Science and environment

The fragility of science and how it can quickly go wrong

In a very short space of time, humans have found a way to live longer lives. We've doubled our life expectancy with scientific and medical innovations. Science writer Steven Johnson investigates how we managed to achieve this incredible feat and how easily it could all change.

The fragility of science and how it can quickly go wrong
0:00 / 20:24
Science and environment

Puppies are biologically wired to communicate with people

A new study from the University of Arizona has revealed that puppies are born ready to communicate with people and exhibit social skills and interest in human faces by eight weeks of age. Evolutionary biologist Gita Gnanadesikan from the Arizona Canine Cognition Centre is with us to discuss the study's findings and the unique relationship between dogs and their owners.

Puppies are biologically wired to communicate with people
0:00 / 13:22
Science and environment

How fresh is the air we breathe?

Now to something most of us probably take for granted, thinking we live in a clean green part of the world and believing we are surrounded by fresh air. But are we? Dr Joel Rindelaub from the University of Auckland is an analytical chemist who specialises in air quality and environmental research. From plastic particles to illicit drugs - he says many people would be surprised by what they're actually breathing in. Air pollution is the number one environmental threat to human health worldwide and he says New Zealand isn't exempt.

How fresh is the air we breathe?
0:00 / 16:06
Science and environment

Expert feature: Prehistoric monsters of the sea

We're talking sea monsters today - not the mythical kind - but real ones that roamed the sea millions of years ago. Senior curator of palaeontology at the Queensland Museum Network, Dr Espen Knutsen, joins us on the show to tell us about these prehistoric creatures. That comes as Auckland Museum prepares to host a sea monsters exhibition in July - direct from the Australian National Maritime Museum.

Expert feature: Prehistoric monsters of the sea
0:00 / 20:09
Science and environment

Harry Boorman’s big bird year

Harry Boorman is on a mission to see as many birds around the world as possible. The UK birder lives in Aotearoa and while working in Auckland is desperately getting to as many places as he can to see what birds NZ has to offer.

