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Rainforest wildlife under threat as below-canopy temperatures rise

Mon, 03/06/2024 - 10:05

Crucial strongholds for biodiversity are under threat as temperatures are rising in tropical forests, the world’s most diverse terrestrial ecosystems, a new study reveals.

It has been long assumed that the forest subcanopy and understorey – where direct sunlight is reduced – would be insulated from the worst climate change impacts by the shielding effect of the forest canopy.

A new study, published today in the journal Nature Climate Change, used a microclimate model to examine temperatures beneath the rainforest canopy across the global tropics.

This showed that between 2005 and 2019, most of the world’s undisturbed tropical forests experienced climate conditions at least partially outside the range of historic conditions. Many areas had transitioned to almost entirely new temperature averages.

Until recently, temperatures beneath the canopy in rainforests have remained relatively stable, meaning that the wildlife that lives there has evolved within a narrow range of temperatures. This leaves it poorly adapted to deal with temperatures outside this range.

The study found pronounced shifts in climate regimes in a significant proportion of tropical forests, including globally important national parks, indigenous reserves, and large tracts of ecologically unfragmented areas.

Recent studies in largely undisturbed, or primary lowland tropical forests have found changes in species composition and significant declines in animal, insect, and plant populations. These changes are attributed to warming temperatures and are consistent with the findings of the new research.

"Tropical forests are the true powerhouses of global biodiversity, and the complex networks of species they contain underpin vast carbon stocks that help to mitigate climate change. A severe risk is that species are no longer able to survive within tropical forests as climate change intensifies, further exacerbating the global extinction crisis and degrading rainforest carbon stocks," said Professor David Edwards at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, a study co-author.   

“Our study challenges the prevailing notion that tropical forest canopies will mitigate climate change impacts and it helps us understand how to prioritise conservation of these key areas of biodiversity effectively,” said Dr Alexander Lees, Reader in Biodiversity at Manchester Metropolitan University, a study co-author.

He added: “It is paramount that distant, wealth-related drivers of deforestation and degradation are addressed and that the future of those forests acting as climate refuges is secured by effecting legal protection, and by empowering indigenous communities.

“Notwithstanding the fundamental need for global carbon emission reductions, the prioritisation and protection of refugia and the restoration of highly threatened forests is vital to mitigate further damage to global tropical forest ecosystems.”

“Tropical forests, home to many of the world’s highly specialised species, are particularly sensitive to even small changes in climate,” said Dr Brittany Trew, Conservation Scientist for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, and lead author of the study.

She added: “Our research shows that climate change is already impacting vast areas of pristine tropical forest globally. To provide species with the best chance to adapt to these changes, these forests must be protected from additional human-induced threats.”

“The world's rainforests are incredible reservoirs of biodiversity, harbouring species that live in micro-environments in which climate conditions are generally stable. Thus, they are particularly sensitive to any changes brought about by climate change. It is vital that we take measures to safeguard these ecosystems from human pressures,” said Ilya Maclean, Professor of Global Change Biology at the University of Exeter and senior author of the study.

The study was made possible through a global collaboration that included researchers at Mountains of the Moon University, Uganda; Universidade Federal do Pará, Brazil; the Brazilian Agricultural Research Corporation and Universidad Nacional de San Antonio Abad del Cusco, Perú. It was funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF).

Reference: Trew, B.T. et al: ‘Novel temperatures are already widespread beneath the world’s tropical forest canopies.’ Nature Climate Change, June 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41558-024-02031-0

Adapted from a press released by Manchester Metropolitan University

Assumptions that tropical forest canopies protect from the effects of climate change are unfounded, say researchers.

A severe risk is that species are no longer able to survive within tropical forests as climate change intensifies, further exacerbating the global extinction crisis and degrading rainforest carbon stocks.David EdwardsAlexander LeesRainforest on the south-eastern edge of Amazonia, Brazil


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Cuckoos evolve to look like their hosts - and form new species in the process

Thu, 30/05/2024 - 19:05

The theory of coevolution says that when closely interacting species drive evolutionary changes in each other this can lead to speciation - the evolution of new species. But until now, real-world evidence for this has been scarce.

Now a team of researchers has found evidence that coevolution is linked to speciation by studying the evolutionary arms race between cuckoos and the host birds they exploit.

Bronze-cuckoos lay their eggs in the nests of small songbirds. Soon after the cuckoo chick hatches, it pushes the host’s eggs out of the nest. The host not only loses all its own eggs, but spends several weeks rearing the cuckoo, which takes up valuable time when it could be breeding itself.

Each species of bronze-cuckoo closely matches the appearance of their host’s chicks, fooling the host parents into accepting the cuckoo.

The study shows how these interactions can cause new species to arise when a cuckoo species exploits several different hosts. If chicks of each host species have a distinct appearance, and hosts reject odd-looking nestlings, then the cuckoo species diverges into separate genetic lineages, each mimicking the chicks of its favoured host. These new lineages are the first sign of new species emerging.

The study is published today in the journal Science.

“This exciting new finding could potentially apply to any pairs of species that are in battle with each other. Just as we’ve seen with the cuckoo, the coevolutionary arms race could cause new species to emerge - and increase biodiversity on our planet,” said Professor Kilner in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, a co-author of the report.

The striking differences between the chicks of different bronze-cuckoo lineages correspond to subtle differences in the plumage and calls of the adults, which help males and females that specialise on the same host to recognise and pair with each other.

“Cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, so hosts have evolved the ability to recognise and eject cuckoo chicks from their nests,’’ said Professor Naomi Langmore at the Australian National University, Canberra, lead author of the study. 

She added: “Only the cuckoos that most resemble the host’s own chicks have any chance of escaping detection, so over many generations the cuckoo chicks have evolved to mimic the host chicks.”

The study revealed that coevolution is most likely to drive speciation when the cuckoos are very costly to their hosts, leading to a ‘coevolutionary arms race’ between host defences and cuckoo counter-adaptations.

A broad scale analysis across all cuckoo species found that those lineages that are most costly to their hosts have higher speciation rates than less costly cuckoo species and their non-parasitic relatives.

“This finding is significant in evolutionary biology, showing that coevolution between interacting species increases biodiversity by driving speciation,” said Dr Clare Holleley at the Australian National Wildlife Collection within CSIRO, Canberra, senior author of the report.

The study was made possible by the team’s breakthrough in extracting DNA from eggshells in historical collections, and sequencing it for genetic studies.

The researchers were then able to combine two decades of behavioural fieldwork with DNA analysis of specimens of eggs and birds held in museums and collections.

The study involved an international team of researchers at the University of Cambridge, Australian National University, CSIRO (Australia’s national science agency), and the University of Melbourne. It was funded by the Australian Research Council.

