Warming climate may spread drying to a third of earth: Heat, not just rainfall, plays into new projections

Increasing heat is expected to extend dry conditions to far more farmland and cities by the end of the century than changes in rainfall alone, says a new study. Much of the concern about future drought under global warming has focused on rainfall projections, but higher evaporation rates may also play an important role as warmer temperatures wring more moisture from the soil, even in some places where rainfall is forecasted to increase, say the researchers.The study is one of the first to use the latest climate simulations to model the effects of both changing rainfall and evaporation rates on future drought. Published this month in the journal Climate Dynamics, the study estimates that 12 percent of land will be subject to drought by 2100 through rainfall changes alone; but the drying will spread to 30 percent of land if higher evaporation rates from the added energy and humidity in the atmosphere is considered. An increase in evaporative drying means that even regions expected to get more rain, including important wheat, corn and rice belts in the western United States and southeastern China, will be at risk of drought. The study excludes Antarctica.”We know from basic physics that warmer temperatures will help to dry things out,” said the study’s lead author, Benjamin Cook, a climate scientist with joint appointments at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory and the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. “Even if precipitation changes in the future are uncertain, there are good reasons to be concerned about water resources.”In its latest climate report, the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) warns that soil moisture is expected to decline globally and that already dry regions will be at greater risk of agricultural drought. The IPCC also predicts a strong chance of soil moisture drying in the Mediterranean, southwestern United States and southern African regions, consistent with the Climate Dynamics study.Using two drought metric formulations, the study authors analyze projections of both rainfall and evaporative demand from the collection of climate model simulations completed for the IPCC’s 2013 climate report. Both metrics agree that increased evaporative drying will probably tip marginally wet regions at mid-latitudes like the U.S. Great Plains and a swath of southeastern China into aridity. If precipitation were the only consideration, these great agricultural centers would not be considered at risk of drought. …

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Medication does not reduce risk of recurrent cardiac events among patients with diabetes

Use of the drug aleglitazar, which has shown the ability to lower glucose levels and have favorable effects on cholesterol, did not reduce the risk of cardiovascular death, heart attack or stroke among patients with type 2 diabetes and recent heart attack or unstable angina, according to a JAMA study released online to coincide with presentation at the 2014 American College of Cardiology Scientific Sessions.Cardiovascular disease remains the dominant cause of death among patients with type 2 diabetes. No drug therapy specifically directed against diabetes nor strategy for tight glucose control has been shown to unequivocally reduce the rate of cardiovascular complications in this population, according to background information in the article. In phase 2 trials, aleglitazar significantly reduced glycated hemoglobin levels (measure of blood glucose over an extended period of time), triglycerides, and low-density lipoprotein cholesterol and increased high-density lipoprotein cholesterol (HDL-C).A. Michael Lincoff, M.D., of the Cleveland Clinic, and colleagues conducted a phase 3 trial in which 7,226 patients hospitalized for heart attack or unstable angina with type 2 diabetes were randomly assigned to receive aleglitazar or placebo daily. The AleCardio trial was conducted in 720 hospitals in 26 countries throughout North America, Latin America, Europe, and Asia-Pacific regions.The trial was terminated early (July 2013) after an average follow-up of 104 weeks, due to lack of efficacy and a higher rate of adverse events in the aleglitazar group.The researchers found that although aleglitazar reduced glycated hemoglobin and improved serum HDL-C and triglyceride levels, the drug did not decrease the time to cardiovascular death, nonfatal heart attack, or nonfatal stroke (primary end points). These events occurred in 344 patients (9.5 percent) in the aleglitazar group and 360 patients (10.0 percent) in the placebo group.Aleglitazar use was associated with increased risk of kidney abnormalities, bone fractures, gastrointestinal bleeding, and hypoglycemia (low blood sugars).”These findings do not support the use of aleglitazar in this setting with a goal of reducing cardiovascular risk,” the authors conclude.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by The JAMA Network Journals. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Preventing Head Blight in Barley, Wheat: Biochemical Pathways Hold Key to Resistance

Pale, shriveled heads of grain spell trouble for wheat and barley farmers — they’re the telltale signs of fusarium head blight. The fungal disease, commonly known as scab, not only dramatically shrinks yields but produces toxins that make the grain dangerous for human or animal consumption.From 1991 to 1996, head blight caused $2.6 billion in losses to the U.S. wheat crop. At its peak, the fungus destroyed the entire malting barley crop in the Red River and Ohio River Valleys, according to molecular biologist Yang Yen, an Agricultural Experiment Station researcher and professor at South Dakota State University.Two decades later the U.S. Department of Agriculture still ranks head blight as “the worst plant disease to hit the U.S. since the rust epidemics in the 1950s.” Wheat and barley farmers have lost more than $3 billion since 1990 from blight outbreaks.Despite major research funding — including the U.S. Wheat and Barley Scab Initiative, scientists admit that efforts to control this devastating disease have met with limited success.”This is an extraordinary disease that requires extraordinary means to combat it,” says Yen, who began working on head blight in 1997.Using advanced genetic and molecular technologies, Yen has begun tracing the biochemical pathways that make wheat susceptible or resistant to head blight. Three graduate students and two postdoctoral scientists have worked on this research over the last 16 years.Multiple hosts and pathogensHead blight can be caused by multiple pathogens, and these pathogens can attack multiple hosts including grasses and corn, Yen explains. This makes the disease tougher to combat.Researchers are working to develop resistant types of grain, alter tillage practices and apply fungicides to fight the disease.”This disease is not new,” Yen says. It was first reported in England in 1884 and in North America in 1890. …

