Sweet potatoes emerged before humans 800,000 years ago

A recent study has revealed that sweet potatoes emerged before there were any humans around. The research also indicates that the sweet potato made its way from America to Polynesia without human assistance

“Apart from identifying its progenitor, we also discovered that sweet potato originated well before humans, at least 800,000 years ago,” said study co-author Robert Scotland from the University of Oxford. “Therefore, it is likely that the edible root already existed when humans first found this plant.”

The research team set out to investigate the origin and evolution of the sweet potato and also to determine how the sweet potato was widespread in Polynesia by the time Europeans first arrived. Because the crop originated in America, the presence of sweet potatoes in Polynesia was thought to be evidence of pre-European contacts between Americans and Polynesians.

The experts sequenced the DNA of almost 200 specimens, including the sweet potato and all of its relatives found in the wild. The analysis produced evidence which strongly suggests that sweet potatoes arose as the result of a genome duplication event.

The researchers concluded that the only species that was involved in the origin of the sweet potato was its closest wild relative, Ipomoea trifida.

“We demonstrate that the existence of those two different lineages is the result of an ancient hybridization between sweet potato and its progenitor,” said study first author Munoz-Rodriguez.

“We conclude that sweet potato evolved at least 800,000 years ago from its progenitor, and then after the two species became distinct, they hybridized.”

Scotland explained that, now that the sweet potato’s progenitor has been identified, scientists can examine its potential for breeding.

“Our results challenge not only the hypothesis that the sweet potato was taken to Polynesia by humans, but also the long-time argued existence of ancient contacts between Americans and Polynesians,” said Munoz-Rodriguez.

“These contacts were considered as true based on evidence from chickens, humans, and sweet potato. Evidence from chickens and humans is now considered questionable, and thus sweet potato was the remaining biological evidence of these alleged contacts. Therefore, our results refute the dominant theory and call into question the existence of pre-European contacts across the Pacific.”

The study is published in the journal Current Biology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Sacred plants in mythology, religion, and spirituality

“Why would a plant give a shit about Mozart?” I remember him saying. “And even if it did, why should that impress us?  I mean they can eat light.  Isn’t that enough?”

– One River by Wade Davis

Plants are easy to overlook.  Plants are inanimate (mostly) and often become more of a background or a food item than a dynamic, living, breathing aspect to our world.  It’s easy to forget the casual, everyday miracle that plants can take dirt, sunlight and water and turn it into delicious food, building an ecosystem from the bottom up.  Beyond the everyday characteristics of plants that we so take for granted, they are firmly rooted (pun intended) in mythology, religion and spirituality. In a word, many plants are sacred.  

Trees cover the gamut from sacred to almost evil depending on your perspective.  The story of Cain and Abel, as well as their parents of Adam and Eve show interesting insights into the early Israelite relationship to the earth.  Of course, the knowledge of good and evil are imparted to Eve and then to Adam from the fruit of a tree. The curious revelations from the fruit lead to Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden and a life of toil.  The curious thing is that later, Cain a man growing fruit seems to be rejected or at least ignored by the God of the Bible, while Abel, a herdsman is embraced. To some the story of original sin as well as Cain and Abel is a veiled tale of a people torn between a sedentary life of agriculture and a pastoral, free roaming, nomadic lifestyle.  In this way, a life of tree planting is seen as a life of hardship and toil, out of balance with a more natural life of gathering or perhaps pastoralism. In this light, fruit trees are cast as a sort of villain, a harsh master demanding so much work for the mixed blessing of their fruit.

Trees continue to be villainized throughout the Bible.  In Exodus, Deuteronomy and Kings, you see the God of the Bible connecting groves of trees to pagan worship and even commanding Jews to burn pagan groves.  To me, this hints that Judaism may have itself risen from an early polytheistic religion that included tree planting. The mention of sacred groves certainly says that other religions in the Biblical Middle East connected trees to their deities.  In many other parts of the world there are other religions with their own sacred trees.

