I love you to the Moon and back

I’m not the most romantic of people. Despite at least one of my favourite films being a quirky romance (Amélie) and my favourite poem fitting into that category (He Wishes For The Cloths of Heaven by WB Yeats, but also check out my favourite Yorkshire dialect poem Erroo’as by Benny Wilkinson), I tend to cringe when anyone is being soppy about their partners. The phrase I love you to the Moon and back has always garnered a derisive snort from me, but that will have to stop.

The Moon is an average of 238,855 miles from the Earth and at perigee, its closest point, it is 225,623 miles away. On average, a person walks around 7,500 steps per day, which amounts to around 216,262,500 steps in an 80 year lifetime. With the average stride, this amounts to around 110,000 miles, which isn’t enough to get halfway to the Moon even at its closest point. Loving someone to the Moon and back would equate to around four lifetimes of walking, which is extremely dedicated.

It is also approximately 451 times more miles than the romantic benchmark set by The Proclaimers. 


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Science and the EU

Science is one of those pesky areas of study which can impact on any part of life whether you realise it or not. Scientific research affects the technology we are becoming increasingly reliant upon, it affects healthcare, how we understand and respond to climate change, how we can feed and house an increasing global population, how we can provide energy on a sustainable level, and how we understand our place on this planet and in the universe, among other things. Having UK research at the forefront of science is advantageous as we become more aware of some of the many obstacles we will face over the coming decades.

Currently, the European Union is increasingly the world’s biggest scientific contributor, ahead of the US and China, and the UK sits alongside Germany as one of the major influencers within the EU network, recently becoming number one globally in terms of scientific productivity. The UK is able to help guide scientific research which benefits us, the EU, and has a global impact. Science is becoming increasingly collaborative and we are at the forefront of that progress as a member of the EU, winning the majority of the most prestigious grants (€1.7bn to Germany’s €1.1bn from 2007-2013). In the current funding period, UK-based researchers are lead coordinators for 892 projects, whilst Germany boasts 532 lead coordinators and our position within the EU gives us priority access to major scientific facilities throughout the union.

The UK spends 1.7% of GDP on research, below the average of 1.9% for EU nations, but this is not an issue whilst in the EU. In the 2007-2013 period, the UK gave €78bn to the EU, €5.4bn of which went into research and development; the UK received an impressive €8.8bn in grants for R&D in return. Universities in the UK receive around 16% of their research funding from the EU and 15% of academic staff are non-UK EU nationals (rising to 20% in elite universities).

The free sharing of ideas, increased mobility of scientists and increased collaboration are all major contributors to the advancement of science, which are all achieved through our position in the EU. We also have collaboration between universities, industry, regulators, and healthcare providers, all facilitated by our EU membership (the Innovative Medicines Initiative, for example). The life sciences industry alone is worth around £56 billion per year to the UK economy and EU membership encourages major medical technology and pharmaceutical companies to base projects in the UK.

What if we leave? 

Outside of the European Union, 13 countries successfully receive funding for scientific research, most notably Switzerland and Israel. Both Switzerland and Israel are associated states which are more successful than the UK with grant applications to the EU and receive more funding per capita as well. The UK also has major collaborations with CERN and the European Space Agency, both of which are outside of the EU and are hugely successful on the global stage. EU regulations on clinical trials have been accused of hampering medical research in the UK and the EU’s position on GM crops is enforced – both of which can arguably be improved by leaving the union.

It is not out of the question that the UK could continue to receive EU funding for scientific research, but it would likely take a heavy blow. Those prestigious grants where the UK lead with €1.7bn from 2007-2013? Switzerland and Israel won €0.6bn and €0.4bn respectively. Those 892 lead coordinators? Israel can boast 90, whilst Switzerland manage 15. Some might argue that the money we save through EU payments could be used to fund our own research, even though we would likely still make payments and the economy is expected to suffer during the negotiation period after we depart the union. Our 1.7% of GDP spent on research is paltry compared to Switzerland (2.8%) and Israel (4.4%) and would, if anything, decrease.

One of the major appeals for leaving the EU is the ostensible ability to better control our borders and clamp down on immigration. In order to access EU research networks, freedom of movement is required in order to become an associate state (Israel get out of this due to the date they became associates). After Switzerland’s referendum to limit migration, they were reduced to partial associate status, heavily impacting their ability to receive funding and precipitating a loss in confidence in their researchers’ abilities to commit to EU projects. If they continue their fight against mass immigration, they might find theirselves relegated to third country status and take a further hit to their funding.

Upon exiting the EU, the UK would give up a key position in the European Research Area Committee, able to attend but with restricted input. Priority would be lost for access to facilities, major biotech and pharmaceutical companies would have less incentive to base research in the UK, and non-UK EU researchers would have fewer reasons to remain or take work in the country.


