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By Dr Patrick Lewis, Associate Professor of Pharmacy

Theresa May speaking at a reception held at 10 Downing Street.

200 years ago the disorder that we now know as Parkinson’s disease was first described by James Parkinson, a surgeon and apothecary who lived in Hoxton, on the edge of the City of London.

On Monday I was fortunate to be invited to a reception at Downing Street hosted by the Prime Minister and Parkinson’s UK to mark this occasion. This brought together people with Parkinson’s, researchers and political leaders to highlight the challenges that are still faced by individuals living with Parkinson’s, their families, friends and carers despite the two centuries of research into this disorder.

Most importantly, there is still no disease modifying therapy – that is, a drug or intervention that either slows down or stops the progress of the brain cell loss that causes the symptoms of Parkinson’s.

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By Dr Mark Shanahan, Lecturer in Politics and International Relations

Deep Space Gateway in lunar orbit as proposed in 2017

This week, in the run-up to World Space Week, NASA announced a long-term co-operation project with Roscosmos, the Russian space agency to develop the Deep Space Gateway, a manned space station orbiting the moon.

The US agency sees this project as a stepping stone towards a manned mission to Mars. While of course there’s no detail, no dates and no certainty that this project has any more certainty than the mirage of the Southern border Wall, it’s a quite different take on space exploration by the Trump administration. Read the rest of this entry »

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By Laura Thei, University of Reading, UK

Reproduced with permission from The Physiological Society’s blog.

The watch, worn by years of use, sits ticking on our table for the first time in two years. It has a simple ivory face and is the last memorabilia my partner has from Grandad Percy. Percy passed from us after a long personal battle with dementia, specifically Alzheimer’s disease. It is in his name that my partner and I will take to the beautiful winding pathways beside the Thames, to raise money for the Alzheimer’s Society.

We will be taking part in a 7 km Memory Walk, with thousands of others, some my colleagues from the University, each sponsored generously by friends and families, each who has had their life touched by this disease in some way. Last year nearly 80,000 people took part in 31 walks, raising a record £6.6 million. As a researcher in Alzheimer’s disease, I am acutely aware of every penny’s impact in helping to solve the riddle of dementia.  Read the rest of this entry »

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An MQ-9 Reaper drone on a runway

An MQ-9 Reaper drone on a runway

By Dr Lawrence Hill-Cawthorne,
Associate Professor in Public International Law, University of Reading

A recent BBC news article reported on the development of a new, smaller type of armed drone that is able to aim and fire at targets in mid-flight, close to the ground. The drone is available for private sale, and the article notes the concern that such weapons technology could fall into the ‘wrong hands’ and be employed by terrorist organisations to target civilians. Indeed, it has been reported that Islamic State now uses low-cost drones in lethal ways by attaching explosives to them.

It is right to ask what happens if these weapons fall into the ‘wrong hands’. But whose, then, are the ‘right hands’? The assumption here, of course, is that States will use drones in a more reasonable, limited and law-abiding way. But we must not lose sight of the dangers potentially posed by drones in the hands of States.

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By Dr Simonetta Longhi, Associate Professor of Economics

Despite more than 20 years of anti-discrimination legislation in the UK, ethnic minorities on average are still paid less than the white British majority.  This is not something which is unique to the UK: ethnic and racial wage differentials are common in many developed countries.

But why?

There is no lack of academic research on this issue, so let’s look at what we have we learned. Although it is difficult to quantify, discrimination in the labour market is likely to play a role; but there are likely to be other factors.

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By Dr Gunter Kuhnle, Nutritional epidemiologist, University of Reading

A few years ago, the decision by the WHO to classify processed meat as carcinogenic to humans has resulted in a lot of headlines. Unsurprisingly, comparing a full English breakfast with cigarettes didn’t go down too well.

This was of course an exaggeration – but the fact remains that processed meat consumption can increase the risk of bowel cancer.

So what are the real risks?

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Earthworms are soil ecosystem engineers.  They are the key soil organisms that influence soil biology, nutrient availability and soil physical structure; and their abundance has been linked to significantly improving plant productivity.  The importance of earthworms has long been recognised, Charles Darwin stated “Without the work of this humble creature, who knows nothing of the benefits he confers upon mankind; agriculture as we know it would be very difficult, if not wholly impossible”.

However, natures ploughs, specifically large, deep burrowing earthworms, are decimated by conventional tillage.  This soil management practice accounts for >95 % of all conventional and organic cereal production in the UK. So, is this a threat we should be concerned about, could there be a future where no earthworms = no bread?  Soil management practices that sustain abundant deep burrowing earthworm populations often require a drastic change in conventional thinking.

The conversion from conventional tillage to conservation agriculture is the adoption of a new farming system using zero tillage (using specialised machinery), diverse crop rotations and permanent soil cover (such as mulches); and my research is investigating the impact of this system on soil health and crop productivity.  However, this system is not without controversy when #glyphosateisvital to zero tillage agronomy; igniting the public debate on ‘sustainable agriculture’.  Earthworms are a vital part of the soil system that generate key ecosystem services, the question is, do they play any role in producing the food that you choose to eat?

The impact of deep burrowing earthworms on soils is being showcased at our half-term event #wormscience at the Science Museum in London from the 29 – 31st May between 11 – 1pm; 2 – 4pm.

Dr Jackie Stroud, Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.

Phosphorus (P) is essential to all living things. Every single cell in plants, animals and microbes, down to our very own DNA requires P to survive and grow. Modern agriculture is dependent on P fertilizer, especially in high yielding systems where the biomass (and therefore the P) is continually exported to local, or sometimes international markets. Since the UK does not have an internal supply for P fertilizers, it is dependent on outside sources and makes it vulnerable to political instability and potential price fluctuations. The recent seizure of a New Zealand bound phosphate shipment highlights this issue. On the other hand, over application of P-containing compounds to soil may lead to serious environmental issues, such as algal blooms in down-stream waters. Nutrient transport is becoming an increasing concern as extreme weather events and flooding occur more frequently. Our food supply and the state of our environment is at risk and we must identify solutions now.

One possibility for reducing fertilizer requirements and decreasing the concentration of P in runoff is to improve the efficiency of P uptake by plants. Soils contain an abundance of P in various forms, although only a very small percentage of P may be present as orthophosphate (PO4) that can be taken up by plants. To deal with low PO4 concentrations, plants and microbes have evolved with remarkable (but poorly understood) techniques to break down larger molecules into usable forms. For example, many bacteria contain a set of genes that “turn on” when they don’t have enough orthophosphate (PO4) in their environment. This triggers the production of enzymes to break a bond in larger organic P molecules, thus freeing the PO4 for uptake.

Phosphorus cycling in the soil-microbe-plant continuum of agri-ecosystems aims to identify how plants and microbes can work together to improve P utilisation from the soil. We are growing oilseed rape plants in field soils (pictured) under controlled conditions to evaluate the effects of P fertilizer application and bacterial inoculants on soil enzymes, changes in P forms and plant growth. The focus is on the rhizosphere, the soil closest to the root, since this can be a hotspot for microbial activity and biochemical reactions. Advanced techniques in genomics, transcriptomics and proteomics are being applied, in combination with 31P nuclear magnetic resonance and enzymology to characterise the microbes, plants and soils. Ultimately, we need to understand the basic mechanisms to be able to create more sustainable production systems.

Dr Tandra Fraser, post-doctoral researcher , Soil Security Programme

This post is one of several posts about our work as part of the Soil Security Programme for Global Soil Week. Find out more about our work here.