OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

college of science

OSU names Lubchenco adviser for marine sciences

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Administrator Jane Lubchenco is back on the faculty of Oregon State University where she has a new role – adviser to the university on marine studies issues.

OSU has named Lubchenco Distinguished University Professor and Adviser in Marine Studies – a position that will help coordinate and expand Oregon State’s international prominence in marine-related studies, which are spread across several disciplines and account for nearly $100 million annually in research funding.

“After four years at the helm of the nation’s premier agency for the ocean and atmosphere, I’m delighted to be back at OSU, and even more pleased to see the new energy focused on marine science, education, policy and outreach,” Lubchenco said. “From my time at NOAA, I know both the high caliber of marine sciences at OSU and the strong potential for a more robust, visible and effective marine studies program that can provide much-needed global leadership by our faculty and students.

“I’m energized by OSU’s commitment to elevate ocean stewardship and to expand the range and quality of opportunities available to students,” she added.

Oregon State’s growth in the marine sciences in recent years has been significant and Lubchenco has played a key role with her seminal research in marine ecology. OSU boasts one of the strongest marine ecology and biology programs in the nation in the College of Science; a formidable oceanography program in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences; and one of the most highly regarded marine research and education facilities in the country in the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport.

The university’s strength in marine studies is broad and deep, according to Rick Spinrad, OSU’s vice president for research, who pointed out that Oregon State’s national leadership in wave energy research and tsunami studies are based in OSU’s College of Engineering. The College of Agricultural Sciences has one of the nation’s top fisheries programs as well as a leading oyster breeding research program. OSU-based Oregon Sea Grant is an acclaimed research, education and outreach program tied to Extension, and Lubchenco’s own faculty appointment is in Integrative Biology, which is in OSU’s College of Science.

Other OSU colleges, including Veterinary Medicine, Pharmacy, Education, Liberal Arts, and Public Health and Human Sciences, also have ties to marine research and education.

“A primary goal for Dr. Lubchenco in her new position will be to engage the entire university in OSU’s expanding marine studies mission, and advise university leadership on marine studies matters,” Spinrad said. “We are delighted to welcome Jane back and look forward to her strategic contributions in building OSU’s global marine studies program.”

Last year, OSU President Ray announced the launch of an initiative to create a marine studies campus at OSU, including developments at the Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport that would eventually host as many as 500 students. Planning is under way for how such a campus might be developed, according to Sabah Randhawa, OSU provost and executive vice president. “Jane Lubchenco’s insights into the national and international needs for marine science education will be invaluable as we go forward with our plans,” Randhawa said.

OSU also provides leadership on a number of other marine studies initiatives, including:

  • The Ocean Observatories Initiative, a $386 million project funded by the National Science Foundation to monitor changes in the world’s oceans – led by a handful of universities, including Oregon State University;
  • An initiative to design and oversee construction of as many as three new coastal research vessels to bolster the United States research fleet. OSU was chosen as lead institution for the NSF-funded project, which could total $290 million over 10 years;
  • The Partnership for Interdisciplinary Studies of Coastal Oceans, a multi-institutional research consortium established 15 years ago and led by OSU, with funding from the David and Lucile Packard Foundation and the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation totaling more than $56 million.

 

Lubchenco said she looks forward to working with OSU faculty, staff and students across the university on marine studies issues.

“I’m immensely proud of what we were able to accomplish during the four years I was at NOAA,” she said. “I return to OSU with new insights, contacts and energy to help strengthen our ability to be positioned for the challenges that lie ahead.”

Under Lubchenco’s leadership, NOAA focused on restoring sustainability and economic viability to fisheries, restoring oceans and coasts to a healthy state, protecting marine mammals and endangered species, conducting and disseminating information on climate science, providing timely weather forecasts and warnings, and maintaining the nation’s weather and environmental satellites.

Lubchenco is one of the most highly cited ecologists in the world and is past-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the Ecological Society of America, and the International Council for Science; she is an elected member of the National Academy of Sciences and was a National Science Board member for 10 years; she served on numerous international commissions; and she is a recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship, or “genius award.”

Prior to her NOAA appointment, Lubchenco and her husband, Bruce Menge, shared the Wayne and Gladys Valley Chair in Marine Biology. Menge, who also has the title of Distinguished Professor of Integrative Biology, will continue as the Valley Chair, teaching marine biology and ecology, and leading interdisciplinary research teams focused on ocean acidification and coastal ocean dynamics.

Sastry Pantula, dean of OSU’s College of Science, said Lubchenco’s return to campus will benefit students interested in marine studies.

