Calcification in changing oceans

What do mollusks, starfish, and corals have in common? Aside from their shared marine habitat, they are all calcifiers — organisms that use calcium from their environment to create hard carbonate skeletons and shells for stability and protection.The June issue of the Biological Bulletin, published by the Marine Biological Laboratory, addresses the challenges faced by these species as ocean composition changes worldwide.As atmospheric carbon dioxide rises, the world’s oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic. This impact of global climate change threatens the survival of calcifying species because of the reduced saturation of the carbonate minerals required for calcification.The ability to calcify arose independently in many species during the Cambrian era, when calcium levels in seawater increased. This use of calcium carbonate promoted biodiversity, including the vast array of calcifiers seen today.”Today, modern calcifiers face a new and rapidly escalating crisis caused by warming and acidification of the oceans with a reduction in availability of carbonate minerals, a change driven by the increase in atmospheric CO2 due to anthropogenic emissions and industrialization. The CO2 itself can also directly cause metabolic stress,” write the issue’s co-editors, Maria Byrne of the University of Sydney; and Gretchen Hofmann of the University of California-Santa Barbara.Contributors to the journal address this timely issue across many taxa and from a variety of perspectives, from genomic to ecosystem-wide.Janice Lough and Neal Cantin of the Australian Institute of Marine Science review historical data on coral reefs to look at potential environmental stressors, while Philippe Dubois (Universit Libre de Bruxelles) discusses sea urchin skeletons.Other researchers address lesser-known organisms that are nevertheless critical to marine ecosystems. Abigail Smith of the University of Otago examines how bryozoans, a group of aquatic invertebrate filter-feeders, increase biodiversity by creating niche habitats, and what features make them particularly sensitive to calcium fluctuations.Evans and Watson-Wynn (California State University-East Bay) take a molecular approach in a meta-analysis showing that ocean acidification is effecting genetic changes in sea urchin larvae. Several papers take a broader population-based view by studying the effect of ocean acidification on predator-prey interactions in mollusks (Kroeker and colleagues of the University of California-Davis) and oysters (Wright and colleagues of the University of Western Sydney).”The contributors have identified key knowledge gaps in the fast evolving field of marine global change biology and have provided many important insights,” the co-editors write.By sharing research on this topic from researchers around the world, the Biological Bulletin is raising awareness of some of the greatest threats to the oceans today and emphasizing the global nature of the problem.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by The Marine Biological Laboratory. The original article was written by Gina Hebert. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Putting a price on ecological restoration

Putting a price on clean water and soil fertility helps the UN set ecological restoration targets for degraded and deforested land.Forests provide essential ecosystem services for people, including timber, food and water. For those struggling with the after-effects of deforestation, the main hope lies in rebuilding forest resources through ecological restoration.Researchers at BU have shown that placing a monetary value on ecosystem services provides a mechanism for evaluating the costs and benefits of reforestation activity.”Ecological restoration initiatives are being undertaken around the world, attracting investment of $US billions annually,” explained Professor Adrian Newton. “They make a significant contribution to sustainable development but few attempts have been made to systematically evaluate their effectiveness.”To address this knowledge gap, Professor Newton and fellow BU researchers analysed 89 different types of restored ecosystem sites across the world. The results showed that, although restored land was not as productive as land that had not been degraded, restoration efforts increased biodiversity by 44% and provision of ecosystem services by 25%.What’s unique about Professor Newton’s research is that it also provides one of the first evidence-based assessments of how cost-effective ecological restoration initiatives actually are.Professor Newton developed this method as part of the ReForLan research project in the dryland forests of Latin America. ReForLAn brought together researchers from six countries to assess the environmental degradation and the potential for ecological recovery through restoration.The methodology assigns financial value to ecosystem services, such as the provision of clean water, carbon storage and soil fertility that would result from restoration, thereby demonstrating how cost effective these efforts are.”We examined whether ecological restoration can be cost effective, based on the value of ecosystem services provided by restoration actions,” he explained. “This was undertaken by analysing the value of the increased provision of ecosystem services that could potentially be provided as a result of ecological restoration actions.”So successful is the methodology that it was used to inform the United Nations Environment Programme’s restoration targets and specifically ‘Target 15’ of the Aichi Biodiversity Targets to restore 15% of the world’s degraded ecosystems by 2020.The UN say these targets can be achieved through Forest Landscape Restoration, which is an approach developed, tested and refined by Professor Newton during the ReForLan project.”We examined how Forest Landscape Restoration may be implemented in practice, and evaluated the cost effectiveness of this approach and its benefit to human communities,” he explained.Professor Newton has demonstrated that at the heart of successful forest landscape restoration is a flexible and adaptive approach. It should allow communities to participate in the decision-making process, and enhance ecosystem service provision for those living within them.The Forest Landscape Restoration method has been heralded as the solution to restoring 150 million acres of degraded and deforested land. This target is part of a global movement, known as ‘Bonn Challenge’, named from its inception in Bonn, Germany in 2011. Individual countries have so far committed to restoring 50 million hectares of forest, which is a significant step towards achieving the policy goals.”This initiative directly employs the Forest Landscape Restoration approach that we researched, developed, tested and refined,” explains Professor Newton.He conclude, “Ecosystems are a rich source of biodiversity and the services they provide are relied upon by local people. The approach developed through the ReForLan project allows policy makers to identify locations where ecological restoration is most likely to be cost effective.”ReForLan was funded by the European Commission and the full title of the project is ‘Restoration of Forest Landscapes for Biodiversity Conservation and Rural Development’.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Bournemouth University. …

