Cool Canuck Research
Timmins, Ont. source may be 2.7-billion-years-old
Deep underground within the Canadian Shield, scientists are probing for life — yes, life.
Their laboratory is found at the bottom of mine shafts in Timmins, Ont., where pockets of water trapped inside crystalline granite rock have existed for at least a billion years, and may be as ancient as the geology itself — 2.7 billion years old.
That chemical-rich water is seeping, at times even pouring, out of mine bore holes and naturally occurring fissures in the rock 2.4 kilometres below the surface. The water has been captured in what are known as “fractures” within the rocks.
And scientists are keen to find out what that water contains.
“These are the oldest waters that have ever been identified,” said Barbara Sherwood Lollar, a geoscientist at the University of Toronto who is part of a research team that will be looking for life forms in samples of water from the site.
“The Canadian Shield is some of the oldest rocks on Earth. These are billions of years old,” she said Wednesday. “And what we’ve shown is despite that, these fractures are still releasing water that are full of energy that could support life.
“We don’t know yet if there’s life in this, but what we’ve been able to show is it is habitable, meaning (having the) potential to support life because of the energy that’s there.”
Saskatchewan biochemist has a theory
If you don’t like gross things, this story is snot for you.
An associate professor of biochemistry at the University of Saskatchewan is trying to get more students interested in science by looking at the health benefits of picking your nose and eating it.
Scott Napper says nature pushes us to do different things because it is to our advantage to have certain behaviours, to consume different types of foods.
Napper says mucous traps germs and stops them from getting into our body, but if we consume that mucous, it could help train our immune system by exposing it to the germs.
Simon Fraser researchers part of team
A team of North American scientists has cracked a particularly-complex genetic code that reveals ethnicity may determine how well a person is able to fend off diseases such as HIV or the common flu.
Five scientists from Simon Fraser University were among those who found a link between race and antibodies, the culmination of years of research that may have implications in the way doctors treat patients.
The team found certain ethnicities have missing or added DNA links, a factor that could influence immunity to certain diseases, said Corey Watson, one of the team’s 14 researchers.
University of Toronto researcher analyzes Chinese fossils
Dinosaur embryos recently discovered by a Canadian-led team are giving scientists what’s considered their best glimpse yet into how the ancient creatures developed.
The 190-million-year-old fossils unearthed in China on an “embryonic bone bed” belonged to Lufengosaurus, a long-necked, plant-eating dinosaur known for its gigantic size, with adults growing up to nine metres long.
An international team working in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunan was able to analyze what are now the oldest known embryos of any land-dwelling animal to study how the creatures developed.
“This is the only case that we’ve been able to do this,” team leader and University of Toronto paleontologist Robert Reisz told The Canadian Press.
“Usually what you get is a single glimpse…here we have an extended range of size so we can actually track how particular bones changed through time in the embryonic life.”
A detailed look at more than 200 bones and fragmented egg shells from 20 individual animals at various stages of development revealed the creatures grew much more rapidly inside the egg than other dinosaurs and flexed their muscles in much the same way as birds and humans.
Ships vanished in the Arctic in 1845
A long-standing Arctic mystery has become even more baffling with research that appears to debunk a common theory about the demise of the Franklin expedition.
Chemists at the University of Western Ontario used an array of the latest analytic techniques to conclude that poorly made cans of food were probably not responsible for the lead that poisoned the officers and crew of the doomed 19th-century voyage to explore the Arctic.
“We’ll probably never know what happened to the crew of the Franklin (expedition), so it will remain one of the great mysteries of Canadian history,” said Prof. Ron Martin.
“Our resources fail to support the hypothesis that the lead in the bones came from tins, and I certainly believe it didn’t.”
The Franklin expedition headed north, never to return, in 1845. Although some remains of the 129 crew have been discovered, along with ghastly evidence of cannibalism, the two ships Erebus and Terror have never been found despite a century and a half of searching.
Their mystery and legend remain to this day.
Three graves of Franklin crew members discovered on Beechey Island were exhumed in 1984 and their corpses analyzed in an attempt to shed light on the disaster.
