Understanding plant-soil interaction could lead to new ways to combat weeds

Using high-powered DNA-based tools, a recent study at the University of Illinois identified soil microbes that negatively affect ragweed and provided a new understanding of the complex relationships going on beneath the soil surface between plants and microorganisms.”Plant scientists have been studying plant-soil feedback for decades,” said U of I microbial ecologist Tony Yannarell. “Some microbes are famous for their ability to change the soil, such as the microbes that are associated with legumes — we knew about those bacteria. But now we have the ability to use high-power DNA fingerprinting tools to look at all of the microbes in the soil, beyond just the ones we’ve known about. We were able to look at an entire microbial community and identify those microbes that both preferred ragweed and affected its growth.”Although it would seem that the logical conclusion would be to simply add anti-ragweed microbes to soil, Yannarell said that adding microbes to soil hasn’t been successful in the past. An effective strategy, however, to suppress weeds might be to use plants that are known to attract the microbes that are bad for ragweed, and in so doing, encourage the growth of a microbial community that will kill it.The study used Manhattan, Kan. (sunflower) and Urbana, Ill. (ragweed) and conducted trials independently at agricultural research facilities in Michigan, Illinois, Kansas, South Dakota, and Oregon, using local soils gathered on site. These particular weeds were selected because ragweed is a more common weed east of the Mississippi and sunflower is more common in the West.The experiment allowed Yannarell and his colleagues to observe how three generations of ragweed and sunflower interacted with the microbial community in the soil. The plants interact with each other indirectly due to the differing effects they each have on the microbes in the soil.”We used the same soil continuously so it had a chance to be changed,” Yannarell said. “We let the plants do the manipulation.”Interestingly, they did not find the same ragweed-preferring microbe across all five states. …

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Effective arts integration improves test scores

Oct. 22, 2013 — Effective classroom arts integration can reduce or eliminate educational achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged students, according to a Mississippi State University research report.In other words, when teachers reinforce academic concepts with the arts, students learn more and score higher on standardized tests.MSU’s John C. Stennis Institute of Government and Community Development generated the report, which evaluated the impacts of the Mississippi Whole Schools Initiative. The program supports teachers’ efforts to use the arts–composing, painting, drawing or sculpting; playing, singing or listening to music; and dancing and dramatic performance–to foster retention and learning.Judith Philips, Stennis research associate, headed the development of “Arts Integration and the Mississippi Arts Commission’s Whole Schools Initiative: A Stennis Institute Study for Decision-Makers.” The report initially was presented at the Mississippi Arts Commission’s 2013 Whole Schools Initiative Summer Institute.Philips said the research verifies that effective arts integration reinforces classroom learning.”Schools that effectively implement arts integration have either significantly reduced or completely eliminated the educational achievement gap for economically disadvantaged students,” she said. “This research indicates that arts integration can achieve that objective in Mississippi public schools.”Currently, almost 5,500 Mississippi students in eight public and four private elementary schools are participating in WSI. The study compared results on language arts and mathematics Mississippi Curriculum Tests, fourth-grade writing assessments and fifth-grade science tests to scores of students not enrolled in arts integrated classrooms.”The percentage of students scoring ‘proficient or above’ on standardized tests was significantly higher at schools participating in the Whole Schools Initiative that had effectively implemented the WSI arts integration model, when compared to student performance statewide and when compared to student performance for the school district within which the WSI school was located,” Phillips told arts commission participants during her presentation.Karen Brown, MSU instructor in curriculum, instruction and workforce development, teaches an arts integration course in MSU’s College of Education. She said she’s not surprised at the Stennis report’s findings because students, especially young children, gravitate to learning that way.”Not only is it repetition, but it’s time spent whenever a child is learning something in a different way, that means they’re learning it again,” Brown said. “They’re repeating it, and so the immersion in their learning is a different form–through the arts–but it’s also more time spent on the content, so they start thinking critically and creatively.”Brown said all MSU elementary education majors are required to take the arts integration course. She also takes a student group to WSI’s annual summer institute.”Arts integration, from the perspective of a classroom teacher, is teaching both the content area and the arts together, and that takes some special training and special knowledge, but when you do that, it immerses the child in the content,” Brown said. Phillips said arts integration requires quality professional development and mentorships for teachers. …

