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Epic issues: epic poetry from the dawn of modernity

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Thu, 08/02/2018 - 11:00

Maybe it was the language, architecture, codified legal system, regulated economy, military discipline – or maybe it really was public safety and aqueducts. Whatever the Romans did for us, their reputation as a civilising force who brought order to the western world has, in the public imagination, stood the test of time remarkably well. It is especially strong for an Empire that has been battered by close historical scrutiny for almost 2,000 years. 

The reputation, of course, has more than a grain of truth to it – but the real story is also more complex. Not only did the Empire frequently endure assorted forms of severely uncultured political disarray, but for the kaleidoscope of peoples under its dominion, Roman rule was a varied experience that often represented an unsettling rupture with the past. As Professor Mary Beard put it in her book SPQR: “there is no single story of Rome, especially when the Roman world had expanded far outside Italy.” 

So perhaps another way to characterise the Roman Empire is as one of cultures colliding – a swirling melting pot of ideas and beliefs from which concepts that would define western civilisation took form. This is certainly closer to the view of Tim Whitmarsh, the A. G. Leventis Professor of Greek Culture at Cambridge, who is the principal investigator on a project that has examined Greek epic poetry during this period.

“This is perhaps the most important period for thinking about where European culture comes from,” says Whitmarsh. “We really are at the dawn of modernity. To tell the story of an Empire which remains the model for so many forms of international power is to tell the story of what we became, and what we are.”

His interest in the Greek experience stems partly from the fact that few cultures under Roman rule can have felt more keenly the fissure it wrought between present and past. In political terms, Ancient Greek history arguably climaxed with the empires established in the aftermath of the conquests of Alexander the Great (356–323 BCE). In the period when this poetry was written, from the first to the sixth centuries CE, the Greek world had been annexed by the Romans.

Yet the relationship between the two cultures was ambiguous. Greek-speaking peoples were subordinate in one sense, but their language continued to dominate the eastern Empire – increasingly so as it became a separate entity centred on Byzantium, as Christianity emerged and as the Latin-speaking west declined. Greek remained the primary medium of cultural transmission through which these changes were expressed. Greek communities therefore found themselves linked closely to their past, while also coming to terms with a fast-metamorphosing future.

Epic poetry, which many associate with Homer’s tales of heroic adventure, seems an odd choice of lens through which to examine the transformation. Whitmarsh thinks its purpose has been misunderstood.

“In the modern West, we often get Greek epic wrong by thinking about it as a repository for ripping yarns,” he says. “Actually, it was central to their sense of how the world operated. This wasn’t a world of scripture; it wasn’t primarily one of the written word at all. The vitality of the spoken word, in the very distinctive hexametrical pattern of the poems, was the single way they had of indicating authoritative utterance.”

It is perhaps the most important tool available for understanding how the Greeks navigated their loss of autonomy under the Romans and during the subsequent rise of Christianity. In recent years, such questions have provoked a surge of interest in Greek literature during that time, but epic poetry itself has largely been overlooked, perhaps because it involved large, complex texts around which it is difficult to construct a narrative.

Funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, Whitmarsh and his collaborators set out to systematically analyse the poetry and its cultural history for the first time. “We would argue it’s the greatest gap in ancient cultural studies – one of the last uncharted territories of Greek literature,” he adds.

The final outputs will include books and an edited collection of the poems themselves, but the team started simply by establishing “what was out there”. Astonishingly, they uncovered evidence of about a thousand texts. Some remain only as names, others exist in fragments; yet more are vast epics that survive intact. Together, they show how the Greeks were rethinking their identity, both in the context of the time, and that of their own past and its cultural legacy.

A case in point is Quintus of Smyrna, author of the Posthomerica – a deceptive title since chronologically it fills the gap between Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, even though it was written later. Quintus’ style was almost uber-Homeric, elaborately crafted to create an almost seamless connection with the past. Yet there is evidence that, having done so, he also deliberately disrupted it. “His use of similes is quite outrageous by Homer’s standards, for example,” Whitmarsh says. The reason could be Quintus’ painful awareness of a tension between the Homeric past and his own present. Conflicted identity is a theme that connects many poems of the period. The poet Oppian, for instance, who wrote an epic on fish and fishing, provides us with an excellent example of how his generation was seeking to reconceive Greek selfhood in the shadow of Rome.