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Oldest fossil evidence of modern African venomous snakes found in Tanzania

Ohio University scientists have found the oldest definitive fossil evidence of modern, venomous snakes in Africa, according to a new study published March 19 in the journal PLOS ONE.The newly discovered fossils demonstrate that elapid snakes — such as cobras, kraits and sea snakes — were present in Africa as early as 25 million years ago, said lead author Jacob McCartney, a postdoctoral researcher in the Ohio University Heritage College of Osteopathic Medicine. He’s part of a team that has been examining the Rukwa Rift Basin of Tanzania over the last decade to understand environmental change through time in the East African Rift System.Elapids belong to a larger group of snakes known as colubroids, active foragers that use a variety of methods, including venom, to capture and kill prey.Colubroid fossils are documented as early as 50 million years ago. But they weren’t expected to constitute such a large part of the African snake fauna 25 million years ago, as they became dominant in Europe and North America much later.”In the Oligocene epoch, from about 34 to 23 million years ago, we would have expected to see a fauna dominated by booid snakes, such as boas and pythons. These are generally ‘sit and wait’ constricting predators that hide and ambush passing prey,” McCartney said.In fact, the recent study includes a description of the oldest evidence of African booid snakes, he said. The researchers have named this new species Rukwanyoka holmani; the genus name combines the Rukwa region name with the Swahili word for snake, and the species name is in honor of J. Alan Holman, a paleontologist and mentor.However, the team was surprised to discover that the fauna actually revealed more colubroids than booids. That higher-than-expected concentration of colubroid snakes suggests that the local environment became more open and seasonally dry — and, in turn, more hospitable to these active foraging types of snakes that don’t require cover to hide and ambush prey — at an earlier time in Africa than in most other parts of the world, as documented in previous studies.”This finding gives further strength to the idea that tectonic activity in the East African Rift has helped to shape animal habitats in fascinating ways,” said Nancy Stevens, an associate professor of biomedical sciences at Ohio University and co-author of the study. “The fossils suggest a fundamental shift toward more active and potentially venomous snakes that could exert very different pressures on the local fauna.”More fossils from additional locations should indicate whether colubroid snakes dominated all of Africa during the Oligocene or just the local region around the Rukwa Rift, McCartney said.The study published in PLOS ONE describes eight different types of fossil snakes from the Rukwa Rift (five colubroid and three booid), with vertebrae ranging in length from 2.6 mm to just over 5 mm.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Ohio University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Global food trade can alleviate water scarcity

International trade of food crops led to freshwater savings worth 2.4 billion US-Dollars in 2005 and had a major impact on local water stress. This is shown in a new study by the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Trading food involves the trade of virtually embedded water used for production, and the amount of that water depends heavily on the climatic conditions in the production region: It takes, for instance, 2.700 liters of water to produce 1 kilo of cereals in Morocco, while the same kilo produced in Germany uses up only 520 liters. Analyzing the impact of trade on local water scarcity, our scientists found that it is not the amount of water used that counts most, but the origin of the water. While parts of India or the Middle East alleviate their water scarcity through importing crops, some countries in Southern Europe export agricultural goods from water-scarce sites, thus increasing local water stress.”Agriculture accounts for 70 percent of our global freshwater consumption and therefore has a huge potential to affect local water scarcity,” lead author Anne Biewald says. The amount of water used in the production of agricultural export goods is referred to as virtual water trade. So far, however, the concept of virtual water could not identify the regional water source, but used national or even global averages instead. “Our analysis shows that it is not the amount of water that matters, but whether global food trade leads to conserving or depleting water reserves in water-scarce regions,” Biewald says.Combining biophysical simulations of the virtual water content of crop production with agro-economic land-use and water-use simulations, the scientists were able for the first time to determine the positive and negative impacts on water scarcity through international trade of crops, livestock and feed. The effects were analyzed with high resolution on a subnational level to account for large countries like India or the US with different climatic zones and relating varying local conditions regarding water availability and water productivity. Previously, these countries could only be evaluated through national average water productivity. …

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Mongol Empire rode wave of mild climate, but warming now may be tipping region into unparalleled drought

Researchers studying the rings of ancient trees in mountainous central Mongolia think they may have gotten at the mystery of how small bands of nomadic Mongol horsemen united to conquer much of the world within a span of decades, 800 years ago. The rise of the great leader Genghis Khan and the start of the largest contiguous empire in human history was propelled by a temporary run of nice weather.The rings show that exactly when the empire rose, the normally cold, arid steppes of central Asia saw their mildest, wettest weather in more than 1,000 years. Grass production must have boomed, as did vast numbers of war horses and other livestock that gave the Mongols their power. But the tree rings, spanning 1,112 years from 900 to 2011, also exhibit an ominous modern trend. Since the mid-20th century, the region has warmed rapidly, and the rings show that recent drought years were the most extreme in the record — possibly a side effect of global warming. In a region already pressed for water, the droughts have already helped spark a new migration in a vast region where people until now have lived the same way for centuries, moving herds from place to place and living in tents. Now, those herders are being driven rapidly into cities, and there could be greater future upheavals. The study appears in this week’s early online edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.”Before fossil fuels, grass and ingenuity were the fuels for the Mongols and the cultures around them,” said lead author Neil Pederson, a tree-ring scientist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory. “Energy flows from the bottom of an ecosystem, up the ladder to human society. Even today, many people in Mongolia live just like their ancestors did. …

