Penicillin was discovered 90 years ago – and despite resistance, the future looks good for antibiotics

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Alastair Hay, University of Bristol

When the NHS turned 70 this year, I was reminded of another anniversary which has had an enormous impact on healthcare over many years. Penicillin is 90 this year.

Discovered in September 1928 by Alexander Fleming, it was first used as a cure when George Paine treated eye infections with it in 1930. A method for mass production was devised by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain in 1940, and it was first mass produced in 1942, with half of that total supply used for one patient being treated for streptococcal septicaemia. Continue reading

Do Human Rights Exist in the Maritime Domain?

Dr Sofia Galani, Lecturer in Law, University of Bristol Law School

A quick internet search for human rights in the first week of August retrieved results about the crucifixion of convicted criminals in Saudi Arabia and the political stand-off with Canada, the struggle of Argentinian women to decriminalise abortion and the debate on religion freedom sparked by Boris Johnson’s derogatory comments about women wearing burqas.

With all these human rights debates around us, it is not difficult to understand why we have not considered the human rights violations that take place in the maritime domain. Continue reading

A healthy BMI when you’re young could safeguard your heart for later life

A healthy weight means a healthy heart.
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Kaitlin Wade, University of Bristol

Your body mass index (BMI) indicates whether you are within a healthy weight range based on your height. Having a higher BMI – meaning more weight relative to height – can increase your risk of developing heart disease, cancer and type 2 diabetes. While BMI is partly determined by your environment and lifestyle – including your diet and how much you exercise – our genes also play a role.

Genes are inherited from our parents. When this genetic information from the egg and sperm combine, the DNA is replicated continuously – doubling the number of cells until an entire baby is formed. DNA replication is not perfect and every single base in the human genome – the single blocks of code which make up entire DNA strand – has the potential to be mutated for good or for bad. Importantly, this creates a huge amount of random genetic variation at a population level, which is like a huge natural genetic experiment. If we know that these random genetic changes are linked to small changes in BMI, we can test whether BMI influences lots of different things, including cardiovascular health – like a randomized controlled trial.

Broadly, there are two ways of identifying parts of our DNA which are linked with particular traits. Studies of patients affected by rare obesity-related disorders (candidate gene studies) or large-scale population-based genome-wide association studies (GWAS). Findings from the latter of these methods – studies that look to see whether a change at any position in our DNA is linked with a particular trait – have implicated hundreds of common genetic variants associated with BMI.

A 2015 study conducted by the Genetic Investigation of Anthropometric Traits (GIANT) consortium and published in Nature found 97 places in our DNA which influence BMI levels and which were responsible for small differences between people, regardless of how different their environment and lifestyles were. This means that, while we cannot predict an individual’s BMI with genetics, we can refer to genetics to understand if patterns materialise in populations.

Small, genetically driven changes in BMI provide an opportunity to determine whether differences in BMI between people have a role in health and disease. Genetic mutations which are randomly allocated at conception aren’t easily changed by our environment and experiences later in life. As a result, our BMI, weight and chances of developing obesity-related diseases could partly be determined before we’re even born.

Your BMI tells you if you’re a healthy weight for your height.
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Low BMI, low heart disease risk

Using this property of genetic variation, we undertook a study that was recently published in the scientific journal Circulation. Our research showed that higher BMI is likely to have an influence on measures of cardiovascular health, such as blood pressure, in more than 3,000 healthy 17-year olds from the Avon Longitudinal Study of Parents and Children (also known as the Children of the 90s).

The Children of the 90s study, based in Bristol, has followed families in the UK through data collected from questionnaires, clinics and biological samples since the early 1990s. Using MRI scans from 400 21-year old Children of the 90s participants, who were recruited based on genetically driven differences in BMI, we also demonstrated that having a higher BMI is likely to lead to structural damage to heart tissue, including an enlarged left ventricle – the heart’s main pumping chamber.

An enlarged left ventricle can restrict the flow of blood leaving the heart.
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Until now, studies have typically looked at the link between BMI and cardiovascular health in adults by observing patterns within populations. However, it’s difficult to conclude a relationship between the two without confusing the role that lifestyle factors play or finding how cardiovascular disease changes BMI rather than the reverse. Surveying people is also open to many sources of bias, such as recalling or reporting information incorrectly.

