OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of science

Lionfish characteristics make them more “terminator” than predator

SACRAMENTO, Calif. – New research on the predatory nature of red lionfish, the invasive Pacific Ocean species that is decimating native fish populations in parts of the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Ocean, seems to indicate that lionfish are not just a predator, but more like the “terminator” of movie fame.

The finding of behavior that was called “alarming” was presented today by Kurt Ingeman, a researcher from Oregon State University, at the annual meeting of the Ecological Society of America.

Most native predatory fish are attracted to prey when their numbers are high, when successful attacks are easy and when a minimum of energy is needed to catch and eat other fish, according to previous research done by Michael Webster, a fish ecologist who received his doctorate from OSU. As the population of prey diminishes, the native predators often move on to other areas where, literally, the fishing is better.

The new research concludes that lionfish, by comparison, appear to stay in one area even as the numbers of prey diminish, and in some cases can eat the population to local extinction. They have unique characteristics that make this possible, and like the terminator, they simply will not stop until the last of their prey is dead.

“Lionfish seem to be the ultimate invader,” said Ingeman, a doctoral candidate in the Department of Integrative Biology within the OSU College of Science. “Almost every new thing we learn about them is some characteristic that makes them a more formidable predator. And it’s now clear they will hunt successfully even when only a few fish are present. This behavior is unusual and alarming.”

This research was conducted on replicated natural reefs in the Bahamas, measuring prey mortality of the fairy basslet – a popular aquarium fish and a common prey of lionfish.

Predation rates were compared between reefs with the invasive lionfish and reefs with native predators alone, and across a range of population levels of the fairy basslet. Ingeman found that when prey fish were present at a low population density, the rate of mortality with lionfish present was four times higher than that caused by native predators alone, such as medium-sized groupers or trumpet fish.

The findings are of some importance, researchers said, because fairy basslet live in small local populations, which are most vulnerable to local extinction. It also shows that the mechanisms that ordinarily regulate population size can be altered.

“Reef fish usually hide in rocks and crevices for protection, and with high populations, there is a scramble for shelter,” Ingeman said. “Native predators take advantage of this situation by mostly eating when and where prey are abundant. As prey population levels decline, it takes a lot more energy to catch fish, so the predators often move on to other areas.”

Because of this process that scientists call “density-dependent” predation, populations of native prey fish tend to shrink when they get too large, grow when they get too small, and are rarely ever wiped out completely.

Lionfish, however, have such advantages as an invasive species that they apparently feel no need to move on for better or easier hunting. They may not be recognized as a predator by other fish, leading to high mortality even when shelter is abundant. Lionfish are also very efficient hunters, are well-defended themselves by poisonous spines, and can thrive at deep levels in the ocean. They tolerate a wide range of habitats and water conditions, reproduce rapidly most of the year, eat many different species of native fish and may overeat rare species.

Still unclear, Ingeman said, is whether evolutionary pressures may allow native fish in the Atlantic Ocean to adapt new behaviors that provide better defense against lionfish.

“There’s a strong pressure here for natural selection to come into play eventually,” Ingeman said. “We know that fish can learn and change their behavior, sometimes over just a few generations. But we don’t have any studies yet to demonstrate this is taking place with native fish populations in the Atlantic.”

The lionfish invasion in the Atlantic Ocean is believed to have begun in the 1980s and now covers an area larger than the entirety of the United States. Ingeman’s adviser, Mark Hixon, and fellow graduate students have shown that lionfish can wipe out more than 90 percent of the native fish in some hard-hit areas.

The research was supported by the National Science Foundation and the Cape Eleuthera Institute of the Bahamas.

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Kurt Ingeman, 541-908-0805

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Fairy Basslet

Fairy basslet



Reef research

Reef research

Advantage Accelerator “graduates” moving toward successful new businesses, jobs

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Four promising startup companies in fields ranging from social media to chemical manufacturing are among the first “graduating class” of the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator, upon completion of a program designed to help lead them toward commercial success.

Organizers of the new program say it’s off to a promising start in efforts to bring more university research and community ideas to the commercial marketplace. This and other elements of the OSU Advantage form partnerships with industry and work to boost the Oregon economy, while providing invaluable experiences for OSU students involved in many aspects of the program.