There are groves of trees sacred to Hindus in India where hunting and other activities have traditionally been strictly regulated.  There are also a few Indian Islamic and Buddhist groves. It’s said that the Buddha himself reached enlightenment meditating beneath a Bodhi Tree (Ficus religosa).  Japan has groves associated with Shinto shrines and the Celts throughout Europe had groves, usually associated with the Druid goddess Nemetona.  In Norse mythology, the tree Yggdrasil is an enormous ash that connects the nine worlds from the roots of the dark underworld to the airy heavens together.  

Plants are the primary source of food, fiber and medicine for traditional cultures, so it’s not surprising that sometimes they’re endowed with special powers.  What may be surprising to some is that plants actually do have special powers, containing millions of bioactive compounds. Some compounds such as caffeine are easily taken for granted but imagine the world without coffee, tea or chocolate.  Some compounds and plants are stranger and harder to discount. Quanah Parker, a Comanche Chief and proponent of the Native American Church, highlights the power of some plants in this quote:

“The White Man goes into his church and talks about Jesus. The Indian goes into his tipi and talks with Jesus.”

Parker is talking about using Peyote in the American Indian Church.  Peyote is just one of many mind bending, plants imbued with spiritual powers.  There is even talk that psychedelic plants were instrumental in creating even the most popular of modern religions.  Looking again at the Bible story of Adam and Eve, one wonders if there is another interpretation to be made. Perhaps the tree of the knowledge of good and evil is a psychedelic plant giving revelation from a powerful wallop of drug.  Ayahuasca is another drug, derived from vines and other plants that is becoming more popular. The drink is a powerful hallucinogen from the Amazon region and extremely important in Native South American culture. These days tourists visit retreats to take Ayahuasca as a sort of short cut to ‘instant Karma’ or enlightenment.  There are hints that the ancient Greeks may have mixed hallucinogenic plants into their wine on special occasions.

Of course our most common mood altering drugs also come from plants in their own way, alcoholic beverages although created by yeast are created from plants.

Marijuana is also obvious as a mind altering plant and is considered something sacred by the Rastafarian religion.  Rastafarians even believe marijuana is mentioned several times in the Bible, such as in Revelations 22:2, “The herb is the healing of the nations”

Plants provide medicine as well as enlightenment.  Many modern drugs are derived from plants. Heart medicine is made from the poisonous flowering plant foxglove; aspirin was originally discovered in tree bark.  Quinine, a drug used for malaria was discovered in the bark of the Cinchona tree of South America, despite that malaria originated in Africa.

With all the uses of plants and our dependence on them, it’s hard to say they aren’t sacred.  If you consider your own life special, sacred, valuable, consider this: your life depends on plants for almost everything.                       

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer

Life on the US-Mexico border is fluid for many wildlife species

As far as the natural world is concerned, international borders are just lines drawn on a map.  Abstract. A wall is a way to manifest an unnatural idea.

Jaguars perhaps most famously often cross the fluid border between the US and Mexico.  Fish seem to wander at will along the very fluid border set by the Rio Grande between Texas and the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila and Tamaulipas.

Of course it’s little different with people.  Native American tribes such as the Tohono O’odham and Yaqui have lived on both sides of the US-Mexico border since before either country existed, often travelling across the not yet existing border.  Today the reality hasn’t changed much, with many tribes crossing the borders for ceremonies, work or simply to visit family members and friends.

The truth of the ecological unity between the United States of America and Mexico is shown quite clearly in the lands protected by governments on both sides of the border.  

Organ Pipe National Monument is a desert park taking up 330,689 acres of land on the southern border of Arizona and Mexico.  95% of the land in Organ Pipe is set aside as wilderness area. From peaks inside Organ Pipe National Monument, you can look across the border into Mexico and see El Picante y Gran Desierto de Altar.  El Picante y Gran Desierto de Altar is considerably larger than the US Organ Pipe, measuring approximately 1,765,731 acres. Organ Pipe also partners with Delta de Rio Colorado and Alto Golfo de California in Mexico for management.  The landscape of broken volcanic geology and spare desert vegetation is common to Organ Pipe as well as El Picante y Gran Desierto de Altar. Sonoran Pronghorn are monitored by staff in both desert parks. The parks on the coast in Mexico share water from the Colorado River originating in the US.  