Reference: Langmore, N.E. et al: ‘Coevolution with hosts underpins speciation in brood-parasitic cuckoos.’ Science, May 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adj3210

Adapted from a press release by the Australian National University.

Two decades of cuckoo research have helped scientists to explain how battles between species can cause new species to arise

This exciting new finding could potentially apply to any pairs of species that are in battle with each other...the coevolutionary arms race could cause new species to emerge - and increase biodiversity on our planetRebecca KilnerMark LethleanMale wren (left) brings food to a cuckoo fledgling (right)


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Earth’s earliest sea creatures drove evolution by stirring the water

Fri, 17/05/2024 - 16:01

A study involving the University of Cambridge has used virtual recreations of the earliest animal ecosystems, known as marine animal forests, to demonstrate the part they played in the evolution of our planet.

Using state-of-the-art computer simulations of fossils from the Ediacaran time period - approximately 565 million years ago - scientists discovered how these animals mixed the surrounding seawater. This may have affected the distribution of important resources such as food particles and could have increased local oxygen levels.

Through this process, the scientists think these early communities could have played a crucial role in shaping the initial emergence of large and complex organisms prior to a major evolutionary radiation of different forms of animal life, the so-called Cambrian ‘explosion’.

Over long periods of time, these changes might have allowed life forms to perform more complicated functions, like those associated with the evolution of new feeding and movement styles.

The study was led by the Natural History Museum and is published today in the journal Current Biology.

Dr Emily Mitchell at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Zoology, a co-author of the report, said: “It’s exciting to learn that the very first animals from 580 million years ago had a significant impact on their environment, despite not being able to move or swim. We’ve found they mixed up the water and enabled resources to spread more widely - potentially encouraging more evolution.”

Scientists know from modern marine environments that nutrients like food and oxygen are carried in seawater, and that animals can affect water flow in ways that influence the distribution of these resources.

To test how far back this process goes in Earth’s history, the team looked at some of the earliest examples of marine animal communities, known from rocks at Mistaken Point, Newfoundland, Canada. This world-famous fossil site perfectly preserves early life forms thanks to a cover of volcanic ash (sometimes referred to as an ‘Ediacaran Pompeii’).

Although some of these life forms look like plants, analysis of their anatomy and growth strongly suggests they are animals. Owing to the exceptional preservation of the fossils, the scientists could recreate digital models of key species, which were used as a basis for further computational analyses.

First author Dr Susana Gutarra, a Scientific Associate at the Natural History Museum, said: “We used ecological modelling and computer simulations to investigate how 3D virtual assemblages of Ediacaran life forms affected water flow. Our results showed that these communities were capable of ecological functions similar to those seen in present-day marine ecosystems.”

The study showed that one of the most important Ediacaran organisms for disrupting the flow of water was the cabbage-shaped animal Bradgatia, named after Bradgate Park in England. The Bradgatia from Mistaken Point are among some of the largest fossils known from this site, reaching diameters of over 50 centimetres.

Through their influence on the water around them, the scientists believe these Ediacaran organisms might have been capable of enhancing local oxygen concentrations. This biological mixing might also have had repercussions for the wider environment, possibly making other areas of the sea floor more habitable and perhaps even driving evolutionary innovation.

Dr Imran Rahman, lead author and Principal Researcher at the Natural History Museum, said: “The approach we’ve developed to study Ediacaran fossil communities is entirely new in palaeontology, providing us with a powerful tool for studying how past and present marine ecosystems might shape and influence their environment.”

The research was funded by the UK Natural Environment Research Council and the US National Science Foundation.

Reference: Gutarra-Diaz, S.“Ediacaran marine animal forests and the ventilation of the oceans.” May 2024, Current Biology. DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2024.04.059

Adapted from a press release by the Natural History Museum

3D reconstructions suggest that simple marine animals living over 560 million years ago drove the emergence of more complex life by mixing the seawater around them

It’s exciting to learn that the very first animals from 580 million years ago had a significant impact on their environment, despite not being able to move or swim.Emily MitchellHugo Salais, Metazoa StudioArtistic recreation of the marine animal forest


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Nine Cambridge scientists elected as Fellows of the Royal Society 2024

Thu, 16/05/2024 - 09:51

The Royal Society is a self-governing Fellowship of many of the world’s most distinguished scientists drawn from all areas of science, engineering and medicine.

The Society’s fundamental purpose, as it has been since its foundation in 1660, is to recognise, promote and support excellence in science and to encourage the development and use of science for the benefit of humanity.

This year, over 90 researchers, innovators and communicators from around the world have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society for their substantial contribution to the advancement of science. Nine of these are from the University of Cambridge.

Sir Adrian Smith, President of the Royal Society said: “I am pleased to welcome such an outstanding group into the Fellowship of the Royal Society.

“This new cohort have already made significant contributions to our understanding of the world around us and continue to push the boundaries of possibility in academic research and industry.

“From visualising the sharp rise in global temperatures since the industrial revolution to leading the response to the Covid-19 pandemic, their diverse range of expertise is furthering human understanding and helping to address some of our greatest challenges. It is an honour to have them join the Fellowship.”

The Fellows and Foreign Members join the ranks of Stephen Hawking, Isaac Newton, Charles Darwin, Albert Einstein, Lise Meitner, Subrahmanyan Chandrasekhar and Dorothy Hodgkin.

The new Cambridge fellows are: 
 

Professor Sir John Aston Kt FRS

Aston is the Harding Professor of Statistics in Public Life at the Statistical Laboratory, Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, where he develops techniques for public policy and improves the use of quantitative methods in public policy debates.

From 2017 to 2020 he was the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Home Office, providing statistical and scientific advice to ministers and officials, and was involved in the UK’s response to the Covid pandemic. He was knighted in 2021 for services to statistics and public policymaking, and is a Fellow of Churchill College.
 

Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore FBA FMedSci FRS

Blakemore is the Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Neuroscience, Department of Psychology, and leader of the Developmental Cognitive Neuroscience Group. Her research focuses on the development of social cognition and decision making in the human adolescent brain, and adolescent mental health. 

Blakemore has been awarded several national and international prizes for her research, and is a Fellow of the British Academy, the American Association of Psychological Science and the Academy of Medical Sciences. 
 

Professor Patrick Chinnery FMedSci FRS

Chinnery is Professor of Neurology and head of the University’s Department of Clinical Neurosciences, and a Fellow of Gonville & Caius College. He was appointed Executive Chair of the Medical Research Council last year, having previously been MRC Clinical Director since 2019.