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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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Large mammals were the architects in prehistoric ecosystems

Researchers from Denmark demonstrate in a study that the large grazers and browsers of the past created a mosaic of varied landscapes consisting of closed and semi-closed forests and parkland.The study is published March 3, 2014 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.Dung beetles recount the nature of the pastThe biologists behind the new research findings synthesized decades of studies on fossil beetles, focusing on beetles associated with the dung of large animals in the past or with woodlands and trees. Their findings reveal that dung beetles were much more frequent in the previous interglacial period (from 132,000 to 110,000 years ago) compared with the early Holocene (the present interglacial period, before agriculture, from 10,000 to 5,000 years ago).”One of the surprising results is that woodland beetles were much less dominant in the previous interglacial period than in the early Holocene, which shows that temperate ecosystems consisted not just of dense forest as often assumed, but rather a mosaic of forest and parkland,” says postdoctoral fellow Chris Sandom.”Large animals in high numbers were an integral part of nature in prehistoric times. The composition of the beetles in the fossil sites tells us that the proportion and number of the wild large animals declined after the appearance of modern man. As a result of this, the countryside developed into predominantly dense forest that was first cleared when humans began to use the land for agriculture,” explains Professor Jens-Christian Svenning.Bring back the large animals to EuropeIf people want to restore self-managing varied landscapes, they can draw on the knowledge provided by the new study about the composition of natural ecosystems in the past.”An important way to create more self-managing ecosystems with a high level of biodiversity is to make room for large herbivores in the European landscape — and possibly reintroduce animals such as wild cattle, bison and even elephants. They would create and maintain a varied vegetation in temperate ecosystems, and thereby ensure the basis for a high level of biodiversity,” says senior scientist Rasmus Ejrns.The study received financial support from the 15 June Foundation and a grant from the European Research Council. To a large extent, it supports the idea that the rewilding-based approach to nature management should be incorporated to a far greater degree in nature policy in Europe -especially in the case of national parks and other large natural areas.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Aarhus University. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Geographic variation of human gut microbes tied to obesity

People living in cold, northern latitudes have bacteria in their guts that may predispose them to obesity, according to a new study by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Arizona, Tucson.The researchers’ analysis of the gut microbes of more than a thousand people from around the world showed that those living in northern latitudes had more gut bacteria that have been linked to obesity than did people living farther south.The meta-analysis of six earlier studies was published this month in the online journal Biology Letters by UC Berkeley graduate student Taichi Suzuki and evolutionary biology professor Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona.”People think obesity is a bad thing, but maybe in the past getting more fat and more energy from the diet might have been important to survival in cold places. Our gut microbes today might be influenced by our ancestors,” said Suzuki, noting that one theory is that obesity-linked bacteria are better at extracting energy from food. “This suggests that what we call ‘healthy microbiota’ may differ in different geographic regions.””This observation is pretty cool, but it is not clear why we are seeing the relationship we do with latitude,” Worobey said. “There is something amazing and weird going on with microbiomes.”To Worobey, the results are fascinating from an evolutionary biology perspective. “Maybe changes to your gut community of bacteria are important for allowing populations to adapt to different environmental conditions in lots of animals, including humans,” he said.Body size increases with latitudeSuzuki proposed the study while rotating through Worobey’s lab during his first year as a graduate student at the University of Arizona. Studies of gut microbes have become a hot research area among scientists because the proportion of different types of bacteria and Archaea in the gut seems to be correlated with diseases ranging from diabetes and obesity to cancer. In particular, the group of bacteria called Firmicutes seems to dominate in the intestines of obese people — and obese mice — while a group called Bacteroidetes dominates in slimmer people and mice.Suzuki reasoned that, since animals and humans in the north tend to be larger in size — an observation called Bergmann’s rule — then perhaps their gut microbiota would contain a greater proportion of Firmicutes than Bacteriodetes. While at the University of Arizona, and since moving to UC Berkeley, Suzuki has been studying how rodents adapt to living at different latitudes.”It was almost as a lark,” Woroby said. “Taichi thought that if Firmicutes and Bacteroidetes are linked to obesity, why not look at large scale trends in humans. When he came back with results that really showed there was something to it, it was quite a surprise.”Suzuki used data published in six previous studies, totaling 1,020 people from 23 populations in Africa, Europe, North and South America and Asia. …

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Mixed genes: Interactive world map of human genetic history reveals likely genetic impacts of historical events

