Bleaching and Bacteria: (Not) A Microscopic Problem

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Coral Reef at Palmyra Atoll National Wildlife Refuge” by Jim Maragos/U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is licensed under CC 2.0

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Coral bleaching in Chagos” by Mark Spalding/World Research Institute is licensed under CC 2.0

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When we hear the phrase “coral reef,” the first thing that comes to mind is a rolling, rainbow expanse of life and color that shocks the eye (top image); we don’t imagine white, underwater boneyards blanketed in algae (bottom image). Unfortunately, due to widespread human-induced climate change, the former, bleak image may be all that’s left to see in the coming decades; that is, if we as a society do not take action. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association, this occurrence, known as coral reef bleaching, results primarily from increased water temperatures, a direct effect of humans on the environment (NOAA).

Why, you might ask, does something as naturally variable as ocean temperature have such an impact? The answer, scientists have found, lies in the coral microbiome; various algae provide food for the coral, and give it color (NOAA). Bleaching occurs when a stressor (such as heat) is introduced, which can expel the algae and turn the organism a shade of pale white. However, this does not necessarily mean that the coral will die. Recent studies have found that another microbial culprit plays the primary role in coral survivability: bacteria.

A June 2016 Science article by Drs. Tracy Ainsworth and Ruth Gates of James Cook University explicitly addresses the growing significance of bacterial diversity in the coral microbiome. They essentially assert that both during and after a bleaching event, the only way for coral to recover their symbiotic algae, restore coloration and consequently survive is with a healthy, functionally diverse microbiome (Ainsworth and Gates).

The bacteria inhabiting coral can be either positive contributors to overall health and a cohesive microenvironment, or pathogens that decrease the ability of the organism to respond to stress. While most living coral contain sizable populations of both, Ainsworth and Gates found in a sample population that survivors of bleaching had significantly fewer types of pathogenic bacteria present than their deceased counterparts; coral that were killed by bleaching had a disproportionate amount of pathogenic bacteria.

A combination of water pollution and rising temperatures, two consequences of the daily expenditures of humans, severely endangers the survivability of “good” bacteria in coral. Without their presence, or sufficient microbial diversity in general, reef ecosystems have no realistic chance to combat any degree of external adversity. Specific negative effects of imbalance include immune system deficiency and failure to maintain algal food production. Absence or malfunction of beneficial microbes also, as Ainsworth quotes, can even “have intergenerational impacts and affect ecosystem stability,” potentially more far-reaching concerns (Ainsworth and Gates).

These predictions, in conjunction with current climate trends, do not bode well for the long-term success of coral reef ecosystems. This is why I believe it is essential that we, as tenants of Earth, do everything we can to combat global warming on both a broad and local scale. Some argue that change is not feasible, that there is no one-step process; the complexity of the world ensures that stressors are constantly present, even once addressed. This line of thinking is part of the problem; every individual action we take has a quantifiable impact, and together we can build a movement toward noticeable improvement.

It is quite evident that coral endangerment on a microbial level can compound quickly, and ruthlessly. It is a cycle of sorts, in that warming water degrades the function and diversity of coral microbiomes, which in turn jeopardizes the ability of the organism to survive through future warming or hazardous conditions. This feedback loop lies at the root of recent, unprecedented wide-scale bleaching events, and furthering our understanding of bacterial and algal symbiosis with coral will aid in the search for solutions to this problem. A coral reef that is bleached cannot harbor the fantastically diverse ecosystem of fish and other marine organisms that we have come to expect and enjoy, and the opportunity and responsibility to preserve this majesty lies in the hands of the average citizen (YOU!). Whether it’s biking instead of driving to work, remembering to recycle or voting for pro-climate political candidates, we all can make a difference in the fight against bleaching. The coral microbiome needs all the help it can get, and limiting its stressors is the best way to start.

 

References

Ainsworth, Tracy D., Gates, Ruth D. “Corals’ microbial sentinels.” Science, 24 June 2016. Vol.

