20 Jun 2021

Celebrating the (Banting and) Best Anniversary Ever!

 by Anne Munier

Leonard, a Toronto teenager, arrived at the hospital weak and pale, his hair falling out. Like everyone else who had Type 1 diabetes 100 years ago, he was dying.

People with Type 1 diabetes (let’s call if T1D for short) stop producing the hormone insulin. In fact, their immune system -- which should be busy fighting off diseases -- gets confused, and starts killing the body’s own insulin-producing cells!


Diagram credit: MyHealthDigest

That’s a big deal, because insulin moves food energy (glucose) out of our blood, and into our body’s cells. Without it, we don’t get much energy from food. Then sugar accumulates in our blood, eventually causing a lot of damage. T1D affects children mostly, and, back in the day, they would generally die within a few weeks or months of being diagnosed.

Symptoms of T1D include:
1. Having to pee more than usual, to flush out all that sugar. (Thousands of years ago doctors noticed that ants were attracted to the urine of T1D patients, because it was sweet. The ant trick helped to diagnose new patients!)
2. Being really thirsty (to replace all that lost fluid)
3. Not having much energy (no surprise there- food energy doesn’t get where it needs to go!)

Back to Leonard. At 14 years old, he weighed only weighed 65 pounds. That was partly due to the diabetes, but mostly it was because he was barely eating. A “starvation diet” was a cruel, but popular, T1D treatment, which could extend life by several months.

Leonard before and after treatment

But this story has a happy ending.

A small research team at the University of Toronto, led by Dr.’s Banting and Best, were removing and purifying bits of the pancreas (the organ where insulin is made) from dogs and cows. They thought that injecting this into diabetic patients might provide their bodies with the insulin they so desperately needed. Leonard was about to be their first human guinea pig.

Three heroes of diabetes treatment
(Dr. Best, lab dog 408, and Dr. Banting) -
University of Toronto

Their first try was a failure -- all that happened was that poor Leonard developed an allergic reaction. Undaunted, the researchers purified the extract some more, and tried again. This time the results were quick, and they were amazing. Leonard’s blood glucose went down to near-normal levels within a day. He brightened, became more active, and felt stronger. And survived!

After Leonard came other children -- 6 year old Teddy; Elizabeth, somehow still hanging on after 3 years of the starvation diet; Elsie, in a coma, revived by insulin. Insulin has since saved the lives of millions of people.

Letter to Dr. Banting from a much-
improved Teddy (U. of Toronto)

While the treatment has become more sophisticated, T1D troopers still inject themselves with insulin every day, and carefully control their food (especially carbohydrates). There’s still no cure -- yet.

About one in every 100 Canadians has T1D. Whether we realize it or not, we’ve all been impacted by insulin, because we all know and care about people whose lives it has saved.

All this to say: Happy 100th anniversary everyone!

11 Jun 2021

A Clownfish Comic

 by Raymond Nakamura

Finding Nemo maybe an entertaining animated movie about clownfish, but it is not exactly a nature documentary. A recent bit of science news  about clownfish stripes inspired me to make a little comic about them.

Unlike the movie, juvenile clownfish do not start out with all their stripes (or bars). They don’t even live with a parent. But they do live among sea anemones, which normally sting and eat other types of fish. Some species of clownfish can live with more than one species of sea anemone.



Stripes may be important for distinguishing individuals and species from each other.


A team of scientists under Professor Vincent Laudet have been studying clownfish in New Guinea.



They noticed that juvenile clownfish developed white bars more quickly when associated with the Giant Carpet Anemone than when they lived with the Magnificent Anemone.



Thyroid hormone is known to be important to triggering metamorphosis in frogs. 

The team sent juvenile clownfish from the two different anemones to Dr. Pauline Salis for analysis. 

Clownfish living on the Giant Carpet Anemone tended to have more thyroid hormone than those on the Magnificent Anemone. Furthermore, adding thyroid hormone to juvenile clownfish caused them to develop white bars more quickly. White bars depend on the development of pigment cells called iridophores. The development of iridophores in turn depends on a gene called Duox (which codes for the protein Dual Oxidase). And Duox was found to be more active in clownfish residents of the Giant Carpet Anemone. 


The scientists are not yet sure why clownfish develop at different rates in the two kinds of sea anemone.



What do you think?




This week's post is by our own Raymond Nakamura, Ph.D ! Check out his website at http://www.raymondsbrain.com

Raymond K. Nakamura writes, draws cartoons, and develops fun learning opportunities about science and Japanese Canadian history and culture, when he is not washing the dishes, walking the dog, or helping his daughter with homework.

He blogs and cartoons not only for Sci/Why but for Science World British Columbia and Science Borealis as well. He is the author of Peach Girl, a picture book that reimagines a Japanese folk tale, published by Pajama Press.



