Category Archives: Science communication

The Bacterial Breakdown of Dietary Fibre in the Gut

It has been known for many years that humans consume a type of dietary fibre called xyloglucan; however, how it’s degraded in the human gut has always been unclear. A recent study published in Nature now indicates that xyloglucans (XyGs) are broken down by a specific type of bacteria that we have in our digestive system. Dr. Harry Brumer from the University of British Columbia collaborated with the University of Michigan and University of York to isolate the gene in the bacteria responsible for this process.

XyGs are found in the cell walls of fruits and vegetables such as lettuce, tomatoes, and eggplants. According to Dr. Brumer “it’s [been] known for many years that our gut bacteria could ferment [XyG] and turn it into short chained fatty acids which we can then uptake and get energy from.”

The following video outlines how bacteria help our body digest this specific type of dietary fibre:

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Gene knockouts were performed to isolate the specific set of genes in the bacteria, Bacteroidetes Ovatus (B. ovatus), responsible for degrading XyGs. By doing this, they were able to see how taking out these specific genes would affect the growth of these bacteria.  Dr. Brumer explains the importance of having B.ovatus in our gut: “our own genome only encodes very few dietary enzymes that break down carbohydrates so that’s really the key thing about these gut bacteria.”

To further help him understand how this process works, three-dimensional computer models were built of the enzyme made by B.ovatus. This gave Dr. Brumer a visual understanding of how the degradation of XyGs occurs at the molecular level.

So how is this relevant to the general public?  In the following podcast, Dr. Brumer explains the basics of his research on dietary fibre degradation and its importance for the average human being.

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As Dr. Brumer explains, “we’ve existed for thousands of years not knowing anything about what’s going on in our gut but the more we know, the more we can positively impact that.”  Dr. Brumer goes on to add that “if you go an antibiotic regiment, you actually damage the bacteria population in your gut. When you link that together with what we know about the capacity of these bacteria to break down complex carbohydrate, dietary fibre, you realize that well maybe you want to think a little but about balancing your antibiotic treatment.”

According to Dr. Brumer, “you are much better eating a vegetable rich diet.” Nevertheless, he does not “advocate [one to be a] complete vegetarian” either. “You need meat to provide protein and it can be challenging for people who are on a strictly vegetable based diet to get enough protein” in their body through alternative sources. Therefore, it is essential to keep a balance between both.

In summary, we harbour a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria in our gut. So keep your gut bacteria happy and they will keep you healthy!


Blog post by Ramen Kaur Sandhar, Sean Liu, and Sam MacKinnon

Image by Sam MacKinnon

Sea lampreys help scientists fill in gaps in our evolutionary history

A group of researchers at the University of British Columbia recently found that sea lampreys, an ancient species of jawless fish, appear to respond to stress much more differently than scientists originally thought.

Many species of lampreys are parasitic. Sea lampreys lack jaws and have suction-cup-like mouths that are lined with teeth, which they use to latch onto fish and suck their blood.
Source: Shutterstock.

The paper, which was published in General and Comparative Endocrinology in 2013, detailed a two-year-long experiment that culminated in some unexpected results. The researchers were attempting to determine whether previous assumptions about stress regulation in lampreys were true. By injecting lampreys with certain chemicals, called hormones, that are turned into “stress hormones” in other vertebrates, the researchers checked the lampreys’ blood levels for these “precursors” and for the stress hormone, cortisol, to see whether lampreys also turned each of these precursors into cortisol.

Click image to enlarge.
Simplified diagram of the classic stress response seen in many vertebrates.
Source: Jenny Labrie.

For years scientists had assumed that lampreys, like other fish, had a stress response that involved the same three types of hormones – corticotropin-releasing hormone (CRH), adrenocorticotropin (ACTH), and cortisol – that are seen in humans and other animals. These three hormones and their involvement in the stress pathway is discussed in the video below, as well as what is already thought to be true about the evolution of the stress pathway.

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The researchers found that, similar to other animals and to fish, lampreys do respond to CRH with increased levels of stress. CRH is a precursor to stress hormones in different species; in humans it is cortisol, which has been popularised over the past few decades as the concept of “stress” has received increasing amounts of attention – both from academia and the popular media. The lampreys injected with CRH displayed increases in their own type of cortisol, indicating that they were indeed experiencing stress in response, just as humans would.

