Talking Points : Autumn 2018

News in Brief


Star Bright

A rapid genetic adaptation is protecting ochre sea stars from a viral infection that decimated populations just a few years ago. Photo by Scott Smithson.
A rapid genetic adaptation is protecting ochre sea stars from a viral infection that decimated populations just a few years ago. Photo by Scott Smithson.

In 2013, the future looked bleak for sea stars along the west coast of North America. From Canada all the way down to Mexico, sea stars were dying a gruesome death, losing limbs, gaining lesions, and literally wasting away from what would eventually be identified as a viral infection. With no way to stop the spread of the disease, scientists worried about sea stars’ survival, particularly that of Pisaster ochraceus, or the ochre star, 80 percent of which were wiped out between 2012 and 2015.

Thankfully, things seem to be looking up for the ochre star. A new study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that ochres are once again thriving off the California coast. In fact, the species has enjoyed a 74-fold increase in the number of surviving offspring since 2013, the result of a rapid genetic adaptation that has protected them from the deadly densovirus.

“We have known for some time that evolution of populations can be rapid, theoretically in as little as a single generation, but empirical examples come mostly from terrestrial environments,” Michael Dawson, a professor at UC Merced and co-author of the study, told the San Francisco Chronicle. “This is a great example that adaptation also can be very rapid in the oceans.”

The researchers believe the adaptation can be attributed to a pre-existing genetic variation shared by the sea stars that managed to survive the virus. These sea stars passed the gene to their offspring, spreading resilience through the population.

The virus responsible for the die-off has been around for decades, but never before took such an extreme toll on sea stars. Experts believe that environmental stressors tied to climate change — like ocean warming and acidification — may have made sea stars more susceptible to the pathogen. The loss of the ochre star, a keystone species, could have reverberated through climate-stressed ocean ecosystems.

“That ochre sea stars had the capacity to adapt to events as dramatic as this is remarkable, and perhaps reassuring that future climate change may be withstood by some species,” Dawson said. “But the ochre sea star is perhaps a species with greater resilience than many, and with projected climate swings expected to be more extreme, the ochre sea star’s resilience is perhaps a small, distant, bright light on a pretty stormy sea.”


Test Tube Rhinos?

Sudan the rhino and his guard
Less than three months after the death of Sudan, the last known northern white rhino, researchers announced that they have created a viable northern- and southern- white rhino hybrid embryo. Photo by Make It Kenya/Stuart Price.

Earlier this year, Sudan, the last known male northern white rhino, died. Leaving behind just two northern white rhinos, his daughter and a granddaughter, his death brought the sub-species right to the edge of extinction and past what many considered a point of no return for this rhino.

But some scientists aren’t ready to let the rhinos go: In July, less than three months after Sudan’s death, a team of researchers announced that they had combined frozen northern white rhino sperm with eggs from the southern white rhino, creating a viable northern- and southern- white rhino hybrid embryo. The controversial milestone is the culmination of years of research, and the team now plans to implant the embryos into a surrogate southern white rhino to produce a calf.

“These are the first in vitro produced rhinoceros embryos ever,” says Professor Thomas Hildebrandt, head of the Department of Reproduction Management at the German Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research in Berlin, and lead author of the Nature Communications study announcing the research team’s results. “They have a very high chance to establish a pregnancy once implanted into a surrogate mother.”

The scientists don’t plan to stop there. Ultimately, they hope to create a pure northern white rhino embryo, using eggs extracted from Sudan’s daughter and granddaughter. They have yet to obtain permission from Kenyan authorities for the egg extraction.

Some conservationists have praised the project for its effort at preserving the northern white rhino’s DNA and potentially bringing the species back from the brink. But others are less impressed. The lack of genetic material available to scientists means that the chance of creating a healthy, self-sustaining population of northern white rhinos using these methods is very low. Some experts have noted that money might be better spent on more promising conservation works and that this type of last-minute rescue effort could even encourage recklessness with respect to how we treat other species.

“Even if we had baby rhinos, where would we put them?” Stuart Pimm, Doris Duke chair of conservation ecology at Duke University, who was not involved in the research, told Mongabay. “They belong in South Sudan and the DRC [Democratic Republic of the Congo]. They were hunted to extinction in short order for their horn. The overarching problem with rhinos of all kinds is our inability to protect them against determined poachers.”


Ordered Out

In a win for farmworkers and environmental groups, on August 9 a federal court ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to finalize its ban on the pesticide chlorpyrifos within 60 days, saying that the epa broke the law by allowing continued use of the pesticide despite scientific evidence of its toxic impacts. The decision was in response to years-long litigation brought by Pesticide Action Network, nrdc, Earthjustice, and more recently, farmworker organizations.

