Hindsight is 20/20

Fields of scientific study often overlap, and population studies are a case in point

To celebrate our 20th issue, we looked back over the previous 19 issues of ‘Big Picture’ to pull out interesting population stories. Follow the links to read the individual articles in full.

1. Obesity

Some developing countries are simultaneously combating hunger and obesity. A UN study from 1999 found that the percentage of the Chinese population classed as overweight rose from 10 per cent to 15 per cent in just three years. (Obesity among the hungry)

2. Nanoscience

Nanotechnology has a lot of potential to help battle bacterial populations. Special wound dressings that use the antimicrobial properties of silver are now in use in the UK. (Appliance of nanoscience)

3. Sex and gender

Most human populations are patriarchal, but there are a few that are dominated by women. In Malaysia the women of Negeri Sembilan had exclusive inheritance rights to ancestral rice fields. (Girls on top)

4. Thinking

Charles Darwin proposed that facial expressions were common to all humanity – even remote populations laugh the same way we do. (Face the facts)

5. Evolution

Cane toads, introduced into Australia to control a beetle pest in the 1930s, are spreading rapidly through the country. Interestingly, they are themselves evolving: animals at the front of the invasion, those spreading fastest, have longer legs than those towards the rear. (Seeing evolution)

6. Epidemics

Mass culling has been used to contain epidemics, such as the H5N1 avian flu. The Hong Kong authorities slaughtered the territory’s entire poultry population – 1.5 million birds – in three days when the disease broke out in 1997. The disease was contained, but the virus has reappeared and spread through wild birds via the international poultry trade. (Under control)

7. Drug Development

Pharmacogenetics looks at the prospect of medicines tailored to a patient’s individual make-up. Drugs targeted at only a subset of the population could spell the end of the blockbuster model, where one drug generates very high sales. (Tailoring medicines)

8. How We Look

The EDAR gene is associated with hair thickness in Asian populations. The thick-hair variant appeared after ancestral Asian and European populations split. (Genes that affect how we look)

9. Health and Climate Change

Ecological changes alter the distribution of disease-carrying vectors such as mosquitoes, bringing infections to new populations. (Infectious disease)

10. Music

A genetic study of isolated Finnish populations found evidence for genes associated with musical aptitude on chromosomes 4 and 8. (Day after day)

11. Genes, Genomes and Health

Genome analysis of samples of a single species of bacteria recovered from two different human populations can indicate when the populations became separated, assuming that the bacteria have undergone a roughly constant rate of mutation. (It’s all history now)

12. Addiction

There is good evidence that more than three-quarters of the UK population gamble, if only by playing the National Lottery. A survey done by the Gambling Commission in 2007 suggested that just under 1 per cent of the UK population between 16 and 24 can be classified as problem gamblers. (That figure jumped to over 2 per cent of the same population in a 2010 follow-up study.) (Double or quits?)

13. The Cell

Humans are home to many bacteria, which live in the digestive system and on the surface of the body. The total bacterial population has perhaps ten times as many cells as there are body cells – that is, 1,000 trillion – though they are much smaller. They weigh around 1 kg altogether. (The Cell classroom poster)

14. Food and Diet

The way we metabolise chemicals varies between populations. Adults who stop making the enzyme lactase can become lactose intolerant; any lactose they drink is digested by the bacteria in their colon, causing bloating and cramps. Northern European populations are often lactose tolerant, while people from China are more likely to be lactose intolerant. (Hard to tolerate?)

15. Exercise, Energy and Movement

Government guidelines, such as the ones for physical activity, are often based on epidemiological data, gained by observing large populations. (Everything in moderation?)

16. Careers from Biology

Dr Hannah Rigby, an environmental engineer looking at beneficial use of biowaste, did a Master’s in oceanography focusing on coastal ecosystems. Her work looks at sustainable methods of food production. (Hannah Rigby interview)

17. Inside the Brain

Research has found that the population of London taxi drivers have an increased volume of grey matter in the hippocampus, a part of the brain known to be involved in generating maps and forming spatial memories. (Check the volume)

18. Number Crunching

Examining an entire population can be time-consuming and damage the environment you’re looking at. Samples are taken: to estimate the size of an animal population, researchers often use a mark–release–recapture method. (Grand Designs)

19. Proteins

Protein and peptide pheromones are common among bacteria. Many use the concentration of particular pheromones as an index of the local population density. (Pass it on)

About this resource

This resource was first published in ‘Populations’ in June 2014.

Cell biology, Genetics and genomics, Microbiology, Neuroscience, Statistics and maths, Ecology and environment, Physiology, Careers, Psychology, Immunology, Medicine, History, Health, infection and disease, Biotechnology and engineering
Education levels:
14–16, 16–19, Continuing professional development