zero cooling product guide that showcases energy-efficient products run on natural refrigerants.

SCIblog 1 April 2021 - The Cool Coalition feels the heat - image of building green walls

Green walls are one of many passive cooling approaches used to reduce our reliance on mechanical systems.

However, it’s clear that the softly-softly approach won’t suffice. The EIA has called on governments to do more to encourage organisations to adopt sustainable cooling, to make concrete policy commitments, and speed-up the phase-out of climate-warming refrigerants such as hydrofluorocarbons.

“The development and expansion of net-zero cooling is a critical part of our Race to Zero emissions,” said Nigel Topping, UK High Level Champion for COP26. “In addition to technological breakthroughs and ambitious legislation, we also need sustainable consumer purchasing to help deliver wholesale systems change.”

We all love the technological panacea – innovations that will cure all the climate ills we have inflicted on the world. But the solution will also involve stodgy government regulations and changing consumer habits, and a reliance on the continued fall in renewable power generation.

For those in traditionally cooler climes, it’s no longer someone else’s problem. It was a balmy 22°C in London this week and we’re not even in April yet. So, it’s certainly time to turn up the heat on the cooling industry.

Agrifood

Variously known as zucchini, courgette, baby marrows and summer squash, this frost tender crop is a valuable addition for gardens and allotments. Originating in warm temperate America, the true zucchini was developed by Milanese gardeners in the 19th century and popularised in the UK by travellers in Italy. It quickly matures in 45 to 50 days from planting out in open ground by early May in the south and a couple of weeks later farther north.

Alternatively, use cloches as frost protection for early crops. Earliness is also achieved by sowing seed in pots of openly draining compost by mid-April in a greenhouse or cold frame. Courgettes have large, energy-filled seeds. Consequently, germination and subsequent growth are rapid.

Sow seed singly in 10cm diameter pots and plant out when the first 2-3 leaves are expanding (illustration number 1). Alternatively, garden centres supply transplants. These should be inspected carefully, avoiding those with yellowing leaves or wilting foliage. Each plant should have white healthy-looking roots without browning.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 1 - image of courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse

Illustration 1: Courgette seedlings germinated in a greenhouse.

Courgettes grow vigorously and each plant should be allocated at least 1 metre spacing within and between rows. They require copious watering and feeding with a balanced fertiliser containing equal quantities of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium.

Botanically, they are dioecious plants, having separate male and female flowers, (illustration number 2). They are beloved by bees, hence supporting biodiversity in the garden. Slugs are their main pest, causing browsing wounds on courgette fruits; mature late-season foliage is usually infected by powdery mildew fungi that cause little harm.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 2 - image of bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower

Illustration 2: Bee-friendly (and tasty) courgette flower.

Quick maturing succulent courgettes are hybrid cultivars, producing harvestable 15-25 cm long fruit (berries) before the seeds begin forming (illustration number 3). Harvest regularly at weekly intervals before the skins (epicarps) begin strengthening and toughening. Skin colour varies with different cultivars from deep green to golden yellow. The choice rests on gardeners’ preferences.

Courgettes are classed and cooked as vegetables and their dietary value is retained by steaming thinly sliced fruits. Courgettes are a low-energy food but contain useful amounts of folate, potassium and vitamin A (retinol). The latter boosts immune systems, helping defend against illness and infection and increasing respiratory efficiency. Eyesight is also protected by increasing vision in low light.

SCIblog 29 March 2021 - Illustration 3 - image of courgette fruit ready for the table

Illustration 3: Courgette fruit ready for the table.

Courgettes are, therefore, valuable dietary additions year-round. Courgette flowers are bonuses, used as garnishes or dipped in batter as fritters or tempura. Overall, the courgette is a most useful plant that provides successional cropping using ground vacated by over-wintered vegetables such as cabbage, Brussels sprouts or leeks.

Written by Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science, published by Routledge 2019.

Science & Innovation

Every day, there are subtle signs that machine learning is making our lives easier. It could be as simple as a Netflix series recommendation or your phone camera automatically adjusting to the light – or it could be something even more profound. In the case of two recent machine-learning developments, these advances could make a tangible difference to both microscopy, cancer treatment, and our health.

The first is an artificial intelligence (AI) tool that improves the information gleaned from microscopic images. Researchers at the University of Gothenburg have used this deep machine learning to enhance the accuracy and speed of analysis.

The tool uses deep learning to extract as much information as possible from data-packed images. The neural networks retrieve exactly what a scientist wants by looking through a huge trove of images (known as training data). These networks can process tens of thousands of images an hour whereas some manual methods deliver about a hundred a month.

SCIblog 23 March 2021 Machine Learning - image of herpes virus germs microorganism cells under microscope

Machine learning can be used to follow infections in a cell.

In practice, this algorithm makes it easier for researchers to count and classify cells and focus on specific material characteristics. For example, it can be used by companies to reduce emissions by showing workers in real time whether unwanted particles have been filtered out.

“This makes it possible to quickly extract more details from microscope images without needing to create a complicated analysis with traditional methods,” says Benjamin Midtvedt, a doctoral student in physics and the main author of the study. “In addition, the results are reproducible, and customised. Specific information can be retrieved for a specific purpose."

The University of Gothenburg tool could also be used in health care applications. The researchers believe it could be used to follow infections in a cell and map cellular defense mechanisms to aid the development of new medicines and treatments.

Machine learning by colour

On a similar thread, machine learning has been used to detect cancer by researchers from the National University of Singapore. The researchers have used a special dye to colour cells by pH and a machine learning algorithm to detect the changes in colour caused by cancer.

The researchers explain in their APL Bioengineering study that the pH (acidity level) of a cancerous cell is not the same as that of a healthy cell. So, you can tell if a cell is cancerous if you know its pH.

With this in mind, the researchers have treated cells with a pH-sensitive dye called bromothymol blue that changes colour depending on how acidic the solution is. Once dyed, each cell exudes its unique red, green, and blue fingerprint.

SCIblog 23 March 2021 Machine Learning - image of ph meter measuring acid alkaline balance

By isolating a cell’s pH, researchers can detect the presence of cancer.

The authors have also trained a machine learning algorithm to map combinations of colours to assess the state of cells and detect any worrying shifts. Once a sample of the cells is taken, medical professionals can use this non-invasive method to get a clearer picture of what is going on inside the body. And all they need to do all of this is an inverted microscope and a colour camera.

“Our method allowed us to classify single cells of various human tissues, both normal and cancerous, by focusing solely on the inherent acidity levels that each cell type tends to exhibit, and using simple and inexpensive equipment,” said Chwee Teck Lim, one of the study’s authors.

“One potential application of this technique would be in liquid biopsy, where tumour cells that escaped from the primary tumour can be isolated in a minimally invasive fashion from bodily fluids.”

The encouraging sign for all of us is that these two technologies are but two dots on a broad canvas, and machine learning will enhance analysis. There are certainly troubling elements to machine learning but anything that helps hinder disease is to be welcomed.

Machine Learning-Based Approach to pH Imaging and Classification of Single Cancer Cells:
https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0031615

Quantitative Digital Microscopy with Deep Learning:
https://aip.scitation.org/doi/10.1063/5.0034891

Sustainability & Environment

What do grape stalks, pineapple leaves, corn cobs, rice husks, sheep’s wool, and straw have in common? Apart from being natural materials, they have all been used to insulate homes. Increasingly, people are turning towards natural, sustainable materials as climate change and waste have become bigger problems.

Existing building insulation materials such as synthetic rock wool are excellent at keeping our homes warm in winter, but the conversation has moved beyond thermal performance. Energy use, re-usability, toxicity, and material disposal are all live considerations now, especially with regulations and emissions targets tightening. So, rock wool might perform better than straw bale insulation but straw is biodegradable, reusable, easy to disassemble, and doesn’t require large amounts of energy to process.

Sheep’s wool and hemp insulation have also become attractive to homeowners and housebuilders alike, but an even more encouraging prospect is the use of waste materials to create next generation insulation. In this spirit, researchers at Flinders University in Adelaide, Australia, have taken waste cooking oil, wool offcuts, and sulphur to process a novel housing insulation material.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of recycled paper

Recycled paper is one of many waste materials that has found its way into domestic insulation.

To make this composite, they followed several stages. In the first stage of the synthesis, the researchers used inverse vulcanisation to create a polysulphide polymer from canola oil triglyceride and sulphur. They then mixed this powdered polymer with wool and coated the fibres through electrostatic attraction. This mixture was compressed through mild heating to provoke S−S metathesis in the polymer and bind the wool. The wool bolsters the tensile strength of the material, makes it less flammable, and provides excellent insulation. The result is a sustainable building material that fulfils its function without damaging the environment.

For Associate Professor Justin Chalker, the lead author of this study, this work provides an ideal jumping-off point. “The promising mechanical and insulation properties of this composite bodes well for further exploration in energy saving insulation in our built environment,” he said.

Sustainable transformation

It is clear that ventures like the one in Adelaide will continue to sprout all over the world. After all, necessity dictates that we change the way we build our homes and treat materials.

A recent report from Emergen Research predicts that the global insulation materials market will be worth US $82.96 billion (£59.78 billion) by 2027. The same report was also at pains to mention that the increasing demand for reduced energy consumption in buildings will be a significant factor in influencing industry growth.

“Market revenue growth is high and expected to incline rapidly going ahead due to rising demand for insulation materials... to reduce energy consumption in buildings,” it said. One of the main reasons given for this increased green building demand was stricter environmental regulations.

And Emergen isn’t the only organisation feeling the ground moving. Online roofing merchant Roofing Megastore, which sells more than 30,000 roofing materials, has detected a shift towards environmentally friendly materials, with many homeowners sourcing these products themselves.

SCIblog 18 March 2021 - image of a rock wool insulation panel

Rock wool insulation panels have come under greater scrutiny in recent times.

Having analysed two years of Google search data on sustainable building materials, the company found that synthetic roof tiles are generating the most interest from the public. Like the Flinders insulation, these roof tiles make use of waste materials, in this case recycled limestone and plastic. And you don’t need to look far down the list to find sustainable insulation materials, with sheep’s wool insulation in 9th place, wood fibre insulation in 10th, and hemp insulation in 12th.

Over time, the logic of the progression towards natural, less energy-intensive building materials will become harder to ignore. “Traditional materials such as synthetic glass mineral wool offer high levels of performance but require large amounts of energy to produce and must be handled with care while wearing PPE,” the company noted. “Natural materials such as hemp or sheep’s wool, however, require very little energy to create and can be installed easily without equipment.”

So, the next time you look down at your nutshells, spent cooking oil, or tattered woollen sweater, think of their potential. In a few years, these materials could be sandwiched between your walls, keeping you warm all winter.

Insulating composites made from sulphur, canola oil, and wool (2021): https://chemistry-europe.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/cssc.202100187?af=R

Health & Wellbeing

Rising anxiety about air pollution, physical, and mental health, exacerbated by Covid-19 and concerns about public transport, has seen an increase in the popularity of cycling around Europe, leading many cities to transform their infrastructure correspondingly.

These days, Amsterdam is synonymous with cycling culture. Images of thousands of bikes piled up in tailor-made parking facilities continue to amaze and it is routinely held up as an example of greener, cleaner, healthier cities. Because The Netherlands is so flat, people often believe it has always been this way. But, in the 1970s, Amsterdam was a gridlocked city dominated by cars. The shift to cycling primacy took work and great public pressure.

For some cities, however, the pandemic has provided an unexpected opportunity on the roads. Milan's Deputy Mayor for Urban Planning, Green Areas and Agriculture, Pierfrancesco Maran, has explained that, "We tried to build bike lanes before, but car drivers protested". Now, however, numbers have increased from 1,000 to 7,000 on the main shopping street. "Most people who are cycling used public transport before”, he said. “But now they need an alternative”.

SCIblog 15 March 2021 - Transform your city: how to become cycle-friendly - image of London cycling network

Creating joined up cycling networks is a major challenge for urban planners.

In Paris, the Deputy Mayor David Belliard does not seem concerned that the city’s investment since the start of the pandemic will go to waste. “It's like a revolution," he said. “Some sections of this road are now completely car-free. The more you give space for bicycles, the more they will use it.” They are committed to creating a cycle culture, providing free cycling lessons and subsidising the cost of bike repairs. The city intends to create more than 650km of cycle lanes in the near future.

The success in these two cities has been supported by local government but it has also been fuelled by an understandable (and encouraged) avoidance of public transport and fewer cars on the road generally. Going forward, however, it seems likely that those last two factors won’t be present. So how do you create a cycling culture in your city in the long run?

The answer is both simple and difficult: cyclists (and pedestrians) need to have priority over cars. In Brussels, where 40km of cycle track have been put down in the last year, specific zones have been implemented where this is the case, and speed limits have been reintroduced across the city.

In Copenhagen, in the late 1970s, the Danish Cyclists’ Federation arranged demonstrations demanding more cycle tracks and a return to the first half of the century, when cyclists had dominated the roads. Eventually, public pressure paid off — although there is still high demand for more cycle lanes. A range of measures, including changes made to intersections, make cyclists feel safer and local studies show that, as cyclist numbers increase, safety also increases. In many parts of the city, it is noticeable how little of the wide roads are actually available to cars: bikes, joggers, and pedestrians are all accommodated.

SCIblog 15 March 2021 - Transform your city: how to become cycle-friendly - image of Segregated cycleways in Portugal

Segregated cycleways, like this one in Cascais, Portugal, make people more likely to cycle.

But, if you were starting from scratch, you might not simply add cycle lanes to existing roads and encourage behavioural changes on the road. Segregated, protected bike lanes like those introduced in Paris are the next level up and the results suggest they work — separated from the roads, more people are inclined to try cycling.

Dutch experts suggest, where possible, going even further. Frans Jan van Rossem, a civil servant specialising in cycling policy in Utrecht, believes the best option is to create solitary paths, separated from the road by grass, trees, or elevated concrete. Consistency is also important. Cities need networks of cycle tracks, not just a few highways. Again, prioritising cyclists is key to the Dutch approach. Many cities have roads where cars are treated as guests, restricted by a speed limit of 30km/hour and not permitted to pass. Signage is also key.

In London, Mayor Sadiq Khan’s target is for 80% of journeys to be made by walking, cycling, and/or public transport by 2041. Since 2018, the city has been using artificial intelligence to better understand road use in the city and plan new cycle routes in the capital. However, the experience of other European capitals suggests that, "if you build it, they will come" might be a better approach than working off current usage.

Energy

A completely clean, renewable energy system that can be produced locally and that can easily power heat, energy storage and transportation, and travel — that's the future that promoters of a hydrogen economy envisage.

If it sounds a bit like rocket science, that's because it is. Hydrogen is what's used to fuel rockets — that’s how powerful it is. In fact, it’s three times more powerful as a fuel than gas or other fossil-based sources. And, after use, it’s frequently converted to drinking water for astronauts.

US President Joe Biden has highlighted the potential of hydrogen in his ambitious plans for economic and climate recovery and a number of recent reports have been encouraging about hydrogen’s breakthrough moment, including McKinsey and Company (Road Map to a US Hydrogen Economy, 2020) and the International Energy Agency.

SCIblog - 11 March 2021 - Hydrogen Economy - image of a Hydrogen fuel cell

Hydrogen fuel cells provide a tantalising glimpse into our low-carbon future

The McKinsey report claims that, by 2030, the hydrogen sector could generate 700,000 jobs and $140bn in revenue, growing to 3.4 million jobs and $750bn by 2050. It also believes it could account for a 16% reduction in CO2 emissions, a 36% reduction in NOx emissions, and supply 14% of US energy demand.

So how does it work?

Simply put, hydrogen fuel cells combine hydrogen and oxygen atoms to produce electricity. The hydrogen reacts with oxygen across an electrochemical cell and produces electricity, water, and heat.

This is what gets supporters so excited. In theory, hydrogen is a limitless, incredibly powerful fuel source with no direct emissions of pollutants or greenhouse gases.

So what's the problem?

Right now, there are actually a few problems. The process relies on electrolysis and steam reforming, which are extremely expensive. The IEA estimates that to produce all of today’s dedicated hydrogen output from electricity would require 3,600TWh, more than the total annual electricity generation of the European Union.

Moreover, almost 95% of hydrogen currently is produced using fossil fuels such as methane, natural gas, or coal (this is called "grey hydrogen"). Its production is responsible for annual CO2 emissions equivalent to those of Indonesia and the United Kingdom combined. In addition, its low density makes it difficult to store and transport — it must be under high pressure at all times. It’s also well-known for being highly flammable — its use as a fuel has come a long way since the Hindenburg Disaster but the association still makes many people nervous.

SCIblog - 11 March 2021 - Hydrogen Economy - image of a Hydrogen fuel station in Hamburg

A Hydrogen refuelling station Hafencity in Hamburg, Germany. Infrastructure issues must be addressed if we are to see more hydrogen-fuelled vehicles on our roads. | Image credit: fritschk / Shutterstock.com

So there are quite a few problems. What’s the good news?

In the last few years, we've seen how rapidly investment, innovation, and infrastructure policy can completely transform individual renewable energy industries. For example, the IEA analysis believes the declining costs of renewables and the scaling up of hydrogen production could reduce the cost of producing hydrogen from renewable electricity 30% by 2030.

Some of the issues around expense could be resolved by mass manufacture of fuel cells, refuelling equipment, and electrolysers (which produce hydrogen from electricity and water), made more likely by the increased interest and urgency. Those same driving forces could improve infrastructural issues such as refuelling stations for private and commercial vehicles, although this is likely to require coordination between various stakeholders, including national and local governments, industry, and investors.

The significant gains in renewable energy mean that “green” hydrogen, where renewable electricity powers the electrolysis process, is within sight.

The IEA report makes clear that international co-operation is “vital” to progress quickly and successfully with hydrogen energy. R&D requires support, as do first movers in mitigating risks. Standards need to be harmonised, good practice shared, and existing international infrastructure built on (especially existing gas infrastructure).

