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Recent developments in neural science have shone a ray of optimism on individuals suffering with high levels of depression. The latest technology on the horizon involves implanting sensors under the skull which release tiny electrode pulses that target specific parts of the brain.

Patients who undergo the electrode therapy report feeling more alert and poised after treatment, and the technology is also being used for patients who have epilepsy.

In a recent edition of Current Biology, researchers are moving full steam ahead with the ambition of being able to implant a sensor that will detect the on-coming of a depressive episode and will react accordingly, zapping the brain out of its negative associative patterns.

This new kind of treatment has entered the realms of possibility as scientists are starting to fully map out the brain and thus are getting closer to identifying where exactly depression ‘occurs’ in the brain.

In the past, depression was seen more as a “chemical imbalance” where adding more of what was ‘missing’ would restore a patient to better mental health. Now, researchers have switched to a circuit-inspired framework and argue that when different parts of the brain change the way they interact with each other, this can lead a person into a state of depression.

Medics and Psychologists would be wise to explore the science surrounding depression and the various treatments on offer to patients. Being able to talk about state-of-the-art medical practices will show your research skills and make your personal statement or interview really stand out!

We all want a bit of L-O-V-E, from homo sapiens, through to dolphins and of course the various sub-groups of the Heliconius toxic butterfly species.

Scientists are intrigued by two central American sub-species in particular  – the red-winged Heliconius Melpomene Rosina and the white-winged Heliconius Cydno Chioneus. This pair have been part of the same ecosystem for a million years and competed for the same resources and yet have remained genetically distinct with very few instances of interbreeding.

One evolutionary explanation posits that these species haven’t blended through the generations because any off spring would have a blend of wing patterns. This would be a free-for-all for other predators who only identify danger in the distinct red or white-winged patterns of Melpomene and Cydno respectively. Therefore, being an easy target means hybrid butterfly babies don’t live long enough to pass on their own mixed genes.

But why won’t Melpomene and Cydno get it on? The recently published journal PLOS biology attributes this lack of romance to genetics. The team of researches believe to have  found which parts of the genome determine mating preferences.

It’s also understood that there is a link between wing patterning and mating preference. The genes that are said to have an influence on mating preference are located very close to the Optix which is responsible for the colouring of the butterfly species’ wings. Although this is not firmly understood, scientists are optimistic that cameras and machine learning will help identify exactly what the processes are.

This case in genetics is called ‘reproductive isolating’ and it’s definitely a great topic for biologists to explore in their personal statements and interviews.

Meet Aloxotl  (pronounced ah-loh-shottle) – most likely the cutest little amphibian you’ve ever seen. A quick google search reveals it and ancient Aztec religion revered it. This gorgeous little creature is almost unbelievable, but don’t underestimate how important its potential may be in revolutionising human history.  

Aloxotls are neotenic and do not fully mature unlike their other salamander counterparts. This means they live out their lives underwater in a ‘Peter Pan’ style prolonged youth. They have been invaluable assets to genetic science and scientists are close to the point of having fully mapped out their entire genome.

This salamander is special because of their uncanny ability to regenerate almost every part of their body including parts of their brain, and in lab environments their gills are able to transform into lungs under the right circumstances.

Studying Aloxotls provides geneticists with incredible insights that could eventually be adapted to human medicine. One ability this friendly-faced amphibian has is to convert cells at the site of injury back into stem cells where they become much more malleable. Although this process has been hitherto mysterious, a fully mapped out genome will give scientists the co-ordinates to zero in on the exact communication between different genes.

However, this story of hope and wonder comes with a serious slice of caution pie. Aloxotl’s in their natural habitats are severely endangered as Mexico City has expanded evermore over the Mexican landscape.

Although Aloxotls can survive in artificial tanks, preserving a wild population is essential if scientists want to be able to apply their insights to the human genome.

Students considering any Biology related degrees should definitely spend more time researching the particulars of the Aloxotl genome and its implications on stem cell advancement. Geographers and Earth Scientists might want to consider the environmental frame of this story as an example of species endangerment through human destruction of natural habitats. 

Natural Scientists and those with otherworldly interests will be in awe of man’s latest achievement in the cosmos. This all comes from China’s recent botanical miracle on the moon which has further cemented the nation’s status as a major player in space exploration. China’s Chang’e 4 Biosphere experiment has proved literally fruitful as cotton shoots have successfully sprouted and started to grow on the moon. This was confirmed by an image released by the China National Space Administration (CNSA).

A mixture of plants, fungi and insects including rapeseed, potato, arabidopsis, yeast and fruit fly eggs have all been transported and  carefully selected to make up a self-sustaining micro-ecosystem. Despite risks of contamination of the moon, these biological stuffs are sealed in an air-tight canister that has been meticulously constructed by a collection of Chinese universities.

The experiments findings will help scientists understand how to grow various flora in the harsh extra-terrestrial environments where there is low gravity. To be able to harness this will be hugely beneficial to astronauts going on long-term missions as well as more distant goals such as terraforming the moon and mars for future humans to migrate to.

Man’s future in space is a fantastic application of scientific knowledge and one that scientists of all persuasions should consider for their personal statements. I don’t know about you – but I’ll be twiddling my thumbs waiting for those fruit fly eggs to hatch!

The 1970s  British sitcom ‘Porridge’ is now available to watch on Netflix, but the BBC programme is sadly showing its age in several ways. The show not any demonstrates outdated attitudes, but also reflects a time when a prisoner’s lifestyle would have been very different.

The comedy found its name from the 1950s expression ‘doing porridge’ which meant serving a jail sentence. Porridge used to be a significant part of a prisoner’s diet, but news has emerged that the breakfast food has now been banned in prisons for over a decade.

Prisoners at HMC Parc have told the prison paper ‘Inmate Inside’ that oatmeal is not permitted because it can be used to block up door locks. They are, however, allowed to purchase ‘Ready Brek’ from the canteen because of its thinner consistency. Porridge is also banned because oats can be fermented to produce illicit hooch.

Back in the 1800s, inmates used to be provided with a ratio of 5 ounces of oats served with three-quarters of a pint of milk. Jailbirds are now served something more akin to a plane breakfast with a tray of basic spreads, bread, cereal, tea, instant coffee and UHT milk delivered to prisoner’s cells the night before. The hot communal breakfast is now unheard of behind the bars of UK jails.

Future HSPS students should consider whether prisons suffer from not having a hot meal and some socialisation times in the morning. 
Students wishing to study Chemistry or Biology at Oxbridge might want to examine the bonding properties of milky oats and how alcohol can be fermented from oats. 

Raw honey is considered to be a natural energy source, antioxidant and handy hayfever preventative, but how different is it to its cousin which is found on the supermarket shelves?

Recent studies have shown that commercial honey is often more than just stored, heated, chemically refined, pasteurised and filtered (if that wasn’t enough). Much of the honey sold in the United States has been declared by food health and safety experts to consist largely of sweeteners, unrefined sugar, corn syrup and a tiny amount of real honey. This process of passing off impure honey as real honey is now known as ‘honey laundering’.

When one imagines cartels dealing in illegal substances, honey isn’t often the first thing to spring to one’s mind, however honey is a very valuable product! The sticky substance is consumed in vast quantities in the States, either in baked products or used as a topping. The US Department of Justice has indicted two American companies for selling mislabelled honey and has handed out several million-dollar fines to other brands.

Honey imported from Asia contains even more horrors than that produced in North America, such as metal toxins and antibiotics. These bee antibiotics are banned in the USA, however the unpleasant taste can be disguised by more added sugar in imports. The Chinese ‘bulked up’ honey can be sold for far lower prices than its real counterparts and, as a result, Chinese honey is subject to heavy duties. To avoid these import taxes, honey from China is often shipped to neighbouring countries, before passing to the US to disguise its original origin.

It can be difficult to judge the difference between real honey and ‘fake’ honey, however there are some subtle signs that a consumer can pick up on. Pure honey should be thick and viscous in texture, have no saccharine aftertaste, and be silky when rubbed between the figures.

Students that desire to study PPE at Oxford or HSPS at Cambridge should examine the ethics that are involved in the sale of ‘natural’ foods. Aspiring Medicine students should consider the harm caused to public health by contaminated honey. Those interested in pursuing the study of Economics should read up on the consequences of a market flooded by counterfeit products.

For millennia, mankind has utilised dung as a fuel, combusting it for heating, as well as the more commonly known applications as fertiliser. But a bright spark in Worcestershire’s Malvern Hills has now created the UK’s first dog poo powered street lamp, illuminating a well-known beauty spot whilst helping keep its public footpaths and benches free of stools.

Brian Harper, with financial backing from the Malvern Hills Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, developed the contraption which allows dog walkers to deposit their doggies’ do-dos as they normally would in conventional dog-litter bins found in parks and urban areas. A quick turn of the bin’s handle then mixes the foul fuel encouraging it to emit biomethane, a flammable gas generated by biological activity within the dung. The gas is collected in a reservoir and is then burned at dusk to power the light. Ten paper based doggy bags of poo can power the light for two hours.

The lamp began trials in November after more than two years of development and testing by Mr Harper. A similar municipal project in Ontario, Canada has demonstrated over five months of trials that dog poo collected from across three district parks can meet the electricity demands of 13 homes and remove 630kg of CO2 from the atmosphere. Not only has Mr Harper’s invention provided a suitable place to dispose of the unwanted excrement, but is diverting it away from conventional landfill sites and preventing it contaminating the ecologically sensitive watercourses in the area. It is a beacon for innovative, grassroots thinking and for the wider issues of sustainability in municipal planning.

Students wishing to study Natural Sciences should read into biomethane production by anaerobic digestion of organic waste and the harmful effects of dog poo in the environment and the risk of toxocariasis in humans.

Revenge is natural and it is good for you, says David Chester of Virginia Commonwealth University, a researcher who has been studying human aggression.

Revenge, and the desire to inflict retribution is a hard-wired evolutionary response, interestingly built in to provide emotional recovery. When an individual is slighted or wronged, a sharp emotional pain is created, and the brain tries to provide homeostasis through revenge, which triggers the brain’s reward circuit, the nucleus accumbens. Further studies showed that not only does the actual act of vengeance create a neural stimulation, but the anticipation of revenge creates a craving, which goes some way to explaining the erratic behaviour sometimes seen in individuals.

Students going for Classics should think about revenge forms the basis of some of the prolific works that they might read eg. Achilles’ revenge on Hector for the death of Patrocles; Hera’s multiple revenges on Zeus. Biology students should think about evolutionary traits and how they are passed on, and how they can be tested to a scientific level.

The Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine 2016 has been awarded this year to Yoshinori Ohsumi for his discoveries on the mechanisms of autophagy.

Autophagy is when a cell destroys its own contents and effectively recycles itself. This mechanism has been very difficult to capture, and therefore little progress has been made in understanding the core physiology behind this concept.

Ohsumi’s work that has been going on since the late 1980s means that he has managed to identify the first genes essential for autophagy in a human cell, and outline the cascade of proteins and protein complexes that lead to the autophagy as a response to external stresses faced by a cell such as starvation and viral infection.

This news should be insightful to anyone doing Medicine, Biological Sciences, Biomedicine or Biochemistry. All the students of the mentioned subjects can look at how gene encoding works, why a cell would want to destroy itself, and looking in deeper detail into the internal compartments of a cell. Given that the initial experiments were carried out by Ohsumi on yeast cells, students can look at why yeast cells are commonly used as the model cells for cell behaviour, and how they are similar to human cells.

For years, scientists have known about the sheer indestructibility of tardigrades, or water bears as they are sometimes known—microscopic animals that can withstand being boiled, frozen, exposed to a vacuum and being subjected to direct doses of lethal radiation.

But now, scientists have identified the exact protein that allows tardigrades to protect their DNA when exposed to such testing conditions. They went as far as to inserting this gene, which hey named Dsup (damage suppressor) onto human cell DNA and testing whether the human cells were more damage resistant. The success of this experiment leads to several possible future uses, from protecting human DNA for transport to creating hyper-resistant flora for terraforming the surface of Mars.

Biological Sciences students can look at how genes manifest themselves in organisms, and how they can be passed on both naturally and artificially. Chemistry students can look at how radiation is produced, and how it chemically destroys organic living cells.

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