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Amazon Studied to Predict Impact of Climate Change

Three extreme weather events in the Amazon Basin in the last decade are giving scientists an opportunity to make observations that will allow them to predict the impacts of climate change and deforestation on some of the most important ecological processes and ecosystem services of the Amazon River wetlands.Scientists from Virginia Tech, the Woods Hole Research Center, and the University of California, Santa Barbara, funded by NASA, are collaborating with Brazilian scientists to explore the ecosystem consequences of the extreme droughts of 2005 and 2010 and the extreme flood of 2009.”The research fills an important gap in our understanding of the vulnerability of tropical river-forest systems to changes in climate and land cover,” said the project’s leader, Leandro Castello, assistant professor of fish and wildlife conservation in Virginia Tech’s College of Natural Resources and Environment.The huge study area encompasses 1.7 million square miles, the equivalent of half of the continental United States.In addition to historical records and ground observations, the researchers will use newly available Earth System Data Records from NASA — satellite images of the Amazon and its tributaries over the complete high- and low-water cycles.NASA is funding the study with a $1.53 million grant shared among the three institutions.”Amazon floodplains and river channels — maintained by seasonal floods — promote nutrient cycling and high biological production, and support diverse biological communities as well as human populations with one of the highest per capita rates of fish consumption,” said Castello.The researchers will look at how the natural seasonality of river levels influences aquatic and terrestrial grasses, fisheries, and forest productivity in the floodplains, and how extreme events such as floods and droughts may disturb this cycle.”We are confident that deforestation and climate change will, in the future, lead to more frequent and severe floods and droughts,” said Michael Coe, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Research Center. “It is important that we understand how the Amazon River and ecosystem services such as fisheries are affected so that we can devise mitigation strategies.”Amazonian grasses, sometimes called macrophytes, convert atmospheric carbon to plant biomass, which is then processed by aquatic microorganisms upon decomposition.”Terrestrial grasses grow during the short window when water levels are low, sequestering some carbon, and then die when the floods arrive, releasing the carbon into the aquatic system,” said Thiago Silva, an assistant professor of geography at So Paulo State University in Rio Claro, Brazil. “They are followed by aquatic grasses that need to grow extremely fast to surpass the rising floods and then die off during the receding-water period.””Although most of the macrophyte carbon is released back to the atmosphere in the same form that it is assimilated, carbon dioxide, some of it is actually exported to the ocean as dissolved carbon or released to the atmosphere as methane, a gas that has a warming potential 20 times larger than carbon dioxide,” said John Melack, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara.Researchers will measure plant growth and gas exchange, and use photographs from the field and satellites.Two other Amazon resources — fisheries and forests — are important to the livelihood of the people of the region.”We will combine water level, fishing effort, and fish life-history traits to understand the impact of droughts and floods on fishery yields,” said Castello, whose specialty is Amazon fisheries. “Floods in the Amazon are almost a blessing because in some years they can almost double the amount of fish in the river that is available for fishermen and society.”The fishery data include approximately 90,000 annual interview records of fisheries activities on the number of fishers, time spent fishing, characteristics of fishing boats and gear used, and weight of the catch for 40 species. The hydrological data include daily water level measurements recorded in the Madeira, Purus, and Amazonas-Solimes rivers.The researchers will examine the potential impact of future climate scenarios on the extent and productivity of floodplain forests — those enriched by rising waters, called whitewater river forests, and nutrient-poor blackwater river forests.For example, extreme droughts may reduce productivity due to water stress and increases in the frequency and severity of forest fires. Prolonged periods of inundation, on the other hand, may decrease productivity or increase mortality due to water-logging stress.”We will evaluate these responses for the first time at a regional scale using remotely sensed indicators of vegetation condition and fire-induced tree mortality to measure the response of floodplain forests to inter-annual flood variability and extreme climate events,” said Marcia Macedo, a research associate at the Woods Hole Research Center.Researchers will measure tree litter dry weight, depth of flooding, tree height and diameter, and stand density. They will also use photographs and satellite images.Previous research has focused on Amazon upland forests and the potential impacts of deforestation, fire, and drought. The research team will compare new greenhouse gas simulations to previous simulations.”Our research informs large river ecology globally because natural flowing rivers like the Amazon are rare these days, and most research to date, being done in North America and Europe, has focused on degraded systems,” Castello said.

