Category Archives: Academia

Ocean plastic levels may be greater than thought

We’ve been concerned about plastics for years, in part because, well, no other material epitomizes so well the nature of the cancerous consumer society decried by Aldous Huxley in the quotation that flies on this blog’s flag.

In addition to their role as chemicals making us fatter, giving us cancer, lowering our sperm counts, triggering the growth of breasts in young boys, and so much more, plastics are also a plague upon the environment.

Back when esnl was knee high to a grasshopper, whenever we needed some coin to buy a comic book or a candy bar, we would go out and hunt for pop bottles, with each one giving us two cents at a time when candy bars cost a nickel, comic books a dime, and a four-hour Saturday afternoon matinee at the Plaza Theater was fourteen cents.

But plastic has replaced the bottle, and unlike glass which, even when broken, breaks down into mere sand, plastics work their way through the environment, polluting at each step of the way.

And so for Earth Day, we bring you this, the latest indictment of the substance that also gave rise to one of the most quoted movie lines of our youth.

From the University of Delaware:

Plastics are all around us. They are found in containers and packing materials, children’s toys, medical devices and electronics.

Unfortunately, plastics are also found in the ocean.

A 2015 paper published in Science estimates that anywhere from 4.8 million to 12.7 million metric tons of plastic were dumped into the ocean in 2010 alone. One metric ton equals approximately 2,200 pounds.

As people celebrate Earth Day on Friday, April 22, new research by University of Delaware physical oceanographer Tobias Kukulka provides evidence that the amount of plastic in the marine environment may be greater that previously thought.

Troubling tiny travelers

Plastic in the ocean becomes brittle over time and breaks into tiny fragments. Slightly buoyant, these microplastics often drift at the surface where they can be mistaken for food by birds, fish or other marine wildlife. Microplastics have turned up in the deep ocean and in Arctic ice, too.

“You have stuff that’s potentially poisonous in the ocean and there is some indication that it’s harmful to the environment, but scientists don’t really understand the scope of this problem yet,” explains Kukulka, an expert on ocean waves and currents, and associate professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Environment’s School of Marine Science and Policy.

One technique scientists use to try and quantify how much plastic is in the marine environment is to drag a tow net over the surface for a few miles in one of the world’s five ocean gyres, then count the number of plastic fragments. This number is then used to calculate a concentration considered representative of the amount of plastic in the area.

There’s lots more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Navigational mysteries of the Monarchs solved

When we first arrived in California in 1967, one of the first mysteries we encountered was attached to a Monarch butterfly, one of those magnificently garbed creatures we had first found so fascinating as a child years earlier.

The mystery was a small paper wheel imprinted with a serial number and a phone number we were to call if we chanced upon the little critter.

Aha! A story! we thought — and we were right.

The phone number connected us to a Canadian university, where entomologists were studying the migrational patterns of creature that managed to navigate its way from the plains of our neighbor to the north to a forest in the heartland of our neighbor to the south — a remarkably odyssey worthy of a Greek bard.

The Monarch itself has been under threat, as documented in this 24 December 2013 report for PBS Newshour by Ross Velton:

Monarch butterfly migration under threat

Program notes:

Monarch butterflies migrate from the US and Canada to Mexico each winter. But in recent years, Mexico has seen far fewer Monarchs arriving in Mexico. Environmental changes have destroyed the butterflies’ sources of food and shelter. Independent video journalist Ross Velton reports on efforts to help Monarchs survive their journey south.

The question that always fascinated us was this: How did butterflies manage to find their way unerringly from a broad range of the Canadian prairie to a very small patch of Mexican forest?

The researchers we talked to nearly five decades earlier weren’t sure, but not there’s an answer.

From the University of Washington:

Each fall, monarch butterflies across Canada and the United States turn their orange, black and white-mottled wings toward the Rio Grande and migrate over 2,000 miles to the relative warmth of central Mexico.

This journey, repeated instinctively by generations of monarchs, continues even as monarch numbers have plummeted due to loss of their sole larval food source — milkweed. But amid this sad news, a research team believes they have cracked the secret of the internal, genetically encoded compass that the monarchs use to determine the direction — southwest — they should fly each fall.

“Their compass integrates two pieces of information — the time of day and the sun’s position on the horizon — to find the southerly direction,” said Eli Shlizerman, a University of Washington assistant professor.

While the nature of the monarch butterfly’s ability to integrate the time of day and the sun’s location in the sky are known from previous research, scientists have never understood how the monarch’s brain receives and processes this information. Shlizerman, who has joint appointments in the Department of Applied Mathematics and the Department of Electrical Engineering, partnered with colleagues at the University of Michigan and the University of Massachusetts to model how the monarch’s compass is organized within its brain.

“We wanted to understand how the monarch is processing these different types of information to yield this constant behavior — flying southwest each fall,” said Shlizerman, who is lead author on the team’s April 14 paper [open access] in the journal Cell Reports.

