Archive for June, 2013

The science of Earth and the human policies that change it…

Scitable launched more than ten new blogs covering a wide range of topics including neuroscience, geology, oceanography, physics and more, next week.

My first post on Nature’s new Scitable blog details the difficulties governments face to find the balance between exploiting and protecting ecological systems. As part of the new Environment group blog.

“The science of Earth and the human policies that change it.” This will be the tagline of the new Environment group blog on Scitable. The science is the easy part (he says without a hint of hyperbole). More and more we shall come to learn that the most difficult thing, the most complicated mechanisms, the most complex systems at play, lay quite firmly on the human side. On the human interactions and manipulations of Earth.

Examples are numerous, but one recent example highlights quite well the many actors involved in any one issue. Those actors are: government policy against science, against large corporations and against local people.

The example is this… In the northern part of the Peruvian rainforest of the Amazon jungle, the Achuar and Kichwa indigenous people live in a region that straddles the modern borders of Ecuador and Peru. The region’s remoteness has, up until now, been a great way for these people to conserve their cultural heritage. But national governments have taken to dividing the Amazon into hydrocarbon blocks-geographic areas set aside for the exploration and production of oil and gas.

In March, the Peruvian government declared a state of emergency-an environmental emergency-stating that it had found evidence of widespread environmental damage (high levels of barium, lead, chrome and petroleum-related compounds at different points along the Pastaza valley). But the reality is that the Achuar and Kichwa have been complaining for decades about the pollution. Recent government studies have shown extremely high lead and cadmium levels in blood tests from Achuar communities. Most likely from the rivers they can no longer drink from.

It is not only a problem of health, but a problem of a way of life. Certain parts of the region are managed by the local people both to preserve biodiversity and to provide sustainable supplies of forest products like seeds, fruits and medicinal plants. All of these are under threat from potential environmental disaster caused by exploration.

The temptation for further exploration into the Amazon is only compounded by government policy. International bidding rounds on new oil and gas blocks in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru will continue to push more into the most remote parts of the Amazon. All states across the Amazon face the same challenge of achieving that delicate balance between protecting the Amazon and profiting from it. If governments are to reap the rewards of the vast natural resources deep inside the jungle, the task will be to minimize the associated ecological and social risks of this policy. Even exploring has a certain amount of biodiversity impact associated with it. Trees are felled, swaths of forests are cleared to build access roads, drilling platforms, and routes for pipelines. Deforestation in itself commits certain wildlife species to extinction.

The Loreto region in Peru occupies a space larger than Germany. It is one of the most active and dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. The number of active blocks in the region is counted in the dozens, covering a large range of project development stages-from production to exploration. Oil production is big in the region. It was in the 1970s that the oil fields within the Pastaza river basin were opened up to oil companies. Back then it was Occidental Petroleum doing the exploration. Today it is Pluspetrol. In February, they produced 15,127 barrels per day, which equates to 24% of the total crude oil produced in Peru that month. Taking into account the vast scale of the work going on in the region, the question is how to make sure something doesn’t go wrong.

Ways to mitigate potential risks are few and far between. In Peru, a new law passed on the 26th March of this year, set out for the first time certain environmental quality standards that must be met. The problem has always been that no real set of best practices exist for things on this scale. That is, a best practice that minimizes the environmental impact associated with a typical practice. That is what a recent paper published in PLOS One by Matt Finer, from the Center for International Environmental Law and colleagues from other institutions, tries to address.

The case study is one within the Loreto region of north Peru itself. “Loreto makes an ideal case study because it is one of the largest and most dynamic hydrocarbon zones in the Amazon. Following the state of emergency, there is an added urgency to develop methods to minimize the impacts of any future development,” said Finer.

There is no real easily accessible and precise data on planned activities and infrastructure. As a result some sort of “best way to do things” guidelines are missing. This makes it very difficult for policy makers to properly evaluate proposed projects, and to be firm with the oil companies up front on their expectations for the environment.

Best practices can work it seems. Ones that are based on both Peruvian law and the latest advances in technology. And given the fact that a vast majority of blocks allocated overlap on indigenous territories and what are supposed to be protected areas, this type of scientific knowledge is a welcomed necessity.


The Great Race of Mercy…

“How the boy said, ‘mama, I’m going to die,’ and how she knew enough to say, ‘no you aren’t honey, no you never will.’ How this boy could only stare back at his father and mother and why they lied.”

