Category Archives: Nature

Gut bacteria: We share them with our kin


A family tree showing how different strains of Bifidobacteriaceae bacteria evolved in humans [blue] and our hominid relatives, the gorilla [green], chimp [yellow] and bonobo [red].

A family tree showing how different strains of Bifidobacteriaceae bacteria evolved in humans [blue] and our hominid relatives, the gorilla [green], chimp [yellow] and bonobo [red].

We’ve been posting quite a bit about the critters inside us, organisms that comprise the majority of the cells inside our skins.

They’ve been linked with a growing list of human afflictions, as we’ve noted in previous posts about  Previous posts have noted newly established links between our intestinal microbes and multiple sclerosis, rheumatoid arthritis, chronic fatigue syndrome, anorexia, Alzheimer’s disease, and even our emotional states.

And now comes the latest intestinal microbial discovery, genetic traits they share in large part with their relatives in the guts of our own relatives.

From the University of California, Berkeley: [emphasis added]

For all the anxiety today about the bacteria in our gut being under constant assault by antibiotics, stress and bad diets, it turns out that a lot of the bacteria in our intestines have been with us for at least 15 million years, since we were pre-human apes.

A new comparison [$30 for a one-day access] of the gut microbiomes of humans, chimps (our closest ancestor), bonobos and gorillas shows that the evolution of two of the major families of bacteria in these apes’ guts exactly parallels the evolution of their hosts.

This shows that the microbes in our guts are determined in part by our evolutionary history, not just external factors like diet, medicine and geography. Obesity, cancer and some inflammatory diseases, such as diabetes and Crohn’s disease, have been linked to imbalances in the mix of microbes in our stomach and intestines.

“We are showing that some human gut bacteria are the direct descendant of gut bacteria that lived within our common ancestors with apes,” said lead researcher Andrew Moeller, a Miller Postdoctoral Fellow in UC Berkeley’s Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. “It shows there has been an unbroken line of inheritance or transfer from one generation to another for millions of years, since the dawn of African apes.”

Moeller is beginning to assemble a snapshot of the microbes in the guts of our ancient ape ancestor — in essence, a paleo gut that fit our paleo diet — and hopes to go even further back in time if, as seems likely, all mammals have evolved their unique microbiota from a common ancestral population in the distant past.

“We now have samples from all the major groups of mammals, and we’re working on tracing the evolution of the microbiome all the way back to when we were tiny carnivorous creatures 100 million years ago,“ he said.

There’s more, after the jump. Continue reading

U.S.: Give land to indigenous people to save it


How incredibly sensible.

From the Thomson Reuters Foundation:

Indigenous people are better than governments at preventing forests from being cut and should be seen as a solution, not a barrier to protecting them, the U.N. Special Rapporteur on the Rights of Indigenous People said on Tuesday.

Indigenous peoples and communities have claims to two thirds of the world’s land but are legally recognised as holding only 10 percent, according to think tank World Resources Institute (WRI).

Without title deeds, indigenous communities may find their land is taken over for major development projects such as palm oil plantations and logging.

“Society thinks that indigenous peoples are claiming land that they shouldn’t be having because it should be used for expanded food production,” U.N. Special Rapporteur Victoria Tauli-Corpuz told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

But giving indigenous peoples rights to land was a guarantee that forests, which store carbon and contribute to food security would continue to exist, Tauli-Corpuz said.

Quantifying the Sierra National Forest tree die-off


From NASA’s Earth Observatory:

BLOG Trees

From NASA:

Mass tree die-offs are sparking worries of fire in California’s Sierra Nevada range. An outbreak of bark beetles, along with persistent drought in the state, have caused many evergreen trees to wither and die.

The damage spread rapidly through the mountains in the fall of 2015 after favorable spring conditions (warm and dry) led to a surge in beetle populations, according to Zach Tane, a remote sensing analyst with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS). The beetles burrow under a tree’s bark and lay their eggs. Once they penetrate the tree’s armor (the bark), they begin to gnaw into its living tissue, the phloem.

“Needles don’t turn red the next day. It’s a slow process of the tree dying, and it has to do with life cycle of bark beetle and how long needles can persist in a green state,” said Tane. “As the population of beetles grows, they can overwhelm the natural defenses of a tree. There’s a tipping point—that’s what happened in Colorado and probably what’s happening here.”

There has never been an outbreak of this magnitude recorded in the Sierra Nevada, according to Tane. The maps above depict some of the damage as observed by NASA’s Airborne Visible/Infrared Imaging Spectrometer (AVIRIS) instrument. AVIRIS is an optical sensor that collects data in 224 spectral bands, ranging from visible blue (0.4 µm) to shortwave infrared (2.5 µm). Researchers can make inferences about tree health from the way the leaves absorb and scatter light.