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The first insects were not yet able to smell well: Odorant receptors evolved long after insects migrated from water to land

An insect’s sense of smell is vital to its survival. Only if it can trace even tiny amounts of odor molecules is it is able to find food sources, communicate with conspecifics, or avoid enemies. According to scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology, many proteins involved in the highly sensitive odor perception of insects emerged rather late in the evolutionary process. The very complex olfactory system of modern insects is therefore not an adaptation to a terrestrial environment when ancient insects migrated from water to land, but rather an adaptation that appeared when insects developed the ability to fly. The results were published in the Open Access Journal eLIFE.Many insect species employ three families of receptor proteins in order to perceive thousands of different environmental odors. Among them are the olfactory receptors. They form a functional complex with another protein, the so-called olfactory receptor co-receptor, which enables insects to smell the tiniest amounts of odor molecules in their environment very rapidly.Crustaceans and insects share a common ancestor. Since crustaceans do not have olfactory receptors, previously scientists assumed that these receptors evolved as an adaptation of prehistoric insects to a terrestrial life. This hypothesis is also based on the assumption that for the ancestors of recent insects, the ability to detect odor molecules in the air rather than dissolved in water was of vital importance.Early research on insect olfactory receptors focused entirely on insects with wings. Ewald Groe-Wilde and Bill S. …

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Engineers design ‘living materials’: Hybrid materials combine bacterial cells with nonliving elements that emit light

Inspired by natural materials such as bone — a matrix of minerals and other substances, including living cells — MIT engineers have coaxed bacterial cells to produce biofilms that can incorporate nonliving materials, such as gold nanoparticles and quantum dots.These “living materials” combine the advantages of live cells, which respond to their environment, produce complex biological molecules, and span multiple length scales, with the benefits of nonliving materials, which add functions such as conducting electricity or emitting light.The new materials represent a simple demonstration of the power of this approach, which could one day be used to design more complex devices such as solar cells, self-healing materials, or diagnostic sensors, says Timothy Lu, an assistant professor of electrical engineering and biological engineering. Lu is the senior author of a paper describing the living functional materials in the March 23 issue of Nature Materials.”Our idea is to put the living and the nonliving worlds together to make hybrid materials that have living cells in them and are functional,” Lu says. “It’s an interesting way of thinking about materials synthesis, which is very different from what people do now, which is usually a top-down approach.”The paper’s lead author is Allen Chen, an MIT-Harvard MD-PhD student. Other authors are postdocs Zhengtao Deng, Amanda Billings, Urartu Seker, and Bijan Zakeri; recent MIT graduate Michelle Lu; and graduate student Robert Citorik.Self-assembling materialsLu and his colleagues chose to work with the bacterium E. coli because it naturally produces biofilms that contain so-called “curli fibers” — amyloid proteins that help E. coli attach to surfaces. Each curli fiber is made from a repeating chain of identical protein subunits called CsgA, which can be modified by adding protein fragments called peptides. These peptides can capture nonliving materials such as gold nanoparticles, incorporating them into the biofilms.By programming cells to produce different types of curli fibers under certain conditions, the researchers were able to control the biofilms’ properties and create gold nanowires, conducting biofilms, and films studded with quantum dots, or tiny crystals that exhibit quantum mechanical properties. They also engineered the cells so they could communicate with each other and change the composition of the biofilm over time.First, the MIT team disabled the bacterial cells’ natural ability to produce CsgA, then replaced it with an engineered genetic circuit that produces CsgA but only under certain conditions — specifically, when a molecule called AHL is present. This puts control of curli fiber production in the hands of the researchers, who can adjust the amount of AHL in the cells’ environment. …

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Shifting evolution into reverse promises cheaper, greener way to make new drugs

This alternative approach to creating artificial organic molecules, called bioretrosynthesis, was first proposed four years ago by Brian Bachmann, associate professor of chemistry at Vanderbilt University. Now Bachmann and a team of collaborators report that they have succeeded in using the method to produce the HIV drug didanosine. The proof of concept experiment is described in a paper published online March 23 by the journal Nature Chemical Biology.”These days synthetic chemists can make almost any molecule imaginable in an academic laboratory setting,” said Bachmann. “But they can’t always make them cheaply or in large quantities. Using bioretrosynthesis, it is theoretically possible to make almost any organic molecule out of simple sugars.”Putting natural selection to use in this novel fashion has another potential advantage. “We really need a green alternative to the traditional approach to making chemicals. Bioretrosynthesis offers a method to develop environmentally friendly manufacturing processes because it relies on enzymes — the biological catalysts that make life possible — instead of the high temperatures and pressures, toxic metals, strong acids and bases frequently required by synthetic chemistry,” he said.Normally, both evolution and synthetic chemistry proceed from the simple to the complex. Small molecules are combined and modified to make larger and more complex molecules that perform specific functions. Bioretrosynthesis works in the opposite direction. It starts with the final, desired product and then uses natural selection to produce a series of specialized enzymes that can make the final product out of a chain of chemical reactions that begin with simple, commonly available compounds.Bachmann got the idea of applying natural selection in reverse from the retro-evolution hypothesis proposed in 1945 by the late Caltech geneticist Norman Horowitz. …

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Scientists find mechanism to reset body clock