Of course, the border is a stark reality to humans on both sides of it.  In the 90s, border security in urban areas increased dramatically; forcing Mexicans seeking a better life, and illegal smuggling operations into the desert to cross into the US.  According to The Guardian, border patrol intercepted about 23 people in Organ Pipe National Monument per day in 2015.  The remains of 129 people who crossed the border illegally were found in the desert of southern Arizona in 2014.       

The reality of Organ Pipe National Monument has changed radically in recent decades.  In 2002 Kris Eggle, a Park Law Enforcement Officer, was killed by members of a drug cartel fleeing Mexico.  The murder prompted closing the majority of the park, an order that remained largely in effect for almost 11 years.  When the park completely reopened to the public in 2014, it was with a very different face. High Country News reported that the park in 2014 had 20 law enforcement officers compared to 5 in 2003.  Likewise, Border Patrol agents increased 20-fold to a total of over 500. The park is now said to be safe for tourists.

Big Bend National Park in Texas shares a border with Mexico for 118 miles says the National Park Service website.  On the same website, under the heading of ‘Safety Advice’ is a recommendation:

“People in distress may ask for food, water, or other assistance. It is recommended that you do not make contact with them, but note the location, and immediately notify park rangers. Lack of water is a life-threatening emergency in the desert.”

It’s clear from the context that this refers to illegal immigrants from Mexico.  Elsewhere on the website, the subject of border merchants is broached. On the U.S. side of the border, tourist items such as walking sticks and bracelets are left for sale by Mexican merchants.  The website says buying these items encourages illegal crossing of the river which may lead to incarceration.

According to NPR, The Big Bend Sector of the border has had the lowest apprehension rate of illegal crossers annually for the last 44 years.  The inhospitable terrain might be the reason why. Unlike in the Sonoran desert, the terrain of Big Bend might keep many from even trying to cross into the US, outside of border merchants.

In Big Bend, the Rio Grande River which already forms a natural border between US and Mexico is also of supreme importance to wildlife.  A potential border wall could kill animals searching for a drink in the arid Chihuahuan Desert. Black Bears, Mountain Lions, Big Horn Sheep, Coyotes, and Coati all live in the park.  Wildlife doesn’t respect borders and needs freedom to move for survival, especially in demanding desert regions.

Bordering Big Bend National Park on the Mexico side are Cañón de Santa Elena Flora and Fauna Protection Area and Maderas Del Carmen Biosphere Reserve, both of which are sister parks to Big Bend.  As sister parks, the managing agencies of the parks in the US and Mexico work together on things such as wildlife monitoring on both sides of the border. All together, the two Mexican protected areas and the one in the US make up The Big Bend Conservation Corridor Initiative, protecting more than 3 million acres, an area Wikipedia notes, as large as the US state of Connecticut.  As the name corridor implies, the area has been set aside partially to enable migration of wildlife north to south through the border region.

At the turn of the last century, Black Bears were said to be common in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend National Park.  Ranchers, hunters and federal predator control agents put an end to Black Bears in the Big Bend region. By 1944 when Big Bend National Park was established, there were virtually no Black Bears at all.

In the 1980s bears made a comeback in Big Bend, journeying across the deserts of Mexico, swimming the Rio Grande a female from Sierra Del Carmen crossed even more desert in Texas to re-establish her species in the Chisos Mountains of Big Bend once again.  Without the corridor left intact between the US and Mexico, Black Bears could never have come back to Big Bend.

So far, the president and his cabinet have said that Big Bend won’t be a place where an actual border wall will be built.  

All along the border, parks and preserves in the US partner with those in Mexico to protect the land and wildlife common to both.  Chiricahua National Monument, Saguaro National Park, Coronado National Memorial all in Arizona have sister Parks in Mexico. White Sands National Monument in New Mexico partners with Cuatrocienagas Biosphere Reserve to develop shared inventory and monitoring programs.  Besides Big Bend in Texas, Padre Island National Seashore also partners with a Biosphere Reserve and a National Park in Mexico.

Beyond parks, projects such as the Northern Jaguar Project bridge the international border between the US and Mexico.  Monarch Butterflies that pollinate millions of flowers in the US winter in Mexico, where tourists flock to see magical clouds of the insect.  

