Research Matters blog: A look ahead

Greetings.

Patchen Barss here, Managing Editor of the Research Matters website and blog. We’ve been at this for a couple of years now, and I thought it might be time to say hello, and thank you for reading.

Even if you’ve been with us for a while, you might still be wondering, “What is Research Matters?” Fair question, given that there isn’t really anything else quite like it. Here’s the deal: Ontario is home to 21 publicly funded universities. Each of those universities has a Vice President of Research. For years, these VPs have met on a regular basis to trade ideas, discuss emerging fields of research and allow each individual institution to become part of a larger community of Ontario researchers.

This community in itself is unusual: universities compete – for funding, professors and students. But big and small universities alike are increasingly finding that their greatest gains come through collaboration rather than competition. Ontario happens to be ahead of the game on this front.

Research Matters emerged from that cooperative culture: it’s a public outreach campaign that serves not just a single community or city, but reaches out to all Ontarians. This might not seem so surprising – after all, the university system relies on Ontario taxes, and universities are therefore accountable to Ontarians. Nevertheless, no region in Canada, and possibly no region in the world, has ever achieved this kind of deep multi-institutional cooperation on a public outreach initiative.

Research Matters has entered its third year. It’s a multi-platform initiative, designed to give as many entry points as possible into Ontario university research. Today, I wanted to tell you specifically about the plans for the Research Matters blog over the coming year.

(At least) once each month, we’ll release a series of daily blog posts based on a certain theme. The themes we’ve chosen all relate to everyday life – to come up with ideas, we combed newspaper sections, bookstore departments and popular magazines. Starting tomorrow, we’re going to kick things of with the theme, “Your Health.” Of course, this being university research, you’ll get more than just fitness and diet tips – we’ll bring you some of the latest ideas, technologies and theories that are shaping how we understand personal health.

In September, the Research Matters blog goes Shopping. In October, we’re going to explore Spirituality and Personal Belief. We’ve got other sections planned on Business, Better Homes and Gardens, Style, Travel, Romance and more.

We hope you find the blog interesting, useful and fun. We hope you’ll stick around and see what we’ve got on offer this year. And if you want to send us a note and let us know what you think, we’d love to hear from you. Drop us a line at yourontarioresearch@cou.on.ca

Thanks again for reading.

Patchen Barss
Managing Editor

 

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genetic barcodes

Barcoding life, one species ...

Sharon Oosthoek | May 2, 2016

Nobody knows for sure how many species exist. But scientists are certain we have identified only a fraction of the plants, animals and fungi on the planet — roughly 1.7 million species out of an estimated 10 to 20 million. "Most of the yet-to-be-identified species will be tinier life forms, but the numbers could even be larger," says University of Guelph biologist Paul Hebert. "That's just a best guess." Making an inventory of all life then would seem a Sisyphean task. But back in 2003, Hebert and his research team proposed a DNA tool for doing exactly that. At the same time, they made a convincing case for why we might want such an inventory: our species is accelerating the extinction rate of other species, and as Hebert puts it, "people take action when they know what is happening to life." Their argument was convincing enough to lead to the creation in 2010 of the International Barcode of Life (iBOL) project, an alliance representing 26 countries and headquartered at the University of Guelph.  Since then, affiliated researchers have collected from all over the world biological samples such as feathers, fur, blood and tiny bits of tissue. In 2015, they reached their goal inventorying half a million species. They have now set a ambitious target of identifying all species on the planet by 2040. As Hebert and his team originally envisioned, the tool the researchers are using to identify species is a short section of DNA from a standardized region of the genome, found in all living things. The sequence of the molecules that make up that chunk of DNA can be used to identify different species, in the same way a supermarket scanner uses the black stripes of the UPC barcode to identify purchases. As an added bonus, the DNA section is short enough to be sequenced quickly and cheaply, yet long enough to discriminate species. Fish out of water The tool has already been used to identify invasive species and the illegal sale of mislabelled endangered fish. While Hebert and his team are certainly on board with that, their ultimate vision has always been much loftier. "Each species is a book of life that describes how to reconstruct a robin or a blue jay or a monarch butterfly," says Hebert. "It's possible that by the end of the century, one-sixth of those books of life will not longer be with us. One of the objects of our work is to register all the species on the planet before they disappear." But this isn't just about creating an inventory. Rather it's about creating a digital Noah's ark. Along with the identifying section of DNA, the barcode project saves each species' entire genome — in other words, its complete set of DNA, representing instructions for building each species. That means the chemical pathways responsible for producing yet-to-be-discovered life-saving drugs will be preserved. "It's even possible that we might be able to reconstruct species," says Hebert. "Maybe humanity will decide it's sad living on a planet with few other species on it. It would be completely impossible to restore lost species if we don't have their DNA. "        

Creating community through cuisine

Emma Drake | April 27, 2016

Food is more than a meal; it can be intrinsic to a person’s identity. But for refugees, part of their identity is challenged when they settle in countries that don’t offer foods from home. “We share culture and richness through food,” says Valencia Gaspard, a PhD student in rural studies at the University of Guelph. “Food can be used to build communities and bring people together.” Valencia is part of a team of student studying the availability of ethnocultural foods in Toronto. They will be examining how these foods are used to manifest a culture through cuisine. “Keystone ingredients, such as camel’s milk or sesame oil have great importance to the meal,” she says. “Not being able to choose what you eat is dis-empowering.” read more »

Farmers get ahead of ...

Araina Bond | April 19, 2016

Anticipating Mother Nature has always been an important part of farming. Now farmers in Northeastern Ontario can make more informed decisions using real-time data about environmental conditions, thanks to Nipissing University researchers. The Nipissing team has created an online system called GeoVisage, which uses seven weather stations throughout Northern Ontario to collect data on microclimates. That includes air and soil temperature, relative humidity, wind speed, leaf wetness and photosynthetically active radiation — that is, sunlight plants can use for photosynthesis. read more »
quinoa plants

Quinoa puts down roots ...

Jessica Shapiro | April 14, 2016

Ancient Incas considered quinoa their most sacred food. Packed with protein, vitamins and amino acids, it gave them stamina, strength and energy needed for survival. No wonder NASA has researched growing quinoa on long journeys to outer space. Despite the seed's explosion in world popularity over the past few years, including a massive increase in demand throughout North America, almost no farmers outside the Andes Mountains in South America grow it. Issues related to quality, supply, cost and importation have encouraged scientists to experiment with cultivating the crop in Ontario. At the Trent University Sustainable Agriculture Experimental Farm, Mehdi Sharifi is working with his students to make organic quinoa production viable for Ontario farmers. read more »
Larissa Barelli waters plants

Fine tuning fungi’s ...

Sharon Oosthoek | April 8, 2016

Nobody takes revenge like Mother Nature. After all, she created entomopathogenic fungi — organisms that not only kill crop pests, but offer up nutrients in the insects' bodies to the plant. "It's a cool mechanism," says University of Brock PhD biotech student Larissa Barelli who studies evolution of these fungi. "Certain species can drill through the insect's cuticle, grow within it and eat it from the inside. They can also release toxins that kill the insect. The fungi then transfers nitrogen from the insect to the plant." read more »
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