Tag Archives: science

Earthworms – A Great Bunch of Lads

There has been a lot of publicity over the last few years regarding the massive contribution of bees to biodiversity and food production across the globe and the dire consequences we should expect now that their numbers are literally dropping like flies, due to disease and pesticides.

But they are not the only creatures driving on agriculture in this way. They may not even be the biggest contributors to boosting food production. While bees a busy working in the air, there is another force of nature working tirelessly is a subterranean metropolis.

A major habitat upon which agriculture heavily relies is the soil which supports the vast majority of farming in the world, whether it be crop growing, livestock feed, forestry or simply paddocks. Good quality soil provides a valuable resource for farmers but even the soil relies on other factors to keep itself in good condition, such is the nature of a diverse ecosystem. The flora and fauna of a soil perform countless acts, each contributing to the delicate balance, keeping it in top condition. Perhaps the best known of these is the earthworm. Without the earthworms soil is generally of a much lower quality and with their help the soil is happy which keeps the farmer happy. But do the farmers return the favour?


Earthworms carry out a number of functions in the soil, even if they don’t know it. They are just going about their own worming business but in doing so they have a knock on effect that impacts on those above the soil. They vastly mix up the soil by carrying up new soil from deep down and by carrying organic matter down deeper into the soil in their gut. Each year worms bring up 10-20 tonnes of earth per acre. Not only do the worms distribute the nutrients, both organic and inorganic, but they also aid in the uptake of these nutrients by plants. Simply by burrowing they provide the plant roots with tracks to follow, requiring less effort on the plants part. As well as this, the tracks aerate the soil, important for nitrogen fixation and provide drainage. This can particularly important in avoiding surface water.


Earthworm Society of Britain

Where earthworms have diminished, dramatic reductions in soil porosity have been identified with consequent lower water infiltration and a significant build up of un-decomposed surface matter was observed on Dutch farms where the earthworms and other soil fauna were no longer present.

The actions of farmers, however, may actually be discouraging the growth of earthworms. For example, it has been shown that ploughing land can dramatically reduce the numbers of earthworms and other soil invertebrates. The earthworms can also come under chemical attack from overuse of fertilizers and pesticides, also affecting a range of other organisms which the chemicals do not target. This highlights the importance of thoughtful practice on farmers behalf as their actions can have long lasting and sometimes irreversible effects on the local biodiversity.

No measures have been introduced to protect the soil biota specifically despite its overwhelming importance to agriculture. However, the EU nitrates directive and various water quality acts have contributed to cleaning the earthworm’s environment. Of course the world is not completely ignorant of the importance of earthworms, it is even possible to buy batches of them to improve soil or for compost heaps and there are actions farmers can take to promote earthworm numbers in their land. If the farmers were to reduce the nitrogen spread on the land and instead plant clover in their grassland, they can have the benefit of the clovers nitrogen fixation abilities and also reduce cost by saving on fertilizer. This way the clover can be included in silage for winter and the earthworms are free from artificial chemical surplus in the soil.

I think it’s fair to say that the contribution of earthworms to the economy is greatly underestimated. The contribution is in the billions of euro/dollars when you take into account the amount of trade that stems from the land (livestock, tillage, crops etc.). It also suggests that the presence of earthworms increases forage production by 25% when compared to production in the absence of worms.

In a world where population is predicted to dramatically increase over the next few decades, especially with the emergence of major new Asian economies, the strain on land resources is going to increase to breaking point. Techniques that are sustainable to soils need the contribution of earthworms should be investigated closely as the over use of fertilizers on such a large scale can leave the planet in a state that can only lead to disaster and large scale famine. The techniques currently used for intensive farming are not conducive to earthworm growth and as highlighted they are far more useful to the farmer alive than absent.

Is it any wonder Darwin himself said of earthworms;

‘It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world, as have these lowly organized creatures.’


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Posted by on June 22, 2013 in Biology


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Bacteria – The Ultimate Survivors


Judgment Day – The human race is dying off. The rivers are drying up, crops are failing and the soil barren. The atmosphere is so thick with pollutants and dust that the sun no longer penetrates to the surface of the earth, cutting off the main energy source of the biosphere. Man is doomed, the world an inhospitable environment. There is no food, no water and the very air is a deadly poison. Death is the only fate for the race…. but what if it didn’t have to be?

