Monthly Archives: March 2015

#YearInSpace mission could do wonders for your grandad – here’s how

Did you know that exposure to the low gravity conditions found during space travel cause muscle loss and the deterioration of body systems?

In this blog post by Sport and Health Science lecturer Dr Tim Etheridge and University of Nottingham’s Associate Professor Nate Szewczyk we look at the advances being made by NASA into how humans adapt to these conditions and how we might counteract the effects of space travel.

 This first appeared in The ConversationConversation logo


How could spending  a year  in space benefit your Grandad?

How could spending a year in space benefit your Grandad?

NASA has sent an astronaut to the International Space Station to stay there for a year. Though Russian cosmonauts have achieved this feat before, the mission aims to help us to better understand how humans adapt to the spaceflight environment and the effects of countermeasures such as drugs and exercise that help them cope.

Exposure to the low gravity associated with spaceflight is well established to cause deterioration of various bodily systems. Symptoms that astronauts consistently report when they return to Earth include loss of bone mass, fluid shifts towards the head, under-par heart performance and immune system dysfunction.

But one of the most significant changes that we see in astronauts and indeed all species that we have examined in space is loss of muscle size and function. This is comparable to the reduced exercise capacity and increased frailty that you might expect from someone who has been severely restricted for a long period of time.

As the world’s space agencies plan longer, more ambitious missions, this poses a major challenge. Astronauts lose as much as 40 per cent of muscle mass after 180 days onboard the International Space Station. This would be enough to seriously impair their ability to carry out mission activities during an 18-month trip to Mars, for example.

Perhaps more worryingly, because muscle carries out several metabolic processes such as burning fat, this level of muscle wasting could help lead to metabolic ailments such as type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. It is this significant threat to astronaut health and physical performance that NASA is seeking to prevent as part of the upcoming one-year expedition.

What causes loss of muscle?

Despite decades of manned spaceflight and research, the causes of muscle wasting remain unclear at the molecular level. This is due in no small part to the large technical and monetary constraints associated with conducting scientific experiments in space. Nevertheless, studies that have looked at living things from tiny worms all the way to humans have provided two likely candidates.

The first is the fact that in spaceflight, the force of gravity upon our bodies is greatly reduced. Our muscles possess molecular sensors that in Earth conditions convert the mechanical strain produced when we exert ourselves into signals that make muscle grow.

During spaceflight, however, the amount and effectiveness of these sensors are lowered by the much weaker gravity. This in turn reduces the molecular signals that maintain healthy muscle. This poses the question of whether appropriate exercise regimens employed by astronauts might rejuvenate these sensors to offset muscle loss during spaceflight.

The second likely factor is that astronauts frequently fail to eat sufficient amounts of food to meet their daily energy requirements. Restricting calorie intake might impair the ability of muscle cells to use and respond to insulin and ultimately lead to type-2 diabetes.

This deficiency would reduce muscle growth or increase wasting signals, causing the size and quality of muscles to decline and increasing the risks of vascular disease. Because this insulin problem is responsive to both nutrition and exercise, it once again points to the importance of looking at the best ways of using them to offset it.

What the mission aims to achieve

NASA will address two key questions in relation to muscle health during the one-year mission. The first is whether the known muscle loss over six months onboard the space station continues to deteriorate with longer stays in space: there is still no evidence that astronaut muscle decline ever plateaus.

The second is whether new exercise programmes are capable of preventing muscle decline in flight. This is of particular importance since to date, all tested methods including treadmill running, rowing, cycling and simple resistance exercises have proven ineffective at preventing the problem.

The mission will assess the effectiveness of two different kinds of exercise: high-intensity sprint cycle training and the newly developed advanced resistance exercise device – dubbed the astronauts’ weight-lifting machine.

There is good reason to anticipate a better muscle response to these. The advanced resistance exercise device is designed to provide the additional load to specific muscle groups that is perhaps needed to “re-activate” the muscles’ mechanical sensors in the absence of Earth’s gravitational pull.

