Supporting Life from Laccase to Lignin

Living in Vancouver, mosses, flowers and trees are a common sight, though the structural similarities between these seemingly different plants may come as a surprise. There are currently over 300,000 known species of plants on Earth, each with its own unique characteristics. Despite this incredible amount of diversity, one crucial component that all plants have in common is a molecule known as lignin. It is this molecule that allows a plant to grow upright with a rigid stem so that water can be transported effectively to all of its cells.

Lignin is deposited in specific ringed patterns in cell walls in a process called lignification in order to strengthen the cells. We’ve known that by having this slinky-like coiled design instead of a fixed cylindrical pattern like a drinking straw, the plant cells that deliver water are able to stretch and grow. However, the way that lignin is deposited in this pattern was not well-understood until recently; researchers at UBC have discovered that there are two key laccase enzymes, chemicals that help speed up reactions, that allow this pattern to occur.

A view of the coiled pattern of lignin in cell walls of the water-transporting plant tissues.

A view of the coiled pattern of lignin in cell walls of the water-transporting plant tissues. Each tube is one cell. Source: Leighton Dann on Flickr

In an interview with the lead researcher, Dr. Mathias Schuetz, we learned more about the importance of lignin and how his team made their discovery, as documented in the video below:

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At this point, you may be wondering exactly what the connection is between Dr. Schuetz’s research and the emerging applications, such as for the biofuel industry. With the fundamentals of lignification better understood through this research, there is high potential for improving certain industrial processes. For example, since lignin strengthens plant cell walls, it makes working with the other components of the cell wall extremely difficult, so figuring out how to remove (or even decrease) lignification without affecting other properties of plants could be extremely beneficial. As seen in the closing scene of the video, removing lignin from plants will cause them to droop. This means that accessing components like cellulose, a chain of sugars that is useful for industrial purposes, will be much easier.

Dr. Schuetz touches on details of a few implications in the following audio podcast:

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In application, decreasing the amount of lignin that goes into cell walls as much as possible without stunting the growth of the plant can provide us with raw plant material that is easier to process. Looking at the big picture, if we can substantially decrease the energy cost of processing this plant material, we can increase the yield of valuable product. This would not be possible without the fundamental understanding of how laccases are involved in lignification.

Matthew Cho, Sunny Sohn, Mikaela Stewart, Dustin Woo

Shape coexistence and nuclear physics at TRIUMF

Our group didn’t know what to expect as we trekked across the rainy parking lot towards the modest entrance of TRIUMF at UBC. The small blue sign seemed like an almost comical understatement to the immense laboratories looming behind it. Having no physicists among us, we thought we were in over our heads with this research. We carried on regardless, and were greeted by friendly faces when we made it inside.


TRIUMF sign Source: self

We were met by Dr. Thomas Procter, a postdoctoral fellow at TRIUMF. Dr. Procter had invited us to the facility and offered to tour us round the facility. Not only did Dr. Procter give us valuable insight into his own research, but he introduced us to the world of nuclear physics at UBC.

TRIUMF Cyclotron

TRIUMF Cyclotron Source:

Nuclear physics is the study of atomic nuclei their characteristics and interactions with the world around them. It is this brand of physics that TRIUMF specializes in. TRIUMF is home to the largest cyclotron in the world: a gigantic machine used to generate exotic nuclei for (among other things) studies in astro- and nuclear physics.

For example, DRAGON (Detector of Recoils And Gammas Of Nuclear reactions) apparatus at TRIUMF is a machine used to examine the formation of the nuclei we see commonly on Earth in distant supernovae (Consider rephrasing sentence). In some cases, the specifics behind the formation of these nuclei would remain largely unknown if not for DRAGON. While we got only a brief insight into the functioning of DRAGON, we were fortunate enough to have a more elaborate look at some of the nuclear structure research at TRIUMF done by Dr. Procter.

Dr.Procter's set up Source: Self

Dr.Procter’s Set Up Source: Self

Dr. Procter is interested in a phenomenon that occurs in the nucleus called shape coexistence. The particular research paper of his that we looked at involved the isotope chain of rubidium 98. Dr. Procter and his team used TRIUMF’s powerful cyclotron to generate many isotopes of rubidium for their study. The video below gives an overview of nuclear shape detection by laser spectroscopy and some of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s research.

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It is important to have at least a rudimentary understanding of the theory involved in Dr. Procter’s work before attempting to understand his methods. The following podcast gives a general overview into the laser spectroscopy used in Procter’s work and at TRIUMF.

Unless you are in the field, particle physics is not something that occurs to most people on a daily basis. One could argue that it has little relevance to their life, but in reality, it may be the most relevant science out there. There would be no life without particular interactions between particular particles that that hold us together. In essence, particle physicists ask the big question: “What are the building blocks that make up everything we can perceive (including us) and why do they behave the way that they do?”