While diseases, including pneumonia and tuberculosis, are believed to have been the immediate causes of death, high levels of lead found in the sailors’ bones are thought to have weakened the men and clouded their judgment. Looking for a source of the lead, scientists concluded it probably came from the solder used to seal the cans of food in the ships’ stores.
Martin’s work, published in February in Applied Physics A, re-examined some of the bones using techniques developed since the original analysis. Martin and his colleagues concluded there was so much lead in the bones, and it was distributed so widely, that it couldn’t have accumulated during the few months the men were at sea before they died.
Nor did he find areas where lead was concentrated, as there would be if the potent toxin had only recently been ingested.
“The wide distribution and high concentrations of lead in the measured bones is indicative of long-term exposure before the start of the expedition,” says the paper.
“The lead distribution is essentially uniform as might be expected from lifetime lead ingestion. There is no evidence for a sudden massive increase in lead during the latter part of any individual’s life.”
Martin points out the sailors buried on Beechey Island had died only three months into the voyage. At that point in the expedition, the crew is unlikely to have even dug into the cans.
“They ate everything that was fresh first,” he said. “They wouldn’t have started on the tins yet.”
Martin said evidence — including early results from tests on bones from a pioneer cemetery outside London — suggests that high lead levels were common in those times.
“All the bones we looked at there, the lead levels would have been pretty much the same,” he said.
“In that time period, there was lead everywhere. They had lead coming out their ears.”
Martin’s work would also appear to exonerate other sources of lead that some researchers have proposed as a source, including the ship’s water system. Water pipes on Franklin’s vessels were made of lead.
Lead is toxic to the heart, bones, intestines, kidneys and reproductive and nervous systems. Symptoms of lead poisoning include confusion, which makes it an attractive explanation for some of the decisions made by Franklin and his crew after their ships were stuck in the ice, such as dragging heavy lifeboats over the tundra laden with non-essentials such as silverware.
Martin’s team concludes that if Franklin and his men were poisoned by lead, it probably began long before they set sail for what is now the Canadian Arctic.
The mystery, which has inspired Canadian artists from folksinger Stan Rogers to novelist Mordecai Richler, persists.
— By Bob Weber in Edmonton
Study shows heterosexual women prefer well-endowed men
Science has spoken and, yes, gentlemen, size does matter.
A newly published study by a University of Ottawa researcher has concluded penis length exerts a measurable sway on females evaluating potential sexual partners.
“We found that flaccid penis size had a significant influence on male attractiveness,” concludes the study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Science.
“Males with a larger penis were rated relatively more attractive.”
Biologist Brian Mautz said he came to the study through curiosity over the evolution of male genitalia. Compared to other male primates, human endowment is generous.
“This observation has generated suggestions by evolutionary biologists that the comparatively larger human penis evolved under premating sexual selection,” says his paper. “Novels, magazines and popular articles often allude to the existence of a relationship between penis size and sexual attractiveness or masculinity.”
Nor is the effect limited to pop culture.
“Another project I was on, looking at female preferences in genital size in fish, showed that females actually do discriminate in males before copulation even begins,” Mautz said. “That potentially influences genital evolution.”
Previous studies have attempted to discern what women like by, for example, asking them to choose between a series of drawings of men that vary only in the size of the anatomy in question. Mautz believes those conclusions are probably limited by self-censorship.
“When you directly ask someone about a sensitive topic, you’re likely to get some bias in responses,” he said. “Penis size isn’t supposed to matter.”
His study tried to mask its intent by introducing three variations on male appearance: body shape (shoulder-to-hip ratio), height and penis size. Those variables were presented in seven gradients, small to large, and intermixed until there were 343 combinations.
Each variation was represented in a computer-generated, life-sized picture of a naked male, which could be rotated to allow an examination of the image in profile. A study group of 105 heterosexual women were then asked which picture they found most sexually attractive.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, they preferred men who were tall, long and V-shaped. Overall, body shape accounted for about 80 per cent of the variation in attractiveness scores, penis size about six per cent and height about five per cent.
“The finding suggests that selection on penis size is potentially as strong as selection on stature.”
