Thursday, June 29, 2006

Pollinators for Hire?

It might never cross your mind that every piece of fruit you eat got to your mouth because of the role a pollinator played somewhere far away and some weeks before. Pollinators are in fact an indispensable part of our nation's, and the world's, agricultural success and may be seriously under-appreciated.

Insects often get a bad wrap, and being a budding student of entomology, it pains me to say that. However, it's true and you'd be hard pressed to find a large group of people who want to cozy up to ants, flies, wasps, or bees over animals of a fuzzier variety. Insects aren't the only animals that pollinate, however, as small rodents and birds do a fair amount of their own. They usually enjoy more fond feelings than do our six-legged friends though, so I'm going to leave them out for now.

Pollination is the crucial step between a flower with male, female, or male and female parts producing their respective gametes, and a fertilized egg which induces a plant to produce fruit. Fruit refers to the housing of a seed which derives from the carpel of the flower, and encompasses most of the vegetables you eat as well like peppers, cucumbers, and yes, tomatoes are a fruit. Plants often have relationships with specific pollinator species or with groups of pollinator species. The pollinator transfers the male gamete-containing pollen to the female floral organs for fertilization of the egg, usually in exchange for a reward, but sometimes through trickery on the plants part. The reward may be nectar or pollen itself, as it is usually high in protein and carbohydrates and a sought after food source.

When one flower gets pollinated, one fruit is produced. Imagine one pollination event, and sometimes just one pollinator for every piece of produce in the fruit and vegetable aisle of your local supermarket. Now imagine how many produce aisles and farm stands there are in your county, your state, or the nation. Imagine how many there are in the world. Now you may begin to have a sense of the scale of this massive effort by pollinators to bring us our healthy, delicious, vitamin rich produce.

Why am I telling you this? It has a lot to do with finances, a lot to do with agricultural practice, and a little bit to do with global warming. Firstly, a recent scientific article did a cost estimate of what it would take to pollinate all the flowers necessary to maintain our current levels of crop production. The number is in the billions. See, many plants aren't able to be pollinated from pollen in the same flower or from the same plant, they need to be out-crossed or receive pollen from a different plant or flower in order to produce fruit. So the organization of such a project would be huge. Then there's the labor and capital costs depending on which method of artificial production you use. Whew. Let me tell you, vanilla bean, from which natural vanilla extract is produced, arises from hand pollination of individual flowers. Now you see why the natural vanilla costs so much more than the artificial flavoring, it's all that labor cost being transferred to you, the consumer!

Pollinators are mostly insects, as I said above, and this is where the story gets grim. Most of the produce you buy is from massive farming operations, and they doubtlessly spray pesticides on everything you eat. Those pesticides not only kill insects indiscriminately in most cases, but they may actually have a stronger negative effect on the pollinator species! In other words, pollinators are slowly being killed off by the very industry that needs them most.

Then there's the global warming story, which I won't go into too much detail for, but suffice to say, global warming results in fewer species, and pollinators aren't excluded.

So, what can you do to save the pollinators? Buy produce that is grown without pesticides. It's pretty much that simple. Also, the next time you see a bee flying around in your yard, try not to squash it, it may just have given you that plum you're eating. Pollinators are an integral part of our world's agricultural system, give them some credit, because without them, we'd probably starve.

Monday, June 26, 2006

Energy Crisis: Part II

The announcement by the Supreme Court today that it would hear arguments in a case concerning carbon dioxide regulation is both important for the environment and will be muddled in political bickering. I won't go into much detail of the law in question, as that is readily available elsewhere. I will say though, that what is essentially a case concerning scientific fact has been hijacked for many years by the automobile, oil, and gas industries. Even in today's online announcement in the New York Times of the case, the article states that some or many scientists regard carbon dioxide as a pollutant and a cause of global warming. This is no small point I make here: every scientist surveyed in a recent science journal regards carbon dioxide as a pollutant and leading factor in global warming. Over nine-hundred scientists were surveyed and the score was 900+ against CO2, 0 for. With each wishy-washy news paper article and television report the public loses sight of the fact that carbon dioxide's effects on the environment are not in dispute in the scientific community.