In the late decades of the 18th century and the early 19th century, unknown numbers of equally unknown children died from recurring epidemics of diphtheria across the United States. In those days, reminded of what creation and destruction is — and what it must be — whispered in the same breath, is the tale of the Great Race of Mercy, where a small town was saved through sheer perseverance.

The town of Nome, overlooks the Bering Sea, and is as extreme west of Alaska as you can get. In the winter of 1924, Curtis Welch was the town’s only doctor, entrenched within a severe winter that made the small community almost unreachable. Four native Iñupiaq children had died before the doctor could diagnose it as diphtheria — the bacteria that  invades the respiratory system, producing a toxin that invades the bloodstream and damages the heart, kidneys and nerves. In the days of sweeping epidemics, diphtheria was commonly known as the “strangling angel of children” — the angels that swell necks and leave gaping craters in the flesh of their victims.

By January 1925, it had already become clear that something needed to be done. If not, the worst could decimate the entire community. Despite a quarantine in place, many more cases would begin to show up, simply because of the way the bacteria is spread all too easily — person to person, coughing, sneezing. Diphtheria destroys the lining of the throat, commonly causing the throat and neck to swell, leading to difficulty breathing.

The problem was that the town had no stocks of antitoxin, one that can fight off the effects of the bacterial toxin that may have seeped into the blood. The only stocks the town had were six years old — too old to be useful. Dr Welch sent a telegram to the Alaska Territorial Governor, Scott Bone, who was in Juneau, and to the U.S. Public Health Service in Washington DC.

“An epidemic of diphtheria is almost inevitable here STOP I am in urgent need of one million units of diphtheria antitoxin STOP Mail is only form of transportation STOP I have made application to Commissioner of Health of the Territories for antitoxin already STOP There are about 3000¢White natives in the district.”

The only serum that could stop the outbreak was in Anchorage, nearly a thousand miles away. How to get it to Nome was the next problem that would eventually turn out to be essentially a race to vaccinate. Rail, air, and sea were all ruled out as not an option thanks to the harsh winter and the remoteness of Nome. A crisis recently experienced by the town only for thesecond time in its history.

The only option was to transport the antitoxin needed by dog sled — something that had not been attempted in mid-winter before. The antitoxins arrived by train at Nenana on January 27th, where it would then be transferred by dog sled — hopefully in time to sway the epidemic.

The ordeal and race to vaccinate was in the form of a relay — a 674 mile relay — much of it over uncharted Bering Sea ice, over five and a half days. When the serum finally arrived, it had to be thawed before it was used. Not long after the serum was in the hands of Dr Welch, plans were already underway to deliver a second batch.

The death toll could have been much worse if it wasn’t for the delivered serum. Dr Welch estimated at least another hundred cases amongst the native population. The following year over three dozen more cases were reported, but didn’t prove a major public health problem due to the stocks of serum.

In the end the quarantine on Nome ended on February 21. A stunning display of a public health effort. And since 1973, this effort is symbolized in theIditarod Trail Race — run annually in memory of the original sled dog relay. The Alaska Immunization Program uses the “Race to Vaccinate” to heighten awareness of the critical need for timely immunizations for children before they are two years old.

The elusive atmospheric molecule…


Sometimes, the simplest things are the hardest to find. Out there, up there, in the atmosphere, amongst the things that fly around, are things that collide with other things and make other things. Small things crash into each other and produce other small things. The layman’s way of saying chemical reactions happen. This one, the one we are concerned with is no more important than the rest, and it involves the degradation of atmospheric pollutants.

The story began over half a century ago when a German chemist, Rudolf Criegee, came up with a reaction. A reaction to which we are still trying to observe its smallest components. More than 50 years ago, he came up with a reaction that proposed that alkenes degrade by reacting with ozone to form a cyclic ozonide. Consequently, this ozonide falls apart and one product a carbonyl oxide called a Criegee intermediate.

Last year marked the first sighting of things that had — up until then — gone unseen. The simplest Criegge intermediate, CH2OO — carbon and two pairs of hydrogen and oxygen — tentatively attached to one another, destined to eventually fall apart and react with other things up there. This unique configuration of three different atoms were observed with the help of a cyclic particle accelerator — a synchrotron. Not your everyday piece of lab tech.

