Caterpillar poo may be impacting lakes on a ‘huge scale’ Erik Karits/UNSPLASH

How exactly did lockdown screw up our routines?

We all know that lockdowns had a huge impact on our lives. However, have you sat down and thought carefully about what has changed since Covid-19 reared its ugly head? Cambridge economists have done the hard work for you, recently conducting research looking at exactly what changed in our day-to-day routines.

Analysing data from nearly 800 diaries has revealed how people structured their time differently when cut off from the outside world. The diaries used were “time-use diaries”, which give detailed accounts of a person’s activities over 24 hours.

The researchers studied how individuals balanced their time across four categories (employment, housework, leisure and subsistence) and three time periods (pre-lockdown, the first lockdown, and the March 2021 lockdown).

The researchers reported many interesting findings, such as parents of young children significantly reducing time spent on leisure. Meanwhile, those without young kids saw an increase in leisure time over the lockdowns but reported enjoying it less than they had prior to the pandemic.

The researchers also reported that in the third lockdown there was a rise in people working during ‘unusual hours’ — no surprise to any Cambridge student. Working during these hours was found to reduce people’s enjoyment of the whole day.

Co-author Dr Ines Lee from the Faculty of Economics highlighted that the lockdowns hugely disrupted routines by blurring the distinction between work and home. Dr Lee stated that whilst lockdowns are hopefully a thing of the past, working from home may not be: “Employers should promote better work-life balance in the post-pandemic world.”

Are leaf-munching caterpillars increasing carbon emissions?

One would assume that something as green and harmless as a caterpillar would have a modest impact on carbon dioxide emissions. However, recent research from Cambridge has found that two types of caterpillars are impacting nearby lakes on “a huge scale”, which in turn is leading to an increase in carbon dioxide.

Outbreaks of invasive gypsy moths and forest tent caterpillar moths occur every five years. The larger number of insects results in a marked decrease in leaf-fall, whilst simultaneously increasing the amount of insect excrement: these two factors combine to alter the nutrients of the land and nearby lakes.

The change to the nearby lake water results in a growth of greenhouse gas-producing bacteria and a decrease in algae, which removes CO2 from the atmosphere.

Researchers found that lakes near regions of caterpillar outbreaks contained an average of 27% less dissolved carbon.

Senior author Professor Andrew Tanentzap of the Department of Plant Sciences summarised the findings: “These insects are basically little machines that convert carbon-rich leaves into nitrogen-rich poo.

“The poo drops into lakes instead of the leaves, and this significantly changes the water chemistry - we think it will increase the extent to which lakes are sources of greenhouse gases.”

Eat your greens, kids!

Scientists have long been trying to work out why humans are getting taller and hitting puberty earlier. For example, over the 20th Century, the height of the average Briton increased by roughly 10cm! It has long been suspected that this is related to widening access to more nutritional food; however, nobody has proved it until now.

Research led by the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science at the University of Cambridge has discovered that a particular receptor in the brain may be the biological key that bridges the gap between nutrition and puberty.

The receptor has been dubbed the “melanocortin 3 receptor” (MC3R) and is able to detect the body’s nutritional state and subsequently control the release of key hormones involved in growth and sexual maturation. Never before has there been such concrete evidence for kids to eat their five-a-day!

These findings have useful applications in the medical world as children with delays in puberty could be tested for MC3R mutations.

The study’s senior author, Professor Sir Stephen O’Rahilly, stated: “This discovery shows how the brain can sense nutrients and interpret this to make subconscious decisions that influence our growth and sexual development.

“Identifying the pathway in the brain whereby nutrition turns into growth and puberty explains a global phenomenon of increasing height and decreasing age at puberty that has puzzled scientists for a century.”

Bowels and anxiety - is there a link?

Meanwhile, a study of over 50,000 people has discovered an overlap in susceptibility to irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and mental health conditions such as anxiety.

IBS affects one in ten people and causes a wide range of symptoms such as abdominal pain and bowel dysfunction.

One would expect any genes associated with IBS to affect the gut. However, researchers have found that risk genes for IBS have significant effects on the brain. They also found that the heritability of IBS was very low, suggesting that environmental factors (e.g. stress) are highly important in its development.

Current treatments for IBS vary widely: for example, dietary changes are often prescribed. This research has excellent potential to help develop new treatments, possibly with an increased focus on behavioural changes.

Study co-senior investigator Professor Miles Parkes from the University of Cambridge explained: “IBS is a common problem, and its symptoms are real and debilitating.”

Parkes continued: “Although IBS occurs more frequently in those who are prone to anxiety, we don’t believe that one causes the other – our study shows these conditions have shared genetic origins, with the affected genes possibly leading to physical changes in brain or nerve cells that in turn cause symptoms in the brain and symptoms in the gut.”