What’s the News: Bats are an economic boon worth approximately $23 billion per year, and possibly up to $54 billion, to U.S. agriculture, a study in today’s issue of Science estimates. Their voracious appetite for insects—a colony of 150 brown bats eats about 1.3 million pesky, crop-chomping bugs each year—means that bats function as effective, and free, natural pesticides.
Humankind’s experience visiting worlds beyond our own begins and ends with the dozen Apollo astronauts who skipped about on tiny swaths of the moon. But that doesn’t mean we can’t experiment with how and where we might visit (or live) on the extreme surfaces of other worlds. A few studies out recently are doing just that.
Radiation? Big deal
Our planet provides a protective shield from the most damaging radiation produced by the sun—a shield not available on the moon or Mars. It’s a hazard for any human leaving the planet, and it’s a hazard for plants, too.
However, a new study of the Chernobyl area in the Ukraine, site of the famous nuclear accident, is actually raising hopes for space farming.
Even 25 years after the catastrophic nuclear accident at Chernobyl, the area around the site harbors radioactive soil. But researchers working there have found that oil-rich flax plants can adapt and flourish in that fouled environment with few problems. Exactly how the flax adapted remains unclear, but what is clear is that two generations of flax plants have taken root and thrived there, and that could have big implications for growing plants aboard spacecraft or on other planets at some point in the future. [Popular Science]
Don’t you forget about bumblebees. While DISCOVER and others have extensively covered the mysterious colony collapse disorder that’s been crashing honeybee populations around the world, bumblebees have not escaped the tide of doom.
Sydney Cameron leads a team that just published a new study of bumblebees in this week’s Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and tallied up some scary numbers.
The relative abundance of four species of bumble bees over the past few decades has dropped by more than 90%—and those disappearing species are also suffering from low genetic diversity, which makes them that much more susceptible to disease or any other environmental pressures. [TIME]
In addition, the geographic ranges of those species shrunk precipitously—between 23 and 87 percent, depending upon the case. That reduction in range could have catastrophic impacts on agriculture:
Plant genetically modified corn, help your neighbor? That’s the argument of a study out in Science today—corn modified to keep pests away creates a “halo effect” that also reduces crop damage at neighboring farms that don’t plant the pest-resistant variety.
Bill Hutchison of the University of Minnesota led the study, which surveyed the records going back to 1996 for Minnesota and four other Corn Belt states: Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, and Illinois. 1996 is the key year because that’s when farmers first planed Bt corn, a variety modified to produce a toxin that keeps away the European corn borer. As the name suggests, that insect is an invader from across the pond that likes to devour corn, and Hutchison and colleagues wanted to see how effectively Bt corn kept the pest at bay during the last decade and a half.
It’s the most delicious genetic breakthrough yet. A consortium led by Mars Inc., the company behind such treats as M&Ms and Snickers, has announced the rough draft of the cacao tree’s genome, and researchers say the information could lead to improvements in the chocolate supply.
While the scientists are just beginning to analyze the genome, understanding the tree’s innermost workings could lead to breeding programs for drought- or disease-resistant varieties, or even for trees that produce tastier or healthier cocoa. The consortium has put the data online at the Cacao Genome Database for use by any and all.
The tree, known officially as Theobroma cacao (meaning “food of the gods”), contains about 420 million DNA units, represented by the letters A, C, G and T. That is fairly small for a plant. The human genome has about three billion units. [New York Times]
People come together for ceremonial feasts. They do it now, they did it a hundred years ago, they did it a thousand years ago, and they may have done it even 12,000 years ago, archaeologists argue in a new study.
But the question is: If ancient humans devour tortoises in a cave and there are no scientists there to see it, is it a ceremonial occasion, or just a big meal?
The ancient eaters belonged to a culture called the Natufian, according to Natalie Munro and Leore Grosman, who authored the study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. In a burial cave in Israel, the researchers turned up a slew of tortoises shells and bones of cattle, and the remains suggest the Natufians butchered and cooked them.
