09 Nov

The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher: JULS Staff Edition

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Welcome to our first edition of “The Life of an Undergraduate Researcher”, where we interview undergraduate students at the University of Toronto to ask them about how they got started in research and how their experiences have been.

Curious about how JULS staff members got some of their exposure to research? For our first edition, we are featuring 4 members of the JULS staff:

  • Jenny Xiao (Senior Editor)
  • Iva Avramov (Senior Editor)
  • Linwen Huang (Layout Manager)
  • George Li (Co-Editor-in-Chief)

Read more about them below!

Read More

05 Mar

‘Don’t Have Babies until 2018’: El Salvador’s Health Ministry

The truth behind the hysteria over Zika Virus

Online Submission by Sri Gaveen

 

Mosquitos are crucial to the spread of Zika virus. It cannot be readily transferred from person to person without a mosquito acting as a vector.

Mosquitos are crucial to the spread of Zika virus. It cannot be readily transferred from person to person without a mosquito acting as a vector.

It seems that every few years, there is a new and imminent peril facing humanity. Last year, Ebola held this dubious title, before which Swine Flu, SARS and a whole panoply of other menacing illness paralyzed us all with fear. Yet over the last weeks, an entirely new virus has seized the headlines, prompting global action and panic across three continents. As you likely heard by now, its name is Zika and even in the bizarre world of viruses it is quite menacing.

It has been known to scientists for over 6 decades, and for much of that time it has been little more than a minor footnote in dreary textbooks. The reason was that compared to its dangerous cousins, Zika seemed essentially harmless. Infection with Zika often produced no symptoms or at worst a mild fever, which was only treated with rest and other home remedies.

However, for the last 2 years the occasional eyebrow was raised as microbiologists started to note that the virus was spreading rapidly around the world. Originally starting off in a narrow belt around the equator in Africa and parts of Asia – it spread rapidly eastward through the islands of the South Pacific, and ultimately to Mexico and onwards to the Caribbean and South America. Though this was concerning, there was no alarm as the virus was essentially harmless and we were all distracted with swine flu and Ebola.

However, in 2016 scientists definitively confirmed that this previously innocent virus was in fact responsible for causing severe birth defects if contracted before or during pregnancy.  Specifically it was linked to abnormal brain development and an immune disease called: Gullain-Barre Syndrome.

Previously, when a harmful virus was discovered, the first efforts are to contain it, and isolate the contagion. You’ll recall that during the Ebola crisis, global travel to West Africa was essentially suspended, and we all counted, in horror, as the odd case spread around the world. However, in the case of Zika, it’s effectively too late for these measures. It has already spread throughout the world, and there is no sensible way to isolate such massive areas. So, dear reader, before you head for the hills in a dazed panic – we should consider what exactly can be done about Zika.

In El Salvador, and several other south/central American countries – including Brazil, Jamaica, Ecuador, Honduras and Colombia, governments have taken the bizarre step of asking citizens to avoid getting pregnant until ‘doctors better understand’ the virus. The deputy minister of health in El Salvador even proposed what is perhaps the world’s first moratorium against births for the next 2 years. The consequences to these nations, if such asinine policies actually get implemented into law will be profound. Some axiomatic implications would be a decimated workforce, an impending economy catastrophe as well as other fundamental questions over the use of other basic infrastructures – such as schools. Also, a keen observer will note that avoiding pregnancies does nothing to limit Zika’s spread or its harmful effects. So leaving puerile legislation aside, what actually can be done?

The first thing we must note is that unlike most harmful viruses, Zika cannot readily spread from person to person. It is a mosquito borne virus, meaning that the only way for it to be transfer between people is for a mosquito to bite an infected individual, and then bite someone else. This also means that blood transfusions may also spread the virus. However an infected individual could literally sneeze or cough on a subject without significant risk of spreading the virus. Clinicians managing Ebola, or the Flu could only hope for such conditions as simply touching an infected person would suffice to transfer the virus. So, practically speaking – if we eliminate the mosquitos, then Zika is effectively neutralized. In Virology, this idea is referred to as eliminating the vector, and aside from some very rare therapies or vaccines, it is the best way to contain a harmful disease.  It’s also vastly more feasible than stopping all births.