352, Issue 6293, pp. 1518-1519.

http://science.sciencemag.org/content/352/6293/1518.full

“What is coral bleaching?” What is coral bleaching? – Ocean Facts. National Ocean Service –

U.S. National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration, n.d. Web. 5 Sept. 2016.

http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_bleach.html

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The Tasmanian Devil: Nature’s Waning Bully

By: Joshua Hobbs

The Tasmanian devil. A marsupial that cannot be mistaken for any other. What comes to mind when you think of the Tasmanian devil? Is it its spine chilling screeches? Or perhaps it is its dark black fur combined with sharp teeth? Or maybe it is its famous bad temper that made it be dubbed “The Devil”? Or, more likely than not, you might be flooded with childhood memories of early mornings watching Bugs Bunny and company trying their best to save themselves from being devoured to shreds by the infamous Taz, who was always ready to eat any and everything as long as the opportunity presented itself. While these are the things that usually come to people’s minds when they think of this very polarizing creature, the current reality is something that is somewhat surprising.

 

 

picture1https://www.flickr.com/photos/54919275@N08/8446644201/sizes/l/ By David Taylor is licensed under CC 2.0.

First, here is a little background about the Tasmanian devil. They are the largest surviving carnivorous marsupial, and are found on the island of Tasmania. Once very populous on the actual mainland of Australia, the devil became extinct on the mainland some 400 years ago before European settlement most likely due to the spread of dingoes in the surrounding land. Characterized by their squat build, broad head, and short, thick tail, this animal is widely known for its muscular build and ferocity when feeding (3).

If they are these masculine, ferocious, dominant creatures that we all think and know that they are, then what exactly is the current problem? Wouldn’t you think that these creatures not have any difficulties surviving regardless of the adversity that they face?

Well, things are rarely as simple as they seem. A big problem for the current Tasmanian devils first arose in 1996.  They began to appear in Mount William in northeastern Tasmania with apparent facial tumors that led to infected individuals to die within months of the onset. The disease, unfortunately, is transmissible, which basically means that it is contagious and can be transmitted to other animals. Crazy right? Well it is especially worse for the Tasmanian devil, as the current population has extremely low levels of genetic diversity, making the disease more transmissible. This has led to 20 to 80 percent of the current population in Tasmania to become impacted, leading to 65 percent of the whole island of Tasmania being infected (2). Only the state’s west and north-west areas are unaffected.

What does this mean for the outlook of the Tasmanian devil population? Well as of 2008, it has been estimated that only 10,000 to 15,000 individuals are left in the wild. This has led to the change of the Tasmanian devil being classified as lower risk/least concern in 1996, to endangered as of 2008 by The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. This is a huge change in a species that in a span of 15 years has gone from an animal that had little to no concerns for its population, to risk of becoming extinct (3).

But there definitely is a light at the end of the tunnel. Some populations of devils have done better than disease models have predicted. This finding has perplexed scientists around the world as they wondered what could have possibly caused this. Menna Jones and her colleagues at the University of Tasmania to study the population of 300 devils in 3 separate regions of Tasmania from before and after the onset of the disease in the area. In two of the three regions that were studied, the populations of the devils from before the onset of the disease to after are different; in both of these regions, immunity and cancer being linked to both of these regions. The authors of the study predicted that resistance spread throughout the population in 4 to 6 generations, much faster than initially expected; “It’s as if extreme mortality has led to extreme evolutionary selection pressure,” says Jones. “It has happened a lot faster than we expected.” The findings show that species can in fact evolve in less than 10 generations when presented with a lethal threat to its population (1).

While it is very hopeful for the Tasmanian devil population, scientists have been proactive in their efforts as well in helping the current Tasmanian devil population from contracting the disease. Recently 33 immunized devils have been released into the wild in an effort for them to mix with the unimmunized population.

Why should we care? Devils are very dangerous creatures that might potentially harm us or the animals we own, right? Many critics of the marsupial believe that the earth might possibly be in a better place if they went extinct. There is a big misconception that the devil causes copious amounts of harm to the environment and its inhabitants. Despite the negative connotation given to the devil, they usually remain still and calm while in the presence of humans, even sometimes shaking due to nervousness. That does not seem like a blood-thirsty creature now does it? Additionally, there has been evidence by scientists that any concerns over devils damaging livestock have been greatly over exaggerated. The majority of negative conations that are attributed to the Tasmanian devil are in one way or another distorted.

