By Allison MacLachlan 

Modern life without language is impossible to comprehend, or rather, just impossible. Language and speech are central to how we convey information and emotion, form bonds, conduct business, and organize ourselves into productive societies. To communicate ideas, facts, and feelings – and understand what others mean when they speak – is a hallmark of humanity.

On the surface, spoken language seems basic and intrinsic. After all, speech is one of the things we learn earliest in life. But deep within the brain’s folds, spoken language is surprisingly complex, and for linguists is a place of great unknown.

Even in our über-tech age, generating and interpreting language is something humans do better than computers. We’re better than machines at understanding nuance, context, and humour. And even the most powerful computers can’t handle one job at which some humans excel: a mash-up of multitasking known as simultaneous interpretation.

Simultaneous interpreters listen to speech in one language, process it, understand it, and translate it – in real time – into another language. They typically translate from an acquired language into their mother tongue, always under the time crunch of instantly required results.

The United Nations in Geneva is home to some of the world’s most talented simultaneous interpreters. Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3AUnited_Nations_(7825811940).jpg

Recently, this Mosaic Science story on simultaneous interpreters caught my eye. Today, it seems almost quaint to find real humans processing language, in a one-to-one speaker-to-translator ratio, in real time. Some situations, however, demand it. The United Nations is probably the best-known example, but simultaneous interpreters for spoken or sign language can be found at conferences, interviews, and even theatrical productions.

Neurologically speaking, the job is tough. Speaking while listening and having two languages active at once are extreme feats of multitasking. Simultaneous interpretation is spontaneous, unpredictable, and demands attention to tone, body language, facial expressions, and word order, which differs across languages. At the UN, where the stakes are high and correct understanding is key, simultaneous interpreting can be so draining that interpreters typically work only 20-minute shifts before taking a break.

The Mosaic story explains how the human ability to speak and translate language comes down to well-synced executive function. Like other highly complex abilities, language goes beyond one focused area of the brain. Broca’s area is only part of the story. Rather, language involves fast, precise networking between multiple areas, and the grace is in the coordination.

The caudate nucleus, one the brain’s executive control centres, plays a key role in coordinating language production. Source: Wikimedia Commons http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File%3ACaudate_nucleus.gif

Researchers are exploring a new idea — that maybe our most sophisticated abilities is less about specific brain regions and more about how evolutionarily basic regions interact.

Support for this idea comes from fMRI studies, which show that the caudate nucleus, a coordination centre deep in the brain’s core, is active during language production. The caudate rallies different regions of the brain into exquisitely choreographed abilities, like learning, memory, decision-making, and planning.

What does the caudate nucleus look like in someone who’s a super-user of this synchrony centre? Here’s an interesting experiment: one group at the University of Geneva used fMRI scans to look inside the brains of 50 multilingual students while they listened to a sentence, repeated that sentence, and then were asked to translate the sentence into another language and speak it aloud.

Nineteen of these students spent the next year being trained as simultaneous interpreters, while the remainder did not. One year after the initial tests, the trainee group’s brains had changed, but not how you might expect: their caudate nuclei were less active during the third (translation) task. In other words, they became more efficient controllers and mental multi-taskers.

Something similar has been observed among elite chess players: the more experienced the player, the smaller their caudate nucleus. Since the caudate is involved in controlling so many things, this leads to some interesting questions. It opens the door to new ways of training our brains to be more efficient processors. And maybe there’s even a way to do that without having to become adept at this.

AllisonMacLachlanAllison MacLachlan (@a_maclachlan) earned her M.Sc. in science writing from MIT in 2011. She lives in Toronto, works in book publishing at Owlkids, and enjoys writing about health, biology and psychology.

Kimberly Moynahan

Separation: ESA/ATG medialab

Separation: ESA/ATG medialab

On November 12th, almost a half-million of us sat glued to our screens watching scientists watch the space voyager Rosetta gently drop the lander, Philae, onto a comet.

After Philae landed we all held our breath for nearly a half hour, waiting for Philae’s confirmation to travel the 500-million kilometres back to earth telling us that she* had landed and everything was well and good.