We wanted to isolate the property of genetic variation to improve our confidence in drawing conclusions about the relationship between BMI and cardiovascular health in a population of healthy young people.

Our results support the idea that having a healthy, normal BMI from a young age is likely to maintain a healthy cardiovascular system and help prevent heart disease later in life. Modern genetics allow us to investigate the causes of disease more quickly and cheaply than ever before, and the availability of genetic data in studies such as the Children of the 90s means we can more readily overcome limitations of traditional studies. We hope these findings lead to increased efforts to tackle the obesity epidemic at all stages of life, starting in early age.The Conversation

Kaitlin Wade, Research Associate in Genetic Epidemiology, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Enough magical thinking. The silly season must stop here

Phil Syrpis, Professor of EU Law, University of Bristol Law School

Britain has only a couple of months left to decide on its future relationship with the EU. Phil Syrpis (University of Bristol) says it is time for both the government and the opposition to level with the public about the choices involved. The coarse sloganeering of the past two years will lead to a destructive Brexit unless politicians get real.

The summer recess is often described as silly season. But this year is different: the silliness has to stop. We have just two months to decide on our future relationship with the EU, and the magical thinking – in the government and Labour party alike – is no longer sustainable. Continue reading

Belo Monte: there is nothing green or sustainable about these mega-dams

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Ed Atkins, University of Bristol

There are few dams in the world that capture the imagination as much as Belo Monte, built on the “Big Bend” of the Xingu river in the Brazilian Amazon. Its construction has involved an army of 25,000 workers working round the clock since 2011 to excavate over 240m cubic metres of soil and rock, pour three million cubic metres of concrete, and divert 80% of the river’s flow through 24 turbines.

The dam is located about 200km before the 1,640km Xingu meets the Amazon.
kmusser, CC BY-SA

Costing R$30 billion (£5.8 billion), Belo Monte is important not only for the scale of its construction but also the scope of opposition to it. The project was first proposed in the 1970s, and ever since then, local indigenous communities, civil society and even global celebrities have engaged in numerous acts of direct and indirect action against it.

While previous incarnations had been cancelled, Belo Monte is now in the final stages of construction and already provides 11,233 megawatts of energy to 60m Brazilians across the country. When complete, it will be the largest hydroelectric power plant in the Amazon and the fourth largest in the world.

Indigenous protests against Belo Monte at the UN’s sustainable development conference in Rio, 2012. Fernando Bizerra Jr / EPA

A ‘sustainable’ project?

The dam is to be operated by the Norte Energia consortium (formed of a number of state electrical utilities) and is heavily funded by the Brazilian state development bank, BNDES. The project’s supporters, including the governments of the Partido dos Trabalhadores (Workers’ Party) that held office between 2003 and 2011, have justified its construction on environmental grounds. They describe Belo Monte as a “sustainable” project, linking it to wider policies of climate change mitigation and a transition away from fossil fuels. The assertions of the sustainability of hydropower are not only seen in Brazil but can be found across the globe – with large dams presented as part of wider sustainable development agendas.

With hydropower representing 16.4% of total global installed energy capacity, hydroelectric dams are a significant part of efforts to reduce carbon emissions. More than 2,000 such projects are currently funded via the Clean Development Mechanism of the 1997 Kyoto Protocol – second only to wind power by number of individual projects.

While this provides mega-dams with an environmental seal of approval, it overlooks their numerous impacts. As a result, dams funded by the CDM are contested across the globe, with popular opposition movements highlighting the impacts of these projects and challenging their asserted sustainability.

Beautiful hill, to beautiful monster

Those standing against Belo Monte have highlighted its social and environmental impacts. An influx of 100,000 construction and service workers has transformed the nearby city of Altamira, for instance.

Hundreds of workers – unable to find employment – took to sleeping on the streets. Drug traffickers also moved in and crime and violence soared in the city. The murder rate in Altamira increased by 147% during the years of Belo Monte construction, with it becoming the deadliest city on earth in 2015.