Researchers from The University of Manchester have discovered a new mechanism that governs how body clocks react to changes in the environment.And the discovery, which is being published in Current Biology, could provide a solution for alleviating the detrimental effects of chronic shift work and jet-lag.The team’s findings reveal that the enzyme casein kinase 1epsilon (CK1epsilon) controls how easily the body’s clockwork can be adjusted or reset by environmental cues such as light and temperature.Internal biological timers (circadian clocks) are found in almost every species on the planet. In mammals including humans, circadian clocks are found in most cells and tissues of the body, and orchestrate daily rhythms in our physiology, including our sleep/wake patterns and metabolism.Dr David Bechtold, who led The University of Manchester’s research team, said: “At the heart of these clocks are a complex set of molecules whose interaction provides robust and precise 24 hour timing. Importantly, our clocks are kept in synchrony with the environment by being responsive to light and dark information.”This work, funded by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, was undertaken by a team from The University of Manchester in collaboration with scientists from Pfizer led by Dr Travis Wager.The research identifies a new mechanism through which our clocks respond to these light inputs. During the study, mice lacking CK1epsilon, a component of the clock, were able to shift to a new light-dark environment (much like the experience in shift work or long-haul air travel) much faster than normal.The research team went on to show that drugs that inhibit CK1epsilon were able to speed up shift responses of normal mice, and critically, that faster adaption to the new environment minimised metabolic disturbances caused by the time shift.Dr Bechtold said: “We already know that modern society poses many challenges to our health and wellbeing — things that are viewed as commonplace, such as shift-work, sleep deprivation, and jet lag disrupt our body’s clocks. It is now becoming clear that clock disruption is increasing the incidence and severity of diseases including obesity and diabetes.”We are not genetically pre-disposed to quickly adapt to shift-work or long-haul flights, and as so our bodies’ clocks are built to resist such rapid changes. Unfortunately, we must deal with these issues today, and there is very clear evidence that disruption of our body clocks has real and negative consequences for our health.”He continues: “As this work progresses in clinical terms, we may be able to enhance the clock’s ability to deal with shift work, and importantly understand how maladaptation of the clock contributes to diseases such as diabetes and chronic inflammation.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Manchester. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Human brains ‘hard-wired’ to link what we see with what we do

Your brain’s ability to instantly link what you see with what you do is down to a dedicated information ‘highway’, suggests new UCL-led research.For the first time, researchers from UCL (University College London) and Cambridge University have found evidence of a specialized mechanism for spatial self-awareness that combines visual cues with body motion.Standard visual processing is prone to distractions, as it requires us to pay attention to objects of interest and filter out others. The new study has shown that our brains have separate ‘hard-wired’ systems to visually track our own bodies, even if we are not paying attention to them. In fact, the newly-discovered network triggers reactions even before the conscious brain has time to process them.The researchers discovered the new mechanism by testing 52 healthy adults in a series of three experiments. In all experiments, participants used robotic arms to control cursors on two-dimensional displays, where cursor motion was directly linked to hand movement. Their eyes were kept fixed on a mark at the centre of the screen, confirmed with eye tracking.In the first experiment, participants controlled two separate cursors with their left and right hands, both equally close to the centre. The goal was to guide each cursor to a corresponding target at the top of the screen. Occasionally the cursor or target on one side would jump left or right, requiring participants to take corrective action. Each jump was ‘cued’ with a flash on one side, but this was random so did not always correspond to the side about to change.Unsurprisingly, people reacted faster to target jumps when their attention was drawn to the ‘correct’ side by the cue. However, reactions to cursor jumps were fast regardless of cuing, suggesting that a separate mechanism independent of attention is responsible for tracking our own movements.”The first experiment showed us that we react very quickly to changes relating to objects directly under our own control, even when we are not paying attention to them,” explains Dr Alexandra Reichenbach of the UCL Institute of Cognitive Neuroscience, lead author of the study. “This provides strong evidence for a dedicated neural pathway linking motor control to visual information, independently of the standard visual systems that are dependent on attention.”The second experiment was similar to the first, but also introduced changes in brightness to demonstrate the attention effect on the visual perception system. …

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Education ‘protects’ poor women from fattening effects of rising wealth

Obesity levels among women in low- and middle-income countries tend to rise in line with wealth as they purchase more energy-dense foods, but a new UCL study suggests that more educated consumers make better food choices that mitigate this effect.The study showed that in middle-income countries, obesity levels among women with secondary or higher education are 14-19% lower than less-educated women of similar wealth.The research, published in PLOS ONE, looked at the relationships between obesity, education and wealth in over 250,000 people across four middle-income and three low-income countries between 2005 and 2010. More educated people are typically wealthier, and this study was the first to isolate the effects of education and wealth to unpick their distinct effects.Each household’s “wealth index” was measured by evaluating their possessions, housing situation and access to basic amenities. Based on these criteria, they were divided into five wealth brackets on a scale of 1-5, from richest to poorest, in each country.The middle-income countries examined were Egypt, Jordan, Peru and Colombia. In Egypt, where 43% of the 32,272 women surveyed were obese, the effect of wealth on obesity was reduced as education levels increased. The increased risk of obesity associated with a rise in wealth bracket was 39% for women with primary education or below, 25% for women with secondary education and only 2% for women with higher education.”For the first time, we have studied the interaction between wealth and education and found that they have fundamentally different effects on obesity,” says lead author Dr Amina Aitsi-Selmi, Wellcome Trust fellow at UCL. “As emerging economies are exposed to a flood of calories from the global food market, rising wealth often leads to rising obesity as people buy energy-dense foods.”Our study suggests that investing in women’s education protects against this effect by empowering individuals to look after their health. However, it is not a substitute for good public health systems and the regulation of commercial activity such as the aggressive marketing that puts pressure on individuals to consume unhealthy products and take unnecessary risks with their health.”In the low-income countries of India, Nigeria and Benin, the relationship between education and wealth was more difficult to unpick. In India, where only 2.8% of the 113,063 women surveyed were obese, wealth had a profound impact on the risk of obesity. For each increase in wealth bracket, the risk of obesity increased by 123%.”The jump in obesity risk that people in low-income countries experience as they become wealthier is likely related to the environment of scarcity,” explains Dr Aitsi-Selmi. “The weight of scientific evidence that we have leaves no doubt that the environment we live in is largely responsible for the obesity epidemic.”Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University College London. …