Unexpectedly, the lampreys did not respond to several types of ACTH that they were injected with. In both humans and other fish, ACTH is the hormone that is released in response to CRH and eventually stimulates cortisol release, which causes classic signs of an activated stress response (e.g., increased heart rate).

What does this mean? Well, yes, scientists were once again mistaken; lampreys are not just like every other fish. But why should this matter? Who cares about this 505-million-year-old fish?

Click image to enlarge.
Source: Wikimedia Commons. Originally illustrated by Ernst Haeckel, and published in ‘Generelle Morphologie der Organismen’ (1866).

As it turns out, we all should. Contrary to popular opinion, scientists don’t know everything there is to know about human evolution, but we can fill in some of our knowledge gaps by studying lampreys. A better understanding of stress regulation in lampreys helps us better understand how this system has evolved since the time of these early vertebrates. Humans diverged from lampreys 500 million years ago, and we are related to them – as uncomfortable a thought that may be for some people. This link means that lampreys may be key to understanding the origins of biology in many higher vertebrates – including humans!

Perhaps for this reason alone it is worthwhile to strive to conserve lamprey species, and this research does also have implications for protection of certain lampreys, as discussed in the podcast below.

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Some have hailed the sea lamprey as an up-and-coming “evolutionary developmental model of choice.” Clearly, even blood-sucking parasites have their place in nature’s plan.

Text, video, and podcast by Jenny Labrie, Kelly Liu, Rubina Lo, and Kathy Tran.


Close, D.A.; Yun, S-S.; Roberts, B.W.; Didier, W.; Rai, S.; Johnson, N.S.; and Libants, S. (2013). Regulation of a putative corticosteroid, 17,21-dihydroxypregn-4-ene,3,20-one, in sea lamprey, Petromyzon marinus. General and Comparative Endocrinology, 196: 17-25.

Kimura, M. (1969). The rate of molecular evolution considered from the standpoint of population genetics. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the USA, 63(4): 1181-1188.

Nikitina, N.; Bronner-Fraser, M.; and Sauka-Spengler, T. (2009). The sea lamprey Petromyzon marinas: a model for evolutionary and developmental biology. In K. Behringer (Ed.), Emerging model organisms: a laboratory manual (pp. 405-421). Cold Spring Harbor, NY: CSHL Press.

Further reading

The hormone, cortisol

The sea lamprey and its cousin the Pacific lamprey

The stress response

Lampreys in the news

Scientists find genes linked to human neurological disorders in sea lamprey genome

Sea lampreys provide a unique solution to gene regulation

Lamprey research sheds light on nerve regeneration following spinal cord injury

Lampreys give clues to evolution of immune system

Saving Nature’s Music: Tracking the Migration of Swainson’s Thrush

Every year, billions of animals travel long distances in a process called migration. Although animal migration has occurred for millions of years, and is  the largest biological event on Earth, there is still a lot that scientists do not understand.

Songbird migration is especially difficult to track because most birds travel alone at night. Previously, scientists used unique identification markers called bands to track birds. Banding is a very limited technique, as it only provides scientists with two locations of the migratory routes.  This technique provides no information on how the birds got from point A to point B.

Swainson’s Thrush (Catharus ustulatus) with light-level geolocator
Photo: Kira Delmore

Kira Delmore, a PhD student at the University of British Columbia, used cutting-edge technology called light-level geolocators to track the migration of the Swainson’s Thrush from June 2010 to July 2011. She found that Swainson’s Thrushes in Vancouver and the Sunshine Coast took dramatically different routes to reach their wintering grounds than birds in Kamloops.

“A migratory divide is something where two populations come into contact but they migrate in different directions. [Previous studies] suggested that a divide existed and we’ve been able to confirm this with the geolocators… it’s really the first time that this has been done,” said Kira.

Light-level geolocator
Photo: Morgan Haines

Geolocators weigh about four grams and record light intensity data that researchers use to estimate location. Using this information, Kira was able to determine the different migratory paths taken by both groups of the Swainson’s Thrush.


This video contains more information on geolocators, how researchers catch birds, and discusses a special type of migration called loop migration that Kira was able to document.

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Not only do songbirds provide natural music, they are  important for the ecosystem. If we continue to see declines in their populations, many other species will also suffer.

Kira’s findings have helped identify several locations that are important to the Swainson’s Thrush. “These guys are migrating huge distances, they’re tiny, they need to acquire all the resources they can when they stop. So its really important that these locations are conserved so they can acquire those resources to complete this migration.”

The following podcast contains more information on the importance of songbirds and their conservation.

