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The definitive host: September 2011

The definitive host

de·fin·i·tive host (duh-fin'eh-tiv) n. 1) An organism where a parasite undergoes the adult and sexual stages of its reproductive cycle 2) Someone you go to for interesting stories and/or facts, and puts on one hell of a dinner party 3) This blog, devoted to science and other geeky subjects

Monday, September 26, 2011

Gone, but not forgotten

Welcome to my last September Series post, which coincidentally, is also my 150th on this blog! I hope you have all enjoyed this little experiment of mine, and from the feedback I've gotten, it seems like many of you do. 
Therefore, if you'd like me to continue writing about different things every week (or have an idea for a theme month), please  leave a comment below and let me know what you'd like to see.

For this final September Series post, I decided to delve into microbiology, a great passion of mine. I decided to look at it from a prevention, control and bureaucratic angle of a very resilient killer. I hope you like it.

As children, we are taught certain life lessons, such as not taking candy from strangers, looking both ways before crossing the street and not getting too close to wild animals, for fear of being injured and contracting a potentially dangerous disease. The most well known, and one of the most dangerous to humans, is rabies.

A strictly mammalian disease, the rabies virus will usually pass through a bite from an infected animal. The disease attacks the central nervous system, causing paranoia, hallucinations and the trademark agitation up to two years after initial exposure. However, once symptoms begin, it quickly becomes effectively untreatable and over 99 percent fatal.

The rabies virus, if left untreated, is over 99 percent fatal. Therefore, if there is even a risk of getting the virus from an animal bite, get the vaccine.
Since any warm-blooded animal can carry rabies and potentially transmit the disease to humans all over the world, prevention and protection are paramount.

In 2008, the government of Ontario proclaimed in a press release that one of the more dangerous strains, known as raccoon rabies, was “eliminated in Ontario.” This was stated because there were no reported cases in Ontario were seen since 2005, and according to the World Health Organization (WHO), once two years have passed with no reported cases, the virus can be claimed as “eliminated.”

However, according to documents obtained through the Access to Information Act, there were two reported raccoon rabies cases identified in 2005. The number of cases decreased to one in 2006, and to zero in 2007 through to 2010.

While the standing of the government via the WHO guidelines is valid, the time-line is not.
Meanwhile, there are two other rabies variants still prevalent in Ontario, known as “Ontario fox” and “bat,” which still appear north of the Greater Toronto Area.

In 2009, there were a total of 18 cases of fox rabies identified in wide array of affected species, such as cows, sheep, red foxes and striped skunks. But, in 2010, the only cases of the fox strain identified were 10 skunks.

Dr. Rick Rosatte, the senior research biologist for the Ministry of Natural Resources, has been working on rabies since the first case appeared in Canada in the late 1990s.

“Rabies is not eliminated,” he said. “It is a naturally occurring disease. I would never use the term eliminated, that’s for the politicians. I would say it is under control for the time being.”

Rosatte said that the ministry is always on the lookout for rabies, and has many control measures in place if something ever were to occur. And despite the claim that raccoon rabies is ”eliminated” from Ontario, he said that the threat is still ever-present, and closer than you might think.

“There are still cases of raccoon rabies in New York and Quebec, which are a little too close for comfort. We have measures put in place to try to limit the spread from those infected areas.”

Mark Gibson, a rabies and wildlife technician with the government of Ontario said there are three methods used to control rabies once a case is reported and confirmed.

The first is Point Infection Control, where animals are trapped and euthanized within a set distance of five kilometres from the rabies site. In the second stage, the animals are trapped, vaccinated and released within 10 kilometres of the initial case. The final method is aerial baiting, where baits containing vaccines are dropped from a plane within 50 kilometres of the reported site.

The aerial baiting method, according to Gibson, is by far the most effective preventative measure they have. “The baiting is probably the reason why Ontario has been rabies free the past few years.”

The baits are no bigger than a matchbook, but contain a blister pack containing a small dosage of rabies vaccine surrounded by beef fat and flavouring. “Imagine the blister pack is like the jam packets you see at restaurants,” said Gibson. “If you squeeze it a little bit, and then puncture it with a fork, what happens? It squirts! And hopefully, most of the vaccine will be swallowed by the animal.”

Gibson said that the vaccines provide young animals protection for about a year, while in adults, it can last up to three depending on how much vaccine the animal eats.

However, while raccoon rabies is being kept at bay, there are still two other strains of rabies that are keeping the control program very busy. The arctic fox strain is limited to southwestern Ontario, but the real problem is the bat strain.

According to Rosatte, the bats are almost impossible to trace because they migrate and their food, insects, cannot be vaccinated.

