Crops will count for wildlife grants


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GrassThe EU’s new rules on subsidies oblige farmers to ensure some of their land supports wild plants or animals

Grants designed to protect the countryside have been controversially switched to pay England’s farmers to grow beans and peas.

The EU’s new rules on subsidies oblige farmers to ensure that some of their land supports wild plants and animals.

But during negotiations, farmers in Europe watered down the policy so planting crops that improve soil may be counted as helping wildlife.

Wildlife campaigners have expressed outrage at the move.

Member states can tighten the EU rule if they want to, but England’s farmers persuaded the government this would make them uncompetitive.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) announced that planting peas and beans in so-called Ecological Focus Areas (EFAs) will qualify for full grants.

A spokesman said: “We have included Nitrogen Fixing Crops as an EFA because we want farmers to have as much flexibility as possible so they can focus on growing British food. We are supporting the environment through investing over £3bn in agri-environment schemes over the next CAP, which is more than ever before.”

Today’s announcement focuses on the “greening” element of the CAP, which will tie 30% of a farmer’s subsidy payments to new environmental requirements.

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We think including this measure is very positive for the environment”

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Andrew Clark
National Farmers Union

The RSPB’s Martin Harper said: “The government has squandered this opportunity and is handing out £11bn to the farming industry in England and expecting very, very little in return.”

Stephen Trotter, of The Wildlife Trusts, condemned the decision to allow grants to peas and beans: “Nitrogen-fixing crops improve the soil but don’t help wildlife at all,” he said. “This is bizarre. It gets more outrageous every minute I think about it. It seems that farmers just want public funds with no strings attached.”

Andrew Clark of the National Farmers Union (NFU) told BBC News it was vital for the government to apply wildlife protection rules at the same levels as continental neighbours.

“Comparing nitrogen-fixing crops with permanent pasture, obviously the pasture will have greater biodiversity,” he said. “But we believe a range of options should be available to farmers. Anyone with broad beans in their garden will see they are full of pollinators at the moment.

“Wildflower meadows tend to have quite a limited flowering season but some legumes are flowering from April to June, and others much later in summer. We think including this measure is very positive for the environment.”

The row follows a report last week in which a group of experts warned that the Commission had failed in its attempt to “green” the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to give value to taxpayers and safeguard the countryside. The report said only strong discretionary policies by member states could protect wildlife.

Mr Trotter said: “I understand the government is not in an easy position – ministers don’t want England’s farmers to lose out if Europe’s farmers are facing watered down rules. But we can’t keep going on like this throwing public money in the knowledge that it’ll all be reduced to the lowest common denominator.”

Households pay roughly £400 a year towards the subsidies.

A Commission source said that encouraging farmers to grow beans would help Europe’s food security by increasing the amount of protein, which in turn would help to reduce imports of soya.

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GM strains crash mosquito population


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male and female mosquito headsIt’s raining men, in a bad way – an altered gene that chops up the X chromosome during sperm production meant that 95% of mosquito progeny were male

Scientists have created mosquitoes that produce 95% male offspring, with the aim of helping control malaria.

Flooding cages of normal mosquitoes with the new strain caused a shortage of females and a population crash.

The system works by shredding the X chromosome during sperm production, leaving very few X-carrying sperm to produce female embryos.

In the wild it could slash numbers of malaria-spreading mosquitoes, reports the journal Nature Communications.

Although probably several years away from field trials, other researchers say this marks an important step forward in the effort to produce a genetic control strategy.

Malaria is transmitted exclusively by mosquitoes. Despite reductions brought about by measures such as nets or spraying homes with insecticides, it continues to kill hundreds of thousands of people annually, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa.

The idea of using a “sex-distorting” genetic defect to control pest populations was proposed over 60 years ago, but this is the first time it has been practically demonstrated.

The researchers, led by Prof Andrea Crisanti and Dr Nikolai Windbichler of Imperial College London, transferred a gene from a slime mould into the African malaria mosquito Anopheles gambiae. This gene produces an enzyme called an “endonuclease” which chops up DNA when it recognises a particular sequence.