 

The Tasmanian devil population has been in in trouble recently due to many factors that have affected the population. Despite these factors, the devil population has been able to show resistance against its biggest threat in the Devil Facial Tumor Disease (DFTD). While this is good news, we as humans have to remember our role in their waning populations as well. With this in mind with the evolution of the Tasmanian devil, the population may in fact be able to be saved after all.

References:

  1. Klein, Alice, 2 Sept. 2016. Superfast Evolution Could Save Tasmanian Devils from Extinction. New Scientist Magazine.
  2.  Murchison EP, et al. (2010) The Tasmanian devil transcriptome reveals Schwann cell origins of a clonally transmissible cancer. Science 327(5961):84–87.
  3. Pye, R. J. et al.A second transmissible cancer in Tasmanian devils.Proc. Natl Acad. Sci. USA113, 374–379 (2016).

 

 

 

 

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Good Doc, Bad Doc: Healthcare Systems Contribute to Biodiversity Crisis

When Nemo is snatched away from his father in the beginning scenes of Finding Nemo, we assume the “bad guys” represent companies that over-exploit aquatic animals for dentist office aquariums. But what if these big fisher companies aren’t the only bad guys disrupting oceanic life. What if there are others – people you’d least expect. Health-care systems. Wait, but how? It’s true that hospitals and health care facilities provide immense benefit to society by saving lives every day. But the energy and supplies it takes to run a fully functioning hospital creates a substantial amount of biomedical waste and air pollution that generally goes overlooked. So although the sole purpose of the healthcare system is to heal people, it ironically poses detrimental public health and environmental risks which are outlined in Matthew J. Eckelman and Jodi Sherman’s article, “Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health” published this past June in the Public Library of Science (PLOS One).

For quite some time scientists have largely accepted that global warming is real and the Earth’s climate is noticeably increasing. Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, the primary source of global warming, are still released relentlessly into the atmosphere. According to the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014 by the EPA, fossil fuel burning released 6,870 million metric tons of CO2 equivalents in 2014, an increase from 2013. But we’ve had envrionmental facts and statistics like this thrown at us time and time again; what most people don’t expect is that significant culprits of this crime are healthcare systems.

Eckelman and Sherman’s data suggest that healthcare systems are responsible for 10% of greenhouse gas emissions, and this figure continues to rise. The health care sector’s waste additionally contributes to 12% of acid rain, 10% of smog formation, and 1% of ozone depletion. As reported in the World Health Organization Health-care Waste Fact Sheet, 15% percent of the biomedical waste produced is hazardous, infectious, and toxic material. Every year 16 billion injections are administered worldwide, and a noteworthy portion of these needles aren’t disposed of carefully.

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“Medical Waste” by wonderferret (Flikr CC user), licensed under CC 2.0

Harmful chemicals and microorganisms find their way to our oceans which disrupt marine ecosystems. Aquatic animals are exposed to these toxic and even radioactive wastes which puts many of these species in danger and further accelerates the current biodiversity crisis. According to Jonathan Payne and Andrew Bush’s article, “Ecological Selectivity of the Emerging Mass Extinction in the Oceans,” from Science earlier in September, this current mass extinction could approach or exceed the magnitude of the five major extinctions over the past 550 million years. If healthcare systems continue these trends, Marlin will never be able to find Nemo. Or any of his friends, for that matter.

Eckelman and Sherman state that “the healthcare sector is interconnected with and supported by industrial activates that emit much of the pollution to the air, water, and soils nationally.” Many fish consume this polluted water which then get eaten by bigger animals, including humans. Terrestrial animals and ecosystems are also affected by pollution and greenhouse gas emissions via climate change. For example, polar bears are already considered endangered species because of the increasing climate of their habitat.

