This Way Up for Saturday 5 December 2015
Gene editing, killer kiwi, sugar alternatives and loneliness kills.
An international scientific conference in Washington DC this week has been considering the ethical and scientific issues surrounding human gene editing technology. CRISPR-Cas9 seems to be the most popular method for adding and deleting specific genes. It can precisely target parts of our genome, either cutting or pasting DNA at very specific locations.
One of the arguments for the use of gene editing is that it gives us a powerful tool to delete the particular genes that cause diseases affecting millions of people all over the world. So gene editing could be used to edit the DNA of an embryo to stop it inheriting a disease like Huntington's.
But there are fears the same technique could be used to change a person's genes to make them taller or smarter. As you can imagine gene editing is becoming a pretty controversial topic.
Simon Morton talks with Sara Reardon – a reporter for Nature magazine who's been attending the international summit on human gene editing.
Kiwi kills robins
A Little Spotted Kiwi has been filmed destroying a North Island Robin's nest and killing two young chicks. It's the first time that this endangered, flightless bird has been seen showing this level of aggression towards another species.
Dr Rachael Shaw, a postdoctoral research fellow at the School of Biological Sciences at Victoria University, made the gruesome discovery when she reviewed video footage.
"I discovered that the nest had actually been torn out from its location and that the chicks were dead on the ground and that they had these peck wounds...I got the biggest surprise because I was expecting to see a morepork or perhaps a kaka which can be pretty destructive when they forage having caused this...This is the first time that there's been any record that I could find of a kiwi interacting with another species in this way, and destroying a nest like this." –Dr Rachael Shaw
One man who has been watching kiwi in the wild for over 25 years is bird expert Hugh Robertson. Mr Roberston works for the Department of Conservation and is one of the authors of 'The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand'.
He said that kiwi are very territorial birds that will fight with, and sometimes even kill, other kiwi encroaching on their turf. He thinks the likeliest explanation for this incident is that it's a case of mistaken identity, and doesn't think we need to reassess the reputation of our national bird.
"I think their reputation as the killed kiwi is probably still the real reputation. They are getting killed in their thousands by stoats and dogs and ferrets every year. And so one kiwi mistakenly killing some robins shouldn't label kiwi as the killers, but the killed." – Hugh Robertson
All over the world sugar is being demonised as the new dietary baddie, linked with obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. Sugar and soda taxes are being hotly debated, lobbied over, and in some places introduced. The science journalist, TV presenter, and bestselling author Dr Michael Mosley has been trying out some of the alternatives to sugar, including stevia, xylitol and miraculin (aka the Miracle Berry).
Loneliness can kill you; scientists in California have worked out that people who feel isolated experience specific changes to their immune systems. It goes some way to explaining why you're twice as likely to die from loneliness as you are from obesity. Also a new study reveals some reasons behind the slump in migrating bird numbers over the past 30 years, and clear evidence of why and how being overweight tends to run in families.
Technology news, parabens and finding names for new species.
Technology time with Peter Griffin and news of an undersea internet cable linking New Zealand and Hawaii. Also Facebook moves into livestreaming with Facebook Live, and how the instant messaging service Snapchat resists targeted advertising to its 100 million daily users.
Parabens are chemicals used as preservatives in everything from our cosmetics to our food. With a lots of of consumer products marketed and sold to us as 'paraben free', we ask toxicologist Professor Ian Shaw what all the fuss is about.
If you discover a new species, say a new bird or a mollusc, how do you go about finding a decent name for it that nobody's ever used before?! Te Papa vertebrate curator Dr Colin Miskelly has been through the naming process.