Mice Get Re-Armed

December 9, 2014

Eva Gusnowski

The right to bear arms has long been a right afforded only to humans.  However the mouse has recently been re-armed (recent being an evolutionary relative term of course) with a full clip of bat genes

Okay, maybe not a full bat gene.  But a small part of one at least.

First let’s explore a couple of basics:

Homologous structures are a mainstay of evolutionary theories, from genetics to phylogeny.  The fact that all of these creatures (including us) are actually so similar to one another at the level of DNA sequences all of the way to the skeleton is strong evidence of common ancestors and of divergent evolution.


The regulation of gene expression is an incredibly complex and intricate process.  A few of the main players include a promoter region (found shortly before (upstream) a gene sequence and helps turn on expression), and in some cases repressor sequences (that stop/decrease expression) and enhancer sequences (that increase/direct expression).  Enhancer regions not only help turn a gene’s expression up and down, but can also allow for tissue and temporal specific gene expression.


How does this go together then? 


A study published in 2008 looked at the expression of a gene called Prx-1 in an incredibly interesting way.  Prx-1 is a gene whose protein product is involved in the regulation of bone length in mice, and its homolog (i.e. essentially the same/similar gene in other creatures) does the same in other mammals.  However, in order to shape the multitude of different lengths of forearm bones in the animal kingdom, Prx-1 gene expression is higher or lower in various creatures to make longer or shorter limbs, respectively.  In order to study the function of Prx-1 further, this group took the Prx-1 enhancer sequence from bats and inserted it in front of the Prx-1 gene in mice. 


                                                  Cretekos et al., 2008

You can imagine that the expression of Prx-1 in bats would be higher and longer because bats have longer forearms than mice.  What were they looking for in the transgenic mice?  You guessed it, longer forearms due to increased Prx-1 expression in the skeleton.


                                                Cretekos et al., 2008

Although the transgenic mice had forearms that were only on average 6% longer, implying that other regulatory elements are involved in Prx-1 function, this study suggests a strong relationship between two very different appearing mammals at the DNA level.  It also lends even more support to the theory of evolution and the successive changes in gene expression that have allowed for adaptation to flying versus skittering across a floor. 

If only the T-rex knew about the Prx-1 gene and could’ve done this experiment themselves.  Unstoppable.

When You Wish Upon a Space Station

September 25, 2014

Eva Gusnowski

The International Space Station does it again. And what might that be?  Why that would be bringing space and science right to your door. Or rather, your gmail inbox.


The International Space Station (whose motto, by the way, “Off the Earth, For the Earth” is amazing) travels an astounding 330 km above the Earth, at speeds reaching 27 600 km/hour.  To put that in perspective, large commercial aircrafts such as the Boeing 747 cruise at a height of approximately 10 km at speeds of 913 km/hour.  (What is also interesting is that the International Space Station was crafted by Boeing.)


Launched in 1998, the ISS circles the globe about 16 times per day.  Now, to put that number in perspective, its been quoted by the CSA that this distance is about the same as travelling a round trip between the moon and the earth.  Every. Single. Day.

Are the numbers not quite getting you to your happy place?  Maybe this video from the Canadian Space Agency will then:


Oh CanadArm, how we love you! 


The ISS is a collaboration between Canada, the United States, Russia, Europe and Japan.  In science, we are all equals.  And if its good enough for Chris Hadfield, its good enough for the world.  A new ship carrying U.S. and Russian crew members even launched successfully today, and is currently making its way up to the station.


There is even a system provided by NASA that will alert you by text or email when the space station is going to be visible in almost any area around the globe.




Don’t hesitate any longer, check out the ISS in person and make a wish upon that space station! It really does look like a quickly travelling star, but guess what...that is us, HUMANS, up there!  If you don't find that incredible, I'm not sure what you would.  Its one of the stars that will literally make your science dreams come true.


January 30, 2014

Eva Gusnowski

A dream within a dream? Thanks Leo, but we’ll take it from here. Even more plausible than inception, because it does, in fact, actually exist, is waterception.


The existence of waterception is due to our good friend density, and its grandchild "halocline". Halocline describes an abrupt vertical salinity gradient in a body of water. What this essentially results in is layers of water of different densities where you can actually see a dilineation between. For example, this is seen in caves in Mexico where less dense fresh water sits on top of more dense salt water.

veronica von allworden


The Cenote Angelita near Tulum, Mexico, has an added layer of hydrogen sulfide between the fresh water and salt water, creating a ghostly effect on the top of the “river”. The result is an amazing feat of nature that you can visit and swim through. And that also allows the use of imagination to take some pretty spectacular pictures.





Water within water…its waterception! Leo would be so proud.

Quirks & Quarks

January 20, 2014

Torah Kachur

This week on Quirks & Quarks on CBC Radio - guest host = ME!!!


Yes, for some crazy reason the powers that be at CBC have invited me to sit in the biggest science chair in the land, the one occupied by Bob McDonald every week on national radio. 


I think I'm nervous, but it's hard to say because I really don't know what to be nervous about.  I'm not interviewing any Nobel Prize winners or science idols, at least I don't think.  I'm not sure what it means to be truly good at radio other than to be curious, have a little fun and throw in a 'wow, that's cool' or two when I'm chatting.


I really love science, I love talking about all sorts of topics and I hope that translates.  The topics on the radar this week - piezoelectrics, falcon hunting and a little bit of weather on brown dwarfs.  There are a few other stories we are chasing but I'll leave a bit of mystery for you to tune into the show.


