Author Archives: The Physiological Society

About The Physiological Society

The Physiological Society brings together over 3,500 scientists from over 60 countries. Since its foundation in 1876, its Members have made significant contributions to our knowledge of biological systems and the treatment of disease. We promote physiology and support those working in the field by organising world-class scientific meetings, offering grants for research, collaboration and international travel, and by publishing the latest developments in our leading scientific journals, The Journal of Physiology, Experimental Physiology and Physiological Reports.

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!

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Derivative of ‘Open Access Explained!’ [https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=L5rVH1KGBCY] by ©PhDComics.com 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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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.

Top ten reasons why your Wikipedia edits get reverted

andy_mabbett_glamcamp_amsterdam_netherlands_img_1324_edit.jpgby Andy Mabbett, The Society’s Wikimedian in Residence.

Wikipedia’s great, isn’t it? All that free information, about the TV star whose name you can’t quite remember, the little fishing village where you’re spending your holiday, and the early singles history of the band you’ve just discovered and love to bits.

Wikipedia’s rubbish, isn’t it? Any fool can edit it, and put in anything they want. Not like a journal, with peer review and an editor. Only a fool would use it!

As a Wikipedia contributor since 2003, I’ve heard both of these things, many, many times. They can’t both be true, can they?

Of course they can’t, and it’s the latter that is a gross misrepresentation. Everyone who edits Wikipedia (in the sense of making any changes) is both a peer reviewer, and an editor (in the sense of exercising editorial oversight). It’s been said that Wikipedia is like a bumblebee – it doesn’t work in theory, only in practice.

Wikipedia needs subject experts, who know what should be in an article, and where to find that information. And when it comes to physiology, that might mean you. Spotted something wrong? You can fix it! Found something missing? You can add it. And please do!

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© Wikimedia, CC BY-SA 3.0

However, some new contributors do find Wikipedia unwelcoming. Sometimes the changes they make are summarily undone (or “reverted” in the jargon). Here are ten reasons why that happens, and what you can do to avoid it:

  1. You didn’t cite your source — The Wikipedia community (of which you’re a part!) wants people who read its articles to know where the information comes from. As with a journal article, what you assert to be true should be cited to an independent, reliable, source. By reliable, we mean something in good standing, with its own editorial process: a respected journal, not a parasitic one; not a tabloid newspaper; and not your own blog. There are two areas where this policy is applied most rigorously, namely claims about living people, and matters related to medicine and healthcare.
  2. You wrote about someone (or something) who isn’t “notable” — Wikipedia doesn’t want an article about everyone, nor everything. The determining factor is what Wikipedia calls “notability.” Ask yourself: has society at large noticed this entity? Have there been press articles, biographies, television documentaries etc. about the subject? Note the plural.
  3. You didn’t sign in — Anyone can edit Wikipedia, and that includes people who don’t create an account and sign in. For small changes, that’s not usually an issue, but if you’re making significant changes, people are instinctively less trusting of “anonymous” edits. It shouldn’t be like that, of course, but people are people, and so it is. Also, signing in makes additional tools and editing rights available to you, and it actually gives you more privacy, as it hides your IP address. It’s best to create an account.
  4. You repeated an edit that had already been reverted — To many Wikipedia contributors, this (called “edit warring”) is a real no-no. If your edit is reverted, consider why and whether you can do it again, but better. Maybe one of the other reasons in this post applies. If you’re unsure, start a discussion on the article’s associated talk page.
  5. You pushed a fringe theory — Wikipedia aims to maintain a neutral point of view, and to be balanced, but not to give every esoteric view equal weight. So, while it mentions that some people believe the Earth is flat, or believe that vaccines cause autism, or suchlike, there is no requirement to give such views equal weight, and Wikipedia reflects that the scientific consensus is otherwise.
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©20th Century Fox