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Virtual bees help to unravel complex causes of colony decline

Scientists have created an ingenious computer model that simulates a honey bee colony over the course of several years. The BEEHAVE model, published today in the Journal of Applied Ecology, was created to investigate the losses of honeybee colonies that have been reported in recent years and to identify the best course of action for improving honeybee health.A team of scientists, led by Professor Juliet Osborne from the Environment and Sustainability Institute, University of Exeter (and previously at Rothamsted Research), developed BEEHAVE, which simulates the life of a colony including the queen’s egg laying, brood care by nurse bees and foragers collecting nectar and pollen in a realistic landscape.Professor Juliet Osborne said: “It is a real challenge to understand which factors are most important in affecting bee colony growth and survival. This is the first opportunity to simulate the effects of several factors together, such as food availability, mite infestation and disease, over realistic time scales.”The model allows researchers, beekeepers and anyone interested in bees, to predict colony development and honey production under different environmental conditions and beekeeping practices. To build the simulation, the scientists brought together existing honeybee research and data to develop a new model that integrated processes occurring inside and outside the hive.The first results of the model show that colonies infested with a common parasitic mite (varroa) can be much more vulnerable to food shortages. Effects within the first year can be subtle and might be missed by beekeepers during routine management. But the model shows that these effects build up over subsequent years leading to eventual failure of the colony, if it was not given an effective varroa treatment.BEEHAVE can also be used to investigate potential consequences of pesticide applications. For example, the BEEHAVE model can simulate the impact of increased loss of foragers. The results show that colonies may be more resilient to this forager loss than previously thought in the short-term, but effects may accumulate over years, especially when colonies are also limited by food supply.BEEHAVE simulations show that good food sources close to the hive will make a real difference to the colony and that lack of forage over extended periods leaves them vulnerable to other environmental factors. Addressing forage availability is critical to maintaining healthy hives and colonies over the long term.Professor Osborne added: “The use of this model by a variety of stakeholders could stimulate the development of new approaches to bee management, pesticide risk assessment and landscape management. The advantage is that each of these factors can be tested in a virtual environment in different combinations, before testing in the field. …

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Deer feeding puts birds at risk, research shows

By comparing the fate of artificial nests close and far away from supplementary feeding sites located in the forest for ungulates, such as deer and wild boar, researchers found that those nests in the vicinity of feeding sites were depredated twice more. This “predation hotspot” effect extends far away from the feeding site itself: in a radius of 1-km the probability of nest survival is lowered. When accounting for all feeding sites in the study region (ca 2000 km2), this would mean that in one fifth of the area ground-nesting birds will have little chance to see their eggs hatching.These sites attract not only deer and wild boar — the boar is also a nest predator — but also corvids, rodents, bears and other species of nest predators, which are not the target of feeding. Therefore, this management practice, widespread in central Europe, comes into conflict with the conservation of ground-nesting birds, such as grouse species, which are declining worldwide.The study was conducted by researchers of the Institute of Nature Conservation of the Polish Academy of Sciences in the Carpathian Mountains, where this practice is deeply-rooted and increasing. “Hundreds of tons of food are thrown every year in the forest, without thinking on the collateral effects and potential consequences,” said Nuria Selva, leader of a project funded by the National Science Centre to investigate the ecological effects of supplementary feeding. The study recommends to avoid ungulate feeding in the breeding areas of bird species of conservation concern, such as capercaillie or black grouse, and to stop feeding before the bird nesting season starts. “We urge for sensible feeding practices and for taking a wider ecosystem perspective, rather than focusing on single issues or species” said Teresa Berezowska-Cnota, co-author of the study.”All our actions in the environment have some effects, and providing food is not an exception. The spread of diseases, for instance, is one of the reasons why deer feeding has been banned in many regions of North America. While supplementary feeding of wildlife is becoming increasingly common in conservation, management and ecotourism, our understanding of the complex effects of providing artificial food to wildlife is still limited,” commented Selva.The study is published in PLOS ONE.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Institute of Nature Conservation of the Polish Academy of Sciences. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Cows are smarter when raised in pairs: Evidence practice of housing calves alone linked to learning difficulties

