Alison Campbell

Senior University of Waikato biological sciences lecturer Dr Alison Campbell is well known in the Waikato and Bay of Plenty for promoting science to community groups and school students. She has been nicknamed the skull lady by secondary school students after her presentations on human evolution. Dr Campbell established Cafe Scientifique in Hamilton as part of an effort to encourage the community to discuss scientific issues. She has also launched BioBlog website to support secondary school biology students and teachers preparing for exams. That blog is syndicated right here on Sciblogs. Alison is on Twitter @AcampbelTeacher

Luciferin, Luciferase, etymology, & innuendo - BioBlog

Feb 17, 2021

On Friday (5 February) we went for a walk in the Karangahake Gorge, and were very happy to discover (during the Windows Walk) that there are glow-worms in the darker parts of the mine workings. (Strictly speaking they’re glow-maggots as they’re the larvae of small flies/midges, but that is perhaps less attractive to the ear ) These little creatures live in tubes of silk, spun along the cave/tunnel ceiling, and let down long silk threads that are coated with sticky mucus. The blue glow each larva emits from its abdomen attracts insects, which get caught in these threads & provide it with a good meal. But how do glow worms (& other bioluminescent creatures) make the light? This is due to a chemical reaction involving a protein called luciferin, an enzyme called luciferase, oxygen, and a small energy-carrying … Read More

Vaccines, viruses, & mRNA - BioBlog

Dec 13, 2020

Today I was told that the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine (now approved for use in the US, UK, & Canada) is a virus (screencap at the bottom of this thread). It really isn’t, but I’ve seen this one several times & so I think it’s worth unpacking a little further. (You can also read about mRNA vaccines here, here, & here, for example.) Let’s start with the vaccine I’ve already written about its other constituents, but the bit that’s important immunologically is a short mRNA strand coding for part of the “spike” protein of SARS-Cov-2 (the part that acts as an antigen & elicits an immune response). This small piece of RNA carries information in a form that acts as a template for cells to construct the protein fragment, which is done by a process known as … Read More

Mammoth bones – and … potatoes??? - BioBlog

Dec 11, 2020

Today I came across an interesting share in a science group that I follow – an article about a “huge 25,000-yr-old hut” made of mammoth bones. Having really enjoyed Jean Auel’s “Earth’s Children” series, of course, I was going to read on. But alas, the article was disappointing: the headline image didn’t match the story; the apparent construction certainly wasn’t anything resembling a ‘hut’; and (most annoying of all) it talked about researchers finding the remains of carrots, parsnips & potatoes in a 25,000-year-old living site in Russia, at a time before any of these plants had been domesticated¹. So, what did the authors of the original paper really say? Alexander Pryor and his colleagues were reporting on research at a site (called Kostenki 11) in Russia. There have been excavations at the site since the 1950s, and … Read More

Those vaccine ingredients again - BioBlog

Dec 11, 2020

A year ago I posted an explanation on vaccine “ingredients”, in relation to some wild claims made about the measles vaccine in the context of Samoa’s measles epidemic. From what I’ve seen on recent RNZ comments threads, an update for the time of SARS-Cov-2 is required. So, here’s purple making a statement about the Pfizer covid-19 vaccine that – in the context of the thread where it was posted – seems intended to sow fear, doubt & uncertainty. Apart from the fact that the information in the actual article doesn’t make this implication, but does say the people involved had a history of severe allergic reactions, should we really worry about the list of chemicals contained in each vial of the vaccine? There’s some complex chemical names in it! (Purple omitted the sucrose that’s also … Read More

It always pays to check before you share - BioBlog

Nov 19, 2020

Back in 2008, Dr Anthony Fauci (yes, that Dr Fauci) co-authored a paper that examined the interplay between influenza infection and secondary bacterial infection in mortality from the “Spanish flu¹” pandemic of 1918-19. He and his colleagues examined tissue samples taken during autopsies at the time of the pandemic, using their findings plus notes taken during a much larger number of autopsies to draw conclusions about the impact of bacterial infections. The team found that every autopsy sample they looked at showed signs of severe bacterial infection. In addition, the autopsy series information also consistently showed that severe secondary bacterial pneumonia (caused by … Read More

