Archive for the ‘Imperial College London’ Category

by Lisa Winter

Over 200 million people are infected by malaria each year, and the majority of the 627,000 deaths per year are children younger than five. The disease is carried by mosquitos who act as vectors for the parasite. It’s only transmitted to humans by female mosquitoes, as they’re the only ones who bite. A team of researchers led by Andrea Crisanti of the Imperial College London managed to genetically modify mosquitos to produce 95% male offspring, eliminating mosquito populations along with the risk of malaria. The results of the study were published in Nature Communications.

In most species of mosquito, the females need a blood meal in order to acquire the nutrients to create viable eggs. When she does, she can lay about 200 eggs at a time in water, and up to 3,000 eggs over the course of her lifetime. About half of those offspring will be daughters, many of whom will live long enough to produce that amount of offspring also. For humans living near mosquitos carrying the parasite that causes malaria, those numbers of female mosquitos present a very real threat.

But what if the numbers could be skewed so that the sex ratio favors males, who are harmless to humans? This is exactly what Crisanti’s team set out to do with Anopheles gambiae, a species of mosquito endemic to sub-Saharan Africa, where 95% of malaria deaths occur. The researchers modified the males with the enzyme I-Ppol, which excises the X chromosome during spermatogenesis. This renders sperm that would produce daughters to be non-functional, while the sperm that will create male offspring are unaffected. As a result, about 95% of the resulting offspring are male.

Next, modified males were introduced to five caged wild-type populations. As the males mated with the females, they passed along the same mutation until it dominated the population. For four of the five populations, it took only six generations for the mosquitos to die out due to a lack of females.

“What is most promising about our results is that they are self-sustaining,” co-author Nikolai Windbichler said in a press release. “Once modified mosquitoes are introduced, males will start to produce mainly sons, and their sons will do the same, so essentially the mosquitoes carry out the work for us.”

This study was the first to successfully manipulate mosquito sex ratios, and it was done in a big way. The researchers hope that this information will be used to develop genetic mutations to be used in the wild, bringing large populations of mosquitos to their knees.

“The research is still in its early days, but I am really hopeful that this new approach could ultimately lead to a cheap and effective way to eliminate malaria from entire regions,” added lead author Roberto Galizi. “Our goal is to enable people to live freely without the threat of this deadly disease.”

Of course, while eradicating the mosquitos would be fantastic for eliminating the threat of malaria, what other affects would it have? Wouldn’t there be harsh consequences for the ecosystem? After all, mosquitos have been on the planet for about 100 million years and represent 3,500 species. As it turns out, mosquitos wouldn’t really be missed if they were to disappear ( While mosquitos can act as pollinators as well as a food source for other animals, their absence would be merely a temporary setback before another species filled the niche. Of course, there is a gamble in assuming the replacement organism would be harmless.

“Malaria is debilitating and often fatal and we need to find new ways of tackling it. We think our innovative approach is a huge step forward. For the very first time, we have been able to inhibit the production of female offspring in the laboratory and this provides a new means to eliminate the disease,” Crisanti explained.

Each year, sub-Saharan Africa loses about $12 billion in economic productivity due to malarial infections. Considering developed areas in these countries have per capita incomes of about US$1500, this would have very real implications for the quality of life for people in those areas. Eliminating that disease would also allow doctors and hospitals to address other health concerns, and the environment would likely benefit from not having to use insecticides.


By Jonathan Webb

The design, published in Nature Photonics, adapts technology used in fusion research.

Several locations could now enter a race to convert photons into positrons and electrons for the very first time.

This would prove an 80-year-old theory by Breit and Wheeler, who themselves thought physical proof was impossible.

Now, according to researchers from Imperial College London, that proof is within reach.

Prof Steven Rose and his PhD student, Oliver Pike, told the BBC it could happen within a year.

“With a good experimental team, it should be quite doable,” said Mr Pike.

If the experiment comes to fruition, it will be the final piece in a puzzle that began in 1905, when Einstein accounted for the photoelectric effect with his model of light as a particle.

Several other basic interactions between matter and light have been described and subsequently proved by experiment, including Dirac’s 1930 proposal that an electron and its antimatter counterpart, a positron, could be annihilated upon collision to produce two photons.

Breit and Wheeler’s theoretical prediction of the reverse – that two photons could crash together and produce matter (a positron and an electron) – has been difficult to observe.

“The reason this is very hard to see in the lab is that you need to throw an awful lot of photons together – because the probability of any two of them interconverting is very low,” Prof Rose explained.

His team proposes gathering that vast number of very high-energy photons by firing an intense beam of gamma-rays into a further cloud of photons, created within a tiny, gold-lined cylinder.