Interestingly enough I was speaking about this issue at the breakfast table with a friend of mine today and she told me about a public education campaign video she was shown in middle school. In the video, scientists described the benefits increased carbon dioxide would provide the planet Earth. They cited that carbon dioxide is converted by plants, using sunlight, into energy and carbohydrates and this will increase with increase carbon dioxide output resulting in a greener Earth. On this greener Earth we will be more able to feed everyone.

These studies found this to be the case but were fundamentally flawed. The plants used in the experiment were provided with as much water, nutrients, and sunlight as they needed to use all the carbon dioxide pumped into their growth chambers and what the scientists got was what is now called the "carbon dioxide fertilizer effect." This is the effect that given an unlimited amount of resources and an increase in carbon dioxide a plant will grow bigger, faster, and greener. However, in our world, where life plays a zero-sum game, plants cannot cope with added carbon dioxide, or it goes unutilized, and no carbon dioxide fertilizer effect is observed. Instead it is trapped in our atmosphere resulting in the greenhouse effect and global climate change. This has been observed for decades.

In addition to the carbon dioxide fertilizer effect, opponents of regulating carbon dioxide will show pie charts of how much of our atmosphere is made up of carbon dioxide. Carbon dioxide makes up a relatively small percentage of our atmosphere, yes, but due to certain properties of its molecular structure, it acts in a big way which is totally out of proportion with its concentration. In is important to compare carbon dioxide levels now to what they were in the past, not to the other gases in the atmosphere, in order to get an accurate understanding of the current crisis we are living with.

I hope, for my sake and yours, that the Supreme Court rules in favor of EPA regulations of auto and power plant emissions. I do not wish this because of a hatred for those industries, but because I see the problem at hand and I see that we have the power and know-how to solve it. This is not a case of lacking the necessary technology, far from it. We have the technology to curb our carbon emissions now, and research into further cutting our carbon emissions will benefit industry, employees from low-wage workers up to skilled labor and the management, and the health of not only the natural world but of every man, woman and child living in it.

Friday, June 23, 2006

It's all in Your Memes

In the mid-1970s a now much more famous biologist, Richard Dawkins, published his groundbreaking book The Selfish Gene. I don't want to go into much detail about the theme or content of the book as it would require much more space than can be devoted to it in this blog. I will however say, that the main idea is that genes perpetuate themselves, grow, and change using their biological hosts - you and me and every other living thing out there with DNA. That statement actually brings up a point of contention and I would here like to point out that the subjects in Dawkins book are still hotly debated amongst evolutionary biologists. The point is that the very definition of a gene is in question. Whether it is a unit of information, a certain association of nucleic acids, or simply describes the code for how to make a protein, it is a useful term for biology and any uncertainty in its definition should not prevent the important work done in the name of understanding genes.

This post is not about genes however, it's about memes, a term invented by Dawkins in his 1976 publication. A meme, says Dawkins, is a unit of cultural information transmitted from one individual to another in some way. This could be verbally or by way of demonstration. He makes a good point in defining this concept, there is a distinct parallel between the way genes pass from individual to individual and carry specific information which can change, be lost, or expand with time and generations and the way information is disseminated throughout a culture. Memes, as well as being a good metaphor for genes - and biologists love to write metaphors - are of interest to many people and have led to their study, called memetics.

Some examples of memes are a popular song, phrase, or slang word. But memes are also much more integral to our culture and include the beliefs of a religion, aversion to torture by a developed nation, and hope for the future. Some memes are so large, or incorporate so much of what gives a culture its unique characteristics that they are referred to as meme-complexes. The exciting thing to think about with memes is that they may be subject to a form of natural selection and evolution just like our genes. You teach them to your children when you make a rule or punish misbehaver, and they learn them from the way you lead your life too. But you didn't raise your children exactly the same way as your parents raised you and the same goes for how your children will raise their own. The meme has the same origin but is slightly altered with each generation or cultural change. Some memes don't hold up, we have no use for them anymore or find them distasteful, and they go extinct. An important caveat to consider though, those cultural trends or norms you may disagree with aren't easy to change, and real change requires time and repeated selection towards a new idea. It is with memes as it is with genes; the process of change is slow and in many ways is more important and interesting than the end product.

