A MESSAGE FROM THE DEPARTMENT HEAD
by Mike Gold
Welcome to the first edition of the new Department
of Microbiology and Immunology electronic newsletter! Our goal is
to reach out to both present department members and our alumni with
news about the people, research, and activities in our department.
Since taking over as department
Head in July 2009, one of my goals has been to reconnect with our
alumni. One of the wonderful things about our department is the
feeling that we are a family, a group of people that support and
nurture each other, and we want to create opportunities for our alumni
to continue to be an active part of our family. Whenever I pass
through the Wesbrook building, I take time to look at the pictures of
the graduating classes. In addition to smiling at out of date
hairstyles, I’m pleasantly surprised by all the people that I remember
from the classes that I taught and by the number of people who are still
involved with UBC. It would be even better to see you all again
Left to Right: Michelle Buckner, Mike Gold, Shannon Russell, and Ellen Arena. Not in picture: Julian Davies
Our outreach/alumni coordinator, Dr. Jülyet
Benbasat is busy planning activities to make that a reality. Over
the next year we are hoping to have several open house events so that
you can visit your old haunts, see your old classmates, and meet
today’s students. Much will be the same but you will also notice
some big changes. This summer, some of the Wesbrook teaching labs
in which you worked will undergo a $500,000 renovation process.
You will also notice that the research labs have moved to the Life
Sciences Centre, and we invite you to tour those labs. We also
hope to organize events where our present students can benefit from
your experience and advice by hearing about your career paths. We
will also highlight some of the great things our alumni have done in
The people in our department
continue to do great things and we hope to keep you up to date with the
latest developments. In each issue of the newsletter we will have
short summaries of exciting new research projects in our
Our department members are also involved in many
public outreach activities, which we invite you to participate in.
Ramon Santiago-Garcia, a post-doctoral fellow, along with Dr. Lindsay
Eltis, organized a World TB Day symposium on March 24. Similarly,
the department has worked together with the Microbiology and
Immunology Student Association (MISA) to sponsor symposia for World
AIDS Awareness Day, which is December 1. MISA plays an integral
part in connecting the department to our undergraduates and has
sponsored career nights as well as the recent Hot Dogs for Haiti
fundraiser. With MISA member Kevin Tsai madly making tikka masala
dogs and his own version of a Japadog, we raised over $1200 for the
An upcoming department activity to look out for is
another fundraising activity for an important cause, the Multiple
Sclerosis Society Vancouver Scenic City Bike Tour on August
8. Last year, we had an intrepid team of 5 UBC SpeedyBugs
who came out in the rain (see the photo) to raise money for research
and treatment of this autoimmune disease. This year we hope to
have sunny weather and a much larger team of SpeedyBugs. Log onto
www.msbiketours.com if you’d like to join us.
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Viral Infections May Trigger the Onset of Multiple Sclerosis
by Costanza Casiraghi and Marc Horwitz
Costanza Casiraghi is a PhD candidate in Dr. Marc Horwitz’
laboratory. This work was initially funded by a pilot project grant
from the Multiple Sclerosis Scientific Research Foundation of Canada
(MSSRF). Currently funding is being sought from CIHR and Multiple
Sclerosis Society of
The Horwitz lab is located on the third floor of the
Life Sciences Institute, in the department of Microbiology and
Immunology at the University of British Columbia. The principal
investigator is Dr. Marc Horwitz and the lab is currently composed of
two PhD students (Maya Poffenberger and Costanza Casiraghi), one
postdoctoral fellow (Dr. Martin Richer), one research technician (Iryna
Shanina) and several undergraduate students. Our lab is
interested in unravelling how viral infections are involved in the
development of autoimmune diseases such as type 1 diabetes, myocarditis
and multiple sclerosis (MS). To address this question, we use
both mouse models and in vitro systems with human cell lines to study
these complex diseases.
particular, Costanza has been exploring the link between viral
infections and the onset of MS. MS affects thousands of Canadians
and is a chronic disease that attacks the brain leading to progressive
disability. During MS components of the immune system, T cells
and macrophages, attack and destroy the myelin sheath that covers
neurons damaging the propagation of nervous signals. While the
cause of MS is still not known, viruses have quite often been
implicated in the development of MS. Several lines of evidence
have recently identified Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) as a potential
trigger of the disease, but the mechanism exploited by this virus to
trigger MS is still not understood. EBV is a fairly common virus
that is responsible for infectious mononucleosis and a majority of the
population has been infected with EBV. Once infected, EBV
remains as a latent infection in a small population of cells in our
body. It can be re-activated later in life, but has not been
associated with any dramatic phenotype. How this common pathogen
found widely spread across the population could be responsible for
mediating MS in a much smaller group of people is of immediate interest
and likely due in part to our genetic make-up, the environmental
stresses that could lead to re-activation of the virus and a bit of bad
Our lab is proposing a new hypothesis to explain the link between
EBV infection and MS. Our aim is to study whether EBV is able to
infect the blood vessels that form the blood brain barrier (BBB). BBB
blood vessels are composed of a specialized type of endothelial cells
that protect the brain. If the BBB is damaged, it can become
more permeable and allow the passage of inflammatory T cells that can
start to react and destroy the myelin sheath. An increase in
permeability of the BBB is one of the primary stages in the development
of MS. We hypothesize that, as a consequence of EBV infection
either initially or following re-activation, the cells become inflamed
and this inflammation damages the BBB and allows the passage of immune
cells that destroy the myelin sheath. In collaboration with Dr.