What if we could preserve the race in suspended animation to return only when the environment has recovered and can again support life? Even if this takes centuries to happen and in the mean time you are exposed to unbearable heat, toxic chemicals, drought, starvation, nuclear radiation exposure and the wear and tear of time as the years pass. Wishful thinking. This is impossible and can never happen. Well, maybe not for us human beings but for two gram positive genera of bacteria this is a reality. Both the Clostridium and Bacillus genera have the amazing ability to ensure the survival of their kind by preserving their DNA in an impenetrable and almost indestructible capsule called an endospore.

This last resort is only used when absolutely necessary, after all other attempts at survival are unsuccessful. When a bacterium can no longer survive in an environment, it copies it’s DNA and creates the enduring endospore to protect it. This DNA can survive for years until conditions are favourable outside again. It is a sacrificial process whereby if the bacterium does begin the process of sporulation, it will die in the process. The organisms DNA is preserved however, ensuring the survival of the strain. The resulting germinated bacterium is merely a clone of the original.


With Bacilli being aerobic and Clostridium being anaerobic, these spores are produced by a wide range of bacteria. A major problem with endospores, in regard to everyday life for humans, is in the preservation of food. Scientists have had to develop ways of destroying endospores present on food or ways of ensuring they cannot germinate. Unfortunately, the majority of endospore forming bacteria are pathogens. Therefore, the consumption of endospores creates a health risk as there is no better environment to bring about germination than the warm, moist intestines of a mammalian body. Infant botulism is a prime example of this. The endospores of Clostridium botulinum can be found in honey where they are unable to germinate due to the excessive sugar levels. If an adult consumes the spores in the honey they are unaffected because the spores cannot tolerate the strong acid in the stomach and the abundance of intestinal flora already present. If an infant under twelve months were to eat the honey however, the spores would find themselves in the ideal environment for germination as the stomach acid is weaker and the natural flora not yet established. Infant botulism can lead to respiratory failure and even death if not treated.  Another high profile case of the dangers of this property of endospores than the anthrax scare in the USA in 2001. There was widespread panic when endospores of Bacillus anthracis were posted in envelopes causing several deaths as the inhaled spores quickly germinated and led to respiratory failure. One worry is that as well as Bacillus anthricis, many of the endospore producing bacteria can be used in biological warfare, including Clostridium Botulinum. The Bacillus anthracis also has a habit of lying dormant in soil for years until it unexpectedly germinates causing damage to livestock and humans alike.

It is widely accepted that some endospores can lay dormant for centuries waiting for conditions to become favourable again but there are cases of germination in the lab of endospores dating back several thousand years. Using the appropriate growth medium and aseptic technique scientists have been able to germinate Clostridium endospores found in the ancient tombs of Egypt. These tombs are approximately 4000 years old. Even more amazingly in 1995 the scientist Raúl Cano managed to germinate Bacillus sphaericus endospores found in the gut of a 30 million year old bee preserved in amber found in Dominica.

Whereas this is a significant scientific find, it does not quite signal the time for a real life Jurassic Park being made possible. It is the bacteria which come back but there is no DNA from other organisms which could be used to clone and grow new creatures (or old creatures as the case may be) even if the technology to do so was available. Unbelievably some scientists even claim to have germinated endospores that date back 250 million years though these claims have been met with scepticism and need to be verified (Vreeland, R. H., W. D. Rosenzweig, and D. W. Powers. 2000).

But what is an endospore? How can an organic specimen endure such rigours for such a long time with next to no metabolic activity and still maintain life to return and go on as normal? To answer this it’s important to understand the structure of an endospore. An endospore is a dry, non-dividing, metabolically almost inactive and dormant cell that is produced to preserve DNA by a moist, metabolically active, vegetative bacterial cell when it detects that it can no longer survive in its current environment.

It is amazing to think that a bacterium can become almost invincible in just eight hours, survive like that potentially for centuries and then return to normal in a mere hour.