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Being able to understand the impact of migratory divides will help researchers gain insights into evolution. Now, Kira is trying to uncover “the genes that are associated with migration and migratory routes.”

Light-level geolocators are smaller than a quarter, yet are poised to help solve a mystery as large as the Earth itself. It stands as a testament to the power of science; its ability to use something so small to help understand something so big.

By Morgan Haines, Qianhui Sun, and Nitish Khosla

Delmore, K. E., Fox, J. W., & Irwin, D. E. (2012). Dramatic intraspecific differences in migratory routes, stopover sites and wintering areas, revealed using light-level geolocators.Proceedings. Biological Sciences / the Royal Society,279(1747), 4582.

Exercising regularly leads to better memory

Working out and exercising for most people mean a healthy lifestyle and a way to stay fit. At the same time, this may not appeal to some people because they are simply not into physical activity and would rather spend the time doing something else they prefer. A new study by Professor Art Kramer and his research team from University of Illinois now show that exercising regularly for at least six months to a year can lead having better memory and an increased improvement in problem solving skills. This adds on to what scientists’ previous know about the benefits of exercising.

A simple task like jogging can lead to better memory

Previously, the benefits of exercise were all found to be based around better health, lowering cardiovascular diseases, and such. The new idea of better memory that comes with exercising can be one major factor that leads to more people exercising. This idea was tested by combining neuroimaging work  with

Neuroimaging (image of brain activity) was one technique used in Kramer’s study

studies in brain networks. For someone with a regular exercise routine of 15 to 45 minutes per day, their neuroimaging shows more activity as more oxygen was pumped into their brain. An improved cognition, increased attention span, and the ability to multitask are also benefits found with exercising in both young and older people. The major reason to this is due to the size of the hippocampus increases by 2% due to regular exercise and this part of your brain is essential for memory storing, forming, and organizing. When you hippocampus increases by 2%, it also means that the aging of your brain decreases by a maximum of years. This is very valuable to older adults because their risks of getting dementia and Alzheimer’s disease are also decreased when this occurs.

Hippocampus – important for retaining information

Many, especially students, might argue that taking out an hour out of their day is a difficult task due to school, study, work, and other arrangements; however the amount of time wasted each day surfing the web, watching TV, and being unproductive can definitely be used on going to the gym or heading out door for a light jog. For any of you reading this and have tried to find ways to memorize material better for exams, it’s time for you to get off the computer and head out for a quick jog.

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Work Cited

Nikolaidis, A., Voss, M., Loan, V., Erickson, K., & Art, K. (2013). Fmri correlates of transfer in training with a complex task. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, , 162-162.

Van Praag, H., Shubert, T., Zhao, C., & Gage, F. (2005). Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. Journal of Neuroscience, 25(38), 8680-8685. doi:10.1523/JNEUROSCI.1731-05-2005





Barbie dolls: the real message they send through

Figure 1. Study showed that girls who played with Barbie dolls saw fewer career options. (Courtesy Flickr)

Even though the new marketing slogan for Barbie dolls is “Be Anything. Do Anything,” the real message Barbie dolls send through is shown to have the opposite effect. A study from Oregon State University found that playing Barbie dolls could limit girls’ perceptions about future career options and affect their positions in the world.

Researchers Aurora Sherman and Eileen Zurbriggen studied thirty-seven girls ages between four to seven from U.S. Pacific Northwest. Three types of dolls were randomly distributed to the girls: a Barbie doll wearing a dress and high-heeled shoes, a Barbie doll wearing a doctor’s coat and stethoscope, and Mrs. Potato Head with purse and shoes. Mrs. Potato Head was the controlled variable in the study because it did not have apparent sexual characters. After the girls played with her toy for five minutes, they were shown photographs of ten different occupations; five of the careers were traditionally male-dominated, and the other five were traditionally female-dominated. The girls were then asked how many of the occupations they themselves or the boys could do in the future.

Figure 2. Mrs. Potato Head (left) is considered to be neutral, without sexual characters. (Courtesy Flickr)

The result showed that girls who played with Barbie dolls, regardless of whether the doll was wearing a dress or a doctor’s coat, saw themselves being capable of doing fewer occupations than boys. In contrast, girls that played with Mrs. Potato Head reported that they themselves could do the same number of occupations as the boys.  Researchers believed that the emphasis on clothes and appearance for Barbie dolls communicated sexualization and objectification to girls. “[It] is not a massive effect, but [it] is measurable and [is] statistically significant,” said Sherman. The study also agreed with objectification theory. Even though the effect was subtle, Barbie dolls were considered to be harmful to girls due to their sexually matured bodies. This image may give girls impressions that females should be attractive, and this has become an alarming problem in many adult women.