His principal research is the role of mitochondria in human disease and developing new treatments for mitochondrial disorders. Chinnery is a Wellcome Principal Research Fellow with a lab based in the MRC Mitochondrial Biology Unit and jointly chairs the NIHR BioResource for Translational Research in Common and Rare Diseases. He is a Fellow of the Academy of Medical Sciences.


Professor Rebecca Fitzgerald FMedSci FRS

Fitzgerald is Professor of Cancer Prevention in the Department of Oncology and the inaugural Director of the University’s new Early Cancer Institute, which launched in 2022. She is a Fellow of Trinity College.

Her pioneering work to devise a first-in-class, non-endoscopic capsule sponge test for identifying individuals at high risk for oesophageal cancer has won numerous prizes, including the Westminster Medal, and this test is now being rolled out in the NHS and beyond by her spin-out Cyted Ltd.


Professor David Hodell FRS

Hodell is the Woodwardian Professor of Geology and Director of the Godwin Laboratory for Palaeoclimate Research in the Department of Earth Sciences, and a Fellow of Clare College.

A marine geologist and paleoclimatologist, his research focuses on high-resolution paleoclimate records from marine and lake sediments, as well as mineral deposits, to better understand past climate dynamics. Hodell is a fellow of the American Geophysical Union and the American Association for the Advancement of Science. He has received the Milutin Milankovic Medal.


Professor Eric Lauga FRS

Lauga is Professor of Applied Mathematics in the Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, where his research is in fluid mechanics, biophysics and soft matter. Lauga is the author, or co-author, of over 180 publications and currently serves as Associate Editor for the journal Physical Review Fluids.

He is a recipient of three awards from the American Physical Society: the Andreas Acrivos Dissertation Award in Fluid Dynamics, the François Frenkiel Award for Fluid Mechanics and the Early Career Award for Soft Matter Research. He is a Fellow of the American Physical Society and of Trinity College.


Professor George Malliaras FRS

Malliaras is the Prince Philip Professor of Technology in the Department of Engineering, where he leads a group that works on the development and translation of implantable and wearable devices that interface with electrically active tissues, with applications in neurological disorders and brain cancer.

Research conducted by Malliaras has received awards from the European Academy of Sciences, the New York Academy of Sciences, and the US National Science Foundation among others. He is a Fellow of the Materials Research Society and of the Royal Society of Chemistry.


Professor Oscar Randal-Williams FRS

Randal-Williams is the Sadleirian Professor of Pure Mathematics in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics.

He has received the Whitehead Prize from the London Mathematical Society, a Philip Leverhulme Prize, the Oberwolfach Prize, the Dannie Heineman Prize of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, and was jointly awarded the Clay Research Award.

Randal-Williams is one of two managing editors of the Proceedings of the London Mathematical Society, and an editor of the Journal of Topology.


Professor Mihaela van der Schaar FRS

Van der Schaar is the John Humphrey Plummer Professor of Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence and Medicine in the Departments of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Engineering and Medicine.

She is the founder and director of the Cambridge Centre for AI in Medicine, and a Fellow at The Alan Turing Institute. Her work has received numerous awards, including the Oon Prize on Preventative Medicine, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award, and the IEEE Darlington Award.

Van der Schaar is credited as inventor on 35 US patents, and has made over 45 contributions to international standards for which she received three ISO Awards. In 2019, a Nesta report declared her the most-cited female AI researcher in the UK.


 

Nine outstanding Cambridge researchers have been elected as Fellows of the Royal Society, the UK’s national academy of sciences and the oldest science academy in continuous existence.

Royal SocietyThe Royal Society in central London


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Birth by C-section more than doubles odds of measles vaccine failure

Mon, 13/05/2024 - 10:01

A study by the University of Cambridge, UK, and Fudan University, China, has found that a single dose of the measles jab is up to 2.6 times more likely to be completely ineffective in children born by C-section, compared to those born naturally.

Failure of the vaccine means that the child’s immune system does not produce antibodies to fight against measles infection, so they remain susceptible to the disease.

A second measles jab was found to induce a robust immunity against measles in C-section children.

Measles is a highly infectious disease, and even low vaccine failure rates can significantly increase the risk of an outbreak.

A potential reason for this effect is linked to the development of the infant’s gut microbiome – the vast collection of microbes that naturally live inside the gut. Other studies have shown that vaginal birth transfers a greater variety of microbes from mother to baby, which can boost the immune system.

“We’ve discovered that the way we’re born - either by C-section or natural birth - has long-term consequences on our immunity to diseases as we grow up,” said Professor Henrik Salje in the University of Cambridge​’s Department of Genetics, joint senior author of the report.

He added: “We know that a lot of children don't end up having their second measles jab, which is dangerous for them as individuals and for the wider population.

“Infants born by C-section are the ones we really want to be following up to make sure they get their second measles jab, because their first jab is much more likely to fail.”

The results are published today in the journal Nature Microbiology.

At least 95% of the population needs to be fully vaccinated to keep measles under control but the UK is well below this, despite the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccine being available through the NHS Routine Childhood Immunisation Programme.

An increasing number of women around the world are choosing to give birth by caesarean section: in the UK a third of all births are by C-section, in Brazil and Turkey over half of all children are born this way.

“With a C-section birth, children aren’t exposed to the mother’s microbiome in the same way as with a vaginal birth. We think this means they take longer to catch up in developing their gut microbiome, and with it, the ability of the immune system to be primed by vaccines against diseases including measles,” said Salje.

To get their results, the researchers used data from previous studies of over 1,500 children in Hunan, China, which included blood samples taken every few weeks from birth to the age of 12. This allowed them to see how levels of measles antibodies in the blood change over the first few years of life, including following vaccination.

They found that 12% of children born via caesarean section had no immune response to their first measles vaccination, as compared to 5% of children born by vaginal delivery. This means that many of the children born by C-section did still mount an immune response following their first vaccination.

Two doses of the measles jab are needed for the body to mount a long-lasting immune response and protect against measles. According to the World Health Organisation, in 2022 only 83% of the world's children had received one dose of measles vaccine by their first birthday – the lowest since 2008.

Salje said: “Vaccine hesitancy is really problematic, and measles is top of the list of diseases we’re worried about because it’s so infectious.”

Measles is one of the world’s most contagious diseases, spread by coughs and sneezes. It starts with cold-like symptoms and a rash, and can lead to serious complications including blindness, seizures, and death.

Before the measles vaccine was introduced in 1963, there were major measles epidemics every few years causing an estimated 2.6 million deaths each year.

The research was funded by the National Natural Science Foundation of China.

Reference

Wang, W. et al: ‘Dynamics of measles immunity from birth and following vaccination.’ Nature Microbiology, 13 May 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41564-024-01694-x

Researchers say it is vital that children born by caesarean section receive two doses of the measles vaccine for robust protection against the disease.

