skip to content

Centre of African Studies

 
Subscribe to University News feed
Updated: 1 hour 10 min ago

Cambridge partners with Schmidt Futures in new software engineering network

Wed, 19/01/2022 - 10:39

Schmidt Futures and partner institutions announce the establishment of the Virtual Institute of Scientific Software (VISS), starting with a network of four centres based at the University of Cambridge, Georgia Institute of Technology, the Johns Hopkins University and the University of Washington.

This interdisciplinary virtual institute will address the growing demand for software engineers with backgrounds in science, complex data and mathematics who can build dynamic, scalable, open software to facilitate accelerated scientific discovery across fields. 

While science has become increasingly reliant on complex programming and technology, many researchers lack the training or experience in software engineering, tools and methods to produce effective, reliable, and scalable solutions. As a result, successful research and scientific discovery is sometimes delayed as researchers looking to conduct further experiments struggle to adapt unstable and outdated programming.

VISS seeks to improve the quality of research, accelerate advancements and encourage scalable open-source solutions by providing scientific researchers with access to full-time professional engineers and state of the art technology to develop high quality, maintainable and adaptable software.

“Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Institute for Scientific Software will accelerate the pace of scientific discovery through the development of robust, well-engineered software, supporting longer-term platforms and systems, encouraging best practices in open science, and providing access to techniques such as high-end computing, massive databases, and machine learning,” said Elizabeth McNally, Executive Vice President, Schmidt Futures.

Cambridge's Institute of Computing for Climate Science (ICCS) will apply its existing expertise in climate sciences and artificial intelligence with the research teams from Schmidt Futures’ Virtual Earth Systems Research Institute (VESRI) to address the specific computation and research software needs in the area of climate modelling.

The centre represents a collaboration between Cambridge Zero, the Departments of Computer Science and Technology, Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, and University Information Services. The other three centres will be dedicated to a range of scientific focus areas, including astrophysics, life sciences, engineering and climate.

“With this truly visionary new institute, Cambridge will blend its world-leading climate science, software engineering and computer science expertise,” said Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen J Toope. “This interdisciplinary powerhouse will enable the development of next-generation climate models. We are delighted to be partnering with Schmidt Futures and engaging with the international research community to inform the response to our most urgent global challenge.”

The ICCS will be led by Emily Shuckburgh (Academic Director; Cambridge Zero), Dominic Orchard (Co-Director; Computer Science/Software Engineering), Chris Edsall (Co-Director; Engineering), and Colm-cille Caulfield (Co-Director; Science). All have a long-term research agenda to improve understanding of our changing climate through the development, implementation, maintenance, and dissemination of models for scientific computing, data assimilation and analysis.

Being part of the University, ICCS will also have a significant education and training component, through the commitment towards sharing its scientific insights openly and broadly. ICCS will play a key role in Cambridge Zero, the University's climate change initiative, that is identifying routes to the creation of a sustainable, zero-carbon future for all.

Over the coming months, ICCS will build a team of researchers and software engineers who share the vision of the power of modern computer science, data science and software engineering for addressing the pressing challenges of our changing climate.

Director of Cambridge Zero and Academic Director of ICCS, Dr Emily Shuckburgh, said “The Institute of Computing for Climate Science will be the first of its kind, supporting the application of the latest developments in computer science and data science to climate modelling. It is tremendously exciting to launch this Institute, which will be the core of an international network of climate research initiatives supported by Schmidt Futures, and will help drive forwards the frontiers of climate science.”

The interdisciplinary network of centres, which will benefit from the experience of the Schmidt Software Academy at Caltech, will have an initial lifespan of five years.

Adapted from a release published by Schmidt Futures.

Software engineers will bridge the gap between modern science and scalable complex software at four leading universities.

The Institute of Computing for Climate Science will be the first of its kind, supporting the application of the latest developments in computer science and data science to climate modellingEmily ShuckburghSir CamCentre for Mathematical Sciences


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Curbing COVID-19 in schools: Cambridge scientists support CO2 monitor rollout

Mon, 17/01/2022 - 12:44

Scientists from Cambridge, Surrey and Imperial College London are supporting the rollout of portable monitors to UK schools as part of project CO-TRACE. The researchers behind the collaboration have produced materials to help teachers use the monitors, which have been rolled out to schools nationwide.

The level of carbon dioxide (CO2) in a closed space is a good indicator of air quality and can signpost the need for ventilation. As the virus that causes COVID-19 is airborne, ensuring the air is properly refreshed using ventilation is crucial for reducing its spread. The device displays levels of CO2 and colour coding to indicate good, normal, or poor ventilation. Well ventilated spaces should have CO2 levels consistently below 800 parts per million (ppm), with readings above 1500ppm indicating poor ventilation or over-crowding.

“CO2 monitors allow teachers to assess the ventilation in their classrooms for the first time,” said Imperial’s Dr Henry Burridge, co-investigator on the project. “This is especially important during colder months when ventilation is typically lower due to colder outdoor temperatures, causing COVID-19 and other airborne diseases like the common cold and flu to linger and spread more easily.”

The monitors mean teachers can see CO2 levels change in real-time as windows are opened and air is refreshed, allowing them to balance ventilation and warmth. Teachers can also use the monitors to know when it is safe to close windows slightly, which could help them keep classrooms more comfortable. As well as being a good ‘proxy’ for ventilation, lower CO2 levels have been linked to improved learning outcomes and better cogitative performance.

The team behind the CO-TRACE project uses experimental modelling, numerical simulations, full-scale observations, and infection risk modelling to understand how the potential for COVID-19 spread changes with indoor air flows, ventilation levels, and the number of people in a space. In 2021, the researchers used monitored CO2 to indicate how much exhaled breath was present within classrooms, and their models found that seasonal variation in classroom ventilation levels could lead to airborne infection risks in winter being roughly double those in summer. This highlights that monitoring excess CO2 could be of significant benefit in mitigating airborne infection risk.

The portability of the CO2 monitors, supplied by the Department for Education (DfE), means schools can move them around to test different areas, starting with those they suspect may be poorly ventilated.

“The monitors empower teachers to strike a balance between good ventilation and warmth during winter,” said Professor Paul Linden from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, co-investigator on the programme. “We are pleased that the government is taking evidence-based action to address air quality and COVID-19 spread in schools.”

The monitors are accompanied by advice from the project which guides appropriate actions from teacher based on the CO2 readings in classrooms. Recommendations include opening higher windows before lower ones, and closing windows slowly when ventilation is good.

Schools with areas that are consistently low in air quality despite ventilation should consider using air cleaners. For such schools, the DfE is distributing between 7,000 and 8,000 air cleaning units.

When the project was announced in 2021, then-Education Secretary Gavin Williamson said: “Providing all schools with CO2 monitors will help them make sure they have the right balance of measures in place, minimising any potential disruption to education and allowing them to focus on world-class lessons and catch up for the children who need it. By keeping up simple measures such as ventilation and testing, young people can now enjoy more freedom at school and college.”

The project is funded by the EPSRC, part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI).

Adapted from an Imperial College story.

UK schools have received more than 300,000 CO2 monitors as part of a government initiative to reduce COVID-19 spread in classrooms.

The monitors empower teachers to strike a balance between good ventilation and warmth during winterPaul Linden Olivier Le MoalCO2 monitor


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Obesity: genes vs environment – podcast

Thu, 13/01/2022 - 15:24

What role do our genes play in influencing our body weight and what we like to eat? Why do some people gain weight more easily than others, and is it all down to genes or are there other factors at play? In this episode, we talked with a clinician and scientist Sadaf Farooqi, health psychologist Theresa Marteau, and geographer Thomas Burgoine about the multitude of factors that go into influencing our eating behaviours. 


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

‘Slushy’ magma ocean led to formation of the Moon’s crust

Thu, 13/01/2022 - 14:00

The scientists, from the University of Cambridge and the Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon, have proposed a new model of crystallisation, where crystals remained suspended in liquid magma over hundreds of millions of years as the lunar ‘slush’ froze and solidified. The results are reported in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Over fifty years ago, Apollo 11 astronauts collected samples from the lunar Highlands. These large, pale regions of the Moon – visible to the naked eye – are made up of relatively light rocks called anorthosites. Anorthosites formed early in the history of the Moon, between 4.3 and 4.5 billion years ago.

Similar anorthosites, formed through the crystallisation of magma, can be found in fossilised magma chambers on Earth. Producing the large volumes of anorthosite found on the Moon, however, would have required a huge global magma ocean.

Scientists believe that the Moon formed when two protoplanets, or embryonic worlds, collided. The larger of these two protoplanets became the Earth, and the smaller became the Moon. One of the outcomes of this collision was that the Moon was very hot – so hot that its entire mantle was molten magma, or a magma ocean.

“Since the Apollo era, it has been thought that the lunar crust was formed by light anorthite crystals floating at the surface of the liquid magma ocean, with heavier crystals solidifying at the ocean floor,” said co-author Chloé Michaut from Ecole normale supérieure de Lyon. “This ‘flotation’ model explains how the lunar Highlands may have formed.”

