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The wonderful world of primate poo (and why it really matters)

CatrynWilliams17 August 2017

As a biology PhD student, I’ll be the first to admit that there are some studies in science that, whilst interesting, can leave you questioning who comes up with these and why they (and we) should care so much.  If you, like me, are the kind of person who loves these kinds of things, the list of past Ig Nobel prize winners is a cornucopia of great examples.  Often, though, all it takes is delving a little deeper to find the importance in what seems like a pointless topic.  My PhD involves collecting primate poo samples to look at their gut bacteria, and so does occasionally elicit the classic and very valid question: “But what’s the point of it?” from people, so I thought for this week’s blog post I’d try and answer exactly that.

Primates are our closest relatives and, in fact, your closest relatives are also primates, as are you yourself.  We’ve known about the anatomical similarities between humans and other, non-human primates for hundreds of years.  The Grant Museum of Zoology plays host to what used to be a teaching collection for doctors studying at UCL, where the bones and structures of animals from non-human primates to fish would be studied to understand how our own bodies developed from the ancestors we shared with other organisms.  Then, in the 1980s, with the birth of molecular sequencing techniques, we gained the ability to study the DNA of animals.  From this we began to understand just how closely related to other primates we really are, leading us to the famous fact that we are 98% genetically identical to chimpanzees, our closest relative.

ChimpanzeeSkeleton

A juvenile chimpanzee skeleton from the Grant Museum of Zoology, accession number Z449

The next big step, in my (admittedly, probably biased) opinion, in our understanding of the human body and how it works has been our realisation that gut bacteria are hugely important to human health and disease.  We might tend to think of bacteria as harmful or infectious, but actually the bugs that live in your intestine are a normal part of a healthy human body.  They outnumber our own cells 10 to 1, making us 90% bacteria in terms of cell numbers alone (although our own cells are much larger, which is why by mass we’re still mostly human), break down parts of our food that we ourselves can’t digest and even provide us with many hormones (such as 90% of our serotonin, the “happiness” hormone).  In addition, gut bacteria has lately been linked to everything from keeping us lean or helping to make us obese, to maintaining normal bowel functions or exacerbating conditions such as irritable bowel syndrome.

So where do non-human primates come into this?  Well, as with the Grant Museum’s collection all those years ago, it’s nothing new to study our relatives in order to understand more about ourselves.  While understanding the gut bacteria of primates across the whole primate evolutionary tree lets us take a look at how gut bacteria have evolved alongside us to create a mutualistic relationship, primates in particular are a very interesting group of animals.  Within the Primate Order there is huge variation in the ways that these animals live their lives, and it is by considering these differences that we can begin to understand how the variations between different human lifestyles affect our gut bacteria and so our health.  For example, by comparing primates that eat mostly vegetation to species that eat fruit or meat or even gum like lorises, we can start to ask questions about how much our diet affects what bacteria can survive in the gut.  Looking at animals that are highly social, such as chimpanzees or baboons, vs. those that are mostly solitary creatures such as bushbabies can tell us how gut bacteria is spread and shared between individuals, communities and even between different species living in the same area (this is not as crazy as you think – humans have been found to share skin bacteria with their pet dogs).

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal's gut bacteria

Primate species, diet and social structure are all thought to be important in determining an animal’s gut bacteria. Licensed under Creative Commons CC0 1.0

But it’s not just ourselves that we can learn things about when we study non-human primates.  One large aspect of my PhD looks at how life in captivity affects the gut microbiomes of primates.  Whilst life in captivity is not ideal for any animal, raising them in zoos and centres can have benefits for endangered species.  Studying the gut bacteria has the potential to offer suggestions on how we might be able to enrich the diets of captive animals to ensure they maintain healthy gut bacteria whilst living in zoos.  Furthermore, by looking at what nutrients are necessary to keep a healthy set of bacteria, we might be able to start thinking about conservations issues such as which plants are highly important to conserve alongside these endangered animals.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you that gut bacteria are important, that my area of research has the potential to be of great help, and above all, that primate poo is a great thing to study.

Where are all the people? How images of shelving reveal deeper problems in the way we think about archives

KyleLee-Crossett16 March 2017

In the first year of my PhD programme, I had to present some early ideas about my research on the uses of diversity in archive and museum collections in London. At that point, I hadn’t decided which archives or museums my research would focus on, so I thought I would just find a few general pictures to put in the background.