If hydrogen can be as efficient and powerful a contributor to a green global energy mix as its proponents believe, then it's better to invest sooner rather than later. If that investment can help power a post-Covid economic recovery, even better.

Agrifood

Broad beans are an undemanding and valuable crop for all gardens. Probably originating in the Eastern Mediterranean and grown domestically since about 6,000BC, this plant was brought to Great Britain by the Romans.

Header image: a rich harvest of succulent broad beans for the table

Capable of tolerating most soil types and temperatures they provide successional fresh pickings from June to September. Early crops are grown from over-wintered sowings of cv Aquadulce. They are traditionally sown on All Souls Day on 2 November but milder autumns now cause too rapid germination and extension growth. Sowing is best now delayed until well into December. Juicy young broad bean seedlings offer pigeons a tasty winter snack, consequently protection with cloches or netting is vital insurance.

From late February onwards dwarf cultivars such as The Sutton or the more vigorous longer podded Meteor Vroma are used. Early cropping is promoted by growing the first batches of seedlings under protection in a glasshouse. Germinate the seed in propagating compost and grow the resultant seedlings until they have formed three to four prominent leaflets. Plant out into fertile, well-cultivated soil and protect with string or netting frameworks supported with bamboo canes to discourage bird damage.

SCIblog 8 March 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes

Young broad bean plants supported by string and bamboo canes

More supporting layers will be required as the plants grow and mature. Later sowings are made directly into the vegetable garden. As the plants begin flowering remove the apical buds and about two to three leaves. This deters invasions by the black bean aphid (Aphis fabae). Winged aphids detect the lighter green of upper foliage of broad beans and navigate towards them!

Allow the pods ample time for swelling and the development of bean seeds of up to 2cm diameter before picking. Beware, however, of over-mature beans since these are flavourless and lack succulence. Broad beans have multiple benefits in the garden and for our diets. They are legumes and hence the roots enter mutually beneficial relationships with nitrogen fixing bacteria. These bacteria are naturally present in most soils. They capture atmospheric nitrogen, converting it into nitrates which the plant utilises for growth. In return, the bacteria gain sources of carbohydrates from photosynthesis.

SCIblog 8 March 2021 - Geoff Dixon - image of Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria

Broad bean root carrying nodules formed around colonies of nitrogen fixing bacteria

Broad beans are pollinated by bees and other beneficial insects. They are good sources of pollen and nectar, encouraging biodiversity in the garden. Nutritionally, beans are high in protein, fibre, folate, Vitamin B and minerals such as manganese, phosphorus, magnesium and iron, therefore cultivating healthy living. Finally, they form extensive roots, improving soil structure, drainage and reserves of organic nitrogen. Truly gardeners’ friends!

Professor Geoff Dixon, author of Garden practices and their science (ISBN 978-1-138-20906-0) published by Routledge 2019.

Agrifood

Thinking of popping to your nearest specialist store for some sesame oil, turmeric, or soy? Some things haven't changed in 3,700 years, it turns out...

At least, that's what a growing new field of research, palaeoproteomics, suggests. Human mouths are full of bacteria, which continually petrify and form dental calculus — which can entrap and preserve tiny food particles. These remnants can be accessed and analysed thousands of years later, providing remarkable insight into the dietary habits of our ancestors.

Philip Stockhammer, an archaeologist at the Ludwig Maximilian University of Munich (LMU), has worked with Christina Warinner, a molecular archaeologist at Harvard University and the Max Planck Institute for the Science of Human History, and a team of researchers to apply this new method to the eastern Mediterranean, including the Bronze Age site of Megiddo and the Early Iron Age site of Tel Erani.

“Our high-resolution study of ancient proteins and plant residues from human dental calculus is the first of its kind to study the cuisines of the ancient Near East,” said Warinner, explaining its significance. “Our research demonstrates the great potential of these methods to detect foods that otherwise leave few archaeological traces. Dental calculus is such a valuable source of information about the lives of ancient peoples.”

SCIblog - 1 March 2021 - A trip to the Bronze Age dentist - image of woman's smile with perfect teeth

High-resolution analyses of ancient dental calculus have given us a whole new perspective on the diets of Bronze Age people.

The research team took samples from a range of individuals and analysed which food proteins and plant residues were preserved in their teeth. “This enables us to find traces of what a person ate,” said Stockhammer. “Anyone who does not practice good dental hygiene will still be telling us archaeologists what they have been eating thousands of years from now!”

Of course, it's not quite as simple as looking at the teeth of those who didn't thoroughly clean them nearly four millennia ago and hoping the proteins survived. “Interestingly, we find that allergy-associated proteins appear to be the most stable in human calculus”, remarked Ashley Scott, LMU biochemist and lead author. That might be because of the known thermostability of many allergens. For instance, the researchers were able to detect wheat via wheat gluten proteins, which they independently confirmed with a different method using a type of plant microfossil known as phytoliths.

This substance has previously been used to identify millet and date palm in the same area during the Bronze and Iron Ages but phytoliths are not plentiful or even present in many foods, which is why this research is so exciting — palaeoproteomics means foods that have left few other traces, such as sesame, can now be identified.

SCIblog - 1 March 2021 - A trip to the Bronze Age dentist - image of a pile of bananas

Research suggests that the humble banana was eaten throughout the Mediterranean far earlier than first thought.

The method has allowed the team to identify that people at these sites ate, among other things, sesame, turmeric, soy, and bananas far earlier than anyone had realised. “Exotic spices, fruits and oils from Asia had thus reached the Mediterranean several centuries, in some cases even millennia, earlier than had been previously thought,” explained Stockhammer.

The finds mean that we have direct evidence for a flourishing long-distance trade in fruits, spices, and oils, from East and South Asia to the Levant via Mesopotamia or Egypt as early as the second millennium BCE.

More than that, the analyses "provide crucial information on the spread of the banana around the world. No archaeological or written evidence had previously suggested such an early spread into the Mediterranean region,” according to Stockhammer (although the sudden appearance of bananas in West Africa a few centuries later has previously led archaeologists to believe that such a trade might have existed, this is the first evidence).

The team acknowledged that other explanations are possible, including that the individuals concerned had travelled to East or South Asia at some point but there is evidence for other trade in food and spices in the Eastern Mediterranean — for instance, we know Pharaoh Ramses II was buried with peppercorns from India in 1213 BCE.

But it certainly seems like some foods might have been popular in the Mediterranean for much longer than we realised, which might be an interesting thought to accompany you next time you add some spices or bananas to your shopping basket.

Sustainability & Environment

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) defines the Blue Economy as ‘all economic sectors that have a direct or indirect link to the oceans, such as marine energy, coastal tourism and marine biotechnology.’ Other organisations have their own definitions, but they all stress the economic and environmental importance of seas and oceans.

Header image: Our oceans are of economic and environmental importance

To this end there are a growing number of initiatives focused on not only protecting the world’s seas but promoting economic growth. At the start of 2021 the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the European Investment Bank (EIB) joined forces to support clean and sustainable ocean initiatives in the Asia-Pacific region, and ultimately contribute to achieving Sustainable Development Goals and the climate goals of the Paris Agreement.

Both institutions will finance activities aimed at promoting cleaner oceans ‘through the reduction of land-based plastics and other pollutants discharged into the ocean,’ as well as projects which improve the sustainability of all socioeconomic activities that take place in oceans, or that use ocean-based resources.

ADB Vice-President for Knowledge Management and Sustainable Development, Bambang Susantono, said ‘Healthy oceans are critical to life across Asia and the Pacific, providing food security and climate resilience for hundreds of millions of people. This Memorandum of Understanding between the ADB and EIB will launch a framework for cooperation on clean and sustainable oceans, helping us expand our pipeline of ocean projects in the region and widen their impacts’.

SCIblog - 23rd February 2021 - Blue Economy - image of trade port at sunrise

The blue economy is linked to green recovery

In the European Union the blue economy is strongly linked to the bloc’s green recovery initiatives. The EU Blue Economy Report, released during June 2020, indicated that the ‘EU blue economy is in good health.’ With five million people working in the blue economy sector during 2018, an increase of 11.6% on the previous year, ‘the blue economy as a whole presents a huge potential in terms of its contribution to a green recovery,’ the EU noted. As the report was launched, Mariya Gabriel, Commissioner for Innovation, Research, Culture, Education and Youth, responsible for the Joint Research Committee said; ‘We will make sure that research, innovation and education contribute to the transition towards a European Blue Economy.’

The impact of plastics in oceans is well known and many global initiatives are actively tackling the problem. At the end of 2020 the World Economic Forum and Vietnam announced a partnership to tackle plastic pollution and marine plastic debris. The initiative aims to help Vietnam ‘dramatically reduce its flow of plastic waste into the ocean and eliminate single-use plastics from coastal tourist destinations and protected areas.’ Meanwhile young people from across Africa were congratulated for taking leadership roles in their communities as part of the Tide Turners Plastic Challenge. Participants in the challenge have raised awareness of the impact of plastic pollution in general.

But it isn’t just the health of our oceans that governments and scientists are looking at. There is growing interest in the minerals and ore that could potentially be extracted via sea-bed mining. The European Commission says that the quantity of minerals occupying the ocean floor is potentially large, and while the sector is small, the activity has been identified as having the potential to generate sustainable growth and jobs for future generations. But adding a note of caution, the Commission says, ‘Our lack of knowledge of the deep-sea environment necessitates a careful approach.’ Work aimed at shedding light on the benefits, drawbacks and knowledge gaps associated with this type of mining is being undertaken.

With the push for cleaner energy and the use of batteries, demand for cobalt will rise, and the sea-bed looks to have a ready supply of the element. But, the World Economic Forum points out that the ethical dimensions of deep-sea cobalt have the potential to become contentious and pose legal and reputational risks for mining companies and those using cobalt sourced from the sea-bed.

SCIblog - 23rd February 2021 - Blue Economy - image of aerial view tidal power plant

Energy will continue to be harnessed from the sea.

But apart from its minerals, the ocean’s ability to supply energy will continue to be harnessed through avenues such as tidal and wind energy. During the final quarter of 2020, the UK Hydrographic Office launched an Admiralty Marine Innovation Programme. Led by the UK Hydrographic Office, the programme gives innovators and start-ups a chance to develop new solutions that solve some of the world’s most pressing challenges as related to our oceans.

The UK’s Blue Economy is estimated to be worth £3.2 trillion by the year 2030. Marine geospatial data will be important in supporting this growth by enabling the identification of new areas for tidal and wind energy generation, supporting safe navigation for larger autonomous ships, which will play a vital role in mitigating climate change, and more.

Energy

Where once a country might have wanted to strike gold, now hitting upon a hydrocarbon find feels like a prize. But finding a hydrocarbon is only the beginning of the process and might not be worth it — as Lebanon is discovering.

First, a little background: for some time, Lebanon has been experiencing an energy crisis. Without resources of their own, the industry (which is government-owned) is reliant on foreign imports, which are expensive. Electricity in early 2020 was responsible for almost 50% of Lebanon's national debt. Major blackouts were common.

This contributed to a spiralling financial crisis, prompting public protests and riots as the middle class disappeared and even wealthier citizens struggled. Before Covid-19 and the devastating August 2020 blast in Beirut, Lebanon was in crisis.

The idea that the country might be able to switch from foreign oil to local gas was understandably appealing, especially when a major find was literally right there on the Lebanese shore. In 2019, a consortium of Israeli and US firms discovered more than 8tcm of natural gas in several offshore fields in the Eastern Mediterranean, much of it in Lebanese waters.

SCIblog 22 February 2021 - Hydrocarbon resources - image of pigeon rocks raouche beirut lebanon

A hydrocarbon find off the Beirut coast has failed to live up to its early promise.

But a find is only the beginning. With trust in Lebanese politicians low (the country ranks highly in most government corruption indexes) and a system that has repeatedly struggled to deliver a stable government, there are additional difficulties, not least a delay in the licensing rounds and a lack of trust — both internally, from citizens, and externally, from potential bidders. Meanwhile, Lebanon's neighbours race ahead to exploit their own finds, which ratchets up tensions.

Amid all that, a drilling exploration managed to go ahead last summer. But the joint venture between Total, ENI, and Novatek, which operated a well 30km offshore Beirut and drilled to approximately 1,500 metres, did not bring back the hoped-for results. The results confirmed the presence of a hydrocarbon system generally but did not encounter any reservoirs of the Tamar formation, which was the target.

Offshore exploration is a long process, with a lot of challenges and uncertainties and Ricardo Darré, Managing Director of Total E&P Liban, said afterwards, "Despite the negative result, this well has provided valuable data and learnings that will be integrated into our evaluation of the area". But the faith national politicians have long put in the hydrocarbon find, selling it as an answer to all Lebanon's problems, seems to have only worsened the domestic situation since.

And domestic politics is just the start of the problems…

SCIblog 22 February 2021 - Hydrocarbon resources - image of oil pipeline desert qatar middle east

Unlike other countries in the Middle East, Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own.

Israel, Egypt, and Jordan already have pipelines, which go to Italy. Turkey is working with Libya on a pipeline. Lebanon has no pipeline infrastructure of its own yet, although Russia has storage facilities and pipelines in the country and an eye on possible competition in the gas market.

None of that is an issue if the supply is intended for domestic use but that might not be profitable enough for investors and the Lebanese government would struggle to underwrite production on its own. Cyprus has encountered similar issues exploiting its share of the find.

Lebanon has also set an ambitious goal of having 30% of domestic energy mix sourced from renewable energy by 2030. The hoped-for gas was intended to support the renewable energy mix but, with the clock ticking, it might be that priorities shift to focusing on renewables. The Covid-19 pandemic will significantly impact the budgets of drilling companies and the push for renewable energy, both from governments and investors, seems to be growing as a way to boost economic recovery.

It may be that, after all the excitement around the hydrocarbon find, Lebanon starts to look elsewhere for its energy provision.

Sustainability & Environment

The world’s biggest ever survey of public opinion on climate change was published on 27th January, covering 50 countries with over half of the world’s population, by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) and the University of Oxford. Of the respondents, 64% believe climate change is a global emergency, despite the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, and sought broader action to combat it. Earlier in the month, US President Joe Biden reaffirmed the country's commitment to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change.

It is possible that the momentum, combined with the difficulties many countries currently face, may make many look again to geoengineering as an approach. Is it likely that large scale engineering techniques could mitigate the damage of carbon emissions? And is it safe to do so or could we be exacerbating the problem?

The term has long been controversial, as have many of the suggested techniques. But it would seem that some approaches are gaining more mainstream interest, particularly Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR) and Solar Radiation Modification (SRM), which the 2018 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report for the UN suggested were worth further investigation (significantly, it did not use the term "geoengineering" and distinguished these two methods from others).

One of the most covered CDR techniques is Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) or Carbon Capture, Utilisation, and Storage (CCUS), the process of capturing waste carbon dioxide, usually from carbon intensive industries, and storing (or first re-using) it so it will not enter the atmosphere. Since 2017, after a period of declining investment, more than 30 new integrated CCUS facilities have been announced. However, there is concern among many that it will encourage further carbon emissions when the goal should be to reduce and use CCS to buy time to do so.

CDR techniques that utilise existing natural processes of natural repair, such as reforestation, agricultural practices that absorb carbon in soils, and ocean fertilisation are areas that many feel could and should be pursued on a large scale and would come with ecological and biodiversity benefits, as well as fostering a different, more beneficial relationship with local environments.

SCIblog - Geoengineering: how much can technology help us combat climate change? - image of a school of fish

A controversial iron compound deposition approach has been trialled to boost salmon numbers and biodiversity in the Pacific Ocean.

The ocean is a mostly untapped area with huge potential and iron fertilisation is one very promising area. The controversial Haida Salmon Corporation trial in 2012 is perhaps the most well-known example and brings together a lot of the pros and cons frequently discussed in geoengineering — in many ways, we can see it as a microcosm of the bigger issue.

The trial deposited 120 tonnes of iron compound in the migration routes of pink and sockeye salmon in the Pacific Ocean 300k west of Haida Gwaii over a period of 30 days, which resulted in a 35,000km2, several month long phytoplankton bloom that was confirmed by NASA satellite imagery. That phytoplankton bloom fed the local salmon population, revitalising it — the following year, the number of salmon caught in the northeast Pacific went from 50 million to 226 million. The local economy benefited, as did the biodiversity of the area, and the increased iron in the sea captured carbon (as did the biomass of fish, for their lifetimes).

SCIblog - Geoengineering: how much can technology help us combat climate change? - image of phytonplankton

Small but mighty, phytoplankton are the laborers of the ocean. They serve as the base of the food web.

But Environment Canada believes the corporation violated national environmental laws by depositing iron without a permit. Much of the fear around geoengineering is how much might be possible by rogue states or even rogue individuals, taking large scale action with global consequences without global consent.

The conversation around SRM has many similarities — who decides that the pros are worth the cons, when the people most likely to suffer the negative effects, with or without action, are already the most vulnerable? This is a concern of some of the leading experts in the field. Professor David Keith, an expert in the field, has publicly spoken about his concern around climate change and inequality, adding after the latest study that, "the poorest people tend to suffer most from climate change because they’re the most vulnerable. Reducing extreme weather benefits the most vulnerable the most. The only reason I’m interested in this is because of that."

But he doesn't believe anywhere near sufficient research has been done into the viability of the approach or the possible consequences and cautions that there is a need for "an adequate governance system in place".

There is no doubt that the research in this field is exciting but there are serious ethical and governance problems to be dealt with before it can be considered a serious component of an emissions reduction strategy.

Energy

We are increasingly conscious of the need to recycle waste products, but it is never quite so easy as rinsing and sorting your waste into the appropriate bins, especially when it comes to plastic.

Despite our best intentions, only around 16% of plastic is recycled into new products — and, worse, plastics tend to be recycled into low quality materials because transformation into high-value chemicals requires substantial amounts of energy, meaning the choices are either downcycling or prohibitively difficult. The majority of single-use plastics end up in landfills or abandoned in the environment.

This is a particular problem when it comes to polyolefins such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP), which use cheap and readily available raw materials. Approximately 380 million tonnes of plastics are generated annually around the world and it is estimated that, by 2050, that figure will be 1.1 billion tonnes. Currently, 57% of this total are polyolefins.

