New orchid species discoveries on Azores volcano

This shows details of the flowers of Hochstetter's Butterfly-orchid, a newly recognized and exceptionally rare orchid recently discovered on the Azorean island of São Jorge. Credit: Richard Bateman

From LiveScience:

New Orchid Species Found on ‘Lost World’ Volcano in the Azores

By Douglas Main, Staff Writer

December 10, 2013 07:32am ET

For years, there was only one formally recognized species of orchid on the Azores, a cluster of volcanic islands west of Portugal, though some claimed there were two species. However, a recent, three-year study to describe these Azorean flowers found that three species of orchids exist on the islands, including two that are newly recognized.

One of the new species was found atop a remote volcano and is arguably Europe’s rarest orchid, said Richard Bateman, a botanist at Kew Royal Botanic Gardens in London. Researchers were surprised to find the new species atop the volcano, which had “a really ‘Lost World’ feel to it,” he told LiveScience.

The orchids likely originate from a single species that arrived by seed millions of years ago. They soon developed smaller flowers, unlike their ancestors, which had large blooms. The most widespread orchid on the island, the short-spurred butterfly orchid (Platanthera pollostantha), is known for these small flowers, Bateman said. [Photos: The Orchids of Latin America]

Analysis of other orchids found on the islands soon turned up another species, known as the narrow-lipped butterfly orchid (Platanthera micrantha).

But then scientists happened upon an even rarer and more striking orchid, with large flowers, like those of the plants’ ancestors. “In a sense, evolution has reversed itself,” Bateman said. This species, now known as Platanthera azorica or Hochstetter’s butterfly orchid, was originally collected more than 170 years ago, but hadn’t been further studied or recognized as a unique species.

Mónica Moura, a researcher at the University of the Azores, happened upon the flower, and noticed it was different. “I immediately recognized the flowers as being exceptionally large for an Azorean butterfly orchid,” Moura said, according to a release describing the study.

The new species require urgent conservation; the International Union for Conservation of Nature, a global environmental organization, currently lumps all of these into a single species, which is incorrect, Bateman said.

The two rare orchids are threatened by invasive species and habitat destruction, Bateman said. Much of the unique dwarf forests that once covered the Azores—and in which the rare orchids are found—have been destroyed by inefficient dairy farming and other development, Bateman added.

Like many other orchids, the two rare orchid species have symbiotic relationships with fungi that allow them to survive. Without a certain type of fungi, the seeds can’t germinate, Bateman said. It’s possible these rare species can only survive in the presence of a single fungal species, which helps them germinate and supplies them with nutrients as adult plants, he said. More widespread species can likely partner with a variety of fungi, he added.

Blind mole-rats resistant to cancer

This video is called Spalax microphthalmus, Mole-Rat.

Today, there was news about “deaf” frogs which turned out to be not really deaf.

Now, about blind mole-rats which turn out to be blind indeed; however, they turn out to have other strong points.

From the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the USA today:

Blind mole-rats are resistant to chemically induced cancers

Like naked mole-rats (Heterocephalus gaber), blind mole-rats (of the genus Spalax) live underground in low-oxygen environments, are long-lived and resistant to cancer. A new study demonstrates just how cancer-resistant Spalax are, and suggests that the adaptations that help these rodents survive in low-oxygen environments also play a role in their longevity and cancer resistance.

The findings are reported in the journal Biomed Central: Biology.

“We’ve shown that, compared to mice and rats, blind mole-rats are highly resistant to carcinogens,” said Mark Band, the director of at the University of Illinois Biotechnology Center and a co-author on the study. Band led a previous analysis of in blind mole-rats living in low-oxygen (hypoxic) environments. He found that genes that respond to hypoxia are known to also play a role in aging and in suppressing or promoting cancer.

“We think that these three phenomena are tied in together: the hypoxia tolerance, the longevity and ,” Band said. “We think all result from to a .”

