Archive Science and Society

Homeopathy Awareness Week Siouxsie Wiles Apr 14

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April 10th-16th is World Homeopathy Awareness week, organised by the World Homeopathy Awareness Organisation. April 10th is the birthday of the originator of homeopathy, Samuel Hahnemann. In case you need reminding what homeopathy is, it is based on Hahnemann’s bizarre doctrine that substances which cause disease symptoms in healthy people will cure similar symptoms in sick people, but only if they have been diluted to such a degree that there is unlikely to be a single molecule of the substance left in the preparation. Oh, and while being diluted, the solution has to be beaten against a bible. In other words, homeopathy is magic water.

This year the focus is on men’s health and I found an interesting presentation on the website of the New Zealand Council of Homeopaths which seems to be suggesting that homeopathy can be used to treat erectile dysfunction, heart-related issues and hypertension. It is just as well then that the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) has recently released a draft paper which provides a plain language summary of their assessment of the evidence for homeopathy to treat 68 health conditions. NHMRC’s conclusion?

“There is no reliable evidence that homeopathy is effective”.

You can see why they reached that conclusion when you peruse the list of scientifically controlled double blind studies which have conclusively demonstrated the efficacy of homeopathy.

I’ll leave you with this wonderful piece on homeopathy by comedians David Mitchell and Robert Webb, which I will never tire of watching. And please, in the last few days of this year’s Homeopathy Awareness Week, do your little bit to raise awareness of the fact that homeopathy is nonsense by sharing this post with your friends and family.

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Monday Micro – Bioluminescent bacteria photobooth Siouxsie Wiles Apr 14

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For those curious how our bioluminescent photo booth went at Auckland’s Museum of Transport and Technology (MOTAT) recently, the results are up on Flickr. As a quick reminder, the light being used to illuminate the subjects was being supplied by glowing bacteria growing on large petri dishes. We used a 6 second exposure to take the pictures which has led to some interesting photos. Going by the number of blurry faces, I think it’s safe to say that most children can’t sit still for that long! Take a look and see if you recognise anyone. Here’s my favourite:


Science Street Fair Siouxsie Wiles Apr 02

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Want your picture taken by the glow of bioluminescent bacteria? Then come along to Auckland’s inaugural Science Street Fair this weekend!

Those in Auckland this weekend should come along to MOTAT on Sunday for the inaugural Science Street Fair. They’ll be a whole heap of science on display, including a hovercraft, 3D printing, DNA extractions and many more. They’ll also be plenty of scientists around so if you’ve any burning science questions then pop along to the ‘Ask the Scientist’ tent. I’ll be there with the glowing squid Rebecca Klee and I made for Art in the Dark last year, and Danny Dillon will be 3D printing a squid too. I’m also hoping to have a bioluminescent photo booth so come along and have your photo taken by the light of glowing bacteria. Here’s one I made earlier :)

By the light of the glowing bacteria...

By the light of the glowing bacteria…

science street fair

April’s Fool or just plain Fool? Siouxsie Wiles Apr 01


The number of people who have died in Guinea from Ebola virus infection is now at 78, and Médecins sans Frontières says the country faces an unprecedented epidemic. Two sisters have died in neighbouring Liberia, one of whom had recently returned from Guinea, and Senegal has closed its borders with the west African country.

Despite there being no treatment or vaccine against this highly lethal virus, according to Joette Calabrese there is hope. “Fortunately for us, homeopathy has great renown for its healing ability in epidemics” she tells us.

In her blog post “Bioterrorism and Epidemics: Knowing Homeopathy Can Help Make the World a Less Scary Place” she writes: “The symptoms of Ebola and other hemorrhagic fevers resemble those of malaria, dengue fever, yellow fever and viral hepatitis. In homeopathy, remedies are often chosen based on the symptom picture, so the remedies most often used for Ebola will be the same as for these other diseases.” She goes on to list six homeopathic remedies which she says should be given every hour “…but as the severity of the symptoms decrease, frequency is reduced. If no improvement is seen after 6 doses, a new remedy ought to be considered”.

Reading Joette’s post on April 1st, I thought this must surely be a joke. But it seems not.

I’ll leave you with another useful product (AKA should be an April Fool’s gag), for those who are feeling a little run down and worried your diet might be lacking these core ingredients. One tablet daily is all you need, apparently.

Hat/tip to @zeno001, @cammerschooner and @nccomfort on twitter for these gems.


Monday Micro – Ebola outbreak in Guinea Siouxsie Wiles Mar 24


The news is full of reports of an outbreak of Ebola in the west African country of Guinea. Ebola is one of a group of related viruses which cause viral haemorrhagic fever. There is no vaccine or treatment for these viruses. So far reports are that there have been at least 80 cases with 59 deaths.