Why are polyolefins an issue? The strong sp3 carbon–carbon bonds (essentially long, straight chains of carbon and hydrogen atoms) that make them useful as a material also make them particularly difficult to degrade and reuse without intensive, high energy procedures or strong chemicals. More than most plastics, downcycling or landfill disposal tend to be the main end-of-life options for polyolefins.

SCIblog 11 February 2021 - image of plastic waste in nature

Polyethylene is used to make plastic bags and packaging.

Now, however, a team of scientists from MIT, led by Yuriy Román-Leshkov, believe they may have made a significant step towards solving this problem.

Previous research has demonstrated that noble metals, such as zirconium, platinum, and ruthenium can help split apart short, simple hydrocarbon chains as well as more complicated, but plant-based lignin molecules, in processes with much lower temperatures and energy.

So the team looked at using the same approach for the long hydrocarbon chains in polyolefins, aiming to disintegrate the plastics into usable chemicals and natural gas. It worked.

First, they used ruthenium-carbon nanoparticles to convert more than 90% of the hydrocarbons into shorter compounds at 200 Celsius (previously, temperatures of 430–760 Celsius were required).

Next, they tested their new method on commercially available, more complex polyolefins without pre-treatment (an energy intensive requirement). Not only were the samples completely broken down into gaseous and liquid products, the end product could be selected by tuning the reaction, yielding either natural gas or a combination of natural gas and liquid alkanes (both highly desirable) as preferred.

SCIblog 11 February 2021 - image of plastic bottles on a beach

Polypropylene is used in bottle caps, houseware, and other packaging and consumer products.

The researchers believe that an industrial scale use of their method could eventually help reduce the volume of post-consumer waste in landfills by recycling plastics to desirable, highly valuable alkanes — but, of course, it's not that simple. The team says that more research into the effects of moisture and contaminants in the process is required, as well as product removal strategies to decrease the formation of light alkanes which will be critical for the industrialisation of this reaction.

However, they believe the path they're on could lead to affordable upcycling technology that would better integrate polyolefins into the global economy and incentivise the removal of waste plastics from landfill and the environment.

More about the study can be read here:
https://pubs.acs.org/doi/full/10.1021/jacsau.0c00041

Policy

The theme of the 2021 World Economic Forum’s Davos Agenda was ‘The Great Reset’ and how the world might recover from the effects of Covid-19. Because of the current circumstances, the forum was split into two parts, with a virtual meeting held January 25-29 and an in-person gathering planned for May 13-16, in Singapore.

Each day of the January summit was dedicated to discussing a key area for recovery. On Monday, January 25, the focus was on designing cohesive, sustainable and resilient economic systems. On Tuesday, delegates discussed how to drive responsible industry transformation and growth, while on Wednesday they spoke about enhancing the stewardship of our global commons. Thursday's talks centred on harnessing the technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, and on Friday attendees discussed ways to advance global and regional cooperation.

With the International Labor Organization jobs report, published at the start of the week, stating that at least 225 million jobs vanished worldwide over the past year (four times more than the 2008 global financial crisis) and concerns that vaccine nationalism will see the pandemic continue to ravage many less wealthy nations, much of the talk was around equality and unity.

Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, spoke in Monday's meeting. ‘Once we’re through to the "second phase" of the 2021 Covid-19 recovery,’ Lagarde said, ‘it is most likely going to be a new economy, which will be associated with positive developments and also with challenges.’ Many advanced economies, she noted, particularly in Europe, have jumped forward in terms of digitalisation, some by up to seven years.

SCIblog 9 February 2021 - Davos 2021 - image of Christine Lagarde

Christine Lagarde, President of the European Central Bank, has called for continued support for the digital-centred, post-pandemic economy. | Credit: Alexandros Michailidis / Shutterstock.com

She added that it is likely that there will be a 20% increase in the amount of people working from home post-pandemic, which will have an impact on many economies, and claimed that technological changes are already having positive effects. She said that it is critical to continue ‘favouring and supporting investment into this new economy’ and that on the fiscal and monetary policy front, authorities will have to stay the course and continue to support. At the same time, investment will have to be focused on laying the ground for a new economy.

Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission (EC), agreed about the increase in digitalisation, and reported that the EU hopes ‘the 2020s can finally be Europe’s Digital Decade’, highlighting a number of investments to boost this process, including the startup scenes in cities such as Sofia and Lisbon.

However, she warned that there is a ‘darker side of the digital world,’ noting the assault on Capitol Hill in the US and making clear that ‘The immense power of the big digital companies must be contained. She spoke of the EC's plans ‘to make internet companies take responsibility for content, from dissemination to promotion and removal, and highlighted the Commission’s new rulebooks, the Digital Services Act and the Digital Markets Act.

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Ursula von der Leyen, President of the European Commission, believes the 2020s can be Europe’s ‘Digital Decade’. | Credit: John Smith Williams / Shutterstock.com

She invited the US to work together to: ‘Create a digital economy rulebook that is valid worldwide: it goes from data protection and privacy to the security of critical infrastructure. A body of rules based on our values: Human rights and pluralism, inclusion and the protection of privacy.’

Marc Benioff, Salesforce CEO, made a noteworthy intervention in his panel discussion, claiming, ‘There has been a mantra for too long that the business of business is business, but today the business of business is improving the state of the world.’ He added that, while there were many CEOs who had been ‘bad actors,’ others had used their considerable resources to help fight the pandemic.

Many speakers noted a shift towards sustainability in investments, with others demanding more change and faster. Of the latter, Mark Carney, Special Envoy for Climate Action and Finance to the UN, said bluntly, ‘if you are part of the private financial sector and you are not part of the solution […] you will have made the conscious decision not to be aligned to net zero […] if you’re not in, you’re out because you chose to be out.’

It could be concluded that there was a great deal to feel positive about, but the circumstances are difficult. Now we will see whether the attendees of the World Economic Forum can deliver on their inspiring rhetoric.

Science & Innovation

The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) has published its Science Technology and Innovation Outlook 2021: Time of Crises and Opportunity report.

Published at the beginning of 2021, the report focuses on the ‘unparalleled mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community’ in response to the covid-19 pandemic. The report indicates that newly funded research initiatives have been established by public research agencies and organisations, private foundations and charities, while the health sector has similarly invested in an array of research programmes worth billions of dollars in record time.

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The pandemic has led an unprecedented mobilisation of the scientific and innovation community

However, the report also exposes gaps in overall system resilience to future crises. ‘It’s a wake-up call that highlights the need to recalibrate science, technology and innovation (STI) policies, so that they better orient research and innovation efforts towards sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency goals,’ the report asserts.

Highlighting the rapid response by governments around the world, the report indicates that in the first few months of the pandemic, national research funding bodies spent around $5 billion on emergency financial support. This includes $300 million in Asia-Pacific, excluding China, over $850 million in Europe and more than $3.5 billion in North America. At the same time, research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020, the report says. The largest share came from the US, followed by China and the UK. Research databases and scientific publishers removed paywalls so that covid-19 related information could be quickly shared.

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Research efforts led to around 75,000 scientific publications on covid-19 being released between January and November 2020

‘These developments mark important changes that could accelerate the transition to a more open science in the longer run,’ the report says. It is also noted that not only have researchers continued their work with more than three quarters of scientists indicating that they had shifted to working from home at some point in 2020, but almost two thirds experienced, or expected to see, an increase in the use of digital tools for research as a consequence of the crisis. The report also mentions the contribution of the general public, with so called ‘frugal innovations’ in response to shortages of medical equipment and emergency supplies.

Looking to the future of the research community, the report says that postgraduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths. ‘The crisis has shown that the need for STI expertise is not limited to the public laboratory; it is also important for business, government and NGOs […] Reforming PhD and post-doctoral training to support a diversity of career paths is essential for improving societies’ ability to react to crises like covid-19 and to deal with long-term challenges like climate change that demand science-based responses […] There has been a 25% increase in the number of people with PhDs in OECD countries over the past decade with no corresponding increase in academic posts. The pandemic is expected to make matters worse, more than half of the scientists participating in the OECD Science Flash Survey expect the crisis to negatively affect their job security and career opportunities,’ the report says.

SCIblog 4th January 2021 - image of young scientists in a laboratory

Post-graduate training regimes require reform to support a diversity of career paths

While still in the midst of the pandemic, the report stresses that STI policies now need to be reoriented to tackle the challenges of sustainability, inclusivity and resiliency. ‘In the short-term governments should continue their support for science and innovation activities that aim to develop solutions to the pandemic and mitigate its negative impacts, while paying attention to its uneven distributional effects. Science for policy will remain in the spotlight as governments seek to strike the right balance in their response to covid-19. This will effect public perceptions of science that could have long term implications for science-society relations.’

The report concludes that governments now have the task of developing public sector capabilities to deliver more ambitious STI policy. This will require engagement from stakeholders and citizens in order to capture a diversity of knowledge and values.

DOI:10.1787/75f79015-en

Science & Innovation

Galen (129-216 CE) is one of the most famous and influential medical practitioners in history but he was also a scientist, an author, a philosopher, and a celebrity. He wrote hundreds of treatises, travelled and studied widely, was the physician to three emperors, and left a legacy of scientific thought that lasted for fifteen hundred years — even today, his work has an influence.

Header image Editorial credit: Eray Adiguzel / Shutterstock.com

He grew up in Pergamum, an intellectual centre of the Mediterranean world, in a wealthy family that encouraged him to pursue academia and funded his travels to learn in the best environments available, acquiring the latest techniques in medicine and healing.

He understood that diet, exercise, and hygiene were essential for good health and put that into practice in the four years he spent working for the High Priest of Pergamum's Gladiator School. This was a high profile and high pressure role and we know he reduced the death rate dramatically in his four years there. The recommendation he got helped secure him a position in Rome, capital of the empire.

He was not popular in the city — at one point, he seems to have been chased out by the local physicians, who strenuously disagreed with his methods — but he was eventually summoned by the emperor Marcus Aurelius to be his personal physician. He was described by the emperor as, “First among doctors and unique among philosophers".

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Galen; Line engraving | Credit: Wellcome Images, Wikimedia Commons

Galen continued to navigate the difficult political environment of the imperial capital and was personal physician to two more emperors, while publishing prolifically and becoming one of the most well-known figures in the Roman Empire. Much of his work is lost to us but we still know a great deal about him, including that he had a flair for showmanship and controversy.

In the Greek world where he grew up, dissections had been common — of animals and humans. In Rome, this was not the case. In fact, human dissections were banned across the empire shortly before Galen arrived in the city. Undaunted, he gave a number of public anatomical demonstrations using pigs, monkeys, sheep, and goats to show his new city what they were missing (this was one of many incidents that contributed to local dislike of his methods as well as his increasing fame).

His legacy was huge, both because he recorded and critiqued the work of others in his field and because of the huge volumes of his own observations and theories. His texts were the foundation for much of medical education in the Islamic, Byzantine, and European worlds until the 17th Century.

The ban on human dissection likely limited his progress in some areas and many of his theories have (eventually) been disproved, such as the theory of the four humours — blood, black bile, yellow bile, and phlegm — based on Hippocrates' system and elaborated, as well as the efficacy of bloodletting.

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Galen observed that cataracts could be removed.

In other areas, however, he was remarkably successful. He observed that the heart has four valves that allow blood to flow in only one direction, that a patient's pulse or urine held clues to their disease, that urine forms in kidneys (previously thought to be the bladder), that arteries carry liquid blood (previously thought to be air), that cataracts could be removed from patients' eyes, among others. He also identified seven of the 12 cranial nerves, including the optic and acoustic nerves.

His focus on practical methods such as direct observation, dissection, and vivisection is obviously still relevant to modern medical research. Indeed, scientists who disproved his theories, such as Andreas Vesalius and Michael Servetus in the 16th century, did so using Galen's own methods.

The study of his work remains hugely important to the history and understanding of medicine and science, as well as the ancient world. The Galenic formulation, which deals with the principles of preparing and compounding medicines in order to optimise their absorption, is named after him.

Agrifood

More people are looking at their nutritional intake, not only to improve wellbeing but also reduce their environmental impact. With this, comes a move to include foods that are not traditionally cultivated or consumed in Europe.

Assessing whether this growing volume of so called ‘novel foods’ are safe for human consumption is the task of the European Food Safety Authority. The EFSA points out, ‘The notion of novel food is not new. Throughout history new types of food and food ingredients have found their way to Europe from all corners of the globe. Bananas, tomatoes, tropical fruit, maize, rice, a wide range of spices – all originally came to Europe as novel foods. Among the most recent arrivals are chia seeds, algae-based foods, baobab fruit and physalis.’

Under EU regulations any food not consumed ‘significantly’ prior to May 1997 is considered to be a ‘novel food’. The category covers new foods, food from new sources, new substances used in food as well as new ways and technologies for producing food. Examples include oils rich in omega-3 fatty acids from krill as a new source of food, phytosterols as a new substance, or nanotechnology as a new way of producing food.

Providing a final assessment on safety and efficacy of a novel food is a time consuming process. At the start of 2021 the EFSA gave its first completed assessment of a proposed insect-derived food product. The panel on Nutrition, Novel Foods and Food Allergens concluded that the novel food dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption.

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Dried yellow meal worm (Tenebrio molitor larva) is safe for human consumption, according to the EFSA.

Commenting in a press statement, as the opinion on insect novel food was released, Ermolaos Ververis, a chemist and food scientist at EFSA who coordinated the assessment said that evaluating the safety of insects for human consumption has its challenges. ‘Insects are complex organisms which makes characterising the composition of insect-derived products a challenge. Understanding their microbiology is paramount, considering also that the entire insect is consumed,’

Ververis added, ‘Formulations from insects may be high in protein, although the true protein levels can be overestimated when the substance chitin, a major component of insects’ exoskeleton, is present. Critically, many food allergies are linked to proteins so we assess whether the consumption of insects could trigger any allergic reactions. These can be caused by an individual’s sensitivity to insect proteins, cross-reactivity with other allergens or residual allergens from insect feed, e.g. gluten.’

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EFSA research could lead to increased choice for consumers | Editorial credit: Raf Quintero / Shutterstock.com

The EFSA has an extensive list of novel foods to assess. These include dried crickets (Gryllodes sigillatus), olive leaf extract, and vitamin D2 mushroom powder. With the increasing desire to find alternatives to the many foods that we consume on a regular basis, particularly meat, it is likely that the EFSA will be busy for some time to come.

Sustainability & Environment

Gardens and parks provide visual evidence of climate change. Regular observation shows us that our flowering bulbous plants are emerging, growing and flowering. Great Britain is particularly rich in long term recordings of dates of budbreak, growth and flowering of trees, shrubs and perennial herbaceous plants. Until recently, this was dismissed as ‘stamp collecting by Victorian ladies and clerics’.

The science of phenology now provides vital evidence that quantifies the scale and rapidity of climate change. Serious scientific evidence of the impact of climate change comes, for example, from an analysis of 29,500 phenological datasets. This research shows that plants and animals are responding consistently to temperature change with earlier blooming, leaf unfurling, flowering and migration. This scale of change has not been seen on Earth for the past three quarters of a million years. And this time it is happening with increased rapidity and is caused by the activities of a single species – US – humans!

 2 iris

Iris unguicularis (stylosa). 

Changing seasonal cycles seriously affects our gardens. Fruit trees bloom earlier than previously and are potentially out of synchrony with pollinators. That results in irregular, poor fruit set and low yields. Climate change is causing increased variability in weather events. This is particularly damaging when short, very sharp periods of freezing weather coincide with precious bud bursts and shoot growth. Many early flowering trees and shrubs are incapable of replacing damaged buds, as a result a whole season’s worth of growth is lost. Damaged buds and shoots are more easily invaded by fungi which cause diseases such as dieback and rotting. Eventually valuable feature plants fail, damaging the garden’s benefits for enjoyment and relaxation. 

Plant diseases caused by fungi and bacteria benefit from our increasingly milder, damper winters. Previously, cooling temperatures in the autumn and winter frosts prevented these microbes from over-wintering. Now they are surviving and thriving in the warmer conditions. This is especially the case with soil borne microbes such as those which cause clubroot of brassicas and white rot, which affects a wide range of garden crops.

 3 Hazel

Hazel (Coryllus spp.) typical wind-pollinated yellow male catkins, which produce pollen.

Can gardeners help mitigate climate change? Of course! Grow flowering plants which are bee friendly; minimise using chemical controls; ban bonfires – which are excellent sources of CO2; establish wildlife-friendly areas filled with native plants and pieces of rotting wood, and it is amazing how quickly beneficial insects, slow worms and voles will populate your garden.

Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.

Health & Wellbeing

A year after the world was put on alert about the rapidly spreading covid-19 virus, mass vaccination programmes are providing a welcome light at the end of the tunnel.

However, for many people vaccination remains a concern. A World Economic Forum – Ipsos survey: Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine, indicates that while an increasing number of people in the US and UK plan to get vaccinated, the intent has dropped in South Africa, France, Japan and South Korea. The survey was conducted in December 2020, following the first vaccinations in the US and the UK.

This study shows that overall vaccination intent is below 50% in France and Russia. ‘Strong intent’ is below 15% in Japan, France and Russia.

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Many cities are still in lockdown

Between 57% and 80% of those surveyed cited concerns over side effects as a reason for not getting a covid-19 vaccination. Doubts over the effectiveness of a vaccine was the second most common reason cited in many countries, while opposition to vaccines in general was mentioned by around 25% those who will refuse a vaccination.

The survey was conducted among 13,542 adults aged 18–74 in Canada, South Africa, and the US, while those surveyed in Australia, Brazil, China, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, Russia, South Korea, Spain and the UK were aged 16–74.

A previous survey, Global Attitudes on a Covid-19 Vaccine carried out in July and August 2020, indicated that 74% of those surveyed intended to get vaccinated. At that time the World Economic Forum said that this majority could still fall short of the number required to ‘beat covid-19.’

