What the frack?: An exploration of hydraulic fracturing in the UK.

For many years I’ve been skirting the sidelines of the debate on hydraulic fracturing (commonly known as fracking), occasionally dipping in and out of articles but usually concluding that I don’t know enough to make an informed decision. However fracking has now come to me, placing itself firmly on my doorstep – so I’ve decided it’s about time I did my research!

I live in Bury, a region in the north of Manchester which, according to the amusingly named website ‘Frack Off’, sits within what is known as an oil exploration block. This being an area of land, typically 1000s of square kilometres in size, which has been ‘awarded’ to an oil drilling and exploration company by the government. Apparently the lucky exploration company with control over my home turf is Hutton Energy.


The reason my home county is such hot property for energy companies is because the ‘British Geological Survey Gas-In-Place Resources Assessment of Bowland Shale’ has suggested that it sits above a large amount of, possibly gas rich, shale rock. Shale is a fine-grained sedimentary rock formed by compression of mud (mineral particles and organic matter) over time. It is also incredibly common, forming over 35% of the world’s surface rock. Over millions of years shale becomes buried deep within the Earth and, when it reaches depths of over 2 kilometres, heat and pressure cause organic matter within the shale to release methane gas – it is this ‘natural gas’ which can be harvested to generate electricity for domestic use. The problem with shale gas is that, unlike conventional gas supplies (such as those harvested in the North Sea) which collect in large reservoirs, the methane in shale is trapped by the fine grain structure of the rock. It is only when shale rock is drilled and fractured that the gas is released and can be harvested. This process of fracturing shale rock to harvest methane gas has caused an enormous stir, with supporters on both sides of the debate campaigning ferociously.

But what are the debates for and against this process and how relevant are these to fracking in the UK?

To understand these arguments it is first important to know what hydraulic fracturing really entails and there is no doubt that the process sounds particularly invasive. For starters, shale gas exploration companies will drill large boreholes down into gas-bearing shale rock. These holes will stretch thousands of miles below the surface of the ground and, in many cases, will continue horizontally through the shale rock. These boreholes are then lined with steel and concrete for stability and to limit leakage of fracking-related materials into the surrounding land. Next, a perforating gun is used in the lower segments of the borehole to make a number of small holes in the concrete casing – these holes are concentrated in the parts of the pipe sitting within the shale rock. Finally, a mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped under high pressure down the borehole and out of the small holes in the concrete piping. This high pressure water mix causes fractures to develop in the shale rock, while sand within the water lodges in these cracks ensuring that they remain open and porous. This process allows gas trapped within the shale to flow out of the rock and then travel back up through the borehole to the surface for harvesting.

Supporters of this process argue that fracking in the US has significantly boosted domestic oil production, driven down the cost of gas and created many job opportunities. Those in favour also suggest that fracking can generate electricity at half the CO2 emissions of coal – but, be aware that this figure varies depending on sources and that some argue that the atmospheric pollution caused by fracking is actually no better than that of traditional coal extraction. The benefits here are attractive for the UK, especially since our North Sea gas fields are reaching the end of their lives, most of our nuclear plants are planned to close by 2023 and a third of our coal-fired power stations are set to close by 2016 to meet European air quality regulations. So, we are undoubtedly in need of an energy boost. However, it is interesting to note that oil and gas industrial representatives recently told ‘New Scientist’ that “ it would take at least 10 years for the UK to produce a meaningful amount of shale gas, making it a poor substitute for dwindling North Sea production in the short term”

So is fracking fit for purpose, especially considering that many academics agree that a move towards renewable sources of energy is preferable?

Those opposed to the process argue strongly that fracking introduces too many health and environmental concerns to be a viable and safe source of energy. Specifically, many are concerned that methane gas and fracking chemicals could travel upwards through natural fractures in the rock, polluting underground aquifers and further contributing to global warming. It is also suggested that leaks in pipelines could lead to further aquifer pollution. These concerns are certainly valid, however to date there have been very few peer reviewed articles published suggesting that chemicals and methane released by the fracking process have reached local aquifers. It is also argued that these risks can be significantly minimised by strict regulations and regular monitoring. For example, thorough geological surveys should be carried out prior to exploratory fracking to detect pre-existing fractures, pipelines should be strongly reinforced and regularly monitored and chemicals used in the fracking process should be assessed and approved by the environmental agency.