Unlike the naked mole-rat, which lives in colonies in Eastern Africa, the blind mole-rat is a solitary rodent found in the Eastern Mediterranean. Thousands of blind mole-rats have been captured and studied for more than 50 years at Israel‘s University of Haifa, where the animal work was conducted. The Haifa scientists observed that none of their blind mole-rats had ever developed cancer, even though Spalax can live more than 20 years. Lab mice and rats have a maximum lifespan of about 3.5 years and yet regularly develop spontaneous cancers.

To test the blind mole-rats’ cancer resistance, the Haifa team, led by Irena Manov, Aaron Avivi and Imad Shams, exposed the animals to two cancer-causing agents. Only one of the 20 Spalax tested (an animal that was more than 10 years old) developed after exposure to one of the carcinogens. In contrast, all of the 12 mice and six rats exposed to either agent developed cancerous tumors.

The team next turned its attention to fibroblasts, cells that generate extracellular factors that support and buffer other cells. Previous studies of naked mole-rat cells have found that fibroblasts and their secretions have anti-cancer activity. Similarly, the researchers at Haifa found that Spalax fibroblasts were efficient killers of two types of breast and two types of lung cancer cells. Diluted and filtered liquid medium drawn from the fibroblast cell culture also killed breast and lung cancer cells. Mouse fibroblasts, however, had no effect on the cancer cells.

To help explain these results, Band and his colleagues looked to the gene expression profiles obtained from their previous studies of blind mole-rats in hypoxic environments. The researchers had found that genes that regulate DNA repair, the cell cycle and programmed cell death are differentially regulated in Spalax when exposed to normal, above-ground oxygen levels (21 percent oxygen) and conditions of hypoxia (3, 6 and 10 percent oxygen). These changes in gene regulation differed from those of mice or rats under the same conditions, the researchers found.

Spalax naturally have a variant in the p53 gene (a transcription factor and known tumor suppressor), which is identical to a cancer-related mutation in humans, Band said. Transcription-factor genes code for proteins that regulate the activity of other genes and so affect an animal’s ability to respond to its environment. The research group in Israel showed “that the Spalax p53 suppresses apoptosis (programmed cell death), however enhances cell cycle arrest and DNA repair mechanisms,” he said.

Hypoxia can damage DNA and contribute to aging and cancer, so mechanisms that protect against hypoxia – by repairing DNA, for example – likely also help explain the blind mole-rat’s resistance to cancer and aging, Band said.

“So now we know there’s overlap among the genes that affect DNA repair, hypoxia tolerance and suppression,” he said. “We haven’t been able to show the exact mechanisms yet, but we’re able to show that in Spalax they’re all related. One of the lessons of this research is that we have a new model animal to study mechanisms of disease, and possibly discover new therapeutic agents.”

Explore further: The naked mole-rat’s secret to staying cancer free

More information: “Pronounced Cancer Resistance in a Subterranean Rodent, the Blind Mole-Rat, Spalax: In Vivo and In Vitro Evidence,”

Ice Age ocean life and iron

This video says about itself:

NASA | Earth Science Week: The Ocean’s Green Machines

“The Ocean’s Green Machines” is Episode 3 in the six-part series “Tides of Change”, exploring amazing NASA ocean science to celebrate Earth Science Week 2009.

One tiny marine plant makes life on Earth possible: phytoplankton. These microscopic photosynthetic drifters form the basis of the marine food web, they regulate carbon in the atmosphere, and are responsible for half of the photosynthesis that takes place on this planet. Earth’s climate is changing at an unprecedented rate, and as our home planet warms, so does the ocean. Warming waters have big consequences for phytoplankton and for the planet.

From Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in the USA:

Scientists solve a 14,000-year-old ocean mystery

At the end of the last Ice Age, as the world began to warm, a swath of the North Pacific Ocean came to life. During a brief pulse of biological productivity 14,000 years ago, this stretch of the sea teemed with phytoplankton, amoeba-like foraminifera and other tiny creatures, who thrived in large numbers until the productivity ended—as mysteriously as it began—just a few hundred years later.