When individuals from different groups interbreed, their offspring’s DNA becomes a mixture of the DNA from each admixing group. Pieces of this DNA are then passed along through subsequent generations, carrying on all the way to the present day. Researchers from the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, Oxford University and University College London (UCL) have now produced a global map detailing the genetic histories of 95 different populations across the world, spanning the last four millennia.The interactive world map that is accessible via the internet, details the histories of genetic mixing between each of the 95 populations across Europe, Africa, Asia and South America. It shows likely genetic impacts of historical events including European colonialism, the Mongol Empire, the Arab slave trade and European traders near the Silk Road mixing with people in China.The study, published this week in Science, is the first to simultaneously identify, date and characterise genetic mixing between populations. To do this, the researchers developed sophisticated statistical methods to analyse the DNA of 1490 individuals in 95 populations around the world. “DNA really has the power to tell stories and uncover details of humanity’s past,” said Simon Myers of Oxford University’s Department of Statistics and Wellcome Trust Centre for Human Genetics, co-senior author of the study. “Because our approach uses only genetic data, it provides information independent from other sources. Many of our genetic observations match historical events, and we also see evidence of previously unrecorded genetic mixing. For example, the DNA of the Tu people in modern China suggests that in around 1200CE, Europeans similar to modern Greeks mixed with an otherwise Chinese-like population. Plausibly, the source of this European-like DNA might be merchants travelling the nearby Silk Road.”The powerful technique, christened ‘Globetrotter’, provides insight into past events such as the genetic legacy of the Mongol Empire. …

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Oil composition boost makes hemp a cooking contender

Scientists at the University of York today report the development of hemp plants with a dramatically increased content of oleic acid. The new oil profile results in an attractive cooking oil that is similar to olive oil in terms of fatty acid content having a much longer shelf life as well as greater heat tolerance and potentially more industrial applications.Researchers in the Centre for Novel Agricultural Products (CNAP) in the Department of Biology at York say that high oleic acid varieties are a major step towards developing hemp as a commercially attractive break crop for cereal farmers. The research is published in Plant Biotechnology Journal.Using fast-track molecular plant breeding, the scientists selected hemp plants lacking the active form of an enzyme involved in making polyunsaturated fatty acids. These plants made less poly-unsaturated fatty acids and instead accumulated higher levels of the mono-unsaturated oleic acid. The research team used conventional plant breeding techniques to develop the plants into a “High Oleic Hemp” line and higher oleic acid content was demonstrated in a Yorkshire field trial.Oil from the new line was almost 80 per cent oleic acid, compared with typical values of less than 10 per cent in the standard hemp line. This high mono-unsaturated/low poly-unsaturated fatty acid profile increases the oil’s thermal stability and oil from the new line was shown to have around five times the stability of standard hemp oil. This not only makes the oil more valuable as a cooking oil but also increases its usefulness for high temperature industrial processes.As oilseed rape faces declining yields and increasing attacks from pest and disease, UK farming needs another break crop to ensure the sustainability of its agriculture and maintain cereal yields. An improved hemp crop, yielding high quality oil would provide an excellent alternative. Hemp is a low-input crop and is also dual-purpose, with the straw being used as a fibre (for bedding, composites and textiles), for biomass and as a source of high value waxes and secondary metabolites.Professor Ian Graham, from CNAP, said: “The new line represents a major improvement in hemp as an oil crop. Similar developments in soybean and oilseed rape have opened up new markets for these crops, due to the perceived healthiness and increased stability of their oil.”In 2014 field trials of the new High Oleic Hemp are being rolled out across Europe in order to establish agronomic performance and yield under a range of environmental conditions in advance of launching a commercial crop.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of York. …

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Europe’s oldest footprints uncovered on English coast

The earliest human footprints outside of Africa have been uncovered, on the English coast, by a team of scientists led by Queen Mary University of London, the British Museum and the Natural History Museum.Up to five people left the series of footprints in mud on the bank of an ancient river estuary over 800,000 years ago at Happisburgh in northeast Norfolk.Dr Simon Lewis from Queen Mary’s School of Geography has been helping to piece together the geological puzzle surrounding the discovery — made in May 2013 — which is evidence of the first known humans in northern Europe.Dr Lewis’s research into the geology of the site has provided vital information on the sediments in which the prints were found. “My role is to work out the sequence of deposits at the site and how they were laid down. This means I can provide a geological context for the archaeological evidence of human occupation at the site.”The importance of the Happisburgh footprints is highlighted by the rarity of footprints surviving elsewhere. Only those at Laetoli in Tanzania at about 3.5 million years and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years are older.A lecturer in physical geography, and co-director of the Happisburgh project (http://www.ahobproject.org/), Dr Lewis added that the chance of encountering footprints such as this was extremely rare; they survived environmental change and the passage of time.Timing was also crucial as “their location was revealed just at a moment when researchers were there to see it” during a geophysical survey. “Just two weeks later the tide would have eroded the footprints away.””At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing,” explains Dr Nick Ashton of the British Museum “but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible.”Over the next two weeks researchers used photogrammetry, a technique that can stitch together digital photographs to create a permanent record and 3D images of the surface. It was the analysis of these images that confirmed that the elongated hollows were indeed ancient human footprints.In some cases the heel, arch and even toes could be identified, equating to modern shoes of up to UK size 8. While it is not possible to tell what the makers of these footprints were doing at the time, analysis has suggested that the prints were made from a mix of adults and children.Their discovery offers researchers an insight into the migration of pre-historic people hundreds of thousands of years ago when Britain was linked by land to continental Europe.At this time, deer, bison, mammoth, hippo and rhino grazed the river valley at Happisburgh. The land provided a rich array of resources for the early humans with edible plant tubers, seaweed and shellfish nearby, while the grazing herds would have provided meat through hunting or scavenging.During the past 10 years the sediments at Happisburgh have revealed a series of sites with stone tools and fossil bones; this discovery is from the same deposits.The findings are published in the science journal PLOS ONE.The work at Happisburgh forms part of a new major exhibition at the Natural History Museum Britain: One Million Years of the Human Story opening on February 13.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Queen Mary University of London. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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What does ‘whole grain’ really mean? European definition published

