Tag Archives: Science and biomedicine

ExoMars landing site 1: Europe goes to Mars

This post was contributed by Dr Peter Grindrod, of Birkbeck’s Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences. A longer version was originally published on his personal blog.

If you had to pick just one place to find life on Mars, where would you go? For the last twenty years, exploring Mars has been a case of “follow the water”. The thinking goes that without water there won’t be life. That could well be true, but it’s only part of the story.

An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency ExoMars rover. Credit: ESA

An artist’s impression of the European Space Agency ExoMars rover. Credit: ESA.

In the 1970s John Guest, my former PhD supervisor, worked on the NASA Viking mission to Mars. Twin orbiters, twin landers, nobody builds missions like that these days. As a geologist, John helped to decide where one of the landers would touch down. John told me how he and his friend Ron Greeley only had a couple of days’ worth of images from the orbiters, at a frighteningly low-resolution by today’s standards. They had to choose a landing site that wouldn’t leave the landers in pieces and would still be scientifically interesting. I thought that the pressure and responsibility of that decision must have been massive. John seemed nonplussed by my concern.

The first image returned from the Viking 2 lander on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA.

The first image returned from the Viking 2 lander on the surface of Mars. Credit: NASA.

I remembered this story because the European Space Agency has recently asked the same question again, and people are trying once more to answer it.

But this is no longer the Mars that Ron and John knew with Viking. Back then Mars was a world of giant volcanoes and enormous rift canyons – planet-scale processes. Today we talk about fluvial sediments and river deltas, redox reactions and energy gradients, clay minerals and organic compounds. We talk about it like we do the Earth.

And we no longer have to rely on just a handful of low-resolution images and a rushed decision. Instead we have hundreds of terabytes of data at our fingertips to call upon in the search.

Technological advances have changed the way we see and explore Mars. The latest images from the HiRISE camera can see things on the surface, from orbit, that are only 25 cm across. It can make out individual rocks. In fact, if you look at modern images of the Viking landing sites, it’s pretty obvious that we would never land somewhere like that again. My god the boulders! It’d be considered far too unsafe nowadays, but I guess that’s testament to the engineering of the Viking landers.

How the decision will be made this time is very different too. It’s a reassuringly long and detailed process these days, carried out in the open by many different scientists.

After the initial call for landing sites back in December, the first discussion workshop will be held in Madrid later this week. Here Mars scientists will come together to champion their own site, debate the pros and cons of others, and generally make sure that no one place is missed. A few months later a shortlist of three or four sites will be drawn up.

Over the following few years, each of these sites will be studied in possibly more detail than any other place on Mars. And then, the year before launch, the European Space Agency will make the final decision.

And I can’t say I envy them. It will come down to a delicate yet familiar balance between engineering constraints and scientific goals.

As it happens, because of the way that we tend to land on Mars, most of the planet is immediately ruled out. All landers use a parachute to slow themselves down as they come through the thin atmosphere. To make sure that the parachute has enough time to do its job, the landers need to touch down at as low an elevation as possible – the more atmosphere it travels through the longer it has to slow down. So, there go all the interesting high areas.

Next, because it’s solar-powered (I presume – there might be communication considerations too), the ExoMars rover has to land in a latitude band straddling the equator that’s only 30 degrees from top to bottom. That’s the polar caps out then.

A blink animation of a global map of the topography of Mars, showing the elevation and latitude constraints when selecting a landing site for ExoMars. Credit: Peter Grindrod.

A blink animation of a global map of the topography of Mars, showing the elevation and latitude constraints when selecting a landing site for ExoMars. Credit: Peter Grindrod.

Finally, landing on another planet isn’t a pinpoint process. There’s a certain probability of landing within a given distance of the target. This uncertainty is known as the landing ellipse, and for ExoMars it’s the equivalent of trying to land in Manchester, but knowing you might end up in Liverpool or Sheffield. Can you imagine the horror? The ellipse for ExoMars is also over four times the size of the ellipse for the recent Curiosity landing, so forget any ideas you had of going to the sites rejected for that mission.

So that doesn’t leave all that much. And we haven’t even started yet on the actual scientific goals of this mission, essentially why we’re going there.

The goals of ExoMars are pretty clear, and pretty bold.  The first though has the most control on choosing where to land: to search for signs of past and present life on Mars.

