Saturday June 22, 2013

Predicting the Next Big One * Cabbage Circadian Clock Keeps Ticking after Picking * Fish Swimming in a Pharmaceutical Soup * Building a Brain

Today on the program, we look at impending doom on the West Coast: A Canadian scientist suggests the big earthquake that many have been anticipating could happen sooner than we expect.  We'll also hear about vegetables watching the clock and what that might mean for how we should transport and store our broccoli.  We'll look into how the pharmaceuticals that pass through our bodies are affecting fish in our rivers and lakes, and we'll have a feature documentary on efforts to build  simulations of a human brain
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Predicting the Next Big One

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This model shows a tsunami making its way into the Strait of Juan de Fuca
A megathrust earthquake is one that measures between 8 and 9 on the earthquake scale, and only occurs when the heavier ocean plate subducts under a continental plate.  There have only been two known since records have been kept, over the last one-hundred years: one in the Indian Ocean in 2004 and one off the coast of Japan two years ago.  Megathrust quakes are usually accompanied by a tsunami.  New research by Dr. Audrey Dallimore, a Professor at the School of Environment and Sustainability at Royal Roads University in Victoria, suggests that a megathrust earthquake could occur in the Cascadia Subduction Zone, off the coast of British Columbia, sooner than we may think.  Disturbances in core sediment samples are created by earthquakes.  Those taken from Effingham Inlet, B.C. reveal 22 such quakes over the last 11,000 years.  The greatest amount of time between quakes was 1,000 years, and the last one was 300 years ago.  The suggestion - therefore - is that the next megathrust earthquake could hit the West Coast any time between today and the next 700 years.

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Cabbage Circadian Clock Keeps Ticking after Picking

The circadian rhythm is a biological process linked to cycles of light and dark.  It explains, in part, why we want to sleep at night.  When that cycle is upset, problems can arise as our bodies strive to maintain that rhythm.  The same is true - it turns out - of many fruits and vegetables, even after they have been harvested.  Because they are, in fact, still alive, even in the brightly lit produce section, they continue to metabolize.  A new study by Dr. Janet Braam, Chair and Professor of Biochemistry and Plant Biology at Rice University in Houston, found that in their experiment, cabbage was better at producing the chemicals essential for warding off insects if it was allowed to maintain its circadian rhythm.  The same chemicals - phytochemicals - also give cabbage the nutritional value known to fight off cancer.  In theory, there may be an optimal time of day to eat fruits and vegetables, in order to maximize their nutritional value.

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Fish Swimming in a Pharmaceutical Soup


goldfish.jpg
copyright Tiefflieger

It is known that many pharmaceuticals make their way into our waterways once they have passed through our bodies.  The problem is so severe that some lakes and rivers have been described as a 'chemical soup'.  Some pharmaceuticals have been proven to damage the reproductive systems of  aquatic species, like fish and frogs.  But a new study by Dr. Vance Trudeau, Research Chair in Neuroendocrinology at the University of Ottawa, has looked at the the cocktail effect, when two drugs - estrogen and Prozac - work together.  In the goldfish studied, even more reproductive damage was observed, plus the metabolism of the fish was upset; food intake was reduced followed by weight loss.  This study also raises concerns about human consumption of fish and water polluted with pharmaceuticals. 

Related Links

  • Paper in Environmental Science & Technology
  • University of Ottawa release


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Building a Brain

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Neuron - courtesy EFPL/Blue Brain project
While we have made great strides in understanding distant galaxies, the sub-atomic world and the richness of biology, we're still a long way from understanding the very thing we use to understand those things: the human mind and the brain that produces it.  But neuroscientists are embarking on large and ambitious projects to map the activity of the human brain, and to simulate the full complexity of the brain in a computer.  The ultimate goals of these projects include understanding the nature of the mind, how we think, and how our biological brains produce consciousness; but also to understand better the diseases of the brain and the mind, so we can treat them more effectively.

Dr Rafael Yuste is Professor of Biological Sciences and Neuroscience and co-Director of the Kavli Institute for Brain Science at Columbia University.  He was one of the architects of the proposal that has become the U.S. BRAIN Initiative (Brain Research through Advancing Innovative Neurotechnologies) , announced in April.  It aspires to build technologies to map the activity of the whole human brain - down to the individual neuron.

Dr. Sean Hill is co-Principal Investigator on the European Union's Human Brian project, head-quartered at the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne, and announced in January.  The Human Brain project has as its goal the simulation of the full activity of the human brain. It's an outgrowth of the Blue Brain project, which simulated, in great detail, a small section of a rat's brain.

Dr. Chris Eliasmith is a Professor of Philosophy, Engineering, and Computer Science, and director of the Centre for Theoretical Neuroscience at the University of Waterloo.  He's also Canada Research Chair in Theoretical Neuroscience.  His work involves a brain simulation called SPAUN, which encompasses less detail, but models more of the large-scale structure and behaviours of the human brain.

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