Saturday, December 20, 2014

Mammals Pee for about 21 Seconds, Regardless of Volume or Size

Research has revealed that, regardless of the animal's size or the volume being excreted, most mammals take roughly the same amount of time - about 21 seconds - to urinate. Believe me, you've just become the most interesting person at the party. You're welcome.

Just think about that: a cat excretes about 1 teaspoon of urine in roughly the same amount of time as an elephant empties its 18 L (~5 gal) bladder!  How does this happen?  It's all in the urethra.

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Sunday, December 7, 2014

Science This Week (Dec 1-7, 2014)


HIV appears to be evolving into a less infectious and deadly virus.

A new health and social care journal will encourage public and patient involvement in research!

Biological explanations for mental illness make doctors less empathetic.

Dopamine makes you happy and helps you understand math.

A newly discovered, fast-acting malaria drug looks really promising.

Pre-malignant state can now be detected in blood, providing a diagnostic tool for blood cancers.

Why females live longer than males.


Different species - from mice to fish to bees - share the same "genetic toolkit" guiding their behavior.

Birds conform to local culture.

Tool-wielding crows are left or right beaked.

Humpback whales in the Arabian sea have been isolated for 70,000 years, making them the most genetically distinct humpback whales in the world. (Open Access)

Electric eels: nature's tasers.

Lasers have been developed to determine peak fruit ripeness.


A worm's gut bacteria is able to degrade plastics!

Turns out, you can hear coral reefs dying.

Anti-inflammatory drugs in the environment affect plant growth.


Italy's first female astronaut, Samantha Cristoforetti, is now up at the ISS!

What does Nature's new free-to-view program do for Open Access?

Why 10% of the population hates cilantro (weirdos).

And a pretty interesting video about what it would look like if the Earth was flat.

Saturday, December 6, 2014

Twenty-Five Years Later

Embedded image permalinkToday is the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, where 14 women were killed at the École Polythechnique, and 14 more were injured.  These women were executed for the crime of trying to be engineers while also being women.

On December 6th, 1989, a 25-year-old man grabbed a hunting rifle, walked into the school that had rejected him, into an engineering class.  He told the men to walk out, and opened fire on the women.  Before killing himself, he said his motivation was to fight feminism.  He was angry at what he saw as women usurping his rightful position by studying engineering while he was not.  Sound familiar?

Unfortunately, not much has changed in the last 25 years, for women as a whole, and for women in STEM.  The massacre prompted the creation of a long-gun registry in Canada, which required the registration of all restricted and prohibited firearms in Canada, and which was scrapped by Harper in 2012, despite MAJOR backlash.  In that move, our government failed Canadian women, and forgot these 14 women in particular.  There are over 1500 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, which our government refuses to do anything about!

As for women in STEM, you may remember a piece I wrote a few months on my experiences as a woman in science.  In it, I cited study after study demonstrating the discrimination against women in science.  My female colleagues (including some from other universities who read this article, not just women I know) echoed my sentiments in the article.  Men told me I needed to use non-feminist references if I wanted it to be taken seriously.

The problem is that the murder of these 14 women is personal to so many of us.  We know that we occupy the same spaces as these women, spaces that are seen and enforced as male.  That enforcement may be as simple as exclusion and discrimination, but there are people out there who are willing to assault and kill to maintain those male spaces.  The response to Shirt Gate, in which a woman called out Matt Taylor for his incredibly inappropriate shirt during the comet landing broadcast, is just an example of the type of backlash women get for wanting to occupy male spaces.  The women of Twitter (myself included) who used this shirt as an opportunity to show people just how exclusive science is to women were silenced, ridiculed, and threatened.  So tell me, have we really come a long way?

Janet Stemweld over at Scientific American wrote a great piece on the Montreal Massacre as well.  She says something at the end that really resonated with me, and so I'll leave it here for you:

I hope today that people will listen to women when we speak about our experiences in STEM, rather than argue that they are imagined.  Yes, the discrimination we face is small in comparison to what these 28 women faced, I understand that.  These women died for studying engineering.  They died because someone wanted to take them down a peg.  The exclusion of women in science, the discrimination, is one step away from threats - just as it is in society - and two steps away from violence.

So what is the legacy left by the Montreal Massacre?

Thursday, November 27, 2014

Genomics: the Power and the Promise 2014 - day 3 recap

Genomics: the Power and the Promise has wrapped up, and what an amazing conference!  A superstar lineup of presenters working on cutting-edge research with huge policy implications? Yes please!  Throw in amazing interactive panels and Jay Ingram as the MC, there's a recipe for awesome!