To be clear, the point being made is not that healthcare systems are monsters with an overarching goal to dismantle the earth’s ecosystems. And yes, most hospitals have implemented departments that work to prevent the accretion and incorrect disposal of biomedical waste. But as the figures presented in Eckelman and Sherman’s research demonstrate, the amount of pollution created by these US healthcare systems is still steadily increasing with little improvement.

Great, so how can health care facilities fix this? When the new Fitbit device for tracking steps came out, many hospitals encouraged their workers to join staff competitions in which participants who walked the most steps were rewarded with gift cards or an extra vacation day. These same mechanisms that promote healthy habits can be utilized to promote more diligent disposal of biomedical waste. Different departments within the hospital could compete with their team to minimize waste for a desirable reward.

No matter how many solutions we come up with, the hard part is actually implementing these programs in hospitals across the nation. But if we don’t, we idly sit by as healthcare systems contribute to global warming, endanger a multitude of ecosystems and worsen the biodiversity crisis. The loss of one individual species may have few environmental repercussions, but if enough ties between living creatures are broken, entire ecosystems could begin to fail. The balance of nature will be offset, potentially putting the survival of even humans at risk. It’s time to start playing good doc.

 

 

Works Cited:

Eckelman, M. J., & Sherman, J. (2016, June 09). Environmental Impacts of the U.S. Health Care System and Effects on Public Health. PLoS ONE, 11(6). doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0157014

Health-care waste. (n.d.). Retrieved September 01, 2016, from http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs253/en/

Payne, J. L., Bush, A. M., Heim, N. A., Knope M. L., & Mccauley, D. J. (2016, Sept 14). Ecological sensitivity of the emerging mass extinction in the oceans. Science, 353(3605), 1284-1286. doi:10.1126/science.aaf2416

U.S. Greenhouse Gas Inventory Report: 1990-2014. (n.d.). Retrieved September 02, 2016, from https://www.epa.gov/ghgemissions/us-greenhouse-gas-inventory-report-1990-2014

 

 

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GMOs: Causing Problems or Solving Them?

 

monsanto

Protesting Monsanto in San Francisco” by Donna Cleveland is licensed under CC 2.0

Bananas that contain vaccines; rice enriched with vitamins that could sustain third world countries; peanuts, soy, and wheat that are free of allergens: this is the world of genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Sound too good to be true? The truth is there is no conclusive answer about whether or not the positives of GMOs outweigh the negatives. There is a dearth of knowledge in the GMO field that must be addressed.

Widespread use of GMOs began in the 1990s and it would be difficult to visit a grocery store or restaurant without encountering them today. While GMOs do have the potential to eliminate harmful allergies and feed malnourished populations, their impact on the environment has not been well studied. Dr. Allison Snow, a plant ecologist of Ohio State University says, “We’ve let the cat out of the bag before we have real data, and there’s no calling it back.”

Scientists are not in accord about the impact of GMOs on the environment due to a lack of comprehensive data. Often times, the genetically engineered crops are developed and introduced into millions of acres of farmland without being tested for ecological impact. In fact, only one percent of USDA biotechnology research is devoted to risk assessment.

Crops can be genetically engineered to produce pesticides; this means that application of harmful pesticides that pollute the soil and groundwater and thus harm wildlife are used less often. However, just because these dangerous pesticides are not being externally applied to genetically engineered crops, does not mean that they do not still find a way to impact the environment.  A 1999 study in Nature by Dr. Maureen Carter of Cornell University suggests that genetically engineered pollen, called Bt corn pollen, harmed monarch butterfly caterpillars. This finding is particularly concerning because monarch caterpillars do not feed directly on corn pollen; they feed on milkweed plants which grow in and around cornfields. The Cornell study found that corn pollen made its way onto milkweed plants and stunted monarch caterpillar growth or even killed them.

Dissenting opinions in the field, however, led to a follow up study. Rick Hellmich, an entomologist at the Agricultural Research Service and an author on the follow-up study said that, “The chances of a caterpillar finding Bt pollen doses as high as those in the Cornell study are negligible…Butterflies are safer in a Bt cornfield than they are in a conventional cornfield, when they’re subjected to chemical pesticides that kill not just caterpillars but most insects in the field.” Clearly, the data are inconclusive and scientists have not come to a consensus about potential dangers of genetically engineered crops on the environment.