Here’s a little FAQ for those of you wanting to know more about these amazing and terrifying viruses.

1. What is Ebola?

Ebola is one of two members of the Filoviridae family of single-stranded RNA viruses. The other member is Marburg. There are five types of Ebola virus, named after where outbreaks first appeared, and which differ in their mortality rates:
(i) Zaire ebolavirus (ZEBOV) – most frequent cause of outbreaks (last in the Democratic Republic of Congo 2008) and highest mortality rate (47-100%)
(ii) Sudan ebolavirus (SEBOV) – mortality rate of 42-65%, last outbreak in 2012 in Uganda
(iii) Reston ebolavirus (REBOV) – Discovered in 1989 when there was an outbreak of disease in laboratory macaques in Reston, Virginia, USA. Has since been found in nonhuman primates in Pennsylvania, Texas and Italy. Did not cause disease in exposed human laboratory workers*
(iv) Côte d’Ivoire ebolavirus (CIEBOV) (or Tai ebolavirus) – killed chimpanzees in Tai national park in 1994, only human case was in one of the scientists performing the necropsies on the infected chimps but they recovered
(v) Bundibugyo ebolavirus – two outbreaks to date (2007 in Uganda and 2012 in the Democratic Republic of Congo), mortality rate of 34-50%

2. How is Ebola transmitted?

The primary mode of transmission of Ebola is unknown. Bats are thought to be the most likely reservoir (1). Some people have caught Ebola from contact with or by eating infected bushmeat. Secondary spread occurs through direct contact with infected patients, their body fluids or remains, so family members, hospital workers and those burying the dead are at greatest risk. The incubation period for infection ranges from 2 to 21 days (mean 4-9 days).

An interesting paper was published in the journal Scientific Reports in 2012 in which piglets were inoculated oronasally with Zaire ebolavirus (2). The piglets had a high temperature and rapid breathing for a few days but soon recovered. But they were infectious, spreading the virus through the air to macaques who developed symptoms of Ebola infection and had to be euthanised.

3. What’s the largest recorded Ebola outbreak?

The biggest outbreak to date was in Uganda in 2000, when 425 people were infected with Sudan ebolavirus – 224 died. Ebola is a little like the great white shark of the virus world. Before this current outbreak, there had only been 2317 clinical cases and 1671 confirmed deaths in the last 50 years (3), a negligible number compared to many other infectious diseases.

4. Do people with viral haemmorrhagic fever really bleed out of every orifice before they die?

The name viral haemorrhagic fever is a bit of a misnomer. In less than 10% of Ebola cases, patients will experience bleeding from their mucous membranes, including those in the nose, gums, gastrointestinal tract and vagina. Death occurs by multiple organ failure. Most frequently infected people will have a fever with chills, malaise, joint and muscle pain. They also may have a rash. Other symptoms include nausea, diarrhoea, vomiting, stomach pains, throat and chest pain, a cough. From there patients experience severe headaches and confusion which can progress to delirium and coma.

5. Why is this such a big story?

With the exception of the dead chimps and the scientist who recovered in the Ivory Coast, Ebola has never been reported from west Africa; the majority of outbreaks have been in central Africa. What has alarmed many is that the cases have moved from forest communities to the capital city, Conakry. The capital has a port and airports and, with an estimated population of 2 million, will be difficult to quarantine should the need arise.

6. Can survivors continue to shed virus?

Yes. Survivors from an outbreak in 1995 in the Democratic Republic of the Congo which killed 244 of the 315 people infected, were followed for several months afterwards. Researchers tested their tears, sweat, faeces, urine, saliva, semen, and vaginal secretions. For semen, 4 of the 5 convalescents tested had at least 1 specimen that tested positive for Ebola genetic material. The latest semen sample was obtained over 3 months after the onset of infection (4). There were no cases of transmission from those individuals with positive semen samples.

* Go read Richard Preston’s book The Hot Zone, which is all about the outbreak in Reston.

