New app “Am I Stoned?” helps make marijuana use safer

Both medical and recreational marijuana have become increasingly legalized on a state-by-state basis over recent years, making their legal use more prevalent across the United States. As most people know, cannabis can affect memory, reaction time, and attention – but the impairment can be tough to assess in a natural setting. However, a new app may have the solution for helping individuals under the influence of marijuana better understand how the drug is affecting them.

Researchers from the University of Chicago developed a prototype app they appropriately named “Am I Stoned,” which assesses an individual’s impairment through a series of phone-based tasks.

One of our long-term goals is for the app to improve the safety of cannabis use by making individual users more aware of their impairment,” says Harriet de Wit, a professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Neuroscience at the University of Chicago and research team leader. “By gathering data from users in the field, the app will also contribute to the overall scientific knowledge in terms of how cannabis affects users.”

The researchers developed this app by assessing the usefulness of numerous tasks for analyzing impairment in a controlled laboratory environment. In a double-blind study, they had 24 healthy non-daily cannabis users take a capsule containing either 7.5 milligrams or 15 milligrams of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC) – or a placebo. THC is the active ingredient in marijuana that has a psychoactive effect on users. The participants then completed standardized computer-based tasks known to detect impairment, along with app-based tasks on an iPhone.

Image Credit: Harriet de Wit

In three of the four computer tasks and one of the iPhone tasks, the researchers were able to successfully detect impairments resulting from THC consumption. The study also found that participants were generally aware of their impairment.

“The effects of THC on performance may be subtle, so we need highly sensitive tasks to detect impairments,” says Pabon. “It is likely that the computer tasks, which took 15 to 20 minutes to complete, were more sensitive to THC impairment because they provided more opportunity to detect a drug effect.”

At this point, the app is not designed to predict an individual’s ability to drive or engage in other activities that could cause harm. But the researchers plan on using what they’ve learned to also develop an app that people can use to assess their own performance. This would involve a person completing tasks while sober in order to provide a baseline that could be used to assess their level of impairment when they are impaired. They also plan on using the findings from this research to improve the sensitivity of the app-based tasks to detect THC-induced impairment so that they can ultimately deploy the app in a more naturalistic setting.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Trees with grassy areas help keep cities cool during summer

Trees and other plants have a cooling effect on the environment, and can even help to reduce the intensity of urban heat islands. Scientists at the Technical University of Munich (TUM) have found that the extent to which trees are effective in combating heat depends on the species of the tree and local conditions.

The city of Munich has an average temperature that is up to 6 degrees Celsius hotter than its rural surroundings. The research team placed sensors and data loggers around the city to investigate the microclimate under the canopies of urban trees.

The study was focused on two contrasting urban tree species, the little-leaved linden and the black locust, in an effort to analyze how the type of tree, its location, and local weather conditions influence the overall cooling effect of trees.

The researchers found that the linden tree was more effective in cooling on mild summer days. However, the black locust needs less water and takes less water out of the soil during extreme heat compared to the linden tree. This, combined with an additional grass cooling function found beneath black locust trees, makes them more effective at cooling overall.

“Tree species such as the black locust that consume little water can provide a higher cooling effect if they are planted on grass lawns,” explained study lead author Dr. Mohammad Rahman.

“The surrounding soil remains more moist thanks to the trees, the grass dissipates additional heat through the evaporation of water and thus reduces the temperature near the ground.”

For paved surfaces, on the other hand,  better cooling is delivered from the dense shade of linden trees.

“On very hot days, city dwellers have a cooler time on grass lawns under trees with a less dense crown and a lower water requirement,” said Dr. Rahman.

The study is published in the journal Science of the Total Environment.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer
Image Credit: F. Rahman/ TUM

Hemp could one day be used to fight ovarian cancer

One of the first studies to examine the medicinal potential of hemp has revealed that the fiber has anti-cancer properties. The researchers, who are graduate students in the lab of Wasana Sumanasekera at Sullivan University College of Pharmacy, found that hemp may have the ability to fight ovarian cancer.

