New England forests are under threat with little protection

Research from Harvard Forest has revealed that the New England states are losing forests at a rate of 65 acres per day. Public funding for land protection has dropped by 50 percent in all six New England states since 2008, and funding for land conservation is not too far behind in its decline.

“The incremental chipping away of forest and farmland by scattered development is hard to see day-to-day but it adds up over time and represents a significant threat to the region,” said David Foster, Director of the Harvard Forest. “If we stay on the current path, we’ll lose another 1.2 million acres of open land by 2060.”

Once land is developed, it is no longer productive and all of its invaluable benefits such as local wood and climate protection are sacrificed. The researchers published a report which provides the most up-to-date and comprehensive data available on land use trends in the region. It is the third in the “Wildlands and Woodlands” series of publications authored by the team.

The previous reports defined a regional goal of conserving 30 million acres of forest and all remaining farmland. The latest report outlines the progress that has been made toward achieving this vision. The scientists also point out that land conversion is even more of a short-term threat to New England’s forests than climate change

“When we look specifically at forests in New England, it is clear that the impacts of land use will be far greater than those of climate change over the next 50 years,” said co-author Jonathan Thompson. “This may seem counter-intuitive given the major threat that climate change poses to all sectors of society. But climate change slowly alters the health and types of trees that grow whereas conversion eliminates forests altogether.”

Despite the current trends, the authors of the report say that it is still possible to reach their goals. To do this, they have outlined a plan of which calls for actions such as tripling the pace of conservation and putting more land to work for sustainable farming and forestry.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Plant roots go to extreme lengths to find water

Understanding how plants will survive and adapt to climate change is crucial as they provide oxygen and take in carbon dioxide. A new study from Rutgers University-New Brunswick set to find how resilient plants are by looking at the roots and how deep they travel to find water.

The research revealed that some trees will send their roots down hundreds of feet and through rock cracks to get to a water source.

The deeper a plant’s roots, the better suited it will be in times of drought and changing climate.

“Roots sense the environment. They sense the water, where there’s more nutrients, and they go for these resources. Roots are the smartest part of the plant,” said Ying Fan Reinfelder, professor and lead author of the study.

The study was published online in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Reinfelder and her colleagues collected data on the roots of more than 1,000 species of plants all over the world including trees, grasses, shrubs, herbaceous plants, and succulents.

The results show the connection between soil and water conditions and how far a plant’s roots will travel. The researchers found that soil hydrology, or the moisture content of the soil, is the primary motivator driving root depths.

The researchers noted how in well-drained uplands, roots travel with the rainwater and snowmelt levels, and in lowlands, plants have shallow roots because the soil is so saturated. Essentially, roots go to wherever the water is.

As climate change continues to become an increasing concern, with record-breaking heatwaves, forest fires, floods, and drought, this study reveals the resilience of plants within a changing global environment.

“Plants may be more resourceful and resilient to environmental stress and climate change than we previously thought, but only to a certain extent, they can withstand a period of drought. But if the drought continues for a century, they’re not going to be able to cope with that,” said Reinfelder.

The research helps emphasize the need for further understanding of soil, local water levels, and plant root depth, as it could prove essential to navigating climate change.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Humans have lost an ancient genetic defense against viruses

Plants and insects have an ancient defense against viruses coded into their DNA. But according to scientists, humans and other vertebrates don’t have this genetic defense – at least, not anymore.

A team of researchers from the University of Leuven in Belgium have found that vertebrates may have once had a genetic defense against viral illnesses like other organisms, but it was lost during the process of evolution.

The difference is a mechanism called RNA interference, which can suppress the expression of certain genes. Insects and plants use RNAI to protect themselves against certain viruses. Scientists have even found that bugs and plants can be made resistant to some diseases using the same mechanism – hence the rise of genetically modified crops.

But scientists hoping to protect humans against diseases in the same way have run into a roadblock: we don’t have the same genetic defense that plants and insects do.

The key lies with three different types of the Argonautes protein. By looking at 40 varied organisms, including humans, the Belgian scientists discovered the problem.