Many opponents to the process also raise concerns that fracking may trigger earthquakes. Again, to date there have been few proven links between fracking and earthquakes. However, one of the few instances where this has been the case was in 2011 when two small earthquakes struck Blackpool close to an exploratory fracking site. Experts suggest that these quakes were caused by lubricated rocks slipping along a small fault line. Cuadrilla, the company in charge of the Blackpool site, propose that they will now monitor seismic activity around all their fracking sites and, if small quakes begin to occur, they will reduce the flow of water into the borehole, or even pump it back out preventing bigger quakes.

Indeed, many of the environmental and health concerns raised against fracking seem to be manageable given stringent regulation and proper monitoring – something which the UK government claim to take very seriously.

In my view more research is still needed to explore the validity of existing environmental concerns while stringent regulations must also be put in place before going forward with further exploratory work. This all leads me to one big question: can we trust those involved in the process to ensure this happens?

On a personal level I’m still not convinced, there does seem to be a strong vested government interest in moving fracking forward – in some cases this is happening to the detriment of local councils and areas of natural beauty. In my mind urgency is the mother of mismanagement so, until I’m convinced that fracking in the UK will be properly managed, local communities will be consulted and engaged as part of the process and this will not be used as an excuse to slow down on development of more sustainable energy resources I think I will remain skeptical.

Post by: Sarah Fox, @FoxWoo84

Originally published online at: http://thebrainbank.scienceblog.com/




Can I please buy one of your kidneys?

Should we legalise the sale of human organs?

In the UK alone the average waiting time for a kidney transplant is 3 years, this costs the NHS around £24,000 per patient per year and in 2013 – 2014 1000 people died whilst on the transplant waiting list. Dialysis patients also often say they feel that they are just existing rather than living. But, if these patients could get a transplant from a living donor, their life expectancy would increase up to 23 years and their lives could really begin. With increasing cuts to the NHS budget is it possible that the cost-effectiveness of kidney transplant might persuade the government to legalise a market in human organs?  The implementation of a legal organ market would also increase the human organ supply and eliminate the consequences of the black market.

Due to a shortage in organs, the black market and transplant tourism is thriving. Annually, 15,000 – 20,000 illegal kidney transplants take place around the world, often in developing countries such as India and the Philippines. There are even slums in the Philippines dubbed “kidney-vile”, as the majority of the slum’s residents have been driven to sell a kidney. But the black market is built on systematic deception. Brokers coerce desperate workers to sell a kidney then give them much less money than they were promised. Nor do they care about the surgical quality and often leave donors with little or no aftercare. Consequently, donors often become ill and are unable to continue their usual hard labour, which perpetuates their poverty, rather than alleviating it. Recipients are also affected by black market fraud: often these kidneys are not screened properly and donors are coerced to cheat their medical records. As a result of these schemes and poor hygiene standards, recipients often contract diseases such as hepatitis B/C and HIV.

Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney.

Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney.

Iran is currently the only country with a compensated and regulated kidney donation program. In this system, there are no brokers and it is charity organizations that coordinates donors with recipients. The government pay a fixed price for organs and cover the costs of all necessary aftercare for donors. Due to this system, Iran is currently the only country with no kidney transplant waiting list. It has also successfully eliminated its black market, and has still maintained a respectable percentage of altruistic donations. Nevertheless there are flaws to the Iranian system as discussed here.

