I write about the environment, biotech, and life in science for online outlets such as Massive Science. Find links to my articles below.
The complex legacy of Maria Sibylla Merian – independent woman, ecologist, Christian, scientist, artist, slave-owner.
Meet Maria Sibylla Merian, the naturalist who painted insects in living color. One of the first to recognize insect metamorphosis, she’s finally getting her dues after 300 years of obscurity. Article for Massive Science, in their Science Heroes series, which aims to bring recognition to forgotten or under-appreciated historical Women In STEM.
I was thrilled to be able to contribute to the Science Heroes series, and I learned a lot about a woman I formerly knew nothing about. In my article I discuss the life and work of Merian, and why she was forgotten for such a long time, despite being the first person to depict insect metamorphosis in any detail. She seems to have been a brave woman in many ways, striking out on her own for field expeditions, and financially supporting her own family. She was also brave by depicting the ‘cruelty’ inherent in nature, that is in fact necessary for species to be able to become strong – many in the 17th century thought that this was an un-Christian stance. Merian’s work was often dismissed and her contributions to the field of ecology were derided for patently sexist reasons, as I discuss in my article.
I highly recommend that you also read the article Breeding Insects and Reproducing White Supremacy in Maria Sibylla Merian’s Ecology of Dispossession, written by Elizabeth Polcha for Lady Science: find it at this link. Elizabeth goes into a lot more detail than I could about the more problematic and disturbing aspects of Merian’s life and legacy. For her grand expedition to Suriname, she travelled with slave-owners, and took Indigenous and African slaves of her own. She often used the stories of enslaved people in her writing, in particular the stories of enslaved women. I cannot recommend Elizabeth’s article strongly enough, as it puts Merian’s story into important context.
The first genetically modified probiotic is on the market, and it wants to help you party.
Start-up releases the world’s first GMO probiotic. The company claims the probiotic supplement can cure hangovers, but evidence in humans is lacking. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published online September 2019.
The low-key intentions for this product might actually help to convince people that GM food is no big deal. That is my hope at least. And ideally this first product will bring the young company some revenue so they can work on loftier goals in future. I admire their courage in launching so quickly.
Common contaminants in lab reagents lead to the faulty discovery of a placental microbiota.
The placental microbiome may not exist, but the scientific method is real. Lab Note for Massive Science. Researchers from Cambridge have found that run-of-the-mill sample contamination likely led to the discovery of a placental microbiome. Published online August 2019.
Earlier this year, I was teaching a course called Advanced Microbiology & Metagenomics at KTH. I talked to students about the recent discovery of a placental microbiome (and also one in the brain stem) and I warned students to be highly sceptical until several other groups had observed the same. Now I know that my hunch was right – the placenta does seem to be sterile after all. A warning to all microbiologists working with low biomass or low DNA samples – contamination is an enormous problem!
A graphic designer offers a radical new template for conference posters – but are we ready for it?
The #BetterPoster debate rages – should you redesign your presentations? Lab Note for Massive Science. Biologist Lauren McKee chooses to reserve judgement – for now. Published online July 2019.
I trialled the Better Poster design at a recent meeting of cell wall scientists in Stockholm. I got some nice comments on the layout and definitely had a lot of interactions with people, so maybe it works?
A simple new enzyme technology could drastically increase supplies of type O blood.
Bacteria from our guts have the tools to solve blood bank shortages. Article for Massive Science. The discovery of a new enzyme system that can convert type A blood into type O blood could ease strain on universal donors and transform healthcare. Published online July 2019.
This piece was republished by Salon.com July 2019 as New study finds that bacteria from our guts have the tools to solve blood bank shortages. The discovery of a new enzyme system could ease strain on universal donors and transform healthcare.
The idea behind this paper – using one or two enzymes to transform A/B type blood into universal donor type O blood – is quite an old idea, as I discuss in this long-form article. However, previous attempts at developing the technology were extremely inefficient compared to the new enzymes described here. They were discovered thanks to metagenomic sequencing of human gut bacteria. This is a powerful technique that lets us simultaneously sequence the DNA from millions of bacterial cells.
A Green New Deal could overhaul agriculture for good with innovative biological solutions.
Reducing agricultural carbon emissions will be good for the planet and our stomachs. Article for Massive Science. From soil microbes to factory farming, the Green New Deal could radically improve our food system. Published online April 2019.
This piece was republished by Salon.com April 2019 as Reducing agricultural carbon emissions will be good for the planet and our stomachs. From soil microbes to factory farming, the Green New Deal could radically improve our food system.
Carbon emissions from agriculture tend to be overlooked as we discuss industry and transport, but they are key to ensuring a truly sustainable future. The challenges ahead will be hard – we need to reduce energy consumption, massively cut back the use of pesticides and fertilisers, and find ways of growing more crops on less land. All of this while the population continues to grow, and we realise the importance for human health of a varied diet. It won’t be easy, and sweeping policy changes like those proposed by the Green New Deal will be necessary. We just need to make sure those policies are supported by science. In this long-form article I discuss some ways that we can make sure the soil stays fertile and our crop plants stay disease-free without putting too many synthetic chemicals on our fields.
Legendary environmentalist Rachel Carson promoted the use of biological pesticides in 1962.
Rachel Carson foresaw using bacteria to protect crops from fungus. Lab Note for Massive Science. Published online April 2019.
Biological pesticides are a focus of much current research – including some of my own – so I was thrilled to see that Rachel promoted their use at the end of her seminal book Silent Spring. Check out Massive Science’s short biography of Rachel to learn more about this incredible woman.
As technology develops, holidays in space come closer to reality – at least for the megarich.
Paving the way for interstellar holidays. By Lauren McKee and Matthew Hartfield. Opinion piece for Edinburgh University Science (EUSci) magazine focus issue: Legends of the Void. Published online January 2011.