“Despite the surge in infected bats, there has not been a death from rabies in Ontario since 1967. However, just because it hasn’t happened yet, doesn’t mean it won’t,” said Rosatte.

“Rabies is not gone, despite what the McGuinty government says. It is still lurking in the background.”

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Monday, September 19, 2011

The musical mosaic of science

Two weeks ago during my first post in my September Series, I wrote about how television, especially educational programs, made a significant impact in my life. I got a lot of positive reaction to that post, as well as other people chiming in about their favourite programs watched as a kid.

While I only discussed two animated programs, Loony Toons and Animaniacs, there are countless others that I used to love watching that would entertain and educate. And, I believe that is part of the reason why I love talking about science and the natural world as much as I do. There is a way to educate someone about complex subjects such as science and math that can be entertaining as well as informative. A perfect example happened to me just a few days earlier.

On September 16th, a discussion began with people regarding Albert Szent-Györgyi, who would have turned 118 that day. The conversation began thanks to Google choosing to celebrate his accomplishments with a Google Doodle.

Szent-Györgyi is well known from a variety of accomplishments, most notably discovering Vitamin C, as well as the components and reactions that occur during the infamous citric acid cycle.


The Citric Acid Cycle (Or Kreb’s Cycle) is a very complex set of reactions that occur in your body at all times to turn digested food into energy. Simply put, the cycle breaks carbohydrates, fats and proteins into carbon dioxide, water and usable energy (known as ATP).

As demonstrated in the figure below, the process is extremely complex to understand. But, it is even more difficult to learn properly.

Looks complicated, doesn't it? Believe me ... it IS

In grade 11, during the cellular energy unit of the curriculum, the entire class was presented with the CAC. My teacher, Mr. Thomson, knew what a daunting task it was, so he broke it up into steps and explained only what we needed to know to understand precisely what was going on (namely, tracking the amount of Carbon). I remember the teacher going over the process again and again in order to drill it into our heads. We did assignments where we had to draw the whole process of big pieces of paper and calculations tracking the amount of energy gained – all done to help us memorize the complex cycle for the test.

And, boy did I study for that.

I was up in my room for hours memorizing it, having my parents quiz me over and over until I had it down cold for the test. The result?
Ninety percent.

But, is there an easier way to learn such a complex topic?

According to Robert Krulwich from NPR, yes and no.

In fact, there are many ways in the technological age we live in today where you can find new and interesting ways to learn something. Just type a subject into Google and you’ll find a plethora of options showcasing everything from books to videos to interactive websites.

In the case of the Citric Acid Cycle, you can take a look at some videos on YouTube like this and this (which is by far my favorite). But, you don’t get the full understanding and details that can be provided by teachers, like Mr. Thomson, who genuinely care about getting you to understand the material.

Some students learn better in a classroom or with a textbook, while others excel using a more audio-visual technique. There is no wrong way to learn; just find the way learn the best and stick to that.

Expanding your mind

Looking up a video or reading a book when you have a specific problem in a field or subject is pretty easy, but what is you want to learn about something bigger? What if you want to learn a little bit about such complicated topics as astrophysics, cosmology or quantum mechanics?

Such topics are extremely complicated to understand, much less teach. I only know a tiny bit about quantum mechanics and the universe, just enough to understand a televised documentary on the Discovery Channel, PBS and the like.

But then, Joanne Manaster over Twitter introduced me to something of an experiment entitled, The Symphony of Science.

Created by John Boswell, the Symphony of Science are a series of music videos used to, according to his website, “scientific knowledge and philosophy to the public, in a novel way, through the medium of music.”

Not only are the music videos entertaining, but they also serve as a great way to introduce individuals to complex areas of science and the researchers that explore them. Boswell uses a vast array of methods to bring complex topics to life using archival footage, new documentaries and interviews with notable scientists like Richard Feynman, Brian Cox, Carl Sagan, Stephen Hawking and more.

What exactly is science?

Where did we come from?

Or what exactly quantum mechanics is?

There are a total of 11 videos, each of which focuses on a different aspect of science and research. The first few videos are a little rough, but entertaining all the same. Each one has a message that is worthwhile and of note.

But the most amazing thing is that each and everyone will teach you something (and the songs are pretty catch too)!

To watch all eleven, as well as free downloads of them all, be sure to visit the website!

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Monday, September 12, 2011

Contagion Review - An infectiously intelligent worst-case scenario

This is the second post in my September Series, where I am experimenting with different forms of journalism and writing. Last week, I wrote an article entitled Not Just An Idiot Box, which took a look at educational television, using examples from my own childhood to argue the point. This week, I decided to try a movie review. Beware of some spoilers and enjoy!

Is there anything scarier than an enemy you cannot see?