Harry Boorman’s big bird year
0:00 / 15:34
Science and environment

Used condoms, tampons being flushed onto Wellington beaches

Cotton bud sticks, tampon wrappers, used condoms, hair pins and razorblade-heads: all items you probably would not want to see again after being used, let alone washed up on our beaches. But with these items being regularly flushed down the toilet, unfortunately, they are. Moa Point Treatment Plant, roughly 20 years old, has 70 million litres of sewage pass through every single day. Those who work there have to deal with more than just the Three P's (poo, pee and toilet paper), but - along with anything else flushed down the toilets  - waste from meatworks, restaurants, washing machines, and more. One of the first steps is to filter out all the objects that should not be going through the pipes. This is done using steel screens 3mm wide. "They catch the solids that come through, the rubbish that comes through in the wastewater," explained Steve Hutchison, Wellington Water's Chief Wastewater Advisor. "They lift it up, and they drop it into a conveyor at the back so we can then send it into the landfill." They have found all manner of objects. Wet wipes are common, but also sanitary items, and even the odd credit card. There is always a lot of it - about 600 tonnes of the stuff is trucked from Moa Point to the landfill every year. It has become an arduous job, and one they wouldn't have to do if people put the items in the bin. Hutchison said dealing with what came to the treatment plant was not the main problem, however. "The bigger problem is back in the network, where you get blockages," he said. "If you have a displaced joint in a pipe, then a wet wipe can catch on it, then another wet wipe will catch on it, another one, the fat might build up behind it, and before you know it, you've blocked the sewer pipe, and the sewage is coming out and spilling onto the road, maybe onto someone's backyard, maybe onto the stream and harbour." Teams are called out to unblock these fatbergs a few times every day. Hutchison believed people were continuing to flush these items because of a persistent lack of awareness in the general public about their impact. Wellington Water public education campaigns had not worked to much effect, with the scale of rubbish coming through not decreasing. Meanwhile, many wet wipes continue to claim they are "flushable". "There's a technical standard produced in Germany which assessed they were flushable, Hutchison said. "But that was all based on brand new, perfect sewers. What we've got in the rest of the world is some older sewers." Water New Zealand has been working with other agencies from other nations to try to get the standards for flushable items changed. Many items not making it to the treatment plant One charity has spotted another trend with the objects people flush down their toilets. Tarakena Bay - a small, grey-sanded beach where little blue penguins nest, less than a mile away from Wellington airport - is one of 200 sites being monitored by Sustainable Coastlines' Litter Intelligence Programme. For three years volunteers have been surveying the beach, and recording what rubbish they find. "I sometimes feel like I'm a modern day archaeologist doing this work," said Sustainable Coastlines Citizen Science Manager Ben Knight. "You're often having to piece together what the items are, where they came from, categorise them accurately obviously, and then think about where they might have come from. "This one here - chapstick tube - could have come through the stormwater system, but also this is the type of item that we typically find when we find the cotton bud sticks. "You can imagine someone throwing it into the loo, flushing it, assuming it's problem solved for them, and then it spilling out of that sewage treatment system and onto the beach." Knight said they are continually finding tampon wrappers, condoms, hair pins and disposable razorblade heads. Rural beaches also finding sanitary items It is not just Wellington's beaches which are exposed to the problem - cotton bud sticks repeatedly pop up elsewhere. "They are widely distributed within the database, so over 40 sites, about 20 percent of our survey areas, we're finding them. "I was up at Kai Iwi Beach which is north of Whanganui, a rural beach, just a couple of weeks ago and we found half a dozen of them up there. It just shows you how widely distributed they are." It not definitely known how these items are getting out of the pipes and onto the beach. Knight said the theory was that during heavy rainfall events, stormwater got into the sewage system, overwhelming the pumping stations. That would result in an overflow, with the built-up refuse getting washed out into the stormwater network and onto the beach. He said such objects damaged the wildlife, the ecosystems, and the general cleanliness of the beaches. He and Wellington Water agreed there was an immediate - and urgent - solution. "Ultimately the solution is actually quite simple," Knight said. "In the first instance, don't buy single-use plastic items, sanitary items, personal care items, cotton bud sticks if you can avoid it. "Where you can't avoid purchasing these items, don't dispose of them in the toilet." That might stop items washing up on shores, but it would not stop sewage contaminating beaches, and what we see could be just the tip of the iceberg with much much more heading out into the sea, not to be seen again. "We don't know at the moment what percentage of the total marine litter load comes ashore, but I think it'd be safe to assume it's a small percentage of the total litter load that is making its way out into the marine environment."

Used condoms, tampons being flushed onto Wellington beaches
0:00 / 5:12
Science and environment

When disease research gets personal

Looking for answers Warren Tate hadn't heard of the disease that would become such a big part of his life until his 14 year-old daughter, got glandular fever. Instead of recovering normally from this viral infection, her fatigue, pain and noise sensitivity symptoms worsened, and, months later, after ruling out everything else, she was given the diagnosis - Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (ME/CFS). Other scientists in Warren's lab also have a deeply personal connection to the research topic. Anna Blair, who is interning at lab, has ME/CFS herself. Jemma Ellie, who is investigating cellular changes during the post exertional malaise response (a term for a type of exhaustion ME/CFS sufferers feel after doing strenuous exercise or thought), has first-hand experience of what the disease can mean for families. The medical history and background to ME/CFS is convoluted, and includes a fair share of controversy and scientific dispute. ME/CFS is a chronic, multi-system disorder that has proven difficult for scientists to unravel. Warren and his biochemistry research lab group in the University of Otago have been trying to help solve this puzzle by looking for changes at the DNA and cellular level. This could help them figure out what causes the disease or help them identify a specific biological marker that could be used for diagnosis. Recently, they looked for changes in DNA and proteins of immune cells taken from the blood of ME/CFS patients. In 2020 they reported significant differences between with regards DNA methylation and some protein levels between the patients and the healthy controls (samples taken from people who don't suffer from ME/CFS). Because DNA methylation (the adding of a little molecule called a methyl group to DNA) is known to change the expression of genes (that is, which genes get read, and the instructions in them are used to make a protein) it is likely that this difference is impacting gene expression in these patients. When they looked closely at the changes in protein levels in ME/CFS patients (some proteins were there in increased amounts, some in decreased amounts) they found that the careful balance of proteins related to the mitochondria was disrupted. Now they are investigating whether they can see the same pattern of DNA and cellular changes in patients that are suffering from long Covid. ME/CFS and long Covid patients report similar symptoms, a fact that has prompted this investigation, just as the influx of long Covid patient numbers has increased general awareness and support for research. In this week's episode the members of the Tate lab tell their stories of both experiencing and researching ME/CFS, talk about their current experiments, and describe their hopes for the future. Want to know more? You can listen to other interviews related to this topic: Both Warren Tate and Rosamund Vallings have spoken to RNZ's nine to noon in February 2021 about ME/CFS and long haul Covid-19. There is also this RNZ interview with Ron Davis of Stanford (Warren mentions his research in this week's episode). The papers mentioned in this episode that investigated proteome and DNA methylation changes are available here and here. If you want to learn about some of the initial outbreaks spoken about, and get a sample of the debate around them, you can read this original report on the 1955 Royal Free Hospital outbreak, followed by an article in 1970 claiming it was epidemic hysteria, and then a recent (2021) reanalysis claiming that the evidence is inconsistent with hysteria. The original report of the New Zealand outbreak in Tapanui is available here. Follow Our Changing World on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Stitcher, iHeartRADIO, Google Podcasts, RadioPublic or wherever you listen to your podcasts