Another point of concern is that genetically engineered crops could speed up the evolution of insects and lead to the proliferation of super-bugs that can’t be controlled by pesticides. In an attempt to prevent this, the U.S. has a regulation in place requiring farmers who grow genetically engineered crops to have a cluster of conventional crops near the engineered ones. This is an attempt to prevent two of the super-bugs from mating.   These regulations should prevent or delay the rise of pesticide resistant insects.

A recent study in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics by Dr. Neal Doran of the University of California, San Diego found that survey respondents consistently believed that foods labeled “GMO” are less healthy, safe, and environmentally-friendly compared to all other labels.

The scientific community is not in agreement about the potential detrimental impact of GMOs on the environment, but all are still wary. Frankly, we just don’t know what could happen. More research needs to be done before we cause harm to the environment that could have been easily prevented.

 

References

Ackerman, By Jennifer. “Altered Food, GMOs, Genetically Modified Food.” National Geographic. N.p., n.d. Web. 08 Sept. 2016. http://environment.nationalgeographic.com/environment/global-warming/food-how-altered/

Losey, J. E., Rayor, L. S. and Carter, M. E. “Transgenic pollen harms monarch larvae.” Nature 399 (1999): 214. Web. http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v399/n6733/abs/399214a0.html

Sax, J., Doran, N. “Food Labeling and Consumer Associations with Health, Safety, and Environment.” Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics (2016). Web. http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2787163

Sears, M. K., R. Hellmich L., D. Stanley-Horn E., K. Oberhauser S., J. Pleasants M., H. Mattila R., B. Siegfried D., and G. Dively P. “Impact of Bt Corn Pollen on Monarch Butterfly Populations: A Risk Assessment.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 98.21 (2001): 11937-1942. Web. <http://www.pnas.org/content/98/21/11937.full.&gt;.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Role Reversal: How the Fearsome Have Become Our Prey

Yao Ming, the emblematic pillar of the 2000s era Houston Rockets, brought unprecedented popularity to the NBA in China, where he established himself as a household name. His influence outside of the basketball court can still be felt there, now as an outspoken advocate for wildlife conservation. In particular, as an ambassador for WildAid, he has called for the end to shark fin consumption.

Shark fin soup is a staple at important events in China, and its consumption is often used to showcase wealth. China is the biggest market for shark fin. The demand for shark fin contributes to an estimated annual mortality of 100 million sharks, according to a 2013 study by Brian Worm of Dalhousie University. Fortunately, things may be looking up for sharks. Data summarized by WildAid indicates that educational campaigns involving celebrities like Yao Ming may have contributed to the 82% decline in shark fin sales in China between 2013 and 2014.

However, the situation is still grave for the feared, yet vulnerable animals. Other data from WildAid shows that the fourteen most fished shark species have all experienced population declines of at least 40%. The absolute devastation humans have brought to these species is perhaps best described by Dr. Demian Chapman of Nova Southeastern University in an interview with National Geographic, “We’ve absolutely annihilated the species on a global scale”.

So why should we care? Sharks are obviously predators, sitting at the top of many interconnected food webs of coral reef ecosystems. So when shark populations decrease, the populations of and interactions between every species under them are thrown off balance. As a result, the populations of species that are shark prey blossom and those of herbivorous reef species crash. Algae are able to grow unhindered, smothering coral and starving them of light and oxygen. Coral reefs support a plethora of marine species and are home to incredible biodiversity. There is potential for the complete collapse of an entire ecosystem.

If not for the sake of biodiversity and healthy ecosystems, we should at least care because these consequences will affect us too. Declining shark populations have the potential to negatively impact fisheries, tourism, and ultimately, the economies of countless countries and lives of millions of people.

Nowhere is the decline better exemplified than in the Red Sea, where according to Nicholas Dulvy of Simon Fraser University, there are twenty-nine shark species classified as “Threatened” by the IUCN. Furthermore, thirteen out of the fourteen most fished species can be found there. Combined with the lack of regulation, it’s obvious why shark fishing is common in the region.

