The polio epidemic no-one talks about and a vaccine that might thwart it

This is such a great story which I barely scratched for this Nature piece. The multibillion dollar, almost-success story that is going wrong. A disease that has almost been wiped out but is now undermined by the very vaccine that brought success so close. The vaccine’s Achilles heel is that it mutates back to a virulent form and seeds polio outbreaks wherever there’s a weak spot — such as kids missed in a vaccination campaign or poor sanitation.

Then a new idea comes along and, with it, a race to “lock” the virus vaccine so it won’t transgress again. Several groups of scientists get together, each with a brilliant idea — and each idea was included in the final product. All done at warp speed (by pre-COVID standards). Read it here:

Cats versus Conservationists

When pet cats roam free they kill a heartbreaking amount of wildlife — yet owners letting them out are just doing the best for the creatures they love. To find a way forward in the cat wars, I was really taken by the words of Wayne Linklater: “The solutions lie with the people who care most about cats, not with the people who don’t care about them.”

My New Scientist piece starts with lawyer Arie Trouwborst, who received death threats for his academic paper on the feasibility of prosecuting owners for allowing their felines to kill wildlife. More here:

Global tree pledge frenzy — the truth about tree-planting

Laudable goals to restore forests and other ecosystems are being twisted into a licence to plant trees anywhere — regardless of the damage this can cause to the environment and to livelihoods. In this long-read for SciDev.Net I look at the plight of grasslands, seen as “damaged” and therefore ripe for planting. The story begins in Madagascar.

Most surprising for me was that grasslands may actually be better than forests in some places at sequestering carbon, once you factor everything in. Second surprise was that trees planted in the wrong place can suck the water out of rivers with disastrous consequences for human communities. My third take-home was that the wrong trees can spread invasively and can be too flammable for the local climate. The resulting fires can kill (and they have done so). More here:

Experts in Madagascar disagree about whether these are ancient grasslands or degraded forest

Why lightning may increase under climate change and what that means for us

WEAVING through the sweaty tangles of a Panamanian forest, Steve Yanoviak is hunting a killer. Its prey isn’t the monkeys, bats or multicoloured birds that cram the branches, but the foundations of the forest itself – its trees. Each day, this killer strikes thousands of times around the world, but leaves no evidence behind. “Tropical trees die standing. They bear no scars,” says Yanoviak.

Catching it in the act takes monumental effort. That’s because the likely culprit isn’t a living organism, but instead a familiar force of nature: lightning. Read more: 

A search engine that indexes every sizeable object on Earth. Is that a good idea?

Firms are racing to create a real-time database of every object on Earth larger than a car. It would help investors and conservationists, but could it be abused? My piece for New Scientist is about Planet, which plans to create an interface through which users can ask questions about the entire planet. They call it “queryable Earth”. Think of it like a search engine not for the internet, but for the surface of our world.

Spot illegal fishing, logging, human rights abuses; monitor commodity movements, troops, activism

The ecologist who wants to map everything

“Thomas Crowther bursts barefoot from his office into the corridor, sweating through his faded T-shirt and grinning with exhilaration. It’s a warm July day and he has just finished telling NBC News that Earth could sustain another 1.2 trillion trees, which would absorb 200 gigatonnes of carbon, and that the next thing to do is to “stop talking and start planting” His claim comes from the latest in a string of high-profile ecology papers that have drawn the attention of the world’s media — and Crowther is loving it. Publicity, he believes, will get him closer to his goal, and his goal is nothing less than restoring the planet… more here

Crowther with some wood samples. Next door he is playing traffic noise to fungi

Tree sleuths are using DNA, machine learning and isotope wizardry to hunt down logging crime.

A slew of new technologies is making it easier to spot illegal wood imports. My piece for Nature begins with a technology that could tell that a batch of rosewood came from Madagascar and nowhere else …. “When 420 tonnes of deep crimson logs arrived at a Sri Lankan port in April 2014, customs officers cast a suspicious eye … more here

The exquisite array of vessels in wood is unique to each family

The Dark Side of Light: How Artificial Lighting is Harming the Natural World

It’s a summer night near a forest lake in Germany and something unnatural is going on. Beyond the dark waters lapping at the shores, a faint glow emanates from rings of light hovering above the surface. Nearby, bobbing red torchlights — the least-disruptive part of the visible spectrum — betray the presence of scientists on the shoreline. They are testing what happens when they rob the lake creatures of their night . Read more….

In mini-ecosystems in the Netherlands, researchers test the effects of artificial light. Credit: Kamiel Spoelstra/NIOO-KNAW