High-intensity sprint cycle training has been shown on Earth to be even more effective than traditional endurance exercise for improving muscles’ ability to respond to insulin. So this could potentially provide the intensity of stimulus required to counteract spaceflight-induced insulin resistance.

What this means for life on Earth

Besides Mars mission enthusiasts, many may be wondering why they should care about any of this. Several strong and valid arguments have been put forward to justify the significant public expenditure that this research involves.

These include the notion that the survival of humankind ultimately centres on our ability to inhabit other planetary bodies. That potential “return on investment” is an order of magnitude greater than the value of any exploratory venture yet embarked upon by our species, goes the argument.

More immediate benefits may present themselves, though. The muscle problems from spaceflight closely resemble those caused by numerous conditions on Earth, including long periods of bed rest, muscular dystrophies, cardiovascular diseases and type-2 diabetes.

In particular, the ageing process also displays a striking similarity with the changes that occur in space, albeit over a more prolonged timeframe. Many have proposed that spaceflight is like an accelerated version of ageing.

In short, the unique stresses imposed by living in space provide an opportunity to study, understand and develop countermeasures to some of the most prominent health challenges faced by the human race. The question should therefore not be “why should we continue exploring space”, but rather “why wouldn’t we?”

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
Read the original article.

Remembering Mahatma Gandhi: the first statue of an Indian unveiled in Parliament Square

As we commemorate  the 100th anniversary of Mahatma Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa, University of Exeter English lecturer. Dr Florian Stadtler  and Open University Postdoctoral Research Associate, Maya Panmar tell us about how Gandhi’s association with this country influenced both Britain and Gandhi.

This blog originally appeared in The Conversation.Conversation logo


By Maya Parmar, The Open University and Florian Stadtler, University of Exeter

A new monument of political activist and leader of the Indian independence movement Mahatma Gandhi has been unveiled in London’s Parliament Square. Gandhi’s statue will join that of his famous adversary in the independence campaign, Winston Churchill, as well as others, among them Nelson Mandela and Abraham Lincoln. He is the only person never to have been in public office to be honoured with a statue in the square, and the first Indian.

The memorial’s inauguration coincides with a season of commemorations that mark the 100th anniversary of Gandhi’s return to India from South Africa to begin the struggle for self-rule. Yet the statue in London is also testament to Gandhi’s profound relationship with Britain: of both the considerable influence and impact Gandhi had in Britain itself, but also the influence Britain had on Gandhi.

Shaping Gandhi

Mahatma Gandhi and friend in South Africa, 1908. PA Photos/PA Archive

Mahatma Gandhi and friend in South Africa, 1908.
PA Photos/PA Archive

Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi first arrived in Britain at the age of 19 on September 29 1888 to study law. He initially found lodgings in West Kensington. His ambition then was to transform himself into an English gentleman – and pictures from the time show him in contemporary Victorian court dress.

He trained as a lawyer at London’s Inner Temple. While in London, Gandhi discovered the Vegetarian Society, a lively London-based reformist movement that originated in the late 19th century. This shaped his own views on vegetarianism and formed part of his political awakening. Non-violence and vegetarianism soon became aligned in Gandhi’s thinking on politics and ethics.

His involvement in the society provided Gandhi with access to some of the notable thinkers of the time. While in London, Gandhi attended meetings of the London Indian Society as well as other organisations that campaigned for greater self-rule. He also got involved with the Theosophical Society.

Gandhi’s three years in London profoundly shaped him and his thinking. After he was called to the Bar in 1891, he returned to India, before moving to South Africa.

The home front

In 1906 Gandhi returned to the UK, travelling to London to campaign for the rights of the Indian community in South Africa as the spokesman for Natal and Transvaal. He again represented the cause in London in 1909.

In August 1914, a longer four-month stay coincided with the outbreak of World War I. While in the city he reconnected with many activists for Indian self-government, including the poet Sarojini Naidu. Gandhi galvanised the local Indian community to support Britain’s war effort. He was a driving force behind the creation of the Indian Ambulance Volunteer Corps and also contributed to the recruitment of Indian medical staff for the hospitals along Britain’s south coast. These hospitals were set up to care for Indian soldiers wounded on the Western Front.