4 Jun 2021

Technology That Gives Us Superpowers

 by Elaine Kachala

It’s happening! We’re living through a Machine Revolution unlike anything before.

Science and technology have always shaped human civilization. But computers for our bodies and minds?

Our world is exploding with smart wearable devices. They have all the functions of a computer. They can store, retrieve, and process data. But they’re different from desktops or laptops, or hand-held devices because they’re intensely personal! Wearables live on us, in us, or close to us.

Smartwatches or activity trackers were once the most popular kind of wearable technology. But that’s changing with the next generation of devices. The “wrist” is history! We won’t be strapping wearables onto our wrists anymore. Our brains, skin, eyes, ears, and clothing are new ways to connect with technology. A couple of examples here barely scratch the surface of what’s happening. 


Photo credit: Northwestern University

Source: Rogers, J. https://news.northwestern.edu/stories/2016/11/researchers-develop-soft-microfluidic-lab-on-the-skin-for-sweat-analysis/&fj=1

Dr. John Rogers at Northwestern University developed a small electronic device. It captures and analyzes a person’s sweat. It wirelessly connects with a smartphone to help someone know if they’re becoming dehydrated.

Google’s Project JacquardTM took smart clothes to a new level. They partnered with Levis to launch a jacket with built-in sensors and conductive fabric. It can send signals to your smartphone. Tap your jacket to answer calls or play music! And, they’ve developed a smart tag that slips into any piece of clothing or object for connectivity. See https://atap.google.com/jacquard/#.

This brain-sensing headband by MuseTM helps people relax, meditate, focus, and sleep.


Photo: Elaine Kachala

This is my Muse, but here’s the website https://choosemuse.com/.


Sensors inside the headband detect and measure the activity of a person’s brain, along with sensors that track heart rate, breathing, and movement. Look closely, and you can see the soft gold patches on the fabric; those are the sensors. The pod at the top is the brain-sensing technology. The headband uses Bluetooth to connect to a smartphone. Once a person selects a program from the Muse app, the rest journey begins. After meditating, Muse uses algorithms to turn the brainwave activity into information about how well a person slept or relaxed, so they learn what works best.

Exoskeletons are like wearable robot suits. They apply robotics, mechanics, and electronics to support people with extra strength and endurance. For example, soldiers, firefighters, factory workers, and others can wear this suit to help them carry heavy loads or cross over rugged terrain. People with difficulty walking because of illnesses or injuries can wear them to move more easily. 

Computers are being infused into everything wearable. They can empower people to live better lives. And with advances in artificial intelligence, sensors, software, materials science, robotics, cloud computing, mobile networks, and the Internet of Things (IoT), wearables are getting smarter. 

These devices know a lot about us because they collect data about our body movements, location, heart rate, voice sounds, and more. They know how we feel and what we’re looking at. Wearables collect personal information that can put our privacy, safety, and security at risk. 

And, there are some bigger questions to think about too. Our minds and bodies are merging with computers. Can this human-machine evolution go too far? What if some people can afford wearables but others can’t?

Stay-tunned for my book called Super Power? The Wearable Tech Revolution. It will debut in Fall 2022 with Orca Book Publishers. The book explores how wearable electronics and robotics, virtual reality, and brain-computer interfaces are changing our lives and why designers, engineers, and scientists strive towards responsible design. For more info, please visit me at www.elainekachala.com

28 May 2021

Seagrass and Neptune Balls


Seagrass and Neptune Balls by Yolanda Ridge

Here’s something you probably know (or could figure out): seagrass is grass that grows in the sea, usually close to shore in clusters called meadows.

photo of seagrass waving on an ocean bottom

Here’s something you probably didn’t know: seagrass is helping to fight plastic pollution.


By removing microplastics from the ocean.

Here’s how it works:

Step 1: When blades of seagrass die, they sink to the ocean floor and hang out between long blades of grass that are still growing strong.

Step 2: Ocean water washes through these seagrass meadows as the tide moves in and out.

Step 3: Tiny bits of plastic in the water get trapped among the living blades of grass and tumble about with the dead ones.

Step 4: Over time, they form something called Neptune balls.

a neptune ball lying on the ocean floor

Step 5: As Neptune balls grow in size, they eventually escape the seagrass meadow—with the help of waves—and roll toward shore.

Scientists estimate Neptune balls from a specific species of seagrass collect nearly 900 million plastic items in the Mediterranean Sea alone—every single year. That’s good news for ocean ecosystems since microplastics are a danger to everything from sea creatures to seagrass itself.

neptune balls that have washed up onshore

And that’s not all! Seagrass also:

  • improves water quality by filtering out more than just plastic,

  • fights climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen, and

  • provides a home for hundreds of different fish species.