Red eyes in transgenic mosquitoGenetic markers, like the red fluorescent protein seen here in the eyes of a modified mosquito, were used to confirm the expression of new genes

Prof Crisanti said his team exploited a “fortuitous coincidence”: the target sequence of that endonuclease is found specifically – and abundantly – on the mosquito’s X chromosome. “In Anopheles gambiae, all 350 copies are together, side-by-side on the X chromosome,” he told BBC News.

When sperm are produced normally, in mosquitoes or in humans, 50% contain an X chromosome and 50% a Y chromosome. When they fuse with an egg these produce female and male embryos, respectively.

In the new mosquitoes, the X-attacking endonuclease is turned on specifically during sperm formation. As a result, the males produce almost no X-containing sperm – or female offspring. More than 95% of their progeny are male.

Breaking the cycle

Importantly this change is heritable, so that male mosquitoes pass it on to about half their male progeny. This means if the artificial strain is released into a population – in the lab or in the wild – the trait can spread until most males are only producing male offspring, perhaps eradicating the population altogether.

“It can be a self-sustaining effect,” said Dr Windbichler.

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Theoretically, if you have it on the Y [chromosome], one single individual could knock out an entire population.”

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Prof Andrea Crisanti
Imperial College London

Indeed, in five test cages that started with 50 males and 50 females, when the team introduced 150 of their new sex-distorter males, the number of females plummeted within four generations. After another couple of generations, in four out of five cages, the population died out entirely.

Both these effects are beneficial, Prof Crisanti explained, because only female mosquitoes bite humans and spread malaria. So a drop in female numbers might slow its spread, while a population crash could “break the cycle” of malaria transmission.

Dr Luke Alphey founded the company Oxitec to develop genetic control strategies for harmful insects and has pioneered the use of GM mosquitoes to help control dengue fever. He told the BBC the new research was exciting, but suggested that if used in the wild, this particular sex-distorter strain might not spread indefinitely and would need to be “topped up”.

For a really successful, spreading system to eradicate malaria mosquitoes, “You’d have to get such a system expressed on the Y chromosome,” Dr Alphey said.

Extinction question

The new study’s authors agree this would be much more powerful. “You’d need to release fewer individuals, because all males will inherit the gene from their fathers and pass it on to all their sons – so the effect would not be diluted,” said Dr Windbichler.

“Theoretically, if you have it on the Y,” Prof Crisanti added, “one single individual could knock out an entire population.”

In fact, Dr Windbichler and Prof Crisanti showed in another recent paper that this type of gene insertion on the mosquito Y chromosome is perfectly achievable.

“They haven’t yet put it all together,” Dr Alphey commented, “but all the pieces are in place.”

Dr Alphey also commented that the power of that proposed technique would pose additional questions for researchers and regulators. “In principle, what you get is extinction,” he said.

“Humans have undoubtedly driven a very large number of species to extinction – but we’ve only deliberately done it with two: smallpox and rinderpest. Would we want to do that with Anophiles gambiae?”

Dr Alphey’s answer to his own question appears to be “maybe”.

“If this species were to suffer a population crash, it’s hard to see how significant negative side-effects might arise,” he explained. “The mosquitoes are not keystone species in their ecosystems. And this technique only affects one species, Anopheles gambiae, among more than 3,000 known species of mosquitoes.”

“If we rely instead on pesticide control we would likely kill non-malarial mosquitoes and many other insects besides. The genetic approach is much more precise.”

Crisanti and Windbichler think that extinction is unlikely, even with the proposed Y chromosome-driven system, but agree that caution is warranted. “There are a lot of tests to run through,” Dr Windbichler said.

mosquitoOnly female mosquitoes spread malaria, when they feed on human blood

“We are still a couple of years from this being applied in the field. It’s very promising but there’s still a long way to go.”

