Category Archives: Outreach Project

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

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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.

YouTube Preview Image

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


sick? eat s###!

Recently, Scientists and Researching physician have made poop pills a viable therapy against C. Difficile infections.

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. - NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Frozen pills of fecal matter, ready for ingestion. – NPR/ Hohmann Lab

Why would anyone in their right mind want to ingest pills filled with poop? according to the lead researcher, Dr. Elizabeth Hohmann, it’s a big step from the previous methods of enemas and nose drip-tubes, which were accident-prone, especially “if people gagged and vomited, they could inhale fecal matter. “

Yikes. Why are people taking such grotesque (if not extreme) methods for treatment? what exactly is a C. difficile infection, and why is it so difficult to treat?

Clostridium difficile  is a type of bacteria that is known to cause “opportunistic infections”, or infections when the host is able to be infected easily, usually with the host being in a weakened/compromised state; in this case, most of the cases of C. difficile infections are caused by the lack of other, more benign bacteria colonizing the intestines, usually due to antibiotic treatment. This is akin to introducing wolf packs onto a sheep farm, where there are no competitors/predators for the wolves. As a result, the wolves prosper, at great cost to the sheep and the sheep farmer – a fitting metaphor for both the person infected by C. difficile , and the physician treating it, since C. difficile infections are especially antibiotic-resistant, and are prone to recurrent (i.e: multiple and returning) infections.

How C.difficile spreads- Wikipedia/CDC

The purpose of undertaking fecal transplants is to re-populate the patient’s colon and intestines with benign/helpful bacteria, thereby out-competing the harmful C.difficile. In an extension to the wolves/farmers metaphor, this would be akin to introducing more farm workers, scaring away the wolf pack and ensuring the prosperity of the farm.

Of course, the draw-back to this form of therapy is the “ick-factor”, effective though it may be.  This is why scientists have been working on a synthetic version of the bacteria flora populating our gut- dubbed appropriately, “rePOOPulate”. Research is still on-going  in the field of bacteria flora colonizing our gut; hopefully, one day someone can invent a form of therapy with all of the benefits of faecal transplants, and none of the “ick-factor”.

YouTube Preview Image  Source:Mary Greely Medical Centre, Via YouTube

– James L.

Is Time Travel Possible?

Sometimes people want to go back to the past time and fix the problems or future to see what will happen. Time Travel is the most interesting topic in the science.

Understanding Time

Before know about the time travel we have to know about the timeWhat is time? While most people think of time as a constant, physicist Albert Einstein showed that time is an illusion; it is relative — it can vary for different observers depending on your speed through space. To Einstein, time is the “fourth dimension.” Space is described as a three-dimensional arena, which provides a traveler with coordinates.

Through the Wormhole

General relativity also provides scenarios that could allow travelers to go back in time, according to NASA. The equations, however, might be difficult to physically achieve.

One possibility could be to go faster than light, which travels at 186,282 miles per second (299,792 kilometers per second) in a vacuum. Einstein’s equations, though, show that an object at the speed of light would have both infinite mass and a length of 0. This appears to be physically impossible, although some scientists have extended his equations and said it might be done.

A linked possibility, NASA stated, would be to create “wormholes” between points in space-time. While Einstein’s equations provide for them, they would collapse very quickly and would only be suitable for very small particles. Also, scientists haven’t actually observed these wormholes yet. Also, the technology needed to create a wormhole is far beyond anything we have today.

[Worm Hole Image]

[Worm Hole Image]

YouTube Preview Image

Time Machine

It is generally understood that traveling forward or back in time would require a device — a time machine — to take you there. Time machine research often involves bending space-time so far that time lines turn back on themselves to form a loop, technically known as a “closed time-like curve.”

To accomplish this, time machines often are thought to need an exotic form of matter with so-called “negative energy density.” Such exotic matter has bizarre properties, including moving in the opposite direction of normal matter when pushed. Such matter could theoretically exist, but if it did, it might be present only in quantities too small for the construction of a time machine.

However, time-travel research suggests time machines are possible without exotic matter. The work begins with a doughnut-shaped hole enveloped within a sphere of normal matter. Inside this doughnut-shaped vacuum, space-time could get bent upon itself using focused gravitational fields to form a closed time-like curve. To go back in time, a traveler would race around inside the doughnut, going further back into the past with each lap. This theory has a number of obstacles, however. The gravitational fields required to make such a closed time-like curve would have to be very strong, and manipulating them would have to be very precise.

[Time Mechanism Image]

[Time Mechanism Image]

So is Time Travel Possible?

While time travel does not appear possible — at least, possible in the sense that the humans would survive it — with the physics that we use today, the field is constantly changing. Advances in quantum theories could perhaps provide some understanding of how to overcome time travel paradoxes.

One possibility, although it would not necessarily lead to time travel, is solving the mystery of how certain particles can communicate instantaneously with each other faster than the speed of light.

In the meantime, however, interested time travelers can at least experience it vicariously through movies, television and books.

YouTube Preview Image