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Darwin College’s Earthshot Prize nomination Sanergy announced as a finalist

Fri, 17/09/2021 - 12:29

The Earthshot Prize was launched in October 2020 by Prince William and designed and incubated by The Royal Foundation, an international centre for philanthropy led by The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.

Working in partnership with organisations and individuals around the world, it strives to research, develop, and scale the most impactful solutions to society’s greatest challenges. The Earthshot Prize is designed to incentivise changes that will repair our planet over the next ten years.

In 2020 Darwin College was one of around 200 organisations across the world invited to submit nominations for the Prize. Sanergy, one of Darwin’s four nominations, has been selected as a finalist. It harnesses a natural method of converting human waste to create environmentally sustainable animal food, biofuel and fertilizer and therefore provides a novel and scalable solution to achieving a waste-free world.

Professor Stephen J Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, said: “Congratulations to Earthshot Prize finalist Sanergy, nominated by Darwin College. Sanergy’s work in building sanitation designed for vulnerable urban communities and converting it into organic agricultural products is a shining example of the kind of contribution to society the University of Cambridge champions in its own research and seeks to support with its innovations and partnerships around the world.”  

David Auerbach, Co-founder of Sanergy, said: “The rapid growth of cities around the world has created a sanitation and waste management crisis which affects the health of millions of people and the future of our planet. We’re honoured to appear as a Finalist for The Earthshot Prize to bring attention to this issue and showcase our solution: Sanergy’s circular economy model for safe sanitation and waste management. Being part of the inaugural Earthshot Prize will help Sanergy further scale to safely repurpose one million tonnes of waste per year by 2026 within Kenya and other developing countries, improving the life of millions.”

Dr Mike Rands, Master of Darwin College, said: “I warmly congratulate Sanergy on becoming one of 15 Finalists for the Earthshot Prize 2021. As part of our commitment to addressing global environmental challenges, Darwin College was delighted to nominate Sanergy for an Earthshot Prize. This Nairobi-based initiative has created an innovative and scalable solution to building a waste-free world that is commercially viable and environmentally sustainable. Sanergy is truly inspirational; it has the potential to transform urban waste management globally.”

Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Fellow of Darwin College and Director of Cambridge Zero said, “As we head towards two-thirds of the global population living in urban areas, many in informal settlements, finding sustainable development solutions is paramount. Sanergy is providing a cleaner living environment for some of the world’s poorest people with an innovative model to remove and use urban waste - without the need for expensive sewers - that has a transformative impact on health and wellbeing. They are a very worthy finalist in the Earthshot Prize and I am particularly pleased that Darwin College nominated them for such global recognition.”

 

Adapted from a story on the Darwin College website.

Darwin College, Cambridge, has announced that Sanergy, one of its nominated solutions for the Earthshot Prize 2021, has been selected as one of 15 finalists for this year’s prize. 

As part of our commitment to addressing global environmental challenges, Darwin College was delighted to nominate Sanergy for an Earthshot Prize. This Nairobi-based initiative has created an innovative and scalable solution to building a waste-free world that is commercially viable and environmentally sustainable. Sanergy is truly inspirational; it has the potential to transform urban waste management globallyMike RandsNinaraKibera slum, Nairobi, Kenya


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World first for AI and machine learning to treat COVID-19 patients worldwide

Wed, 15/09/2021 - 17:19

The research was sparked by the pandemic and set out to build an AI tool to predict how much extra oxygen a Covid-19 patient may need in the first days of hospital care, using data from across four continents. 

The technique, known as federated learning, used an algorithm to analyse chest x-rays and electronic health data from hospital patients with Covid symptoms. 

To maintain strict patient confidentiality, the patient data was fully anonymised and an algorithm was sent to each hospital so no data was shared or left its location.  

Once the algorithm had ‘learned’ from the data, the analysis was brought together to build an AI tool which could predict the oxygen needs of hospital Covid patients anywhere in the world.

Published today in Nature Medicine, the study dubbed EXAM (for EMR CXR AI Model), is one of the largest, most diverse clinical federated learning studies to date. 

To check the accuracy of EXAM, it was tested out in a number of hospitals across five continents, including Addenbrooke’s Hospital.  The results showed it predicted the oxygen needed within 24 hours of a patient’s arrival in the emergency department, with a sensitivity of 95 per cent and a specificity of over 88 per cent. 

“Federated learning has transformative power to bring AI innovation to the clinical workflow,” said Professor Fiona Gilbert, who led the study in Cambridge and is honorary consultant radiologist at Addenbrooke’s Hospital and chair of radiology at the University of Cambridge School of Clinical Medicine. 

“Our continued work with EXAM demonstrates that these kinds of global collaborations are repeatable and more efficient, so that we can meet clinicians’ needs to tackle complex health challenges and future epidemics.”

First author on the study, Dr Ittai Dayan, from Mass General Bingham in the US, where the EXAM algorithm was developed, said:

“Usually in AI development, when you create an algorithm on one hospital’s data, it doesn’t work well at any other hospital. By developing the EXAM model using federated learning and objective, multimodal data from different continents, we were able to build a generalizable model that can help frontline physicians worldwide.”

Bringing together collaborators across North and South America, Europe and Asia, the EXAM study took just two weeks of AI ‘learning’ to achieve high-quality predictions.

“Federated Learning allowed researchers to collaborate and set a new standard for what we can do globally, using the power of AI,'' said Dr Mona G Flores, Global Head for Medical AI at NVIDIA. “This will advance AI not just for healthcare but across all industries looking to build robust models without sacrificing privacy.”

The outcomes of around 10,000 COVID patients from across the world were analysed in the study, including 250 who came to Addenbrooke’s Hospital in the first wave of the pandemic in March/April 2020. 

The research was supported by the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre (BRC). 

Work on the EXAM model has continued. Mass General Brigham and the NIHR Cambridge BRC are working with NVIDIA Inception startup Rhino Health, cofounded by Dr Dayan, to run prospective studies using EXAM. 

Professor Gilbert added: “Creating software to match the performance of our best radiologists is complex, but a truly transformative aspiration. The more we can securely integrate data from different sources using federated learning and collaboration, and have the space needed to innovate, the faster academics can make those transformative goals a reality.”

Reference
Dayan, I et al. Federated learning for predicting clinical outcomes in patients with COVID-19. Nat Med; 15 Sept 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41591-021-01506-3

Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge along with 20 other hospitals from across the world and healthcare technology leader, NVIDIA, have used artificial intelligence (AI) to predict Covid patients’ oxygen needs on a global scale.

Creating software to match the performance of our best radiologists is complex, but a truly transformative aspirationFiona GilbertMehrnews.comA clinician helping a COVID-19 patient with an oxygen mask in a hospital in Iran


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Have we detected dark energy? Cambridge scientists say it’s a possibility

Wed, 15/09/2021 - 16:36

A new study, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge and reported in the journal Physical Review D, suggests that some unexplained results from the XENON1T experiment in Italy may have been caused by dark energy, and not the dark matter the experiment was designed to detect.

They constructed a physical model to help explain the results, which may have originated from dark energy particles produced in a region of the Sun with strong magnetic fields, although future experiments will be required to confirm this explanation. The researchers say their study could be an important step toward the direct detection of dark energy.

Everything our eyes can see in the skies and in our everyday world – from tiny moons to massive galaxies, from ants to blue whales – makes up less than five percent of the universe. The rest is dark. About 27% is dark matter – the invisible force holding galaxies and the cosmic web together – while 68% is dark energy, which causes the universe to expand at an accelerated rate.

“Despite both components being invisible, we know a lot more about dark matter, since its existence was suggested as early as the 1920s, while dark energy wasn’t discovered until 1998,” said Dr Sunny Vagnozzi from Cambridge’s Kavli Institute for Cosmology, the paper’s first author. “Large-scale experiments like XENON1T have been designed to directly detect dark matter, by searching for signs of dark matter ‘hitting’ ordinary matter, but dark energy is even more elusive.”

To detect dark energy, scientists generally look for gravitational interactions: the way gravity pulls objects around. And on the largest scales, the gravitational effect of dark energy is repulsive, pulling things away from each other and making the Universe’s expansion accelerate.

About a year ago, the XENON1T experiment reported an unexpected signal, or excess, over the expected background. “These sorts of excesses are often flukes, but once in a while they can also lead to fundamental discoveries,” said Dr Luca Visinelli, a researcher at Frascati National Laboratories in Italy, a co-author of the study. “We explored a model in which this signal could be attributable to dark energy, rather than the dark matter the experiment was originally devised to detect.”

At the time, the most popular explanation for the excess were axions – hypothetical, extremely light particles – produced in the Sun. However, this explanation does not stand up to observations, since the amount of axions that would be required to explain the XENON1T signal would drastically alter the evolution of stars much heavier than the Sun, in conflict with what we observe.

We are far from fully understanding what dark energy is, but most physical models for dark energy would lead to the existence of a so-called fifth force. There are four fundamental forces in the universe, and anything that can’t be explained by one of these forces is sometimes referred to as the result of an unknown fifth force.

However, we know that Einstein’s theory of gravity works extremely well in the local universe. Therefore, any fifth force associated to dark energy is unwanted and must be ‘hidden’ or ‘screened’ when it comes to small scales, and can only operate on the largest scales where Einstein's theory of gravity fails to explain the acceleration of the Universe. To hide the fifth force, many models for dark energy are equipped with so-called screening mechanisms, which dynamically hide the fifth force.

Vagnozzi and his co-authors constructed a physical model, which used a type of screening mechanism known as chameleon screening, to show that dark energy particles produced in the Sun’s strong magnetic fields could explain the XENON1T excess.

“Our chameleon screening shuts down the production of dark energy particles in very dense objects, avoiding the problems faced by solar axions,” said Vagnozzi. “It also allows us to decouple what happens in the local very dense Universe from what happens on the largest scales, where the density is extremely low.”