Dr Michael Bonsall, a reader in zoology at the University of Oxford, said the new research was “super cool” and demonstrated “just how important these sorts of GM technologies are at reducing insect vector population sizes.”

“This has important implications for limiting the spread of malaria,” Dr Bonsall said, though he also noted that it was “a long way from being deployed.”

To begin testing the safety and efficacy of the sex-distorter strains on a bigger scale, Prof Crisanti’s team has built a large facility in Italy. “We have big, contained cages in which we can reproduce a tropical environment – and we can test several hypotheses on a very large scale.”

Meanwhile, he and his colleagues are pleased to have developed such a promising genetic weapon against malaria using the elusive sex-distortion mechanism, proposed many years ago.

“One of the first people to suggest it was the famous British biologist Bill Hamilton, while he was actually here at Imperial as a lecturer for a while,” commented Dr Windbichler. “So it was theorised 60 years ago, but never put in practice.”

The Life Scientific, broadcast at 9am on Tuesday 10th June, featured malaria researcher Professor Janet Hemingway.

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Buzz surrounds citizen bee survey


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Bumblebee (Image: Amelia Collins/Friends of the Earth)Concerns over the plight of pollinators have led to the UK government launching plans to protect the insects

Organisers of the UK’s first nation-wide bee count hope a new smartphone app will create a buzz among the nation’s citizen scientists.

They hope thousands of people will log their sightings in order to give scientists a vital insight into the health of bee populations.

There is growing concern about wild bee numbers, as many species have recorded a serious decline in recent years.

Participants can also submit their data on the Great British Bee Count website.

Screenshot of the bee survey app (Image: Friends of the Earth)The survey’s organisers hope thousands of people will submit their sightings

The app – developed by charity Buglife, Friends of the Earth and retailer BQ – allows users to report the species, number and location of bees they spot between now and the end of August.

The submissions will provide data to the National Biodiversity Network, which collates data from a wide range of national, regional and local organisations in order to provide a comprehensive overview of UK wildlife.

“The data that people collect will do an important job to help scientists fill in the blanks about where bees are thriving and where they are in trouble,” explained bumblebee conservation expert Prof Dave Goulson from the University of Sussex.

Andy Atkins, executive director of Friends of the Earth, added: “The great thing is that you do not have to be an expert, everyone can get involved and be part of the generation that helps save our bees.”

According to the Bumblebee Conservation Trust, there are about 250 species of bee in the UK, and the survey hopes to build up a more detailed picture of the range and behaviour of certain species.

For example, the establishment of the non-native tree bumblebee on these shores, since its arrival at the turn of the century. Researchers would be interested to know more about the species’ spread northwards.

Plan bee

The plight of the bumblebee and other pollinators has been making headlines across Europe in recent years since the use of certain pesticides, known as neonicotinoids, was linked to a dramatic decline in bee populations.

In April 2013, amid growing concern about the use of the chemicals on crops, the European Commission announced an EU-wide two-year moratorium on three neonicotinoid chemicals on crops attractive to bees.

The UK government opposed the introduction of the restrictions but has since said it accepts the ban but not the science behind it.

A public consultation on plans to establish a National Pollination Strategy, aimed at protecting the insects that pollinate food crops and wild plants and flower, closed recently.

The government is expected to publish the strategy later in the year.

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MPs demand new data on pet primates


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TamarinMPs want to know how many primates like this tamarin are in private hands in the UK

MPs are calling for urgent government action to determine how many primates are being kept as pets across the UK.

The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Efra) committee says they are worried about the welfare of animals being kept privately.

In their report, the MPs say they support the idea of a ban on keeping and trading primates as pets.

Before that happens, they argue, the government must come up with accurate estimates on numbers and species.

Keeping primates as pets is currently legal in the UK. The big problem is that no-one is sure how many marmosets, tamarins, spider monkeys and others are in private hands.

According to the evidence taken by the MPs, the numbers could range between 3,000 and 20,000.