The exact mechanism of why this was observed is still under investigation. So far researchers could only confirm that early exposure to sexualized images may impose limitations on future career options to girls. Currently, the suggested solution to minimize this problem is for children, particularly girls, to have a variety of toys to play with. By playing with toys that are “gender neutral,” it is believed that girls would be more confident and have equal chance in competing for jobs in fields that are traditionally dominated by males.

By Kelly Liu

Dogs and humans: A match made in … brain structure?

Photo courtesy of: Garden State Hiker on Flickr Creative Commons

Dog owners can attest that communication is vital to a healthy relationship with their canine companions, but how? It seems that humans and dogs can communicate in a way that transgresses the language barrier between the two species (give it a try – watch this video and see if you can interpret the meanings behind the barks towards the end of the clip). Throughout history, dogs have developed alongside human society and presently, have become one of our most popular animal companions, but what is the scientific basis that drives the bond between humans and dogs?

Earlier research has demonstrated through eye-tracking technology that dogs’ communicative abilities with people are socially comparable to human infants. The experiment illustrated the dog’s capabilities in understanding our intentions to communicate with them through verbal cues and eye contact. Although this is interesting to prove through the technological advancement of eye-tracking, the conclusions are not groundbreaking to what we already know; dog owners can easily understand this through their daily interactions with their canine companions.

More recently, however, a study from the Cell Press Journal reveal the similarities in the physical regions of the brain responsible for processing social communication in humans and dogs through functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) scans. In this experiment, human participants and dogs were given the same auditory samples of human and dog vocalizations related to different emotions, and nonvocal sounds. The results from fMRI showed similarities in the triggered “voice areas” of the dog and human brains, although expectedly these areas were triggered more by the voices from their own species (i.e., humans responded more strongly to human voices, and dogs responded more strongly to dog vocalizations). Additionally, dogs and humans show similar brain responses to the emotional aspects behind the human and dog vocalizations, such as those associated with cries and whining.

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The video above summarises findings of the study that was performed, and even includes an interview with Atilla Andics, one of the leading scientists in this study.

These findings not only demonstrate that dogs can recognize human voices as communicative cues, but it also suggests that they are able to understand the emotions tied to the voices. From this study, we can also understand why humans are able to interpret a dog’s emotions and needs through its barks and vocalizations. This similarity in the locations and brain mechanisms related to processing of social information allows dogs and humans for mutual understanding. Given the fact that dogs and humans are both social creatures, it seems reasonable that these brains developed in such similar ways. Factor in the domestication of dogs going back over tens of thousands of years, and this special interspecies bond does not seem so difficult to understand anymore. Perhaps this serves as scientific evidence to those who argue whether or not a dog truly is Man’s best friend.

– Leslie Chiang

Adderall: addicting and harmful

Adderall – usually need prescription to obtain

Students in universities are faced with intense competition to get into graduate programs so during exam season, caffeine might just not cut it for them.

The  attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) Clinical Research Program at the University of Illinois at Chicago has shown that many students without ADHD are beginning to take Adderall to help them focus when studying for exams. Adderall is a prescribed drug used to treat ones with ADHD but have now become more accessible due to means like the internet and drug trafficers. By taking these drugs without knowing the damage it does to the body, more and more cases of deaths have resulted.

Taking Adderall for better focus when studying has become very common in post-secondary schools

Taking Adderall may seem beneficial to students to boost their GPA  or to learn class materials in a short period of time; however, what they might not know about the study drug is that it is also very harmful to their body after consumption.

This drug contains amphetamines, a substance that is used to fight fatigue. It drives up the level of dopamine and norepinephrine in the frontal cortex of the brain and is used help the brain in focus, functioning, and planning. More importantly, the same content is found in drugs like cocaine and crystal meth except with less concentration. Because of this, Adderall is considered do  have a high potential for abuse along with severe psychological or physical dependence, aka addiction.

Amphetamine is addictive because it affects the nervous system and this leads to a physical tolerance; therefore, users tend to require higher dosage over time in order to get the same focus and energy level.   Along with possible addiction, this prescribed drug also leads to restlessness, dizziness, headache, and anxiety are a few side effects that one can experience from prolonged use of Adderall or consuming one that has an increased level of amphetamine. More harmful effects of the drug are insomnia, hallucination, depression, and increase in blood pressure. The latter two are very detrimental to the body in the long run as it leads to heart failure, dementia, stroke, thoughts of suicide and death.