The world has seen similar campaigns before. In South Asia, another mosquito borne disease (Dengue) was greatly reduced by eliminating mosquito breeding grounds, namely stagnant pools of water. In China, localized pesticide spraying for regions known for mosquito activity reduced the spread of yellow fever by upto 50% in certain areas. Though not as direct as a vaccine, or an antibiotic – simple, cheap public health campaigns are an extremely powerful tool to reduce the spread of Zika. Such campaigns are what we should be focusing on until such time as an effective therapy against the virus is developed (not banning babies).

This also means that as Canadians, we are effectively immune from the brunt of virus. Though we may catch it if we visit regions endemic to the virus, the mosquitos needed to spread the virus don’t live near us. This is not to say that we should ignore Zika, but rather that cooler heads and a little prudence is needed.

Lastly, this story highlights major problems in the way that society deals with contagions. The problem is that we obsess on a single pathogen at a time, and devote massive resources simply against that one organism. If the world had been attentive to the known spread of Zika, if more attention and more diligence was employed over the last 2 years, Zika would have remained a largely insignificant event. However, because we turned our attention solely to the headliners, like Ebola, we didn’t address the spread of Zika, and we didn’t properly investigate what this virus could do until it was too late.

It therefore seems that the moral of the sad story of Zika should be one of caution, prudence and sensibility. Panicking and hysteria have no place in medicine.

Since 2013, Zika virus has spread from a narrow region in Asia and Africa to the American continents. Scientists estimate that over 75% of the world’s countries now have at least one case of Zika infection. Sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA

Since 2013, Zika virus has spread from a narrow region in Asia and Africa to the American continents. Scientists estimate that over 75% of the world’s countries now have at least one case of Zika infection.
Sourced from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, USA

02 Feb

World’s Biggest Dinosaur Discovered by Farmhand

Online Submission by Helen Chang-Zhao

“Ground-breaking” discoveries are not uncommon in Paleontology (the study of fossils) – but a truly spectacular discovery is reshaping our understanding of Dinosaurs.

It was early last year when a hapless farmworker in rural Argentina stumbled across a strangely shaped rock formation.  Curiosity having gotten the better of him, he put down his tools and decided to investigate. As he pushed aside the red soil of the region, a large bone started to take form.

The excavated bone turned out to be the size of a small car, and it was only a single piece of a massive dinosaur skeleton buried deep underground. As experts from Argentina’s National Museum arrived, and began formal excavations (to the great inconvenience of the farmer) they discovered that this was not simply just another dinosaur – but was in fact the largest dinosaur ever found, meaning it also earns the tittle of the largest creature to ever walk the earth.

In deference to its great size, the creature was named Titanosaurus, and last month scientists finally completed assembly of the skeleton. The creature is in fact so new and so bizarre that it has yet to be given a formal scientific name.

This is obviously a fascinating find, yet it also raises an intriguing puzzle: why are there no more creatures of this size? The current heavy-weight champion of terrestrial animals is the African Elephant, which narrowly beat its Asian cousin as the largest living animal to walk the earth. Yet, Titanosaurus is larger than 17 elephants, being over 130 feet long, and over 65 feet high. As a matter of perspective, that means it’s longer than most airplanes and taller than a 6 story building!

So why are things on Earth today so much smaller?

This is a difficult question for scientists to answer because unlike ‘current’ science, we cannot simply measure what’s around us.  Studying the past means that we must devise ways to look back in time – which is a tremendous challenge when there are no records to look back on. However, we can make some simple assumptions. First, we know that things deeper in the ground must be older than things buried closer to the surface. We also know that the characteristics of a layer of soil must reflect the conditions of the environment it was made in. These two simple assertions underpin the science of geology, and we can use them to answer our question.

So, taking a look at the soil and rocks in the same depth as where our bones were found – scientists found unusually high levels of complex molecules as well as very rich sediment. This must mean that unlike today’s barren landscape, the Argentina in the days of Titanosaurus was a dense and rich forest – teeming with life. This is a good start as we know that for anything to grow as big as Titanosaurus, there must have been an abundance of food.

Yet, a closer look at the exact composition of this soil also reveals unusually high levels of Carbon Dioxide. Today, CO­2 is making headlines because our gas powered engines have spewed out so much of it that we’re beginning to affect the global temperature. However, in the age of Titanosaurus, global volcanic activity had expelled so much gas that carbon dioxide levels were thousands of times greater than it is today.

