German Researchers Withdraw From Canadian Oil Sands Project

TORONTO, CANADA—German scientists have pulled out of an international research project with Canada that was attempting to find ways to minimize the environmental damage caused by exploiting Alberta’s oil sands. The move comes after political pressure forced Germany’s largest scientific organization, the Helmholtz Association of German Research Centres, to rethink its connections with an industry that many consider to be environmentally destructive.

The scientists who are part of the Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative (HAI) will no longer be involved in developing technologies that improve Alberta’s crude oil or treat the toxic effluent from the oil sands projects. Instead, the scientists will focus their efforts on the initiative’s remaining research avenues, such as carbon capture and storage and mine site reclamation.

It is a change in focus, Stefan Scherer, the managing director for the HAI, tells ScienceInsider. HAI, founded in 2011, is a partnership between the Helmholtz Association and the University of Alberta “designed to find solutions to the pressing environmental issues facing energy projects such as Alberta’s oil sands in Canada and coal production in Germany,” according to the project’s Web site. “I don’t anticipate laying off scientists,” nor will money be withdrawn from the project; the initiative is not collapsing, Scherer adds. That sentiment was echoed by a spokesperson for Alberta’s Environment Minister Diana McQueen, whose department donated CAD $25 million to the project 2 years ago.

Of the four Helmholtz institutes involved in the partnership, only one, the Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in Leipzig, has suspended its work in Canada. The institute’s supervisory board voted in December to impose a moratorium on UFZ’s involvement in the project. This decision is a “small hiccup”, explained Lorne Babiuk, the vice president of research at the University of Alberta and co-chair in the initiative. He added that the initiative’s focus can easily be redirected because much of the technology being developed for use in the oil sands is relevant to other carbon industries. “We will reorient the initiative,” agrees the other co-chair, Reinhard Hüttl, scientific executive director of Helmholtz Centre Potsdam. “We won’t have projects directly related to oil sands.”

The German move was in part triggered by ongoing debate over a possible amendment to the European Union’s fuel quality directive that would restrict the use of “high-polluting” oil within Europe. Germany, the largest market for fuels in Europe and the fourth largest in the world, has so far blocked the move along with the United Kingdom, but public opposition to importing Albertan oil remains high. The Canadian government has been lobbying German politicians at both the national and the European level to continue blocking the ban. That lobbying, along with Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol, prompted several German politicians to ask the Helmholtz Association pointed questions about the Alberta project.

“It was seen as a risk for our reputation,” Frank Messner, Helmholtz’s Environmental Research Centre head of staff, told a European news Web site. “As an environmental research centre we have an independent role as an honest broker and doing research in this constellation could have had reputational problems for us, especially after Canada’s withdrawal from the Kyoto Protocol,” he said.

An independent assessment into Helmholtz-Alberta Initiative environmental credentials will report its findings in June.

:: Read original here ::

Canada’s Cash Controversy

TORONTO, CANADA—The Bank of Canada has issued an apology for expunging an Asian-looking scientist from a new $100 banknote after some Canadians objected to the figure. The bank’s governor said that the bank will review the design process for new currency in light of the ensuing public outcry.

The kerfuffle began several years ago, when currency designers showed focus groups the proposed design for a bill highlighting Canada’s contributions to biomedical science. The bank has declined to release that original image, which apparently showed a woman with Asian features using a microscope. But some members of the focus groups expressed concerns that “Asian should not be the only ethnicity represented,” and that the image “stereotype[d] … Asians [as] excelling in technology and/or the sciences,”
according to a report published by the Vancouver Sun. The bank then redrew the image to appear more Caucasian, which has ruffled feathers. An editorial in the Calgary Herald, for example, complained that the bank’s actions =”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”
unwittingly reinforced the bigoted notion that white skin is neutral, [and] that ethnicity is a quality white people don’t have.=”#ixzz24d9hqsla”>”

Ted Hsu, a former physicist and member of Canada’s Parliament, also criticized the bank’s actions. “I don’t think there is anything wrong … with the original image having too clear an ethnicity,” he says. “Canada is a diverse country; I think it is okay to have people of different ethnicities represented on our currency. … The Bank of Canada should not have responded to feedback [from focus groups] about how someone looked,” he adds, but should have instead left the design to the artist.

