Archive for April, 2010

I was first introduced to jumping spiders during an undergraduate class in biodiversity with Dr. Wayne Maddison at UBC. Dr. Maddison is the current director of the Beaty Biodiversity Museum at UBC. His lab studies the phylogeny and evolution of jumping spiders.

Now, to be clear, I hate bugs. With a passion.


Jumping spiders are pretty neat (so long as I never have to be face to face with one…)! They are part of the family of spiders called Salticidae, consisting of over 5000 described species. Many more are undescribed. That is, species are thought to exist which have not been formally named and described in the literature.

The number of species in Salticidae make this family an excellent model for phylogenetic studies. Phylogenetics is the study of evolutionary relationships between species using genetic data. Combined with morphological data, phylogenetics helps to unravel the relatedness of different species.

Like many spiders, jumping spiders have acute vision. They are also able to sense vibrations from hairs present on their body. Some groups have evolved elaborate courtship displays which rely on these senses. The example I remember most involved the male spider performing a “tap dance” while frantically waving his front legs in an intricate pattern for the female. Bad dancers are not only rejected, but sometimes killed!

At this point, I thought to include a video clip of a dancing jumping spider but I nearly had a heart attack while looking at spider pictures…

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As I mentioned a few posts ago, it’s Animal Rights Week (also called World Week for Animals in Laboratories). So far, no news of interest locally, but a quick Google search revealed lots of opinions, lots of facts, and lots of fiction still exist – from both sides.

What is a “right”, exactly? It’s one of those words that gets tossed around and used without a good understanding of what it means. A “right”, most generally, is something that you are entitled to; either someone is obligated to give you something (such as basic health care in Canada) or something that someone is obligated to refrain from doing to you (such as refraining from killing you). The first is a legal right, while the second is a moral right. Moral rights result from moral theory, which involves the idea that morals exist to facilitate cooperative behaviours.

So where does that leave animal rights?

There have been many different moral theories, proposed by many different people. As these theories evolved, a sort of dilemma ensued. To whom do moral rights extend? Some believed that morals were only applicable to beings with consciousness and reason. But then, we have another dilemma – what about babies and the mentally ill? Clearly we can’t without rights from these groups. And so this presents another dilemma – If we extend moral rights to babies, who clearly cannot reason and cannot understand the idea of self or existence, what does this say about animals?

This is a favourite quote of mine, from philosopher Jeremy Bentham:

“…Is it the faculty of reason, or, perhaps, the faculty of discourse? …A full-grown horse or dog is beyond comparison a more rational, as well as a more conversable animal, than an infant of a day, or a week, or even a month, old. But suppose the case were otherwise, what would it avail? The question is not, “Can they reason?” nor, “Can they talk?” but, “Can they suffer?”… “

In this context, the evolution of animal rights was a natural progression from discussions of moral rights in human society. And I do not disagree with this line of reasoning at all. To allow suffering when you can prevent it is inhumane.

The sticky parts come when you consider science. In many ways, science uses the Utilitarian philosophy (ironically, also formulated by Bentham and later refined by John Stuart Mills). Utilitarianism suggests that in any decision, the correct action would be the one which causes the greatest amount of good for the greatest number of people. It is sometimes referred to as the “cost-benefit analysis”.

So science could reason something like the following: (1) Disease and suffering in humans is bad (2) Suffering in animals is bad (3) But disease and suffering in humans could be alleviated through (4) So we should accept some suffering in animals in order to alleviating a lot of suffering in humans.

Of course, it’s not a perfect explanation and in this small space, I do leave out a lot of important points. [Msg me if interested!]

For me, I find it hard to reconcile many parts of science. I agree with the need for science to progress, but I also feel very strongly about the need to proceed ethically. Good science is necessary and bad science should be condemned. How do we know what is good science? How do we know that the suffering in animals we cause today will actually result in a usable treatment for humans in the future? We can’t always predict this, but I believe that there are lots of things we can do to move forward both morally and scientifically. This could involve many things but I will suggest a few key points:

Does the study actually need to use animals? This is a big one that bugs me. Science is competitive, especially at the graduate student level. It sucks to say it, but many students are under the impression that a good paper must include animal experiments (as well as a long list of other things, like bioinformatics). Many people I have worked with never intended on working with animals as part of their careers. But the industry demands it as part of a “complete” paper. While I agree that results need to eventually be verified in an animal study, such as when it involves pharmaceuticals or treatment of human health, I think that it’s ridiculous to use animals in a study where you barely understand the biochemistry behind the system. Gobs of tissue culture first, animals last!