These figures were said to be at best, informed guesses.

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Primates need to run, jump and swing, all very hard to do in somebody’s front room ”

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Philip Mansbridge
Care for the Wild

To clarify the issue, the committee has recommended that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) commission independent research on the number and type of primates being traded in the UK.

They also want private owners to be given six months to register their animals before the count begins.

“What we did hear was that no one really knows what the scale of the problem is,” said Anne McIntosh MP, the chair of the Efra committee.

“I really just think you need to know, on the basis of sound evidence, what the scale of the problem is, or if it is, I hesitate to say, alarmist.”

Many campaigners feel that the report doesn’t go far enough and say the only answer is a complete ban on trade and private ownership.

They are very doubtful that attempts to get people to register their primate will be successful.

“The evidence to date suggests that these type of registration programmes are cumbersome, often widely ignored or flouted,” said Mark Jones from Humane Society International.

“That was the evidence of dog registration which was eventually abandoned – and there is plenty of evidence among those species that require registration under the Dangerous Wild Animals Act, that the requirement is often ignored.”

Emperor TamarinCommittee members say they are inclined to ban the trade but want more information

Welfare organisations say that keeping primates in a domestic environment is incompatible with their complex social, behavioural, environmental and dietary needs.

Without specialist training, most people will not have the knowledge required to care properly for these animals, said Philip Mansbridge from Care for the Wild, a wildlife charity that gave evidence to the committee.

“Unless you can put a rainforest in your back garden, it is very difficult to recreate the diet, the environment, the temperature, the surroundings and the space for that animal – primates need to run, jump and swing, all very hard to do in somebody’s front room.”

The report says that the MPs are minded to ban the ownership and trade in these species. They acknowledge in their report that many of those who gave evidence were in favour of a complete ban but the MPs say that previous attempts to control animals by law have not always worked well.

“If you look at something like the Dangerous Dogs Act, where there was a kneejerk reaction of a ban, we’ve been trying to unravel it ever since,” said Ms McIntosh.

“And in that case the breeders just came up with another type of dog.”

The government says it will consider the report.

“Primates are wild animals with complex needs and it is already against the law to keep them in a domestic pet environment,” said a spokesman.

A code of practice for the keeping of primates has been in operation for four years, but the MPs say that it needs to be clearer and contain more detailed information. It is due for review in the next 12 months.

The committee also says the government should mount a public education campaign to raise awareness of the rules. Local authorities should be encouraged to employ experts from the Zoo Licensing Inspectors list.

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Rats regret bad decisions, study says


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Rat eating pastaRegret made the rats modify their decisions later in the experiment

Rats experience regret when their actions make them miss out on better food options, a study has found.

It is the first time regret has been identified in mammals other than humans.

Researchers created situations where rats had to choose whether to wait a set amount of time for a food reward, or move onto another one.

Those that moved on and found the next offering was even worse showed regretful behaviour.

The study was conducted by neuroscientists based at the University of Minnesota, US; their findings are reported in Nature Neuroscience.

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If the line is too long at the Chinese restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian restaurant across the street”

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Prof David Redish
University of Minnesota

It suggests thoughts similar to regret can affect the future decisions rodents make and dispels the belief that regret is unique to humans.

Prof David Redish, from the US-based research team, said it was important to differentiate regret from disappointment.

“Regret is the recognition that you made a mistake, that if you had done something else, you would have been better off,” he said.

“The hard part was that we had to separate disappointment, which is just when things aren’t as good as you hoped. The key was letting the rats choose.”

They developed a task called Restaurant Row, in which rats decided how long they were willing to wait for different foods during a 60-minute run.

“It’s like waiting in line at the restaurant,” Prof Redish. “If the line is too long at the Chinese restaurant, then you give up and go to the Indian restaurant across the street.”

The rats waited longer for their preferred flavours, meaning the researchers could determine good and bad food options.

Occasionally the rats decided not to wait for a good option and moved on, only to find themselves facing a bad option – the scientists called this a regret-inducing situation.