As someone on Twitter commented during that 28-minute wait, “Never has the speed of light felt so slow.”

Indeed.

So while we waited, we followed Twitter, among us tweeting out the hashtag #cometlanding some 581,000 times, in a frenzy that peaked at 10,000 tweets per minute when Philae finally tweeted:

Touchdown! My new address: 67P! #CometLanding

Now I don’t know about the rest of you, but wow. That just about did me in.

Welcome to a comet: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

Welcome to a comet: ESA/Rosetta/Philae/CIVA

However, let’s go back a minute so I can reiterate a point: We spent hours watching scientists watching screens.

Here, in a world of sound bites and instant answers; a world where newscasters breathlessly deliver even the most mundane news, and headlines shout to grab our attention; a world where life is over-stimulating by design, hundreds of thousands of us settled in to quietly watch and wait in silence.

And that is the first lesson of Philae.

Lesson #1 – Science is Slow Work

Finally! I’m stretching my legs after more than 10 years. Landing gear deployed! #CometLanding

Poaching an egg takes 3 minutes no matter how many chefs or dollars you throw at it. Much of science is the same way. It takes the time it takes. Cells divide in a day. Drosophila reproduce in a week. Ecosystems recover over decades. Climate trends show themselves over centuries.

Rosetta left Earth 10 years ago. Of course those scientists have been busy during the interim. Rosetta has, after all, been gathering data all that time. But to set something in motion knowing it’s going to take a decade before its culminating event occurs requires setting aside any dreams of instant gratification.

To do the work of science means committing to the long haul.

Lesson #2 — Eureka Is Just the Beginning

Thank you, @ESA_Rosetta! I did it! I became the first spacecraft to land on a comet & study it! But it’s not over yet… #CometLanding

“This morning, we hit a milestone, an important milestone of this mission. But this mission isn’t just about arriving at a comet. It’s about studying the comet. It’s about placing a lander on a comet, but again, the mission does not end there. The science continues…” — ESA’s Laurence O’Rourke on Rosetta’s arrival at the comet (August 2014)

Science doesn’t end when a problem is solved, a discovery is made, or an answer is found. Each of those big moments creates a new jumping off point for inquiry and discovery.

Lesson #3 – Slow Science Requires Long Political Will

.@ESA_Rosetta & my mission would not have been possible without international cooperation
https://www.facebook.com/video.php?v=10152384656010868&set=vb.353610595867&type=2&theater … #CometLanding

At a cost of 1.3 billion euros ($1.8B CDN), the success of the Rosetta Mission hinged on the foresight, political commitment and cooperation of ESA’s twenty member nations.

These nations span political and ideological boundaries. For each nation, membership and financial support to ESA have successfully transcended decades of election cycles and political shifts at home.

This kind of commitment to the long view, despite shifts in political winds, is necessary if science is going to progress within a country. When good science is devalued and defunded over political ideology we all lose.

How do you get political commitment?

Lesson #4 – Engage the People

Hello again! It’s nice to be back in contact, Earth! #CometLanding

I am certain that outside of scientific circles, most people were unaware of the Rosetta mission until the day of Philae’s landing. But then ESA kicked in with a publicity blitz and an imaginative social media presence that enamoured the public.

In a refreshing departure from the often dry commentary supplied by agency representatives or the talking-points chatter of mainstream media, the Tweets from and between Rosetta and Philae gave such personality to the space vehicles that it was hard to remember that they were composed by ESA staff.

This kind of delightful, but informative, engagement is powerful. By the time the landing was over, Philae had 390,000 followers on Twitter and we were in love with the little lander.

However, getting this kind of buy-in from the public requires something else – something we don’t have here in Canada.

Lesson #5 – Allow Free and Open Communications

This tweet says it all.

Because @esa scientists talk to press freely, whole world is sharing the #CometLanding drama. Remember, CDN gov’t scientists can’t do that.

