Patty Wellborn



UBCO experts suggest wrapping gifts in reusable bags or boxes as one of several ways to keep the holiday season sustainable.

Regardless of what, or if, you decide to celebrate at this time of year, it’s hard to stay in budget and keep the holiday season sustainable.

A group of UBC Okanagan experts has some tips on how to keep the green in your pocket while ensuring it’s a green holiday for the planet.

Bryn Crawford, Research Engineer, Program Manager, PacifiCan-MMRI Accelerating Circular Economy

It’s all about the packaging. Think about how something is packaged before you buy it. Is the packaging recyclable or reusable? Also, when it comes to wrapping, keeping and re-using gift-wrapping paper is a great way to reduce waste. Look for gifts that don’t use materials that would persist in landfill or would divert waste from landfill.

“I suggest people look for gifts that are composed of natural, untreated materials such as wood, paper, cotton, or highly recyclable materials such as aluminum or steel. Also look for items made from upcycled waste, try to shop at stores that allow you to bring in a bottle or container to refill, or look for merchants that sell items in bottles or packages that are made from 100 per cent recycled plastics.”

Nathan Pelletier, Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science/Faculty of Management

Every Christmas there is inevitably a debate regarding the sustainability of real versus artificial trees.

So, which is better? Unfortunately, Dr. Pelletier says there is no simple answer.

Relative impacts and benefits will be influenced by production practices and location, transportation distances—including your own. Spending half a day searching for a tree in a pickup truck will definitely weight the outcome. And use behaviours should also be considered. An artificial tree used for 15 years will have a fraction of the impact of one that is only used for five years.

Also important to keep in mind are the specific aspects of sustainability that we consider, and how we prioritize among them. For example, carbon footprints versus biodiversity impacts, or jobs versus landscape aesthetic value.

“Comparisons are always complicated and perhaps distract from simple, powerful strategies like giving the gift of time to those we love and focusing on quality over quantity.”

Eric Li, Faculty of Management

Be present and give fewer presents. Use your time generously and think about volunteering at a local organization or providing your time to do something with someone, even if it’s a neighbour or acquaintance.

“We all live in a busy world, so perhaps the gift of your time is something another person might really appreciate. A key component of the season is about being with family and friends, so make a point of doing that.”

By all means, give gifts, but think about the material products. What’s really necessary. Maybe buy less this year. And try to buy local. Also think of where the packaging this gift is coming from and where it might end up.

Ross Hickey, Irving K. Barber Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences

Donations to registered Canadian charities are on sale this year, as always. Giving to charities on behalf of others can help people give a gift that lets the recipient know how much the giver truly knows the recipient. Also, giving to registered religious organizations and advocacy groups can help others in a variety of ways. You’re giving a gift twice, to the charity and also to the recipient.

A fan of the 1905 classic tale the Gift of Magi, Dr. Hickey says shoppers should keep that story in mind while shopping.

“The story is about a young couple who each sell their most prized possessions to buy a gift for each other,” explains Dr. Hickey. “While they both ended up with gifts they couldn’t use, the theory is a gift that comes from self-sacrifice and love is what really matters. When it comes to overspending, I think that story says it all.”

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Brain cells with the focus put on astrocytes

Star-shaped astrocytes, shown red in this image, extend cellular projections like tentacles to communicate with neighbouring brain cells. Once astrocytes become cancerous, the projections become longer, and their networks become more complex, invading different areas of the brain.

Brain cancer. It’s the diagnosis no one wants to hear.

Patients with high-grade gliomas, or tumours in the brain and spinal cord, have an average life expectancy of a mere 12 to 16 months. Not only do tumours in the brain spread more aggressively than in other tissues, but these tumours are also resistant to chemotherapy and have a high probability to recur after surgical removal.

Now UBC Okanagan researchers are working to better understand the development and rapid growth of cancerous cells in the brain.

Sessional Lecturer Dr. Mitra Tabatabaee and Dr. Fred Menard, Associate Professor in Chemistry, Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at UBCO, examined astrocytoma, a cancer that begins in astrocytes—cells that support nerve cells.

Currently, astrocytoma is highly fatal with no effective treatment.

Their research, recently published in Cells, reviews the potential role of an imbalance of glutamate—a neurotransmitter that stimulates nerve cells—in astrocytoma progression. It suggests that several receptors not previously considered in brain cancer research might be crucial to the cancerous growth of astrocytoma.