In these cases the rats often paused and looked back at the reward they had passed over.

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They also made changes in their subsequent decisions, being more likely to wait at the next zone and rushing to eat the reward that followed. The scientists say such behaviour is consistent with the expression of regret.

When experiments were carried out where the rats encountered bad options without making incorrect decisions, such behaviour was not present.

“In humans, a part of the brain called the orbitofrontal cortex is active during regret. We found that in rats recognising that they made a mistake, their orbitofrontal cortex represented the missed opportunity,” Prof Redish said.

“Interestingly, the rat’s orbitofrontal cortex represented what the rat should have done, not the missed reward. This makes sense because you don’t regret the thing you didn’t get, you regret the thing you didn’t do.”

Prof Redish believes that this animal model of regret could now be used to help understand how regret affects the decisions humans make.

Dr Mark Walton, from the University of Oxford, who reviewed the research, said the findings were significant as they showed a high level of cognitive ability in rats and also praised the team’s experiment.

“It is a clever way to look at cognitive processes, seeing how rats perform these tasks can open up how they think and behave in the wild,” he said.

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Male faces ‘evolved to take punches’


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broken jawThe jaw bone is frequently fractured in fist fights and was strengthened in some of our evolutionary ancestors

A new theory suggests that our male ancestors evolved beefy facial features as a defence against fist fights.

The bones most commonly broken in human punch-ups also gained the most strength in early “hominin” evolution.

They are also the bones that show most divergence between males and females.

The paper, in the journal Biological Reviews, argues that the reinforcements evolved amid fighting over females and resources, suggesting that violence drove key evolutionary changes.

Fossil records show that the australopiths, immediate predecessors of the human genus Homo, had strikingly robust facial structures.

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Four million years ago, if you broke your jaw, it was probably a fatal injury. You’d starve to death.”

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Prof David Carrier
University of Utah

For many years, this extra strength was seen as an adaptation to a tough diet including nuts, seeds and grasses. But more recent findings, examining the wear pattern and carbon isotopes in australopith teeth, have cast some doubt on this “feeding hypothesis”.

“In fact, [the australopith] boisei, the ‘nutcracker man’, was probably eating fruit,” said Prof David Carrier, the new theory’s lead author and an evolutionary biologist at the University of Utah.

Masculine armour

Instead of diet, Prof Carrier and his co-author, physician Dr Michael Morgan, propose that violent competition demanded the development of these facial fortifications: what they call the “protective buttressing hypothesis”.

In support of their proposal, Carrier and Morgan offer data from modern humans fighting. Several studies from hospital emergency wards, including one from the Bristol Royal Infirmary, show that faces are particularly vulnerable to violent injuries.

Paranthropus boisei, nutcracker manThe strong brow ridges, cheek bones and jaw of early hominins like “nutcracker man” (Paranthropus boisei) may have evolved as a defence against the fists of other males, instead of for other reasons such as diet

“Jaws are one of the most frequent bones to break – and it’s not the end of the world now, because we have surgeons, we have modern medicine,” Prof Carrier explained. “But four million years ago, if you broke your jaw, it was probably a fatal injury. You wouldn’t be able to chew food… You’d just starve to death.”

The jaw, cheek, eye and nose structures that most commonly come to grief in modern fist fights were also the most protected by evolutionary changes seen in the australopiths.

Furthermore, these are the bones that show the most differences between men and women, as well as between our male and female forebears. That is how you would expect defensive armour to evolve, Prof Carrier points out.

“In humans and in great apes in general… it’s males that are most likely to get into fights, and it’s also males that are most likely to get injured,” he told BBC News.

Long-running debate

Interestingly, the evolutionary descendents of the australopiths – including humans – have displayed less and less facial buttressing.

This is consistent, according to Prof Carrier, with a decreasing need for protection: “Our arms and upper body are not nearly as strong as they were in the australopiths,” he explained. “There’s a temporal correlation.”