“Hemp, like marijuana, contains therapeutically valuable components such as cannabidiol, cannabinol, and tetrahydrocannabinol,” explained study co-author Sata Biela. “However, unlike marijuana, hemp’s therapeutic ability has not been studied in detail.”

The researchers analyzed an extract known as KY hemp, which is produced from hemp grown in Kentucky. The researchers optimized the sample used in the study by controlling growing conditions in order to eliminate any residue that could contaminate the product.

In one experiment, the experts discovered that various amounts of KY-hemp extract slowed the migration of cultured ovarian cells. The rate of decreased migration was directly related to the dose of the extract, which indicates that the substance could be useful for stopping or slowing down the spread of cancer to other parts of the body, or metastasis.

Additional experiments with cultured ovarian cancer cells showed that KY hemp slowed the secretion of the interleukin IL-1 beta, which produces inflammation that has been linked to cancer progression. The slower rate of interleukin secretion may be the mechanism that underlies the cancer-fighting effects of KY-hemp.

“Our findings from this research as well as prior research show that KY hemp slows ovarian cancer comparable to or even better than the current ovarian cancer drug Cisplatin,” said study co-author Chase Turner. “Since Cisplatin exhibits high toxicity, we anticipate that hemp would carry less side effects. However, that needed to be tested in the future.”

The research will be presented at the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology annual meeting during Experimental Biology 2018.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Want to help the planet this Earth Day? Here’s how

Earth Day is a good time to stop and think about everything the world gives to us – and how we can give a little back. Working for the good of the environment may seem like a daunting task, but it doesn’t need to be. There are plenty of little ways to help the planet. Here are six easy steps you can try today, plus a bonus challenge:

1. Buy a water bottle.

Instead of buying water by the bottle, buy a metal or BPA-free plastic water bottle intended to be used over and over again.

People go through about 480 billion disposable plastic water bottles each year; Americans alone throw out a staggering 35 billion bottles each year. Many of these bottles end up among the plastic waste that forms the Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

Plastic doesn’t biodegrade, but it does break down in the sun, looking enough like food that fish eat it. Then, seabirds and even young whales eat the plastic-clogged fish, causing health problems.

Less than half of disposable bottles are recycled, scientists found. Even worse, a high number of those single-use plastic bottles are contaminated with microplastics.

Buying a reusable water bottle is as simple as going to a supermarket or big-box store. Most have them on the shelves – along with water filtering pitchers and systems, for those who live in an area where tap water needs some extra cleaning.

2. Volunteer.

Whether trash clean-up days, community gardening groups, water monitoring teams or other eco-minded groups, most places have plenty of opportunities for volunteers to help the planet.

VolunteerMatch is a great place to find environmental volunteering jobs that need doing, along with dozens of other categories. So is the International Coastal Cleanup – don’t be fooled by the name. There are plenty of inland cleanups along lakes and rivers.

Can’t find an opportunity near you? Look around and see what needs doing, whether it’s picking up trash or beautifying empty lots with new plants. Then, get to work. Be sure to contact any affected property owners before planting anything, though!

3. Drive less.

A study by Lund University last summer found that going without a car can be a more effective way for individuals to fight climate change than recycling or using more efficient lightbulbs.

If you have a daily commute that public transportation can’t cover or you live in a rural area, going car-free might not be possible.

However, you can still work to reduce your time on the road as much as possible. Run as many errands as possible in one trip. Consider carpooling if you live near co-workers, or discuss working from home one day a week with your employer. Every little bit helps.

4. Eat less meat.

The same Lund University study showed that a plant-based diet is one of the most effective ways an individual can fight climate change. Want to give it a try? There are dozens of good resources out there. Forks Over Knives offers a great primer for beginners.

If you’re not ready to take the plunge and switch to a completely meat-free diet, though, if everyone adopted Meatless Mondays, it could help the planet by reducing greenhouse gas emissions as much as 1.3 gigatons by 2050.

And that’s not even taking into account the growing body of literature suggesting plant-based diets are healthier.

5. Tell businesses what they’re doing right, and how they can improve.

As nice as it would be to believe we can save the world by picking up some trash and changing a lightbulb, there’s a much bigger picture out there. What businesses choose to do – or choose to ignore – can have a much bigger impact than even a committed group of people choosing to change their lifestyles.