Commenting on the newest data Arnaud Bernaert, Head of Health and Healthcare at the World Economic Forum said; ‘As vaccinations roll out, it is encouraging to see confidence improve most in countries where vaccines are already made available. It is critical that governments and the private sector come together to build confidence and ensure that manufacturing capacity meets the global demand.’

SCIblog 19 January 2021 - image of and elderly woman receiving a vaccine 

World Economic Forum-Ipsos Survey indicates a rise in number of people in US and UK intending to get vaccinated.

With the imperative now to move towards some sort of ‘normality’, as well as getting economies moving, fears over vaccination need to be allayed. However, what also needs to be considered is what underlies those fears. Misinformation, no doubt, has a part to play. This highlights a lack of trust in governments and a sector that has worked tirelessly to develop vaccines in record time.

As different companies bring their vaccines to the market, care now needs to be taken to reassure people around the world that whichever manufacturer’s vaccine they are given, they are in safe hands. As any adverse reactions occur – an inevitability with any vaccine rollout – these ought to be made known to the wider public by companies and governments as soon as it is feasible, preventing space for the spread of rumour and misinformation, which could undo the hard work of the scientists, businesses and governments bringing vaccines to the public.

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Researchers have worked tirelessly to bring vaccines to the market

Policy

Waking up after a night of overindulgence on food and wine and realising you don’t have a headache is very satisfying. But realising, soon afterwards, you have heartburn can bring your mood down rapidly.

After years of discussion and argument around Brexit, the UK woke up to find that a Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU been reached. A major headache had been avoided.

SCIblog - 14 January 2021 - 2021: ‘A year to look forward to.’ - image of a woman from the back, she is looking out over landscape 

UK Businesses have a new trading landscape

However, the UK chemicals sector soon realised that after pulling back the curtains and taking a look at the new trading landscape, a feeling of heartburn was rising. The chemical sector’s regulatory obligation now requires that it establishes a UK-REACH system. The deal negotiated means that the UK has no access to the data it submitted to the EU’s REACH database.

In effect, the UK chemical sector has to populate the UK-REACH system from scratch. This will require an array of steps possibly including testing and renegotiating data sharing with other companies. According to the Chief Executive of the Chemical Industries Association (CIA), Steve Elliot, this is set to burn a £1 billion hole in the UK chemical sector’s pocket.

‘Failure to secure access to what has been a decade’s worth of investment by UK chemical businesses in data for EU REACH will leave the industry facing a bill of more than £1 billion in unnecessarily duplicating that work for a new UK regime,’ said Elliot in a statement on 24 December 2020, the day that the UK government excitedly announced the new trade deal.

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UK-REACH could cost more than £1 billion

As a slightly belated Christmas gift, and perhaps just taking the edge off the heartburn, the UK government’s Environment Minister, Rebecca Pow announced, on 31 December, that the UK-REACH IT system was up and running. Pow said that the government had worked closely with partners, industry and stakeholders developing the IT system to manage the UK’s chemicals industry.

‘Having our own independent chemicals regulatory framework will ensure that we make decisions that best reflect the UK’s needs while maintaining some of the highest chemical standards in the world,’ she said.

But will these high standards do what REACH was set up for in the first place, and protect human health and the environment? According to CHEM Trust, a UK-German charity focused on preventing man-made chemicals from causing long term damage to wildlife or humans, the deal does not go far enough.

Critiquing the outcome, Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust said, ‘CHEM Trust’s initial assessment is that this agreement does not adequately protect human health and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals. This is because it doesn’t retain UK access to the EU’s chemicals regulation system REACH. The agreement includes an annex on chemicals, but does not facilitate the type of close cooperation with the EU post-Brexit that civil society groups such as CHEM Trust, and also the chemicals and other industries are seeking.’

But on a positive note, Warhurst added; ‘The deal […] commits the UK to not regress from current levels of protection, includes a rebalancing procedure which could increase protection on both sides and offers a platform on which a closer partnership could be negotiated in the future.’

No one doubts that there is still much to be digested, along with those left over Christmas chocolates that nobody really likes, regarding the UK-EU Free Trade Agreement. ‘Although this Free Trade Agreement represents a mixed bag for our industry,’ said the CIA’s Elliot, ‘we shouldn’t underestimate the huge value that a deal brings in terms of certainty.’

SCIblog - 14 January 2021 - 2021: ‘A year to look forward to.’ - image of a plant with a sign saying 'Growth 2021' 

2021: A year to look forward to

As people return to their desks after the Christmas break, one might dare to hope that the heartburn can be quelled with a dose of optimism after the challenging year that has just passed. With this as a basis, along with eventually emerging from the global pandemic, Elliot believes 2021 should be ‘a year to look forward to’.

Agrifood

Understanding organisms’ capabilities of sensing environmental changes such as increasing or declining temperature is becomes ever more important. Deciduous woody trees and shrubs growing in cool temperate and sub-arctic regions enter quiescent or dormant states as protection against freezing temperatures.

These plants pass through a two-stage process. Firstly, they gradually acclimatise (or 'acclimate', in the USA) where lowering temperatures encourage capacities for withstanding cold. This is a reversible process and if there is a spell of milder weather the acclimatisation state is lost. This can happen, for instance, with a fine spell of 'Indian summer' in October or even early November.

winter weather and dormant trees

Winter weather and dormant trees. All images by Geoff Dixon

Where acclimation is broken, plants become susceptible to cold-induced damage again. If acclimation continues, however, plants eventually become fully dormant. This is not a reversible state and only ends after substantial periods of warming weather and increasing day-length. Some plants will require an accumulation of 'cold-units' – ie, temperatures below a specific level before dormancy is broken.

Detailed research information is accumulating to describe how acclimatisation develops. Changes take place that strengthen cell membranes, possibly by increasing the bonding in lipid molecules, and causing alterations in respiration rates, enzyme activities and hormone levels.

non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back) 

Non-acclimatised azalea (front), acclimatised azalea (back).

Leaves in a non-acclimated state will leak cellular fluids when they are chilled, whereas acclimated leaves are undamaged. These processes result from an interaction between genotype and the environment. Cascades of genes come into play during acclimation and dormancy. 

The genus Rhododendron offers a model for studies of these states. Some species originate from alpine environments, such as R. hirsutum coming from the European Alps and one of the first English garden 'rhodos'. By contrast, plants of R. vireya come from tropical areas such as the East Indies.        

comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7oC 

Comparing the leakage of cellular fluids in acclimatised and non-acclimatised rhododendron leaves subjected to -7°C

Practical outcomes from studies of acclimation and dormancy are twofold. Firstly, are there substances that could be sprayed onto cold susceptible crops, eg potatoes or cauliflowers, that prevent damage? This is so-called 'anti-freeze chemistry'. Some studies suggest that spraying seaweed extracts will dimmish damage. The downside of this approach is that rain washes off the application. Secondly, identifying genes which increase cold hardiness offers possibilities for their transfer into susceptible crops. Gene-editing techniques may offer means of tweaking existing cold-hardiness genes in susceptible crops. 

Professor Geoff Dixon is the author of Garden Practices and their Science, published by Routledge 2019.

Agrifood

Today we chat to Joe Oddy about his life as a Plant Sciences PhD Student at Rothamsted Research.  

Joe Oddy 

Give us a summary of your research, Joe!

I study how levels of the amino acid asparagine in wheat are controlled by genetics and the environment. Asparagine levels in wheat grain determine the levels of acrylamide, a probable carcinogen, in certain foods. We are hoping to better understand the biology of asparagine to mitigate this risk.

What does a day in the life of a Plant Sciences PhD Student look like?

My schedule is quite variable depending on what analysis I am doing. I could have whole days in the lab doing molecular work or whole days at the computer analysing and writing up data. Most of the time it is probably somewhere in between!

via GIPHY

How did your education prepare you for this experience?  

I think I had a good grounding in basic principles from my undergraduate degree, but the training they gave in R stands out as being particularly useful. In my degree program I also worked for a year in research, which really helped prepare me for this kind of project work.

What are some of the highlights so far?

Being able to go outside to check plants in the field or in the glasshouse makes a nice break if you have been doing computer work all day! Finishing up some analysis after a lot of data collection is also quite cathartic, as long as it works…

What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?

In my project so far, the biggest challenge has just been trying to decide what research questions to focus on since there are so many interesting options available. I realise I am probably quite fortunate to have this be my biggest challenge!

What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?

My undergraduate university actually gave me this advice. They said that the most important part of choosing a project was not the university or the project itself, but the supervisor. I think this is true in a lot of cases, and at least for me.

via GIPHY

How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?

I wasn’t able to go into the labs for a while but thankfully my plants in the field and glasshouse were maintained. By the time they finished growing the lockdown had been partially eased. At last, a long growing season has helped rather than hindered a PhD project.

What are you hoping to do after your research?

I’d like to go into research either in academia or industry, but beyond that I’m not sure. The landscape is always changing and I would probably be open to anything that seems interesting!

Joe Oddy is a PhD Student at Rothamsted Research and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Agriscences Committee

Agrifood

Fertile soils teem with life of all shapes and sizes, from badgers and moles to insects and the most minute microbes, forming an intricate web of life. Each plays its part – earthworms, for example, burrow through soils opening out channels that improve aeration and water percolation. They are, in Charles Darwin’s words, ‘nature’s ploughs’. 

Microbes are quite probably the largest biomass, certainly numerically. The great majority form beneficial relationships with plants, relatively few are pathogens capable of causing crop diseases. Some of the most beneficial are nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which form symbiotic associations with the roots of legumes (clovers, peas and beans). 

Their nitrogenase enzymes are capable of combining atmospheric nitrogen with hydrogen-forming ammonia. Followed by conversion into nitrites and nitrates which are made available for the host plant in exchange for carbohydrates, sources of energy for the microbes. The presence of these bacteria is indicated by white nodules on the roots of legumes.

 Another picture of soil for the SCI blog

The white nodules on the roots of legumes indicate the presence of nitrogen-fixing bacteria, which provide nourishment to microbes in the soil.

The fungi mycorrhizae also form associations with plant roots. These may form sheaths wrapping round the root, ecto-mycorhizea, or penetrate into the root cortex as endo-mycorrhizea, working in close association with host cells. Mycorrhizae solubilise soil deposits of phosphates and other minerals, making them available for the host. They also provide protection from root-invading plant pathogens. 

These fungi utilise carbohydrates supplied by their hosts as energy sources in a similar manner to nitrogen fixing bacteria. Mutualistic mycorrhizal associations are found across most higher plant families with the key exception of the brassicas. This exception quite probably relates to production of the iso-thiocyanate mustard oil, which is fungi-toxic, in brassica roots.

A picture of soil for the SCI blog

Farmyard manure and compost stimulate soil health by introducing beneficial microbes.

Benefits from nitrogen-fixing bacteria and mycorrhizal fungi were recognised by 19th century agronomists. Much more recently, science has begun uncovering the biological capital of myriad microbes present in healthy soils. Research is being stimulated by recognition of the need for sustainable forms of crop husbandry that utilise ecologically sound techniques in integrated management. 

Soil health can be stimulated by incorporation of farmyard manure or well composted green wastes, both containing huge populations of beneficial microbes. The critical importance of building and maintaining healthy soils cannot be over-emphasised. Quite simply, our food supplies depend upon it.

Interested in soil health? Why not register for free to attend the 2020 Bright SCIdea Challenge final? One of the teams in this year’s final are pitching their method to restore the fertility of heavy metal ion rich farmland and increase crop yields.









Agrifood

The conference ‘Feeding the future: can we protect crops sustainably?’ was a tremendous success from the point of view of the technical content. The outcomes have been summarised in a series of articles here. How did such an event come about and what can we learn about putting on an event like this in a world of Covid?

This event was born from two parents. The first was a vision and the second was collaboration.

The vision began in the SCI Agrisciences committee. We had organised a series of events in the previous few years, all linking to the general theme of challenges to overcome in food sustainability. Our events had dealt with the use of data, the challenge of climate change and the future of livestock production. Our intention was to build on this legacy using the International Year of Plant Health as inspiration and provide a comprehensive event, at the SCI headquarters in London, covering every element of crop protection and what it will look like in the future. We wanted to make a networking hub, a place to share ideas and make connections, where new lines of research and development would be sparked into life. Well, then came Covid…

 international year of plant health 2020

 

2020 is the International Year of Plant Health.

From the start, we knew in the Agrisciences group that this was going to be too much for us alone. Our first collaboration was within the SCI, the Horticulture Group and the Food Group. Outside of the SCI, we wanted collaborators who are research-active, with wide capabilities and people who really care about the future of crop protection. Having discussed a few options, we approached the Institute of Agriculture and Food Research and Innovation, IAFRI and later Crop Health and Protection, CHAP.

By February 2020, we had our full team of organisers and about half of our agenda all arranged. By March we didn’t know what to do, delay or virtualise? The debate went back and forth for several weeks as we all got to grips with the true meaning of lockdown. When we chose to virtualise, suddenly we had to relearn all we knew about organising events. Both CHAP and SCI started running other events and building up their experience. With this experience came sound advice on what makes a good event: Don’t let it drag; Keep everything snappy; Make sure that your speakers are the very best; Firm and direct chairing. We created a whole new agenda, based around these ideas.

 A picture of people networking 

How do you replicate those chance meetings facilitated by face-to-face events?

That still left one problem: how do you reproduce those extra bits that you get in a real conference? Those times in the coffee queue when you happen across your future collaborator? Maybe your future business partner is looking at the same poster as you are? It is a bit like luck, but facilitated.

We resolved this conundrum with four informal parallel sessions. So we still had student posters but in the form of micro-presentations. We engineered discussions between students and senior members of our industry. We tried to recreate a commercial exhibition where you watched as top companies showed off their latest inventions. For those who would love to go on a field trip, we offered virtual guided tours of some of the research facilities operated by CHAP.

Can virtual conferences take the place of real ones? They are clearly not the same, as nothing beats looking directly into someone’s eyes. But on the plus side, they are cheaper to put on and present a lower barrier for delegates to get involved. I am looking forward to a post-Covid world when we can all meet again, but in the meantime we can put on engaging and exciting events that deliver a lot of learning and opportunity in a virtual space.

Feeding the Future was organised by:

James Garratt, SCI Agrisciences

John Points, SCI Food

Liliya Serazetdinoza, SCI Agrisciences

Robin Blake, SCI Agrisciences

Bruce Knight, SCI Agrisciences

Sebastian Eves-van den Acker, SCI Horticulture

Neil Boonham, IAFRI Newcastle University

Katherine Wotherspoon, IAFRI FERA

Darren Hassall, CHAP

Technical and administrative support was provided by:

JacquI Maguire, SCI

Shadé Bull, SCI

Theo Echarte, SCI

Sandy Sevenne, CHAP

Claire Boston-Smithson, IAFRI FERA

Guest chairs and moderators were:

Rob Edwards, Newcastle University

Ruth Bastow, CHAP

Richard Glass, CHAP



Careers

My research aims to help farmers in the tropics whilst discovering how plants, pests and microbes interact. Brambles, biological control organisms, bananas and now, sweet potatoes.

I joined SCI after receiving the David Miller Travel Bursary to attend the International Banana Congress in Miami in 2019. Now, I am the new Secretary of the Horticulture committee and I am part of the Agri-Food Early Careers  Committee.

Undergraduate Beginnings

started my undergraduate studies in Marine Biology as a bit of rebellion against my plant pathologist father. After living with Nepalese farmers in 2017, I switched universities to study Plant Biology. Last year, I started an PhD to work with a banana disease in Costa Rica, but I decided to exit the Doctoral Training Program with an MRes due to concerns about the lab environment. Next week, I will (re)start my PhD at the University of Southampton which will involve working with subsistence farmers in Papua New Guinea.

It sounds like my life is a bit of a roller-coaster. It is. I love it.

 

 Juniper with other students

 

In 2017, another scholarship took Juniper to Nepal to visit plant clinics and live with farmers.

Whilst I received “Top Student” awards for graduating with a high average – I never really studied from textbooks. I worked as a technician in labs and attended as many conferences as I could with scholarships. Often, I was the only undergraduate at international conferences or symposiums but that is where I learnt the behind-the-scenes stories of how scientists question how the world works.

Moments of random kindness, spare-of-the-moment dancing at conferences, and ridiculous situations I put myself in are the highlights of my scientific career – so far.

PhD Tips and Reflections

Personally, the workload of a PhD is not that scary, and I find it exciting to lead my own project. The biggest challenge of my PhD last year was to put my foot down and say that I did not feel comfortable around some colleagues. My pre-PhD advice would be to choose people over projects, be honest with yourself why you would like to do a PhD to begin with, and what skills you need to gain for post-PhD jobs.

 

 a student working

 

“The workload of a PhD isn’t that scary”

The COVID-19 pandemic put a halt on my rotation project at the Eden Project (Cornwall) in March and it is hard to predict when I will be able to travel to Papua New Guinea. I have been attending online events, panel discussions and conferences every week spring lockdown which have been a fantastic way to keep feeling engaged with the scientific community.

Whilst starting a PhD in a pandemic is strange – I am very excited about my project. I will be exploring options for working with local technicians remotely. I am planning on studying nutritional and social aspects of food security which has been inspired by an interview with an ethnobotanist and virtual conferences.

If there is one opportunity in this pandemic, it is to reflect on our behaviour, choices, and responsibility to live in harmony with nature and bring each other along. 

Juniper Kiss is a NERC INSPIRE DTP student at the University of Southampton, and a member of SCI’s Agri-Food Early Career Committee and SCI’s Horticulture Group

Health & Wellbeing

Chemists have created a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with other parts of the body. A study, published in Science Advances this month, describes a new type of artificial cell that can communicate with living cells.

“This work begins to bridge the divide between more theoretical ‘what is cellular life’ type of work and applicative, useful technologies,” said Sheref Mansy, Chemistry Professor at the University of Alberta and co-author of the study.

The artificial cells are made using an oil-water emulsion, and they can detect changes within their environments and respond by releasing protein signals to influence surrounding cells. This work is the first that can chemically communicate with and influence natural living cells. They started with bacteria, later moving to multicellular organisms.