The researchers used their model to show what would happen in the detector if the dark energy was produced in a particular region of the Sun, called the tachocline, where the magnetic fields are particularly strong.

“It was really surprising that this excess could in principle have been caused by dark energy rather than dark matter,” said Vagnozzi. “When things click together like that, it’s really special.”

Their calculations suggest that experiments like XENON1T, which are designed to detect dark matter, could also be used to detect dark energy. However, the original excess still needs to be convincingly confirmed. “We first need to know that this wasn’t simply a fluke,” said Visinelli. “If XENON1T actually saw something, you’d expect to see a similar excess again in future experiments, but this time with a much stronger signal.”

If the excess was the result of dark energy, upcoming upgrades to the XENON1T experiment, as well as experiments pursuing similar goals such as LUX-Zeplin and PandaX-xT, mean that it could be possible to directly detect dark energy within the next decade.

 

Reference:
Sunny Vagnozzi et al. ‘Direct detection of dark energy: the XENON1T excess and future prospects.’ Physical Review D (2021). DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevD.104.063023

Dark energy, the mysterious force that causes the universe to accelerate, may have been responsible for unexpected results from the XENON1T experiment, deep below Italy’s Apennine Mountains.

It was surprising that this excess could in principle have been caused by dark energy rather than dark matter. When things click together like that, it’s really special.Sunny VagnozzibetmariSun


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Real-time drone intent monitoring could enable safer use of drones and prevent a repeat of 2018 Gatwick incident

Wed, 15/09/2021 - 00:12

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used a combination of statistical techniques and radar data to predict the flight path of a drone, and whether it intends to enter a restricted airspace, for instance around a civilian airport.  

Their solution could help prevent a repeat of the Gatwick incident, as it can spot any drones before they enter restricted airspace and can determine, early, if their future actions are likely to pose a threat to other aircraft.

This new predictive capability can enable automated decision-making and significantly reduce the workload on drone surveillance system operators by offering actionable information on potential threats to facilitate timely and proportionate responses.

Real radar data from live drone trials at several locations was used to validate the new approach. Some of the results will be reported today (15 September) at the Sensor Signal Processing for Defence Conference in Edinburgh.

Drones have become ubiquitous over the past several years, with widespread applications in agriculture, surveying and e-commerce, among other fields. However, they can also be a nuisance or present a potential safety risk, especially with the wide availability of cheap and increasingly more capable platforms.

A few days before Christmas 2018, reported drone sightings near the perimeter of Gatwick Airport caused hundreds of flights to be disrupted due to the possible risk of collision. No culprit was found.

“While we don’t fully know what happened at Gatwick, the incident highlighted the potential risk drones can pose to the public if they are misused, whether that’s done maliciously or completely innocently,” said paper co-author Dr Bashar Ahmad, who carried out the research while based at Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “It’s crucial for future drone surveillance systems to have predictive capabilities for revealing, as early as possible, a drone with malicious intent or anomalous behaviour.”

To aid with air traffic control and prevent any possible collisions, commercial airplanes report their location every few minutes. However, there is no such requirement for drones.

“There needs to be some sort of automated equivalent to air traffic control for drones,” said Professor Simon Godsill from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who led the project. “But unlike large and fast-moving targets, like a passenger jet, drones are small, agile, and slow-moving, which makes them difficult to track. They can also easily be mistaken for birds, and vice versa.”

“We need to spot threats as early as possible, but we also need to be careful not to overreact, since closing civilian airspace is a drastic and highly disruptive measure that we want to avoid, especially if it ends up being a false alarm,” said first author Dr Jiaming Liang, also from the Department of Engineering, who developed the underlying algorithms with Godsill.

There are several potential ways to monitor the space around a civilian airport. A typical drone surveillance solution can use a combination of several sensors, such as radar, radio frequency detectors and cameras, but it’s often expensive and labour-intensive to operate.

Using Bayesian statistical techniques, the Cambridge researchers built a solution that would only flag those drones which pose a threat and offer a way to prioritise them. Threat is defined as a drone that’s intending to enter restricted airspace or displays an unusual flying pattern.

“We need to know this before it happens, not after it happens,” said Godsill. “This way, if a drone is getting too close, it could be possible to warn the drone operator. For obvious safety reasons, it’s prohibited to disable a drone in civilian airspace, so the only option is to close the airspace. Our goal is to make sure airport authorities don’t have to do this unless the threat is a real one.”

The software-based solution uses a stochastic, or random, model to determine the underlying intent of the drone, which can change dynamically over time. Most drones navigate using waypoints, meaning they travel from one point to the next, and a single journey is made of multiple points.

In tests using real radar data, the Cambridge-developed solution was able to identify drones before they reached their next waypoint. Based on a drone’s velocity, trajectory and other data, it was able to predict the probability of any given drone reaching the next waypoint in real time.

“In tests, our system was able to spot potential threats in seconds, but in a real scenario, those seconds or minutes can make the difference between an incident happening or not,” said Liang. “It could give time to warn incoming flights about the threat so that no one gets hurt.”

The Cambridge researchers say their solution can be incorporated into existing surveillance systems, making it a cost-effective way of tracking the risk of drones ending up where they shouldn’t. The algorithms could, in principle, also be applied to other domains such as maritime safety, robotics and self-driving cars.

 

Reference:
Jiaming Liang et al. ‘Detection of Malicious Intent in Non-cooperative Drone Surveillance.’ Paper presented at the Sensor Signal Processing for Defence conference. Edinburgh, UK. 14-15 September 2021. https://sspd.eng.ed.ac.uk/

Researchers have developed a real-time approach that can help prevent incidents like the large-scale disruption at London’s Gatwick Airport in 2018, where possible drone sightings at the perimeter of the airport caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights.

While we don’t fully know what happened at Gatwick, the incident highlighted the potential risk drones can pose to the public if they are misusedBashar AhmadGoh Rhy Yan via UnsplashDrone and city skyline


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Changes to workplace cafeteria menus nudge workers to consume fewer calories

Tue, 14/09/2021 - 19:00

Researchers at the University of Cambridge, who led the study, say that even simple interventions such as these could contribute towards tackling levels of obesity.

Unhealthy eating, including eating more calories than are needed, plays a major role in the increasing rates of obesity. This in turn increases the risk of diseases such as type 2 diabetes, heart disease and many cancers, contributing to increasing rates of premature death worldwide.

The environments in which we live and work influence the types of food and drink that we consume. Local areas of deprivation in particular magnify this effect – people living in less affluent areas or with lower socioeconomic status tend to have reduced access to healthy foods and higher rates of obesity.

One important environment where interventions could be implemented is cafeterias, such as those in schools, universities, and workplaces. The workplace is the most common place to eat outside of the home, typically 15% of working adults’ energy intake.

In the largest study of its kind, a team from the University of Cambridge tested the impact on calories purchased of changing both portion sizes and availability of some higher calorie food and drink in 19 workplace cafeterias over a six month period. The results of their study are published today in PLOS Medicine.

The team recruited workplace cafeterias based in the distribution centres of a major UK supermarket chain.

Over a 25-week-long period, the team, working with the caterers, replaced some higher calorie food and drink products with lower calorie ones – for example, swapping bacon and cheese burgers with grilled chicken burgers. This led to a 4.8% reduction in the average number of calories purchased a day.

Next, as well as reducing the availability of high calorie food and drink products, the team reduced the portion size of some higher calorie products by about 14% in volume – for example by serving a smaller slice of lasagne or portion of chips or reducing the number of meatballs in a portion.

When both the availability and size of high calorie food and drink portions were changed, this led to an 11.5% reduction in the average number of calories purchased per day compared to the baseline. For the typical worker, this would be equal to eating about 50kcal fewer per day.

Dr James Reynolds from the Behaviour and Health Research Unit at the University of Cambridge, the study’s first author, said: “On average, UK adults consume 200-300 excess calories a day. This study shows that reducing portion sizes and the availability of higher calorie options in cafeterias could make an important contribution to reducing excess calories in strategies to tackle obesity.

“If cafeterias in workplaces, schools, and universities implemented these changes, this could help reduce overconsumption of calories and help in widespread efforts to reduce population-level obesity.”

The workplaces where the cafeterias were located were predominantly staffed by those working in manual occupations, who have – on average – worse health outcomes and higher body mass indexes (BMIs) compared to those in non-manual occupations.

Senior author Professor Dame Theresa Marteau, Director of the Behaviour and Health Research Unit, added: “Many of the measures introduced to reduce calorie consumption, such as mass media campaigns, have little overall impact, but can exacerbate health inequalities, helping mainly those who work in non-manual jobs. We need to find interventions that works across the board. Our study suggests that making relatively simple changes to menus in workplace and other cafeterias could make an important contribution to tackling obesity in all groups.”

The study took place over a longer time period and used more sites than previous studies. Sustained behaviour change is known to be a major obstacle to reducing body mass index (BMI), but the researchers found no evidence that the effect of the intervention diminished with time during their study.

The cafeterias experienced a small drop in the amount of money taken at the till – 2.6% when just the availability of options was reduced and a 5.7% drop when the portion sizes were also decreased. The researchers suggest this may have been a temporary effect, as the drop decreased over time, and may in part be due to the fixed menu and product list that was required for the study.

Dr Reynolds added: “Cafeterias should be able to compensate for a small drop in revenue by changing which products they sell or by additional strategies to make healthier food options more appealing.”

The study was funded by Wellcome Trust and Cancer Research UK.

Reference
Reynolds, JP et al. Impact of decreasing the proportion of higher energy foods and reducing portion sizes on food purchased in worksite cafeterias: a stepped-wedge randomised controlled trial. PLOS Medicine; 14 Sept 2021; DOI: 10.1371/journal.pmed.1003743

A study carried out at 19 workplace cafeterias has shown that reducing portion sizes and replacing higher calorie food and drinks with lower calorie options led to workers buying food and drink with fewer calories. 