Erin & Harris proposed an ethical, highly regulated, system in which only individuals within a nation are eligible to sell or receive organs. The market would have one purchaser (e.g. the NHS in the UK) and organs would be allocated fairly, giving recipients an equal chance of receiving a transplant regardless of their economic background. This system would also remove the draw for brokers, and subsequently reduce the exploitation of vulnerable people. Medical screening would ensure only healthy individuals could sell an organ, which would to minimise risk (Gill & Sade, 2002). Such a system would also provide proper medical care for donors who would also benefit from a full psychological evaluation, to make sure they are aware of the consequences of their actions.

A study of 478 donors from the Iranian regulated system has shown their health did not deteriorate after the sale, and that 90% of them were content with selling their kidney. These results contrast markedly with the study of 305 Indian donors in an unregulated market. The health of 90% of these donors declined, people living below the poverty line rose up to 20% and 79% of donors would not recommend selling a kidney. This shows that within a regulated program, both vendors and patients are better cared for and are more satisfied with the transplant process.

The strongest argument against the sale of organ is the possible exploitation of the poor. Critics argue that legalisation could lead to a market that would exploit poorer people, as they might view organ sale as a last resort. But, is it exploitation if a person makes a reasoned decision to take an action they consider to be the best option to improve their life? One can’t assume that money would simply overrule a person’s judgment. A black market would also lead to greater exploitation than any legalised market ever would. Prohibiting an organ market is paradoxical, to restrict an individual’s autonomy and cause moral harms to liberty.

Another prominent argument against the sale of human organs is that it would lead to commodification of the human and therefore corrupt human dignity. Commodification is an unsuitable term to use for the sale of a kidney, since there are numerous other circumstances when paying money does not insinuate loss of dignity, such as surrogacy.The scarcity of organs and, death and exploitation of people will not be resolved through rhetoric of moral repugnancy and human dignity.

Under prohibition, patients are suffering and dying whilst waiting for a transplant. Both vendors and recipients are exploited by the black market, and the human rights of poor people are violated. These problems will continue to exist as long as there is a dearth of organs. So, should a market in human organs from living persons be legalised? Or is it merely a naive and impractical idea, only appropriate for a dystopian future. Either way, the possibility of legalising a regulated and ethical market should be explored.

Post by: Alyssa Vongapai


Erin, C. A., & Harris, J. (2003). An ethical market in human organs. Journal of Medical Ethics , 29 (3), 137–138.

Ghods, A. J. (2009). Ethical issues and living unrelated donor kidney transplantation. Iranian Journal of Kidney Diseases , 3 (4), 183–191.

Goyal, M. (2002). Economic and Health Consequences of Selling a Kidney in India. Journal of the American Medical Association , 288 (13), 1589.

Higgins, R., West, N., Fletcher, S., Stein, A., Lam, F., & Kashi, H. (2003). Kidney transplantation in patients travelling from the UK to India or Pakistan. Nephrology Dialysis Transplantation , 18 (4), 851–852.

Hippen, B. E. (2005). In defense of a regulated market in kidneys from living vendors. The Journal of Medicine and Philosophy , 30 (6), 593–626.

Kidney Org. (2010). Transplantation Cost Effectiveness. [Online] Available from:http://www.kidney.org.uk/archives/news-archive-2/campaigns-transplantation-trans-cost-effect/. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

MacKellar, C. (2014). Human Organ Markets and Inherent Human Dignity. The New Bioethics: A Multidisciplinary Journal of Biotechnology and the Body , 20 (1), 53–71.

Moazam, F. (2009). Conversations with Kidney Vendors in Pakistan. Hastings Center Report, (June), 29–44.