Katerina Dorovini-Zis at Vancouver General Hospital, an international
expert in brain endothelial cells, we have infected brain endothelial
cells with EBV and are currently examining the consequences of
infection. These results could shed light not only on the cause
of MS but also help in the identification of new targets for the
development of novel therapies.
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Wesbrook Lab Renewal: Putting the life back in Life Sciences
by Karen Smith (lab instructor extraordinaire :)
If you drop by the Wesbrook building this summer, you will notice a
makeover in progress. This make over is for an old friend.
Lately, it has been obvious that this old friend could use a boosting
in self-esteem and moral. This old friend is tired and worn,
lacking in style. Yet everyday this old friend comes through by
offering the best they can be in spite of the long hours, adverse
climate and stampede of students they encounter. This old
friend is our third year teaching laboratories.
Although, this particular make over will not be accompanied by Stacey and Clinton from TLC ‘s “What Not To Wear”
it is clear that our labs will benefit immensely in the same renewal
and rejuvenation process. Just like the show, the project
required a re-assessment of what was working and what was not. I
wouldn’t place any one problem area on the top of the
list – it could have been the peeling laminated countertops, the
bulging plaster on the window sills, the leaky sinks or the decaying
wooden cupboards. Or it really could have been the
electrical outlets that trip off when more than one item is plugged in
the same circuit. Whatever it was, at some point the labs turned
from charmingly post-modernistic to just plain old.
And so, with the support of the Faculty of Science and the
Department of Microbiology, came forth the makeover gurus of architects,
campus planners, IT personnel and contractors. All necessary to
whip this baby into shape! Beginning on May 3rd, rooms 109
and 111 will be completely gutted so that new floors, lighting and
custom bench tops can be installed. A wash of modern woods, soft
greys and burgundy will replace the cold sterile whiteness that
currently blends into the usual UBC beige walls and fluorescent
lighting. Out with the old white boards and in with sleek
this morning, Julyet and I were contemplating the changes that were to
come. Characteristically of any change, part of us felt
sadness. Maybe even a reluctance to let go. I
realized that I, alone, must have spent over 4,000 hours in those rooms
that provided a microbiology experience for at least 7,000
students. That is equivalent to 500 nights of sleep!
But then, I thought, it isn’t the cracked flooring or the lack of
storage space that defined the lab experience of all those
students. It was the students themselves who made
microbiology what it is today – one of the most engaging, tiring,
amusing and challenging experiences they will encounter in their
undergraduate careers. Some might even suggest us instructors
and TA’s added to that too!
Although our sleek, new rooms will be more inviting and modern,
they will provide the same promise - a promise of the future. The
promise that microbiology will always be exciting, dynamic and still
one of the most popular programs in life sciences. And that is
what puts L-I-F-E back in the life sciences!
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UBC World tb day 2010
by Santiago Ramón-García
Wednesday, March 24 was World Tuberculosis Day (WTBD), and for the
first time UBC marked the occasion with several events designed to
raise awareness of tuberculosis (TB) and the impact it continues to
have, both globally and locally.
In developed countries, TB is largely thought to be a disease of
the past and no longer a public threat. However, it remains an
epidemic in much of the world, causing the deaths of almost 2 million
people each year. A third of the global population is infected
with the bacterium that causes the disease. In Canada, the
incidence of TB is particularly high among First Nations people, and in
Vancouver, TB is a growing concern in the Downtown East side (DTES).
Moreover, with the emergence of extensively drug resistant
strains (XDR-TB), current anti-TB therapy is becoming increasingly
ineffective and XDR-TB almost impossible to cure. In a modern global
world, this is a first priority in public health strategies.