Most of the evidence that we’ve gathered since Viking says that the earlier parts of Mars’s history were the most hospitable to life. It was certainly wetter, probably warmer, and with a much thicker atmosphere than today. So ExoMars has to land somewhere with ancient rocks that are a record of that environment. That means landing somewhere older than 3.6 billion years old. That’s about the same age as some of the oldest rocks on Earth.

And bearing in mind what we know about life on Earth, there has to be evidence of water too, both in the shape of the landscape and in the minerals in the rocks. ExoMars is going to drill two metres into the sub-surface, as exposure to the radiation at the surface might have broken down any evidence of life. So the rocks to drill, core and study are soft, sedimentary rocks that can be read like a history book. Finally, there have to be as many of these targets as possible close to the centre of the ellipse, and as little dust cover as possible.

Over the last few months I’ve been part of a group of UK-based scientists who have been trying to help answer the question of where to land. We knew that other people would propose most of the other well-known sites. So we’re not exactly rooting for the underdog, rather making sure that nowhere is missed. From our own list of about thirty sites, we narrowed it down to just two that met all of the criteria, and which we’ve now sent off for consideration with everybody else’s suggestions.

Later this week we’ll be in Madrid discussing all these sites. I’m looking forward to it, and have to admit that it’s exciting and humbling to have even a small part in the process.

But it’ll be sad for me too. Both John, who was a mentor and friend, and Ron died recently, less than a year apart. They’ll both be missed. It’s strange to think that they’ll both be missing the latest stage of our exploration of Mars that they helped to pioneer.

I’m sure we’ll raise a glass to them. And I hope that wherever ExoMars does land, it’ll be an adventure worthy of future story-telling.


A large-scale research project into early signs of autism and ADHD is long overdue

TDr Emily Joneshis post was contributed by Dr Emily Jones, a researcher into early markers of autism at the Babylab at Birkbeck and a member of the team which have just launched the Studying Autism and ADHD Risk in Siblings (STAARS) project.

Over 1.4 million people in the UK live with autism or attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). Autism makes it difficult to communicate and interact with other people, and ADHD affects attention and concentration. Autism and ADHD are lifelong disorders that can have a huge impact on people’s lives, affecting their ability to work, live independently or start a family.

Although parents often have concerns about their child from early on, autism isn’t often identified before toddlerhood, and children with ADHD often don’t receive a diagnosis before they reach school age.  Recently there was wide-spread media coverage when singer Susan Boyle revealed she had been diagnosed with Asperger’s syndrome, a form of autism, at the age of 52. She spoke candidly about her relief at receiving a diagnosis which enabled her to make sense of the symptoms she had experienced throughout her life and which had caused her difficulties as a child. Although diagnostic services for autism and ADHD have undoubtedly improved since Boyle was a child, families still speak of the struggles they encounter in trying to access help for their child, a process that can take years and put an unbearable strain on family life.

Providing support for learning in early development can make a real difference to children with autism or ADHD, and the earlier a child receives this support, the more effective it is. Delays in accessing services can make families feel that time is running out for their child. But families can only access services after receiving a diagnosis – which means that being finding ways to identify signs of autism or ADHD in babies, rather than waiting for symptoms to develop in toddlerhood, would make a big difference.

Today (Thursday 23 January), my team at the Babylab at Birkbeck, together with similar teams from across Europe, is launching a new study of infants with older siblings with autism or ADHD. For infants with an older sibling with autism or ADHD, the chances of also having one of the conditions may climb to 20%. Starting in the very first months of life, our scientists will use cutting-edge techniques to study brain and behavioral development in infancy and through to toddlerhood. By looking at what is happening in the brains of infants who later receive an autism or ADHD diagnosis we hope to find the earliest signs of these conditions – before the children go on to develop the behaviours which can be very hard to ‘unlearn’.

We are looking for families with a baby (less than six months old) and an older child with autism or ADHD to help us learn more about the early signs of the conditions. Our work is supported by the UK Medical Research Council, the European Union, and major UK charities like Autistica, and our scientific partners are based in Sweden, Holland, Poland, Belgium and the US. It’s the first time that a study of this nature has been conducted on such a large scale, but by joining together, we believe that we can make the scientific advances that will drive change for the lives of individuals with autism and ADHD and their families.

