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By Wally Zeisig

Hey 007, Q has a new gadget for you, your brain. Forget the password, the fingerprint, the iris scan. In future when 007 needs security clearance he’ll simply just think about it. Seriously.

The aim of mind-reading has been around for centuries. When the research team of Shinji Nishimoto and Jack Gallant from UC Berkeley started out to discover ways of communicating with patients suffering from neurodegenerative diseases, or those locked in a coma, or who were struck dumb by paralysis, they were really onto something. With the aid of fMRI (functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging), and computer models they were able to measure blood flow to the cerebral cortex and record the complex patterns of electrical activity generated by the subject’s brain while they were being tested. The resulting brain scans were then translated by computer models to become accurate images of what the subject was looking at or thinking at the time.

In another study by Dr. John Chuang et al of UC  Berkeley School of Information tested brainwave activities on 15 volunteers doing certain tasks, and found that the resulting brainwave pattern is not only specific to the task but also specific to the person performing the task. Even when the same person performed different tasks, the results showed a high correlation of the EEG matched to the right person doing the task. So how is this useful for the average consumer? It’s big news in the realm of security authentication.

Authentication has been the Holy Grail since the early days of the Web, so when these findings were presented at the 17th International Conference on Financial Cryptography and Data Security in Okinawa, Japan in April of 2013, people were on the edge of their seats. Could this really be the next big thing in security authentication?

Large firms use security-sensitive biometric measures that include fingerprinting, iris scanning, facial recognition, and voice recognition.  Those, however, won’t work on your computer or mobile phone.

How convenient would it be to not have to bother remembering all our passwords, pin numbers, and secret codes?  Instead just put on a wireless headset embedded with a bio-sensor and just think of a password and presto, you have access to your computer or other consumer electronic device.  The uniqueness of your own brainwaves makes this a very real possibility in the not-so-distant future. And not only that but you’d have the peace of mind that all of your accounts are hack-proof. The implications of this technology are huge especially with companies like Google and Microsoft who are always looking for new ways to improve their password security systems.

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Traditionally brainwaves data (EEG) were collected by invasive probes attached under the skull or by wet-gel electrodes stuck all over the scalp with long wires ending in a huge machine. This method is called multi-channel and is necessary for diagnosing neurological diseases.

The Berkeley study, however, found that for the singular purpose of security authentication one channel of an EEG is all that is needed for accurate authentication 99% of the time. And that data can easily be captured by an EEG bio-sensors embedded in wireless headsets.

The study showed that brainwaves for similar mental tasks remained constant for each person. In other words, every person tested had his own brainwaves for that particular task. It is noteworthy that when subjects were allowed to choose their own mental tasks their EEG showed an even higher rate of accuracy of matching brainwaves to the correct individual.

Before this technology gets to the market it still has to jump through a lot of hoops. Maybe it won’t be long before 007 has more in common with the team on Star Trek.

WallyWally is veteran educator with a prestigious 20-year career, specializing in Biology, Chemistry and Physics. She has received critical acclaim for writing curricula for Senior Biology, Chemistry and Environmental Science.  Additionally, Wally was one of the first educators to incorporate computer technology and blogs in her teaching putting her classes on the pedagogic cutting edge at the time. Rather than let her love of Science go to waste after retiring from teaching, Wally embarked on a new career as editor and writer. Wally’s other passion is photography and to date has had 5 exhibitions of her work.



By Robyn Braun

Giant pandas are often the focus of intense conservation efforts. But now, rather than just needing help, Giant pandas and their poop, are themselves making contributions to the production of sustainable biofuels, which may ultimately help us all! The digestive tracts of giant pandas contains more than 40 species of bacteria, which researchers are now using to help break down tough plant material into the same simple sugars used to produce ethanol.

Even though pandas mostly eat only bamboo they don’t have the digestive tract of a typical herbivore. Pandas are not ruminants, like cows, and they don’t have extended intestines. In fact, they actually have the digestive system of a carnivore and food moves through their gut fairly quickly. Because the bamboo spends so little time getting mushed up and mixed with digestive juices in the pandas’ digestive tracts, the bacteria in the panda gut are almost solely responsible for digestion.

And here’s where the biofuel comes in. At an industrial scale, the most common biofuel, ethanol, is best derived from corn stalks and cobs, which is a very tough and fibrous plant material, just like bamboo. Corn fibre requires expensive industrial processing before it can be fermented into ethanol. Scientists at Mississippi State University saw room for panda poop to make this industrial process more efficient and cost effective.