“Our program has unfolded as well or better than we had hoped, and we now plan to increase the output,” said John Turner, co-director of the Advantage Accelerator. “Completion of this program means that companies have an increased chance to succeed and have a step-by-step plan to approach the future.”

“Based on our experience in the first year of this program, we’ve decided to conduct two cohort groups each year rather than one,” Turner said. “The coming year will result in about 15-20 new startup companies.”

Success in a tough and competitive commercial marketplace is not automatic, however, and not all companies have the will and strength to complete the rigorous program.

The first graduates have completed a “portfolio” of accomplishments, Turner said, that included training to attract investors, a validated business model, a schedule for future steps, and an initial product to show prospective customers, investors or manufacturers. A few clients are already attracting attention through the sale of products and generating profit.

The OSU Advantage Accelerator provides mentoring with industry and entrepreneurial experts, consulting sessions, access to seed grants and the OSU Venture Fund, meetings with active investors, workshops on various topics, networking events and many other activities.

One of the early participants in the program, Onboard Dynamics of Bend, Ore., plans to market technology that could ultimately revolutionize the way America drives. It has developed systems that compress natural gas right in the vehicle and take advantage of the enormous current supplies of low-cost natural gas. The innovation is able to cut automobile fuel costs to the gasoline-equivalent of less than $1 a gallon.

“An intern working with the Advantage Accelerator performed a lot of tasks relating to market analysis and startup activities that were incredibly helpful to the company,” said CEO Rita Hansen.

“We’re in an excellent position right now, having been formally selected by the Department of Energy for a $2.88 million award, and our initial target markets are the underserved, small, light-duty commercial fleets,” Hansen said. “We’re very bullish about widespread adoption by these fleets of our products.”

A few other companies that have completed the program include:

  • Pikli, a student-based company based on social media that allows individuals to involve their friends and family in their shopping experiences;
  • Waste2Watergy, which is commercializing a microbial fuel cell technology to reduce or eliminate significant wastewater costs and produce electricity from the resultant effluence; and
  • Valliscor, a chemical manufacturing company that licensed technology developed at OSU to produce high-value chemicals for the pharmaceutical, agricultural, polymer and electronics industries.

“The OSU Advantage Accelerator program was very helpful and their mentorship was really first-rate,” said Rich Carter, professor and chair of the OSU Department of Chemistry, and CEO of Valliscor. “They helped us develop the necessary tools to become a functioning company, and whenever you needed advice all you had to do was pick up the phone.”

Carter said he’s “very optimistic” about the company going forward, which is already producing and selling its first products.

The OSU Advantage Accelerator is one component of the Oregon Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network, or Oregon RAIN. With support from the Oregon legislature, collaborators on the initiative include OSU, the University of Oregon, the cities of Eugene, Springfield, Corvallis and Albany, and other economic development organizations. All the participants are focused on creating new business, expanding existing business, creating jobs and helping to build the Oregon and national economy.

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John Turner, 541-368-5204

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New company

Valliscor research

Lipoic acid helps restore, synchronize the “biological clock”

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have discovered a possible explanation for the surprisingly large range of biological effects that are linked to a micronutrient called lipoic acid: It appears to reset and synchronize circadian rhythms, or the “biological clock” found in most life forms.

The ability of lipoic acid to help restore a more normal circadian rhythm to aging animals could explain its apparent value in so many important biological functions, ranging from stress resistance to cardiac function, hormonal balance, muscle performance, glucose metabolism and the aging process.

The findings were made by biochemists from the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, and published in Biochemical and Biophysical Research Communications, a professional journal. The research was supported by the National Institutes of Health, through the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine.

Lipoic acid has been the focus in recent years of increasing research by scientists around the world, who continue to find previously unknown effects of this micronutrient. As an antioxidant and compound essential for aerobic metabolism, it’s found at higher levels in organ meats and leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.

“This could be a breakthrough in our understanding of why lipoic acid is so important and how it functions,” said Tory Hagen, the Helen P. Rumbel Professor for Healthy Aging Research in the Linus Pauling Institute, and a professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

“Circadian rhythms are day-night cycles that affect the daily ebb and flow of critical biological processes,” Hagen said. “The more we improve our understanding of them, the more we find them involved in so many aspects of life.”