It’s easy to forget that nature works as a whole and isn’t divided by artificial boundaries drawn on the map so human can cut the world into chunks easily used for human purposes.  For now, the border between US and Mexico remains fluid in many areas.

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer

Man hospitalized after eating world’s hottest chili pepper

Doctors are reporting that an individual was hospitalized with a disorder characterized by severe “thunderclap” headaches and narrowing of the blood vessels in the brain after ingesting the world’s hottest chili pepper.

Temporary side effects such as sweating and a burning sensation in the mouth or stomach are commonly associated with eating hot peppers. It is far less common, however, that eating a chili pepper leads to an urgent need for medical attention.

The Carolina Reaper, a hybrid of the ghost pepper and the red habanero, is estimated to be about 300 times as hot as the spiciest jalapeno and holds the record as the hottest pepper in the world.

After eating one of these scorching hot peppers, a young man immediately began dry heaving and then developed severe neck pain and a series of intense headaches, which lasted for just a few seconds at a time yet persisted over several days.

A computed tomography (CT) scan revealed that several arteries in the patient’s brain had constricted, and he was diagnosed with reversible cerebral vasoconstriction syndrome (RCVS).

This disorder occurs when contraction of the blood vessels cause the arteries to narrow temporarily. In addition to the onset of severe thunderclap headaches, which can last up to several weeks, RCVS is known to cause nausea, blurred vision, vomiting, confusion, and difficulty speaking.

While the direct cause of RCVS is often unknown, the condition has been associated with many risk factors including binge drinking, head trauma, and the use of nasal decongestants or prescription drugs.

According to the study authors, this is the first time that RCVS has been linked to chili peppers. The researchers said that cayenne pepper, on the other hand, has been previously linked to sudden constriction of the coronary artery and subsequent heart attacks.

“Given the development of symptoms immediately after exposure to a known vasoactive substance, it is plausible that our patient had RCVS secondary to the Carolina Reaper,” wrote the study authors.

The man’s RCVS symptoms reportedly disappeared on their own, and a CT scan performed five weeks after the incident showed that his arteries had returned to normal.

The study is published in the journal BMJ Case Reports.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

How an experiment to grow an entire salad could lead to space

Growing the ingredients for an entire salad doesn’t sound impressive, until you add that the feat was accomplished by scientists in Antarctica – and it could bring us closer to a manned mission to Mars.

Germany’s DLR Institute of Space Systems, based in Antarctica, managed to produce eight pounds of greens along with 70 radishes and 18 cucumbers, all without the use of soil. More impressive, their greenhouse succeeded while temperatures plummeted to -6 degrees Fahrenheit.

If you’re wondering what that has to do with space, the EDEN-ISS project’s growing conditions are about as close as researchers can get to Mars or the Moon here on Earth.

Growing an entire salad is an early success for the Antarctica program, which launched in December 2017.

“We have learned a lot about self-sufficient plant breeding in recent weeks, it shows that the Antarctic is an ideal test field for our research,” project manager Daniel Schubert said in a statement, translated from the original German by Vice.

The new plant growing technology could help humans spend more time on the surface of the Moon, or even survive the long trip to Mars.

But there’s no need to look to the stars for potential benefits from the program. The EDEN-ISS researchers are also hoping to develop new agricultural technologies and practices that can help humans who live in harsh climates here on Earth.

The team is hoping regular harvests will be in full swing by next month.

“In May, the DLR researchers are expecting full operation of the container greenhouse, with around four to five kilograms of fresh vegetables being harvested each week,” Schubert wrote.

They’re also looking forward to more salad. Turns out, the first crop tasted great – at least, the station manager Bernhard Gropp seemed to to think so.

“It tasted as if we had harvested it fresh in the garden. It was special to have the first fresh salad in Antarctica,”  he wrote on the program’s site.

By Kyla Cathey, Earth.com staff writer

Green roofs offer habitat opportunities for diverse species

Along with many other environmental benefits, green roofs introduce new habitats for wildlife. A team of researchers is reporting that some organisms are making their way onto green roofs by riding along with birds or getting carried by the wind.