There are two main kinds of microbes that live in the panda’s gut: those that break down the biomass and those that produce oils and sugars. The team at Mississippi State has already sequenced the genomes of each and is now even able to manipulate those microbes’ genes so that the oil-producing bacteria produce larger amounts of oil.

The most expensive part of biofuel production is the pretreatment process, where the tough fibres are broken down into simpler sugars. The introduction of the panda gut bacteria to the mix will make that pretreatment process cheaper and more efficient. A big goal of biofuel is to move away from using material that can also be used for food or feed to produce fuel. Panda poop, and the microbes in it, can make this move more likely.

Mississippi State University has a pilot scale processing facility for biofuel production, and they’re in the midst of bringing together the biochemists and engineers they need to work together on the research and bring the process up to industrial scale. At the moment the facility is using yeast coupled with sewage sludge to produce biofuels. With the addition of panda poop the facility should be able to increase the rate at which it produces its oil.

So let’s save the giant panda and its microbes. Not just because it’s cute, but because we just might need it for our future.

Robyn Braun owns a science communications company precisely so that she can research and write about all kinds of science for all kinds of audiences.

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by Nicola Temple

As a Canadian currently living in the UK, I am no stranger to the trans-Atlantic flight. As I prepare for a flight to the US later this week I find myself thinking of a time when seat belts seemed more optional as we cruised above the clouds. Now we are ardently reminded to fasten our seat belts when seated and it’s likely that the seatbelt sign may be on for more of the journey in the future.

Aircraft encounter air turbulence at cruising altitudes and although most incidents are rarely enough to spill your coffee, others can be significant — causing injury to passengers and cabin crew as well as structural damage to the aircraft itself. This type of turbulence can’t be seen by the pilots and isn’t visible to on-board radar or satellites. It’s known as clear-air turbulence and research suggests that trans-Atlantic flights will encounter it more frequently as atmospheric carbon dioxide levels increase.

Clean-air turbulence map. Credit:

Clear-air turbulence map. Credit:

Clear-air turbulence is caused by instabilities in the atmosphere. The Earth’s atmosphere is stratified — the air is the most dense close to the ground; as you move up in the atmosphere the air becomes less dense. This layering has a stabilizing effect because it inhibits parcels of air from travelling vertically up or down. Wind, however, travels at different speeds at different altitudes, generally getting faster the higher up you go. This is known as wind shear and this can create a lifting mechanism that allows air to travel vertically, which has a destabilizing effect.

These two processes — stratification and wind shear — are in a constant state of tug-of-war and 99 percent of the time it is the stabilzing stratification that wins out and there’s no turbulence. The remaining one percent of the time, however, wind shear is strong enough to offset the balance, creating turbulence.

Now introduce climate change into this game of tug-of-war. Carbon dioxide has a warming effect in the lower part of our atmosphere, but higher in the stratosphere it is having a cooling effect. The stratosphere is the upper atmosphere, about 14 to 22 kilometres above the surface, and contains the protective UV absorbing ozone layer. Depleted ozone means less UV radiation is absorbed and less heat is generated, having an overall cooling effect. It is the temperature difference between this upper atmosphere and lower atmosphere that drives the jet stream and rising CO2 levels means that this difference is going to get bigger. This will lead to a stronger jet stream and wind shear will begin to win at atmospheric tug-of-war more often; our atmosphere will be more unstable more of the time.

A study in 2013 out of the UK looked at how clear-air turbulence would be affected by increased CO2 levels.  They ran 20 years of simulations using as many turbulence diagnostics as they could find and in all cases, clear-air turbulence increased in both strength and frequency of occurrence with increasing CO2. Under a doubled CO2 scenario, predicted to occur around 2050 if we continue on our current trajectory, the simulations predicted a 10 to 40 percent increase in the strength of the turbulence and a 40 to 170 percent increase in the frequency of occurrence for flights within the trans-Atlantic corridor.

It won't get quite this bad. Credit:!.jpg

It won’t get quite this bad. Credit:!.jpg

Does this mean that flights of the future will have passengers strapped in for eight hours or more as they cross the Atlantic? Can we kiss what’s left of in-flight service goodbye? Not likely. The European Commission has funded research collaborations between academics and industry that is developing technology that might help. For example, the DELICAT project (Demonstration of LIdar based Clear Air Turbulence detection) has demonstrated that it’s possible to detect clear-air turbulence accurately and reliably at a distance of about 10 nautical miles ahead of the aircraft. This means that with further development a device could be installed on future aircraft that would detect the turbulence about one minute before the plane reaches it. Not exactly a lot of warning, but perhaps just enough time to get trolleys secured and passengers and cabin crew seated with seat belts secured. The new technology could significantly reduce the number of injuries, but it isn’t likely to be part of on-board instrumentation for at least another five years.