Our study suggests that making relatively simple changes to menus in workplace and other cafeterias could make an important contribution to tackling obesityTheresa Marteau


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‘Levelling up’ met with widespread scepticism across England, survey study suggests

Tue, 14/09/2021 - 09:12

More than half of people across England (53%) think the government’s ‘levelling up’ strategy will either make no difference locally or result in less money for their area, according to a new survey study conducted by the University of Cambridge and YouGov. 

While more than two-thirds of English people (68%) are behind the idea of reducing regional inequalities, believing it should be a “high or medium priority” for the government, one in two respondents across England suspect that levelling up will either not affect their local economy or actively harm it.

The research suggests major regional splits. Almost half (47%) of people in London and the South East think ‘levelling up’ will mean less government investment in their area, and only 18% think it should be one of government’s top four priorities.

However, in the Midlands and the North – regions with more post-industrial areas that could benefit from this policy programme – support for ‘levelling up’ is much higher, but not overwhelming: 40% think it should be a high priority, and 41% believe their local area will see more money as a result.

The research, conducted in May of this year and published today by the Bennett Institute for Public Policy and YouGov-Cambridge Centre for Public Opinion Research, also gathered data on national identity along with English attitudes to Brexit and Scottish independence.

“Those Conservatives raising concerns over how a focus on levelling up might affect party support in the Home Counties are right to be worried,” said report co-author Prof Michael Kenny, Director of Cambridge’s Bennett Institute.

“Johnson insists that levelling up will not mean ‘robbing Peter to pay Paul’, but residents of south east England appear to suspect the agenda will involve some redistribution, and that they will be on the losing end of it.”

“However, large numbers of voters in historically Labour seats across the Midlands and North appear willing to buy the Prime Minister’s rhetoric, for the time being at least – underlying the depth of the challenge facing Keir Starmer in these areas,” Kenny said.

The research follows a recent Bennett Institute report calling for 25% of both the Levelling Up and Towns funds to go towards spending on “social infrastructure”: the amenities and businesses that plug people into their local communities – from pubs and parks to libraries and sports clubs.

“A focus on services such as cinemas, museums and leisure centres may be a fast way of boosting local employment and pride, helping to assuage cynicism towards the levelling up agenda,” said Kenny.

“Government has an ingrained bias towards large-scale infrastructure projects such as HS2. Interventions that seek to restore dilapidated town centres or support local initiatives are far more socially and economically beneficial than many in government appreciate.”

The previous report, part of the Institute’s Townscapes project, highlights the fact that social infrastructure-related services account for almost half the jobs in some “left behind” towns, such as Skegness (46% of total employment).

British vs. English

The latest study also investigated feelings of national identity across England. The largest share (37%) of people see themselves as equally British and English, while 30% class themselves as English – either ahead of, or instead of, British – compared to 21% who consider themselves entirely or predominantly British.

The outlooks of English-leaning and British-leaning groups differ on some key issues. A majority of British identifiers (56%) think levels of immigration should be maintained or increased, but just 22% of English identifiers agree, while 66% of English-leaning respondents think the UK was right to leave the EU compared to 30% of the British group.

However, both groups share a broadly positive outlook towards globalisation. In fact, over a third (36%) of those identifying as English – sometimes characterised as anti-cosmopolitan nationalists – think globalisation has been good for the UK economy, compared to just 23% who think it has been bad.

Moreover, 29% of English identifiers feel globalisation has benefitted their own standard of living, almost double those who think the opposite (16%). More English identifiers also feel it has been good (33%) rather than bad (29%) for UK cultural life.

“While some in metropolitan areas may fear a resurgent English nationalism in the hinterlands, our results suggest a need to avoid easy assumptions about those who feel more proud of their English national identity,” said Kenny.

Overall, the survey failed to detect any Brexit-related “buyer’s remorse” in England, with 46% stating that the UK was right to leave the EU, compared to 39% saying it was wrong to do so. On Scottish independence, the English appear to be somewhat ambivalent: over a quarter (26%) don’t yet know what they think, almost the same proportion that support it (27%), while 48% oppose it.   

When asked if Scotland currently receives its “fair share” from Westminster, some 22% said it does, while 36% said it gets more than what’s fair, but a full third (33%) said they didn’t know – suggesting “low levels of awareness and understanding of devolution among the English” according to the researchers.

Researchers say Tories are “right to be worried” about parts of the Home Counties due to fears over the meaning of levelling up. The study also investigates national identity, finding some attitudes run counter to ‘Little Englander’ labels.

Interventions that seek to restore dilapidated town centres or support local initiatives are far more socially and economically beneficial than many in government appreciateMichael KennyKai Bossom via UnsplashHastings, UK


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Four Cambridge researchers recognised in the 2022 Breakthrough Prizes

Thu, 09/09/2021 - 12:59

Professors Shankar Balasubramanian and David Klenerman, from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, have been awarded the 2022 Breakthrough Prize in Life Sciences – the world’s largest science prize – for the development of next-generation DNA sequencing. They share the award with Pascal Mayer, from the French company Alphanosos.

In addition, Professor Suchitra Sebastian, from the Cavendish Laboratory, and Professor Jack Thorne, from the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics, have been recognised with the New Horizons Prize, awarded to outstanding early-career researchers.

Professor Suchitra Sebastian has been awarded the 2022 New Horizons in Physics Prize for high precision electronic and magnetic measurements that have profoundly changed our understanding of high temperature superconductors and unconventional insulators.

Professor Jack Thorne has been awarded the 2022 New Horizons in Mathematics Prize, for transformative contributions to diverse areas of algebraic number theory, and in particular for the proof, in collaboration with James Newton, of the automorphy of all symmetric powers of a holomorphic modular newform.

Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman co-invented Solexa-Illumina Next Generation DNA Sequencing (NGS), technology that has enhanced our basic understanding of life, converting biosciences into ‘big science’ by enabling fast, accurate, low-cost and large-scale genome sequencing – the process of determining the complete DNA sequence of an organism’s make-up. They co-founded the company Solexa to make the technology available to the world.

The benefits to society of rapid genome sequencing are huge. The almost immediate identification and characterisation of the virus which causes COVID-19, rapid development of vaccines, and real-time monitoring of new genetic variants would have been impossible without the technique Balasubramanian and Klenerman developed.

The technology has had – and continues to have – a transformative impact in the fields of genomics, medicine and biology. One measure of the scale of change is that it has allowed a million-fold improvement in speed and cost when compared to the first sequencing of the human genome. In 2000, sequencing of one human genome took over 10 years and cost more than a billion dollars: today, the human genome can be sequenced in a single day at a cost of less than $1,000. More than a million human genomes are sequenced at scale each year, thanks to the technology co-invented by Professors Balasubramanian and Klenerman, meaning we can understand diseases much better and much more quickly. Earlier this year, they were awarded the Millennium Technology Prize. Balasubramanian is also based at the Cancer Research UK Cambridge Institute, and is a Fellow of Trinity College. Klenerman is a Fellow of Christ's College. 

Professor Sebastian’s research seeks to discover exotic quantum phases of matter in complex materials. Her group’s experiments involve tuning the co-operative behaviour of electrons within these materials by subjecting them to extreme conditions including low temperature, high applied pressure, and intense magnetic field.

Under these conditions, her group can take materials that are quite close to behaving like a superconductor – perfect, lossless conductors of electricity – and ‘nudge’ them, transforming their behaviour.

“I like to call it quantum alchemy – like turning soot into gold,” Sebastian said. “You can start with a material that doesn’t even conduct electricity, squeeze it under pressure, and discover that it transforms into a superconductor. Going forward, we may also discover new quantum phases of matter that we haven’t even imagined.”

In addition to her physics research, Sebastian is also involved in theatre and the arts. She is Director of the Cavendish Arts-Science Project, which she founded in 2016. The programme has been conceived to question and explore material and immaterial universes through a dialogue between the arts and sciences.

“Being awarded the New Horizons Prize is incredibly encouraging, uplifting and joyous,” said Sebastian. “It recognises a discovery made by our team of electrons doing what they're not supposed to do. It's gone from the moment of elation and disbelief at the discovery, and then trying to follow it through, when no one else quite thinks it’s possible or that it could be happening. It’s been an incredible journey, and having it recognised in this way is incredibly rewarding.”

Professor Jack Thorne is a number theorist in the Department of Pure Mathematics and Mathematical Statistics. One of the most significant open problems in mathematics is the Riemann Hypothesis, which concerns Riemann’s zeta function. Today we know that the zeta function is intimately tied up with questions concerning the statistical distribution of prime numbers, such as how many prime numbers there are, how closely they can be found on the number line. A famous episode in the history of the Riemann Hypothesis is Freeman Dyson’s observation that the zeroes of the zeta function appear to obey statistical laws arising from the theory of random matrices, which had first been studied in theoretical physics. 

In 1916, during his time in Cambridge, Ramanujan wrote down an analogue of the Riemann zeta function, inspired by his work on the number of ways of expressing a given number as a sum of squares (a problem with a rich classical history), and made some conjectures as to its properties, which have turned out to be related to many of the most exciting developments in number theory in the last century. Actually, there are a whole family of zeta functions, the properties of which control the statistics of the sums of squares problem. Thorne's work, recognised in the prize citation, essentially shows for Ramanujan’s zeta functions what Riemann proved for his zeta function in 1859.

Taking a broader view, Ramanujan’s zeta functions are now seen to fit into the framework of the Langlands Program. This is a series of conjectures, made by Langlands in the 1960’s, which have been described as a “grand unified theory of mathematics”, and which can be used to explain any number of phenomena in number theory. Another famous example is Wiles proof, in 1994, of Fermat’s Last Theorem. Nowadays the essential piece of Wiles’ work is seen as progress towards a small part of the Langlands program. Thorne's work establishes part of Langlands’ conjectures for a class of objects including Ramanujan’s Delta function.

"I am deeply honoured to be awarded the New Horizons Prize for my work in number theory," said Thorne. "Number theory is a subject with a rich history in Cambridge and I feel very fortunate to be able to make my own contribution to this tradition." 