“In the future, artificial cells like this one could be engineered to synthesizes and deliver specific therapeutic molecules tailored to distinct physiological conditions or illnesses–all while inside the body,” explained Sheref Mansy, professor in the University of Alberta’s Department of Chemistry,

Though the initial study was undertaken using a specific signalling system, the cells have applications in therapeutic use, going beyond traditional smart-drug delivery systems and allowing for an adaptable therapeutic.

Careers

Today we chat to SCI member Luca Steel about her life as a plant pathology PhD student in 2020.

Can you please provide a brief summary of your research?

Zymoseptoria tritici is a fungal pathogen of wheat which can cause yield losses of up to 50%. We’re investigating an effector protein secreted by Z. tritici which acts as a ‘mask’, hiding the pathogen from host immune receptors and avoiding immune response.

What does a day in the life of a plant pathology PhD Student look like?

My days are very varied – from sowing wheat seeds to swabbing pathogenic spores onto their leaves, imaging symptoms, discussing results with my supervisor and lab team, and of course lots of reading. It doesn’t always go to plan - I recently attempted to make some wheat leaf broth, which involved lots of messy blending and ended up turning into a swampy mess in the autoclave!

 plants growing

Wheat in the incubator!

How did your education prepare you for this experience?  

The most valuable preparation was my placement year at GSK and my final year project at university. Being in the lab and having my own project to work on made me confident that I wanted to do a PhD – even if it was a totally different research area (I studied epigenetics/immunoinflammation at GSK!).

What are some of the highlights so far?

My highlight was probably attending the European Conference on Fungal Genetics in Rome earlier this year. It was great to hear about so much exciting work going on – and it was an added bonus that we got to explore Rome. I’ve also loved getting to know my colleagues and being able to do science every day.

What is one of the biggest challenges faced in a PhD?

My biggest challenge so far has probably been working from home during lockdown. Although I am very privileged to have a distraction-free space and good internet connection, it was difficult to adjust to working from my kitchen! It was sad abandoning unfinished experiments, and I missed being in the lab – so I’m glad to be back now.

 working on a laptop

Pandemic Workstations

What advice would you give to someone considering a PhD?

If you’re sure you want to do one, then absolutely go for it and don’t be afraid to sell yourself! If not, I’d recommend spending some time working in a lab before you apply and chatting to any prospective labs. If you don’t get a reply from the PI, existing students/post-docs in the group are often very happy to talk and give honest opinions.

How have things been different for you because of the global pandemic?

I was lucky that the pandemic came early on in my PhD, so I had a lot of flexibility to change what I was working on. I switched from lab work involving lots of bioimaging, towards a more bioinformatic approach. My poor laptop will be glad when I’m back to using my computer at work!



Sustainability & Environment

All organisms are fitted for the habitat in which they live. Some are sufficiently flexible in their requirements that they can withstand small shifts in their environment. Others are so well fitted that they cannot withstand habitat change and will eventually fail. The extent of seasonal changes varies with latitude. Plants in temperate and sub-arctic are fitted for changing weather patterns from hot and dry to cold and wet as the calendar moves from summer into winter. Deciduous plants start growing in spring with varying degrees of rapidity and move through flowering and fruiting in summer and early autumn. Finally, some produce a magnificent display of autumn colour, but all senesce and shut down with the return of winter. Evergreen plants frequently inhabit the higher latitudes and retain their foliage. This is an energy conservation measure as they can respond more quickly when winter ends and growth restarts. 

Plants respond to seasonal change by sensing alterations in daylength, spectral composition and most importantly temperature. It is known as acclimatisation (acclimation in the American literature). Falling temperatures are the most potent triggers in preparation for winter dormancy. Cold and ultimately freezing weather will seriously damage plant growth where acclimatisation has not been completed. Without preparation freezing ruptures cell membranes in leaves and stems disrupting their normal functions. These effects are measurable and used as means of quantifying plant hardiness. Membrane leakiness correlates with increased ionic concentrations when damaged leaves are placed in water and the resultant pC measured. Changes in chlorophyll fluorescent indicated damaged photosynthetic apparatus and measurable. Similarly, in some species bonding in lipid molecules alters and can be traced by mass spectroscopy. Understanding these processes and their ultimate goal which is protective dormancy underpins more accurate understanding of the natural world. It also provides information useful for breeding cold tolerant crops and garden plants.

 cold-damaged-plants

Cold Damaged Plant

The rapidity of climate change is such that the protective mechanisms of plants and other organisms cannot respond with sufficient speed. Autumn in cool temperate regions, for example, is now extending as an increasingly warm period. This means that plants are not receiving the triggers necessary for acclimatisation in preparation for severe cold. Buds are commencing growth earlier in spring and now frequently are badly damaged by short bursts of deep cold. These buds cannot be replaced and as a consequence deciduous trees and shrubs in particular are losing capacities for survival.

 cold damaged buds

Severe Cold


Policy

At this month’s Vitae Connections Week Event, Amanda Solloway, Member of Parliament and Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, spoke about the promoting a culture of wellbeing for researchers and improving the way we evaluate research success.

Academia has long had cultural issues, including harassment, inequality and the overall high-pressure environment. Though there are great examples of effective career mentorship and support by many senior academics, often early career researchers, particularly those from underrepresented groups, are exposed to the dark side of academia.

In her speech, Amanda Solloway speaks of the ‘Publish or Perish’ mantra that penetrates academic culture; the pressure to publish research and win grants in order to be successful in scientific research. Amanda also spoke on the short term and casual contract culture, something most early career academics are all too familiar with, and the harassment and bullying that takes place in academia, with around half of researchers having experienced bullying or harassment in the workplace.

So what can be done? These problems are not new, or surprising, to anyone who has worked in academia. The perfect world solution involves a vast systemic change, an uprising of equality within academic departments across the world. This can only happen if, as Amanda rightfully suggests, there is an increase in diverse and sustainable funding. Consistently, large grants, which allow researchers to develop independent research careers, hire new talent and maintain stable job roles within their institutions, are disproportionately awarded to those who fit a certain mould, with underrepresented groups constantly underfunded. This creates an ongoing system of inequality, and a review of how these grants are awarded is essential for academic culture to evolve.

 a stressed student

Stress, high-pressure working and elitism are common in academia.

In addition to large scale systemic changes, more needs to be done to help the wellbeing of researchers and crush the culture of high academic expectations. Stable, long-term job roles form one part of this, and the pressure to publish research is a huge part of academic life. However, the wellbeing of early career researchers is often affected by a culture of harassment, discrimination and elitism. For example, the #MeToo movement shook the world, with the exposure of sexual harassment in academia being no exception to this. The recent increase in online events from Black Scientists is empowering, but also highlights the struggles of being a minority group in science and academia in 2020. Every day, the academic Twitter space is filled with early career researchers speaking of their ongoing problems getting through a career in academic research.

The assessment and valuation of researchers based on metrics needs to be switched up. Often, the value placed on outputs like scientific publications disadvantages those who do not fall into a particular group, those who do not have to take on extra responsibilities, something which disproportionately affects women for example. It gives an advantage to those who have support, both through finances and mentorship. It is a self-perpetuating cycle of exclusion, where success is not measured on the individuals work. Amanda Solloway is right, that many researchers are passionate, driven, love their research, and it isn’t reflected in the outputs. Many of those researchers leave academia to seek a happier and more stable existence elsewhere when we should be fighting to keep them.

 a mental health infographic

Mental health and wellbeing often suffers in academia. Inforgraphic by Zoe Ayres.

As a young woman starting out on an academic career, I have experienced my fair share of these problem, including sexism, high-pressure working and mental health problems. It fills me with fear to see how things never appear to get better as you move through the ranks. I am extremely passionate about my research, but I cannot disagree with the sentiment of the PhD student Amanda spoke to: “I just can’t see myself having a future in research”. Personally, I will keep trying, but the idea of being a successful academic, within the culture of academia we sit in right now, feels like a pipe dream.

This motion from Amanda Solloway to “create a culture that welcomes the widest range of viewpoints, experiences and approaches” and “provide funding… properly and sustainably” is hopeful. A systemic change to academic culture is needed, and this can be fuelled by diversifying funding, providing more stable career progressions for early career academics and creating a workplace that is a supportive, encouraging and safe place to be.


Agrifood

Recently, our Agri-Food Early Career Committee ran the third #agrifoodbecause Twitter competition. Today we are looking back over the best photos of the 2020 competition, including our winner and runner-up. Entrants were asked to take photos and explain why they loved their work, using the hashtag #agrifoodbecause on Twitter.

Our 2020 winner, Jordan Cuff, Cardiff University, won first prize for his fantastic shot of a ladybird. He received a free SCI student membership and an Amazon voucher.

 ladybug on a flower

#agrifoodbecause insect pests ravage agriculture through disease and damage. Naturally-occurring predators offer sustainable biocontrol, but their dynamics must be better understood for optimal crop protection. @SCIupdate @SCI_AgriFood #conservationbiocontrol🐞🌾🕷️🍽️ pic.twitter.com/ss4WjdB8ky

For the first-time ever we also awarded a runner-up prize to Lauren Hibbert, University of Southampton, for her beautiful root photography. She also received a free SCI student membership and Amazon voucher.

 root phenotyping

#agrifoodbecause developing more environmentally friendly crops will help ensure the sustainability of future farming.
Photo illustrating the dawn 🌅 of root phenotyping… or some very hairy (phosphate hungry) watercress roots! @SCI_AgriFood pic.twitter.com/29u533Xyow

There were also many other fantastic entries!

 parasitic wasps

#AgrifoodBecause My research looks at the potential biocontrol of parasitic wasps on #CSFB, major pest of #OSR! Combining field and lab work to work towards #IPM strategies 👩🏻‍🔬👩🏻‍🌾 pic.twitter.com/YqJnBM4CVf

 damaging fungi

#AgrifoodBecause we need to work out which tools fungi use to damage our crops. Sometimes crops are tricky to work with so models have to do pic.twitter.com/mrdk2tRgC6

 protect the crops

#agrifoodbecause we need to protect the crops to feed the world while repairing and protecting a highly damaged ecosystem. There is no delete option! #foodsecurity #noplanetb #organic #earth #wildlife #insectpests #beneficialinsects pic.twitter.com/JXfycRc0tx

Once again, it was an incredibly successful online event, with fascinating topics covered.

To find out more about the Twitter competition, follow our SCI Agri-Food Early Careers Committee Twitter @SCI_AgriFood and look out for #agrifoodbecause.


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Agrifood

This year’s wheat harvest is currently underway across the country after a difficult growing season, with harvest itself being delayed due to intermittent stormy weather. The high levels of rainfall at the start of the growing season meant that less winter wheat could be planted and dry weather in April and May caused difficulties for spring wheat as well. This decline in the wheat growing area has caused many news outlets to proclaim the worst wheat harvest in 40 years and potential bread price rises.

 wheat harvest

Difficult weather during this year’s growing season. Photo: Joe Oddy

This is also the first wheat harvest in which I have a more personal stake, namely the first field trial of my PhD project; looking at how asparagine levels are controlled in wheat. It seemed like a bad omen that my first field trial should coincide with such a poor year for wheat farming, but it is also an opportunity to look at how environmental stress is likely to influence the nutritional quality of wheat, particularly in relation to asparagine.

The levels of asparagine, a nitrogen-rich amino acid, in wheat grain have become an important quality parameter in recent years because it is the major determinant and precursor of acrylamide, a processing contaminant that forms during certain cooking processes. The carcinogenic risk associated with dietary acrylamide intake has sparked attempts to reduce consumption as much as possible, and reducing asparagine levels in wheat is a promising way of achieving part of this goal.

 asparagus

Asparagus, from which asparagine was first discovered and named.

Previous work on this issue has shown that some types of plant stress, such as sulphur deficiency, disease, and drought, increase asparagine levels in wheat, so managing these stresses with sufficient nutrient supply, disease control, and irrigation can help to prevent unwanted asparagine accumulation. Stress can be difficult to prevent even with such crop management strategies though, especially with environmental variables as uncontrollable as the weather, so it is tempting to speculate that the difficulties experienced this growing season will be reflected in higher asparagine levels; but we will have to wait and see.


Sustainability & Environment

This tobacco (Nicotiana tabacum) relative was first planted in the SCIence Garden in the summer of 2018. It was grown from seed by Peter Grimbly, SCI Horticulture Group member. Although normally grown as an annual, some of the SCIence Garden plants have proven to be perennial. It is also gently self-seeding across the garden. It is native to the south and southeast of Brazil and the northeast of Argentina but both the species and many cultivars of it are now grown ornamentally across Europe. Flower colour is normally white, but variants with lime green and pink through to darker red flowers are available.

Like many Nicotiana this species has an attractive floral scent in the evening and through the night. The major component of the scent is 1.8-cineole. This constituent has been shown to be a chemical synapomorphy for the particular section of the genus Nicotiana that this species sits within (Raguso et al, Phytochemistry 67 (2006) 1931-1942). A synapomorphy is a shared derived character – one that all descendants and the shared single ancestor will have.

 cineole

1,8-cineole

This ornamentally and olfactorily attractive plant was chosen for the SCIence Garden to represent two other (arguably less attractive) Nicotiana species.

 Nicotiana solanaceae

Nicotiana solanaceae

Firstly, Nicotiana benthamiana, a tobacco species from northern Western Australia. It is widely used as a model organism in research and also for the “pharming” of monoclonal antibodies and other recombinant proteins.

In a very topical example of this technology, the North American biopharmaceutical company Medicago is currently undertaking Phase 1 clinical trials of a Covid-19 vaccine produced using their plant-based transient expression and manufacturing technology.

Secondly, Nicotiana tabacum, the cultivated tobacco which contains nicotine. This alkaloid is a potent insecticide and tobacco was formerly widely used as a pesticide.

This vivid extract from William Dallimore’s memoirs of working at Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew illustrate how tobacco was used in the late Victorian era.

“Real tobacco was used at Kew for fumigating plant houses. It was a very mixed lot that had been confiscated by excise officers, and it was said that it had been treated in some way to make it unfit for ordinary use before being issued to Kew. With the men working in the house ten men were employed on the job. After the first hour the atmosphere became unpleasant and after 1 ½ hours the first casualties occurred, some of the young gardeners had to leave the house. At the conclusion there were only the two labourers the stoker and one young gardener to leave the house, I was still about but very unhappy. Each man employed at the work, with the exception of the foreman, received one shilling extra on his week’s pay.“

After a second such fumigation event it was reported that there was a great reduction in insect pests, particularly of mealy bug and thrips, with a “good deal of mealy bug” falling to the ground dead.

Health and safety protocols have improved since the Victorian era, but the effectiveness of nicotine as an insecticide remains. From the 1980’s through the 1990’s a range of neo-nicotinoid plant protection agents were developed, with structures based on nicotine.  Although extremely effective, these substances have also been shown to be harmful to beneficial insects and honey bees. Concerns over these adverse effects have led to the withdrawal of approval of outdoor use in the EU.

 Imidacloprid

Imidacloprid – the first neo-nicotinoid developed

In early 2020, the European commission decided not to renew the European license for the use of Thiacloprid in plant protection, making it the fourth neo-nicotinoid excluded for use in Europe.

 Thiacloprid

Thiacloprid

Where the next generation of pest control agents will come from is of vital importance to the horticulture and agriculture industries in the UK and beyond and the presence of these plants in the garden serves to highlight this.


Materials

Dinosaurs were some of the largest creatures to ever roam the Earth, but the mystery of how they supported their great weight remains. A new study published in PLOS ONE now indicates that the answer may lie in their unique bone structure, which differs from mammals and birds.

The bone is made up of different layers of different consistency, including the spongy interior, or trabecular. This part of the bone is formed of porous, honeycomb like structures.

A group of inter-disciplinary researchers, including palaeontologists, mechanical engineers, and biomedical engineers, analysed trabecular bone structure in a range of dinosaur samples, ranging from only 23 kg to 8000 kg in body mass. Their study found that the structure of dinosaur bones possessed unique properties allowing them to support large weights.

‘The structure of the trabecular, or spongy bone that forms in the interior of bones we studied is unique within dinosaurs,’ said Tony Fiorillo, palaeontologist and one of the study authors. ‘Unlike in mammals and birds, the trabecular bone does not increase in thickness as the body size of dinosaurs increase, instead it increases in density of the occurrence of spongy bone. Without this weight-saving adaptation, the skeletal structure needed to support the hadrosaurs would be so heavy, the dinosaurs would have had great difficulty moving.’

Their analysis included scanning the distal femur and proximal tibia bones from dinosaur fossils, and modelling how mechanical behaviour may have occurred. The research team also used allometry scaling – a method of understanding how physical characteristics change with physical size. They then compared the architecture of the bones to scans of both living and extinct large animals, such as Asian elephants and mammoths.

a walking cartoon dinosaur gif

Originally posted by manucalavera

Researchers hope that they can apply their findings to design other lightweight structures such as those used in aerospace, construction, or vehicles.

‘Understanding the mechanics of the trabecular architecture of dinosaurs may help us better understand the design of other lightweight and dense structures,’ said Trevor Aguirre, mechanical engineer and lead author of the paper.

https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0237042


Careers

On the week of 10th-16th August, 2020, scientists across Twitter came together to celebrate the Black scientists working in Chemistry. The community event included a range of chemistry themes, from Organic to Physical Chemistry, showcasing a diverse range of research, and even garnered support from celebrities such as MC Hammer and Michael B. Jordan.

#BlackinChem was started by a group of early career researchers, following on from other successful weeks, who wanted to highlight the incredible range of science that Black chemists do.