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Cell Phone Use and Its Impact on the Rate of Auto Accidents

Cell phones have ballooned in popularity over the last decade. Not surprisingly, so have concerns regarding distracted driving and the role that these ubiquitous electronic devices may have in causing a variety of motor vehicle-related accidents. A significant body of research – conducted under both experimental and on-the-road conditions – has demonstrated that using either hand-held cell phones or hands-free cell phone devices can lead to driving practices that can undermine safe driving. Unfortunately, the extent to which cell phone use while driving increases the risk of accidents has been difficult to determine, due in part to the fact that police crash reports are not reliable indicators of whether or not drivers were using a cell phone at the time a crash occurred.Nevertheless, a number of important studies have demonstrated that operating a cell phone while driving significantly increases the risk of a crash. A 1997 study published in the prestigious New England Journal of Medicine found that the risk of experiencing a collision while actively using a cell phone was four times higher than the risk when a phone was not actively being used. A more recent study published in the British Medical Journal also reached similar conclusions, demonstrating a four-fold increase in the risk of a crash when cell phones were used within the 10 minutes prior to a crash occurring. According to recent statistics published by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), 13.5 million drivers are simultaneously using cell phones at any given time during the daylight hours. In addition, the NTSB documented that close to 3,100 roadway fatalities in 2010 involved distracted drivers. The National Safety Council estimated that 23% (1.3 million) of all crashes that occurred in 2011 involved the use of cell phones.Citing the epidemic magnitude of cell phone use while driving, legislators on both the federal and state levels have worked tirelessly for many years to pass bans on cell phone use while driving. The Insurance Institute for Highway Safety states that as of October 2012, 10 states have enacted bans against talking on a hand-held cellphone while driving. …

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Large Gulf dead zone, but smaller than predicted

July 29, 2013 — NOAA-supported scientists found a large Gulf of Mexico oxygen-free or hypoxic “dead” zone, but not as large as had been predicted. Measuring 5,840 square miles, an area the size of Connecticut, the 2013 Gulf dead zone indicates nutrients from the Mississippi River watershed are continuing to affect the nation’s commercial and recreational marine resources in the Gulf.”A near-record area was expected because of wet spring conditions in the Mississippi watershed and the resultant high river flows which deliver large amounts of nutrients,” said Nancy Rabalais, Ph.D. executive director of the Louisiana Universities Marine Consortium (LUMCON), who led the July 21-28 survey cruise. “But nature’s wind-mixing events and winds forcing the mass of low oxygen water towards the east resulted in a slightly above average bottom footprint.”Hypoxia is fueled by nutrient runoff from agricultural and other human activities in the watershed. These nutrients stimulate an overgrowth of algae that sinks, decomposes and consumes most of the oxygen needed to support life. Normally the low or no oxygen area is found closer to the Gulf floor as the decaying algae settle towards the bottom. This year researchers found many areas across the Gulf where oxygen conditions were severely low at the bottom and animals normally found at the seabed were swimming at the surface.Graph showing historical hypoxia trends.This is in contrast to 2012, when drought conditions resulted in the fourth smallest dead zones on record, measuring 2,889 square miles, an area slightly larger than Delaware. The largest previous dead zone was in 2002, encompassing 8,481 square miles. The smallest recorded dead zone measured 15 square miles in 1988. The average size of the dead zone over the past five years has been 5,176 square miles, more than twice the 1,900 square mile goal set by the Gulf of Mexico / Mississippi River Watershed Nutrient Task Force in 2001 and reaffirmed in 2008.On June 18, NOAA-sponsored forecast models developed by Donald Scavia, Ph.D., University of Michigan, and R. …

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More attractive real estate agents mean higher prices and profits