Cultural fads come and go, religions gain steam and go the way of the Middle Ages, clothing styles, song genres, sayings and conventions all come and go and change during their time here on Earth. And all the while they are housed in our minds and executed through our actions. In a way, they inhabit our bodies and tell us how to behave, what to do in a given situation, and establish a social order. In that way, they are just as important or more so as our genes in determining the events in our lives. Can you imagine a high school education without prom? A world where children are raised by a community and don't know who their parents are? How about a society without ownership? All of those things, and so much more, are all in your memes.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Hydroponic Strawberries?

A few weeks ago I was informed of a strawberry grower in a small New Hampshire tourist town growing hydroponic strawberries for the upcoming summer tourist season. Not being terribly familiar with hydroponic growth methods I scoffed at the idea. Although New Hampshire doesn't exactly have a reputation for being outstanding farm country, many strawberry farms do quite well during the summer months. When I inquired further as to why this farm needed to change the way strawberries are cultivated from that used for many many years the answer I got was simple: this way, strawberry pickers won't have to bend over.

So what is hydroponics anyway? To put it simply, hydroponics is the cultivation of plants without the use of soil. Commonly thought of as actually growing plants suspended in water, it more frequently refers to growing plants in a sterile medium, something to suspend the plant and its roots, like plastic beads, while providing everything the plant needs besides air and sunlight in a water solution. Hydroponics is commonly used in tight spaces like apartments, and now apparently, for strawberry patches.

This is not to say that the process is simple. Hydroponic water solutions required, by some accounts, thirteen different additives, mostly chemical fertilizers and nutrients, and you can't always find them easily. Not only that, but chemical fertilizers and commercially produced nutrients are mostly petroleum products, so who makes them? The big oil companies of course. Keep that in mind the next time you buy fertilizer for your house plants or eat just about any crop grown in this country and many others at a large scale, they all use products made and sold by big oil. What you pay at the pump isn't the only purchase you make that lines the pockets of oil execs.

Water and nutrients aren't the only thing plants need either, as any house plant grower will note, but one of the most important things plants need is air. Not only air, but a supply of air to the roots. Why air? Well, air contains oxygen, and oxygen is required for the conversion of carbohydrates into energy. Plants turn the sun's energy and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates, which are transported through the plant to the roots, so that the roots may metabolize those carbohydrates and grow. Roots grow to find more water and nutrients as the visible part of the plant, or shoot, grows larger. So, you may have heard that the most common cause of house plant death is overwatering, and this is why. If you overwater a plant, and its roots are submersed in a water and soil solution, the roots can't breath, and when they can't breath, they can't grow. In addition, this water allows the build up of ethylene, a plant hormone, throughout the plant. Ethylene triggers plant cells to break down, and is the hormone responsible for lovely speckled ripening bananas and other fruits. But, when there's too much ethylene, a plant commits suicide. The leaves turn yellow and drop off.

So, to prevent plants from going suicidal, hydroponic growers must provide either a drying out of the growth medium or aeration so that roots can breath and get oxygen while expelling harmful hormones and toxins. Soil does this for plants naturally by allowing water to drain out through pores between soil particles of different sizes. Soil also provides all of the organic nutrients and fertilizers needed for a plant to grow.

To get back to our hydroponic strawberries, do I think they're worth all the trouble? Well, no. But, I'm sure at least a few tourists with back problems traveling through that small town in New Hampshire will disagree with me. The success of the hydroponic strawberry patch remains to be seen, but I'll pick my strawberries from plants grown in the soil, thank you. And it wouldn't hurt for them to be free of fertilizers and pesticides either; I wouldn't want to eat toxins, and I certainly don't think Joe Oil-Exec needs the cash.

