3 things you should know about cell-based meat, the Autumnal Equinox, and Canada’s last ice shelf

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Meet Renée-Claude Goulet and Michelle Campbell Mekarski.

They are Ingenium’s science advisors, providing expert scientific advice on key subjects relating to the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum and the Canada Science and Technology Museum. Jesse Rogerson, formerly the science advisor for the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, continues to lend his expert voice to the Channel.

In this colourful monthly blog series, Ingenium’s past and present science advisors offer up three quirky nuggets related to their areas of expertise. For the September edition, they discuss cell-based meat, the Autumnal Equinox, and the collapse of the last Canadian ice shelf.

A close-up image of two burger patties cooking in a pan.

Cultured meat could help us produce more food with less space, but we need to find ways to produce it reliably and cost-effectively. 

Cell-based meat and the future of food 

With a growing world population, demand for meat and seafood is on the rise and is only expected to keep increasing. Considering our depleting land and water resources, how will we feed an estimated nine billion people by 2050? Some believe cultured or “lab-grown” meat may be part of the solution. 

The idea of growing meat separately from animals is not new; research and development efforts began 20 years ago. The common goal is to create products that compare in cost, taste, and texture to meat, fish, and other animal products — but without the land use or the animals.

To create what is called “cell-based meat,” scientists start with a small sample of muscle collected from an animal. From this, they isolate simple cells which have potential to become more specialized, and make them replicate. The next step is to grow the cells in a nutrient broth, which also contains growth factors (chemical signals). These tell the cells to activate certain genetic programs, which prompts them to develop into muscle cells as they would in an animal. Scientists then provide a scaffold for the cells to grow on, and use electric pulses to exercise them. This allows the cells to form muscle tissue. 

With current technology and methods, scientists can grow small amounts of beef, chicken, and fish, but at prohibitive prices due to the costly inputs. Replicating cuts like steaks and fillets — which have complex structures and are made up of many different types of cells — is still a long way off. What is currently achievable is more simple and homogenous; think of it being similar to ground beef.

According to industry experts, we may see foie gras as early as 2022, and sausage, meatballs, and burgers by 2026. However, others warn there are still many hurdles for the industry to overcome before this is commercially viable: sharing of research, scalability, cost of inputs, nutritional value, regulatory approval, and consumer acceptance, to name a few. 

There is still so much to learn in the nascent but promising field of “cellular agriculture.” The trend doesn't stop at meat — stay tuned for breast milk, eggs, and dairy proteins created in a similar way.

By Renée-Claude Goulet

The horizon cuts horizontally through the middle of the image, separating a blue sky and a green ground. There are three arching pathways the Sun takes, one for the summer solstice, one for the equinoxes, and one for the winter solstice. The summer solstice pathway is the highest and widest, the equinox in the middle, and the winter solstice is lowest.

As the Earth orbits the Sun, the apparent position of the Sun in our sky changes. This is a result of Earth’s axial tilt.

The Autumnal Equinox

The 2020 Autumnal Equinox will occur on September 22 at 9:30 a.m. EDT. For the most part, we use this date to mark the official change of the season: the first day of autumn in the northern hemisphere, and the first day of spring in the southern hemisphere. But what exactly is an equinox, and how do we know when it’s happening?

The word ‘equinox’ is derived from the Latin words aequus (equal) and nox (night), and refers to the fact that this is the time of year where there are roughly 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of darkness. This is the result of the relationship between the Earth, the Sun, and Earth’s axial tilt (In this video, I explain in-depth how equinoxes work).

Our planet’s north-south axis — the axis we rotate around — is tilted 23.5 degrees relative to the plane of our orbit around the Sun. The tilt is fixed; it’s always tilted and pointing in the same direction.

In December, the North Pole is pointed away from the Sun. This gives us shorter days and spreads sunlight out over a larger area, making it colder in the North. But six months later in June, the North Pole is now tilted towards the Sun. This gives us longer days and concentrates the sunlight over a smaller area, making it warmer in the north.

Between those two extremes, there’s a midway point where Earth’s tilted axis is neither pointed towards the Sun nor away. This exact moment is called an Equinox. Roughly speaking, Earth gets about 12 hours of sunlight on that day.