Lesson #6 – Slow Science Requires Optimism

Sometimes life gives you lemons …or in this case, a shadow on your solar panels:

.@ESA_Rosetta I’m feeling a bit tired, did you get all my data? I might take a nap… #CometLanding

In science, this kind of thing happens. Results don’t come out as expected. Studies fall apart. Batteries or, worse, carefully bred study animals die, setting work back decades. And when that happens scientists who are in it for the long haul have to embrace a good deal of optimism.

“It has been a huge success, the whole team is delighted … We still hope that at a later stage of the mission, perhaps when we are nearer to the Sun, that we might have enough solar illumination to wake up the lander and re-establish communication.” — Stephan Ulamec, lander manager at the DLR German Aerospace Agency.

 

My #lifeonacomet has just begun @ESA_Rosetta. I’ll tell you more about my new home, comet #67P soon… zzzzz #CometLanding

Farewell Philae: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Farewell Philae: ESA/Rosetta/MPS for OSIRIS Team MPS/UPD/LAM/IAA/SSO/INTA/UPM/DASP/IDA

Thank you Philae. Sleep well.

* Philae’s social media team considers Philae to be a “he” but to me the lander’s personality felt like a she. Given the circumstances, I’d like to think we can both be right.

 

Kimberly MoynahanKimberly Moynahan writes on the natural sciences and reflects on that uneasy space in the Venn diagram where humans and wildlife overlap, both physically and emotionally. Her work can be found on her blog, Endless Forms Most Beautiful.

 

Stephen Hawking, addressing NASA, 2008. (Photo credit NASA)

by Ron Miksha

The marriage of Stephen Hawking and Jane Wilde – as told through the ex-wife’s memoir – has become the stuff of a Hollywood tragic-romance. I have not read her memoir but have read excerpts and reviews of it. The Jane Wilde Hawking Jones book, Travelling to Infinity – My Life with Stephen, was written a few years after their divorce (the Hawkings had been together for nearly 30 years). The Theory of Everything, the Hollywood adaptation, is a very loose interpretation of her story of their time together. The film makes  a compelling and fascinating account, but it is an extraordinarily unfaithful rendering. The screenplay adapters knew what they were doing in their rewrite – they were presenting a story that should fill theatre seats. It is intended as entertainment, of course.

As entertainment, the movie works well. The viewer is quickly engaged in the awkward charm and cerebral wit of young Stephen Hawking (Eddie Redmayne) and the quiet poise and dignity of his wife Jane (Felicity Jones). The film begins with Hawking’s arrival at Cambridge, the first signs of his progressive motor neuron disease, his PhD defence, and his meeting of Jane. (They were introduced through Jane’s sister, but the movie has us believe that Hawking spied her at a party and pursued her through some quirky schemes.) The movie trails through Jane’s incredible efforts to build a semblance of a family life for their children while simultaneously dealing with her husband’s unimaginably challenging progressive paralysis, her own infidelity, and Hawking’s growing fame. The film shows their parting and a final reconciliation. Although they were married nearly 30 years and their children became adults, the ending scenes present the children as grammar-school kids, for obvious emotional effect.

The movie does a good job documenting the progression of Hawking’s motor neuron disease, which has been described as a variant of ALS. (It is a variant only because it has been slowly progressive – all of his symptoms fall well within this broad-spectrum disorder.) Hawking was diagnosed at age 21 and the disease has slowly paralyzed him – albeit at a rate one-tenth the “normal” progression of the illness. It took 20 years for his disability to mimic the presentation found within 2 years in a typical ALS patient. The movie does an exceptionally stirring job of showing the difficulties family, friends, and spouses endure as they try to maintain normal lives while caring for profoundly ill loved ones.

But the movie should not be taken as a serious factual representation of the life of the Hawkings. For example, as Jane is unzipping her boyfriend’s tent, Stephen is far away, having his trachea neatly incised by a surgeon. Although the juxtaposed symbolism is startling and brilliant as it equates young Jane’s affair with the slitting of her husband’s throat, things didn’t happen quite that way. For pursuers of fact, I would point you towards Stephen Hawking: A Brief History of Mine. This more accurate account shows us that Jane is not so young –  it  is a mature 42-year-old Jane Hawking who made the life-saving decision for her husband’s continued ventilation. The tracheotomy came months later. And, according to Jane’s memoir, she stayed faithful to Stephen –  the camping scene is entirely contrived theatre.