The most comprehensive definition of whole grain termed to date has been published this week in the journal Food and Nutrition Research. The effort to create the definition, which is intended to assist in the production and labeling of foods rich in whole grains, was born of the HEALTHGRAIN EU project, the largest project ever focusing on cereals and health; and was led by a multi-disciplinary team from some of Europe’s leading universities and food research institutes.Historically, there’s been no complete, legally endorsed definition of whole grain flour and products,” explains Jan-Willem van der Kamp, corresponding author of the paper and Senior Officer of International Projects at TNO Food and Nutrition. “Most supermarkets today are stocked with foods that originate from many different countries. When you read ‘25% whole grain flour’ on one product label; the same claim on a different label could mean something quite different nutritionally. If use of this definition is adopted broadly, this inconsistency eventually would cease.”The HEALTHGRAIN definition is the next step in reaching a precise, common understanding of what constitutes whole grain in food products — from breads to pasta to breakfast cereals — regardless of where they originate, adds van der Kamp.Almost universally, the term whole grain indicates inclusion of all three components of the cereal grain kernel — endosperm (this is the largest part of the grain and provides mostly starch), germ (comprises only a small part of the grain; this is where sprouting begins) and bran (the grain’s protective outer layer; it is rich in dietary fiber). Variances, however, arise around the particular grains considered “whole,” precise combination of the three components once processed, and processing practices which can affect the resulting flour’s nutritional value. The HEALTHGRAIN definition addresses all three of these issues detailing a permitted list of grains and “pseudo grains” (such as quinoa and amaranth) and processing guidelines that take into account current milling practices.The need for developing a more comprehensive, detailed whole grain definition was identified during the course of the HEALTHGRAIN EU project, an initiative intended to increase the use of whole grains and their health protecting constituents in food products for improved nutrition and health benefits. The expansive project has involved everything from research to better understand specific health benefits of whole grains to exploration of new ways to get products high in their healthy compounds onto the market.The HEALTHGRAIN definition was developed by a committee led by van der Kamp, representatives of the Swedish Nutrition Foundation; DPR Nutrition Ltd., UK; and VTT and University of Eastern Finland; in cooperation with a multidisciplinary group of nutrition scientists, cereal scientists and technologists, plant breeders, flour milling specialists and experts in regulatory affairs from throughout Europe.The article with the complete HEALTHGRAIN definition, including the permitted grains, can be accessed in the current volume of Food and Nutrition Research (http://www.foodandnutritionresearch.net/index.php/fnr/article/view/22100).Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by Co-Action Publishing. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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RNA sequencing of 750-year-old barley virus sheds new light on the Crusades

Scientists have for the first time sequenced an ancient RNA genome — of a barley virus once believed to be only 150 years old — pushing its origin back at least 2,000 years and revealing how intense farming at the time of the Crusades contributed to its spread.Researchers at the University of Warwick have detected and sequenced the RNA genome of Barley Stripe Mosaic Virus (BSMV) in a 750-year-old barley grain found at a site near the River Nile in modern-day Egypt. Their study is published in the journal Scientific Reports.This new find challenges current beliefs about the age of the BSMV virus, which was first discovered in 1950 with the earliest record of symptoms just 100 years ago.Although ancient DNA genomes have been sequenced before, ancient RNA genomes have not been as RNA breaks down more rapidly than DNA — generally around 50 times as fast.However in extremely dry conditions, such as those at the site in Qasr Ibrim in Lower Nubia where the barley was found, RNA can be better preserved and this has allowed the scientists to successfully sequence its genome.Using the new medieval RNA to calibrate estimates of the rate of mutations, the researchers were able to trace the evolution of the Barley Stripe Mosaic Virus to a probable origin of around 2,000 years ago, but potentially much further back to the domestication of barley in the Near East around 11,000 years ago.BSMV is transmitted through seed-to-seed contact so it is likely to originally have been transferred from the wild grass population to an early cultivated form of barley while the seeds were stored.Dr Robin Allaby of the School of Life Sciences at the University of Warwick, who led the study, said: “It is important to know as much as we can about virus evolution as emerging infectious plant diseases are a growing threat to global food security, and of those viruses account for almost half.”History tells us about the devastation caused by the emergence of disease from wild hosts in disparate countries, such as the Central American origin of the oomycete that led to the Irish potato famine.”We need to build up an accurate picture of the evolution of different types of virus so we can make better decisions about policies on plant movement.”The medieval RNA from Qasr Ibrim gives us a vital clue to unlock the real age of the Barley Stripe Mosaic Virus.”It is very difficult to understand how a plant disease evolved by solely relying on recent samples, however this 750-year-old example of the virus allows us to more accurately estimate its evolution rates and date of origin.”Without the Medieval RNA evidence, the virus appears to be much younger than it actually is, when in fact its origins go back thousands of years.”It’s possible that other viruses that similarly appear to be very recent may in fact have a more ancient origin.”The researchers believe that the Medieval BSMV genome came from a time of rapid expansion of the plant disease in the Near East and Europe.This coincided with the tumult of the Crusades which saw the Christian lands of Europe take arms against the Muslim territories of the Near East with their sights set on the city of Jerusalem. The seventh Crusade of Louis IX in 1234 is the most closely aligned in date to the origin of the virus expansion.The researchers believe the massive war effort could have caused the virus to spread, fuelled by an intensification of farming in order to feed the armies engaged in the campaign.This made contact with cultivated barley and wild grass more likely, providing opportunities for the virus to ‘jump’ into the crop.Genetic evidence also points to a split into an east and west BSMV lineage around the end of the 15th century, around 100 years after the Mongol Empire stabilised the Silk Road. It is likely that BSMV was transported to the east via trade routes such as the Silk Road in the late Medieval period.In more recent history, the virus appears to have spread to the US from Europe around 120-150 years ago.The research was supported by the research funding body BBSRC.Story Source:The above story is based on materials provided by University of Warwick. Note: Materials may be edited for content and length.