That finding was reinforced by slower response times for some pictures.
“We found a significantly positive, albeit small, correlation between penis size and response time,” the study says. “This finding is consistent with a pattern in adults whereby attractive stimuli are viewed for longer periods.”
That attraction, however, wasn’t a simple formula of bigger is better.
“Attractiveness increases rapidly until you reach around average for each of the three traits,” said Mautz. “Then, although the attractiveness continues to increase, it doesn’t increase as much.”
What was truly interesting was the interaction between the three traits, Mautz said.
“If you look at how penis size interacts with male height, it has a differential effect at the lower height sizes. Take the tall men — you get a really big impact (in attractiveness) of how large your penis is relative to your height.
“An increase in penis size if you’re of average height does influence your attractiveness. It doesn’t do quite as much as it does at the upper end of the height spectrum.
“If you’re short, it doesn’t matter what size your penis is.”
Statistically, 185-cm tall men get about twice the boost in attractiveness that their 165-cm friends do as length increases from six to 10 cm.
If that doesn’t seem fair, Mautz hastens to point out his study only considered three male traits.
Characteristics such as musculature — not to mention a pleasant smile or great hair — were not considered.
Still, he said, his results do suggest that male gentalia factor into sexual selection and are therefore subject to evolutionary pressure.
“It shows that females can exert a choice and influence genital evolution, which is a relatively understudied area.”
His conclusions also have considerable intrinsic interest.
“You’re my first interview,” Mautz told The Canadian Press. “I’m watching emails roll into my account as we speak.”
Researchers oppose closure of Experimental Lakes Area
There appear to be “remarkable similarities” between fish deformities found downstream from Alberta’s oilsands and those observed after the Exxon Valdez oil spill in Alaska and after Florida’s Deepwater Horizon disaster, says a renowned ecologist.
David Schindler of the University of Alberta has written an open letter to two federal cabinet ministers pointing out the recent research findings from scientists as far afield as the Gulf of Mexico.
“Given the parallels in the cases from various locations, it seems likely that some chemical or suite of chemicals in crude oil is causing the malformations,” Schindler wrote.
He’s proposing that Canada take the lead in researching the issue by isolating the various chemical compounds and introducing them to fish stocks in a controlled setting.
And Schindler says the federal Experimental Lakes Area — which has been shut down by Ottawa for a savings of about $2 million annually — is the ideal natural laboratory for the work.
UN agency skeptical
Chinese fisheries catch an estimated $11.6 billion worth of fish from the waters of other countries each year, yet only about nine per cent of that is reported, according to a study out of the University of British Columbia.
But the study, which claims Chinese vessels catch about 12 times more than is reported to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, immediately received criticism from the UN.
Dirk Zeller, co-author of the report published in the latest edition of the journal Fish and Fisheries, said his research indicates about 4.6 million tonnes of fish is taken by China from the waters of other countries, around 3.1 million tonnes of which are from West African waters alone.
He said it’s worrisome because if countries aren’t properly reporting catches, there is no way conservation plans can be made to maintain stocks of fish.
“The uncertainty range around (the number of tonnes of fish) is about from 3.5 million to a bit over 6 million. So actually it’s quite a range around what it could be,” said Zeller.
McMaster researchers inspired by Google Maps
Researchers have taken a page out of Google’s book to develop an advanced scope that may enable doctors to look deeper into the colon and with more precision to better detect signs of cancer.
The scope would not only allow doctors performing a colonoscopy to get the standard forward-looking view, but would also capture images of the sides of the large bowel, similar to the way Google Street View provides a 360-degree picture of a road and its buildings.
“Unlike conventional colonoscopy, which only looks straight ahead, this new method can be likened to Google Street View, giving us a panoramic view of the colon and helping us identify the exact locations of suspicious growths or lesions,” says Dr. Qiyin Fang, Canada Research Chair in Biophotonics at McMaster University.
The device is armed with a near-infrared light camera that takes thousands of pictures and uses blood vessels as landmarks to create a map of the colon.