I had to take a brain break yesterday, but you can find my day 3 highlights after the jump:

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Genomics: the Power and the Promise 2014 - Conference Day 2 Recap

With day 2 of the Genome Canada conference winding down, we had some fantastic discussions on the environmental impacts of human health, and how to use genomics to improve the health and adaptation of (and to) our ecosystems.

The highlights of day 2 are after the jump:

Monday, November 24, 2014

Genomics: the Power and the Promise 2014 - Conference Day 1 Recap

Embedded image permalink
This week, Genome Canada and the Gairdner Foundation are hosting their Genomics: the Power & the Promise event.  This year's theme is Genomics and the Environment, in which speakers, panelists, and attendees are exploring the applications of genomics in both human and environmental health. Today, the conference was kicked off by MC Jay Ingram (of Daily Planet fame), with an introduction from Genome Canada CEO Pierre Meulien, and Gairdner Foundation CEO John Dirks.  The conference boasts a highly varied audience, with folks from government, industry, and academia, as well as policy makers and various interest groups.

Day 1 focused on genomic medicine.  Highlights after the jump:

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Kissing Transfers 80 Million Bacteria Between Partners

Bacterial build-up on the human
tongue (source).
As many as 80 million bacteria are transferred during a 10 second kiss.  I'm gonna let that sink in for my fellow germophobes.

The 100 trillion microorganisms that make up the human microbiota are responsible for all kinds of important process, from digestion to synthesis to protection against disease.  Microbiota composition is dependent on a bunch of factors, including age, diet, genetics, the environment, and who we interact with.  Your mouth contains 700 varieties of bacteria, and these are influenced by the people you keep close to you, according to a new open access study published in Microbiome yesterday.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

An Ode to Open Access Journals

In celebration of OpenCon 2014, I thought now would be as good a time as any to wax poetic about my love for OPEN ACCESS!!!!!

According to the United Nations, all people have a "right to enjoy the benefits of scientific progress and its applications".   This was recognized in 1948 in the UN Declaration of Human Rights, but has received very little attention.

When I was submitting my PhD thesis to my university, I had to obtain permission to use my own research from the journals I had published in.  If my institution were smaller, or in a developing country, I may have had to pay to access my chapters.  In fact, there were definitely a few papers that were absolutely fundamental to my research that I could not access because my university had not purchased a license.  This traditional approach to scientific research may have worked when journals were printed (and therefore had manufacturing costs), but it is no longer relevant to modern publishing where everything ends up online.  Instead, the high cost of access limits the sharing of information, stunting scientific, medical, and academic research.  This is especially true in developing countries.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Is This the Death of Science?

While waiting for a bus this morning, I noticed an article in the local newspaper about the gap between teens' attitudes toward science and their career plans.  A recent poll by the science outreach organization Let's Talk Science found that 72% of high school students think science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) are fun, and 78% think STEM fields provide lots of career options, but only 12% actually want STEM-related jobs.  And a further 19% of student (that's almost 1 in 5!) think that careers in science and engineering are better suited to men.

I guess we should rejoice in the gains we've made as scientists in engaging youth.  In 2010, only 34% of high school students thought science was fun, and 25% thought it was boring (now only 11% do!).  So kids are more interested in science than they've been in the past, and they understand its importance, but they most still don't see a future for themselves participating in science.  I have some ideas as to why that may be:

Thursday, November 6, 2014

How to Survive Ebola: researchers find clues to explain how some people survive infection

On Sunday, I gave you folks a link to an article about how genes affect Ebola survival.  I decided to read a little bit more into it and do a full Ebola post, since this is actually a pretty interesting (and open access) study.

People have this idea that Ebola symptoms are a lot like what we saw in Outbreak.  But in the 2014 Ebola outbreak, only a minority (30-50%) of those afflicted have progressed into hemorrhagic fever.  There are different symptoms, including organ failure and shock, and different ways in which people succumb to them.  Some folks survive, while others don't.  It turns out that this is about more than simply luck.

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Everything You Think You Know About Endosymbiosis is Wrong! (Maybe)

One of the reasons I've been MIA lately is that I'm tutoring several students in biochemistry and cell biology.  I recently finished explaining the theory of endosymbiosis to one of my students.  That's the theory that explains the origin of eukaryotic cells - that is, mitochondria and chloroplasts, and possibly other organelles, represent formerly free-living prokaryotes that were ingested in another cell.  It is supported by the fact that these organelles are double-membraned, have their own DNA, and can replicate independently of the rest of the cell.  But now, a new open access meta-analysis has decided to shake this all up, stating that the origin of eukaryotic cells happened from the inside-out.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A Compound Found in Turmeric Shows Potential for Treating Neurodegenerative Diseases

Turmeric is a plant native to southeast Asia, harvested for its rhizomes and used to flavour and colour Indian dishes.  It was used for thousands of years as a remedy for stomach and liver ailments, and for its antimicrobial properties when applied on skin to heal sores.  The two major bioactive compounds of turmeric are known as curcumin and aromatic turmerone (ar-turmerone).  Curcumin is believed to have anti-inflammatory, antimicrobial, anti-tumor, and antioxidant activities, and has been used in folk medicine to treat cancer, Alzheimer's disease, diabetes, arthritis, allergies, and other chronic illnesses.  However, not much is known about the properties of ar-tumerone.

