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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.

Conclusion

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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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.

References 

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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Filed under Cambrian, Cambrian Explosion, Ediacarans, Evolution, Palaeontology

An optimistic approach to the Ediacaran biota?

There’s a bit of a problem with the Ediacaran fossil record – it’s not what was originally expected and the organisms we do find are problematic. Based on the complex and recognisable fossils of the Cambrian, it was anticipated that more primitive forms would be found in the Precambrian, and, in a sense, they were. When they were first recognised, Precambrian organisms appeared to fit what was predicted; amongst them, palaeontologists recognised possible sponges, jellyfish, assorted worm-like creatures, putative arthropods and echinoderms. The more they were studied, however, the more problems in classifying them arose.

At some point along the line, near enough every Ediacaran fossil which had been linked to modern phyla have been reassessed and their connections found wanting. There is a handful which can still tenuously be linked to modern groups, but there is an apparent dearth of expected animal fossils, especially when the molecular clock data is taken into account. There appears to be an evolutionary gulf between the Ediacaran biota and the Cambrian explosion fauna.

Part of the problem is preservation – comparing the fossils of the Ediacaran and the Cambrian is difficult considering that they are mostly preserved in very different ways; the fossils of the Ediacaran are soft-bodied organisms preserved mostly as moulds, the fossils of the early Cambrian are mostly tiny bits of shell and other hard parts, and then there are the exceptionally preserved organisms from deposits such as Chengjiang.

One approach we can take to link the Ediacaran and the Cambrian is to avoid trying to fit them into recognisable taxonomic groups, and instead focus on the attributes they share with modern animals, particularly their ecology. This was the process adopted by Mary Droser and Jim Gehling in a paper earlier this year, titled The advent of animals: The view from the Ediacaran. We can look at the Ediacaran period and see things which are usually associated with animals, even if we cannot properly classify the fossils in question.

Mobility

One thing which clearly sets animals apart is movement – worms wriggle through sediment, fish swim about, and, of course, us humans find as many different ways to move as possible. Many animals don’t move about for most of their lives, not least sponges and corals, both of which we might expect in the Ediacaran in some form, but movement on or in the sediment would potentially be evidence for bilateral animals milling around. Most of what we see from the Ediacaran are stationary organisms, attached to the sediment by a holdfast or resting on the surface. The earliest animal traces are from 565 Ma and are most similar to traces by the polyps of anemones, providing evidence of muscular contraction, evidence of which also comes in the form of the body fossil Haootia quadriformis which possessed bundles of muscle fibres and is a possible cnidarian. The most common trace fossils in later Ediacaran rocks are in the form of grooves and levees, called Helminthoidichnites, and are interpreted as being caused by an animal too small to be preserved and limited in size by the chemical conditions of the sediment. They appear to have been mining the microbial mats, also showing evidence of avoidance behaviour, and are likely to have been created by bilaterian animals.

A few Ediacaran body fossils are associated with traces as well, lending to their interpretation as bilaterian in nature. Kimberella is a box-shaped body fossil which is often associated with scratch marks (Kimberichnus) that has been commonly seen as bilateral and has even been considered to be a possible mollusc. The associated traces have been interpreted as evidence of mat grazing though there are differences between the grazing habits of Kimberella and those of molluscs. The likely related Dickinsonia and Yorgia have been found associated with faint casts of their bodies, which appear to be resting or feeding traces where they sat ingesting the microbial mat before moving on to another patch. They often also have possible muscular contraction marks, though this interpretation depends somewhat on their phylogenetic affinity. The advent of mobility is therefore not confined to the Cambrian period though it does see an increase in the number of modes of mobility, as it is a behavioural trait of bilateral animals found in the Ediacaran.

Reproduction

Sexual reproduction is another trait associated with modern animals found in the Ediacaran period. The puzzling organism Funisia is a collection of tube-like structures which were previously not even recognised as body fossils. They demonstrate branching patterns which are potential evidence of asexual budding, whilst their distribution appears to be due to the production of spats, a form of reproduction mostly found in sexual organisms. Though their phylogenetic affinity is puzzling, the likely sexual reproduction of Funisia highlights another metazoan trait found in the Ediacaran period.

