Cited Podcast bring academia into the light

In two small offices of the Michael Smith Laboratories, among the controlled chaos of labs and data, a small team of industrious journalists record a radio show and podcast called Cited. Last month, their hard work was rewarded with one of British Columbia’s most prestigious awards for journalism: The Jack Webster Award in Feature and Enterprise Reporting, for their episode The Heroin Clinic.

 

Cited originally rose out of The UBC Terry Project. Founded by Dr. Dave Ng, science educator and director of the Advanced Molecular Biology Laboratory at the MSL, and Dr. Allen Sens, a professor in UBC’s Political Science department, The Terry Project brought together both science and humanities training to help UBC students tackle global challenges with diverse tools and techniques.

 

Cited’s executive producers and co-hosts Sam Fenn and Gordon Katic took this idea of diverse people solving problems together, and ran with it. At its core, Cited is about discoveries. It investigates how academics are compelled to leave their ivory towers and interact directly with communities, governments, and media, in order to turn knowledge into action. Sam and Gordon’s stories combine scholarship across huge areas of expertise, with original investigative journalism. Regularly playing on CBC radio shows like The Doc Project, Cited had already won 3 national awards for campus and community radio before their latest recognition.

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Scientists are in the knowledge-production business. They go into the lab or into the field, perform their experiments, then publish their findings in highly specialised journals. However, if there is one consistent lesson to be learned from listening to Cited, it is that changing the world is not as easy as having new data with a great p-value. “We could chart the Titanic sinking while we drown” Sam says “but it wouldn’t do much good!”

 

The Heroin Clinic captures this tension through the lens of the epidemic of heroin addiction gripping Vancouver’s downtown eastside. In 2005, a controversial solution to this public health crisis was proposed: heroin users could be treated by giving access to free, safe heroin. As bold as this seemed, a trial was initiated, and addicts from the local area were recruited. 3 years later the results showed that this approach had real promise. However, the researchers overseeing the trial only collected their data and presented it to provincial and federal governments, and did not go beyond that to advocate for its importance. Predictably, governments baulked at the challenge of selling voters on a policy of giving drug addicts more drugs, and when the staid researchers refused to push back, the program fell apart. The story that follows in The Heroin Clinic is one of relapses and deaths, downtown eastside communities educating themselves on international human rights conventions, and academics learning to raise their voices. “It should be obvious to scholars that simply doing good work, and disseminating it, is not the answer to effecting change in the way people think and what governments fund,” says Gordon. Sam agrees “the moral of the story is that smart people are limited in what they can do alone”. But joining together with communities and interest groups can transform scientists’ data into real-world relevance.

 

Fortunately, Sam and Gordon credit Canadians with being open to academics’ opinions. People are increasingly looking for real solutions to old problems. “Actually, these days scientists are some of the most front-facing public intellectuals,” says Gordon. Sam continues “but be concerned about meaningless praise of science by governments which doesn’t follow through”. Scientists’ voices need to be a part of the conversation in any democracy. This is why Sam and Gordon see investigative media like Cited as so important, because they provide a way for academics to use narratives that include and inform people, so that their hard earned p-values can make an impact on the world.

 

 

Online Reference: Cited
http://citedpodcast.com/

Online Reference: Award acceptance speech http://www.jackwebster.com/dinner/video.php?id=859

Online Reference:  The Heroin Clinic podcast
http://citedpodcast.com/41-the-heroin-clinic/

 

This article is was also published on the Michael Smith Laboratories website: http://www.msl.ubc.ca/news/cited-podcast-wins-top-journalism-award

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Windswept Mars, antioxidant-loving cancers, and electric bacteria – Sciencish News for 9/11/2015 (part 1)

Well, it’s been a big week out there in the world of science, and I’m behind! So, we’re going with two posts today. First up, we’ve got big news from the Red Planet, stressed out cancers kept in the balance, and (more) electric bacteria.

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Mars blown dry, but glowing

NASA held a press conference on Friday, the lead up to which was full of speculation. Was life finally found? What about Matt Damon? The news when it was finally announced was a little less spectacular, but had plenty of highlights to get excited about.

It has long been thought that the arid, frigid, planet was once warm and wet back in its ancient history, with flowing streams. For liquid water to flow on Mars would seem to require a much thicker atmosphere with plenty of carbon dioxide. So, where did Mars’ atmosphere, and its water, go? New data from NASA’s orbital Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) spacecraft suggests that solar winds are responsible. Solar winds are streams of particles, mainly protons and electrons, which pour out of the Sun’s atmosphere at an incredible rate of 400 km/s. When the wind encounters Mars’ atmosphere it generates an electrical field. This whips electrically charged gas molecules into a frenzy, accelerating them so fast they are ripped out of the atmosphere and shot into space (see video below). Solar winds are normally deflected by a planet’s magnetic field, but Mars’ magnetic field is extremely weak, and concentrated only around its South pole, leaving it almost entirely exposed. Understanding this process of solar stripping (or “sputtering”, as it’s delightfully called) is important if we ever try and plan to colonise Mars and give it an “Earth-like” atmosphere. The loss of atmosphere is still going on, and recent solar storms have in fact accelerated the process.