Researchers have hypothesized that iron sparked this surge of ocean life, but a new study led by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) scientists and colleagues at the University of Bristol (UK), the University of Bergen (Norway), Williams College and the Lamont Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University suggests iron may not have played an important role after all, at least in some settings. The study, published in the journal Nature Geoscience, determines that a different mechanism—a transient “perfect storm” of nutrients and light—spurred life in the post-Ice Age Pacific. Its findings resolve conflicting ideas about the relationship between iron and biological productivity during this time period in the North Pacific—with potential implications for geo-engineering efforts to curb climate change by seeding the ocean with iron.

“A lot of people have put a lot of faith into iron—and, in fact, as a modern ocean chemist, I’ve built my career on the importance of iron—but it may not always have been as important as we think,” says WHOI Associate Scientist Phoebe Lam, a co-author of the study.

Because iron is known to cause blooms of biological activity in today’s North Pacific Ocean, researchers have assumed it played a key role in the past as well. They have hypothesized that as Ice Age glaciers began to melt and sea levels rose, they submerged the surrounding continental shelf, washing iron into the rising sea and setting off a burst of life.

Past studies using sediment cores—long cylinders drilled into the ocean floor that offer scientists a look back through time at what has accumulated there—have repeatedly found evidence of this burst, in the form of a layer of increased opal and calcium carbonate, the materials that made up phytoplankton and foraminifera shells. But no one had searched the fossil record specifically for signs that iron from the continental shelf played a part in the bloom.

Lam and an international team of colleagues revisited the sediment core data to directly test this hypothesis. They sampled GGC-37, a core taken from a site near Russia’s Kamchatka Peninsula, about every 5 centimeters, moving back through time to before the biological bloom began. Then they analyzed the chemical composition of their samples, measuring the relative abundance of the isotopes of the elements neodymium and strontium in the sample, which indicates which variant of iron was present. The isotope abundance ratios were a particularly important clue, because they could reveal where the iron came from—one variant pointed to iron from the ancient Loess Plateau of northern China, a frequent source of iron-rich dust in the northwest Pacific, while another suggested the younger, more volcanic continental shelf was the iron source.

What the researchers found surprised them.

“We saw the flux of iron was really high during glacial times, and that it dropped during deglaciation,” Lam says. “We didn’t see any evidence of a pulse of iron right before this productivity peak.”

The iron the researchers did find during glacial times appeared to be supplemented by a third source, possibly in the Bering Sea area, but it didn’t have a significant effect on the productivity peak. Instead, the data suggest that iron levels were declining when the peak began.

Based on the sediment record, the researchers propose a different cause for the peak: a chain of events that created ideal conditions for sea life to briefly flourish. The changing climate triggered deep mixing in the North Pacific ocean, which stirred nutrients that the tiny plankton depend on up into the sea’s surface layers, but in doing so also mixed the plankton into deep, dark waters, where light for photosynthesis was too scarce for them to thrive. Then a pulse of freshwater from melting glaciers—evidenced by a change in the amount of a certain oxygen isotope in the foraminifera shells found in the core—stopped the mixing, trapping the phytoplankton and other small creatures in a thin, bright, nutrient-rich top layer of ocean. With greater exposure to light and nutrients, and iron levels that were still relatively high, the creatures flourished.

“We think that ultimately this is what caused the productivity peak—that all these things happened all at once,” Lam says. “And it was a transient thing, because the iron continued to drop and eventually the nutrients ran out.”

The study’s findings disprove that iron caused this ancient bloom, but they also raise questions about a very modern idea. Some scientists have proposed seeding the world’s oceans with iron to trigger phytoplankton blooms that could trap some of the atmosphere’s carbon dioxide and help stall climate change. This idea, sometimes referred to as the “Iron Hypothesis,” has met with considerable controversy, but scientific evidence of its potential effectiveness to sequester carbon and its impact on ocean life has been mixed.

“This study shows how there are multiple controls on ocean phytoplankton blooms, not just iron,” says Ken Buesseler, a WHOI marine chemist who led a workshop in 2007 to discuss modern iron fertilization. “Certainly before we think about adding iron to the ocean to sequester carbon as a geoengineering tool, we should encourage studies like this of natural systems where the conditions of adding iron, or not, on longer and larger time scales have already been done for us and we can study the consequences.”