The new plasticized banknotes, which went into circulation this year, are more secure, cheaper, and greener than existing bills. In addition to the female scientist, the $100 note also includes a picture of a vial of insulin, which represents the discovery of insulin as a treatment for diabetes by Canadian scientists Frederick Banting and Charles Best (along with non-Canadian John Macleod). An image of an electrocardiogram alludes to the 1950s invention of the pacemaker, and a twist of DNA represents Canada’s role in sequencing the human genome. The significance of the controversial figure at the microscope is less clear.

“At least it’s a woman,” quips Paul Dufour, a science policy specialist at the Institute for Science, Society and Policy at the University of Ottawa. The bank got one thing right, he says: It tried to promote the role of women in science.

:: Read original here ::

Multicellularity Driven by Bacteria

F1.smallMONTREAL, CANADA—When taking a dip this summer you will probably swallow tens, possibly hundreds, of microscopic plankton called choanoflagellates. These common organisms have led to an uncommon insight into how multicellular organisms might have evolved. Bacteria can prompt single-celled choanoflagellates to divide into multicellular versions of themselves, University of California (UC), Berkeley, biologist Nicole King reported last week here at the 71st annual meeting of the Society for Developmental Biology. King hopes the work will prompt biologists to look more closely at the role of microorganisms in the evolution of multicellularity.

To the untrained eye, choanoflagellates look like animals. But they are less complex—the closest living relatives of animals but on an older branch of the tree of life. As such, these organisms can provide clues about what early animals looked like and can help reconstruct the events from more than 600 million years ago that led to the incredible diversity of the animal kingdom.

To investigate the transition to colony life, King decided to sequence the genome of a colony-forming choanoflagellate and compare it with the genome of a unicellular individual. But before sequencing, she asked undergraduate Richard Zuzow to purge the sample of everything but the plankton itself. When Zuzow added antibiotics to get rid of any bacteria, the choanoflagellate colonies disappeared. At first, “I didn’t believe him,” King recalls. But with repeated tests, she became convinced that “the bacteria are the important part of the [multicellular] story,” she says

:: Read more here (behind pay-wall) or download pdf here ::

Is It Folly to Take Folic Acid?

For mothers-to-be, doctors worldwide advise taking a folic acid supplement. That’s because pregnant women with a deficiency of this vitamin have an increased chance of giving birth to a baby with serious birth defects, such as spina bifida and anencephaly. Yet a new mouse study shows that folic acid supplementation can itself sometimes increase the risk of birth defects or even cause the death of embryos. Experts caution, however, that the unexpected rodent results are too preliminary to require an immediate change in medical practices until more is known about how the vitamin influences development.

People typically obtain folic acid, or folate, from consuming leafy vegetables, but not everyone gets enough from their diet, particularly pregnant women. The vitamin plays a key role in the development of the neural tube, the embryonic region that gives rise to the spinal cord and brain.

Evidence from randomized clinical trials has shown that babies born to women who double their recommended daily dose of folic acid are between 40% and 50% less likely to have birth defects of the spine, skull, and brain. As a result, the United States has fortified most of its grains with this vitamin since 1998, and a handful of other countries have followed suit.

To the surprise of the researchers, in three of the five strains, the extra folic acid seemed to worsen the severity of birth defects rather than remedy them. In one of the mutant lines, dubbed L3P, eating the higher folic acid diet long term increased the chance that young were born with neural tube defects from 20% to 60%, the group reports in the 15 September issue of Human Molecular Genetics. And for another strain, Shroom3, many of whose embryos don’t naturally survive until birth due to their genetic problems, eating the higher folic acid food significantly increased the percentage of lost embryos.