Now ask yourself this: Are you willing to risk your life with addiction and health problems for that A+ that you could have received if you simply time managed better and studied well in advance of your exam? Well, I hope your answer is no.

The following video explains the harmful aspects of taking Adderall:

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Work Cited:

Findling, R., Short, E., & Manos, M. (2001). Short-term cardiovascular effects of methylphenidate and adderall. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, 40(5), 525-529. doi:10.1097/00004583-200105000-00011

McCabe, S., Knight, J., Teter, C., & Wechser, H. (2005). Non-medical use of prescription stimulants among US college students: Prevalence and correlates from a national survey. Addiction, 100(1), 96-106. doi:10.1111/j.1360-0443.2004.00944.x


What’s wrong with microwaves?

In A Dissertation Upon Roast Pig, British writer Charles Lamb tells how mankind discovered cooking after “seventy thousand ages [of] eating meat raw”. With tongue firmly in cheek, Lamb relays how the son of a swineherd in ancient China accidentally burnt down a cottage full of pigs. After the fire dies, the boy pokes a pig and burns his fingers. He instinctively places them in his mouth and – Eureka! – bacon was discovered.

We may chuckle at this comical tale (which ends with all the villagers burning down huts filled with pigs so that they may taste the oh-so-magical bacon), but it’s true that for thousands of years humans have had to build fires whenever they wanted to cook. Nowadays, we cook using electricity. Burning fuel to generate heat, steam, and eventually electricity has been outsourced to powerplants, which send our electrical energy to us without our ever having to light a match. It’s rare to find someone who doesn’t prepare a meal without turning on an oven, stove, blender, food processer, rice cooker, slow cooker, etc.

It wasn’t until 1947 that Percy Spencer invented the first microwave oven (often shortened to “microwave”). This new, fireless method of cooking works on a principle that few people understand, and for that reason many people fear it. Many pseudoscientists (a.k.a. “scienticians”) encourage others to shun the microwave, claiming it chemically alters your food and is killing you. This is the naturalistic fallacy at its best, and some investigation quickly dismantles these myths.

Are microwaves radioactive? Arguably, yes; microwaves are radiations, but so are the radiations on television that provide reality TV. Which ones are worse is anybody’s guess. Microwaves are shorter in wavelength than radio waves, and higher in energy. Light is also comprised of electromagnetic waves, but they’re shorter than microwaves and even higher in energy. Still, you can’t cook food with light or read by microwaves.

Meet Magnetron – not just a cool superhero name.
(Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Microwaves can be generated by magnetrons, which spit them into your oven; the microwaves bounce around as long as the magnetron is operating. Some of the molecules in food – especially water molecules – are polar and line up with an electric field that reverses its direction nearly five billion times per second. The water molecules flip their orientations manically to keep up; in their agitation, they knock around other molecules, which also become fast-moving and excited. Fast molecules are hot molecules, and so the microwave-induced flipping spreads heat in your food.

(Not an entirely accurate representation of excited water molecules!)

What about microwaves “chemically altering” food? Is that true? Of course! This not-so-magical process is cooking. The essence of food is chemical, and all cooking methods cause chemical changes in foods.

And claims that microwaves destroy nutrients? Also true, but not unique to microwaves. Some vitamins (namely vitamin C) are destroyed by heat, so any cooking method will “destroy” some of the food’s vitamin C.

“But my microwave makes carrots and broccoli give off sparks!” Relax. There isn’t metal in your veggies. Some vegetables that are cut with sharp knives have sharp edges as a result. Those carbonized, sharp edges can act like lightning rods and develop concentrated electric field gradients, which generate sparks.

Your microwave isn’t the devil in disguise, I swear.

Text and illustrations by Jenny Labrie.



Hoffman, C.J., and Zabik, M.E. (1985). Effects of microwave cooking/reheating on nutrients and food systems: A review of recent studies. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 85(8): 922-926.

Osepchuk, J.M. (1978). A review of microwave oven safety. Journal of Microwave Power, 13(1): 3-26.

Stone, M.A., and Taylor, L.T.  (2003). Feasibility of enhancing high-performance liquid chromatography using microwave radiation. Journal of Chromatographic Science, 41(4): 187-189.