In 2013, police raided a building near the construction site to find 15 women, held against their will and forced into sex work. Researchers later found that the peak hours of visits to their building – and others – coincided with the payday of those working on Belo Monte. In light of this social trauma, opposition actors gave the project a new moniker: Belo Monstro, meaning “Beautiful Monster”.

The construction of Belo Monte is further linked to increasing patterns of deforestation in the region. In 2011, deforestation in Brazil was highest in the area around Belo Monte, with the dam not only deforesting the immediate area but stimulating further encroachment.

In building roads to carry both people and equipment, the project has opened up the wider area of rainforest to encroachment and illegal deforestation. Greenpeace has linked illegal deforestation in indigenous reserves – more than 200km away – to the construction of the project, with the wood later sold to those building the dam.

Brazil’s past success in reversing deforestation rates became a key part of the country’s environmental movement. Yet recently deforestation has increased once again, leading to widespread international criticism. With increasing awareness of the problem, the links between hydropower and the loss of the Amazon rainforest challenge the continued viability of Belo Monte and similar projects.

Big dams, big problems

While the Clean Development Mechanism focuses on the reduction of carbon emissions, it overlooks other greenhouse gases emitted by hydropower. Large dams effectively emit significant quantities of methane for instance, released by the decomposition of plants and trees below the reservoir’s surface. While methane does not stay in the atmosphere for as long as carbon dioxide (only persisting for up to 12 years), its warming potential is far higher.

Belo Monte has been linked to these methane emissions by numerous opposition actors. Further research has found that the vegetation rotting in the reservoirs of dams across the globe may emit a million tonnes of greenhouse gases per year. As a result, it is claimed that these projects are – in fact – making a net contribution to climate change.

Far from providing a sustainable, renewable energy solution in a climate-changed world, Belo Monte is instead cast as exacerbating the problem that it is meant to solve.

The ConversationBelo Monte is just one of many dams across the globe that have been justified – and funded – as sustainable pursuits. Yet, this conflates the ends with the means. Hydroelectricity may appear relatively “clean” but the process in which a mega-dam is built is far from it. The environmental credentials of these projects remain contested, with Belo Monte providing just one example of how the sustainability label may finally be slipping.

Ed Atkins, Senior Teaching Associate, School of Geographical Sciences, University of Bristol

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Mental health: depression and anxiety in young mothers is up by 50% in a generation

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Rebecca Pearson, University of Bristol

Back when it first started, 17% of young pregnant women in the Children of the 90s study reported symptoms severe enough to indicate clinical levels of depression. This figure was already worryingly high in the 1990s, but in their daughters’ generation it is even more common: 25% of the second generation of the study – women under the age of 24 who are becoming pregnant now – are reporting signs of depression and anxiety. Continue reading

The term ‘fake news’ is doing great harm

Joshua Habgood-Coote, University of Bristol

During a recent press conference in the UK, Donald Trump shut down a reporter from the news network he loves to hate. “CNN is fake news – I don’t take questions from CNN,” he said, moving swiftly on to a reporter from Fox News.

It’s easy to think that everyone knows what “fake news” means – it was Collins Dictionary’s word of the year in 2017, after all. But to think it stops there is mistaken – and politically dangerous. Not only do different people have opposing views about the meaning of “fake news”, in practice the term undermines the intellectual values of democracy – and there is a real possibility that it means nothing. We would be better off if we stopped using it. Continue reading

UK Universities must soon comply with the EU Web Accessibility Directive

By Dr Albert Sanchez-Graells, Reader in Economic Law (University of Bristol Law School).*

In 2016, the EU adopted the Web Accessibility Directive, which aim is to foster better access to the websites and mobile applications underpinning public services – in particular by people with disabilities, and especially persons with vision or hearing impairments. Continue reading

Motivated to succeed? Attitudes to education among native and immigrant pupils in England

Perhaps the central policy question for those of us studying education is: how can we raise levels of attainment? For long, the focus was almost solely on cognitive skills, but a line of recent research has looked at the interaction between such skills and non-cognitive factors (also called psychological traits), motivations, and culture in generating higher student achievement. Continue reading