One-quarter of cancer patients use medicinal marijuana

Currently, more than half of the states in the U.S. have passed laws allowing for the use of medicinal marijuana, while eight states and the District of Columbia have legalized the use of recreational marijuana. As the availability of legal marijuana continues to grow, certain populations will have greater access to cannabis than ever before.

A recent study done at a cancer center located in a state with legalized recreational and medicinal marijuana found that roughly one-quarter of patients surveyed had used marijuana in the past year. Those surveyed said that they were using it for both physical and psychological symptoms. The study also found that legalization increased the probability of marijuana use among patients.

It is believed that cannabis can alleviate symptoms related to cancer treatment. Despite this, patterns of marijuana use among cancer patients have not been thoroughly investigated. To make up for this gap in data, Dr. Steven Pergam of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and his team surveyed over 900 patients at the Seattle Cancer Center Alliance.

They found that the majority of patients were interested in learning more about the use of marijuana during treatment. Well over half of the participants had used marijuana in the past, with 24 percent using it in the last year – and 21 percent using cannabis in the last month.

Through random urine sampling, the researchers discovered that 14 percent had evidence of recent cannabis use, although 18 percent had reported using it in the past week.

Despite the fact that 74 percent of the patients surveyed wanted more information from their cancer care providers, most of the participants reported that they were more likely to get information on medical marijuana from sources outside of the healthcare system.

“Cancer patients desire but are not receiving information from their cancer doctors about marijuana use during their treatment, so many of them are seeking information from alternate non-scientific sources,” says Dr. Pergam. “We hope that this study helps to open up the door for more studies aimed at evaluating the risks and benefits of marijuana in this population. This is important, because if we do not educate our patients about marijuana, they will continue to get their information elsewhere.”

By Connor Ertz, Earth.com Staff Writer

A deeper look into how plants breathe

Research from the John Innes Centre is providing scientists with new insight on how plants breathe. The team has revealed previously unknown information about guard cells, which regulate the stomata through which plants breathe.

Previous studies on how plants breathe in carbon dioxide and breathe out oxygen have focused on the thickening of the inner walls of guard cells. These cells control the stomata, tiny pores which open and close for functions such as gas exchange and water regulation.

“Guard cells are also hot-spots for pathogen attack so understanding what controls the opening and closing of the stomata is important for improving plant health,” said lead researcher Richard Morris.

The research team developed the first complete 3D model of a guard cell and, through use of 3D simulation, identified three elements that ensure the guard cells to function properly. These ingredients include the level of water or turgor pressure inside the cell, the elasticity of the cell wall, and a kidney-shaped geometry that converts pressure into shape changes.

Further observation, which is published in Current Biology, exposed another previously unknown fact about guard cells. Computer modeling and atomic force microscopy revealed an unexpected stiffening of the guard cell end regions, or poles.

“This polar stiffening reflects a mechanical pinning down of the guard cell ends which prevents stomata increasing in length as they open,” explained co-author Jamie Hobbs. “This leads to an increased speed of pore opening and larger pores. You get ‘better’ stomata.”

The same polar stiffening was observed in the model plant Arabidopsis, tomato, and maize, which indicates that it is widespread across many plant species. Professor Morris said that next the researchers will study grass stomata which have a different shape and are likely to have a different underlying mechanism.

“This work could help us to understand how to make plants more climate resilient,” said Morris.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Green algae could help solve future food shortages

Green algae is well known for its fast growth rate, which depending on the circumstances could spell trouble for some ecosystems. But two new studies reveal why green algae bloom so efficiently and how it could pave the way to faster-growing crops.

The Princeton University studies reveal an in-depth analysis of the pyrenoid within algae that is used for harvesting carbon dioxide. The pyrenoid is an organelle, or a grouping of specialized structures within a cell. The research demonstrated how the pyrenoid, previously thought to be a solid, actually works like a liquid.

Scientists have theorized that by gaining a better understanding of how algae gathers carbon dioxide in the pyrenoid, it could help find ways to improve photosynthesis in other plants.

“If we could engineer other crops to concentrate carbon, we could address the growing world demand for food,” said Martin Jonikas, an assistant professor of molecular biology at Princeton.

The first study focused on the proteins found in the pyrenoid of an algae species known as Chlamydomonas reinhardtii.

The researchers identified 89 new proteins in the pyrenoid, with some of the proteins used to guide carbon dioxide into the pyrenoid and some used for the formation of the pyrenoid.

“The information represents the best assessment yet of how this essential carbon-concentrating machinery is organized and suggests new avenues for exploring how it works,” said Luke Mackinder, the study’s first author.

It was in the second study, through a high-powered laser and fluorescent imaging process, that researchers discovered the pyrenoid functions like a water droplet, with the enzymes moving freely and redistributing themselves as if they were suspended in water.

Another experiment, performed by Benjamin Engel, a postdoctoral researcher from the Max Planck Institute of Biochemistry, proved this by using cryo-electron tomography.

Engel’s imaging allowed the researchers to explore how the pyrenoid is passed down through the generations, and what happens if there is no pyrenoid present in one of the two daughter cells after cell division occurs.

The team found that even if a daughter cell failed to receive half the pyrenoid, it could still form one later on.

The two studies, published in the journal Cell, shed new light on the inner workings of green algae, and shed new light on photosynthesis and harvesting carbon dioxide. Further research using these discoveries may help increase growth rate in other crops and help meet the growing demand for food worldwide.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

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