2010 UBC WTBD was the brainchild of Dr. Santiago Ramón-García, a
postdoctoral fellow in Dr. Charles Thompson’s Lab in the Life Sciences
Institute (LSI). Santi is actively working in the TB field, developing
new therapeutic interventions for TB treatment. As a member of the
Centre for Tuberculosis Research (CTBR) and the outreach committee of
the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, Santiago felt that
little had been done to create TB awareness in our community. His
WTBD proposal was whole-heartedly support by Dr. Michael Gold, Head
of the Department of Microbiology & Immunology, and by Dr. Lindsay
Eltis, CTBR’s Director who, together with Santi, spearheaded this
The Department of Microbiology & Immunology and CTBR partnered
with the British Columbia Centre for Disease Control (BC CDC), the UBC
Centre for Lung Health, the TB Vets Charitable Foundation, and the
Humanities 101 Program to assemble a two-day program of events
highlighting local accomplishments in the fight against TB and raising
awareness of TB. The events were held in two different venues:
the DTES and the UBC campus at the LSI.
In the DTES, an area with the highest incidence of TB in BC, TB
doctors and nurses from the BC CDC hosted an informational session
about TB symptoms, testing, and treatment options. This was held
in conjunction with a community lunch at the First United Church.
This successful event reached more than 200 people, educating
residents about how diagnosis and treatment are the first critical
steps in reducing incidence rates. A second information session
geared towards DTES health care workers was held at the Vancouver
Native Health Clinic and discussed the use of a new type of test for
latent TB infection in the DTES community.
At UBC, the World TB Day programme included a poster session, a
research symposium and a keynote address held at the LSI. These
events were open to the general public and were well attended by the
student community. The poster session and the research symposium
brought together for the first time local researchers, clinicians, and
health care workers to discuss different aspects of the TB problem.
Finally, world-renowned TB specialist Dr. Peter Donald, Professor
Emeritus in Pediatrics and Child Health at the Stellenbosch University,
Cape Town, South Africa, delivered a keynote address for the general
audience, entitled “The natural history of tuberculosis and what it
teaches us”. Dr. Donald walked the audience through the available
information on TB during the pre-antibiotic era, analyzing the
importance of the host background for the final outcome of the
In summary, Vancouver’s first WTBD was a resounding success from
both the community and scientific perspectives. It provided a
framework for the interaction of local TB researchers and
clinicians. Indeed, several collaborations among local groups
were initiated thanks to the event. Moreover, this event increased
TB awareness among people in the DTES community. Thanks to all
the co-organizers, the success of this initiative forms the basis for
future WTBD events and further interactions aimed at TB research,
diagnosis, and treatment.
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Genomic research will enable greener cleanup of military explosive test sites
by Lindsay Eltis
Dr. Lindsay Eltis is Professor of Microbiology and Immunology at
UBC and is the founding Director of the Centre for Tuberculosis
Research at UBC.
The main focus of the Eltis lab is to investigate bacterial
enzymes and pathways that degrade aromatic compounds, steroids and
pollutants. These enzymes and pathways have tremendous biotechnological
potential in bioremediation and biocatalysts and are also important in
certain diseases such as TB.
Lowly bacteria, it turns out, hold the power to help militaries
and munitions manufacturing plants around the world clean up toxic
waste on test sites.
Compounds known as nitramines, specifically RDX
(hexahydro-1,3,5-trinitro-1,3,5-triazine), were invented back in World
War II and have been used in military munitions for decades.
These high-energy compounds are often used to propel tank shells and
act like a more powerful version of TNT. But RDX and other
nitramines can contaminate the surface or subsoils of surrounding
military sites at low but toxic levels. With increased knowledge of
their environmentally harmful effects, Canadian and US militaries,
along with others around the world are looking for ways to clean up
their contaminated test sites.
On-site bioremediation using RDX-degrading microorganisms is a
potential strategy to cleanup these contaminated sites, but is
currently ineffective due to a lack of understanding about the
biochemical and genetic pathways of nitramine-degrading bacteria.
Dr. Lindsay Eltis, together with Drs. Steven Hallam and Bill
Mohn, also of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, is
conducting a Genome BC-funded project entitled, Genomic Studies of Explosives Biodegradation.
The $3.45 million project will study how bacteria degrade RDX and
determine how to maximize its potential for bioremediation.
RDX is a rich source of nitrogen, and certain bacteria including Rhodococcus and Gordonia,
have evolved to thrive on the contaminants this explosive leaves
behind. With a voracious appetite for toxic chemical compounds and a
near indestructibility (some can survive even high levels of nuclear
radiation), these bacteria are the “ultimate garbage incinerators”.
This research, which is also supported by the US Military,
presents a welcome alternative to the current option for cleanup at
test sites: a costly and invasive process which involves removing the
top layer of soil, carting it away by dump truck and burning it in an
Researchers will develop and use genomic technologies such as
metagenomics and transcriptome data to determine which genes are
functionally relevant to the degradation of nitramine-containing
chemicals. Collaborations with the US military and the Canadian
Department of National Defence will allow rapid implementation of
methods and tools developed by this research.
