Loosing the Louse on Europe’s Largest Invasive Pest


Don’t be duped by its delicate pale flowers; Japanese knotweed can be a sinister plant. Native to eastern Asia, Fallopia japonica was intentionally introduced into gardens in Europe 200 years ago by fans of its attractive blooms; from there it spread to North America. What makes this invasive weed so menacing is its ability to grow through solid concrete foundations, forcing contractors to abandon infested building sites. In England alone, about a half-million homes are uninsurable, and in the United Kingdom, damages and removal cost $288 million a year.

Now the British government has taken a bold step to solve this knotty problem, and North American researchers might not be far behind. Last week, after more than 5 years of research into the matter and an initial pilot trial, the United Kingdom approved the widespread release of one of the plant’s natural enemies. While there are dozens of biological controls already in use against insect pests, this is the fi rst offi cially sanctioned release of one against a weed in the European Union. “This is an extremely important step. … If this is successful, it will really open the doors and open the minds of people for this control method in Europe,” says weed biocontrol specialist Hariet Hinz of CABI Europe in Delemont, Switzerland, a nonprofi t agricultural research organization.

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Finnish Ecologist Clinches Crafoord Prize

This year’s Crafoord Prize has gone to Finnish ecologist Ilkka Hanski of the University of Helsinki for his contributions to understanding the impact of habitat fragmentation on species’ survival. Although Hanski has spent much of his time as a field biologist in remote regions of places such as Borneo, Greenland, and Madagascar, the prize was awarded specifically for his development of an array of mathematical models in ecology that have had great bearing on how conservationists manage natural environments.

“Hanski is the leading ecologist of his generation; he has transformed the way we understand how ecological processes work in real landscapes,” says evolutionary biologist Charles Godfray of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom.

Hanski has spent much of his 30-year career assessing the risk of local extinctions in environments subject to growing human influence. (Here’s a link to his Web site.) In particular, he has studied the impact of habitat fragmentation on the Glanville Fritillary (Melitaea cinxia), a European butterfly that has been declining in number over the past few decades. Hanski thanks his wife for some of his success, noting she gave him a book on Finnish butterflies for his birthday many years ago. Without this book, Hanski says, he might not have stumbled over the Glanville Fritillary, which turned out to be a perfect animal with which to examine habitat fragmentation.

The Crafoord Prize, begun 29 years ago by Anna-Greta and Holger Crafoord to honor fields that are not covered by the Nobels—alternating each year between astronomy, mathematics, geosciences, and biosciences—will be awarded in May to Hanski in Stockholm by The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences.

Hanski says that winning the Crafoord Prize is the biggest recognition that he can imagine getting. “It shows that it is possible to do good science in small countries,” he adds. Hanski was out for dinner with a colleague when the news came, and his wife sent his son running around the local restaurants to find him and fetch him to the house, where he learned of the award over the phone. Hanski says he has not yet decided what he will do with the 4 million kroners (approximately $600,000) that comes with the prize, but he suspects that he will buy a plot of forest in Finland to save it from future development.

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Surviving drought

We’ve all felt it: a quickening of the heart and a slight shortness of breath as you walk into an exam room. Most of us recognise that the hormone adrenaline is responsible for this reaction, but we’re not unique in responding to stress with a release of hormones.

Plants do this too – but unlike you and I, they don’t have the option to flee; rooted to the spot, they can only stay and fight it out. To do this, plants release the hormone abscisic acid (ABA), which coordinates their response to stresses such as drought, extreme temperature and high salt levels.

ABA acts as a chemical courier, relaying messages from one cell to another. Cells respond to the hormone if they possess a receptor, which, once bound to the hormone, signals to the cell to go on the offensive. For plants, this means closing the tiny holes in their leaves to avoid water loss, diverting resources to their roots to increase water uptake and switching on the production of proteins that protect cells from dehydration.

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