Category Archives: Science in the News

Do we get our genes from fish and mushrooms?!

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Simple figure of how HGT occurs.

We acquire all our genes from our ancestors, right? Hmmm, maybe not. Recently, came across an article in the news expressing that we may have more than 100 genes from other species. You are probably wondering what the heck I am talking about. When we think of transferring genes, we imagine a family tree with branches pertaining to different members of the family, with a direct transfer of genes from parent to offspring. What we don’t consider at all is Horizontal Gene Transfer. This phenomenon, shortened to HGT, refers to when DNA is transferred between species through bacteria-infected viruses, genes that “jump” around cells and various other methods. The YouTube video below provides a quick summary of HGT with animations.

It is common to see this in action in single-celled organisms such as bacteria, where the foreign genes enter and get embedded in the recipient’s cell. However, recently scientists have found that this process occurs in animal cells as well. In this scientific article, Alastair Crisp and his research team examined HGT in detail in 26 animal species, including primates. Many genes, including the ABO blood group gene, were transferred to humans through other vertebrates. This article discussed more of Crisp’s finding in detail. Crisp and his team inferred that HGT between primates did not happen in the most recent common ancestor of all primates, but way back when our common ancestors were fish. Crisp also identified some genes as emerging from fungi!

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We have genes from mushrooms……

 

What does this mean for us humans? Are we going to start growing gills like fish, or decomposing dead matter like fungi? This second scientific paper looks at the implications of HGT in evolution. The author, Michael Syvanen, discusses how how the origin of animal cells could be a form of HGT, and that structural genes that are fundamental to everyday life were adapted from genes of prokaryotes.

Don’t worry, we won’t be growing gills anytime soon. That already happened thousands of years ago when we evolved into vertebrates!

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Is It Time To Say Goodbye To Energy Drinks?

At times, we all need that extra energy to, for example, study all night or to play an intense basketball game. Question is where can you attain that energy? Many teens and young adults are using energy drinks as a source for caffeine enrichment. Recent studies have shown that energy drinks can be unhealthy for teens and young adults. Energy drinks are becoming ubiquitous and are an easy access to many teens and young adults. These teens and young adults do little research about these types of drinks and are unaware of these consequences.

Energy Drinks Credit: Mike Mozart Source: Flickr Commons

Energy Drinks Credit: Mike Mozart Source: Flickr Commons

According to researchers from the University of Minnesota and Duke University, researchers have found that teens and young adults are at higher health risk with energy drinks as this is often associated with higher intake of other sweetened beverage and cigarette smoking. Even though consumption of soft drinks has decreased over the past few years, the consumption of energy drinks has tripled in recent years.  Researchers conducted an experiment in which 20 male high school students participated in this study and their daily activities were tracked. Results have shown that male students, who consumed energy drinks weekly, spend about to four additional hours per week playing video games compared to those who drank less than once per week.  Researchers have concluded that this can eventually lead to negative behaviour.

In addition, due to the harmful effects from energy drinks, many politicians are concerned how these energy drink companies are marketing towards people under the age of 18. This energy drink industry has had an increase in 60% growth from 2008-2012. A report has been released about the growing concern on the lack of regulation on these energy drinks by the U.S Food and Drug Association (FDA). This report was sent to 12 energy drink companies about their concerns and only 3 companies responded to this reports. These companies are in a very competitive field, and therefore, want to deviate away from these regulations.

Credit: Journeyman Pictures from Youtube

Association of energy drinks with alcohol has even caused more concern within the health field. An Australian study has shown that people who drank alcohol with energy drinks found to drink more than those who just drank alcohol.  In an experiment consisting of 75 young-adult participants, those who drank alcohol and energy drinks had a stronger desire for alcohol and wanted to continue boozing. There is a constant research happening on how alcohol and energy drinks interact with each other within the body.

Alcohol and Energy Drinks Credit: Oliver Goh Source: Flickr Commons

Alcohol and Energy Drinks Credit: Oliver Goh
Source: Flickr Commons

Taking a step back, there is a growing concern about the consumption of energy drinks by teens and young adults. Energy drinks have shown to cause heart palpitations (feeling of heart beating too fast or too slow). Companies need to work together to prevent marketing towards young adults and teens. As well as  drinkers must be aware of the association of alcohol with energy drinks. Next time you consider taking an energy drink, you may want to do some research beforehand.

-Manpreet Takhi

Can Vegetarians Say Goodbye to Some Cancers?