However, since the Apollo missions, many lunar meteorites have been analysed and the surface of the Moon has been extensively studied. Lunar anorthosites appear more heterogeneous in their composition than the original Apollo samples, which contradicts a flotation scenario where the liquid ocean is the common source of all anorthosites.

The range of anorthosite ages – over 200 million years – is difficult to reconcile with an ocean of essentially liquid magma whose characteristic solidification time is close to 100 million years.

“Given the range of ages and compositions of the anorthosites on the Moon, and what we know about how crystals settle in solidifying magma, the lunar crust must have formed through some other mechanism,” said co-author Professor Jerome Neufeld from Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics.

Michaut and Neufeld developed a mathematical model to identify this mechanism.

In the low lunar gravity, the settling of crystal is difficult, particularly when strongly stirred by the convecting magma ocean. If the crystals remain suspended as a crystal slurry, then when the crystal content of the slurry exceeds a critical threshold, the slurry becomes thick and sticky, and the deformation slow.

This increase of crystal content occurs most dramatically near the surface, where the slushy magma ocean is cooled, resulting in a hot, well-mixed slushy interior and a slow-moving, crystal-rich lunar ‘lid’.

“We believe it’s in this stagnant ‘lid’ that the lunar crust formed, as lightweight, anorthite-enriched melt percolated up from the convecting crystalline slurry below,” said Neufeld. “We suggest that cooling of the early magma ocean drove such vigorous convection that crystals remained suspended as a slurry, much like the crystals in a slushy machine.”

Enriched lunar surface rocks likely formed in magma chambers within the lid, which explains their diversity. The results suggest that the timescale of lunar crust formation is several hundreds of million years, which corresponds to the observed ages of the lunar anorthosites.

Serial magmatism was initially proposed as a possible mechanism for the formation of lunar anorthosites, but the slushy model ultimately reconciles this idea with that of a global lunar magma ocean.


The research was supported by the European Research Council.

Jerome Neufeld is also affiliated with the Department of Earth Sciences. He is a Fellow of St Catharine's College. 

Scientists have shown how the freezing of a ‘slushy’ ocean of magma may be responsible for the composition of the Moon’s crust.

Cooling of the early magma ocean drove such vigorous convection that crystals remained suspended as a slurry, like the crystals in a slushy machine.Jerome NeufeldNASA/Goddard Space Flight CenterMagma ocean and first rocky crust on the Moon


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Public Domain

Learning through ‘guided’ play can be as effective as adult-led instruction

Wed, 12/01/2022 - 09:01

Teaching younger children through ‘guided’ play can support key aspects of their learning and development at least as well, and sometimes better, than traditional, direct instruction, according to a new analysis.

The research, by academics at the University of Cambridge gathered and assessed data from numerous, widespread studies and information sources, which collectively documented guided play’s impact on the learning of around 3,800 children aged three to eight. Guided play broadly refers to playful educational activities which, although gently steered by an adult, give children the freedom to explore a learning goal in their own way.

Overall, the study found that this playful approach to learning can be just as effective as more traditional, teacher-led methods in developing key skills: including literacy, numeracy, social skills and essential thinking skills known as executive functions. The findings also suggest that children may master some skills – notably in maths – more effectively through guided play than other methods.

The relative merits of play-based learning compared with more formal styles of instruction is a long-standing debate in education, but most of that discussion has focused on ‘free’ open-ended play.

The new study is the first systematic attempt to examine the effects of guided play specifically, which is distinctive because it uses games or playful techniques to steer children towards specific learning goals, with support from a teacher or another adult using open-ended questions and prompts.

This may, for example, involve creating imagination-based games which require children to read, write or use maths; or incorporating simple early learning skills – such as counting – into play. Such methods are common in pre-school education, but are used less in primary teaching – a deficit which has been criticised by some researchers.

The analysis was carried out by academics from the Play in Education, Development and Learning (PEDAL) Centre at the Faculty of Education, University of Cambridge.

Dr Elizabeth Byrne, a co-author, said: “It’s only recently that researchers have started to conceptualise learning through play as something that exists on a spectrum. At one end you have free play, where children decide what to do with minimal adult involvement; at the other is traditional, direct instruction, where an adult tells a child what to do and controls the learning activity.”

“Guided play falls somewhere in between. It describes playful activities which are scaffolded around a learning goal, but allow children to try things out for themselves. If children are given the freedom to explore, but with some gentle guidance, it can be very good for their education – perhaps in some cases better than direct instruction.”

Paul Ramchandani, Professor of Play in Education, Development and Learning at the University of Cambridge, said: “The argument is sometimes made that play, while beneficial, adds little to children’s education. In fact, although there are still some big questions about how we should use guided play in classrooms, there is promising evidence that it actively enhances learning and development.”

Guided play has rarely been systematically studied in its own right, but the team found 39 studies, undertaken between 1977 and 2020, which had captured some information about its value compared either with free play or direct instruction, usually in the course of wider research.

By combining the results of studies which looked at similar types of learning outcome, the researchers were able to calculate how much of an overall positive or negative effect guided play has on different aspects of numeracy, literacy, executive functions or socioemotional skills, compared with other approaches. These effect sizes were measured using Hedge’s g; a widely-used statistical system in which a result of 0 represents no comparative gain, and 0.2, 0.5 and 0.8 represent small, medium and large effects respectively.

The results offer significant evidence that guided play has a greater positive impact on some areas of children’s numeracy than direct instruction. For example, guided play’s comparative effect size on early maths skills was 0.24, and 0.63 on shape knowledge. There was also evidence that guided play better supports the development of children’s cognitive ability to switch between tasks.

Alongside other positive findings, there was also no statistically significant evidence that guided play is less effective than direct instruction on any of the learning outcomes studied. In short, guided playful activities tend at the very least to produce roughly the same learning benefits as more traditional, teacher-led approaches.

The researchers offer various possible explanations about why guided play may improve numeracy in particular. One possibility is that the gentle prompting that guided play entails may be a particularly effective way of teaching children to work through the logical steps that maths-based tasks often involve.

Equally, the fact that guided play often involves hands-on learning may be important. “Children often struggle with mathematical concepts because they are abstract,” Byrne said. “They become easier to understand if you are actually using them in an imaginary game or playful context. One reason play matters may be because it supports mental visualisation.”

More broadly, the authors suggest that guided play may influence other characteristics which have a positive, knock-on effect on educational progress – enhancing, for example, children’s motivation, persistence, creativity and confidence.

Dr Christine O’Farrelly, a Senior Research Associate at the Faculty of Education, said: “It’s likely that playful activities have the sort of positive impact we saw in our analysis partly because they are acting on other skills and processes which underpin learning. If we can understand more about how guided play shapes learning in this way, we will be able to identify more precisely how it could be used to make a really meaningful difference in schools.”

The study is published in the journal Child Development.

Play-based learning may also have a more positive effect on younger children’s acquisition of important early maths skills compared with traditional, direct instruction.

If children are given the freedom to explore, but with some gentle guidance, it can be very good for their education – perhaps in some cases better than direct instructionElizabeth ByrneFaculty of EducationResearchers and children at the PEDAL Centre during the Cambridge Festival


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Cambridge launches new Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe

Mon, 10/01/2022 - 15:11

The Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe will bring together an international team of scientists and philosophers, led by 2019 Nobel Laureate Professor Didier Queloz.

Thanks to simultaneous revolutions in exoplanet discoveries, prebiotic chemistry and solar system exploration, scientists can now investigate whether the Earth and the processes that made life possible are unique in the Universe.

The University has recently launched the Initiative for Planetary Science and Life in the Universe (IPLU) to enable cross-disciplinary research on planetology and life in the Universe.

Building on IPLU’s activities, the new Leverhulme Centre for Life in the Universe will support fundamental cross-disciplinary research over the next 10 years to tackle one of the great interdisciplinary challenges of our time: to understand how life emerged on Earth, whether the Universe is full of life, and ask what the nature of life is.

The Centre will include researchers from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, Department of Earth Sciences, Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry, Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics, Institute of Astronomy, Department of Zoology, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, Faculty of Divinity, and the MRC Laboratory of Molecular Biology.

“The Centre will act as a catalyst for the development of our vision to understanding life in the Universe through a long-term research programme that will be the driving force for international coordination of research and education,” said Queloz, Jacksonian Professor of Natural Philosophy at the Cavendish Laboratory and Director of the Centre.

Research within the Centre will focus on four themes: identifying the chemical pathways to the origins of life; characterising the environments on Earth and other planets that could act as the cradle of prebiotic chemistry and life; discovering and characterising habitable exoplanets and signatures of geological and biological evolution; and refining our understanding of life through philosophical and mathematical concepts.

The Centre will collaborate with researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder, University College London, ETH Zurich, Harvard University and the Centre of Theological Inquiry in Princeton, New Jersey.

“Understanding the reactions that predisposed the first cells to form on Earth is the greatest unsolved mystery in science,” said programme collaborator Matthew Powner from University College London. “Critical challenges of increasing complexity must be addressed in this field, but these challenges represent one of the most exciting frontiers in science.”