The facial buttressing idea builds on a previous observation by Prof Carrier and Dr Morgan that the early hominins were the first primates to evolve a hand shape compatible with making a fist – and thus, throwing a punch.

Human and ancestral skull reconstructionsStronger facial bones appear in the australopiths (second and third rows) at about the same time as shifting hand proportions enabled our ancestors to clench their fists, then decline in parallel with upper body strength

That earlier paper attracted criticism from some other researchers, and Prof Carrier expects this new contribution may also prove controversial. He says that debate about the role of violence in human evolution is not new.

“[Our paper] does address this debate of whether our past was violent or peaceful,” he told the BBC. “That’s an argument that’s been going on for a very long time.”

“The historical record goes back a short time, the archaeological record goes back a few tens of thousand years more… But the anatomy holds clues to what selection was important, what behaviours were important, and so it gives us information about the very distant past.”

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Spectacular wave tank opens with show


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Making waves and turning the tide – FloWave is a world-leading facility

A spectacular new wave tank – the first of its kind in the world – has opened at Edinburgh University.

The FloWave Ocean Energy Research Facility can simulate waves 28m high – and tidal currents simultaneously.

Its circular shape means waves have no reflections and can come from multiple directions, to mimic stormy seas.

It can recreate any point on Britain’s coastline, allowing marine energy systems to be tested and refined.

Mermaid’s tail

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You do big party pieces and everybody gasps. But the hardest thing is recreating real conditions at sea”

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Prof Robin Wallace,
Edinburgh University

Spectacular water spouts and a “mermaid’s tail” were demonstrated to visitors during its launch at Edinburgh’s King’s Buildings campus.

But the real trick, say engineers, is the ability to model complex sea conditions around Cornwall, the Western Isles and other sites where future wave and tidal power stations may be located.

Choppy seas can be combined with an Atlantic swell. And the tide can be turned at any time mid-experiment, just as it does at sea.

“This tank is as close as you get to real sea on dry land”, said Prof Robin Wallace, Chair in Renewable Energy Systems at Edinburgh University.

“What’s unique is it is round, and it combines waves and currents – ‘making waves and turning the tide’ as we like to say.


“You can do the big party pieces and everybody gasps. But the hardest thing of the lot is to recreate real conditions in the North Sea – what we call ‘multispectral’ patterns.

“If you’ve got a full orchestra and somebody asks you to perform a particular piece, you’re equipped to play it – and we’ve got the equivalent here – the full spectrum.”

Accelerated testing

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It’s not just for energy developers – anyone putting equipment into the sea could test here”

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Prof Robin Wallace,
Edinburgh University

The wave power industry is evolving from single devices to arrays of multiple units – and FloWave has the capacity to house these.

The 25m tank enables testing at 1/20th scale, filling a gap between small laboratory units and full-scale marine facilities like the European Marine Energy Centre (Emec) in Orkney.

It can generate waves up to 1m high in any direction and currents underneath of 1m per second.

Scaling up – this allows it to simulate waves up to 28m high and currents of up to 14 knots.

“It’s representative of any UK coastal waters and most prime wave and tidal sites around the world,” Prof Wallace told BBC News.

FloWaveMaking waves and turning the tide – FloWave is a world-leading facility

“But it’s not just for energy developers – anyone putting equipment into the sea could test their device here. For example, ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle) manufacturers practising tow-outs, or floating offshore wind platforms.”

The tank is already helping clients like Albatern refine performance of their wave power devices before they enter open water.

Testing in tanks can enable research milestones to be achieved in days or weeks, compared with months or years in open water, say FloWave’s creators.

This accelerated development should help bring clean energy products to market more quickly and cost-effectively, at lower risk.

The £9.5m facility was funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Edinburgh University.

Prof Philip Nelson, EPSRC chief executive, said: “The FloWave facility will help keep the UK at the forefront of marine energy technology research and development.