  1. You published original research — Have you just discovered a cure for cancer? Or proven beyond any doubt that a politician’s expenses have been fiddled with? That’s great, but please don’t put anything in Wikipedia until the discovery has been published in the kind of reliable sources mentioned above. Because getting information on medical matters right is so important, Wikipedia has special guidance on finding suitable sources. For instance, review literature is preferred to new primary research, and single papers based on in-vitro or animal testing should not be used in an attempt to debunk the established scientific consensus of secondary sources.
  2. You had a conflict of interest — CoI editing on Wikipedia isn’t prohibited, but should be declared. If you do edit in such areas, only do so with great caution. And please don’t edit Wikipedia solely to cite your own work – that will be noticed!
  3. You didn’t declare that you were paid to edit — This form of CoI is one of the few things on Wikipedia where there is a hard-line rule, rather than guidance. Any edit for which you are paid – whether with money or in kind – must be declared.
  4. You edited an article “owned” by someone else — (don’t worry, you did nothing wrong!) It’s good that some contributors are dedicated enough to “steward” an article, and keep an eye on it, but sometimes they overstep the mark, and will let no one else (or only their friends) change it. If that happens, don’t panic, and don’t get into an edit war (see number four above). Instead, start a discussion, following Wikipedia’s dispute resolution process.
  5. You were wrong! — Yes, I know that this is highly unlikely, but maybe you simply misunderstood the subject, or the tone of the article, or a Wikipedia policy. Please don’t dig in – it’s a sure way to frustration – but instead listen to what people tell you in talk page discussions, and try to come to agreement with them as to how best to proceed.

By encouraging all editors to avoid these pitfalls and adhere to the policies and guidelines to which this post links, Wikipedia seeks to make its content more reliable and useful to its readers, and to make the process of contributing more accessible and welcoming to everyone So what are you waiting for? Be bold!


Andy Mabbett – http://pigsonthewing.org.uk – is the Society’s Wikimedian in Residence. He is also Wikimedian in Residence at Queen Mary London University’s History of Modern Biomedicine Research Group, and with ORCID. He has previously held similar positions with the Royal Society of Chemistry, TED Talks, and a number of museums and art galleries.

The dangers of careless press releases

by Simon Cork, Imperial College London, @simon_c_c

This article originally appeared in Physiology News

Simon Cork

You open the morning paper and are excited to find an article about a newly published study in your area of interest. You start reading it and quickly realise that the journalist has completely taken the press release out of context. What was originally some preliminary cell culture work has turned into a front page splash solving an age-old problem or heralding a new cure. Sound familiar?

We live in a world of 24-hour rolling news coverage. The necessity to write punchy news headlines and be the first to break stories has never been greater. Because of this, it’s very easy for journalists to take press releases out of their original scientific context, and ‘sex’ them up in a way that sells. This is particularly the case for my own area of research, obesity.

The world is suffering from an obesity epidemic especially (but not exclusively) in the Western world. Reports suggest around two-thirds of people are dieting at any one time, and most of these diets don’t work. This is why stories about miracle weight loss cures and therapies are cat nip to journalists and readers alike.

Frustrated by the misrepresentation of obesity in the press, I decided to sign up to the Science Media Centre (SMC), not knowing it would lead to my television debut.

The remit of the SMC is to provide journalists with expert quotes on scientific studies that are likely to garner media attention. In the world of obesity and diabetes, this usually involves studies showing that eating too much of X will lead to diabetes, or that cutting Y out of your diet reduces body weight.

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I recently commented on a new study, which had followed approximately 20,000 children over a 10-year period, some born via caesarean and some born naturally, and found that those who were born via caesarean were more likely to be obese in later life. I was asked to comment whether or not the conclusions of the study were sound, and offer a possible explanation for the findings. In fact, this study adds to other literature supporting this relationship, and the most likely cause is exposure to different microbes when born naturally versus via caesarean, although the link hasn’t fully been proven.

Since the study used a large cohort, the results were more statistically significant. However, since it was an observational study there isn’t a causative link.

My comments were picked up by a number of news agencies, including The Guardian, Daily Mail and the BBC News website. Nerve-rackingly, I even got a call from the producer of BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme, who was interested in picking this piece up and wondered if I would pop into the studio the next morning. This was swiftly followed by Sky News, Jeremy Vine and BBC News.