Skeletonisation 

The Cambrian explosion was first recognised in the fossil record due to the geologically sudden appearance of skeletal parts. The evolution of hard parts appears to have been a key stage in the evolution of Metazoa though it is not restricted to the Cambrian. Droser and Gehling discussed the example of Coronacollina, a cone-shaped organism with long, straight spicules radiating outwards, interpreted as a sponge-grade organism which is important for being the oldest known multi-element organism. Other Ediacaran shelled organisms include Cloudina and Namapoikia which are possibly cnidarian-grade organisms but had their study been released more recently they would likely have included the latest interpretation of Namacalathus as a lophophore. Even if we cannot place them phylogenetically, the appearance of skeletal parts, particularly multi-element organisms, is a key step in metazoan evolution found in the Ediacaran.

Ecosystems 

Ediacaran fossils tend to have been preserved in the places they lived, as opposed to having been transported and dumped elsewhere. This allows them to be studied as communities and permits insight into their ecological nature. The Flinders Ranges of Australia contain a succession of beds which are characterised by a range of organisms in shallow marine settings. The same organisms tend to appear on each bed but with different abundances, suggesting a level of sophistication in communities similar to that in the Phanerozoic despite there being a lack of predation, organisms living in the sediment, and widespread skeletonisation.

Conclusions

Setting aside phylogenetic affinities, traits of modern animals are found in the Ediacaran period. An optimistic approach to the Ediacarans allows us to see signs of mobility and the presence of muscles, skeletonisation, sexual reproduction, and the beginning of complex ecosystems – all possible links to the animals found in the Cambrian, suggesting that poriferans, cnidarians and bilaterians were all found in the late Precambrian.

References

Droser, M.L. and Gehling, J.G. 2015. The advent of animals: The view from the Ediacaran. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 112: 16. [Link]

 

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I Chuffing Love Correcting Science Headlines – Namacalathus

Science journalism has a bit of an issue. With science news sites all over the internet, many take on the clickbait approach, sometimes unintentionally. It seems that whoever decides the title has often not read the article itself, and certainly hasn’t read the research upon which it is based. This mismatch would not be as big a deal if people read past the title, but many seem not to bother. One of the repeat offenders for this is the website I Fucking Love Science. In case you were not in the know, it is effectively a site for perving on the sexier side of science, those bits that make the public say “wow” and then go about their day thinking about other things. They do, from time to time, have some genuinely interesting and informative content, but they still need to tighten things up a bit.

My example today is due to their coverage of a story I posted about myself very recently. The late Ediacaran shelly fossil, Namacalathus, has a new interpretation being offered, and this is fascinating for anyone interested in the Cambrian explosion. I took a more conservative approach, much as I have with the title of this post (I actually don’t mind swearing, I just didn’t feel the need), in part because I intend to look at many more putative Precambrian animals, but also because I like to remain sceptical with potentially big news.

The offending article can be viewed here and is actually one of their better offerings, but there are issues. Firstly, they went with the title Newly Discovered Fossil Suggests Complex Skeletons Evolved Earlier Than Thought. It isn’t a huge error, and thankfully the attractive part of the headline isn’t blatantly false, but Namacalathus was described fifteen years ago, which is hardly a new discovery. They don’t even go on to mention that Namacalathus was previously thought to be a possible cnidarian, nor do they mention that this previous interpretation was based partly on the nature of reproduction (asexual budding) which is now used to suggest that the organism within the shell was bilaterally symmetrical. They are dead on with their information about the shell formation (something I personally covered in little detail) but didn’t include this standout gem.

The part of the title which is meant to pique your interest is the fact that these complex skeletons evolved earlier than thought. Yet the quotation at the end of the article, from researcher Rachel Wood, quite clearly says that these complex animals were suspected, and perhaps it would have been worth mentioning the discrepancies between the fossil record and molecular clocks.

There are some other issues which crop up time and again with this subject. The first is that science journalists seem a bit baffled about how to present the Ediacaran biota, which is no surprise, as they are baffling, but the article puts it in a rather misleading way, saying, “Paleontologists still aren’t sure what kind of life they are, but they were likely plant forms, algae, microbial mats, fungi or very primitive life forms called protists.” Putting possible plant affinities first in the list could potentially mislead as this was stated in a sentence after mentioning the Avalon explosion, which involved the arrival of frond-like organisms such as Charnia, an organism which does resemble a plant despite it living too deep for photosynthesis to work. They also neglect to mention many of the attempts to classify Ediacaran organisms which have placed them close to the base of the Metazoa and even within it. They could simply have called them “possible primitive animals” and they would not have been mistaken.

