1 Tahrcountry Musings: March 2009

Monday, March 30, 2009

Leaf-Cutting Ants Help Develop New Drugs

In a spectacular case of symbiosis leaf-cutting ants have been cultivating fungus gardens that provide a safe home for the fungi and a food source for the ants for the last 50 million-years. It was only 10 years back that Cameron Currie, a microbial ecologist then at the University of Toronto in Ontario, Canada, discovered that leaf-cutting ants carry colonies of actinomycete bacteria on their bodies. This bacteria produce an antibiotic that protects the ants' fungal crops from associated parasitic fungi.

Currie was fascinated by his discovery and wanted to know the nitty gritty of the entire symbiosis.On 29 March, Currie, Jon Clardy at the Harvard Medical School in Boston and their colleagues reported that they had isolated and purified one of these antifungals. They named the new antifungal dentigerumycin. The story does not stop here. This newly discovered antifungal was found to slow down the growth of a drug-resistant strain of the fungus Candida albicans, which causes yeast infections in people. An excited Currie has described the ants as walking pharmaceutical factories. Different ant species cultivate different fungal crops, which in turn is affected by different parasites. So researchers are hoping to find and develop new drugs.

Another spin off of the research is the discovery that fungi associated with ants are very efficient at breaking down cellulose. Unravelling the process might allow us to make more efficient biofuels. than those made from sugary foods, such as maize.

Details of the study appears in Nature Chem. Bio (D.-C. Oh et al. Nature Chem. Bio. doi: 10.1038/nchembio.159; 2009).

Have a look at what Currie has to say about his research by clicking here

The new discovery points to the urgent need to protect our biodiversity. Everything is interlinked and mans’ folly is destroying the cornucopia before we get a chance to study them properly.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

Now a Contraceptive Pill for Desert Rats

For some time now exploding Gerbil population in their Xinjiang region has exasperated the Chinese officials. Gerbils have threatened the fragile desert ecosystem of Xinjiang. Only few plants can survive in this harsh and arid region. Ceaseless burrowing by Gerbils is destroying even this sparse vegetation.

Chinese authorities tried various options like traps and biological control. Predatory birds were introduced in the region. But the problem persisted. Forestry officials are now trying a new way to control Gerbils. They are using contraceptive pills. The pill is mixed with feeds and placed in strategic locations.

The pills prevent females from getting pregnant and cause abortion in those already pregnant. The Chinese authorities consider this to be much more humane option than poisoning Gerbils. The new experiment seems to be working. If it becomes a real success the authorities are planning to introduce the system in other areas also.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Two New Greenhouse Gases Accumulating in the Atmosphere

According to the latest research spearheaded by Climate scientist Dr Paul Fraser two new greenhouse gases, one emitted by the electronic industry and the other used in pest control, are rapidly accumulating in the atmosphere. The gases are Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and Sulfuryl fluoride (SO2F2). NF3 is used by the electronics industry in the manufacture of circuit boards in liquid-crystal flat-panel screens. SO2F2 is used as a fumigant.

The scientists have made a fervent plea to include these two gases for control in the revision of the Kyoto Protocol. Kyoto Protocol has set emission targets for six gases, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, PFCs, hydrofluorcarbons and sulfur hexafluoride. Even though the quantity SO2F2 and NF3 gases are low right now, the danger signals are already there and the time is ripe for control. NF3 is 17,000 times more potent than CO2, while SO2F2 is 5000 times more potent. NF3 persists for hundreds of years in the atmosphere. The gas accumulation is growing at around 5% a year. This is faster than any other greenhouse gasses included in the Kyoto Protocol.

Details of research appears in the 12 March edition of the Journal of Geophysical Research

Thursday, March 19, 2009

Chemical Warfare by Plants

Professor Byron Lamont from Curtin University of Technology Australia, and his colleagues, has come up with some surprising findings regarding the defence mechanism of plants. The Australian native plant Hakea is using chemical warfare to prevent its bright red flowers being eaten by animals. This goes against established beliefs. The belief till now was that flowers evolved as a way for plants to attract birds and animals for cross-pollination.

The team studied 51 species of Hakea, and found that they could be easily divided into two groups, insect-pollinated species and bird-pollinated species. Insect-pollinated species have predominantly tiny, white flowers surrounded by spiky, dense foliage. This stops animals such as emus and cockatoos from eating the flower. Bird-pollinated species have soft open leaves and bright, easily accessible, usually red, flowers where birds can easily land. This makes the plant vulnerable to being eaten by emus and cockatoos.

Professor Byron Lamont and his colleagues macerated the flowers on-site and then used an enzyme and a strip of paper that was sensitive to cyanide to test for its presence. They found that plants with red flowers contain 10 milligrams of cyanide per gram. This was enough to make an animal sick. It is presumed that animals that eat the red Hakea flowers may learn to associate the colour with the bitter taste produced by the cyanide. The colour red acts as a warning to herbivores like emus, parrots and kangaroos sending the message that the flower contains distasteful cyanogenic compounds.