How many animals do you actually need?
This one bugs me too. There is no need to breed dozens of animals if you only need 10, that’s just wasteful. A careful, well thought out colony management plan will help ensure that only the necessary numbers of animals will be produced.

And lastly: Treat the animals well. Keep them in semi-natural settings. Give them enrichment. Make sure they are not in discomfort. A happy, healthy animal will give more accurate results than one that is miserable. And with better results, less animals are needed overall. I get so angry when I see researchers using incorrect suture sizes or giving the equivalent of Tylenol to a post-surgical animal – these are the researchers that should be prevented from using animals. EVER.

In the end, I do think it’s important to have times such as the Animal Rights week. It puts an important issue in the public eye, and no harm can come of that. Well thought out, constructive, educated opinions will do a lot to improve the industry and I think that is what most people, myself included, would want.

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Yesterday I had the opportunity to visit the Clinical Cell Therapy group at the BC Cancer Research Centre. This group prepares donor progenitor cells for transplant into cancer patients. Most of the patients they deal with have multiple myeloid leukemias (cancers of the bone marrow), myelomas (cancers of white blood cells) or lymphomas (cancers of lymphatic tissues).

Admittedly, when I arranged the visit, I expected to see the processing of bone marrow. Instead, they showed me a procedure for prepping the blood to collect hematopoietic progenitor cells, a type of blood stem cell which is able to differentiate into other blood cells. This was news to me!

In this process, the blood came from patients (or donors) who had undergone apheresis, a procedure which removes blood from the donor, separates out the components of interest, and returns the “unused” portion to the donor. In these blood products, the component which was removed was the white blood cell rich layer, containing the progenitor cells.

So why remove progenitor blood cells from a sick patient? Doesn’t the patient need his white blood cells? Well, yes. However, the majority of these patients require chemotherapy during the course of their treatment. Chemotherapy uses cytotoxic chemicals to targets rapidly dividing cells – however, this does not only kill cancer cells but can also kill other rapidly dividing cells, such as bone marrow cells. As a result, one of the common side effects of chemotherapy is a decrease in the production of blood cells, including white blood cells. Low blood cell count is bad! White blood cells in particular are an integral part of defending the body against infectious diseases and foreign agents.

By “saving” white blood cell rich product from pre-treatment patients or healthy donors, patients can receive transfusions of healthy hematopoietic progenitor cells immediately following chemotherapy. These transfusions are essential for facilitating the recovery of normal blood cell counts, which are an important part of patient recovery in general.

After the interview, I did still wonder about bone marrow transplants though – have bone marrow transplants gone the way of the dodo? The short answer is “no”. More on this topic later!

Stay tuned for the full series of articles on this topic! It will be posted on the Stem Cell Network and linked up here.

[Photo by Dale Tidy]

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Check out the a recent blog by Carl Zimmer:Yet-Another-Genome-Syndrome

Another example of how (certain kinds of) research has somehow become a euphemism for “gobs of unrelated but numerically impressive data”. I don’t have much to add, except to say that Mr. Zimmer “gets” it a whole lot better than a lot of people out there.

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The recent eruption of an Icelandic volcano has made news around the world as flights are disrupted, political get-togethers are cancelled and thick clouds of smoke cover the skies in many areas of Iceland.

Is it 2012 two years early?!
…Not quite.

Remember those science classes in elementary school where you learned about dinosaurs and natural disasters and coloured in endless maps of the world? Well, it’s time to dig out those maps and review your notes on plate tectonics.
Plate tectonics refers to an area of science dealing with the large scale movement of the Earth’s “lithospheric mantle”, or crust. Tectonic plates move around – this is why we get earthquakes, for example. The type of tectonic plates we are concerned with here are oceanic crusts.

Oceanic crusts are created at mid-ocean ridges. This is where two plates are diverging, or moving away from each other. As the plates move apart, magma from the centre of the Earth rises to the surface and erupts as lava. In other words, mid-ocean ridges are like undersea volcanic mountain ranges.

Iceland has the notable distinction of sitting directly on top of this ridge, and indeed, containing parts of it!  Presumeably, these two plates have shifted enough that magma is now able to rise to the surface, causing the eruptions and glacial melting that we read about in the news today.
[Photo from www.wikipedia.org]

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It’s Animal Rights Week next week!

Many scientific institutions prepare for this week by warning their employees to “be on the look out” for rampaging activists and whatnot. Activists use this week to publicize “evil” research practices. I personally don’t believe there’s a right or wrong answer – animal ethics is an important issue for me and I don’t think there is a right or wrong answer yet.