Green roofs can be a challenging place for plants to survive with conditions such as extreme temperatures, high winds, and intense sunlight and rainfall. This harsh environment makes it even more critical that certain soil organisms are present which promote nutrient cycling and plant growth.

The research team set out to determine whether soil organisms such as mites, springtails, bacteria, and fungi are introduced to green roofs in their building materials or if they arrive by some other means.

Study co-author Dr. Heather Rumble is a senior lecturer in Environmental Geography at the University of Portsmouth.

“We found that while there was a healthy soil community in construction materials, most species died off soon after the roof was constructed due to the harsh conditions,” said Dr. Rumble. “This means that green roof soil species must arrive via another mechanism, such as by hitching lifts on birds or by coming in the aerial plankton.”

For their investigation, the experts monitored a new green roof on the grounds of Royal Holloway from September 2011 to July 2012. They tracked soil microorganisms living in the construction materials to find out if they would colonize the green roof.

As a result of the study, the researchers have made important recommendations. First off, in order to make the green roofs more sustainable, the soil must be engineered so that the biology is well-balanced.

“This is important, because as a completely man-made environment, getting the soil community right in the construction materials could ensure that the roof is sustainable in the long term,” said Dr. Rumble.

The experts also explained that green roofs must somehow be connected to ground-level soils so that critical species have easier access. According to the experts, this could be done by combining green roofs and living walls.

The study is published in the journal Applied Soil Ecology.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer
Image Credit: Heather Rumble, University of Portsmouth


How plants know when it’s time to start flowering

If April showers bring May flowers, how exactly do plants know when it’s time to start flowering?

Previous studies have been unable to understand the exact processes behind flowering, but new research has identified the cells that aid in the production of a critical protein called Flowering Locus T.

Flowering Locus T (FT) moves from the plant’s leaves to its shoot apex where it triggers flowering.

Researchers from Cornell University led the study, which was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The results shed insight into the complex intracellular signaling system that regulates FT production and could be helpful for plant breeders and crop development.

For the study, the researchers focused on Arabidopsis plants and the Maryland Mammoth tobacco plant.

The researchers knew that flowering in these plants started with day-length changes. Leaves perceive longer or shorter days and FT is then transmitted through the plant’s phloem.

The phloem is a plant’s vascular tissue which carries sugars and nutrients from the leaves to the rest of the plant.  

Finding where the FT originates and which cells produce it is difficult because of how small leaf veins are, so the researchers used fluorescent proteins that helped highlight the areas where FT was produced.

“There’s a complicated network and you can’t unravel it until you realize what is going on with these particular cells, so the geography is very important,” said  Robert Turgeon, the senior author of the study.

The fluorescent proteins showed the researchers two unique files of companion cells in the phloem where the FT was produced, and this was the case in both Mammoth Tobacco and the Arabidopsis plants.

When the researchers killed the identified companion cells, it delayed the flowering process in the plants.

The results shed light on the inner workings of the flowering process in plants and could help with future crop development.

“Understanding where FT is located and how it coordinates with other flowering factors is important to breeders; it’s useful for breeders for the fine manipulation of flowering times,” said Qingguo Chen, the paper’s first author.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Mice, birds, and bats also play important roles in pollination

It turns out that bees aren’t the only crucial players when it comes to plant pollination, as several different vertebrates are also an important part of the process.

Mice, birds, bats, and lemurs are all pollinators, and some have even developed complex relationships with certain plants aiding in reproduction.

In a new study, researchers from the University of Southampton and the University of Cambridge reviewed different exclusion experiments in order to determine the importance of vertebrates to pollination.

The findings were published in the Ecological Society of America’s journal Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment.

With plants that have help from pollinating vertebrates, fruit and seed production drops 63 percent when only insects are allowed access to the plant.

The researchers reviewed 126 similar exclusion experiments and studies that dealt with vertebrate pollination.

According to the research, vertebrates provide certain benefits and services that honeybees and insect vertebrates simply can’t.

Bat exclusion experiments showed a loss of fruit production by 83 percent, which means that bats are important to many plants’ reproductive cycles.

Bats are known to pollinate 528 plant species around the world, and some plants like the blue agave rely on greater and lesser long-nosed bats exclusively for transporting pollen.