Details of the study appear in the latest edition of journal New Phytologist.

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Plastic Trash in the Oceans and the Plight of the Turtles

Plastics ingestion by leatherback turtles is taking a heavy toll of the critically endangered species. This is the result arrived at by Dr. Mike James and colleagues from Dalhousie University after detailed analysis of post-mortems report of leatherbacks for the past four decades. Over one third of the turtles had ingested plastic. Ingestion of plastic leads to partial or complete obstruction of gastrointestinal tract, which in turn leads to starvation and death.

Leatherbacks often confuse plastic trash with one of their favorite prey, jellyfish. Unfortunately both jellyfish and plastic trash are often found in areas where oceanic water masses meet.

The only way out of this tragic situation is use of biodegradable materials and recycling. Leatherbacks have inhabited the earth for over a hundred million years and it would be a shame if they disappear due to the folly and profligacy of man. As the old saying goes little drops of water makes the mighty ocean. Each one of us has a bounden duty to do whatever is possible to save this critically endangered turtle. Concerted action will certainly pay rich dividends in the long run.

Details of the study appear in Marine Pollution Bullentin.

Mrosovsky et al. Leatherback turtles: The menace of plastic. Marine Pollution Bulletin, 2009; 58 (2): 287 DOI: 10.1016/j.marpolbul.2008.10.018

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

5th World Congress on Mountain Ungulates- Online Registration

Online registration is now open for the 5th World Congress on Mountain Ungulates. Log on to the conference website www.vworldconferenceungulates.org for details. You can click here and go to the website

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Tropical Forests’ Carbon Sink Function Affected by Drought.

Tropical rainforests act as important carbon sinks.These forests have been continuously giving us a subsidy. Latest research indicates that with global warming this important function cannot be taken for granted any more.Drought is affecting the capacity of tropical forests to act as carbon sinks. This has far reaching effects for the global community. It is even feared that they could turn to be carbon ‘source’. The report appears in science today magazine

The assumption is based on a study of, 2005 drought, of Amazon basin. The drought has turned some of the affected areas of the Amazon from a carbon sink to carbon source. Research plots that were monitored regularly before and after the drought revealed that forest patches subjected to a 100-millimeter decrease in rainfall released on average 5.3 tonnes of carbon per hectare as trees in the area died.
Scientists have estimated that mature tropical forests, which cover about 10% of Earth's land, absorb around 1.3 billion tonnes of carbon per year. This is the equivalent of around 20% of carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning. This works out to around 40% of the total global terrestrial carbon sink

The need to protect tropical rainforest has acquired great significance. A global initiative is what is needed. Countries acting alone and out of sync with others will not deliver the goods.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

Want to marry? Plant trees

Indonesia has long been troubled by deforestation. It has the unenviable reputation of having the highest rate of deforestation in Asia. Palm oil lobbies have played havoc with the environment. Environmentalists have been going hammer and tongs at the Government for its lackadaisical ways in enforcing forest laws.

Against the background of the above mentioned facts I was delighted to hear this piece of news from my Indonesian contacts. In an innovative move Garut district administration in Indonesia has come out with the rider that if the marriage is to be legally Okayed, the couple panning to get married must give ten trees to district administration for reforestation drive. In an adjunct move the administration has also decreed that divorces will be granted only after the supply of one tree. The latest move from the Garut administration comes in the wake of financial difficulties. Central administration had recently launched a scheme to plant million tress across Indonesia. Garut does not have the wherewithal to pursue the programme. The dovetailing of marriage registration to tree planting was a clever move to overcome the difficulties experienced.

The man who came up with the idea for the administration deserves fulsome praise. Hats off to him.

Sunday, March 01, 2009

Bottled water Guzzles Energy-Think Twice Before You Buy One

Do you really need that bottle of packaged drinking water? The latest research on bottled water has confirmed what the environmentalists have charged all these years. Weighed against tap water bottled water consumes between 1100 and 2000 times more energy on an average.

Environmental scientist Peter Gleick and Heather Cooley of the Pacific Institute did the study. Details like how much energy goes into making a plastic bottle; processing the water; labeling, filling, and sealing a bottle; transporting it for sale; and cooling the water prior to consumption went in to the research. Manufacturing the bottle and transportation were found the most energy hogging activities.

Startling details have emerged from the study. The global demand for bottle production alone uses 50 million barrels of oil a year. Drinking an imported bottle of water is about two-and-a-half to four times more energy intensive than getting it locally. This often surpasses the energy needed to make the bottle. Bottled water has now surpassed milk and beer in sales.

So think twice before you grab that next bottle. If you are in a position to bring a bottle of water from home do plumb for it.

Details of the research appears in the latest issue of journal Environmental Research Letters.