Niswander says it is clear that folic acid is good for human fetuses, but the new study makes her wonder whether high levels of the vitamin may be harmful in some circumstances. Still, she stresses that more data are needed before any serious reconsideration of how much folic acid to recommend for impending mothers.

Roy Pitkin, a retired University of California, Los Angeles, researcher who specialized in pregnant women’s nutrition and chaired an Institute of Medicine panel that in 2000 reviewed folic acid’s health effects also cautions against a rush to judgment: “It would really be throwing the baby out with the bath water to say that because of this one mouse study, we are going to question the food fortification.”

Especially, he says, because we know that species differ considerably from each other when it comes to birth defects. He offers the example of thalidomide—a drug given to pregnant women in the 1950s to cure morning sickness—that causes severe human birth defects but that is perfectly safe in rats.

Neuroscientist Elizabeth Grove of the University of Chicago studies how the mammalian brain develops and echoes this concern. She warns that researchers have found hundreds of mutations that cause birth defects in mice but that so far don’t seem to produce the same problems in humans. The effects of folic acid may also be species specific, she says.

:: Read original here ::

Superbug Gene Found

superbuggene_lgA gene that causes bacteria to become resistant to antibiotics has been found in drinking water in New Delhi, India. NDM-1 is commonly found in Escherichia coli but can spread to other bacteria thanks to their ability to swap DNA. The gene confers resistance to antibiotics, including potent, last-resort drugs called carbapenems.

India’s warm temperatures, over-crowding, and poor sanitation are likely to blame for the gene’s spread into the main water system from bacteria in people’s guts, write Timothy Walsh of Cardiff University in the United Kingdom and colleagues in a paper published online last week in The Lancet Infectious Diseases. The team, who found the gene in two out of 50 tap water samples and 51 of 171 samples taken from puddles and streams in the capital, say the gene could spread farther afield when tourists drink local water supplies and then return home.

NDM-1 has already been found in U.K. hospitals in bacteria infecting people who had medical treatment in India and those admitted with “traveler’s tummy.” The new finding raises concerns that resistant genes, so far found mainly in gut flora, are becoming widespread in natural environments, where they are highly mobile.

:: Read original here ::

Safe Sex, Duck Style

Male mallard ducks (Anas platyrhynchos) are famous for their long, spiraling genitalia. Now scientists have discovered that they have something else to crow about. Mixing duck ejaculate with a common bacteria, Escherichia coli, researchers have found that mallard duck semen kills bacteria. Semen from males with more colorful bills harbored the greatest antibacterial activity, killing up to three times more bacteria than those with duller bills, the team reports online today in Biology Letters. The finding suggests that female ducks may be drawn to brightly colored males not just because they’re more flashy, but because they spread fewer germs through sexual intercourse.

:: Read original here ::

Can States Sue on Greenhouse Gas as a ‘Nuisance’? High Court Asks

As the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is busy girding itself for a fight over new greenhouse gas emissions rules, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments today in a case on whether lawsuits over climate ought to be permitted.

At stake is whether greenhouse gas pollution may be considered a “nuisance” under U.S. law. The case stems from two 2004 federal lawsuits brought by seven states and several land-trust groups alleging that emissions from five major power companies could cause harm by contributing to global warming. Rising sea levels, loss of water in the Great Lakes, and reduced hydropower were among the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs; the lawsuits have since been combined, and two states have dropped out since the original suit was filed. The district court subsequently said in its decision that the case brought up a “political” question that the other branches of government, not the judicial branch, should consider, but an appeals court reversed that ruling. When the power companies appealed, the Supreme Court took the case.

In other pollution cases, the Supreme Court has supported suits claiming that pollution caused harm as a “nuisance” under common law, most often interpreted to prohibit noise and light pollution. The 80 minutes of occasionally spirited argument at the high court this morning focused on the two main issues in the greenhouse gas litigation: For the case to go forward, the plaintiffs must prove that the case has legal standing (they must show that the court is the right venue for resolving this dispute), and that the common law definition of nuisance can support suits over greenhouse gases. On the issue of standing, the court could rule that Congress or EPA is a more appropriate body to deal with pollution control.