“Research here can accelerate the deployment of these technologies which, in turn, will help us meet our low-carbon targets create jobs and boost growth.”

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UN urges action on forest diversity


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Felled forest (Getty Images)Experts fear valuable genetic resources within the world’s forest could be lost forever

Forest species are coming under increasing pressure from human activities and climate change, and face the risk of extinction, the UN warns.

The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has published a global action plan to improve management of the world’s forest genetic resources.

It describes forest ecosystems as “essential refuges for biodiversity”.

The call for action comes ahead of a key UN forestry meeting, which is being held in Rome at the end of June.

“Data from 86 countries illustrate that insufficient awareness of the importance of forest genetic resources… often translate into national policies that are partial, ineffective or non-existent,” explained Linda Collette, secretary of the FAO Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture (CGRFA).

“Only about 3% of the world’s tree species are actively managed,” she added.

“Governments need to act and implement the global plan of action.”

The action plan describes forest genetic resources (FGR) as the “heritable materials maintained within and among tree and other woody plant species that are of actual or potential economic, environmental, scientific or societal value”.

The document identifies 27 priorities, which have been grouped into four areas:

  • Improving the availability of, and access to, information on FGR
  • Conservation of FGR
  • Sustainable use, development and management of FGR
  • Policies, institutions and capacity-building

It say genetic diversity forms the “mainstay of biological diversity”, enabling species to adapt to changing environments, such as climate change and emerging diseases.

The plan adds: “FGR provide a direct food source for human and animals, even at times when annual crops fail.”

Food and nutrition security

The release of the global action plan coincided with the publication of another report, The State of the World’s Forest Genetic Resources, described as the first of its kind.

Men harvested coconuts (Image: BBC)Woody plants play a pivotal role in food security, as well as providing timber and fuel

Building on data from 86 national reports, the FAO document covers 8,000 woody species (trees, shrubs, palms and bamboo) that are among the most utilised by humans.

It found that a third of these species, about 2,400, were actively managed specifically for their products and/or services.

The report concluded: “The high number of species used and their multiplicity and services indicates the enormous value of FGR.

“It suggests their great potential to support agriculture, forestry and environmental sustainability, as well as food and nutrition security, if better evaluated and developed.”

FAO assistant director-general for forestry Eduardo Rojas-Briales observed: “Forests provide food, goods and services which are essential to the survival and well-being of all humanity.

“This report constitutes a major step in building the information and knowledge based required for action towards better conservation and better management of the planet’s precious forest genetic resources,” he added.

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China divided over carbon peak


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MachineXie Zhenhua said China was determined to “peak” in its emissions as soon as possible, but there’s no firm date

China’s senior climate negotiator says his scientists are divided over when their carbon emissions will peak.

Reports earlier this week suggested that China would introduce an overall emissions cap by 2020.

Speaking on the fringes of UN climate talks in Bonn, Xie Zhenhua said that his country was determined to peak “as soon as possible”.

But he said the experts weren’t united and it wasn’t possible to give a firm date at this point.

President Obama’s announcement of a plan to cut carbon from power stations by 2030 was widely praised around the world.

Speaking the next day, the chairman of China’s Advisory Committee on Climate Change indicated that the country would limit its emissions for the first time.

Emissions impossible

He Jiankun said that the next five year plan, that would run from 2016, would see an emissions cap and that overall carbon output would peak sometime after 2030.

But Mr He clarified his statements to say that he didn’t have the authority to speak on behalf of the government.

The issue of when China’s emissions will reach their peak and start to decline is of crucial importance to negotiators here.

Reining in the world’s biggest and fastest growing source of CO2, is critical if global temperature increases are to be kept under 2C, the threshold for dangerous impacts according to scientists.

Wind powerThe country has embarked on a rapid expansion of renewable energy

Despite its dizzying speed of development, China has been slow to take on carbon reduction targets.

In 2009, the country’s leaders committed China to cutting emissions of carbon relative to economic development. They would reduce the amount of carbon used for growth by 40-45% in 2020, compared to 2005.