That’s no reason to give up! It just means it’s time to reach out to businesses and ask them to help the planet when they can, too.

For example, do you buy from a grocery store that carries only paper bags, or an online retailer that uses as little packaging as possible? Let them know you appreciate it. Make an effort to buy eco-friendly office supplies or shampoo in bottles made from recycled plastic.

And when businesses can do better, let them know. Ask your favorite restaurant to switch to paper straws, and encourage your local sports venues to aim for zero waste.

6. Write to your elected officials.

Like with No. 5, you can get more done by reaching out to people with power than trying to make a few small changes yourself. Ask your elected officials to offer incentives to businesses that switch to greener products, or to remove regulations that keep them from doing so. Encourage tax breaks for homeowners who add solar panels or rain collection systems to their homes.

You can also encourage your city and county officials to adopt greener practices on government-owned properties, such as switching offices to solar energy systems, installing car charging stations and adopting landscaping practices that use less water or prevent pesticide runoff.

Bonus: Want to take on a bigger task to help the planet?

Here’s a challenge that can be done a little at a time or all at once, depending on how much work you’re up for: Replace your landscaping with native plants.

Native plants tend to need less work and save water, since they’re already adapted for the location where they’re being planted. Better yet, local pollinators tend to do better with native plants as food sources than with those imported from other areas. Some even rely on specific plants for breeding or laying eggs.

You don’t have to switch all at once, and there’s no need to get rid of your favorite flowers. However, replacing a few water-hungry, poorly adapted shrubs or a lawn for natives can add a small but meaningful boost to the local ecosystem.

By Kyla Cathey, staff writer

Plants help airtight buildings maintain clean air

Airtight buildings are growing more popular, and with lower heating and cooling costs it’s easy to see why.  

But high performance, super-insulated buildings are not without their disadvantages. Poor air quality, mold and mildew growth, and stuffy and stale air are all possible in airtight building environments.

Airtight buildings are also potentially hazardous if carbon monoxide, ozone, and toxic fumes from paints, carpets, and furniture accumulate throughout the building.

People in industrialized countries spend roughly 80 percent of their time indoors, and if air quality in airtight buildings is a cause for concern, it’s important to understand how to mitigate these risks and improve super-insulated homes and buildings.

One little-studied method with potential promise is using plants to improve indoor air quality in these self-contained environments.

Researchers from the National Research Council of Italy – Institute for Sustainable Plant Protection recently published a review in the journal Trends in Plant Science detailing how a better understanding of plant physiology could sustainably improve indoor air quality.

Plants can absorb toxins, increase humidity, and create oxygen by absorbing carbon dioxide.

However, when plants are chosen for indoor use, the main deciding factors tend to be appearance and how much maintenance the plants require.

To find out which plants will help clean the air in your home, see our in-depth feature on house plants that reduce air pollution.

“For most of us plants are just a decorative element, something aesthetic, but they are also something else,” said Frederico Brilli, who led the research.

In order to find out how plants can best improve air quality, further research is needed to study plant leaf size, shape, anatomy, and physiology, along with how quickly absorb carbon dioxide.

Research that, according to Brilli, is lacking save for some work done NASA in the 1980s.

The researchers also note that future plant research should delve into plant microbiomes which  aid in the plant’s ability to absorb toxins. Microbiomes are the collective populations of microorganisms that live in an environment, in this case, the bacteria and fungi that reside in the soil and on the plants.

The strategic placement of plants along with smart-sensor-controlled air cleaning technologies could drastically improve indoor air quality in super-insulated airtight buildings while still keeping energy costs down. 

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Some plants can hibernate underground for up to 20 years

A study led by Professor Richard Shefferson at the University of Tokyo is shedding new light on the ability of some plants to remain dormant underground in the soil for up to 20 years. The team found this survival mechanism in at least 114 plant species from 24 different plant families across the planet.

