Gene Therapy - fact or fiction?
11 October 2017
In a first for me, and I suspect for many if not all of the large audience who attended this lecture at Plymouth University, Dr Simon Waddington embarked on an ambitious yet successful online interactive survey with 126 members of the audience. The survey asked how many of those present knew about gene therapy, would use it personally to correct physical or mental problems and, importantly, whether we would use gene therapy to correct problems in our germline so our offspring would not inherit them.
Simon’s explanation of how cells work, how viruses work and how we can ‘hack’ viruses was simple and clear for the audience of professional biologists, life science students, sixth formers and members of the general public alike. He challenged the audience to identify films that have portraying the use of gene therapy in various ways, such as to completely re-engineer the phenotype of a human, or release a super-virulent strain of virus. I won’t disclose the films in case Simon repeats this talk elsewhere, but you can sleep easily though – all the Hollywood claims were debunked!
Simon described his own work on haemophilia B and the enormous cost to the NHS of recombinant factors VIII and IX (£100K per patient per year) which could be circumvented with gene therapy. A major advance with the correction of X-linked severe immune deficiency syndrome (X-SCID) was reported by groups in London and Paris a few years ago, but in the trial a small number of ‘cured’ children developed leukaemia, which cast a huge shadow over this powerful therapeutic approach.
A long Q&A session followed Simon’s compelling talk, and one particular question struck a chord – could the effects of gene therapy simply wear off? Simon’s response was honest and clear – these are experiments on living human subjects – we simply don’t know what will happen. This powerful approach clearly has many hurdles to overcome and opportunities to explore.
Our sincere thanks to Simon, and to our hosts at Plymouth – Drs Mairi Knight, Rich Boden and Paul Ramsay for their wonderful welcome, hospitality and organisation.
Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB, branch chairman
Nature Walk from Lynmouth to Watersmeet
10 June 2017
Lynmouth, a pretty town on the north Devon coast, was devastated by flood water in 1952. Our party of sixteen was shown some black and white Pathé newsreels by our guide Julian Gurney, which illustrated the aftermath of the terrifying event.
Sixty five years later, on a drizzly but warm June day, we walked along the East Lyn river enjoying the babbling of the water and the infectious enthusiasm of our knowledgeable guide (you can follow him on Twitter @ExmoorNature).
L-R: Red-tailed bee on Green Alkanet (Pentaglottis sempervirens), Irish Spurge (Euphorbia hyberna)
The Watersmeet Valley is well known for its abundant plant life, and our attention was drawn to slender St John's wort (Hypericum pulchrum), cow wheat (Melampyrum pratense), herb robert (Geranium robertianum) and herb bennett (Geum urbanum), the rare Irish spurge (Euphorbia hyberna) and many other species, as well as to the antiseptic smell of meadowsweet (Filipendula ulmaria) root which we agreed reminded us of Germolene.
Gurney, an Exmoor ranger, is a very keen butterfly spotter and bee identifier, and as the weather was not really conducive for Lepidopterans other than a couple of intrepid green-veined whites (Pieris napi), every buzz was followed with interest. Lunch was taken at Watersmeet, now a National Trust tearoom and gift shop, formerly a hunting and fishing lodge. Grey wagtails, bluetits and various finches accompanied our group, awaiting tasty morsels.
One of the salutary lessons of the day was to witness the effect of innocent garden escapees out-competing the native and natural flora. Japanese Knotweed (Fallopia japonica) has been managed carefully and is now restricted to mid-river islands, but Tellima grandiflora and Crocosmia sp. (Montbretia) – both widely available in garden centres, are spreading along the banks of the river, crowding out more delicate species.
Our day ended with a 30 minute film of "Exmoor through Time" which was both interesting and highly informative. Enormous thanks are extended to Julian and his colleagues at the Exmoor National Park Centre in Lynmouth.
Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB
Making the Devon Bird Atlas – Mapping 30 Years of Change
14 January 2017
In 2013 the British Trust for Ornithology produced the third National Atlas of Breeding Birds in the UK, and the information from it formed the basis for the Devon Atlas. Our speaker, Mike Hounsome produced the maps, statistics and website.
The area sampled was 6707km2, surveyed by 1,200 volunteers who made 1.1 million records. Observations were made in one hour sessions, twice a year, and the two figures were combined.