Almost one-third of all genes are influenced by circadian rhythms, and when out of balance they can play roles in cancer, heart disease, inflammation, hormonal imbalance and many other areas, the OSU researchers said.

Of particular importance is the dysfunction of circadian rhythms with age.

“In old animals, including elderly humans, it’s well-known that circadian rhythms break down and certain enzymes don’t function as efficiently, or as well as they should,” said Dove Keith, a research associate in the Linus Pauling Institute and lead author on this study.

“This is very important, and probably deserves a great deal more study than it is getting,” Keith said. “If lipoic acid offers a way to help synchronize and restore circadian rhythms, it could be quite significant.”

In this case the scientists studied the “circadian clock” of the liver. Lipid metabolism by the liver is relevant to normal energy use, metabolism, and when dysfunctional can help contribute to the “metabolic syndrome” that puts millions of people at higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer.

Researchers fed laboratory animals higher levels of lipoic acid than might be attained in a normal diet, while monitoring proteins known to be affected by disruption of the circadian clock in older animals.

They found that lipoic acid helped remediate some of the liver dysfunction that’s often common in old age, and significantly improved the function of their circadian rhythms.

In previous research, scientists found that the amount of lipoic acid that could aid liver and normal lipid function was the equivalent of about 600 milligrams daily for a 150-pound human, more than could normally be obtained through the diet.

A primary goal of research in the Linus Pauling Institute and the OSU Center for Healthy Aging Research is to promote what scientists call “healthspan” – not just the ability to live a long life, but to have comparatively good health and normal activities during almost all of one’s life. Research on lipoic acid, at OSU and elsewhere, suggests it has value toward that goal.

Continued research will explore this process and its role in circadian function, whether it can be sustained, and optimal intake levels that might be needed to improve health.

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Tory Hagen, 541-737-5083

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Shifting rhythms

Rhythms decline with age

New assay to spot fake malaria drugs could save thousands of lives

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Chemists and students in science and engineering at Oregon State University have created a new type of chemical test, or assay, that’s inexpensive, simple, and can tell whether or not one of the primary drugs being used to treat malaria is genuine – an enormous and deadly problem in the developing world.

The World Health Organization has estimated that about 200,000 lives a year may be lost due to the use of counterfeit anti-malarial drugs. When commercialized, the new OSU technology may be able to help address that problem by testing drugs for efficacy at a cost of a few cents.

When broadly implemented, this might save thousands of lives every year around the world, and similar technology could also be developed for other types of medications and diseases, experts say.

Findings on the new technology were just published in Talanta, a professional journal.

“There are laboratory methods to analyze medications such as this, but they often are not available or widely used in the developing world where malaria kills thousands of people every year,” said Vincent Remcho, a professor of chemistry and Patricia Valian Reser Faculty Scholar in the OSU College of Science, a position which helped support this work.

“What we need are inexpensive, accurate assays that can detect adulterated pharmaceuticals in the field, simple enough that anyone can use them,” Remcho said. “Our technology should provide that.”

The system created at OSU looks about as simple, and is almost as cheap, as a sheet of paper. But it’s actually a highly sophisticated “colorimetric” assay that consumers could use to tell whether or not they are getting the medication they paid for – artesunate - which is by far the most important drug used to treat serious cases of malaria. The assay also verifies that an adequate level of the drug is present.

In some places in the developing world, more than 80 percent of outlets are selling counterfeit pharmaceuticals, researchers have found. One survey found that 38-53 percent of outlets in Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam had no active drug in the product that was being sold. Artesunate, which can cost $1 to $2 per adult treatment, is considered an expensive drug by the standards of the developing world, making counterfeit drugs profitable since the disease is so prevalent.

Besides allowing thousands of needless deaths, the spread of counterfeit drugs with sub-therapeutic levels of artesunate can promote the development of new strains of multi-drug resistant malaria, with global impacts. Government officials could also use the new system as a rapid screening tool to help combat the larger problem of drug counterfeiting.

The new technology is an application of microfluidics, in this instance paper microfluidics, in which a film is impressed onto paper that can then detect the presence and level of the artesunate drug. A single pill can be crushed, dissolved in water, and when a drop of the solution is placed on the paper, it turns yellow if the drug is present. The intensity of the color indicates the level of the drug, which can be compared to a simple color chart.