For the tenth year, the Breakthrough Prize recognises the world’s top scientists. Each prize is US $3 million and presented in the fields of Life Sciences, Fundamental Physics (one per year) and Mathematics (one per year). In addition, up to three New Horizons in Physics Prizes, up to three New Horizons in Mathematics Prizes and up to three Maryam Mirzakhani New Frontiers Prizes are given out to early-career researchers each year, each worth US $100,000. The Breakthrough Prizes were founded by Sergey Brin, Priscilla Chan and Mark Zuckerberg, Yuri and Julia Milner, and Anne Wojcicki.

Four University of Cambridge researchers – Professors Shankar Balasubramanian, David Klenerman, Suchitra Sebastian and Jack Thorne – have been recognised by the Breakthrough Prize Foundation in recognition of their outstanding achievements. 

L-R: Millennium Technology Prize, Nick Saffell, Jack ThorneL-R: David Klenerman, Shankar Balasubramanian, Suchitra Sebastian, Jack Thorne


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Gut bacteria accumulate many common medications and may reduce their effectiveness

Wed, 08/09/2021 - 16:00

These interactions - seen for many drugs including those used to treat depression, diabetes, and asthma - could help researchers to better understand how drug effectiveness and side-effects differ between individuals. The study is published today in the journal Nature

It is known that bacteria can chemically modify some drugs, a process known as biotransformation. This study, led by researchers from the Medical Research Council (MRC) Toxicology Unit at the University of Cambridge and the European Molecular Biology Laboratory (EMBL) in Germany, is the first to show that certain species of gut bacteria accumulate human drugs, altering the types of bacteria in the gut and their activity.

This could change the effectiveness of the drug both directly, as the accumulation could reduce the availability of the drug to the body, and indirectly, as altered bacterial function and composition could be linked to side-effects. 

The human gut naturally contains communities of hundreds of different species of bacteria, which are important in health and disease, called the gut microbiome. The composition of bacterial species varies significantly between people and has previously been shown to be associated with a wide range of conditions including obesity, immune response, and mental health.

In this study, the researchers grew 25 common gut bacteria and studied how they interacted with 15 drugs that are taken orally. The drugs were chosen to represent a range of different types of common drugs, including antidepressant medications, which are known to affect individuals dissimilarly and cause side effects such as gut problems and weight gain.

The researchers tested how each of the 15 drugs interacted with the selected bacterial strains – a total of 375 bacteria-drug tests. They found 70 interactions between the bacteria and the drugs studied, of which 29 had not been previously reported.

While earlier research has shown bacteria can chemically modify drugs, when the scientists studied these interactions further they found that for 17 of the 29 new interactions the drug accumulated within the bacteria without being modified.

Dr Kiran Patil at the University of Cambridge’s MRC Toxicology Unit, who co-led the study, said: “It was surprising that the majority of the new interactions we saw between bacteria and drugs were the drugs accumulating in the bacteria. Until now, biotransformation was thought to be the main way that bacteria affect the availability of drugs to the body.”

“These will likely be very personal differences between individuals, depending on the composition of their gut microbiota. We saw differences even between different strains of the same species of bacteria.”

Examples of drugs that accumulated in bacteria include antidepressant duloxetine and anti-diabetic rosiglitazone. For some drugs, such as montelukast (an asthma drug) and roflumilast (for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), both changes happened in different bacteria - they were accumulated by some species of bacteria and modified by others.

The researchers also found the bioaccumulation of drugs alters the metabolism of the accumulating bacteria. For example, the antidepressant drug duloxetine bound to several metabolic enzymes within the bacteria and altered their secreted metabolites. 

The researchers grew a small community of several bacterial species together and found the antidepressant duloxetine dramatically altered the balance of bacterial species. The drug altered the molecules produced by the drug-accumulating bacteria, which other bacteria feed on, so the consuming bacteria grew much more and unbalanced the community composition.

The researchers tested the effects further using C. elegans, a nematode worm commonly used to study gut bacteria. They studied duloxetine, which had been shown to accumulate in certain bacteria but not others. In worms grown with the species of bacteria that had been shown to accumulate the drug, the behavior of the worms was altered after being exposed to duloxetine, compared with worms that were grown with bacteria that did not accumulate duloxetine.

Dr Athanasios Typas at EMBL, who co-led the study, said: “Only now are people recognising that drugs and our microbiome impact each other with a critical consequence to our health.” 

Dr Peer Bork at EMBL, and a co-lead of the study, said: “This calls for us to start treating the microbiome as one of our organs.” 

Dr Patil said: “The next steps for us will be to take forward this basic molecular research and investigate how an individual’s gut bacteria tie with the differing individual responses to drugs such as antidepressants – differences in whether you respond, the drug dose needed, and side effects like weight gain. If we can characterise how people respond depending on the composition of their microbiome, then drug treatments could be individualised.”

The researchers caution that the study findings are only on bacteria grown in the lab, and more research is needed to understand how bioaccumulation of medications by gut bacteria manifests inside the human body.

The study started as a collaborative project at EMBL Heidelberg and was concluded in the group of Kiran Patil after his move to Cambridge. 

This study was funded by the European Commission Horizon 2020, MRC and EMBL.

Reference

Klunemann, M. et al: 'Bioaccumulation of therapeutic drugs by human gut bacteria’, Nature, Sept 2021. 

Adapted from a press release by EMBL.

Common medications can accumulate in gut bacteria, a new study has found, altering bacterial function and potentially reducing the medications’ effectiveness.

If we can characterise how people respond depending on the composition of their microbiome, then drug treatments could be individualisedKiran Patil Paul Appleton, University of Dundee. Attribution 4.0Villi in the colon


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Spread of Delta SARS-CoV-2 variant driven by combination of immune escape and increased infectivity

Mon, 06/09/2021 - 15:47

The Delta variant of SARS-CoV-2, which has become the dominant variant in countries including India and the UK, has most likely spread through its ability to evade neutralising antibodies and its increased infectivity, say an international team of researchers.

The findings are reported today in Nature.

As SARS-CoV-2 replicates, errors in its genetic makeup cause it to mutate. Some mutations make the virus more transmissible or more infectious, some help it evade the immune response, potentially making vaccines less effective, while others have little effect. One such variant, labelled the B.1.617.2 Delta variant, was first observed in India in late 2020. It has since spread around the globe – in the UK, it is responsible nearly all new cases of coronavirus infection.

Professor Ravi Gupta from the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease at the University of Cambridge, one of the study’s senior authors, said: “By combining lab-based experiments and epidemiology of vaccine breakthrough infections, we’ve shown that the Delta variant is better at replicating and spreading than other commonly-observed variants. There’s also evidence that neutralising antibodies produced as a result of previous infection or vaccination are less effective at stopping this variant.

“These factors are likely to have contributed to the devastating epidemic wave in India during the first quarter of 2021, where as many as half of the cases were individuals who had previously been infected with an earlier variant.”

To examine how well the Delta variant was able to evade the immune response, the team extracted serum from blood samples collected as part of the COVID-19 cohort of the NIHR BioResource. The samples came from individuals who had previously been infected with the coronavirus or who had been vaccinated with either the Oxford/AstraZeneca or Pfizer vaccines. Serum contains antibodies raised in response to infection or vaccination. The team found that the Delta variant virus was 5.7-fold less sensitive to the sera from previously-infected individuals, and as much as eight-fold less sensitive to vaccine sera, compared with the Alpha variant - in other words, it takes eight times as many antibodies from a vaccinated individual to block the virus.

Consistent with this, an analysis of over 100 infected healthcare workers at three Delhi hospitals, nearly all of whom had been vaccinated against SARS-CoV-2, found the Delta variant to be transmitted between vaccinated staff to a greater extent than the alpha variant.

SARS-CoV-2 is a coronavirus, so named because spike proteins on its surface give it the appearance of a crown (‘corona’). The spike proteins bind to ACE2, a protein receptor found on the surface of cells in our body. Both the spike protein and ACE2 are then cleaved, allowing genetic material from the virus to enter the host cell. The virus manipulates the host cell’s machinery to allow the virus to replicate and spread.

Using 3D airway organoids – ‘mini-organs’ grown from cells from the airway, which mimic its behaviour – the team studied what happens when the virus reaches the respiratory tract. Working under secure conditions, the team used both a live virus and a ‘pseudotyped virus’ – a synthetic form of the virus that mimicked key mutations on the Delta variant – and used this to infect the organoids. They found that the Delta variant was more efficient at breaking into the cells compared with other variants as it carried a larger number of cleaved spikes on its surface. Once inside the cells, the variant was also better able to replicate. Both of these factors give the virus a selection advantage compared to other variants, helping explain why it has become so dominant.

Dr Partha Rakshit from the National Centre for Disease Control, Delhi, India, joint senior author, said: “The Delta variant has spread widely to become the dominant variants worldwide because it is faster to spread and better at infecting individuals than most other variants we’ve seen. It is also better at getting around existing immunity – either through previous exposure to the virus or to vaccination – though the risk of moderate to severe disease is reduced in such cases.”

Professor Anurag Agrawal from the CSIR Institute of Genomics and Integrative Biology, Delhi, India , joint senior author, added: “Infection of vaccinated healthcare workers with the Delta variant is a significant problem. Although they themselves may only experience mild COVID, they risk infecting individuals who have suboptimal immune responses to vaccination due to underlying health conditions – and these patients could then be at risk of severe disease. We urgently need to consider ways of boosting vaccine responses against variants among healthcare workers. It also suggests infection control measures will need to continue in the post-vaccine era.”

The research was largely supported in India by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research, and the Department of Biotechnology; and in the UK by Wellcome, the Medical Research Council and the National Institute of Health Research.

Reference:
Micochova, P & Kemp, S et al. SARS-CoV-2 B.1.617.2 Delta variant emergence and vaccine breakthrough. Nature; 6 Sept 2021; DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-03944-y

Findings suggest infection control measures against variants will need to continue in the post-vaccination era. 