Horror movies have been taking advantage of this for decades, as it allows your mind to run wild with scary and horrifying possibilities. However, instead of some crazy murderer following you around your house or a spirit seeking vengeance upon you, something all together scarier and deadlier is all around you. All you have to do is pick up a microscope and look at the onslaught of bacteria and viruses that we are exposed to every day.

Sometimes, all it can take is one touch, one cough or one innocent gesture to expose someone to a potentially lethal virus. And that is what the Warner Brothers movie Contagion is all about, tracing the path of a virus from initial exposure and its eventual outbreak, all the way to pandemic and finally treatment.

Director Steven Soderbergh expertly decides to start the movie, not from day one like the 1995 thriller Outbreak, but from day two, the day after Gwyneth Paltrow’s Beth Emhoff is exposed to the virus. She returns home to her loving husband Mitch, played by Matt Damon, but quickly succumbs to the illness, followed quickly by their young son.

But, the bulk of the plot doesn’t follow the widowed Mitch being a hero of the story and saving the day. Instead, Soderbergh divides his story amongst many different characters, all affected by the virus somehow and doing their best to manage, fight back and most importantly, to survive.

"We don't have to weaponize the bird flu. The birds are already doing that" 

As the virus begins to infect an increasing number of people, either from direct contact or secondary contact (infected person touches rail followed by a healthy person, who then picks up the virus), the movie widens its scope and focuses on characters from all over the world, from Atlanta to Hong Kong.

The acting is stellar across the board, but the cast is far too large to name everyone. However, the standouts include: Laurence Fishburne as a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) division chief who is portrayed with just the right amount of humanity, Jude Law as a blogger who is one of the first to report the illness but has ulterior motives, Kate Winslet plays CDC employee Dr. Mears who is literally scrambling to contain the outbreak, and Marion Cotillard plays an epidemiologist from the World Health Organization sent to China to track the origin of the epidemic.

Every storyline adds weight, and allows the viewer to experience another facet of the destruction and pain a viral outbreak can accomplish.

Matt Damon’s story is by far the most emotional of them all. His storyline showcases the human side of the disease, and what can happen when normal people become so scared for their own lives that they begin to do whatever they can to survive.

And that is where the film becomes elevated beyond a mere biological thriller, as it manages to resonate beyond the confines of one genre. The film is also an insight into our most basic human conditions, and what happens when even the simple act of touching something can be deadly.

As the tagline of the film rightly states, “nothing spreads like fear.”

A different view of a never-ending battle

Soderbergh spends a lot of time focusing the camera for just a fraction longer than usual on everyday objects, such as a glass, a doorknob or a handrail on a bus. It is like seeing a shadow moving across the screen in a horror movie, showcasing just how susceptible the people in the movie (as well as ourselves) really are. And that’s the take-home message.

Contagion is a movie with brains that keeps you thinking after you leave the theatre, which is the kind of movie I always enjoy. As well, it managed to highlight some pretty decent science that made me want to look through some of my old microbiology notes. I won’t say that the movie is a substitute for learning about viruses in an academic setting or using better hygiene, but its heart is in the right place and the intelligence and thought that was put into this movie really shows just how possible such an event is.

Now that’s the real scare.

For those of you looking for an in-depth look at the science behind the movie, I will not be going into it in this post, as movie reviews traditionally don't utilize a lot of science. However, for those still interested, be sure to read this great article where noted journalist and author, Maryn McKenna, spoke to the science advisor of the film, Dr. W. Ian Lipkin (who has also written a piece on the real threat presented by viruses for the New York Times, which can be read here).

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Monday, September 5, 2011

Not Just An Idiot Box

With my nephew of 16-months rapidly learning how to speak and walk, keeping him entertained with toys and activities is difficult at the best of times. And sometimes, the siren song of just plopping your child down in front of the TV for a little bit is very strong. Some parents avoid that temptation (like my sister and nephew), but others yield quickly and often.

There have been so many research studies and experiments done to figure out the effect television has on a child, with results bouncing between quite detrimental to beneficial. The debate continues to rage about how much computer/television screen time is too much, especially with all the programs geared specifically towards children on the air right now.

Some families strictly limit the time spent in front of the television/computer, like a friend of mine who lets her children watch 30 minutes of monitored tv a day, no exceptions and no excuses. Meanwhile, other families will let their kids watch whatever they want for hours at a time.

In my opinion, the ideal solution lies somewhere in the middle of the two extremes, striking a balance between un-educational and educational programs, as well as participating in other activities away from the television.

And yes, I did say educational programs. They do exist, and not always in ways you imagine.

For example, throughout my childhood, I watched a large assortment of programs ranging from Polka Dot Door and Fraggle Rock to animated shows like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and He-Man. They were all entertaining and some more than others attempted to imbue lessons within their shows, like accepting those who are different than you.