Tuesday, June 20, 2006

NASA and Bush's Mission

Any serious inquiry into science funding invariably ends up with a discussion about NASA and the relevance of the space program. Most of what is discussed encompasses the lunar missions and manned space flight, but these are really just the flashy, and often scientifically inconsequential, missions funded by American taxpayers.

Where do most of our extraplanetary data come from? The programs which provide the bulk of information for scientists are the unmanned orbiters, planet landers, flyby missions, and ground based telescopes and radio telescopes. Remember Hubble? Hubble has provided more data, and for a longer period of time than was ever imagined at its conception. Can people survive in space? Yes, they can, and they are needed to maintain equipment in Earth's orbit, but it is costly, risky and provides relatively little information. Take a look at the NASA webpage and especially this link, for a look at Bush's vision for the space program. Pay close attention to the section on mining the Moon and the robotic dogs which wil be exploring Mars. What you won't see in this clip is the list of programs which have been cut, underfunded, or put indefinitely on the back burner to support the inititives listed there.

You see, NASA used to be divided into two groups, an implementation arm and a science arm. Today, they are merging together at the expense of the science arm. Real projects, long on the drawing boards, are being shelved in favor of new technologies, investment in aeronautics, and human life support systems. A program at NASA takes roughly five to fifteen years from the first planning stages to implementation. The people and resources which have been working on projects soon to go up have been doing so for their entire careers in some cases, they are experts. Under the new intiatives outlined by Mr. Bush, this work, effort, and real dollars are lost in the shuffle of new programs.

Previous eras at NASA have been marked by the most visits ever to one of our planetary neighbors, Venus, the extremely successful Mars Rover missions, and the Cassini mission to explore the outer planets and beyond. If you pick up a current text book about our solar system, it will amaze you how much we understand about each planetary body in the solar system, and with the exception of the Moon, all without the use of human exploration missions. One of the major reasons we explore space is to find out if we are alone, if there is life out there. An inherent danger in doing this type of exploration with human missions is that we, and our space vehicles, no matter how hard we try, are teaming with Earth microbes. How interesting is it if we land on Mars and can't distinguish our microbes from Martian microbes? Getting to other planets which may have or have had life present without contaminating them is a real challenge, complicated by human-based missions. Planets like Enceledus, a moon of Saturn, potentially harbor life because of their chemical make up, stable orbits, the presence of water (yes, there are other planets with water out there), and their temperature (Enceledus is heated by a form of heating known as tidal heating, and can generate temperatures much hotter than those near the Sun). (See below for a NASA photo of another moon of Saturn, Dione, from the spacecraft Cassini.)

The study of life outside of planet Earth, which you may be surprised we have not yet found, despite countless sci-fi movies which would have you believe otherwise, is encompassed in what was a growing field called astrobiology. Astrobiology combines current knowledge and techniques used to study the solar system and systems outside our own for the right conditions for life as we know it to exist. In addition, extreme climates on Earth are studied to find out just what kind of environments can harbor life, and the results are surprising. Some of the most successful forms of life are thermophiles, bacteria living off the chemicals emitted by ocean floor vents, and if life can survive there where else might we find it? You see, not only can astrobiologists use our planet to predict where life might be found in space, but they can provide much information about our own planet. Under the new NASA initiative, the astrobiology budget, largely from the federal government, has been cut to almost nothing, crushing what was an expanding and promising field.

A graph showing NASA's budget and the proportion of missions involving human space travel would show a decrease in the total number of missions with an increase in those involving humans. This is a waste of a shrinking national science budget, and our research institutions and unviersities are feeling the pinch. This is an extension of a more widespread reduction in national science funding from the NSF and NIH, the two biggies.

If we are to find life outside our planetary confines, we must understand where to look, and send pinpointed missions to those locations. Humans are far from the ideal tool for this or countless other extraplanetary explorations.

Monday, June 19, 2006

Protein and Poverty

Does protein have a direct correlation to poverty? Many scientists think it does, for equatorial West Africa at least. Several studies in the past few years have focused on the supply of bushmeat (wild game hunted and sold for food), the fishing industry, national parks, and the level of poverty in this area. For a clear, concise example of one of these studies, look to the Brashares, et al. article in the November 12, 2004 issue of Science. Nigeria, Cameroon, Ghana, Equatorial Guinea, and the Congo Basin are all featured in this study. Each nation has extreme poverty and often times extreme concentrated wealth. When a cheap, domestic protein source, such as livestock, is unavailable the people in these nations turn to bushmeat.