Advancements in predictive models may also help improve forecasts as to where clear-air turbulence is likely to be on a flight path. These predictions may result in route alterations to avoid turbulent areas, leading to longer flights and increased fuel costs.

So, until we are better able to predict and detect clear-air turbulence, I will be buckled up on my flight this week, avoiding hot drinks and out-of-control trolleys. I will also be wallowing in my own guilt that my transportation choice is of course contributing to the situation that will likely make flights bumpier in the future. Ah. Yes. The irony.

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 Naomi Stewart

Sarracenia purpurea Credit: WikiCommons

Sarracenia purpurea Credit: WikiCommons

Deep in the recesses of Canada’s wetlands, nestled in sphagnum bogs and pregnant with the water of the last rain is Sarracenia purpurea, our only native carnivorous plant. The provincial flower of Newfoundland and Labrador, S. purpurea is more commonly known as the (purple) pitcher plant, due to its elongated, hollow, carafe-like shape, a shape ideal for catching and holding rainwater. The pitcher plant is found in wetlands, with a vast range extending from Alberta straight through to the Atlantic coast and scattered as far south as Virginia. The purple pitcher plant is the only species of the genus that can handle cold temperate regions – quite a hardy plant.

Unlike some of its more aggressive carnivorous relatives that trap insect prey quickly and then use a plethora of deadly digestive enzymes to break down the chitin found in their exoskeletons, the pitcher plants attack depends on a combination of drowning and a community of organisms called inquilines. An inquiline is an animal that lives un-harmfully in the home of another animal, a behaviour known as commensalism.* As S. purpurea ages beyond its first year, it loses the digestive enzymes that helped it kick-start its life, and instead comes to depend mutualistically upon this unique inquiline community to provide them with nutrients in exchange for this home, as described below.

The purple pitcher plant has a small hood flap at the top that allows rainwater to fall into it without drying out. Credit: WikiCommons

The purple pitcher plant has a small hood flap at the top that allows rainwater to fall into it without drying out. Credit: WikiCommons

The purple pitcher plant has a small hood flap at the top that allows rainwater to fall into it without drying out. The plant emits a sweet nectar scent to seduce passing insects, luring them in with the possibility of refreshments. The bright red and purple colouring of the veins, which stand out in contrast to the green vegetation found in wetlands, also draws in certain prey.

Small, slippery hairs line the inside of the hollow-tubed pitcher plant and point downwards, so that any enamoured insects that have come to investigate the sweet smell cannot grasp a hold to climb back out. Prey eventually drown in exhaustion in the pool of collected water (called “phytotelma”) at the bottom. At this point, the inquiline team gets to work eating and digesting the drowned corpses, which are generally small insects like ants, but can also include larger organisms like spiders (I’ve even heard anecdotal evidence of small frogs being stuck in large pitcher plants). Through the physical breakdown of the prey, as well as the release of their excrement, the inquiline community extracts nutrients from the insects that the pitcher plant cannot access due to their lack of digestive enzymes.

The inquiline community of the pitcher plant is a fascinating combination of bacteria, rotifers, midges, and protozoa. Common species include Habrotrocha rosa (rotifer), Metriocnemus knabi (midge), and Wyeomyia smithii (mosquito larva). Several of the inquiline community species, including the midge and mosquito larva, are species only found in the pools of water found in S. purpurea. The wispy mosquito larva is of particular importance as they are the top predator in this carnivorous food web, and their presence (and pitcher size) increases and enhances the diversity of the rest of the inquiline community. (It is not entirely certain why this is, but theories point to the effluence of the larval community providing rich nutrient resources to the bacteria).

Wyeomyia smithii Credit: WikiCommona

Wyeomyia smithii Credit: WikiCommona

To have developed such an individualized food web and miniature ecosystem within its own body, and be the exclusive host to several species, is a unique and beautiful role to play within North American wetlands. As we near the end of a long winter, we can look forward to the opportunities to slowly paddle down quiet, still Canadian lakes, pull upside along a chartreuse patch of sphagnum, and admire the curvaceous, dangerous beauty of S. purpurea, efficient predator with its internal army of inquilines.

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*Interesting note: commensalism comes through French from the Latin commensalis meaning ‘to eat at the same table’ (from com- (together/with), and -mensa (table/meal).