The work ostensibly praises the Emperor as master over land and sea – a very Roman formula. Oppian then sabotages his own proclamation by questioning whether anyone truly can command the sea’s depths, a feat that must surely be a journey of the intellect and imagination. Having acknowledged the Emperor’s political power, he was, in effect, implying that the Greeks were perhaps greater masters of knowledge. 

The researchers expected to find that this tension gave way to a clearer, moralistic tone, with the rise of Christianity. Instead, they found it persisted. Nonnus of Panopolis, for example, wrote 21 books paraphrasing the Gospel of St John, but not, it would seem, from pure devotion, since he also wrote 48 freewheeling stories about the Greek god Dionysus. Collectively, this vast assemblage evokes parallels between the two, not least because resurrection themes emerge from both. Nonnus also made much of the son of God’s knack for turning water into wine – a subject that similarly links him to Dionysus, god of winemaking.

Beyond Greek identity itself, the poetry hints at shifting ideas about knowledge and human nature. Oppian’s poetic guide to fishing, for instance, is in fact much more. “I suspect most fishermen and fisherwomen know how to catch fish without reading a Greek epic poem,” Whitmarsh observes. In fact, the poem was as much about deliberately stretching the language conventionally used to describe aquaculture, and through it blurring the boundaries between the human and non-human worlds.

Far from just telling stories, then, these epic poems show how, in an era of deeply conflicted identities, Greek communities tried to reorganise their sense of themselves and their place in the world, and give this sense a basis for future generations. Thanks to Whitmarsh and his team, they can now be read, as they were meant to be, on such terms. 

“The poetry represents a cultural statement from the time, but it is also trying to be timeless,” he adds. “Each poem was trying to say something about its topic for eternity. The fact that we are still reading them today, and finding new things to say about them, is a token of their success.”

Inset image: Wine jar made in Athens around 535 BC. © The Trustees of the British Museum.

Epic poems telling of cultures colliding, deeply conflicted identities and a fast-changing world were written by the Greeks under Roman rule in the first to the sixth centuries CE. Now, the first comprehensive study of these vast, complex texts is casting new light on the era that saw the dawn of Western modernity.  

Each poem was trying to say something about its topic for eternity. The fact that we are still reading them today, and finding new things to say about them, is a token of their successTim Whitmarsh© The Trustees of the British MuseumAchilles killing Penthesilea, as described in the epic poem Posthomerica written by Quintus of Smyrna in the 3rd century CE; detail from a wine jar made in Athens around 535 BC


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Scientists identify exoplanets where life could develop as it did on Earth

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 08/01/2018 - 19:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge and the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology (MRC LMB), found that the chances for life to develop on the surface of a rocky planet like Earth are connected to the type and strength of light given off by its host star.

Their study, published in the journal Science Advances, proposes that stars which give off sufficient ultraviolet (UV) light could kick-start life on their orbiting planets in the same way it likely developed on Earth, where the UV light powers a series of chemical reactions that produce the building blocks of life.

The researchers have identified a range of planets where the UV light from their host star is sufficient to allow these chemical reactions to take place, and that lie within the habitable range where liquid water can exist on the planet’s surface.

“This work allows us to narrow down the best places to search for life,” said Dr Paul Rimmer, a postdoctoral researcher with a joint affiliation at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, and the paper’s first author. “It brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.”

The new paper is the result of an ongoing collaboration between the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC LMB, bringing together organic chemistry and exoplanet research. It builds on the work of Professor John Sutherland, a co-author on the current paper, who studies the chemical origin of life on Earth.

In a paper published in 2015, Professor Sutherland’s group at the MRC LMB proposed that cyanide, although a deadly poison, was in fact a key ingredient in the primordial soup from which all life on Earth originated.

In this hypothesis, carbon from meteorites that slammed into the young Earth interacted with nitrogen in the atmosphere to form hydrogen cyanide. The hydrogen cyanide rained to the surface, where it interacted with other elements in various ways, powered by the UV light from the sun. The chemicals produced from these interactions generated the building blocks of RNA, the close relative of DNA which most biologists believe was the first molecule of life to carry information.