Carol Cleland, Director of the Center for the Study of Origins and Professor of Philosophy at the University of Colorado Boulder, also collaborator on the programme said: “The new Centre is unique in the breadth of its interdisciplinarity, bringing together scientists and philosophers to address central questions about the nature and extent of life in the universe.

“Characteristics that scientists currently take as fundamental to life reflect our experience with a single example of life, familiar Earth life. These characteristics may represent little more than chemical and physical contingencies unique to the conditions under which life arose on Earth. If this is the case, our concepts for theorising about life will be misleading. Philosophers of science are especially well trained to help scientists 'think outside the box' by identifying and exploring the conceptual foundations of contemporary scientific theorising about life with an emphasis on developing strategies for searching for truly novel forms of life on other worlds.”

With a £10 million grant awarded by the Leverhulme Trust, the University of Cambridge is to establish a new research centre dedicated to exploring the nature and extent of life in the universe.

The Centre will act as a catalyst for the development of our vision to understanding life in the Universe through a long-term research programme that will be the driving force for international coordination of research and educationDidier QuelozESO/M. KornmesserArtists’s impression of the rocky super-Earth HD 85512 b


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

Superbug MRSA arose in hedgehogs long before clinical use of antibiotics

Tue, 04/01/2022 - 11:07

Staphylococcus aureus first developed resistance to the antibiotic methicillin around 200 years ago, according to a large international collaboration including the University of Cambridge, the Wellcome Sanger Institute, Denmark’s Serum Statens Institut and the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, which has traced the genetic history of the bacteria.

They were investigating the surprising discovery - from hedgehog surveys from Denmark and Sweden - that up to 60% of hedgehogs carry a type of MRSA called mecC-MRSA. The new study also found high levels of MRSA in swabs taken from hedgehogs across their range in Europe and New Zealand.

The study is published today in the journal Nature.

The researchers believe that antibiotic resistance evolved in Staphylococcus aureus as an adaptation to having to exist side-by-side on the skin of hedgehogs with the fungus Trichophyton erinacei, which produces its own antibiotics. 

The resulting methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus is better known as the superbug MRSA. The discovery of this centuries-old antibiotic resistance predates antibiotic use in medical and agricultural settings. 

“Using sequencing technology we have traced the genes that give mecC-MRSA its antibiotic resistance all the way back to their first appearance, and found they were around in the nineteenth century,” said Dr Ewan Harrison, a researcher at the Wellcome Sanger Institute and University of Cambridge and a senior author of the study.

He added: “Our study suggests that it wasn’t the use of penicillin that drove the initial emergence of MRSA, it was a natural biological process. We think MRSA evolved in a battle for survival on the skin of hedgehogs, and subsequently spread to livestock and humans through direct contact.”

Antibiotic resistance in bugs causing human infections was previously thought to be a modern phenomenon, driven by the clinical use of antibiotics. Misuse of antibiotics is now accelerating the process, and antibiotic resistance is rising to dangerously high levels in all parts of the world.

Since almost all the antibiotics we use today arose in nature, the researchers say it is likely that resistance to them already exists in nature too. Overuse of any antibiotic in humans or livestock will favour resistant strains of the bug, so it is only a matter of time before the antibiotic starts to lose its effectiveness.

“This study is a stark warning that when we use antibiotics, we have to use them with care. There’s a very big wildlife ‘reservoir’ where antibiotic-resistant bacteria can survive – and from there it’s a short step for them to be picked up by livestock, and then to infect humans,” said Professor Mark Holmes, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Veterinary Medicine and a senior author of the report.

In 2011, previous work led by Professor Holmes first identified mecC -MRSA in human and dairy cow populations. At the time it was assumed the strain had arisen in the cows because of the large amount of antibiotics they are routinely given. 

MRSA was first identified in patients in 1960, and around 1 in 200 of all MRSA infections are caused by mecC-MRSA. Due to its resistance to antibiotics, MRSA is much harder to treat than other bacterial infections. The World Health Organization now considers MRSA one of the world’s greatest threats to human health. It is also a major challenge in livestock farming.

The findings are not a reason to fear hedgehogs, say the researchers: humans rarely get infections with mecC-MRSA, even though it has been present in hedgehogs for more than 200 years. 

”It isn’t just hedgehogs that harbour antibiotic-resistant bacteria - all wildlife carries many different types of bacteria, as well as parasites, fungi and viruses,” said Holmes.

He added: “Wild animals, livestock and humans are all interconnected: we all share one ecosystem. It isn’t possible to understand the evolution of antibiotic resistance unless you look at the whole system.” 

This research was funded by the Medical Research Council. 

Reference
Larsen, J. et al: ‘Emergence of methicillin resistance predates the clinical use of antibiotics.’ Nature, January 2022, DOI: 10.1038/s41586-021-04265-w

Scientists have found evidence that a type of the antibiotic resistant superbug MRSA arose in nature long before the use of antibiotics in humans and livestock, which has traditionally been blamed for its emergence.

We think MRSA evolved in a battle for survival on the skin of hedgehogs, and subsequently spread to livestock and humans through direct contactEwan HarrisonPia B. HansenHedgehogAt a glance
  • Hedgehogs carry a fungus and a bacteria on their skin, and the two are locked in a battle for survival
  • The fungus secretes antibiotics to kill the bacteria, but in response the bacteria has evolved antibiotic resistance – becoming Methicillin-resistant Staphylococcus aureus, or MRSA
  • Up to 60% of hedgehogs carry a type of MRSA called mecC-MRSA, which causes 1 in 200 of all MRSA infections in humans
  • Natural biological processes, not antibiotic use, drove the initial emergence of this superbug on hedgehogs around 200 years ago


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

Cambridge's finest recognised in 2022 New Year's Honours

Sat, 01/01/2022 - 10:00

Among those awarded is Emeritus Professor James Diggle who receives the CBE for Services to Classical Scholarship. He was Professor of Greek and Latin from 1995 until he retired in 2011 and is a Fellow of the British Academy as well as Life Fellow at Queens' College. 

Professor Diggle said: “My pleasure in receiving this honour will, I hope, be shared by Queens' College and the Faculty of Classics, both of which I have been closely associated with throughout the whole of my career, and also by Cambridge University Press, which has just published the Greek Lexicon on which I worked as Editor for over 20 years.”

Lynne McClure, Director of Cambridge Mathematics, receives the OBE for Services to Education. Cambridge Mathematics is an enterprise committed to championing and securing a world class mathematics education for all students from 3 to 19 years old and is a collaboration of three University partners – Cambridge Press and Assessment, and the Faculties of Mathematics and Education.

She said: “I am very pleased personally to be a recipient in the New Year’s Honours, but even more delighted that this award highlights the importance of mathematics education – for everyone. At Cambridge Mathematics we are privileged to benefit from collaboration with amazing practitioners, researchers and designers in the UK and internationally, working together to improve mathematics education, worldwide.”

Professor Pauline Rose, Professor of International Education and Director of Research for Equitable Access and Learning Centre in the Faculty of Education, receives the OBE for Services to International Girls’ Education: “I’m truly honoured and genuinely surprised to receive an OBE for services to international girls’ education. Thanks to all who’ve worked with me, supported and challenged me over the years. I look forward to continued collaboration on evidence to improve quality education for all.”

Professor Lorand Bartels, Professor of International Law in the Faculty of Law and a Fellow of Trinity Hall, receives an MBE for Services to UK Trade Policy. Professor Bartels, who is currently Chair of the UK’s Trade and Agriculture Commission, said: "It is a great honour for a trade lawyer to be recognised in this way. It has been a privilege to be able to work with the government over the last few years as it has developed its newly independent trade policies, and it has been immensely satisfying to be able to put my academic work into practice. I hope that this award inspires others to become involved in what is truly a fascinating and important area of international law."

Dr Robert Bud, Affiliated Scholar, Department of History and Philosophy of Science, receives an MBE for Services to the Science Museum and Northern Industrial Heritage. Robert Bud is Emeritus Keeper at the Science Museum, London, where he was a senior curator for 40 years: “I have benefited tremendously from association with the History and Philosophy of Science Department whose researchers have welcomed me, encouraged presentations, and collaborated on projects to great benefit of my work at the Science Museum.” 

The University's Vice-Chancellor, Professor Stephen Toope, said: "It’s pleasing to see another group of people associated with Collegiate Cambridge receiving recognition in the New Year’s Honours list. Public service is what so many of us at this University aspire to and it’s been noticeable in abundance over the last two years. I offer my congratulations to those who’ve been honoured in this way for their commitment and their achievements."

Academics and other staff associated with the University of Cambridge feature in the 2022 New Year's Honours List. 

Public service is what so many of us at this University aspire to and it’s been noticeable in abundance over the last two years.Professor Stephen Toope, Vice-Chancellor Senate House


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

‘Battle of the sexes’ begins in womb as father and mother’s genes tussle over nutrition

Mon, 27/12/2021 - 16:00

As the fetus grows, it needs to communicate its increasing needs for food to the mother. It receives its nourishment via blood vessels in the placenta, a specialised organ that contains cells from both baby and mother.