Now all of this was a far cry from the ELISA that I was planning on carrying out that day, but was an interesting insight into the angle journalists take on scientific stories. Having received the call asking if I’d like to go on the Today programme at 11 pm the previous evening, I spent a number of hours doing a comprehensive PubMed search of all the most recent meta-analysis studies investigating caesarean births and obesity risk. Turns out all they’re really interested in is why. If the Brexit debate has taught us anything, it’s that the public switch-off at the sight of a percentage symbol or talk of numbers. What people want to know is why and how it affects them. So my interviews mostly revolved around why caesarean births seem to increase the risk of obesity and whether there is anything we can do to mitigate the risk. That and trying to politely convince a caller to the Jeremy Vine Show that her child’s obesity was probably more the result of her confessed feeding of copious amounts of chocolate to him, rather than his method of birth.

If, like me, you find yourself at odds with journalistic reporting of science stories, I would urge you to join the database at the Science Media Centre. You’re not guaranteed to get TV time, but you might get your name in the paper. Just make sure that you at least know enough about whatever it is you’re commenting on to make it through a 30-minute conversation with Jeremy Vine and John Humphrys!

Getting stressed out at the Lancashire Science Festival

By Rachel Boardman, University of Nottingham, UK, @boardventures

Two weeks ago, I formed part of The Physiological Society’s team of enthusiastic volunteers in the Biology Big Top area of Lancashire Science Festival. Dressed to impress in our ‘I love physiology’ t-shirts, we were all set to engage our audience about the effects of stress on the body.

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After measuring a participant’s blood pressure and heart rate we would then expose them to either a mental or physical stress. The mental stress consisted of playing whack-a-mole – a version of the popular arcade game where you hit the mole when it lights up – while being asked maths questions. Evil, right?

I had a go, to errm test it out, and one of my fellow volunteers challenged me to count backwards from 100. Not so bad, I thought. She then added, “In 7s.”

“Oh errm.. 100, 93… errr…86. Yeah I’m out.”

A few of our participants were amazingly good at this (unlike me) while some heard the word maths and immediately opted for the physical stressor, the cold pressor test.IMG_2518

This involved sticking your hand in an ice-cold bucket of water for 1 minute (we toned it down to 30 seconds for the younger children because we’re not harsh). The shock on each participant’s face as they realised how cold the water actually was followed by the realisation that a whole 60 seconds doing this was far longer than they had realised. Most showed clear signs of discomfort, squirming and fidgeting in their seat, increasing their breathing rate and even providing a running commentary on just how they were feeling, but there were others that sat quite still with a wry smile on their face that said ‘this isn’t that cold’.

Once we had suitably stressed our victims participants out, we measured their blood pressure and heart rate again. What would you expect to happen?DEcsbysXUAAdU07.jpg

Well, if you know anything about science, then you will know that it doesn’t always go to plan. That is precisely what happened to us. The majority of people’s blood pressure and heart rate did increase. However, we also had participants who seemingly reacted to these stressors by relaxing, or for whom only blood pressure or heart rate changed. That’s science, guys!

Read Rachel’s full article on her blog, The Boardventures.

Shark Diary, Episode IV: Life on board

Aboard the RV Sanna, our days rotate around meals, fishing, and experiments.

dry fish and musk ox

Our ship is the newest vessel of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources. Her name, RV Sanna, inspired from ‘Mother of the Ocean’ in Inuit mythology, shows the Institute’s commitment to safeguarding the aquatic environment and to advising governments on the sustainable use of living oceanic resources.

At 32 metres long, Sanna is small for an ocean-going vessel. She is, however, well-designed for scientific research in the marine environment. She is five stories tall, with engines in the bottom and the bridge, where the Captain sits, at the top. Our rooms are above the engines and below the waves.