When disease research gets personal
0:00 / 30:41
Science and environment

New book challenges Kiwi farming stereotypes

Asked to think of a 'typical Kiwi farmer' and your mind might stray to a Fred Dagg or a Wal Footrot, but a new book has captured the diversity of those making a living off the land. The Kiwi Farmers Guide to Life: Rural Tales from the Heartland has been written by agricultural journalist Tim Fulton. It includes 25 stories of those in the agriculture, mostly farmers or farming families - but also agribusiness entrepreneurs and scientists. The book doesn't shy away from examining farming's modern-day challenges - such as waterway pollution, or its historical problems - including discrimination against migrants. From Fieldays, Fulton told Kathyrn Ryan no one had ever told him, in his twenty years of writing on the sector, that he could just go out and talk to whoever he wanted. The opportunity to write the book he says was "like a journalist's dream". Ten years ago, Fulton says he would have been fearful agriculture would become heavily corporatised, but family farmers have adapted and have reinvented themselves. He comes from a farming background and his parents own a dairy farm, which they bought after selling their sheep and crop farm in 2000. Gurnek Bindra is one of the farmers profiled in the book. Bindra – who runs a dairy farm in Waikato – says as a fourth generation New Zealander, everyone who came before him did market gardening, scrub cutting and dairy farming. “My great-grandfather came to New Zealand in 1920 he...ended up doing market gardening in Pukekohe, Counties Manukau there. Then my grandfather came in 1950 by himself and he cut a lot of scrub down in the King Country and worked on sheep farms and what-not then went back to India and got married and brought his wife and three boys over in the late 50s and carried on from there.” His grandfather ended up purchasing market garden blocks on the Bombay Hills and it’s still owned by the family today. In the early 70s, with an ambition to keep growing, he purchased the farm Bindra is still farming. “We’ve always had the opportunity to pursue our own ambitions, you know everyone’s got their own personalities and ideas of how life should be and we’ve never been held back to say look we have to work the farm.” Bindra always loved the farm and has always lived there, even while studying. “You can take the boy out of the farm, but you can’t take the farm out of the boy.” With qualifications in architectural drafting, Bindra says he studied because he wanted to bring that knowledge back home to the farm. His wife has a background in banana farming and helps to run the family farm too. With young three kids, he says hopefully his they will take over one day. “They all love to go out with granddad on the farm.”

New book challenges Kiwi farming stereotypes
0:00 / 13:18
Science and environment

Investigation launched into plastic beads at Tairua Beach

An investigation has been launched into whether mysterious plastic beads that have appeared scattered across Tairua Beach could be from the wreck of the Rena, which sank almost 10 years ago. It follows a big community effort over the weekend to clean up the small plastic balls, which have also been found in the stomach of fish caught in the area. If they're found to have come from the Rena, it will unlock funds set aside to deal with the disaster and a cleanup will need to be organised by the managers of the wreck. But as Ella Stewart reports, it's not clear whether pockets of Rena debris remain buried beneath the sand, at risk of being dislodged in future storms.

Investigation launched into plastic beads at Tairua Beach
0:00 / 7:01

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