I’m Tian, the last of the Canadians in Finland this summer. I’m living in the lovely countryside in a beautiful town called Jokioinen (literally River Village), working at the Luonnonvarakeskus (Luke for short) – Natural Resources of Finland. I’ll tell you about my job later, but first! Let me show you my crib for the past 2.5 months!
Jokioinen is quite small, so I’m actually staying at a fellow researcher’s house. They have a 5 acre backyard where they plant fruit trees and veggies, alongside beautiful flowerbeds that double as nests for local birds. What surprised me the most is the in-house sauna! I knew coming into Finland that there’s a sauna for everyone, but “knowing” and “experiencing” are two very different things. I can’t imagine taking a shower now, without the warmth of a sauna after!
Jokioinen is named after Loimijoki, the river that runs from a lake near Forssa, through the centre of Jokioinen, all the way out to the west coast of Finland. It goes from my house all the way to my work place, so theoretically I could take a boat to work and save myself the 10 minute bike ride, but exercise is good for me. I think.
Speaking of work, I’m a research trainee at Luke. I worked on two very exciting projects, which I will explain in excruciating detail because scientific communication is important and I think they’re super cool.
Project #1: MicroRNA from cow milk exosomes!
Before the weird words turn you off from reading further, just bear with me. Do you drink milk? How about yogurt? Can’t live without cheese right, whether it’s on pizza, in a sandwich, or just by itself? Then you have also ingested milk exosomes. Don’t worry, they’re not harmful (we think)! Exosomes are very tiny envelopes full of information that your cells release to each other. It’s one of the ways your cells communicate with each other, and MicroRNAs are the “information” packets within the exosome envelopes.
MicroRNAs are very, very, tiny instructions that can influence your genetic expression. They can turn off genes that tells the cell to grow, which is great for stopping cancerous tumours from becoming larger. They can also promote cell growth by inhibiting the genetic inhibitors. It all depends on what microRNA it is, and where it’s being sent to. Since the exosome has to travel between hazardous environments to reach their targets (your body is very dangerous to random stuff), they are made to be tough and unbreakable so that their precious cargo remains safe until they reach the destination.
Now you may wonder, what does this have to do with milk? Exosomes mainly function as cell-to-cell communication, but recently it has been speculated to also have animal-to-animal functions. In particular, from a mother cow to its baby, after birth. Milk is foremost a nutritious substance meant to encourage the calf’s growth, and exosomes containing intact microRNAs have been found in milk and related dairy products. The implication is that the mother is helping the baby with regulating its gene expression. Of course, the “how” of the process is still being hotly debated. Are the exosomal dairy microRNAs truly functional in regulating gene expression in calves in the amount that they regularly consume? We don’t know, and that’s what I set out to find out. I had the job to confirm that we can extract exosomes from frozen raw milk, and then extract microRNA from those exosomes for further processing.
Obviously the research is still in its infancy, but the implications of it could be huge. Are there specific cells that uptake dairy exosomes in calves? Which genes does the miRNA inhibit, why, and to what function? More importantly, does this genetic regulation extend to humans? If so, to what effect? Positive? Negative? WHO KNOWS, NOT ME.
Side note: Is it safe to consume dairy products right now? Yes, I don’t see why not. Humankind is so reliant on the cattle-human relationship that we evolved new ways of withstanding lactose intolerance, we’ll be fine consuming a tiny bit of milk a day.
tl;dr: I did basic lab work to extract miRNA from milk.
Project #2: Global Network for the Development and Maintenance of Nutrition-related Strategies for Mitigation of Methane and Nitrous Oxide Emissions from Ruminant Livestock
This project has a ridiculously long name that I didn’t even learn of until my last day of work. The general gist of it is much simpler: how to keep a cow making the same amount of milk, while eating the same (or less) amount of food, but fart less?
See, cows have this funny process where they ferment the food they eat in an additional organ called the rumen. The rumen contains lots of beneficial bacteria that helps the cow digest its food and make it into product, like milk or meat. Unfortunately, the large amount of greenhouse gases (i.e. farts) the cows produce are often a by-product of the bacteria. Some bacteria combos work better than other bacteria combos in the food:product:waste(farting gas) ratio, so we’re trying to figure out how we can make cows have the identical rumen bacteria community for maximum efficiency ratio. Since the rumen gets colonised by bacteria quite early on in a calf’s life, we needed newborns to be a blank slate. As in all scientific experiments, one must have control groups. It’s quite difficult to control bacterial exposure in a non-sterile environment like a barn + placenta, so the best control is having a twin being exposed to the same thing.
In other words, I helped multiple cows give birth to twin babies. Then I feed one of them bacteria from a cow with a good efficiency ratio, and identify bacteria by extracting DNA from their poop (and other stuff).
Meet Ontario and Okanada
The birthing process for this pair of twins was relatively easy. I arrived at 6am on the second day of my barn shift, fed the already-born calves, cleaned cow pens, and lounged around the coffee room.
Okanada, looking at my phone like it's her newest chew toy
Around 9:45 somebody noticed something coming out of the cow and called the rest of us over. 9:55am, the first calf’s head + upper limbs came through. 3o minutes later, her sister plops right out as well. All in all, very smooth, zero stress, easy birth. I got the firstborn’s birth on tape, and I got to name the twins, so they’re quite special in my eyes.
It’ll be a long time before we know the results of this study. For one thing, calculating the dairy output of these calves would require waiting for them to mature (1-2 years), be pregnant (9.5 months), and give birth. For the male calves, once they mature we’ll be looking at their weight and how much gas they output for the amount they eat. In the meantime, there’s the 3x/week focal samples and oral swabs to be collected and analysed, as well as blood samples once a week. Not to mention the 4x/day feedings that gets pretty complicated once the number of calves reached 12 in the barn, with many on separate diet plans. Lots of things to do both at the barn and the lab, even after I’m gone! Here’s a link about the project, if you’re interested.
In all, I’ve had an amazing experience in the countryside. I love my job, plus I got to reconnect with nature, get a handle on animal handling, and sauna almost every day. I’ve always thought of myself as a city girl, but this summer has taught me that I can definitely enjoy the quiet, quaint, country life. Just give me a sauna and a garden, and I’ll be set. Thanks Finland, and I hope to see you again!
The Animal Genetics Team
Shout out to the animal genetics team, for taking a chance on a random international student who’s only experience with live animals are tiny mice and pet cats!
Bonus picture of a goat from a park run by Luke
Bonus 2: happy little piglet from the same park run by Luke