Monthly Archives: August 2017

The open science movement: Revolution is underway

By Keith Siew, @keithsiew, University of Cambridge

‘Information is power. But like all power, there are those who want to keep it for themselves. The world’s entire scientific and cultural heritage, published over centuries in books and journals, is increasingly being digitized and locked up by a handful of private corporations.’ Aaron Swartz, in Guerilla Open Access Manifesto, 2008

The world’s first academic science journal, Philosophical Transactions, was published by the Royal Society in 1665. At last count there were some 11,365 science journals spanning over 234 disciplines by 2015, and yet the primary model of scientific publishing remained largely unchanged throughout the centuries.

As a fresh-faced, naïve PhD student, I recall the horror I felt upon learning that my hard work would be at the mercy of a veiled, political peer-review process, that I’d be left with little option but to sign away my rights to publishers, and too often forced to choose between burning a hole in my wallet or forgoing access to a potentially critical paper!


Derivative of ‘Open Access Explained!’ [] by © Licensed under CC BY.

The open science movement offers an alternative to this unjust system. In its purest form, the movement advocates for making scientific research and its dissemination an entirely transparent process, freely accessible to all levels of society.


Read more here in Physiology News about some of the more radical elements of the movement, existing open science opportunities and the reasons behind life scientists’ relatively slow adoption of open science. The full article also discusses the ongoing struggle for open access, the growing angst towards closed peer review and fundamental shifts on the horizon in both the ways we communicate (i.e. preprints) and carry out science (i.e. open data and open notebook science).

Cats under the microscope

Cats. They’ll push your glass off the table, get you to open the window just to look outside some more, and recognise your voice but pretend they didn’t hear. Yet, the little despots rule the internet – and the couch. This International Cat Day, take your obsession with cats to a new level by learning about their physiology: how their bodies work.

How does cats’ hunter vision work?


Cats have a broader visual field than us, spanning about 200 degrees instead of 180, however they can only see objects 20 feet away, whereas we can see over 100 feet away. While our eyes are chock full of cone cells that specialise in detail and colour, cats’ are packed with rod cells specialised for dim light and night-vision. Because they have more rod cells, they can track quicker movements. This might explain why they find laser pointers so fascinating. While we see the laser darting from one spot to the next, a cat would see its path along the way.

Why do cats cause allergies?

Do cats have you reaching for tissues?  They are a common cause of allergy: an overreaction of our immune system, which triggers mechanisms designed to fight infection (like a runny nose, itching and swelling) in response to harmless substances. Cat allergies are mostly triggered by two major allergen proteins. The most reactive one, Fel d 1, triggers reactions in more than half of cat allergy sufferers. It is found in cats’ saliva and waste, but is also produced by their skin cells. Another protein, Fel d 4, is similar to what triggers allergies to horses, dogs, guinea pigs and rabbits. Allergens in cats’ saliva end up on their fur when they groom themselves. It is the fur they shed, along with dead skin cells, which flies around and ends up on surfaces, carpets… and in the noses of allergic people! But there is hope yet for allergic cat lovers.  Allergen-specific immunotherapy, an ‘allergy vaccine’ of sorts, aims to train the immune system to stop overreacting to harmless allergens, by introducing it in small doses at first, and increasing them little by little. To avoid the risk of a dangerous allergic reaction during the process, scientists are developing molecules that look enough like the allergens to train the immune system, without the power to trigger an allergic reaction. In the meantime, allergic cat lovers might be tempted by claims of hypoallergenic animals. While some cats may naturally produce lower levels of allergens, this varies from cat to cat and no breed has been proven ‘hypoallergenic.’ Opting for a short-haired or bald cat breed may limit allergy risk because they won’t shed as much fur, but better keep those anti histamines close – cats have no notion of personal space!

How do cats purr?

What makes the purr distinctive from other cat vocalizations is that it is produced continually, while the cat breathes in and out. In contrast, a meow is only produced when breathing out, like when we speak. The purr sound is produced in the larynx – the voice box. Cats with a paralysed larynx can’t purr, and purring returns with their voice, after healing. In the larynx, the vocal folds oscillate to create the purring sound as inspired or expired air passes through.