There are at least three problems which result from this scenario. The first, and the reason this issue came to my attention is the way it affects biodiversity. Simply in terms of species biodiversity, when large wild mammals, birds, and reptiles are hunted for their meat, the food chain is disrupted. Smaller mammals, birds, and reptiles grow out of control, and may then devastate the next level of organisms under them. In a short time, the wild areas surrounding the poor populations in these countries could be changed forever.

The second, and more important problem, is the social situation in these countries forcing bushmeat hunting. Hunting bushmeat indicates that these populations are in dire straights, as often times they are in coastal villages and towns and working for large multi-national corporations, which are clearly exploiting their labor. Hunting bushmeat means time away from other domestic tasks, such as the farming that many of these peoples subsist on and putting themselves in danger, as many of the regions bushmeat comes from are protected areas and guarded.

A third problem associated with this issue, and at the heart of it for Ghana at least is the supply of fish. Fishing provides much of the protein for coastal populations in Ghana, but the overexploitation of the world's oceans has left fish in short supply. Also, because of Ghana's inability to protect its waters, pirate fishers from other nations fish the waters illegally in order to sell the fish at the high prices they bring in markets, especially European ones.

The solution to these problems must include domestic livestock rearing in these areas, the protection of ocean resources, and an evaluation of the root causes of protein shortages. I believe the problem lies with the corporations which exploit the labor of coastal African populations without providing adequate social support. Once domestic livestock raising and protection of these nations oceans are implemented, these areas must look to sustainable uses of the land and sea. There are sustainable and biologically responsible ways of fishing, farming, and of raising livestock. They encompass a thorough understanding of how the natural systems work from which we take so much of our own sustenance. The raping of Earth's natural resources has left the planet with little natural wilderness, and a rapidly shrinking number of species. Now, our greed has led directly to the impoverishment of human populations and the further depletion of natural resources.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Energy Crisis: Part I

In honor or celebration of the movie of Al Gore's now famous slide show presentation, An Inconvenient Truth, I'm kicking off a series of posts about energy and the environment. I'm going to refrain from calling our present situation global warming, as a more accurate and more widely accepted term used by the scientific community is global climate change. This term is more accurate because the anthropogenic effects of greenhouse gas emissions includes changing climate patterns which have and will cool as well as significantly heat parts of the globe beyond their normal ranges. I highly recommend this movie for viewers of almost all ages, but particularly for anyone who is still saying they don't get it or doesn't know what their role in a solution could possibly be. This is a big and complicated issue that no one fully understands the entire implications of, but the basic facts, that which is not in dispute, is layed out clearly and powerfully in this movie. Until there is a sea change in our social consciousness which can profoundly change the course we're plotting, Gore's message cannot be said loud enough or often enough.

The movie provides several basic insights into what can be done by individuals to combat climate change and greenhouse gas emissions. Any other ideas?

Many people know that recycling is a key to reducing green house gas emissions and use of petroleum products. Composting is an important way to reduce waste and to effectively recycle the nutrients and energy stored in our fruits and vegetables. What many people don't know is that composts are producers of methane, the product of decaying matter, as well as heat. There is a kind of engine called the Sterling engine which runs off of temperature differentials (see diagram below from TwoPiston-Still.adp). This engine was designed by a chemist studying thermodynamics and it works extremely efficiently, steadily, and with absolutely no emissions or byproducts. Anywhere in the world where two areas of different temperature are found near each other, a Sterling engine may be run. Sterling engines are basically the engines which drive nuclear powered submarines and aircraft carriers; the heat needed to power the engine is generated by decaying radioactive material.