New Internationalist. (2014). Human traffic: exposing the brutal organ trade. [Online] Available
from:http://newint.org/features/2014/05/01/organ-trafficking-keynote/. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

Organ Donation. (2015). Transplant save lives. [Online] Available from:http://www.organdonation.nhs.uk/newsroom/fact_sheets/transplants_save_lives.asp.
[Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

Pat Roque. (1999). Group of men from Baseco “Kidney-ville” in Philippines, displaying their scars from selling a kidney [Photograph]. At: https://digital.newint.com.au/issues/88/articles/1890. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

The Wall Street Journal. (2015). Cash for kidneys: The case for a Market for organs. [Online] Available from:http://www.wsj.com/articles/SB10001424052702304149404579322560004817176.
[Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]

World Socialist Web Site. (2015). Dramatic increase in worldwide illegal organ trade. [Online]
Available from:http://www.wsws.org/en/articles/2012/07/orga-j14.html. [Accessed on 5 Aug 2016]


Shedding Light on the Nucleus

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 21.12.02This year the Manchester branch of the British Science Association launched it’s first ever science journalism competition. They presented AS and A-level students across Greater Manchester with the daunting task of interviewing an academic researcher then using this material to create an article accessible to someone with no scientific background. This was by no means a simple task, especially since many of the researchers were working on basic research – the type of work which may not be sensational but which represents the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of scientific research and without which no major breakthroughs would ever be made. Despite the challenges implicit in this task all our entrants stepped up and we were astounded by the quality of work submitted.

Today we’re proud to publish one of our runner up articles written by Hayley Martin from Oswestry School

“The nucleus can be thought of like an engine of a car – driving the actions of the cell”. This is an analogy made by Professor Dean Jackson at Manchester University. With a passion for the genome and forty years of research behind him Professor Jackson has become an expert in understanding mammalian nuclei and chromosomes and how the organisation of their structures defines the cell’s behaviour. In order for these cells to function correctly the genetic code stored in the DNA of each gene has to be interpreted by a process called gene expression, where information from the gene is used in the synthesis of the gene product. These gene products often include proteins such as enzymes, hormones and antibodies, all vital to our survival. Gene expression is immensely complicated due to the number of processes involved. Professor Jackson has been studying these processes and has helped to shed light on exactly why this expression is so complicated.

Figure 1 – The nucleus of a human cell – showing the distribution of DNA (blue), the transcription factories (green) and proteins (red) involved in further modification of RNA.

Figure 1 – The nucleus of a human cell – showing the distribution of DNA (blue), the transcription factories (green) and proteins (red) involved in further modification of RNA.

Transcription is the first process that contributes to gene expression – it is the process whereby information from DNA is copied and made into a new strand of RNA which goes on to synthesize proteins. Professor Jackson has been able to tag newly formed RNA with a fluorescent antibody that can be detected using a laser scanning confocal microscope. This equipment scans a beam of a specific wavelength of light through the specimen, causing the antibodies to fluoresce. The resulting image is displayed in Figure 1. Images such as this have allowed him to locate the areas in the nucleus where this RNA is formed – he refers to these areas as “transcription factories”. He has also found that these factories are made up of many other genes and proteins which assemble into specific complexes. Such knowledge is key to defining the required level of synthesis of each gene product. It also provides the potential for co-regulation of genes in that the way that one gene in this complex is expressed will affect the expression of another gene. Recent work has concluded that genes can have as many as 20 other genetic elements, known as enhancers, that contribute to the gene’s overall expression, which is why it is so complex.

Gene therapy is an exciting modern concept: It offers the prospect of improving lives without the need for drugs with potential side effects and offers possibilities for treating diseases that previously had limited therapeutic options. So far it has been considered as an approach to replacing mutated genes with normal functioning copies, inactivating or removing damaged genes and introducing a new gene that might help the body fight off a disease. With the use of new techniques such as ‘CRISPR’ gene insertion is relatively easy. However Professor Jackson’s research has highlighted how gene therapy isn’t as simple as just inserting a gene – it has to be controlled in the right way by these complex processes in order for the cell to have control of its actions. The difficulty in controlling these actions means that gene therapy is currently a risky process and is not a common treatment. Trials are underway to develop effective gene therapy methods of treating inherited disorders including haemophilia, cystic fibrosis and viral infections such as HIV. We can hope, with advances in the understanding of nuclear structure and processes of gene expression, that safe and effective gene therapy treatments will become a reality.

Post by: Hayley Martin

Can the Onset of Psychosis Be Predicted by the Presence of Neuro-inflammation?