 #BlackInChem group organisers

#BlackinChem wouldn’t be what it is without these amazing people!@That_Astro_Chic @onlyayanna_ @KathinatedDrink @NatRodLopes1 @blackinthelab @hi_d_nq 🧪❤️ pic.twitter.com/4A7qztEsT2

The main tweets of he week were by Black chemists highlighting their research interests.

 sonja the electrochemist

Hi everyone! #BlackinChemRollCall I’m Sonja, an Electrochemist, and a Chem lecturer at Princeton U. I worked on bimetallic/alloy electrocatalysts for fuel cells and CO2 reduction and now interested in academic support interventions. Looking forward to to #BlackInChem week! pic.twitter.com/GpTNpFnIaK

 Kelly from Aakeroy lab

#BlackinChem Kelly here 🇿🇼. I’m a grad student @KStateChemistry in the Aakeroy lab. My work focuses on crystal engineering and inorganic chemistry to modify properties of agrochemicals, fragrances and energetics :from fundamentals to applications.Cobalt girl…#BlackinInorganic pic.twitter.com/8OQM40zVgm

The week also included online events, panels and socials throughout the week.

Issues surrounding diversity in science, particularly representation of Black scientists, was discussed.

 #BlackInChem stats

1,656 U.S. citizens and permanent residents received a Master’s degree in chemistry in 2016.
Only 89 were Black. That’s less than 5.4%. #BlackinChem #BlackinChemRepresentation #BlackinChemGradStudent (Source: NSF NCSES) pic.twitter.com/7vd4GZBRJZ

There were even a few celebrity shout outs! Yes, this is MC Hammer tweeting about MOFs!

 Mesoporous stilbene

Mesoporous stilbene-based lanthanide metal organic frameworks: synthesis, photoluminescence and radioluminescence characteristics - Dalton Transactions (RSC Publishing) #BlackinOrganic #BlackinChemRollCall https://t.co/qhlMLv9Dod

Overall, it was an incredibly successful week. A massive congratulations to everyone involved, and especially to the organisers.

Find out more about #BlackInChem here.

 a chemistry gif

Careers

Since the start of 2020 the world has been a different place. During March the UK Government instigated a lock down, with those who could required to work from home, this included scientists. Completing my PhD studying insect olfaction during a global pandemic was not something I expected, but how did I spend my days?

Computational Working

As a scientist I spend a portion, if not the majority of my time in a lab doing experiments. Pausing this work created several challenges, and as a final year student induced a serious amount of panic! To adapt, I focused more on computational experiments and extensive data analysis. Thankfully, I had some small computational projects already, which could be extended and explored further. This also included attending online courses and webinars to develop new skills – I really enjoyed SCI’s webinar series on computational chemistry and found it useful when completing my protein docking experiments!

 A phd student working

Writing, Writing, Writing

As a final year PhD student, there was one task at the beginning of this year that was high on the agenda – writing my thesis. Many past PhD students will tell horror stories about how they were rushing to finish lab work and writing up in a mad dash at the end. Being forced to give up lab work, and having no social activities, meant a lot more focus was put on writing during this time. Personally, I have been privileged to be in a house with other final year PhD students, creating a distraction free zone, and managed to crack down on thesis writing!

 A phd student working

Online Events

Despite in-person events, including many large international conferences, being cancelled, many organisers were quick to move meetings online. This made so many events more accessible. Though I am sad to have missed out on a trip to San Francisco, during lockdown I have attended numerous webinars, online seminars, two international conferences and even given outreach talks to the public and school children.

 People on a remote video call

Getting back to ‘normal’

It is safe to say the world, and the way science works, is never going to be the same. But scientists are slowly migrating back to the lab, adorned with a new item of PPE. On top of our lab coats, goggles and gloves we can add…a mask. Despite the stressful time,  I managed to get my thesis finished handing it in with a lot more computational work included than I had initially planned!

 

Sustainability & Environment

Soil is a very precious asset whether it be in your garden or an allotment. Soil has physical and chemical properties that support its biological life. Like any asset understanding its properties is fundamental for its effective use and conservation. 

Soils will contain, depending on their origin four constituents: sand, clay, silt and organic matter. Mineral soils, those derived by the weathering of rocks contain varying proportions of all four. But their organic matter content will be less than 5 percent. Above that figure and the soil is classed as organic and is derived from the deposition of decaying plants under very wet conditions forming bogs. 

Essentially this anaerobic deposition produces peat which if drained yields highly fertile soils such as the Fenlands of East Anglia. Peat’s disadvantage is oxidation, steadily the organic matter breaks down, releases carbon dioxide and is lost revealing the subsoil which is probably a layer of clay. 

 cracked-clay-soil

Cracked clay soil

Mineral soils with a high sand content are free draining, warm quickly in spring and are ‘light’ land. This latter term originates from the small number of horses required for their cultivation. Consequently, sandy soils encourage early spring growth and the first crops. Their disadvantage is limited water retention and hence crops need regular watering in warm weather.

Clay soils are water retentive to the extent that they will become waterlogged during rainy periods. They are ‘heavy’ soils meaning that large teams of horses were required for their cultivation. These soils produce main season crops, especially those which are deeply rooting such as maize. But in dry weather they crack open rupturing root systems and reducing yields. 

Silt soils contain very fine particles and may have originated in geological time by sedimentation in lakes and river systems. They can be highly fertile and are particularly useful for high quality field vegetable and salad crops. Because of their preponderance of fine particles silt soils ‘cap’ easily in dry weather. The sealed surface is not easily penetrated by germinating seedlings causing erratic and patchy emergence.

 soil finger test

Soil finger test

Soil composition can be determined by two very simple tests. A finger test will identify the relative content of sand, clay and silt. Roll a small sample of moist soil between your thumb and fingers and feel the sharpness of sand particles and the relative slipperiness of clay or the very fine almost imperceptible particles of silt. For a floatation test, place a small soil sample onto the top of a jam jar filled with water. Over 24 to 48 hours the particles will sediment with the heavier sand forming the lower layer with clay and silt deposited on top. Organic matter will float on the surface of the water.

 soil floatation test

Soil floatation test


Agrifood

The fruits of Viburnum tinus, a Mediterranean flowering shrub, have a secret property that gives them a vibrant, metallic blue colour without relying on pigments. Blue fruits are uncommon in nature, due to the rarity of blue pigments, but a recent study, published in Current Biology, investigated the colour properties of the nutritionally valuable fruits of V. tinus and found it originates from unique structural features.

 Viburnum tinus

Viburnum tinus, a Mediterranean flowering shrub

Usually, pigmentation in fruits arises from the presence of flavonoid compounds, specifically anthocyanins. V. tinus is an important food source for birds, which are attracted to the vibrant colour. In turn for nutrition, the birds disperse the plant’s seeds.

Using microscopy and spectroscopy techniques, researchers investigating the stunning metallic properties of V. tinus fruit uncovered nanostructures of lipids in its cell walls. These structures may act as a double signal to birds, indicating these fruits are full of nutritious fats. These nanostructures differ from regular plant cell walls, which are made of cellulose, and lipids are normally only stored within the cell and used for transport. This distinctive structural property of V. tinus fruit allows it to create the blue colour without containing any pigment.

 bluefruitsinnature

Blue fruits are uncommon in nature

“Structural colour is very common in animals, especially birds, beetles, and butterflies, but only a handful of plant species have ever been found to have structural colour in their fruits,” says co-first author Miranda Sinnott-Armstrong, a researcher at the University of Colorado-Boulder. “This means that V. tinus, in addition to showing a completely novel mechanism of structural colour, is also one of the few known structurally coloured fruits.”

The researchers hope this work can help to understand how birds identify nutritious food, and that the interesting structural colour properties could be exploited to provide safe and sustainable food colourants.

“There are lots of problems connected to food coloration,” says Silvia Vignolini, senior author from the University of Cambridge. “Once this mechanism is better understood, it could potentially be used to create a healthier, more sustainable food colorant.” 


Health & Wellbeing

It’s quite likely that most people who end up in the vicinity of a scorpion will more than likely beat a hasty retreat, not least because they can impart a potentially life threatening dose of venom should one get stung.

But scientists are now finding that the venom from these creatures, along with snakes and spiders, could be beneficial in treating heart attacks. Scorpion venom in particular contains a peptide that has been found to have a positive impact on the cardiovascular system of rats with high blood pressure. Reporting their findings in Journal of Proteome Research, scientists from Brazil, Canada and Denmark say that they now have a better understanding of the processes involved.

 An emperor scorpian

Emperor Scorpion 

Scorpion venom is a complex mixture of molecules including neurotoxins, vasodilators and antimicrobial compounds, among many others. Individual venom compounds, if isolated and administered at the proper dose, could have surprising health benefits, the researchers say.

One promising compound is the tripeptide KPP (Lys-Pro-Pro), which the researchers say is part of a larger scorpion toxin. KPP was shown to cause blood vessels to dilate and blood pressure to decline in hypertensive rats.

 A blood vessel on organic tissue

A blood vessel on organic tissue

To understand how KPP worked, the researchers treated cardiac muscle cells from mice, in a Petri dish, with KPP and measured the levels of proteins expressed by the cells at different times using mass spectrometry. They found that KPP regulated proteins associated with cell death, energy production, muscle contraction and protein turnover. In addition the scorpion peptide triggered the phosphorylation of a mouse protein called AKT, which activated another protein involved in production of nitric oxide, a vasodilator.

Treatment with KPP led to dephosphorylation of a protein called phospholamban, which led to reduced contraction of cardiac muscle cells. Both AKT and phospholamban are already known to protect cardiac tissue from injuries caused by lack of oxygen. The researchers said that these results indicate that KPP should be further studied as a drug lead for heart attacks and other cardiovascular problems.

 

Conceptual image for cardiovascular problems . 


Energy

Introduction

The Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge (IDC) is funded by UK government through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund. One aim is to enable the deployment of low-carbon technology, at scale, by the mid-2020’s [1]. This challenge supports the Industrial Clusters Mission which seeks to establish one net-zero industrial cluster by 2040 and at-least one low-carbon cluster by 2030 [2]. This latest SCI Energy Group blog provides an overview of Phase 1 winners from this challenge and briefly highlights several on-going initiatives across some of the UK’s industrial clusters.

Phase 1 Winners

In April 2020, the winners for the first phase of two IDC competitions were announced. These were the ‘Deployment Competition’ and the ‘Roadmap Competition’; see Figure 1 [3].

 Phase 1 Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge

Figure 1 - Winners of Phase 1 Industrial Decarbonisation Challenge Competitions.

Teesside

Net-Zero Teesside is a carbon capture, utilisation and storage (CCUS) project. One aim is to decarbonise numerous carbon-intensive businesses by as early as 2030. Every year, up to 6 million tonnes of COemissions are expected to be captured. Thiswill be stored in the southern North Sea which has more than 1,000Mt of storage capacity. The project could create 5,500 jobs during construction and could provide up to £450m in annual gross benefit for the Teesside region during the construction phase [4].

For further information on this project, click here.

 Industrial Skyscape of Teesside Chemical Plants

Figure 2 – Industrial Skyscape of Teesside Chemical Plants

The Humber

In 2019, Drax Group, Equinor and National Grid signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) which committed them to work together to explore the opportunities for a zero-carbon cluster in the Humber. As part of this initiative, carbon capture technology is under development at the Drax Power Station’s bioenergy carbon capture and storage (BECCS) pilot. This could be scaled up to create the world’s first carbon negative power-station. This initiative also envisages a hydrogen demonstrator project, at the Drax site, which could be running by the mid-2020s. An outline of the project timeline is shown in Figure 3 [5].

For further information on this project, click here.

 Overview of Timeline for Net-Zero Humber Project

Figure 3 - Overview of Timeline for Net-Zero Humber Project

North West

The HyNet project envisions hydrogen production and CCS technologies. In this project, COwill be captured from a hydrogen production plant as well as additional industrial emitters in the region. This will be transported, via pipeline, to the Liverpool Bay gas fields for long-term storage [6]. In the short term, a hydrogen production plant has been proposed to be built on Essar’s Stanlow refinery. The Front-End Engineering Design (FEED) is expected to be completed by March 2021 and the plant could be operational by mid-2024. The CCS infrastructure is expected to follow a similar timeframe [7].

For further information on the status of this project, click here.

Scotland

Project Acorn has successfully obtained the first UK COappraisal and storage licence from the Oil and Gas Authority. Like others, this project enlists CCS and hydrogen production. A repurposed pipeline will be utilised to transport industrial COemissions from the Grangemouth industrial cluster to St. Fergus for offshore storage, at rates of 2 million tonnes per year. Furthermore, the hydrogen production plant, to be located at St. Fergus, is expected to blend up to 2% volume hydrogen into the National Transmission System [8]. A final investment decision (FID) for this project is expected in 2021. It has the potential to be operating by 2024 [9].  

For further information on this project, click here.

 Emissions from Petrochemical Plant at Grangemouth

Figure 4 - Emissions from Petrochemical Plant at Grangemouth

SCI Energy Group October Conference

The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In October, we will be running a conference concerned with this topic. Further details can be found here.

Sources: 

[1] https://www.ukri.org/innovation/industrial-strategy-challenge-fund/industrial-decarbonisation/

[2]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/803086/industrial-clusters-mission-infographic-2019.pdf

[3] https://www.netzeroteesside.com/project/

[4] https://www.zerocarbonhumber.co.uk/

[5]https://hynet.co.uk/app/uploads/2018/05/14368_CADENT_PROJECT_REPORT_AMENDED_v22105.pdf

[6]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/866401/HS384_-_Progressive_Energy_-_HyNet_hydrogen.pdf

[7]https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/866380/Phase_1_-_Pale_Blue_Dot_Energy_-_Acorn_Hydrogen.pdf

[8] https://pale-blu.com/acorn/


Health & Wellbeing

According to two studies published in The BMJ, higher consumption of fruit, vegetables and whole grain foods is linked with a lower risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In the first study, a team of European researchers examined the link between vitamin C, carotenoids and type 2 diabetes.

The findings were based on 9754 participants with type 2 diabetes, compared with a group of  12,622 individuals who were free of diabetes. All of the participants were part of the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition (EPIC) cohort totalling 340 234 people.

The results revealed that individuals with the highest intake of fruits and vegetables reduced the  risk of developing diabetes by up to 50%.

 Fresh fruit and vegetables

Fresh fruit and vegetables 

The results also showed that increasing intake of fruit and vegetables by 66g per day was linked with a 25% decreased risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

In the second study, researchers in the United States examined the association between whole grain food intake and type 2 diabetes.

Their research involved 158,259 women and 36,525 men who were diabetes, heart disease and cancer free and who took part in the Nurses’ Health Study, Nurses’ Health Study II, and Health Professionals Follow-Up Study.

 Healthy heart

Healthy heart

Those with the highest intake of whole grains had a 29% lower rate of developing type 2 diabetes compared with those who consumed the least amount. With regards to individual whole grain foods, those with an intake of one or more servings a day of whole grain cold breakfast cereal or dark bread, were associated with a 19% or 21% lower risk of type 2 diabetes, compared with the participants consuming less than one serving a month.

 Fresh bread

Fresh bread

Although both studies took into account several well-known lifestyle risk factors and markers of dietary health, both studies are observational, therefore it should be considered that some of the results may be due to unmeasured factors.  

These new research findings provide more evidence that increasing fruit, vegetable and whole grain foods can lower the risk of developing type 2 diabetes.

DOI: https://www.bmj.com/content/370/bmj.m2194


Sustainability & Environment

Single plant cells have amazing capacities for regenerating into entire plants. This property is known as ‘totipotency’ discovered in the 1920s. Linking this with increasing understanding of growth control by plant hormones resulted in the development of the sterile, in vitro, culture. Tiny groups of cells, explants, are cut from the rapidly growing tips of shoots in controlled environments and washed in sterilising agents. These are cultured sterile jars containing a layer of agar supplemented with nutrients and hormones.

 Green plantlets growing on sterile agar

Green plantlets growing on sterile agar

The process is known as ‘tissue culture’ or micropropagation. As the cells divide and multiply, they are transferred through a series of sterile conditions which encourage root formation.

 Roots growing from newly developing plantlets

Roots growing from newly developing plantlets

Ultimately numerous new whole plants are generated. At that point they are removed from sterile conditions and weaned by planting into clean compost in high humidity environments. High humidity is essential as these transplants lack the protective coating of leaf and stem waxes which prevent desiccation. Ultimately when fully weaned the plants are grown under normal nursery conditions into saleable products.

Why bother with this processes which requires expensive facilities and highly skilled staff? A prime advantage is that micropropagated plants have genotypes very closely similar to those of the original parent, essentially they are clones. As a result vast numbers of progeny can be generated from a few parents preserving their characteristics. That is particularly important as a means of bulking-up newly bred varieties of many ornamental and fruit producing plants which otherwise would be reproduced vegetatively from cuttings or by grafting and budding onto rootstocks. Micropropagation is therefore a means for safeguarding the intellectual property of plant breeding companies.

Explants cut from parent plants before culturing can be heat-treated as a means of removing virus infections. The resultant end-products of rooted plants are therefore disease-free or more accurately disease-tested. These plants are usually more vigorous and produce bigger yields of flowers and fruit. Orchids are one of the crops where the impact of micropropagation is most obvious in florists’ shops and supermarkets. 

Orchids have benefitted greatly from micropropagation

Orchids have benefitted greatly from micropropagation

Large numbers of highly attractive orchids are now readily available. Previously orchids were very expensive and available in sparse numbers.   

The world is not perfect and there are disadvantages with micropropagation. Because the progeny are genetically similar they are uniformly susceptible to pests and pathogens. Crops of clonal plants can be and have been rapidly devasted by existing and new strains of insects and diseases to which they have no resistance.


Sustainability & Environment

Elderflowers are in full bloom this month, both in hedgerows as well as gardens across the country. Whether they are the wild Sambucus nigra or a cultivated variety with green or black leaves they are all beautiful and useful plants.

 black leaved cultivar

The black leaved cultivar growing in the SCIence Garden has pink blooms, whereas the wild species has white flowers. It was purchased as ‘Black Beauty’, but is also sold as ‘Gerda’.

 Black Beauty flower

Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla  ‘Black Beauty’ growing in the SCIence Garden 

This cultivar, along with ‘Black Lace’ (Eva) was developed by Ken Tobutt and Jacqui Prevette at the Horticulture Research International research station at East Malling in Kent and released for sale in the horticulture trade in 2000. The leaves stay a dark purple throughout the year and the flowers have a good fragrance.  

