Reflecting back on the researchers and science communicators I encountered in 2015, I selected a highlight of 10 topics that I have not yet elaborated on this blog. Part 1 focuses on discoveries and inventions.
Nature created berries with an amazingly vivid metallic blue color that doesn’t fade for decades, as I covered in this previous post. The following two studies also led to discoveries that help us learn something new about ourselves and our world.
- You see nori seaweed in sushi – but did you know that the Japanese are the only people known to have a specialized gut bacteria that can digest nori? Bacteria in human intestines play a key role in turning our food into energy, and knowing how gut bacteria work can help us make better recommendations on nutrition and antibiotics that don’t disturb our gut bacteria. Dr. Harry Brumer (UBC) studies the biochemical mechanisms that gut bacteria use, and here is a great blog and podcast coverage of his most recent research published in Nature.
- Nobel prize winner Dr. Richard Schrock‘s discovery in double bond chemistry has a surprising application that prevents insects from mating. Using “olefin metathesis” (as a more efficient and greener way to synthesize new compounds, explained in detail here), chemists can artificially produce pheromones that would confuse male peach-tree borer flies such that they can’t find a female mate, allowing to get rid of fruit-tree eating larvae without strong pesticides.
In a previous post, I covered an invention of super gels that tackled the challenges of creating tough gel polymer materials. Here are a few more examples of discovery leading to creative new technology in our daily lives.
- Like the organs created by 3D-printers, Dr. Kelly BéruBé has “built” a lung from live cells, but they are virtually fully functional – the surface structures beat rhythmically and chemical reactions occur just as in a lung in a human body. Dr. BéruBé’s man-made “living” lungs may allow scientists to test the efficacy of drugs and impact of pollutants on human health without human or animal subjects.
- Biofuels – alternative energy sourced from plants – is a growing field. (More about biofuels on Inside Science news). While our current biofuel industry struggles to fully utilize a compound called lignin from plants, Dr. Gregg Beckham looks to soil microbes that naturally use lignin to fuel their metabolism. These microbes can help us invent “biological funnels” where ideally we can feed lignin to soil microbes and extract compounds that are more maneageable for us to turn into valuable biofuels. Red more in the paper published in PNAS.
- Paper and tape – sounds simple, cheap, and light to carry around. With paper, tape, and some teflon ink printing, Dr. Frédérique Deiss crafted petri dishes to grow cells and conduct diagnostic lab tests. It may offer low cost options to reproduce diagnostic tests at remote sites and in developing countries where state of the art equipment is not available or too costly to transport. Read more in University of Alberta’s news coverage here.
Brumer, H. (2015 Mar). Sweet and Savory: Understanding biological systems through structure-activity relationships between carbohydrates and enzymes. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.
Schrock, R. (2015 May). My role in elucidating the catalytic reaction that led to a Nobel Prize in 2005. Public lecture, Vancouver, BC.
Beckham, G. (2015 Oct). Lignin valorization via biological funneling and chemical catalysis. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.
BéruBé, K. (2015 Mar). Alternative for Particle Research: Stuck Between a Rat and a Hard Place. Webcast, Vancouver, BC.
Deiss, F. (2015 Jan). Bioanalytical platforms from paper and imaging fiber. Seminar presentation, Vancouver, BC.
The summaries in this post is a personal selection of highlights from each of the talks and they do not necessarily reflect the overall idea delivered in each respective talk.