How ancient people changed the face of the rainforest

Imagine: you’re deep within the Brazilian rainforest when you discover huge, geometric trenches. Some of the huge shapes – squares and circles – measure as large as a city block. The trenches themselves are up to 13 feet deep and as much as 12 yards wide. These earthworks are a reality, and archaeologists believe they were built by ancient people around 2,000 years ago. They also found broken ceramics near the entrance to the shapes, but are unsure why the materials were left there.

The discovery of the ancient geometric earthworks has unearthed a stunning realization: rainforest areas that were previously thought to be undisturbed by humans until 15th century explorers arrived from Europe were actually subject to manipulation by the ancient people who built these glyphs – as well as those who came before them.

“A lot of people have the idea that the Amazon forests are pristine forests, never touched by humans, and that’s obviously not the case,” said Jennifer Watling, an archaeologist the University of São Paulo, Brazil, told the New York Times.

Researchers have found evidence of sustainable farming practices carried out thousands of years before the trenches were constructed.

They did this by carefully examining the environmental history of two of the areas in the Amazon rain forest in which glyphs are located. By analyzing soil samples, scientists were able to put together a story of ancient vegetation, as well as burnings that took place to make openings in the forest. Researchers believe that ancient forest dwellers may have planted maize or squash.

Somewhat like methods now known as agroforestry, the ancient people of the Amazon took care not to burn or clear-cut large swaths of land. Instead, they used sustainable farming at its best. Watling says that the biodiversity that exists in the Amazon today is due to the practices that were started all those many years ago and continued by indigenous groups even today.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer

Roses are red and violets are blue – but why?

Roses are red and violets are blue, but have you every wondered why? We know why flowers have colors – it helps them attract bees and other pollinators. They also help humans attract mates, surprising them with a heartfelt bouquet (or at least averting disaster by picking up one as a last-minute gift). But how exactly do flowers develop such a variety of vibrant hues?

Scientists have, and that’s why the National Science Foundation (NSF) is funding research into the genetics behind flower colors and how those colors change over time.

Stacy Smith of the University of Colorado Boulder is one of the members of the research team. She says that flower color is due to the “biochemical composition of petal cells.”

What is the biochemical composition, though? According to scientists, it’s pigment compounds such as flavonoids, carotenoids, and betalains.

If your ears perk up because you’ve heard of the health benefits of flavonoids, you’re on the right track. These hue-inducing compounds also have “antioxidant and other medicinal properties, including anti-cancer, anti-bacterial, and anti-inflammatory activity,” according to NSF Program Director Simon Malcomber.

Changes in the chemistry of these pigment compounds create different flower colors. Much of Smith’s work has focused on the tomato family of plants – one that includes species that range from tomatoes and eggplants to, surprisingly, tobacco and even potatoes. Her team is focusing on studying the wild species of these plants because they have a wider range of colors than their domesticated counterparts.

They’re currently working to determine when and how red flowers appeared in the tomato family of plants. In a species of nearly 2,800 plants, the tomato family only features 34 that have red flowers.

“With such a small number, we can take samples of every one of these species to find out whether it represents an independent origin, and to determine the biochemistry of how it makes red flowers,” Smith said.

The petunia – also a member of the tomato family – is of particular interest in sorting out this mystery, as it has a huge variation in colors.

Researchers hope that discovering how plants synthesize pigment compounds might provide clues for future drug discovery research. It will also satisfy scientists’ burning curiosity about how roses became red and violet became blue – a curiosity that is sparked anew every time they hear someone recite the classic poem.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer

Source: Stacy Smith, University of Colorado Boulder

National Science Foundation


After DEA letter, hemp advocates are hitting back

A leading association of hemp advocates is suing the Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) over claims that the agency violated a court order when it started cracking down on products made with hemp in letters sent out last December.

For decades, cannabis has been illegal under U.S. federal law. However, regulation of cannabis has also lead to a crackdown on hemp, its non-psychoactive cousin. While the form of cannabis we traditionally know as marijuana has high (no pun intended) amounts of THC, industrial hemp has amounts of less than 0.3%. In other words, you could smoke a truckload of hemp and not get high.

Despite this, products like hemp seed and hemp seed oil remained illegal for years in the U.S. In 2004, the Hemp Industries Association (HIA) sued the DEA in a case that became known as the “Food Rules Challenge.” The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals sided with the HIA, ruling that hemp does not belong on the list of Schedule I controlled substances. In 2014, Congress passed a Farm Bill that gave permission for states to grow hemp under a special licensing program.

Late last year, the DEA struck again, this time working with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture (NDDA) to send correspondence to Healthy Oilseeds, LLC. The company was informed that in order to ship their hemp protein powder and hemp seed oil products, they’d have to get a permit from the DEA.  

The HIA is fighting back, claiming that the DEA has overstepped its bounds, violating the intent of the Farm Bill, as well as the Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2016, which prevents authorities from using funds to stop the “transportation, processing, sale, or use of industrial hemp.” They have filed a Petition for Review with the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“It is disappointing that the industry has to revisit the issue, and take this step to compel DEA to obey the law,” said Joe Sandler, HIA’s lead counsel.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer


UK government approves GM super yield wheat trial

Scientists are hoping to better feed the world. Their research on genetically-modified (GM) crops has brought us drought- and pest-resistant plants. Now, a team from Rothamsted Research is hoping to grow a new kind of super yield GM wheat after the UK government gave its approval for the experiment to move forward.