In the laboratory, Sutherland’s group recreated these chemical reactions under UV lamps, and generated the precursors to lipids, amino acids and nucleotides, all of which are essential components of living cells.

“I came across these earlier experiments, and as an astronomer, my first question is always what kind of light are you using, which as chemists they hadn’t really thought about,” said Rimmer. “I started out measuring the number of photons emitted by their lamps, and then realised that comparing this light to the light of different stars was a straightforward next step.”

The two groups performed a series of laboratory experiments to measure how quickly the building blocks of life can be formed from hydrogen cyanide and hydrogen sulphite ions in water when exposed to UV light. They then performed the same experiment in the absence of light.

“There is chemistry that happens in the dark: it’s slower than the chemistry that happens in the light, but it’s there,” said senior author Professor Didier Queloz, also from the Cavendish Laboratory. “We wanted to see how much light it would take for the light chemistry to win out over the dark chemistry.”

The same experiment run in the dark with the hydrogen cyanide and the hydrogen sulphite resulted in an inert compound which could not be used to form the building blocks of life, while the experiment performed under the lights did result in the necessary building blocks.

The researchers then compared the light chemistry to the dark chemistry against the UV light of different stars. They plotted the amount of UV light available to planets in orbit around these stars to determine where the chemistry could be activated.

They found that stars around the same temperature as our sun emitted enough light for the building blocks of life to have formed on the surfaces of their planets. Cool stars, on the other hand, do not produce enough light for these building blocks to be formed, except if they have frequent powerful solar flares to jolt the chemistry forward step by step. Planets that both receive enough light to activate the chemistry and could have liquid water on their surfaces reside in what the researchers have called the abiogenesis zone.

Among the known exoplanets which reside in the abiogenesis zone are several planets detected by the Kepler telescope, including Kepler 452b, a planet that has been nicknamed Earth’s ‘cousin’, although it is too far away to probe with current technology. Next-generation telescopes, such as NASA’s TESS and James Webb Telescopes, will hopefully be able to identify and potentially characterise many more planets that lie within the abiogenesis zone.

Of course, it is also possible that if there is life on other planets, that it has or will develop in a totally different way than it did on Earth.

“I’m not sure how contingent life is, but given that we only have one example so far, it makes sense to look for places that are most like us,” said Rimmer. “There’s an important distinction between what is necessary and what is sufficient. The building blocks are necessary, but they may not be sufficient: it’s possible you could mix them for billions of years and nothing happens. But you want to at least look at the places where the necessary things exist.”

According to recent estimates, there are as many as 700 million trillion terrestrial planets in the observable universe. “Getting some idea of what fraction have been, or might be, primed for life fascinates me,” said Sutherland. “Of course, being primed for life is not everything and we still don’t know how likely the origin of life is, even given favourable circumstances - if it’s really unlikely then we might be alone, but if not, we may have company.”

The research was funded by the Kavli Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

Reference:
Paul B. Rimmer et al. ‘The Origin of RNA Precursors on Exoplanets.’ Science Advances (2018). DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.aar3302

Inset image: Diagram of confirmed exoplanets within the liquid water habitable zone (as well as Earth). Credit: Paul Rimmer

Scientists have identified a group of planets outside our solar system where the same chemical conditions that may have led to life on Earth exist. 

This work brings us just a little bit closer to addressing the question of whether we are alone in the universe.Paul RimmerNASA Ames/JPL-Caltech/T. PyleArtist's concept depicting one possible appearance of the planet Kepler-452b


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Cambridge mathematician awarded 2018 Fields Medal

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 08/01/2018 - 15:25

Professor Birkar, who originally came to the UK as a Kurdish refugee, was given the award today at the International Congress of Mathematicians in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

The Fields medals, often called the Nobel Prize of mathematics, are awarded every four years. Medallists must be under the age of 40 by the start of the year they receive the award, with up to four mathematicians honoured at a time. Awarded for the first time in 1936, the medal is recognition for works of excellence and an incentive for new outstanding achievements.