UBC psychologist “shocked” by results
Babies, just like adults, may have a mean streak, says a new study out of the University of British Columbia.
Psychology professor and lead author Kiley Hamlin found infants who were as young as nine months old favoured those who brought harm to people who were different than themselves.
She said adults, similarly, tend to like people who harm individuals who are different.
“We wanted to see if we could tell whether infants had that same kind of judgement,” said Hamlin in an interview.
“It was shocking how robust the results were.”
The study, published in the journal Psychological Science, looked at two groups of infants aged nine months and 14 months and the food they preferred — green beans or graham crackers.
Study calls for national energy strategy
A new study found that Canadian energy companies are factoring higher carbon-related costs in their investment, planning, and technology decisions.
The study, prepared by the Ottawa-based think-tank Sustainable Prosperity, found the companies are using a self-imposed, internal carbon price as they plan for the future, suggesting they’re anticipating a day when carbon tax or cap-and-trade systems are more widespread.
Without a clear sense of the country’s energy strategy, companies are creating their own carbon price to make long-term strategic planning and investment decisions, said Alex Wood, a senior director at Sustainable Prosperity.
“At some future point, there will be a price on carbon,” he said.
“What they are doing is essentially anticipating that and they’re factoring that into their decisions and so are addressing that risk.”
Northern and Atlantic Canadians most likely to tip the scale
Obesity rates are at an all-time high, especially in certain parts of the country, say researchers, who have “mapped” the changes to illustrate how Canadians’ waistlines have expanded over time.
Overall, at least one-quarter of Canadian adults have a body mass index of 30 or greater that puts them in the obese category, concludes a study that provides a comprehensive look at rates across the country, complete with “obesity maps.”
“Our analysis shows that more Canadians are obese than ever before — on average, between one-fourth and one-third of Canadians are obese, depending on the region,” said principal author Carolyn Gotay of the School of Population and Public Health at the University of British Columbia.
The Atlantic provinces and the two territories — Nunavut and the Northwest Territories — had the highest obesity rates between 2000 and 2011, with more than 30 per cent of the population in these regions estimated to be obese.
British Columbia had the lowest overall rates, but obesity still increased from less than 20 per cent to almost 25 per cent in that province. In Quebec, the rate stayed at about 24 per cent.
Gotay said mapping regional rates provides more than a decade of easy-to-use visual snapshots that should help researchers, policy makers and the public identify where investments are especially needed to fight the obesity epidemic.
Stephen A. Cook earns Herzberg Gold Medal
A Toronto researcher will receive the top prize today at a ceremony to honour Canada’s leaders in natural sciences and engineering research.
University of Toronto mathematician and computer scientist Stephen A. Cook will receive $1 million in research funding over the next five years.
He’ll also receive the Herzberg Gold Medal, the top honour from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada.
It says Cook has made key contributions to computational theory, algorithm design, programming languages and mathematical logic.
Particle collider will cost about US$7.78 billion
Some of the world’s greatest minds have collided in Vancouver and agreed to build a new US$7.78-billion particle collider that will help answer some of the universe’s deepest secrets.
The physicists had until Thursday been designing two separate particle colliders, known as linear colliders.
The colliders were expected to hurl billions of electrons at positrons — their anti-particles — along kilometre-long superconducting cavities at nearly the speed of light.
Timothy Meyer of TRIUMF, Canada’s national laboratory for particle and nuclear physics, said the results of those collisions would help scientists answer questions related to the Big Bang and the evolution of the universe.
But Meyer said the physicists met at TRIUMF in Vancouver and agreed to form a team to develop a new particle accelerator.
“Everyone wants this collider to go forward, and the technology or which one is which is sort of a secondary concern,” he said. “It’s like everyone is going to start rowing in the same direction.”
Injuries could be reduced with barriers, regulated speeds
Some simple changes to the infrastructure of Canadian cities could go a long way towards keeping the country’s biking enthusiasts safe from harm, a team of researchers suggested Wednesday.
Erecting physical barriers between traffic and bicycle lanes, ensuring relatively flat commuting surfaces and regulating vehicle speeds all have the potential to curtail cycling injuries on city streets, they said.