“Two out of these three types [of Argonautes] are especially important for our research: AGO1 and AGO2. The AGO1 family plays a role in regulating its own gene expression. These proteins help to determine which characteristics encoded in the DNA are actually expressed,” Dr. Niels Wynant of the University of Leuven said in a press release. “The AGO2 family takes care of the defense against viruses. However, we didn’t find these AGO2 proteins in vertebrates.”

So the researchers started working backward, taking a look at jellyfish and sponges, both ancient animal species that share a common ancestor with humans and other vertebrates – albeit, very far back. Like insects and plants, they had the AGO2 proteins.

“In invertebrates, we noticed that AGO2 proteins indeed evolved much faster than their AGO1 counterparts. We didn’t see this rapidly evolving group in the vertebrates,” Wynant said.

The research is published in the journal Scientific Reports.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Unlocking the evolutionary history of the orchid

Orchids are beautiful and delicate flowering plants that can found over the globe, thanks to their popularity and prized status. Aside from their aesthetic beauty, the vanilla orchid produces the vanilla bean, one of the most recognizable and popular flavors in the world.

Scientists have now unlocked the genetic code of an orchid native to southeast China in order to better understand the the plant’s remarkable evolution.

Researchers studied the genetic blueprint of the southeast China orchid, belonging to the subfamily Apostasiodea, that splintered from the modern orchid millions of years ago. The team identified certain features that can be found in all orchids, which provided clues about the plant’s evolutionary journey.

Orchids range in size and color and can be found on both sides of the equator, making them an incredibly diverse species. All orchids have three petals, three sepals, and a long stem referred to as the the column. Orchids are also known for the showing some tolerance to gamma-radiation.

These features give the orchids their distinct and beautiful look. According to the study, they have also maintained parts of their genetic blueprint from the plant’s early beginnings that have stayed present as the species split off into the nearly 30,000 species of orchids recognized today.

“Whether you’re looking at a big, blousy Moth orchid from the supermarket or a tiny rare Bog orchid on a remote Snowdonia hillside, the flowers have the same underlying blueprint,” Dr. Trevor Dines from the Wild Plant Conservation Charity told BBC News.

“This research reveals that elements of this blueprint appeared right at the very start of the evolution of the orchid family, and may well have helped in their spectacular subsequent evolution into the 26,500-28,000 species we know of today.”

The study was published in the journal Nature.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

New technology revolutionizing plant breeding to meet demand

Successful plant breeding is what puts food in our mouths and trees in our yards. The technology behind it has propped up our food supply and local florists for years, and major advancements have led to more widespread and successful plant breeding.

These days, plant breeding involves teams of scientists with degrees in genetics, phenotyping, and statistics. Improving the efficiency of breeding is a constantly involving endeavor, aiming for increasing prediction accuracy in regards to genotypes, experimental design, and environment sampling.

Mark Sorrells of Cornell University, will be presenting on “Plant Breeding in the 21st Century” at the Managing Global Resources for a Secure Future International Annual Meeting in Tampa, FL on October 23rd. The meeting is sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

As part of the presentation, Sorrells will discuss how new technology has revolutionized crop breeding. Innovations such as inexpensive DNA sequencing, genotyping, high throughput phenotyping, and gene-editing are improving both quantitative and qualitative traits, according to Sorrells. Furthermore, plant performance can be predicted for both phenotyped and non-phenotyped plants with genomic selection models that use genome-wide markers.

In the last few years, data is also being generated by both aerial and ground imaging systems, providing greater analysis of important factor such as canopy temperature and normalized difference vegetative index. All of these technologies can be combined to give a more accurate picture of crop breeding and reduce time as well as cost.

As the climate changes and world population grows, it’s important that these technologies be improved upon so that we can continue to feed ourselves in potentially less forgiving growing environments.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

Cannabis helps you sleep, but regular users can’t sleep without it

Many patients who suffer from chronic pain, post traumatic stress disorder, or insomnia use cannabis-based medicines for sleep. But now, clinical research from the University of Michigan warns that regular users may struggle to sleep without the drug or may build up too high of a tolerance.

Severe or chronic pain accounts for the majority of qualified conditions for people to use medicinal marijuana in the United States, but another common reason for people to seek out a medical marijuana card is to treat insomnia.

