college of science

Larvae from fat fish on deep reefs help keep shallower populations afloat

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Populations of coral reef fish in shallower, more vulnerable habitats likely owe at least some of their sustainability to the prodigious reproductive abilities of large, old counterparts that dwell at greater depths, a recent study suggests.

Researchers found that fish in the mesophotic zone – 30 to 150 meters underwater, the depth limit for reefs that depend on photosynthesis – are present in lower densities than at other depths, but consisted of larger, older fish with better than average reproductive capabilities.

That mesophotic population, research suggests, is heavy on what are known as BOFFFFs: big, old, fat, fecund, female fish.

Results of the study were recently published at nature.com. Primary funding for the research came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Center for Sponsored Coastal Ocean Research.

Su Sponaugle, a professor of integrative biology at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center, teamed up with two other researchers, lead author Esther D. Goldstein and Evan K. D’Alessandro, both of the University of Miami, to study the demographics of bicolor damselfish populations across three reef depths off the Florida coast.

The team studied bicolor damselfish at shallow (less than 10 meters); deep shelf (20 to 30 meters); and mesophotic reef locations, looking at population density and individuals’ structure, growth, size and reproductive output. The damselfish is a small, short-lived plankton feeder that’s closely associated with reef habitat. At mesophotic depths, however, the fish can live more than a dozen years.

The researchers sought to assess the potential of mesophotic reefs to support robust fish populations. Because of their greater depth, those reefs are less susceptible to both human-caused and natural habitat disturbances such as temperature increases.

The scientists found that as water depth increased, the bicolor damsel fish population density decreased and age distributions shifted toward older, and larger, individuals. Among those individuals are the BOFFFFs that produce lots of large eggs that likely hatch high-condition larvae.

The larval stage for the bicolor damselfish lasts 30 days, during which time the larvae are carried by water currents to eventually settle to a reef. At whatever depth they settle to, within 24 hours, larvae will metamorphosize into juveniles and then remain in close proximity to the reef for the duration of their lives.

“They’re very site attached,” Sponaugle said. “Once they settle somewhere, that’s where they live, grow and reproduce – that is, until they’re eaten.”

Across all depths, the fish are genetically similar, meaning it’s probable that shallow water and mesophotic reefs exchange young.

“Mesophotic reefs are sort of a warehouse for future fish in the shallower reefs,” Goldstein said. “The fish are older and larger on average, and they invest a lot into reproduction, which is good.

“So even though there are not as many of them on these deep reefs, their offspring hatch from larger eggs and likely experience higher survivorship, so it would seem they have the capacity to contribute more than their fair share to the shallow-water environments.” 

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Steve Lundeberg, 541-737-4039

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Bicolor damselfish

A better battery: one-time pollutant may become valued product to aid wind, solar energy

CORVALLIS, Ore. - Chemists at Oregon State University have discovered that one or more organic compounds in a family that traditionally has been known as pollutants could offer an important advance to make cheap, reliable batteries.

Such batteries might be of particular value to store electricity from some clean energy systems. The inability to easily and cheaply store energy from the wind and sun, which is highly variable and intermittent, has been a key constraint to wider use of those forms of energy.

Although pumped hydro systems or compressed air facilities comprise almost all of the alternative energy storage capacity of this type, they have limitations. There is a tremendous demand, scientists say, for energy storage solutions that are modular and particularly suited to community storage, “smart grid” and micro-grid uses.

A new advance, published in ACS Energy Letters, has shown that at least one, and probably more compounds known as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, can function as a potentially low-cost, long-lasting and high-performance cathode in “dual-ion” batteries.

Such batteries would contain a carbon electrode as the anode and solid PAH as the cathode, with no need for the rare or costly metal elements now usually used.

Traditionally thought of as pollutants, PAHs are usually products of combustion – anything from a campfire to an automobile exhaust or coal-burning power plant – and pose significant concerns as toxins and carcinogens, often when inhaled.

But in this study, scientists found that at least one PAH compound called coronene, in a safe, crystallized solid form, makes a high-functioning electrode material with promising characteristics in dual-ion batteries.

