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UBC Science Blog with Katelyn Low


The Ever-Changing World of Jellyfish

It doesn’t take an expert to see that there aren’t a whole lot of distinctive features on a jellyfish. There are the tentacles of course, and that part-at-the-top-that-sort-of-looks-like-a-parachute – but everything else looks a bit like a blob. It’s a cool-looking blob I’ll admit, but a blob, nonetheless.

Sarah Sparmann, a UBC M.Sc student who studies Scyphozoans (true jellyfish), says that the jelly’s blobby body (my words, not hers) and general lack of distinctive physical features have posed a serious problem for researchers studying the relationships of jellyfish species over the years.

The study of evolutionary relationships of species, termed ‘phylogeny’, includes everything from identifying new species, to determining if two similar-looking jellies are the same or different species. Unlike many other organisms with well-studied phylogenies, there’s still a lot that we don’t know about jellyfish species relationships.

So why is the blobby body to blame? Sarah says the reason goes back to how scientists used to identify species long before the days when DNA analysis was de rigueur. Back in those days, species were identified simply by looking at their morphological (physical and structural) features.

However, when you have an organism that consists of almost 98% water, finding physical features that can be used for some degree of identification is a bit challenging. Of the limited morphological features that allow for clear distinction, Sarah gives the examples of the arrangement and number of tentacles, and the shape of the lappets (outside rim of the jelly’s bell).

As a result, jellyfish researchers have shifted from identifying species based on morphological features to identification based on looking at something that gives a bit more information to go on - molecular data. “It basically comes down to looking at a gene, and comparing the similarities and differences between the sequences of different species,” explains Sarah.

The morphological-to-molecular shift has made some major waves in the Scyphozoan species world. Some researchers suggest that estimates of jellyfish species diversity based on molecular analyses may be double the size of estimates based on morphological analyses.

Sarah uses both morphological and molecular analyses in her own research, which focuses on the local Lion’s Mane jellyfish, a large, bell-shaped jelly (pictured above). The majority of her time is spent in the lab, doing molecular work, microscopy, or maintaining polyp cultures of 15 jellyfish species. But it’s not all indoor (and on land) activity. Jellyfish don’t just gather themselves. Sarah has to go out into the field and get samples.

How exactly does one capture a jellyfish? Unfortunately, there are no high-tech jellyfish-catching devices on the market, or at least, none that are owned by the UBC Zoology Department. “I stand on a dock or jetty, and use a large dip-net to catch the jellies right out of the water,” explains Sarah. “Sometimes we also use boats to cover more area or have scuba divers collect samples for us.”

The subsequent analysis that follows the collection of the jellyfish themselves is, in a word, time-consuming. “The overall process of trying to figure out the phylogenetic relationships is a rather complicated and slow-moving process,” Sarah admits. “Each step of the process, from choosing which gene you’re going to look at, to amplifying the chosen gene, often involves a lot of troubleshooting and trying different things.” But hey, it’s an integral part of the scientific process, and a part that Sarah enjoys. “I am constantly learning how to solve problems that arise unavoidably and constantly,” she says. “But I love never feeling bored with what I do.”

It’s unlikely that Sarah will get bored with jellyfish phylogeny anytime soon. The number of known jellyfish species is currently around 200, but it’s quite likely that many more remain yet undiscovered. “The ocean is so vast and our sampling technologies are so limited,” says Sarah. “Jellyfish can be found in all different types of environments of the ocean, from the deep sea all the way to coastal waters. I am sure there are a lot of un-described species out there.”

Get to Know Your Local Jellies!

Sarah Sparmann, a M.Sc student at UBC, studies the phylogenies of true jellyfish (species in the class Scyphozoa). Her current research focuses on the Lions Mane jellyfish, a species Sarah says is far and away her favourite.

Lions Mane jellies are the world’s largest jellyfish. They can grow to enormous sizes, with tentacles that reach several metres long. (If you really want to be wowed, do a Google image search for these ones – they can be huge!) Sarah loves their deep red, almost pinkish colour, and beautiful shape of their bells.