However, being the astute reader you are, you’ll note that this still doesn’t answer our question. If more carbon dioxide is all it takes to grow bigger, then why aren’t we all growing as the todays CO2 levels are increasing?

The answer surprisingly does not lie with Titanosaurus, but rather in the plants that it ate. We all know that plants use Carbon Dioxide to grow – and so it’s logical that if there is more CO2 then plants will grow more. Indeed, this is exactly what happened, we can see fossilized evidence that plants grew larger and faster than they do today, relentlessly fueled by the massive amounts of atmospheric CO2. However, as a plant grows larger so quickly, the nutrition in the individual leaves would decrease.

It’s a bit like eating a soup which someone is progressively diluting. You’d need to eat more and more of it to simply get the nutrients you need to survive. This is precisely what happened 100 million years ago. Because the nutrition was so poor, Titanosaurus had to eat more and more to simply get the nutrients it needed to survive. As it ate more and more, it would need a bigger gut to digest all of this new food. Therefore over successive generations its gut would get bigger and bigger. As its gut grew, it would need a bigger body, which means it would also require more nutrition. This means that it would need even more food, starting the cycle all over again.

In other words, the reason Titanosaurus grew so big is that it grew out of control – it had to keep growing to survive. This also explains why animals today are a lot smaller: our modern atmosphere (despite the pollutants) is rich in oxygen and nitrogen – meaning that though plants grow more slowly, they are rich in nutrients and we can manage without constantly increasing our body size.

The story of Titanosaurus also portends one of the more intriguing inevitabilities of climate change. As we continue to pump tons of carbon into the atmosphere, forcing plants to gradually grow faster and less nutritious, we may soon see a day where giants once again roam the earth. Though perhaps interesting to behold, it makes you wonder what our planet may become…

 

 

A Paleontologist poses with one of the newly excavated bones of the World’s Largest Dinosaur.

A Paleontologist poses with one of the newly excavated bones of the World’s Largest Dinosaur.

Titanosaurus: the biggest creature to walk the earth. Sources: Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, Argentina

Titanosaurus: the biggest creature to walk the earth.
Sources: Museum of Paleontology Egidio Feruglio, Argentina

28 Nov

GMOs & NGOs, E-I-E-I-O: The New Realty of Genetically Modified Animals

Online Submission by Segundo Elfamurez

GMO1

The US Food and Drug Administration approved the first Genetically Modified Animal for commercial sale last month. The engineered stain of salmon grows about twice as quickly as its natural cousins. Image modified from the New York Times.

A quick stroll to your local organic store or browse on the internet will likely fill you with dread at the prospect of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). The very name harkens to the work of Dr. Frankenstein convolving some hideous, ungodly creature that you would chase away with pitch forks rather than pay good money to buy at a grocery store. Therefore, it may alarm you to hear that the very first genetically modified animal: a strain of Salmon to be specific, was approved by the United States’ Food and Drug Administration for sale this month – and can be expected to hit store shelves before the end of the year. This is the first time that science has taken the leap from modifying plants to a living animal, and will likely serve as the benchmark for a whole barnyard of animals in the years to come.

I suspect some of you are already panicking, yet before you start barricading yourself in your homes – it’s worth noting that up to 80% of the processed foods in your home contain some genetically modified ingredients. So perhaps it’s time to take a closer look at precisely what ‘genetic modification’ is.

You’ll recall from our lengthy discussions about evolution that Genetics is the study of genes and inherited traits. Much of this comes down to the study of DNA – which fundamentally underpins much of who we are, how we function, and how we look like. For a given organism, their set of genes – or the ‘genome’ is more or less fixed from the time of their conception. In fact, your body undertakes extraordinary efforts to make sure that your genome doesn’t change and is maintained with absolute precision throughout your life. The only chance genes have to change substantially is when a new organism is being conceived, and even here changes from generation to generation are minor. You can easily see this by comparing yourself to your parents for a moment – though children often think that they are vastly different, on a whole – I’d wager that you’re quite similar. So, if you want to create any meaningful change in an organism naturally, you’ll need to do it over generations requiring years and years of expensive research. Another great problem with this change is that it’s entirely random; there is no way to predict how someone will change. This effectively means that if you want to change an organism naturally, it will take a very long time, and some very patient breeding.

