The only thing worse than a huge stinking pit of manure may be a huge stinking and foaming pit of manure that blows up the barn. Over the past few years, explosions have destroyed several Midwestern pig farms, killing thousands of hogs and causing millions of dollars of damage. Pig farmers and scientists have been at a loss to explain these explosions. Could the culprit be a small microbe?
Nobody wants to win more than lab rats—grad students and postdocs thanklessly toiling away at experiments into the night, trying to make a name for themselves. And when a lot of people want something badly, some of them cheat.
A spectacularly gratuitous case came out in Nature this week: that of former University of Michigan postdoc Vipul Bhrigu. After being caught on hidden camera using ethanol to poison the cell cultures of grad student Heather Ames, Bhrigu was sentenced for malicious destruction of personal property. Most people take that particular misdemeanor rap for vandalizing a car. Bhrigu vandalized months of research.
Bhrigu has said on multiple occasions that he was compelled by “internal pressure” and had hoped to slow down Ames’s work. Speaking earlier this month, he was contrite. “It was a complete lack of moral judgement on my part,” he said. [Nature]
Watermelons could do more than grace the tables at picnics across the land: They could also serve as a source of biofuel. Researchers fermented watermelon juice to produce ethanol, according to a study published in Biotechnology for Biofuels, and while the melons aren’t likely to become a primary biofuel crop, the process could help out farmers.
Nearly one-fifth of the watermelon crop grown in the United States is left in the fields after harvest because of defects on the melons’ rinds. “It’s not that there’s anything wrong with the melon on the inside, but our only method of judgment is the outside,” said [lead author] Wayne Fish [Greenwire]. Although farmers often till the abandoned melons into the soil, the value of the nutrients provided by this practice is much less than the overall cost to farmers of losing so much of their crop.
A newly discovered tree fungus could be on its way to the gas station. The fungus, Gliocladium roseum, is able to turn plant matter into gaseous hydrocarbons that are almost chemically identical to diesel fuel. “This is the only organism that has ever been shown to produce such an important combination of fuel substances,” said researcher Gary Strobel from Montana State University. “The fungus can even make these diesel compounds from cellulose, which would make it a better source of biofuel than anything we use at the moment” [LiveScience].
The fungus grows inside trees in the rainforests of Patagonia, in the southern part of Argentina and Chile. After discovering the new fungus wedged between cells in a stem from an Ulmo tree (Eucryphia cordifolia), Strobel and colleagues cultured the organism, collected the gaseous compounds it produced, and ran the compounds through a mass spectrometer to identify them. When he saw the printout, Strobel says, “every hair on my body stood up.” The list included octane, 1-octene, heptane, 2-methyl, and hexadecane–all common components of diesel fuels [ScienceNOW]. The gaseous compound, dubbed “myco-diesel,” is thought to be used by G. roseum to poison other fungi.
Ask and you shall not receive: The Environmental Protection Agency has refused a request by Texas Gov. Perry to temporarily suspend the rules that require a minimum amount of ethanol to be mixed into U.S. gasoline.
In April, the governor asked the EPA to halve this year’s ethanol requirement for the nation from 9 billion gallons to 4.5 billion. Perry said the waiver was needed because rising U.S. ethanol output is inflating corn prices, wreaking havoc on the state’s massive livestock industry and boosting grocery bills for American families. But on Thursday, EPA Administrator Stephen Johnson said Perry’s request had not proved the Renewable Fuel Standard, which sets ethanol quotas, is causing “severe economic harm,” a requirement needed to justify a waiver [Houston Chronicle].
This summer, Louisiana researchers say the “dead zone” in the Gulf of Mexico will reach record size, a prediction that troubles environmentalists and fishermen alike. Researchers say that blame for this record-setting year goes partly to farmers’ rising interest in ethanol, and partly to the aftermath of the Midwest flooding.
The dead zone is an area off the coast of Louisiana and Texas where the water’s oxygen level drops each summer, creating a zone which can’t support most marine life. The low oxygen, or hypoxic, area is primarily caused by high nutrient levels, which stimulates an overgrowth of algae that sinks and decomposes. The decomposition process in turn depletes dissolved oxygen in the water. The dead zone is of particular concern because it threatens valuable commercial and recreational Gulf fisheries [LiveScience].