My first conference!

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Tomorrow I’m off to my very first conference. No microbiology for me this time, instead it’s going to be 3 very full-on days of Bayesian statistics. I’m looking forward to the sessions on experimental design, which will probably inform how I set up the larger bioassays I’m expecting to start in a few months.

I’m hoping I’ll get a bit of reading and writing done while I’m there, but I’m probably kidding myself.

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Improvisation and lab confidence

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I’m the first to admit that I’m not very comfortable in a laboratory. In fact, in my very first meeting with an entomologist he corrected my pronunciation of the word “laboratory”, so it’s obviously not the place I’m most familiar with! Nevertheless, I’ve been spending more and more time in there as experiments have started to pick up, so I’m less likely to forget my lab shoes and more likely to get sniffy when people ask if I’m doing real science.

8 days ago, when some colleagues ran into a problem which I first encountered in my pilot experiment (damn beetles won’t walk on smooth plastic to pick up pathogens), I was confident enough to suggest a possible household solution (all the best solutions to lab problems come from home). Those flexible plastic chopping boards are cheap, and probably supply enough traction for the beetles to go for a wander and pick up spores. Today I’ve cut circles to place in the bottom of petri dishes, and we’ll see in the next bioassay whether the beetles respond.

It doesn’t seem like much, but I can’t imagine having the confidence to suggest such a thing to my colleagues even a few weeks ago, so it’s a small victory, worth celebrating.

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How the mantis shrimp can break through glass without hurting itself.
Killer snails.
Mobile phone GPS data used to track the effect of human travel on malaria transmission. Awesome, innovative use of technology.
U. S. meningitis outbreak caused by fungus in steroid shots.
Golden staph now present in wildlife.
Species of shrimp, last seen in Europe and thought to be extinct for 40 million years turns up alive in Korea.

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Jean-Henri Fabre’s classic Souvenirs Entomologiques now available in French and English.

GM trials slash dengue mosquito numbers. Applications like this are why the knee-jerk “all GM is bad!” reactions really annoy me.

Melissotarsus weissi: the ant that couldn’t stand up.

Be glad that we are big.

Some French bees have been producing red and blue honey due to a local M&Ms factory. I can’t understand why the honey-producers are throwing the honey out instead of selling it as a novelty with a huge markup.

Ethics and animals

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I’ve been feeling slightly guilty about causing the death of my beetles. Although I know there are good reasons for what I’m doing (food pests are worth controlling), I seem to have the voice of Albert Schweitzer in my head, questioning my actions. Should I be having an ethical struggle, though, when for the purposes of research ethics most invertebrates aren’t even considered animals?

In the animal care and protection laws of most western countries “animals” are vertebrates, with the invertebrate cephalopods and occasionally malacostracans sneaking past the line. The classification seems to be based on creatures’ ability to feel pain and suffering – if their nervous systems are sufficiently developed as to be distressed by adverse conditions, then they’re “animals”. This leaves most invertebrates as “not-animals” for the purposes of animal protection, which is why the RSPCA doesn’t come down on 8 year olds for having too many goldfish in the tank. But the science is far from settled on how much suffering invertebrates undergo. So why the split?

Until the last couple of centuries, we didn’t recognise that animals really suffered. Not like us, at least. When we talk about human pain we usually recognise that there is a psychological component to our suffering, and of course it is impossible to know what is going on in an animal’s psyche. We now assess animal pain by seeing if they act the way a human might act when pain is caused. It seems harder, though, to empathise with creatures less like us, as suggested by Jennifer Mather:

Still, it is less easy to take that leap of faith and presume parallels with how you feel when the animal concerned is completely unlike you. Insects, for instance, can walk normally with a couple of broken-off legs and survive with apparent unconcern as a parasite is eating them up inside, when presumably we would be in excruciating pain. Does that mean they cannot feel pain? I asked a friend who works
with ants what she thought about this apparent inability to feel the pain we do. She said that she spilled a drop of acetone on an ant by accident one day and that it had recoiled and tried to wipe the substance off its abdomen. Maybe it is still pain, just
responding to different stimuli.

I’m going on instinct, but it feels like it’s easy for human beings to empathise with animals we already care about. We have been horrified by Russia sending dogs into space and by the vivisection of chimpanzees, but I doubt that even knowing they were suffering would curtail the many thousands of experiments performed on fruit flies every year.

I find it bizarre that our laws can’t differentiate between “animals we care about and think are worth protecting” and “animals which just aren’t cute or interesting enough to look at” without stripping them of their status as animals. That makes them what then, plants? A new and very active form of yeast? The laws in place force researchers to seek ethics approval from their institution before starting experiments on the animal in question. Invertebrates such as my beetles have no such protection. An entomologist told me a story yesterday (though I haven’t been able to find a citation) about there being a dragonfly in New South Wales which was a threatened species, so to stop people performing research willy-nilly on it “they” had classified it as a duck under the laws of the state.

Being required to seek ethics approval from your institution doesn’t stop you from performing the experiments you would like to, unless there is a specific ban on experimentation of that particular type, or for that particular animal. It simply ensures that the animals you are using are necessary for your experiments, and are treated in the best possible way. Surely, as scientists and as human beings, that should be our minimum standard for all living things, vertebrate or not.