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So Mars’ weakling magnetic field has left it utterly exposed to the elements, but there is an upside to this windy bombardment: it makes the nights spectacular. Back on Christmas Day, 2015, MAVEN saw a bright auroral glow similar to the Northern and Southern Lights here on Earth. Auroras are the result of the charged particles of the solar wind smashing into particles of the atmosphere of a planet. On Earth these particles are deflected by the magnetic field, meaning auroras only appear at the poles. But MAVEN’s newest observations show that, thanks to Mars’ weaker magnetic field, its auroras span almost the entire northern hemisphere, lighting up a massive part of the night sky in greens, reds, and blues. The solar wind particles can almost penetrate much further into the atmosphere, so that an aurora would appear much closer overhead – almost twice as close as on Earth.
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Credit: NASA/GSFC


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Volatile chemicals keep cancer under pressure

Reactive oxygen species (ROS) are highly volatile molecules that occur naturally during energy production in all cells. Their reactivity means they can inflict significant damage to cell components and even damage DNA, causing mutations that can lead to cancer. Cells therefore produce antioxidants that quench this “oxidative stress”, protecting against ROS’ harmful effects.

As early stage tumours lose control of energy production they typically have fairly high levels of ROS. These in turn causes more DNA mutations, some of which can help the tumour develop and start to grow out of control. But too much ROS activity stresses the young cancer – just as it would a healthy cell. Now, a new study has demonstrated that oxidative stress can even stop full-blown malignant tumours from reaching their final stage, unless they adapt. Once a cancer develops into a malignant tumour, individual tumour cells may invade the blood stream and spread to tissues all over the body, by a process called “metastasis” (see image below). But this is extremely inefficient, and most tumour cells that enter circulation die. However, researchers at the University of Texas, USA, found that tumour cells can increase their odds of survival by ramping-up production of antioxidants, which quench ROS. This suggests that the ability to deal with ROS and oxidative stress is a major factor limiting metastasis of tumour. Excitingly, they found that treating mice with drugs that inhibited production of antioxidants prevented the spread of tumours, opening up potentially powerful means of controlling tumours in patients by inhibiting their ability to quench oxidative stress. It also gives the lie to claims made by some health food evangelists that antioxidant dietary supplements and “super foods” can boost health and prevent disease. Indeed, this new data is in line with previous findings that antioxidant supplements can in fact boost cancer growth!
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Credit: Nature

Credit: Nature

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Find the paper here

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Bacteria spread the good word – electronically!

Following on from last week’s talk of electrical creatures, another story came up this week regarding the amazingly versatile uses that bacteria can put electricity to. Many species of bacteria grow in tight-knit communities called “biofilms”. Belonging to a biofilm can have many advantages for vulnerable single-celled organisms like bacteria, including increased resistance to antibiotics and environmental stresses like drying and heat. Biofilms can therefore cause stubborn infections, and be a serious problem in hospitals where they might coat surfaces or surgical instruments. However, bacteria are normally solitary single-celled souls, meaning that if they want to belong to a community they have to learn how to get along and communicate with their neighbours. In multicellular organisms like animals and plants, cell-cell communication is often achieved by the flow of charged atoms, called “ions”, into and out of cells via specialised ion channels. Bacteria are known to possess ion channels, but a role for them in signalling has never been demonstrated.

Bacillus subtilis lives in biofilms that go through periodic cycles or growth where the colony starts to expand very rapidly, before slowing to a halt. The reasons for this were unclear, but researchers from the University of California, USA, proposed that cycles of starvation played a role. They hypothesised that when B. subtilis biofilms grew too fast, bacteria stuck in the centre of the colony start to run out of nutrients as bacteria on the periphery eat them up, especially the essential amino acid glutamate. Glutamate starvation means interior bacteria can’t produce ammonium, another nutrient that all bacteria in the biofilm rely on, meaning that growth of bacteria at the periphery also halts. Growth then can’t re-start until interior cells can access glutamate. Investigating how bacteria in biofilms might communicate these changing nutrient requirements across the colony, researchers observed fluctuating waves of potassium ions spreading out from the centre of biofilms (see image below). These appeared to be due to central bacteria releasing potassium from their cell into the biofilm environment. Neighbouring bacteria responded to this rise in environmental potassium in turn, by triggering release of their own potassium stores. Potassium ions have a positive electrical charge, and the membrane that encases all bacterial cells maintains a tight control on the balance of positive and negative charge between the interior of the cell and the exterior (what’s known as the “electrical potential”). These waves of potassium release therefore reduce the electrical potential across the bacterial cell membrane as they move through the biofilm. Since uptake of glutamate and ammonium relies on the cell electrical potential, this would prevent bacteria at the periphery from hogging it all, allowing those at the biofilm centre to catch up. The researchers confirmed their findings by showing that experimentally starving bacteria of glutamate induced these potassium waves, while gorging on glutamate dampened them. This is a fascinating example of how single-celled organisms can act as a multicellular whole, with individuals at the biofilm periphery cooperating with this electrical signalling and even sacrificing their own growth for the good of the biofilm.
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Credit:

