Entomology, chemical ecology, evidence-based environmentalism and science in general. I like big bugs and I cannot lie.

Friday, 31 October 2008


It's not just flies that feed on tears. Some moths like this one, Chacopsestis ludovicae, also feed on ocular secretions by inserting their probosces under the eyelids.

Happy Halloween!

Tuesday, 28 October 2008

Oh dear

I've just put this picture in my fieldwork plan.Hmm...

You're fired!

Anyone a fan of The Apprentice? You know those episodes where the contestants have to go out and find a collection of improbable items whilst spending the least money, like a cowskin with the tail still attached, a green alarm clock in the shape of a mosque and a single person who can't tell within two seconds of meeting them that they have the IQ of a button mushroom, wrapped up in an ego more commonly associated with people who sit in secure wards playing with their own poo and announcing that they're Jesus, wrapped up in an Armani suit? I feel like I'm in one of those episodes. I have to source a box of sterile cellulose ophthalmic sponge points, a small colony of Musca autumnalis and a regular supply of organic cow's manure. And I don't even get the opportunity to announce that I'll give 150% on national television.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

The results are in

A month ago I asked you to help me make the decision on which antimalarial to take. To my astonishment at least four people turn out to have read my blog. Admittedly one of these people thinks I'm already so crazy that taking Larium wouldn't make any difference, and the response of one seems to have been "feed Jules weird things", but to my relief two think I should take doxycycline. Which I would have done anyway.

Tuesday, 21 October 2008

Here comes the science part!

I feel it's about time to introduce Musca sorbens, the little fly I'm planning to spend the next three years beheading, mutilating, impaling, forcing to copulate according to my whims and, frankly, doing everything to short of donning a Halloween mask and phoning it up to ask it if it likes horror movies. But it's all in the name of science, and anyway the little bugger probably deserves it.

Musca sorbens is found in Sub-Saharan Africa, parts of Asia and Australia. It's actually reckoned to be a species complex rather than a single species - for those unfamiliar with the term, species complex basically means "They all look the bloody same to me, but different populations won't shag when we put them together in the lab and we can't afford to do the DNA work". I can't seem to find a good picture of them on Google images, but they look like a slightly smaller housefly with two stripes on the thorax and, on the evidence of the specimens I've seen so far anyway, they have large pins with type-written names through them.

I'm reluctant to put up the pictures I have found of the flies, partly because they're so small but mostly because they make me sad, always showing them on beautiful kids:
I try to keep this blog quite light and funny, but on a purely emotional level pictures like this show why this sort of work is important. I find it very hard to understand how I live in a world with Ikea and Facebook and Angel boxsets and hazelnut latte, and on the same planet there are people living like this, who can't spare any of their two litres of water a day for washing, let alone spare 7p to buy soap.

M. sorbens adults feed on the dissolved salts and proteins in tears and snot, and in doing so transmit the bacterium responsible for trachoma. If you like looking at pictures of manky eyes (and hey, who am I to judge?) google trachoma, if you're eating your tea then don't. At first the infection seems just like conjuntivitis (or pinkeye for my American friends - who says you never learn anything from Southpark?) and eventually clears up on its own, making it pretty low on peoples' list of priorities. Repeated infections though cause scarring of the inner eyelid, causing it to contract and rolling the eyelashes inward so that they scrape the cornea whenever the sufferer blinks. As well as being excruciatingly painful, this scarring and possibly infection of the cornea leads to blindness. As it may be several decades between the initial infection and the development of trichiasis, people rarely associate the two.

The tragedy of all this is that flies seem to prefer the eyes of children to those of adults. There may be something in the tears and snot of children that's especially attractive to these flies or it may just be that, as anyone who's ever tried to get a four year old to blow their nose will tell you, kids are mucky little bastards and probably have rather more of the relevant secretions lying around. This is one of the things I'm hoping to find out. It has also been suggested in the same way that many other infections entities have evolved strategies to maximise their distribution (the cold virus makes you sneeze out an aerosol of cold viruses, the Guinea worm induces its victims to cool their burning sores in water into which it can release its young, if you have a Britney Spears song stuck in your head chances are you'll end up humming it and infect someone else), the trachoma bacterium may cause children's' eyes to water, attracting more flies to spread it. I'll also be looking at whether secretions from kids with trachoma are more attractive to flies than those of kids without (and any child found to have trachoma in the course of the study will get antibiotic treatment).

And this is the really sad thing - if you can't afford soap, you can't afford the really simple antibiotics to cure the results. As I may have observed on a previous occasion, the world's pretty messed up really.

Sunday, 19 October 2008

Saturday, 18 October 2008


The trouble with blogging is that, much like riding a tiger or drinking banana-onion juice, once you start you have to keep going. I am extremely flattered, and a bit embarrassed, to have had two emails and a text asking whether I'm still on this mortal coil and would like to assure you that I was certainly alive last time I checked.