With this remarkable resilience to survive almost any kind of attack added to the bacterial arsenal, is it any wonder they are found in almost any environment in the world. They can get energy from a variety of sources, through both heterotrophism and autotrophism. From the sun to volcanic springs at the bottom of the ocean under extreme pressure. They can live straight off raw chemicals in the case of chemotrophs. They can survive in the absence of oxygen, mutate almost on demand if they encounter any new problems. This includes new food sources and new powerful antibiotics. The bacteria can simply alter their DNA to resist the drug and to produce new enzymes that can break down the new food source. Is it any wonder bacteria are referred to as “The Ultimate Survivors”?


Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Biology


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Dragons – Who Says They’re Fantasy Creatures?


I recently saw the film ‘The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey’ and was very excited at the prospect of seeing Smaug the dragon, a character I loved reading when I was younger. After writing a post on how Star Trek technology is not so science ‘fiction’ as it was when it was written, I began to think if dragons are creatures of ‘fantasy’.

Obviously, if there were dragons somewhere in the world we would know about it but the fact is many different cultures from around the world have described the dragon in one form or another without coming into direct contact with each other.

A fascinating New York Times article explains:

“Dragon images have been found on the Ishtar Gate of Babylon, on scrolls from China, in Egyptian hieroglyphs and Ethiopian sketches, on the prows of Viking ships, in bas relief on Aztec temples, on cliffs above the Mississippi River and even on bones carved by Inuits in climates where no reptile could live.”

Bearing this in mind, it is not outside the realm of possibility that dragons are/were a reality. They are usually depicted as magic creatures in modern literature but if you think about it, there is no aspect of dragons that cannot be explained by science. I’m not saying dragons did exist but there is no reason that they couldn’t have existed.

The quintessential dragon trait is fire breathing. A store of fire in the belly is highly unlikely as it would cook the meaty muscle of the dragon but there are two means of fire production that stand out as genuine possibilities. The first being the combustion of methane gas, a by-product of digestion. Many animals today are known for producing large quantities of methane gas. Most notably cattle have gotten a bad name for producing vast amounts of the gas, which is driving on the greenhouse effect.

Whereas cattle release methane as an unwanted nuisance, dragons may be able to store it in some sort of third lung or bladder-type organ. The body is already adept at transporting gas around the body, so if the blood was modified to carry methane gas from the intestines to a storage organ, much like it carries oxygen from the lungs, the fuel for the fire is sorted.

It could then force a flow of the gas through the nostrils or mouth. A spark would be needed to ignite the gas. This may be achieved by either grinding particularly hard teeth like a flint or, more likely, by producing an electric charge much like an electric eel. Thus we have all the requirements to make fire. Presumably there would be a valve type feature to prevent burning methane from being drawn back into the body and blowing the whole gas store.

The second means of creating fire is to mix two chemical solutions together which then react violently with each other and spontaneously combust, i.e. burst into flame without an ignition spark. A possible combination would be a hydrocarbon solution mixing with a strong oxidizing agent. Reactions such as this are used in rocket propulsion.

A similar action is used by the bombardier beetle, which squirts a combination of chemicals producing high levels of heat.

A small alteration to the chemical mix of the bombardier beetle could plausibly produce a combustible mixture. Picture a method similar to the spitting cobra but with each tooth releasing streams of different chemicals which collide mid air and burst into flame. Or a different mixtures being expelled from each nostril.

As regards to the flight of dragons, most depictions of the creatures show a large rounded body with bat-like wings. These look to be as aerodynamic as my foot, surely incapable of flight. But it is important to remember that giant reptilians are well known to be capable of flight, just think of the pterodactyls of Jurassic Park. Furthermore, the Chinese description of dragons rarely include wings – picture the snake-like costumes often seen in Chinese holidays where many people dance around wearing a long narrow papier-maché type of dragon, without the wings.

There are some aspects of dragons that have been created specifically for dramatic effect in books/TV shows such as wisdom, the ability to speak or blood with magical properties but the core features of dragons are very much possible.

So there you have it. Why can’t dragons have existed? A lot of their defining features have already existed in one form or another.


Posted by on December 17, 2012 in Fantasy


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“There is nothing new to be discovered in physics now. All that remains is more and more precise measurement.” – Lord Kelvin, 1900.

Clearly nobody told Einstein this. He would have been around twenty one at the time. Already on his way to becoming the father of modern physics, a field that seems to create ten new questions for each one it answers.

Lord Kelvin

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Posted by on December 11, 2012 in Technology


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