A few more overt fabrications in the movie:

  1. A friend asks Stephen about his sex life. Hawking’s actor smirks and responds. The scene is shear invention – Hawking, according to Jane’s memoir, never spoke openly about sex, “which for him was as taboo a subject as his illness.”
  2. The movie shows Hawking’s friends breaking the news about the diagnosis to Jane. In the film, the Hawkings were depicted as a couple – in reality, she heard about his ALS by chance and they were not even dating yet.
  3. A game of croquet figures large in the movie – it symbolizes Hawking’s frustration with his illness and Jane’s loyalty. The game never happened.
  4. In the movie, Hawking coughs and chokes at a formal concert and is whisked away in an ambulance – reality was not as dramatic. During a stop in Geneva, his friends were concerned about his persistent cough. They called a doctor. He was admitted to a hospital. The tracheotomy came after Hawking had recovered and had been on a ventilator for months.

The family friend. The movie leads the viewer to believe that Jane’s friend, Johnathan Jones, was the family’s sole helper for years. This is not true. A series of Hawking’s grad students lived with the family and helped with his care – one even travelled to California and lived with the family there for a year. The family friend did not. Further, the movie shows Hawking suffering the indignity of his wife’s boyfriend lifting Stephen from the toilet, implying this was how life worked in the Hawking household. It didn’t work that way, but it creates great theatre.

  1. To simplify things, many of Hawking’s colleagues are merged into a single person. This was most artfully executed in “Brian,” portrayed as Hawking’s close friend and confidant, the gentleman who tries to rescue Stephen Hawking from despair. In real life, no such person existed.

The voice. In the movie, Jane remarks that Hawking’s new voice is “American” – this drew laughter from the audience, but in reality, she never said it. Instead, Jane thought the voice sounded like a cyborg from the British television series, Doctor Who.

I think that Physics actually receives a reasonable treatment from this Hollywood flick, although the New York Times reviewer calls it vastly over-simplified. Of course it is – this is a mass-consumption movie, not a Feynman lecture. At one point, Jane spews one of Hawking’s theories at a dinner table. This theatrical device describes the science in layman’s terms and helps the audience grasp an outline of the scientist’s work. But this movie is not a science movie, and its makers do not portend as much. For the real physics, Errol Morris’s documentary A Brief History of Time will not disappoint you.

In the film, I felt that Stephen Hawking’s religious beliefs are intentionally muddled. In what I assume is an attempt to appease a largely religious American audience, Hawking’s well-known and frequently stated atheism is toned down and his wife’s religiosity (which is genuine) was amplified. Hawking was shown making allowances for God in the universe and, near the movie’s end, Hawking is asked directly about the role of a deity (and his own beliefs) –  the film’s answer is a very indirect and highly qualified retreat from Stephen Hawking’s often stated principles. But perhaps vague innuendo about religion is the best way to satisfy those who may attend this show. To be direct, the producers could have used this quote from Hawking: “There is no god. No one created the universe and no one directs our fate.” You can see Hawking make this statement and its context at this link. It is not presented as a muddled triviality.

Although this Mountain Mystery blog is usually about Earth Science topics, I have written at length about this new movie for two reasons.  First, I saw the film last night at a first-screening event here in Calgary. My tickets were provided through the distributor, E-One Entertainment and were sent to me by the Canadian Science Writers Association, of which I am a member. So, with gratitude for the E-One advance screening tickets (the movies opens here on Friday) and with thanks to the CSWA, I felt I would blog this bit about the film. But there is a second reason for blogging about The Theory of Everything. And it is personal.

Some friends and I.