Some studies have linked ar-turmerone with antitumor properties, via the induction of apoptosis and through the inhibition of tumor cell invasion.  Others still have looked at the anti-inflammatory properties of ar-tumerone in neural cells, suggesting it may be a useful in treating neurological diseases.  A recent open access study by a research group from the Institute of Neuroscience and Medicine at the Research Centre Juelich (Germany) looked at ar-turmerone in this role using neural stem cells.

Friday, September 26, 2014

More "Pointless" Research: the 2014 Ig Nobel Award Winners!

In August, I wrote about so-called pointless research and an organization that celebrates this research that makes you laugh, then makes you think.  Well, the 2014 winners of the Ig Nobel awards have been announced!  We've got people studying the physics behind slipping on a banana peel, the neuroscience of seeing faces in mundane items, the psychopathy of being a night owl, the dangers of being a cat lady, dogs facing their own mecca when they poop, a tasty way to treat nosebleeds, reindeer don't trust people dressed as animals either, and a fairly gross way to produce starter probiotic cultures for sausage-making (it may put you off sausages from now on).  Let's explore these interesting, improbable, and yes "pointless" findings!

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Don't Skip the Gym: Wine is Definitely NOT Better Than Exercise

By now, the media has pounced on new research looking at resveratrol, a compound found in wine, and the comparison of its effects to exercise on different body systems.  Naturally, the running headline is that drinking wine is better for you than going to the gym.  Because that's what we need.  Interested in hearing what the study actually says?  Read on:

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

The Production of Circular RNA Competes with Normal RNA Processing in Cells

All of our genetic information is encoded in DNA.  In order for genes to be expressed as functional proteins in our cells, they must first be copied (or transcribed) into single-stranded RNA molecules, known as messenger RNA (mRNA).  These genetic instructions are then translated into amino acid sequences that make up proteins.  Recently, a new type of RNA was discovered that forms in a closed, continuous loop, rather than in a linear molecule - known as circular RNA (circRNA).  It turns out that circRNA are abundant in cells, but they are very poorly understood.  Despite this, these RNA molecules seem to play a role in the development and progression of degenerative diseases.  A recently published study from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem has given us a better idea of how circRNA are produced in the cell.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Sloppier DNA Repair Mechanism Takes Over in Aging Mice

A neuron transfected with GFP (source)
As vertebrates age, DNA damage and mutations accumulate to the point where we begin to see "functional failure", causing cancers and other age-related illnesses.  Specifically, double-stranded breaks (DSBs) are the worst type of DNA damage, because they can lead to loss of genetic information and chromosomal rearrangement.  Cells do possess mechanisms to correct any damaged DNA, but when the repair machinery can't keep up with the DNA damage, the cells stop dividing (senescence) or they commit suicide (apoptosis).  But what is it that prevents DNA repair processes from keeping up as we age?  Researchers Vera Gorbunova and Andrei Seluanov of the University of Rochester (New York, USA) have discovered one reason (open access): the machinery ages too, and it is replaced with slower, less accurate parts.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Bee Bacteria may be an Alternative to Antibiotics

Raw honey has been used to treat infections for centuries, and today we are very aware of the extent of its antimicrobial properties, though we still don't know what it is exactly that makes honey so effective (the best idea right now is honey's osmolarity and hydrogen peroxide content).  Six years ago, a group of researchers in Sweden discovered a large, unexplored bacterial microbiota in the honey stomach of honeybees, which was made up of 40 lactic acid bacterial strains, 9 strains of Lactobacillus, and 4 strains of Bifidobacterium.  The researchers hypothesized that this microbiota, specifically the lactic acid bacteria (LAB), were responsible for the antimicrobial properties of honey.  The group report (in an open access study published this week) having finally found the answer.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Prost! Contaminating Particles Found in German Beers

Ah fall, hands down the best season!  Out come the sweaters and boots, the pumpkin spice lattes, thanksgiving, and of course Oktoberfest.  But folks partaking in the annual German beer celebration may be getting a bit more than they bargained for.  A new open access study looking at 24 different brands of German beer found a slew of contaminating substances, most notably microplastics.  This is the only study that has looked at the contamination of beer, but it is very likely that this problem is not limited only to German beers.

