Scientific Scribbles

The voice of UniMelb Science Communication students

Are Our Electronic Devices Doing Us More Harm Than Good?

Our electronic devices allow us to do things we never used to be able to do.

We can have a video call with someone that lives on the opposite side of the world and search up the answer to just about any question we have.

We are constantly surrounded by electronic devices. Source: Firmbee via Pixabay

However, for everything that is too good to be true, there is usually a catch.

Our electronic devices emit radiation, and scientists have been trying to understand the impacts that this could have on our body for decades now.

Additionally, World Health Organisation has labelled the use of mobile phones as ‘potentially carcinogenic.’ This causes us to wonder: will using our devices now have implications on our bodies in the future?

What is radiation?

Radiation is energy that stems from a source and travels through space at the speed of light. We cannot see radiation, which is why most of us disregard its impact on our bodies.

The electromagnetic spectrum. Source dave.collins84 via Flickr

The main type of radiation our electronic devices emit are radio waves – a type of electromagnetic radiation. The image below depicts the electromagnetic spectrum, and we can see that the radio waves are at the very beginning of it. This is important, as this tells us that radio waves are very low in energy.

When people usually think of radiation, they think of the high-energy ionizing radiation. This is what we find at the latter end of the spectrum. These have enough energy to excite electrons off atoms. Think x-rays, which can penetrate right through your skin like lightning travelling through the sky! Routine exposure to this type of radiation has consequences, but the radiation emitted from our electronic devices are very different.

Radio waves are non-ionizing, which means that they do not have enough energy to break chemical bonds. Therefore, it cannot penetrate tissue and damage our internal organs. The National Cancer Institute states that ‘there is no consistent evidence that non-ionizing radiation increases cancer risk in humans.’

Can mobile phone usage really cause cancer?

In 2016, Professor Simon Chapman conducted a short experiment to see if there was any correlation between brain cancer and mobile phone usage. He examined the number of incidents of brain cancer in Australian between 1982 and 2012 and compared it against mobile phone usage in that same time frame.

Despite the dramatic increase in mobile phone usage during that time period, he found that there was no substantial increase in brain cancer patients.

Scientists have also tested their theory on animals. The National Toxicology Program did an experiment where they zapped 1200 rats with cell phone radiation, for 9 hours a day, for 2 years. They found that 6% of the rats developed malignant schwannomas in their heart and 3% developed gliomas in their brain (types of tumours).

This study did not provide conclusive results, as the rats were exposed to a much greater dose of radiation than humans would. The impact that radiation has on humans also differs greatly to that of animals.

However, this does tell us one thing: there could be consequences to excessive exposure to radiation from electronic devices.

Guidelines for electronic devices

The Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Agency (ARPANSA) has set regulations for the amount of radiation that an electronic device can emit. The limit for mobile phones is 2 watts per kilogram for body tissue. This means that we can safely use our electronic devices without being fearful that the radiation will damage our body. Phew.

Lack of long-term evidence

As of now, there is no clear correlation between electronic device radiation and cancer. Clinical Physicist, Lawrence Dauer proposes that ‘we haven’t used [mobile phones] for long enough to see an effect on cancer rates.’

Cancers can take years to develop, and phones have only been around for 15 or so (how did humans survive before then?). Therefore, it will take years for us to come to a clear conclusion on this issue.

How to reduce radiation exposure

It is always worth trying to reduce our exposure to radiation if possible, so here are some ways that you can do so:

  • Limit your use of electronic devices
  • Use the speaker function on your phone when on a call
  • Distance yourself from your laptop when working on it, and avoid using it on your lap
  • Turn off Wi-Fi and Bluetooth on your devices when not needed
  • Purchase an electromagnetic shielding case for your laptop

There is no need to fret and put your electronics away into hiding from now on – but it is important that we do stay mindful about device usage. But for now, go and write that assignment or start your next Netflix binge. 

Further Resources:

ARPANSA Fact Sheet https://www.arpansa.gov.au/understanding-radiation/radiation-sources/more-radiation-sources/mobile-phones

Information about Laptop Radiation https://educateemf.com/radiation-a-laptop-emits/


Your Data? No, Our Data.

Image by ThisIsEngineering via Pexel

Gone are the days where the only footprint we, as individuals, leave behind were of our own two feet. With the rapid digitisation caused by the current Technological Revolution, we have a new ‘digital footprint’. One that follows us from the moment of first internet connection to our last, making an indelible mark on the fabric of the digital void of our every movement in this space, or does this have to be?

Our digital footprint forms our digital identity and refers to the trail of data we leave behind on the internet. This footprint is historic, starting from the first connection. For most, it may just be a portion of your life, but for coming generations, this footprint could span their whole life. You may be saying to yourself: “I mean, who really cares if my digital history is permanent? I don’t have anything to hide! ..or do I?”

This may be a surprise, but yes you should care.


This digital footprint tracks a lot more than what is searched or viewed. It includes any information you submit online such as emails, forms filled, transactions made and more. This can then be used to build a profile for the user, condensing an individual to a set of attributes that can be leveraged for mild (albeit, still invasive) actions such as target marketing. Whilst this may seem beneficial to help the consumer get to desired pages faster, this is just the tip of the iceberg of what your digital footprint can be used for. 