Scientists from the University of Essex and Lancaster University engineered the new wheat to use sunlight more efficiently. They did this by modifying them with a gene from a plant called the stiff brome.  They believe this will result in the GMO plant carrying out photosynthesis much more efficiently and increasing greenhouse yields by up to 40%.

“It makes the plant bigger in the greenhouse, it makes the leaves grow bigger, and that’s because you have more of this photosynthesis going on,” said Malcolm Hawkesford from Rothamsted to BBC News.

He says that the additional CO2 created from increased photosynthesis will result in more grain production, as well.

Wheat yields have reached a plateau even as the world’s population continues to grow. Researchers say that in order to keep up with demand, food production must increase by 70% by 2050. They hope that this super yield wheat trial will help increase wheat production worldwide.

The team of researchers received approval from the Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) to proceed with the trial at a secure site near Harpenden.

GM crop trials face many hurdles. Sometimes, even after government approval has been granted and the experiments are able to proceed, the trials aren’t successful. In other cases, protesters destroy the crops.

Critics of GM agriculture say that increasing food production isn’t the answer to world hunger. Liz O’Neil from GM Freeze points to poverty – and not photosynthesis – as the problem that needs to be addressed. Rather than GM plant trials, she says that public funding should be spent on solutions such as waste reduction and poverty eradication.

It’s unclear whether approval for the program signals that the UK government is softening its stance on GM crops post-Brexit.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer

Minuscule microbe provides clues to the evolution of photosynthesis

It’s one of the first science lessons we all have to memorize in grade school: plants take in carbon dioxide and sunlight in order to use photosynthesis to turn it into the oxygen that humans and animals need to survive. But how did plants first develop the ability to photosynthesize? For a long time, scientists weren’t sure. However, the discovery of a new microbe may have provided some clues.

A group of Japanese researchers found those clues in microscopic Methanospirillum hungatei. Although the microbe existed before the development of photosynthesis, its genes are similar to the kinds of genes modern plants use for photosynthesis.

Scientists made this discovery by examining the enzymes synthesized by genes in the microbe. They analyzed metabolic substances within Methanospirillum hungatei and were even able to locate CO2 trapped inside the organism. These tests showed that it used a primitive process that very much resembles what we all know as photosynthesis.

The process was discovered by researchers led by Ashida Hiroki of Kobe University, Kono Takunari, also of Kobe University, as well as Matsumara Hiroyoshi from Ritsumeikan University. Their findings were published in the journal Nature Communications.

The study sheds light on how plants evolved to form a photosynthesis system – something that has so far remained a scientific mystery. Understanding this process will help do more than satisfy scientific curiosity. Researchers hope that better understanding photosynthesis will be able to help them increase agricultural production for crops, as well as biofuel.

The next time you sit outside, consider for a moment how the plants and trees provide the oxygen in every breath you take. Then let your wonder deepen as you realize that although science is still working to discover how it happened, plants actually evolved to do that. Also, relax: there won’t be a multiple-choice test on this later.

By Dawn Henderson, Staff Writer

Source: Kobe University, Ritsumeikan University

This town stinks thanks to rotting radishes

Something is rotten in the state of Pennsylvania. The town of Jersey Shore, to be exact – and no, it’s not wannabe reality TV stars. That’s a different Jersey Shore. This one is plagued by a field of rotting radishes.

The odor first infused the town about three weeks ago. Residents couldn’t find the source of the foul stench, so they turned to TV news station WNEP for help.

After getting descriptions of the odious odor from town citizens – who said the gag-worthy aroma was similar to a leaky propane tank, rotten eggs or bad pumpkins, and worse than a dead deer – the news team from the aptly named Nippenose Township set out to investigate.

The news team’s first stop was to check in with the obvious suspect: the town sewage plant. But things smelled no worse than usual there, WNEP said.

“If someone could smell our plant five miles (away), then the odor here would be quite overbearing and that’s not the case,” Jersey Shore Sewer Authority director Shawn Lorson told the station.

So the news team had to follow their noses. Their olfactory investigation led them to some fields outside Jersey Shore.

Turns out the citizen who guessed rotten pumpkin wasn’t too far off. The fields that were raising such a big stink in Jersey Shore were full of bad vegetables, all right: rotting radishes.

The fields belonged to T.A. Seeds, a company that sells hybrid corn, soy, alfalfa, and other crops throughout the U.S. In the winter, they told WNEP, they plant radishes as a cover crop to help scavenge the nutrients in the soil.

Usually, the radishes are mostly decayed by the time the weather warms up, and the town never has to deal with the smell. This year, however, unusually warm weather sent the horrible stench of rotten vegetables wafting through town.

“You know you are going to get more odor if you have this warm weather in January. You are going to smell it a lot quicker,” T.A. Seeds president Taylor Doebler told the Nippenose news team.

Eventually, the smell should go away, he said.

By Kyla Cathey / staff writer