CHBD / E+ / Getty Images Very sick 5 year old little boy fighting measles infection, boy is laying in bed under the blanket with a agonizing expression, boy is covered with rash caused by virus.


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New vaccine effective against coronaviruses that haven’t even emerged yet

Mon, 06/05/2024 - 10:00

This is a new approach to vaccine development called ‘proactive vaccinology’, where scientists build a vaccine before the disease-causing pathogen even emerges.

The new vaccine works by training the body’s immune system to recognise specific regions of eight different coronaviruses, including SARS-CoV-1, SARS-CoV-2, and several that are currently circulating in bats and have potential to jump to humans and cause a pandemic.

Key to its effectiveness is that the specific virus regions the vaccine targets also appear in many related coronaviruses. By training the immune system to attack these regions, it gives protection against other coronaviruses not represented in the vaccine – including ones that haven’t even been identified yet.

For example, the new vaccine does not include the SARS-CoV-1 coronavirus, which caused the 2003 SARS outbreak, yet it still induces an immune response to that virus.

“Our focus is to create a vaccine that will protect us against the next coronavirus pandemic, and have it ready before the pandemic has even started,” said Rory Hills, a graduate researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and first author of the report.

He added: “We’ve created a vaccine that provides protection against a broad range of different coronaviruses – including ones we don’t even know about yet.”

The results are published today in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

“We don’t have to wait for new coronaviruses to emerge. We know enough about coronaviruses, and different immune responses to them, that we can get going with building protective vaccines against unknown coronaviruses now,” said Professor Mark Howarth in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology, senior author of the report.

He added: “Scientists did a great job in quickly producing an extremely effective COVID vaccine during the last pandemic, but the world still had a massive crisis with a huge number of deaths. We need to work out how we can do even better than that in the future, and a powerful component of that is starting to build the vaccines in advance.”

 

 

The new ‘Quartet Nanocage’ vaccine is based on a structure called a nanoparticle – a ball of proteins held together by incredibly strong interactions. Chains of different viral antigens are attached to this nanoparticle using a novel ‘protein superglue’. Multiple antigens are included in these chains, which trains the immune system to target specific regions shared across a broad range of coronaviruses.

This study demonstrated that the new vaccine raises a broad immune response, even in mice that were pre-immunised with SARS-CoV-2.

The new vaccine is much simpler in design than other broadly protective vaccines currently in development, which the researchers say should accelerate its route into clinical trials.

The underlying technology they have developed also has potential for use in vaccine development to protect against many other health challenges.

The work involved a collaboration between scientists at the University of Cambridge, the University of Oxford, and Caltech. It improves on previous work, by the Oxford and Caltech groups, to develop a novel all-in-one vaccine against coronavirus threats. The vaccine developed by Oxford and Caltech should enter Phase 1 clinical trials in early 2025, but its complex nature makes it challenging to manufacture which could limit large-scale production.

Conventional vaccines include a single antigen to train the immune system to target a single specific virus. This may not protect against a diverse range of existing coronaviruses, or against pathogens that are newly emerging.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.

Reference: Hills, R.A. et al: ‘Proactive vaccination using multiviral Quartet Nanocages to elicit broad anti-coronavirus responses.’ Nature Nanotechnology, May 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41565-024-01655-9

Researchers have developed a new vaccine technology that has been shown in mice to provide protection against a broad range of coronaviruses with potential for future disease outbreaks - including ones we don’t even know about

Our focus is to create a vaccine that will protect us against the next coronavirus pandemic, and have it ready before the pandemic has even started.Rory HillsStefan Cristian Cioata on GettySyringe and vaccine bottle


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Four Cambridge researchers awarded prestigious European Research Council Advanced Grants

Thu, 11/04/2024 - 11:01

The European Research Council (ERC) has announced today the award of 255 Advanced Grants to outstanding research leaders across Europe, as part of the EU’s Horizon Europe programme. Four University of Cambridge researchers are amongst those to receive this prestigious and competitive funding.

The University of Cambridge’s grant awardees are:

Dr Albert Guillén i Fàbregas in the Department of Engineering for his project Scaling and Concentration Laws in Information Theory.

Fàbregas, who has previously received ERC Starting, Consolidator and Proof of Concept Grants, said: “I am truly delighted with the news that the ERC will continue to fund my research in information theory, which studies the mathematical aspects of data transmission and data compression.

“This project will broaden the theory to study arbitrary scaling laws of the number of messages to transmit or compress."

Professor Beverley Glover in the Department of Plant Sciences and Director of Cambridge University Botanic Garden, for her project Convergent evolution of floral patterning through alternative optimisation of mechanical parameter space.

Glover said: “This funding will enable us to explore how iridescent colour evolved repeatedly in different flowers. We think it will shed new light on evolution itself, as we think about the development of iridescence structure from a mechanical perspective, focusing on the forces acting as a petal grows and the mechanical properties of the petal tissue.

“It's only possible for me to do this work because of the amazing living collection at Cambridge University Botanic Garden, and I'm thrilled that the ERC is keen to support it."

Professor Ian Henderson in the Department of Plant Sciences for his project Evolution of the Arabidopsis Pancentromere.

Henderson said: “This project seeks to investigate enigmatic regions of the genome called the centromeres, using the model plant Arabidopsis. These regions play a deeply conserved role in cell division yet paradoxically are fast evolving.

“I am highly honoured and excited to be awarded an ERC Advanced grant. The advent of long-read sequencing technology makes addressing these questions timely. The ERC’s long-term support will allow us to capitalise on these advances, build new collaborations, and train postdoctoral researchers.”

Professor Paul Lane in the Department of Archaeology, for his project Landscape Historical Ecology and Archaeology of Ancient Pastoral Societies in Kenya.

Lane said: “Pastoralism has been an extraordinarily resilient livelihood strategy across Africa. This project provides an excellent opportunity to reconstruct how East Africa’s pastoralists responded to significant climate change in the past, and to draw lessons from these adaptations for responding to contemporary climate crises in a region that is witnessing heightened water scarcity and loss of access to critically important grazing lands.”

“This project will allow us to utilise the department’s world-leading archaeological science laboratories and expertise to answer crucial questions about past patterns of mobility, dietary diversity, climatic regimes and food security among East African pastoralists over the last fifteen hundred years. This has never been attempted before for this time period.”

Professor Anne Ferguson-Smith, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Research at the University of Cambridge said: “Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul on receiving these prestigious and highly competitive awards. It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.

“Now that the UK is an associated country to Horizon Europe I encourage other Cambridge researchers to also consider applying to the ERC and other Horizon Europe programmes.”