“Prior to this work, PAHs were not considered stable when storing large anions,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and recipient of a 2016 National Science Foundation CAREER Award, the most prestigious award for junior faculty.

“We found that coronene crystalline solid, a PAH, can lose electrons and provide a good capacity of anion storage while being structurally and chemically stable. Coronene had good performance as an electrode and the ability to have a very long cycle life, or the number of charges and discharges it can handle.”

Avoiding the use of metals in the electrodes is a huge advantage for dual-ion batteries and makes them much more sustainable, Ji said. Graphite cathodes can do this, but a serious challenge that has held them back for two decades is that they operate at levels hostile to the non-aqueous solvents in the electrolyte. The batteries based on coronene largely eliminate this problem, and would significantly improve the maintenance cost and sustainability of a stationary battery system.

The researchers in this study demonstrated the potential of coronene, but also said that other PAH compounds as well may have similar potential.

This research opens the door to an entirely new concept in battery construction, they said, which might take what had once been an unwanted pollutant and turn it into a safe, valued product.

Primary collaborators on this project in OSU’s Department of Chemistry included lead author and graduate student Ismael Rodriguez-Perez, and professors Michael Lerner and Rich Carter.

The research was supported by the American Chemical Society Petroleum Research Fund.


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David Ji, 541-737-6798


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New battery
New battery

Ancient wingless wasp, now extinct, is one of a kind

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have identified a bizarre, parasitic wasp without wings preserved in 100-million-year-old amber, which seems to borrow parts of its anatomy from a range of other insects but actually belongs to no other family ever identified on Earth.

The specimen, which is spectacularly well preserved, probably crawled along the ground at the base of trees trying to find other insects and a place to lay its eggs. While dinosaurs strolled around above it, it looked for an insect grub of some kind it could sting.

But for reasons unknown – maybe because it couldn’t fly, maybe because it died off from pathogens or habitat loss – it eventually disappeared and is now extinct.

After considerable debate, citing first one body part and then another, researchers created a new family for the specimen, called Aptenoperissidae, as part of the larger Order of Hymenoptera, which includes modern bees and wasps. Within that family, this insect, named Aptenoperissus burmanicus, is now the only known specimen.

The findings have been reported in the journal Cretaceous Research, by scientists from Russia, England and the United States.

“When I first looked at this insect I had no idea what it was,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the College of Science at Oregon State University, co-author on the study and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber.

“You could see it’s tough and robust, and could give a painful sting. We ultimately had to create a new family for it, because it just didn’t fit anywhere else. And when it died out, this created an evolutionary dead end for that family.”

The insect, Poinar said, brings to mind the old parable – which now has been adapted among various world religions - about six blind men being asked to touch an elephant and describe what it looked like. One who felt the tail described it as a rope; one who touched the leg said it resembled a pillar; and so on.

“We had various researchers and reviewers, with different backgrounds, looking at this fossil through their own window of experience, and many of them saw something different,” Poinar said. “If you focused on its strong hind legs you could call it a grasshopper. The antenna looked like an ant, the thick abdomen more like a cockroach. But the face looked mostly like a wasp, and we finally decided it had to be some kind of Hymenoptera.”

The insect is a female, and its long legs may have helped it pull out of cavities into which it had burrowed, seeking pupae of other insects into which to lay its eggs. With that lifestyle, wings would have been a hindrance, researchers noted in the study. It may have attacked other beetles with its sharp and jagged stinger, and it would have had a pretty strong leaping ability. It did have a cleaning mechanism on the tip of its antenna that is characteristic of Hymenoptera.

The fossil came from what is now the Hukawng Valley in Myanmar on the continent of Asia, where arthropods from 252 families have been found, one of the richest such deposits in all Cretaceous amber.


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George Poinar, Jr.


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Wingless wasp
Wingless wasp

Scientists outline biochemistry of xanthohumol - an avenue to treat metabolic syndrome

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have made a fundamental advance in understanding xanthohumol – a compound found in hops that’s of significant interest to prevent or treat the lipid and metabolic disorders that are a primary killer of people in the developed world.

The scientists identified for the first time more precisely how xanthohumol works, and why it may have such significant promise in addressing the high cholesterol, blood sugar, obesity and other issues that are collectively referred to as “metabolic syndrome.”