Cut the meat, cut the crap? It appears this is the case when considering colorectal cancer, a cancer of the large intestine and rectum, and its reduced risk in vegetarians. This cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. A new study found that a vegetarian diet may cut ones risk of colorectal cancer by 20%! In a society that’s obsessed with weight loss, a vegetarian diet seems to be increasing in popularity. What is it about the vegetarian diet that may be causing this association?

Vegetarian diet: Flickr Commons by Ano Lobb

Vegetarian diet: Flickr Commons by Ano Lobb

Vegetarian diet: Flickr Commons by bangdoll

Vegetarian diet: Flickr Commons by bangdoll

 

 

 

 

 

The biggest reason for the association between a vegetarian diet and reduced risk of colorectal cancer is little to no consumption of red and processed meat. A nutrition report addressed the relationship between consumption of red or processed meat and risk of colorectal cancer. Examples of red meat include, beef, goat, lamb and pork. On the other hand, examples of processed meats are ham, bacon, sausage and hot dogs. It was stated, in this nutrition report as well as a review, that studies from 2007 to 2011 continued to support and strengthen the finding that as consumption of red or processed meat increases, the risk of colorectal cancer does as well. However, this has not been concluded as a cause-and-effect relationship. It is this association that seems to be the biggest reason why vegetarians appear to have a reduced risk of colorectal cancer.

Red meat: Flickr Commons by Jeff Attaway

Red meat. Source: Flickr Commons by Jeff Attaway

Processed meat: Flickr Commons by Steven Depolo

Processed meat. Source: Flickr Commons by Steven Depolo

 

 

 

 

 

It is important to remember that a vegetarian diet is a lifestyle choice and there may be other reasons why it is associated with reduced colorectal cancer risk. Not only does this diet include a decreased meat intake, it also includes decreased consumption of unhealthy foods, increased consumption of many healthy foods and healthier activities. For example, vegetarian diets show a reduced sugar intake especially through decreasing caloric beverages. Increased fruit and vegetable consumption is also a key aspect of vegetarian diets. This diet has also been demonstrated to include healthy activities such as, not smoking and avoiding/moderate consumption of alcohol, both of which are linked to reduced cancer risk. Therefore, as was mentioned in the previously talked about nutrition report, it is necessary to clearly understand how different aspects of a vegetarian diet may be influencing cancer risk.

You may be wondering, don’t these diets also result in decreased consumption of other essential nutrients and protein, which could increase cancer risk? As Professor Marion Nestle addresses in the following video posted by Big Think, vegetarians don’t lose out on much.

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Towards the end, Professor Nestle talks about how being a vegetarian plays a positive role in the environment. Therefore, not only is vegetarianism thought to be benefiting the individual, by appearing to reduce risk of colorectal cancer, it has broader implications on the world around us.

Source: Flickr Commons by QuotesEverlasting

Source: Flickr Commons by QuotesEverlasting

It seems Einstein believed it too, in many ways, cutting the meat is cutting the crap.

– Surekha Gangar

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Saying Goodnight to Bed Bug Bites

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Cimex lectularius, the most common bed bug           Source: Gilles San Martin on Flickr

Many of you may not think that bed bugs pose a significant threat in your life. Several believe that only cheap motels and hostels became infested with these parasites, and that I was never at risk of coming into contact with them. It turns out this issue may be closer to home than we think. According to the British Columbia Ministry of Health, there have been increased reports of infestation, particularly in Downtown Eastside Vancouver, but also throughout British Columbia. Houses, apartment buildings, hotels and university and elderly residences across Canada have fallen victim to infestation.

Scientists at Simon Fraser University have recently come up with a concoction of pheromones that attract and trap bed bugs. After years of investigating this issue, they found the right balance of pheromones that causes bed bugs to be drawn to the source of the chemical attractant. The key is histamine, which bed bugs interpret as “safe shelter”. As soon as they come into contact with the histamine, they stay there, despite whether or not they have recently fed. This essentially helps stop their reproduction and spread. This mixture of pheromones has already proven extremely effective, and has even been tested in bed bug infested areas in Metro Vancouver.

Here is a video by Simon Fraser University introducing the scientists responsible for this research:YouTube Preview Image

 

Bed bugs were basically eradicated in the mid-20th century due to widespread use of pesticides such as DDT. However, in recent decades they have been making a global comeback, likely due to increased international travel and pesticide resistance. Reaching epidemic proportions, bed bugs are returning in higher abundances, distribution and intensity of infestation. For this reason, it has become imperative to find more effective methods of early detection and extermination of bed bugs.