Credit: Prindle et al. (2015) , Nature

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Find the paper here

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That’s is for part 1 of the news – but check back shortly for stealth drugs, dinosaurs, and high hopes for Canadian science…

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– J

Death bacon, tractor beams, and all electrical creatures! – Sciencish News for 29/10/2015

Hello, and welcome to the inaugural edition of the Sciencish News, where I pick out what’s caught my eye. Let’s get stuck in.
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Hamming it up

News that meat will kill us all swept across social media yesterday after the International Agency for Cancer Research (IARC) released its most recent paper that, if you were to believe the headlines, classed processed meats like bacon and sausage as being as dangerous to health as smoking and drinking. Except, of course that’s not true. The IARC report doesn’t rank potential carcinogens (cancer-causing substances) as being better or worse for health, but instead simply ranks them according to how confident scientists are that they do or do not contribute to cancer. So, smoking probably causes cancer, and kale probably doesn’t. The IARC report never states that eating processed meats is equivalent to smoking, except as far as we are now confident that they both do contribute to cancer, making them both “Group 1 carcinogens”. But their actual contributions are very different. As pointed out by Cancer Research UK, while some 86% of lung cancers are caused by smoking (amounting to 19% of all cancers), this most recent data suggests that processed meats contribute to 21% of all bowel cancers, the equivalent of only 3% of all cancers. Meanwhile, red meats have been classed only as “Group 2A” carcinogens, meaning they only “probably” contribute to cancer. It’s currently unclear what a “healthy” amount of red and processed meat is, however most government bodies recommend less than 70g per day.

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Find the report here.
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Moved by sound

Researchers at Public University of Navarre, Pamplona, Spain, have developed a working sonic tractor beam, that can move objects through the air. Similar technologies in the past have relied on at least two speakers. These use interfering sound waves to create pockets of low pressure air, in which small objects can sit. Opposing high pressure pockets can then push or pull the object. The Pamplona team achieves the same result with just one flat stack of speakers, creating 3D patterns of sound waves on top of the speakers which they call “acoustic holograms”. These patterns are extremely flexible, acting as anything from cages to tweezers to move small polystyrene beads in three dimensions. Because human bodies can conduct sound waves, the researchers hope this technology could be used to move a drug through a patient’s body right to the site where it would be move effective, such as right up to the edge of a growing tumour. However because the system relies on sound waves, it’ll be a long time before any spaceships are being dragged to their doom with tractor beam technology – after all, sound needs an atmosphere to work.

Find the paper here.
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Supercharged eels

It seems that electric eels (or, more awesomely in Latin, Electrophorus electricus), know how to make the most of what they’ve got. When attacking prey, E. electricus emits 1 millisecond, high-voltage pulses. This causes muscle contractions similar to a TASER that temporarily immobilise the victim, after which it is swallowed whole. The eel body can be thought of as having two ends like a battery, with the head and tail being the positive and negative ends, respectively. Attacks are usually “monopolar”, with the positive head-end being the major source of the electric field. However, eels could theoretically double the strength of their attack by joining their head and tail together, completing the electric circuit. Now, a researcher at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, USA, has shown E. electricus does precisely that when dealing with larger, more troublesome prey. This induces debilitating muscle fatigue, giving the eel ample opportunity to move its victim into a better position to be devoured. A hand please for the most awesome, best-named creature around: Electrophorous electricus.

Find the paper here.
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Electric union

Finally, levels of the potent greenhouse gas methane in Earth’s atmosphere are known to significantly rely on events that take place deep under the sea. Here, microorganisms break down methane that is released from the seabed, using it as a food source in the otherwise harsh environment. This has the bonus effect of keeping global methane levels, and global warming, in check. This process relies in particular on two highly specialised microorganisms: a bacterium called deltaproteobacteria; and a bacteria-like microbe known as anaerobic methanotrophic archaea (or ANME). These distantly related microbes are often found living together in dense colonies, and appear to cooperate to break down methane. Each species performs one half of the energy-intensive chemical reaction: indeed neither can do the job on its own! However, researchers have been unable to identify how exactly they achieve this teamwork. Now, two independent papers from groups in Japan and Germany have shown that deltaproteobacteria and ANME may interact through electrical connections. Microscopic wire-like structures called “pili” were observed connecting ANME and deltaproteobacteria, and ANME appears to secrete iron-rich haem proteins into the space between it an deltaproteobacteria which may help to conduct electrons. This may allow ANME to electrons in its half of the methane oxidation reaction, which it then donates to deltaproteobacteria for use in its half of the reaction.

Find the papers here and here.

That’s it for today! Please leave any comments below, or email me at thesciencishblog@gmail.com. You can also follow me on Twitter @Sciencish.
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– J