The findings were recently published in BBA – Proteins and Proteomics, a professional journal, by researchers from several OSU departments and the Linus Pauling Institute. The work was supported in part by the National Institutes of Health.

More than 25 percent of the adults in the United States meet the criteria for metabolic syndrome, putting them at significantly increased risk for cardiovascular disease and type-2 diabetes. That syndrome is defined by diagnosis of three or more of several conditions, including abdominal obesity, elevated lipids, high blood pressure, pro-inflammatory state, a pro-thrombotic state and insulin resistance or impaired glucose tolerance.

The new research was based on mass spectrometry in combination with a chemical labeling technique. In it, the scientists concluded that several “prenylflavonoids,” particularly xanthohumol, clearly are a ligand, or have a binding mechanism that promotes the activity of the Farnesoid X Receptor, or FXR. FXR, in turn, is a master regulator of lipid and glucose metabolism – in simpler terms, the body’s processing of fats and sugar.

“There’s already interest in targeting FXR as a possible approach to a therapy for fatty liver disease, type2 diabetes and obesity,” said Claudia Maier, a professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences. “With this work we’ve identified a unique binding mechanism and chemical structure that could make that possible. This is really very interesting, and very promising.”

This new understanding of the FXR receptor at the molecular level, researchers said, could, in theory, facilitate the use of compounds that take advantage of it – such as xanthohumol – or development of other compounds with a similar chemical structure that work even better.

“We now see how these prenylflavonoids are working, and with modification through computational approaches it might be possible to even improve upon that,” said Liping Yang, the lead author on the new study and faculty research assistant in the OSU Department of Chemistry. “The end result might be either supplements or a prescription drug, with the potential to address metabolic syndrome, non-alcoholic liver disease, diabetes and other metabolic disorders.”

The FXR receptor, the scientists said, is a part of normal lipid and glucose metabolism, working in collaboration with appropriate diet, weight, exercise and other healthy activities. However, its function can be eroded by intake of too much fat and sugar. Restoring that function, by contrast, may help address metabolic problems.

In previous research, published earlier this year by OSU scientists Cristobal Miranda and Fred Stevens, scientists studied laboratory animals that were on a high-fat diet. When they were given a high dosage of xanthohumol, it reduced their LDL, or “bad” cholesterol by 80 percent; their insulin level by 42 percent; and their level of IL-6, a biomarker of inflammation, by 78 percent.

Weight gain was also constrained, compared to animals not given xanthohumol. The levels of xanthohumol used in the research far exceeded any amount that could be obtained by normal dietary intake, but could be easily obtained through supplements.

In that study, researchers pointed out that direct health care costs arising from obesity or related disorders account for up to 10 percent of U.S. health care expenditures.

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Claudia Maier, 541-737-9533


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Source of xanthohumol
Hops - source of xanthohumol

New colors, a new world of pigments continue to evolve from accidental blue discovery

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A bright blue compound that was first discovered by accident seven years ago in an Oregon State University laboratory – and has since garnered global attention – has now led to the more rational and methodical development of other colors that may ultimately change the world of pigments.

Findings on the newest pigments, in shades of violet and purple, were just published in Inorganic Chemistry, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

More important, researchers say, is that progress made since the first accidental discovery of this family of inorganic compounds has allowed intensive science to take the place of luck. What’s emerging is a fundamental understanding of the chemistry involved in these “trigonal bipyramidal” compounds.

As the basis for pigments, they are quite remarkable.

Compared to the flaws that exist in many of the compounds they replace, they are all thermally stable, chemically inert, non-toxic and non-carcinogenic. For commercial use, they also have the extraordinary characteristic of reflecting heat, which is highly unusual for dark colors and potentially of great value for saving energy.

All of the compounds have been patented, and are being developed commercially by a private company. Yellow, green and orange colors have already been created, along with the original blue. The research has been supported by the National Science Foundation.

These developments began in 2009 when OSU researchers were studying some manganese oxide compounds for their potential electronic properties, and when one compound came out of an extraordinarily hot oven – about 2,000 degree Fahrenheit – it had turned a vivid blue, now known as “YInMn” blue.