1. Leroy EM, Kumulungui B, Pourrut X, Rouquet P, Hassanin A, Yaba P, Délicat A, Paweska JT, Gonzalez JP, Swanepoel R (2005). Fruit bats as reservoirs of Ebola virus. Nature. 2005 Dec 1;438(7068):575-6.
2. Weingartl HM, Embury-Hyatt C, Nfon C, Leung A, Smith G, Kobinger G (2012). Transmission of Ebola virus from pigs to non-human primates. Sci Rep. 2012;2:811. doi: 10.1038/srep00811. Epub 2012 Nov 15.
3. Leroy EM, Gonzalez JP, Baize S (2011) Clin Microbiol Infect. 17(7):964-76. doi: 10.1111/j.1469-0691.2011.03535.x
4. Rowe A1, Bertolli J, Khan AS, Mukunu R, Muyembe-Tamfum JJ, Bressler D, Williams AJ, Peters CJ, Rodriguez L, Feldmann H, Nichol ST, Rollin PE, Ksiazek TG (1999). Clinical, virologic, and immunologic follow-up of convalescent Ebola hemorrhagic fever patients and their household contacts, Kikwit, Democratic Republic of the Congo. Commission de Lutte contre les Epidémies à Kikwit. J Infect Dis. 1999 Feb;179 Suppl 1:S28-35.

Monday Micro – Semen and the twitchy clap Siouxsie Wiles Mar 10

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Neisseria gonorrhoeae is the bacterium responsible for the sexually transmitted infection gonorrhoea, also known as the clap. Symptoms often include pain when peeing and a nasty discharge from your nether regions, although some people can be asymptomatic. The microbe isn’t hugely fussy about where it causes an infection, so you can also get gonorrhoea of the throat and anus if that’s where the bacteria are deposited.

Despite the fact that gonorrhoea can be prevented by using condoms, there are apparently more than 100 million estimated new cases worldwide each year. Unfortunately N. gonorrhoeae is becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics, so researchers are trying to find out more about how the microbe is transmitted and exactly how it causes infection to develop new strategies to combat it.

Mark Anderson and colleagues have just published a paper in the open access journal mBio showing that various proteins in the fluid of semen makes N. gonorrhoeae mobile, through a mechanism called twitching motility. This is where the bacterium rapidly extends and retracts hairlike appendages found on its surface to make it move. The researchers also found that N. gonorrhoeae forms little microcolonies when exposed to seminal proteins, making it stick better to human cells. This work shows that the semen environment changes the bacterium to prime it for transmission between people.

In case you need an incentive to use a condom, here’s a movie of twitching motility in action, for another bacterium called Pseudomonas aeruginosa. So guys, you could have those little critters twitching around in your semen. Seriously. If you ever have a discharge, go see a doctor.

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Anderson MT, Dewenter L, Maier B, Seifert HS. 2014. Seminal plasma initiates a Neisseria gonorrhoeae transmission state. mBio 5(2):e01004-13. doi:10.1128/mBio.01004-13.

Where do all the women go – revisited Siouxsie Wiles Mar 08


I’ve had a go at making my first infographic, of the data from the mBio paper about women speakers at American Society of Microbiology meetings (1). I used Piktochart.

Picture below and interactive version on the web here. Let me know what you think.


1. Casadevall A, Handelsman J. 2014. The presence of female conveners correlates with a higher proportion of female speakers at scientific symposia. mBio 5(1):e00846-13. doi:10.1128/mBio.00846-13

Where do all the women go? Siouxsie Wiles Mar 06


This weekend is International Women’s Day and the theme this year is Inspiring Change.

According to the UNESCO Institute for Statistics, just 30% of science researchers are women. They have produced a nifty tool to see where those women work and in what fields.

UNESCO - Women In Science Interactive

For NZ, the tool says that 59% of Bachelors students are female, 51% of Doctoral students and 52% of researchers. Interestingly, when the researchers are broken down by sector, a whopping 67% of academic researchers are female, while only 25% of those in the public sector and 16% in the private sector are female. As I’m in academia, I’d really like to see the breakdown for faculty positions, as its my impression that there are much fewer women the higher up the academic food chain you go.

One of the many reasons put forward for this is that more men than women are invited to speak at academic meetings and that invitations like these are of great importance for academic advancement. So its interesting to see some data on this from Arturo Casadevall & Jo Handelsman. They have just published a paper in the open access journal mBio looking at the numbers of male and females speakers at American Society for Microbiology meetings.

Here are some of their findings from analysis of 216 sessions from 3 general meetings held in 2011, 2012, and 2013:
1. 104 sessions were convened by male-only convener teams
2. 112 sessions had at least one female in the convener team.
3. In sessions convened by all men, invited female speakers averaged 25%.
4. In sessions in which the convener team included at least one woman, woman speakers averaged 43%.

Inclusion of at least one woman among the conveners increased the proportion of female speakers by 72% compared with those convened by men alone.

Something to think about the next time you organise a seminar series or meeting.