The Lions Mane is just one of the types of jellyfish found in Vancouver waters. Other common local jellies include:

Moon jellyfish. They are one of the most common jellyfish species around Vancouver. Just a few months ago, there was a large bloom around Stanley Park.
Fried Egg jellyfish. They are one of the most easily identified jellyfish species (pictured above). When one rises to the surface, its bell looks like an egg fried sunny-side up.
Sea Nettle jellyfish. They are recognized by their distinctive golden brown bell. They also possess a decent sting!

Undergraduate Researcher Profile: Alex Ng

For the past five years, ubiquitin has had a ubiquitous presence in the mind of Alex Ng. A fourth-year Honours Biochemistry and Statistics student, Alex has been researching ubiquitin (a cellular protein) since he was in high school. Now it seems his persistence and years in the lab are paying off – he is the second author of a paper on the ubiquitin-proteasome system recently published in the journal Nature Cell Biology.

I got a chance to speak with Alex about how he got involved in research, the excitement of being published, and what exactly ubiquitin does in the cell.

Alex’s research began all the way back in high school for a project he worked on at St. Paul’s Hospital. But why choose ubiquitin? Aside from the cool-sounding name, it’s not exactly a commonly heard word in high school, even in a science class. Turns out for Alex, it was less about the protein itself, and more about the neurodegenerative diseases it is linked with. “My piano teacher had Parkinson’s,” Alex says. “It got so bad that he couldn’t play anymore because he was trembling and shaking so much. I saw the effects of the disease firsthand, and I wanted to be involved with efforts to cure it.”

Upon entering first year at UBC, Alex joined the Mayor Lab at UBC’s Centre for High-Throughput Biology. The lab, led by Dr. Thibault Mayor, studies the ubiquitin-proteasome system, a protein complex responsible for the important task of destroying misfolded proteins in the cell. Accumulation of misfolded proteins is problematic for a cell, and plays a major role in diseases like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s. Ubiquitin is a protein that attaches to misfolded proteins like a tag, signalling to the cell that the protein should be destroyed in a structure called a proteasome.

It was in the Mayor Lab that Alex became part of a team studying the ubiquitin-proteasome system in the cytosol of cells. Contrary to what the previous paragraph may have led you to believe, there’s actually a lot that’s still unknown about how cells destroys misfolded proteins – specifically, what pathways, genes, and molecules are involved. Consequently, when the Mayor Lab was able to identify the pathway in the cytosol – a pathway that was previously almost completely unknown, according to Alex – it was pretty darn exciting! Exciting enough to submit the findings to Nature Cell Biology (quite a prestigious journal for those readers not well-versed with science journals). “We decided to aim high,” says Alex, with a laugh.

It was no laughing matter, however, when the paper was accepted. “I literally jumped up in the lab,” says Alex. “The whole lab was ecstatic.” For the whole lab, and Alex in particular, there was reason to celebrate. He was listed as the second author of the paper, a significant achievement for an undergraduate student, indicative of a considerable contribution to the research. “Sometimes papers can have hundreds of authors,” Alex says, “and so being a second author on a paper with relatively few is just huge.”

As for the future, in between studying and researching, as well as finding time for non-sciencey pursuits like snowboarding and playing board games with friends, Alex is completing applications for grad school. He hopes to pursue Bioinformatics, a field that combines computer science, biology, and statistics. It seems an appropriate pathway for someone who clearly delights in delving into the details of cellular functioning. “I love discovering something new that no one else has found,” says Alex, his face lighting up. “It makes you feel like you’ve contributed to science.” With words like that, I have no doubt that whether ubiquitin is involved or not, his passion for research will always be ubiquitous.

Whales and Fossils and Horns, Oh My! Katelyn Shares Her Favourite Beaty Museum Exhibits

Over the past summer, I volunteered at UBC’s Beaty Biodiversity Museum, a natural history museum with over two million specimens, and as a result, spent quite a bit of time roving through the museum and its formidable collections. Now, I’m not one to briefly skim any display; I like to make sure that I read and see everything (I’m very fun to go to museums with). Despite my inherent thoroughness, every time I go through the collections, I discover something new. Simple put, there’s a lot to see! So I thought I would share my top four favourite parts of the museum.