President of the European Research Council Professor Maria Leptin said: “Congratulations to the 255 researchers who will receive grants to follow their scientific instinct in this new funding round. I am particularly happy to see more mid-career scientists amongst the Advanced Grant winners this time. I hope that it will encourage more researchers at this career stage to apply for these grants.”

The ERC is the premier European funding organisation for excellent frontier research. The 255 ERC Advanced Grants, totalling €652 million, support cutting-edge research in a wide range of fields from medicine and physics to social sciences and humanities.

The European Commission and the UK Government have reached an agreement on the association of the UK to Horizon Europe, which applies for calls for proposals implementing the 2024 budget and onwards.

The ERC Advanced Grants target established, leading researchers with a proven track-record of significant achievements. In recent years, there has been a steady rise in mid-career researchers (12-17 years post-PhD), who have been successful in the Advanced Grants competitions, with 18% securing grants in this latest round.

The funding provides leading senior researchers with the opportunity to pursue ambitious, curiosity-driven projects that could lead to major scientific breakthroughs.

Many congratulations to Albert, Beverley, Ian and Paul... It is fantastic that their ambitious, cutting-edge research will be supported by the European Research Council, marking them as outstanding European research leaders.Anne Ferguson-Smith


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Yes

Pork labelling schemes ‘not helpful’ in making informed buying choices, say researchers

Thu, 11/04/2024 - 10:27

Researchers have evaluated different types of pig farming – including woodland, organic, free range, RSPCA assured, and Red Tractor certified, to assess each systems’ impact across four areas: land use (representing biodiversity loss), greenhouse gas emissions, antibiotics use and animal welfare. Their study concludes that none of the farm types performed consistently well across all four areas – a finding that has important implications for increasingly climate conscious consumers, as well as farmers themselves.

However, there were individual farms that did perform well in all domains, including an indoor Red Tractor farm, an outdoor bred, indoor finished RSPCA assured farm and fully outdoor woodland farm. “Outliers like these show that trade-offs are not inevitable,” said lead author Dr Harriet Bartlett, Research Associate at the University of Oxford's Smith School of Enterprise and the Environment, who was formerly at the University of Cambridge.  

“Somewhat unexpectedly we found that a handful of farms perform far better than average across all four of our environmental and welfare measures,” added senior author Andrew Balmford, Professor of Conservation Science at the University of Cambridge. However, none of the current label or assurance schemes predicted which farms these would be.

“The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat. Even more importantly, we aren’t rewarding and incentivising the best-performing farmers. Instead of focusing on farm types or practices, we need to focus on meaningful outcomes for people, the planet and the pigs – and assess, and reward farms based on these,” said Bartlett.

The findings also show that common assumptions around food labelling can be misplaced. For instance, Organic farming systems, which consumers might see as climate and environmentally friendly, have on average three times the CO2 output per kg of meat of more intensive Red Tractor or RSPCA assured systems and four times the land use. However, these same systems use on average almost 90% fewer antibiotic medicines, and result in improved animal welfare compared with production from Red tractor or RSPCA assured systems.

The way we classify livestock farms must be improved, Bartlett says, because livestock production is growing rapidly, especially pork production, which has quadrupled in the past 50 years and already accounts for 9% of greenhouse gas emissions from livestock. Pig farming also uses more antibiotics than any other livestock sector, and 8.5% of all arable land.

“Our findings show that mitigating the environmental impacts of livestock farming isn’t a case of saying which farm type is the best,” said Bartlett. “There is substantial scope for improvement within types, and our current means of classification is not identifying the best farms for the planet and animals overall. Instead, we need to identify farms that successfully limit their impacts across all areas of societal concern, and understand, promote and incentivise their practises.”

The study reached its conclusions using data from 74 UK and 17 Brazilian breed-to-finish systems, each made up of 1-3 farms and representing the annual production of over 1.2 million pigs. It is published today in the journal Nature Food.

“To the best of our knowledge, our dataset covers by far the largest and most diverse sample of pig production systems examined in any single study,” said Bartlett.

James Wood, Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science at the University of Cambridge, commented: “This important study identifies a key need to clarify what different farm labels should indicate to consumers; there is a pressing need to extend this work into other farming sectors. It also clearly demonstrates the critical importance that individual farmers play in promoting best practice across all farming systems.”

Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable was authored by academics at the University of Oxford, University of Cambridge and the University of São Paulo.

The research was funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC).

Reference: Bartlett, H.,‘Trade-offs in the externalities of pig production are not inevitable.’ Nature Food, April 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s43016-024-00921-2

Adapted from a press release by the University of Oxford.

Farmers don’t have to choose between lowering environmental impact and improving welfare for their pigs, a new study has found: it is possible to do both. But this is not reflected in the current food labelling schemes relied on by consumers.

The way we classify farm types and label pork isn’t helpful for making informed decisions when it comes to buying more sustainable meat.Harriet BartlettCharity Burggraaf/ GettyTwo pigs on a farm


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New approach to monitoring freshwater quality can identify sources of pollution, and predict their effects

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 18:00

The source of pollutants in rivers and freshwater lakes can now be identified using a comprehensive new water quality analysis, according to scientists at the University of Cambridge and Trent University, Canada.

Microparticles from car tyres, pesticides from farmers’ fields, and toxins from harmful algal blooms are just some of the organic chemicals that can be detected using the new approach, which also indicates the impact these chemicals are likely to have in a particular river or lake.

Importantly, the approach can also point to the origin of specific organic matter dissolved in the water, because it has a distinct composition depending on its source.

The approach uses a technique called high-resolution mass spectrometry to analyse water samples: within an hour this provides a comprehensive overview of all the organic molecules present.

Water quality is strongly determined by the diversity of organic matter dissolved in it – termed ‘chemodiversity.’ The scientists say that the thousands of different dissolved organic compounds can keep freshwater ecosystems healthy, or contribute to their decline, depending on the mixture present.

The paper is published today in the journal Science.

“Traditional approaches to monitoring water quality involve taking lots of different measurements with many devices, which takes a lot of time. Our technique is a very simple way to get a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in a particular river or lake,” said Jérémy Fonvielle, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Departments of Plant Sciences and Biochemistry, and co-author of the paper.

To understand what drives this chemodiversity, the team reviewed studies of dissolved organic matter in freshwater samples from rivers and lakes across Europe and northern Canada.

For example, water analysis of Lake Erie in Canada revealed high levels of phosphorus pollution. By looking at the composition of individual molecules in the water sample, researchers identified agricultural activities as the source of this pollution, rather than wastewater effluent. 

“Whereas before, we could measure the amount of organic nitrogen or phosphorus pollution in a river, we couldn't really identify where pollution was coming from. With our new approach we can use the unique molecular fingerprint of different sources of pollution in freshwater to identify their source,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap at Trent University School of the Environment, co-author of the report.