Cows learn better when housed together, which may help them adjust faster to complex new feeding and milking technologies on the modern farm, a new University of British Columbia study finds.The research, published today in PLOS ONE, shows dairy calves become better at learning when a “buddy system” is in place. The study also provides the first evidence that the standard practice of individually housing calves is associated with certain learning difficulties.”Pairing calves seems to change the way these animals are able to process information,” said Dan Weary, corresponding author and a professor in UBC’s Animal Welfare Program. “We recommend that farmers use some form of social housing for their calves during the milk feeding period.”As farms become increasingly complex, with cattle interacting with robotic milkers, automated feeding systems and other technologies, slow adaptation can be frustrating for cows and farmers alike.”Trouble adjusting to changes in routine and environment can cause problems for farmers and animals,” Weary says, adding that the switch from an individual pen to a paired one is often as simple as removing a partition.Farmers often keep calves in individual pens, believing this helps to reduce the spread of disease. But Weary says that the concern is unwarranted if cows are housed in small groups. “The risk of one animal getting sick and affecting the others is real when you’re talking about large groups, but not with smaller groups like two or three,” he says.BackgroundThe study, conducted at UBC’s Dairy Education and Research Centre in Agassiz, B.C., involved two cognitive tests for two groups of Holstein calves housed in individual pens or in pairs.In the first test, researchers introduced a novel object (a red plastic bin) into the calf’s pen. When first exposed to the novel object all calves showed interest, as expected. But after multiple encounters with the bin, the individually housed calves continued to respond as if this was their first exposure, while the paired calves began to habituate and ignored the bin.”The test suggests that individual rearing can make calves more sensitive to novelty, and thus less able to habituate to changes in their environment,” says Prof. Dan Weary. “This could make it more difficult for a farm animal to be trained or to do something as simple as walk down a path and not be overwhelmed by a bright light or a new noise.”In the second test, the calves were taught to complete a simple task, approaching a black bottle full of milk and avoiding an empty white bottle. After the calves learned to preferentially visit the black bottle, the researchers switched the rules to determine how well the calves were able to adjust to a change in rules.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of British Columbia. …

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Early warning system for epidemics: Risk map correlates environmental, health data

The environment has an impact on our health. Preventing epidemics relies on activating the right counter-measures, and scientists are now trying to find out how better use of forecasting can help. The EU’s EO2HEAVEN project developed a risk map for correlating environmental and health data in order to identify where a disease may break out next. The concept will be on show at Booth E40 in Hall 9 of the CeBIT trade fair in Hannover.Cholera has been all but eradicated in Europe, but this bacterial, primarily waterborne disease still claims thousands of lives in Africa every year. Scientists are examining the effects various environmental factors have on cholera epidemics in Uganda. As part of this work, the Fraunhofer Institute of Optronics, System Technologies and Image Exploitation IOSB in Karlsruhe developed a software architecture for early warning systems that compares environmental and health data and presents the results graphically. “This allowed us to visualize the complex relationships between these factors for the first time on risk maps, leading to a better understanding of the processes,” explains project coordinator Dr. Kym Watson.The scientists use sensors to measure environmental parameters such as rainfall, exposure to solar radiation and pH value, as well as temperature and concentration of nutrients in the water. Weather and climate forecasts are also factored into the analysis. At the same time, they use mobile applications to collect health data on cholera cases from hospitals and doctors, such as where patients have been and what their symptoms are. …

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Robotic construction crew needs no foreman

On the plains of Namibia, millions of tiny termites are building a mound of soil — an 8-foot-tall “lung” for their underground nest. During a year of construction, many termites will live and die, wind and rain will erode the structure, and yet the colony’s life-sustaining project will continue.Inspired by the termites’ resilience and collective intelligence, a team of computer scientists and engineers at the Harvard School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) and the Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering at Harvard University has created an autonomous robotic construction crew. The system needs no supervisor, no eye in the sky, and no communication: just simple robots — any number of robots — that cooperate by modifying their environment.Harvard’s TERMES system demonstrates that collective systems of robots can build complex, three-dimensional structures without the need for any central command or prescribed roles. The results of the four-year project were presented this week at the AAAS 2014 Annual Meeting and published in the February 14 issue of Science.The TERMES robots can build towers, castles, and pyramids out of foam bricks, autonomously building themselves staircases to reach the higher levels and adding bricks wherever they are needed. In the future, similar robots could lay sandbags in advance of a flood, or perform simple construction tasks on Mars.”The key inspiration we took from termites is the idea that you can do something really complicated as a group, without a supervisor, and secondly that you can do it without everybody discussing explicitly what’s going on, but just by modifying the environment,” says principal investigator Radhika Nagpal, Fred Kavli Professor of Computer Science at Harvard SEAS. She is also a core faculty member at the Wyss Institute, where she co-leads the Bioinspired Robotics platform.Most human construction projects today are performed by trained workers in a hierarchical organization, explains lead author Justin Werfel, a staff scientist in bioinspired robotics at the Wyss Institute and a former SEAS postdoctoral fellow.”Normally, at the beginning, you have a blueprint and a detailed plan of how to execute it, and the foreman goes out and directs his crew, supervising them as they do it,” he says. “In insect colonies, it’s not as if the queen is giving them all individual instructions. Each termite doesn’t know what the others are doing or what the current overall state of the mound is.”Instead, termites rely on a concept known as stigmergy, a kind of implicit communication: they observe each others’ changes to the environment and act accordingly. That is what Nagpal’s team has designed the robots to do, with impressive results. Supplementary videos published with the Science paper show the robots cooperating to build several kinds of structures and even recovering from unexpected changes to the structures during construction.Each robot executes its building process in parallel with others, but without knowing who else is working at the same time. …