Birds are also big pollinators, with over 920 bird species responsible for pollinating 5 percent of plant species in most regions. On islands that number can be as high as 10 percent. Even lizards can be pollinators in some parts of the world.

Tropical areas also had a higher percent loss in fruit and seed production when vertebrates were purposefully kept away from plants.

The researchers say that the reason for the higher dependence on vertebrates in tropical areas has to do with more specialized codependent relationships, like the ones between bats and the agave plant.

The researchers note that their findings should be used when examining management and conservation efforts in order to protect pollinators. If vertebrate pollinators suffer major population declines, as previous research has shown, so will key pollen-producing plants.

By Kay Vandette, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Petra Wester

Rising temperatures bring new plant species to mountaintops

Scientists are reporting that the number of plant species that reside on mountaintops in Europe has increased very rapidly due to global warming. In the last decade, five times more species have expanded up to European mountaintops compared to the late 1950s and early 1960s.

An international research team focused its study on the number of plant species on 302 European mountain peaks over the past 150 years. The experts found that the increase in plant species, which is accelerating more every year, is undoubtedly linked to rising temperatures.

According to the study, the number of species on each of the mountain peaks increased by an average of 1.1 species from 1957 to 1966. Fifty years later, from 2007 to 2016, the average increase jumped up to 5.5 new species across the 302 mountaintops.

At this point, the researchers have only accounted for new plant species that have already moved up to the top of the mountains. They have not yet been able to examine the number of species that are currently spreading upwards.

It is also not yet known how the expansion of new plant species may have displaced other species that have survived on these extreme mountain peaks for centuries, but there is evidence that this will happen in the future if it is not already occurring.

“Some of the species which have adapted to the cold and rocky conditions on mountain summits will probably disappear in the long term,” explained lead author Manuel Steinbauer.

“They have nowhere else to go, and they can’t develop rapidly enough to be able to compete with the new arrivals, which are taller and more competitive under warmer climates.”

While it is likely that new species will out-compete highly-specialized species on mountain summits, the subject remains up for debate at this point.

“The species that move upwards, often come from grassland above the treeline,” explained Steinbauer. “But they can’t survive everywhere on the mountain top, so it’s not certain that they will be a threat to all the existing species up there. The local soil conditions and micro-climates also play a role.”

Study co-author Jens-Christian Svenning is a professor in the Department of Bioscience at Aarhus University.

“Even though the existing species on mountain tops are not acutely endangered, the strong acceleration in the effects of global warming on plant communities on the peaks does give cause for concern, as we expect far stronger climate change toward 2100,” said Professor Svenning.

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: Hansueli Rhyner, SLF, Switzerland

Plants have a hormone that helps keep them hydrated

Researchers have identified a small hormone that helps plants retain water when they do not have access to it. The study has revealed that, when plants become dehydrated, the peptide CLE25 emerges and closes pores on the surface of the leaves to help prevent water loss.

Small chains of amino acids called peptide hormones are present in the blood of humans and animals that help keep our bodies in balance when the environment changes. Plants have hormones as well, which are called phytohormones, but little is known about their function.

Scientists at the RIKEN Center for Sustainable Resource Science (CSRS) in Japan set out to investigate if plant hormones respond to physical stress.

“Although we know that some peptide hormones in plants mediate cellular development, until now nobody had identified any that regulate responses to physical stresses such as dehydration,” said study first author Fuminori Takahashi.

The researchers examined CLE peptides that are synthesized in the roots. They also analyzed a hormone that is known to help close pores in response to drought stress known as ABA.

While applying CLE peptides to the roots of plants, the scientists discovered that only CLE25 boosted the accumulation of ABA in the leaves and led to pore closure. The experts found that the link between these two events was an increase in an enzyme that is needed to produce ABA.

Furthermore, CLE25 levels were found to increase in the roots of plants when water is scarce, leading to the same results. The experts set out to determine if CLE25 was mobile throughout a plant’s circulatory system.

“By using a high sensitive mass spectrometry system, and developing a screening system that can identify the mobile peptides moving from root to shoot,” explained Takahashi, the researchers were able to tag CLE25 molecules and observe their movement.

