Simply Scientific: Why does my clementine have seeds?

The first thing you do is grab two of them. Not three. If you grab three, then go ahead and take a fourth. You just don’t eat an odd number of clementines. 

Palpate it. Feel around its lumpy cool surface. Press a little with your fingers to confirm that the rind is only lightly gripping the fleshy walls of the pulp beneath. 

Mmm. Yes. That’s good.

For good measure, or maybe to prolong the anticipation, roll it around on the table under your palm. Gently. Every quarter inch of it.

Now, it’s almost time. Aim for the region around the pedicel, the slightly swollen part around where the stem was once attached.

Some will use their fingers for this part. This could leave a zesty residue under your nail. Maybe you like it that way, you silly bean.

But I prefer not to have sticky fingers. Call me dainty; I’ll plead guilty as charged. I use my teeth to break through the skin instead and taste that first spurt of citrus. 

Then, peel. One long strand. Some will make an orange-peel flower and that’s good too. 

Now you have it, that soft, bulbous, delicious fruit. Halve it with both hands. Pull a segment off. Put it in your mouth. Bite and feel the juicy…

SEED!? There’s a seed???

Disappointed? Understandable. The clementine’s seedlessness is one of its biggest draws, after all.

Why do some clementines have seeds and others don’t? The answer is simple. But first, a little history.

Brother Clément Rodier was a French missionary who helped run an orphanage in Algeria in the late 19th century. He introduced hundreds of fruit trees, ornamental trees and rose bushes to the orphanage’s land. He also enjoyed experimenting and developing hybrid plants and fruits. Hybrid plants or animals come from the naturally occurring or artificially induced sexual reproduction of two different breeds, species or genera.

Sometime around 1900, Rodier found a tree with fruit redder than a mandarin orange; not as sweet, but delicious nonetheless. It was the product of a mandarin flower having been cross-pollinated with a sweet orange (or just orange) tree. This new variety of mandarin orange was eventually called clementine in honour of Rodier.

Now, seedless fruits are a naturally-occurring mutation in many plants. It’s even been suggested that certain species have evolved in such a way that seedless fruits serve as decoys to distract herbivores from eating viable ones.

It’s certainly a trait desired by grocers and consumers, since the absence of seeds makes for a better eating experience, as well as a longer shelf-life.

Trees of seedless clementines are reproduced by grafting, which essentially involves sticking a clementine branch into any old stump. These seedless varieties come from being self-incompatible, which is sometimes a side-effect of being a hybrid (sort of like with a mule, which can’t reproduce). In this case, that means that the pollen from identical seedless clementine trees can’t physically reach all the way down to the ovary (plants have ovaries) at the bottom of the flower. The tree still produces fruit, but without pollination, it develops no seeds (sort of like chickens who lay sterile eggs when there’s not rooster around).

But that’s not the whole story, obviously. There is in fact at least one breed of clementine whose reproductive organs are self-compatible. And seedless clementine trees can be pollinated by this breed and by other varieties of orange, through a process called cross-pollinisation. All you need is a bee.

Growers cover their orchards with netting to keep the little buzzers off, but they can never be 100 per cent sure that a pollinator won’t somehow get through. And that means that sometimes, what was otherwise going to be a beautiful moment in your day, becomes a mildly disappointing one.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Simply Scientific: Living cement

Every couple of kilometers, there lies huge concrete monoliths that are argued to screw up nature, also known as cities.

The cement industry alone is said to contribute to five percent of global CO2 emissions. But, what if I told you that a new “living” construction material could be the future of architecture?

A team of researchers from the University of Colorado, Boulder, created a new form of concrete that uses bacteria to grow––and even heal itself.

The bricks created by Dr. Wil Srubar and his team are composed of sand particles bound together by natural glue. The process is very similar to the formation of seashells. The bacteria that thrives on CO2 produces tiny limestones that act as glue to bind the sand particles together. This process is called biomineralization.

Some may think the bricks would be gooey or soft––and they are at first––but a monitored and controlled dehydration process makes the organic concrete completely solid. Once solidified, the cells shut down and stop the production process, so your house won’t become a skyscraper within weeks. However, in a controlled environment, the cells could be woken up and temporarily keep growing. Think of all the benefits and advantages this could bring to repairing buildings!