There are two shows that I watched as a kid, and would continue to watch if they were still on the air, that had a great impact on my education and development. The first show is one that has seen a bit of resurgence in recent years, while the other one is sadly gone, but not forgotten.

Practice Makes Perfect?

The show can be described in any one of the famous characters that it spawned: Foghorn Leghorn, Marvin the Martian, Speedy Gonzales, Daffy Duck, Elmer Fudd and of course, Bugs Bunny.

The list of classic characters that appeared in Looney Toons goes on and on, but for me, none more so than that one inseparable duo, locked in an endless cycle of predator versus prey.

Time and time again they would meet, with the results always the same – prey outwits/outmaneuvers predator, no matter how much we wish otherwise. The relationship viewers had with this particular predator was not one of fear or anger, but one of sympathy.

It’s not Sylvester and Tweety, Marvin the Martian and Duck Dogers or even Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny.

No. Instead think of the stereotypical Texas desert, lightning fast speeds, the borderline omnipotent presence of the ACME Corporation and “meep, meep.”

That’s right, it’s Wile E. Coyote and The Road Runner.

After everything they’ve been through, how could you not want Wile E. Coyote to, at least once, catch that blasted Road Runner?

The misadventures of the coyote with a credit line at ACME were enjoyable and entertaining, but as a child, I learned a few lessons that made a difference (aside from the fact that gravity will give you a few seconds before you fall to hold up a little sign stating “Help!”)

Wile E. Coyote, as evil as he is for wanting to eat the peaceful roadrunner (or sheep or Bugs Bunny as the case sometimes was), he is simply acting out the cyclical relationship of predator versus prey. But more than that, it was all about persistence.

No matter how bad it got, how much pain he endured, Wile E. always came back with more and more ideas to catch his quarry. But, there is a difference between persistence and sheer fanaticism, as the Coyote could stop at any time and find some other prey … or at least buy some food from ACME, they seem to sell everything else.

Chuck Jones, the creator of Looney Tunes, and the writers apparently created a series of rules relating to Wile E vs. the Road Runner, examples of which are:
No outside force can harm the Coyote—only his own ineptitude or the failure of Acme products. Trains and trucks were the exception from time to time.
The Coyote could stop anytime—IF he were not a fanatic. (Repeat: "A fanatic is one who redoubles his effort when he has forgotten his aim." —George Santayana).
Whenever possible, make gravity the Coyote's greatest enemy.
The Coyote is always more humiliated than harmed by his failures.

Thank you Wile E. Coyote for teaching me that persistence is a virtue, but that sometimes, the hardest thing to do is to admit defeat, re-group and move on when something truly is a lost cause. It is a difficult lesson to realize, but an important one to learn all the same.

But I realized that if a “super genius” could learn such a harsh one, than so could I.

Useful Knowledge 

This next memorable show was also created by Warner Brothers Television, but premiered when I was nine years old, long after Looney Toons had already entertained millions of children. While the newer show was still animated with a lot of slapstick and gags, it also managed to educate, as well as entertain.

The show, Animaniacs, was produced by Steven Spielberg, who was actively involved in all manners of the show’s production and made sure that not only was the show entertaining, but also balanced that with quite a number of educational segments.

Animaniacs parodied a lot of pop culture and celebrities, everything from the Marx Brothers to the H.M.S Pinafore to Seinfeld, and even Spielberg himself! The content was directed at every age group, and was able to be silly without being immature and intelligent without being preachy.

Through elementary and high school, I was always surprised whenever something would come up that I already knew, not from the textbook or classes, but from watching an Animaniacs cartoon!

For example, what Canadian child could name most of the United States presidents in order to the tune of the William Tell Overture?

Or name all the U.S. States and their capitols to the toe-tappigly wonderful tune of Turkey in the Straw?

But the best of them all, and one I put to use in my final year of High School in my World Issues class, was “Nations of the World” set to the tune the Mexican Hat Dance. While it is a bit out of date now, the memory of it is locked away safely in my brain, so I still can name over half of all the countries mentioned in the song.

If you’ve never heard it, press play and prepare to watch it many more times and have it stuck in your head for years!

Shhhhh, TV

Television can entertain, it can marvel and it can educate, but it can also distract. Television, computers and other entertainment media have a wide array of applications, and deserve to be enjoyed and seen.

However, as good as watching an animal documentary may be or watching a sitcom about family, it is still entertainment, and cannot be substituted for the real thing. It has its place, as do other activities.

So, don’t spend all your time daydreaming about what you see on the television screen. Go out and do it, and take your kids with you.

They may complain about missing their video games, television shows and movies, but do it anyway.

That’s what PVR’s are for anyway, right?

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