Ionic Liquids: The Future of Electronics

Salt is a popular resource with many forms and uses. It helps keep ice off the roads, flavours our foods, and replaces hard metals in our water. In their liquid form, these salts have properties that make them excellent electrolytes (carriers of electric charge), but melting them takes a lot of heat. Table salt, for example, takes about 800 °C to melt, enough to incinerate most of the electronic devices we use. However, the recent discovery of a new class of compounds called ionic liquids may provide a way to use liquid salts as electrolytes in our much cooler environment.

Picture of Table Salt and its melting point Source: Flickr Creative Commons

Picture of Table Salt and its melting point
Source: Flickr Creative Commons <>

Ionic Liquid and its melting point Source: Snapshot of video from University of Leichester

Ionic Liquid and its melting point
Source: Snapshot of video from University of Leichester

Erin Lindenberg

Erin Lindenberg

We had the opportunity to meet with Erin Lindenberg, a PhD candidate in the Chemistry Department at the University of British Columbia. The following video demonstrates and describes what Ionic Liquids are, and how our researcher carried out her experiment.

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Video Music: “The Jazz Piano” –

Now, the video showed possibilities in improving the effectiveness of electrolytes, which in the future, may have an impact to the general public through improvements in everyday necessities. However, before anything can be created, scientists must experiment with new concepts and/or theories. In our podcast below, we had a conversation with our researcher on how her study can possibly provide a solution or give ideas to other researchers also studying about Ionic Liquids, along with several challenges faced over the course of her research.

Audio clip: Adobe Flash Player (version 9 or above) is required to play this audio clip. Download the latest version here. You also need to have JavaScript enabled in your browser.

Podcast Music: “Funky Element” –

Modern technology depends on electricity as a source of energy, and portable electronics like cell phones, laptop computers and portable music devices are popular in modern society. Their batteries are essentially packages of electrical energy that can go wherever the device goes, but some of them are big and hazardous with many safety precautions. Erin’s research may lead to the production of smaller and more efficient batteries, possibly making popular electronic devices safer, more portable, and capable of operating longer without charging the batteries.

-Group 2: Lilly Inoue, Michelle Bak, Jared Martin, Sung Hoo Jegal


What are you doing to the microbes in your gut?



Lactobacillus casei, a microbe found in dairy products, the human intestine and mouth. Source: Flickr, user: ajc1

There are a hundred trillion cells in our body. You might think that most of the cells are human, but in fact, 90% of these cells are tiny microorganisms like bacteria that we can’t see with the naked eye! But where do these microbes come from, and what are they doing in our body?


Source: Wikimedia Commons, user: BruceBlaus

All mammals, including humans, are usually born free of bacteria and other microbes. However, shortly after birth, babies become colonized by microbes that come from their parents, the food they eat, and the environment. The colonization of our gut by microbes continues throughout our entire lifespan. The population of microbes in our gut tends to become more complex as we get older and start consuming solid food.

Now that we know a bit about how we obtain these microbes, how are they affecting us?

 Most of us reading this blog have “Westernized” or modern lifestyles, where we have access to clean water, processed food, modern medicine, and hygiene. This does not mean that our environment is completely sterile, but as it turns out, the gut microbe population is less diverse in people in Westernized populations compared to rural populations.

 So why is this important?

Lower diversity of microbes in our gut is associated with autoimmune diseases like Crohn’s disease and irritable bowel syndrome, as well as conditions like multiple sclerosis and autism. It may also explain why there is a higher prevalence of conditions like asthma and allergies in modern society.

 Watch the following video which showcases our interview with Dr. Laura Parfrey, a researcher in the Departments of Botany and Zoology at UBC, to find out more about how our lifestyle influences our gut, and more importantly, what we can do to make our gut microbes more diverse.

Source: own work

Dr. Parfrey recently found that the diversity of gut microbes differs between Westernized populations and rural populations. She specifically looked at eukaryotic microbes, which are essentially all the microbes that aren’t bacteria, and found that the Western population had a much less diverse set of microbes! This may help explain the increasing prevalence of autoimmune diseases and allergies in modern society. According to Dr. Parfrey, there is still a lot that we still don’t know about how microbes affect our health, and she explains further research questions and why she finds her research interesting, in the following podcast:

Source: own work

So, there are lots of microbes in our body, especially the gut, and they’re affecting our health more than we’ve thought previously! In order to keep our gut microbes healthy and diverse, people can avoid overemphasizing hygiene with their kids; and as for adults, people can incorporate more diverse sources of food into their diets, especially diverse sources of complex carbohydrates.


Questioning Chemotherapy

The increasing amount of cancer cases is no secret in our world today. According to Statistics Canada, one in four people will be diagnosed with cancer in their lifetime. Billions of dollars are being used to find solutions to this disease; however one method of treatment is particularly controversial. Chemotherapy is the treatment of disease by the use of chemical substances by cytotoxic and other drugs. After doing some investigation I was shocked when I came across statistics about the effects chemotherapy had on the human body. Although chemotherapy has saved many from an early death, the negative effects it has on others is not to be overlooked.