The shrub will tolerate hard pruning so is useful for smaller spaces and provides a long season of interest. The plant is also a forager’s delight, both in early summer (for the flowers) and in the autumn (for the berries).

Most commonly one may think of elderflower cordial, or perhaps even elderflower champagne, but an excellent alternative to the rose flavoured traditional “Turkish Delight” can be made -  https://www.rivercottage.net/recipes/elderflower-delight. I can highly recommend it!

The chemistry of the elderflower aroma is complex. Analyses such as that in the reference below* have identified many different terpene and terpenoid components including nerol oxide, hotrienol and nonanal.

 chemistry of the elderflower aroma

 

* Olfactory and Quantitative Analysis of Aroma Compounds in Elder Flower (Sambucus nigra L.) Drink Processed from Five Cultivars. Ulla Jørgensen, Merete Hansen, Lars P. Christensen, Karina Jensen, and Karl Kaack. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry 2000 48 (6), 2376-2383. DOI: 10.1021/jf000005f


Science & Innovation

June 27th 2020 marked the fourth Micro-, Small and Medium-sized Enterprise (MSME) day, established by the International Council for Small Businesses (ICSB).

Along with online events, the ICSB published its annual report highlighting not only the importance of MSMEs as they relate to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals but also calling for further political and regulatory support for the sector as the global economy looks to make a recovery.

 Concept of a green economy

Concept of a green economy 

Ahmed Osman, President of the ICSB, used the annual report to share his perspectives on the future for MSMEs in the post pandemic world and posed the question ‘What is the new normal for MSMEs?’  

‘There are six key factors every MSME or start-up needs to keep in mind post Covid-19,’ Osman stated, the first of these being financial assessment and security. Encouraging MSMEs to put in place a financial action plan, obtaining information about government relief packages and getting a clear picture of investor expectations, Osman said;  ‘Once this financial risk assessment and support ecosystem are in place, one can execute the plan. This may involve deciding on a potential pay cut, pull back on investments related to infrastructure or expansion, halting new recruitment etc…’

 Digital Business and Technology Concept

Digital Business and Technology Concept 

Having secured the financial footing the next factor was to re-evaluate the business plan in light of the new conditions. Osman stressed the importance of involving all stakeholders to come up with a mutually agreed set of new targets. The third factor to consider, according to Osman, was creating a ‘strong digital ecosystem.’ ‘If there is one thing that Covid-19 has taught businesses. It is the power of digital engagement. Even as an MSME, it helps to be present and active on digital media…Additionally, a digitally enabled internal ecosystem also needs to be in place that can accommodate remote working…without compromising data  security or productivity of employees.’

The fourth factor Osman highlighted was adoption of the fourth revolution for business. ‘…This is also time to leverage the new age technology innovations and adopt the fourth revolution for business. While most SMEs and MSMEs look at this as an ‘out of league’ investment, it is actually very simple and can be incorporated for a higher ROI in the long run. Be it automation, CRM, ERP, IoT, a well planned strategy to scale to technology-enabled, highly productive next generation business can be worked out with a two to three year plan,’ Osman said.

 Bulb future technology

Bulb future technology

Less reliance on physical space was the fifth factor Osman highlighted, anticipating a reversal in the trend that led to increasing the number of people in an office and home working becoming more normal.

The final factor Osman highlighted was the need to have a crisis management strategy in place. ‘It is vital to chalk up an effective crisis management plan that will take into consideration both immediate and long-term impact,’ he said.

Encouraging MSMEs to take stock, Osman asked ‘How did you help in the great pandemic? Quantify what you did for your employees, customers, community and country. Leverage the opportunity to build a better business, have credible solutions to the new major challenge and think globally act locally.’


Health & Wellbeing

Generally, food intake measurement relies on an individual’s ability to recall what and how much they ate, which has inherent limitations. This can be overcome using biomarkers, such as urine, which contains high amounts of data, and looks to be a promising new indicator of nutritional status.

In one study, a group of researchers from Imperial College London, Northwestern University, University of Illinois, and Murdoch University analysed metabolites in the urine to measure the health of an individual’s diet.

Funded by the U.S. National Institutes of Health and Health Data Research UK, the group of scientists analysed levels of 46 different metabolites in the urine of 1,848 people in the U.S, publishing their findings in the journal Nature Food.

The team illustrated the effectiveness of using metabolites in urine as an alternative approach to obtaining information on dietary patterns. Analysing the urinary metabolic profile of the individuals, they found that the 46 metabolites in urine accurately predicted healthy / unhealthy patterns, making the link between 46 metabolites in urine, as well as the types of foods and nutrients in the diet.

 urine test sample

Urine test sample 

The team believes that this technology could inspire healthy changes as health professionals could be better equipped to provide dietary advice tailored to their individual biological make-up. As Dr Isabel Garcia-Perez, author of the research also from Imperial’s Department of Metabolism, Digestion and Reproduction explained: ‘Our technology can provide crucial insights into how foods are processed by individuals in different ways.’

To build on this research, the same Imperial team, in collaboration with Newcastle University, Aberystwyth University, and Murdoch University, developed a five-minute test to measure the health of a person’s diet.

This five-minute test can reveal differences in urinary metabolites, generating a dietary metabotype score for each individual. As part of this research, 19 people were recruited to follow four different diets ranging from very healthy to unhealthy. The experiments indicated that the healthier their diet, the higher the DMS score, associating higher DMS score with lower blood sugar and a higher amount of energy excreted in the urine.

 Healthy heart

Heart in hands

Professor John Mathers, co-author of research and Director of the Human Nutrition Research Centre at Newcastle University said: ‘We show here how different people metabolise the same foods in highly individual ways. This has implications for understanding the development of nutrition-related diseases and for more personalised dietary advice to improve public health.’


Health & Wellbeing

The week provides the opportunity for participants to promote overall awareness for the wide ranging aspects of wellbeing, including social, physical, emotional, financial, career and environmental. 

This week, 22-26 June, 2020 is World Wellbeing Week. The observance began in Jersey, the Channel Islands in 2019 and has since been taken up across the world.

 woman meditating

Wellbeing and healthy lifestyle concept

Since the beginning of the global lockdown, people have been encouraged to maintain some sort of physical activity or exercise. While it is known that exercise is beneficial for overall physical and mental health and wellbeing, researchers from the University of Cambridge and University of Edinburgh UK, have released a study in which they say that physical activity prevents 3.9 million early deaths each year.

Publishing their work in The Lancet Global Health the researchers said that there is often too much focus on the negative health consequences of poor levels of physical activity, when we should be celebrating what we gain from physical activity.

 Exercises and warm up before run

Exercises and warm up before run

Researchers from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge looked at previously published data for 168 countries which covered the proportion of the population meeting WHO global recommendation of at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity throughout the week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity activity.

By combining these data, with estimates of the relative risk of dying early for active people compared to inactive people, the researchers were able to estimate the proportion of premature deaths that were prevented because people were physically active.

They found that globally, due to physical activity, the number of premature deaths was an average 15% lower than it would have been, equating to 3.9 million lives saved each year. Despite the considerable variation in physical activity levels between countries, the positive contribution of physical activity was remarkably consistent across the globe, with a broad trend towards a greater proportion of premature deaths averted for low and middle income countries.

 Hands holding red heart

Hands holding red heart representing healthy heart and wellbeing

The researchers argue that the debate on physical activity has often been framed in terms of the number of early deaths due to the lack of exercise, currently estimated at 3.2 million each year. But showing how many deaths are averted it might be possible to frame the debate in a positive way which could have benefits for policy and population messaging.

 Fitness session

Fitness session

Dr Tess Strain from the Medical Research Council Epidemiology Unit at the University of Cambridge  said; ‘We’re used to looking at the downsides of not getting enough activity – whether that’s sports or a gym or just a brisk walk after lunch time. But by focusing on the number of lives saved, we can tell a good news story of what is already being achieved…We hope our finding will encourage governments and local authorities to protect and maintain services in these challenging times.’


Sustainability & Environment

Momentum for a post-pandemic ‘green recovery’ continues, as the UK government and the European Commission set out steps to accelerate their recoveries, while supporting the paths to net zero by 2050. Here we round-up just some of the initiatives announced in recent weeks to achieve these goals.

 Human hands holding earth globe and tree

Human hands holding earth globe and tree

Plans for preservation of biodiversity

Speaking on the 3rd June 2020, at the Organisation for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) Economic and Environmental Committee Meeting, the UK’s Second Secretary from the UK Delegation, Justin Addison, said; ‘As we recover, we have an opportunity to protect and restore nature, reducing our exposure to deadly viruses and climate impact.’

Highlighting the UK’s global outlook on addressing climate change, Addison added, ‘The UK will soon announce a £64 million package to support Colombia to tackle deforestation and build a cleaner and more resilient economy in areas affected by Covid-19 and conflict.’

smoke rising in rainforest

Originally posted by travelinglighttoday

As well as the UK’s efforts to preserve biodiversity, the European Commission will be looking to protect and restore biodiversity and natural ecosystems. Frans Timmermans, the European Commission’s Executive Vice President added that, ‘It can boost our resilience and prevent the emergence and spread of future virus outbreaks. We have now seen that this relationship between us and the natural environment is key to our health.’ 

 earth held in human hands

Earth held in human hands 

Enabling low-carbon solutions and boosting clean growth

EU:

In early June, a letter was sent to decision-makers across the European Union from more than 100 investors, urging the EU to ensure a green recovery from the covid-19 pandemic is delivered.

Investors are keen to ensure the government builds on The European Green deal to deliver a long term commitment that will accelerate the economy into one that is more green and carbon resilient post coronavirus.

The European Green deal, set out before the pandemic, details some of their targets including, a 50-55% emissions reduction by 2030; a climate law to reach net-zero emissions by 2050; a transition fund worth €100bn and a series of new sector policies to ensure all industries are able to decarbonise.

 A shoot of a plant and planet Earth

A shoot of a plant and planet Earth 

UK:

To boost clean growth, the UK Government has recently launched a £40 million Clean Growth Fund that will ‘supercharge green start-ups’.

This fund will enable UK clean growth start-ups to scale up low-carbon solutions and drive a green economic recovery.

Potential examples of projects the fund could support include areas in power and energy, buildings, transport and waste.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said: ‘This pioneering new fund will enable innovative low-carbon solutions to be scaled up at speed, helping to drive a green and resilient economic recovery.’


Sustainability & Environment

In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change, an international group of researchers are urging countries to reconsider their strategy to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. While countries signed up to the Paris Agreement have individual quotas to meet in terms of emissions reduction, they argue this cannot be achieved without global cooperation to ensure enough CO2 is removed in a fair and equitable way.

 harmful factory emissions

Harmful emissions

The team of international researchers from Imperial College London, the University of Girona, ETH Zürich and the University of Cambridge, have stated that countries with greater capacity to remove CO2 should be more proactive in helping those that cannot meet their quotas.

Co-author Dr Niall Mac Dowell, from the Centre for Environmental Policy and the Centre for Process Systems Engineering at Imperial, said, ‘It is imperative that nations have these conversations now, to determine how quotas could be allocated fairly and how countries could meet those quotas via cross-border cooperation.’

The team’s modelling and research has shown that while the removal quotas vary significantly, only a handful of countries will have the capacity to meet them using their own resources.

 reforestation

Reforestation

A few ways to achieve carbon dioxide removal:

(1)    Reforestation

(2)    Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  

(3)    CCS coupled to bioenergy – growing crops to burn for fuel. The crops remove CO2 from the atmosphere, and the CCS captures any CO2 from the power station before its release.

However, deploying these removal strategies will vary depending on the capabilities of different countries. The team have therefore suggested a system of trading quotas. For example, due to the favourable geological formations in the UK’s North Sea, the UK has space for CCS, and therefore, they could sell some of its capacity to other countries.

 Global cooperation

Global cooperation 

Co-lead author Dr Carlos Pozo from the University of Girona, concluded; ‘By 2050, the world needs to be carbon neutral - taking out of the atmosphere as much CO2 as it puts in. To this end, a CO2 removal industry needs to be rapidly scaled up, and that begins now, with countries looking at their responsibilities and their capacity to meet any quotas.’

DOI:  https://www.nature.com/articles/s41558-020-0802-4



Sustainability & Environment

Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures. Transforming live but dormant seed into new healthy self-sufficient plants requires care and planning. The conditions in which seed is stored before use greatly affect the vigour and quality of plants post-germination. Seed which is stored too long or in unsuitable environments deteriorates resulting in unthrifty seedlings.

Aged seed

Aged seed

Seed is either sown directly into soil or into compost designed especially as an aid for germination. These composts contain carefully balanced nutrient formulae which provide larger proportions of potassium and phosphorus compounds which promote rooting and shoot growth. The amounts of nitrogen needed at and immediately post-germination are limited. Excess nitrogen immediately post-germination will cause over-rapid growth which is susceptible to pest and pathogen damage.

Minor nutrients will also be included in composts which ensures the establishment of efficient metabolic activities free from deficiency disorders. Composts require pH values at ~ 7.0 for the majority of seedlings unless they are of calicifuge (unsuited for calcareous soils) species where lime requirement is limited and the compost pH will be formulated at 6.0. Additionally, the pC will be carefully tuned ensuring correctly balanced ionic content avoiding root burning disorders. Finally, the compost should be water retentive but offering a rooting environment with at least 50 percent of the pore spaces filled with air. Active root respiration is essential while at the same time water is needed as the carrier for nutrient ions.  

Seedlings encountering beneficial environments delivering suitable temperatures will germinate into healthy and productive plants.

 Healthy seedlings

Healthy seedlings

Some plants such as lettuce require cool conditions for germination (<10 oC), a condition known as thermo-dormancy. This reflects the evolution of the wild parent species in cooler environments and growth cycles limited by higher summer temperatures.

Careful husbandry under protection such as in greenhouses provides plants which can be successfully transplanted into the garden. The soil receiving these should be carefully cultivated, providing an open crumb structure which permits swift and easy rooting into the new environment. It is essential that in the establishment phase plants are free from water stress. Measures which avoid predation from birds such as pigeons may also be required. 

Pigeon feeding

Pigeon feeding      

Netting or the placing of cotton threads above plants helps as a protection measure. Weeds must be removed otherwise competition will reduce crop growth and encourage pests and diseases, particularly slug browsing. Finally, the gardener will be rewarded for his/her work with a fruitful and enjoyable crop!


Health & Wellbeing

Fan of milk and cheese? Here’s some good news - researchers have associated dairy-rich diets to reduced risk of developing diabetes and high blood pressure.

According to a large international study published in BMJ Open Diabetes Research & Care, a research team has found that eating at least two daily servings of dairy is associated with lower risk of diabetes and high blood pressure.

 Dairy products

Dairy products; milk and cheese

To see if this link exists across a range of countries, researchers drew on people taking part in the Prospective Urban Rural Epidemiology (PURE) study, in which involves participants from 21 countries aged 35–70. Information on dietary intake over a period of 12 months was collected using food frequency questionnaires. Dairy products included milk, yoghurt, yoghurt drinks, cheese, and dishes prepared with dairy products. Butter and cream were assessed separately as they are not so commonly eaten.

cheesy chips

Originally posted by brattylikestoeat

The results demonstrated that total and full fat dairy were associated with a lower prevalence of metabolic syndrome, which was not the case for a diet with no daily dairy intake. Two dairy servings a day was associated with a 24% lower risk of metabolic syndrome, rising to a 28% lower risk for a full fat dairy intake.  

It was also noted that consuming at least two servings of full fat dairy per day was linked to an 11%–12% lower risk of high blood pressure and diabetes, whilst three servings of full fat dairy intake per day decreased the risks by 13% -14%.

 Heart and stethoscope

Heart and stethoscope

The researchers stated that ‘If our findings are confirmed in sufficiently large and long term trials, then increasing dairy consumption may represent a feasible and low cost approach to reducing (metabolic syndrome), hypertension, diabetes, and ultimately cardiovascular disease events worldwide.’

 

Sustainability & Environment

Another month starts in the SCIence Garden with no visitors to appreciate the burgeoning growth of fresh new leaves and spring flowers, but that doesn’t mean we should forget about it!

Hopefully in our absence the Laburnum tree in the garden, Laburnum watereri ‘Vossii’ will be flowering beautifully, its long racemes of golden yellow flowers looking stunning in the spring sunshine!

 Laburnum x watereri

Laburnum x watereri ‘Vossii’ in the SCIence Garden

This particular cultivar originated in the late 19th century in the Netherlands, selected from the hybrid species which itself is a cross between Laburnum alpinum and L. anagyroides. This hybrid species was named for the Waterers nursery in Knaphill, Surrey and was formally named in a German publication of 1893 (Handbuch der Laubholzkunde, Berlin 3:673 (1893)

 Laburnum tree

The laburnum tree is found very commonly in gardens in the UK, and is noticeable at this time of year for its long chains of golden yellow flowers. However, the beautiful flowers hide a dark side to this plant. The seeds (and indeed all parts) of the tree are poisonous to humans and many animals. They are poisonous due to the presence of a very toxic alkaloid called cytisine (not to be confused with cytosine, a component of DNA). Cytisine has a similar structure to nicotine (another plant natural product), and has similar pharmacological effects. It has been used as a smoking cessation therapy, as has varenicline, which has a structure based on that of cytisine. These molecules are partial agonists at the nicotinic receptor (compared to nicotine which is a full agonist) and reduce the cravings and “pleasurable” effects associated with nicotine. 

 cytisine structure

Cytisine is found in several other plants in the legume family, including Thermopsis lanceolata, which also looks stunning in early summer and Baptisia species, also growing in the SCIence Garden and flowering later in the year.

 Thermopsis lanceolata

In 2018 there were 9.6 million deaths from cancer and 33% of these were linked to exposure to tobacco smoke.*  Since the link between smoking and lung cancer was established in 1950, the market for smoking cessation therapies has increased enormously. In 2018 it was worth over 18 billion dollars annually worldwide and is projected to increase to 64 billion dollars by 2026.** Staggering! Varenicline, sold under the brand names Champix and Chantix, is one of the most significant smoking cessation therapies apart from nicotine replacement products.

