By Pam Lincez

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -]

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons -]

It’s a new day of Fall 2014. The leaves have changed, the climate is changing, updates of Ebola, ISIS and Jian Ghomeshi are changing, your wardrobe to battle the elements outside changes, the Earth spins, changing every day in to another, even the one thing that has remained the same in your daily routine is about to change — your Daily Banana is in crisis.

Your access to the potassium filled starchy comfort fruit that you pair with coconut water or French toast or chop up in your cereal or blend in your morning smoothie or split with dollops of French Vanilla, Chocolate and Strawberry ice cream, is in serious danger. As a staple in my daily food — and hangover cure regime, a recipe that I will divulge later — I am selfishly concerned with the status of banana production and the potential lack of starch and substance of my morning smoothies. More importantly, bananas are a staple food source (behind corn, rice and wheat) for 400 million people living in developing countriesand loss of such a food source would have widespread repercussions on food security.

"Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories." [Credit:]

“Nearly nine-tenths of the world’s bananas are eaten in poor countries, where at least 400 million people rely on them for 15-27% of their daily calories.” [Credit:]

In the 1950s, the fungus Fusarium oxysporum f. sp. cubense (Foc) race 1 targeted the Gros Michel variety and destroyed worldwide banana production, causing losses close to $2.3 billion ($22.74 billion worth in 2014). The call for a resistant banana variety began. Though smaller and less sweet than the Gros Michel, the Cavendish variety proved resistant to Foc 1 and brought bananas back to breakfast bowls around the world.

For a few decades banana production was in the clear with the mighty Cavendish resisting Foc and disease. In the 1990s though, another Foc race emerged, Foc Tropical race 4 (TR4) that directly targeted and infected the Cavendish. The mighty Cavendish had fallen.

Growers in Taiwan first reported the TR4 devastation to their crops, followed by growers in Indonesia, Malaysia, North Australia, China and the Philippines. TR4 has now also been reported in banana plantations in Oman, Jordan and Mozambique. The fungus also infects varieties other than the Cavendish, which scares Latin American growers, who produce more bananas than anywhere else in the world. If the fungus reaches and spreads across their plantations it will devastate the economy.

Last month, at the 70th Session of the Committee on Commodity Problems of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) headquarters in Rome, Italy, banana stakeholders and decision-makers discussed and laid out measures to contain TR4 and support the development of resistant banana varieties. Top priorities include updating practices that control the spread, identifying the difference between African and Asian fungus, and analyzing the risk to the Latin American industry. The group will meet again in December and again during the FAO’s Intergovernmental group on banana and tropical fruits session (IGG) in May 2015.

Trana Discovery, a startup biotech company, has not waited for a “banana initiative” to combat TR4 and save the $8.9 billion dollar banana industry. Rather, the company has capitalized on their proprietary drug discovery technology platform and has developed a technology to effectively screen compounds for one that can interrupt the TR4’s ability to propagate. Specifically, Trana Discovery’s platform screens for candidate molecules that can target a transfer RNA (tRNA) that TR4 needs to make protein and propagate (tRNA is a nucleic acid molecule that is critical in the process called translation that converts a nucleic acid message from another molecule called messenger RNA (mRNA) into the amino acids that make up proteins.)

tRNAThe goal at Trana Discovery is to develop a fungicide that carries the specific anti-tRNA molecule to block TR4’s ability to make new protein and to kill the fungus. In a news brief, Trana Discovery CEO said that it should take no longer than a year to screen for compounds that can specifically target the unique tRNA used by TR4.

With no back-up resistant banana variety in market, I hope for the sake of my hangover cure…

Ibuprofen. Water. Banana. Coconut Water. Americano.

…and for the sake of all diets that depend on this “fruit of wise men,” as described in legends, that a fungicide against TR4 or a universal technology to protect bananas is quickly produced.

PamLincezPam is a PhD candidate in Microbiology and Immunology at UBC in Vancouver, BC researching a new target for type 1 diabetes therapy. Her undergraduate studies in Biochemistry and Biotechnology, work in various research labs from academia to industry and participation at a variety of Science conferences have exposed her to a diversity in scientific thought. Her participation in the Banff Science Communications Program and many Science Outreach programs have inspired her to communicate science from all fields and share her love for perfectly awkward science on her website The Big Brain Dump at She is as her Twitter handle @PamLincez describes – a futurist, realist, optimist and traveler.

by Kristina Campbell

The microbes that live in and on us perform important functions for our bodies. In the New York Times, science writer Ed Yong recently dismissed the idea that there’s a normal or healthy microbiome that one should try to acquire. Yong says there’s no such thing, because “the microbiome is complex, varied, ever changing and context-dependent”. He gives examples where people who are in “perfect health” have microbiomes that change constantly or even look downright unhealthy.