That cylinder is called a “hohlraum”, German for “hollow space”, because it contains a vacuum, and it is usually used in nuclear fusion research. The cloud of photons inside it is made from extraordinarily intense X-rays and is about as hot as the Sun.

Hitting this very dense cloud of photons with the powerful gamma-ray beam raises the probability of collisions that will make matter – and history.

“It’s pretty amazing really,” said Mr Pike. He says it took some time to realise the value of the scheme, which he and two colleagues initially jotted down on scrap paper over several cups of coffee.

“For the first 12 hours or so, we didn’t quite appreciate its magnitude.”

But their subsequent calculations showed that the design, theoretically at least, has more than enough power to crack the challenge set by Breit and Wheeler in the 1930s.

“All the ingredients are there,” agrees Sir Peter Knight, an emeritus professor at Imperial College who was not involved in the research but describes it as a “really clever idea”.

“I think people will seriously start to have a crack at this,” Prof Knight told BBC News, though he cautioned that there were a lot of things to get right when putting the design into practice.

“If it’s done in a year, then they’ve done bloody well! I think it might take a bit longer.”

Some healthy scientific competition may speed up the process.

There are at least three facilities with the necessary equipment to test out the new proposal, including the Atomic Weapons Establishment in Oldham.

“The race to carry out and complete the experiment is on,” said Mr Pike.

Thanks to Da Brayn for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


A team from Imperial College London said dancers appear to suppress signals from the inner ear to the brain.

Dancers traditionally use a technique called “spotting”, which minimises head movement.

The researchers say their findings may help patients who experience chronic dizziness.

Dizziness is the feeling of movement when, in reality, you are still.

For most it is an occasional, temporary sensation. But around one person in four experiences chronic dizziness at some point in their life.

When someone turns or spins around rapidly, fluid in the vestibular organs of the inner ear can be felt moving through tiny hairs.

Once they stop, the fluid continues to move, which can make a person feel like they are still spinning.

Ballet dancers train hard to be able to spin, or pirouette, rapidly and repeatedly.

They use a technique called spotting, focusing on a spot – as they spin, their head should be the last bit to move and the first to come back.

In the study, published in the journal Cerebral Cortex, the team recruited 29 female ballet dancers and 20 female rowers of similar age and fitness levels.

After they were spun in the chair, each was asked to turn a handle in time with how quickly they felt like they were still spinning after they had stopped.

Eye reflexes triggered by input from the vestibular organs were also measured.

Magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scans were also taken to look at participants’ brain structures.

Dancers’ perception of spinning lasted a shorter time than rowers’ – and the more experienced the dancers, the greater the effect.

The scans showed differences between the dancers and the rowers in two parts of the brain: the cerebellum, which is where sensory input from the vestibular organs is processed, and the cerebral cortex, which perceives dizziness.

The team also found that perception of spinning closely matched the eye reflexes triggered by vestibular signals in the rowers, but in dancers there was no such link.

Dr Barry Seemungal, of the department of medicine at Imperial College London, who led the research, said: “It’s not useful for a ballet dancer to feel dizzy or off balance. Their brains adapt over years of training to suppress that input.

“Consequently, the signal going to the brain areas responsible for perception of dizziness in the cerebral cortex is reduced, making dancers resistant to feeling dizzy.”

He added: “If we can target that same brain area or monitor it in patients with chronic dizziness, we can begin to understand how to treat them better.”

Deborah Bull, a former principal dancer with the Royal Ballet, who is now the executive director of the Cultural Institute at King’s College, London, told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme: “What’s really interesting is what ballet dancers have done is refine and make precise the instruction to the brain so that actually the brain has shrunk. We don’t need all those extra neurons.”

The tyrannosaur of the minerals, this gold nugget in quartz weighs more than 70 ounces (2 kilograms).

Earthquakes have the Midas touch, a new study claims.

Water in faults vaporizes during an earthquake, depositing gold, according to a model published in the March 17 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. The model provides a quantitative mechanism for the link between gold and quartz seen in many of the world’s gold deposits, said Dion Weatherley, a geophysicist at the University of Queensland in Australia and lead author of the study.

When an earthquake strikes, it moves along a rupture in the ground — a fracture called a fault. Big faults can have many small fractures along their length, connected by jogs that appear as rectangular voids. Water often lubricates faults, filling in fractures and jogs.

About 6 miles (10 kilometers) below the surface, under incredible temperatures and pressures, the water carries high concentrations of carbon dioxide, silica and economically attractive elements like gold.