Whether we should remain in the EU is a multi-faceted issue and should not be decided based on a single policy, but when it comes to scientific research it seems obvious to me why fewer than 1 in 8 UK scientists thinks that we should leave. We can either go it alone and risk taking a huge nosedive in available funding, risk scaring off EU researchers and companies, and take a hit to our global standing, or we can remain a heavily funded leader of one of the top research networks in the world. Hindering our scientific advances will only exacerbate other issues which are becoming increasingly important, so this is about much more than science.

A few resources:

The parliamentary science and technology committee inquiries, here.

The inquiry case for remaining in the EU, here.

The inquiry case for leaving, here.

The Nature poll, here, and an article about the debate, here.

Some useful figures on the funding, here.

And some opinion articles which influenced this hasty blog post, here, here and here.

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The Tree of Life needs to be chopped down?

In January 2009, the popular science magazine New Scientist ran a controversial cover story declaring that “Darwin was wrong,” about the Tree of Life. Darwin famously presented the concept of life branching like a tree in his seminal work and it has been a mainstay, almost an icon, of evolutionary theory ever since. Unsurprisingly, anti-evolutionists aim a lot of their criticisms at this understanding of evolution. It is not uncommon for them to reference the New Scientist article and the evidence it presents. Such an article was doing the rounds recently on Facebook, so I felt the urge to have my say.

The Tree of Life is a model for understanding evolution, but it is not applicable in all cases. Organisms often swap genes through a process called Horizontal Gene Transfer (HGT) which can render the use of a tree ineffective – when genes are hopping about from branch to branch they can no longer be traced in the linear fashion necessary for a tree with dichotomous branching. Whole organisms can also combine, through a process known as endosymbiosis, wherein an organism becomes part of a larger host cell as they become mutually dependent – it’s how eukaryotes have mitochondria. When whole organisms combine, you suddenly have two branches growing into each other. The same problem arises near the tips of branches, where hybridisation amongst closely related species messes with the tree metaphor. All of these things combined make evolution more like a tangled web than a tree of life, so do we need to chop down the tree and find a new metaphor?

There are two ways a model can be used in science which are relevant here. Firstly, the model can be used to literally describe the important features which fit every example of the phenomenon in question. Secondly, the model can be used to give a detailed description of one example, which is used as a basis for understanding more complex examples. The Tree of Life does not fit the first approach very well, so any evolutionary biologist (or critic) looking for it to function this way are not going to find it useful. It does, however, fit the second approach, as multicellular organisms generally do pass on their genes in the linear fashion required for the Tree of Life model to work, so it can be used as a basis for understanding the more complex additions of HGT, endosymbiosis and hybridisation. In this latter sense, it is also useful pedagogically – students learn the basic branching concept of the ToL before moving on to more complex models; that’s how many concepts are taught in science, for example, students learn about electron shells before they learn about how we understand the positions of electrons in light of quantum mechanics.

I like to think of the theory of evolution as a bit like a bungalow. Darwin and Wallace laid the foundations and built the frame of the building, but it needed more to be a home. The Modern Synthesis gave it walls, windows and doors, but it’s not quite the same building we can walk around today. Since then, some walls have been knocked down, some new ones added, rooms redecorated, even a conservatory and a porch built. Darwin and Wallace would possibly not recognise this home at first – they would need a good look around, but they would still recognise it as a bungalow; no extra floors have been added – it certainly isn’t a tower building masquerading as a bungalow. Theories are often relatively simple and that allows them to cover a broad range of phenomena. That’s a strength, not a weakness.

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I’ve been absent…

I haven’t posted anything since early December, something which needs to change as soon as possible. December was an incredibly busy month, so naturally I struggled to find time to write (and when writing anything science related you really should take your time). Then I got out of the swing of things. The 6 Nations rugby is getting in the way a bit lately, but I need to stop making excuses. Expect a few short pieces, maybe some personal things.

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Intelligent Design’s problem with the Cambrian explosion

Last night I made a grave error. I made the mistake of attempting to peruse the Intelligent Design movement’s main website, Evolution News and Viewsto see what they have said about recent developments on the Cambrian explosion. I personally don’t think that researchers should give them much thought, but as I am currently just a blogger I will occasionally address them. It is my intention to get my hands on Stephen Meyer’s book Darwin’s Doubt and review it though that may be a long time coming, especially considering that they have made a follow-up to address critics. Until I have read their books, I don’t plan on getting into the details of their arguments. Right now, however, I am more concerned with their approach to the supposed debate.