The plants remain alive but do not emerge from the ground every spring, enabling them to survive in difficult times. This behavior was referred to by the scientists as a “bet hedging” strategy, in which the plants are weighing the long-term advantages of survival against the short-term disadvantages of missing out on growth and reproduction for a season.

The researchers expected to find that dormancy would be more common in plants at higher altitudes or colder latitudes where the growing season is shorter. However, dormancy was found to be more prevalent near the equator – possibly in response to threats such as disease, competition, and fire.

Study co-author Dr. Eric Menges explained, “In fire-prone areas, there appears to be an advantage to plants remaining dormant and then sprouting after fire when favorable conditions exist for growth and flowering.”

Study co-author Michael Hutchings is an Emeritus Professor in Ecology at the University of Sussex.

“It would seem to be paradoxical that plants would evolve this behavior because being underground means they cannot photosynthesise, flower or reproduce,” Professor Hutchings. “And yet this study has shown that many plants in a large number of species frequently exhibit prolonged dormancy.”

“Many of these species have found ways to overcome the loss of opportunities to photosynthesise during dormancy, especially by evolving mechanisms enabling them to obtain carbohydrates and nutrients from soil-based fungal associates. This allows them to survive and even thrive during dormant periods.”

“The study has revealed some of the conditions under which dormancy is triggered, and the evolutionary benefits of such behavior, but more work is still needed to fully explain the influences of factors such as weather conditions, and the threats from herbivores and competition from other vegetation, on the decision to go dormant.”

According to Professor Hutchings, phylogenetic testing of the plants showed that dormancy has adapted and persisted many times throughout their evolutionary history.

“This suggests not only that it has proved beneficial under many different ecological circumstances, but also that its evolution may be achievable through the occurrence of a small number of mutations at only a few genetic loci.”

The study is published in the journal Ecology Letters.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Photo Credit: Richard Shefferson

Plants respond to rising CO2 levels in some surprising ways

Understanding and modeling the impacts of climate change in order to prepare for the future is now more important than ever.

Once critical factor to consider for future climate projections is how plants will respond to increased carbon dioxide emissions, and research has found that some plants gain a considerable amount of biomass with rising CO2 levels.

Scientists categorize plants on how they process carbon, and studies have found two classes of plants have opposing reactions to increases in carbon dioxide.

C3 plants, which include rice, wheat, and trees, are more sensitive to carbon dioxide and increase their biomass with rising levels of CO2, while C4 plants do not gain as much biomass.

Now, new research shows that C4 plants and C3 plants trade places, and the pattern reverses over a longer period of the time.

The study was conducted by researchers from Western Sydney University, the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, and the University of Minnesota.

Published in the journal Science, the results show the importance of conducting long-term studies and double checking previously established results with long-term observations.

Past experiments that found C3 plants are more sensitive to CO2 emissions only looked at rising emissions over a short period.

Researchers led by Peter Reich found contrasting results after monitoring 88 plots in Minnesota for a period of 20 years.

During the first twelve years of the 20-year period, the researchers noticed that an average 20 percent increase in the biomass of the C3 plots and only a one percent increase in C4 plots.

After the twelve years though, the pattern switched, and C3 plots had less growth than C4 plots which averaged a 24 percent increase in biomass.

External factors like precipitation did not seem to affect this change, but the researchers did note that nitrogen mineralization played a role in the increased biomass over the years.

The study is important as it shows the limits of short-term research.  C4 plants contribute to 25 percent of land biomass globally, and now researchers will have a better understanding how plants will be affected by rising levels of CO2, especially plant groups that are such a critical part of global agriculture and the ecosystem.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Plants have a special system to protect their DNA from sun damage

Researchers at the University of North Carolina School of Medicine are describing the extraordinary ability of plants to heal their DNA after it is damaged by ultraviolet (UV) radiation exposure. The scientists have found that the “nucleotide excision repair” system works much better in plants than in animals.

The study, which is the first to map the repair network of an entire multicellular organism, also revealed that DNA repair systems in plants depend on the day-night cycle for their efficiency.

“These findings advance our understanding of DNA repair mechanisms common among all organisms and may also have practical applications,” said co-corresponding author Dr. Ogun Adebali.