In the spirit of being part of the solution rather than part of the problem, I propose a project designed to test the possibility of running Sterling engines for the generation of electricty off of composts and landfills, as each gives off a significant amount of heat lost to the atmostphere, and are found in places where areas of cool air are nearby and immediately available. If large scale processes could be built to generate this power, all the better, but if enough electricity could be generated by a compost powered Sterling engine to light your house a couple of days each year, the reduction in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide would be enormous.

This method could be used in combination with methane collection from landfills and composts for energy production, already begun and which still has a long way to go before it reaches full capacity. Remember the car in Back to the Future II powered by apple cores and banana peels? Maybe the future's not so far off as we think.

Thursday, June 15, 2006

Unnatural Reproduction

A short article in this Tuesday's Science Times by James Corman titled "Belmont, Schmelmont. You Ought to See a Cloned Mule Run." prompted me to write my first post to this blog about cloning. (Check out the article at While the cloning debate in congress and around the dinner table is heated, and has grown to include my grandfather, and Episcopal minister, in recent years, this isn't meant to be a political tirade, so I'll just offer the facts as we know them in the hopes of elevating the current state of the debate.

Cloning is essentially making a copy of something else, but when it comes to the world of biology, there just isn't a Xerox machine up to this task. The cloning we're mostly talking about is reproductive cloning, or the type that produced Dolly the sheep in 1996. There are piles of information on this process available at several different levels out there, but the main idea is that the nucleus (read "brain" or "control center") of an egg from a donor animal is removed and replaced with the nucleus of the animal to be cloned. Add a little electric current and the egg's fate is now controlled by the new nucleus. The egg, operated on outside the mother, is reimplanted and the cloned animal is allowed to develop in the normal way. This method is extremely unsuccessful and requires many replicates to produce one success. This is the method Corman was talking about in his article about Idaho Gem, the first-ever cloned mule c. 2003. This method is fairly uncontroversial, if cloning humans isn't brought up, and it's not the way in which human cells would be cloned anyway if they are to be used for medical applications. The other caveat to mention regarding this cloning method is that no clone is exactly like the animal it is cloned from. This has to do with the way in which animals grow and develop. Yes, much of the instruction for how your body will develop is controlled by your genes, but a massive, and not entirely illuminated part of your development comes from your environment and how it interacts with your genes. This is the subject of many a recent scientific journal article and the jury's still out on the matter. What it means for clones though, is that because the experience of the cloned animal, from the time it's in the womb to the time it reaches maturity, differs from the animal it's a clone of, it's genes and environment will interact differently to produce a different end product. There's no way, in other words, to make an identical copy of any animal, and that goes for identical twins as well.

The second kind of cloning is DNA cloning, which involves inserting a strand of DNA into a host, usually a plasmid in a single-celled organism, so that the host replicates and uses that DNA. This is mainly used for the study of DNA function and won't be further discussed here.

The third, and perhaps most surprising form of cloning is that which involves stem cells, another of the hotly contentious issues in the media for the past decade or so. This process involves removing the nucleus from human egg cells and replacing it with the genetic information of another cell (a skin cell for example) which causes the beginning of an embryo to form. This embryo is aborted and stem cells are harvested for research purposes. This is probably more ethical than harvesting stem cells from embryos made in the good old-fashioned way or from those from abortion clinics. Stem cells are important because they are totipotent, or have the potential to become any of the multitude of cell types in a living human. They can be stored and replicated, from stem cells ( but each of the cells in each line is more or less the same. If one in a billion stem cells shows a characteristic of interest, say a resistance to the changes associated with common diseases, it is a very small percentage of the stem cells available, and very little significant research may be performed on that cell line. With the limited number of lines available to stem cell researchers, the chances of hitting on something really important and fruitful (as so much of science research is chance) are very low.

Beyond growing you a new liver at sixty-five, which would still involved the extremely crude process of transplantation, stem cell research offers the potential to learn how to control and manage our cells, and perhaps create new therapies for diseases that operate at the level of DNA which could essentially teach our bodies to repair otherwise irreparably damaged tissues, as with Alzheimer's patients. If you're looking for the fountain of youth, this may be it, but as with so many other scientific pursuits, it's still a long way off.
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