Like Stephen Hawking, I have a variant of motor neuron disease. I sensed something was amiss for most of my life. But I was nearly 40 when I finally began to tumble and fall. (The first time resulted in a broken arm; a series of lesser mishaps soon followed.) It took a year of clumsy movement, slow walking, and weakness before I approached a physician. Another year passed before a neurologist reluctantly told me that I probably had ALS. We would monitor the disease monthly and see how it progressed. All of the tests (mostly electrified wires that made me jump like a dead frog) pointed to motor neuron disease, but progression has been incredibly slow.  What I have is certainly not typical ALS, nor is Hawking’s disease typical ALS. It is best described as a motor neuron disorder (of which there are many flavours). It took years, but I recently surrendered my outdoor ambulations to a wheelchair, curtailed my travels, reduced my work. Fatigue is chronic. Everything I do takes more energy and frustration than you can imagine. Both of my feet have pronounced foot-drop which requires me to lift my legs high when I try to walk, lest I trip on my toes and plant my face into our wooden floor. My left hand hangs limp and its fingers no longer coordinate their movements very well. My right arm does not rise above my head.  But like Stephen Hawking in his younger days, I also have a dedicated wife who spends her free time doing things I should be able to do and who tirelessly works to make my life easier and more comfortable.

Unlike Stephen Hawking, I am not profoundly disabled. Nor am I profoundly intelligent. We are all different people, aren’t we? Most of us have some debilitation – often unseen emotional or mental challenges, sometimes unseen medical problems, sometimes severe disabilities that startle others unexpectedly. We all travel the same road, all bound to the same destiny. With that in mind, the movie – The Theory of Everything – is less remarkable than it might seem. It is a movie about all of us. It is worth watching, not as a documentary about a scientist and his wife, but as a glimpse into the reality of life and the suffering that every one of us endures.

 

RonMikshaRon Miksha is a science writer based in Calgary. Ron has worked as a radio broadcaster, a beekeeper, and he is a geophysicist. His book Bad Beekeeping highlights his 10 years of caring for a thousand colonies of bees; The Mountain Mystery explains how we came to know the origin of mountains. This review appeared originally in Ron’ blog.

 

By Claire Eamer

I spent much of the summer researching a new kids’ science book. (Sorry – can’t get specific yet.) It’s about a very hot research topic – so hot that fresh stories seemed to hit the news every other day all summer long.

If you’re writing one of those news stories, it’s exciting. You can get your story out in days, if not hours. If you’re writing for a magazine or another long-form medium, you have a problem. Your story might not appear for a couple of months or even longer. That means you have to dig deeper into the background of the story and give your readers the tools to evaluate the hot-off-the-press news stories that will continue to crop up.

But pity the poor book writer! The authors of non-fiction books can spend years researching their topics, reading the literature, interviewing experts in the field, grappling with the complexity and implications of the topic — and that’s just the beginning. The process of editing, designing, proofing, printing, and publishing usually adds at least another year to the process.

I write science books for kids, and that gives me an advantage. The books are shorter, so the turn-around time is faster. Still, the book I’ve been working on since late last spring won’t hit the shelves until next fall. That’s a long time for a hot topic.

Nevertheless – you have to try, even if you’re writing for kids. Maybe especially if you’re writing for kids. They are the scientists and science-consumers of tomorrow, and they need the best, most accurate information writers can give them. Kids’ science writers generally try very hard to provide that.

And sometimes that relatively short lead time for kids’ books does work to our advantage.

A few years ago, I spent months researching material for Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past, a book for kids aged 10 to 14 on the history of eight different buildings around the world.

(Yes, I know this blog is supposed to be about science, but we’ll get there. Promise!)

One of the doorways was the grand entrance to the Treasury, or Al Khazneh, in Petra, Jordan. You’ve probably seen it. In the movie Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, when Indy dashed up a wide stone stairway and through the imposing doorway of the Grail Temple, he was really dashing up the steps and through the entrance of the Treasury.

Of course, there’s no Grail Temple on the other side of the door – just a big empty room carved into the red-stone cliff. Both room and façade were created by the Nabateans, who controlled the desert trade routes for several centuries before the Romans took control of Petra in 106 CE.