The British working class

Gandhi visited Britain for the last time in September 1931 to attend the Second Round Table Conference on the future of India. By this point, his reputation as a campaigner had grown exponentially and so his visit elicited much interest in the press.

However, his activism and humility also connected him to the British working classes, as archival footage reveals. Rather than staying with other delegates in central London hotels, Gandhi instead resided in lodgings in the humbler area of Poplar, East London.

During this visit the East End doctor Chuni Lal Katial, who acted as Gandhi’s chaperone, arranged for Gandhi to meet with Charlie Chaplin. Gandhi also visited mill workers in Darwen, Lancashire at the invitation of the mill-owning Davies family.

The intention was to alert Gandhi to the impact the Indian boycott of British goods had in north-west England, and in particular the hardship being suffered by the local textile industry and its workers. Though the circumstances of his visit were potentially contentious, he was accorded a warm reception. Gandhi expressed his sympathies with the workers’ plight, though not necessarily the mill owners’. His prominent visit helped to explain the issues of poverty and oppression India and her people faced. It became clear that unless an agreement for Indian self-government could be reached the campaign for independence would continue.

Gandhi’s influence has left a lasting legacy on non-violent resistance struggles across the world. The new London statue is testament to his work, and the ongoing, manifold connections between India and Britain. More than this though, the unveiling of the first statue of an Indian in Parliament Square is a tribute to the broader and complex underrepresented contributions South Asians have made to Britain across the decades.

Sending a balloon into space

Laura Dawkins, a PhD Student from Exeter Climate Systems sent a high altitude weather balloon into space, capturing some amazing footage. Here she tells us more…

This week I sent a high altitude weather balloon to near space. The aim of this project was to capture fascinating video footage of the earth from space using an onboard camera. This video shows the journey from launch to recovery:

The balloon was launched at 9:20am from Redditch, Worcestershire. Due to strong westerly winds aloft, the balloon travelled 106 miles east to a small village near Newmarket, Suffolk where it was recovered at 1:17pm.

The 800-gram high altitude balloon was filled with 3.5 cubic metres of helium, enough to carry a parachute and a payload containing a waterproof high definition camera, a SPOT GPS tracker and of course Ned the astronaut.

The balloon and payload ascended into the sky at a rate of 6.5m/s. As the balloon rose the outside air pressure decreased causing it to expand until the balloon reached bursting point. It took 67.3 minutes for the balloon to reach a burst altitude of 26,400m where it was possible to see the curvature of the earth and the refection of the sun on the Thames Estuary. The payload then descended back to earth at an average rate of 14m/s.

The balloon was tracked in real time using the SPOT GPS tracker; this meant the drive to find the payload could begin before the balloon had landed. The payload was safely recovered in a farmer’s field, having crashed into a fence. An element of luck was present as it is not uncommon for weather balloons to land in hard to reach places such as trees or rivers.

The preparation of such a launch involves the purchasing or hiring of equipment: a camera, balloon, helium, GPS tracker, parachute, and payload box. In many high altitude balloon launches the camera will freeze or run out of battery during flight. To prevent this from happening, the camera was wired to a larger external battery pack that sat inside the payload box and heat packs were used to keep all equipment warm.

It is essential to gaining permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) by filling out an online form 28 days before launch. This is of great importance as flight traffic control need to be aware of the launch to ensure the balloon does not obstruct any flight paths.

Future plans for further launches include improvements such as using multiple cameras, a larger balloon for increased burst altitude and an onboard flight computer to collect temperature and altitude data.

Sex object, germ killer, battleground – the wonderful history of the beard

By Alun Withey

Beard styles often reveal a moment in time. In 2015 the hipster beard is, despite repeated and insistent claims that the trend is over, still popular. This current trend has already outlasted many of its pogonophilic predecessors over the past 20 years or so. But perhaps the fact that an exhibition at Somerset House in London has just opened featuring 80 portraits by Brock Elbank of hirsute men indicates that the hipster beard will soon, finally, be ditched.