The scientists noticed and took advantage of this unexpected result. They used the compound to create a pigment that was environmentally benign, resisted heat and acid, and was easily made from readily available raw materials.

“No one knew then that these compounds existed,” said Mas Subramanian, the Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science in the OSU College of Science, and corresponding author on the new publication.

“Now we’ve been able to move beyond the accident and really understand the chemistry, including its structure and synthesis. We can produce different colors by using the same basic chemical structure but tweaking things a little, by replacing manganese atoms by iron, copper, zinc and/or titanium. And we’re slowly moving toward what we really want, what everyone keeps asking for, the Holy Grail of pigments - a bright, new, durable, nontoxic red.”

Along with blue, Subramanian said, a stable, nonorganic red pigment would have huge commercial demand.

In this process, the OSU researchers are opening the door to new, inexpensive types of pigments that leave behind some of the toxic compounds historically used to create colors – lead, cadmium, mercury, even arsenic and cyanide. And the bonus of solar heat reflection has huge value for many applications, such as building construction or vehicles, where this characteristic can reduce cooling expenses and something other than white is desired.

Based on the novelty of the discovery and the growing value of these pigments, this research has captured international media attention and broad public fascination – a single online video received 14 million views.

The newest colors of violet and purple, the researchers noted in their study, have long been associated with royalty, aristocracy, piety and faith. The first pigments of these colors date back to cave paintings in France in 25,000 B.C., they said. And Chinese Han purple, the first synthetic purple pigment, was found in some murals in tombs more than 2,000 years old.

Pigments still being used to produce these colors are in some cases chemically and thermally unstable, and subject to increasing environmental regulations.

Applications of the new pigments, the researchers said in their report, may be found in high-performance plastics and coatings, building exteriors, cool roofing, vinyl siding, automobiles, and even art production or restoration.

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Mas Subramanian, 541-737-8235


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New pigments
Pigment colors

Findings about protein could open door to new class of antibiotics

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have made the first-ever detailed, atomic-level images of a peroxiredoxin, which has revealed a peculiar characteristic of this protein and might form the foundation for a new approach to antibiotics.

Scientists at Oregon State University have used X-ray crystallography, a powerful technique that can reveal structures down to their individual atoms, to study the fundamental nature and behavior of this peroxiredoxin. Their findings were announced today in the journal Structure.

Peroxiredoxin is needed by all cells to help eliminate hydrogen peroxide, a toxin, and in normal cells this process is healthy and valuable. But peroxiredoxins inside bacteria also help provide protection from our immune cells and increase the virulence of bacterial cells that cause infections.

The researchers were able to visualize peroxiredoxin chemistry in action. They found that when it’s restrained and loses its mobility, it also loses its function. And if the normal function is lost, it can lead to cell death.

If a molecule can be found that selectively blocks the motions of peroxiredoxin only in bacterial cells – which the researchers believe may be possible – it could function as an entirely new way to kill those cells. This would leave normal cells undamaged and set the stage for new types of antibiotics.

With the increasing problem of antibiotic resistance to many existing drugs, this approach could have significant value, researchers said. It might also work in synergy with existing antibiotics to improve their efficacy, they said.

“Peroxiredoxins are found in animals, plants, and bacteria, and are proteins that are crucial for cell survival,” said Arden Perkins, the lead author on this study which was done at OSU, in collaboration with Andrew Karplus, a distinguished professor of biochemistry in the OSU College of Science.

“The main function of peroxiredoxins is to eliminate hydrogen peroxide in cells by converting it to water,” Perkins said. “This toxin is a byproduct of normal cell metabolism, and hydrogen peroxide has to be removed so it doesn’t damage the cell. If peroxiredoxin doesn’t do its job, cells will die.”

With the extraordinary images provided by X-ray crystallography, the research also discovered that there are special regions on bacterial peroxiredoxins, different from those found in humans, that could be specifically targeted. If compounds could aim at those targets and selectively shut down the protective function of peroxiredoxin just in bacteria, it would weaken or kill those cells.

“There’s a lot of potential for this to be foundational work, something we can build on to create a new class of antibiotics,” Perkins said. “The key concept is selectively restraining the motions of peroxiredoxins in some cells, inactivating its function and leading to the death of the cells you want to kill.”