In response to the lack of knowledge on the actual abundance and distribution of shark species in the Red Sea, Julia Spaet and colleagues at the University of Cambridge recently published their study in Biological Conservation. They gathered data over a 2-year period through a sampling program at specific sites along the Saudi Arabian(SA) Red Sea coast and Sudanese Red Sea coast. Underwater cameras provided images that were analyzed while longlines captured sharks which were qualitatively assessed. With the collected data, they estimated the relative abundance of shark species in the two regions.

The estimates for relative abundance of shark species in the SA region are significantly lower than estimates obtained from Australia and Fiji. Most relevantly, estimates for the SA region are many magnitudes lower than estimates for the unexploited Sudanese region. Spaet concludes that the low abundance of sharks in the SA region results from years of unregulated overfishing of sharks and their prey.

Despite the efforts of conservation groups, there’s still a lack of awareness about the negative effects of shark fishing. Education needs time, and we have little to spare. In the meantime, the responsibility of stopping the current decline in shark populations and the resulting impact on respective ecosystems falls on the shoulders of the governments. Countries where shark fin is sold, like China, must ban its sale while countries that govern oceans where the fishing occurs, like Saudi Arabia, must strictly enforce laws that prohibit fishing.

Undoubtedly, factors other than overfishing may have contributed to the low estimates of abundance in the SA Red Sea region. For example, abundance in the SA region may just be naturally low due to unknown environmental factors. However, the Sudanese Red Sea region, which has significantly higher estimates of abundance, shares the same habitat characteristics as the SA Red Sea region. No matter the opinion on Spaet’s conclusion, one thing is clear: we need more detailed data.

Regardless of the actions (or inactions) of governments, research can still be done to advance our knowledge of the distribution of shark populations and how their declines affect their ecosystems. So when action is ready to be undertaken, that knowledge will be there to help formulate the most effective conservation effort.

References

Dulvy, N. K., Fowler, S. L., Musick, J. A., Cavanagh, R. D., Kyne, P. M., Harrison, L. R., … & Pollock, C. M. (2014). Extinction risk and conservation of the world’s sharks and rays. Elife3, e00590. Retrieved from https://elifesciences.org/content/3/e00590

Hodges, G. (2016). These sharks used to rule the seas. Now they’re nearly gone. National Geographic. Retrieved from http://www.nationalgeographic.com/magazine/2016/08/whitetip-sharks-vanishing-ocean-species/

Spaet, J. L., Nanninga, G. B., & Berumen, M. L. (2016). Ongoing decline of shark populations in the Eastern Red Sea. Biological Conservation201, 20-28. Retrieved from http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0006320716302415

WildAid. (2014). Evidence of declines in shark fin demand china. Retrieved from http://wildaid.org/sites/default/files/resources/SharkReport_Evidence%20of%20Declines%20in%20Shark%20Fin%20Demand_China.pdf

Worm, B., Davis, B., Kettemer, L., Ward-Paige, C. A., Chapman, D., Heithaus, M. R., … & Gruber, S. H. (2013). Global catches, exploitation rates, and rebuilding options for sharks. Marine Policy40, 194-204. Retrieved from http://wormlab.biology.dal.ca/publication/view/worm-etal-2013-global-catches-exploitation-rates-and-rebuilding-options-for-sharks/

 

 

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How Stem Cells Can Save the Northern White Rhinoceros

northern-white-rhino

Northern White Rhinoceros” by Jeffrey Keeton is licensed under CC by 2.0

The entire world population of the northern white rhinoceros can be counted on a single hand. On the brink of extinct, the three remaining members of this rhino subspecies are kept under watch 24/7 by armed guards. To count the total number of fertile rhinos out of these three, you would not even need a hand. Sudan, the last male northern white rhino on Earth, is effectively sterile due to low sperm count. The females, Najin and Fatu, suffer from orthopedic and uterine disorders, respectively, that also rule out pregnancy. By traditional standards, the northern white rhinoceros is as good as gone.