Casadevall A, Handelsman J. 2014. The presence of female conveners correlates with a higher proportion of female speakers at scientific symposia. mBio 5(1):e00846-13. doi:10.1128/mBio.00846-13

Meet the anti-vivisectionist Siouxsie Wiles Feb 16


“Vivisection is scientific fraud” screeched the placard placed next to three elderly ladies sat on deck chairs. Attached to the fence beside them were pictures of caged monkeys and what appeared to be a dead dog. This was the scene that greeted passersby and staff and visitors to Auckland Hospital and the Medical School on Friday morning. I find protesters like these quite fascinating and am always interested to find out what they believe about the use of animals in scientific research. By the time I went to have a chat with them, a little drizzle meant only one lady remained, clutching another picture of a monkey and handing out leaflets produced by the NZ Anti-Vivisection Society.

“Do you know what they do in the basement of that building?” she whispered to me, pointing over at the university campus. Being a member of the Animal Ethics Committee (AEC), it turns out I do. The AEC is responsible for approving all research procedures carried out using animals, as well as regularly inspecting facilities. But I was curious what the protester believed. “Terrible, terrible suffering, and murder” she says. She quoted the National Animal Ethics Advisory Committee’s (NAEAC) figure of 301,964 animals used in scientific research in NZ in 2012.

I’m not surprised to find that the protester is cherry-picking data. Actually, those 301,964 animals were used for research, testing and teaching (RTT). Less than a third of those animals were used for biological or medical research, while a little more than a third were used for veterinary research. Over 80% of the animals were exposed to manipulations which had no, virtually no, or little impact on the animals’ welfare. To put this in context, breeding is considered a manipulation. More than 70% of the animals were returned to their normal environment afterwards. In other words, not “murdered”. Can you guess what the most used animal was for RTT in New Zealand in 2012? Cattle. They made up over half of those 301,964 animals. I can honestly say there are no cows in the basement of the med school. Given the protester was quoting NAEAC’s report at me, I asked her if she knew that no monkeys were used in RTT in NZ. “Yes”, she says. So isn’t it misleading to be displaying pictures of monkeys, I ask? “A little” she concedes. Might people passing by think that monkeys are being used in scientific research in NZ, I ask? “Maybe” she says. So she is not only cherry-picking but being downright dishonest too.

“That animals are made to suffer” was the protester’s main objection to the use of animals in research. I asked her if she has heard of the 3Rs* – replacement, refinement and reduction. These are the ethical and legal basis on which animals are used in research, teaching and testing in New Zealand and many other countries around the world. Animals should be replaced with an alternative if possible, but where not possible, the numbers used should be the minimum necessary, and procedures should be refined to cause minimal suffering. In reality, this means using things like pain killers to alleviate any suffering. “Nonsense” she snorts.

During our chat, I ask the protester whether she takes any medicines when she is ill and the conversation moves in an unexpected direction. I find out she believes the only causes of cancer are alcohol, smoking and doctors, and that there is no such thing as infection (“the bugs are just coming to clear up our mess”). Here I am on fairly strong ground, so I tell her I’m a microbiologist studying nasty microbes, and that many of them are not “clearing up our mess” but have entire systems devised to overcome our immune system and cause damage. “Nonsense” she snorts again.

I know this is not a popular view, but I would love to see universities being proactive when faced with protesters like this – perhaps putting up their own placards and talking to passersby about the benefits of research and the lengths scientists go to to minimise suffering. It is clear that we can’t change the minds of the die-hard protesters, especially those that believe you can avoid cancer by not visiting the doctor and that infectious diseases are a myth**. But I believe most people are curious and will listen to both sides of the story. By remaining in our ivory towers we are missing opportunities to engage with the people who stop and talk to the protesters, and those who see their placards. Instead we create the impression we have something to hide. We don’t.

*Not reading, ‘riting, ‘rithmatic, or reduce, recycle, reuse…

**I am not saying for a minute that all anti-vivisectionists are as crazy (in my opinion) as the lady I spoke to.

Lego & gender-stereotyping – Lego respond Siouxsie Wiles Nov 24


Lego guys

Lego guys

Lego gals

Lego gals

Recently I wrote an open letter to Lego asking them to tackle their gender stereotyping by giving their minifigure faces a male character on one side and a female character on the other. I also sent the message to Lego via their website and received a very positive response, along the lines of ‘Great idea! I’ll pass your suggestion to the design team’.

I want to keep up the pressure and show Lego that it really is an idea they should seriously consider implementing, so I’ve started a petition. Please consider signing it and sharing it with friends and family via email, Facebook and Twitter.

And while I’m on the subject of gender stereotyping, please also support GoldieBlox who are being chased for copyright infringement for parodying the Beastie Boy’s hit ‘Girls’ in their fantastic advert encouraging girls to build cool stuff.

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