Should I bill it as "Listen as Torah does a faceplant on national radio"?  Or "Torah takes over the airwaves".....only time will tell.


Addiction Awareness

November 19, 2013

Torah Kachur

Most people associate National Addictions Awareness Week with alcoholism and drug addiction but addictive behaviours go well beyond substance abuse.  It can even include addictions to sex, gambling and even hoarding. 


Rob Ford Torah Kachur Science in SEconds National Addiction Awareness Week


All addictions activate the same brain reward patterns that are associated with the 'high' of a drug.  You know, that feeling of euphoria that makes you draw self-portraits of yourself that look like this.  Heroin addicts are soothed by the use of a needle, even if there is no drug injected, this behavioural addiction can be just as powerful as the chemical changes that happen in the brain. 


These behavioural or process addictions, just like their substance abuse counterparts, stimulate the release of dopamine in the reward centers of the brain.  The flood of dopamine in areas of the brain like the nucleus accumbens caused addicts to have a surge of positive emotions.  Mice that have their nucleus accumbens removed are often cured of addictions, although most people aren't interested in having part of their brain surgically removed to stop them from buying too many shoes.


Sex addictions have broken up many-a-Hollywood couple which has made it an almost laughable disease of the too-hot-for-you but it isn't just the David Duchovny's of the world that crave the orgasmic euphoria.  Hoarding and shopping result in the same brain changes.  Although, I must admit, I'd have a lot more shoes if the act of purchasing was orgasmic. Maybe I'm simply not prone to addictions.


Addictions are not simply a result of bad choices, they result from brain chemistry changes and feedback loops on overdrive.  This National Addiction Awareness Week maybe it's time to stop teasing your shop-a-holic friends and understand that their compulsions are not simply a bad habit.


Can't help throw in a Rob Ford joke here - his list of addictions is loooonnnggggg - food, cigarettes, alcohol, oh yeah, crack.  You can't apologize and move on, sorry Toronto, you need serious therapy.



Rob Ford Science

November 8, 2013

Torah Kachur

#RobFord has been trending on Twitter for an eternity and the embarrassment of Canada shows no sign of stopping.  What is it about our world that is so delighted to watch another Lindsay Lohan-esque train public meltdown?


It's science.....


The human brain actually feels more empathy when bad people suffer - like said trashy crack-addicted bully of a Toronto mayor - than good people.  We feel sorry for them when they get what they deserve, moreso than when an innocent toddler has their parents die in a car crash.  It seems absolutely ridiculous and counterintuitive to me, but I gotta trust the science on this one.


Researchers from USC analyzed the pain matrix of people as they watched others suffer.  The pain matrix is a network in the brain that is comprised of the insula cortex, the anterior cingulate, and the somatosensory cortices.  Their study consisted of fMRI monitoring of a group of white Jewish males as they watched videos of innocent people in pain.  Watching suffering of innocents did cause the pain matrices to be active, but not nearly as much as when the participants watched anti-Semites in pain.  

Counterintuitive and completely ass-backwards?  Maybe.  But it also might be that individuals try to understand the pain of those Nazi-bastards a bit more to empathize with their humanity and not their beliefs.  In other words, the brain works harder to feel the pain of those that are hateful.  


My theory is simple:  the pain matrix was activated as the participants wanted to feel the pain of the anti-Semites so they could feel them suffer with vindictive sadistic grins on their faces, not empathy.   And who would blame them?  


As for Rob Ford?  His pain is only making my giggle.  You made your bed Mayor Ford, sleep in it. 

Happy Birthday Marie

November 7, 2013

Torah Kachur

Geoengineering the Planet

October 9, 2013

Brit Trogen

To many people, geoengineering is still a relatively unknown concept. It's, like, engineering? Something to do with the earth, maybe? In North America, geoengineering has yet to achieve the wide recognition of, say, biotechnology. But for a select group of researchers, geoengineering may represent the greatest hope for the future of our planet from a technological perspective.



Geoengineering is, in fact, almost nothing like what the name implies. The simplest definition is perhaps "largescale climate modification," but even that fails to encompass the variety of strategies and technologies included under the geoengineering umbrella.


Dozens of approaches are, if not entirely feasable, still pretty fascinating in theory. On the simpler side are things like just painting the roofs of every building on earth white, as a light-colored surface area would reflect more heat from the planet's surface. There's also the strategy (recently employed by a rogue businessman) of dumping iron into the oceans to encourage algal blooms, which, in turn, would capture CO2 from the atmosphere. 



But there are also more extreme ideas. We could, for example, throw an enormous mirror up in space, sort of like outfitting the earth with a giant pair of sunglasses. Or, using another dubious technological favorite, employ cloud seeding over the oceans as a method of increasing the earth's reflectivity. The list goes on, with some options even gaining credibility lately due to the most recent climate report of the IPCC.


There are, however, a number of technical and ethical issues to be raised by even the concept of technological tampering with the climate. For example, who would get to control it? (Canadians and Russians might, for example, prefer an ever-so-slightly warmer planet than the citizens of Ecuador.) Should the technologies be patentable? And who on earth would be held responsible if something went wrong? Assuming, of course, that we haven't destroyed the only habitable planet in the solar system in the process of trying to save it.


It's easy to get over-excited at the prospect of solving climate change using technology. But for now, geoengineering is still pretty much a pipe dream when it comes to feasable climate strategies. By far, our best bet (both economically and risk-wise) is simply to slow climate change now before it spirals out of control. Which means the same old mantra: reducing our carbon emissions. Not quite as flashy as a space-mirror, but it's undoubtedly a much safer strategy overall. 

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