Living with a dog is good for your microbiome. (And they’re good company too.) [Credit: Wikipedia,]

He highlights the faulty reasoning of a man who put a Hadza tribe member’s feces into his own gut in an attempt to get back to an ideal microbial state like in the good old days when we hunted and gathered. Implicitly, Yong is also critiquing another “good old days” argument in a recent book by NYU’s Dr. Martin Blaser; the book contends that antibiotic over-use is causing the disappearance of vital beneficial bacteria that evolved to keep us healthy, and we are worse off for it.

In the simplest terms, Yong is right: there is no single healthy microbiome. If researchers take people who seem to be free of disease symptoms and check what’s in their guts, they find all kinds of different things: More diversity and less diversity. Beneficial species and pathogens. This metabolite and that metabolite.

But before we throw cold water over the idea that we can reach for microbial perfection, there are two reasons to stay optimistic. First, there might not be a perfectly healthy microbiome, but there are definitely better and worse microbiomes. And second, it’s completely possible to get excited about the microbiome without overselling the science.

By now it is indeed clear that a microbiome can be better or worse – that is, it can be more closely or less closely associated with a disease state. Of course, better and worse are not neatly-defined categories. But better microbiomes (by some measure) have been associated with diets high in fibre, for example, and having a dog in the house. And worse is easy: Stanley Hazen showed that having gut microbiota that manufactured the metabolite TMAO (trimethylamine-N-oxide) was associated with atherosclerosis. Certain gut microbiota compositions are also (imperfectly) associated with disease states like inflammatory bowel disease, diabetes, obesity, and some cancers.

Microbiome, Mayo Clinic []

Microbiome, Mayo Clinic []

What characterizes these better or worse microbiome states is probably very complex, but it doesn’t mean it’s impossible to ever know. If you sample the microorganisms in someone’s gut, for example, you’re going to get a bunch of bacterial genes. While some will be familiar species, a lot of them are so new they are simply given numbers, like “metagenomic species 20″. That’s the early stage we’re at with the science. So let’s take on the enormous task of identifying all the species in each bodily niche, the communities they are stable within, how they change over time and in response to environmental stimuli, their byproducts, and how they interact with human genes. And from all of that, let’s see what characterizes those “better” states.

Reason number two to stay optimistic: you do have permission to be excited about the microbiome.

Finding out about the microbiome – and really taking it in for the first time – is like learning the world is round instead of flat. The new round-earth knowledge doesn’t make a difference from the little piece of Earth on which you’re standing, but you can never again think about your existence in the old way. You can never go back to your flat-earth schema.

Similarly, once you grasp that the body as you know it is part of an invisible microbial ecosystem that changes constantly and changes you constantly, you can never go back. You can no longer think in terms of a self-contained body in, a state of health, residing in a distinct environment. All the definitions blur. Body. Health. Disease. Environment. It becomes difficult to keep thinking in terms of the traditional medical model.

That’s why the microbiome is exciting. Not because of the results of some new study linking a certain microbiome composition to shiny fur or restless legs in mice. The science will inch along like all science, in a way that is distinctly underwhelming.

Yong says we should embrace complexity in microbiome research so we can benefit from it. Yes, let’s embrace complexity, including all feelings about this new point of view that is possible with the microbiome. Excited is fair game.

Kristina CampbellKristina Campbell writes about the gut microbiome for the Gut Microbiota for Health Experts Exchange. Follow her on Twitter: @bykriscampbell





By Elizabeth Howell

In late October, I did something I haven’t done in two years as a freelancer – I took an entire week away from the business. I traveled (out of the time zone – heck, out of the country!) and deliberately filled my days in Los Angeles with film studio tours and visits to places I always wanted to see, such as the California Science Center’s shuttle Endeavour exhibit.

Space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

Space shuttle Endeavour at the California Science Center in Los Angeles October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

The trip was expensive and lengthy, and scary. Could I leave everybody for a week? Yes, I’d have e-mail and could look in on emergency situations, but I certainly wouldn’t have the amount of time I usually do to deal with things. These are some of the steps I took:

1) Cutting costs wherever possible. I paid for most of my plane ticket with frequent-flyer points, which saved me hundreds of dollars off the bat. My hotel had free breakfast and was hidden just off the Hollywood Walk of Fame, making it cheaper and within walking distance of many attractions. I bought muffins for lunch and granola bars for snacks and only had to pay real money for dinners. What about transportation? For half the trip I relied on my feet and a metro pass, and for the other half I rented a car. That mostly worked, except for the time my bus stopped running at a particular stop (awkward), but I tried to see that as an adventure rather than a problem.