Instead, I got a striking lesson in the power of visual representation of archives.

(more…)

A Physicist’s Guide to Zoology

CatrynWilliams21 February 2017

As any lover of Attenborough will, I’m sure, understand, the idea that someone is not naturally interested in nature and zoology is something that I, as a researcher of primates (specifically, their gut bacteria), had never really considered before. Aware as I am that the fascinating but visually underwhelming (I’m sorry!) sea squirt might take a bit of effort to enthuse people I sort of assumed a general underlying love of at least all the four-legged, big-eyed, furry, woolly things of the world.

This wholly unreasonable assumption of mine was proven wrong during last week’s shift at the Grant Museum by one simple question from a very enthusiastic and lovely retired physicist:

“What would a group of physicists find interesting in a Zoology museum?”

What follow here are just two examples of nature seen through a different lens, which I hope go some way towards enthusing those not naturally curious about zoology.

All that glitters isn’t gold, all that shimmers isn’t green

Most of the green birds you see are pretenders.  Rather than truly being green, they’re a beautiful example of something called structural colouring.

When you use paint to colour a surface, what you are applying are coloured molecules, called pigments.  These produce colour through absorption of different wavelengths of light; to produce green, for example, red and blue light are absorbed whilst green light is reflected into your eyes.

Honeycreeper

The Green Honeycreeper, not a green bird. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Lip Kee on Flickr

First observed by Robert Hooke and Sir Isaac Newton and explained by Thomas Young a century later, structural colouring, however, is the production of colour through the interference of white light by microscopic surfaces, rather than absorption of certain wavelengths.  This can work in conjunction with pigments — for example, a peacock feather is pigmented brown, but microscopically structured so that they reflect blue and green light, and also making them iridescent, showing different colours depending on the angle from which you view them.

Structural colouring in animals, particularly birds, can be a big evolutionary advantage.  Creating pigments can be very energy-costly, and often requires rare elements that are difficult to extract from food during digestion, such as metals like cadmium, cobalt or chromium for green pigments.  Structural colouring is an ingenious way to create these brilliant colours through feather shape alone, hugely useful when trying to attract a mate or hide from predators in the trees.

Turacos are the interesting exception to these structural colourists.  Found in forests and woodlands in sub-Saharan Africa, these birds actually produce their own unique red and green pigments, called turacin and turacoverdin respectively, using an unusually high amount of copper.  Just why they make this pigment is still a mystery.  Their habitat coincides with the world’s richest copperbelt, leading some to speculate that this pigment production might’ve evolved to detoxify the large amount of copper these birds ingest through their food.  Whatever the reason, this unique ability to use copper in this way makes turacos some of the only truly green birds.

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: C. P. Ewing

A truly green Angolan Turaco. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of C. P. Ewing on Flickr

There are many examples of structural colouring in the Grant Museum, from the peacock’s feather to the wings of iridescent butterflies and the gold sheen of some beetles.  I highly recommend seeing how many you can spot next time you’re there.

 

A (constructal) theory of everything

 

It might not be the unified theory that Stephen Hawking is searching for, but the Constructal Law is a physics theory that can be used to explain the shapes of all the bones, limbs and preserved animal specimens that you see around you in the Grant Museum.

In its simplest form, Constructal Law states that systems naturally evolve over time to minimise energy waste.  Substitute the word “animals” for “systems”, and you have its application to zoology.  This seems like an obvious benefit; wasting less energy allows animals to get the most out of the food they eat, allowing them to flee from predators faster, spend less time gathering food and more time chatting each other up, and produce better-fed offspring. Where this rule becomes most interesting though is when you consider animal locomotion.

Even though running, flying and swimming have all evolved as separate methods of locomotion, they’re all linked by this simple physics principle.  Despite involving very different body mechanics, it turns out that there is a universal relationship between animals’ mass and speed, as well as the frequency and force of limb or tail movement, whether those are legs, wings or fins.  The relationship between a winged animal’s mass and the frequency of their wing beats shows the same relationship as between mass and rate of swimming in fish, as well as mass and stride frequency in running animals, and has all evolved to move the animal at optimal speed, reducing energy wastage whilst maintaining quick movement.  No other factors, such as type of creature, limb length, wingspan or otherwise, seem to factor in to this, only body mass and limb or tail movement.