“Astrocytoma spreads throughout the brain quickly, and there is no treatment,” says Dr. Tabatabaee. “There’s not enough information about the development of astrocytoma, which is one of the main reasons for the lack of effective treatment. We need to know first the molecular mechanism of what’s happening.”

Star-shaped astrocytes extend cellular projections like tentacles that stretch to communicate with their neighbouring cells. Once these astrocytes become cancerous, the projections become longer, and their networks become more complex, invading different areas of the brain. How far they extend in the brain is strongly correlated with the cancer’s aggressivity and its resistance to treatment.

“If some extra-long cell projections are left behind during surgery, the tumour can grow back,” says Dr. Tabatabaee.

A suspected cause of this uncontrolled growth of cellular processes is elevated levels of glutamate. When astrocytes sense glutamate, the concentration of calcium rises inside the cell. Since calcium is also necessary for growing cellular projections, the glutamate receptors that affect the calcium inside astrocytes are prime suspects for the abnormal growth of astrocytoma cells.

By studying astrocytoma cells, Dr. Tabatabaee and Dr. Menard identified a glutamate receptor and two other molecular contributors crucial in extending the projections of these cancerous cells.

With further study, researchers believe that these overlooked receptors can serve as targets for designing more effective chemotherapies and open up new avenues to halt the progression of this aggressive and often fatal cancer.

“Studying and targeting these specific receptors, may pave the way to understand how we can stop infiltration of the disease throughout the brain and prevent the tumour growth,” says Dr. Tabatabaee.

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Life Bulb

UBCO students have created living life bulb that generates light from organic material.

A group of UBC Okanagan students lit up the competition and won gold with their creation of a living light bulb.

The team’s living light bulb aims to generate light from organic material. Their creation, called Life Bulb, is not reliant on electricity and can convert greenhouse gases into oxygen.

The students competed in the 2022 International Genetically Engineered Machine (iGEM) Competition, a synthetic biology competition in Paris involving more than 350 teams from more than 40 countries.

Despite this being UBCO’s first showing in the competition and despite the associated struggles with starting a team from the ground up, the UBCO students won a gold medal for their project, says Dr. Mitra Tabatabaee, the Principal Investigator for Life Bulb.

With Life Bulb, the students are creating a sustainable alternative to LEDs using a fungal bioluminescent pathway with photosynthetic bacteria as their chassis. The project is still in testing, but the intention is to create a green, glowing light source that is easily scalable and can be powered through the sun thanks to photosynthesis.

“We wanted to provide this alternative sustainable source that can be potentially carbon-negative by absorbing greenhouse gases to reduce the impact that lighting has on our climate,” says Alyssa Kong, co-team lead and third-year Bachelor of Science student majoring in microbiology.

Life Bulb is an entirely student-led initiative, started in early 2022. It was the first project from the UBCO iGEM club, which was founded by Gustavo Muro Marchani, a third-year Bachelor of Science student majoring in biochemistry and molecular biology.

The team is interdisciplinary, with 16 students from backgrounds in biology, chemistry, engineering, computer science and management. In addition to faculty advisors from the Irving K. Barber Faculty of Science and the School of Engineering, the team consulted with various stakeholders and industry professionals including lighting experts to get feedback. Syilx artist Les Louis also contributed by creating a blueprint for a wood carving that incorporates Life Bulb as an art medium.

The gold medal demonstrates that the judges found their work worthy of the highest level of achievement, says Dr. Tabatabaee.

“These brilliant undergraduate students proved that when there is potential, passion, perseverance and teamwork, no goal is unachievable,” she adds. “Our iGEM team raised its own funds, shaped its own international community and negotiated for lab space throughout the competition season. It was a great honour and joy for me to work with this thriving team.”

The team, which was also nominated for Best Wiki, is still considering the next steps for Life Bulb and for next year’s iGEM competition. But they are passionate about the possibilities, says Muro Marchani, team co-lead.

“Everything can be grown,” he adds. “That’s the new mindset with the wonder of synthetic biology. Instead of mining or getting it from different places that might harm the environment, you can grow it anywhere.”

Student Robin Blott in a lab

Bachelor of Science student Robin Blott inspects a sample of Synechocystis sp. PCC 6803, the photosynthetic chassis for the Life Bulb has been molecularly engineered to create bioluminescence.

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