Surveys like this are difficult to standardise, but the observers looked for various indications that breeding birds were present, including behaviour, song, nests, eggs or young.
The results show the percentage increase or decrease in the number of areas occupied by a species compared to earlier surveys, but not the actual numbers of birds.
Land coverage maps indicate the acreage of farmland, improved grassland and semi-natural grassland. ‘Improved’ means the removal of weeds and a reduced number of grass species, which is better for stock but affects the diet of birds such as the skylark and meadow pipit. This type of vegetation has greatly increased in recent years.
Big changes are seen in the distribution of some birds including lapwing and cuckoo. Starlings still breed over wide areas, but in far fewer numbers, possibly because there is less food for them in the improved grassland soils. Siskin are more widely spread in the south and west where conifer forests are maturing.
Monitoring such variations highlights the importance of the Atlas, especially now at a time of increasing change in our climate and the habitats around us. We were impressed by the dedication of the volunteers and the skill in processing and presenting so much data.
Mary Jenking MRSB
Dining with Darwin –How our food evolved and influenced our evolution
12 October 2016
The great apes and our ancestors were vegetarian. How and when did we become omnivorous? Professor Jonathan Silvertown from the University of Edinburgh, a world-renowned plant population ecologist, began his talk at the annual University of Plymouth RSB Lecture with an outline of our ancestors’ nutritional history.
At Olduvai Gorge there is evidence of megafaunal remains, including elephants, killed by Homo erectus 1.34 MYA (million years ago). We are unique in our social eating and this may have come from the co-operation needed to kill and share large animals.
Our increasing cranial capacity has been matched by our need for better nutrition. All known human cultures cook their food – our guts would need to be 40% bigger to just eat raw food. We have archeological evidence for fire making from 400,000 years ago and by 165,000 years ago shellfish and small mammals were part of the human diet.
We are gradually exploring the evolution of many of our foodstuffs. In the Andes one species of potato has given rise to all the varieties eaten worldwide, and all our cattle are descended from an extinct species of ox.
Artificial selection during the last 12,000 years has produced our modern chickens from red jungle fowl; sugar cane from wild grasses, and broccoli, kale and other brassicas from wild cabbage.
Over the last 2,000 years wheat has been selected for seeds that stay on the plant longer, so that fewer are lost during harvesting.
Agriculture and domestication of animals has also changed us. We use the enzyme lactase to help us to digest milk. It is produced by babies and also populations with a mutation which allows continuing lactase production. In Northern Europe this development occurred about 7,500 years ago. In Saudi Arabia, a different mutation allows the consumption of camel’s milk. Populations without such a mutation must ferment milk into yoghurt or cheese
Professor Silverton certainly gave us much interesting food for thought.
Mary Jenking MRSB
13 October 2016
Dave Smallshire is a dragonfly recorder for Devon and former trustee of the British Dragonfly Society. He began his talk by showing us pictures of the oldest dragonfly fossils of 350 million years ago, still easily recognisable today.
There are about 6000 species of dragonfly and damselfly globally and 48 species have bred in the UK. Devon provides a wide range of habitats including lowland rivers and streams, canals, ditches, lakes and ponds, and 29 species breed here.
The common name often indicates their method of feeding, with skimmers catching insects over water, and darters, hawkers or chasers. They use a large jaw which can shoot out to catch prey. Our largest dragonfly, the emperor, can catch butterflies on the wing, while small damselflies take aphid-sized prey.
From late spring onwards they emerge from the water where they will have spent usually one or two years passing through their larval stages. They need a good supply of invertebrate food and unpolluted water.
Emergence is often in the evening, when they climb up vegetation and rest while the abdomen and wings harden and their pigment gradually appears. This can take up to two hours in a large species and is the most vulnerable stage in their life cycle, when they can be damaged by the weather or attacked by ants.
The adults lay eggs directly in water or on nearby vegetation and can often be seen flying in tandem. Some hawkers lay their eggs inside plant stems. The adult stage of their life cycle is brief, a few weeks for damselflies and a few months for dragonflies, eventually killed by the cold and lack of food.
The fascinating talk was illustrated by Dave’s own beautiful photographs.