So next time you’re swimming at the beach and feel something tickle your toes, look down and see if you’re swimming over a seagrass meadow. Leave it be and then give those Neptune balls a hand by picking up whatever plastic you see—on land or at sea—and disposing of it properly.

Yolanda Ridge is a middle grade author and science writer from Rossland, BC. Her most recent nonfiction book for young adult readers, CRISPR: A Powerful Way to Change DNA (Annick, 2020) is available wherever you buy books. Visit http://www.yolandaridge.com to find out more.

Image Credits

1. Seagrass Photograph: Milorad Mikota/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

2. Neptune ball at Sea Photograph: Oplats/Wikimedia Commons (CC BY-SA 4.0)

3. Neptune Balls on Shore Photograph: Marta Veny/UNIVERSITY OF BARCELONA/AFP/Getty Images

Source Information

  1. Sànchez-Vidal, A.; Canals, M.; de Haan, W.P.; Romero, J.; Veny, M. “Seagrasses provide a novel ecosystem service by trapping marine plastics”. Scientific Reports, January, 2021.

Doi: 10.1038/s41598-020-79370-

  1. https://phys.org/news/2021-01-seagrass-meadows-marine-plastic-sea.html

  2. https://www.ub.edu/web/ub/en/menu_eines/noticies/2021/01/003.html

21 May 2021

I Found a Baby Bird!

 by Paula Johanson

Image shared with permission from @GeorgiaAudubon on Twitter.

Continuing our Bird Theme on Sci/Why for another week, here's another post for fans of ornithology, the study of birds. Birdwatching is one of the most popular pastimes in North America, for people of any age and particularly families. For this study, amateurs don't need much more than a notebook and maybe a pair of binoculars. There are SO MANY resources to find at public libraries and online!

As the Audubon Society in Georgia notes, in North America we are entering the season of baby birds. Here are some handy tips so you'll know what to do if you find a baby bird. (Click on the image to see a larger and more readable version.)


In case the image isn't clear for you, the tips are very simple.

-If the bird looks injured, call your local wildlife rehabilitation centre.

-If the bird has feathers, hopping on the ground is normal. If it's safe from dogs or cats or people, leave it alone. 

-If the bird is too young to have feathers, put it back in the nest. (Dry, clean hands don't have a lot of scent, and the parents don't care about your scent.)

And remember: even if you can't help that one bird, supporting bird and wildlife habitat in your area will do plenty to help many birds.

14 May 2021

Birds Make Us Happy

 Birds Make Us Happy… by Nina Munteanu

forest in evening light near Peterborough, ON
photo by Nina Munteanu

When I go out on my daily walk in the nearby meadow, woodland and marsh, I find myself listening to the birds. Their songs and calls weave a symphonic tapestry that stitches me into the very fabric of the place. Through them I find my way “home.” The iconic trill of the red-winged blackbird in the wetland calls me back to my masters studies at university when I did my field work in the marshes and fields near Lennoxville, Quebec. At my back door, the spring serenade of the robin —cheerily, cheer up, cheer up, cheerily, cheer up—calls me back to the comfort of childhood. There’s the playful chickadee-deh-deh-deh giggle of the chickadee, the sweet whistles of the yellow warbler. And then there is the echoing fluting notes of the hermit thrush; that outpouring of heaven’s light from such a tiny creature sends my own heart soaring and fills me with joy. 

baby robin
A robin fledgling (All bird photos by Merridy Cox)


All these make me joyful. All are heaven’s gift.

And I think of Robert Browning’s enduring quote: God’s in His heaven; all’s right with the world.

A recent study has correlated our happiness levels to bird diversity: the higher the number of birds, the greater our joy. This is no surprise to me.


a stream in a forest
by Nina Munteanu

The study by scientists at the German Centre for Integrative Biodiversity Research was published recently in Ecological Economics, reports Carly Nairn of Eco Watch. “The scientists concluded that conservation is just as important for human well-being as financial security,” writes Nairn. The study surveyed more than 26,000 adults from twenty-six European countries. From the study, the authors calculated that being around fourteen additional bird species provided as much satisfaction as earning an additional $150 a month. “A high biological diversity in our immediate vicinity is as important for life satisfaction as our income,” reports Senckenberg Biodiversität und Klima Forschungszentrum. “Biological diversity evokes happiness: more bird species in their vicinity increase life satisfaction of Europeans as much as higher income.”


A bluejay

According to these and other researchers, birds are the best indicators of biological diversity and more bird species live in natural ecosystems such as green spaces, forested areas and bodies of water. Birds “are among the most visible elements of the animate nature – particularly in urban areas,” reports Senckenberg. “Their song can often be heard even if the bird itself is not visible, and most birds are popular and people like to watch them.”

