'Professor Derryck Reid likens astrocombs to distortion on an electric guitar'Image Catalog/Flickr https://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/

Embryos, ectoderm and enigmas: “black box” of human development discovered

Scientists were previously unaware of the mechanisms causing some cells to form the surface layer of skin and hair and some to create the amniotic membrane surrounding the embryo. Research by the Babraham Institute and the Wellcome-MRC Cambridge Stem Cell Institute has unveiled part of the process behind this.

“This discovery could aid with understanding diseases which affect the first step of foetal development”

It was discovered that the level of cell crowding affects the specialisation of the cells. The method involved in uncovering this incorporated a cell culture system which differentiated the stem cells into amniotic ectoderm and surface ectoderm based on cell density, as well as single RNA sequencing analysis to fully comprehend the differentiation pathway.

High-density culturing corresponded to cells which differentiated into surface ectoderm, whereas sparse conditions catalysed the creation of amniotic ectoderm. Dr Teresa Rayon describes this breakthrough as shedding light on the “black box of human development” – in the future, this discovery could aid with understanding diseases which affect the first step of foetal development.

Energy, equality and empowerment: Lord Martin Rees’s musings on our scientific future

In an interview with the Lord Speaker, Lord Martin Rees, Astronomer Royal and Cambridge Astrophysicist, delineated his opinions on the future of humanity and technology. He argues that while we won’t have driven ourselves to extinction by the close of the 21st century, being “empowered by technology” has emboldened us to deplete the natural resources of the world without much care for the prospects of future generations. Furthermore, he is convinced that the interconnected nature of the world has increased the threat of cyber-attacks and issues on a large scale, with the ability to be caused by a few “dissident” members being particularly worrying, something which he accedes, however, is difficult to tackle.

“Dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared to making Mars habitable”

Lord Rees’s stance on energy is that the requirement to catalyse the development of clean energy sources for both the richer north half of the world and the poorer south is imperative. The richer countries in the north have the technology and the finances to implement these clean energy solutions; however, he postulates that for this to simultaneously have a lasting effect while allowing the south to develop, they essentially need to “leapfrog directly to mobile phones” while “never having had landlines”. This theme of technological inequality is something which he is keen to ameliorate. Staunchly against the desire of billionaires to extend their lifespans significantly, at places such as Altos Labs, he argues that increasing medical knowledge to improve the lives of wider humanity is more important. The running theme of his argument is to preserve and care for what we do have, as he believes “dealing with climate change on Earth is a doddle compared to making Mars habitable”.

Spectrums, starlight and space: discovery of new planets impending


Mountain View

Research Round-Up: Week 8

In a joint collaboration between physicists at the University of Cambridge and Heriot-Watt University, an astrocomb has been developed. This technology employs lasers, which allow astronomers to detect minute changes in the colour of starlight. Professor Derryck Reid likens astrocombs to distortion on an electric guitar – when the signal is high, audio distortion is detected, but when the signal is lower, it is not. He explains that this audio distortion is due to new frequencies being created in the guitar amplifier, which is akin to how the astrocomb and light interact.

Previously, astrocombs only detected the green-red part of the colour spectrum, but now the smaller wavelength ultra-violet to blue-green part of the spectrum can be detected, which contains absorption features of interest to astronomers. Dr Samantha Thompson at the Cavendish Laboratory states that this could enable smaller, previously unseen planets with larger orbits to be observed, some of which may share similar properties to the Earth.