In related approaches, Perkins said, the concept may also hold some value against certain non-bacterial pathogens, like those that cause malaria or African sleeping sickness, which increasingly are difficult to treat.

This work, titled Peroxiredoxin Catalysis at Atomic Resolution, was supported by the National Science Foundation, the National Institutes of Health, and the U.S. Department of Energy. It was done in collaboration with the OSU Department of Chemistry and the Wake Forest School of Medicine.

Perkins is now a postdoctoral scholar at the University of Oregon. Karplus is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the world’s largest scientific society, in recognition of his contributions to protein structure determination and for improving the analysis of crystallographic data.

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Andrew Karplus, 541-737-3196


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Peroxiredoxin chemistry

Research outlines cellular communication processes that make life possible

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have discovered a mechanism of intercellular communication that helps explain how biological systems and actions – ranging from a beating heart to the ability to hit a home run – function properly most of the time, and in some scenarios quite remarkably.

The findings are an important basic advance in how cell sensory systems function. They shed light on the poorly-understood interaction between cells - and they also suggest that some of the damage done by cancer cells can be seen as a “failure to communicate.”

The work was reported today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences by physicists from Oregon State University and Purdue University, done with support from the National Science Foundation and the Simons Foundation.

Scientists have long known that cells have various types of sensory abilities that are key to their function, such as sensing light, heat, nerve signals, damage, chemicals or other inputs.

In this process, a chemical stimulus called ATP functions as a signaling molecule, which, in turn, causes calcium levels in a cell to rise and decline, and tells a cell it’s time to do its job – whether that be sending a nerve impulse, seeing a bird in flight or repairing a wound. These sensing processes are fundamental to the function of life.

“We’ve understood for some time the basics of cellular sensory function and how it helps a cell respond to its environment,” said Bo Sun, an assistant professor of physics in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and a corresponding author on this study.

“The thing is, individual cells don’t always get the message right, their sensory process can be noisy, confusing, and they make mistakes,” Sun said. “But there’s strength in numbers, and the collective sensory ability of many cells working together usually comes up with the right answer. This collective communication is essential to life.”

In this study, researchers helped explain just how that works for animal cells.

When cells meet, a small channel usually forms between them that’s called a gap junction. On an individual level, a cell in response to ATP begins to oscillate, part of its call to action. But with gap junction-mediated communications, despite significant variability in sensing from one cell to another, the sensitivity to ATP is increased. Oscillation is picked up and becomes more uniform.

This interactive chatter continues, and a preponderance of cells receiving one sensation persuade a lesser number of cells reporting a different sensation that they must be wrong. By working in communication and collaboration, most of the cells eventually decide what the correct sensory input is, and the signal that gets passed along is pretty accurate.

With this accuracy of communication, cells in a heart chamber collectively decide to contract at the appropriate time, and blood gets pumped, dozens of times a minute, for a lifetime. Neuron cells send accurate signals. Photoreceptor cells see clearly.

This research was done with fibroblast cells, which are used in wound healing, but the results should apply to many cellular sensing mechanisms, researchers said.

Cancer cells, by contrast, are poor communicators. This study showed that they resist this process of collective communication, and when enough of them are present, the communicative process begins to lessen and break down. This may be at least one of the ways in which cancer does its biologic damage.

“These processes of collective sensory communication are usually accurate, but sometimes work better than others. Mistakes are made,” Sun said. “Even so, this process makes life possible. And when everything goes just right, the results can be remarkable.”

Consider a baseball player trying to get a hit, which Ted Williams once called “the hardest single thing to do in sport.” A major league pitcher hurls a 93 mile-per-hour fastball, low but possibly a strike. 

The photoreceptor cells in the batter’s eyes see the pitch coming. Some cells see it as a curve in the dirt, and some mistake it for a changeup, a slower pitch. But the majority of the cells come to the correct conclusion, it’s a fastball at the knees, and they spread the word. After extensive communication between all these cells, a conclusion is reached and the correct message is sent to neurons in the brain.