It may therefore surprise you to hear that humans have been doing exactly this for millennia. This story begins around the 8th millennium BC (or about 10,000 years ago) with a tough, husky crop named Teosinte. This was a major source of nourishment in our diet, and it was one of our first farmed crops. That may seem insignificant, but this was one of the first times that humans planted and harvested crops in a coordinated effort rather than just eating what they could find. We’ll leave the social significance of this for the anthropologists to debate – but what happened next with this crop changed the face of biology. Rather than just planting any old teosinte, our early farmers began selecting for the best plants, and planting those for the next generation. Of course, best is a relative term here, but they picked the plants with the fattest seeds, the most seeds, and tallest stalks and planted them. The next year they did this again, and the year after that and so on. Over time, this changed the plant from a barely edible husk to the sumptuous and delicious corn we enjoy today.

The ancestor of modern maize: Teosinte compared to modern sweet corn. It was human agriculture that produced corn from its husky ancestor over millennia. Image Source: The University of California, Berkley

The ancestor of modern maize: Teosinte compared to modern sweet corn. It was human agriculture that produced corn from its husky ancestor over millennia.
Image Source: The University of California, Berkeley.

You may therefore say that humans made corn, or that but for our farmers, the species of corn we see today would not exist. This is what we would call today ‘Genetic Modification’ the only exception is that we did this over 10,000 years in the field, rather than the lab. We’ve done a similar exercise on the Turkey as well. This used to be a puny bird, yet by simply controlling what animals make it into the next generation, in this case, by selective breeding – rather than planting, we have transformed the turkey into the massive, flightless hulk it is today.

Therefore, let us be clear that genetic modification has been fundamental to human agriculture since our very first days – however, as I mentioned, the key difference today is that we make these changes quickly in a lab. What’s done typically is that we add an extra piece of DNA to a plant or animal, occasionally we also cut things out. In this way, rather than wait for nature – we make changes ourselves.

The results of this are remarkable; in the last fifty years we have made organisms that have double the yield of their precursors. This has been particularly successful in wheat and soy. The salmon we began our discussion with, which you’ll recall are the first commercial genetically modified animals, have a modified growth hormone that lets them grow twice as fast.

Despite this success, GMOs are not without risks. Several non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) have very rightly pointed out that we don’t know what long term effects changing genes will have. They also very rightly point out that these modified species may out-compete natural species meaning that, for example, one day all salmon in the world will be our engineered super-salmon. If then, some virus or bacteria develops against this fish, we may have a major salmon crises. All of these criticisms are valid – and must be taken into consideration in the future of GMOs – yet it seems to this writer that the hideous stigma around GMOs is wearing a bit thin, and looking increasingly fallacious. It may be time that we take a long hard look at what genetic modification really means, and what this implies for the future of our food supply.

15 Mar

Debating Finances in Transplantation

Transplantation has always provoked a myriad of ethical questions, particularly around organ procurement methods. Recently, with ballooning waitlists and stagnant organ donation the question of financial incentives as a means to increase organ donation has come under scrutiny.

In recognition of these fundamental questions, and the need for an effective forum for meaningful discussion, MOTIONS UofT (Multi-Organ Transplant Insight, Outreach and Networking Society), in association with the department of Multi-Organ Transplant, was pleased to hold its inaugural debate asking whether it’s time for financial incentives in organ donation.

Linda Wright (Director of Bioethics) along with medical student Roman Zyla expertly argued against the motion; citing numerous ethical quagmires and dangers.  A notable point was the potential for social divisiveness which Linda Wright pointed out, “could victimize the poorest and most vulnerable of society”. They also noted the availability of other, potentially less harmful means to increase donation which have not yet been exhausted

However, Andrea Norgate (Pancreas Transplant Coordinator) and ethics and law student Sabina Freiman skillfully countered, citing the vast pragmatic benefits of financial incentives, and the ineffectuality of other means thus far attempted. Andrea Norgate also added that “many people want to donate, but can’t afford to; a small incentive to cover additional costs would give the means for these individuals to donate […] who are we to stop them?”

It was an evening of fabulous discourse and electric interplay, with great ideas from both sides. MOTIONS President, Maya Deeb said, “we hope to introduce more such forums in the future, and allow these conversations to flourish”.

For information on upcoming events or to learn more about MOTIONS UofT, please e-mail: motsrtp@uhn.ca

Pictured Above: Linda Wright (left) & Roman Zyla (right)

Pictured Above: Andrea Norgate (left) & Sabina Freiman (right)