During an earthquake, the fault jog suddenly opens wider. It’s like pulling the lid off a pressure cooker: The water inside the void instantly vaporizes, flashing to steam and forcing silica, which forms the mineral quartz, and gold out of the fluids and onto nearby surfaces, suggest Weatherley and co-author Richard Henley, of the Australian National University in Canberra.

While scientists have long suspected that sudden pressure drops could account for the link between giant gold deposits and ancient faults, the study takes this idea to the extreme, said Jamie Wilkinson, a geochemist at Imperial College London in the United Kingdom, who was not involved in the study.

“To me, it seems pretty plausible. It’s something that people would probably want to model either experimentally or numerically in a bit more detail to see if it would actually work,” Wilkinson told OurAmazingPlanet.

Previously, scientists suspected fluids would effervesce, bubbling like an opened soda bottle, during earthquakes or other pressure changes. This would line underground pockets with gold. Others suggested minerals would simply accumulate slowly over time.

Weatherley said the amount of gold left behind after an earthquake is tiny, because underground fluids carry at most only one part per million of the precious element. But an earthquake zone like New Zealand’s Alpine Fault, one of the world’s fastest, could build a mineable deposit in 100,000 years, he said.

Surprisingly, the quartz doesn’t even have time to crystallize, the study indicates. Instead, the mineral comes out of the fluid in the form of nanoparticles, perhaps even making a gel-like substance on the fracture walls. The quartz nanoparticles then crystallize over time.

Even earthquakes smaller than magnitude 4.0, which may rattle nerves but rarely cause damage, can trigger flash vaporization, the study finds.

“Given that small-magnitude earthquakes are exceptionally frequent in fault systems, this process may be the primary driver for the formation of economic gold deposits,” Weatherley told OurAmazingPlanet.

Quartz-linked gold has sourced some famous deposits, such as the placer gold that sparked the 19th-century California and Klondike gold rushes. Both deposits had eroded from quartz veins upstream. Placer gold consists of particles, flakes and nuggets mixed in with sand and gravel in stream and river beds. Prospectors traced the gravels back to their sources, where hard-rock mining continues today.

But earthquakes aren’t the only cataclysmic source of gold. Volcanoes and their underground plumbing are just as prolific, if not more so, at producing the precious metal. While Weatherley and Henley suggest that a similar process could take place under volcanoes, Wilkinson, who studies volcano-linked gold, said that’s not the case.

“Beneath volcanoes, most of the gold is not precipitated in faults that are active during earthquakes,” Wilkinson said. “It’s a very different mechanism.”

Understanding how gold forms helps companies prospect for new mines. “This new knowledge on gold-deposit formation mechanisms may assist future gold exploration efforts,” Weatherley said.

In their quest for gold, humans have pulled more than 188,000 tons (171,000 metric tons) of the metal from the ground, exhausting easily accessed sources, according to the World Gold Council, an industry group.


Cigarettes leave you with more than a smoky scent on your clothes and fingernails. A new study has found strong evidence that tobacco use can chemically modify and affect the activity of genes known to increase the risk of developing cancer. The finding may give researchers a new tool to assess cancer risk among people who smoke.

DNA isn’t destiny. Chemical compounds that affect the functioning of genes can bind to our genetic material, turning certain genes on or off. These so-called epigenetic modifications can influence a variety of traits, such as obesity and sexual preference. Scientists have even identified specific epigenetic patterns on the genes of people who smoke. None of the modified genes has a direct link to cancer, however, making it unclear whether these chemical alterations increase the risk of developing the disease.

In the new study, published in Human Molecular Genetics, researchers analyzed epigenetic signatures in blood cells from 374 individuals enrolled in the European Prospective Investigation into Cancer and Nutrition. EPIC, as it’s known, is a massive study aimed at linking diet, lifestyle, and environmental factors to the incidence of cancer and other chronic diseases. Half of the group consisted of people who went on to develop colon or breast cancer 5 to 7 years after first joining the study, whereas the other half remained healthy.

The team, led by James Flanagan, a human geneticist at Imperial College London, discovered a distinct “epigenetic footprint” in study subjects who were smokers. Compared with people who had never smoked, these individuals had fewer chemical tags known as methyl groups—a common type of epigenetic change—on 20 different regions of their DNA. When the researchers extended the analysis to a separate group of patients and mice that had been exposed to tobacco smoke, they narrowed down the epigenetic modifications to several sites located in four genes that have been weakly linked to cancer before. All of these changes should increase the activity of these genes, Flanagan says. It’s unclear why increasing the activity of the genes would cause cancer, he says, but individuals who don’t have cancer tend not to have these modifications.