If you see a laburnum tree whilst out on your daily allowed exercise this month, have a thought for its use as a smoking cessation therapy!

* Data from the Cancer Research UK website https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/health-professional/cancer-statistics/worldwide-cancer#heading-Zero accessed May 2020.

** https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20200319005381/en/Global-Smoking-Cessation-Market—Expected-Reach


Health & Wellbeing

Here is a roundup on some of the most recent research and scientific efforts against the coronavirus.  

Novartis:

Novartis has reached an agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration to proceed with a phase III clinical trial of hydroxychloroquine in hospitalized Covid-19 patients. The large trial will be conducted at more than a dozen sites in the US and tested on approximately 440 patients to evaluate the use for this treatment.  

Additionally, Norvatis plans to make its hydroxychloroquine intellectual property available to support broad access to hydroxychloroquine. Read more here.  

 Causaly

Causaly

Causaly, an innovative technology company that harnesses AI to interpret vast databases of biomedical knowledge, is collaborating with UCL academics to increase research on potential therapeutic agents and the identification of biomarkers.

Several researchers and research groups within UCL have been granted access to Causaly technology, allowing them the access to rapidly analyse and derive insights from biomedical literature.

Read more here.

 Causaly technology

Vaccine Taskforce

As part of the UK’s wider efforts to support the development of a vaccine, a new government-led Vaccine Taskforce will soon be launched to drive forward the manufacturing and research efforts to fight the virus.

The government will review regulations to facilitate fast and safe vaccine trials, as well as operational plans, to ensure a vaccine can be produced at a large scale when it becomes available. Industry and academic institutions will be given the resources and support needed.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said, ‘UK scientists are working as fast as they can to find a vaccine that fights coronavirus, saving and protecting people’s lives. We stand firmly behind them in their efforts. The Vaccine Taskforce is key to coordinating efforts to rapidly accelerate the development and manufacture of a potential new vaccine.’  Read more here.

 covid19sample

A new biosensor for the COVID-19 virus

Research teams at Empa and ETH Zurich have developed an alternative test method in the form of an optical biosensor. The sensor made up of gold nanostructure, known as gold nonoislands on a glass substrate, combines two different effects to detect covid-19: an optical and a thermal one.

According to the release, ‘Artificially produced DNA receptors that match specific RNA sequences of the SARS-CoV-2 [virus] are grafted onto the nanoislands,’ and researchers will then use the optical phenomena, - localised surface plasmon resonance - to monitor the presence of the virus.

The biosensor is not yet ready to be used to monitor and detect COVID-19, however tests showed the sensor can distinguish between very similar RNA sequences of SARS-CoV-2 virus and its relative, SARS-Cov. Read more here.

For more information and more updates on the coronavirus, please visit our hub here.


Agrifood

Seed is one of Nature’s tiny miracles upon which the human race relies for its food and pleasure.

 Cabbage seed

Cabbage seed

Each grain contains the genetic information for growth, development, flowering and fruiting for the preponderant plant life living on this planet. And when provided with adequate oxygen, moisture, warmth, light, physical support and nutrients germination will result in a new generation of a species. These vary from tiny short-lived alpines to the monumental redwood trees growing for centuries on the Pacific west coast of America.   

Humankind has tamed and selected a few plant species for food and decorative purposes. 

 Seed head of beetroot

Seed head of beetroot, the seeds are in clusters.

Seed of these, especially food plants, is an internationally traded commodity. Strict criteria governed by legal treaties apply for the quality and health of agricultural and many horticultural seeds. This ensures that resultant crops are true to type and capable of producing high grade products as claimed by the companies who sell the seed. 

Companies involved in the seed industry place considerable emphasis on ensuring that their products are capable of growing into profitable crops for farmers and growers. Parental seed crops are grown in isolation from farm crops thereby avoiding the potential for genetic cross-contamination. With some very high value seed the parent plants may be grown under protection and pollinated by hand.

Samples of seed are tested under laboratory conditions by qualified seed analysts. Quality tests identify levels of physical contamination, damage which may have resulted in harvesting and cleaning the seed and the proportion of capable of satisfactory germination. There may also be molecular tests which can identify trueness to type. Identifying the healthiness of seed is especially important. The seed coat can carry fungal and bacterial spores which could result in diseased crops. Similarly, some pathogens, including viruses, may be carried internally within seed.

 Septoria apicola

  Septoria apicola – seed borne pathogen causing late blight of celery 

Pests, especially insects, find seed attractive food sources and may be carried with it. Careful analytical testing will identify the presence of these problems in batches of seed. 

The capabilities of seed for producing vigorous plants is particularly important with very high value vegetable and salad crops. Vigour testing is a refined analytical process which tracks the uniformity and speed of germination supplemented with chemical tests determining the robustness of plant cells.  Producers rely on the quality, uniformity and maturity rates of crops such as lettuce, green broccoli or cauliflower so they meet the strict delivery schedules set by supermarkets. Financial penalties are imposed for failures in the supply chain. 

Biology’s seemingly inert tiny seed grains are essential ingredients of humankind’s existence!


Health & Wellbeing

As the COVID-19 outbreak increases pressure on the UK’s NHS services and frontline staff, leading scientists and businesses are taking on new initiatives to tackle the outbreak. As there is currently no treatment or vaccine for this virus, researchers are working at unprecedented speed to accelerate the development of a treatment. Businesses are putting in more effort to help those on the frontline of this global crisis.

Below, we have highlighted some of the actions from the chemical industry in the effort to battle COVID-19.

INEOS has managed to built a hand sanitzer plant in the UK and will soon open the facility in Germany, aiming to produce 1m bottles per month each to address a supply shortage across the UK and Europe.

BASF will soon be producing hand sanitizers at its petrochemicals hub in Germany to address the shortage in the region. 

Ramping up the supply of PPE, AstraZeneca is donating nine million face masks to support healthcare workers around the world. Alongside this, AstraZeneca is accelerating the development of its diagnostic testing capabilities to scale-up screening and is also partnering with governments on existing screening programmes. 

Pharmaceutical company Novartis UK, along with several others, is making available a set of compounds from its library that it considers are suitable for in vitro antiviral testing.

GSK has announced that is donating $10 million to the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. The Fund was created by the World Health Organisation (WHO) to help WHO and its partners to prevent, detect and manage the pandemic

 lab kit

Alongside the efforts and initiatives from industries, to continue to aid those on the frontline of this global crisis, social distancing interventions must remain to flatten the curve.

Research and data modelling has shown that policy strategies, such as social distancing and isolation interventions which aim to suppress the rate of transmission, might reduce death and peak healthcare demand by two-thirds. 

 covid graph

Stopping non-essential contact can flatten the curve. Suppressing the curve means we may still experience the same number of people becoming infected but over a longer period of time and at a slower rate, reducing the stress on our healthcare system.


Science & Innovation

In this round-up we will be looking at some of the developments and challenges surrounding artificial intelligence.

Development and Collaborations 

The Organisation for Economic Development (OECD) has launched its Artificial Intelligence (AI) Observatory, which aims to help countries encourage, nurture and monitor the responsible development of trustworthy AI systems for the benefit of society.

The Observatory works with policy communities across and beyond the OECD - from the digital economy and science and technology policy, to employment, health, consumer protection, education and transport policy – considering the opportunities and challenges posed by current and future AI developments in a coherent, holistic manner. 

The AI Observatory is being built on evidence-based analysis and provides a centre for the collection and sharing of information on AI, leveraging the OECD’s reputation for measurement methodologies. The Observatory will also engage a wide spectrum of stakeholders from the technical community, the private sector, academia, civil society and other international organisations, providing a hub for dialogue and collaboration.

According to a report produced by the European Institute of Innovation and Technology (EIT) Health and The McKinsey Centre for Government (MCG), AI can increase productivity and the efficiency of care delivery, allowing healthcare systems to provide better outcomes for patients.

The WHO estimates that by 2030 the world will be short of 9.9 million doctors, nurses and midwives, which adds to the challenges faced by an already overburdened healthcare system. Supporting the widespread adoption and scaling of AI could help alleviate this shortfall, the report says, by streamlining or even eliminating administrative tasks, which can occupy up to 70% of a healthcare professional’s time. 

The issues highlighted, among others, means that ‘AI is now ‘top-of-mind’ for healthcare decision makers, governments, investors and innovators and the EU itself,’ the report states.₁

To fully unlock the potential and capabilities of AI, there is an urgent need to attract and up-skill a generation of data-literate healthcare professionals. 

 Sustainable Development

Sustainable Development 

Artificial intelligence (AI) is influencing larger trends in global sustainability. Many communities in developing nations do not have access to clean water, which impacts health and has economic and environmental implications. 

AI has the capacity and ability to adapt and process large amounts of data in real time. This makes it an ideal tool for managing water resource, whereby utility managers can maximise current revenue, effectively forecasting and planning for the years ahead.

Currently, the development of AI is accelerating, but legal and ethical guidelines are yet to be implemented. In order to prepare the future generations of business leaders and national and international policy makers, the academic community will be playing a large role in this. 

president macron

Originally posted by nikazabini

For more information, click here. 

Reference: 

1. Transforming healthcare with AI: The impact on the workforce and organisations 


Sustainability & Environment

Introduction

This latest SCI Energy Group blog introduces the possible avenues of carbon dioxide utilisation, which entails using carbon dioxide to produce economically valuable products through industrial processes. Broadly, utilisation can be categorised into three applications: chemical use, biological use and direct use. For which, examples of each will be highlighted throughout.

Before proceeding to introduce these, we can first consider utilisation in relation to limiting climate change. As has been discussed in previous blogs, the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions is crucial. Therefore, for carbon dioxide utilisation technologies to have a beneficial impact on climate change, several important factors must be considered and addressed.

1) Energy Source: Often these processes are energy intensive. Therefore, this energy must come from renewable resources or technologies.

2) Scale: Utilisation technologies must exhibit large scaling potential to match the limited timeframe for climate action.

3) Permanence: Technologies which provide permanent removal or displacement of CO2 emissions will be most impactful¹.

 CO2 sign

Figure 1: CO2 sign 

Chemical Uses

Carbon dioxide, alongside other reactants, can be chemically converted into useful products. Examples of which include urea, methanol, and plastics and polymers. One of the primary uses of urea includes agricultural fertilisers which are pivotal to crop nutrition. Most commonly, methanol is utilised as a chemical feedstock in industrial processes.

 Fertilizing soil

Figure 2: Fertilizing soil

One of the key challenges faced with this application of utilisation is the low reactivity of CO2 in its standard conditions. Therefore, to successfully convert it into products of economic value, catalysts are required to significantly lower the molecules activation energy and overall energy consumption of the process. With that being said, it is anticipated that, in future, the chemical conversion of CO2 will have an important role in maintaining a secure supply of fuel and chemical feedstocks such as methanol and methane².

Biological Uses

Carbon dioxide is fundamental to plant growth as it provides a source of required organic compounds. For this reason, it can be utilised in greenhouses to promote carbonic fertilisation. By injecting increased levels of COinto the air supplied to greenhouses, the yield of plant growth has been seen to increase. Furthermore, COfrom the flue gas streams of chemical processes has been recognised, in some studies, to be of a quality suitable for direct injection³.

 Glass greenhouse

Figure 3: Glass greenhouse planting vegetable greenhouses

These principles are applicable to encouraging the growth of microorganisms too. One example being microalgae which boasts several advantageous properties. Microalgae has been recognised for its ability to grow in diverse environments as well as its ability to be cultured in numerous types of bioreactors. Furthermore, its production rate is considerably high meaning a greater demand for CO2 is exhibited than that from normal plants. Micro-algal biomass can be utilised across a range of industries to form a multitude of products. These include bio-oils, fuels, fertilisers, food products, plant feeds and high value chemicals. However, at present, the efficiency of CO2 fixation, in this application, can be as low as 20-50%.

 Illustration of microalgae

Figure 4: Illustration of microalgae under the microscope

Direct Uses

It is important to note that, at present, there are many mature processes which utilise CO2 directly. Examples of which are shown in the table below.

 CO2 processes

Summary

Many carbon dioxide utilisation technologies exist, across a broad range of industrial applications. For which, some are well-established, and others are more novel. For such technologies to have a positive impact on climate action, several factors need to be addressed such as their energy source, scaling potential and permanence of removal/ displacement of CO2.

The chemistry of carbon dioxide and its role in decarbonisation is a key topic of interest for SCI Energy Group. In the near future, we will be running a webinar concerned with this. Further details of this will be posted on the SCI website in due course.

Links:

1. http://co2chem.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2012/06/CCU%20in%20the%20green%20economy%20report.pdf

2. https://www.carbonbrief.org/guest-post-10-ways-to-use-co2-and-how-they-compare

3. https://www.intechopen.com/books/greenhouse-gases 



Sustainability & Environment

The first splashes of yellow are starting to appear across our gardens and parks so it must be nearly daffodil time. There are over 10,000 narcissus cultivars and ‘Carlton’ is the most commonly grown of all. There are 5,300 hectares of this cultivar grown in the UK for cut flowers alone. This cultivar was first registered in 1927 and it is estimated that there are now 350,000 tons of it (or 9450 million bulbs)! Is this the most massive plant taxon on earth? 
 narcissus cultivars

March in the SCIence Garden

Narcissus was the classical Greek name of a beautiful youth who became so entranced with his own reflection that he killed himself and all that was left was a flower – a Narcissus. The word is possibly derived from an ancient Iranian language. But the floral narcissi are not so self-obsessed. As a member of the Amaryllidaceae, a family known for containing biologically active alkaloids, it is no surprise to learn that they contain a potent medicinal agent. 

Narcissus (and in particular this cultivar) are an excellent source of galanthamine, a drug more commonly associated with snowdrops (Galanthus spp.). Galanthamine is currently recommended for the treatment of moderate Alzheimer’s disease by the National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence (NICE) but is very effective in earlier stages of the disease too. 

 Galanthamine

Galanthamine

Today, part of the commercial supply of this molecule comes from chemical synthesis, itself an amazing chemical achievement due to the structural complexity of the molecule, and partly from the natural product isolated from different sources across the globe. In China, Lycoris radiata is grown as a crop, in Bulgaria, Leucojum aestivum is farmed and in the UK the humble daffodil, Narcissus ‘Carlton’ is the provider.

 Narcissus

Narcissus ‘Carlton’ growing on large scale

Agroceutical Products, was established in 2012 to commercialise the research of Trevor Walker and colleagues who developed a cost effective, reliable and scalable method for producing galanthamine by extraction from Narcissus. They discovered the “Black Mountains Effect” – the increased production of galanthamine in the narcissus when they are grown under stress conditions at 1,200 feet. With support from Innovate UK and other organisations, the process is still being developed. Whilst not a full scale commercial production process just yet, the work is ongoing. As well as providing a supply of the much needed drug, this company may be showing the Welsh farming community how to secure additional income from their land. They continue to look for partners who have suitable land over 1000 ft in elevation. 

The estimated global patient population for Alzheimer’s in 2010 was 30 million. It is expected to reach 120 million by 2050.  The global market for Alzheimer’s disease drugs for 2019 was US$ 2870 million. 


Sustainability & Environment

Transferring plants between countries was a profitable source for novel commercial and garden plants until quite recently.

 Potato crop

Potato crop: Geoff Dixon 

Potatoes and tomatoes are classic examples arriving in Europe from South America during the 16th century. Substantial numbers of new plants fuelled empire expansion founding new industries such as rubber and coffee. One of the earliest functions of European botanic gardens was finding potentially valuable new crops for colonial businesses. At home selecting orchids and other exotics from imported plants brought fame and fortune for head gardeners managing the large 19th century estates such as Chatsworth.  Commercially seed merchants selected by eye and feel new and improved vegetables, fruit and flowers.

The rediscovery of Mendel’s laws of inheritance brought systematic science and formalised breeding new crops and garden plants. Analysing the effects of transferring physical, chemical and biological characters identified gene numbers and their functions. 

 Colour range in Gladioli

Colour range in Gladioli: Geoff Dixon 

As a result, varieties with improved colourfulness, fruitfulness, yield and pest and pathogen tolerance fill seedsmen’s catalogues. Breeding increased food supplies and added colour into the gardens springing up in suburban areas as affluence increased.

Greater plant reliability and uniformity arrived with the discovery of F1 hybrids.

 Hybrid Sunflowers

Hybrid Sunflowers: Geoff Dixon

Selected parental lines each with very desirable characters such as fruit colour are in-breed for several generations. Then they are crossed bringing an explosion of vigour, uniformity and reliability (known as heterosis). Saving seed from the hybrid lines does not however, perpetuate these characters; new generations come only from remaking the original cross. That is a major boon for the breeder as competitors cannot pirate their intellectual property.

Knowledge at the molecular level has unravelled still further gene structure and functioning. Tagging or marking specific genes with known properties shortens the breeding cycle adding reliability and accuracy for the breeder.  Simplifying the volume of genetic material used in crosses by halving the number of chromosomes involved adds further precision and control (known as haploidisation). 

Opportunities for breeding new plants increases many-fold when advantageous genes are transferred between species. Recent developments of gene-editing where tailored enzymes very precisely snip out unwanted characters and insert advantageous ones is now offering huge opportunities as a non-transgenic technology. Breeding science makes possible mitigation of climate change, reducing for example the impact of soil degradation brought about by flooding.

 Flood degraded land

Flood degraded land: Geoff Dixon


Energy

Batteries have an important role as energy sources with environmental advantages. They offset the negative environmental impacts of fossil fuels or nuclear-based power; they are also recyclable. These attributes have led to increasing research with the aim of improving battery design and environmental impact, particularly regarding their end of life. In addition, there is a desire to improve battery safety as well as design batteries from more sustainable and less toxic materials.

New research shows that aluminium battery could offer several advantages:

Aluminium metal anode batteries could hold promise