To get there, the country has embarked on a rapid expansion of renewable energy and replanting forests, a point made by China’s lead negotiator at these talks.

“I am telling you that China is doing its utmost to reduce its carbon intensity but you have to realise that China is in the process of realising modernisation and the total amount of CO2 emissions will be increasing in the future,” Mr Xie said, speaking through an interpreter.

He added that China was doing a great deal with renewables, leading the world in installed capacity of wind, solar and bioenergy.

They have already overtaken their targets on planting new forests.

Broad church

However their scientists weren’t clear about when total carbon would begin to fall.

“Peaking year is a very complex issue and related closely with economic development, social development and environment issues,” Mr Xie said.

“It is a long term issue, and we have mobilised Chinese experts and scientists to try and find an answer on that.”

“This process has been going on for more than one year and I can tell you the opinions of the scientists and scholars differ quite a lot.”

If China was to set out a goal for emissions to peak it could transform the atmosphere at these negotiations which are showing few signs of a major breakthrough.

“We are working very hard to find a balanced equilibrium between economic development and environmental protection and we hope we can find an answer to that issue as soon as possible.”

Mr Xie revealed that he had been personally told of the US move to curb power plant emissions in a phone call from America’s special envoy on climate, Todd Stern.

He offered some support for the American move.

“People in the US have quite differing opinions, some people supporting and there are also strong opposition, and the US government by making this decision have overcome many difficulties,” the negotiator explained.

Mr Xie said that China would work hard to get agreement on a global climate treaty, agreed by all nations, in Paris in December 2015.

China would be in a position to outline what it will be able to offer as part of that deal, in the first half of next year, he said.

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Blind cavefish are able to ‘count’


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CavefishThe fish lost their sight evolving for millions of years in darkness

Blind cave-dwelling fish are able to discriminate between different quantities, scientists say.

The fish, found beneath the deserts in Somalia, learned to identify the greater of two groups of sticks placed at opposite ends of a tank.

Researchers say it is the first time non-visual numerical abilities have been shown in fish.

They do not know whether the sightless fish have inherited the skills or evolved them to find food.

The findings are published in The Journal of Experimental Biology.

Previous studies have shown that fish, mammals and birds can determine quantities and solve different numerical tasks.

The Italian-based research team chose the fish, Phreatichthys andruzzii, because they have evolved for two million years in completely dark caves and have lost their sense of sight.

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Cavefish are thought to use their lateral line – a system of sense organs with specialised cells – to detect changes in the water around them, sense nearby objects and to tell the difference between three-dimensional shapes.

“While mammals and birds have often been tested using visual and non-visual stimuli, all fish studies have been restricted to the visual modality,” team member Christian Agrillo, from the University of Padova said.

“Hence we asked if fish that clearly cannot use visual modality are able to process numerical information as well.”

The fish were housed in a circular tank and two sets of sticks were introduced at opposite ends. The fish were encouraged to swim towards the larger quantity of sticks by placing food near them.

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Cavefish might need to use quantity information to find food sources”

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Christian Agrillo
University of Padova

Researchers found the fish learned to correctly select between two and four sticks and two and six sticks, even without the food rewards.

To ensure the fish were actually using numerical ability the team also carried out experiments which removed physical clues to the quantity of sticks.

They found they were still able to train the fish to tell the difference between two and four sticks when they kept the surface area, volume or density of both sets of sticks the same.

“In this sense, cavefish – as many other fish – display numerical abilities as they might have inherited from a common ancestor, even though the possibility exists that they might not need to use these abilities as other species,” Mr Agrillo said.

“Of course the possibility exists that this is a case of convergent evolution. Cavefish might need to use quantity information to find food sources and might have developed such cognitive skills independently of the numerical abilities of other vertebrates.

“Our study of course cannot dissociate between these two hypotheses.”

The fish could not discriminate between two and three sticks, which could suggest that vision improves numerical accuracy.

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