Monarchs use their large, complex eyes to monitor the sun’s position in the sky. But the sun’s position is not sufficient to determine direction. Each butterfly must also combine that information with the time of day to know where to go. Fortunately, like most animals including humans, monarchs possess an internal clock based on the rhythmic expression of key genes. This clock maintains a daily pattern of physiology and behavior. In the monarch butterfly, the clock is centered in the antennae, and its information travels via neurons to the brain.

Biologists have previously studied the rhythmic patterns in monarch antennae that control the internal clock, as well as how their compound eyes decipher the sun’s position in the sky. Shlizerman’s collaborators, including Steven Reppert at the University of Massachusetts, recorded signals from antennae nerves in monarchs as they transmitted clock information to the brain as well as light information from the eyes.

There’s much more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Yet another endocrine disruptor tied to obesity

As longtime readers well know, we’re deeply concerned about the long term effects of the chemicals we keep pouring into our bodies and environments, substances we’re told are “harmless” or “safe,” only to discover after millions have been exposed that they are anything but.

We’ve been especially concerned about chemicals that mimic the secrettions of the endocrine glands, compounds that regulate everything from our moods to our sexuality and our weight.

And now yet another such chemical has been named as a possible contributor to the growing obesity epidemic sweeping across the inductrialized world.

From the University of Georgia newsroom:

Exposure to chemicals found in everyday products could affect the amount of fat stored in the body, according to a study by University of Georgia researchers.

Phthalates are chemicals found in everything from plastic products to soap to nail polish—they give plastic its bendy stretch. But growing research shows that these chemicals could be harming people’s health, said the study’s lead author Lei Yin, an assistant research scientist in the UGA College of Public Health’s department of environmental health science.

“Phthalate exposure can be closely associated with the rise of different types of disease development,” Yin said.

Because levels of phthalates were found in human fluids in previous studies, the researchers wanted to see if a specific phthalate, benzyl butyl phthalate, or BBP, had an effect on the accumulation of fat in cells. Their findings were published in Toxicology in Vitro.

The researchers used mouse cells to create in vitro models to analyze how exposure to BBP affected the way oils and fats, known as lipids, accumulated within the cells.

“Obesity is one of the big issues in humans now, and of course genetic components can contribute to the development of obesity,” said study co-author Xiaozhong “John” Yu, an assistant professor of environmental health science. “However, environmental exposure may also contribute to obesity.”

Some phthalates have proven to cause reproductive toxicity at high levels of exposure, but the link between low-level exposure and BBP hadn’t yet been thoroughly explored, Yin explained.

There’s lots more, after the jump. . . Continue reading

Headline of the day III: Cal’s obsessive secrecy

From the Los Angeles Times, the front page headline teaser for this story:

UC Berkeley has a $150M deficit, and professors say the process to fix it is shrouded in secrecy

Many professors say they have been largely left out of the early planning efforts, counter to Berkeley’s long tradition of joint decision-making between administrators and faculty.

Psilocybin reduces the stress of social isolation

Yet another study reveals that a powerful psychedelic drug, the same organic compound already shown to be the longest-lasting and most effective antidepressant yet discovered, has yet another powerful therapeutic property: Relief from the overwhelming stress of social isolation.

The research is just the latest in a series of studies showing the efficiacy of psychedelics in treating a wide range of psychological afflictions.

From the University of Zurich:

Social problems are key characteristics in psychiatric disorders and are insufficiently targeted by current treatment approaches. By applying brain imaging methods, researchers at the University of Zurich now show that a small amount of psilocybin changes the processing of social conflicts in the brain. As a result, participants experienced social exclusion and social pain as less stressful. This could help to improve therapy of social problems.

Social ties are vital for mental and physical health. However, psychiatric patients in particular frequently encounter social exclusion and rejection. Furthermore, psychiatric patients often react more strongly to social rejection than healthy persons and this can have negative consequences for the development and treatment of psychiatric disorders. However, social deficits in psychiatric patients are only insufficiently targeted by current treatment approaches, in particular because so far little is known about the neuropharmacological mechanisms underlying these processes in the brain.

Social rejection is less painful after psilocybin intake

Researchers at the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich now showed that psilocybin, the active component of the Mexican magic mushrooms, influences these processes in the brain. In particular, it stimulates specific receptors of the neurotransmitter serotonin. This results in a reduced reaction to social rejection in the associated brain areas. Consequently, participants felt less excluded after psilocybin administration than after the intake of a placebo. Furthermore, they report having experienced less social pain.

The increased processing of and reactivity to social exclusion and social pain can increase the risk of patients withdrawing from social life and therefore experience less support. “Increased activity in brain areas such as the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex is associated with an increased experience of social pain. This has been shown to be present in different psychiatric disorders. Psilocybin seems to influence these particular brain areas”, says Katrin Preller, first author of the study. The researchers applied functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate these processes. Using a second imaging technique, magnetic resonance spectroscopy (MRS), they additionally showed that a further metabolite is involved in the experience of social pain: aspartate.