Listen to the latest Birkbeck Voices podcast, which is about the new STAARS study.


The emotional complexities of transplantation

This post was contributed by Johanna Spiers, a PhD student in the Department of Psychological Sciences, supervised by Professor Jonathan A Smith

I am a qualitative, psychological researcher exploring the experiences of people living with kidney disease. End stage renal disease (ESRD) is a complex beast that may require its sufferers to undergo gruelling dialysis sessions three times a week, to restrict their diets and how much they drink, to bide time on a waiting list hoping for a kidney from a deceased donor, or to negotiate the emotional complexities of receiving a kidney from a living donor. Even when – if – a transplant has taken place, the renal patient has to take a cocktail of drugs (which come with a serving platter of side effects) every day for the rest of their lives. That’s a lot of different challenges for a person to get their head around.

My research involves speaking to people in-depth about their experiences, and then trying to illuminate those experiences in a resonant manner so that other people can walk a mile in their shoes – or perhaps more appropriately cleanse a pint of blood in their dialysis machines. My hope is that my work will better our understanding of the lives of renal patients; and better understanding makes for a better world, on so many levels.

Accepting a kidney from a living donor

Two of my studies have looked at the experience of receiving a kidney from a living donor. Common sense, that oh-so-reliable source, may predict that the decision to give a kidney away is a weighty and difficult one, a decision that may keep the potential donor up all night as they fret about whether they will ever play the piano again.

I’m sure this is the case for some donors, but I know from both research and personal experience that it’s not the case for most. When I made the decision to give a kidney to my dear friend, I did so in the blink of an eye. Why would I not want my friend to be healthy and happy, especially if it did me no harm? Somewhat less altruistically, why would I not want the accolades of friends and family for being a so-called hero? My somewhat shop-worn self esteem regularly needs a lift, and I now have an instant booster that I can reliably get out the memory cabinet and polish up for inspection any time I feel self-loathing start to creep in.

That same common sense might suggest that anyone who needed a kidney would jump at the chance to take any they are offered, and would be undyingly grateful for this chance at a fresh start.

But think about that for a moment. Would you want to be undying grateful? To anyone? Even if it does mean a chance at health? The shackles of indebtedness are real and heavy, and a kidney patient needs to be sure that any potential donor will not be pulling out the ‘but I saved your LIFE eyes’ during any disagreement, or expecting that they will now be a BFF until the end of time.

Add to this the fact that the recipient is asking the donor to undergo painful elective surgery (something the foolhardy donor may well not care about, but you still don’t want to ask for it, do you?) and we can start to see that receiving a kidney is much more emotionally complex process than donating one.

My findings

This dilemma is the driving motivation for my research, and my findings from both studies on this topic bear out the prediction that recipient/donor relationships are complicated stuff. In one study, one participant had received a kidney from a second cousin, a woman who lived on the other side of the world and who was no longer that close to her recipient. Another study participant received a kidney from her best friend, a friend so close they were almost like sisters. Counter-intuitively, the latter woman found post-op adjustment harder as she felt she could never speak her mind in an argument again.

A participant in another study was given a kidney by her daughter. She felt wracked with conflict and distress over this, in her words, ‘wrong direction’ transplant. Her family wanted her to be well and so were invested in the transplant going ahead. She presented a position of being happy with this, yet seemed wracked with uncertainties beneath the surface.

These were the sorts of situations that came up for my participants; emotionally complex situations which have gone largely unnoticed by the current literature. I hope that by illuminating the fact that renal patients agonise over situations like these, I can help them be more fully supported through those decisions.

Johanna will be talking about her research at an event called “Psychology: what’s the next big thing?“, at the Science Museum on Wednesday 15 January 2014.


Fostering collaborations between the UK and India – the way ahead for TB drug discovery research

This post was contributed by Arundhati Maitra, Associate Research Fellow at Birkbeck

Tuberculosis (TB) has re-emerged as a serious public health threat worldwide because of an alarming increase in the mortality rates due to drug resistant Mycobacterium tuberculosis strains and a deadly liaison between HIV and M. tuberculosis infection. There is an urgent need for identifying and validating new therapeutic leads to facilitate the development of novel anti-TB drug treatment.