"The happiest Europeans are those who can experience numerous different bird species in their daily life, or who live in near-natural surroundings that are home to many species," argued lead author Joel Methorst, a doctoral researcher at the Senckenberg Biodiversity and Climate Research Center, the iDiv and the Goethe University in Frankfurt.


mourning dove
A mourning dove

The research findings also clearly demonstrate that bird diversity is predicated on a healthy natural ecosystem; these two are bound to each other.

Plowing of fields, deforestation, wetland draining, climate change and other land use clearing and treatments have caused great habitat loss. In addition, neonicotinoid pesticides make it harder for birds to put on weight needed for migration, delaying their travel. Our common birds make up a large part of the diversity of birds we encounter. For me just north of Toronto, this means the robin, the cardinal, sparrow, wren, blackbird, starling, junco, blue jay, chickadee, mourning dove, warbler, goldfinch, vireo, crow, osprey, hawk, and so on. 


A grackle

These same common bird species are vital to our ecosystems. They control pests, pollinate flowers, spread seeds and help regenerate forests. When these birds disappear, their former habitats lose their functionality. “Declines in your common sparrow or other little brown bird may not receive the same attention as historic losses of bald eagles or sandhill cranes, but they are going to have much more of an impact,” said Hillary Young, a conservation biologist at the University of California. Kevin Gaston, a conservation biologist at the University of Exeter, lamented that: “This is the loss of nature.”

    A chickadee

My short story “Out of The Silence,” which appeared in the Spring 2020 issue of subTerrain Literary Magazine (Issue #85), tells the story of Katherine, a blind elder whose digital app failed to warn the world of the sudden global loss of birds with disastrous ecological consequences.

The irony was that, once the birds vanished, the pests the fungus was originally targeted recovered with a vengeance. Some birds eat as many as 500 insects a day in the summer. Without insect-eating birds like bluebirds, wrens and chickadees to eat them, the pests exploded in numbers, causing ecosystems to collapse worldwide. 2041, which experienced an extremely warm summer, brought in swarms of grasshoppers to Asia and Europe, destroying whole harvests like a plague. I was reminded of Mao Tse Tung’s 1960 edict to kill all sparrows who were eating the seeds in the fields; instead, they caused a horrific plague of locusts that caused famine. With the disappearance of a single bird—the House Swift—agricultural pests in China quadrupled in 2041. Without the Evening Grosbeak, spruce budworm destroyed huge sections of the western forests of North America in the forties. Without the oystercatcher there to keep it in check, the Salt Marsh periwinkle destroyed a majority of the salt marshes of south-eastern USA by the late forties.

Ironically, the pests did the most damage on the giant monocrops meant to benefit the most from the killer fungus. The ag-giants responded by dousing their wheat, maize, rice and cotton fields with even more pesticides—to which many pests had already become resistant. Instead of addressing the pests, they wiped out pollinating insects like bees and butterflies. With no pollinators, even GMO crops—like soybeans, corn, potatoes and sugar beets—failed and collapsed within a few years. China resorted to hand-pollinating their orchards. The rest of the world followed their desperate action. The price of chocolate skyrocketed when arthropods crashed the cacao agroforestry in Indonesia and the Ivory Coast. Food prices soared everywhere; soon the Foodland grocery store near where I lived grew empty. I quit drinking coffee; its price had risen to $60 a pound after the infestations of coffee plantations in Indonesia, India and Vietnam, followed by Brazil and Mexico in 2042. By the late 40s, the disappearance of insectivorous and pollinating birds meant no more apples, nuts, olives, or wine—among a host of staple foods.”

A nuthatch

In short, a healthy diverse bird population means a healthy habitat, a healthy ecosystem AND a healthy human mind. "Nature conservation therefore not only ensures our material basis of life, but it also constitutes an investment in the well-being of us all," says Methorst.


Methorst, J. et al. (2020): The importance of species diversity for human well-being in Europe. Ecological Economics, doi: 10.1016/j.ecolecon.2020.106917

Munteanu, Nina. 2020. “Out of the Silence.” subTerrain Literary Magazine, Issue 85. Vancouver, BC

Nairn, Carly. 2021. Eco-Watch.

Senckenberg Biodiversität und Klima Forschungszentrum. 2020. Online: https://www.senckenberg.de/en/pressemeldungen/biological-diversity-evokes-happiness-more-bird-species-in-their-vicinity-increase-life-satisfaction-of-europeans-as-much-as-higher-income/

You can learn more about Nina Munteanu and her book Water Is... on the website https://themeaningofwater.com/ There's more to see in the podcast "The Meaning of Writing and Water" at this link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN0j033hAXQ&feature=youtu.be