Screen Shot 2016-06-05 at 21.12.02This year the Manchester branch of the British Science Association launched it’s first ever science journalism competition. They presented AS and A-level students across Greater Manchester with the daunting task of interviewing an academic researcher then using this material to create an article accessible to someone with no scientific background. This was by no means a simple task, especially since many of the researchers were working on basic research – the type of work which may not be sensational but which represents the real ‘nuts and bolts’ of scientific research and without which no major breakthroughs would ever be made. Despite the challenges implicit in this, task all our entrants stepped up and we were astounded by the quality of work submitted.

Today we’re proud to publish one of our runner up articles written by Maaham Saleem from Withington Girls’ School:

Imagine a life where the dawn of each new day is accompanied by severe hallucinations, delusions and an inability to respond to stimuli in a way that is deemed ‘normal’. Where the problems that you face heavily impair your ability to carry out social interactions, and leave you in a debilitated state. This life is reality for patient with psychosis, a mental health problem that causes people to perceive and interpret events differently from the average human mind. Psychosis can occur in a number of different conditions such as schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.

During recent times, a great deal of interest has arisen within the scientific community regarding the link between this condition and inflammation in the brain. In the late 20th century, post-mortem studies in patients with schizophrenia showed the presence of inflammation. However, these results were not always consistent, possibly due to differences in the regions of the brains which were examined. However, more recent studies, using brain scans in living patients, did find a more consistent increase in microglial activation in patients with psychosis, which is an indicator of neuro-inflammation. Microglia are resident, innate immune cells in the brain which have long been connected with the pathology of neurodegenerative diseases. The activation of these cells indicates inflammation, and it was suggested that individuals that display such inflammation may have a pre-disposition to developing psychotic disorders later in life.

At the Wolfson Molecular Imaging Centre of the University of Manchester, researchers are investigating whether this link between neuro-inflammation and psychosis does indeed exist. In order to ensure that the conclusions are valid, a large amount of evidence must be generated to support it and so a study is conducted in collaboration with other centres around the country. In this study, three groups of volunteers are tested; patients who have had psychosis for many years, patients for whom the onset of psychosis is recent, and healthy volunteers to act as controls. Each of these groups consists of twenty patients, therefore a total sample size of sixty patients is used in order to increase the statistical power of the results and increase the likelihood that they are representative of the majority of patients with psychosis.

All volunteers undergo a brain-scan called Positron Emission Tomography, or PET scan. PET scans involve the injection of a radioactive tracer into the body which emits positrons as it decays inside the tissues. This radiation can be detected by cameras. By using a specific radioactive tracer called [11C]PK11195, microglial activation can be measured in order to determine the amount of inflammation in the brain. Many of the results from studies to investigate this link between neuro-inflammation and psychosis seem to suggest that neuro-inflammation does indeed exist. Although of course more studies must be carried out in order to confirm this hypothesis, it does present an exciting new prospect of a possible treatment and establishment of preventative measures to assist patients with psychosis.

Science Journalism Competition 2017

The world of popular/media science can be very hard to navigate, stories are often over-simplified, sensationalised and occasionally just plain wrong. And, with rising mistrust of experts it’s never been more important to make sure science has a strong, rational, engaging and, most importantly, truthful voice.

8097012078_8d753a97a7_mSo, we at the British Science Association want to set a challenge to AS/A-level students across Greater Manchester. We are inviting students to meet active researchers from the University of Manchester at our press conference on Tuesday the 7th of March 2017. During this day-long event students will get to hear about some of the exciting research happening right here in Manchester, they will then get the chance to network and interview these researchers before being challenged to write a short lay-science article on a topic of their choice.

One winner will receive a £50 Amazon voucher while two runner-up articles will receive £25 vouchers – winning entries will also be published online on a popular science blog!