When trees die, they lose water and chlorophyll. This allows the cellulose and lignin in the leaves to become more apparent in the 2 to 2.5 µm region of the spectrum (which is invisible to the human eye). AVIRIS gives researchers the ability to distinguish cellulose and lignin from other brown matter like soil. The Forest Service uses data from AVIRIS and other sources to quantify the health of forests and to make projections of wildfire risk in the wildland-urban interface, the fire-vulnerable zone where wilderness and human cities and towns meet.

The Forest Service also routinely uses data from Landsat, a satellite that gives systematic, frequent coverage and good spatial resolution (30 meters per pixel). The USFS Pacific Southwest Region Remote Sensing Lab at the University of California, Davis, has developed an advanced analysis system that can automatically extract forest disturbance information from Landsat’s two overpasses each month. The system, called Ecosystem Disturbance and Recovery Tracker (eDaRT), will soon be deployed in California to make tree mortality information more readily available to vegetation managers as they plan forest treatment, restoration, and salvage logging.

Fracking wells linked with increased asthma rates


Fracking, the extraction of shale-trapped of oil and gas by hydraulic fracturing, using water laced with a noxious brew of chemicals injected under high pressure to break up the readily fissile rock and trigger the release of the precious hydrocarbons.

Fracturing has been fraught with problem, ranging from the contamination of drinking water wells to the release of chemically laden water from containment ponds into nearby streams and lakes.

Most infamously, fracking has given us home water taps so loaded with natural gas that a spark gives us a mix of water and flame.

Which leads to a question, expressed in music and animation by students of Studio 20 at the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University:

The Fracking Song (My Water’s On Fire Tonight)

Program notes:

“My Water’s On Fire Tonight” is a product of Studio 20 NYU (http://bit.ly/hzGRYP) in collaboration with ProPublica.org (http://bit.ly/5tJN). The song is based on ProPublica’s investigation on hydraulic fractured gas drilling (read the full investigation here: http://bit.ly/15sib6).

Music by David Holmes and Andrew Bean
Vocals and Lyrics by David Holmes and Niel Bekker
Animation by Adam Sakellarides and Lisa Rucker

The fracking/asthma link established

And now comes evidence that fracking also leads to a rise in asthma in nearby residents.

From the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health in Baltimore [H/T to Newswise]:

People with asthma who live near bigger or larger numbers of active unconventional natural gas wells operated by the fracking industry in Pennsylvania are 1.5 to four times likelier to have asthma attacks than those who live farther away, new Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health research suggests.

The findings [open access], published July 18 in JAMA Internal Medicine, add to a growing body of evidence tying the fracking industry to health concerns. Health officials have been concerned about the effect of this type of drilling on air and water quality, as well as the stress of living near a well where just developing the site of the well can require more than 1,000 truck trips on once-quiet roads. The fracking industry has developed more than 9,000 wells in Pennsylvania in just the past decade.

“Ours is the first to look at asthma but we now have several studies suggesting adverse health outcomes related to the drilling of unconventional natural gas wells,” says study leader Sara G. Rasmussen, MHS, a PhD candidate in the Bloomberg School’s Department of Environmental Health Sciences. “Going forward, we need to focus on the exact reasons why these things are happening, because if we know why, we can help make the industry safer.”

For the study, Rasmussen and her colleagues analyzed health records from 2005 through 2012 from the Geisinger Health System, a health care provider that covers 40 counties in north and central Pennsylvania. The study is a joint effort of the Bloomberg School and the Geisinger Health System. Hopkins researchers identified more than 35,000 asthma patients between the ages of five and 90 years. They identified 20,749 mild attacks (requiring a corticosteroid prescription), 1,870 moderate ones (requiring an emergency room visit) and 4,782 severe attacks (requiring hospitalization). They mapped where the patients with these attacks lived; assigned them metrics based on the location, size, number, phase, total depth and gas production of the wells; and compared them to asthma patients who didn’t have attacks in the same year.

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

When the mass paparazzi instinct turns lethal


The invention of the cell phone [thanks, Hedy Lamar] and the decision to use it to house first still, then moving image cameras, complete with sound capability, have transformed daily life.

Throw in the Internet and the rise of viral videos and still images made each of us all vigilant for opportunities for images to share, both free and for profit.

As Benedict Evans, trend analyst for the Silicon Valley investment bankers at Andreessen Horowitz noted last year, “more photos will be taken this year than were taken on film in the entire history of the analogue [film] camera business.”

While this technology enables us to creative a documentary record unparalleled in human history, the omnipresence of the camera plus the egoistic drive to assert olur being in the world can lead to mishaps, especially when we all turn paparazzi simultaneously when presented with an irresistible image.

We’ve heard of lethal selfie accidents, when folks seeking to self-immortalize end up proving self mortality.