OSU undergraduate and graduate students in chemistry and computer science working on this project in the Remcho lab took the system a step further, and created an app for an iPhone that could be used to measure the color, and tell with an even higher degree of accuracy both the presence and level of the drug.

The technology is similar to what can be accomplished with computers and expensive laboratory equipment, but is much simpler and less expensive. As a result, use of this approach may significantly expand in medicine, scientists said.

“This is conceptually similar to what we do with integrated circuit chips in computers, but we’re pushing fluids around instead of electrons, to reveal chemical information that’s useful to us,” Remcho said.  “Chemical communication is how Mother Nature does it, and the long term applications of this approach really are mind-blowing.”

Colorimetric assays have already been developed for measurement of many biomarker targets of interest, Remcho said, and could be expanded for a wide range of other medical conditions, pharmaceutical and diagnostic tests, pathogen detection, environmental analysis and other uses.

With a proof of concept of the new technology complete, the researchers may work with the OSU Advantage to commercialize the technology, ultimately with global application. As an incubator for startup and early stage organizations, OSU Advantage connects business with faculty expertise and student talent to bring technology such as this to market.

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Vincent Remcho, 541-737-8181

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Paper assay

Drug assay

SAR11, oceans’ most abundant organism, has ability to create methane

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The oxygen-rich surface waters of the world’s major oceans are supersaturated with methane – a powerful greenhouse gas that is roughly 20 times more potent than carbon dioxide – yet little is known about the source of this methane.

Now a new study by researchers at Oregon State University demonstrates the ability of some strains of the oceans’ most abundant organism – SAR11 – to generate methane as a byproduct of breaking down a compound for its phosphorus.

Results of the study are being published this week in Nature Communications. It was funded by the National Science Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation.

“Anaerobic methane biogenesis was the only process known to produce methane in the oceans and that requires environments with very low levels of oxygen,” said Angelicque “Angel” White, a researcher in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study. “In the vast central gyres of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans, the surface waters have lots of oxygen from mixing with the atmosphere – and yet they also have lots of methane, hence the term ‘marine methane paradox.’

“We’ve now learned that certain strains of SAR11, when starved for phosphorus, turn to a compound known as methylphosphonic acid,” White added. “The organisms produce enzymes that can break this compound apart, freeing up phosphorus that can be used for growth – and leaving methane behind.”

The discovery is an important piece of the puzzle in understanding the Earth’s methane cycle, scientists say. It builds on a series of studies conducted by researchers from several institutions around the world over the past several years.

Previous research has shown that adding methylphosphonic acid, or MPn, to seawater produces methane, though no one knew exactly how. Then a laboratory study led by David Karl of the University of Hawaii and OSU’s White found that an organism called Trichodesmium could break down MPn and thus it could be a potential source of phosphorus, which is a critical mineral essential to every living organism.

However, Trichodesmium are rare in the marine environment and unlikely to be the only source for vast methane deposits in the surface waters.

So White turned to Steve Giovannoni, a distinguished professor of microbiology at OSU, who not only maintains the world’s largest bank of SAR11 strains, but who also discovered and identified SAR11 in 1990. In a series of experiments, White, Giovannoni, and graduate students Paul Carini and Emily Campbell tested the capacity of different SAR11 strains to consume MPn and cleave off methane.

“We found that some did produce a methane byproduct, and some didn’t,” White said. “Just as some humans have a different capacity for breaking down compounds for nutrition than others, so do these organisms. The bottom line is that this shows phosphate-starved bacterioplankton have the capability of producing methane and doing so in oxygen-rich waters.”

SAR11 is the smallest free-living cell known and also has the smallest genome, or genetic structure, of any independent cell. Yet it dominates life in the oceans, thrives where most other cells would die, and plays a huge role in the cycling of carbon on Earth.

These bacteria are so dominant that their combined weight exceeds that of all the fish in the world's oceans, scientists say. In a marine environment that's low in nutrients and other resources, they are able to survive and replicate in extraordinary numbers – a milliliter of seawater, for instance, might contain 500,000 of these cells.

"The ocean is a competitive environment and these bacteria apparently won the race," said Giovannoni, a professor in OSU’s College of Science. "Our analysis of the SAR11 genome indicates that they became the dominant life form in the oceans largely by being the simplest.”