However, stem cell technology appears to be a promising avenue to save the northern white rhino. Stem cells are immature precursor cells that can develop into a variety of mature cells and treat otherwise fatal illnesses. In this case, rather than to heal a damaged organ, stem cells will revive the entire northern white rhino population. A team of conservation biologists, led by senior researchers Oliver A. Ryder of the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research and Thomas B. Hildebrandt of the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research, have written a protocol that uses stem cells to save the northern white rhino (Saragusty et al., The Leibniz Institute, Zoo Biology).

Although stem cells are usually found in embryos, the researchers plan to use iPSCs (induced pluripotent stem cells). These cells are created when mature cells, such as skin cells, are reverted to their stem cell stage in the laboratory. This is advantageous because the rhinos are incapable of breeding naturally to produce an embryo. The scientists plan to use iPSCs to generate egg and sperm, which will be combined into embryos and implanted into surrogates. According to Ryder, “genetic resources … with the capability to establish induced pluripotent stem cells are the basis for hope that a viable population of northern white rhinoceros can be produced” (Ryder, 2016).

Skin samples provide the additional benefit of maximizing genetic diversity. The living three northern white rhino are all related as parent-offspring. Sudan is the father of Najin, who is the mother of Fatu. Using iPSCs, researchers can apply skin cell lines that have been previously extracted from unrelated, now-deceased rhino. Institutions such as the Leibniz Institute for Zoo and Wildlife Research and the San Diego Zoo Global have stored skin samples from a total of 12 individuals.

Opponents of this endeavor may believe that this relatively new and expensive procedure is unjustified for a dying subspecies. Out of the countless species that go extinct every year, it is unclear if the northern white rhino is particularly valuable ecologically. Furthermore, the northern white rhino has a related subspecies, the southern white rhino, which has not yet descended to endangered status.

However, people have an ethical obligation to take this opportunity because the northern white rhino was driven to near-extinction by human activity. Once abundant in Africa, the northern white rhino was decimated by poaching. Although conservationists made efforts to preserve the remaining population in captivity, failed breeding efforts caused the meager remaining population to continually decrease.

This effort also has implications beyond a single subspecies. iPSCs serve as a potentially revolutionary tool for conservation, not just for the northern white rhino but also for other critically endangered mammals. iPSCs offer a more advanced and flexible alternative to conception from naturally extracted eggs and sperm. Since we are currently in the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, connecting modern experimental technology to conservation has been increasingly crucial. By pioneering the use of the technology in conservation, researchers can pave the way for future applications.

Stem cell technology gives hope that near-extinct species may one day roam their natural habitats in sustainable populations. If they are allowed the resources, these researchers can both rescue the northern white rhino and optimize their protocol for the rescue of other species.

Works Cited

Saragusty, J., Diecke, S., Drukker, M., Durrant, B., Friedrich Ben-Nun, I., Galli, C., Göritz, F., Hayashi, K., Hermes, R., Holtze, S., Johnson, S., Lazzari, G., Loi, P., Loring, J. F., Okita, K., Renfree, M. B., Seet, S., Voracek, T., Stejskal, J., Ryder, O. A. and Hildebrandt, T. B. (2016), Rewinding the process of mammalian extinction. Zoo Biology, 35: 280–292. http://dx.doi.org/10.1002/zoo.21284

“Seeking to rewind mammalian extinction.” Eurekalert. The American Association for the Advancement of Science, 2016, http://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2016-05/zsos-st042916.php. Accessed 6 September 2016.

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The Sunshine State’s Slimy Summer and its Sixteen-Year-Old Solution

4598769539_7dc90eb756_oOne effect of an algal bloom caused by severe eutrophication. 
“Algae and dead fish in Dianchi Lake, China” by Greenpeace China is licensed under CC 2.0.

If you thought that the Sunshine State was the perfect spot for your next vacation, you may need to think again. The summer of 2016 has proved a hazardous time to be a beach-goer in certain parts of Florida. Even the residents have found themselves fleeing south for a swim that won’t leave them waist-deep in toxic algae most accurately described as “watery guacamole”. This environmental crisis is just another casualty of unfulfilled promises from Florida politicians. Without intervention, it will continue to wreak ecological havoc on the state landscape.