The second issue is that they misrepresent the Cambrian explosion, describing it first as “the period of ancient time complex life appeared to suddenly and rapidly evolve in,” and later as a “sudden appearance of life.” This is especially odd, considering that they provide links along with each statement, the first of which describes most of the change happening in the second and third stages of the early Cambrian, “a period of about 13 million years,” which is hardly sudden. The second link mentions that apparent new evidence suggests that the Cambrian explosion may have involved more gradual change. It is misleading, though common, to state that the Cambrian explosion was sudden, especially without qualifying in its geological context, where “sudden” can mean several million years.

Overall, the article does not do a terrible job presenting Namacalathus in its new light, as it does manage to sound exciting to laymen and gives some good information on the shell structure (even if I did feel that it neglected the reproductive strategy), but it does commit the sins of having a misleading title, a confusing approach to the already confusing Ediacaran biota, and an exaggerated description of the Cambrian explosion. They could also have done with some dissenting or sceptical views from a leading Ediacaran palaeontologist, but that’s not always as easy.

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Dinosaurs are useless?

Imagine that each scientific discovery is a piece of string, a strand amongst many, stretched out between two points. Many of the strings would connect to each other and form a web, some would be almost on their own, whilst there would be many big tangled networks clustered together. If they were colour coded for importance and usefulness, then we might expect the tangled balls to be the most vibrant. Pluck on one of the outlying strings and it might have little effect whereas a string close to a cluster might send vibrations everywhere.

By sheer luck I found this image from an art installation seen here: http://www.newamericanpublicart.com/stringfling/

Whenever a new palaeontological discovery hits social media, I have a bad habit of reading the comments, exposing myself to scientific illiteracy and ignorance, even on pages which claim to be for lovers of science. Whenever a new dinosaur discovery makes the news, people seem to come out in droves and the same few comments are repeated ad nauseam. There are the usual arguments about whether feathered dinosaurs can be as cool and/or as scary as reptilian dinosaurs, you’ll find someone commenting about Spielberg needing to make a new film (like he did with the hundreds of other dinosaur discoveries since Jurassic Park, right?), the odd Young Earth Creationist will emerge to doubt concepts such as deep time and evolution, you’ll witness self-appointed dinosaur experts correcting people and usually getting things wrong, and if it is a discovery about T. rex someone will declare that it is a fact that the tyrant king was a scavenger (a quick and easy way to frustrate dinosaur experts). Then there are the people who will declare that it is a useless discovery or that the scientists involved should be trying to cure cancer – my current issue.

Palaeontology as a whole has many useful functions, not least in mineral and oil exploration, but it is also used to inform conservationists about the impact of extinction and it helps us to understand how we evolved, for example. Dinosaurs, however, are more difficult to put into this sort of picture, though their impact on our understanding of extinction has been substantial (and let’s not forget that they are still around today as birds). The thing with science is that we don’t always know how a new discovery will impact other lines of thought. Palaeontologists have given insight into the history of cancer, they’ve provided examples of some of the interesting adaptations achieved by evolution which provide previously unknown engineering solutions, their contributions are broad, yet not always immediately obvious. Pluck a seemingly isolated string, bland in colour, and you might find a rhythmic thrum amongst the strands in a colourful cluster.

Dinosaurs are a success story for science capturing the public’s imagination. They get people paying attention, wanting to learn more about them, especially piquing the interests of children. They also give a sense of hope and the tangibility of involvement, as many major finds have been by complete novices getting out there and hunting for fossils. They bring people into our museums, they are the focus of many books, TV shows and films, they are reproduced as toys and ornaments (sadly often inaccurate). If a dinosaur discovery can get just one person more interested in science, then it cannot be labelled as useless. A child clutching at that string might find other strings, leading to a lifetime of dedication to science. We should never be so quick to judge a discovery as useless, it might change everything.

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