Looking back through history, beard styles often follow particular eras. In fact, you can roughly identify a historical period by its facial hair. The Tudors had the “spade” beard, recognisable in many a Holbein portrait.

A highly virile Hans Holbein sitter.

By the time of the Stuarts, big beards were out, supplanted by the “Van Dyke” moustache and pointy chin beard. Georgian men were clean-shaven, while the Victorians embraced the beard again, the bigger the better. There were variations on styles from goatees to “Dundreary Whiskers” – or “Piccadilly Weepers” – which were huge side-whiskers and a moustache, but without the beard.

All have something to tell us about the story of masculinity. But they also cut across a wide range of other themes in history.

Hirsute health

Beards have always been closely linked to health. The Tudors and Stuarts believed that facial hair was the result of male sexual heat, bubbling away in the “reins” (the area around the lower abdomen). A hirsute man was therefore regarded as highly virile, and wore his beard as a mark of pride. To pull a man’s beard in Tudor England was a huge insult.

By the 19th century, doctors encouraged men to grow beards to act as a filter against germs. A big beard was believed to stop harmful substances from getting into the mouth and throat, and attacking the teeth. This relationship between hair and health still exists today (although perhaps in an inverted form). Shaving is part of daily routines, which are part of health and, especially, hygiene.

In high health. © Brock Elbank

The ability to grow a beard has also been viewed as an index of health. A report into the working environment of employees in a 19th century Derbyshire mill noted that the poor working conditions meant that many men were left with scanty facial hair. Across time, thin or scraggly beards (or worse still the inability to grow one at all) have been seen as a symptom of bodily weakness.

But by the end of the 1800s, some also began to see beards as germ magnets, which trapped bacteria in an unhygienic nest all around the mouth and nose. This is perhaps one time period where you could feel quite good about not being able to sport facial hair.

A close shave

Technology is another factor. Today, we live in a world where men’s personal grooming is commonplace. It’s easy to see the metrosexual man as a modern phenomenon. But, in fact, the Georgians got there first.

It was 18th century razor makers who first began to target men who shaved themselves, rather than visit a barber. In the 1780s, Georgian perfumers marketed all manner of new products for men, from lavender and rose aftershaves, to pastes and lotions to soothe smarting skin.

Moustache trainer? © Brock Elbank 

The invention of the true safety razor in the 19th century, followed later by electric and disposable models, certainly made shaving easier and more efficient. But it’s not actually clear though whether the availability of new technology was that big an incentive to shave. The penchant for beards was at its height around 1850.

To help men unable to grow their own beard, various sorts of false beards, moustaches and products have been patented to help them. In 1865 one Henry Rushton patented “a certain kind of goat’s hair” for the manufacture of false whiskers and moustaches.

Other products were inspired by the problems sometimes associated with beards. Victorian patents included moustache “trainers” to grow them to a desired shape, and “protectors” to stop errant whiskers from dipping into the soup.

Victorians would have admired this example. © Brock Elbank

The mark of a man?

Facial hair has particularly been an issue when masculinity was also a concern. In the 1750s, Georgian man was a more elegant and refined creature than his stubbly predecessors, his face smooth and clean-shaven.

At a time of fears about “effeminacy” and especially the effects of Frenchified fashions upon British men, to wield a razor indicated control and self-mastery, despite the fact that the shaved face was actually more feminine in appearance. Shaving also opened up the face, in turn symbolising a mind that was open to new ideas. Here, the lack of facial hair was the ideal.

Tennyson sporting his God-given superiority.

A century later there was another change – literally a volte-face. Victorian men viewed their beards as the God-given signs of man’s authority over nature, and indeed over women. They were, as John Arbuthnot put it, “an ornament by providence”. Only men, they supposed, had evolved to grow a beard, and this mighty edifice simply reinforced the fact that men were superior.

Conveniently, this occurred at a time when masculinity was being challenged, both by the new challenges of rapid industrialisation and also by increasing work by women for more rights. The beard became a battleground; an outward symbol by which men attempted to assert their authority.

