Nature, Science

Researchers Test “Whale Breath” for Microbes

Scientists have found a way to test "whale breath" for bacteria or fungi.
Scientists have found a way to test “whale breath” for bacteria or fungi. Photo: Shutterstock

Recent research has shown that southern resident killer whales, also known as orcas, which range from California to British Columbia, are subject to a variety of bacteria and fungi that may pose a health risk to the whales, and the source of which is still unknown.

Because they range so far, orcas are exposed to a wide variety of pollutants like agricultural runoff, and some of the bacteria show antibiotic-resistant tendencies, perhaps caused by the increased use of antibiotics in agriculture and animal husbandry.

Understanding the health of southern resident killer whales is essential, as they’ve been endangered for some time. In the 1990s alone, their numbers dropped from around 108 to about 70, making it all the more important to protect those who remain.

But giving such animals a checkup has long been very difficult, but the researchers who are concerned about these bacteria and fungi have developed a new way to do exactly that.

They found the bacteria by testing droplets and exhaled breath caught from the blowholes of orcas, allowing them to see what kinds of microbial passengers they have.

“We wanted to find out what sort of bacteria and fungi represent in healthy whales and the potential pathogens they are being exposed to in their environment,” said study lead author Stephen Raverty, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia. “In some circumstances, these pathogenic microbes could pose a threat to the animals and contribute to clinical disease.”

This technique allows researchers to study the health of the whales now instead of waiting until they beach themselves or are otherwise found dead, after which a necropsy can be performed. While necropsies can tell us a lot about the dead animal, data collected from live specimens can be more important because it can allow us to react to sickness among those animals.

By collecting this “whale breath,” researchers will be able to get a better handle on what disease threats these whales face in the wild. Unlike more obvious dangers like depleted prey or increased water traffic disrupting their sonar, microbes are hard to detect in the first place, so it can be hard to keep them from causing harm.

“Assessing whether animals are healthy or sick is virtually impossible to do for live animals as big as whales,” said UBC professor Andrew Trites, who was not involved in the study. “Raverty and his colleagues found a way to assess health by collecting microbiota and pathogens when the whales exhaled between dives. It is an ingenious way to give whales a checkup.”

Environmental Hazards, Environmentalist, Science

National Academy of Sciences Says EPA Pollutant Studies Are Necessary

EPA employees protest job cuts, March 2, 2017
Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) workers and supporters protest job cuts during rally in Chicago, Illinois, March 2, 2017. Photo: John Gress Media Inc /

The EPA periodically performs controlled human inhalation exposure (CHIE) studies, in which people are exposed to air pollutants in order to study their short-term effects. The concentration and duration of such exposure is minimal, intended to not have any lasting harm on participants, and of 845 such participants in eight studies between 2009 and 2016, only one person had an unexpected complication.

But that does mean that there is some potential risk to participants who, while they are provided with information about the potential risks of such studies, are given that information through highly technical consent forms. The National Academy of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine recently finished a study that found that the value of the CHIE studies outweighs their risk, with some caveats.

Primarily, they suggest that the EPA develop clearer language for participant consent forms, in order to prevent further dangers. “While communicating with potential participants, it’s particularly important to appropriately characterize the risks,” said Robert Hiatt, professor of epidemiology and biostatistics at the University of California, San Francisco. “EPA needs to make every effort to ensure that these descriptions are accurate, scientifically grounded, and comprehensible to people.”

But overall, the studies have been found to benefit society far more than they endanger participants, which is exactly what one might want from such studies. By looking at how pollutants interact with human biology on their own, we can learn more about those pollutants in particular, which informs laws about air quality. It also helps us to determine what might be to blame when pollutants mix in the atmosphere and cause otherwise unforeseen problems.

The findings by the National Academy come at a time when the EPA is under considerable scrutiny by Congress and the President. Anything that can help the EPA prove that they’re helping the American people will be welcome in keeping that agency funded and active, which is necessary if we’re to do anything about climate change and other human activities which damage the planet.

Nature, Science

Nanoparticles Containing Bee Venom Toxin Kill HIV

A toxin found in bee venom has been found to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
Photo: Shutterstock

By now, we’re all aware that bees have a huge impact on agriculture by pollinating plants, but it turns out they might also be able to help us deal with one of the most dangerous diseases on the planet: HIV. According to research at the Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, a toxin found in bee venom can be used to kill HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.