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Climate change threatens to cause trillions in damage to world’s coastal regions if they do not adapt to sea-level rise

New research predicts that coastal regions may face massive increases in damages from storm surge flooding over the course of the 21st century.According to the study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, global average storm surge damages could increase from about $10-$40 billion per year today to up to $100,000 billion per year by the end of century, if no adaptation action is taken.The study, led by the Berlin-based think-tank Global Climate Forum (GCF) and involving the University of Southampton, presents, for the first time, comprehensive global simulation results on future flood damages to buildings and infrastructure in coastal flood plains. Drastic increases in these damages are expected due to both rising sea levels and population and economic growth in the coastal zone. Asia and Africa may be particularly hard hit because of their rapidly growing coastal mega-cities, such as Shanghai, Manila and Lagos.”If we ignore this problem, the consequences will be dramatic,” explains Jochen Hinkel from GCF and the study’s lead author. In 2100, up to 600 million people (around 5 per cent of the global population) could be affected by coastal flooding if no adaptation measures are put in place.”Countries need to take action and invest in coastal protection measures, such as building or raising dikes, amongst other options,” urges Hinkel. With such protection measures, the projected damages could be reduced to below $80 billion per year during the 21st century. The researchers found that an investment level of $10 to $70 billion per year could achieve such a reduction. Prompt action is needed most in Asia and Africa where, today, large parts of the coastal population are already affected by storm surge flooding.However, investment must also occur in Europe as shown by the recent coastal floods in South West England. Professor Robert Nicholls from the University of Southampton, who is a co-author of the paper, says: “If we ignore sea-level rise, flood damages will progressively rise and presently good defences will be degraded and ultimately overwhelmed. Hence we must start to adapt now, be that planning higher defences, flood proofing buildings and strategically planning coastal land use.”Meeting the challenge of adapting to rising sea levels will not be easy, explains Hinkel: “Poor countries and heavily impacted small-island states are not able to make the necessary investments alone, they need international support.” Adding to the challenge, international finance mechanisms have thus far proved sluggish in mobilising funds for adapting to climate change, as the debate on adaptation funding at the recent climate conference in Warsaw once again confirmed.”If we do not reduce greenhouse gases swiftly and substantially, some regions will have to seriously consider relocating significant numbers of people in the longer run,” adds Hinkel. Yet regardless of how much sea-level rise climate change brings, the researchers say careful long-term strategic planning can ensure that development in high-risk flood zones is appropriately designed or avoided. …

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Are invasive plants a problem in Europe? Controversial views among invasion biologists

Some introduced (i.e. non-native) plants become abundant, threaten species richness and the well-functioning of ecosystems, the economy, or health (plant invasion). Environmental policies that attempt to restrict the expansion of non-native species are based on a consensus among scientific experts that invasions are a serious environmental problem. An example of a problematic non-native species in many parts of the world is Fallopia japonica, the Japanese knotweed that negatively affects river ecosystems.A consensus among experts on the severity of plant invasions seems evident in many scientific and outreach publications. However, instead of consensus, a new study by an interdisciplinary research team at ETH Zurich (Switzerland) of psychologists and plant biologists found a wide range of different opinions among scientific experts about how to describe invasive plant species, and how severe their effects on the environment are. The study is published in the latest issue of the open access journal NeoBiota.The researchers conducted 26 face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of German-speaking scientists working on plant invasions, or more generally on environmental change, in Europe. The interviews revealed that individual understandings of scientific concepts, uncertainties, and value-based attitudes towards invasive plants and their management diverged widely among these experts.”Particularly, ambiguous definitions of the terms non-native and invasive (two key notions in invasion science) are a strong source of misunderstandings among scientists,” said lead author Franziska Humair, a doctoral student at ETH Zurich. Some of the study participants used a biological definition to discriminate native from non-native species (“species from a different biogeographic region”), while others referred to culture (“species not familiar to local people”). “Based on each definition, a different set of species is considered non-native in a particular country,” Ms Humair said. Equally, different experts considered different impacts by invasive species on ecosystems and their functioning for humans (ecosystem services) to be relevant. …