Because it is created by a different mechanism than voice, purring can occur at the same time as a meow, hence the purr-cry that cats use to manipulate us when they want to be fed. And house cats are not the only ones to purr. Purring has been recorded in most felines, except for panther-like species: Lion, Leopard, Jaguar, Tiger, Snow Leopard and Clouded Leopard. As lovely as it is, a cat purring at the vet’s (if only!) may prevent them from hearing properly during auscultation. There’s an easy fix for it, just turn on a tap nearby!

What determines calico fur patterns?

The fur pattern of a calico or tortoiseshell cat all boils down to genetics, and specifically the X chromosome.

Tortoiseshell cat

To understand how, we need to take a short detour into sex chromosomes. X and Y chromosomes, the two that determine sex, were not created equal; Y chromosomes have very few genes, whereas X chromosomes have hundreds. And while males only have one of the large X chromosomes, females have two. Double the chromosomes, double the proteins, right? Not quite, because producing double the amount of proteins from the X chromosome would be toxic. To make up for this imbalance, females shut down one of the X’s when the fertilised egg starts dividing. The gene for fur colour is on the X chromosome in calico cats. When the black fur gene is inactivated, the cell creates orange fur instead. The X chromosome that’s inactivated is randomly chosen in each cell. This means certain parts of the fur will be black and others will be red.


Examining physiology as a global discipline

by Henry Lovett, Policy and Public Affairs Officer

Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, is currently playing host to the 38th Congress of the International Union of Physiological Sciences (IUPS), which is a global network of physiological societies. Released at this event is the report Physiology – Current Trends and Future Challenges. This is a collaboration between the IUPS and The Physiological Society looking at the discipline of physiology and the state it is found in around the world. Physiologists and students of the subject have different experiences and face different challenges depending on their local environment in terms of funding, regulation, job opportunities, public attitude, and any number of other variables.

IUPS sought input from its member organisations, receiving 27 contributions, the content of which make up the data underpinning the report. These responses covered all six inhabited continents, and physiological societies large and small. Most were proud to describe the accomplishments in their country, but many set these against a background of declining government funding for research and greater difficulty in training for in vivo skills and conducting animal-based experimentation. One of the few exceptions is the UK, where the government has pledged to increase research funding over the coming years, although there are concerns around the impact of Brexit on international collaboration.


Responses about the teaching of physiology varied widely; in some countries the discipline is not taught as an individual undergraduate subject, but others have a number of routes into physiology. It is covered in medical, veterinary, dental and nursing courses, and a number of countries are beginning to highlight the clinical relevance of physiological knowledge.

The general public in some countries can feel very far-removed from scientific research, which affects the perception when governments spend money on science. It is crucial to cement the link in people’s minds between research and health, prosperity, and being able to go about daily life. Many people are aware of pressing problems such as climate change, pollution, and ageing unhealthy populations, but do not necessarily support basic research when they cannot be told a direct application. It is hoped that societies will be able to share knowledge on how best to shore up support for basic research.

The survey also considered the career prospects of new graduates. Globally, physiologists have good opportunities in academic positions as post-doctoral fellows, research associates in research laboratories, and as faculty members. However, the academic sector does not produce enough opportunities to have a position for each graduate. Other professional opportunities are being sought by new PhDs as the struggle to obtain research funding support is very onerous. Career opportunities for physiologists in non-academic institutions appear to be good in several countries, be they related to science or more general graduate careers such as finance.


The report compiled responses from 27 countries

An exercise such as this survey is not merely to take stock of the state physiology is found in, but to offer a route towards improving it. The report offers recommendations for member societies to work with IUPS and create programmes in their own countries. Due to differing situations it is not envisaged that these will be universally and identically implemented, but the IUPS is creating new Regional Representatives to work closely with individual societies to drive effective development.

While no organisation is yet in the optimum state for driving forward international physiology, there is hope in the future. This report is the first step in a unifying and momentum-raising process to bolster physiology worldwide and achieve its universal recognition as a vital and robust discipline.

Download the report here.