Birkar, a member of Cambridge’s Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, won the award for his work on categorising different kinds of polynomial equations. He proved that the infinite variety of such equations can be split into a finite number of classifications, a major breakthrough in the field of arithmetic geometry. Born in a Kurdish village in pre-revolutionary Iran, Birkar sought and obtained political asylum in the UK while finishing his undergraduate degree in Iran.

“War-ridden Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics,” Birkar told the ICM today. “I'm hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people.”

Birkar, who just this year received recognition for his work as one of the London Mathematical Society Prize winners, was born in 1978 in Marivan, a Kurdish province in Iran bordering Iraq with about 200,000 inhabitants. His curiosity was awakened by algebraic geometry, the same interest that, in that same region, centuries earlier, had attracted the attention of Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) and Sharaf al-Din al-Tusi (1135-1213).

After graduating in Mathematics from Tehran University, Birkar went to live in the UK, where he became a British citizen. In 2004, he completed his PhD at the University of Nottingham with the thesis “Topics in modern algebraic geometry”. Throughout his career, birational geometry has stood out as his main area of interest. He has devoted himself to the fundamental aspects of key problems in modern mathematics – such as minimal models, Fano varieties, and singularities. His theories have solved long-standing conjectures.

In 2010, the year in which he was awarded by the Foundation Sciences Mathématiques de Paris, Birkar wrote, alongside Paolo Cascini (Imperial College London), Christopher Hacon (University of Utah) and James McKernan (University of California, San Diego), an article called “Existence of minimal models for varieties of general log type” that revolutionised the field. The article earned the quartet the AMS Moore Prize in 2016.

Founded by the Canadian mathematician John Charles Fields to celebrate outstanding achievements, the Fields Medal has already been awarded to 56 scholars of the most diverse nationalities, among them, Brazilian Fields laureate Artur Avila, an extraordinary researcher from IMPA, awarded in 2014 in South Korea. Due to its importance and prestige, the medal is often likened to a Nobel Prize of Mathematics.

“This is absolutely phenomenal, both for Caucher and for mathematics at Cambridge,” said Professor Gabriel Paternain, Head of the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics. “Caucher was already an exceptional young researcher when he came to Cambridge, and he's now one of the most remarkable people in this field. At Cambridge, we want to give all of our young researchers the opportunity to really explore their field early in their career: it can lead to some truly amazing things.”

The winners of the Fields medal are selected by a group of specialists nominated by the Executive Committee of the International Mathematical Union (IMU), which organize the ICMs. Every four years, between two and four researchers under the age of 40 are chosen. Since 2006, a cash prize of 15 thousand Canadian dollars accompanies the medal.

In an interview with Quanta Magazine, Birkar spoke of the math club at Tehran University, where pictures of Fields medallists lined the walls. “I looked at them and said to myself, ‘Will I ever meet one of these people?’ At that time in Iran, I couldn’t even know that I’d be able to go to the West.

“To go from the point that I didn’t imagine meeting these people to the point where someday I hold a medal myself — I just couldn’t imagine that this would come true.”

Professor Birkar is Cambridge’s 11th Fields medallist.

The other three winners of the 2018 Fields medals are Peter Scholze from the University of Bonn, Akshay Venkatesh from the Institute of Advanced Studies and Alessi Fegalli from ETH Zurich.

University of Cambridge mathematician Caucher Birkar has been named one of four recipients of the 2018 Fields medals, the most prestigious awards in mathematics. 

Kurdistan was an unlikely place for a kid to develop an interest in mathematics - I'm hoping that this news will put a smile on the faces of those 40 million people.Caucher BirkarCaucher Birkar


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Women with polycystic ovary syndrome more likely to have a child with autism

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Wed, 08/01/2018 - 13:00

PCOS affects about one in ten women and is caused by elevated levels of the hormone testosterone. It is associated with fluid-filled sacs (called follicles) in the ovaries, and with symptoms such as delayed onset of puberty, irregular menstrual cycles, and excess bodily hair.