It works like this: nanoparticles loaded with melittin, the toxic agent in bee venom, come in contact with HIV or other viruses and, pokes holes in the protective envelope that surrounds those viruses. They don’t harm normal cells because those cells are too large to fit through the “bumpers” on the nanoparticles, but the HIV particles are small enough to get through.

What’s more, the same process might be useful against other diseases too. Nanoparticles like these have been shown to kill tumor cells, and might work against hepatitis B and C, viruses which have protective bubbles similar to HIV. And these aren’t the only diseases with this feature.

Unlike existing HIV drugs, which prevent the virus from reproducing, this actually kills the virus, allowing it to work as a preventative to HIV in the first place. But it can also function as a treatment for those who already have HIV, especially if the strain they are infected with is drug-resistant.

One advantage of using the nanoparticle method is that the virus can’t adapt to become resistant to it. “We are attacking an inherent physical property of HIV,” said Joshua L. Hood, MD, PhD, one of the researchers. “Theoretically, there isn’t any way for the virus to adapt to that. The virus has to have a protective coat, a double-layered membrane that protects the virus.”

This finding is an important step in the development of a vaginal gel that can be used to perhaps prevent the spread of HIV. “Our hope is that in places where HIV is running rampant, people could use this gel as a preventive measure to stop the initial infection,” said Dr. Hood.

That an element of bee venom is capable of doing this is amazing. But the simple fact is that nature is highly varied and capable of some pretty startling things. The more we learn about the world and the creatures we share it with, the more we’ll be able to do for ourselves and the world around us.

Washington University notes that no bees were harmed in this study because researchers used a synthetic version of the bee venom toxin.

Business, Eco-friendly, Environmentalist

Environmentalists: It’s Time to Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

With the repeal of environmental regulations, environmentalists are going to need to do their own green investing to ensure the future of sustainable energy.

On Tuesday, March 28, President Trump signed an executive order that rescinded Obama’s Clean Power Plan. The president lifted carbon emissions regulations in order to resume coal-mining operations.

“My administration is putting an end to the war on coal,” Trump asserted. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy to reverse government intrusions and to cancel job killing regulations.”

Environmentalists saw this coming from a mile away. They tried to voice their concerns in the form of protests, but their collective cries fell on deaf ears. That’s because money appears to be the only language that the current administration understands. In other words, the time for talking about sustainability is over. It’s time to take action by investing in clean energy alternatives.

Some companies, such as private equity firm KKR, are already leading the way in this regard. KKR has invested an astounding $5 billion into ESG (environment, social, and governance) driven companies.

“Investors can play a central role in resolving some of the global challenges in a way that civil society or government organizations cannot do alone,” writes Ken Mehlman, Member and Global Head of Public Affairs at KKR. “Our portfolio company Afriflora is a good example. Located in Ethiopia, Afriflora cultivates and produces Fair Trade Certified, sustainably-grown roses.”

It’s like the old saying goes: money talks. And while the average citizen certainly can’t afford to shell out the kind of dough that KKR does, they can still make an impact by purchasing small shares of green companies.

So which companies should environmentalists invest in? According to Investopedia, the top four alternative energy stocks for 2017 are:

  • NRG Yield Inc.
  • MagneGas Corp.
  • Atlantica Yield PLC
  • Covanta Holding Corp.

If there’s anything that the current administration has taught us, it’s that climate change facts and statistics aren’t enough. Environmentalists will have to reach deep into their pockets if they want to influence the future of energy.

Green, Science

Researchers Develop Method for Storing Solar Energy in Liquid

A team of researchers is working on a way to store solar energy as heat, to be released later.
The development of ways to store solar energy as heat could be a huge breakthrough. Photo: Shutterstock

While we have been capable of harnessing the energy of the sun for immediate use. However, before solar can replace fossil fuels and other less safe sources of energy, there needs to be a way to store that energy for later use.

Researchers at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg, Sweden, are working on just that. They have developed a chemical solution to store solar energy, which can then be turned into heat on command, without destroying the medium in which it’s stored. They refer to it as a molecular solar thermal system.

The process is based on the organic compound called norbornadine, that when exposed to light converts into quadricyclone.