In an interview with CBC, Srubar said the bricks take less than a day to grow. On top of that, his team experimented with different methods and came to realize that when divided, the two new half-bricks grow individually to become two fully grown blocks.

Since the bacterias live off CO2, this new method is argued to be sustainable and environmentally-friendly. This is exactly where Srubar was taking his research, he said on CBC Radio’s show, Quirks & Quarks. According to him, the next generation of technology findings will be based on biology principles. He finished the interview by saying that his new finding could be an asset to human space exploration, arguing that it is easier to use growing blocks rather than carrying tons and tons of cement into space.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Simply Scientific: Every spree comes with a fee

Picture this: you’re having a crappy day. You missed your bus, spilled coffee down your front and forgot to print out your assignment that’s due in half an hour. To make matters worse, you skipped out on concealer this morning and now look like an extra in Tim Burton’s ‘Corpse Bride.’ (Side note: this scenario may or may not be a projection of my own experiences).

To make yourself feel better, you pop into Simons to buy yourself a new pair of jeans, a sweater and a couple small accessories. By the time the cashier hands you your receipt, the pit of anxiety in your stomach has melted away. You know this purchase is outside your budget, but hey! you’re treating yourself! You’ve had a bad day, after all.

If this sounds familiar to you, you’re not alone. A 2018 survey published by Finder, an online information service for consumers, found that out of 2,000 Canadians, 63 per cent confessed to shopping impulsively in the last year. In the age of mass marketing, online shopping and hyper-consumerism, it’s easier than ever to fall into the trap of impulsive spending. But these impulses go beyond Boxing Day sales and free shipping. According to science, part of the blame can be placed on our biology.

When your brain anticipates a new purchase, it releases a flood of dopamine – that same neurotransmitter associated with drugs, really good food, and really good sex. One study published in Neuron, a neuroscience journal, found that the brain’s reward centre lit up after subjects were shown a desirable product. So, in short, ‘retail therapy’ can serve as a legitimate pick-me-up after a rough day.

But just like food, sex and drugs, shopping can be highly addictive. A study published by the Society for the Study of Addiction gathered data from around the globe and found that shopping addiction affects roughly five per cent of the population. What’s more, research from Cambridge University has shown that up to 68 per cent of compulsive shoppers suffer from an affective disorder such as depression or anxiety. Experts recommend that those afflicted seek the help of a mental health professional.

For the occasional impulse shoppers out there, the next time you’re tempted, ask yourself: is it me or the dopamine talking?


Graphic by @sundaeghost


Simply Scientific: Spooky Season

You probably costumed up this weekend for the yearly Halloween party where cats don’t look like cats and police officers lack clothing. The holiday of death and fear became a gathering event for university students to celebrate, for the most part, the end of midterms.

But say your professor turns into a werewolf, how would your body react? To tackle that question of paramount importance, let’s dig into what fear is.

Fear is a chain reaction in the brain that starts with a stressful stimulus and ends with the release of chemicals that causes physiological response in your body.

Your professor is finalizing their transformation into a student-eating monster. This stressful situation would send a signal to your brain that will start processing the information. When this happens, all parts of the brain simultaneously work to establish whether your flesh-eating professor is a threat or nothing of importance.

There are two paths that the brain follows in evaluating the situation – the low road and the high road. The former evaluates every situation as the worst-case scenario; a loud sound from your kitchen at night is your end in this world. The latter, however, is your rational analysis of a situation. The high road will evaluate every possible outcome of a situation and link the stimulus to previous similar events in order to make sense of it.

This analysis of the situation happens in a blink of an eye and results in the biological reaction of fight or flight. Your reaction to your werewolf professor pouncing on their first victim will be either to fight them back or just get the eff out.

In both cases, your body will release chemicals like adrenaline and noradrenaline resulting in a racing heart, heavy breathing and activated muscles to be ready to either fight or flee the aggressor.

Now, don’t worry too much. Halloween is only two days away. So, cross your fingers and light up some sage in hope to avoid any encounter with life threatening monsters in the next 48 hours.


Graphic by @sundaeghost


This synthetic bio conference is all natural

Concordia continues focus on discipline by hosting workshop

An upcoming workshop at the Loyola campus will bring together scientists, policy makers, and industry leaders later this month to discuss synthetic biology.

The UK-Canada Synthetic Biology Workshop will be taking place on Oct. 27 and 28, with the first day comparing the synthetic biology landscapes in the United Kingdom, Quebec, and Canada. The second day will discuss why industry and public institutions should invest in synthetic biology.

