Climate and War

Huemul bucks sparring in southern Chile; huemul are an endangered deer species endemic to southern South America (photo credit: Alejandro Frid)

Authors note: This is a letter to the future, addressed to my 8 year-old daughter, who will not be able to understand it for many years to come.  

Dear Twyla Bella,

W. Eugene Smith’s 1946 black and white photograph, A Walk To Paradise Garden, entered the depths of my psyche when I was perhaps 13 years old. In that image, the photographer’s young children walk, hand in hand, from dark into the light at the edge of a forest canopy. Upon finding it, I was taken into a world of contrasts that emanated as much from the luminosity of that forest edge as from the horror of Smith’s earlier work. Continue reading

Keeping cool amidst bad guys: decarbonize!

The author's daughter keeping cool in southeastern Haida Gwaii

If humans were to burn all proven reserves of fossil fuels—those reserves that are economically viable to extract today—how would different fuels contribute to global warming? Would their additive effect cause a two degree Celsius rise in global temperature relative to pre-industrial levels? These questions have profound relevance to everyone because breaking the two degree threshold, climatologist warn, would push the planet into the perilous zone of rising sea levels and extreme climatic conditions that could destabilize civilization. And that threshold is getting closer. Humanity’s appetite for fossil fuels already has caused the Earth to warm 0.8 degrees Celsius in the last hundred years alone.

Neil Swart and Andrew Weaver crunched the numbers for answers. In a recent paper published in Nature Climate Change (Vol 2, pages 134–136, 2012), these climatologists from the University of Victoria estimate that global warming caused by the burning of all proven reserves of coal would be 0.92 degrees Celsius. Utilizing all of Canada’s oil sands, infamous for their local environmental impacts and intense energy requirements during extraction, would increase global temperatures by 0.03 degrees Celsius. Gas and conventional oil, in combination, would add another 0.40 degrees Celsius of warming. Continue reading

Science Meets Art in Antarctica, an Interview with Scientist Sam Bowser and Artist Laura Von Rosk

Sam & Laura Last day at New Harbour, photo by Andy Gooday

Sam Bowser is a scientist who likes to go south, all the way south. When he gets there he dives under the ice of Antarctica to collect samples of mud from the ocean floor. Sam has a thing for a group of unicellular organisms affectionately called forams.

Laura von Rosk is an artist who likes to get outside. She hikes and paddles and asks lots of questions about how things work. Laura paints imaginary landscapes, glowing images of places from fragments of memory, many from the Adirondack Mountains where she lives.

Three years ago the two met while working together on an exhibition that merged art, science, and underwater archeology at the Lake George Arts Project’s Courthouse Gallery, where Laura is the gallery director. Sam is a diehard enthusiast of art/science fusion.

This past winter, Laura spent three months in Antarctica as an assistant on Sam’s research expedition. They have recently returned and The Crux tracked them down with a few questions. (All photos are by Laura von Rosk unless otherwise noted; mouse over photo for legend and attribution). Continue reading

Will Canada Keep Science?

Harper visits MaRS
In March 2011 Prime Minister Stephen Harper visited the MaRS research centre in Toronto to announce continued support for cancer support, diagnosis and treatment. (Photo courtesy of MaRS Discovery District via Creative Commons).

Previously on this blog I have written about the changing balance of scientific research in Canada (see “Who cares about the direction of science in Canada?”). Since then the situation has changed. It now looks like all of science in Canada has a clear direction: down.

Last week at the World Economic Forum Harper bemoaned the “less-than-optimal results” from our investments in science, a “significant problem for our country” (Vancouver Sun, January 28, 2012). Yikes! These statements sound bizarre. The scientific work that goes on in this country is highly respected around the world and Harper knows that. Does he perceive that we’ve been too slow to turn discovery into product? Continue reading

The Science and Science Fiction of Prions

The artistamp commemorates the scourge of Mad Cow disease when it was destroying the livestock in UK beginning in 1986 (Wikimedia, Michael Thompson)


A made-for-TV terror plot.

It is season 7 of 24, a bioweapon developed and tested in a brutalized African nation under the heel of a delusional despot, turns up in the US in the shipyards of Alexandria, Virginia on the outskirts of Washington, D.C.  Gallant Jack Bauer hijacks a flatbed truck hauling a shipping container with the bioweapon inside. The shipping container is damaged during the chaos of the hijacking and one of the canisters containing the bioweapon begins to leak.  Jack takes a deep breath and enters the shipping container to stop the leak. He is nonetheless exposed to the weapon. The time is 10:55 PM. (If you haven’t seen the show, a digital clock indicating the timeline appears before and after each commercial break). Continue reading

Who cares about the direction of science in Canada?