(1) The Blue Whale Skeleton

Obviously, you can’t visit the museum without setting your eyes upon all twenty-six metres of unadulterated whale connective tissue (and some casted parts). Of all specimens in the museum, this one has a hard time blending in! Make sure you check out the whale skeleton from all angles – my personal favourite is on the top floor of the museum, standing at the whale’s eye level. Just try to imagine swimming beside something that large.

Eye level with the whale

But don’t just admire the whale, learn about it! Did you know blue whales are not only the largest animals to have ever lived on Earth, but also the loudest? Did you know that a blue whale’s heart is the size of a small car? You can also learn about Big Blue personally (er, um, whale-ally). She has a few whalin’ idiosyncrasies of her own.

Be sure to take advantage of the red-vested museum educators who will eagerly answer all your whale-related queries. And let you (gently) touch a piece of real baleen. And if you dare, smell a small sample of “schmag”, a lovely term coined to describe rotting whale flesh. Beaty’s sample of schmag was scraped from the whale’s brain cavity. If you happen to go for this particular olfactory experience, the wafting technique is highly recommended. And if you should decline, well, just know that most seven-year-old children are braver than you.

(2) The Beetle Quote

Many of the museum’s displays not only contain cool specimens, but also feature informative descriptions with some really captivating quotes from biologists. My personal favourite is a panel in the entomology collection that features a quote from British geneticist J.S. Haldane about beetles. Now, I'm not the biggest Coleoptera fan, but you gotta smile when you read this: “The creator, if He exists, has an inordinate fondness for beetles.” Read: there are a ton of different kinds of beetles out there. Now, is it simply a matter of there actually being a ton of beetles out there? Or could it be that humans have just discovered more beetles than other species? There are an estimated 4 million undiscovered insect species still out there!

(3) The Cowan Tetrapod Collection

The tetrapod collection, which includes over 40,000 specimens of mammals, birds, reptiles, and amphibians, is probably my favourite display. And my favourite part of my favourite display is the mounts of various even-toed ungulate species (Artiodactyls) like moose, caribou, gazelles, and kudu. When I first saw the display, I was awed by the variety of shapes and enormous size of the antlers and horns.

(4) The Biodiversity Tree Wall (in the children’s area)

A wonderful, colourful, construction-paper-y compilation of what children love about biodiversity and the museum. If you’re a kid, you should add to it, and if you’re not a kid, you should read it, simply for gems such as “I love snakes” (succinct…and brave), “rabbits eat their own [excrement]” (true), and “this musm is so fun” (musm = common way kids spell museum). The tree also features references to Bill Nye the Science Guy, impressive crayon renderings of animals, and some pieces I suspect weren’t done by children.

I have no idea what this is, but I felt compelled to take a picture of it.
While you’re back there in the children’s area, you should take advantage of the comfy chairs, biodiversity books, animal puppets, and craft station.

There you have it – my (current) top four favourite parts of the Beaty Museum. As fond as I am of these four displays, I really do enjoy the whole museum. There’s a story about and behind every specimen. For everything you see, there’s a person who collected it, studied it, classified it, and prepared it. Oh, and at one point, it lived! Corniness (but true corniness) aside, the museum is really neat. Next time you find yourself in the general vicinity with a bit of time to spare, you should drop by!

Beaty Biodiversity Museum Celebrates First Birthday

’Party’ and ‘museum’. Two words I never expected to hear in the same breath while at UBC. But if you visited the Beaty Biodiversity Museum this weekend, a party is exactly what you would have found. A birthday party to be exact – in celebration of the museum’s first year.

It has been one whole year since the Beaty Museum opened its large glass doors to the public. Officially opened on October 16, 2010, Beaty has been a welcome addition to the museum scene for kids, science-enthusiasts, and interested Vancouverites alike. The big draw: the massive 26-metre-long blue whale skeleton. Beaty’s resident Balaenoptera musculus skeleton is the largest blue whale on display in Canada. However, there’s more to see than Big Blue--a lot more. The museum features over two million specimens including collections of tetrapods, marine invertebrates, insects, fishes, plants, fungi, and fossils.

Compared to many of the museum’s resident specimens, some of which are decades old-- and in the fossils’ case, millennia old-- the museum itself is the new kid on the block. But as those most closely involved in the museum’s inner workings know, the one-year milestone is significant.

“A year later, it’s still hard to believe that we succeeded in building a concept, a team, hundreds of displays, and a growing following among the Vancouver public,” says Beaty’s Scientific Co-director, Dr. Wayne Maddison.

Dr. Jeannette Whitton, the museum’s other Scientific Co-director, admits the first year has been full of long, hard work. “It’s been a labour of love,” she says, “but it’s been more labour than love on some days.”

Make no mistake, the hard work does pay off. “The rewards are huge,” Whitton says. “Getting kudos from well-respected authorities, interacting with a dedicated professional team, and most importantly, knowing that we are contributing to a public love affair with biodiversity just reaffirms our passion for this museum.”

Maddison agrees. “When you have the beauty and wonder of living creatures on your side, it’s easy to keep energized telling the story of biodiversity.”

The birthday festivities, which began on October 22 and will continue until the end of November, include a variety of activities, games, shows, and tours for all ages.

I got a chance to volunteer at the museum this past Saturday to see the fun and games (and biodiversity!) firsthand.

It’s not a birthday celebration without an unflattering party hat, even in a museum. First things first, visitors received a colourful party hat (well, a party hat template). Museum-goers visited four birthday-themed stations in order to receive the pieces needed to assemble the hat. A plus: the stations were short, fun, and educational. (Plus, you learn cute, impressive facts that you can file away for that next round of Trivial Pursuit. For example, baby echidnas are called puggles.)

Baby platypuses are also called puggles. The term applies to all baby monotremes. Also, platypus puggles are slightly more photogenic than echidna puggles.

In addition to the birthday goings-on, the museum will still be offering its regular programming, including guided tours, puppet shows for kids, viewings of various talks and documentaries in the auditorium, and access to the collections and discovery lab.

I highly recommend checking out the Beaty Museum! Admission is free for UBC students, staff, and faculty. UBC alumni receive a 2-for-1 deal on the admission price.

Hello World: UBC Science's First Blog!

Hello! My name is Katelyn Low, and I’m the Science Communications Assistant for UBC’s Faculty of Science this term. I’m a fourth year Integrated Science student, with my two areas of integration being Pathogens and Animal Behaviour. I get to study disease-causing organisms like viruses, bacteria, and parasites, and learn about the biological basis of behaviour in psychological, ecological, and evolutionary contexts.

Separately, the two areas are really interesting, and when combined, they produce some really cool (and borderline creepy!) examples of pathogens influencing behaviour. For instance, did you know that when rats are infected with the parasite Toxoplasma gondii, the parasite goes into the fear centre of the rat’s brain and changes its behaviour such that it is no longer afraid of cats (the ultimate host the parasite wants to be in), but fears of dogs and other predators remain unaffected? Also, zombie ants.

When not seeking the latest science scoop, or reading about peculiar pet parasites, you can find me ambling around UBC wearing a warm coat and rain boots (inevitably on the one day it doesn’t rain) and enjoying the autumn colors of the trees on Main Mall (while trying desperately to avoid walking into those green caterpillars dangling from the oaks).

And when not at UBC, you can find me sleeping in awkward positions on the bus, at my desk watching YouTube videos studying diligently, going for the occasional bike ride, and searching for the perfect chocolate chip cookie recipe (and being adamant that said cookie does not contain raisins).

Over the rest of the term, I’ll be doing my best to find interesting science stories about students, alumni, faculty, and events here at UBC and write about them in the most non-boring-yet-still-informative way possible. Please don’t hesitate to let me know if there are any particular topics that you would like featured! Contact me at low@science.ubc.ca.

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