Speakers will include executives from Genome Quebec and Genome Canada as well as professors from the Université de Montréal, Concordia, McGill, and the University of Toronto.

The workshop’s goals are to inform people—especially policy makers—about how synthetic biology can change our world and foster international partnerships, according to the workshop’s website.

Canadian biologists should find plenty of opportunities for transatlantic collaborations with their British counterparts.

“The UK has a huge, multi-million dollar program to fund synthetic biology,” said Dr. Vincent Martin, the co-director of Concordia’s Centre for Applied Synthetic Biology.

Concordia has also been investing in synthetic biology. The centre was Canada’s first dedicated synthetic biology research site.

“The university itself, all the way up to the president’s office, has made it a priority,” Martin said. “They’ve realized that this is a place where Concordia can make an impact and are dedicating resources to it.”

Synthetic biology makes biology work for us by altering an organism’s genetic code—Martin likes to use the term “industrializing biology.”

“If you look at what synthetic biology is about, it’s the next logical step in the research and development of biology,” Martin said.

One group of Concordia students wants to use algae to make protein shakes and fuels. Other groups are working to synthetically produce an anti-Malaria drug. Another group from Taipei has made an E. coli bacteria to prevent colony collapse disorder, an issue that has decimated bee colonies around the world.

In each case, an organism is being changed at a genetic level to turn it into an extraordinary natural factory, something that scientists couldn’t do without the cheap and easy genome sequencing techniques developed in the last few decades.

“We’re sequencing genomes like we’re making toast now,” Martin said.

Bringing these innovations to the public will require cooperation between academia and industry. Biotech companies don’t have the resources to tinker with dozens of potential projects that may fail, and academics cannot bring their projects to a large scale.

“There’s always going to be tinkering,” Martin said, “but especially in an industrial process, it doesn’t need to be your focus.”

In addition to international and industrial collaborations, the ethical and legal aspects surrounding synthetic biology will also be discussed at the workshop.

Unintentional exposure to synthetic bacteria or toxins could pose new dangers to scientists, according to a 2009 review paper published in the Journal of Systems and Synthetic Biology. People could use synthetic biology to create new bioweapons. As in any scientific field, amateur scientists could hurt themselves or others if they are not taught proper safety protocols.

Some groups are also concerned about ethical and moral issues as scientists create new forms of life.

“There has to be a dialogue between academics, industry, and users,” Martin said. “You can develop the best technology on this planet, but if you end up creating something that nobody wants or everybody is afraid of, you haven’t gained anything.”

The workshop is not geared for the general public, but the discussions are important and could affect everyone. Martin thinks synthetic biology discoveries could be felt throughout society, particularly in health care fields and the pharmaceutical industry. “It’s a bit of a lens into the future,” Martin said. “Years from now, lives are going to change because of this.”

In 2010, Concordia held a workshop to help people understand synthetic biology research. “It was mostly meant to be an educational process,” Martin said. Representatives from universities and Canada’s funding agencies were invited. According to Martin, few attended.

This time is different. Representatives from universities, companies, and funding agencies have agreed to participate and moderate several panels.

“I think that’s a sign that our hard work for getting this thing recognized is slowly paying off,” Martin said.

The stakeholders should “drive the process,” Martin said, due to their active involvement in the planning and execution of the workshop.

More information about the workshop is available online


Playing with the Legos of life

Concordia team turning microscopic biology into machinery.

A group of Concordia students and professors would love to use algae to fuel your car, fill your belly, and improve your life. The team, composed of 23 members, will showcase their research at a synthetic biology jamboree next month in Boston, Mass.

The iGEM (which stands for International Genetically Engineered Machine) competition is in its 12th year and brings together dozens of synthetic biology teams – and their work – from across the world to showcase their talents, scoop the competition, and pick one another’s brains. This will be Concordia’s second time attending.

David Oram and Dilan Jaunky have been working together with their teammates since February on Concordia’s iGEM project, which seeks to develop a toolkit for artificially manufacturing algae by providing the basic building blocks needed to genetically engineer them.

Their toolkit will include many small and useful parts of an algae’s genetic code. Once finished, scientists will be able to put parts as needed to make what they want.

“We’re looking at ways to increase production so you get more bang for your buck,” Oram said.