It is the malicious actors within this internet sphere that you, the user, must defend yourself against.


It is commonplace for data to be traded by businesses and also through dark web channels. Terabytes on terabytes of data held ransom by hackers for increasingly large sums of untraceable cryptocurrency. Why would there be such a vibrant trade in this area if the data itself is not the most valuable asset in this technological age? Recently, a poorly secured database was leaked, resulting in portions of the records of around 1 billion Chinese individuals from the Shanghai police department being hawked on a well known cybercrime site for
around 10 bitcoin (approx. USD$200,000 at the time), solidifying the fact that data is extremely valuable.

Image by Henry & Co via Pexel

Your digital footprint is commoditised. It is permanent. It is extensive. It is historic. But, you can still take control of what can and will be shared online.

Here are some suggestions to protect your digital footprint from bad actors:

1. Use tighter privacy settings
This can be done on any device especially on your phone through settings.
2. Decline constant location tracking unless necessary
Next time you are prompted, select “Only track while using app” and ensure to close the app when not in use
3. Be cautious when using social media and when agreeing to terms & conditions
Read what the application is asking for before blindly accepting it!
4. Limit online accounts and delete those that are inactive

 

 


How to age like fine wine? Avoid the alcohol!

We all enjoy a good drink on the weekend, but is Australia’s drinking culture making us age at a faster rate?

In short, the scary answer is yes, unfortunately the alcohol is making us age. It was found drinking just ten standards a week can age us three years more than if we had less than six drinks a week.

A recent genetic study conducted by Oxford Population Health has determined excessive drinking can promote aging within our genetic makeup. And detrimentally, has the potential to forward the development of age-related diseases alike Alzheimer’s, cardiovascular diseases, and some forms of cancer.

Most of us understand that drinking isn’t particularly good for our health, but many of us like to assume the benefits outweigh the potential harm. However, evidence exclusively linking drinking and a shortened life expectancy has never been so clear.

 

Photo by Pixabay via [https://www.pexels.com/@pixabay/]

 

What exactly was this evidence?

Every single one of us have structures on our DNA, called Telomeres. These protein complexes cap the end of our DNA strands protecting the strands from degradation, fusion, or random recombination. When our cells divide, the DNA is replicated, but the telomeres shorten with each copy of DNA. Once the telomeres run out, the cell becomes inactive and/or dies. As we grow older, we replace more and more cells, with each new cell the Telomeres shorten further. It is for this reason telomeres have been labelled as our ‘biological clock.’ Scientists have used this DNA marker to monitor aging and health, determining that shorter telomeres correlate to ill health and disease where excessive cell death occurs. Oxford Population Health’s study outlined that drinking increases the extent of this shortening, consequently increasing the rate of our aging.

 

So, how much can we get away with drinking before reaching our impending doom?

The research determined there may be a threshold before any damage occurs, but being a recent study, this is yet to be determined. Genetic factors and even your parent’s alcohol consumption before you were born can affect how your telomeres react to alcohol. However, other lifestyle choices (alike smoking) were considered in these findings and were independent to the effects of alcohol. Meaning, we can’t really blame any of our other unhealthy choices.

The paper recommends we keep our alcohol intake to casual as any reduction in alcohol consumption can be beneficial. In summary, stick to The Australian Alcohol Guidelines’ recommendation of no more than ten standard drinks per week with no more than four per day.

By no means I am I claiming we should all remain as sober as a judge on a Saturday night, but if reducing our consumption has the possibility to extend how long we live a healthy and happy life why not try it out? Maybe we can cut back on a few or say no to that glass of wine with dinner. And with inflation raising the cost of a night out in Melbourne, this lifestyle change might benefit us in more ways than one.

Photo by Edu Carvalho via [https://www.pexels.com/@educarvalho/]


Is sleep truly for the brain?

Spoiler alert: nope!

Although we spend about a third of our lives sleeping, scientists still know surprisingly little about what sleep is, what are its mechanisms and how sleep evolved. Since the invention of the 1st human EEG by Hans Berger, a German psychiatrist, the world has been absolutely fascinated with how sleep works. The EEG is a device that records electrical activity of the brain while we are awake and when we are asleep, this led the entire neuroscience community to enter a deep dive into the topic of the brain-sleep relationship. This brain-centric view of sleep was further cemented by an American psychiatrist, John Allan Hobson who famously said “Sleep is of the brain, by the brain and for the brain”.

We often believe that sleeping is a ‘large animal behaviour’ and that sleep is a neurological phenomenon that involves our big brains. As humans, we often think that we are so very different to other animals especially smaller, ‘less complex’ organisms. We forget that sleep can look quite different in other animals, for example, many migrating birds can ‘shut down’ half their brain and sleep while appearing fully awake. Research shows that smaller animals like insects also get tired and take a snooze, just like us! Not only do they sleep, but fruit fly have been found to also respond to caffeine and sleep-inducing chemicals.

image from David M. Phillips/ Science Source

What does sleep look like in flies?