“Their ability to cleave off methane is an interesting finding because it provides a partial explanation for why methane is so abundant in the high-oxygen waters of the mid-ocean regions,” Giovannoni added. “Just how much they contribute to the methane budget still needs to be determined.”

Since the discovery of SAR11, scientists have been interested in their role in the Earth’s carbon budget. Now their possible implication in methane creation gives the study of these bacteria new importance.

Media Contact: 
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Angel White, 541-737-6397; awhite@coas.oregonstate.edu; Steve Giovannoni, 541-737-1835, steve.giovannoni@oregonstate.edu

“Molecular movie” technology may enable big gains in bioimaging, health research

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers today announced the creation of an imaging technology more powerful than anything that has existed before, and is fast enough to observe life processes as they actually happen at the molecular level.

Chemical and biological actions can now be measured as they are occurring or, in old-fashioned movie parlance, one frame at a time. This will allow creation of improved biosensors to study everything from nerve impulses to cancer metastasis as it occurs.

The measurements, created by the use of short pulse lasers and bioluminescent proteins, are made in femtoseconds, which is one-millionth of one-billionth of a second. A femtosecond, compared to one second, is about the same as one second compared to 32 million years.

That’s a pretty fast shutter speed, and it should change the way biological research and physical chemistry are being done, scientists say.

Findings on the new technology were published today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of Alberta.

“With this technology we’re going to be able to slow down the observation of living processes and understand the exact sequences of biochemical reactions,” said Chong Fang, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and lead author on the research.

“We believe this is the first time ever that you can really see chemistry in action inside a biosensor,” he said. “This is a much more powerful tool to study, understand and tune biological processes.”

The system uses advanced pulse laser technology that is fairly new and builds upon the use of “green fluorescent proteins” that are popular in bioimaging and biomedicine. These remarkable proteins glow when light is shined upon them. Their discovery in 1962, and the applications that followed, were the basis for a Nobel Prize in 2008.

Existing biosensor systems, however, are created largely by random chance or trial and error. By comparison, the speed of the new approach will allow scientists to “see” what is happening at the molecular level and create whatever kind of sensor they want by rational design. This will improve the study of everything from cell metabolism to nerve impulses, how a flu virus infects a person, or how a malignant tumor spreads.

“For decades, to create the sensors we have now, people have been largely shooting in the dark,” Fang said. “This is a fundamental breakthrough in how to create biosensors for medical research from the bottom up. It’s like daylight has finally come.”

The technology, for instance, can follow the proton transfer associated with the movement of calcium ions – one of the most basic aspects of almost all living systems, and also one of the fastest. This movement of protons is integral to everything from respiration to cell metabolism and even plant photosynthesis.  Scientists will now be able to identify what is going on, one step at a time, and then use that knowledge to create customized biosensors for improved imaging of life processes.

“If you think of this in photographic terms,” Fang said, “we now have a camera fast enough to capture the molecular dance of life. We’re making molecular movies. And with this, we’re going to be able to create sensors that answer some important, new questions in biophysics, biochemistry, materials science and biomedical problems.”

The research was supported by OSU, the University of Alberta, the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, and the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.

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Chong Fang, 541-737-6704

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Molecular movies

Molecular movies

Findings point toward one of first therapies for Lou Gehrig’s disease

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers have determined that a copper compound known for decades may form the basis for a therapy for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), or Lou Gehrig’s disease.

In a new study just published in the Journal of Neuroscience, scientists from Australia, the United States (Oregon), and the United Kingdom showed in laboratory animal tests that oral intake of this compound significantly extended the lifespan and improved the locomotor function of transgenic mice that are genetically engineered to develop this debilitating and terminal disease.

In humans, no therapy for ALS has ever been discovered that could extend lifespan more than a few additional months. Researchers in the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University say this approach has the potential to change that, and may have value against Parkinson’s disease as well.

“We believe that with further improvements, and following necessary human clinical trials for safety and efficacy, this could provide a valuable new therapy for ALS and perhaps Parkinson’s disease,” said Joseph Beckman, a distinguished professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science.

“I’m very optimistic,” said Beckman, who received the 2012 Discovery Award from the OHSU Medical Research Foundation as the leading medical researcher in Oregon.