Traditional approaches involve separately measuring many indicators of ecosystem health, such as the level of organic nutrients or particular pollutants like nitrogen. These can indicate the condition of the water, but not why this state has arisen.

Dissolved organic matter is one of the most complex mixtures on Earth. It consists of thousands of individual molecules, each with their own unique properties. This matter influences many processes in rivers and lakes, including nutrient cycling, carbon storage, light absorption, and food web interactions - which together determine ecosystem function.

Sources of dissolved organic matter in freshwater include urban runoff, agricultural runoff, aerosols and wildfires.

“It's possible to monitor the health of freshwater through the diversity of compounds that are present. Our approach can, and is, being rolled out across the UK,” said Tanentzap.

Fonvielle will now apply this technique to analysing water samples from farmland drainage ditches in the Fens, as part of a project run by the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Landscape Regeneration to understand freshwater health in this agricultural landscape.

The research was funded primarily by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council and the European Research Council.

Reference: Tanentzap, A.J. and Fonvielle, J.A: ‘Chemodiversity in freshwater health.’ Science, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adg8658

Analysing the diversity of organic compounds dissolved in freshwater provides a reliable measure of ecosystem health, say scientists.

Our technique is a very simple way to get a comprehensive overview of what’s going on in a particular river or lake.Jérémy FonvielleSam WoodmanStudy lake in Norway


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TB vaccine may enable elimination of the disease in cattle by reducing its spread

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 18:00

The research, led by the University of Cambridge and Penn State University, improves prospects for the elimination and control of bovine tuberculosis (TB), an infectious disease of cattle that results in large economic costs and health impacts across the world.  

This is the first study to show that BCG-vaccinated cattle infected with TB are substantially less infectious to other cattle. This remarkable indirect effect of the vaccine beyond its direct protective effect has not been measured before.

The spillover of infection from livestock has been estimated to account for about 10% of human tuberculosis cases. While such zoonotic TB (zTB) infections are most commonly associated with gastro-intestinal infections related to drinking contaminated milk, zTB can also cause chronic lung infections in humans. Lung disease caused by zTB can be indistinguishable from regular tuberculosis, but is more difficult to treat due to natural antibiotic resistance in the cattle bacteria.

TB remains endemic in many countries around the world, including in Europe and the Americas, where its control costs farmers and taxpayers hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

The study is published today in the journal Science.

In the study, carried out in Ethiopia, researchers examined the ability of the vaccine, Bacillus Calmette-Guérin (BCG), to directly protect cattle that receive it, as well as to indirectly protect both vaccinated and unvaccinated cattle by reducing TB transmission. Vaccinated and unvaccinated animals were put into enclosures with naturally infected animals, in a novel crossover design performed over two years.

“Our study found that BCG vaccination reduces TB transmission in cattle by almost 90%. Vaccinated cows also developed significantly fewer visible signs of TB than unvaccinated ones. This suggests that the vaccination not only reduces the progression of the disease, but that if vaccinated animals become infected, they are substantially less infectious to others,” said Andrew Conlan, Associate Professor of Epidemiology at the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and a corresponding author of the study.

Using livestock census and movement data from Ethiopia, the team developed a transmission model to explore the potential for routine vaccination to control bovine tuberculosis.

“Results of the model suggest that vaccinating calves within the dairy sector of Ethiopia could reduce the reproduction number of the bacterium — the R0 — to below 1, arresting the projected increase in the burden of disease and putting herds on a pathway towards elimination of TB,” Conlan said.

The team focused their studies in Ethiopia, a country with the largest cattle herd in Africa and a rapidly growing dairy sector that has a growing burden of bovine tuberculosis and no current control program, as a representative of similarly situated transitional economies.

“Bovine tuberculosis is largely uncontrolled in low- and middle-income countries, including Ethiopia,” said Abebe Fromsa, associate professor of agriculture and veterinary medicine at Addis Ababa University in Ethiopia and the study’s co-lead author. “Vaccination of cattle has the potential to provide significant benefits in these regions.”

“For over a hundred years, programs to eliminate bovine tuberculosis have relied on intensive testing and slaughtering of infected animals,” said Vivek Kapur, professor of microbiology and infectious diseases and Huck Distinguished Chair in Global Health at Penn State and a corresponding author of the study.

He added: “This approach is unimplementable in many parts of the world for economic and social reasons, resulting in considerable animal suffering and economic losses from lost productivity, alongside an increased risk of spillover of infection to humans. By vaccinating cattle, we hope to be able to protect both cattle and humans from the consequences of this devastating disease.”

Professor James Wood, Alborada Professor of Equine and Farm Animal Science in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine, noted that despite TB being more prevalent in lower-income countries, the United Kingdom, Ireland and New Zealand also experience considerable economic pressures from the disease which continues to persist despite intensive and costly control programs.

Wood said: “For over twenty-years the UK government has pinned hopes on cattle vaccination for bovine tuberculosis as a solution to reduce the disease and the consequent costs of the controls. These results provide important support for the epidemiological benefit that cattle vaccination could have to reduce rates of transmission to and within herds.”

This research was supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, as well as the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council; Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; Economic & Social Research Council; Medical Research Council; Natural Environment Research Council; and Defence Science & Technology.

Reference: Fromsa, A. et al: ‘BCG vaccination of cattle reduces transmission of bovine tuberculosis, improving the prospects for elimination.’ Science, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/science.adl3962

Vaccination not only reduces the severity of TB in infected cattle, but reduces its spread in dairy herds by 89%, research finds.

Our study suggests that vaccination not only reduces the progression of the disease, but that if vaccinated animals become infected, they are substantially less infectious to others.Andrew ConlanGetty/ kamisokaHerd of cows in a grassy field


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‘Exhausted’ immune cells in healthy women could be target for breast cancer prevention

Thu, 28/03/2024 - 10:03

Everyone has BRCA1 and BRCA2 genes, but mutations in these genes - which can be inherited - increase the risk of breast and ovarian cancer.

The study found that the immune cells in breast tissue of healthy women carrying BRCA1 or BRCA2 gene mutations show signs of malfunction known as ‘exhaustion’. This suggests that the immune cells can’t clear out damaged breast cells, which can eventually develop into breast cancer.

This is the first time that ‘exhausted’ immune cells have been reported in non-cancerous breast tissues at such scale - normally these cells are only found in late-stage tumours.

The results raise the possibility of using existing immunotherapy drugs as early intervention to prevent breast cancer developing, in carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.

The researchers have received a ‘Biology to Prevention Award’ from Cancer Research UK to trial this preventative approach in mice. If effective, this will pave the way to a pilot clinical trial in women carrying BRCA gene mutations.