“DNA damage accumulating in a plant will impair its growth and development, so boosting the excision repair system could be a good strategy for improving crop yields,” explained first author Dr. Onur Oztas.

The investigation was led by Dr. Aziz Sancar, who was awarded the 2015 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for his research on excision repair, which is now widely accepted as the primary mechanism of DNA repair in living organisms.

Up until now, little has been known about how the system works in plants. But, unlike humans and other animals, plants cannot avoid sunlight and must have efficient systems that can repair DNA after UV exposure.

The research team recently developed an excision-repair mapping technique called XR-seq which was used for the current study. This groundbreaking approach allows the scientists to find and sequence damaged DNA that are cut from chromosomes during the excision repair process.

By sequencing these short sections of discarded DNA, the scientists can match them to their corresponding sections on a genome that has been mapped as a reference, allowing the experts to pinpoint where DNA damage is being repaired.

“The results show that excision repair in plants is regulated in much the same way it is in other organisms – in order to maximize efficiency,” said Dr. Oztas.

The team plans to follow up with studies focused on learning more about excision repair in plants. For example, they will investigate why suppression of the excision repair system leads to an increase in plant genome mutations even when the plant is kept in the dark with no exposure to light.

“This implies that excision repair is needed to fix DNA damage from other, unknown factors besides UV,” said Dr. Oztas. “We’d like to identify and characterize those unknown factors and find out how excision repair fixes the types of damage they cause.”

The research is published in the journal Nature Communications.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Twitter post leads to discovery of endangered plant population

When Twitter isn’t the breeding ground of unique viral stories or contentious political debates, it can actually be a useful tool of productive collaboration. This was on display in an interaction between Bucknell University Professor Chris Martine and his Twitter followers.

While searching for the Pennsylvania state-endangered golden corydalis on steep cliffs this past summer, Martine came across some specimens of what he believed to be Heuchera americana. He took a quick picture of a bumblebee on the plant, and tweeted it out. The interactions spurred by this post led Ryan Folk of the Florida Museum of Natural History to correct Martine, informing him that it was actually Heuchera alba, which is “quite rare.” This may be the first record of this plant in the state of Pennsylvania.

Upon returning from collecting specimens they gathered rappelling up and down the cliffs, the research team examined historical collections held at Bucknell University. Through their analysis, they determined that local botanists have been misidentifying this species for over 100 years. With this new information, the researchers were able to discover seven additional populations of H. alba, which indicates a major range expansion for a species that has only been known to exist in small populations in the mountains of West Virginia and Virginia.

Image Credit: Christopher T. Martine

The research team has recorded their observations – as well as tips for how other can locate and protect more H. alba populations – in the open access journal PhytoKeys.

This combination of scientific work with modern social media platforms points towards a more modern way of conducting field research. If scientists can use these platforms to better collaborate, it may help expedite discoveries such as these.

“Importantly, this discovery is not just a cool showcase for how science and modern communications outlets can work together, it also gave us key information on the status of H. alba that can guide future conservation efforts,” explains Martine.

By Connor Ertz, Staff Writer

Image: @MartineBotany on Twitter

This aquatic moss quickly removes arsenic from water

Researchers at Stockholm University have discovered a type of moss that can eliminate arsenic from water. The removal process is not only effective but it is also very fast, transforming contaminated water to a safe drinking level in just one hour.

“Our experiments show that the moss has a very high capacity to remove arsenic,” said study co-author Arifin Sandhi. “It takes no more than an hour to remove 80 percent of the arsenic from a container of water. By then, the water has reached such a low level of arsenic that it is no longer harmful to people.”

Warnstorfia fluitans, an aquatic moss that grows in northern Sweden, is known for its incredible absorption abilities.

Arsenic occurs naturally in the ground and bedrock in some parts of Sweden. For this reason, mining activities can pollute water and soil with arsenic.

Study lead author Maria Greger is an associate professor in the Department of Ecology, Environment and Plant Sciences at Stockholm University.

“We hope that the plant-based wetland system that we are developing will solve the arsenic problem in Sweden’s northern mining areas,” said Professor Greger.