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The hoverdeck on RV Sanna. Image courtesy of the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources

As the only female scientist aboard, I knew I’d have to share a room with one of the men. I ask for he-who-is-least-likely-to-snore, and that turns out to be Emil. He takes the bottom bunk, I take the top. It isn’t easy climbing up there on the rough seas. When a five-story-tall boat hits rough seas, you can really feel it!

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Rocky ride to the fjords

From Nuuk, the 40-hour transit south to the fjords near Narsaq is really tough. We head down along Greenland’s west coast towards Cape Farewell in gale force winds. The northerly winds hit the ship at around more than 12 metres per second as we get to the open sea and worsen overnight, creating five metre swells waves hitting our ship from all sides. Most of us need to use the patch against seasickness. One of its side effects is blurred vision, so I spend the first few nights half blind trying not to roll out of my bunk.

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Life on board tries to proceed as normal during the onslaught. Our cook Caroline makes a valiant effort to feed us despite the sensation of living inside of a washing machine. At lunch one day, Caroline is caught off-guard by a rogue wave. It hits the ship so hard that she and everything else that is not tied down goes flying five metres through the air and across the room. Chairs break, and dishes in the kitchen fly out of the cupboards and smash!

Living conditions improve when we finally reach the calm waters of the southern fjords, and pull into the port at Narsaq. In the quiet of the harbour, we set up our scientific equipment. Microscopes come out of boxes, chilling water circulators are plugged in, and apparatus used to measure all sorts of forces (like pressure, flow and tension) are calibrated. Most importantly, everything is placed on top of non-slip mats and is tied down, just to be safe. In the evening, we head into town to have a pint, meet the locals, and ask them where the sharks are. The Greenland shark is very common bycatch for the major Greenlandic fisheries (like halibut), so the local fishermen know which fjords harbor sharks of which sizes. We celebrate everyone surviving the 40-hour transit in the rough seas, and buy some more dishes for the galley!

The pub is in a wooden shed, serves local microbrews, and features a band playing Greenlandic folk songs. I get asked to dance by an elderly Greenlander. I don’t think I have the right moves; we don’t even last a whole song!

We get back to the ship around midnight to find it locked up. The captain must have gone off to bed. We try every door at no avail. Julius valiantly squeezes through the window used to tie the ship off, and lets us in from the cold. We all troop off to bed right away, as we need to be fresh for pulling up the longlines bright and early in the morning.

How to catch sharks, and only sharks

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Long line fishing. Image courtesy of the FRDC

Longlining is a fishing technique we use because the sharks swim up to 1.5 kilometers deep. The longline is the main line of reel that starts and ends with a buoy that floats on the top.  Between the buoys, our longlines sit at around 200 metres deep. From that main line, are a series of lines that end with baited hooks. These secondary lines are between 100 and 200 metres long. You can vary the depth of each set of lines to place the hooks in the part of the water column where you expect your fish to be. We usually set one or two longlines each morning and evening.

Each of our sets of lines has about ten hooks baited with ringed seal that we buy from local hunters. Seal meat is a common food in Greenland, but apparently sexually mature males don’t taste very good, so this is what we buy to bait the hooks. Seal meat is very oily and attracts the sharks better than other fish-based bait. Stomach content analysis confirms that these sharks eat seal. In fact, their stomachs contain whole seals suggesting that they sneak up from the depths and swallow the sleeping seals whole!

Setting_longline   Longline

Longline fishing has been criticized, especially in commercial fisheries such as for swordfish, because of the large amount of bycatch: the other marine creatures that are caught unintentionally. It’s a major problem for fisheries and is something that governments, environmental groups, and commercial fisheries are working to reduce globally. Our crew knew the correct combination of bait, depth and positioning needed to prevent bycatch. In our ten days of setting longlines, we caught 27 Greenland sharks, and had no bycatch whatsoever.

Follow #SharkDiary on Twitter to see all the updates about the expedition.


This expedition was made possible by funding from the Danish Centre for Marine Research, the Greenland Institute of Natural Resources, The Danish Natural Science Research Council and the Carlsberg Foundation.