But how did ancient humans figure this out? The answer is simple: observation over a long period of time. If you mark the point on the horizon where the Sun rises every day, you will notice a pattern. In the warmer months, that point marches north of due east; the Sun both climbs higher into the sky and stays up for longer. In the cooler months, the point where the Sun rises marches south of due east; the Sun doesn’t climb as high and it spends less time above the horizon.

Ancient peoples noticed these patterns, and built observatories from which to measure the exact position of the Sun throughout the year. Lifetimes of observation allowed ancient people to predict the various points in our orbit, like the solstices and equinoxes. In more recent times, we use mathematical models of Earth’s orbit and computers to calculate the exact moments.

By Jesse Rogerson

Before and after satellite photos of the Milne Ice Shelf. The before image shows the Milne Ice Shelf occupying an inlet. The after image shows the same ice shelf, but roughly half of it has broken away into two large chunks which are beginning to float away into the ocean.

Before and after the collapse of the Milne Ice Shelf

The collapse of the last Canadian ice shelf 

On August 4, 2020, the Canadian Ice Service (part of Environment and Climate Change Canada) posted a disconcerting video: a time-lapse showing colossal islands of ice breaking off the Milne Ice Shelf, on the edge of Ellesmere Island in Nunavut. 

An ice shelf is similar to a glacier (both are made of ice!), but while a glacier sits on top of the land, an ice shelf floats on top of the ocean. Like glaciers, ice sheets tend to grow bigger in the winter with the accumulation of ice and snow, and melt in the warm summer months. Unfortunately, the summer of 2020 has been particularly warm in the Canadian Arctic, with temperatures 5°C warmer than the average over the previous several decades. These high temperatures — combined with offshore winds and open water — created a recipe for break up. 

Over just two days, 43 per cent of the ice shelf broke off in a massive collapse. Most of the ice broke off in two city-sized chunks: the larger piece measured 55 km2 (about the size of Manhattan), and the other 24 km2. A research camp located on the ice shelf was also destroyed in the breakup (luckily, it was uninhabited at the time). Further fractures on the ice shelf make additional break-up events very likely. 

This ice shelf represents the severe effects of Artic amplification: a phenomenon where warming trends are twice as severe in the Arctic as they are in more tropical areas. Ice is bright and reflective, which reflects heat from the sun. As the ice melts, it exposes more land and ocean: dark surfaces that absorb heat. In essence, the Arctic is transitioning from a heat-reflecting environment to a heat-absorbing one. This warming trend has led to accelerated melting and break up of ice throughout the Arctic. 

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Ellesmere Island had a continuous shelf of ice along its northern coast. By the year 2000, that shelf had split into six large shelves and several smaller ones. Over the past two decades, five of the major ice shelves broke apart, leaving only the Milne Ice Shelf. This pattern was consistent across the Canadian Arctic. At the beginning of July 2020, the Milne Ice Shelf was the last intact ice sheet in the Canadian Arctic. Now, we have none. 

By Michelle Campbell Mekarski

Author(s)
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Michelle Campbell Mekarski, PhD

As the Science Advisor at the Canada Science and Technology Museum, Michelle’s goal is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and the public — specializing in making science and technology engaging, accessible, and fun. Michelle earned a PhD in evolutionary biology and paleontology and has many years of experience developing and delivering science outreach activities. When away from her job at the museum, she can be found teaching at the University of Ottawa or Carleton University, digging for fossils, or relaxing by the water.

Profile picture for user Renée-Claude Goulet
Renée-Claude Goulet

Renée-Claude is the Science Advisor at the Canada Agriculture and Food Museum, and an Ontario Certified Teacher.  With her background in biology and many years of experience delivering programs at the museum, she has developed an expertise in a wide range of topics relating to the science and innovation behind the sustainable production of food, fibre and fuel.  

Profile picture for user Jesse Rogerson
Jesse Rogerson, PhD

Jesse is a passionate scientist, educator, and science communicator. As an assistant professor at York University in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society, he teaches three classes: History of Astronomy, Introduction to Astronomy, and Exploring the Solar System. He frequently collaborates with the Canada Aviation and Space Museum, and lends his expert voice to the Ingenium Channel. Jesse is an astrophysicist, and his research explores how super massive black holes evolve through time. Whether in the classroom, through social media, or on TV, he encourages conversations about how science and society intersect, and why science is relevant in our daily lives.