Volvox 460

Across Canada productive, high-calibre scientific research laboratories are quietly winding down. There is a major shift underway that is controversial in science circles and not discussed outside of science, yet will impact us all. What is happening and why aren’t we talking about it?

Significant changes in the allocation of public funds for research will have repercussions on science teaching in our universities and it will affect our future capacity for science. Continue reading

Shooting Blanks: New Lead for a Male Oral Contraceptive

Thomas Ungerer and Tammy Shears, photo by Michael Ungerer

An oral contraceptive for men, or a male version of the pill, is currently unavailable, but scientists are poised to finally deliver one that is safe and effective1, 2.  In August, a research team led by Dr. James E. Bradner published a paper in the journal Cell reporting that the drug JQ1 blocks sperm production in male mice and may be suited for human trials.


Sperm production in humans and other mammals is known as spermatogenesis.  In the past, scientists investigating potential male pills have disrupted spermatogenesis via hormone regulation, often by targeting testosterone levels.  The best of these treatments successfully lower sperm count, but also produce side effects because they alter hormone levels that are crucial for the health of many male tissues.  Recently, scientists have changed their approach to identify a marketable male pill: instead of looking for ways to alter hormone levels, they seek a drug that will bind and repress the activity of a protein located only in the testes and devoted solely to spermatogenesis.


Using this approach, Dr. Bradner’s team identified a protein called BRDT as a target because it is essential to spermatogenesis and is located only in the testes.  After studying an array of available drugs, they earmarked JQ1 as a likely inhibitor of BRDT and thus a strong candidate for the male pill.


JQ1 was originally identified as a treatment option for cancers including those of the breast, prostate and colon, among others3, 4. Dr. Bradner’s team was the first research group that recognized JQ1’s potential to be a type of male birth control.  Experiments support their hypothesis: it does bind to BRDT in a manner that blocks sperm production. Dr. Bradner’s team found that mice treated daily with this drug over a period of six weeks have an 89% lower sperm count than untreated control mice.  The treated mice also have decreased sperm motility and testes mass. Significantly, their hormone levels, which are essential for normal health, are unaffected by JQ1-treatment.


Dr. Bradner’s team also performed an eight-month experiment with 14 male mice and 28 female mice to monitor fertility during a period of JQ1-treatment and after treatment ended. The male mice were divided into three treatment groups: the first group (three males) was given a low-dose, the second group (four males) was given a high-dose, and the third group (seven males) was not given the drug.  Each male mouse was caged with two females.  Encouragingly, Dr. Bradner’s team observed that the low-dose group sired a total of only two pups; male mice on the high-dose regimen sired no offspring; and each of the males not administered JQ1 produced litters of regular sizes (six to nine pups).  These data show that JQ1 is an effective contraceptive agent, especially at high-doses.


Importantly, male mice receiving a low-dose regain their fertility one month after treatment ends; male mice receiving a high-dose require two months in post-treatment to regain their fertility. Furthermore, female mice, impregnated by male mice that are far enough into post-treatment so as not to experience contraception, have normal litter sizes. The pups of these litters are healthy and grow to be fertile adults; they are indistinguishable from the offspring of control males.


Male mice treated with JQ1 do not incur permanent physical changes: sperm count, sperm motility, testes mass and fertility return to normal within weeks during post-treatment. However, the possibility of long-term effects has not been completely disproved, and the dose-level required to sustain infertility is unacceptably high.  These results spur Dr. Bradner’s team to continue studying the safety of JQ1.  Currently, they are modifying the drug for enhanced specificity towards BRDT and thereby a decreased dose-requirement to achieve infertility and an increased likelihood of efficacy in clinical trials with humans.


Scientists could jump the queue and gain early insights to JQ1’s contraceptive effect next year when it is scheduled to enter human clinical trials as an anti-cancer drug. In the meantime, stay tuned; a male pill could be unveiled in the near future.



1. Matzuk M.M., McKeown M.R., Filippakopoulos P., Li Q., Ma L., Agno J.E., Lemieux M.E., Picaud S., Yu R.N., Qi J., Knapp S., Bradner J.E. (2012). Small-molecule inhibition of BRDT for male contraception. Cell. 150, 673-684.