Firstly, they sound desperate to appear original and as though scientists researching the Cambrian explosion are slowly coming round to their way of thinking. They often state things in a way which suggests that Meyer got there first, for example, Graham Budd was apparently recently “confirming Meyer’s denial” about Precambrian organisms, when the reality is that the interpretations Meyer favours were first offered by evolution-accepting palaeontologists. Cambrian and Ediacaran experts are constantly described as admitting to something which the ID crowd believes; their loaded language is meant to give the impression that they are way ahead of the experts.

The ID presentation of the Cambrian explosion appears to be that is that it was relatively short (10 million years appears to be a figure they will accept), that bilaterian phyla appeared very suddenly in the Cambrian, that there were no precursors found amongst Ediacaran organisms, and that there is no satisfactory evolutionary explanation for it. You will find all of these views, even the last one, preceding Meyer’s publications and from experts in relative fields. The problem for them here is that they are not trying to solve any problems – they already think that they have the answer, yet it really offers no explanation.

Secondly, they consistently complain that they are being ignored. Nobody name-drops Meyer, nobody cites his book, nobody addresses his main thesis. They even do this when discussing papers which focus on specific phenomena, as though every single paper relating to the Cambrian explosion must address their pet theory (I use that term loosely). They are like the guy in a bar who seems to want everyone to fight him (perhaps better left ignored). Scientists are quite happily dissecting every aspect of the Cambrian diversification, looking at the genetic changes involved, the divergence times, the environmental changes, taphonomic changes, identifying fossils and working out how they fit in, looking at the timings of the events and so on. The debate is ongoing, there are many, many voices clamouring to be heard, trying desperately to tie together an overwhelmingly large, yet incomplete, dataset which befuddles even the most astute mind. Teasing out cause and effect in deep time is difficult and frustrating, people come at it from different angles, new evidence and new ideas can cause major shifts in thought. Meyer and his crew are desperate to be the most heard voice, they want their issue addressed and until someone addresses it they will assume that they are being ignored (which is tantamount to admitting defeat, by the looks of it).

Their third issue is that their main focus isn’t actually at the heart of the Cambrian explosion, despite their best wishes. The diversification can be perceived in many ways, with current thought often favouring its interpretation as an ecological explosion. It has often been perceived as an explosion in disparate body plans, which is not exactly the wrong way to look at it, but can be seen as the result of the ecological driving forces. The ID proponents take this a step further; it isn’t simply about body plans – it’s about the new information behind those body plans. With their rapid appearance narrative of the Cambrian explosion, this perspective on the diversification seems like a major issue, a sudden, unprecedented influx of biological information. Understandably, when addressing some of the ecological forces at play we don’t necessarily need to address the genetic changes, but they can’t always accept that. The genetic changes are important, but it does seem to be the case that the genetic toolkit necessary was already largely in place well before the Cambrian explosion (sponges, for example, appear to have some functioning genes which are used in more complex organisms in the development of the nervous system). So some Precambrian organisms may have had the capacity for evolving some of the body plans we see in the Cambrian, but nothing to cause them to do so – having a football pitch, a ball and 22 people does not ensure that a football match will take place.

This pushes the issue back, which ID theorists would like to present as a retreat, as hiding from the problem. The reality is that when you are concentrating on the Cambrian explosion you look at the stage which has been set and then analyse the changes. The environment is part of the stage, the organisms which preceded the radiation are part of it too, and the genetic toolkit is part as well. This is not to say that no new genes were necessary for the Cambrian explosion, but that it is not a major issue. The evolution of regulatory networks and of new genes is a separate question, which I get the impression that they know as it allows them to paint this picture of retreating evolutionary biologists. They can keep pushing back and back because ultimately they know that the origin of information goes back to the origin of life and that is where they truly set up camp, not the Cambrian explosion.

In summation, one tactic of the ID proponents is to try to sound original, when the reality is that the majority of their views on the Cambrian explosion are taken from actual researchers who accept evolution. They also complain repeatedly that they are being ignored, often because their personal favoured views are not being addressed. Finally, their issue is not really with the Cambrian explosion, but with the origins of information at life’s beginnings. The Cambrian explosion isn’t what they think it is, but as long as they continue to present it their way they will always feel ignored and as though experts are conceding to them. They will just persist in offering only criticisms and complaints.

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What’s in a title? – Eokinorhynchus the spiky, armoured worm

If this were a popular blog and not in its nascent stages I would run this as a competition. Titles for science news articles are tough to write and are not often the choice of the author of the article. They need to be attractive, yet risk being misleading click-bait, and they need to be informative which risks being dull. Here is a recent example that has me stumped and wondering what others might come up with.

The news in question is the discovery and description of Eokinorhynchus rarus, along with other unnamed kinorhynchs, providing the first evidence for phylum Kinorhyncha in the fossil record. It is from the Cambrian period and may prove crucial in understanding the evolution of related groups, not least its own. The scientific paper naturally went for the informative title: Armored kinorhynch-like scalidophoran animals from the early Cambrian.