Between 10% and 15% of babies grow poorly in the womb, often showing reduced growth of blood vessels in the placenta. In humans, these blood vessels expand dramatically between mid and late gestation, reaching a total length of approximately 320 kilometres at term.

In a study published today in Developmental Cell, a team led by scientists at the University of Cambridge used genetically engineered mice to show how the fetus produces a signal to encourage growth of blood vessels within the placenta. This signal also causes modifications to other cells of the placenta to allow for more nutrients from the mother to go through to the fetus.

Dr Ionel Sandovici, the paper’s first author, said: “As it grows in the womb, the fetus needs food from its mum, and healthy blood vessels in the placenta are essential to help it get the correct amount of nutrients it needs.

“We’ve identified one way that the fetus uses to communicate with the placenta to prompt the correct expansion of these blood vessels. When this communication breaks down, the blood vessels don’t develop properly and the baby will struggle to get all the food it needs.”

The team found that the fetus sends a signal known as IGF2 that reaches the placenta through the umbilical cord. In humans, levels of IGF2 in the umbilical cord progressively increase between 29 weeks of gestation and term: too much IGF2 is associated with too much growth, while not enough IGF2 is associated with too little growth. Babies that are too large or too small are more likely to suffer or even die at birth, and have a higher risk to develop diabetes and heart problems as adults.

Dr Sandovici added: “We’ve known for some time that IGF2 promotes the growth of the organs where it is produced. In this study, we’ve shown that IGF2 also acts like a classical hormone – it’s produced by the fetus, goes into the fetal blood, through the umbilical cord and to the placenta, where it acts.”

Particularly interesting is what their findings reveal about the tussle taking place in the womb.

In mice, the response to IGF2 in the blood vessels of the placenta is mediated by another protein, called IGF2R. The two genes that produce IGF2 and IGF2R are ‘imprinted’ – a process by which molecular switches on the genes identify their parental origin and can turn the genes on or off. In this case, only the copy of the igf2 gene inherited from the father is active, while only the copy of igf2r inherited from the mother is active.

Lead author Dr Miguel Constância, said: “One theory about imprinted genes is that paternally-expressed genes are greedy and selfish. They want to extract the most resources as possible from the mother. But maternally-expressed genes act as countermeasures to balance these demands.”

“In our study, the father’s gene drives the fetus’s demands for larger blood vessels and more nutrients, while the mother’s gene in the placenta tries to control how much nourishment she provides. There’s a tug-of-war taking place, a battle of the sexes at the level of the genome.”

The team say their findings will allow a better understanding of how the fetus, placenta and mother communicate with each other during pregnancy. This in turn could lead to ways of measuring levels of IGF2 in the fetus and finding ways to use medication to normalise these levels or promote normal development of placental vasculature.

The researchers used mice, as it is possible to manipulate their genes to mimic different developmental conditions. This enables them to study in detail the different mechanisms taking place. The physiology and biology of mice have many similarities with those of humans, allowing researchers to model human pregnancy, in order to understand it better.

The lead researchers are based at the Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, the Medical Research Council Metabolic Diseases Unit, part of the Wellcome-MRC Institute of Metabolic Science, and the Centre for Trophoblast Research, all at the University of Cambridge.

The research was largely funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, Medical Research Council, Wellcome Trust and Centre for Trophoblast Research.

Reference
Sandovici, I et al. The Imprinted Igf2-Igf2r Axis is Critical for Matching Placental Microvasculature Expansion to Fetal Growth. Developmental Cell; 10 Jan 2022: DOI: 10.1016/j.devcel.2021.12.005

Cambridge scientists have identified a key signal that the fetus uses to control its supply of nutrients from the placenta in a tug-of-war between genes inherited from the father and from the mother. The study, carried out in mice, could help explain why some babies grow poorly in the womb.

The father’s gene drives the fetus’s demands for larger blood vessels and more nutrients, while the mother’s gene in the placenta tries to control how much nourishment she providesMiguel ConstânciaIonel SandoviciSection of mouse fetus and placenta


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

Templating approach stabilises ‘ideal’ material for alternative solar cells

Thu, 23/12/2021 - 19:00

The researchers, from the University of Cambridge, used an organic molecule as a ‘template’ to guide perovskite films into the desired phase as they form. Their results are reported in the journal Science.  

Perovskite materials offer a cheaper alternative to silicon for producing optoelectronic devices such as solar cells and LEDs.

There are many different perovskites, resulting from different combinations of elements, but one of the most promising to emerge in recent years is the formamidinium (FA)-based FAPbI3 crystal.

The compound is thermally stable and its inherent ‘bandgap’ – the property most closely linked to the energy output of the device – is not far off ideal for photovoltaic applications.

For these reasons, it has been the focus of efforts to develop commercially available perovskite solar cells. However, the compound can exist in two slightly different phases, with one phase leading to excellent photovoltaic performance, and the other resulting in very little energy output.

“A big problem with FAPbI3 is that the phase that you want is only stable at temperatures above 150 degrees Celsius,” said Tiarnan Doherty from Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory, the paper's first author. “At room temperature, it transitions into another phase, which is really bad for photovoltaics.”

Recent solutions to keep the material in its desired phase at lower temperatures have involved adding different positive and negative ions into the compound.

“That's been successful and has led to record photovoltaic devices but there are still local power losses that occur,” said Doherty, who is also affiliated with the Department of Chemical Engineering and Biotechnology. “You end up with local regions in the film that aren’t in the right phase.”

Little was known about why the additions of these ions improved stability overall, or even what the resulting perovskite structure looked like.

“There was this common consensus that when people stabilise these materials, they’re an ideal cubic structure,” said Doherty. “But what we’ve shown is that by adding all these other things, they're not cubic at all, they’re very slightly distorted. There’s a very subtle structural distortion that gives some inherent stability at room temperature.”

The distortion is so minor that it had previously gone undetected, until Doherty and colleagues used sensitive structural measurement techniques that have not been widely used on perovskite materials.

The team used scanning electron diffraction, nano-X-ray diffraction and nuclear magnetic resonance to see, for the first time, what this stable phase really looked like.

“Once we figured out that it was the slight structural distortion giving this stability, we looked for ways to achieve this in the film preparation without adding any other elements into the mix.”  

Co-author Satyawan Nagane used an organic molecule called Ethylenediaminetetraacetic acid (EDTA) as an additive in the perovskite precursor solution, which acts as a templating agent, guiding the perovskite into the desired phase as it forms. The EDTA binds to the FAPbI3 surface to give a structure-directing effect, but does not incorporate into the FAPbI3 structure itself.

“With this method, we can achieve that desired band gap because we’re not adding anything extra into the material, it’s just a template to guide the formation of a film with the distorted structure – and the resulting film is extremely stable,” said Nagane.

“In this way, you can create this slightly distorted structure in just the pristine FAPbI3 compound, without modifying the other electronic properties of what is essentially a near-perfect compound for perovskite photovoltaics,” said co-author Dominik Kubicki from the Cavendish Laboratory, who is now based at the University of Warwick.

The researchers hope this fundamental study will help improve perovskite stability and performance. Their own future work will involve integrating this approach into prototype devices to explore how this technique may help them achieve the perfect perovskite photovoltaic cells.  

“These findings change our optimisation strategy and manufacturing guidelines for these materials,” said senior author Dr Sam Stranks from Cambridge’s Department of Chemical Engineering & Biotechnology. “Even small pockets that aren’t slightly distorted will lead to performance losses, and so manufacturing lines will need to have very precise control of how and where the different components and ‘distorting’ additives are deposited. This will ensure the small distortion is uniform everywhere – with no exceptions.”

The work was a collaboration with the groups of Paul Midgley in the Materials Science Department and Clare Grey in the Yusuf Hamied Department of Chemistry at Cambridge, the Diamond Light Source and the electron Physical Science Imaging Centre (ePSIC), Imperial College London, Yonsei University, Wageningen University and Research, and the University of Leeds.

Reference:
Tiarnan A. S. Doherty et al. ‘Stabilized tilted-octahedra halide perovskites inhibit local formation of performance-limiting phases.’ Science (2021). DOI: 10.1126/science.abl4890

Researchers have developed a method to stabilise a promising material known as perovskite for cheap solar cells, without compromising its near-perfect performance.

Tiarnan DohertyArtist's impression of formamidinium (FA)-based crystal


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Controlled burning of natural environments could help offset our carbon emissions

Thu, 23/12/2021 - 16:19

The finding points to a new method of manipulating the world’s natural capacity for carbon capture and storage, which can also help to maintain natural ecosystem processes. The results are published today in the journal Nature Geoscience.

“Using controlled burns in forests to mitigate future wildfire severity is a relatively well-known process. But we’ve found that in ecosystems including temperate forests, savannahs and grasslands, fire can stabilise or even increase soil carbon,” said Dr Adam Pellegrini in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, first author of the report.

He added: “Most of the fires in natural ecosystems around the globe are controlled burns, so we should see this as an opportunity. Humans are manipulating a process, so we may as well figure out how to manipulate it to maximise carbon storage in the soil.” 