Example of Chemotherapy Machine Source: Flickr Commons

Example of Chemotherapy Machine
Source: Flickr Commons

What stood out to me the most when investigating chemotherapy was the results of surveys conducted on 118 doctors from McGill Cancer Center asking if they would consider chemotherapy themselves if they were terminally ill with cancer.  Three of every four doctors would refuse chemotherapy for themselves due to its devastating effects on the entire body and the immune system, and because of its extremely low success rate. How could one feel comfortable if the physician administrating chemotherapy doesn’t agree with the method themselves? Furthermore how could a physician feel comfortable administrating it to an unknowing patient?

I was even more shocked when I discovered that Chemotherapy doesn’t universally affect all types of cancer the same way. In a book called “Questioning Chemotherapy,” by written Dr. Ralph Moss he reveals the ineffectiveness of Chemotherapy against cancers such as breast, colon, prostate and lung cancer. The types of cancer that Chemotherapy has proven to neutralize are 2-4%! If the health benefits are not as effective, then the body is left fighting off the stress and damage that it got from the process. If anything you are doing more damage than help. Now I understand why doctors would not go ahead with this themselves.

Before and After Image of Skin Cancer Cells. Source: Flickr Commons

Before and After Image of Skin Cancer Cells.
Source: Flickr Commons

So what exactly is the stress that Chemotherapy puts on the body? Chemotherapy attacks rapidly dividing cells in the body, which is how cancer cells are in nature. However, the most rapidly dividing cells in the body are the cells in our immune system. This is vital because the immune system is what fights off disease in the first place. If Chemotherapy is used on a type of cancer that it is not effective against (96%), and it fails, then the body is left to recover using a now damaged immune system.

Considering the results of my investigation I believe Chemotherapy, at best at this point, should be used as an alternative method instead of the standard one to treat cancer. During my research I came across many inspiring success stories where patients had overcome cancer by strengthening their immune system. The main way to do so is through your diet, especially with fruits and vegetables. I have always been a strong believer that food is our greatest medicine because it is always more bioavailable to the body than synthetic medicines.

Video on Alternative Cancer Treatment by Dr. Ralph Moss
Source: Youtube
Author: Beth Greer

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Stay away from Giant hogweed

Giant hogweed is invasive and noxious weed that can grow up to 4-5 metres tall and blooms in mid-May through July. This beautiful tall plant was originated from Asia and Eastern Europe and was brought to Ontario as an ornamental plant;  now it is becoming more common in Southern and central Ontario.


Giant hogweed Source: wiki common

Giant hogweed has a sap that contains toxin and the toxin in the sap can cause painful blister when the sap is on the skin and when it is exposed under sunlight your skin is going to experience serious skin burn. If the sap gets in you eyes, it can cause temporary or permanent blindness. Therefore, it is best to stay away from the plant. However,  if you have made contact with this toxic plant, find shade or shelter that can block you from sun immediately because the sap is very reactive when it is exposed to sunlight.


symptom Source: wiki commons

symptom Source: wiki commons

It is best to go to hospital right away after contact with the sap but if you can not go to hospital right away, use water and soap to wash the skin and contact hospital as soon as possible. When you have to handle giant hogweed, wear protective clothes, gloves and eye protection to avoid the sap.

This is video of removing giant hogweed.

Source: Youtube uploaded by UTRCA


-SungHoo Jegal



Frozen Food : to eat it or not to eat it?

Fast food picture. source: Google image (free to share)

Frozen Food is getting a bad rap.

Many people think that the frozen meals are unhealthy, opting for a fast-food meal over a frozen food, according to a British consumer group that tracks grocery shopping habits.

But a new study published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics found that people who regularly have frozen meals consume 254 fewer calories and 2.7 less grams of saturated fat per day than people who eat fast food. Also, adults who ate frozen meals had higher daily intakes of important nutrients such as protein, fiber and potassium.

Nestle USA, the maker of lots of popular frozen-food brands such as DiGiorno, Stouffer’s, and Hot pockets, funded a study. The findings have been reviewed and considered impartial. Does the findings mean a frozen lasgna is better for your health than a hamburger and fries? Not really.

Nutrition facts of an example of frozen food. source: Google image (free to share)

Registered dietitian Staci Nix McIntosh, an assistant professor of nutrition at the University of Utah College of Health, notes that the researchers did not compare meal for meal frozen versus fast food and cautions against taking the study findings at face value. “There are lots of factors at play here,” she says, “not the least of which is that people who consume fast food and people that regularly eat frozen food are people who choose different methods of quick meals and may have different lifestyles in general.”
Still, frozen foods can be healthy choices, depending on what you pick. McIntosh says to look for these items on the label:

1.Vegetables, but without the sauce.
2.High nutrient content relative to calories—potassium, calcium, fiber, vitamins A and D, and iron. You want a meal that will provide those nutrients while not exceeding your overall energy intake for the day.
3.Low sodium and no trans fats.