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Drifting herbicides produce uncertain effects

Farmers should take extra precautions so drifting herbicides do not create unintended consequences on neighboring fields and farms, according to agricultural researchers.The researchers found a range of effects — positive, neutral and negative — when they sprayed the herbicide dicamba on old fields — ones that are no longer used for cultivation — and on field edges, according to J. Franklin Egan, research ecologist, USDA-Agricultural Research Service. He said the effects should be similar for a related compound, 2,4-D.”The general consensus is that the effects of the increased use of these herbicides are going to be variable,” said Egan. “But, given that there is really so much uncertainty, we think that taking precautions to prevent herbicide drift is the right way to go.”Farmers are expected to use dicamba and 2,4-D on their fields more often in the near future because biotechnology companies are introducing crops genetically modified to resist those chemicals. From past experience, 2,4-D and dicamba are the herbicides most frequently involved in herbicide-drift accidents, according to the researchers.Because the herbicides typically target broadleaf plants, such as wildflowers, they are not as harmful to grasses, Egan said. In the study, the researchers found grasses eventually dominated the field edge test site that was once a mix of broadleaf plants and grass. The old field site showed little response to the herbicide treatments.Herbicide drift was also associated with the declines of three species of herbivores, including pea aphids, spotted alfalfa aphids and potato leaf hoppers, and an increase in a pest called clover root curculio, Egan said. The researchers found more crickets, which are considered beneficial because they eat weed seeds, in the field edge site.The researchers, who report their findings in the current issue of Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment, did not see a drop in the number of pollinators, such as bees, in the fields. However, the relatively small size of the research fields limited the researchers’ ability to measure the effect on pollinators, according to Egan.”That may be because pollinators are very mobile and the spatial scale of our experiment may not be big enough to show any effects,” Egan said.Farmers can cut down on herbicide drift by taking a few precautions, according to Egan. They can spray low-volatility herbicide blends, which are less likely to turn to vapors, and use a nozzle design on the sprayer that produces larger droplets that do not easily drift in the wind.Egan also recommended that farmers follow application restrictions printed on herbicide labels and try to spray on less windy days when possible.The tests were conducted on two farms in Pennsylvania. …

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Help for a scarred heart: Scarring cells turned to beating muscle

Poets and physicians know that a scarred heart cannot beat the way it used to, but the science of reprogramming cells offers hope–for the physical heart, at least.A team of University of Michigan biomedical engineers has turned cells common in scar tissue into colonies of beating heart cells. Their findings could advance the path toward regenerating tissue that’s been damaged in a heart attack.Previous work in direct reprogramming, jumping straight from a cell type involved in scarring to heart muscle cells, has a low success rate. But Andrew Putnam, an associate professor of biomedical engineering and head of the Cell Signaling in Engineered Tissues Lab, thinks he knows at least one of the missing factors for better reprogramming.”Many reprogramming studies don’t consider the environment that the cells are in — they don’t consider anything other than the genes,” he said. “The environment can dictate the expression of those genes.”To explore how the cells’ surroundings might improve the efficiency of reprogramming, Yen Peng Kong, a post-doctoral researcher in the lab, attempted to turn scarring cells, or fibroblasts, into heart muscle cells while growing them in gels of varying stiffness. He and his colleagues compared a soft commercial gel with medium-stiffness fibrin, made of the proteins that link with platelets to form blood clots, and with high-stiffness collagen, made of structural proteins.The fibroblasts came from mouse embryos. To begin the conversion to heart muscle cells, Kong infected the fibroblasts with a specially designed virus that carried mouse transgenes — genes expressed by stem cells.Fooled into stem cell behavior, the fibroblasts transformed themselves into stem-cell-like progenitor cells. This transition, which would be skipped in direct reprogramming, encouraged the cells to divide and grow into colonies rather than remaining as lone rangers. The tighter community might have helped to ease the next transition, since naturally developing heart muscle cells are also close with their neighbors.After seven days, Kong changed the mixture used to feed the cells, adding a protein that encourages the growth of heart tissue. This helped push the cells toward adopting the heart muscle identity. A few days later, some of the colonies were contracting spontaneously, marking themselves out as heart muscle colonies.The transition was particularly successful in the fibrin and fibrin-collagen mixes, which saw as many as half of the colonies converting to heart muscle.The team has yet to discover exactly what it is about fibrin that makes it better for supporting heart muscle cell. …