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Nitrogen management studied in greenhouse pepper production

As consumer demand for year-round fresh produce increases, vegetable and fruit producers are facing significant environmental and sustainability issues, and are being challenged to examine traditional production practices in order to improve product quality while limiting environmental impact. A recent focus on both the positive and negative effects of nitrogen applications has researchers across the globe working to find methods that can increase crops’ “nitrogen use efficiency” (NUE) to contribute to more sustainable, responsible agricultural practices.A study published in HortScience contains strategies for increasing NUE in greenhouse bell peppers, and demonstrates how the environmental impact of intensive agriculture can be minimized without harming fruit yield or quality.Nitrogen, the most important and widely used agricultural nutrient, is also a major environmental contaminant. In many regions increased levels of nitrate found in groundwater have been attributed to the high rates of nitrogen fertilizer applied to surrounding crops. But sufficient nitrogen–an integral part of protein and chloroplast structure and function in plants–is essential for plant growth and development. According to Hagai Yasuor of the Gilat Research Center in Negev, nitrogen deficiency has been studied on the majority of horticultural crops, but the effects of an oversupply of nitrogen are not as widely understood. Yasuor and colleagues designed a study to investigate ways to reduce environmental pollution by increasing nitrogen use efficiency in vegetables without negatively affecting fruit yield or quality.The scientists used bell pepper (Capsicum annum L.) in a case study for intensive vegetable cropping. “Pepper production is becoming commercially important in various regions of the world, including Israel, Spain, southern Europe, and north Africa, where the crop is grown from fall to spring in greenhouses and net houses,” the authors explained. They selected two pepper cultivars with different growth habits for the study, and drip-irrigated the greenhouse plants with solutions containing four different nitrogen concentrations. They then measured fruit yield, quality, and nutritional value of all plants.”We found that maximum yields occurred when peppers were irrigated with N at 56.2 mgL-1,” Yasuor said. “Higher concentrations of nitrogen loaded more nitrogen into the environment, while the 56.2-mgL-1 concentration was almost completely taken up and used by the plants.” The experiments also showed that nitrogen treatments had no significant negative effect on pepper fruit physical or chemical quality, including sugar content and acidity. …

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Model plant misled scientists about multicellular growth

Oct. 22, 2013 — Scientists have misunderstood one of the most fundamental processes in the life of plants because they have been looking at the wrong flower, according to University of Leeds researchers.Arabidopsis thaliana — also known as thale cress or mouse-ear cress — grows abundantly in cracks in pavements all over Europe and Asia, but the small white flower leads a second life as the lab rat of the plant world.It has become the dominant “model plant” in genetics research because of its simple genetics and ease of use in a research environment. Thousands of trays of the humble weed are cultivated in laboratories across the world, but it turns out they may actually contain a rather oddball plant.A study by researchers at the University of Leeds found that Arabidopsis thaliana was exceptional in not having a “censorship” protein called SMG1.SMG1 was known to play a vital role in the growth of animals as multicellular organisms, but scientists thought that plants built their complex life fundamentally differently. That conclusion, it turns out, was built on a dummy sold by Arabidopsis thaliana.Professor Brendan Davies from the University of Leeds’ School of Biology, who led the study, said: “Everybody thought that this protein was only in animals. They thought that because, basically, most of the world studies one plant: Arabidopsis thaliana.”Gene expression — the process by which the information from a genome is converted into the differentiated cells that make up complex life — relies on processes that turn genes on, when their genetic messages are required, and off when they are not.”Switching genes on and off is really what life is about. If you can’t do that, you can’t have life,” said Professor Davies. “There are various ways this is done, but one way in more complex life such as animals and plants is through a sort of ‘censorship’ process. The system looks at the messages that come out of the nucleus and effectively makes a judgement on them. It says ‘I am going to destroy that message now’ and intervenes to destroy it before it takes effect.”Scientists know that this “censorship” process — called Nonsense Mediated mRNA Decay (NMD) — is used by both plants and animals, but thought the two types of organism did it in different ways.Because Arabidopsis thaliana does not have SMG1, which plays a key role in triggering the censorship system in animals, scientists had concluded that SMG1 was not present in any plant.However, the Leeds researchers discovered that the plant that has established itself as the standard reference plant for all of biology is in fact an anomaly.”We have found that SMG1 is in every plant for which we have the genome apart from Arabidopsis and we have established that it is being used in NMD. Rather than being just in animals, we are suggesting that the last common ancestor of animals and plants had SMG1,” Professor Davies said.The study also found SMG1 in Arabidopsis lyrata, a close relative of Arabidopsis thaliana, which suggests that the missing protein has been lost relatively recently in evolutionary time, perhaps in the last 5-10 million years.The next key question for researchers is to explain how organisms without SMG1, such has funghi and Arabiposis thaliana, work without the protein.As for Arabidopsis thaliana, it may not have met its Waterloo just yet. …