Autism is a condition characterized by difficulties in social interaction and communication alongside unusually narrow interests, a strong preference for predictability, and difficulties adjusting to unexpected change. Some autistic people also have learning difficulties and delayed language, and many have sensory hyper-sensitivity. The signs of autism are evident in childhood even if the diagnosis is not made until later, and occurs in about 1% of the population.

The research team previously published work in 2015 which showed that before they are born, autistic children have elevated levels of ‘sex steroid’ hormones (including testosterone) which ‘masculinise’ the baby’s body and brain. The discovery that prenatal sex steroid hormones are involved in the development of autism is one possible explanation for why autism is diagnosed more often in boys.

The scientists wondered where these elevated sex steroid hormones were coming from, one possible source being the mother. If she had higher levels of testosterone than usual, as is the case in women with PCOS, then some of the hormone might cross the placenta during pregnancy, exposing her unborn baby to more of this hormone, and changing the baby’s brain development.

Using anonymous data from a large database of GP health records, the study looked at 8,588 women with PCOS and their first-born children, compared to a group of 41,127 women without PCOS. The team found that, even after taking into account other factors (like maternal mental health problems or complications during pregnancy), women with PCOS had a 2.3% chance of having an autistic child, compared with the 1.7% chance for mothers without PCOS. 

The team stressed that the likelihood of having an autistic child is still very low, even among women with PCOS – but finding this link provides an important clue in understanding one of the multiple causal factors in autism.

The team presented their findings at the International Meeting for Autism Research in 2016, and their findings were replicated in a Swedish study in the same year, adding to the reliability of the result.

The team also conducted two other studies using the same data and found that autistic women were more likely to have PCOS, and women with PCOS were more likely to have autism themselves. This strongly suggests that these two conditions are linked, probably because they both share elevated sex steroid hormone levels.

Adriana Cherskov, the Master’s student who analysed the data, and who is now studying medicine in the US, said: “This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosterone.”

Professor Simon Baron-Cohen, Director of the Autism Research Centre, who supervised the research, said: “This new research is helping us understand the effects of testosterone on the developing fetal brain, and on the child’s later behaviour and mind. These hormonal effects are not necessarily independent of genetic factors, as a mother or her baby may have higher levels of the hormone for genetic reasons, and testosterone can affect how genes function.”

Dr Carrie Allison who co-supervised the research, said: “We need to think about the practical steps we can put in place to support women with PCOS as they go through their pregnancies. The likelihood is statistically significant but nevertheless still small, in that most women with PCOS won’t have a child with autism, but we want to be transparent with this new information.”

Dr Rupert Payne from the University of Bristol Centre for Academic Primary Care, a GP and the expert on the team in using GP health record data for this type of research, said: “Autism can have a significant impact on a person’s wellbeing, and on their parents, and many autistic people have significant health, social care and educational special needs. This is an important step in trying to understand what causes autism. It is also an excellent example of the value of using anonymous routine healthcare data to answer vital medical research questions.”

The study was supported by the Autism Research Trust, the Medical Research Council, Wellcome, a Gates Cambridge Trust Scholarship and Rouse Ball/Eddington Research Fund Award at Trinity College.

Reference
Cherskov, A., Pohl, A Allison, C, Zhang, H, Payne, R, and Baron-Cohen, S. Polycystic ovary syndrome and autism: A test of the prenatal sex steroid theory. Translational Psychiatry; 1 Aug 2018; DOI: 10.1038/s41398-018-0186-7 

Women with polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS) are more likely than other women to have an autistic child, according to an analysis of NHS data carried out by a team at Cambridge University’s Autism Research Centre. The research is published today in the journal Translational Psychiatry.

This is an important piece of new evidence for the theory that autism is not only caused by genes but also by prenatal sex steroid hormones such as testosteroneAdriana Cherskovjeff_goldenIn His Own World


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Maggots and rotting food waste: a new recipe for sustainable fish and animal feed

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Tue, 07/31/2018 - 08:00

The company behind this idea is Entomics Biosystems. It was set up in 2015 by a group of students from the University of Cambridge, with support from the Cambridge Judge Entrepreneurship Centre’s ‘Accelerate Cambridge’ programme.