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An example of a bed bug bite                                   Source: hiroo yamagata on Flickr

Bed bugs have not been proven to carry infectious diseases, but their bites can be itchy, cause rashes, and some people can suffer severe allergic reactions. Moreover, their presence can be irritating and distressful, causing loss of sleep, anxiety and paranoia. Many people go to great lengths to minimize the effects, including the use of pesticides and radical cleaning.  Pheromones are a much less harmful way to get rid of the parasite. Finding the right combination of histamine and other chemicals could have huge implications for the global eradication of bed bugs. Low-income areas are usually unable to afford professional extermination, and since the cost of the pheromone method is low, these regions will have better opportunity for monitoring and preventing infestation.

So, if you ever have the misfortune of getting bed bugs in your home, hopefully it happens after next year, when the pheromone treatments should be widely available.

– Anne Persson

Mars One, project to colonize Mars. Is it achievable?

Interstellar travel or interstellar colonization have been cores to many science fiction stories. There’s nothing more exciting to see something in science fiction to exist in the real world. Now, it seems the dreams of many science fiction fans have a chance of becoming true.

Concept of Mars Colony (Image from Wikimedia Commons, credit to NASA Ames Research Center)

In 2012, a project of sending humans on a one-way trip to colonize Mars, the Mars One project, was announced. According to Mars One, a rover will be send to Mars to search for optimal location for a settlement in 2020. In 2022, cargoes for building a settlement will be sent, and a settlement will be established in 2023. The first crew of colonists will depart Earth in 2024 and will arrive in 2025, while the second crew will depart in 2026. Below is a video of a brief description of Mars One.

Youtube video uploaded by MarsOneProject

Criticisms have never stopped since the day of the announcement. One of the criticisms is on the funding of the project. Different from major space projects supported by governments, Mars One receives no funding from any government agencies but from company partnerships, sales of broadcasting rights, crowd funding, and more. NASA chief Briand Muirhead said that he has very little confidence in such project being publicly funded.

Also, the cost of the project received many criticisms. The project was estimated to cost 6 billion USD, but Austere Human Missions to Mars, a similar project proposed by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), was estimated to cost 100 billion USD. The difference in cost raised skepticism on the Mars One project. In an assessment by MIT on the Mars One project, establishing a settlement on Mars would cost 4.5 billion USD alone, meaning only 1.5 billion USD will be left for building of spacecrafts, transporting the crews to Mars, or any other costs.

As for technology required for the project, no detailed information has been released yet. The Mars One project only has brief descriptions of the technologies required for the project on the website, and they stated that the existing technology is sufficient carry out the project. However, according to the same assessment by MIT, one of the technology essential to the project (In-Situ Resource Utilization) is currently immature to be used on Mars. In-Situ Resource Utilization is required to convert raw resources on Mars into usable resources.

At this point, the project receives many doubts. However, the future is unpredictable. Maybe a new technology is currently in development and will make the project possible in the future. Whether the Mars One project will be successful or not, only time will tell.

-Daniel Hsiao

Has daylight savings left you feeling tired?

Every autumn when Daylight Saving Time (DST) rolls around, most of us tend to appreciate the extra hour of sleep. When spring comes around however, many tend to suffer from the loss of sleep. Since there are a number of health risks that accompany the time change, we must be proactive in making sure the time change doesn’t negatively affect our health.

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The days after DST begins can leave many feeling dazed. Image Source: Flickr Commons by: Zeek_

Every spring we turn our clocks one hour ahead to allow for brighter evenings. DST started during the world wars to save energy, as less lighting was needed in the evenings because the evenings were brighter.

The reason we suffer when the clocks turn ahead by an hour is related to our “biological clock“. This clock tells us when to sleep based on our bodies natural 24 hour cycle. When we lose an hour of sleep, our internal clock can be thrown off, resulting in a variety of negative affects.

The overwhelming benefit of DST is the brighter evenings we get in the warmer months, but just what are the drawbacks? Consider this videos response:

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Video Source: Harvard Public Health

As mentioned in the video above, there have been reports of increased risk for heart attacks after the time change, as well as an increased number of deaths due to car accidents. What seems like a little sleepiness can have a huge impact on many.

Interestingly, Washington state is considering getting rid of DST due to the risks associated with the time change. Although the removal of DST could be very beneficial health-wise, British Columbia is not likely to do the same. Even if we can’t get rid of DST, we can find a way to better adapt to the change.

Take a look at this video that provides a great solution to the abrupt change of DST:

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Video Source: Sleep Number

Regardless of whether you are for or against DST, it’s likely to stay. So even if the start of DST has left you tired, make sure to plan for a regular daily sleep schedule and be prepared for next springs time change.

-Selamawit Joseph

 

 

Is artificial intelligence going to destroy the world?