ALS was first identified as a progressive and fatal neurodegenerative disease in the late 1800s and gained international recognition in 1939 when it was diagnosed in American baseball legend Lou Gehrig. It’s known to be caused by motor neurons in the spinal cord deteriorating and dying, and has been traced to mutations in copper, zinc superoxide dismutase, or SOD1. Ordinarily, superoxide dismutase is an antioxidant whose proper function is essential to life.

When SOD1 is lacking its metal co-factors, it “unfolds” and becomes toxic, leading to the death of motor neurons. The metals copper and zinc are important in stabilizing this protein, and can help it remain folded more than 200 years.

“The damage from ALS is happening primarily in the spinal cord and that’s also one of the most difficult places in the body to absorb copper,” Beckman said. “Copper itself is necessary but can be toxic, so its levels are tightly controlled in the body. The therapy we’re working toward delivers copper selectively into the cells in the spinal cord that actually need it. Otherwise, the compound keeps copper inert.”

“This is a safe way to deliver a micronutrient like copper exactly where it is needed,” Beckman said.

By restoring a proper balance of copper into the brain and spinal cord, scientists believe they are stabilizing the superoxide dismutase in its mature form, while improving the function of mitochondria. This has already extended the lifespan of affected mice by 26 percent, and with continued research the scientists hope to achieve even more extension.

The compound that does this is called copper (ATSM), has been studied for use in some cancer treatments, and is relatively inexpensive to produce.

“In this case, the result was just the opposite of what one might have expected,” said Blaine Roberts, lead author on the study and a research fellow at the University of Melbourne, who received his doctorate at OSU working with Beckman.

“The treatment increased the amount of mutant SOD, and by accepted dogma this means the animals should get worse,” he said. “But in this case, they got a lot better. This is because we’re making a targeted delivery of copper just to the cells that need it.

“This study opens up a previously neglected avenue for new disease therapies, for ALS and other neurodegenerative disease,” Roberts said.

Other collaborators on this research include OSU, the University of Melbourne, University of Technology/Sydney, Deakin University, the Australian National University, and the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom.

Funding has been provided by the Australian National Health and Medical Research Council, the U.S. National Institutes of Health, the Linus Pauling Institute and other groups in Australia and Finland.

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Joseph Beckman, 541-737-8867

Sea star disease epidemic surges in Oregon, local extinctions expected

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Just in the past two weeks, the incidence of sea star wasting syndrome has exploded along the Oregon Coast and created an epidemic of historic magnitude, one that threatens to decimate the entire population of purple ochre sea stars.

Prior to this, Oregon had been the only part of the West Coast that had been largely spared this devastating disease.

The ochre sea star, which is the species most heavily affected by the disease in the intertidal zone, may be headed toward localized extinction in Oregon, according to researchers at Oregon State University who have been monitoring the outbreak. As a “keystone” predator, its loss could disrupt the entire marine intertidal ecosystem.

Researchers say this is the first time that die-offs of sea stars, more commonly known as starfish, have ever been identified at one time along such a wide expanse of the West Coast, and the sudden increase in Oregon has been extraordinary.

The best information is from the intertidal zone, which is easier to access for monitoring. In this area, less than 1 percent of the ochre sea stars in Oregon were affected in April, and only slightly more than that by mid-May.

Today, an estimated 30-50 percent of the Oregon populations of this sea star species in the intertidal zone have the disease. The highest losses are at Fogarty Creek, where about 60 percent are affected. Researchers project that the epidemic will intensify and, at some sites, nearly 100 percent of the ochre sea stars could die.

“This is an unprecedented event,” said Bruce Menge, the Wayne and Gladys Valley Professor of Marine Biology in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science. “We’ve never seen anything of this magnitude before.

“We have no clue what’s causing this epidemic, how severe the damage might be or how long that damage might last,” he said. “It’s very serious. Some of the sea stars most heavily affected are keystone predators that influence the whole diversity of life in the intertidal zone.”

