Today a team of British engineers embark on the first phase of a mission to find out – and to explore what’s being called the final frontier of life on earth. It’s taken 15 years of planning, and now they’re finally headed to Lake Ellsworth in Antarctica. But to get there they need to drill through three and a half kilometres of solid ice, which has sealed the lake off from the rest of the earth for the last million years. David Pearce, microbiologist at the British Antarctic Survey hopes that they will be able to overcome the challenges of the harsh Antarctic climate, and the need to not contaminate the pristine lake environment – and to discover new forms of life. This British project is just one of three international missions to reach subglacial lakes over the next five years. American scientists are drilling down into the Whillans ice stream, and a Russian team hope to reach the larger Lake Vostok. The combination of three missions should help to build a full picture of life under the Antarctic ice. The British advance party leave today to set up the camp, and the drilling will take place next season. The scientists expect to have results by early 2013.
New Zealand Oil Spill
A cargo ship off the north coast of New Zealand has been leaking oil since it ran aground last week, and is causing the country’s largest maritime disaster. The oil spilt is a relatively small amount, particularly compared to the Gulf of Mexico spill last year, and experts say it’s not too concerning as it will disperse relatively quickly. Despite that, the wildlife in the area, including penguins, is at risk. Dr Simon Boxall from the National Oceanographic Centre in Southampton in the UK says there are other, bigger, dangers to the environment than the oil. As containers fall from the cargo ship, hazardous and flammable chemicals may be released into the ocean with serious consequences. The clean up operation continues, despite bad weather conditions.
Stem Cell Therapy
Scientists have developed a technique that could help combat debilitating antitrypsin deficiency, which causes liver disease and emphysema in 30,000 people in the UK alone. The only way we can currently combat the disease is by organ transplant, but these new developments are allowing scientists to get straight to the genetic cause and ‘clean’ the cells of their genetic defects. Researchers at the Wellcome Trust’s Sanger institute and the University of Cambridge have been able to culture liver stem cells from a patient’s skin sample, then use ‘molecular scissors’ to remove and replaced the damaged part of the gene that causes the disease. Putting these cells back into a liver – the scientist have tested it on mice – will reset the template of the whole liver to normal and cure the disease. Professor David Lomas anticipates that following clinical trials, the technique can be used as an effective stem cell therapy.
Bwindi National Park
The growing global population, and increase in intensive land use, has led to numerous problems and conflicts. One solution that many countries have tried is the development of “national parks” – protected areas that are sanctuaries for plant and animal species. It’s not an ideal solution, as it can lead to problems for the humans residing within that area, who need to earn a living, often through farming. There are some solutions being proposed, which could have implications around the world. Meera Senthilingam visited the Bwindi National Park in southwest Uganda to find out how farmers have targeted the problem of native wildlife raiding crops, by planting foods – like tea - that they find unappetizing.
Black Death DNA
The Black Death in the mid 14th Century was perhaps the most famous plague in all of history, wiping out half of the population of Europe in just five years. International scientists have recovered DNA from the remains of medieval corpses in a cemetery in London, and have used it to pin down the bacterium Yersinia pestis, which causes Bubonic plague today, as culprit for the disease. They also unearthed some startling evidence that we aren’t so far removed form those deadly times. Johannes Krause, Professor of palaeogenetics at the University of Tübingen in Germany explains that the Black plague bacteria is almost identical to the bacteria that cause today’s plagues. So why was it so deadly? People may have since adapted and developed effective medicines, but the scientists think that the Black Death was the first instance of Yersinia pestis in humans and this is what made it such a catastrophic plague. Although the deadly Yersinia pestis remains with us today virtually unchanged, antibiotics are effective at treating plague if caught in time.