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Archaeologists rediscover the lost home of the last Neanderthals

Oct. 17, 2013 — A record of Neanderthal archaeology, thought to be long lost, has been re-discovered by NERC-funded scientists working in the Channel island of Jersey.The study, published today in the Journal of Quaternary Science, reveals that a key archaeological site has preserved geological deposits which were thought to have been lost through excavation 100 years ago.The discovery was made when the team undertook fieldwork to stabilise and investigate a portion of the La Cotte de St Brelade cave, on Jersey’s south eastern coastline.A large portion of the site contains sediments dating to the last Ice Age, preserving 250,000 years of climate change and archaeological evidence.The site, which has produced more Neanderthal stone tools than the rest of the British Isles put together, contains the only known late Neanderthal remains from North West Europe. These offer archaeologists one of the most important records of Neanderthal behaviour available.”In terms of the volume of sediment, archaeological richness and depth of time, there is nothing else like it known in the British Isles. Given that we thought these deposits had been removed entirely by previous researchers, finding that so much still remains is as exciting as discovering a new site,” says Dr Matt Pope of the Institute of Archaeology at University College London, who helped lead the research.The team dated sediments at the site using a technique called Optically Stimulated Luminesce, which measures the last time sand grains were exposed to sunlight. This was carried out at the Luminescence Dating Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford University.The results showed that part of the sequence of sediments dates between 100,000 and 47,000 years old, indicating that Neanderthal teeth which were discovered at the site in 1910 were younger than previously thought, and probably belonged to one of the last Neanderthals to live in the region.”The discovery that these deposits still exist and can be related to previously excavated deposits opens up a range of exciting possibilities,” says Dr Martin Bates, University of Trinity St Davids, who is leading current fieldwork at the site.The findings bring the large collections of stone tools, animal bone and the Neanderthal remains from the area under renewed study.”Excavation in the future will provide us with the opportunity to subject the site to the wide range of approaches we use today in Palaeolithic archaeology and Quaternary science. For example we are hoping to be able to link our site with the broader Neanderthal landscapes through study of similarly aged deposits around the island and, through bathymetric survey, on the seabed,” says Bates.”We were sure from the outset that the deposits held some archaeological potential, but these dates indicate we have uncovered something exceptional,” explains Pope. “We have a sequence of deposits which span the last 120,000 years still preserved at the site. Crucially, this covers the period in which Neanderthal populations apparently went ‘extinct’.”It was during this period that Neanderthals appear to have been replaced by our own species — Homo sapiens.The NERC-funded work represented the first formal programme of scientific research to be focused on the site since the early 1980s. The site has since then been managed and preserved by the Société Jerisaise, the Jersey-based academic society involved in early investigation of the site and which continues to manage and protect the site through to the present day.”For over a hundred years the Societe has tried to maintain the interest of the wider academic world in La Cotte, having realised its international importance from the beginning. We are delighted, therefore, that such a prestigious team is now studying the site, and, in addition, the wider Palaeolithic landscape of Jersey,” says Neil Molyneux, president of the Société JersiaiseThe wider project, supported also by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Jersey Government will now continue to investigate the site and material excavated from it over the past 110 years.”Working with our partners to bring these rediscovered sediments under new analysis will allow us to bring the lives of the last Neanderthal groups to live in North West Europe into clearer focus,” says Pope.”We may be able to use this evidence to better understand when Neanderthal populations disappeared form the region and whether they ever shared the landscape with the species which ultimately replaced them, us,” he concludes.

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Hunter-gatherers and immigrant farmers lived together for 2,000 years in Central Europe

Oct. 10, 2013 — Indigenous hunter-gatherers and immigrant farmers lived side-by-side for more than 2,000 years in Central Europe, before the hunter-gatherer communities died out or adopted the agricultural lifestyle. The results come from a study undertaken by the Institute of Anthropology at Johannes Gutenberg University Mainz (JGU) that has just been published in the journal Science.A team led by Mainz anthropologist Professor Joachim Burger studied bones from the ‘Blätterhöhle’ cave near Hagen in Germany, where both hunter-gatherers and farmers were buried. “It is commonly assumed that the Central European hunter-gatherers disappeared soon after the arrival of farmers,” said Dr. Ruth Bollongino, lead author of the study. “But our study shows that the descendants of Mesolithic Europeans maintained their hunter-gatherer way of life and lived in parallel with the immigrant farmers, for at least 2,000 years. The hunter-gathering lifestyle thus only died out in Central Europe around 5,000 years ago, much later than previously thought.”Until around 7,500 years ago all central Europeans were hunter-gatherers. They were the descendants of the first anatomically modern humans to arrive in Europe, around 45,000 years ago, who survived the last Ice Age and the warming that started around 10,000 years ago. But previous genetic studies by Professor Burger’s group indicated that agriculture and a sedentary lifestyle were brought to Central Europe around 7,500 years ago by immigrant farmers. From that time on, little trace of hunter-gathering can be seen in the archaeological record, and it was widely assumed that the hunter-gatherers died out or were absorbed into the farming populations.The relationship between these immigrant agriculturalists and local hunter-gatherers has been poorly researched to date. …

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