Mary Jenking CBiol MRSB
Seaton Jurassic Centre
2 July 2016
The Devon and Cornwall branch is lucky to have the Jurassic Coast, a natural World Heritage Site, on its doorstep. Mike Green gave us a clear and enthusiastic account of the geology of the site, illustrated with models and fossils characteristic of the various rock types.
The Heritage coast stretches from Exmouth eastward for 96 miles to Studland Bay near Bournemouth. It is the only place in the world that reveals the three epochs of the Mesozoic era, the Triassic from about 248 million years ago, Jurassic, from 200 million years ago and the Cretaceous, 144 to 65 million years ago. Sedimentary rocks are laid down horizontally of course, but from the tilting of the land they are now exposed progressively along the coast.
During the Triassic the area was a red sandy desert and this is seen in the west of the site, with high red cliffs, sandstone stacks and not many fossils. As the continents were separating from Pangea, sea levels rose and the Jurassic deposits formed in shallow seas. Here clays and shales predominate, high in calcium fixed by marine organisms. Amongst the fossils are gastropod molluscs, echinoderms, insects, fish and amphibians and plant material.
There is a fault line at Beer, Devon, and the two sides represent about 1 million years of change. In the Cretaceous period to the east the area had lowland swampy conditions, later overlain by chalk. Here fossilised reptiles (including dinosaurs) and mammals are present.
In the afternoon we enjoyed the Seaton Visitor Centre which deals not only with geology and fossils but provides interactive demonstrations of world environmental issues.
Brian Wood FRSB
Royal Title Celebration at the Eden Project
30 April 2016
I saw a birthday card recently which claimed that a party without a cake is just a meeting. Devon & Cornwall’s recent event at the Eden Project was definitely a party, as a celebratory cake was cut and consumed before guest speaker Christopher Bailes presented his fascinating talk about the Chelsea Physic Garden - connecting people with plants for three centuries.
Christopher was curator at the RHS Rosemoor Garden from 1988 before moving to the physic garden as curator in 2011. We heard that the garden has undergone many changes over the years, with little remaining from the original Apothecaries Garden that was created in 1673.
All gardens evolve – they develop and are interpreted in different ways by successive generations – and the Chelsea Physic Garden is essentially a botanic garden with a mission to demonstrate the medicinal, economic, cultural and environmental importance of plants to the survival and well-being of humankind. I think Hans Sloane (who donated the land for the original garden) would approve.
After lunch, Eden Project horticulturist Ian Martin spoke about his background and the role that the centre plays in connecting people with nature, before guiding the group around the Rainforest Biome.
Ian has an illustrious 20 year history at the Eden Project – he was plant nursery curator for 15 years and is now technical advisor. His enthusiasm for the specimens planted in the biome is exceeded only by his desire to ensure that all visitors learn about the importance of their conservation and the protection of their natural habitats.
During our tour we were treated to a presentation about Amorphophallus titanum – the Corpse Flower – three of which were close to flowering, when they emit their eponymous stench.
Our thanks to Christopher Bailes and Ian Martin for making this a celebration to remember.
Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB
Winter Birds and Seals Boat Trip
17 January 2016
Devon and Cornwall RSB members joined the weekly Sunday morning bird-watching trip from Paignton harbour, around the coastal cliffs, out to sea, then onwards to Brixham harbour and back again. We were in the excellent hands of naturalist Nigel Smallbones and the crew of the Dart Princess.
The weather was crisp, cold, bright and clear. Good for wintering birds and also to allow clear views and explanations of the geology of the cliffs, including limestone and striated layers of sandstone.
Leaving Paignton harbour we were immediately dive-bombed by a male Peregrine. On the trip we had frequent close sightings of many birds including 17 Great Northern Divers, 18 Great Crested Grebe and Scoters in flight. There were 900 plus Guillemots on the colony cliffs at Berry Head and many more in the water in the Brixham area. Seals were also basking in the cool sunshine in Brixham harbour.
Interestingly, despite the northerly movement of many auks associated with climate change, the Guillemot colony here on the South Devon coast is increasing steadily in numbers year by year.
A good trip and as we got back into Paignton harbour we saw both the male and female Peregrines, just before the rain started!