By combining lab-based experiments and epidemiology of vaccine breakthrough infections, we’ve shown that the Delta variant is better at replicating and spreading than other commonly-observed variantsRavi Gupta Fusion Medical Animation via UnsplashVisualisation of the Covid-19 virus


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Yes

Applications open for new Cambridge Foundation Year’s first student intake

Mon, 06/09/2021 - 09:33

The application deadline is 26 January 2022 – not 15 October 2021 as for other Cambridge undergraduate courses. In addition to the information provided on the Foundation Year’s dedicated website, the University is running a free online support programme to guide applicants through each stage of the application process (information below).

The Cambridge Foundation Year - which officially launched in January – offers a new route into Cambridge to students whose education has been disrupted or disadvantaged and are therefore less likely to be able to make a competitive application to undergraduate study at Cambridge through the University’s standard admissions process. It will prepare students for further learning and offer them the chance to progress straight to an undergraduate degree at the University. 

Up to 50 Foundation Year students will arrive in Cambridge in the programme’s first intake in October 2022. Those who have been in care, those estranged from their families, and those who have missed significant periods of learning because of health issues are among the groups the Foundation Year aims to reach. Other potential candidates include students who have been unable to access suitable qualifications, those from low-income backgrounds, and those from schools that send few students to university. 

The Foundation Year is free to students; a cornerstone gift from philanthropists Christina and Peter Dawson is funding the launch of the programme and full one-year scholarships for all students who are accepted. 

The students will study at one of the 13 Cambridge colleges participating in the pilot scheme and will benefit from the community, support and academic stimulation this offers. They will study an engaging and challenging multi-disciplinary curriculum in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences that will prepare them for further study in these subjects. 

On successful completion of the programme, they will receive a recognised CertHE Level 4 qualification from the University of Cambridge, and with suitable attainment can progress to one of 18 degrees in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences at Cambridge without the need to apply to the University again. Students will also be supported during the programme in finding alternative university places if they do not wish to continue to undergraduate study at Cambridge, or do not meet the required level of attainment.

As with all courses at Cambridge, there is a rigorous admissions process designed to help us admit students who will thrive on the Foundation Year and be able to progress to a degree at Cambridge – including interviews and assessment. Students will also have to prove their eligibility to receive the generous scholarship given to all students on the course.

To help applicants understand more about the Foundation Year and its admissions process, the University has launched a new website specifically for the course at https://www.foundationyear.cam.ac.uk/

The University is also running a free online applicant support programme to help Foundation Year applicants make the strongest possible application. This will include webinars, Q&As and newsletter content specific to the Foundation Year. Students can sign up by selecting the Foundation Year as their first subject of interest at https://www.cam.ac.uk/student-newsletter . This programme will launch with a Foundation Year Open Evening on Wednesday, 29 September 2021 from 4.30pm. Sign up for this event here: https://www.foundationyear.cam.ac.uk/events

Dr Alex Pryce, Foundation Year Course Director, said: “The Cambridge Foundation Year is a truly transformative opportunity and we’re very much looking forward to receiving our first applications soon. However, for those who haven’t considered applying to Cambridge before we appreciate that the admissions process might be daunting. We hope our new website and online applicant support will help all applicants to make their best possible application to the Cambridge Foundation Year.”

UK students from backgrounds of exceptional educational and social disadvantage can now apply – via UCAS - for a place on the pre-degree Cambridge Foundation Year in Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The Cambridge Foundation Year is a truly transformative opportunity and we’re very much looking forward to receiving our first applications soon. We hope our new website and online applicant support will help all applicants to make their best possible application.Dr Alex Pryce, Foundation Year Course Director


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Yes

Going up: birds and mammals evolve faster if their home is rising

Thu, 02/09/2021 - 16:11

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have combined reconstructions of the Earth’s changing surface elevations over the past three million years with data on climate change over this timeframe, and with bird and mammal species’ locations. Their results reveal how species evolved into new ones as land elevation changed - and disentangle the effects of elevation from the effects of climate.

The study found that the effect of elevation increase is greater than that of historical climate change, and of present-day elevation and temperature, in driving the formation of new species – ‘or speciation’.

In contrast to areas where land elevation is increasing, elevation loss was not found to be an important predictor of where speciation happens. Instead, present-day temperature is a better indicator of speciation in these areas.

The results are published today in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution.

“Often at the tops of mountains there are many more unique species that aren’t found elsewhere. Whereas previously the formation of new species was thought to be driven by climate, we’ve found that elevation change has a greater effect at a global scale,” said Dr Andrew Tanentzap in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the paper.

As land elevation increases, temperature generally decreases and habitat complexity increases. In some cases, for example where mountains form, increasing elevation creates a barrier that prevents species moving and mixing, so populations become reproductively isolated. This is the first step towards the formation of new species.

The effect of increasing elevation on that rate of new species formation over time was more pronounced for mammals than for birds; the researchers think this is because birds can fly across barriers to find mates in other areas. Birds were affected more by present-day temperatures; in birds, variation in temperature creates differences in the timing and extent of mating, risking reproductive isolation from populations of the same species elsewhere.

Until now, most large-scale studies into the importance of topography in generating new species have only considered present-day land elevation, or elevation changes in specific mountain ranges.

“It’s surprising just how much effect historical elevation change had on generating the world’s biodiversity – it has been much more important than traditionally studied variables like temperature. The rate at which species evolved in different places on Earth is tightly linked to topography changes over millions of years,” said Dr Javier Igea in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, first author of the paper.

He added: “This work highlights important arenas for evolution to play out. From a conservation perspective these are the places we might want to protect, especially given climate change. Although climate change is happening over decades, not millions of years, our study points to areas that can harbour species with greater potential to evolve.”

The researchers say that as the Earth’s surface continues to rise and fall, topography will remain an important driver of evolutionary change.

This research was funded by Wellcome, the Gatsby Charitable Foundation and the Isaac Newton Trust.

Reference

Igea, J. & Tanentzap, A.J.: ‘Global topographic uplift has elevated speciation in mammals and birds over the last 3 million years.’ Nature Ecology & Evolution, September 2021. DOI: 10.1038/s41559-021-01545-6

The rise and fall of Earth’s land surface over the last three million years shaped the evolution of birds and mammals, a new study has found, with new species evolving at higher rates where the land has risen most.

Whereas previously the formation of new species was thought to be driven by climate, we’ve found that elevation change has a greater effect at a global scaleAndrew Tanentzap Pablo Heimplatz on UnsplashWild Kea, New Zealand


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YesLicense type: Attribution

Nano ‘camera’ made using molecular glue allows real-time monitoring of chemical reactions

Thu, 02/09/2021 - 15:59

The device, made by a team from the University of Cambridge, combines tiny semiconductor nanocrystals called quantum dots and gold nanoparticles using molecular glue called cucurbituril (CB). When added to water with the molecule to be studied, the components self-assemble in seconds into a stable, powerful tool that allows the real-time monitoring of chemical reactions.

The camera harvests light within the semiconductors, inducing electron transfer processes like those that occur in photosynthesis, which can be monitored using incorporated gold nanoparticle sensors and spectroscopic techniques. They were able to use the camera to observe chemical species which had been previously theorised but not directly observed.

The platform could be used to study a wide range of molecules for a variety of potential applications, such as the improvement of photocatalysis and photovoltaics for renewable energy. The results are reported in the journal Nature Nanotechnology.

Nature controls the assemblies of complex structures at the molecular scale through self-limiting processes. However, mimicking these processes in the lab is usually time-consuming, expensive and reliant on complex procedures.

“In order to develop new materials with superior properties, we often combine different chemical species together to come up with a hybrid material that has the properties we want,” said Professor Oren Scherman from Cambridge’s Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, who led the research. “But making these hybrid nanostructures is difficult, and you often end up with uncontrolled growth or materials that are unstable.”

The new method that Scherman and his colleagues from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and University College London developed uses cucurbituril – a molecular glue which interacts strongly with both semiconductor quantum dots and gold nanoparticles. The researchers used small semiconductor nanocrystals to control the assembly of larger nanoparticles through a process they coined interfacial self-limiting aggregation. The process leads to permeable and stable hybrid materials that interact with light. The camera was used to observe photocatalysis and track light-induced electron transfer.

“We were surprised how powerful this new tool is, considering how straightforward it is to assemble,” said first author Dr Kamil Sokołowski, also from the Department of Chemistry.

To make their nano camera, the team added the individual components, along with the molecule they wanted to observe, to water at room temperature. Previously, when gold nanoparticles were mixed with the molecular glue in the absence of quantum dots, the components underwent unlimited aggregation and fell out of solution. However, with the strategy developed by the researchers, quantum dots mediate the assembly of these nanostructures so that the semiconductor-metal hybrids control and limit their own size and shape. In addition, these structures stay stable for weeks.

“This self-limiting property was surprising, it wasn’t anything we expected to see,” said co-author Dr Jade McCune, also from the Department of Chemistry. “We found that the aggregation of one nanoparticulate component could be controlled through the addition of another nanoparticle component.”

When the researchers mixed the components together, the team used spectroscopy to observe chemical reactions in real time. Using the camera, they were able to observe the formation of radical species – a molecule with an unpaired electron – and products of their assembly such as sigma dimeric viologen species, where two radicals form a reversible carbon-carbon bond. The latter species had been theorised but never observed.

“People have spent their whole careers getting pieces of matter to come together in a controlled way,” said Scherman, who is also Director of the Melville Laboratory. “This platform will unlock a wide range of processes, including many materials and chemistries that are important for sustainable technologies. The full potential of semiconductor and plasmonic nanocrystals can now be explored, providing an opportunity to simultaneously induce and observe photochemical reactions.”

“This platform is a really big toolbox considering the number of metal and semiconductor building blocks that can be now coupled together using this chemistry– it opens up lots of new possibilities for imaging chemical reactions and sensing through taking snapshots of monitored chemical systems,” said Sokołowski. “The simplicity of the setup means that researchers no longer need complex, expensive methods to get the same results.”