The study is the first to establish a close link between epigenetic modifications on a cancer gene and the risk of developing the disease, says Robert Philibert, a behavioral geneticist at the University of Iowa in Iowa City. “To the best of my knowledge, no previous genome-wide epigenetics study has taken such efforts from initial discovery to replication to experimental validation,” adds Lutz Breitling, an epidemiologist at the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg, Germany.

The work may lead to new ways to asses cancer risks from smoking. “Previous research into smoking has often asked people to fill out questionnaires, … which have their obvious drawbacks and inaccuracies,” Flanagan says. The new study, he says, may make it possible for doctors to quantify a person’s cancer risk simply through an epigenetic analysis of their DNA.

Thanks to Dr. Rajadhyaksha for bringing this to the attention of the It’s Interesting community.


Enceladus is little bigger than a lump of rock and has appeared, until recently, as a mere pinprick of light in astronomers’ telescopes. Yet Saturn‘s tiny moon has suddenly become a major attraction for scientists. Many now believe it offers the best hope we have of discovering life on another world inside our solar system.

The idea that a moon a mere 310 miles in diameter, orbiting in deep, cold space,   1bn miles from the sun, could provide a home for alien lifeforms may seem extraordinary. Nevertheless, a growing number of researchers consider this is a real prospect and argue that Enceladus should be rated a top priority for future space missions.

This point is endorsed by astrobiologist Professor Charles Cockell of Edinburgh University. “If someone gave me several billion dollars to build whatever space probe I wanted, I would have no hesitation,” he says. “I would construct one that could fly to Saturn and collect samples from Enceladus. I would go there rather than Mars or the icy moons of Jupiter, such as Europa, despite encouraging signs that they could support life. Primitive, bacteria-like lifeforms may indeed exist on these worlds but they are probably buried deep below their surfaces and will be difficult to access. On Enceladus, if there are lifeforms, they will be easy to pick up. They will be pouring into space.”

The cause of this unexpected interest in Enceladus – first observed by William Herschel in 1789 and named after one of the children of the Earth goddess Gaia – stems from a discovery made by the robot spacecraft Cassini, which has been in orbit of Saturn for the past eight years. The $3bn probe has shown that the little moon not only has an atmosphere, but that geysers of water are erupting from its surface into space. Even more astonishing has been its most recent discovery, which has shown that these geysers contain complex organic compounds, including propane, ethane, and acetylene.

“It just about ticks every box you have when it comes to looking for life on another world,” says Nasa astrobiologist Chris McKay. “It has got liquid water, organic material and a source of heat. It is hard to think of anything more enticing short of receiving a radio signal from aliens on Enceladus telling us to come and get them.”

Cassini’s observations suggest Enceladus possesses a subterranean ocean that is kept liquid by the moon’s internal heat. “We are not sure where that energy is coming from,” McKay admits. “The source is producing around 16 gigawatts of power and looks very like the geothermal energy sources we have on Earth – like the deep vents we  see in our ocean beds and which bubble up hot gases.”

At the moon’s south pole, Enceladus’s underground ocean appears to rise close to the surface. At a few sites, cracks have developed and water is bubbling to the surface before being vented into space, along with complex organic chemicals that also appear to have built up in its sea.

Equally remarkable is the impact of this water on Saturn. The planet is famed for its complex system of rings, made of bands of small particles in orbit round the planet. There are seven main rings: A, B, C, D, E, F and G, and the giant E-ring is linked directly with Enceladus. The water the moon vents into space turns into ice crystals and these feed the planet’s E-ring. “If you turned off the geysers of Enceladus, the great E-ring of Saturn would disappear within a few years,” says McKay. “For a little moon, Enceladus has quite an impact.”

Yet the discovery of Enceladus’s strange geology was a fairly tentative affair, says Professor Michele Dougherty of Imperial College London. She was the principal investigator for Cassini’s magnetometer instrument. “Cassini had been in orbit round Saturn for more than six months when it passed relatively close to Enceladus. Our results indicated that Saturn’s magnetic field was being dragged round Enceladus in a way that suggested it had an atmosphere.”

So Dougherty and her colleagues asked the Cassini management to direct the probe to take a much closer look. This was agreed and in July 2005 Cassini moved in for a close-up study. “I didn’t sleep for two nights before that,” says Dougherty. “If Cassini found nothing we would have looked stupid and the management team might not have listened to us again.”

Her fears were groundless. Cassini swept over Enceladus at a height of 173km and showed that it did indeed possess an atmosphere, albeit a thin one consisting of water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane and nitrogen. “It was wonderful,” says Dougherty. “I just thought: wow!”