Photo cutline and credit: In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

Photo cutline and credit: In this 2010 photo of the Treasury, the grating covering the 2003 excavations is visible to the left of the great door. Photo by Arian Zwegers, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic Licence

The Nabateans built the Treasury about 2000 years ago, and the circumstances of its construction and its purpose were lost in time. In 2007, when I was researching my book, the best source of information was Jane Taylor’s beautiful 2002 book, Petra and the Lost Kingdom of the Nabateans. The author listed the most common speculations about the purpose of the Treasury, and the reasoning behind them. That should be enough, you’d think. After all, I was writing a single chapter in a book for kids – 20 short pages at most, with lots of pictures.

The trouble is, you have to be sure. So I searched academic journals, trawled the Internet, and poked through proceedings from archaeology conferences.

(See – I told you we’d get back to science!)

Although the journals produced nothing new, the Internet kept throwing up tantalizing references to recent excavations. But – no journal articles, no first-hand accounts, no contact information.

Finally, I searched for email addresses under the names I’d identified and sent messages to all of them in the hope that one would connect. One did. Dr. Suleiman Farajat of the University of Jordan and the Petra Archaeological Park responded and kindly sent me a draft report with the information I needed.

In the summer of 2003, with tourism in Jordan all but dead because of political tension, Jordanian archaeologists had done some long-delayed excavating in front of the Treasury, where ground-penetrating radar suggested there was something interesting. And indeed there was. The broad steps and huge entry were not, it turned out, the base of the structure. They were, in fact, one storey up. Beneath them, buried in millennia of flash-flood debris, was an entire storey – tombs, some still holding skeletons and the remains of offerings to the dead.

The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

The 2003 excavations revealed this narrow stairway leading down to the tombs that once formed the main-floor level of the Treasury. Photo courtesy of Petra National Trust.

The mystery of the Treasury – still a mystery in the 2002 book – was a mystery no more. The Treasury was a mausoleum built to honour the royal family of Petra and to awe and impress visitors. Its grand entry had once loomed metres above the heads of visitors and worshippers, who filled the plaza beneath it with the smoke of their offerings and the murmur of their prayers.

When Traitors’ Gate and Other Doorways to the Past – a book for kids – came out in 2008, it was the only publication with that new information, apart from a print-only annual report on excavations that was shelved in a library in Jordan. And that remained true for a couple of years, until the rest of the publishing world caught up.

Sometimes, all those awkward timelines just work out right.

Claire Eamer is a Yukon-based science writer who writes popular science articles and books for both kids and adults, as well as writing and editing major scientific reports for international science-based organizations. Her latest book Before the World Was Ready: Stories of Daring Genius in Science, published by Annick Press, won the 2014 Lane Anderson Award for science writing in the children’s category.

Website of the Petra National Trust and its list of archaeology projects: http://petranationaltrust.org/UI/showcontent.aspx?ContentId=79

A guide to Petra as one of the Seven New Wonders of the World: http://www.theworldwonders.com/new-petra.html

An account by a tourism operator shortly after the 2003 excavations: http://www.diggingsonline.com/pages/rese/arts1/2004/petra.htm

A story about Petra and celebrations for the 200th anniversary of Europeans’ “rediscovery” of the city (the Bedouins knew it was there all the time): http://www.gadventures.com/blog/200-years-of-discovery-petras-re-discovery-bicentennial/

“Preserving Petra Sustainably (One Step at a Time)” in the inaugural edition of the Journal of Eastern Mediterranean Archaeology and Heritage Studies (2013): http://www.psupress.org/Journals/Journal%20PDFs/JEMAHS_mockup_FINAL.pdf

A rather breathless documentary about Petra from the program, Digging for the Truth – but with some good video and an interview with Dr. Farajat: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VeKabIpA69A

 

By Pam Lincez

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bananas.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Bananas.JPG]

Cavendish Bananas [Credit: Marlith - Own work. Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons - http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bananas.JPG#mediaviewer/File:Bananas.JPG]

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: http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/]

“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: http://qz.com/164029/tropical-race-4-global-banana-industry-is-killing-the-worlds-favorite-fruit/]

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 pamlincez.wordpress.com. She is as her Twitter handle @PamLincez describes – a futurist, realist, optimist and traveler.

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