According to Munro, a feast of so many animals could have fed 35 people.
Last week, we described the plight of the Russian Pavlovsk Experimental Station: Plans for a housing complex threaten some 5,000 rare plants, including varieties found nowhere else on the planet. A court judgment last week meant that only the president or prime minister could save the plants, which scientists said would take years to relocate. Now government telegrams and a presidential tweet hint that the plants might have a chance.
Twitter campaigns and a petition led by The Global Crop Diversity Trust appear to have caught the attention of the Russian Civic Chamber which monitors parliament and the government. As The Guardian reports, the Civic Chamber sent a telegram to President Dimitry Medvedev to request a protective appeal and Medvedev updated the world via Twitter:
[N]umerous supporters of the research station have made their feelings felt on Twitter (using the #pavlovsk hashtag). On Friday, following a week of lobbying Medvedev tweeted back: “Received the Civic Chamber’s appeal over the Pavlov Experimental Station. Gave the instruction for this issue to be scrutinised.” [The Guardian]
The outcome of the Medvedev-ordered investigation is far from certain, but advocates for the botanical gene bank have promised to keep up the pressure and say they hope Pavlovsk station will yet be saved. For all the details on the station and its valuable collection, check out Andrew Moseman’s previous 80beats post.
80beat: “Living Library” of Fruit Plants May Fall to Russian Bulldozers
DISCOVER: The Numbers on Seeds, From the Largest to the Oldest to the Safest
DISCOVER: The “Doomsday Vault” Stores Seeds for a Global Agricultural Reboot
DISCOVER: The Banks That Prevent–Rather Than Cause–Global Crises
DISCOVER: Beautiful Images of Strange Fruits (photo gallery)
Image: Wikimedia Commons (N.I. Vavilov, institute founder)
The Pavlovsk Experimental Station, near St. Petersburg, Russia, was founded in the 1920s. About 90 percent of the plants grown there occur nowhere else, making the collection an island of agricultural biodiversity. And the station soon may be knocked over to make way for a housing development.
The station’s operators at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry lost a court ruling this week, so the land upon which all those plants sit will be given to the Russian Housing Development Foundation. The plant scientists bought themselves an extra month with an instant appeal, but the situation looks grim.
“We expected to lose,” agrees Cary Fowler, executive director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust in Rome, who has spent months campaigning against the station’s destruction. “Our real hope lies with President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin, who could both override the decision of the courts. At least the higher appeal will give us time to mobilize more people and hopefully get through the gates of the Kremlin,” he adds [Nature].
Ecologists recently took to the highways of North Dakota on the hunt for genetically modified canola. Along 3,000 miles of interstate, state, and county roads, they found it: 86 percent of the 406 road-side plants they collected showed evidence of modification.
The scientists behind the discovery say this highlights a lack of proper monitoring and control of GM crops in the United States…. “The extent of the escape is unprecedented,” says Cynthia Sagers, an ecologist at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville, who led the research team that found the canola. [Nature]
Though Sager does not believe that the modified canola will overtake North Dakota, she thinks the study is important for understanding how and to what extent a genetically modified crop can spread.
“We found the highest densities of plants near agricultural fields and along major freeways…. But we were also finding plants in the middle of nowhere–and there’s a lot of nowhere in North Dakota.” [BBC]
Every time governments fail to take serious steps on climate change, it seems the parlor game of predicting what our warmer world will look like heats up. And the newest of those predictions, appearing this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, pokes at what is presently one of the country’s most sensitive spots: immigration.
Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton published a study that estimates that between 1.4 and 6.7 million people could become climate refugees emigrating from rural Mexico to the United States between now and 2080. That’s 2 to 10 percent of the present Mexican population, and it doesn’t include people who would make the move for other reasons.
Is it a major concern? Yes. How much stock should you put in those statistics? Not much.