Chlorpyrifos, which is applied to fruits, vegetables, and nuts, is part of a class of chemicals known as organophosphates that were developed before World War II for use in nerve gases that could halt neurotransmissions in a soldier’s brain. It kills bugs by disrupting their brain functions in a similar way. Several studies have shown that exposure to the pesticide can affect humans, especially children who can suffer from impaired cognitive abilities and reduced IQ after chronic exposures. Chlorpyrifos was banned for indoor use in 2001, but it continues to be the most heavily used insecticide in the US with 4 to 8 million pounds applied annually.

epa scientists had proposed banning all uses of chlorpyrifos on food crops in 2015, and in 2016, they published a follow-up assessment of health risks that found that, through their diet, infants were being exposed to the pesticide at levels 140 times what could be considered safe. The proposal to ban the pesticide was moving forward until, in an about-face decision in March 2017, former epa Administrator Scott Pruitt called the science on chlorpyrifos “unresolved” and said agency experts would continue thinking about it until at least 2022.


Farewell Koko

Koko with a kitten
Koko, the kitten-loving, western lowland gorilla who learned sign language and 2,000 words of spoken English led to major revelations about animal intelligence and cognition. Photo by Ron Cohn/The Gorilla Foundation

Koko, the best-known gorilla in the world, died in her sleep at The Gorilla Foundation in the Santa Cruz Mountains of California on June 19. She was 46. The kitten-loving, western lowland gorilla who learned sign language and 2,000 words of spoken English led to major revelations about animal intelligence and cognition. She touched the lives of millions and was an icon for interspecies communication and empathy. She will be missed by millions as well.

But as Barbara King, a professor emerita of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, told National Geographic: “Even as we celebrate her life, we must remember that Koko was made to live in confinement in a highly unnatural way from her infancy through her death.”


Rollbacks Could Kill

It can be hard to quantify the health benefits of environmental rules, to tie these regulations directly to things like the number of illnesses prevented and lives saved. But that’s exactly what two Harvard scientists recently attempted to do. Looking specifically at the air and water rules the Trump administration is working to dismantle, the researchers calculated that proposed regulatory rollbacks would result, conservatively, in the loss of 80,000 human lives over the next decade.

In an essay outlining their analysis, published in June in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the researchers estimate that the repeals would also result in respiratory problems for more than one million people and expose the water sources for approximately 117 million US residents to pollution.

The researchers — Francesca Dominici, co-director of the Data-Science Initiative at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, and David Cutler, an economist at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government — based their estimates on epa calculations conducted during the Obama administration that were meant to estimate the benefits of environmental regulations proposed under President Obama.

“We felt it was important to take a comprehensive view,” Dominici told Inside Climate News of the research. “Some people, when looking at one specific repealing of a rule, might not think it’s important. We wanted to put some numbers on the whole systematic repeal of rule after rule.”

The bulk of the negative health impacts would come from declining air quality associated with repeal of the Clean Power Plan, along with the rollback of vehicle fuel economy standards enacted during the Obama administration. The researchers also considered the impact of tariffs the Trump administration has placed on imported solar panels.

“The effects of the Trump administration’s policies seem clear, even through the haze they will create,” the researchers wrote, adding that poor, black, and elderly populations are likely to be most affected.


Monumental Loss

baobab trees
Africa’s largest and oldest baobabs are dying all of a sudden. Photo by Feans/Flickr

Human-caused climate change may be claiming yet another victim: the majestic baobab tree. According to new research published in the journal Nature Plants, Africa’s largest and oldest baobabs are dying all of a sudden. Scientists aren’t yet sure about the cause, but suspect that increasing temperatures and prolonged drought are rendering the trees unable to support their own weight.

Baobabs are among the world’s longest-living trees and can survive for upwards of 2,000 years. Intending to examine why the iconic trees live so long, the researchers examined 60 trees across Africa between 2005 and 2017. Tree-ring dating doesn’t work for baobabs, so the team turned to radiocarbon dating instead. But as their study proceeded, the oldest and largest baobabs began to die. Ultimately, nine of the thirteen oldest trees and five of the six biggest died during the twelve-year study period.

“It is definitely shocking and dramatic to experience during our lifetime the demise of so many trees with millennial ages, Adrian Patrut, a professor at Romania’s Babes-Bolyai University and study co-author, told Deutsche Welle.

Some researchers have criticized Patrut’s methods for dating the trees, arguing that he could be significantly underestimating baobab tree ages. If the dating method is off, the study’s findings could, of course, be inaccurate as well. Still, it seems more trees are dying than would be expected under stable conditions.

The research team noted that there was no sign of disease in the dead trees, and also ruled out direct human intervention as a factor in the deaths. They believe that warming temperatures and drought, particularly in southern Africa, could be playing a role in the loss of the monumental trees.