The Obama Administration opposed the suing states in this case largely on grounds that they lack standing, marking a rare instance in which the Administration finds itself at odds with environmentalists on a major legal issue. (Environmentalists urged the states to try this legal strategy.) U.S. attorney Neal Katyal told the justices that the complexity of the issue suggests that the executive branch, namely EPA, is a better venue for controlling such an expansive type of pollution rather than the courts. “In the 222 years that this court has been sitting, it has never heard a case with so many potential perpetrators and so many potential victims,” he said in his opening remarks. “There are billions of emitters of greenhouse gasses on the planet and billions of potential victims as well.”

The attorneys for the power companies and the Obama Administration argued that the greenhouse gases case is fundamentally different from previous nuisance cases in which pollutants have played a central role. A landmark ruling by the Supreme Court in 1907, for example, found that a judge could stop a Tennessee copper company from polluting the Georgia environment under the nuisance doctrine. Such cases, Katyal said, “are essentially: A pollutes a river or something and hurts B.” But in the case of global warming pollution, he said, “A here is the world and B is the world, and that is such a difference in scale and scope to pose enormously difficult questions” about whether such suits should go forward.

If this case is allowed to proceed, asked the justices, should subsequent cases be limited to big polluters like the five targeted in this suit? “Your briefs talk a lot about how these are the five largest [U.S.] emissions producers, but I saw nothing in your theory to limit it to those five,” Justice Elena Kagan asked New York state attorney Barbara Underwood, who spoke on behalf of the six states in the suit. “Is there something that you think limits it to large emissions producers rather than anybody in the world?”

The states have argued that the larger the greenhouse gas emitter the stronger the connection linking pollution and potential harm. “These defendants,” Underwood said, speaking of the five polluters, “produce 650 million tons a year or 10% of U.S. emissions, and individually they produce amounts ranging from 1 to 3.5% of U.S. emissions.”

Those who challenged the states also suggested that courts would be ill-equipped to make the complex judgments that big regulatory agencies staffed with scientists and other experts make on a routine basis. Judges lack “the resources, the expertise” to be a “kind of super-EPA,” said Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

But Underwood said courts could make such judgments—which could include determining how “substantial” an emitter must be to be found culpable—by relying on standards set by the agencies. She pointed to a cutoff set by EPA that limits regulated greenhouse gas polluters to those that emit 100,000 tons or more per year. “According to EPA’s own technical data, there would be at most a few thousand potential defendants.”

Because Justice Sonia Sotomayor recused herself—she sat on the panel that reviewed the issue in the appeals court—only eight justices heard the arguments. A 4-4 tie would mean litigation against the polluters could go forward, because that would leave in effect the earlier decision by the appeals court. While the tone of the questioning was largely skeptical toward the idea that such suits ought to go forward, divining a final ruling from the rough-and-tumble of oral argument can be difficult, especially because justices often ask tough questions of those they’re inclined to agree with—just to test their counterarguments. Eyes were squarely focused today on Justice Anthony Kennedy, often the swing judge when decisions are split 5-4 in favor of conservative decisions. Kennedy raised a concern that federal law, and EPA’s efforts to use that law, would necessarily “preempt” the common law. The court’s three liberal members, Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Kagan, seemed skeptical on this issue, too.

At least one knowledgeable observer said a 4-4 tie was unlikely. “In short, this particular lawsuit seemed doomed, with the court’s biggest task figuring out how to say so without shutting the courthouse door entirely to such claims,” said longtime Supreme Court reporter Lyle Denniston.

:: Read original here ::

An Early Warning Sign for Ecosystem Collapse?

