Category Archives: Biological Sciences

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:

YouTube Preview Image


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:

YouTube Preview Image


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

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

YouTube Preview Image

The Benefits of Pet Therapy

Pet therapy and the cognitive benefits of owning pets is something that has touched my life in many ways. Being an animal welfare/pre-vet student and a veterinary assistant, the human-animal relationship encompasses the majority of my professional life; however, perhaps more importantly, pet therapy has changed the life of my grandmother following a stroke. While her motor skills were completely restored, she was constantly wrought with anxiety and depression until my grandfather suggested that they adopt a puppy.

Enter Molly, the West Highland Terrier, who would completely reshape my grandmother’s mental health for the better. Whether it was having something to care for other than herself or simply her affection for the puppy, my grandmother took control of Molly’s care: she started walking, smiling and laughing again, socializing with friends, and feeling less anxious about her health.

Lady and her cat

Lady and her cat. Source: Flickr

My grandmother is among many elderly people who have benefited from exposure to animals. Studies on lonesome, mentally ill, and physically ill people have all been relatively conclusive: exposure to animals improves people’s outlook on life and improves their cognitive well-being. In the case of the use of therapy animals on joint pain, it even reduced the amount of pain medication required by patients. It isn’t necessary for the patient to own the pet: regular visits from registered therapy dogs, puppies, kittens, and shelter cats have all proven therapeutic in various situations.

Recently, animal therapy has been implemented in many situations outside of the ill and elderly. It has been used to help treat people of all ages following traumatic events such as school shootings or dealing with the stress of school exams. The following video discusses the use of therapy dogs for students following the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting.
YouTube Preview Image

PTSD therapy dogs are also becoming popular among soldiers with the disorder. The following commercial describes how these dogs assist PTSD sufferers.

AT blog post 1

Elderly lady on a hike with her dog. Source: Flickr

Why do we find animals so therapeutic? How can bumbling little puppies have such a drastic effect on our health? Experts believe it may boil down to the nature of our relationships with animals. Because of our inherent sociability as a species, we thrive on the social benefits of owning a pet. It has be found that pet ownership and interaction with animals is associated with positive feelings and reduced anxiety. Pet ownership has even been observed to increase the life of people who own pets compared to people who don’t.


Molly needs a treat.

While she is just a dog living a simple life, Molly has changed my grandmother’s life for the better- no doubt she has increase her lifespan significantly. I will always be grateful to that silly white dog for what she has brought to my family.

The Slow Carbon Cycle

As we may already know, the carbon atom is very essential to life on Earth.
We use carbon to fuel our economy and we also eat the carbon we get in form of
sugar from plants.  The reservoirs of carbon are where the carbon is stored. Being the fourth most abundant element in universe, carbon is mostly stored in rocks. It can also be found in fossil fuels, ocean, soil, atmosphere and plants.

The carbon cycle is when carbon flows from one reservoir to another in an exchange. In this blog, I will describe the slow carbon cycle, which is the exchange of carbon between the atmosphere, land and ocean.

The slow carbon cycle initiates when atmospheric carbon combines with water to form carbonic acid (H2CO3). This acid falls on rocks and it dissolves them. When the rocks dissolve they form ions such as calcium and these ions flow into the rivers, which leads to the ocean.  In the ocean, the calcium ions react with carbonate and produce calcium carbonate, which makes the shells of different organisms. When these organisms die, they sink to the bottom of the ocean where layers of sediment are buried and carbon is stored in limestone.


These are four marine organisms living in the ocean. The micro organisms in c and d have shells that are made of calcium carbonate. When these organisms die, these shells sink to the ground to form limestone. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Then how is the carbon transported from the bottom of the ocean back into the atmosphere? This is done though volcanoes. Volcanoes make the rocks at the bottom of the ocean melt under extreme pressure and heat. When the rocks are heated they combine with silicate minerals and from this process carbon dioxide is formed and released back into the atmosphere.


This is a volcano in the ocean which effectively melts calcium carbonate in the bottom of the ocean and through reactions produces and releases carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere. Source: Wikimedia Commons

I find this process to be very unique. Through the slow carbon cycle, carbon flows through different reservoirs and meets the biological needs of the living organisms in that reservoir. When the organism no longer needs the carbon, the carbon then flows out of the system and into another system where it is more useful.

Naqsh Fatima Bhangu

Flu Season is coming

The weather is getting cold. We can see people who get flu (influenza). I also had flu and could not leave from the bed for a weak. During staying in the bed for a weak, I wanted to know more about flu and how can we prevent this flu from our ordinary life.

What is flu?

Influenza is well known as “the flu.” It is an infectious disease of birds and mammals caused by RNA viruses of the family Orthomyxoviridae. The most common symptoms are fever, sore throat, muscle pains, headache, coughing, and general discomfort. However having influenza also forces you to infecting other diseases. Flu can affect the lungs. Seniors old people, young children, and people who have lung or heart diseases, certain chronic health conditions, or weakened immune systems.

YouTube Preview Image

Transition passage of flu

Influenza can be spread in three main ways. First is by direct transmission. Influenza can also be transmitted by direct contact with bird droppings or nasal secretions, or through contact with contaminated surfaces. Second is by the airborne route. The most of influenza is transmitted through the air by coughs or sneezes from other people. Air contains the virus and when people breathe, the virus goes into other people’s body. The last is through hand-to-eye, hand-to-nose, or hand-to-mouth transmission. All the routes are from contaminated surfaces or from direct personal contact such as a hand-shake. Especially in the airborne route, the droplets that are small enough for people to inhale are 0.5 to 5 µm in diameter and inhaling just one droplet might be enough to cause an infection. Also influenza survives in airborne with low humidity and a lack of sunlight in winter aiding its survival.

Mechanism of flu

The mechanisms of influenza infection is the inhibition of adrenocorticotropic hormone (ACTH) resulting in lowered cortisol levels. Therefore it will cause fatigue and headache. Also influenza invades cells and the cleavage of the viral hemagglutinin protein can not work normally. The normal structure of the hemagglutinin can only be cleaved by proteases and viruses cannot infect other tissues. However, influenza harms the hemagglutinin structure and infect other tissues in lungs.

How to prevent flu?

How can we prevent from the flu in this cold winter season? For the accurate answer for preventing flu, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend 3 steps to prevent from the flu.

First is take time to get a flu vaccine.

Second is hygiene and actions to stop the spread of germs-washing hands, covering nose and mouth when you cough or sneeze, avoid touching eyes, noses, and mouth

The last step is taking flu antiviral drugs which the doctor prescribed. Wrong antiviral drugs can make illness worse and people have different flu virus, so the antiviral drugs are not always work for every situation.