Colleagues from the Oregon Coast Aquarium are monitoring subtidal sites in Yaquina Bay, where wasting was first observed in April. Photos and video of that work are available at http://bit.ly/1kMlG9s

Altogether, mortality has been documented in 10 species of sea stars on the West Coast. No definitive cause has yet been identified, and it could include bacterial or viral pathogens. Researchers around the nation are working on the issue. More information, including an interactive map of all observations, and opportunities for interested citizens to participate in the observation effort are available online at http://bit.ly/1o5bWNi

Sea star wasting syndrome is a traumatic process in which, over the course of a week or less, the sea stars begin to lose legs, disintegrate, ultimately die and rot. They sometimes physically tear their bodies apart. Various epidemics of the syndrome have been observed in the past, but none of this extent or severity.

In a healthy ecosystem, sea stars are beautiful, but also tenacious and important parts of the marine ecosystem. In particular, they attack mussels and keep their populations under control. Absent enough sea stars, mussel populations can explode, covering up algae and other small invertebrates. Some affected sea stars also eat sea urchins. This could lead to increased numbers of sea urchins that can overgraze kelp and sea grass beds, reducing habitat for other fish that use such areas for food and refuge.

The very ecological concept of “keystone predators,” in fact, originated from work in 1969 at the University of Washington using this same purple ochre sea star as a model.

“Parts of California, Washington, and British Columbia had already been affected by this outbreak of the wasting syndrome,” said Kristen Milligan, program coordinator at OSU for the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, or PISCO, which is a collaboration of OSU, the University of California/Santa Cruz, UC/Santa Barbara and Stanford University.

“It wasn’t clear why those areas had been hit and Oregon had not,” Milligan said. “We were hoping that Oregon’s coast would be spared. Although it was hit late, we are obviously being hit hard by this potentially devastating syndrome.”

A group of OSU undergraduate students have assisted in recent monitoring of the OSU outbreak, studying conditions at 10 sites from south of Cape Blanco to north of Depoe Bay. Researchers say this is one of the best documented outbreaks of marine disease ever undertaken in North America.

Besides OSU and PISCO, other collaborators in this Oregon initiative include the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the Oregon Coast Aquarium, OSU Hatfield Marine Science Center, Oregon Coast Watch, Haystack Rock Awareness Program in Cannon Beach, and the Multi-Agency Rocky Intertidal Network. Oregon Sea Grant provides funding for volunteer surveys in the intertidal zone, and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation provides support to PISCO.

In some past cases, ecosystems have recovered from severe losses of sea stars, but in others damage has been long-lasting.

In the past, some of the outbreaks were associated with warm-water conditions during El Nino events, but currently the water temperatures in Oregon “are only at the high end of a normal range,” Menge said.

 

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Kristen Milligan, 541-737-8862

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Dying sea star

Dying sea star


Sea star monitoring

Oregon Coast Aquarium diver monitoring


Monitoring sea star epidemic

OSU students monitoring


YouTube video
http://bit.ly/1mazKuT

Amber discovery indicates Lyme disease is older than human race

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Lyme disease is a stealthy, often misdiagnosed disease that was only recognized about 40 years ago, but new discoveries of ticks fossilized in amber show that the bacteria which cause it may have been lurking around for 15 million years – long before any humans walked on Earth.

The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, who studied 15-20 million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic that offer the oldest fossil evidence ever found of Borrelia, a type of spirochete-like bacteria that to this day causes Lyme disease. They were published in the journal Historical Biology.

In a related study, published in Cretaceous Research, OSU scientists announced the first fossil record of Rickettsial-like cells, a bacteria that can cause various types of spotted fever. Those fossils from Myanmar were found in ticks about 100 million years old.

As summer arrives and millions of people head for the outdoors, it’s worth considering that these tick-borne diseases may be far more common than has been historically appreciated, and they’ve been around for a long, long time.

“Ticks and the bacteria they carry are very opportunistic,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber. “They are very efficient at maintaining populations of microbes in their tissues, and can infect mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals.

“In the United States, Europe and Asia, ticks are a more important insect vector of disease than mosquitos,” Poinar said. “They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors.

“It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

Lyme disease is a perfect example. It can cause problems with joints, the heart and central nervous system, but researchers didn’t even know it existed until 1975. If recognized early and treated with antibiotics, it can be cured. But it’s often mistaken for other health conditions. And surging deer populations in many areas are causing a rapid increase in Lyme disease – the confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in Nova Scotia nearly tripled in 2013 over the previous year.

The new research shows these problems with tick-borne disease have been around for millions of years.