One of the hottest topics in computer science these days is the risk of artificial intelligence. Some people think it poses great risk to human beings and will destroy the world, other believe it will greatly improve the quality of life of everyone. In this article I will discuss what are the potential risks and benefits of artificial intelligence.

Stephen Hawking, one of the most well known scientists in the world, recently said in a BBC interview that “The development of full artificial intelligence could spell the end of the human race.” He believes that the natural evolution of human race is not fast enough to complete with the improvement of computer intelligent, especially once computer learns how to redesign itself. In this rate sooner or later computer is going to take over.

Elon Musk, one of the most well known inventor in the world, also warned about artificial intelligence. He said in a recent interview at MIT that AI is “the most serious threat to the survival of the human race.” He urged governments of different countries to provide regulatory oversight to make sure AI won’t be used foolishly. He also donated $10 millions dollars to the Future of Life Institute to research how to keep AI friendly to human.

Quantitatively, how high is the chance for a super intelligence to destroy human? According to a research called Global catastrophic risks survey by the Future of Humanity Institute, there is a 5% chance of human extinction by 2100 by the hand of AI, the highest of any category. According to another survey by Microsoft Academic Search, the median year by which machines can carry out most human professions as least as well as human with 10% confidence is 2024, and with 90% confidence is 2070.

Source: Deviantart

So should we all work to shut down AI research for the humanity? Not necessary. Because even if computer become superior to human, there is no reason now to believe that it will be hostile to human. May be it will be neutral to us and do their own thing, or may be they will be friendly to us and do all of our work like in the movie WALL-E. We just don’t know the answer now. But what we know is that there are some more urgent matter for human to deal with, such as pollution, nuclear weapons, global warming, and diseases like Ebola. AI should not pose a treat to humanity at anytime soon.

By: Yiu Leung Wong

Lagoons to provide tidal waves of power

We’ve all heard of the story regarding fossil fuels: they’re running out, they’re damaging the environment and they’re causing climate change. The energy sector must diversify into new forms of production if we’re to secure the future of our planet.

Fossil fuel plant (Courtesy - Gerry Machen)

Fossil fuel plant (Courtesy – Gerry Machen)

Moves have been made across the world towards nuclear energy. France generates 75% of its requirements in this manner, with low costs of production and high economic gains of over €3 billion per year to the economy. However, this will fall to 50% by 2025 due to concerns over safety given the 2011 Fukushima, Japan nuclear disaster following a tsunami. Over 19,000 people died, whilst a further 120,000 remain uprooted with 67.5% stating they have relatives who are showing signs of physical or psychological distress.

Artist’s impression of the Swansea lagoon (Courtesy Tidal Lagoon Power)

Renewable energies offer an alternative, from wind turbines to solar farms, but what of the ocean? The UK-based firm Tidal Lagoon Power has unveiled plans for six lagoons in Wales and England to provide 8% of the UK’s electricity. These tidal energy lagoons would be a world-first and have been supported by the UK government; the Energy Secretary Ed Davey has set-aside £30 billion from the existing renewable energies budget. The first installment would construct a five mile wide breakwater more than two miles out to sea in Swansea. This scheme could produce energy for 14 hours per day, powering 155,000 homes. If successful, a much larger Cardiff lagoon of 90 turbines over 22 km could follow and be in operation by 2022, powering more than 1.5 million homes. Tidal systems provide predictable energy sources, unlike wind and solar, but just how would this be captured?

Video courtesy – NMANewsDirect

The lagoons would operate a gated mechanism. As the tide comes in, water builds up outside the wall before gates are opened and water enters. Turbines capture this motion and generate electricity. As the tide goes out once more, the water is released from the lagoon with energy captured by turbines once again.

Concerns have been raised regarding the initial costs of the project along with the price of the energy when returned to the grid. At £168 per MWh, the cost is more than twice that of onshore wind. However, as technology develops and efficiency increases, costs will fall to £90-95 per MWh; this is comparable to nuclear energy priced at £92.50 per MWh.

Environmental groups are widely positive upon the prospects of the lagoons. Minimal impact is forecast regarding the tide flow of estuaries; the vital habitat of wading birds. However, anglers are concerned that migrating fish may stray into turbines. Although, Tidal Lagoon Power states that this effect will be offset by the sea walls creating reef habitat to actually increase numbers.

Wading bird of the estuarine habitat (Courtesy Clematis Wilt)

Wading bird of the estuarine habitat (Courtesy Clematis Wilt)

Overall, the construction of tidal lagoons to harness natural ocean movements appears a positive. After the initial costs fall, the system will provide a substantial portion of electricity at low environmental costs in a renewable manner. The UK could act as a platform for such systems on a global scale.

Toby Buttress