Fire burns plant matter and organic layers within the soil, and in severe wildfires this leads to erosion and leaching of carbon. It can take years or even decades for lost soil carbon to re-accumulate. But the researchers say that fires can also cause other transformations within soils that can offset these immediate carbon losses, and may stabilise ecosystem carbon.

Fire stabilises carbon within the soil in several ways. It creates charcoal, which is very resistant to decomposition, and forms ‘aggregates’ – physical clumps of soil that can protect carbon-rich organic matter at the centre. Fire can also increase the amount of carbon bound tightly to minerals in the soil.

“Ecosystems can store huge amounts of carbon when the frequency and intensity of fires is just right. It’s all about the balance of carbon going into soils from dead plant biomass, and carbon going out of soils from decomposition, erosion, and leaching,” said Pellegrini. 

When fires are too frequent or intense - as is often the case in densely planted forests - they burn all the dead plant material that would otherwise decompose and release carbon into the soil. High-intensity fires can also destabilise the soil, breaking off carbon-based organic matter from minerals and killing soil bacteria and fungi. 

Without fire, soil carbon is recycled - organic matter from plants is consumed by microbes and released as carbon dioxide or methane. But infrequent, cooler fires can increase the retention of soil carbon through the formation of charcoal and soil aggregates that protect from decomposition.

The scientists say that ecosystems can also be managed to increase the amount of carbon stored in their soils. Much of the carbon in grasslands is stored below-ground, in the roots of the plants. Controlled burning, which helps encourage grass growth, can increase root biomass and therefore increase the amount of carbon stored.

“In considering how ecosystems should be managed to capture and store carbon from the atmosphere, fire is often seen as a bad thing. We hope this new study will show that when managed properly, fire can also be good - both for maintaining biodiversity and for carbon storage,” said Pellegrini. 

The study focused on carbon stored in topsoils, defined as those less than 30cm deep. More carbon is stored in the world’s soil than in the global vegetation and the atmosphere combined. Natural fires occur in most ecosystems worldwide, making fire an important process in global carbon cycling. 

This research was funded by the Gatsby Charitable Foundation. 

Reference
Pellegrini, A. F.A. et al: ‘Fire effects on the persistence of soil organic matter and long-term carbon storage’, Nature Geoscience, December 2021. DOI 10.1038/s41561-021-00867-1

 

Read more about Adam Pellegrini's research

Fire: The Great Manipulator

Forests' long-term capacity to store carbon is dropping in regions with extreme annual fires

 

Planting trees and suppressing wildfires do not necessarily maximise the carbon storage of natural ecosystems. A new study has found that prescribed burning can actually lock in or increase carbon in the soils of temperate forests, savannahs and grasslands.

When managed properly, fire can be good - both for maintaining biodiversity and for carbon storageAdam PellegriniPrescribed burn of grassland


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Clues to treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder found in recently evolved region of the ‘dark genome’

Thu, 23/12/2021 - 01:00

They say these new proteins can be used as biological indicators to distinguish between the two conditions, and to identify patients more prone to psychosis or suicide.

Schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are debilitating mental disorders that are hard to diagnose and treat. Despite being amongst the most heritable mental health disorders, very few clues to their cause have been found in the sections of our DNA known as genes.

The scientists think that hotspots in the ‘dark genome’ associated with the disorders may have evolved because they have beneficial functions in human development, but their disruption by environmental factors leads to susceptibility to, or development of, schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.

The results are published today in the journal Molecular Psychiatry.

“By scanning through the entire genome we’ve found regions, not classed as genes in the traditional sense, which create proteins that appear to be associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder,” said Dr Sudhakaran Prabakaran, who was based in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics when he conducted the research, and is senior author of the report.

He added: “This opens up huge potential for new druggable targets. It’s really exciting because nobody has ever looked beyond the genes for clues to understanding and treating these conditions before.” 

The researchers think that these genomic components of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are specific to humans - the newly discovered regions are not found in the genomes of other vertebrates. It is likely that the regions evolved quickly in humans as our cognitive abilities developed, but they are easily disrupted - resulting in the two conditions.

“The traditional definition of a gene is too conservative, and it has diverted scientists away from exploring the function of the rest of the genome,” said Chaitanya Erady, a researcher in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Genetics and first author of the study.  

She added: “When we look outside the regions of DNA classed as genes, we see that the entire human genome has the ability to make proteins, not just the genes. We’ve found new proteins that are involved in biological processes and are dysfunctional in disorders like schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.” 

The majority of currently available drugs are designed to target proteins coded by genes. The new finding helps to explain why schizophrenia and bipolar disorder are heritable conditions, and could provide new targets for future treatments.

Schizophrenia is a severe, long-term mental health condition that may result in hallucinations, delusions, and disordered thinking and behaviour, while bipolar disorder causes extreme mood swings ranging from mania to depression. The symptoms sometimes make the two disorders difficult to tell apart.

Prabakaran left his University position earlier this year to create the company NonExomics, in order to commercialise this and other discoveries. Cambridge Enterprise, the commercialisation arm of the University of Cambridge, has assisted NonExomics by licensing the intellectual property. Prabakaran has raised seed funding to develop new therapeutics that will target the proteins implicated in schizophrenia and bipolar disorder, and other diseases. 

His team has now discovered 248,000 regions of DNA outside of the regions conventionally defined as genes, which code for new proteins that are disrupted in disease.

Reference
Erady, C. et al: ‘Novel open reading frames in human accelerated regions and transposable elements reveal new leads to understand schizophrenia and bipolar disorder’, Molecular Psychiatry, December 2021. DOI 10.1038/s41380-021-01405-6

 

Scientists investigating the DNA outside our genes - the ‘dark genome’ - have discovered recently evolved regions that code for proteins associated with schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

This opens up huge potential for new druggable targets. It’s really exciting because nobody has ever looked beyond the genes for clues to understanding and treating these conditions before.Sudhakaran PrabakaranBrano on UnsplashDNAAt a glance 
  • Genes code for proteins - the building blocks of life. The current definition of a gene only accounts for around 1.5% of our entire DNA
  • Very little is known about the function of regions of DNA outside our genes - termed the ‘dark genome’
  • A Cambridge-led team recently discovered that proteins are produced by over 248,000 regions of the ‘dark genome’, and are disrupted in multiple diseases
  • Now they have discovered new proteins arising from recently evolved regions of the ‘dark genome’, which could be targeted in the diagnosis and treatment of schizophrenia and bipolar disorder

 

 


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

New grafting technique could combat the disease threatening Cavendish bananas

Wed, 22/12/2021 - 16:00

Grafting is the technique of joining the shoot of one plant with the root of another, so they continue to grow together as one. Until now it was thought impossible to graft grass-like plants in the group known as monocotyledons because they lack a specific tissue type, called the vascular cambium, in their stem. 

Researchers at the University of Cambridge have discovered that root and shoot tissues taken from the seeds of monocotyledonous grasses - representing their earliest embryonic stages - fuse efficiently. Their results are published today in the journal Nature.

An estimated 60,000 plants are monocotyledons; many are crops that are cultivated at enormous scale, for example rice, wheat and barley. 

The finding has implications for the control of serious soil-borne pathogens including Panama Disease, or ‘Tropical Race 4’, which has been destroying banana plantations for over 30 years. A recent acceleration in the spread of this disease has prompted fears of global banana shortages.

“We’ve achieved something that everyone said was impossible. Grafting embryonic tissue holds real potential across a range of grass-like species. We found that even distantly related species, separated by deep evolutionary time, are graft compatible,” said Professor Julian Hibberd in the University of Cambridge’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the report.

The technique allows monocotyledons of the same species, and of two different species, to be grafted effectively. Grafting genetically different root and shoot tissues can result in a plant with new traits – ranging from dwarf shoots, to pest and disease resistance.

The scientists found that the technique was effective in a range of monocotyledonous crop plants including pineapple, banana, onion, tequila agave and date palm. This was confirmed through various tests, including the injection of fluorescent dye into the plant roots – from where it was seen to move up the plant and across the graft junction.

“I read back over decades of research papers on grafting and everybody said that it couldn’t be done in monocots. I was stubborn enough to keep going - for years - until I proved them wrong,” said Dr Greg Reeves, a Gates Cambridge Scholar in the University of Cambridge Department of Plant Sciences, and first author of the paper.

He added: “It’s an urgent challenge to make important food crops resistant to the diseases that are destroying them. Our technique allows us to add disease resistance, or other beneficial properties like salt-tolerance, to grass-like plants without resorting to genetic modification or lengthy breeding programmes.”

The world’s banana industry is based on a single variety, called the Cavendish banana - a clone that can withstand long-distance transportation. With no genetic diversity between plants, the crop has little disease-resilience. And Cavendish bananas are sterile, so disease resistance can’t be bred into future generations of the plant. Research groups around the world are trying to find a way to stop Panama Disease before it becomes even more widespread. 

Grafting has been used widely since antiquity in another plant group called the dicotyledons. Dicotyledonous orchard crops including apples and cherries, and high value annual crops including tomatoes and cucumbers, are routinely produced on grafted plants because the process confers beneficial properties - such as disease resistance or earlier flowering.  