Sign-up is now open to all schools in the Greater Manchester area, this is on a first come first serve basis up to a maximum of 60 students. Please note that we are only allowing 5 student submissions per-school and, due to the popularity of our 2016 competition, we expect to reach capacity quickly so please sigh-up soon to avoid disappointment.

You can sign your students up here:

Registration closes in January at which time each student will be sent an information booklet, this will contain: information on participating academic researchers, hints and tips on writing a lay-science article, a detailed plan for the press conference and example articles from our 2017 contest.

We look forward to signing you up and meeting you all in March!

Extra information – 2016 winning entries:

We extend a huge thank you to all teachers, students and mentors who took time to be involved in this contest. We received some amazing entries and judging was very hard but we are pleased to announce our winners:

Winning entry: Till Hancock – read this entry here

Runner-up: Hayley Martin – read this entry here

Runner-up: Maaham Saleem – read this entry here








BEST 2015 winners and commendations:

Congratulations to everyone who took part in this year’s BEST competition. We thought you all did an excellent job and expect to see many of you making waves in the near future!

We would particularly like to congratulate our winners: Alanis, Beth, Daniel, and Matthew from Trafford College.

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With a special commendation for Caitlin, Malik, Mohamed from Loreto College for their exceptional performance.

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Here are a selection of pictures from our workshop and competition day.


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Competition day:

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Manchester’s week in science: 15th – 21st March – Eclipse special

Eyes on the sky: Images of the eclipse in manchester:

On Friday the 20th of March 2015 millions of eyes (and camera lenses) were turned skywards as our Sun became eclipsed when the Sun Earth and Moon came into alignment. Solar eclipses, like the one we saw today, are relatively rare events and the next time Manchester will be plunged into this type of unnatural darkness will not be until 2090. Luckily for may of us, this Friday offered just the right amount of cloud cover to observe the whole event pretty clearly and to capture some amazing images – Thanks Manchester! As a reminder of this awe-inspiring event, here are a few amazing shots taken from just outside the city centre in Bury, Lancashire, using a semi-professional astro-photography set-up:


DSC_1832DSC_1874DSC_1900DSC_1917DSC_2028If you want to learn more about last weeks eclipse and other similar celestial events, you can find more information here.

Manchester researchers take steps towards a better understanding of stroke:

66245374_afe6d3d8d1_zLike a fire sparked in the brain a stroke can happen fast, coursing through large sections of brain tissue. The damage caused by a stroke can be utterly devastating and is recognised to be the leading cause of disability worldwide. However, it’s not just the stroke itself which underpins brain damage experienced by sufferers. In fact, we know that the time period after a stroke has occurred is extremely important for patient recovery. Specifically because, during this period, the body mounts its own response to this onslaught in the form of inflammation. But, rather than aiding recovery, inflammation in the brain can actually cause and worsen damage!

Therefore, it is particularly important for improved treatment strategies that we understand how and why inflammation occurs, with a view to modulating its actions.

Scientists from the University of Manchester are doing just that. Dr David Brough, working in the Faculty of Life Sciences alongside Professor Dame Nancy Rothwell and Dr Stuart Allen, are studying the role of inflammation in stroke. This group studies inflammasomes: large protein complexes which are responsible for controlling production of the inflammatory protein Interleukin-1, which has a myriad of roles in the inflammatory process including a contributing role in brain cell death.

Dr Brough explains: “Very little is known about how inflammasomes might be involved in brain injury. Therefore we began by studying the most well researched inflammasome NLRP3, which is known to be activated when the body is injured. Surprisingly we found that this was not involved in inflammation and damage in the brain caused by stroke, even though drugs are being developed to block this to treat Alzheimer’s disease.”

Further studies using experimental models of stroke demonstrated that it was actually the NLRC4 and AIM2 inflammasomes that contribute to brain injury, rather than NLRP3. This result was unexpected, since NLRC4, was only known to fight infections and yet Dr Brough and colleagues found that it also caused injury in the brain.

This new discovery will help the Manchester researchers discover more about how inflammation is involved in brain injury and develop new drugs for the treatment of stroke.