The surprising strength and location of last month’s Fukushima earthquake highlighted how poorly seismologists can predict when the ground is about to shake cataclysmically. Unfortunately, ecologists can’t do much better at forecasting when an ecosystem is about to collapse or change dramatically. But now a team of ecologists has shown that it is possible to detect early distress signals in a lake that foretell a major disruption to its ecology. If researchers could identify similar signals in other ecosystems, they might one day predict, and perhaps even prevent, ecological meltdowns.

The collapse of the Atlantic cod fishery in the early 1990s saw the most abundant fish in the North Atlantic disappear due to overfishing. Such events are becoming increasingly common as humans overfish, overgraze, and alter the climate. Connections between predators and prey—often described as a food web—become destabilized. This leaves ecosystems vulnerable to dramatic changes, such as when a single species, like certain algae, grows out of control and forms toxic blooms, like the red tides common off the coast of Florida and Mexico. In theory, learning to detect the precursors of environmental distress could help raise the alarm before any damage is irreversible. But while that’s a nice idea on paper, no one has shown that it is possible in real ecosystems.

Now, in the first study of its kind, researchers have pinpointed early warning signs for the disruption of a food web in a lake. By gradually introducing a large fish species—the largemouth bass—into a Wisconsin lake dominated by smaller algae-eating fish, a team of ecologists pushed the aquatic ecosystem to a critical limit where the largemouth bass came to dominate the food web. The researchers had carefully monitored the lake throughout the whole experiment, using a buoy that measures chemical and physical vital signs of the lake every 5 minutes.

Combining these measurements with estimates of the populations of algae, zooplankton, and fish taken from regular net catches, the researchers report that they detected unusual oscillations in the amount of algae in the lake more than a year before the lake’s food web shifted. They say these oscillations are likely due to changes in the feeding behavior of the smaller fish that result from the presence of the introduced predators.

“All of a sudden the places that were once safe [for the zooplankton-eating fish] are dangerous,” says study co-author and ecologist Stephen Carpenter of the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Because the smaller fish shifted to shallow waters where bass threaten them less, he explains, the algae that inhabit the more open waters of the lake were free of their predators and their populations fluctuate more. Carpenter and his colleagues report online today inScience that these fluctuations were a warning that the lake’s food web is changing.

They believe that the fluctuations in species abundance may herald an overall transformation of the lake ecosystem. “The reason that there is so much excitement about these early warning signals is that they are universal,” says lake ecologist Marten Scheffer of Wageningen University in the Netherlands. Many systems have tipping points, he explains, even the climate system. He adds that isolating these signals from the ecosystem is not only useful for predicting environmental catastrophes, but they can also be used to determine which habitats are most likely to respond to conservation, and so allow ecologists to direct their efforts.

The major challenge now for ecologists is isolating the appropriate signals in other ecosystem. Ecologist Robert Holt of the University of Florida in Gainesville explains that Carpenter and his team have worked on this lake system for many years, and thus they understand it intimately. Ecologists don’t understand most other ecosystems nearly as well, he says, and so may find it harder to pin down the appropriate early warning signals in other systems.

:: Read original here ::

Green Eggs and Salamanders

It might sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss story, but biologists have long told tales of the green eggs of the spotted salamander. Ambystoma maculatum lays its brood in ponds each spring up and down North America. These marble-sized gelatinous sacs quickly turn green (bottom left and top right images) as photosynthesizing algae grow around the developing embryo and feast on its waste. In turn, the embryo enjoys the oxygen produced by the algae. Now scientists have discovered that the algae gets a little closer than they thought. Using long-exposure imaging, the researchers detected algal fluorescence (main image) inside the developing salamander. This is the first case of an algae living symbiotically within a vertebrate, the team reports online today in the Proceedings of National Academy of Sciences. How the photosynthesizing algae gets there, and how it survives inside the tissues and cells of this predominantly nocturnal amphibian is still baffling to scientists. But one thing’s for sure, the discovery means rewriting textbooks to add salamanders to a short list of organisms, including coral and bacteria, that form symbiotic relationships with plants.

:: Read original here ::