Friday, August 29, 2014

New Genomic Insights Into the 2014 Ebola Outbreak

The current Ebola outbreak in West Africa started in late 2013, and as of August 19th there have been 2240 cases and 1229 deaths.  The virus is spreading through Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Nigeria, and has infected aid workers from the US, UK, Spain, and possibly Germany and India.  In response to this ongoing and unprecedented Ebola outbreak, a team of researchers has sequenced and analyzed 99 Ebola virus genomes, providing vital information about the origin and transmission of this outbreak.

Ebola has an average case fatality rate of 78%.  Here is a really great (but somewhat graphic - you've been warned) article about what Ebola does to your body.  In a nutshell, it starts out with a fever, sore throat, muscle pains, and headache (a lot like the flu).  As the virus progresses, your ravaged immune system releases what is known as a "cytokine storm", where your immune system begins attacking your organs in an attempt to get rid of the virus.  This leads to hemorrhagic fever, which causes the infected person to bleed to death.  It's some pretty gross stuff, and completely devastating.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Cancer Leaves an Epigenetic Fingerprint on DNA

Cancer cells splitting.  (stock image)
Epigenetic modifications to the genome switch genes on and off based on environmental exposure, and essentially tell cells what to do.  It turns out that illness can also cause epigenetic changes through large-scale, genome-wide DNA methylation.  A new study out of John Hopkins University, and published in the lovely open access journal Genome Medicine, has found that cancer leaves a very distinct epigenetic signature in the genome.  These modifications are key to cancer development, allowing tumor cells to quickly adapt to changes in their environment.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Science This Week (Aug 18-24, 2014)

The first microscopic, slow-motion footage of a jellyfish sting:

While it sounds like the plot to a cheesy horror movie, Alzheimer's patients to be treated using young blood.

Researchers have developed a new type of shape-shifting plastic that could be used in facial reconstruction.

More than just X and Y: microRNAs also play a role in differentiating male and female tissues in fruit flies. (Open Access)

Artificial leaves may be faster at photosynthesis than natural leaves.

The world's primary forests - those that have not been touched by human activity - are diminishing, a new study provides policy options for conservation.

A microbial ecosystem has been discovered beneath the Antarctic ice sheets.

Elephant populations in Africa are dropping 2-3% per year thanks to poaching.

Animal calls contain more language-like structure than we thought.

Viruses are driving the life-and-death dynamics of algal blooms, with huge implications for our climate.

The fungus that has been killing people with AIDS in Southern California for years has been identified.  By a 13 year old girl!  (Open Access)

Accumulation of ibuprofen in rivers is threatening fish.

A newly discovered ant species supports a controversial theory of species formation.

More insights into the REAL paleo diet. (Open Access).  And a really great (albeit long) video on the current fad paleo diet:

Not news, but I just stumbled upon it this week: did a time-traveling bird sabotage the Large Hadron Collider?

Wednesday, August 13, 2014

Comparing Small and Large Genomes: the Antarctic midge and the Loblolly pine

This here on the left is the Antarctic midge - a small, flightless midge that is endemic to Antarctica.  Despite being only 2-6 millimeters (0.08-0.23 in) long, it is the largest purely terrestrial animal in Antarctica, and the only insect.

On the right is the Loblolly pine.  Native to the Southern US, it is the second most common tree species in the US, and is the most commercially important tree.  It can reach a height of up to 30-35 meters (98-115 ft).

At 99 megabases, the Antarctic midge has the smallest insect genome to date - smaller even than the lice genome.  Compare that to the loblolly pine, with the largest genome sequenced to date, at 23.2 gigabase pairs, or 234 times larger than that of the midge!  These two genomes were sequenced just this year (and are both Open Access!).

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Move Over Megalodon - Actual Sharks Are Far More Interesting!

In honor of Shark Week, let's examine some recent shark research.  But unlike shark week documentaries, I won't lie to you (no, Megalodon is not still living). 

Sharks are friggin' amazing works of evolution!

Monday, August 11, 2014

Fundamental Plant Biochemical Pathway Origins Traced Back to Ancient Bacteria

Phenylalanine is a precursor for lignin, a compound
that strengthens wood.
Humans are incapable of making half of the amino acids used as protein building blocks.  These are called essential amino acids, because we must obtain them from other sources.  But like the badasses that they are, plants can make all of the amino acids, and supply animals with essential amino acids (Plants are boring? Pshaw).  But a new study reveals that the chemical pathway that plants use to make phenylalanine, an amino acid used to make hundreds of other chemicals, including ones that make wood strong and give red wine its colour, can be traced back to two groups of ancient bacteria.  The origins of many other plant chemical pathways have been traced back to fungi, a group that is fairly evolutionarily close to plants.  But clearly the phenylalanine pathway predates the divergence of fungi from other life.