The brain cells, in turn, send a strong signal through nerves to muscles all over the batter’s body, the shoulders, legs, and especially arms. The signals arrive and once again a collaborative process takes place, deciding what the message is and how to react. Calcium ions in muscle cells are triggered and a brutally fast-but-accurate response is triggered, swinging the bat. This entire process, from the ball leaving the pitcher’s hand to contact with the bat, takes less than half a second.

On a perfect day – the cellular debate over what pitch was coming was sufficiently short-lived, the timing exact, the muscle contractions just right – the ball explodes off the bat and sails over the center field fence.

On a more realistic day – since the best hitters in the world only succeed 3 times out of 10 – the ball bounces weakly to the second baseman for an easy out. This in turn triggers the collective groans of 30,000 disappointed fans. But the heart has cellular communication that continues to guarantee its normal beating, and the player lives to bat another day.

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Bo Sun, 541-737-8203

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ATP model
ATP signaling molecule

Terrifed insect escapes a permanent tomb – 50 million years ago

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Thousands of insects, plants and other life forms have been found trapped in ancient amber deposits, but a new discovery shows a rarity of a different type – the one that got away.

In a piece of Baltic amber about 50 million years old, research has uncovered an exoskeleton similar to that of a modern-day “walking stick” – evidence of an insect that literally was frightened out of its skin, and made its way to freedom just as it was about to become forever entombed by oozing tree sap.

The unusual piece also reveals the first mushroom that’s ever been found in Baltic amber, along with a mammalian hair that was left behind. In its entirety, the amber piece offers a little docudrama of life, fear and hasty escape in the ecology of an ancient subtropical forest.

The findings were just published in Fungal Biology by George Poinar, Jr., a researcher in in the College of Science at Oregon State University and an international expert in ancient life forms found in amber.

“From what we can see in this fossil, a tiny mushroom was bitten off, probably by a rodent, at the base of a tree,” Poinar said. “An insect, similar to a walking stick, was probably also trying to feed on the mushroom. It appears to have immediately jumped out of its skin and escaped, just as tree sap flowed over the remaining exoskeleton and a hair left behind by the fleeing rodent.”

Plants, insects and other material found in amber deposits, Poinar said, always offer details about ancient ecosystems. But on rare occasions such as this, they also show the interactions and ecology between different life forms. They are invaluable in helping scientists to reconstruct the nature of ecosystems in the distant past.

In this case, the amber came from near the Baltic Sea in what’s now Germany, Poland, Russia and Scandinavia. It was formed, beginning as a viscous tree sap, in a large subtropical coniferous forest across much of northern Europe that lasted about 10 million years.

In a climate much warmer than exists there today, the early angiosperms, or flowering plants, were starting to displace the gymnosperms, or cone-bearing evergreens that had previously been dominant. Dinosaurs had gone extinct a few million years before, and mammals were beginning to diversify.

“The tiny insect in this fossil was a phasmid, one of the kinds of insects that uses its shape to resemble sticks or leaves as a type of camouflage,” Poinar said.

“It would have shed its skin repeatedly before reaching adulthood, in a short lifespan of a couple months. In this case, the ability to quickly get out of its skin, along with being smart enough to see a problem coming, saved its life.”

The exoskeleton seen in the amber is extremely fresh and shows filaments that would have disappeared if it had been shed very long before being covered by amber, Poinar said.

This particular insect species is now extinct, as is the mushroom in the fossil, Poinar said. Although mushrooms have been found in fossils from other regions of the world, this is the first specimen to be identified in Baltic amber, and represents both a new genus and species.

The Baltic amber deposits are the largest in the world, have been famous for thousands of years and continue to be mined today. Amber from the mines were traded by Roman caravans, later taken over by Teutonic knights and are known around the world for the huge volume of semi-precious stones they produce.

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George Poinar, Jr.


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Narrow escape
Insect escapes

World’s greatest butterfly collection takes shape

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at 27 universities and museums around the United States have begun creating what will soon become the world’s greatest butterfly collection – in digital form.

When complete, the collection should comprise data from about three million butterfly and moth specimens in North America, providing invaluable data to answer ecological and scientific questions never before possible.

The initiative is supported by a $3.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation and is being coordinated by the Colorado Plateau Biodiversity Center at Northern Arizona University.