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Accessible Science Initiative
by Olga Peña
developing countries, students have poor access to information and
education regarding advanced science and biotechnology. To address
this, Olga Pena, a PhD Candidate in the Department of Microbiology and
Immunology established the Accessible Science Initiative (ASI) at UBC
and is currently the Student Leader, Founder and Director, for this
project. The pilot project in Tolima, Colombia, which is
described below is running under her leadership. Olga has
recruited ~35 graduate students from many different disciplines at UBC,
as well as five UBC professors, to assist with this initiative.
For information on the Accessible Science Initiative in
Colombia please see the UBC Centre for International Health website
The Accessible Science Initiative (ASI) is a new student led
organization currently working under the umbrella of the Center for
International Health (CIH) at UBC. The main goal of this
capacity building initiative is to promote and improve science
education and scientific research in low and middle income (developing)
countries through education, technical support and exchange of
This year, ASI is running a pilot project in Tolima,
Colombia in partnership with the University of Tolima (UT) and local
high schools. With the help of faculty members and volunteer
students from the University of Tolima and UBC, ASI is organizing
educational science weeks for elementary and high school students and
creating a science manual for high school teachers and students, which
contains hands-on activities requiring only easily accessible materials
and based on culturally relevant topics. The main focus of this
manual is to make science more interactive, fun and easy to learn,
thus promoting early engagement towards science career paths that will
accelerate the future development of the region.
These activities are already creating bridges between
scientists at UT and UBC and have generated fundraising activities that
will provide material and equipment for different research groups in
Colombia. The long-term goal of this project is to build
institutional capacity, by providing the University of Tolima with the
necessary training and materials required for a sustainable science
education and research program. With ASI’s help, the hope
is that the University of Tolima can become a model for many public
universities in other low-income regions of Colombia and Latin America
and a paradigm for future projects in other developing regions such as
Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Africa.
Go, Olga :)
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ALUMNI Spotlight: DR. Helen Ting
Dr. Helen Ting is one of our alumni. She was the first directed research student (Micb 448) in Dr. Mike Gold’s lab.
Helen Ting graduated from UBC Microbiology in 1996. Her
undergraduate degree gave her a solid background in basic science and
prepared her for the next step in her academic journey in the Faculty
ofMedicine. After she completed her UBC medical degree, she
travelled to Toronto for a two-year residency program in Family Medicine
and a one-month locum in rural Ontario. Back in Vancouver, she
set up practice in the Broadway corridor. One of the things she
finds most rewarding is taking care of young families and maternity
care. It allows her to work with her hands and provide care to
people during a special and exciting time in their lives.
In 2005, Helen travelled to Nepal and Tibet on a medical mission
trip. It was a dream come true to use her medical knowledge in a
place that was so different from what she was used to. There were
many challenges (no flush toilets, drinking Tibetan tea, high
altitude), but she felt extremely privileged to have been allowed to
offer care to people who live in one of the harshest environments on
Earth. Helen hopes that she’ll have more opportunity in the
future to do international medicine.
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From the Front Lines in M&I
by Julian Davies
Julian Davies is Professor Emeritus at the University of British
Columbia, Fellow of the Royal Society, and a former President of the
American Society for Microbiology.
Click here to read more about Julian.
Nature Biotechnology 26, 727 (2008)
And, yes, Julian is still in his lab every day :)
When Mike asked me to write a short commentary on things
“microbiologic”, I agreed readily. However, now it is time to
actually put pen to paper, as it were, and I do not know what to write!
Anyway, here goes.
As you all know microbiology is not rocket science…it is much more
difficult! But the field has changed enormously in the past decade,
mainly due to the development of new technologies. The new
methodology is leading us into areas that we were not ready (or able) to
consider in the past.
Foremost among the technical advances is next generation
sequencing (NGS). This new instrumentation can provide complete
genome sequences of all the bacteria in a given community, such as the
human gut, a soil or a sediment. We end up getting the genome
sequences of organisms that we did not even know were present!
It seems that there is a race going on at the moment, between all
the countries that have invested heavily in NGS to sequence the
microbiomes (microbial populations) of as many people as possible (this
excludes Canada for obvious reasons). Information on the gut
microbiomes of 124 Europeans has just been released.
Interestingly, they included healthy individuals as well as those
suffering from inflammatory bowel disease; the latter had significant
variations. The conclusion from the publication was that the
studies will lead to a much more complete understanding of human
biology than one we presently have.
As microbiologists and immunologists we welcome statements like
this, since we are now at the beginning of an era when our different
disciplines will have much clearer overlaps. Of course, this
applies to all host-microbe interactions in any environment. Does
this mean that petri plate-based microbiology might become a thing of
the past? Not a bit of it, as Salvador Luria (the Nobel-winning
virologist) is purported to have said “if you can’t grow ‘em, you don’t
The bottom line is that microbiology has regained its place as the
pre-eminent life science and, Steven Harper willing, this will benefit
us at UBC.
Remember, bugs are us!
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