Divesting the Emerald Isle

divestment demonstrators
Ireland may soon become the first country to completely divest from fossil fuels. Photo courtesy

This summer brought a major milestone for the divestment movement — in July, the lower house of the Irish legislature passed a bill requiring the country to divest from the fossil fuel industry. The legislation is expected to pass easily in the upper house, at which point Ireland will become the first country to remove all public money from the polluting industry.

The bill requires the country’s national investment fund to sell all coal, oil, gas, and peat holdings as soon as practical, which has been interpreted to be five years or less. The $9 billion fund has more than $350 million invested in fossil fuel companies.

“The [divestment] movement is highlighting the need to stop investing in the expansion of a global industry which must be brought into managed decline if catastrophic climate change is to be averted,” said Thomas Pringle, the independent member of parliament who introduced the bill. “Ireland, by divesting, is sending a clear message that the Irish public and the international community are ready to think and act beyond narrow short-term vested interests.”

Ireland’s decision to divest is the latest in a movement that has swept across cities, universities, and pension funds. Last year, Norway joined the effort, shedding investments from more than 50 coal companies, though it still maintains other fossil fuel holdings.

“Governments will not meet their obligations under the Paris Agreement on climate change if they continue to financially sustain the fossil fuel industry,” Gerry Liston, legal officer with the Global Legal Action Network, which drafted the Irish bill, said in a statement. “Countries the world over must now urgently follow Ireland’s lead and divest from fossil fuels.”


No Means Yes

In August, barely two months after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) voted unanimously to ban donations from corporate political action committees (PACs) with links to the oil, gas, and coal industries, it effectively backtracked on its radical decision.

This time, the DNC voted 30-2 on another resolution introduced by Chair Tom Perez which states that the party “support[s] fossil fuel workers” and will accept donations from “employers’ political action committees.” The new resolution — which supposedly reaffirms the party’s “unwavering and unconditional commitment to the workers, unions and forward-looking employers that power the American economy,” pretty much negates the June resolution, proposed by DNC member Christine Pelosi, daughter of California Representative and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, that took a strong stance against dirty oil money.

The DNC already rejects contributions from corporate PACs whose goals conflict with the Democratic party platform. The Pelosi resolution was intended to include fossil fuel PACs within this category. Between 2009 and 2016, the DNC banned all contributions from federal lobbyists and PACs, but lifted the ban prior to the 2016 elections.

“I am furious that the DNC would effectively undo a resolution passed just two months ago just as the movement to ban fossil fuel corporate PAC money is growing (and Democrats are winning),” RL Miller, a co-author of the original resolution and president of the super PAC Climate Hawks Vote Political Action, told Huffington Post.

Fossil fuel companies put most of their financial support behind the Republican party, but from time to time, they have thrown some money towards the Democrats. In 2016, for instance, the DNC received $2.6 million from energy and natural resource sectors — which include fossil fuel and mining companies — a relatively measly sum compared to the $40 million those same sectors gave to the Republican party.

The DNC, of course, is claiming the new resolution is “not a reversal,” noting in a statement after the vote that “any review of our current donations reflects” the Democrats’ “commitment” to turn away the fossil fuel industry.


Charged Paper

Batteries are one of biggest contributors to e-waste pollution in our modern, wireless world. Every year, some 15 billion batteries are produced and sold worldwide and many of these are discarded after a single use. Researchers have long been trying to figure out eco-friendly alternatives and have come up with everything from lithium-sulfur batteries to water-based ones. None of these, however, are fully biodegradable.

But that may be set to change thanks to a breakthrough by researchers at Binghamton University, State University of New York, who have created a biodegradable, paper-based battery that is more efficient than previously thought possible.

Researchers have been experimenting with biodegradable paper-based batteries for years, but so far the proposed designs have proved difficult to produce. They have never been quite powerful enough nor 100 percent biodegradable. This new design solves all of those problems.

The new “biobattery” uses a hybrid of paper and engineered polymers that give the batteries biodegrading properties. The team tested the degradation of the battery in water and found that it degraded easily, without needing any special conditions or introduction of other microorganisms. Their research was published to the journal Advanced Sustainable Systems in June.

“Our hybrid paper battery exhibited a much higher power-to-cost ratio than all previously reported paper-based microbial batteries,” says Seokheun “Sean” Choi, an associate professor with the university’s electrical and computer engineering department who worked on the project along with Professor Omowunmi Sadik from the chemistry department.

The researchers point out that the polymer-paper structures are lightweight, low-cost, and flexible. Choi says that flexibility also provides another benefit — battery power can be enhanced by folding or stacking the devices together.

The team said that producing the bio-batteries is a fairly straightforward process and the material allows for modifications depending on what configuration is needed.

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