June 3, 2013 — At least for real estate agents, it turns out that beauty is indeed more than skin deep.A recent study of physical attractiveness and how it impacts real estate brokers’ pay and productivity shows that the more attractive the real estate agent, the higher the listing price of the home for sale.Those higher listings lead to higher sales prices, meaning that beauty enhances an agent’s wage, said the report by Frank Mixon, professor of economics at Columbus State University’s Turner College of Business.He collaborated on the article, “Broker beauty and boon: a study of physical attractiveness and its effect on real estate brokers’ income and productivity.” with Sean P. Salter, from the Jennings A. Jones College of Business at Middle Tennessee State University and Ernest W. King from the College of Business at the University of Southern Mississippi. The article was published in the Applied Financial Economics journal last year.To reach their conclusions, the professors asked 402 people to look at photographs of real estate agents. The pictures were taken from the agents’ websites. Respondents were asked to rate each individual depicted for “physical attractiveness or beauty” on a scale of one to 10, with one representing “very unattractive” and 10 representing “very attractive.”Researchers then compared those figures to Multiple Listing Service data regarding transactions for properties that were listed between June, 2000 and November, 2007. Researchers looked at listing prices, sales prices and the time properties spent on the market before the sale was completed.In general, the research found that the agents who were rated more attractive had listings with higher prices and larger commissions, which comes from higher sales prices for attractive agents.”Given the nature of the brokerage system, this confirms our theory that beauty enhances an agent’s wage,” the researchers wrote in the report.”The results weren’t surprising to me,” Mixon said. “There is a growing literature in economics that relates physical attractiveness to productivity in the workplace, and to all sorts of choices people make.”But while prices were found to be higher for more attractive agents, the research noted that things may equal out in the long run because agents who were rated “less attractive” had more listings and more sales. The researchers note that this may “suggest that more attractive agents may be using beauty to supplement, rather than to complement, other productive activities.”Mixon, who also is studying the impact of physical attractiveness in other areas, said it is important to note that “attractiveness is not the ‘be all, end all’ — it just helps to tip the scales when competitors are otherwise equally talented or skilled.”

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Thinking ‘big’ may not be best approach to saving large-river fish

May 22, 2013 — Large-river specialist fishes — from giant species like paddlefish and blue catfish, to tiny crystal darters and silver chub — are in danger, but researchers say there is greater hope to save them if major tributaries identified in a University of Wisconsin-Madison study become a focus of conservation efforts.

The study says 60 out of 68 U.S. species, or 88 percent of fish species found exclusively in large-river ecosystems like the Mississippi, Missouri and Ohio rivers, are of state, federal or international conservation concern. The report is in the April issue of the journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

On the other hand, says lead author Brenda Pracheil, a postdoctoral researcher in the UW’s Center for Limnology, the study offers some good news, too.

Traditionally, the conservation emphasis has been on restoring original habitat. This task proves impossible for ecosystems like the main trunk of the Mississippi River — the nation’s shipping, power production, and flood control backbone. While the locks, dams and levees that make the Mississippi a mighty economic force have destroyed fish habitat by blocking off migration pathways and changing annual flood cycles species need to spawn, removing them is not a realistic conservation option.

But, says Pracheil, we’re underestimating the importance of tributaries. Her study found that, for large-river specialist fish, it’s not all or nothing. Some rivers are just big enough to be a haven.

For any river in the Mississippi Basin with a flow rate of less than 166 cubic meters of water per second, virtually no large-river specialist fishes are present. But in any river that even slightly exceeds that rate, 80 percent or more of the large-river species call it home.

That means Mississippi tributaries about the size of the Wisconsin River and larger are providing crucial habitat for large-river fishes. When coupled with current efforts in the large rivers themselves, these rivers may present important opportunities for saving species.

“Talk to any large-river fish biologist, and they will tell you how important tributaries are to big river fish,” says Pracheil. “But, until now, we’ve not really understood which rivers are most important. Our study tackles that and shows which tributaries in the Mississippi River Basin show the most promise for conservation of large-river fishes.”

Current policies governing large river restoration projects are funded largely through the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which requires that funds be spent on mainstems — or the big rivers themselves. Pracheil’s study suggests spending some of that money on tributary restoration projects might do more conservation good for fish, while also letting agencies get more bang for their habitat restoration buck.

“Tributaries may be one of our last chances to preserve large-river fish habitat,” Pracheil says. “Even though the dam building era is all but over in this country, it’s just starting on rivers like the Mekong and Amazon — places that are hotspots for freshwater fish diversity. While tributaries cannot offer a one-to-one replacement of main river habitats, our work suggests that [they] provide important refuges for large-river fishes and that both main rivers and their tributaries should be considered in conservation plans.”

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