An important element in intracellular survival and consequent pathogenesis of M. tuberculosis is its distinctive cell wall, of which peptidoglycan is a major structural, functional and regulatory component. The cytoplasmic steps of the biosynthesis of peptidoglycan are catalysed by a series of ATP-dependent ligases and they play a pivotal role by utilising ATP while incorporating specific amino acids sequentially to the C-terminus of the stem peptide; steps critical for cell wall cross-linking. They share a similar reaction mechanism and are essential for the growth of M. tuberculosis. As the reactions catalysed by these enzymes provide key precursors for the cell wall biogenesis and recycling, they are therefore considered as excellent therapeutic targets at the different physiological stages of the TB pathogen.

On a recent trip to India, Dr Sanjib Bhakta, Director of Mycobacteria Research Laboratory (MRL) part of the Institute of Structural and Molecular Biology, Birkbeck, University of London and UCL, visited a number of universities, specialised research institutes, organisations and schools to shed light on the world-class research being carried out at MRL researchers in the field of tuberculosis  drug discovery and to discuss new research and educational initiatives with India.

Dr Bhakta speaks to the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Tezpur University (India)

Dr Bhakta speaks to the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology, Tezpur University (India)

Dr Bhakta was invited by the erstwhile Vice-Chancellor of Dibrugarh University, Assam, India Professor Alak K. Buragohain, to engage in an interactive session with the research students of the Department of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology (MBBT), Tezpur University as well as the senior professors of the Department of Pharmaceutical Sciences, Dibrugarh University. A number of intense interactive sessions, held between July 23 – 25 2013 at the university departments was attended by the department’s students and faculty members and also by those in the Department of Chemical Sciences and Food Engineering and Technology. Dr Bhakta spoke about ‘Tackling drug resistance and persistence in Mycobacterium tuberculosis: integrative inter-disciplinary approaches in novel therapeutic intervention’, in the course of which he discussed whole cell assay techniques developed exclusively in his laboratory to evaluate potential anti-infective molecules. Highlighting some of the current work being carried out in his laboratory Dr Bhakta spoke about understanding ligand-protein interaction to unveil the mechanism of action of anti-mycobacterial compounds. He laid special emphasis on the need for an inter-disciplinary approach to fight TB and leprosy. A meeting with Professor Mihir Kanti Chaudhuri, Vice Chancellor, Tezpur University and other senior professors culminated in a proposal to forge collaborations between Birkbeck and Tezpur University, Assam, India. Any collective work between these two universities will benefit from the availability of potential anti-tubercular agents of plant origin harboured in the highly bio-diverse forests of Assam and the technical expertise of Dr Bhakta in testing the effectiveness of these agents in a wet lab setting.

Another invited seminar and one-to-one research meeting at which Dr Bhakta spoke was at the National Institute for Research in Tuberculosis, Chennai (India). Collaboration between NIRT and MRL is not new, as a materials transfer agreement already exists between the two world leading institutions. A memorandum of understanding currently being drafted will expectedly consolidate the existing relations.

Guest of Honour at the IDF Grants and Awards Function, Chennai (India)

Guest of Honour at the IDF Grants and Awards Function, Chennai (India)

A combination of social responsibilities, university outreach activities and common academic interests led Dr Bhakta to engage with the Indian Development Foundation (IDF). Established in 2005, the IDF is a non-government organisation with a three-fold goal to cater to education, development and health in the rural parts of India. Having been monumental in the elimination of leprosy in India, the organisation has moved its focus to tuberculosis. IDF hosted its Annual Grants Release Function on August 7, 2013 at Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan, Mylapore, Chennai at which Dr Bhakta was invited as a Guest of Honour to recognise the efforts of IDF and emphasise the need for continued support to such organisations. The annual feature is conducted to share resources with leprosy/TB projects and recognise schools in the region for their participation in social work and raising awareness of the cause. It was well attended this year with five-hundred audience members and renowned speakers on the panel including Mr. B.S. Raghavan (former Policy Advisor to the UN) and Dr A.R.K. Pillai (Founder President of IDF) and Mr. J. Ravichandran (CEO, German Leprosy and TB Relief Association) to name a few. The event was covered by Indian national television and print media units.

In an effort to stir the minds of tomorrow’s researchers, Dr Bhakta also accepted the opportunity to deliver a motivational talk at Maharishi School to a group of 50 A-level equivalent students, addressing their queries and encouraging them to embark on the life of a research scientist.