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Eat spinach or eggs for faster reflexes: Tyrosine helps you stop faster

A child suddenly runs out into the road. Brake!! A driver who has recently eaten spinach or eggs will stop faster, thanks to the amino acid tyrosine found in these and other food products. Leiden cognitive psychologist Lorenza Colzato publishes her findings in the journal Neuropsychologia.The German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach has already said it: Der Mensch ist was er iβt. You are what you eat. Substances that we ingest through our food can determine our behaviour and the way we experience our environment. Researchers at Leiden University and the University of Amsterdam have carried out the first-ever study to test whether the intake of tyrosine enhances our ability to stop an activity at lightning speed. The findings seem to indicate that this is the case.Stopping taskColzato and her colleagues created a situation in which test candidates had to interrupt a repetitive activity at a given instant. The researchers tested this using a stopping task: the participants were told to look carefully at a computer screen. Whenever a green arrow appeared, they had to press a button as quickly as possible. …

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Sneezing sponges suggest existence of sensory organ: Discovery challenges assumptions about ‘primitive’ organism

When Danielle Ludeman decided to leave her hometown of Vancouver to study evolutionary biology at the University of Alberta, she knew she was in for a challenge that would help her discover things about science and, in turn, herself.What she didn’t count on were the hours, days and months she’d spend watching sponges in mid-sneeze.It sounds like a strange way to pass time, but sneezing sponges have become a major part of Ludeman’s studies at the U of A, including a new paper that points to the sneeze as evidence of a sensory organ in one of the most basic multicellular organisms on Earth.”The sneeze can tell us a lot about how the sponge works and how it’s responding to the environment,” said Ludeman, a master’s student in the Faculty of Science. “This paper really gets at the question of how sensory systems evolved. The sponge doesn’t have a nervous system, so how can it respond to the environment with a sneeze the way another animal that does have a nervous system can?”Ludeman started the work as part of an undergraduate research honours project, working under the supervision of Sally Leys, Canada Research Chair in Evolutionary Developmental Biology. It was Leys and a former graduate student who first discovered that sponges do in fact sneeze.The sponge is a filter feeder that relies totally on water flow through its body for food, oxygen and waste removal. Sneezing, a 30- to 45-minute process that sees the entire body of the sponge expand and contract, allows it to respond to physical stimuli such as sediment in the water.Time-lapse sneezesFor their study, Ludeman and Leys used a variety of drugs to elicit sneezes in freshwater sponges and observed the process using fluorescent dye — all recorded using time-lapse video. Their efforts focused on the sponge’s osculum, which controls water exiting the organism, including water expelled during a sneeze.Through a series of lab experiments, the pair discovered that ciliated cells lining the osculum play a role in triggering sneezes. In other animals, cilia function like antennae, helping cells respond to stimuli in a co-ordinated manner. In the sponge, their localized presence in the osculum and their sensory function suggest the osculum is in fact a sensory organ.”For a sponge to have a sensory organ is totally new. This does not appear in a textbook; this doesn’t appear in someone’s concept of what sponges are permitted to have,” said Leys.Leys said the discovery raises new questions about how sensory systems may have evolved in the sponge and other animals, including ones with nervous systems. It’s possible this sensory system is unique to the sponge, she said, evolving over the last 600 million years. …

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Organic farms support more species, researchers find

On average, organic farms support 34% more plant, insect and animal species than conventional farms, say Oxford University scientists. Researchers looked at data going back 30 years and found that this effect has remained stable over time and shows no signs of decreasing.’Our study has shown that organic farming, as an alternative to conventional farming, can yield significant long-term benefits for biodiversity,’ said Sean Tuck of Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences, lead author of the study. ‘Organic methods could go some way towards halting the continued loss of diversity in industrialized nations.’For pollinators such as bees, the number of different species was 50% higher on organic farms, although it is important to note that the study only looked at ‘species richness’.’Species richness tells us how many different species there are but does not say anything about the total number of organisms,’ said Mr Tuck. ‘There are many ways to study biodiversity and species richness is easy to measure, providing a useful starting point. Broadly speaking, high species richness usually indicates a variety of species with different functions. Taking the example of bees, species richness would tell us how many different species of bee were on each farm but not the total number of bees.’The study, published this week in the Journal of Applied Ecology, looked at data from 94 previous studies covering 184 farm sites dating back to 1989. The researchers re-analysed the data using satellite imagery to estimate the land use in the landscape surrounding each farm site to see if this had an impact on species richness. The study was carried out by scientists at Oxford University and the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, and was partly funded by the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC).Organic farms had a bigger impact on species richness when the land around them was more intensively farmed, particularly when it contained large tracts of arable land. Arable land is defined as land occupied by crops that are sown and harvested in the same agricultural year, such as wheat or barley.’We found that the impacts of organic farms on species richness were more pronounced when they were located in intensively farmed regions,’ said Dr Lindsay Turnbull of Oxford University’s Department of Plant Sciences, senior author of the study. ‘This makes sense because the biodiversity benefits of each organic farm will be diluted in clusters of organic farms compared to an organic “island” providing rich habitats in a sea of pesticide-covered conventional fields. …

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