“For anyone who’s ever created an insect collection, butterflies and moths are the poster children,” said Christopher Marshall, curator of the Oregon State Arthropod Collection in the Oregon State University College of Science, which is one of the participants in this project.

“Butterflies generate such a huge base of enthusiasm that people have been collecting them for centuries,” Marshall said. “But the gigantic data set that this new collection will make possible is going to help us understand butterflies and moths in ways we never could before, looking back in time and gaining insights into the future.”

The digitized data, he said, will allow scientists to see where different butterflies and moths have lived, what changes may have taken place over time, and how they might have been affected by shifts in climate or seasonality. They can study where and when non-native species have arrived, or where native species have been pushed out or extirpated. It will show what species survived and thrived, which ones dwindled and died.  It will also help scientists visualize under-sampled places, where more surveys might turn up new, undiscovered species.

The ecological time machine offered by such data will not only be useful now, Marshall said, but will help scientists a century or two in the future better understand the ecological effects of a changing world.

Lepidoptera, the order of insects that includes butterflies and moths, is one of the most widespread, colorful and recognized in the world. They make up more than 200,000 of the 3 million specimens in the Oregon State Arthropod Collection, which is directed by David Maddison and is one of the top 10 university-owned butterfly and moth collections in the nation.

OSU plans to contribute about 140,000 butterfly and moth records to this collaboration. This data will be of particular value to the project, Marshall said, because OSU’s holdings are strong in Pacific Northwest species. The varied geographic terrain and unique geological history of Oregon also supports a diverse set of species that live in habitat ranging from coastal rain forests to valleys, mountains, prairies and high sagebrush desert.

“Ecological change is constant, and studies of lepidoptera, which are often linked to particular plants and microhabitats, offer a means to examine how things are changing,” Marshall said.

“We have in our collection a single butterfly specimen collected by a schoolboy in Eugene in the 1930s that is now gone from Oregon. Dana Ross, a volunteer in our work, recently brought in a specimen of a moth from Jackson County, Oregon, that was last seen 80 years ago and is one of only three specimens collected in the state.

“As we put the scattered data from all these specimens together, we can begin to see patterns not visible with only a handful of records. This in turn lets us address bigger, more complex questions about the changing biodiversity in the world around us.”

Some work on this project has already begun at OSU. Both volunteers and student employees will be used on the project over the next four years. People interested in volunteering can contact Marshall at marshach@science.oregonstate.edu

Having long caught the fascination of humans, about 180,000 species of lepidoptera comprise 10 percent of the total described species of living organisms. Butterflies and moths play major roles in ecosystems as pollinators; their larvae as consumers of vegetation; and themselves as an important part of the food web for other animals.

This project will include the effort of citizen scientists, and organizers say they hope for it to stimulate education, public awareness and conservation efforts about butterflies. At OSU, there are literally hundreds of digitized collections related to natural history and other important fields of science.

“Digitizing these data will have a significant impact for centuries, as big data and analytics become more omnipresent,” said Sastry G. Pantula, dean of OSU’s College of Science. “A number of species are becoming extinct and new species are being discovered. We are grateful to the National Science Foundation and our policy makers for their vision to support such collections and expand access, especially given the recent constraints on federal funding.”


Editor’s Note: Tube and high resolution downloadable video are available to illustrate this story.

High definition researcher interview and B-roll video: https://drive.google.com/folderview?id=0B_nEpHVYyPtpLVVndk5OZzdsWDA&usp=sharing

Watch-only YouTube video: https://youtu.be/agc_8WKvksI


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Christopher Marshall, 541-737-4349


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Endangered butterfly
Fender's blue butterfly

Twenty years of progress: nutrition emerging as a “hard science” in human health

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A much better understanding of the role of diet and supplements in maintaining optimum health well into old age has emerged over the past 20 years, according to one expert, and today is helping to address chronic diseases that kill most people in the developed world - heart disease, stroke, diabetes and cancer.

As he retires this month after leading the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University since 1997, Balz Frei, director and distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the College of Science, has outlined some of the key advances of that period, and the steps still needed for nutrition researchers to work more closely and successfully with the medical community.

