Where’s The Beef? How Veggies Might Save the World

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We have a problem on our hands: over the past 50 years, global meat production has almost quadrupled. And with it, we’ve seen serious environmental consequences.

In the words of the United Nations, the meat industry is one of the “most significant contributors to the most serious environmental problems, at every scale from local to global”. Livestock accounts for approximately 14.5% of all emissions – that’s more than all global travel combined.

A 2016 study found that cutting down on meat consumption in favour of more veggies could save 8 million lives by 2050, and cut greenhouse gas emissions by two thirds. But whilst the appetite for meat is decreasing in some of the heaviest meat-eating countries – including the USA, New Zealand and the UK – rapidly increasing demand in China and parts of Africa is likely to see overall meat consumption continue to soar.

Delicious Lab Burger

So is it time to end our love affair with meat? Well, not necessarily. For those of us who couldn’t countenance a life without hamburgers and hotdogs, there may be another way. ‘Lab grown’ meat could allow us to keep meat on our tables, without the devastating environmental cost.

The technique uses stem cells gathered from cow muscle tissue. Stem cells have the unique ability to develop into any kind of cell in the body, from blood cells to brain cells. In the laboratory, scientists can trigger the cow muscle cells to replicate, until they have enough to create muscle fibre and, eventually, a material similar to minced beef.

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Sound icky? Well, the finished product – whilst not technically meat as we know it – reportedly looks, smells and tastes exactly like the real deal. In a 2013 taste test of lab-grown meat, food critics reported finding the meat almost indistinguishable from regular meat, if a little less juicy.

And it’s not just beef that’s getting the lab treatment. Stem cell techniques could also allow us to reproduce chicken meat, providing a substitute for another major source of global meat consumption.

Experts estimate that lab-grown meat could become available in supermarkets within the next 3-4 years, and that a ‘lab burger’ could eventually cost the same or even cheaper than a regular one. And what’s more, lab-grown meat could have a huge impact on combatting global warming.

Could Lab Meat Really Change The World?

A 2011 study found that lab-grown meat produces 96% less greenhouse-gas emissions, uses up to 99% less land, 96% less water, and 45% less energy than conventional meat.

And the benefits aren’t just environmental. Disease is currently a huge problem in the meat industry. Infections such as salmonella and E. coli are rife in the crowded factories that house farm animals. To prevent the spread of disease, animals are fed huge amounts of antibiotics. This practice helps infections to develop resistance to antibiotics, leading to antibiotic resistance: a serious threat to human populations.

Vegetarians and vegans could also rest easy eating lab grown meat, in the knowledge that the practice is virtually cruelty free. Were the new practice to become viable on a global scale, then the brutalities of large-scale factory farming could eventually become a thing of the past.

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Of course, lab grown meat brings its own set of challenges. Many people may feel squeamish or anxious about consuming something that was grown in a laboratory rather than reared on a farm. And it will take time to bring down costs enough so that the new meat is readily available to most consumers.

But lab grown meat has huge potential, and offers us a way out of the environmental, ethical and medical issues associated with the existing meat industry. Whilst lab grown meat might not be for everyone, this innovation could help us to create a better world and keep meat firmly on the menu.

 

A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail

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Science Vs Ageing: The Battle Against Age-Related Disease

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Good news! We’re all living longer than ever before. The average life expectancy for a child born in the UK today is about 80 years, and within 20 years, the average life expectancy at birth could be nearing 100.

We have a number of factors to thank for our increased longevity, including healthier lifestyles, public health initiatives and, of course, good old science. It goes without saying that longevity is generally a good thing, but an ageing population does present certain challenges: particularly for healthcare and medical research.

Dementia: A New Foe

Over the past 100 years, we’ve seen the leading causes of death shift from respiratory and infectious diseases to dementia and coronary heart disease. Last year, Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia became the leading cause of death in the UK. Approximately 850,000 citizens are currently affected, and that figure is expected to rise to around 2 million by 2050.

The mortality rate for dementia has more than doubled since 2010, and because it is currently incurable, diagnosis is a lifelong condition. Part of the challenge is that we’re not certain what causes dementia or exactly how the disease progresses.

By the time dementia is diagnosed, extensive brain damage has often already occurred. And so researchers are carrying out a long-term study to try and identify changes – such as imperceptible alterations in movement – that could indicate the very early stages of dementia.

In the most in-depth Alzheimer’s study to date, the group will observe 250 healthy volunteers over a one year period. They will use modern diagnostics, including retinal imaging, brain scans, cognitive testing, blood tests and wearable technology, to learn more about the physical manifestations of Alzheimer’s.

This is vital research, because the more knowledge we have, the better equipped we are to provide early, effective treatment that shuts down the disease before it has a chance to develop.

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Preventing Heart Disease

Of course, dementia isn’t the only age-related illness on the rise. Cardiovascular disease affects an estimated 7 million people in the UK and as the population ages, rates of heart disease are significantly increasing. And yet, a 2017 study published in the journal Family Practice found that survival rates for patients with heart failure have not improved since 1998. In a survey of 54,313 patients, less than 30% survived more than 10 years after diagnosis.

But it’s not all grim news. Long-term studies of patient behaviours are helping us to learn more about the risk factors for heart disease and what actions we can take to reduce our chances of contracting illness in later life.

We already know that inactivity is bad for our health, but recent research has gone so far as to identify the exact sports we should play if we want to avoid cardiovascular disease.

In an eight year survey of 80,000 adults, scientists found that whilst football and running had little significant preventative impact, racquet sports like tennis were associated with a 56% lower risk of death from cardiovascular disease. Meanwhile, swimming showed a 41% lower risk, and aerobics a 36% lower risk.


Coronary heart disease is a chronic condition – there is no cure. But it can be both prevented and managed, and as we learn more, we will become better at preventing, treating and managing this condition.

There’s still much work to be done to address the challenges inherent in population ageing. But we mustn’t lose sight of the fact that living longer, healthier lives can be a wonderful thing. We can now stay active for longer than ever before – that means more time to explore, more time to spend with loved ones, more time to enjoy the beauty and variety of life.

 

A version of this article was originally published in The Oxford Mail

Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Bot? Advances in AI

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From Star Trek to I, Robot, sci-fi has always loved artificial intelligence; but smart machines are no longer purely the stuff of fiction. AI is already a part of our daily lives. If you’ve ever had Facebook automatically recognise your face in a photo or browsed your Netflix or Amazon recommendations, then you’ve used a form of AI.

But the potential for this technology goes much further than that.

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When Disaster Strikes: Exploiting Pioneering Tech in Disaster Zones

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This year, we’ve seen a succession of catastrophic natural disasters – from Hurricane Harvey in the US to the devastating earthquakes in Iran and Iraq. Within mere minutes, nature is capable of downing power lines, ravaging transport links, and leaving entire towns completely destroyed. 

So in the hours, days and weeks following a disaster, what can we do to help keep people safe?

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The Crusade Against Nature’s Deadliest Killer

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The malaria-carrying anopheles mosquito

The world’s deadliest animal does not possess extraordinary strength. It hasn’t got razor-sharp teeth or piercing vision, or the ability to outwit its prey. In fact, the world’s deadliest animal has none of the attributes we might associate with a ferocious killer. It can be found quietly moving around our houses, sometimes hovering above us in the air at night. Continue reading