Frozen Friday Fab Four #6 The importance of basic science

By Victoria Metcalf 30/05/2014

Four of the Antarctic or anything else headlines/social media bits that have grabbed my attention this week.

Remarkably it looks like the diminutive Kiwi is the closest living relative of the extinct elephant bird. Image source: Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Glen Stewart.
Remarkably it looks like the diminutive Kiwi is the closest living relative of the extinct elephant bird. Image source: Wikimedia Commons uploaded by Glen Stewart.

The importance of basic science

1. As a scientist I actually love it when what we think we know gets turned on its head. Such revelations are exhilarating and to me are the surest sign that scientific endeavours when conducted appropriately can result in the real advancement of knowledge. This is in contrast to much science that gets conducted today- affirmation of what is already known, the result of targeted funding schemes and a variety of other factors to do with the shifting sands surrounding how science is conducted and supported.

And so it is as we learn that the closest living relative of now extinct elephant birds – which happen to be the largest birds that ever lived – rather than the ostrich instead appears to be New Zealand’s diminutive Kiwi bird as a new paper has just revealed. Moreover, the evolutionary history or family tree of the ratite birds (which also includes the emu, ostrich, cassowary, rhea, tinamous and the extinct moa) is revealed to be a lot more complex than you might expect with intriguing examples of convergent evolution. Let’s celebrate the fact it is time to rewrite the biology textbooks.

The paper itself raises further mysteries about why Kiwi who appear to have always been small have such large eggs- bring on some more research in this area! However, the results aren’t set in stone as we still need to await whether nuclear DNA can confirm the mitochondrial DNA findings that were the basis of the research described in the publication. Obtaining elephant bird nuclear DNA will be a challenging enterprise in itself.

This study challenges not only what we know about the origins of a group of birds but also importantly will help us better understand evolutionary processes. In essence, we need to be constantly rewriting or at least re-tweaking the textbooks and we can only do that if basic or blue-skies research retains a significant focus for New Zealand and international science priorities.

If we are going to understand what prognoses there are for species in the future, it’s really important we also understand their past and in fact evolution’s intricacies. The kiwi study in my opinion is a great example of the importance and the magic of basic science.


2. Adelie penguins may harbour a unique strain of avian influenza virus but it doesn’t result in any disease (in contrast to many news headlines on this story to that effect) and in fact their numbers are increasing in the Ross Sea for unknown reasons. However, on the other side of the Antarctic where ice conditions are changing rapidly (see my previous blog post here), penguin numbers are declining.

The survey findings highlight just how much we don’t know about the Antarctic ecosystem and particularly any impacts of climate change. It also draws attention to the dangers of drawing simplistic conclusions from data (i.e. statements like ‘numbers of penguins are increasing, so that’s great isn’t it?’). We need long term monitoring programmes (again another form of basic science) like the penguin census to continue, but to also to be expanded to better understand drivers of trends in a broader ecosystem context.

As Phil Lyver of Landcare research said an increase in Adelie penguins may actually be deceptive. “An ecosystem where adelie penguins are going well is not necessarily a healthy one. It’s not wise to assume that increases in numbers means that it is healthy.”

Adelie penguin chicks on Franklin Is, Antarctica
Adelie penguin chicks on Franklin Is, Antarctica


3. Unsurprisingly (from my perspective anyway) we’ve been underestimating the importance of the placenta. It’s been unfolding that in utero is not a sterile situation at all. The latest finding care of The Human Microbiome project, which aims to categorise all the microbes found in and on the human body, is that all placenta harbour bacteria. Interestingly, the placenta bacterial community is most similar not to vaginal or gut bacteria as you might expect but to those found in the mouth.

The study authors speculate that the bacteria may migrate from the mouth to the placenta and that there may be links of the oral health of mothers to early delivery. Basic science here may lead to some very applied outcomes in the management of pregnancy and childbirth. Who knows what else will be delivered in this research space.


4. Plastic pollution in the oceans has once again been stirring up a storm. Microplastic pollution in waterways and the oceans arising from plastic beads found in all kinds of cosmetic products such as toothpastes, facial scrubs etc, is now a significant environmental concern. That microplastics can travel on ocean currents to remote locations has now been shown in the Arctic, with sea ice found to contain a wide range of microplastics and in considerable amounts.

That same sea ice is melting rapidly, which gives a mechanism for the plastic to once again be water-borne and potentially ingested by a range of marine life. Thus, melting sea ice may not only contribute to sea level rise but also as a significant contributor to ocean pollution.

This research was a completely serendipitous discovery with the scientist leading the study, Rachel Obbard actually examining ice cores for small marine life when she discovered the first microplastics. One pollution source may actually include the famed hotbed of plastic pollution, the Pacific Gyre.

In a world where increasingly targeted and applied research is viewed by those that may understand little of the process of science as the only way forward, these four pieces of news very clearly demonstrate the strengths of and need for basic research.