Month: February 2018

Career Benefits of Blogging as a Faculty Member

I’ve been on Twitter and blogging since the fall of 2013. When I first started, I didn’t really have any goals other than that I wanted to help early career scientists navigate academia and I wanted to become part of some communities that I didn’t have access to in my daily life. Both of these activities have led to some unexpected positive outcomes.

I would say that the top benefit has been increased visibility of my research and my ideas to a broad community. This has involved interactions with other scientists, various academics, and members of the public. For example, a blog post from April 2015 called “The Advantages of Live Tweeting a Research Talk” led to an invitation to moderate a live Twitter chat comprised on Knowledge Mobilization officers across Canada and the U.S.

The second benefit is the honing of writing and communication skills. These skills are transferable to many other facets of my job and are valuable. I took a stab at writing an article for The Conversation Canada called “The Force of biology is strong in Star Wars” and my aim was to talk about mitochondria and cloning with a general audience. To date the article has received over 17,000 views; nothing else that I have written in my career has received so many reads.

The third benefit is that the blog allows me to share my opinions and to offer advice to early career biologists. The blog allows me to quantify some of my outreach activities and include them as part of my university service. My blog post on “Research Budgeting for Scientists” from March 2015 was re-published on the University Affairs website the next year. I’ve been interviewed for two articles for the journal Nature; one on networking in 2017 and one a few weeks ago called “Why science blogging still matters”. More recently I was invited to join the Science Borealis blog network that features Canadian bloggers who focus on various scientific fields.

I’ll point readers to this fantastic article written by several of my blogging heroes that explores this topic in more detail and talks about other impacts that science blogging can have for an individual and the broader community.


Mitochondria are hot!

There have been some very interesting developments in the field of mitochondrial biology in the past two months. This is very exciting for me as someone who works on bioenergetics in a variety of organisms.

The first paper made quite a splash in the community when it came out because the findings suggest that mitochondria operate at much higher temperatures than were previously believed. The paper by Chrétien et al. 2018 appears in PLOS and is entitled “Mitochondria are physiologically maintained at close to 50°C”. I will admit to being pretty open to this idea and it’s because of two reasons. The first is that I perform research on plants and have specifically worked on the enzyme alternative oxidase (AOX). Several plants are capable of shunting electrons through this enzyme and are able to heat inflorescences up to 42°C when ambient temperatures are much lower. Secondly, I’ve always been bothered by the fact that mitochondrial respiration assays using oxygen electrodes are often performed at 37°C regardless of what organism the mitochondria have been isolated from. It doesn’t made sense to me and I question the physiological relevance of assaying mitochondria using a temperature of 37°C when for example the study organism is a fish that has been acclimated to an external temperature of 5-12°C. Mitochondrial respiration is definitely more sluggish when you run these measurements at 5-12°C, but the mitochondria are still active. So for me, someone attempting to tackle the question of what temperature mitochondria actually run at is an important and highly relevant one.

The paper is an elegant one and what struck me in particular is that the authors have attempted to proactively counter the most obvious challenges that they would face from other researchers in the field. It hinges on the supposition that no energy transduction process in nature is 100% efficient and that some of the free energy of the electron transport system (ETS) must therefore be released as heat. They are obviously limited by the technologies currently available, but they have done an excellent job in using both positive and negative controls to validate their experiments and data. They have used the temperature-sensitive probe MitoThermoYellow to attempt to determine the temperature of mitochondria in a mammalian cell line background. As I read the paper, every few minutes I thought of another potential factor that could be responsible for their results, and in the very next sentence they addressed each of my particular concerns; it was a pretty surreal experience. The mitochondrial temperature is directly influenced by the level of operation of the ETS and what components are present (they do some very neat work with the alternative oxidase and uncoupling protein). They do some preliminary enzymology work on crude extracts to demonstrate that several ETS complexes exhibit temperature optima ~50°C, but that this is only true if the mitochondrial membranes are intact. A fascinating next step would be to examine the role of supercomplexes in these effects.

