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Concept: Royal Society


Leeuwenhoek’s 1677 paper, the famous ‘letter on the protozoa’, gives the first detailed description of protists and bacteria living in a range of environments. The colloquial, diaristic style conceals the workings of a startlingly original experimental mind. Later scientists could not match the resolution and clarity of Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes, so his discoveries were doubted or even dismissed over the following centuries, limiting their direct influence on the history of biology; but work in the twentieth century confirmed Leeuwenhoek’s discovery of bacterial cells, with a resolution of less than 1 µm. Leeuwenhoek delighted most in the forms, interactions and behaviour of his little ‘animalcules’, which inhabited a previously unimagined microcosmos. In these reflections on the scientific reach of Leeuwenhoek’s ideas and observations, I equate his questions with the preoccupations of our genomic era: what is the nature of Leeuwenhoek’s animalcules, where do they come from, how do they relate to each other? Even with the powerful tools of modern biology, the answers are far from resolved-these questions still challenge our understanding of microbial evolution. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Bacteria, Organism, Microbiology, Eukaryote, Science, Microorganism, Protist, Royal Society


Isaac Newton’s reputation was initially established by his 1672 paper on the refraction of light through a prism; this is now seen as a ground-breaking account and the foundation of modern optics. In it, he claimed to refute Cartesian ideas of light modification by definitively demonstrating that the refrangibility of a ray is linked to its colour, hence arguing that colour is an intrinsic property of light and does not arise from passing through a medium. Newton’s later significance as a world-famous scientific genius and the apparent confirmation of his experimental results have tended to obscure the realities of his reception at the time. This paper explores the rhetorical strategies Newton deployed to convince his audience that his conclusions were certain and unchallengeable. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Optics, Physics, Light, Rainbow, Robert Hooke, Gottfried Leibniz, Isaac Newton, Royal Society


The history of science is filled with examples of key discoveries and breakthroughs that have been published as landmark texts or journal papers, and to which one can trace the origins of whole disciplines. Such paradigm-shifting publications include Copernicus' De revolutionibus orbium coelestium (1543), Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687) and Albert Einstein’s papers on relativity (1905 and 1915). Michael Faraday’s 1832 paper on electromagnetic induction sits proudly among these works and in a sense can be regarded as having an almost immediate effect in transforming our world in a very real sense more than any of the others listed. Here we review the status of the subject-the relationship between magnetism and electricity both before and after Faraday’s paper and delve into the details of the key experiments he carried out at the Royal Institution outlining clearly how he discovered the process of electromagnetic induction, whereby an electric current could be induced to flow through a conductor that experiences a changing magnetic field. His ideas would not only enable Maxwell’s later development of his theory of classical electromagnetism, but would directly lead to the development of the electric dynamo and electric motor, two technological advances that are the very foundations of the modern world. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Electromagnetism, Michael Faraday, Magnetic field, Electricity, Maxwell's equations, Electrical generator, Isaac Newton, Royal Society


Long before women were allowed to become Fellows of the Royal Society, or obtain university degrees, one woman managed to get her voice heard, her discovery verified and her achievement celebrated. That woman was Caroline Herschel, who, as this paper will discuss, managed to find ways to fit comet discoveries into her domestic life, and present them in ways that were socially acceptable. Caroline lived in a time when strict rules dictated how women (and men) should behave and present themselves and their work. Caroline understood these rules, and used them carefully as she announced each discovery, starting with this comet which she found in 1786. Caroline discovered her comets at a time when astronomers were mainly concerned with position, identifying where things were and how they were moving. Since her discoveries, research has moved on, as astronomers, using techniques from other fields, and most recently sending experiments into space, have learned more about what comets are and what they can tell us about our solar system. Caroline’s paper marks one small, early step in this much bigger journey to understand comets. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Sun, Solar System, Planet, Moon, Uranus, Gottfried Leibniz, Asteroid, Royal Society


We discuss the context, content and importance of the paper ‘The population dynamics of microparasites and their invertebrate hosts’, by R. M. Anderson and R. M. May, published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society as a stand-alone issue in 1981. We do this from the broader perspective of the study of infectious disease dynamics, rather than the specific perspective of the dynamics of insect pathogens. We argue that their 1981 paper fits seamlessly in the systematic study of infectious disease dynamics that was initiated by the authors in 1978, combining effective use of simple mathematical models, firmly rooted in biology, with observable or empirically measurable ingredients and quantities, and promoting extensive capacity building. This systematic approach, taking ecology and biology rather than applied mathematics as the motivation for advance, proved essential for the maturation of the field, and culminated in their landmark textbook of 1991. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Epidemiology, Infectious disease, Statistics, Mathematics, Ecology, Science, Applied mathematics, Royal Society


Data, including information generated from them by processing and analysis, are an asset with measurable value. The assets that biological research funding produces are the data generated, the information derived from these data, and, ultimately, the discoveries and knowledge these lead to. From the time when Henry Oldenburg published the first scientific journal in 1665 (Proceedings of the Royal Society) to the founding of the United States National Library of Medicine in 1879 to the present, there has been a sustained drive to improve how researchers can record and discover what is known. Researchers' experimental work builds upon years and (collectively) billions of dollars' worth of earlier work. Today, researchers are generating data at ever-faster rates because of advances in instrumentation and technology, coupled with decreases in production costs. Unfortunately, the ability of researchers to manage and disseminate their results has not kept pace, so their work cannot achieve its maximal impact. Strides have recently been made, but more awareness is needed of the essential role that biological data resources, including biocuration, play in maintaining and linking this ever-growing flood of data and information. The aim of this paper is to describe the nature of data as an asset, the role biocurators play in increasing its value, and consistent, practical means to measure effectiveness that can guide planning and justify costs in biological research information resources' development and management.