“Our results suggest that in carriers of BRCA mutations, the immune system is failing to kill off damaged breast cells - which in turn seem to be working to keep these immune cells at bay,” said Professor Walid Khaled in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute, senior author of the report.

He added: “We’re very excited about this discovery, because it opens up potential for a preventative treatment other than surgery for carriers of BRCA breast cancer gene mutations.

“Drugs already exist that can overcome this block in immune cell function, but so far, they’ve only been approved for late-stage disease. No-one has really considered using them in a preventative way before.”

The results are published today in the journal Nature Genetics.

Risk-reducing surgery, in which the breasts are removed, is offered to those at increased risk of breast cancer. This can be a difficult decision for young women to make and can have a significant effect on body image and sexual relationships.

“The best way to prevent breast cancer is to really understand how it develops in the first place. Then we can identify these early changes and intervene,” said Khaled.

He added: “Late-stage breast cancer tends to be very unpredictable and hard to manage. As we make better and better drugs, the tumours just seem to find a way around it.”

Using samples of healthy breast tissue collected from 55 women across a range of ages, the researchers catalogued over 800,000 cells - including all the different types of breast cell.

The resulting Human Breast Cell Atlas is now available as a resource for other researchers to use and add to. It contains huge amounts of information on other risk factors for breast cancer including Body Mass Index (BMI), menopausal status, contraceptive use and alcohol consumption.

“We've found that there are multiple breast cell types that change with pregnancy, and with age, and it’s the combination of these effects - and others - that drives the overall risk of breast cancer,” said Austin Reed, a PhD student in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and joint first author of the report.

He added: “As we collect more of this type of information from samples around the world, we can learn more about how breast cancer develops and the impact of different risk factors - with the aim of improving treatment.”

One of the biggest challenges in treating breast cancer is that it is not just one disease, but many. Many different genetic variations can lead to breast cancer, and genetic risk interacts with other risk factors in complicated ways.

For example, it is known that the likelihood of breast cancer increases with age, but this risk is greatly reduced by pregnancy early in life. And age-associated risk is greatly increased in carriers of the breast cancer genes BRCA1 and BRCA2.

The new study aimed to understand how some of these risk factors interact, by characterising the different cell types in the human breast under many different physiological states.

The researchers used a technique called ‘single cell RNA-sequencing’ to characterise the many different breast cell types and states. Almost all cells in the body have the same set of genes, but only a subset of these are switched on in each cell – and these determine the cell’s identity and function. Single cell RNA-sequencing reveals which genes are switched on in individual cells.

“Breast cancer occurs around the world, but social inequalities mean not everyone has access to treatment. Prevention is the most cost-effective approach. It not only tackles inequality, which mostly affects low-income countries, but also improves disease outcome in high-income countries,” said Dr Sara Pensa, Senior Research Associate in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Pharmacology and joint first author of the study.

Breast tissue samples were provided by the Breast Cancer Now tissue bank.

The research was primarily funded by the Medical Research Council and Cancer Research UK.

Reference: Reed, A.D. et al: ‘A human breast cell atlas enables mapping of homeostatic cellular shifts in the adult breast.’ Nature Genetics, March 2024. DOI: 10.1038/s41588-024-01688-9

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have created the world’s largest catalogue of human breast cells, which has revealed early cell changes in healthy carriers of BRCA1 and BRCA2 gene mutations.

We’re very excited about this discovery, because it opens up potential for a preventative treatment other than surgery for carriers of BRCA breast cancer gene mutations.Walid KhaledAngiola Harry on UnsplashWoman holds pink breast cancer awareness ribbon. Credit angiola-harry-unsplash


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Fish fed to farmed salmon should be part of our diet, too, study suggests

Wed, 20/03/2024 - 16:10

Scientists found that farmed salmon production leads to an overall loss of essential dietary nutrients. They say that eating more wild ‘feed’ species directly could benefit our health while reducing aquaculture demand for finite marine resources.

Researchers analysed the flow of nutrients from the edible species of wild fish used as feed, to the farmed salmon they were fed to. They found a decrease in six out of nine nutrients in the salmon fillet – calcium, iodine, iron, omega-3, vitamin B12 and vitamin A, but increased levels of selenium and zinc.

Most wild ‘feed’ fish met dietary nutrient recommendations at smaller portion sizes than farmed Atlantic salmon, including omega-3 fatty acids which are known to reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease and stroke.

“What we’re seeing is that most species of wild fish used as feed have a similar or greater density and range of micronutrients than farmed salmon fillets,” said lead author, Dr David Willer, Zoology Department, University of Cambridge.

“Whilst still enjoying eating salmon and supporting sustainable growth in the sector, people should consider eating a greater and wider variety of wild fish species like sardines, mackerel and anchovies, to get more essential nutrients straight to their plate.”

In the UK, 71% of adults have insufficient vitamin D in winter, and teenage girls and women often have deficiencies of iodine, selenium and iron. Yet while, 24% of adults ate salmon weekly, only 5.4% ate mackerel, 1% anchovies and just 0.4% herring.

“Making a few small changes to our diet around the type of fish that we eat can go a long way to changing some of these deficiencies and increasing the health of both our population and planet,” said Willer.

The researchers found consuming one-third of current food-grade wild feed fish directly would be the most efficient way of maximising nutrients from the sea.

“Marine fisheries are important local and global food systems, but large catches are being diverted towards farm feeds. Prioritising nutritious seafood for people can help improve both diets and ocean sustainability,” said senior author Dr James Robinson, Lancaster University.

This approach could help address global nutrient deficiencies say the team of scientists from the University of Cambridge, Lancaster University, University of Stirling and the University of Aberdeen.

The study was published today in the journal, Nature Food

The scientists calculated the balance of nutrients in edible portions of whole wild fish, used within pelleted salmon feed in Norway, compared to the farmed salmon fillets.

They focused on nine nutrients that are essential in human diets and concentrated in seafood – iodine, calcium, iron, vitamin B12, vitamin A, omega-3 (EPA + DHA), vitamin D, zinc and selenium.

The wild fish studied included Pacific and Peruvian anchoveta, and Atlantic herring, mackerel, sprat and blue whiting – which are all marketed and consumed as seafood.

They found that these six feed species contained a greater, or similar, concentration of nutrients as the farmed salmon fillets. Quantities of calcium were over five times higher in wild feed fish fillets than salmon fillets, iodine was four times higher, and iron, omega-3, vitamin B12, and vitamin A were over 1.5 times higher.

Wild feed species and salmon had comparable quantities of vitamin D.

