* Oilsands in Wolf's Clothing * Message from Messenger * Whitefly becomes Superfly * The Microbiome - The World Within Us *

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Oilsands in Wolf's Clothing

caribou_sniffing_dog.jpg Scat-detection dog in the oil sands region of northern Alberta. (Center for Conservation Biology, U of Washington)
The caribou population in Alberta's Athabasca oilsands region is declining.  But the extent of that decline is the subject of debate among scientists.  Some feel caribou may be gone from the province in 70 years, and from the oilsands region in as few as 30.  They feel predation by wolves is the problem.  The solution, therefore, is to remove the wolf.  But Dr. Samuel Wasser, Director of the Centre for Conservation Biology at the University of Washington in Seattle, disagrees with both the extent of the decline and the proposed solution.  By analyzing many samples of scat from caribou and wolves, he has determined a very different picture.  There are more caribou than previously thought, and their decline has leveled off in recent years.  Wolves are far more reliant on deer as a food source than caribou.  He says removing wolves will negatively impact the caribou, as the deer population swells.  The biggest problem for the caribou is stress caused by human activity.  The solution, he feels, is re-routing oilsands industry roads that currently cut through caribou habitat.     

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Messenger Delivers

messenger_mercury.jpgThis image from MESSENGER shows Mercury's heavily cratered surface.  Image Credit: NASA/Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory/Carnegie Institution of Washington
Mercury is the smallest planet in our Solar System; it is also closest to the Sun.  Most of what was known about Mercury came from Earth telescope observations, and NASA's Mariner 10 Spacecraft, which flew by the planet three times in the mid 1970's.  But in March of this year, NASA's Mercury Messenger actually entered the planet's orbit.  The images and data collected so far have resulted in a few big surprises for scientists like Dr. Sean Solomon, Messenger's Principal Investigator, and director of the Department of Terrestrial Magnetism at the Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington.   Among the surprises: the surface of Mercury has been shaped by much more volcanic activity than previously thought.  The exact composition of the surface is still being detailed, but it seems to be rich in sulphur, another big surprise.  Mercury was known to have a magnetic field, but Messenger has revealed that it is offset, stronger in the North than the South.  It is still a mystery why Mercury's iron core comprises about 60 percent of the planet, much larger than Earth, but it is hoped that further information collected by Messenger will shed light on how the planet was formed.     

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Whitefly becomes Superfly

whitefly_superfly.jpg Whiteflies enjoying a snack, photo Stephen Ausmus.
We usually think of an infection as sapping our strength, reducing our performance, and generally making us feel miserable.  However, an infection in a common plant pest seems to have supercharged it.  Dr. Molly Hunter, a professor of Entomology at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at the University of Arizona, has found that the whitefly population in Arizona has been invaded by Rickettsia bacteria.  This infection, far from harming the flies, has made them develop faster and lay more eggs, meaning infected insects profoundly out-compete the uninfected.  Dr. Hunter calls this "instant evolution."   

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The Microbiome - The World Within Us

bacteria.jpg Scanning Electron Microscope image of bacteria, courtesy NIH
The human body is home to trillions of microbes - bacteria, viruses, fungi, and more - and in fact, contains about 10 times more microbial cells than it does "human" cells.  And now that scientists have the tools to understand our inner world better, we're learning how important our microbial communities are for our health.  The microbes within us affect our vulnerability to infectious disease, they interact powerfully with our immune system and they start to influence our growth, health and development even before we leave the womb.  As we understand our inner microbial world better, we're starting to understand how we might influence it, or at least monitor it, to understand human health better as well.  To look at current research on the microbiome today, we speak with:
 
  • Dr. Emma Allen-Vercoe, a assistant professor of Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Guelph, who is studying the rich and pungent microbial life of the lower gut, using a device that cultures the entire community of gut microbes, dubbed "Robo-gut."
  • Dr. Brett Finlay, professor in the Michael Smith Laboratories at the University of British Columbia, who is currently studying how our early colonization by microbes, starting at birth, may influence the development of allergies and asthma.
  • Dr. Deborah Money, a professor at the University of British Columbia and Executive Director of the Women's Health Research Institute, who is leading a study of the vaginal microbiome and its influence on women's reproductive health.
  • Dr. Mike Surette, Professor of Medicine and Biochemistry and Biomedical Sciences, and Canada Research Chair in Interdisciplinary Microbiome Research at McMaster University, whose research is focusing on the microbial communities of the lung, particularly in people with Cystic Fibrosis.

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Theme music bed copyright Raphaël Gluckstein, Creative Commons License by-nc-nd-2.0