Women in British science, new research

This video from Ireland says about itself:

Reflections on women in science; diversity and discomfort: Jocelyn Bell Burnell at TEDxStormont

Apr 4, 2013

Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell inadvertently discovered pulsars as a graduate student in radio astronomy in Cambridge, opening up a new branch of astrophysics — work recognised by the award of a Nobel Prize to her supervisor. She is now a Visiting Professor in Oxford.

From Kingston University in London, England:

Unearthing the hidden women of science and inspiring the next generation

08 May 2013

A group of historians and scientists is about to embark on a major project to scrutinise the role of British women in science. It will focus on finding and assessing the careers of scientific women who may not have received credit or recognition for their work. The £33k project, funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council and run jointly by Kingston University, University of Liverpool, the Royal Society and the Rothschild Archive London, aims to examine how women were involved in scientific societies between the years 1830 to 2012 and look at how that can inform policy today.

It will involve the establishment of a network of academics to gain a better understanding of how historical perspectives might impact future education policy making. Recent statistics show that only a third of science, technology, engineering and maths students in Britain are female and just 11 per cent of senior positions in science are held by women.

“Women’s unequal participation in science subjects at all levels, both in education, academia and in industry, is currently receiving close attention from policy makers, educationalists and social commentators,” project leader Dr Susan Hawkins, a senior history lecturer from Kingston University, said. “Part of the purpose of our work will be to closely examine data on women in science in the 19th and 20th Centuries. The hope is that by looking at women’s relationship with science in the past, we can pinpoint ways to encourage young women to participate more fully in the subject.”

There was a wealth of historical information which could open a window into the past but it was often dispersed across different archives, Dr Hawkins, who originally trained as a scientist, explained. “Through the network we hope to identify where these archives are and what revelatory material they may contain.” Part of the project will involve a shadowing scheme which will allow researchers studying the history of science to spend time alongside a female scientist in the laboratory, gaining an understanding of how science works today and the challenges faced by women in the field.

The network will be organised around a series of events, including three workshops, a two-day international conference to be held at the Royal Society in May 2014 and an exhibition open to the public. The first workshop will aim to identify archives that may contain information on women in science. It will concentrate on two groups of women – those whose work was recognised by the scientific community of their time and those who, despite producing work of high standard, were not. “The intention is to look at the characteristics that link the two groups of women and also to find out what set them apart,” Dr Hawkins added. Another workshop will focus on identifying possible oral history projects.

“The final workshop will pull together the findings from the first two events and allow us to make recommendations to government on future projects to help increase female participation in science,” Dr Hawkins said.

The issue of the representation of women in science has dominated headlines in the media in recent months. According to a report in last month’s Independent newspaper, female professors account for 5.5 per cent in physics, 6 per cent in chemistry and maths and just 2 per cent in engineering. This has prompted growing calls for better representation of women in science both in universities and in industry – a sentiment also echoed by Kingston University’s new Chancellor American playwright and author Bonnie Greer. “It is crucial that women continue to take up the study of science and maths as historically women have been kept out of these professions, so who knows what genius has been lost?” she said recently. “When you think of all the big problems that are out there waiting to be solved, every ounce of human intelligence is needed.”

Things were extremely tough for women in science in the past and they often did not receive proper recognition, according to Dr Hawkins. “It was a real struggle. For instance, the Royal Society didn’t accept female fellows until as late as 1945,” she said. “There were women in the scientific field but they really had to fight to be recognised, independent of any men they might have been working with.”

Guests from around the world will attend a launch event for the project at the International Congress for the History of Science Technology and Medicine to be held in Manchester in July.

How Canadian beetles survive winter

The antifreeze protein (blue) of fire-coloured beetle larva changes the dynamics of water on the ice-binding surface with threonine side chains (green); © Konrad Meister

From Biology News Net:

Dance of water molecules turns fire-colored beetles into antifreeze artists

January 2, 2013 02:35 PM

Certain plants and animals protect themselves against temperatures below freezing with antifreeze proteins.