They found that CLE25 is, in fact, mobile. The team determined that this molecule likely interacts with others that are present in the leaves to trigger the production of ABA.

“Our research absolutely has applications in the real world and should contribute to the development of abiotic stress-resistant crops that take advantage of the mobile peptide system in plants,” said Takahashi.

The team is now actively working on such real-world applications.

“First, we are working on modified peptides that are more effective for stress resistance than the natural ones,” explained Takahashi. “Second, we are working on ways to mix functional peptides into fertilizer to enhance drought resistance of crops in the field.”

The study is published in the journal Nature.

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

Image Credit: RIKEN

Older Americans are more uneasy about medical marijuana use

The results of a recent survey indicate that older Americans are wary of the medical use of marijuana. While the vast majority of the poll respondents said that they support medical marijuana when it is recommended by a doctor, very few of these older adults currently use medical marijuana.

The National Poll on Healthy Aging, which was conducted by the University of Michigan Institute for Healthcare Policy and Innovation, obtained the opinions of 2,007 Americans between the ages of 50 and 80.

According to the results of the survey, four out of five study participants approved the use of medical marijuana when it is prescribed by a physician, and forty percent approved the use of marijuana for any reason.

At least 67 percent of those surveyed said that they feel marijuana has the potential to ease pain, but about 50 percent reported thinking that prescription medications were more effective than marijuana.

Poll director Dr. Preeti Malani is a specialist in the treatment of older patients at the University of Michigan.

“While just six percent of our poll respondents said they’d used marijuana for medical purposes themselves, 18 percent said they know someone who has,” said Dr. Malani.

“With medical marijuana already legal in 29 states and the District of Columbia, and other states considering legalizing this use or all use, this is an issue of interest to patients, providers and policymakers alike.”

Two-thirds of the poll respondents said that the government needs to do more to find out about marijuana’s health effects. Marijuana use, especially long-term use, has been linked to impaired decision making, memory, and ability to perform complex tasks.

When asked about the negative effects of both prescription medication and marijuana, 48 percent thought prescription pain medicines are more addictive than marijuana, and 57 percent believed that such medicines have more side effects than marijuana.

“These perceptions of relative safety and efficacy are important for physicians, other providers and public health regulators to understand,” said Dr. Malani.

Dr. Malani said that providers should be routinely asking older patients about marijuana use. 70 percent of those who answered the poll said they would probably ask their provider about marijuana if they had a serious medical condition that might respond to it.

Alison Bryant is the senior vice president of research for AARP, who help sponsor the research.

“Although older adults may be a bit wary about marijuana, the majority support more research on it,” said Bryant. “This openness to more research likely speaks to a desire to find safe, alternative treatments to control pain.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Earth.com Staff Writer

The end of the Great American Desert?

It might be fair to say that the European-based American culture is uncomfortable with desert.  The very word invokes ideas of wastelands inhospitable to life. Images of vultures circling over people panting the word ‘water’ as they trudge over sand dunes come to mind.  Desertification is seen as an unmitigated negative, with no upside. In her book Refuge, Terry Tempest Williams gives perfect voice to how many who do not know the desert seem to feel when voicing the government’s stance:

“A blank spot on the map translates into empty space, space devoid of people, a wasteland perfect for nerve gas, weteye bombs, and toxic waste.  The army believes that the Great Salt Lake Desert is an ideal place to experiment with biological warfare.”

The problem with this view of the desert as openly hostile is that it’s full of life, including human life.  It’s important to remember that humans took their first steps in rather arid environments in Africa. The roots of Western Civilization also started in dry places: Egypt and the fertile crescent of the Middle East.  The desert has long been inspiration for zealots and iconoclastic individuals. Those who have learned to know the desert have often found a love for the lean beauty, myself included.

When big conservation concerns come to mind, many think of rainforest or maybe polar ice caps.  Desert rarely comes to the forefront in endangered places or endangered animals. The sad truth is that we could easily lose the landscape of the American desert, a place of stark beauty and uniquely American as New York City.      