“It’s one of those stories where we came together in a pub over a pint, talking about weird ideas,” explains its CEO and co-founder Matt McLaren. “The team has members from the Department of Biochemistry, from Engineering, from the [Judge] Business School, so it really is a diverse skill set.”

According to the company, each year over 1.3 billion tonnes of food are wasted globally – equating to around US$1 trillion of lost value. With an increasing population and modern lifestyles, the burden of food waste on society and the environment is set to increase in the future.

Entomics focuses on ‘insect biomass conversion’. Larvae of the black soldier fly chew their way through several tonnes of food waste collected from local supermarkets and food processing plants. The insects are fed different ‘recipes’ under controlled conditions to see how these affect growth rates and nutritional profiles. They metabolise the food waste into fats and proteins, growing to around 5,000 times their body weight within just a couple of weeks.

As McLaren, explains, these fats and proteins “are great sources of nutrition for salmon and poultry – in fact, insects are part of their natural diet”. Entomics is currently working with partners including the University of Stirling, who are world-leading salmon aquaculture experts, to validate and test their products in the field.

“Farmed salmon in Scotland are currently fed on fishmeal which comes from wild-caught anchovies from as far away as Chile and Peru, which are then shipped across the world to Scotland,” he explains. “Insects provide a nice, sustainable solution.”

With support including from Innovate UK and the European Institute of Technology (via EIT FoodKIC), Entomics is using a novel bioprocessing technique to boost the nutritional and functional benefits of these insect-derived feeds, using a microbial fermentation technology they have termed ‘Metamorphosis’. Essentially, these specialised feeds represent a sustainable, holistic approach to improving overall fish health and welfare.

“There are several benefits to this process,” explains Miha Pipan, Chief Scientific Officer and fellow co-founder, “from affecting the gut’s microbiome and trying to preserve a healthier bacterial community there, to training immune systems to make livestock more resistant to disease challenges and at the same time reduce the need for veterinary medicines, antibiotics and vaccines.” 

“The world’s looking for more sustainable sources of feed and I think increasingly there’s a recognition that it’s not just about basic nutrition, but it’s about overall health,” says McLaren. “We’re trying to take a promising, sustainable ingredient of the future – these insect-derived feeds – and trying to add a bit of biotechnology or science focus to it, to really enhance what the effect is in the end application and reduce reliance on traditional antibiotics and veterinary medicines.”

There is endless potential for innovation in the emerging insect industry in general, and the Entomics team is also working on an engineering project to build a smart, modular system for insect production in the future. This includes developing computer vision algorithms to understand and monitor insect behaviour during the production process – for example, the insects’ growth and health.

McLaren is grateful of the support that the company received from the Cambridge Judge Business School to get itself off the ground. “The mentorship and coaching provided by the Accelerate Cambridge programme in particular has been vital to getting our business to its current stage, and the credibility of the Cambridge brand has allowed us to engage with some great academic and commercial partners.”

In a warehouse to the northeast of Cambridge are shelves upon shelves of trays teeming with maggots, munching their way through a meal of rotting fruit and vegetables. This may sound stomach-churning, but these insects could become the sustainable food of the future – at least for fish and animals – helping reduce the reliance on resource intensive proteins such as fishmeal and soy, while also mitigating the use of antibiotics in the food chain, one of the causes of the increase in drug-resistant bacteria.

Farmed salmon in Scotland are currently fed on fishmeal which comes from wild-caught anchovies from as far away as Chile and Peru, which are then shipped across the world to Scotland. Insects provide a nice, sustainable solutionMatt McLaren University of CambridgeBlack soldier fly larvae


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Don't miss this summer's first Big Wednesday - part of the free PlayDaze summer of fun

Cambridge Council Feed - Mon, 07/30/2018 - 10:26

INFLATABLES, junk modelling, face painting, arts, sport and a host of entertainment will be on offer to children and their families in the first Big Wednesday of the summer which takes place this week.

Big Wednesdays are a part of Cambridge City Council’s PlayDaze programme, which offers free outdoor activities for families across Cambridge parks and open spaces.

The Big Wednesday event will take place at Lammas Land on Wednesday 1 August from 1 to 4pm and will be led by the council’s Children and Young People’s Participation Service (ChYpPS).

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Opinion: GM crop ruling shows why the EU’s laws are wholly inadequate

Cambridge University NewsFeed - Mon, 07/30/2018 - 09:05

The European Court of Justice has made an important ruling on genetically modified crops. Since 2003, new crop varieties produced by genetic modification have had to be assessed for their risks to the environment and human and animal health before they can be farmed in the European Union.

The court has now decided that genetic modification includes any technique that induces genetic changes “in a way that does not occur naturally”. This includes new genome editing techniques such as CRISPR/Cas9, but also approaches that have been used in plant breeding since the 1960s.

Some scientists have criticised the court for “shutting the door” on new technologies that could benefit human health and the environment. This is certainly a concern. The ruling will discourage the use of genome editing that could bring significant environmental benefits by making it more expensive for such such crops to clear the necessary regulatory processes.

But the main problem illustrated by this ruling is the deep logical flaw in the whole regulatory approach. Plants that have been bred in more traditional ways, which could have just as serious health or environmental impacts, will continue to be exempt from regulation. Focusing on how a new crop is produced – rather than the new characteristics or agricultural practices it brings – will inevitably result in wholly inadequate protection for the environment and consumers.

Every new crop variety is genetically different from its predecessors. A lot of genetic variation can arise naturally from errors in DNA copying, mutations caused by environmental factors, cross breeding with wild relatives, viruses and many other sources. All this variation is excluded from the EU definition of GM.

To increase genetic diversity and generally speed things up, scientists can induce mutations deliberately. Random mutagenesis – purposefully encouraging genetic mutations, for example with radiation – has been used on crops since the 1960s. It has since become possible to add specific new genes, sourced from the same or different species. And, even more recently, genome editing techniques have been developed that allow scientists to alter selected existing genes. These more recent approaches are becoming ever more useful as we build up our understanding of which genes do what.

All these techniques can be used to introduce new traits into a crop variety, for example to make a plant resistant to herbicides. The new court ruling came about because a group of farming organisations who were worried about the impact of herbicide resistant crops argued they should be regulated regardless of how they were developed.

This seems to me entirely reasonable. There are of plenty of arguments and counterarguments about the risks and benefits of this approach to weed control – and it is important to assess these before introducing a new herbicide resistant crop. None of these arguments have anything to do with how the crop was produced.

Yet the court ruling means that herbicide resistant crops produced through conventional breeding can be used freely, while crops produced using newer approaches must be subjected to intense scrutiny. So the farming groups might be happy that a new generation of herbicide resistant crops will have to be extensively assessed for their environmental and health impacts. But herbicide resistant crops produced by traditional methods, which raise identical concerns, will remain exempt from these regulations.

Natural’s not in it

This highlights the central problem with the EU regulations on new crop varieties. Anything that could occur naturally is exempt from scrutiny. Yet drawing a line between the natural and artificial is difficult to say the least. After thousands of years of careful human intervention, most “natural” crops look nothing like their wild ancestor. They have many characteristics that mean they would not last more than a few generations if they had to compete in the wild.

One of the reasons we have spent so long breeding them is that many natural plants carry serious risks. Very few people would say to their children: “Go into the woods and eat anything you can find. It’s all natural so it must be good for you.” The distinction between natural and artificial is both contrived and not relevant when it comes to environmental and health impact assessment.

We should assess new crop varieties on the traits they are supposed to deliver, not on how those traits were introduced. The system needs to be proportional and risk-based. This should of course include consideration of the unintended effects of whatever genetic improvement process was used. Instead we spend years debating whether or not a new technique counts as genetic modification or not. That this is even a relevant question lays bare the flaws in our current approach.

This article has been republished from The Conversation.

A new EU ruling that attempts to draw a line between natural and artificial when it comes to crop production has a "deep logical flaw" at its heart, writes Professor Ottoline Leyser, Director of the University's Sainsbury Laboratory.  

We should assess new crop varieties on the traits they are supposed to deliver, not on how those traits were introducedOttoline LeyserFernan FedericiRatiometric measurement of gene expression


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