The moon shines above Griffith Observatory's telescope (left) and the lights of Los Angeles in October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

The moon shines above Griffith Observatory’s telescope (left) and the lights of Los Angeles in October 2014. Credit: Elizabeth Howell

2) Planning around the necessary costs and time away from work. I booked the trip 10 months in advance. That gave me time to prepare for the week I would be spending away from the business. Knowing you’re going to be missing that income almost a year ahead of time makes it much easier to plan. I naturally gave my clients a heads-up that I would be gone, and another heads-up when I came back. Also, I traveled with a family member who picked up half the cost of the hotel, which made the trip more fun and helped ease one of the biggest financial burdens of the trip.

3) Setting limits. I’m a space journalist and, unfortunately, a couple of difficult stories emerged the week I was away. A private rocket exploded on the launch pad at a NASA facility in Virginia, and a Virgin Galactic prototype spacecraft crashed in New Mexico during a flight test. I received interview requests concerning these incidents shortly after they occurred, and turned them down. Yes, it might have helped my career to take time out of my vacation to cover these stories, but I was okay with passing these up to try to get back home refreshed (which I did). Moreover, I knew there were plenty of space experts who might do an even better job of explaining the context than me.

At Universal Studios in October 2014, space journalist Elizabeth Howell checks out a spacecraft prop used in the movie Apollo 13, the film that launched her interest in space nearly 20 years ago. Credit: Amelia Howell

At Universal Studios in October 2014, space journalist Elizabeth Howell checks out a spacecraft prop used in the movie Apollo 13, the film that launched her interest in space nearly 20 years ago. Credit: Amelia Howell

4) Allowing myself some time for work. By the same token, however, I knew if I didn’t open my e-mail for a week I’d be obsessing about what important work-related issues might have cropped up that I was neglecting to deal with. So I kept light tabs on what was happening – checking in a couple of times a day, pushing off tasks (when I could) to after the vacation, and giving quick responses to the requests that couldn’t wait. For the most part, my clients were awesome and I had little to worry about. Big thanks to them.

Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain at the premiere for Interstellar in Hollywood, Oct. 26, 2014. Credit: Amelia Howell

Two-time Oscar nominee Jessica Chastain at the premiere for Interstellar in Hollywood, Oct. 26, 2014. Credit: Amelia Howell

5) Not thinking about the job. There were moments on my trip when I found myself immersed in the moment. The premiere for the movie Interstellar took place very close to our hotel, allowing us to watch as stars such as Jessica Chastain gave interviews and signed autographs for fans (including, very luckily, me.) Our tour of one studio gave us a chance viewing of The Big Bang Theory set, which is a rare opportunity. I say this not to brag but to highlight the fact that, especially for a journalist, it is important to get away from the computer and step out into the world — leave your comfort zone, do things that are a little crazy or different from your day to day, because you never know what sort of life experiences you will get out of this.

Elizabeth Howell (@howellspace) is an award-winning science journalist who focuses on space exploration. Some of her favourite stories include covering three shuttle launches, and interviewing multiple astronauts concerning their space station missions. She has also done writing work in areas such as the environment, technology and business. Elizabeth’s work appears regularly in, Universe Today, LiveScience, Space Exploration Network and the NASA Lunar Science Institute, among other places. 


by: Nicola Temple

Grey reef shark

Grey reef shark

When UK scientists released research findings that sharks have individual personalities, I was not surprised. I used to have a Figure Eight puffer fish (Tetraodon biocellatus) that would curl its caudal fin around its body and let the suckerfish (Plecostomus) in my tank push it around the aquarium like a soccer ball. I’ve kept other fish of these same species, but I have never again seen this behaviour. For those of us who have spent many hours under water or staring into fish tanks, observing fish, this is no more news-worthy than a headline that dogs have personalities. Yet, as the editors at CSWA reminded me, not everyone has wasted away hours watching fish!

Defining Personality
The American Psychological Association defines personality as the “individual differences in characteristic patterns of thinking, feeling and behaving.” This is not an anthropocentric definition.