According to a recent report from Drought.gov, 26.1% of the U.S. is in drought, or 30.8% of the lower 48 states.  On maps, a stark red patch hovers over the four corners region of the Southwest, expanding across New Mexico into Oklahoma and part of Texas as well as cutting across the whole state of Arizona.  The red patch signifies extreme drought and covering most of the southwest as well as the southeast, and parts of the Midwest are varying hues of yellow meaning everything from ‘abnormally dry’ to  ‘severe drought’. It’s not breaking news that the southwestern U.S. has been very dry as of late. Anyone that watches the news with any regularity has heard of Californians pulling up orchards because of due to recent drought.  Mostly the concern seems to be with humans, but we are the most mobile, most adaptable and most to blame for the decline of the desert regions many of us call home.

There is a disconnect between how people who live in cities in the desert go about their lives and the stark realities of the dwindling water they depend on.  Already this year, Grand Canyon National Park has been in level 3 water restrictions, just lifted. The water restrictions stopped showering and even dishwashing at Grand Canyon restaurants.  Meanwhile in other parts of Arizona, water waste is rampant. Outside the mall where the local Tucson REI resides, there is a cascade of artificial fountain water. At the city park where I often jog or take my dog to the dog park, there is also a grassy golf course.  People in Phoenix haven’t stopped using their swimming pools, Las Vegas is still littered with fountains and fake pirate battles on extravagant artificial seas.

The future for the desert is grim as humans pull water from every river, aquifer and oasis for their gluttonous appetite.  It’s not just that we’re using more water, although we are, it’s that a lot of water is from aquifers and can’t replenish itself on a human timetable.  The Ogallala Aquifer underlying the center of the continent from northern Texas to Southern South Dakota is expansive at nearly 175,000 square miles. A USGS study shows a drop of 15.4 feet in the aquifer systems water level from predevelopment to 2013, and 2.1 feet of the water level drop occurred between 2011 and 2013.  

Adding to the conundrum is climate change.  

In the iconic landscape of Joshua Tree National Park, a haven for climbers and desert rats of all sorts, the namesake Joshua Tree (Yucca brevifolia) is in danger.  Due to climate change the giant, scraggly yucca tree the Mormons named after Joshua isn’t reproducing very quickly.  A study cited by National Geographic shows that in 30% of the Joshua Trees range in the park there are few or no young trees.  Joshua Trees may be in extreme peril with higher temperatures and increasing droughts.

Joshua Trees aren’t the only iconic desert plant threatened by climate change either.  It’s hard not to think of saguaros (Carnegiea gigantean), the giant cactus with arms when thinking of the American desert.  According to sweetwatercenter.org, saguaros grow fastest in the wettest part of their range and slowest in the driest part of their range.  Besides growth rates, Buffelgrass (Pennisetum ciliare) an invasive introduced from Africa may outcompete native plants under the influence of climate change.  Saguaros and other Sonoran desert plants have evolved over the ages for a specific climate pattern of monsoons breaking up hot dry weather.  As the weather becomes more erratic, known patterns break down, pushing some species past the breaking point.

If Saguaros and Joshua trees go, many other plants will go with them.  With no plants and less reliable water, the irony is an ecosystem defined by lack of water will be forever destroyed.  River systems like the Colorado are already over taxed. According to the Sonoran Institute, the Colorado River once delivered 17 billion cubic meters of fresh water to the estuary at the top of the Sea of Cortez in Mexico.  Today there is a trickle of agricultural runoff and effluent from wastewater treatment. The Sonoran Institute is working hard to restore the estuary provided habitat for desert pupfish, Vaquita, Colorado Delta Clam and many others being unique to the region.  As we continue to drain the Colorado River faced with drought and lower water tables, the estuary will suffer more.

What can be done to save the American Desert?  I cannot claim to have the answer. I will say what I know is the first step.  You must know the desert, forgo the museum, pass by the library and hit the hiking trails.  Learn the names of the cactus stuck in your sock. Get sunburned. Blister your hands climbing a sandstone cliff.  Fall in love with the desert. No one fights as hard for something they don’t love. Remember the words of Ed Abbey, the great American desert rat, “Love implies anger.  The man who is angered by nothing cares about nothing.”

By Zach Fitzner, Earth.com Staff Writer