Grant Museum

Paddling and running on display at the Grant Museum. Photo credit: CC Image courtesy of Justin Pickard on Flickr

This principle helps determine how animals move around and is a brilliant example of how the great diversity of life still converges to fit fundamental physics principles.  Next time you’re in the Grant Museum, have a think about how all the animals around you have been shaped in part by this universal law.

The physicist I met got me to consider the animal specimens in the museum from a whole new angle, making me think about what different people would find interesting about zoology and, importantly, why, rather than just assuming everyone has an inbuilt love.  Just like the iridescent wings of certain animals, looking at a familiar collection from a different angle can offer a whole new view on zoology.  And seriously, give the sea squirt a chance.

A[got]chu! Surviving the Flu

SarahSavage Hanney2 December 2013

 

As the temperature drops and the wind blows harshly through the wind tunnels of the Tube, it genuinely feels like winter in London! When visitors arrive in the UCL museums blowing their noses and smelling of Strepsils, I am yet again reminded it is cold and flu season.

When I discuss my research on the Spanish Influenza and Encephalitis Lethargica epidemics, one of the first responses I get from visitors is: “So you’re a medical doctor, right? How can I treat [insert ailment]?”  Unfortunately I am not licenced nor qualified to give such advice; however, I can discuss from a historical perspective what treatments have worked and not worked for illnesses ranging from the common cold to malaria.

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Always cover your sneezes! Photograph: NHS

Throughout the history of medicine, societies have sought to find more effective and fool-proof treatments for everyday illnesses. Simple home remedies such as tying a bulb of garlic around the neck to ward off insects (potentially carrying an infectious disease such as malaria) and drinking water rich in minerals for health have existed for thousands of years and are practiced consciously or subconsciously still today. Even the types of vitamins we consume, including vitamin C and zinc, to prevent and cure colds, are influenced by this inherited medical knowledge passed down from generation to generation.

Perhaps the most frequently asked question I receive is: “How do I prevent influenza?” The short answer is, you can’t. Since influenza is a viral infection that spreads through transmission in human contact or infected surface contact, it is very difficult to live in a virus-free zone. Especially in London where travellers sneeze openly in trains and residents rely upon communal areas for business and pleasure, we are flu-prone.

However, what are some ways that Londoners a hundred years ago combatted the same illnesses we suffer with today? In the early 20th century, medicine was as much preventative as it was curative.  Diet was an essential tool that families used as part of inherited medicinal knowledge [think of your mother’s advice]. Certain foods including milk, citrus, and broths became the main ‘sick foods’ during the 1918 Spanish Influenza epidemic in England alongside fever reducers, purgatives, and even morphine.  In addition to the prescribed manufactured drugs, residents also turned to older recipes to combat the initial signs of the flu. Dried flowers, including nettle, would have been used to make teas, while crushed herbs, such as mint, could be applied with a salve to the chest to improve breathing.

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918  Photograph: Wikipedia

Spanish Influenza at Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C. 1918
Photograph: Wikipedia

Although medical professionals did not understand the cause or spread of influenza viruses in 1918, boards of health throughout England closed public spaces of leisure and business to prevent human-to-human transmission of the killer flu. Despite public health departments’ attempts to isolate and quarantine populations across the globe, an estimated 20 to 50 million died worldwide. Since influenza commonly has a three to five day incubation period (when the virus becomes settled in your body) before a patient begins showing symptoms, it is naturally difficult to isolate all infected persons to prevent spread to the healthy. As medicine advances further and we develop more complex, powerful vaccinations, it is possible that illnesses such as the common flu will become less common, or at least less severe.

From looking at past influenza epidemics, the best tips are:

  • Self-quarantine!
  • Maintain a healthy diet both before and during illness
  • Avoid public transport during an outbreak
  • Stay at home if you are feeling ill
  • Use fresh supplies when tending to the ill (boil utensils, wash bedding and clothing at a high temperature, etc.)
  • Always give an ill patient ample ventilation
  • If someone begins bleeding from the eyes (as in the case of Spanish Flu), it’s best to move down to the next train car

For more information concerning helpful tips during Flu season, visit the NHS, World Health Organization, and Centre for Disease Control websites.

http://www.who.int/topics/influenza/en/

http://www.nhs.uk/conditions/flu/Pages/Introduction.aspx