Mr Michael Morgan MRSB
Science and Nonsense in Drug & Alcohol Policies
19 November 2015
By his own admission Professor David Nutt polarises opinions. During an entertaining, thought-provoking and informative lecture delivered to a packed audience of over 300 people at the University of Exeter, Professor Nutt provided evidence of complicity, media mis-rapportage and ignorance underpinning the Government's position that "illegal" drugs are dangerous and cannot be used under any circumstances, including in clinical research.
Sacked in 2009 from his post as Chair of the Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs by Labour Home Secretary Alan Johnson, Nutt has been an outspoken advocate for evidence-based drugs policy, rather than the seemingly irrational approach taken by successive administrations.
Nutt presented compelling data on the accelerating incidence of liver disease, clearly illustrating that alcohol is the most dangerous drug. It affects the individual who consumes it, those close to those who abuse it, as well as society in general which has to suffer the impacts of its consumption.
Conversely, he showed the vilification of MDMA ('ecstacy', or 'empathy' as it was first named) by the mass media, and presented evidence of miscommunication in cases where 'mephedrone', formerly a 'legal high' was 'confused' with methadone (a heroin substitute) to exaggerate its danger to society.
Nutt's research is focused on researching the clinical utility of 'illegal' drugs – psilocybin (from 'magic' mushrooms) as a treatment for depression and cluster headaches, and MDMA for post-traumatic stress disorder. Gaining access to these drugs for clinical research can take years, and is set to get worse.
The Psychoactive Substances Bill, which is likely to gain Royal Assent in 2016, will ban the sale of psychoactive substances regardless of harm and benefit (including nitrous oxide which is widely used for pain relief), and could end essential research work and needlessly delay new therapeutic drug development. Is this the worst moral law for more than 400 years?
Watch the talk in full on the Exeter University website.
Dr Ian M Varndell CBiol FRSB
24 October 2015
In 1665 Robert Hooke published Micrographia, the first fully illustrated book on microscopy – a whole new world of tiny things. To celebrate the 350th anniversary of the book and its beautiful illustrations, Exeter Cathedral hosted our day of microscopy and drawing, in the Chapter House.
The book was presented in a glass case so that we could see the detail of the drawings and text. Ellie Jones, the Cathedral Archivist, was in attendance to explain its importance and how it was being conserved.
Exeter University provided modern microscopes and slides, giving everyone the chance to compare what we can see today with the tiny images that Hooke saw. Dr Charlotte Walker and Dr Emma Rundle from the Marine Biological Association provided an antique microscope and information about the history of microscopy in marine research.
During the day Professor Gero Steinberg from Exeter University gave a lecture on the development of microscopes up to the present day and Dr Felicity Henderson from the English Dept of the University gave a talk on Hooke and Micrographia.
The event was linked to the Big Draw, a national celebration of drawing that takes place annually in October. Visitors of all ages attempted to draw their own versions of tiny insects and plants and marvelled at the skill of Robert Hooke.
It was a delight to receive so many appreciative comments from members of the public who had never looked down a microscope before – much better than just seeing it on television was one response.
We should like to thank Exeter Cathedral, Exeter University and the Marine Biological Association for their help and enthusiasm.
Mary Jenking MRSB
Visit to Upcott Grange
27 August 2015
"The large copper butterfly is really dependent on beavers". That got our attention as we were welcomed to Upcott Grange by Derek Gow, whose consultancy is dedicated to reversing the decline in water vole populations.
Derek's work involves breeding and releasing voles into habitats where suitable riparian conditions have been recreated and the North American mink has been eradicated. Micro-chipping the voles allows recapture surveys to identify any wild-bred progeny. His re-introductions have been successful in various sites around the UK.
Derek also has beavers at Upcott, and we waited by their enclosure as the sun went down, hoping to catch sight of them. Though only August, the chilly air sent us back indoors without a glimpse.
We were compensated by seeing some of the many Upcott water voles close up. Here's a tip: the most essential piece of equipment for catching your vole is a Pringles carton – exactly the right size for a chubby little vole to scuttle into.
We left feeling that there is hope for this little British native again. What they need most is open, sunny wetlands with lots of banks and vegetation, something they are likely to get here where the newly discovered wild beavers quietly remodel the River Otter.
A helping hand from one native Briton for a distant mammalian cousin – and hopefully for the large copper butterfly too.
