Features Editor, Olivia Bybel, explores a few of the recent scientific advancements made by the University.
As the world plunged into the chaos of pandemic, many St Andreans found themselves in isolation and lockdown across the globe. In a time where I frequently find myself googling “coronavirus vaccine when?” my interest and concern for scientific developments is the greatest it’s ever been. What is our own institution, the University of St Andrews, been up to in terms of scientific progress? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the University has participated in quite a few scientific discoveries ranging from viruses to Vikings.
Unlocking the Spread of Covid-19
The University has joined with data scientists at Blue Hat Associates to research the spread of Covid-19 in the community. This research, using a Covid-19 tracker app, aims to link key information from household reports with medical records to assess the true number of people with the virus. The app allows people to share data, such as exhibited symptoms, within their own household. The project is one of three awarded to St Andrews as part of the Scottish Government’s Covid-19 Rapid Research programme. It aims to use information from household reports along with medical records, to get a better idea of the amount of people with Covid-19. The project is also looking to see if those infected with Covid-19 experience different symptoms if they stay at home compared to if they require medical help. The University of St Andrews Medical school plans to research on the outcomes of the different recovery scenarios.
Scientists at the University have developed a new technology to improve the understanding of heart failure, and aid in the development of effective treatments for it. An interdisciplinary team from the Schools of Physics and Astronomy, and Medicine embedded lasers into individual heart cells. The light from these tiny lasers can be analysed to monitor contractions of the heart muscle. With every contraction of the heart, the light of the lasers changes perceptively in color. This technology is particularly useful in treatments which explore stem cells or transplant tissue, as is more detailed than other heart function tests. More research will need to be done before this new method of using lasers is implemented in research labs across the world, but the study done by the University has paved the way for more discovery. The research team is already working towards their next goal, using a nanolaser, which is 10,000 times smaller than the microlasers used in cells, into an optical sensor for a heart contraction.
The University of St Andrews child and baby lab has contributed to the Netflix docuseries, Babies. Babies explores the first year of life, focusing on the mind of the baby, and how they experience the world around them. The second season of the popular show features research from an incredible team of scientists, including the University of St Andrews’ Malinda Carpenter who studies the gestures babies make to share their experience of the world. Carpenter believes pointing gestures form the foundation of human culture and communication.
The Sea Mammal Research Unit, based in St Andrews since 1996, has carried out a survey of the dolphins in the Tay Estuary and off the Fife coast every year since 1989. The survey is usually conducted from May through September each year and besides a small pause due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 2020 is no exception. This year, two groups of bottlenose dolphins were photographed in the Tay Estuary, and a third between Crail and Anstruther. Researchers identify individual dolphins by nicks and notches on their dorsal fins, and can then estimate survival, birth rates,, trends in population, and record movements. The research has identified the expansion of the dolphin’s range in the past, and more recently recorded an increase of dolphin sightings in the Firth of Forth, and as far south as the North East English coast this year.
Bat1K is an initiative to sequence the genomes of all living bat species. A team of scientists, lead by Dr Sonja Vernes, a recently appointed UKRI fellow at the University of St Andrews, have recently had their work published in Nature, exploring the genetic material in Bats that allow them to fly, use echolocation, survive infectious diseases, and resist ageing and cancer. The team used new methods to generate six highly accurate bat genomes, 10 times more complete than the existing published bat genome data. The team are hopeful that the advancement in the understanding of the genetic evolutions that bats possess, could eventually help relieve human disease and ageing.
Comparing the bat genomes to those of other animals, the team found strong evidence that bats are closely related to the Ferreuungulata group. This group consists of dogs, cats, seals, and other carnivores, as well as whales and hoofed mammals. They then looked for key differences between bats and other mammals, identifying regions in the genome that give bats their special traits. Evidence of “fossilized viruses”, genomes that reflect a survival of past viruses, were found at higher rates than other mammals. These findings are really only the beginning of Bat1K’s work, as they hope to discover much while continuing to map the genomes of 1400 species of bats.
The Universities of the Highlands and the Islands, Wales, and our very own St Andrews, have collaborated on new research to be published in the Journal of Wetland Archeology. A lost Viking waterway has been revealed running from the Orkney Mainland, connecting the North Atlantic and Scapa Flow. This waterway may have been used as an ancient ‘highway’.
New research has revealed a lost Viking waterway running through the Orkney Mainland, connecting the North Atlantic and Scapa Flow, possibly forming the equivalent of an ancient ‘highway’. Attention was first drawn to the ancient waterway but a series of Old Norse Place names located in the middle of the Orkney Mainland.
While medieval Viking names for places have been studied extensively in northern Scotland and the Isles, this new study investigates names of places that have sea or boat connotation, but are inland today. The study came to the conclusion that this waterway provided easy access for Norse Earls in the 9th through 12th centuries to the transport of rents and taxes from farms and estates surrounding the Loch of Harray to the Brough of Birsay. The waterways also provided trade routes to the Scapa Flow.
Researchers used remote sensing geophysical methods to map the channels that are now filled. This data was combined with inofromation from environmental records procured from sediment samples cored from key sites. Once the data was analysed together the researchers could model the waterways and link them to locations named nautically. The results showed a route of waterway networks that would have allowed for Vikings to halu their boats and heavy goods through Orkney. This recent discovery is one of a few waterway networks found in Scotland.
The waterway network would have provided a shallow water routeway through which the Norse/Vikings were able to haul both their boats and heavy goods, such as grain. Similar navigable waterways are known elsewhere in Scotland, for example, at Rubh an Dunain in Skye. This new work changes how we think about the transfer of goods and people in the west of mainland Orkney and perhaps enables historians and archaeologists to find more evidence of water transport in the Viking Age and Late Norse period in the Isles. Professor Barbara Crawford of the School of History at the University of St Andrews and Honorary Professor, Institute for Northern Studies, University of Highlands and Islands, said of the collaboration: “The interdisciplinary investigation of this study provides an example of what can be achieved when scholars of different disciplines work together in pursuing a common research theme.” Dr Richard Bates of the School of Earth and Environmental Sciences, University of St Andrews, said: “It is quite fascinating to see how the scientific investigation can be verified by the toponymic study. I would not have believed that both parts of the evidence would have survived nearly a millennia of change.” These new finding open the door for further interdisciplinary collaborations to better understand ancient waterways through Scotland, and how they affected Viking society.