Every individual of every species has a unique genetic make-up and unique experience of its surroundings, which shapes its subsequent behaviours. Each fish in a shoal has a different experience depending on where it is in the shoal, its proximity to predators, its access to food and its interactions with other individuals. These different experiences undoubtedly determine how an individual responds in future situations.

While a characteristic pattern of behaviour in fish is easy to accept, the idea that these creatures may think and feel may seem counterintuitive to our experience. Yet, there is a body of scientific evidence that supports the fact that fish do indeed have personalities.

Associate Professor Culum Brown at Macquarie University in Australia has a special interest in the learning and memory of fishes and has challenged many preconceptions about the cognitive capacity of fishes.

Moray eel

The Thinking Fish
Brown has shown that fish, like humans and many other organisms, can favour certain hemispheres of the brain – known as cerebral lateralization – for certain tasks. This allows for complex multi-tasking – an ability associated with higher thinking. Fish have also been shown to have long-term memory, a capacity to learn and to use clues from the surrounding landscape to find objects. Some fish species have even been shown to use tools; for example cod learned how to use a tag attached to their dorsal fin to trigger the release of food from a self-feeding mechanism . These are qualities we associate with more complex cognition – not a mindless creature.

The Feeling Fish
Research has also enlightened us to the fact that fish are more feeling creatures than originally thought. Whether fish feel pain has been the subject of scientific debate – a debate that seems largely based around the nuances of a definition for pain. During my graduate work I clipped the adipose fin off of many trout and – despite my best efforts – every one of them exhibited signs of stress before I clipped them, every one of them flinched when I made the quick snip and every one of them took time to recover afterwards. There is no debate in my mind.

The Fishy Personality
So if we can agree that every fish is an individual that has a unique experience of its environment and that it is capable of – at least in the most basic sense of the word – thinking, feeling and behaving, then it should be no surprise that fish would exhibit unique personalities. The interesting question is then not whether fish have personalities, but how these individual personalities reflect different survival strategies. Or how they might allow some individuals to adapt to situations more readily than others? Or how the variety of personalities compares with other animals of similar life expectancies and habit?unnamed[2]

While we await the answers to these broader questions regarding the personalities of fish, perhaps the acknowledgement that they are individuals will advance our ethical treatment of fish. I have a son and husband who love to fish, which means I have spent many hours in boats and on shorelines reading, writing and observing. I have often seen fishermen leave their catch thrashing helplessly on the shore beside them. It is equivalent to a hunter snagging a deer in a leg trap and then wrapping its head in a plastic bag to then watch it slowly die by asphyxiation. It simply wouldn’t be acceptable – so why do we find this OK for fish?

Perhaps we just can’t commiserate with creatures that have scales and gills. We have a natural affinity to our fellow hairy, milk-bearing mammals. Primates are such close relatives, we find it relatively easy to recognise individuals. Jane Goodall didn’t need tagging methods, she recognised each individual based on distinct features, just as we do with our own species. In whales, elephants and meerkats we can recognise the family units and social structures that have parallels with our own, including conflict and cooperation.

People who spend a great deal of time around fish can see the complexities of real personalities in these unique and interesting animals as well. Whether it’s sharks with wallflower tendencies or soccer star puffer fish, we are only beginning to appreciate and understand fish as individuals. With over 30,000 species of fish on the planet, we clearly have a lot to learn.

NicolaTempleNicola is a displaced Canadian working as a freelance science writer in the UK. Before writing professionally full time, Nicola worked as a biologist in some of the most beautiful and remote places in western Canada and Australia. It was in these wild landscapes, somewhere between counting salmon and tinkering with outboard motors that Nicola discovered a love of storytelling. You can see more of her work at


by Barry Shell


After 30 years writing non-fiction for a living, on November 1, 2014, I started a novel. On November 30th, if I win the challenge, I’ll have a 50,000-word book. Short by some standards, but longer than Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. Anyway, it will be my first novel. I’m participating in NaNoWriMo short for National Novel Writing Month where you write a book during the month of November. I heard about it from Janis Mackenzie a librarian at SFU. We’re writing buddies in the NaNoWriMo local group.

At a kick-off meet-up, on October 26 in a downtown Vancouver pub, called Mooses Down Under, I learned much from the veterans, people who’ve been writing a novel in NaNoWriMo every November for up to nine years. When asked what happens to all these novels, one guy told me, “Some I’ve never looked at. Not once since the day I finished it. It just lives on a hard drive someplace.” A woman who has written six NaNoWriMo novels, an engineer by profession, said, “I usually don’t look at my novel until at least the following Spring. Then when the sun is shining, I can sit out and relax and take a look at what I did and enter into an enjoyable editing process in the sun.” Sound good to you?