The findings came from a cross-country team of researchers and was published in the Journal Injury Prevention.
The team’s objective was to explore the factors that contribute to Canada’s strikingly high rate of cycling-related injuries, according to the study’s lead author.
Brain chemicals to be scrutinized
Researchers at the University of Toronto say a new study on sleep patterns in seals could help explain what allows humans to get some shut-eye.
Researchers teamed up with biologists at UCLA and found that seals are able to both sleep and stay awake at the same time.
They say one half of a seal’s brain shuts down when they sleep in water while the other remains awake and on the lookout for possible danger.
The study authors say the findings may help guide research into the factors that control human sleep.
Studying a brain with both a sleeping and wakeful side can give scientists clues as to which chemicals are more heavily involved in the sleep cycle.
Early research suggests, for instance, that serotonin may play a less important role than scientists believed.
University of Alberta researcher looked at distracted driving
A University of Alberta researcher wants to put the brakes on billboards with negative words.
Michelle Chan says her recently published study shows negative words on roadside ads lead to more distracted driving.
The PhD student put fellow students into a driving simulator and tested their skills behind the wheel as negative, positive and neutral words appeared in the background.
Collisions are a problem
A research project at the University of Saskatchewan will try to determine why moose feel moved to cross rural highways.
The study starts this month and will track the movements of 50 moose over a four-year period.
Twenty-five of the creatures along Highway 11 between Saskatoon and Regina will be collared with a built-in satellite phone that sends data back to researchers.
The stretch of road is considered a hot spot for collisions between vehicles and moose.
The Environment Ministry asked researchers to study how moose use their habitat and to identify high-risk collision areas.
It’s hoped the data collected will help develop a long-term moose management strategy.
The collars are designed to fall off after 24 months.
“For two full years, we get very detailed locations on exactly where that moose is every day, all day and night,” said Ryan Brook, project director with the Saskatoon university’s College of Agriculture and Bioresources.
He said there were virtually no moose in rural Saskatchewan 40 or 50 years ago, specifically in the central and southern parts of the province. But now they are causing some problems.
“Concerns about crop damage, damage to fences. And quite a number of people have had close calls, serious injuries, and even a number of deaths from collisions with moose.”
Brook is asking hunters to hold off on shooting moose involved in the project. He said animals in the study can be identified by a white collar and two clearly visible ear tags.
“The cost of buying a collar and getting it on the animal and getting the data is about $5,000 per animal, so we’re hoping that if hunters can leave the collared animals alone then we’ll get a lot more useful information.”
Research could help solve mystery of universe’s origin
Construction has begun on a new radio telescope in British Columbia’s south Okanagan that will act like a type of time machine and help astrophysicists travel back to better understand the composition of our expanding universe.
The $11-million project is being built at the Dominion Radio Astrophysical Observatory southwest of Penticton, B.C., and will use components from the cellphone industry to capture and turn radio waves emitted six to 11 billion years ago into a three-dimensional map.
It’s the first research telescope built in Canada in more than three decades and includes scientists from the observatory, the University of British Columbia, McGill University and the University of Toronto.
“It’s almost like time travel,” said Kris Sigurdson, an astrophysicist from UBC and co-investigator on the project. “It’s looking back into the past and how the universe was at that time and it’s just amazing.”
“RePOOPulate” could help cure C. difficile
Researchers have created a synthetic “poop” aimed at treating recurrent infections of C. difficile, a toxin-producing bacterium that causes severe and often debilitating diarrhea.
The fake stool, dubbed “RePOOPulate,” is intended to replace donated human stool used in fecal transplants, a treatment that’s been successful in overcoming intractable cases of C. difficile infection.
Clostridium difficile can take hold when a person is exposed to the highly contagious bacteria while taking antibiotics for another infection. Because those drugs destroy healthy, protective bacteria in the gut, C. diff is allowed to overpopulate the large intestine.
C. diff is typically treated with a different antibiotic, but can rebound once treatment stops, leading to chronic rounds of re-infection and retreatment. The disease can lead to severe and life-threatening inflammation of the colon.