Along with finding their favourite fruit to eat, sleep is also a part of a fly’s daily routine. It can often be difficult to distinguish if an insect is truly asleep or just staying still but after years of careful observation, researchers found that a fly’s sleep cycle consists of a period of stillness with relaxed muscles and increased arousal threshold (meaning it takes longer for them to become alert). Like most of us after a night out, sleep deprivation in flies results in less awareness and reduced performance. In an attempt to recover, fruit flies will sleep for longer durations, increase their arousal threshold and have fewer awakenings.

Is the brain require for sleep at all?

Now that we have established that invertebrates with much smaller brains also sleep, it begs the question, is the brain required for sleep at all? In light of recent studies, researchers from South Korea and Japan have discovered that hydras also sleep! Hydras are an organism with a simple neural network and here’s the catch, they have NO BRAIN. Instead of the 24 hour cycle we have, hydras have a 4 hour daily cycle and they spend a part of it, asleep. Similar to insects and us, a sleeping hydra will be less alert and take a longer time to notice its surroundings.

Image from Tom Branch/ Science Source

If not for the brain, what is sleep for?

As brainless animals also sleep, it seems that sleep was not (at least originally) meant for the brain. Many scientists hypothesise that sleep is necessary for repair mechanisms that cannot happen when we are awake as the body needs to divert all of its energy to these processes. This also means that sleep most likely evolved before the brain or a centralised nervous system during the time where hydras and humans shared a common ancestor. Which led to this final question, who was the first sleeper and how long ago did it exist?


Have You Ever Seen a Blue Rose? You Will Soon

Dyed Blue Rose
Dyed Blue Rose (Image by James Miller) 

Nobody, not even genetic engineers, have been able to grow blue roses. But scientists have engineered a bacteria that can turn roses blue.

Infected Flowers

Researchers from China have been experimenting by injecting rose petals with a specialised Agrobacterium. Their goal is to create an impossible breed, which is also a legendary symbol for flower nerds. Their study is published in ACS Synthetic Biology. Summary here.

        How it Works

  • Agrobacterium, a bacteria known for invading plant cells, has the ability to turn L-glutamine into blue pigment (indigoidine)
  • Bacteria is injected into pure white rose petals, which are naturally filled with L-glutamine
  • Bacteria produces blue pigment inside the rose petals, turning them blue

The idea is that the bacteria will create the blue colour that roses naturally can’t.

A smudge of blue around the injection site. (Image from ACS Synthetic Biology)

It might not look like much, but this hint of blue is already a more vivid blue than even genetic engineers were able to produce.

At the moment, the research team is working on stabilising the relationship between bacteria and rose for better colour spread and longer lasting effects. This work will take a few more years, but with some tailoring, designer blue roses could be a reality.

 

Blue-ish Flowers

Australian and Japanese researchers already kind of made and patented the world’s first ‘true blue’ roses back in 2004.

The “SUNTORY blue rose APPLAUSE” took 20 years of research and it definitely looks… almost blue?

Suntory APPLAUSE Rose
Suntory APPLAUSE rose sold for $35 USD per stem in 2011 (Image by Hiroshi Nishimoto)

The APPLAUSE rose is a milestone of genetic engineering, because it’s the first rose capable of producing its own blue pigment.

This technique actually uses Agrobacterium too, but the bacteria are only used to transfer new genes into the rose, instead of making any pigment themselves.

The ability of the bacteria to invade plant cells makes them a useful tool for genetic engineers.

How it Works

  • Gene for blue pigment (delphinidin) is taken from petunias
  • Agrobacterium is used to deliver the blue genes to the rose
  • Other rose genes are tweaked to remove as much natural red colour as possible
Blue Petunia
Petunias are one of the few blue flower species. (Image by Andy Rogers) 

In theory, the rose should come out sky blue.

But in practiceit’s harder than it looks to get rid of all that original red colour. There’s also a problem with the acidity of the rose petals breaking down the blue pigment (delphinidin). (This problem doesn’t happen with the bacteria produced pigment (indigoidine), because it’s a different kind of chemical.)

This rose was a huge achievement back in the 2000s and Suntory has promised, with more work, they will achieve the perfect blue rose.

But that was 14 years ago.

So, the new approach looks like our best bet for now.

 

Why Blue?

It’s official – blue is the world’s favourite colour, which is kind of weird. Apart from the sky and the ocean, there isn’t a lot of blue coloured anything in nature. Any blue birds or butterflies you’ve seen are liars, using tricks of the light and not real blue pigment.

These birds are liars. (Splendid Fairy-Wren Image by Nik Borrow)

Some flowers, like petunias and violets, are lucky enough to carry the genes for blue colour. But no rose species does. This is also why you don’t see blue apples or strawberries – they’re roses too.

So no amount of cross breeding will ever be able to produce a blue rose.

Naturally, this just makes people want them more, and in the language of flowers, blue roses have grown to mean all things magical, mysterious and impossible. They’re the ultimate prize for die hard flower fans, and it looks like their wish could actually be about to come true.

Thanks, bacteria!


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