Things have been a little hectic up here lately - all the fun with not having a passport meant that I missed the post grad registration day, on which I would have been offered iced beverages and canapes whilst the college secretary massaged my feet and David Bailey took my campus card photograph, and was instead forced to register along with the undergraduates. This involved being herded like cattle between department, college, Elvet Riverside and Old Shire Hall at least twice by people with an air of deperately forced jollity and a garish t-shirt with a humourous nickname like Baps or Rozzer on the back. I then queued for at least six hours behind a pashmina princess loudly informing the person next to her of how she caught leprosy on her gap year trip to India, to the general incredulity of all in earshot, before having a webcam waved in my face and coming away with a campus card photograph that makes me look like a perplexed hobbit (although this is at least an improvement on my previous campus card photograph, in which I looked like a perplexed hobbit who had just escaped from a category five hurricane).

Since then I have spent my time attending a variety of safety courses, in which I learnt that the appropriate course of action if you accidentally spill a culture of genetically modified microbes down yourself is to strip naked on the spot and autoclave your clothes (this has actually happened in the department). As I will not be working with gentically modified microbes I'm not entirely sure what the point of explaining this was, unless all female students are warned to be wary of dirty old researchers approaching them with bubbling culture bottles and a glint in their eyes. I have also learnt how to be an effective demonstrator (don't form inappropriate relationships with undergraduates), actually done a small amount of work on my PhD, and discovered that someone had attempted to buy an ipod with my eBay account. I wouldn't have minded this if they had used a) my address and b) their money, but unfortunately it didn't work out that way and so ended my beautiful love affair with eBay ("And we should care why? Customer service? You do know that we have another ten million suckers like you, don't you?").

Other than that all's well. Lou and Ting continue to be extremely generous in letting me stink up their sofa, eat their food and smash their crockery, and living with doctors is certainly educational - you know that any conversation that starts "Talking of genito-urinary medicine, I had a guy in the other day who must have been a professional welder or something" is going to be interesting. After a hairy week in which I feared I may have to change my blog title to Twit in Tanzania when the MRC decided to close the Farafenni research station, it's now looking like I will still be going to The Gambia but to the research station in Fajara instead. This suits me as it is closer to Banjul, which is apparently the only place in the country you can buy toilet paper or any safe meat other than Spam - I swear the stuff is haunting me.

Wednesday, 1 October 2008

Back in the hood

I'm back up north, that magical place where you don't need a mortgage just to buy a round of drinks. Lou and Ting have very kindly offered me their sofa until I'm recalled by Rothamsted or until Ting chucks me out for eating all his crisps, and I was delighted to discover that their flat is in a creepy Gothic mansion. Pictures will follow when there's some light to take them by.

I keep expecting Christopher Lee to jump out from behind the shower curtain. Thus far though the most disturbing thing I have discovered was a tin of Spam Lite in the kitchen cupboard - truly you never really know someone until you've lived with them.

I attempted to register today, a process complicated somewhat by the fact that I do not currently possess a passport as it is being renewed (or more likely used as a cup rest by someone in the bowels of the passport office). Credit cards, travel cards, and youtube evidence of me affixing a plastic cape to someone and encouraging him to dive into a pile of cardboard boxes are apparently not sufficient proof of identity. Apparently it is not possible to register as a student without some a passport or birth certificate , although heaven knows why someone would want to impersonate me for the privilege of working with filth flies for three years. However I suppose the policy does have some merits, as if instituted worldwide it would prevent people like George Bush from attending university.

I was at least able to convince the appropriate people of my existence, even if the university systems refuse to acknowledge it. This and the fact that I left the biology department with considerably more paper than I entered it with have encouraged me to view the day as a success. Tomorrow will be spent meeting a man who will tell me that ethidium bromide does not make a good novelty cocktail additive, and will then sign a piece of paper to confirm he has done so.

Durham appears pretty much unchanged, although Waitrose has closed down (it's grim up north) and it has sprouted a bead shop and an Oxfam book shop, both of which are likely to lead to considerable attrition of my grant. The God Squad is still out in force; I was collared by a pair of them on the way out of the biology department which I felt was a little unfair as I'd just negotiated a horde of people proffering leaflets with useful information such as when to register as a demonstrator or how to get your thesis bound (surely a little premature?) so it seemed quite logical to take one more. Still I'd imagine the biology department isn't their most fertile recruiting ground so perhaps they felt justified in taking advantage whilst guards were down. I felt rather miffed as taking the time to explain that no, I don't think I'm going to hell thank you very much meant I didn't reach the student union shop before it closed so couldn't get my 20p Guardian. Which was the only reason I signed up to be a student again in the first place.