Dr Alma Swan FRSB
Biology Week lecture: The Improbable Origin of Life
14 October 2014
Dr Nick Lane from University College London spoke to an enthusiastic audience of about 250 people on 'The Origin of Life'.
What are the chances that intelligent life might have evolved elsewhere in the universe? Nick favoured the Jacques Monod/Stephen Jay Gould school of thought that all was due to chance events – that even if there were intelligence elsewhere, distance and time would work against finding it.
It was evolution in the eukaryotes that led to the great structural and ecological complexities culminating in intelligence. The characteristics that define them include include a nucleus with mitosis and meiosis, speciation and senescence. Recent studies indicate that another key characteristic is chemiosmosis (the movement of ions across a selectively permeable membrane), the presence of mitochondria playing a key role in this.
The case was made that complex life arose only once in four billion years through a chance combination that 'worked' positively and accounted for all the special characteristics of the Eukaryota. No prokaryotes had developed any of these characteristics in that time.
There followed a lot of questions and comments with which Nick dealt easily, offering helpful technical clarification. His new book, The Vital Question is due out in February 2015. If it is of equal quality to that of his talk, it promises to be a good read.
Chris Fry MSB
AGM and nanoscience talk
12 March 2014
The speaker at our AGM at the University of Plymouth was Professor Richard Handy, director of the Exotoxicology Research and Innovation Centre at the university. The centre has a strong interest in nanoscience and works on many different organisms, from microbes to man.
At less than 100nm nanoparticles are little wider than the DNA helix. Early examples were made for cosmetics, fabric coatings and fuel additives. By 2011 there were over 1,300 products on the market and the industry was worth around $1,500bn. The particles are mainly carbon, silver and titanium-based and produced chiefly in the US and Europe.
Around 50 have been approved as medicines so far, including drugs for cancer and pain control. Nano-silver is being investigated for antibacterial properties in dentistry, while nano-iron may prove useful in breaking down persistent pesticides. There is interest in the optical properties of certain particles which change colour according to their size.
Exotoxicity is being studied in algae, crustacean and mussels, but very little is known about the effects of nanoparticles in amphibians, reptiles and birds. Studies are comparing the effects of nanoparticles with those of dust, ash and carbon particles on human respiratory epithelium. There are also some concerns about nanoparticles aggregating in coastal sediments and thereby entering food chains.
In a fascinating and wide-ranging talk Professor Handy explained that nanoparticles can potentially deliver huge benefits, but there are many gaps in our knowledge of the risks to ourselves and the environment.
Mary Jenking CBiol MSB
Can Insects Feed the World?
17 Jan 2014
Dr Peter Smithers (Plymouth University) entertained an audience of almost 70 with a talk on entomophagy – the consumption of insects.
Over 2 billion of the world's population already includes insects as part of its diet, and Dr Smithers is an enthusiastic advocate of insects as a high protein substitute for quadruped meat.
The production economics are compelling. To generate an equivalent amount of protein, insects require one-tenth the land, one-sixth the feed, and one-tenth the maturation time than cattle – plus they release far less CO2 than cattle. But can insects form more than a novelty addition to diets in 'developed' countries? A few companies in the UK are distributing insects for culinary use, but prices are high and products such as silkworm pupae have not yet made it to supermarket shelves.
After the talk, the Society's in-house crooner (and regional coordinator) David Urry brilliantly encouraged us in song to "stuff insects down our throats"...which we duly did. Devon-based Master chef Peter Gorton cooked a delicious cricket risotto followed by brownies covered with caramelised mealworms. The fact that several attendees went back for seconds shows that insects could become staple ingredients in our diets. Perhaps in the near future one of your "Five a Day" might be selected from grasshoppers, giant water bugs and sago worm larvae?
Mary Jenking CBiol MSB
Umberleigh Farm Visit
5 October 2013
Trevor Wilson FSB invited members for a tour of his farmland in Umberleigh. Two of his Exmoor ponies were waiting to meet us. One of the world's oldest breeds, the Exmoor ponies are the most primitive of the North European equines, with genetics distinct from other horses. Currently there are about 2200, but only about 160 foals are born a year so they are classified as endangered.
Ron Smith introduced us to his Devon Closewool sheep. They are known for their dense medium length fleece, ideal for survival in wet, cold conditions and for producing full-flavoured, succulent meat. They are at risk because they are only found in a small area, making them more vulnerable to disease.