Researchers from the Scherman lab are currently working to further develop these hybrids towards artificial photosynthetic systems and (photo)catalysis where electron-transfer processes can be observed directly in real time. The team is also looking at mechanisms of carbon-carbon bond formation as well as electrode interfaces for battery applications.

The research was carried out in collaboration with Professor Jeremy Baumberg at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory and Dr Edina Rosta at University College London. It was funded in part by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

Reference:
Kamil Sokołowski et al. ‘Nanoparticle surfactants for kinetically arrested photoactive assemblies to track light-induced electron transfer.’ Nature Nanotechnology (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41565-021-00949-6

Researchers have made a tiny camera, held together with ‘molecular glue’ that allows them to observe chemical reactions in real time.

This platform is a really big toolbox – it opens up lots of new possibilities for imaging chemical reactionsKamil SokołowskiScherman GroupNano camera


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Yes

New mechanism preventing toxic DNA lesions opens up therapeutic avenues for Huntington's disease

Wed, 01/09/2021 - 12:04

Researchers say the breakthrough study, published in Cell Reports, could lead to much needed therapies for the rare genetic disease, which is currently incurable.  

Huntington's disease is a progressive and devastating neurodegenerative disorder that affects about 1 in 10,000 people in the UK.

The disease is caused by the accumulation of toxic repetitive expansions of three DNA blocks called nucleotides (C, A and G) in the huntingtin (HTT) gene and is often termed a repeat expansion disorder. These CAG tri-nucleotide repeats are expanding by misuse of a cellular machinery that usually promotes DNA repair called ‘mismatch repair’. This overuse in mismatch repair drives Huntington's disease onset and progression.

In this study researchers investigated the role of FAN1 - a DNA repair protein that has been identified as a modifier of Huntington’s disease in several genetic studies; however, the mechanism affecting disease onset has remained elusive.

Using human cells and techniques that can read DNA repeat expansions, the researchers found that FAN1 can block the accumulation of the DNA mismatch repair factors to stop repeat expansion thus alleviating toxicity in cells derived from patients.

Co-lead authors Dr Rob Goold and PhD researcher Joseph Hamilton, both UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology and UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL, said: “Evidence for DNA repair genes modifying Huntington's disease has been mounting for years. We show that new mechanisms are still waiting to be discovered, which is good news for patients.”

Medicines that could mimic or potentiate (increase the power of) FAN1 inhibition of mismatch repair would alter disease course. The team is now working with the biotechnology company Adrestia Therapeutics, based at the Babraham Research Campus near Cambridge, to translate these discoveries into therapies for substantial numbers of patients in the UK and worldwide.

Senior author of the study, Professor Sarah Tabrizi, director of the UCL Huntington’s Disease Centre, UCL Queen Square Institute of Neurology and UK Dementia Research Institute at UCL, stated: “Our next step is to determine how important this interaction is in more physiological models and examine if it is therapeutically tractable. We are now working with key pharma partners to try and develop therapies that target this mechanism and might one day reach the clinic.”

Joint senior author, Dr Gabriel Balmus from the UK Dementia Research Institute at the University of Cambridge, said: "There are currently more than fifty CAG repeat expansion disorders that are incurable. If viable, the field suggests that resulting therapies could be applied not only to Huntington's disease but to all the other repeat expansion disorders.”

Professor Steve Jackson, CSO and Interim CEO of Adrestia, said: “My colleagues and I are delighted to be working with Professor Tabrizi, Dr Balmus and the UK Dementia Research Institute to seek ways to translate their exciting science towards new medicines for Huntington's disease and potentially also other DNA-repeat expansion disorders.”

The study was funded by the CHDI Foundation and UK Dementia Research Institute.

Reference
Goold, R et al. FAN1 controls mismatch repair complex assembly via MLH1 retention to stabilize CAG repeat expansion in Huntington’s disease. Cell Reports; 31 August 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.celrep.2021.109649

Adapted from a press release by UCL

A new mechanism that stops the progression of Huntington’s disease in cells has been identified by scientists at the University of Cambridge and UCL, as part of their research groups at the UK Dementia Research Institute.

There are currently more than fifty CAG repeat expansion disorders that are incurable. If viable, the field suggests that resulting therapies could be applied not only to Huntington's disease but to all the other repeat expansion disordersGabriel BalmusqimonoDNA jigsaw


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

STEM SMART widening participation pilot will provide additional learning for hundreds of state school A-level students

Wed, 01/09/2021 - 00:01

The 17-month STEM SMART programme will support talented students’ classroom studies in maths and science throughout their final year-and-a-half at school - from the second term of Year 12 to their Year 13 A-level examinations. It is being launched to help bridge attainment gaps, mitigate educational disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, and address the UK’s skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

Beginning in January 2022 - following its launch today - the programme also aims to build confidence in students who in addition to disruption caused by COVID-19 have experienced wider educational disadvantage, and encourage them to apply to study Engineering or physical sciences (such as Physics, Chemistry, and Materials Science) at top universities, including Cambridge. It is expected that many joining the programme will be at schools with little or no experience of sending students to Cambridge, so those who actively take part will be invited to attend a 4-day residential in Cambridge, when they will stay at a College, experience life as a Cambridge student, and consider whether to apply.

The programme will support teaching already taking place in schools, providing extra resources including weekly online tutorials by Cambridge academics who will mark work and give students individual feedback, small group supervisions, and live online motivational lectures. In addition, students will be assigned a Cambridge student as a mentor, to speak to about university life and help support their continued engagement with the programme. 

STEM SMART will also help students who do not wish to apply for undergraduate study at Cambridge to make competitive applications to STEM courses at other universities, with sustained engagement on the programme leading to an award that can be included in their UCAS personal statement as an example of super-curricular activity.

The initiative is open to Maths, Physics and Chemistry A-level (or equivalent) students at non-fee-paying schools from widening participation backgrounds. This will include students who live in areas of high deprivation, those who have been eligible for free school meals at any point during their secondary schooling, those who are care-experienced, those at schools unable to offer Further Mathematics as an A-level, and mature students who are self-studying, among others.

The University is in contact with around 3,000 state schools across the UK about STEM SMART, and aims to enrol around 750 A-level students for the start of the pilot, much of which will be delivered through the Isaac Physics online platform. It will be free to all students taking part, following generous support and funding from the University, Colleges and the Department for Education England. 

Physics lecturer Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, who is co-directing the STEM SMART programme, said she herself would have benefited from a similar initiative during her own education. “By providing extra subject specific resources that just aren’t available in every school, this pilot will complement students’ classroom learning, improve their problem-solving skills, and help them get the best possible grades. 

“It’s also about motivational support and building confidence, and while helping students to maximise their attainment the programme aims to encourage those who take part successfully to apply to study at Cambridge, or another higher-tariff university. Small group supervisions and a 4-day residential ‘boot camp’ will offer students a taste of life as a Cambridge student, and advice and guidance on applying to Cambridge, if they choose to, including preparing for admissions assessments and interviews.”

David Buckley, Head of Physics at Mayflower High School, an academy in Billericay, Essex, said: “Our students have had an unprecedented, difficult, time in their education, so this additional tuition – the extra time and detail that teachers want to give but because of the demands of the job sometimes can’t – is hugely welcome, particularly now. 

“Being able to meet and work with Cambridge University experts and current Cambridge undergraduates, to see how they approach particular problems, and find out about life around their courses, really is a unique opportunity for our students. All teachers want their students to do as well as possible and achieve their potential, whether that’s at Cambridge or another top university.”

Dr Michael Sutherland, co-director of STEM SMART, and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Corpus Christi College, said: “Building on Cambridge’s work to find innovative new ways to further diversify our student body, the programme will offer enhanced additional learning to support the vital work of teachers, give students the specific skills they need to prepare for university, and boost innovation and technology in the UK by helping to address the skills shortage in STEM.” 

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor, said: “COVID continues to exacerbate existing inequalities in education, and many schools face an unprecedented challenge dealing with the legacy of the pandemic. As part of the University’s mission to contribute to society through the pursuit of learning, the STEM SMART programme will bolster the studies of A-level students at non-fee-paying schools, from their first year all the way through to their exams. This is support for those talented students who need it most, at a time when it is needed more than ever.”

The programme continues widening participation progress made by the University in recent years, including the launch of a Foundation Year for Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, which from 2022 will offer talented students from backgrounds of educational and social disadvantage a new route to undergraduate study, and the use of UCAS Adjustment to reconsider candidates who exceed expectations in examinations.

For more information about applying for STEM SMART here

The University of Cambridge aims to support hundreds of UK state school students through their A-levels with enhanced learning, encouragement and mentoring as part of a pilot widening participation initiative.

COVID continues to exacerbate existing inequalities in education, and many schools face an unprecedented challenge dealing with the legacy of the pandemic. This is support for those talented students who need it most, at a time when it is needed more than ever.Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor


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Yes

Patients with SARS-CoV-2 Delta variant were more likely to be admitted to hospital compared to patients with Alpha variant

Tue, 31/08/2021 - 10:29

In a new study published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases, researchers at Public Health England and the MRC Biostatistics Unit, University of Cambridge, found that the estimated risk of hospital admission was two times higher for individuals diagnosed with the Delta variant of the SARS-CoV-2 virus, compared to those with the Alpha variant, after adjusting for differences in age, sex, ethnicity, deprivation, region of residence, date of positive test and vaccination status. When broadening the scope to look at the risk of either hospital admission or emergency care attendance, the risk was 1.45 times higher for Delta than Alpha.