Zinc and selenium were found to be higher in salmon than the wild feed species – the researchers say these extra quantities are due to other salmon feed ingredients and are a real mark of progress in the salmon sector.

“Farmed salmon is an excellent source of nutrition, and is one of the best converters of feed of any farmed animal, but for the industry to grow it needs to become better at retaining key nutrients that it is fed. This can be done through more strategic use of feed ingredients, including from fishery by-products and sustainably-sourced, industrial-grade fish such as sand eels”, said Dr Richard Newton of the Institute of Aquaculture, University of Stirling, whose team also included Professor Dave Little, Dr Wesley Malcorps and Björn Kok.

 “It was interesting to see that we’re effectively wasting around 80% of the calcium and iodine from the feed fish – especially when we consider that women and teenage girls are often not getting enough of these nutrients”.

Willer said “These numbers have been underacknowledged by the aquaculture industry’s standard model of quoting Fish In Fish Out (FIFO) ratios rather than looking at nutrients.

The researchers would like to see a nutrient retention metric adopted by the fishing and aquaculture industries. They believe that if combined with the current FIFO ratio, the industry could become more efficient, and reduce the burden on fish stocks that also provide seafood. The team are building a standardised and robust vehicle for integrating the nutrient retention metric into industry practice.

“We’d like to see the industry expand but not at a cost to our oceans,” said Willer.

“We’d also like to see a greater variety of affordable, convenient and appealing products made of wild ‘feed’ fish and fish and salmon by-products for direct human consumption.”

The research was funded by the Scottish Government’s Rural and Environmental Science and Analytical Services Division (RESAS), a Royal Society University Research Fellowship, a Leverhulme Trust Early Career Fellowship a Henslow Fellowship at Murray Edwards College and the University of Cambridge.

Reference: D. Willer et al. Wild fish consumption can balance nutrient retention in farmed fish Nature Food DOI: 10.1038/s43016-024-00932-z

The public are being encouraged to eat more wild fish, such as mackerel, anchovies and herring, which are often used within farmed salmon feeds. These oily fish contain essential nutrients including calcium, B12 and omega-3 but some are lost from our diets when we just eat the salmon fillet.

Making a few small changes to our diet around the type of fish that we eat can go a long way to changing some of these deficiencies and increasing the health of both our population and planet Dr David Willer, Zoology DepartmentJoff Lee / The Image Bank / Getty Mackerel with potato salad


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Yes

Genetic mutation in a quarter of all Labradors hard-wires them for obesity

Wed, 06/03/2024 - 19:06

This obesity-driving combination means that dog owners must be particularly strict with feeding and exercising their Labradors to keep them slim.

The mutation is in a gene called POMC, which plays a critical role in hunger and energy use.

Around 25% of Labradors and 66% of flatcoated retriever dogs have the POMC mutation, which researchers previously showed causes increased interest in food and risk of obesity.

The new study reveals how the mutation profoundly changes the way Labradors and flatcoated retrievers behave around food. It found that although they don’t need to eat more to feel full, they are hungrier in between meals.

In addition, dogs with the POMC mutation were found to use around 25% less energy at rest than dogs without it, meaning they don’t need to consume as many calories to maintain a healthy body weight.

“We found that a mutation in the POMC gene seems to make dogs hungrier. Affected dogs tend to overeat because they get hungry between meals more quickly than dogs without the mutation,” said Dr Eleanor Raffan, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Physiology, Development and Neuroscience who led the study.

She added: “All owners of Labradors and flatcoated retrievers need to watch what they’re feeding these highly food-motivated dogs, to keep them a healthy weight. But dogs with this genetic mutation face a double whammy: they not only want to eat more, but also need fewer calories because they’re not burning them off as fast.”

The POMC mutation was found to alter a pathway in the dogs’ brains associated with body weight regulation. The mutation triggers a starvation signal that tells their body to increase food intake and conserve energy, despite this being unnecessary.

The results are published today in the journal Science Advances.

Raffan said: “People are often rude about the owners of fat dogs, blaming them for not properly managing their dogs’ diet and exercise. But we’ve shown that Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.”

The researchers say owners can keep their retrievers distracted from this constant hunger by spreading out each daily food ration, for example by using puzzle feeders or scattering the food around the garden so it takes longer to eat.

In the study, 87 adult pet Labrador dogs - all a healthy weight or moderately overweight - took part in several tests including the ‘sausage in a box’ test.

First, the dogs were given a can of dogfood every 20 minutes until they chose not to eat any more. All ate huge amounts of food, but the dogs with the POMC mutation didn’t eat more than those without it. This showed that they all feel full with a similar amount of food.

Next, on a different day, the dogs were fed a standard amount of breakfast. Exactly three hours later they were offered a sausage in a box and their behaviour was recorded. The box was made of clear plastic with a perforated lid, so the dogs could see and smell the sausage, but couldn’t eat it.

The researchers found that dogs with the POMC mutation tried significantly harder to get the sausage from the box than dogs without it, indicating greater hunger.

The dogs were then allowed to sleep in a special chamber that measured the gases they breathed out. This revealed that dogs with the POMC mutation burn around 25% fewer calories than dogs without it.

The POMC gene and the brain pathway it affects are similar in dogs and humans. The new findings are consistent with reports of extreme hunger in humans with POMC mutations, who tend to become obese at an early age and develop a host of clinical problems as a result.

Drugs currently in development for human obesity, underactive sexual desire and certain skin conditions target this brain pathway, so understanding it fully is important.

A mutation in the POMC gene in dogs prevents production of two chemical messengers in the dog brain, beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone (β-MSH) and beta-endorphin, but does not affect production of a third, alpha-melanocyte stimulating hormone (α-MSH).

Further laboratory studies by the team suggest that β-MSH and beta-endorphin are important in determining hunger and moderating energy use, and their role is independent of the presence of α-MSH. This challenges the previous belief, based on research in rats, that early onset human obesity due to POMC mutations is caused only by a lack of α-MSH. Rats don’t produce beta-melanocyte stimulating hormone, but humans and dogs produce both α- and β-MSH.

The research was funded by The Dogs Trust and Wellcome.

Reference: Dittmann, M.T. et al: ‘Low resting metabolic rate and increased hunger due to β-MSH and β-endorphin deletion in a canine model.’ Science Advances, March 2024. DOI: 10.1126/sciadv.adj3823

New research finds around a quarter of Labrador retriever dogs face a double-whammy of feeling hungry all the time and burning fewer calories due to a genetic mutation.

Labradors with this genetic mutation are looking for food all the time, trying to increase their energy intake. It’s very difficult to keep these dogs slim, but it can be done.Eleanor RaffanJane GoodallLabrador retriever dog


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YesLicence type: Attribution-Noncommerical