What the underlying cause of this current beard trend may be is hard to judge. Perhaps men feel somehow challenged by the erosion of traditional masculine roles, and the continuing blurring of gender boundaries in modern life. Whatever the reason, beards and moustaches always have been, and probably always will be, linked to the ways that men see themselves, but also want to present themselves to others. Far from a quirky side note to history, they are an important part of the changing nature of masculinity through time.

The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation.
 Read the original article.

Climate change and chemicals combine to cause declines in small fish populations

Professor Charles Tyler and Ross Brown from the University of Exeter have found that hormone disrupting chemicals and climate change can lead to an increased risk of population-level impacts in wildlife. Their full paper can be found on the PNAS website. Here they explain more about thier research….

Background to the study

As the human population grows ever larger, wildlife are coming under greater pressure from climate change, chemical pollution and habitat loss.  Two years ago research scientists at AstraZeneca and the University of Exeter set out to investigate the combined effects of these stressors on zebrafish populations.

Photograph taken by Kelvin Boot

Photograph taken by Kelvin Boot

It had been established previously that certain endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), warmer water temperatures and inbreeding can independently promote changes in sex (masculinisation) in this species of fish, which is used widely in environmental and biomedical research. However, no one, until now, has looked into the effects of EDCs (in our case a chemical that is used in anti-fungal treatments), in combination with future climate change (predicted temperature rise for the year 2100) and inbreeding following habitat loss (in small, isolated populations).

Climate change, habitat loss and pollution can, independently, promote changes in sex

Climate change, habitat loss and pollution can, independently, promote changes in sex

Study preparation

Research scientists from the University of Exeter, in collaboration with Bangladesh Agricultural University, collected zebrafish from their native pond habitats in the flood plains of the Brahmaputra River Basin.

Photograph taken by Greg Paull

Photograph taken by Greg Paull. Find out more about Greg’s work in Bangladesh.

Photograph taken by Greg Paull

Photograph taken by Greg Paull. Find out more about Greg’s work in Bangladesh.

On arrival at Exeter, the zebrafish were outbred by pairing males and females from two different source populations, and subsequently their descendent families, over three generations.  We also conducted inbreeding in the third generation by pairing brothers and sisters from the same families.

After their arrival at Exeter

After their arrival at Exeter

Controlled laboratory exposure study

We conducted our exposure study in the laboratory, so we were able to control all three factors, namely water temperature at 28 or 33°C, EDC exposure at 0, 1.7, 8.0 micrograms of clotrimazole per litre and breeding, represented by inbred and outbred families.  We examined the effects of these factors in isolation and in combination by assessing sexual development and sex ratios in our zebrafish.  The exposure study ran from 40 to 100 days post fertilisation and we recorded increasing proportions of males when we combined the different stressors. We found up to 97% males in the combined higher temperature x higher clotrimazole x inbred treatment group, compared with around 50% in the lower temperature x zero clotrimazole x outbred control group.

Equipment for the Zebrafish

Equipment for the Zebrafish

Population viability analysis (PVA)

With the aid of a computer-based population viability analysis (PVA) model, we simulated the population-level effects of male-skewed sex ratios, and predicted population growth rate and probability of collapse for the various exposure scenarios.  We ran over 100 simulations, each one representing 100 repeated iterations of 100 years of exposure.  We found that inbred zebrafish populations exposed to higher water temperature, and the higher dose of clotrimazole, were more likely to decline.

PVA chart showing N= total population number (variable line plot):

PVA chart showing N= total population number (variable line plot):


Pressures on wildlife from climate change, pollution, and habitat loss (which can lead to inbreeding) have increased significantly in recent decades and they are predicted to increase further throughout this century, according to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).   In our study we show that the interactions of these different environmental factors (physical, chemical and biological) are fundamental to future impact predictions.  Our study indicates that interactions between elevated temperature and chemicals which skew sex ratios toward males can have profound impacts on populations of species with environmental sex determination and/or differentiation. We show this here for a fish species but this is also potentially possible for amphibian and reptile species.  Furthermore, these impacts are likely to be greater on already endangered, inbred populations.