This is the largest study to date to report on the risk of hospitalisation outcomes for cases with the Delta compared to the Alpha variant, using 43,338 Alpha and Delta cases confirmed through whole-genome sequencing who tested positive for COVID-19 between 29th March and 23rd May 2021. It is crucial to note that most of the Alpha and Delta cases in the study were unvaccinated or only partially vaccinated: 74% were unvaccinated, 24% were partially vaccinated, and only 2% were fully vaccinated. The results from this study therefore primarily tell us about the risk of hospital admission for those who are unvaccinated or partially vaccinated. Given the small number of hospitalised vaccinated cases, it has not been possible to estimate reliably if the hospitalisation risk differed between Delta and Alpha cases who had been fully vaccinated.

The Delta variant is now the most common SARS-CoV-2 lineage in several higher-income and lower-income countries on all continents, currently accounting for more than 99% of new cases in England [2]. The evidence provided in this study therefore has implications for healthcare practice, planning and response in countries with ongoing or future Delta variant outbreaks, particularly in unvaccinated or partially vaccinated populations. As previous studies have shown Delta and Alpha spread more rapidly than previous variants [2–4], the combination of faster transmission and the current study’s finding of higher risk of severe disease requiring hospital admission in unvaccinated populations implies a more severe burden on healthcare of Delta outbreaks than of Alpha epidemics.

Previous studies have shown the available COVID-19 vaccines are highly effective against symptomatic infections with the Alpha variant [5], and are effective against symptomatic infections with the Delta variant, particularly after a full vaccination cycle with two doses [6,7]. For those who despite vaccination become infected, the vaccination protects against admission to hospital [8].

Dr Anne Presanis, Senior Statistician at the MRC Biostatistics Unit said:

"Our analysis highlights that in the absence of vaccination, any Delta outbreaks will impose a greater burden on healthcare than an Alpha epidemic. Getting fully vaccinated is crucial for reducing an individual’s risk of symptomatic infection with Delta in the first place, and, importantly, of reducing a Delta patient’s risk of severe illness and hospital admission.”

Dr Gavin Dabrera, Consultant Epidemiologist at Public Health England, said:

“This study confirms previous findings that people infected with Delta are significantly more likely to require hospitalisation than those with Alpha, although most cases included in the analysis were unvaccinated.

We already know that vaccination offers excellent protection against Delta and as this variant accounts for over 99% of COVID-19 cases in the UK, it is vital that those who have not received two doses of vaccine do so as soon as possible.

It is still important that if you have COVID-19 symptoms, stay home and get a PCR test as soon as possible.”

Reference:
Katherine A Twohig et al. 'Hospital admission and emergency care attendance risk for SARS-CoV-2 delta (B.1.617.2) compared with alpha (B.1.1.7) variants of concern: a cohort study.' The Lancet Infectious Diseases (2021). DOI: 10.1016/S1473-3099(21)00475-8

Largest study to date analysing more than 40,000 COVID-19 cases (including a combination of vaccinated and unvaccinated individuals) confirmed by virus genome sequencing finds a two-fold increased risk of hospitalisation from delta versus alpha variant infections.

Getting fully vaccinated is crucial for reducing an individual’s risk of symptomatic infection with Delta in the first place, and, importantly, of reducing a Delta patient’s risk of severe illness and hospital admissionAnne PresanisSteven Cornfield via UnsplashPatient receives Covid-19 vaccine


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Yes

Cambridge-authored book explores how artificial intelligence could help address climate change

Mon, 30/08/2021 - 08:00

Intelligent Decarbonisation – a new book bringing together experts from the fields of science, law, finance, industry, and government – shows that a combination of digital technologies with AI can help curb humanity’s CO2 emissions. This is the key to mitigating climate change and the existential threat it poses. By acknowledging such digital technologies and AI could also pose existential threats to humanity, the book also shows how to maximise their economic and environmental use, while minimising the risks they introduce.

The book is edited and co-authored by Professor Markus Kraft and Dr Oliver Inderwildi, from the University of Cambridge Centre for Advanced Research and Education in Singapore (Cambridge CARES).

Intelligent Decarbonisation aims to get to the bottom of two critically important fields, using an innovative approach with original research, expert comments from academia, industry and think tanks,” said Inderwildi.

The core idea of the book is to assess how AI and cyber-physical systems (CPS) – digital technologies where the physical and software components are deeply intertwined – can help humankind to overcome its most complex and most pressing challenge: climate change.

“The transformational potential of cyber-physical systems, especially when combined with artificial intelligence, is difficult to predict,” said Kraft. “Cambridge CARES is dedicated to developing technology that directs economic development onto a sustainable pathway. Our latest book critically assesses the associated threats and opportunities.”

The book is divided into four parts – Technology, Impact, Implications and Incubation – moving from the theoretical and technical to the real-world effects and areas for future development. It brings together work from private and public sector professionals, academics and think tank experts, and comprehensively examines the topic, highlighting new information to policymakers, researchers and industry professionals alike.

Case studies from Singapore are given prominence in the book as the city-state is at particular risk from the effects of climate change. Sea level rise and unpredictable weather could easily impact Singapore’s water resources, food supplies, and public health in the future.

To help address these threats, Singapore has invested heavily in scientific research, including the international research collaboration model seen in CREATE (Campus for Research Excellence and Technological Enterprise). CREATE gathers the world’s best research institutions and universities to work together on problems that affect Singapore and the world, at a scale that has the potential to deliver impact.

“The climate change crisis is real. The critical role of decarbonisation is indisputable. Finding sustainable paths to decarbonisation is urgent,” said Dr Lim Khiang Wee, Executive Director of Academic Research at CREATE. “There have been dramatic advancements in the Digital Age and AI, with the Covid pandemic acting as an accelerator of digitalisation, and AI, a yet to be fully exploited tool. It is timely that the CREATE community led by Cambridge CARES is examining how AI and digitalisation can support the decarbonisation process, which could point the way towards globally impactful work on intelligent decarbonisation strategies.”

Intelligent Decarbonisation illustrates the potential of digitalisation not just through scientific articles but also through interviews with experts in the areas of decarbonisation and artificial intelligence.

Challenges of cybersecurity, legal, and governance issues are also addressed to accompany the technologies described. For the first time, Intelligent Decarbonisation brings these perspectives and projects together in a comprehensive and accessible format.

Intelligent Decarbonisation is published by Springer.

Adapted from a Cambridge CARES press release.

Humanity is facing two existential threats. The first: uncontrolled CO2 emissions irreversibly changing the climate. The second: a hostile artificial intelligence (AI) becoming the dominant form of intelligence on Earth. But while the situation may appear bleak, this two-pronged crisis also presents an opportunity.

Patrick Hendry via UnsplashFactories with smoke under cloudy sky


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Yes

Vice-Chancellor elected to Institute of International Law

Fri, 27/08/2021 - 15:59

The Institute is an independent, non-profit educational institution made up of leading international public lawyers. It is dedicated to the development of international law, including the technical assistance of developing countries and emerging economies, and is independent of governmental influence.

Awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1904, and nominated on 59 occasions, the organisation is made up of Honorary Members, Members, and Associates. There can be no more than a total of 132 Members and Associates under the age of 80.

Members of the University previously elected to the Institute include Eyal Benvenisti; Sir Christopher Greenwood, Master of Magdalene College; the late James Crawford, and Dame Rosalyn Higgins, former President of the International Court of Justice.

Professor Toope said: “I am deeply honoured to have been elected to such a prestigious body. For more than a hundred years the Institute has brought together eminent international lawyers from around the world to search for solutions to seemingly intractable challenges.”

More information about the Institute of International Law here.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge, has been elected an Associate Member of the Institute of International Law.

Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor of the University of Cambridge


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Yes

New class of habitable exoplanets represent a big step forward in the search for life

Thu, 26/08/2021 - 00:01

In the search for life elsewhere, astronomers have mostly looked for planets of a similar size, mass, temperature and atmospheric composition to Earth. However, astronomers from the University of Cambridge believe there are more promising possibilities out there.

The researchers have identified a new class of habitable planets, dubbed ‘Hycean’ planets – ocean-covered planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres – which are more numerous and observable than Earth-like planets.

The researchers say the results, reported in The Astrophysical Journal, could mean that finding biosignatures of life outside our Solar System within the next few years is a real possibility.

“Hycean planets open a whole new avenue in our search for life elsewhere,” said Dr Nikku Madhusudhan from Cambridge’s Institute of Astronomy, who led the research.

Many of the prime Hycean candidates identified by the researchers are bigger and hotter than Earth, but still have the characteristics to host large oceans that could support microbial life similar to that found in some of Earth’s most extreme aquatic environments.

These planets also allow for a far wider habitable zone, or ‘Goldilocks zone’, compared to Earth-like planets. This means that they could still support life even though they lie outside the range where a planet similar to Earth would need to be in order to be habitable.

Thousands of planets outside our Solar System have been discovered since the first exoplanet was identified nearly 30 years ago. The vast majority are planets between the sizes of Earth and Neptune and are often referred to as ‘super-Earths’ or ‘mini-Neptunes’: they can be predominantly rocky or ice giants with hydrogen-rich atmospheres, or something in between.

Most mini-Neptunes are over 1.6 times the size of Earth: smaller than Neptune but too big to have rocky interiors like Earth. Earlier studies of such planets have found that the pressure and temperature beneath their hydrogen-rich atmospheres would be too high to support life.

However, a recent study on the mini-Neptune K2-18b by Madhusudhan’s team found that in certain conditions these planets could support life. The result led to a detailed investigation into the full range of planetary and stellar properties for which these conditions are possible, which known exoplanets may satisfy those conditions, and whether their biosignatures may be observable.

The investigation led the researchers to identify a new class of planets, Hycean planets, with massive planet-wide oceans beneath hydrogen-rich atmospheres. Hycean planets can be up to 2.6 times larger than Earth and have atmospheric temperatures up to nearly 200 degrees Celsius, depending on their host stars, but their oceanic conditions could be similar to those conducive for microbial life in Earth’s oceans. Such planets also include tidally locked ‘dark’ Hycean worlds that may have habitable conditions only on their permanent night sides, and ‘cold’ Hycean worlds that receive little radiation from their stars.