Crabs, carcinisation, and crappy headlines - BioBlog

Nov 10, 2020

This is a post of two parts: the interesting tale of convergence involving crab-like creatures, and the very poor – nay, crappy (because I like the alliteration) – headline on a popular article about it. Part 1: the history of carcinization in crustaceans, described in this 2017 paper in the Biological Journal of the Linnean Society (Keiler, Wirkner, & Richter, 2017). But first, the terminology! Crustaceans are a group of arthropods: invertebrate creatures that also have an external skeleton. (You could say that they are crunchy spineless animals with multiple legs.) And carcinization describes the way that several different 10-legged crustaceans have evolved a crab-like body form. That is, there are ‘true’ crabs, & then there are the wannabes. There are a lot of different taxa of 10-legged crustaceans, but one group (taxon) stands out from the others in … Read More

First steps: Jerry DeSilva on the evolution of bipedalism - BioBlog

Sep 25, 2020

Yesterday morning I got up (at the rather early and unaccustomed hour of 3.30am) to listen to a webinar by paleoanthropologist Dr Jeremy DeSilva¹. Titled “First Steps”, his presentation was about the origins of bipedalism in the human lineage. It was a fascinating session & I thought I’d turn my notes into this post, to share with students, teachers, and anyone else interested in the topic. Things kicked off with a reminder that the familiar iconography relating to evolution – the gradual linear progression from some ape-like ancestor to a fully upright, modern human – is, while often amusing, just plain wrong. The path of human evolution is highly branched, not linear. Nor have changes in our biology all happened in lockstep with each other; they’ve occurred at different times and different rates, to result in a mosaic of … Read More

It’s “only” a 1% death rate - BioBlog

Aug 31, 2020

I’m seeing a bit of that phrase in my social media feeds at the moment, in relation to covid-19. In practice, this would mean that if everyone in New Zealand were to catch the virus eventually, that would be 50,000 people dead.  The ‘normal’ annual all-cause mortality in this country is around 33,000. It’s been argued that we just need to isolate/quarantine the vulnerable, and the rest of us would get through just fine. However, as others have pointed out, that “vulnerable” cohort is extensive, & it’s not only the elderly who are at increased risk (though, as Siouxsie Wiles has noted, they are at high risk): those who are obese, or living with high-blood pressure, cardiovascular issues, or diabetes also have an elevated risk of death, as Jin Russell points out in this measured opinion piece. That’s … Read More

COVID myths & politics - BioBlog

Aug 11, 2020

This year’s election campaign in New Zealand has attracted a number of “fringe” parties, at least some of whose supporters seem to have a fairly tenuous hold on reality and a highly flexible approach to the truth. I mean, how else could one describe some of those affiliated with the NZPP/Advance coalition, whose members & supporters regularly share myths about covid-19 (and vaccines, and 5G, and more besides)? (Fortunately, social media seem to react fairly quickly these days in terms of taking down such content once it’s reported.) A non-exhaustive compilation of these myths about covid-19 includes: a meme that spread rapidly last week, before FB & twitter caught up with it, claiming that the nasal swabs used in covid-19 testing penetrate the blood-brain barrier. In practice this simply cannot happen, because the brain is enclosed by the … Read More

A fishy story: midas cichlids in nicaraguan lakes - BioBlog

Jun 11, 2020

Midas cichlids (Amphilophus spp.) are a popular aquarium fish, but in the wild they’re found in South America, ranging from Nicaragua to Costa Rica. The 2018 Schol Bio paper included a really interesting question about a Nicaraguan ‘species complex‘ of these fish, based on a paper in Nature Communications. and a monograph in Cuadernos de Investigacion de la UCA. After reading the usual extensive resource material (maps, images, graphs & written information), students were asked to analyse the information provided in the resource material and integrate it with [their] biological knowledge to discuss the evolutionary processes and patterns that have resulted in the diversity of the Midas cichlid species complex in Lakes Xiloá and Apoyo. The first thing to note here is that both these lakes are very young in geological terms. They are both crater … Read More