When ground and water systems are contaminated, drinking water and water used for crops are polluted as well. In Sweden, crops such as wheat, root vegetables, and leafy greens may be tainted with arsenic. In other parts of the world, arsenic is often found in other foods like rice.

“How much arsenic we consume ultimately depends on how much of these foods we eat, as well as how and where they were grown,” said Professor Greger.

“Our aim is that the plant-based wetland system we are developing will filter out the arsenic before the water becomes drinking water and irrigation water. That way, the arsenic will not make it into our food.”

The findings of the research may ultimately lead to an environmentally friendly way of purifying water. For example, Warnstorfia fluitans could be grown in waterways with high levels of arsenic.

The study is published in the journal Environmental Pollution.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Arifin Sandhi

Plants have their seeds germinate at different times

Researchers may have found a way to control the random germination that occurs as a protective measure in plants.

Plants “hedge their bets” and have their seeds germinate at different times. It’s part of the unavoidable, random nature of biochemical processes in cell biology.

Germinating at different times is meant as a preemptive guard against environmental challenges that plants can face.

While helpful for the plants, this gambling approach to germination can be problematic for farmers who want uniform fields of crops.

The new research could help aid the agricultural industry and reduce the varying germination times.

The study was conducted by researchers from the University of Birmingham and was published in the Journal of The Royal Society Interface.

The researchers focused on stochasticity in the thale cress plant in order to identify and analyze the circuitry in plant cells that control random germination.

Hormone levels are difficult to observe in plant embryos so the researchers had to use mathematical modeling to predict different biological processes in the thale cress.

“It’s really this interface of biology with maths that lets us understand and predict the processes generating variability in plant cells,” said Iain Johnston, from the School of Biosciences at the University of Birmingham.

By better understanding the inner workings of the plants, the researchers were able to determine potential ways for reducing this variability.

The results could help create uniformity in crops and aid in future global food security challenges.

“Our identification of this variability-generating circuit provides the opportunity to synchronize and enhance future agricultural production,” said George Bassel, a co-author of the study.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer

Image Credit: Iain Johnston

Techniques to grow plants in space offer perfect tomatoes

Elon Musk’s mission to Mars has been all the rage among space enthusiasts, and his SpaceX enterprise is the only private company with successful return missions from space under its belt.

Plans involving future Mars trips have been discussed before, but learning to optimally grow food in space and enclosed environments will be critical to the success of those missions.

The European Space Agency (ESA) recently reported on a company that has been working to find the best way to fertilize plants in space and has created better solutions for fertilization on Earth.

The Dutch company Groen Agro Control, inspired by President Obama’s 2010 speech on the importance of missions to Mars, invested considerably in fertilization research.

“In space, you can fertilize plants only with the minerals you take with you, but you still want them to produce the best possible crops,” said Lex de Boer, a Groen Agro Control employee told ESA.

Groen Agro Control met with a team from ESA, which helped the company create a smart service for horticulturalists on Earth.

Because any sort of crop or plant growth in space will happen in a closed environment with only the supplies brought along, the goal was to create a system that utilized the perfect amount of minerals, and reused and recycled water and carbon dioxide produced by plants with very little waste.

The ESA’s Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative Project is a perfect example of this symbiotic kind of relationship.

“Ideally, you would also use the water that evaporates from the plants as a source of drinking water, with the minimum amount of purification. That means you have to apply doses of each mineral extremely carefully so that as little as possible ends up unused in the drain water,” said de Boer.

Groen Agro Control built an enclosed system and conducted different experiments with tomato and pepper plants.

The plants were given doses of 16 minerals and the researchers recorded how different doses affected the plants’ growth.

During these experiments, the company developed a fertilization plan for growers on Earth that maximizes growth and crop yield. Growers who are signed up for the service will receive alerts from the Dutch company as they continue to test and modify their fertilizer solution.

Even though the ultimate goal of the project was to create a fertilization system in space, the smart service could help the agricultural industry in the coming years as global concerns involving food security increase. The techniques cultivated inadvertently resulted in some of the most healthy looking tomatoes, which could help further driver agricultural strategies.

By Kay Vandette, Staff Writer