Despite the legalization of marijuana in 28 states, there are still many things about the drug that are unknown. Previous research on cannabis and sleep was conducted in sleep labs, where sleep stages and sleep continuity were measured. Some of these studies showed that individuals were able to fall asleep faster and stay asleep longer under the influence of cannabis.

For patients who use cannabis regularly, however, quitting the drug causes difficulty sleeping. Previous research also indicates that chronic use of cannabis may lesson the sleep benefits overtime. To test these theories, experts set out to determine how sleep quality varies among people who never smoke marijuana, occasionally smoke, and smoke daily.

98 young males were recruited for the study. They were asked to answer surveys, keep sleep diaries, and wear accelerometers for a week. Throughout the study, the individuals were instructed to use marijuana as they normally would. The results of the study found that 39 percent of the daily cannabis users reported significant insomnia compared to only ten percent of occasional smokers.

While frequent smokers were found to actually sleep worse, the researchers also discovered that frequent smokers with anxiety and depression slept much better. The researchers ultimately determined that the effects of cannabis on sleep are highly variable.

Psychiatry Professor Deirdre Conroy said that the results of using cannabis to sleep will vary according to factors such as each individual, the type of cannabis, the concentrations of the cannabis, and the frequency of use.

Future exploration of this topic may look into how different subspecies and concentrations of cannabis impact sleep. For example, one strain of cannabis may help sleep while another may cause nightmares.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Psychedelic mushrooms could help treat depression

Psychedelic mushrooms may actually be used in the future to treat depression. British scientists are planning to study the response of patients to the active ingredient in magic mushrooms known as psilocybin.

One out of three cases of depression is resistant to treatment. Researchers have been trying for years to find alternative ways to successfully treat depressed patients. For example, scientists have found that the club drug and anesthetic Ketamine can rapidly treat some of the most severe cases of depression.

Even though psychoactive drugs such as MDMA and LSD were made illegal in the 1960s, there is new interest in how these drugs may be able to help patients with serious mental conditions including post-traumatic stress disorder and obsessive compulsive disorder.

A London-based company called Compass Pathways will test the effectiveness of psilocybin in depressed patients next year. The study will take place in eight European countries over the course of three months.

The upcoming trial, which is the largest of its kind, will focus on 400 patients suffering from depression who are resistant to existing treatments. The scientists will use digital technology to observe how the patients respond to the psilocybin.

George Goldsmith is one of the founders of Compass Pathways. He explained to the Financial Times, “This is not about going back to the 1960s, but about taking forward 21st century science with digital innovation and medicines now that we understand how they work.”

From what is known from widespread recreational use of illegal mushrooms, experts feel confident that psilocybin is safe. However, the design of the study is still subject to regulatory approval.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Gene editing tool can change the color of plants

In a new breakthrough, Japanese scientists successfully changed the color of a morning glory using the CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing tool. By isolating one single gene in the plant’s DNA, scientists were able to change the flower’s purple hue to white.

With the new technology, the team was able to do almost instantaneously what took nature 850 years to perfect. CRISPR has been used to successfully “edit” human embryos, but this is the first time that scientists targeted the color of plants.

Conducted by researchers from University of Tsukuba, Yokohama City University, and the National Agriculture and Food Research Organization (NARO), the study used the Japanese morning glory as part of the National BioResource Project in Japan.

The researchers isolated a single gene, dihydroflavonol-4-reductase-B (DFR-B), which is responsible for the plant’s color. They then encoded the gene to deactivate enzyme production, which, in turn, changed the colors of the flower from purple to white.

All in all, the study recorded the successful transformation of 75% (24 out of 32) of the morning glorys used for the experiment.

CRISPR works by removing and replacing gene mutations, allowing the DNA strand to repair itself sans the original mutation effectively.

CRISPR has been the subject of some controversy, with the US intelligence community going so far as to call it a possible weapon of mass destruction. Other scientists and policy makers are hesitant to embrace CRISPR technology because of the ethical ramifications associated with it.

Because CRISPR essentially acts as a gene “photoshop” kit that cuts away undesired gene mutations, isolating and targeting single genes and changing them, there is a concern that it could be used to create “designer babies.”

However, CRISPR could also create revolutionary gene therapies, eradicate many inherited diseases, and cure certain diseases like cancer by removing genetic mutations.