NaomiStewart Naomi Stewart is a project associate with the United Nations University – Institute of Water, Environment, and Health, in Hamilton, Ontario. Previously a managing editor at the Water Quality Journal of Canada, and a research assistant at Environment Canada in water quality and monitoring, she has a lifelong interest in all natural science communications, but particularly water-based and agricultural sciences.  She learned about the awesome S. purpurea through an undergraduate research course in Algonquin Park, where she canoed around and harvested the pitcher plants to study the inquiline community. You can read more popular science at her Deciphering Science blog:


by Diana Kwon

Last Sunday’s Oscars, like other similar award ceremonies, reeled in some hundred million viewers. Between Ellen DeGeneres’ selfies and John Travolta’s major mishap, viewers around the world watched as celebrities hoisted high their Oscars, the film industry’s highest honour.



Why do we care so much about watching others win? The benefits of “living vicariously through someone else” – receiving pleasure from the other’s achievements – may be opaque on the surface, but as a social species, our evolutionary success depends on others. Interacting socially can provide access to a wider range of resources and psychological benefits, and our brains have developed mechanisms that allow us to receive joy from vicarious rewards.

Reward processing largely happens in the striatum, a structure located deep inside the brain that got its name from its striped appearance. The striatum is responsible for a number of functions, including voluntary motor control (planning and executing movements), cognition, and reward processing. It also responds to rewards in social situations.

In particular, scientists have identified the ventral striatum as the “reward-center” of the brain. Single-neuron recordings in live monkeys during a rewarded task revealed that striatal neurons responded to the monkey’s own actions and the actions of its counterpart. Some of activation disappeared when a computer completed the task, pointing to the likelihood that these neurons were coding for social actions. Seeing others’ success can create a strong positive response in our reward systems. This likely provided an evolutionary advantage for humans in early societies where survival depended on group members finding food and defeating enemies. Rooting for others can also provide beneficial in today’s society – having a strong social network can contribute to one’s success in most situations. Today, game shows, award ceremonies, and other widely publicized competitions provide alternative outlets to receiving vicarious rewards.


Interestingly, we don’t feel joy for just anyone. There are specific factors that lead to a greater positive response to vicarious rewards.

One factor is similarity. In a 2009 paper published in Science, researchers had participants watch a film of two groups of contestants – “the cool kids” and the “uncool kids” – playing a game. (Social, personal, and ethical questions were used to establish social desirability – “cool” versus “uncool”.)

People rated contestants in the ”cool” group to be more similar to them, and found it more rewarding to see the “cool kids” win. Activity in the ventral striatum mirrored this increased response to other’s success. The authors of the paper suggest that game shows capitalize on this type of similarity bias by recruiting individuals who are similar to their viewers. Advertisers may also use this to their advantage (think about P&G’s “Thank you, Mom” campaign for the 2014 Winter Olympics). The “Raising an Olympian” videos frame the athletes in a relatable way to the audience, portraying them as an average person who makes their way to the top through various trials and tribulations. (If you haven’t seen one of these yet, you can start by watching the Scott Moir and Tessa Virtue video – but I’ll warn you, these ads are addictive.)

Familiarity also leads to greater responses to vicarious rewards. The authors of a 2012 study published in the Journal of Neuroscience had participants conduct a task where they had to share rewards with different types of partners – a computer, a stranger, or a friend. Subjects found sharing rewards with friends the most enjoyable, and had the greatest ventral striatum activation in this condition (there was no difference between the computer and the stranger). The magnitude of this brain activity also depended on the relation to the friend – higher closeness ratings led to greater activity. We are more likely to root for those who are closest to us (including the celebrities or athletes we know and love).

Your current state of mind can also play a role in how much joy you’ll receive from seeing someone else gain a reward. A study published this February in Neuroimage looked at the effect of self-construal (perception of your connectedness with others) on neural responses to personal or vicarious rewards.

As expected, the rewards for yourself or a friend activated the ventral striatum – but the magnitude of this response depended on the participant’s self-construal. When the participant considered themselves as independent agents (not reliant on others for success), neural activity was greater to their own reward than their friend’s. On the other hand, when they focused on their interconnectedness and dependence on others, there was no difference between their own and their friend’s rewards.

Overall, the appeal of watching others win may not be so strange after all.  We’re most likely to root for people who are similar and familiar – especially when we focus on our dependence on others for survival. Perhaps the Oscars, Olympics, and any other event that celebrates winners, have the ventral striatum – and evolution – to thank for their success.

DianaKownDiana is neuroscience graduate student at McGill University and the current Science and Technology editor for The McGill Daily. Find more of her work at





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