Instead of demonizing either side of the issue, let’s use this week to proactively consider our animal-use practices and reflect on what it means to use animals ethically in research.

How can we use less animals?
How can we treat the animals current in use more ethically?
Which research fields should not use animals at all?

Here’s to a (hopefully) enlightening animal rights week!

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I recently ordered and received my Nexus One in the mail. For those who are just slightly less geeky than I am, the Nexus One is the new Google phone, running Android. Think iPhone, but with more Google-ness.

After trying out some of the applications available (and there are A LOT!), it got me thinking about how a portable system like this could revolutionize animal facilities.

Records maintenance
The facilities that I have been exposed to have been very reliant on paper records for example: Records for room checks, records for health reports, records for equipment certification… the list goes on. What if there was an app that could do each of these functions? Well, then the animal technician only has to press a few buttons, and it’s done, electronically recorded sent to the main servers over wifi.

Health Reports
Health reports are an integral part of a well functioning animal facility. It is essential that technicians, researchers and PI’s are aware of the health status of their animals. But most facilities record animal information on cage cards. When a health report needs to be filed, the cage card has to be removed from the animal room and brought to an office area where it can be scanned. Then the technician has to fill out a form, send an email, etc. all before returning to the animal room. If this functionality was available in a mobile application, an image could be taken of the cage card without ever leaving the room – no more lost cage cards. Similarly, a report could be filed immediately – no more waiting for the next available computer.

Other Uses?

The list goes on: Inventories could be done more accurately – instead of counting the cages from different investigators, just press a button and the program can tally it up. Instead of writing needed supplies on a white board, go into an inventory program that wirelessly updates orders. The possibilities for increased accuracy and efficiency are endless.


Now, the Nexus One is a little pricey for the average animal facility. But what about the iPod Touch? For $200 a unit (8gb model), you still get the user-friendly applications and ease of use, and you lose the phone part, which is unnecessary inside an animal facility. When you consider that the average mouse holding rack can run into the thousands of dollars, $200 per unit for the iPod touch doesn’t seem so bad. I would argue that the cost per unit would be offset by savings in staff hours and paper wastage.

And… who’s going to make these apps??
I’d like to say me, but I’m not quite there yet. 🙂 But seriously, as soon as there is a need – I would bet that developers would step up to make it happen. Indeed, most of the applications I mentioned, such as inventory and record filing, are no doubt available in other forms. It would be trivial to tweak such an application to suit an animal facility.

What do you think?

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Artist's rendition of the whale skeleton

I was super excited to see the arrival of the blue whale skeleton at UBC today. This beauty will be the centerpiece of the new Beaty Biodiversity Museum at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, BC. The museum is housed within the Beaty Biodiversity Centre, which comprises an interdisciplinary group of over 50 scientists with interests in biodiversity research.

The Biodiversity Museum project has been many years in the making. I volunteered at the museum during my undergrad and my supervisor often talked wistfully about the “new museum” that would one day house all of the collections together. At the time, the vertebrate and insect collections were on the 4th floor, the fish collection was in the basement, the plant collection in another wing entirely. And I’m still not entirely sure where the fungus collection was!

As a result, most people were unaware that UBC has an amazing collection of vertebrate specimens, plants, fish, insects… the list goes on! Over 2 million specimens were housed in the dark dingy corridors of the old biology building. Now they have a new home and I really hope people will take the time to see some of the diversity that this planet holds. To make it even more accessible to the public, UBC plans to hold seminars and lectures on biodiversity topics, as well as conducting programs for school-aged children and families.

Natural history museums such as this not only serve as a repository of life, they also serve as valuable teaching and research tools. Many times during my volunteering days, I would encounter grad students taking measurements of samples, or collecting a bit of hair or feather. As an undergrad, I would often borrow specimens for class presentations.

The museum is one of the places where I most strongly feel connected to science. When you work long enough in a lab, you get into this mindset where it seems normal to be working with chemicals and molecules you can’t see, and it’s easy to forget the “big” science. To me, museums are an example of the “big” science. To see the diversity that it holds, and to know that you are a part of that, I think that’s something special. To be able to see species that may no longer walk this Earth… that’s something special too.

So come and check out the Museum! Can’t decide when? May 22 is International Day of Biological Diversity – I’ll be there! According to the website, there will be a welcoming ceremony, museum tours (including opportunities to view the whale!), hands-on activities and a talk from museum director Wayne Maddison.

[Photo by the Beaty Biodiversity Museum website]

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