Bacteria are an ancient group that date back about 3.6 billion years, almost as old as the planet itself. As soft-bodied organisms they are rarely preserved in the fossil record, but an exception is amber, which begins as a free-flowing tree sap that traps and preserves material in exquisite detail as it slowly turns into a semi-precious mineral.

A series of four ticks from Dominican amber were analyzed in this study, revealing a large population of spirochete-like cells that most closely resemble those of the present-day Borrelia species. In a separate report, Poinar found cells that resemble Rickettsia bacteria, the cause of Rocky Mountain spotted fever and related illnesses. This is the oldest fossil evidence of ticks associated with such bacteria.

In 30 years of studying diseases revealed in the fossil record, Poinar has documented the ancient presence of such diseases as malaria, leishmania, and others. Evidence suggests that dinosaurs could have been infected with Rickettsial pathogens.

Humans have probably been getting diseases, including Lyme disease, from tick-borne bacteria as long as there have been humans, Poinar said. The oldest documented case is the Tyrolean iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in the Italian Alps.

“Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said. “He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess.”

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Tick carrying spirochetes
Tick carrying spirochetes


Group of spirochetes

Spirochetes that carry lyme disease



 Fossil rickettsia cells

Rickettsia-like cells


Rickettsia Cretaceous tick (4)

Tick carrying rickettsia

Butterfly “eyespots” add detail to the story of evolution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study of the colorful “eyespots” on the wings of some butterfly species is helping to address fundamental questions about evolution that are conceptually similar to the quandary Aristotle wrestled with about 330 B.C. – “which came first, the chicken or the egg?”

After consideration, Aristotle decided that both the egg and the chicken had always existed, which was not the right answer. The new Oregon State University research is providing a little more detail.

The study, published today in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, actually attempts to explain the existence of what scientists call “serial homologues,” or patterns in nature that are repetitive, serve a function and are so important they are often retained through millions of years and across vast numbers of species.

Repeated vertebra that form a spinal column, rows of teeth, and groups of eyespots on butterfly wings are all examples of serial homologues. Researchers have tracked the similarities and changes of these serial features through much time and many species, but it’s remained a question about how they originally evolved.

Put another way, it’s easier to see how one breed of chicken evolved into a different breed, rather than where chickens – or their eggs - came from to begin with.

Butterfly wings are helping to answer that question. These eyespots, common to the butterfly family Nymphalidae, now serve many butterflies in dual roles of both predator avoidance and mate identification. One theory of their origin is that they evolved from simpler, single spots; another theory is that they evolved from a “band” of color which later separated into spots.

“What we basically conclude is that neither of the existing theories about butterfly eyespots is correct,” said Jeffrey Oliver, a postdoctoral scholar in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science. “The evidence suggests that a few eyespots evolved as a group at about the same time, but behaved somewhat as individual entities.”

Having appeared as a result of some genetic mutation, however, the eyespots then had the capability to move, acquire a function that had evolutionary value, and because of that value were retained by future generations of butterflies. And at all times, they retained the biological capacity for positional awareness – the eyespots formed in the same place until a new mutation came along.

“At first, it appears the eyespots helped this group of butterflies with one of the most basic aspects of survival value, which is avoiding predators,” Oliver said.

On the side of the wing that predators saw when the wings were closed, the eyespots could have served as camouflage from a distance, and up close almost a “bulls-eye” for a predator to see and attack. But this directed the attack toward the tips of less-important wings, and not the more vulnerable head or body of the insect.

But just as important, Oliver said, the study indicates how through continued mutation these eyespots moved to a completely different place – the other side of the wing. There, they performed a completely different function – helping the butterfly to attract and be identified by optimal mates.

“If you take this same concept and apply it to other important features like vertebra and a spinal column, it suggests that some small number of bones would form through mutation, and eventually move, join and be perpetuated as they acquired a function with survival value,” Oliver said.

“There would be a biological position in which they were supposed to form, and that would be retained,” he said. “And over time, the vertebra might expand in number, and acquire other functions that had nothing to do with their original function, but which still had value.”

The evolution of life has never been simple, as Aristotle and the other early philosophers found out. But one bone or butterfly eyespot at a time, the pieces continue to come together.

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Jeffrey Oliver, 541-737-5736

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Squinting bush brown

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Painted lady

Painted lady