In the recent past, Frei said, nutritional research was rife with inconclusive studies that showed  associations but no firm cause-effect relationships of disease prevention. Long-term trials with humans to study disease prevention are difficult and often cost prohibitive, and laboratory animal tests that showed effects – such as the effect of a certain food on cancer incidence - often lacked an explanation of “why.”

In the past two decades, a period of extraordinary growth for the Linus Pauling Institute, researchers have worked to answer that question of “why” with considerable success.

“What I wanted to achieve with the institute was to put science behind nutrition,” Frei said. “We’re helping to lead the field of nutrition into more science and mechanism-based research that can have a real impact on promoting human health and preventing disease.”

In this research, an underlying cause of aging and chronic disease has now emerged – chronic inflammation. Inflammation and its accompanying surge of “free radicals” are tied to several major killers, including cardiovascular disease and certain cancers.  Scientists are honing in on the mechanisms of inflammation and the antioxidants that can prevent free radical damage.

Important discoveries have been made with vitamin E, in particular, in understanding why this nutrient is required by the body and the role it plays in protecting critical fats, especially during brain development and in the aging brain. Research on vitamin C showed that it helps arteries relax and lowers high blood pressure, a chief cause of stroke.

The institute has also helped change the world view of vitamins and other nutrients. Instead of seeing them simply as a way to correct or prevent a deficiency condition like scurvy, they are increasingly recognized as a way to help prevent chronic disease, counter toxins and contribute to healthier aging.

One molecule in particular, lipoic acid, has shown promise in its ability to “bring cells back to a youthful state,” Frei said. This compound triggers a reaction in cells that makes them more capable of fending off free radicals and other toxic insults that cause inflammation and disease.

Other findings of importance during Frei’s tenure at the institute include:

  • The discovery and mechanisms of action of several phytochemicals that may help prevent cancer, metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular disease.
  • Compounds of particular interest range from catechins in tea to quercetin in onions, sulforaphane in broccoli and xanthohumol in hops.
  • Chlorophyll, a phytochemical that gives plants their green color, can bind to a toxic mold compound called aflatoxin that causes liver cancer, and render it inactive.
  • Omega-3 fatty acids found in fish or fish oil have been shown to have important health effects, including their role in halting progression of fatty liver disease.
  • The role of vitamin D in boosting the body’s immune system is being viewed with significant future importance, with the advent of multi-drug resistant bacteria, including one recently confirmed strain that resists medicine’s last-ditch antibiotic.

“Vitamin D plays a crucial role in many functions of the body, not just bone health, and it’s now a public health challenge to raise the levels of it in the population worldwide, so that everyone has the best shot at fighting infections,” Frei said. “LPI works beyond the ivory tower to help people make the right decisions regarding the use of diet and dietary supplements.”

An important future goal, Frei said, would be a full outreach to the medical community.

“Communication between the nutrition science and medical communities is not happening at the scale it needs to right now,” he said. “We need a bridge, and LPI, its Micronutrient Information Center and other public outreach services are well-suited to be that bridge. If we could bring about a change in how medical doctors are educated, I think that would be a major contribution to public health.”

There’s an urgency to change perceptions on diet and supplements among the medical community as well as the general public, Frei said, as rates of chronic, preventable diseases continue to increase.

“There’s so much misleading information out there, so many false promises when it comes to dietary supplements,” Frei said. “We’re trying to counter these claims with evidence-based health information about vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals. It has been, and to some extent continues to be an uphill battle for nutrition science to establish itself as a ‘hard’ science. But there’s also a realization now of how critical the field is to human health.”

During Frei’s tenure as director, LPI has grown from one principal investigator to 12, focused on the study of healthy aging, cardiometabolic disease prevention, and cancer prevention and intervention.

More than 650 published research papers and review articles have been cited by peers over 26,000 times, and more than $55 million in funding came from the National Institutes of Health and other agencies.

The institute’s endowment has quadrupled since its inception at OSU, and during the university’s recent capital campaign LPI raised $48 million, $15 million of which went toward the construction of the Linus Pauling Science Center, a state-of-the-art research and education facility.

Media Contact: 

Anne Glausser, 541-737-5881



Balz Frei, 541-737-5078


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