As experiments using CRISPR continue and its promising applications in curing disease are further evidenced, scientists, ethicists, and policy makers will need to work together to ensure the safety and success of gene editing without causing ethical issues.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Climate change could drastically reduce coffee growing capacity

If you live in an area that isn’t being slammed by hurricanes and tornadoes, or aren’t a farmer whose crop is drying up due to heat waves and droughts, how much do you really have invested in the consequences of climate change? Well according to a new study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, many more of us may have our daily lives affected by recent findings on climate change than previously thought. 

Scientists have found that global warming may significantly reduce coffee growing areas in Latin America, which is the world’s largest coffee-producing region. By 2050, production might decrease in these areas by as much as 88 percent.

This is the first major study to analyze climate change’s projected impacts on coffee, and the bees that affect coffee production, on a national or continental scale. Furthermore, the study estimates much greater losses of coffee regions that previous assessments.

“Coffee is one of the most valuable commodities on earth, and needs a suitable climate and pollinating bees to produce well,” says Taylor Ricketts, study co-author and director of the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Gund Institute for Environment. “This is the first study to show how both will likely change under global warming – in ways that will hit coffee producers hard.”

The largest declines are projected to be in Nicaragua, Honduras, and Venezuela. “Coffee provides the main income for millions of the rural poor, so yield declines would affect the livelihoods of those already vulnerable people,” says Ricketts.

However, this study isn’t all doom and gloom. The researchers forecast that coffee suitability in Mexico, Guatemala, Colombia, and Costa Rica will actually increase due to climate change. These changes are mainly going to happen in mountainous areas where temperatures are projected to support both coffee growing and an increase in bee populations.

“If there are bees in the coffee plots, they are very efficient and very good at pollinating, so productivity increases and also berry weight,” says lead author Pablo Imbach of the International Center for Tropical Agriculture. “In the areas projected to lose coffee suitability, we wanted to know whether that loss could be offset by bees.”

This shows how important tropical forests are as key habitats for wild bees, as well as other pollinators. Roughly 91 percent of the most suitable areas for coffee in Latin America are currently within a mile of tropical forests. Interestingly, that number is projected to increase to 97 percent by 2050, which means conservation of these habitats will be imperative.

The models created to achieve this study now provide strategies to improve coffee growth and bee pollination for Latin American farmers. These strategies include increasing bee habitats near farms where bee diversity is expected to increase, as well as prioritizing farming practices that are less environmentally harmful and protecting the forests around their farms.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

New methods introduced to help crops adapt to climate change

It is highly likely that climate change will intensify weather events such as drought and heat, which will bring physical stress to crops and threaten severe crop loss. Researchers are working to understand and identify the physiological traits of crops in order to select adaptable, stress-tolerant genes that could help crops survive stressful environments.

Christopher Topp is a researcher with the Danforth Plant Science Center. Topp will introduce his research on crop improvement at the “Physiological Traits for High Throughput Phenotyping of Abiotic Stress Tolerance” conference. The discussion will take place at the Managing Global Resources for a Secure Future International Annual Meeting in Tampa, Florida.

Topp stresses the importance of a crop’s roots, in particular, for its survival. He will present various imaging tools used in studying roots, along with quantitative genetics and molecular biology.

“We aim to understand the relationships among root traits that can be effectively measured in both laboratory and field environments,” said Topp. “Our hope is to identify genes and gene networks that control roots. The ultimate goal is improving whole plant architectural features useful for crop improvement.”

Maria Salas-Fernandez of Iowa State University will also speak at the conference. She will recommend phenotyping techniques that can help crops adapt to climate change through manipulation of their leaf angles and photosynthesis rates.

“Yield is determined by a plant’s capacity to capture light energy in the form of photosynthesis,” said Salas-Fernandez. “It is now recognized that the necessary yield gains to meet global food demands will come from manipulating the photosynthetic capability of plant species.”

The meeting will be held Monday, October 23, and is sponsored by the American Society of Agronomy, Crop Science Society of America, and the Soil Science Society of America.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Plant sugars could rival petroleum with new extraction method

Researchers have hit on a discovery that could help clean up the world: a method for extracting plant sugars from trash like wood chips or corn cobs, then using it as a petroleum alternative.