The researchers have filed a patent for their grafting technique through Cambridge Enterprise. They have also received funding from Ceres Agri-Tech, a knowledge exchange partnership between five leading UK universities and three renowned agricultural research institutes. 

“Panama disease is a huge problem threatening bananas across the world. It’s fantastic that the University of Cambridge has the opportunity to play a role in saving such an important food crop,” said Dr Louise Sutherland, Director Ceres Agri-Tech.

Ceres Agri-Tech, led by the University of Cambridge, was created and managed by Cambridge Enterprise. It has provided translational funding as well as commercialisation expertise and support to the project, to scale up the technique and improve its efficiency.

This research was funded by the Gates Cambridge Scholarship programme.

Reference
Reeves, G. et al: ‘Monocotyledonous plants graft at the embryonic root-shoot interface.’ Nature, December 2021. DOI 10.1038/s41586-021-04247-y

Scientists have found a novel way to combine two species of grass-like plant including banana, rice and wheat, using embryonic tissue from their seeds. The technique allows beneficial characteristics, such as disease resistance or stress tolerance, to be added to the plants.  

Our technique allows us to add disease resistance, or other beneficial properties like salt-tolerance, to grass-like plants without resorting to genetic modification or lengthy breeding programmesGreg ReevesThis file is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license. Credit:Steve HopsonBananas


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution-Noncommercial-ShareAlike

Could acid-neutralising life-forms make habitable pockets in Venus’ clouds?

Mon, 20/12/2021 - 20:00

It’s hard to imagine a more inhospitable world than our closest planetary neighbour. With an atmosphere thick with carbon dioxide, and a surface hot enough to melt lead, Venus is a scorched and suffocating wasteland where life as we know it could not survive. The planet’s clouds are similarly hostile, blanketing the planet in droplets of sulphuric acid caustic enough to burn a hole through human skin.

And yet, a new study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, supports the long-held theory that, if life exists, it might make a home in Venus’ clouds. The study’s authors, from MIT, Cardiff University, and the University of Cambridge, have identified a chemical pathway by which life could neutralise Venus’ acidic environment, creating a self-sustaining, habitable pocket in the clouds.

Within Venus’ atmosphere, scientists have long observed puzzling anomalies — chemical signatures that are hard to explain, such as small concentrations of oxygen and nonspherical particles unlike sulphuric acid’s round droplets. Perhaps most puzzling is the presence of ammonia, a gas that was tentatively detected in the 1970s, and that by all accounts should not be produced through any chemical process known on Venus.

In their new study, the researchers modelled a set of chemical processes to show that if ammonia is indeed present, the gas would set off a cascade of chemical reactions that not only neutralises surrounding droplets of sulphuric acid, but also would explain most of the anomalies observed in Venus’ clouds. As for the source of ammonia itself, the authors propose the most plausible explanation is of biological origin, rather than an non-biological source such as lightning or volcanic eruptions.

The chemistry suggests that life could be making its own environment on Venus.

This hypothesis is testable, and the researchers provide a list of chemical signatures for future missions to measure in Venus’ clouds, to either confirm or contradict their idea. 

“No life that we know of could survive in the Venus droplets,” said study co-author Sara Seager, from MIT. “But the point is, maybe some life is there, and is modifying its environment so that it is livable.”

‘Life on Venus’ was a trending phrase last year, when scientists including Seager and her co-authors reported the detection of phosphine in the planet’s clouds. On Earth, phosphine is a gas that is produced mainly through biological interactions. The discovery of phosphine on Venus leaves room for the possibility of life. Since then, however, the discovery has been widely contested.

“The phosphine detection ended up becoming incredibly controversial,” said Seager. “But phosphine was like a gateway, and there’s been this resurgence in people studying Venus.”

Inspired to look more closely, co-author Dr Paul Rimmer from Cambridge’s Department of Earth Sciences began combing through data from past missions to Venus. In these data, he identified anomalies, or chemical signatures, in the clouds that had gone unexplained for decades. In addition to the presence of oxygen and nonspherical particles, anomalies included unexpected levels of water vapor and sulphur dioxide.

Rimmer proposed the anomalies might be explained by dust. He argued that minerals, swept up from Venus’ surface and into the clouds, could interact with sulphuric acid to produce some, but not all of the observed anomalies. He showed the chemistry checked out. But the physical requirements were unfeasible: A massive amount of dust would have to loft into the clouds to produce the observed anomalies. “The hypothesis requires either large amounts of water-rich volcanism or transport of a lot of dust rich in hydroxide salts,” he said. “So far, I have been unable to identify a plausible mineralogy for this mechanism.”

The researchers wondered if the anomalies could be explained by ammonia. In the 1970s, the gas was tentatively detected in the planet’s clouds by the Venera 8 and Pioneer Venus probes. The presence of ammonia, or NH3, was an unsolved mystery.

“Ammonia shouldn’t be on Venus,” said Seager. “It has hydrogen attached to it, and there’s very little hydrogen around. Any gas that doesn’t belong in the context of its environment is automatically suspicious for being made by life.”

If the team were to assume that life was the source of ammonia, could this explain the other anomalies in Venus’ clouds? The researchers modeled a series of chemical processes in search of an answer.

They found that if life were producing ammonia in the most efficient way possible, the associated chemical reactions would naturally yield oxygen. Once present in the clouds, ammonia would dissolve in droplets of sulphuric acid, effectively neutralising the acid to make the droplets relatively habitable. The introduction of ammonia into the droplets would transform their formerly round, liquid shape into more of a nonspherical, salt-like slurry. Once ammonia dissolved in sulphuric acid, the reaction would trigger any surrounding sulphur dioxide to dissolve as well.

The presence of ammonia could explain most of the major anomalies seen in Venus’ clouds. The researchers also show that sources such as lightning, volcanic eruptions, and even a meteorite strike could not chemically produce the amount of ammonia required to explain the anomalies. Life, however, might.

In fact, the team notes that there are life-forms on Earth — particuarly in our own stomachs — that produce ammonia to neutralise and make livable an otherwise highly acidic environment.

“This hypothesis predicts that the tentative detection of oxygen and ammonia in Venus’s clouds by probes will be confirmed by future missions, and that both life and ammonium sulphite and sulphate are present in the largest droplets in the lower part of the cloud,” said Rimmer, who is also affiliated with the Cavendish Laboratory and the MRC Laboratory for Molecular Biology. “There are also several remaining mysteries: if life is there, how does it propagate in an environment as dry as the clouds of Venus? If it is making water when neutralising the droplets, what happens to that water? If life is not in the clouds of Venus, what alternative abiotic chemistry is taking place to explain this depletion of sulphur dioxide and water? Future lab experiments and missions will be able to test these predictions and may shed light on these outstanding mysteries.”

Scientists may have a chance to check for the presence of ammonia, and signs of life, in the next several years with the Venus Life Finder Missions, a set of proposed privately funded missions that plan to send spacecraft to Venus to measure its clouds for ammonia and other signatures of life.

This research was supported in part by the Simons Foundation, the Change Happens Foundation, and the Breakthrough Initiatives.

Reference:
William Bains et al. ‘Production of ammonia makes Venusian clouds habitable and explains observed cloud-level chemical anomalies.’ Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2021). DOI: 10.1073/pnas.2110889118

Adapted from an MIT news story.

A new study shows it’s theoretically possible. The hypothesis could be tested soon with proposed Venus-bound missions.

If life is there, how does it propagate in an environment as dry as the clouds of Venus? Paul RimmerNASA/JPL-CaltechVenus from Mariner 10


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Public Domain

Omicron may be significantly better at evading vaccine-induced immunity, but less likely to cause severe disease

Mon, 20/12/2021 - 15:37

As the SARS-CoV-2 virus replicates and spreads, errors in its genetic code can lead to changes in the virus. On 26 November 2021, the World Health Organization designated the variant B.1.1.529, first identified in South Africa, a variant of concern, named Omicron. The variant carries a large number of mutations, leading to concern that it will leave vaccines less effective at protecting against infection and illness.

Working in secure conditions, a team led by Professor Ravi Gupta at the Cambridge Institute of Therapeutic Immunology and Infectious Disease, University of Cambridge, created synthetic viruses – known as ‘pseudoviruses’ – that carried key mutations found in the Delta and Omicron strains. They used these to study the virus’s behaviour.

The team, which included collaborators from Japan, including Dr Kei Sato of Tokyo University, has released its data ahead of peer review because of the urgent need to share information relating to the pandemic, and particularly the new Omicron variant.

Professor Gupta and colleagues tested the pseudoviruses against blood samples donated to the NIHR COVID-19 BioResource. The blood samples were from vaccinated individuals who had received two doses of either the AstraZeneca (ChAdOx-1) or Pfizer (BNT162b2) vaccines.

On average, Omicron required around a ten-fold increase in the concentration of serum antibody in order to neutralise the virus, compared to Delta. Of particular concern, antibodies from the majority of individuals who had received two doses of the AstraZeneca vaccine were unable to neutralise the virus. The data were confirmed in live virus experiments.

Reassuringly, however, following a third dose of the Pfizer vaccine, both groups saw a significant increase in neutralisation.

Professor Gupta said: “The Omicron variant appears to be much better than Delta at evading neutralising antibodies in individuals who have received just two doses of the vaccine. A third dose ‘booster’ with the Pfizer vaccine was able to overturn this in the short term, though we’d still expect a waning in immunity to occur over time.”

Spike proteins on the surface of SARS-CoV-2 bind to ACE2, a protein receptor found on the surface of cells in the lung. 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.

To see how effective Omicron is at entering our cells, the team used their pseudoviruses to infect cells in lung organoids – ‘mini-lungs’ that model parts of the lung. Despite having three mutations that were predicted to favour the spike cleavage, the researchers found the Omicron spike protein to be less efficient than the Delta spike at cleaving the ACE2 receptor and entering the lung cells.

In addition, once Omicron had entered the cells, it was also less able than Delta to cause fusion between cells, a phenomenon associated with impaired cell-to-cell spread. Fused cells are often seen in respiratory tissues taken following severe disease. Indeed, when the team used a live Omicron virus and compared it to Delta in a spreading infection experiment using lung cells, Omicron was significantly poorer in replication, confirming the findings regarding impaired entry.

Professor Gupta added: “We speculate that the more efficient the virus is at infecting our cells, the more severe the disease might be. The fact that Omicron is not so good at entering lung cells and that it causes fewer fused cells with lower infection levels in the lab suggests this new variant may cause less severe lung-associated disease.

“While further work is needed to corroborate these findings, overall, it suggests that Omicron’s mutations present the virus with a double-edged sword: it’s got better at evading the immune system, but it might have lost some of its ability to cause severe disease.”

However, Professor Gupta urged caution.

“Omicron still represents a major public health challenge. Individuals who have only received two doses of the vaccine – or worse, none at all – are still at significant risk of COVID-19, and some will develop severe disease. The sheer number of new cases we are seeing every day reinforces the need for everyone to get their boosters as quickly as possible.”

The research was supported by Wellcome and the NIHR Cambridge Biomedical Research Centre.

Reference
Meng, B, et al. SARS-CoV-2 Omicron neutralising antibody evasion, replication and cell-cell fusion.

The Omicron variant of SARS-CoV-2 may be significantly better than previous variants at evading vaccine-induced antibodies, according to new research from Cambridge – but preliminary evidence suggests it is less likely to cause severe COVID-19 illness in the lungs.

Omicron’s mutations present the virus with a double-edged sword: it’s got better at evading the immune system, but it might have lost some of its ability to cause severe diseaseRavi GuptaNaeblys (Getty Images)SARS-CoV-2 3D rendering


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Film: the vaccine for fake news

Thu, 16/12/2021 - 13:02

Sander van der Linden has a nickname: Cambridge’s professor of “defence against the dark arts”. His team works with governments and organisations such as Google to find ways to fight against misinformation, disinformation and conspiracy theories. Watch Sander explain his radical idea: that people can be “inoculated” against falling for fake news.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

New model improves accuracy of machine learning in COVID-19 diagnosis while preserving privacy

Thu, 16/12/2021 - 10:48

The international team, led by the University of Cambridge and the Huazhong University of Science and Technology, used a technique called federated learning to build their model. Using federated learning, an AI model in one hospital or country can be independently trained and verified using a dataset from another hospital or country, without data sharing.

The researchers based their model on more than 9,000 CT scans from approximately 3,300 patients in 23 hospitals in the UK and China. Their results, reported in the journal Nature Machine Intelligence, provide a framework where AI techniques can be made more trustworthy and accurate, especially in areas such as medical diagnosis where privacy is vital.

AI has provided a promising solution for streamlining COVID-19 diagnoses and future public health crises. However, concerns surrounding security and trustworthiness impede the collection of large-scale representative medical data, posing a challenge for training a model that can be used worldwide.

In the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic, many AI researchers worked to develop models that could diagnose the disease. However, many of these models were built using low-quality data, ‘Frankenstein’ datasets, and a lack of input from clinicians. Many of the same researchers from the current study highlighted that these earlier models were not fit for clinical use in the spring of 2021.

“AI has a lot of limitations when it comes to COVID-19 diagnosis, and we need to carefully screen and curate the data so that we end up with a model that works and is trustworthy,” said co-first author Hanchen Wang from Cambridge’s Department of Engineering. “Where earlier models have relied on arbitrary open-sourced data, we worked with a large team of radiologists from the NHS and Wuhan Tongji Hospital Group to select the data, so that we were starting from a strong position.”

The researchers used two well-curated external validation datasets of appropriate size to test their model and ensure that it would work well on datasets from different hospitals or countries.

“Before COVID-19, people didn’t realise just how much data you needed to collect in order to build medical AI applications,” said co-author Dr Michael Roberts from AstraZeneca and Cambridge’s Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics. “Different hospitals, different countries all have their own ways of doing things, so you need the datasets to be as large as possible in order to make something that will be useful to the widest range of clinicians.”

The researchers based their framework on three-dimensional CT scans instead of two-dimensional images. CT scans offer a much higher level of detail, resulting in a better model. They used 9,573 CT scans from 3,336 patients collected from 23 hospitals located in China and the UK.

The researchers also had to mitigate for bias caused by the different datasets, and used federated learning to train a better generalised AI model, while preserving the privacy of each data centre in a collaborative setting.

For a fair comparison, the researchers validated all the models on the same data, without overlapping with the training data. The team had a panel of radiologists make diagnostic predictions based on the same set of CT scans, and compared the accuracy of the AI models and human professionals.

The researchers say their model is useful not just for COVID-19, but for any other diseases that can be diagnosed using a CT scan. “The next time there’s a pandemic, and there’s every reason to believe that there will be, we’ll be in a much better position to leverage AI techniques quickly so that we can understand new diseases faster,” said Wang.

“We’ve shown that encrypting medical data is possible, so we can build and use these tools while preserving patient privacy across internal and external borders,” said Roberts. “By working with other countries, we can do so much more than we can alone.”

The researchers are now collaborating with the newly-established WHO Hub for Pandemic and Epidemic Intelligence, to explore the possibility of advancing the privacy-preserving digital healthcare frameworks.


Reference:
Xiang Bai et al. ‘Advancing COVID-19 Diagnosis with Privacy-Preserving Collaboration in Artificial Intelligence.’ Nature Machine Intelligence (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s42256-021-00421-z

Researchers in the UK and China have developed an artificial intelligence (AI) model that can diagnose COVID-19 as well as a panel of professional radiologists, while preserving the privacy of patient data.

By working with other countries, we can do so much more than we can aloneMichael RobertsU.S. Department of EnergyCovid-19


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Public Domain

Gentrification changes the personality make-up of cities in just a few years

Thu, 16/12/2021 - 10:15

Rising house prices may change the personality make-up of US cities within a few years, with residents becoming increasingly open-minded – not just as wealthier people move in, but also among longer-term locals.

This is according to a University of Cambridge-led study of almost two million people in the US living across 199 cities. Psychologists tracked annual personality scores over nine years (2006 to 2014) and compared the data to local housing markets.

The researchers found that just a $50 rise in a city’s average housing prices saw the characteristic of “openness” increase significantly* among residents (relative to other US cities). Openness is one of five major personality traits, and captures levels of curiosity and creativity.

Changes in housing prices were associated with shifts in ‘Openness’ in US cities where the trait was already very high compared to the rest of the country, such as New York and Chicago.

Even in San Francisco, long famous for its open-minded residents, citywide levels of ‘Openness’ rose sharply over the nine-year period as average housing costs jumped by almost $200.

Previous research has shown that house prices largely reflect the prevalence of “social amenities”: from restaurants to theatres, sports venues, green spaces and well-performing schools.

The study’s authors point out that such amenities appeal to open-minded people, and argue that greater access to these facilities helps to drive “local cultures of openness”.

“Theorists going back to Karl Marx have argued that economic development drives national shifts in personality and culture,” said Dr Friedrich Götz, lead author of the study published today in the journal American Psychologist.

“We can now see how rapidly those changes occur in smaller and more nimble communities such as cities, where major cultural shifts can be experienced in just a few short years, rather than decades or centuries,” he said.

The trait of ‘Openness’ is strongly associated with liberal votes and attitudes as well as entrepreneurial activity. It is also linked to socioeconomic status: the desire and freedom to explore new experiences can be a side effect of sufficient wealth and security.

Data modeling was used to discount socio-economic status at an individual level by incorporating education and self-reported “social class” into calculations. The team also separated out the cities from overall national and state-level trends for ‘Openness’.

The psychologists then investigated two main ways that house prices and associated amenities are linked to personality shifts within urban populations. 

“Selective migration” is when certain types of people move to cities or neighbourhoods, having been attracted by the local culture. “Social acculturation” refers to changes in individual personalities, in this case through exposure to greater opportunities – from arts scenes to diverse cuisines – and more open-minded neighbours.

Researchers attempted to disentangle these effects by separating out the data into “established populations” – those who lived in a city prior to 2006, the earliest year in the study – and “newcomer populations”: those who relocated between 2006 and 2014.

The study showed both factors at play: rising housing costs predicted a significant increase in ‘Openness’ among both established and newcomer populations in cities right across the US.

“Substantial personality shifts within cities can and do occur within a couple of years,” said Dr Jason Rentfrow, the study’s senior author from Cambridge’s Department of Psychology and fellow of Fitzwilliam College.

“Cities are magnets for certain types of people, even as they become increasingly unaffordable – particularly for young people. These cultural changes may go on to affect the personality of long-term residents.”

“Research has shown that openness is related to economic resilience, creative capital and innovation, as well as liberal politics and arts,” said co-author Tobias Ebert. “The geographical clustering of personality reinforces existing social and economic differences across the country. We can see this reflected in contemporary political divisions.”

The study author’s point to cities such as Pittsburgh: once home to blue-collar industry, it was devastated by the manufacturing collapse in the 1970s, yet by the mid-1980s had become a hub for medicine and higher education – leading to rising housing costs and a cultural transformation that continues to attract the young and open-minded.

The researchers analysed all major personality traits, such as neuroticism and extroversion, as part of the study – but only openness was connected to housing costs. Importantly, the price of housing appears to drive local culture, but not vice versa: increases in openness did not predict more expensive housing.

Notes:

  • *An annual $50 increase in overall city-wide housing costs saw a city’s level of ‘openness’ rise by a .17 of standard deviation in the following year relative to other cities.
  • The 1,946,752 survey participants were all aged between 15 and 70, and provided a valid postal code. The data for housing costs incorporated changes in both homeowner costs and the total rent paid by tenants. 
  • Dr Friedrich Götz worked on the study while completing his PhD at the University of Cambridge. He has since taken up a position at the University of British Columbia.

Massive study of almost two million US residents reveals rising housing costs may drive increases in “openness” of character among both long-term and new inhabitants of a city.

Substantial personality shifts within cities can and do occur within a couple of yearsJason RentfrowMercedes Álvarez via Unsplash Mural in the SoHo district of New York, one of the US cities featured in the study.


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

YesLicense type: Attribution

More than 900 A-Level students will join STEM SMART widening participation programme

Wed, 15/12/2021 - 10:56

Every eligible student who applied by the 31 October deadline has been offered a place on the course which will support them through the final year and a half of their A-Levels. They will receive enhanced learning and encouragement from Cambridge academics and current students - around 300 of whom have come forward to mentor the sixth formers and answer their questions about university life.

As well as complementing the sixth formers’ classroom studies, the programme 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, Earth sciences and materials science) at top universities, including Cambridge.

When STEM SMART was announced in September, the University aimed 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. However following an enthusiastic response, more than 900 have been signed up nationwide, including in Belfast, Glasgow, Newcastle, Hull, Manchester, Liverpool, Plymouth, Cardiff and Bristol. 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.

Physics lecturer Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, who is co-directing the STEM SMART programme, said: “The response to the launch of STEM SMART has been amazing, and we are delighted to confirm places for more than 900 students, around 150 more than originally anticipated. Every eligible student who applied has been offered a place on the 17-month course of enhanced learning and we look forward to welcoming them at our launch at the beginning of January.”

Dr Michael Sutherland, co-director of STEM SMART, and Director of Studies in Natural Sciences at Corpus Christi College, said: “STEM SMART draws on the expertise of the University’s staff, the support of its Colleges, and the experience of its students – who came forward in their hundreds to act as mentors to these sixth formers. This innovative programme will complement the vital work of teachers in schools, and builds on the University’s work to help talented students access top universities regardless of background.”

STEM SMART (Subject Mastery and Attainment Raising Tuition) will provide A-Level (or equivalent) students with 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. It will be free to all students taking part, following generous support and funding from the University, Colleges and the Department for Education England. 

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.

More information is available here.
 

More than 900 talented sixth formers studying maths and science at state schools across the UK will next month join the University’s new STEM SMART widening participation pilot, launched to help bridge attainment gaps, mitigate COVID-19 disruption, and strengthen university applications.

Every eligible student who applied has been offered a place on the 17-month course of enhanced learning and we look forward to welcoming them at our launch at the beginning of January.Dr Lisa Jardine-Wright, co-director of the STEM SMART programme


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

Yes

Community of ethical hackers needed to prevent AI’s looming ‘crisis of trust’

Fri, 10/12/2021 - 09:55

The Artificial Intelligence industry should create a global community of hackers and “threat modellers” dedicated to stress-testing the harm potential of new AI products in order to earn the trust of governments and the public before it’s too late.

This is one of the recommendations made by an international team of risk and machine-learning experts, led by researchers at the University of Cambridge’s Centre for the Study of Existential Risk (CSER), who have authored a new “call to action” published in the journal Science.

They say that companies building intelligent technologies should harness techniques such as “red team” hacking, audit trails and “bias bounties” – paying out rewards for revealing ethical flaws – to prove their integrity before releasing AI for use on the wider public.   

Otherwise, the industry faces a “crisis of trust” in the systems that increasingly underpin our society, as public concern continues to mount over everything from driverless cars and autonomous drones to secret social media algorithms that spread misinformation and provoke political turmoil.

The novelty and “black box” nature of AI systems, and ferocious competition in the race to the marketplace, has hindered development and adoption of auditing or third party analysis, according to lead author Dr Shahar Avin of CSER. 

The experts argue that incentives to increase trustworthiness should not be limited to regulation, but must also come from within an industry yet to fully comprehend that public trust is vital for its own future – and trust is fraying.    

The new publication puts forward a series of “concrete” measures that they say should be adopted by AI developers.

“There are critical gaps in the processes required to create AI that has earned public trust. Some of these gaps have enabled questionable behavior that is now tarnishing the entire field,” said Avin.

“We are starting to see a public backlash against technology. This ‘tech-lash’ can be all encompassing: either all AI is good or all AI is bad.

“Governments and the public need to be able to easily identify the trustworthy, the snake-oil salesmen, and the clueless,” Avin said. “Once you can do that, there is a real incentive to be trustworthy. But while you can’t tell them apart, there is a lot of pressure to cut corners.”

Co-author and CSER researcher Haydn Belfield said: “Most AI developers want to act responsibly and safely, but it’s been unclear what concrete steps they can take until now. Our report fills in some of these gaps.”

The idea of AI “red teaming” – sometimes known as white-hat hacking – takes its cue from cyber-security.

“Red teams are ethical hackers playing the role of malign external agents,” said Avin. “They would be called in to attack any new AI, or strategise on how to use it for malicious purposes, in order to reveal any weaknesses or potential for harm.”

While a few big companies have internal capacity to “red team” – which comes with its own ethical conflicts – the report calls for a third-party community, one that can independently interrogate new AI and share any findings for the benefit of all developers.

A global resource could also offer high quality red teaming to the small start-up companies and research labs developing AI that could become ubiquitous. 

The new report, a concise update of more detailed recommendations published by a group of 59 experts last year, also highlights the potential for bias and safety “bounties” to increase openness and public trust in AI.

This means financially rewarding any researcher who uncovers flaws in AI that have the potential to compromise public trust or safety – such as racial or socioeconomic biases in algorithms used for medical or recruitment purposes.

Earlier this year, Twitter began offering bounties to those who could identify biases in their image-cropping algorithm.

Companies would benefit from these discoveries, say researchers, and be given time to address them before they are publicly revealed. Avin points out that, currently, much of this “pushing and prodding” is done on a limited, ad-hoc basis by academics and investigative journalists.

The report also calls for auditing by trusted external agencies – and for open standards on how to document AI to make such auditing possible – along with platforms dedicated to sharing “incidents”: cases of undesired AI behavior that could cause harm to humans.

These, along with meaningful consequences for failing an external audit, would significantly contribute to an “ecosystem of trust” say the researchers.

“Some may question whether our recommendations conflict with commercial interests, but other safety-critical industries, such as the automotive or pharmaceutical industry, manage it perfectly well,” said Belfield.

“Lives and livelihoods are ever more reliant on AI that is closed to scrutiny, and that is a recipe for a crisis of trust. It’s time for the industry to move beyond well-meaning ethical principles and implement real-world mechanisms to address this,” he said.

Added Avin: "We are grateful to our collaborators who have highlighted a range of initiatives aimed at tackling these challenges, but we need policy and public support to create an ecosystem of trust for AI.”

A global hacker “red team” and rewards for hunting algorithmic biases are just some of the recommendations from experts who argue that AI faces a “tech-lash” unless firm measures are taken to increase public trust.

We need policy and public support to create an ecosystem of trust for AIShahar AvinGettyHuman face in the algorithm


The text in this work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Images, including our videos, are Copyright ©University of Cambridge and licensors/contributors as identified.  All rights reserved. We make our image and video content available in a number of ways – as here, on our main website under its Terms and conditions, and on a range of channels including social media that permit your use and sharing of our content under their respective Terms.

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

 

CAS Mailing list