2. Kean S. (2012). Contraception research. Reinventing the pill: male birth control. Science. 338, 318-320.


3.Delmore J.E., Issa G.C., Lemieux M.E., Rahl P.B., Shi J., Jacobs H.M., Kastritis E., Gilpatrick T., Paranal R.M., Qi J., Chesi M., Schinzel A.C., Mckeown M.R., Heffernan T.P., Vakoc C.R., Bergsagel P.L., Ghobrial I.M., Richardson P.G., Young R.A., Hahn W.C., Anderson K.C., Kung A.L., Bradner J.E., Mitsiades C.S. (2011). BET bromodomain inhibition as a therapeutic strategy to target c-Myc. Cell. 146, 904-917.


4. Toyoshima M., Howie H.L., Imakura M., Walsh R.M., Annis J.E., Chang A.N., Frazier J., Chau B.N., Loboda A., Linsley P.S., Cleary M.A., Park J.R., Grandori C. (2012). Functional genomics identifies therapeutic targets for MYC-driven cancer. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 109, 9545-9550.

Beyond antibiotics

Keep of Matsumoto Castle

With the recent cold snaps, it is easy to feel under the weather.  In the lab where I study in at Simon Fraser University, almost half of the lab members are down with flu symptoms.  On top of that, being a daily commuter, I cannot help but wonder what kind of bugs are floating around in the sardine can that we call “bus”.  Incidentally the much deadlier disease pneumonia, fifth top cause of death in BC, Canada, can easily masquerade as the flu.  That is why a report on pneumonia research caught my attention*.  The report clarifies how pneumonia can occur when the bacteria Staph infects lungs, suggests new ways to save the lives of those infected with Staph, while also pointing to new treatment strategies against other antibiotic resistant bacterial infections. Continue reading

Taking the Temperature of a Cardiac Pacemaker

Imagine walking up a steep hill when suddenly you feel dizzy and develop a crushing pain in your chest. Heart attack! The next thing you know, you are in an ambulance on the way to the hospital. It turns out that the pain in your chest isn’t a heart attack, but something called angina – an indicator that your heart is beating too slowly. This is a problem because your heart is unable to pump enough oxygen to the body to keep up with your everyday activities. The only solution is to implant an artificial pacemaker to increase your heart rate. Continue reading

Stem Cells, Leukemia and a Cutting Edge


Guy Sauvageau is a stem cell researcher who specializes in hematopoietic (blood) cells. As director of the Institute for Research in Immunology and Cancer at the University of Montréal, he’s one of a handful of Canadians who is pushing the boundaries of this area of research, unraveling the mysteries of blood disorders such as acute myeloid leukemia and aplastic anemia. Sauvageau’s particular interest is the regulatory pathways of these diseased cells – essentially, what is the cellular signature of disease and how can such knowledge be used to find new ways to relieve or cure the disease.

Continue reading

Obesity Unexplained

It’s that season again and the relentless struggle against extra pounds is about to intensify. Why do many of us find it difficult to consume only the calories that our bodies need? The struggle feels deeper than the social and psychological issues that are much discussed.  Indeed, appetite control is in our cells and in our genes and like many systems in our bodies, it can get out of tune.

It is more rule than exception that serendipity in science reveals unexpected insights. Research on how green algae swim combined with studies of how round worms smell and how fish can change the colour of their skin, opened doors that are leading to a new molecular understanding of appetite regulation. At the recent meeting of the American Society for Cell Biology held in Denver, Dec 3-7, Nicolas Berbari, Bradley Yoder and colleagues from the University of Alabama at Birmingham reported new studies on mice that are helping us understand how our sense of satiety can go awry. And if you are an optimist like me, the work offers hope to those of us discouraged by relentless calorie counting. Continue reading

Fruit flies, worms and pond scum?

The relatively new fields of genomics and systems biology aspire to an era of personalized medicine. This approach treats the human body as a black box – the inputs combine genetic and environmental information and the outputs are personal health outcome predictions. These approaches are exciting and have tremendous potential to revolutionize healthcare. Ah, if only we were black boxes.

The true power of these new approaches to medicine arise from a molecular understanding of how the body works. I have a new essay on Numéro Cinq on the model organisms that scientists use to understand the molecular interactions that make us who we are.

A Feeling for the Model Organism
December 5, 2011

Chlamydomonas is my favorite “model organism.” It is a small green alga that is one of a handful of unlikely organisms that serve science by acting as proxies for the human body. Scientists don’t pick so-called model organisms for exceptional evolutionary achievement and there is no scientific catwalk of gorgeous creatures. Some scientists do exclaim over the beauty of these creatures, but really. Pond scum? Writhing white round worms? Slime mold? The truth is, model organisms are a haphazard lot that scientists select from the teeming crowds because of quirks that make them useful for laboratory research. They are useful and as we work with them we come to know them.

Click here to continue reading A Feeling for the Model Organism