It gets better.

For one thing, NaNoWriMo is free. There’s no cost to participate. But there are lots of socials funded by raffles, wheels of fortune, and even a tarot card reader who for $5 will let you draw three cards, the interpretation of which will get you out of a plot hole or fill in the emotional blanks for a character.

All over the NaNoWriMo website are tips and essays for “Pantsers,” writers who fly by the seat of their pants. You start on November 1 with only a vague idea of what you will write. Maybe a few characters, very roughly drawn, a scene or three. Some issues you’ve been thinking about. A theme or two. But really the message to all pantsers boils down to “just sit down and put fingers to keys and write. Write and write.”

Then there are the planners—people who have their whole novel pre-plotted, character sketches, done, all scenes storyboarded, etc. I guess they know what they are doing. I don’t. I’m a pantser.

Fifty thousand words works out to 1,667 a day, every day, for 30 days. Sixteen hundred words is about the size of the typical article I’ve been writing for almost 30 years explaining university research. But fiction is a lot different from non-fiction, where you have to get the facts right, and even more importantly, be careful to not upset anyone with any detail or turn of phrase.

Keeping track of word count for the NaNoWriMo.

Keeping track of word count for the NaNoWriMo.

In fiction anything goes.

By Day Two I had a character, an enthralling ghost, dancing her way through various quantum phenomena to seduce a young man on a park bench Twilight-Zone-style. I created another character, an educated bum forest-dwelling hermit homeless guy who is a renegade quantum physicist that figures out how to communicate with the ghosts of the park benches pushing the limits of quantum physics but using all natural materials at hand in the wilds of Stanley Park.

Why not? You can say anything, dream up anything, and make your characters do anything they want. But there’s more.

When I wrote the incredibly hot sex scene involving a man, a woman, and a ghost on a park bench it was fun. Two hours evaporated as if I myself had entered the twilight zone for a while. But what was even stranger was when I got up from my chair and went to make lunch. I felt all tingly and buzzy. It was as if I had just had sex. (Well, not exactly, but it was definitely weird.) Later I was telling a friend about these feelings, a guy who has a PhD in English Lit, and he said, “Well, you know, when your brain writes that kind of stuff you are triggering some of the same neural pathways and hormones involved when you are having sex for real. If you think writing sex scenes was strange, wait till you murder someone.”

Oh boy. They say that by week three most NaNoWriMo participants get stuck, and the best advice at that point: kill off one of your characters. So I know that day will come.

There’s something else fabulous about NaNoWriMo — Scrivener, the software you get to use for free to write your novel.  Anyone can download Scrivener and use it 30 days for free, after which time it costs $56 (Canadian). But during NanoWriMo, you get to use it for free for 45 days, up to Dec 15, and if you finish your 50,000-word novel, you get to buy it for 50 percent off. Non-winning participants get 20 percent off. Scrivener was created by a guy named Keith Blount who wrote the code mainly because he was trying to write a novel (possibly for NaNoWriMo) and he wasn’t happy with any of the available word processors.

As a writer I’m LOVING Scrivener. I wish I had known about it before I retired. It lets you move blocks of text around on a virtual corkboard. It keeps track of your characters. It keeps a running track of your word count. It has a way for you to store internal and external references. And in the end it can format your text for any number of styles including eBook publishing. You really owe it to yourself to download Scrivener and check it out. It’s a bargain.

The NaNoWriMo event was created by a guy named Chris Baty in San Francisco in 1999, growing form 21 friends to well over half a million participants in over 100 countries in 2014. There are about 150,000 students in K-12 classrooms across America participating this year. The Vancouver area region alone has about 6,000 people registered. Maybe you should try it? There’s always next year.

NaNoWriMo is based on the honour principle. You report your own daily word counts. Nobody checks. The website plots a graph and predicts how soon you will finish your novel at the rate you are going. People say to me, “What do you win if you finish your novel by November 30th?” The answer: a book you wrote yourself, in one month. Isn’t that a fabulous prize? Based on my experiences on Day 3 of this adventure, I can hardly wait.

Barry-Head-glasses-Dec-2012Barry Shell is a Vancouver freelance writer. He created, the top Google hit for Canadian science. He has written four books, and has published in magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Originally from Winnipeg, Barry has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, OR and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC. His book, “Sensational Scientists” profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books, won a national book award in 2005. Barry also plays sax in a Vancouver pop trio.

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