Planets of this size dominate the known exoplanet population, although they have not been studied in nearly as much detail as super-Earths. Hycean worlds are likely quite common, meaning that the most promising places to look for life elsewhere in the Galaxy may have been hiding in plain sight.

However, size alone is not enough to confirm whether a planet is Hycean: other aspects such as mass, temperature and atmospheric properties are required for confirmation.

When trying to determine what the conditions are like on a planet many light years away, astronomers first need to determine whether the planet lies in the habitable zone of its star, and then look for molecular signatures to infer the planet’s atmospheric and internal structure, which govern the surface conditions, presence of oceans and potential for life.

Astronomers also look for certain biosignatures which could indicate the possibility of life. Most often, these are oxygen, ozone, methane and nitrous oxide, which are all present on Earth. There are also a number of other biomarkers, such as methyl chloride and dimethyl sulphide, that are less abundant on Earth but can be promising indicators of life on planets with hydrogen-rich atmospheres where oxygen or ozone may not be as abundant.

“Essentially, when we’ve been looking for these various molecular signatures, we have been focusing on planets similar to Earth, which is a reasonable place to start,” said Madhusudhan. “But we think Hycean planets offer a better chance of finding several trace biosignatures.”

“It's exciting that habitable conditions could exist on planets so different from Earth,” said co-author Anjali Piette, also from Cambridge.

Madhusudhan and his team found that a number of trace terrestrial biomarkers expected to be present in Hycean atmospheres would be readily detectable with spectroscopic observations in the near future. The larger sizes, higher temperatures and hydrogen-rich atmospheres of Hycean planets make their atmospheric signatures much more detectable than Earth-like planets.

The Cambridge team identified a sizeable sample of potential Hycean worlds which are prime candidates for detailed study with next-generation telescopes, such as the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), which is due to be launched later this year. These planets all orbit red dwarf stars between 35-150 light years away: close by astronomical standards. Already planned JWST observations of the most promising candidate, K2-18b, could lead to the detection of one or more biosignature molecules.

“A biosignature detection would transform our understanding of life in the universe,” said Madhusudhan. “We need to be open about where we expect to find life and what form that life could take, as nature continues to surprise us in often unimaginable ways.”

 

Reference:
Nikku Madhusudhan, Anjali A. A. Piette, and Savvas Constantinou. ‘Habitability and Biosignatures of Hycean Worlds.’ The Astrophysical Journal (2021). DOI: 10.3847/1538-4357/abfd9c

A new class of exoplanet very different to our own, but which could support life, has been identified by astronomers, which could greatly accelerate the search for life outside our Solar System.

Hycean planets open a whole new avenue in our search for life elsewhereNikku MadhusudhanAmanda SmithArtist's impression of a Hycean planet


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Yes

Scientists set out immediate actions and future research priorities to help UK to reach net zero target

Wed, 25/08/2021 - 10:09

Achieving this target will require a mix of technological, societal and nature-based solutions working together to enable systemic change. Research in the 2020s must be prioritised into solutions for sectors that are particularly difficult to decarbonise, such as aviation, electricity generation and storage, and maritime shipping.

The report, led by the University of Cambridge, also highlights net zero solutions which could be implemented now, such as the electrification of road freight, hydrogen produced using renewable energy instead of current carbon-intensive methods, and changes to land use planning to prioritise denser, mixed-use, low traffic neighbourhoods.

The briefing, Net-Zero Solutions and Research Priorities in the 2020s, is published by the COP26 Universities Network and brings together 26 leading scientists from 10 UK universities. It comes at a critical time ahead of the United Nations COP26 Climate Change Summit, which takes place in Glasgow this November.

“It is abundantly clear from the recent IPCC report that the 2020s will be the crucial decade to reduce emissions in order to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and the decisions made at COP26 will be critical in achieving that,” said co-lead author Dr Erik Mackie from Cambridge Zero, the University’s climate initiative. “This cross-disciplinary report will aid decision-makers by identifying the key actions that we must take now, and the priority areas where we should urgently focus our research efforts to tackle hard-to-decarbonise sectors.”

The paper highlights net-zero solutions in eight priority sectors, setting out actions to take now, research priorities for the next decade, and future benefits for each sector. These are:

  • Electricity (generation, storage, system and networks)
  • Buildings
  • Road transport
  • Industry
  • Land/sea use and agriculture
  • Aviation and shipping
  • Waste
  • Greenhouse Gas Removal (GGR)

Nature-based Solutions (NbS) – key actions that can work with nature to address climate change and biodiversity loss across all sectors, while also supporting economic recovery – are highlighted separately.

“The coming decade will be about action and implementation, and we need to focus on solutions that can be practically implemented before 2030 – our report highlights some of these solutions for each of our priority sectors, many of which will have co-benefits due to their interdisciplinary nature,” said co-lead author Dr Elizabeth Tennyson, Marie-Curie Research Fellow in Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. “No single sector is the solution: many sectors need to work in parallel in order to get to net zero. We hope this policy brief will not only influence change but also encourage further innovations.”

Additional solutions highlighted in the report include the retrofitting of buildings, increased R&D investment to bring low-carbon farming practices to market, and the deployment of Carbon Capture Utilisation and Storage (CCUS) at scale by mid-2020s to support the first low-carbon and net zero industrial clusters.

The authors stress that each solution should be assessed with respect to greenhouse gas emissions reductions, energy efficiency and societal implications to provide a basis for developing long-term policies, maximising positive impact of investment and research effort, and guiding industry investors in safe and responsible planning.

“It is great to see this group of universities pooling their expertise and coming to a broad consensus view about the needs for research and immediate actions in the fight against climate change,” said co-author Professor David Cebon from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering, who leads the Centre for Sustainable Road Freight.

Of 26 co-authors on the paper, 14 are from the University of Cambridge, from fields including chemistry, engineering, architecture, computer science, and epidemiology.

Established in 2020, the COP26 Universities Network aims to improve access to evidence and academic expertise for the UN Climate Summit in Glasgow for the UK Government, NGOs and the international community, working together to deliver ambitious climate change outcomes.

A new paper by leading UK scientists sets out key solutions and policy actions that should be implemented now, as well as priority research areas for the next decade, if the UK is to reach its net zero target by 2050.

The 2020s will be the crucial decade to reduce emissions in order to meet the Paris Agreement goals, and the decisions made at COP26 will be critical in achieving thatErik MackieU.S. Department of EnergyNordex USA manufacturing facility - Jonesboro, Arkansas


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YesLicense type: Public Domain

Cambridge-led team developing a simulator to help reach net zero flight

Wed, 25/08/2021 - 09:00

The simulator will capture the whole aviation sector, from the sources of renewable electricity and raw materials to the production and transport of fuel, and the introduction of new aircraft technologies and operations. Leaders in industry and government will gain an understanding of the potential for change and the trade-offs between decisions. The simulator will guide innovation, investment and policy action, and provide educational benefits.

The AIA is led by the Whittle Laboratory and the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL). “Achieving an aviation sector with no climate impact is one of society’s biggest challenges,” said Professor Rob Miller, Director of the Whittle Laboratory and co-lead of the project. “Solving it will require a complex combination of technology, business, human behaviour and policy. We have assembled a world-class team of academics and industry experts to take on this challenge.”

Users of the simulator will be able to simulate future scenarios to 2050 and calculate the resource requirements, such as renewable electricity and land use, the climate impact, both CO₂ and non-CO₂, and the cost of flying.

Options include the type of energy used, such as hydrogen, batteries and a range of sustainable aviation fuels, the type of aircraft and aircraft technologies, the way in which aircraft are operated, and the value judgments made by the public and government. The simulator will take a whole system approach – from the source of the electricity to the methods of fuel production and transport – to the passenger journey.

“International travel helps people and societies connect,” said Clare Shine, Director of CISL. “To retain this opportunity for future generations, we must urgently address aviation’s environmental impact as part of systemic decarbonisation of the economy. This calls for imaginative and inclusive innovation, which is why the Aviation Impact Accelerator brings together insight from industry, policy and civil society.”

The AIA team also includes the Air Transportation Systems Lab at University College London and the Melbourne Energy Institute at the University of Melbourne. The AIA is in partnership with HRH The Prince of Wales’s Sustainable Markets Initiative, The World Economic Forum, Cambridge Zero, MathWorks and SATAVIA, and is supported by industry advisors Rolls-Royce, Boeing, BP, Heathrow and Siemens Energy.

“The transition to a zero-carbon future requires a bold response to climate change,” said Dr Emily Shuckburgh, Director of Cambridge Zero. “The Aviation Impact Accelerator is such a bold response, bringing together multidisciplinary expertise to inform decision making and enable meaningful change.”

The simulator was conceived in early 2020 at a roundtable hosted by HRH The Prince of Wales and attended by senior industry leaders, government and academia.

“The Aviation Impact Accelerator will play a vital role in highlighting the action required to achieve net zero aviation and support Heathrow to ensure 2019 is our year of ‘peak carbon’,” said John Holland-Kaye, CEO of Heathrow Airport. “The first priority is accelerated use of sustainable aviation fuel. Government can act to unlock SAF through a mandate stimulating supply, plus incentives to drive demand. The prize is a new British growth industry and UK leadership in the race to net zero.”

The official launch of the Aviation Impact Accelerator will take place at COP26 in November. 

Adapted from a CISL news story.

The University of Cambridge has announced the launch of the Aviation Impact Accelerator (AIA) – an international group of experts in aerospace, economics, policy, and climate science, who are building an interactive evidence-based simulator to explore scenarios for achieving net zero flight, one of the world’s biggest decarbonisation challenges.

Achieving an aviation sector with no climate impact is one of society’s biggest challenges: solving it will require a complex combination of technology, business, human behaviour and policyRob MillerPhoto by Pascal Meier on UnsplashPlane landing in Zurich


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Yes

Award winning author and former MPhil in African Studies student Mary Ononokpono talks about how her work has been inspired by our MPhil programme

 

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