Because it relies on waste material, the new technique could help solve two major environmental issues: the pollution caused by extracting and processing petroleum, and the trend of replacing food crops with crops intended for biofuels.

“To make greener chemicals and fuel, we’re working with plant material, but we don’t want to compete with its food value,” said Dr. Basudeb Saha, associate director of the Catalysis Center for Energy Innovation at the University of Delaware. “So instead of taking corn and extracting its sugars to make ethanol, we’re making use of the stalks and cobs left over after the corn is harvested, as well as other kinds of waste like wood chips and rice hulls.”

For decades, researchers have been looking into ways to recycle waste products into usable fuels and other products. However, biorefineries have come up against obstacles such as a lack of steady supply. In the case of plentiful waste like wood chips or corn cobs, the difficulty has been in finding a process that breaks them down so the plant sugars they contain can be used.

“The lignin that makes their cell walls so tough and sturdy acts like superglue, holding tightly to the sugars,” Saha said in a press release.

The current process requires two or more steps and relies on the use of harsh chemicals. But Saha, other University of Delaware researchers and scientists at Rutgers University have developed a much more environmentally friendly, single-step process for extracting plant sugars from waste materials.

Instead of pretreating wood chips to break down the lignin, then moving on the the hydrolysis of of the sugars within the cells, it comes both steps into one process. Using a concentrated, inorganic salt solution, the process also operates at a relatively low temperature – 185 Fahrenheit – and takes about one hour.

The University of Delaware team has filed for an international patent on their solution and process. They’ve even figured out how to recycle the salt solution.

“Our process enables – for the first time – the economical production of feed streams that could profoundly improve the economics of cellulosic bioproducts manufactured downstream, not to mention the environmental benefits of replacing petroleum,” Saha says. “More than 10,000 million metric tons of carbon emissions were reported in 2010 from conventional fossil fuels and chemicals, which has a long-term catastrophic effect on our environment.”

The team has published their research in the journal ChemSusChem.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Image credit: Evan Krape, University of Delaware

As countries legalize cannabis, what is the international law?

With the legalization of cannabis in Canada, the United States, and Uruguay, the future of international drug control treaties is now in doubt, as these changes are violate the treaties.

Professor Wayne Hall, who made world headlines after publishing a review of 20 years of cannabis research in 2014, published a paper in the scientific journal Addiction that outline a cautious approach to policy reform. His suggestions revolve around trialing and evaluating the effects of incrementally more liberal drug policies is decriminalization is going to continue to expand.

The majority of member states of the United Nations endorse these international drug control treaties, which prohibit the non-medical use of cannabis, amphetamines, cocaine, and heroin. These treaties are designed to reduce illegal access to prohibited drugs while also facilitating access to these drugs for medical and research purposes.

However, critics have stated that these treaties have failed to effectively handle non-medical use of illegal drugs while also defending policies that conflict with UN human rights treaties through the incarceration of large numbers of drug users.

In his paper, Hall suggests policies that nations could adopt in order to address the harm that certain illegal drugs cause to users and others. This would include completely changing some treaties or allowing for “flexible interpretations” of treaty provisions by members of the UN.

Cannabis is the strongest candidate for national policy experiments on a variety of ways to regulate its sale and use. This is already occurring in the U.S., Uruguay, and Canada. Thorough evaluations of these experiments could be useful for other nations in how they may decide to legalize cannabis in the future.

For drugs such as ecstasy, LSD, and other psychoactive substances, the most imperative regulatory challenge would be ensuring that the manufacture and sale of these substances meet the standards of consumer safety, and that consumers are informed about the risks of using these drugs.

Hall suggests a mitigated form of prohibition for opioids, which would expand treatment for opioid dependence, reduce some of its serious medical complications, and reduce imprisonment of opioid users.

Unfortunately for cocaine and amphetamines, Hall doesn’t have any quick fixes. Policies for stimulants need to be improved to reduce the demand and offer more effective treatments for stimulant users. Prohibition may minimize their use, but it’s not sufficient, and regulation through a modified prescription system is unlikely to curtail harmful use.

When it comes to drugs and drug regulation, much of the world is changing. It makes sense the policies, both nationally and internationally, must adapt to change with it.

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer