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Science in brief

A round-up of research making headlines at U of T
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Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY
Mirka Loiselle/THE VARSITY

Malaria linked to cognitive defects in pregnancy

Malaria is a parasitic disease transmitted by mosquitoes that causes fever, chills, and flu like symptoms. It may seem innocent, but when left untreated, it kills. It affects children predominantly in the regions of sub-Saharan Africa, India and even parts of Central America. What researchers didn’t know before was that these deadly effects could be transmitted from an infected mother to their unborn child.

Researchers at U of T conducted a revolutionary experiment with the “C5a signaling” mechanism, which is an inflammatory sequence of amino acids that causes fetal injury. C5a is produced when a developing fetus’ mother has contracted malaria, and causes decreased serotonin, dopamine and noradrenaline neurotransmitters — all crucial for neurodevelopment.

When researchers disrupted the signal pathway in pregnant mice infected with malaria, the neurotransmitters were restored to normal levels and the offsprings were born healthy. This research can potentially save the lives of many children being born in malaria endemic regions across the world, and it happened right here at U of T.

— Kasi Sewraj

Researchers model complex life of cell

The inner workings of a cell can be modelled in a similar way to social networks. Instead of modelling people and their interactions, scientists can model millions of protein-protein interactions and how they control the life of the cell. Dr. Andrew Emili of the Donnelly Centre at the University of Toronto, in collaboration with researchers from three countries, has managed to accomplish this difficult endeavour for nine different species, including humans.

Using a new method devised by the team that can sort through many proteins simultaneously, they have created a database which has increased knowledge of protein-protein interactions tenfold. Remarkably, the results show that this protein interaction network is very similar among organisms, ranging from simple yeast to humans. This result has major implications for studying human diseases in model organisms such as mice and yeast.

As an example of the value of this interaction map, the research team discovered a previously unknown protein complex called ‘commander.’ They found that this complex was crucial for a certain aspect of embryonic development. Building on this test case, the potential for further discoveries from this database are enormous and can have huge implications for human health.

— Aditya Chawla

U of T helps create clearest ever image of alien planet

Astronomers have used a cutting-edge planetary imaging instrument to produce the world’s best view of a distant exoplanet’s unique orbit.

The Gemini Planet Imager (GPI) in Chile allowed a team of astronomers led by Maxwell Millar-Blanchaer — a U of T PhD candidate — to track a one-and-a-half year segment of the planet’s 22 year orbit around the star ‘Pictoris.’

This alien solar system is of particular interest to scientists because of its large debris disk. The disk’s large mass exerts an unmistakable gravitational influence on the exoplanet, which allows astronomers to test planetary-system formation theories in an ideal arrangement.

“Beta Pictoris is a very exciting system both because of the presence of the directly imaged planet, of which we have only discovered a small handful, as well as the dusty debris disk, whose structure is imprinted with evidence of interaction with the planet,” said Millar-Blanchaer. “Understanding the true relationship between the planet and the disk will be able to tell us about the history of this system.”

The GPI images the actual planet, a remarkable feat due to the modest light that exoplanets reflect. Using adaptive optics, the GPI cancels out our atmosphere’s distortive qualities and blocks out the light from the exoplanet’s star, sharpening the image.

Millar-Blanchaer and his team’s findings were published September 16 in the Astrophysical Journal. The paper describes the GPI-assisted observations of the Pictoris system, including the most accurate measurement of the planet’s mass to date.

— Alexander Gomes

U of T scientists contribute to 3D map of Cosmos

The world of cosmology is buzzing about the potential applications of the new CHIME Pathfinder radio telescope in British Columbia. The recent increase in interest is partially due to the potential for using CHIME’s data to generate a 3D map of the observable universe.

Previous attempts to map the universe in 3D required a painstaking process of identifying and comparing the distances of individual galaxies. CHIME promises to speed up the mapping process by enabling multiple approaches to simultaneously probe the distances of galaxy clusters.

Shaped like a series of half-pipes, CHIME has no moving parts and relies on the Earth’s rotation to sweep across the sky. The Pathfinder’s unconventional design is complimented by a novel data-intensive processing unit that calibrates, stores, and analyzes data, using a series of consumer-level logic chips called Graphics Processing Units, or GPUs.

Researchers working at U of T’s Long Wavelength Lab, headed by Professor Keith Vanderlinde, will use CHIME to try and answer fundamental questions about the cosmos, in collaboration with researchers from McGill and UBC. Their efforts will hopefully provide insight into the nature of dark energy, the composition of the universe, and the effect of gravity on very large objects.

­— Victor Swift

Tooth emergence patterns in Darwinius fossil support new evolutionary history

In 2009, the press was buzzing about the alleged discovery of a ‘missing link’ between higher primates and humans, spurring a continued debate within the scientific community. UTSC PhD student Sergi López-Torres re-evaluates claims about the famous fossil of Darwinius massillae, nicknamed ‘Ida,’ in a recent study published in Royal Society Open Science.

Ida is a two-piece fossil of a young female that is over 47 million years old, and is the best-preserved primate fossil known to exist on Earth. It has been suggested Darwinius is most closely related to the squirrel monkey, making it the missing link between higher primates and humans.

Investigating, López-Torres took advantage of the unique patterns of tooth emergence in distinct species. Ida was fossilized before all of her adult teeth had surfaced, revealing to López-Torres that the order her wisdom teeth were coming in was most closely related to the tooth emergence pattern seen in lemurs, not squirrel monkeys.

Since Ida is the only fossil for Darwinius, finding an appropriate model system in a living relative can help scientists infer more information about her species. Switching the model to lemurs based on tooth emergence patterns led López-Torres to calculate a different age and predicted mass of Darwinius compared to previous estimates that used a squirrel monkey model. Another important implication of his findings is that Darwinius would now be placed in the same branch evolutionary history as lemurs, which is notably further from humans than squirrel monkeys. This contributes to the growing consensus that Darwinius may not actually be the missing link to humans.

To evolutionary anthropologists like Sergi López-Torres, this is neither disappointing nor surprising news. López-Torres explained, “The study of evolutionary lineages produce thousands of “missing links, […] it is impossible to pin down the ‘missing link’ — evolution is a continuum.”

Furthermore, he said, “evolution makes more sense when you look at it as a whole. Evolution is more understandable with the more pieces of the puzzle we get, and this can have impact in areas as distant as primate conservation or medical research.”

While differences between the lemur and squirrel monkey models may seem small, they are integral to gaining a detailed understanding of extinct animals to ultimately weave together a complete and accurate evolutionary history of all organisms.

— Samantha Yammine