The authors themselves admit that one of the key questions that needs to be considered is whether mitochondria and cells can maintain temperature gradients, or whether any heat would immediately be lost to the rest of the organisms and/or the environment? Here we need to consider what is known about the physical shape, size, number, and localization of mitochondria in cells and what is known about the insulating capabilities of phospholipids, membrane components, and the contents and composition of various cellular compartments. Much of this information is lacking. These issues and other possible critiques of the paper are addressed by Nick Lane in his article “Hot mitochondria?”. Lots of new questions and concepts brought up by the Chrétien et al. paper which makes it a very valuable contribution to the field.

The second article is one by Cory Dunn entitled “Some Liked It Hot: A Hypothesis Regarding Establishment of the Proto-Mitochondrial Endosymbiont During Eukaryogenesis”. This paper was a lot of fun to read and presents a simple, but profound hypothesis: the initial usefulness of the proto-mitochondrion and the evolutionary driving force for its retention was due to its ability to generate heat and that it wasn’t until much later in evolutionary history that its ability to biosynthesize ATP could be harnessed. It’s a pretty neat idea and the figures in the article help the reader considerably. The premise of this article will be further supported if the conclusion of the Chrétien et al. holds up over time.


Product Review: Instant Pot

Yes, I am in fact reviewing a kitchen appliance. I am moved to do so because of how amazing said appliance is. I am not even the primary user of this particular appliance.

My partner and I have owned a couple of slow cookers in the 18 years that we’ve lived together. Our first one was a very basic model. We upgraded a few years ago to a version that had various programmable features including a time delay and different heat settings. My partner is the one who does the bulk of the dinner cooking at our house and we generally use the slow cooker several times every two weeks, especially on days that are hectic with kids’ activities when we don’t have the time to prepare and cook a meal in the late afternoon. That’s the beauty of slow cookers; you can set them up in the morning with your meal and forget about them until you are ready to eat dinner. We also use a steamer that we bought some time ago to do vegetables with many of our dinners. We save time and money (by avoiding fast food purchases); what’s not to like?

For Christmas this year, we received an Instant Pot. Prior to this I had never heard of these things, but we got excited just reading the outside of the box. We cracked it open the next day and have used it many times during the past 5 weeks. What’s great about it is that it is a steamer, slow cooker, and a pressure cooker, all in one! It’s designed really well and the instructions for use are clear. It’s also easy to clean because the pot can go on the top shelf of the dishwasher. (Cleaning our old slow cooker was the bane of my existence every time we used it…curse you ceramic pot!). I’ve never had a pressure cooker, mostly because they are terrifying and I always thought that they might explode if the lid wasn’t put on just right!

So far we have used the Instant Pot to make boiled eggs (perfectly done, no more guessing if they are soft or hard), mashed potatoes (you can keep them warm until just before you serve them; no more cold potatoes!), beef roast with potatoes and carrots (done this twice and both times the kids raved about how good it was), beef stroganoff, and broccoli cheddar soup. We’ll be able to replace two different appliances with a single one. I am impressed!

This appliance has achieved cult status and many resources are available on the internet, so there is no lack of recipes available to try out. It is a huge time saver and can really help with the dinner rush as the preparation time can take place in the morning and is often only 10 minutes or so. It’s really useful if you have multiple kids with multiple activities and if you and your partner have to divide and conquer and therefore must eat at different times.

We haven’t come close to exhausting the possibilities of what the appliance can do, but so far we have been really impressed!


Doctor Al Digest #24

The #reviewforscience Twitter hashtag has been cracking me up this week. Highlights include gluing trackers on bees, using a body massager to attract spiders, nooses for lizard collection, and the winner: using nail polish for killing bot fly maggots prior to extracting them from your own body.

Looks like the #MeToo movement has caught up with Canadian politics and they’re clearing house (the House of Commons that is!)

Tooting my own horn a bit…myself and several other bloggers were interviewed by the Nature piece “Why science blogging still matters”

A very elegant and thorough study by Chrétien et al. that suggests that the mitochondria in human cell lines operate at ~50°C when at maximal capacity  and a thoughtful critique by Dr. Nick Lane . I suspect that some paradigms are about to be destroyed in the near future in mitochondrial and thermal biology.