After this introduction to two rare breeds we boarded a trailer, sitting on hay bales for a tractor tour of the Pouncey family's farm. We learnt about various aspects of health and welfare including traceable ear tags. An animal passport has to be with each animal on every movement throughout its life. This is essential for monitoring the spread of disease.
After a superb lunch by Atherington and Umberleigh WI, Trevor gave a talk about the diversity of livestock breeds in Devon. Some such as the Red Devon cattle have been exported all over the world including America, Australia, New Zealand, Brazil and Russia.
There are probably about 3200 tigers left in the world. None of our rare livestock breeds have that number.
The survival of our rare breed livestock now remains in the hands of individual farmers and Rare Breed Societies.
Mary Jenkins CBiol MSB
3 September 2013
Consultant spinal surgeon Mr Andrew Clark alerted us to the personal journey our spines undergo during a lifetime and what happens when things go wrong.
This lecture was attended by an eclectic range of membership, age and profession, some of whom made full use of question time, obtaining a personal medical consultation!
The talk was hugely enjoyed by all; a GP loved being reminded of student days, a former school teacher was fondly reminiscent of anatomy classes, and a young County Cricket fast bowler who had spent 6 months training in the New Zealand Cricket Academy was relieved and grateful to receive information about potential sports injuries. Many found it informative and illuminating, all the more so for a young practising osteopath, eager to earn CPD points.
Our chair Mary Jenking, presented a Society of Biology Long Service Certificate to former chairman and treasurer Brian Petts. We celebrated with a finger buffet and delighted in meeting old friends and making new ones.
Our thanks to Mr Andrew Clark and staff, and Mr Christopher Weatherley the Founder and former director of the Spinal Unit.
Chris Fry MSB
Victorian Plant Hunters & Pioneers
27 April 2013
Plant historian Caradoc Doy entertained members and their guests at Exeter University with the fascinating story of the Veitch Nurseries of Exeter and Chelsea. Caradoc gave a detailed overview of the firm, illustrated with slides of the many popular plants they introduced. These nurseries sent out 23 collectors over a period of 72 years, and were responsible for many horticultural firsts including sending out collectors around the world to collect hundreds of new exotic plants.
In 1840, William Lobb, travelled to South and North America, bringing back the monkey puzzle, (Araucaria), fuchsias, escallonias, Caenothus, Embothrium, Lapageria, Crinodendron, and later many conifers, most famously the Wellingtonia. On one dangerous journey he obtained Araucaria araucana cones by rifle shot! The seedlings were later sold for about £300 each (current value).
In 1854, John Dominy, the chief hybridiser was credited with raising the world's first official orchid hybrid, Calanthe x Dominii. This led to the establishment of a new branch of horticulture which was controversy in Victorian Britain and was regarded as 'tampering with nature'.
We enjoyed our exploration of the university grounds and found specimens planted by the Veitch's over 100 years ago. The exuberance and enthusiasm of the speaker was much appreciated. A limited edition of the centenary reprint of Hortus Veitchii can be obtained from www.caradocdoy.co.uk
Christine Fry MSB
Getting up close and personal
19 October 2012
An eclectic mix of about 40 members attended – students, oldies and those who have not been in contact for a while. We last visited the zoo in 2000 and much had changed.
Dr Amy Plowman, head of field conservation and research, introduced us to the scientific work of the Zoo and Trust. In small groups, members of the science team led us round the zoo, highlighting key species in their research. The higher primates provided interesting insight into group dynamics. A hot buffet lunch followed in a highly convivial atmosphere, with members exchanging ideas and discoveries, and catching up with each other's news.
Sated with delicious food, we were put into interest groups, experiencing exclusive behind the scenes visits to chosen areas - Avian Breeding Centre, Bio-secure Amphibian Breeding Unit, and Giraffe Quarters. We loved feeding giraffes, (and visiting in threes on tip toe, the recently born giraffe baby). Some chose to visit the state of the art greenhouses accommodating vertical hydroponic growing systems, (Verticrop) - the produce of which formed part of our lunch.
A splendid visit much enjoyed. The staff was especially generous with their time, enthusiasm and expertise. Many of us wandered around the zoo afterwards until it closed.