Concepts: Scientific method, United States, Academic publishing, Science, Data, Research, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society


Sir Hans Sloane’s account of inoculation as a means to protect against smallpox followed several earlier articles published in Philosophical Transactions on this procedure. Inoculation (also called ‘variolation’) involved the introduction of small amounts of infectious material from smallpox vesicles into the skin of healthy subjects, with the goal of inducing mild symptoms that would result in protection against the more severe naturally acquired disease. It began to be practised in England in 1721 thanks to the efforts of Lady Mary Wortley Montagu who influenced Sloane to promote its use, including the inoculation of the royal family’s children. When Edward Jenner’s inoculation with the cow pox (‘vaccination’) followed 75 years later as a safer yet equally effective procedure, the scene was set for the eventual control of smallpox epidemics culminating in the worldwide eradication of smallpox in 1977, officially proclaimed by WHO in 1980. Here, we discuss the significance of variolation and vaccination with respect to scientific, public health and ethical controversies concerning these ‘weapons of mass protection’. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Vaccine, Vaccination, Smallpox, Edward Jenner, Inoculation, Royal Society, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, Hans Sloane


The International Cancer Microbiome Consortium (ICMC) is a recently launched collaborative between academics and academic-clinicians that aims to promote microbiome research within the field of oncology, establish expert consensus and deliver education for academics and clinicians. The inaugural two-day meeting was held at the Royal Society of Medicine (RSM), London, UK, 5-6 September 2017. Microbiome and cancer experts from around the world first delivered a series of talks during an educational day and then sat for a day of roundtable discussion to debate key topics in microbiome-cancer research. Talks delivered during the educational day covered a broad range of microbiome-related topics. The potential role of the microbiome in the pathogenesis of colorectal cancer was discussed and debated in detail with experts highlighting the latest data in animal models and humans and addressing the question of causation versus association. The impact of the microbiota on other cancers-such as lung and urogenital tract-was also discussed. The microbiome represents a novel target for therapeutic manipulation in cancer and a number of talks explored how this might be realised through diet, faecal microbiota transplant and chemotherapeutics. On the second day, experts debated pre-agreed topics with the aim of producing a consensus statement with a focus on the current state of our knowledge and key gaps for further development. The panel debated the notion of a ‘healthy’ microbiome and, in turn, the concept of dysbiosis in cancer. The mechanisms of microbiota-induced carcinogenesis were discussed in detail and our current conceptual models were assessed. Experts also considered co-factors in microbiome-induced carcinogenesis to conclude that the tripartite ‘interactome’ between genetically vulnerable host, environment and the microbiome is central to our current understanding. To conclude, the roundtable discussed how the microbiome may be exploited for therapeutic benefit in cancer and the safety implications of performing such research in oncology patients.

Concepts: Medicine, Cancer, Oncology, Chemotherapy, Colorectal cancer, Debate, The Current, Royal Society


This issue of Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Part A represents a summary of the recent discussion meeting ‘Communication networks beyond the capacity crunch’. The purpose of the meeting was to establish the nature of the capacity crunch, estimate the time scales associated with it and to begin to find solutions to enable continued growth in a post-crunch era. The meeting confirmed that, in addition to a capacity shortage within a single optical fibre, many other ‘crunches’ are foreseen in the field of communications, both societal and technical. Technical crunches identified included the nonlinear Shannon limit, wireless spectrum, distribution of 5G signals (front haul and back haul), while societal influences included net neutrality, creative content generation and distribution and latency, and finally energy and cost. The meeting concluded with the observation that these many crunches are genuine and may influence our future use of technology, but encouragingly noted that research and business practice are already moving to alleviate many of the negative consequences.

Concepts: Sociology, Science, Real number, Communication, Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, Royal Society, Proceedings of the Royal Society, Henry Oldenburg


‘Quantitative studies on tissue transplantation immunity. III. Actively acquired tolerance’, published in Philosophical Transactions B in 1956 by Peter Medawar and his colleagues, PhD graduate Leslie Brent and postdoctoral fellow Rupert Billingham, is a full description of the concept of acquired transplantation tolerance. Their 1953 Nature paper (Billingham RE et al. 1953 Nature 172, 603-606. (doi:10.1038/172603a0)) had provided initial evidence with experimental results from a small number of neonatal mice, with mention of similar findings in chicks. The Philosophical Transactions B 1956 paper is clothed with an astonishing amount of further experimental detail. It is written in Peter Medawar’s landmark style: witty, perceptive and full of images that can be recalled even when details of the supporting information have faded. Those images are provided not just by a series of 20 colour plates showing skin graft recipient mice, rats, rabbits, chickens and duck, bearing fur or plumage of donor origin, but by his choice of metaphor, simile and analogy to express the questions being addressed and the interpretation of their results, along with those of relevant published data and his prescient ideas of what the results might portend. This work influenced both immunology researchers and clinicians and helped to lay the foundations for successful transplantation programmes. It led to the award of a Nobel prize in 1960 to Medawar, and subsequently to several scientists who advanced these areas. This commentary was written to celebrate the 350th anniversary of the journal Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society.

Concepts: Research, Organ transplant, Analogy, Metaphor, Nobel Prize, Frank Macfarlane Burnet, Fellows of the Royal Society, Royal Society