Image credit: Dinghua Yang

Here are a few examples of science news sites and the headlines they went with. First, I Fucking Love Science:

IFLS kinorhynch

Naturally I did click it when I saw it, but that’s because I am already interested in anything which lived “half a billion years ago”. Calling it a spiky, armoured worm is not helpful at all, especially given the attention span of many of their readers – they often think two different pieces of news are about the same thing, even when the articles clearly state otherwise (I dare you to read the comments). They have published a few articles about spiky, armoured worms from the Cambrian, from many different phyla, so whilst it might be attempting to sound interesting it will inevitably create confusion. livescience went with the following:

Livescience kinorhynch

They have obviously gone for attention grabbing with no hint at the importance of the beast. Possibly my favourite comes from ZME Science:

zme kinorhynch

Yep, you read that correctly. The great news about Eokinorhynchus is that it is “ridiculously” armoured (as armoured as it gets!). The article itself isn’t much better. The South China Morning Post went for the most optimistic and patriotic option:

scmp kinorhynch

It’s the most sensational of the lot and, though it does mention it in the headline, its focus is not the armour of old E. rarus. And finally, forgive me for this, but the Daily Mail seemed to really want to put emphasis on how old it is.

daily mail kinorhynch

Half a BILLION indeed. I can mock the headlines offered by other sites, but I honestly don’t know what would be better. Emphasising its potential importance might not be appealing to the casual reader without risking exaggeration (or capital letters). Trying to sound exciting has focussed on the armour of E. rarus, which doesn’t have wide appeal (and may make some think they know it already). What’s the secret to a good headline for palaeo-news?

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Ediacaran ecosystem engineers – the Savannah hypothesis and our Skynet-type origins

Image from Wikipedia.

Out on the savannah, it is easy to find certain resources as they tend to be concentrated in limited areas. Trees, termite mounds, changes in terrain, all contribute to this concentration of resources. It is this sort of environment which has been hypothesised as resulting in our own bipedality which enabled human ancestors to move efficiently between resource hotspots. In a recent review, Budd and Jensen have proposed a ‘savannah’ hypothesis as an explanation for the evolution of bilaterian animals and consequently the Cambrian explosion.

Bilaterian animals are widely thought to have driven the Cambrian explosion, particularly as they function as ecosystem engineers altering the environment around them. The burrowing activities of bilateral organisms altered ocean chemistry and the nature of the sediment, opening up more resources to be exploited and resulting in a cascade of diversification. But why did bilaterians evolve in the first place? Ecological causes for the Cambrian explosion tend to presuppose features they should be explaining, such as the ability to burrow or the presence of predation (both likely contributed enormously to the diversification, but were also caused by it). Environmental causes tend to suggest limiting factors such as a lack of oxygen, which may actually be mistaking cause for effect.

The savannah hypothesis suggests that the Ediacaran biota also functioned as ecosystem engineers, causing carbon hotspots in the sediment and water around the organisms which were exploited by bilaterian animals which went on to diversify, eventually displacing their Ediacaran providers. Dissolved organic carbon in Ediacaran seas would not likely have clumped together, instead being spread out through the water column – not an economical resource for active organisms. Burrowing is highly energetic and would require dissolved carbon to be concentrated; without the Ediacaran organisms it would have been too diluted and sequestered away by the abundant microbial mats. Just like trees on the savannah, the Ediacaran biota concentrated dissolved organic carbon, providing sufficient resources for active burrowing and the need for motility.

In their thorough review, Budd and Jensen challenge the view that Ediacaran organisms went extinct by the start of the Cambrian period having been outcompeted and devoured by bilateral organisms. Instead, they survey putative evidence that shows that bilaterians first appeared towards the end of the Ediacaran period and that Ediacaran-type organisms persisted well into the Cambrian (and perhaps longer). At first, bilaterians would have been dependent on the Ediacaran ecosystem engineering, but went on to evolve their own sessile forms, such as crown-group sponges, and predatory habits which made them a threat to the Ediacaran biota – comparable perhaps to humans in the Terminator franchise creating Skynet and setting up their own demise.

They also reviewed the phylogeny of basal animals and take the view that sponges form a single clade which is the sister group to all other animals. They coined the term “Apoikozoa” which encompasses all animals and their sister group the choanoflagellates. And they made a case for Ediacaran organisms being early animals, albeit hugely problematic, whilst being highly critical of some of the optimistic interpretations. It is a paper which has provided a lot to mull over.


Budd, GE. and Jensen, S. 2015. The origin of the animals and a ‘Savannah’ hypothesis for early bilaterian evolution. Biological Reviews. doi: 10.1111/brv.12239

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