Criegee intermediates along with other important atmospheric elements are important as more and more we talk about climate change. And more and more we try and tease out the things up there that are relevant to our changing climate and environment. Whether the identification of the intermediate will lead to eventually finding a way to offset climate change is, at this point, speculation. The pollutants in the upper atmosphere — nitrogen dioxide and sulphur dioxide react extremely quickly with the Criegee intermediates. The story that gets bandied around is that Criegee intermediates have the potential to cool the planet by converting these pollutants into sulphate and nitrate compounds that will lead to aerosol and clouds (that to some extent will reflect solar radiation back into space and help reduce temperatures).

A recent study, published in Science, describes detection of the simplest Criegee intermediate in the gas phase using a technique much simpler and more accessible than previously. They detected the molecular fingerprint of their chemical structures. What was once unknown now left a detectable signal. Up until now not a lot was known due in part to the fact that it couldn’t be detected directly. The fact that this new method of detection uses a machine and instrumentation more widely available to researchers opens the doors up to more investigations on the Criegee intermediates exact nature.

The Criegee intermediates go back to the history of the ozone. One that has been formulating even long before Rudolf Criegee. And the story is far from over. The final numbers of the exact nature of the Criegee intermediates are still in the making. Now its reactivity with other compounds can be verified and tested — and perhaps provide more insight into its proposed “climate cooling” properties.

Image — source

The parasitic warfare perpetrated by ladybirds…


There is a scientific term that causes fear and alarm to those that study biodiversity. More fear and alarm than the term climate change. Biotic homogenisation — introducing a new exotic species to an area that was, until now, without admixture. Worldwide there is an increase in introduced exotic species and the potential of these species to become invasive have their impact.

The most invasive ladybird on Earth — Harmonia axyridis — was introduced in several European countries and North America for biological pest control, and quickly turned invasive. It has been outcompeting indigenous ladybird species in many countries for a long time now. Ladybirds are quite common in use as a — what we now call — biological control agent. They have a long history of use against unwanted pest insects. For example, the Australian vedalia ladybird, Rodolia cardinalis, was released in 1888 to control scale insects.

Harmonia axyridis is also known as the harlequin ladybird, and it has been outcompeting and threatening native species since the beginning of the 20th century. Its invasive success has until now been attributed to its enduring resistance against diverse pathogens. The same pathogens that strike down and blight the native European species, allowing the harlequin ladybird to outperform and out-survive.

But now, Andreas Vilcinskas knows of another reason — and it is something more like parasitic warfare than simple evolutionary survival of the fittest.

Andreas Vilcinskas goes to work every day to kill ladybirds. Or rather, he goes to work to investigate how ladybirds kill each other. And it is the parasites within that act as the smart bomb against the native species. Harmonia have within them, swimming around in their blood, spores of the parasite microsporidia. They do no harm to Harmonia, but are lethal to the native ladybird Coccinella septempunctata. What is more interesting is that this lethality comes when the native species feed on microsporidia-infested Harmonia eggs or larvae. As is convention, ladybirds often eat the eggs of other ladybirds.

The tale of an invasive species is always something more akin to Kal-El leaving Krypton. You land in a foreign land with the realisation that you have superpowers (in comparison to the natives). The harlequin ladybird’s secret most likely lies within its blood (hemolymph). A hemolymph already shown to ward of mycobacterium and the parasite that causes malaria. Its blood, or more accurately, the metabolite harmonine within its blood, exhibits broad-spectrum antimicrobial activity. Antibacterial activity againstMycobacterium tuberculosis, and chloroquine-resistant Plasmodium falciparum strains.

For this new reason to awe the ladybird, Andrea Vilcinskas and colleagues drew blood from the legs of 100 ladybirds. With such super blood already documented, the question being: was the harlequin ladybird’s advantage over the native species simply down to harmonine, or did the microsporidia have a significant lethal effect.

They showed that injecting the native species with Harmonia blood — but not harmonine alone — can kill. Suggesting, that it is unlikely that the mortality caused by native species feeding on Harmonia eggs is caused by the presence of harmonine.

It seems that native ladybird species are lethally infected with microsporidia carried by Harmonia when they feed on its eggs and larvae. The microsporidia parasitize cells by means of a spear through the plasma membrane. Within two weeks of starting their experiment all native species had died from the microsporidia.

The most invasive ladybird on Earth lives up to its name. The worldwide invasion of the harlequin ladybird is as a result of a parasite that lies within. A parasite to which it has grown immune but to which the natives have no way of stopping. War of the Worlds gone backwards.

Image — source.

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