That isn’t all the team is up to, though. “70 per cent of our project is the toolkit, and 30 per cent is our wild, wild ideas,” Jaunky said.

One of these wild ideas could change the way we fuel our cars by exploiting the fact that microalgae naturally produce hydrocarbons, the broad array of chemical substances which form the foundations of modern civilization. The gas in our cars, the wax on our skis, and the plastic bottles that hold our detergent and soft drinks are all thanks to hydrocarbons. For the less developed world, coal is the hydrocarbon sustaining their economies. Most of the hydrocarbons we use today come from fossil fuels. There may not be a lot of fossil fuels left, but microalgae which could produce them on a large scale would be very useful.

The team used a gene for a thioesterase – this is an enzyme that can break a bond formed by sulfur atoms. Some of the hydrocarbons produced naturally by algae have these kinds of bonds.

The resulting molecules are slightly different and far more useful. “Not necessarily for the cell, but more usable for us,” Oram said. The hydrocarbons are shorter, which decreases the amount of processing that needs to be done after the chemicals are produced.

Not only can algae be engineered to produce hydrocarbons, but they could also become a super-food.

“They’ve been used as a food source for hundreds of years,” Oram said. Some people put Chlorella powder in their water to make an energy drink. “There’s already protein shakes made out of it,” Jaunky added.

All that remains is to supercharge nutritional value of algae, and the Concordia team has been working with one gene that codes for an enzyme which, in turn, creates omega-3 fatty acids. The algae could then be added whole to any meal. “You could put it on your salads,” Jaunky said.

The Concordia team makes all this happen with promoter genes that code for proteins and allow the scientists to force the cell to produce new things.

The genes have to come from somewhere. Often, genes can be found in an animal or plant on campus. If not, they can be purchased from elsewhere. “We can order DNA,” Oram said.

One copy of a gene isn’t particularly helpful, though. You need to copy the gene dozens of times, wrap it in a circle known as a plasmid, and put inside a bacterium like E. coli.

In addition to the gene you want, the plasmid also has genes for antibiotic resistance. The team uses antibiotics to check and make sure their genes are working properly. If they aren’t, the bacteria won’t be able to survive.

Next, plasmids are removed from the surviving E. coli. The circle is broken before it is stuck into an algae cell. The team uses heat to put the plasmids in the E. coli, but they need something a little stronger to get the genes into the algae.

“We electrocute the algae,” Oram said on their refined methods of geting the DNA into the cell.  “It’s called electroporation.”

Theoretically they – or anyone – could make the algae do a number of other things. “We’re playing with the Legos of life,” Oram said.

The flexibility in the field of synthetic biology means the Concordia team’s project will be one of many extremely different projects at the iGEM competition. While 245 teams from Asia, Europe, South America, and North America will be at the competition, Concordia’s team will be competing primarily against themselves.

Projects at iGEM are judged on several criteria, including their outreach efforts. For this the team has made a video explaining the science behind their work as well as an upcoming game.

There is also a policy and practice portion of the competition which encourages teams to consider the way their innovation could affect their world. “We’ve decided to focus on the sustainability side,” Oram said.

Every team is eligible for medals, based on how their project fulfills certain standards. There is also a grand prize alongside divisional awards. While there are no cash prizes at iGEM, there are plenty of bragging rights.

Oram and Jaunky are confident that their project will do well. “We are well-versed in each of them and have a very well-rounded project,” Oram said. “We’re definitely going to go with our heads held up high,” Jaunky said.

They’ve already had a chance to practice their presentation at a similar competition this year in Calgary. This September the team showed their research at the Alberta Genetically Engineered Machine competition. “It was a great opportunity to show what you’re doing, instead of just talking about it in a lab meeting,” Oram said.

People from all disciplines are welcome on iGEM teams. “A lot of our team come from diverse backgrounds, even before coming to Concordia,” said Oram, who in addition to biology has a degree in international business from Memorial University and worked in investment banking before coming to Concordia. Finances are also diverse. The team was initially funded by Concordia’s biology and computer science and engineering faculties. As the project got underway, external companies contributed software and materials.

After the competition the team’s efforts will be available to the world, and even if Concordia’s iGEM team doesn’t continue with the project their achievements will be open source through iGEM’s BioBricks database registry.

Recruitment for next year’s iGEM team will start in November.

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