Historically, wetlands covered the land south of Lake Okeechobee. As the people moved in, however, the marsh had to move out. Engineers built canals running east and west, diverting Lake Okeechobee’s natural drainage south into where once lay the Everglades. Nowadays, the area around Florida’s largest lake is mostly agricultural. This farmland, however, cultivates more than just sugar cane. The agricultural runoff provides all the nitrogen and phosphorous required for a thriving algal bloom. This eutrophication, or excess of nutrients, might not be a huge problem if it weren’t for Okeechobee’s predictable overflows. The excess water from tropical storms, hurricanes, and even normal rainfall drains out through the man-made canals, dumping freshwater and all that comes with it into the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico.

img_8605The natural drainage direction of Lake Okeechobee versus its current, artificial drainage directions. 

The blue-green algae in question, known as cyanobacteria, poses serious health risks for humans and wildlife. Florida is home to many at-risk marine groups. All six sea turtle species are listed as endangered by the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and the West Indian manatee has only just this year been downlisted from endangered to threatened. Can we expect these already struggling populations to survive habitat degradation such as this? And unfortunately, while in the past these bouts of algae have subsided, this one may be here for a longer stay. The high levels of nitrogen and phosphorous continue to persist in Lake Okeechobee. One solution has been offered by a spokeswoman for the Florida Department of Environmental Protection– to reduce the amounts of these nutrients in the lake. It’s a viable option. Aquatic Ecology confirmed this in its special issue on cyanobacterial blooms, where the authors of one journal article noted that “it has been widely demonstrated that eutrophication can be most efficiently reversed by the reduction of phosphorous” (Fastner, Federal Environment Agency Berlin, Aquatic Ecology). This seems ideal; to dredge the lake and be done with it. Unfortunately the South Florida Water Management District does not agree. In a 2003 study they found that not only would it cost $3 billion, but also require an unreasonable amount of time to dredge the estimated 200 million cubic meters of sediment.  Our world’s changing climate only adds to persistence of the bloom. As water gets warmer, algae get happier. In fact, the journal article above referenced a hypothesis that the nutrient load in lakes will need to be reduced even further than before to compensate for the planet’s warming. So what can be done?

 

We have to reopen Florida’s history of environmental issues that fell through the cracks. Sixteen years ago, US Congress approved the Comprehensive Everglades Restoration Plan in response to the plight of the Everglades ecosystem. Due to factors that included the recession and Florida’s need to keep its sugar industry at maximum production, progress has been sluggish at best. The government has a chance now, in a single act, to tackle the cyanobacterial blooms and finally follow-through on reclaiming the Everglades. As long as Okeechobee continues to house these algal blooms, the US Army Corps of Engineers cannot continue to pump the excess lake water into the ocean. The only solution remains to redirect the water back to its original southward flow. In 2008, then-governor Charlie Crist struck a deal to buy the majority of US Sugar’s Everglades holdings for $1.75 billion. If Florida’s current politicians follow through on this, in place of sugar cane fields we could soon have a viable wetland ready to accept this freshwater flood. Not only that, the purchase of this farmland means that Lake Okeechobee will no longer be victim to such high volumes of nutrient-rich runoff. The second largest lake in the USA could be healthy once again.

The ecological benefits are massive. The economic benefits are massive. It may take an initial payout, but let’s be honest – can Florida’s tourism-dependent economy really stay afloat while its beaches look more like pea soup than salt water? While its iconic sea creatures suffocate in blue-green muck? Giving up just the southern portion of the sugar lands can’t compare to the preservation of Florida’s ecology. These are just the small-picture benefits. Reclaiming a larger part of the Everglades restores the natural balance of the land and its water flow. We can start to mitigate the footprints we’ve left, and strive to tread lighter in the future.

 

 

Posted in Conservation Biology Posts, Conservation Editorials 2016 | Leave a comment