But then there the time times when the same drive leads to death of the object of our visual obsession.

From the Associated Press:

A mountain goat in Alaska jumped into the ocean to get away from crowds snapping its picture, and the animal drowned when it couldn’t get back to land because of the crush of people on shore.

Alaska State Troopers say it’s imperative to give animals adequate space. That didn’t happen Saturday in downtown Seward, and troopers say in an online post that it “resulted in a wild animal dying for no cause.”

It comes amid a series of incidents of people getting too close to wildlife, including tourists in Yellowstone National Park who picked up a bison calf they thought was abandoned. It had to be euthanized.

 In Alaska, troopers got a call about people harassing the goat and another about a large group following it onto the breakwater rocks.

Biodiversity plunges, and human action is to blame


Two new major studies examine the alarming loss of species on Planet Earth directly attributable to human action, action, and the results are, as you may expect, alarming.

And with the acceleration of global climate change, the outlook for the future looks increasingly grim.

Percentages of original species still surviving after the introduction off modern agriculture.

Percentages of original species still surviving after the advent of Homo sapiens.

The first study takes a broad look at the impacts of all human action on biodiversity.

From University College London:

Levels of global biodiversity loss may negatively impact on ecosystem function and the sustainability of human societies, according to UCL-led research.

“This is the first time we’ve quantified the effect of habitat loss on biodiversity globally in such detail and we’ve found that across most of the world biodiversity loss is no longer within the safe limit suggested by ecologists” explained lead researcher, Dr Tim Newbold from UCL and previously at UNEP-WCMC.

“We know biodiversity loss affects ecosystem function but how it does this is not entirely clear. What we do know is that in many parts of the world, we are approaching a situation where human intervention might be needed to sustain ecosystem function.”

The team found that grasslands, savannas and shrublands were most affected by biodiversity loss, followed closely by many of the world’s forests and woodlands. They say the ability of biodiversity in these areas to support key ecosystem functions such as growth of living organisms and nutrient cycling has become increasingly uncertain.

The study, published today in Science [$30 for one-day access to the article], led by researchers from UCL, the Natural History Museum and UNEP-WCMC, found that levels of biodiversity loss are so high that if left unchecked, they could undermine efforts towards long-term sustainable development.

For 58.1% of the world’s land surface, which is home to 71.4% of the global population, the level of biodiversity loss is substantial enough to question the ability of ecosystems to support human societies. The loss is due to changes in land use and puts levels of biodiversity beyond the ‘safe limit’ recently proposed by the planetary boundaries – an international framework that defines a safe operating space for humanity.

“It’s worrying that land use has already pushed biodiversity below the level proposed as a safe limit,” said Professor Andy Purvis of the Natural History Museum, London, who also worked on the study. “Decision-makers worry a lot about economic recessions, but an ecological recession could have even worse consequences – and the biodiversity damage we’ve had means we’re at risk of that happening. Until and unless we can bring biodiversity back up, we’re playing ecological roulette.”

The team used data from hundreds of scientists across the globe to analyse 2.38 million records for 39,123 species at 18,659 sites where are captured in the database of the PREDICTS project. The analyses were then applied to estimate how biodiversity in every square kilometre land has changed since before humans modified the habitat.

They found that biodiversity hotspots – those that have seen habitat loss in the past but have a lot of species only found in that area – are threatened, showing high levels of biodiversity decline. Other high biodiversity areas, such as Amazonia, which have seen no land use change have higher levels of biodiversity and more scope for proactive conservation.

“The greatest changes have happened in those places where most people live, which might affect physical and psychological wellbeing. To address this, we would have to preserve the remaining areas of natural vegetation and restore human-used lands,” added Dr Newbold.

The team hope the results will be used to inform conservation policy, nationally and internationally, and to facilitate this, have made the maps from this paper and all of the underlying data publicly available.

Animal species lost because of agricultural production

Species loss due to agricultural production.

Species loss due to agricultural production.

A second major study, this time conducted under the auspices of the European Commission: look at species loss specifically related to agricultural production.

The results are equally alarming.

From the European Commission:

In the past 500 years, over 300 vertebrate species have gone extinct, and many more are under threat of extinction — causing a lamentable decline in the variety of life on the planet. Biodiversity provides important benefits, from pollination to nutrient cycling, that are vital for human health and the economy. There is, therefore, an urgent need to address the causes of biodiversity loss.

Agriculture is a major driver of biodiversity decline. As the world’s economies are become more and more connected, international flows of crops and their products are increasing and it is important to understand the environmental effect of these changes.

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

DroughtWatch: Another week, and no change


California remains dry but despite the intense heat of June and early July, there’s no change in conditions from last week, with all parts of the state in one level or another of drought. From the United States Drought Monitor:

BLOG Drought