How the larva of the beetle Dendroides canadensis manages to withstand temperatures down to -30 degrees Celsius is reported by an international team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Martina Havenith from the Department of Physical Chemistry II at the Ruhr-Universität in the journal PNAS.

Together with American colleagues, the RUB-researchers showed that interactions between the antifreeze proteins and water molecules contribute significantly to protection against the cold. Previously, it was assumed that the effect was only achieved through direct contact of the protein with ice crystals. The team obtained the results through a combination of terahertz spectroscopy and molecular dynamics simulations.

Iraq war infant birth defects

This video is called Cancer Birth Defects, Depleted Uranium, 2012, Fallujah, Iraq, Europe.

By Eric London:

US munitions cause spike in Iraqi infant birth defects

27 December 2012

Though it has been nearly a decade since the beginning of the US-led invasion of Iraq, a report from the Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology released in September reveals the devastating impact that the war is continuing to have on the Iraqi people—particularly Iraqi infants.

According to the study, titled “Metal Contamination and the Epidemic of Congenital Birth Defects in Iraqi Cities,” the Iraqi cities of Basra and Fallujah are experiencing an exponential rise in birth defects, allegedly caused by the use of depleted uranium ammunition by the United States and British invasion forces.

The German-based Bulletin of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology survey reported that half of the infants it surveyed who were born between 2007 and 2010 were born with a birth defect. This figure was less than 2 percent before 2000. In Basra, the southern Iraqi city and site of a massive bombing campaign undertaken at the start of the invasion in March and April 2003, the birth defect rate was 17 times higher than before the 2003 invasion.

“Some [infants] had only one eye in the forehead. Or two heads. One had a tail like a skinned lamb. Another one looked like a perfectly normal child, but with a monkey’s face. Or the girl whose legs had grown together, half fish, half human,” Basra children’s cemetery owner Askar Bin Said told Der Spiegel.

Chemist Chris Busby, the co-author of two studies on the subject, told the Guardian that Fallujah is experiencing “the highest rate of genetic damage in any population ever studied.”

Hair sample studies performed in 2010 by Bulletin researchers revealed that lead levels were five times higher in Fallujah children than in other children. Mercury levels were six times higher. Diagnosed cases of hydrocephalus, or “water in the brain,” are six times higher in Basra children than in children from the United States. Basra is also experiencing the highest ever rate of spina bifida, or “open back disease.” In total, over 45 percent of pregnancies ended in miscarriage between 2004 and 2006.

Dr. Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, a lead author of the report and an environmental toxicologist at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, told the Independent that “the massive and repeated bombardment of these cities is clearly implicated here. I have no knowledge of any alternative source of metal contamination in these areas.”

According to Dr. Savabieasfahani, there is now a “footprint of metal in the population” and “compelling evidence linking the staggering increases in Iraqi birth defects to neuro-toxic metal contamination following the repeated bombardments of Iraqi cities.”

Moreover, the data reported by the study was most likely an “underestimate,” according to Dr. Savabieasfahani, on account of many parents’ attempts to hide their children’s defects from public view.

The unprecedented health crisis facing the bombed-out targets of American imperialism is apparently the result of the use of “depleted uranium” ammunition used by the United States and British armed forces during the invasion and occupation. “DU” ammunition contains alloys or cores made of depleted uranium. The added density the uranium gives to projectiles allows bullets and shells to pierce bodies and metal with increased facility.

When the ammunition explodes or hits a target, it releases a chemical dust that is inhaled or permeates through the skin of its victim.

In other words, the advanced weaponry utilized by the US with the express goal of facilitating the destruction of Iraqi towns and cities has achieved its goal: local populations will quite literally be feeling the pain of the invasion for generations to come. Infants born even after the public “withdrawal” of invasion troops are killed as a result of the impact of the invasion on young Iraqi mothers and fathers.

“The war is to blame. The pollution. There were many bombs in our neighborhood,” said Sabra Salman, the mother of a 10 year-old child with cancer, to Der Spiegel.

Mohammad Haider, a Basra parent of a deformed child, also told Der Spiegel that he and his wife “both grew up in Basra. I hold the United States responsible. They used DU. My child isn’t an isolated case.”