Subsequent sweeps over the moon then revealed those plumes of water. The only other body in the solar system, apart from Earth, possessing liquid water on its surface had  been revealed. Finally came the discovery of organics, and the little moon went from being merely an interesting world to one that was utterly fascinating.

“Those plumes do not represent a torrent,” cautions McKay. “This is not the Mississippi pouring into space. The output is roughly equivalent to that of the Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone national park. On the other hand, it would be enough to create a river that you could kayak down.

“The fact that this water is being vented into space and is mixed with organic material is truly remarkable, however. It is an open invitation to go there. The place may as well have a big sign hanging over it saying: ‘Free sample: take one now’.”

Collecting that sample will not be easy, however. At a distance of 1bn miles, Saturn and its moons are a difficult target. Cassini took almost seven years to get there after its launch from Cape Canaveral in  1997.

“A mission to Enceladus would take a similar time,” says McKay. Once there, several years would be needed to make several sweeps over Enceladus to collect samples of water and organics. “Then we would need a further seven years to get those samples back to Earth.”

Such a mission would therefore involve almost 20 years of space flight – on top of the decade needed to plan it and to construct and launch the probe. “That’s 30 years in all, a large chunk of any scientist’s professional life,” says McKay.

McKay and a group of other Nasa scientists based at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena are undaunted, however. They are now finalising plans for an Enceladus Sample Return mission, which would involve putting a probe in orbit round Saturn. It would then use the gravity of the planet’s biggest moon, Titan, to make sweeps over Enceladus. Plume samples would then be stored in a canister that would eventually be fired back to Earth on a seven-year return journey.

Crucially, McKay and his colleagues believe such a mission could be carried out at a relatively modest cost – as part of Nasa’s Discovery programme, which funds low-budget missions to explore the solar system. Previous probes have included Lunar Prospector, which studied the moon’s geology; Stardust, which returned a sample of material scooped from a comet’s tail; and Mars Pathfinder, which deployed a tiny motorised robot vehicle on the Red Planet in 1997.

“The criteria for inclusion in the Discovery programme demand that any mission must cost less than $500m, though that does not include the price of launch,” says McKay. “We think we can adapt the technology that was developed on the Stardust mission to build an Enceladus Sample Return. If so, we can keep the cost below $500m. We are finalising plans and will announce our proposals in autumn.”

Such a mission is backed by Dougherty. “I think Enceladus is one of the best bets we now have for finding life on another world in our solar system. It is certainly worth visiting but it is not the only hope we have. The icy moons of Jupiter – such as Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – still look a very good prospect as well.”

And there is one problematic issue concerning Enceladus: time. “Conditions for life there are good at present but we do not know how long they have been in existence,” says McKay. “They might be recent or ancient. For life to have evolved, we need the latter to have been the case. At present, we have no idea about their duration, though geologists I have spoken to suggest that water and organics may have been there for a good while. The only way we will find out is to go there.”

The late entry of Enceladus in the race to find extraterrestrial life adds an intriguing new destination for astrobiologists in their hunt for aliens. Before its geysers were discovered, two main targets dominated their research: Mars and the icy moons of Jupiter. The former is the easiest to get to and has already received visits from dozens of probes. On 6 August, the $2.5bn robot rover Curiosity is set to land there and continue the hunt for life on the Red Planet. “For life to evolve you need liquid water, and although it is clear it once flowed on Mars, its continued existence there is debatable,” says Cockell. “By contrast, you can see water pouring off Enceladus along with those organics.”

Many scientists argue that water could exist deep below the Martian surface, supporting bacteria-like lifeforms. However, these reservoirs could be many metres, if not kilometres, below Mars’s surface and it could take decades to find them. Similarly, the oceans under the thick ice that covers Europa – and two other moons of Jupiter, Ganymede and Callisto – could also support life. But again, it will be extremely difficult for a robot probe to drill through the kilometres of ice that cover the oceans of these worlds.

Enceladus, by these standards, is an easy destination – but a distant one that will take a long time to reach. “No matter where we look, it appears it will take two or three decades to get answers to our questions about the existence of life on other worlds in the solar system,” says Cockell. “By that time, telescopes may have spotted signs of life on planets elsewhere in the galaxy. Our studies of extra-solar planets are getting more sophisticated, after all, and one day we may spot the presence of oxygen and water in our spectrographic studies of these distant worlds – an unambiguous indication that living entities exist there.

However, telescopic studies of extra-solar planets won’t reveal the nature of those lifeforms. Only by taking samples from planets in our solar system and returning them to laboratories on Earth, where we can study them, will we be able to reveal their exact nature and mode of replication – if they exist, of course. The little world of Enceladus could then have a lot to teach us.