New approaches for the treatment of social problems

“These new results could be groundbreaking for the illumination of the neuropharmacological mechanisms of social interaction and may help to develop new treatments”, emphasizes Franz Vollenweider, director of the Neuropsychopharmacology and Brain Imaging Unit. On the one hand, the results can help to develop more effective medication to treat psychiatric disorders which are characterized by an increased reactivity to social rejection, such as depression or borderline personality disorder. “On the other hand”, Vollenweider adds, “the reduction of psychological pain and fear can facilitate the therapist-patient relationship and therefore the psychotherapeutic treatment of formative negative social experiences.”


Katrin H. Preller, Thomas Pokorny, Andreas Hock, Rainer Kraehenmann, Philipp Stämpfli, Erich Seifritz, Milan Scheidegger, Franz X. Vollenweider. Effects of serotonin 2A/1A receptor stimulation on social exclusion processing [$10 paywall — esnl]. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. April 18, 2016. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1524187113

Ousted UC Berkeley coach lands another job

He lands in a cushy spot just across the state line with a university comfortabe with hiring a man ousted from his job at Cal for sexual predation.

From Salon:

Just one month ago, UC Berkeley moved to fire assistant basketball coach Yann Hufnagel for violating the university’s sexual harassment policy. But don’t worry about the guy; this is a story about the world of sports, so, he’ll be fine. Hufnagel dropped his appeal in what feels like record time and resigned to accept a nice new job at the University of Nevada, Reno. The university’s new coach Eric Musselman told the Reno Gazette-Journal Monday that he was “comfortable with” the hiring.

 Hufnagel’s career at Berkeley ended after a female reporter who covered the team accused him of sexual misconduct over a period spanning late 2014 to the spring of 2015. Because she needed access to Hufnagel to do her job, she said that he took advantage of her situation, texting her sexual innuendos and even trying to get her on board for a three-way with a friend of his. Most damningly, she also said that he “made several claims that he was expecting to have sex” with her after she drove him home one night after he said he was too drunk to drive. What ensued, she said, was a tense standoff in his locked garage that made her feel “scared” until she left.

At an open forum on UNR’s campus last week, members of the student body and faculty voiced concerns over the hiring to the university’s president Marc Johnson and Athletic Director Doug Knuth. UNR political science professor Jennifer Ring said, “I was upset and a little embarrassed. A guy the University of California was prepared to fire, we have hired,” and a female freshman asked if the message the school was sending is that it’s “OK to do such things. You’ll still get that position somewhere.”

Treepocalypse Now: Forest death by dessication

Trembling aspen trees killed by severe drought near Grand Junction, Colorado, August 2010.

Trembling aspen trees killed by severe drought near Grand Junction, Colorado, August 2010.

As climate change sends global temperatures soaring and widespread drought afflicts broader portions of the globe, major changes are already occurring in the planet’s forests, and new research indicates that some tree species are more threatened than others.

From the University of Utah:

Two hundred-twenty-five million trees dead in the southwest in a 2002 drought. Three hundred million trees in Texas in 2011. Twelve million this past year in California.  Throughout the world, large numbers of trees are dying in extreme heat and drought events. Because mass die-offs can have critical consequences for the future of forests and the future of Earth’s climate, scientists are trying to understand how a warming climate could affect how often tree mortality events occur – and how severe they could become.

A University of Utah biologist may be able to help. William Anderegg and his colleagues looked for patterns in previous studies of tree mortality and found some common traits that characterized which species lived and which died during drought. The results, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences [behind a $10 paywall — esnl], can help chart the future of forests.

“There are some common threads that we might be able to use to predict which species are going to be more vulnerable in the future,” Anderegg says.

Forests in crisis

Worldwide, forests absorb carbon dioxide equivalent to about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emissions produced by humans. So large-scale tree die-offs not only shut down a forest’s ability to sequester greenhouse gases, but also release some of those gases back into the atmosphere as the dead trees decompose.

Climate scientists have had difficulty accounting for these changes in carbon dioxide storage in climate models, because the effect of drought on various species’ mortality rates has been, historically, difficult to predict. “That launched this search to understand what about a tree’s physiology predisposes it to die during a severe drought,” Anderegg says.

He and his colleagues combed through 33 published studies of tree mortality that included 475 tree species and more than 760,000 individual trees. The team noted the mortality rates for each species, then compared those to 10 tree physiological traits, searching for commonalities. The traits included typical tree characteristics, such as wood density, rooting depth and basic leaf characteristics, such as whether the species was an evergreen or a deciduous tree. Other traits concerned the hydraulics of how water moves through trees.

There’s more, after the jump. . . Continue reading