“The technique means that we can store the solar energy in chemical boonds and release the energy as heat whenever we need it,” said Professor Kasper Moth-Poulsen, who is leading the research team. “Combining the chemical energy storage with water heating solar panels enables a conversion of more than 80 percent of the incoming sunlight.”

When the research team held its first conceptual demonstration of the technique in 2013, they were able to convert a mere 0.01 percent of solar energy into stored energy that could be transported elsewhere. They were also using an element called ruthenium, which was very expensive. Now, they have improved that storage capacity to 1.1 percent. This may not sound like much, but it’s 100 times more effective than previous technology. The ruthenium has also been replaced by cheaper carbon-based elements.

“We saw an opportunity to develop molecules that make the process much more efficient,” said Moth-Poulsen. “At the same time, we were demonstrating a robust system that can sustain more than 140 energy storage and release cycles with negligible degradation.”

As the team continues to develop this technology, we hope to see simultaneous improvement in solar energy harvesting techniques—both of which could contribute to a higher degree of use for solar products.

Climate Change, Nature

Trees Have a Greater Impact on Climate than Previously Thought

Trees have a significant effect on the water cycle.
Trees have a significant effect on the water cycle, which aids in cooling the earth. Photo: Shutterstock

Trees are an important part of the conversation about global climate change, but according to a recent study, they haven’t been getting their dues. Much research has focused on trees as simple carbon sinks, and in general, it’s expected that they can’t offset the amount of carbon that is being out into the atmosphere. But many of those studies missed the forest for the trees, so to speak, and were looking at them from only a single viewpoint.

A recent study from the World Agroforestry Centre has compiled data from numerous other studies, from biologists, chemists, climate scientists, geologists, hydrologists, and even social scientists, and found that trees have a bigger impact that we thought. Trees have a significant impact on the water cycle, processing and redistributing water, which helps to cool the planet’s surface. Carbon sequestrations is essentially a byproduct of this.

Forests have an impact on food security and help to keep the world cooler despite rising temperatures. That will be especially important going forward, as the issue of climate change requires more than one approach. The Paris Agreement outlined both mitigation and adaptation in the future. The former means creating less pollution and increasing sequestration of carbon and other greenhouse gases where possible. The latter means finding ways to change agriculture, construction, and other human activities in ways that will work better with the changes happening to the Earth.

There is still much to be learned about how trees can help us to both mitigate and adapt to climate change, but this study is a good place to start.

“Some of the more refined details of how forests affect rainfall are still being discussed among scientists of different disciplines and backgrounds,” said Dr. David Ellison, lead author of the study. “But the direct relevance of trees and forests for protecting and intensifying the hydrologic cycle, associated cooling, and the sharing of atmospheric moisture with downwind locations is beyond reasonable doubt.”


Rogue Waves are More Common than We Thought

Rogue waves may not be so rogue after all, according to new research.
Rogue waves may not be so “rogue” after all, according to new research. Photo: Shutterstock

Rogue waves are unexpected waves that suddenly appear and can pose serious threats to even the largest ships and offshore platforms. They’ve been known to reach as high as 49 feet above the normal water level, and can be as much as 300 feet wide and travel as quickly as 40 miles an hour.

In 2007, a rogue wave in the North Sea was recorded—perhaps the largest ever noted—and it gave us a lot of data about such waves.

Rogue waves can, and have, caused loss of life and serious damage in the past. Luckily, they aren’t that common, or so we thought.

It seems like rogue waves aren’t that rogue after all. It turns out that they can occur twice a day during storms, and tend to happen on their own once every three weeks or so. The findings also showed that the steeper the waves are, the less frequent their occurrence.

From this data, scientists will hopefully be inspired to do further research that about how rogue waves form and how to predict and avoid them. It also gives researchers and engineers more information that will allow them to construct ships and platforms that have a greater chance to survive rogue waves.

“Rogue waves are known to have caused loss of life as well as damage to ships and offshore structures,” said Mark Donelan of the University of Miami, one of the study’s authors. “Our results, while representing the worst-case rogue wave forecast, are new knowledge important for the design and safe operations for ships and platforms at sea.”

These changes could save lives and reduce costs associated with loss of property, but would also have a benefit for the environment, as the more capable a ship or platform is of surviving rogue waves, the less chance there is of potentially dangerous cargo being dumped into the ocean.