“Jane’s wealth of international experience and the College of Science’s strong foundation in marine science research and education will be key for OSU as a global leader in marine studies,” Pantula said.  “I am thrilled to see Jane in this role helping to build future leaders and policy makers in marine studies. It is a win-win for our students and for the university."

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Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662; rick.spinrad@oregonstate.edu; Sabah Randhawa, 541-737-2111; Sabah.randhawa@oregonstate.edu; Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337; lubchenco@oregonstate.edu

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Trees go high-tech: process turns cellulose into energy storage devices

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Based on a fundamental chemical discovery by scientists at Oregon State University, it appears that trees may soon play a major role in making high-tech energy storage devices.

OSU chemists have found that cellulose – the most abundant organic polymer on Earth and a key component of trees – can be heated in a furnace in the presence of ammonia, and turned into the building blocks for supercapacitors.

These supercapacitors are extraordinary, high-power energy devices with a wide range of industrial applications, in everything from electronics to automobiles and aviation. But widespread use of them has been held back primarily by cost and the difficulty of producing high-quality carbon electrodes.

The new approach just discovered at Oregon State can produce nitrogen-doped, nanoporous carbon membranes – the electrodes of a supercapacitor – at low cost, quickly, in an environmentally benign process. The only byproduct is methane, which could be used immediately as a fuel or for other purposes.

“The ease, speed and potential of this process is really exciting,” said Xiulei (David) Ji, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and lead author on a study announcing the discovery in Nano Letters, a journal of the American Chemical Society. The research was funded by OSU.

“For the first time we’ve proven that you can react cellulose with ammonia and create these N-doped nanoporous carbon membranes,” Ji said. “It’s surprising that such a basic reaction was not reported before. Not only are there industrial applications, but this opens a whole new scientific area, studying reducing gas agents for carbon activation.

We’re going to take cheap wood and turn it into a valuable high-tech product,” he said.

These carbon membranes at the nano-scale are extraordinarily thin – a single gram of them can have a surface area of nearly 2,000 square meters. That’s part of what makes them useful in supercapacitors. And the new process used to do this is a single-step reaction that’s fast and inexpensive. It starts with something about as simple as a cellulose filter paper – conceptually similar to the disposable paper filter in a coffee maker.

The exposure to high heat and ammonia converts the cellulose to a nanoporous carbon material needed for supercapacitors, and should enable them to be produced, in mass, more cheaply than before.

A supercapacitor is a type of energy storage device, but it can be recharged much faster than a battery and has a great deal more power. They are mostly used in any type of device where rapid power storage and short, but powerful energy release is needed.

Supercapacitors can be used in computers and consumer electronics, such as the flash in a digital camera. They have applications in heavy industry, and are able to power anything from a crane to a forklift. A supercapacitor can capture energy that might otherwise be wasted, such as in braking operations. And their energy storage abilities may help “smooth out” the power flow from alternative energy systems, such as wind energy.

They can power a defibrillator, open the emergency slides on an aircraft and greatly improve the efficiency of hybrid electric automobiles.

Besides supercapacitors, nanoporous carbon materials also have applications in adsorbing gas pollutants, environmental filters, water treatment and other uses.

“There are many applications of supercapacitors around the world, but right now the field is constrained by cost,” Ji said. “If we use this very fast, simple process to make these devices much less expensive, there could be huge benefits.”

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David Xiulei Ji, 541-737-6798

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Trees for technology

Trees for paper

War on lionfish shows first promise of success

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1f9fqbg

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – It may take a legion of scuba divers armed with nets and spears, but a new study confirms for the first time that controlling lionfish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean can pave the way for a recovery of native fish.

Even if it’s one speared fish at a time, it finally appears that there’s a way to fight back.

Scientists at Oregon State University, Simon Fraser University and other institutions have shown in both computer models and 18 months of field tests on reefs that reducing lionfish numbers by specified amounts – at the sites they studied, between 75-95 percent – will allow a rapid recovery of native fish biomass in the treatment area, and to some extent may aid larger ecosystem recovery as well.

It’s some of the first good news in a struggle that has at times appeared almost hopeless, as this voracious, invasive species has wiped out 95 percent of native fish in some Atlantic locations.

“This is excellent news,” said Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and lead author on the report just published in Ecological Applications. “It shows that by creating safe havens, small pockets of reef where lionfish numbers are kept low, we can help native species recover.

“And we don’t have to catch every lionfish to do it.”

That’s good, researchers say, because the rapid spread of lionfish in the Atlantic makes eradication virtually impossible. They’ve also been found thriving in deep water locations which are difficult to access.

The latest research used ecological modeling to determine what percentage of lionfish would have to be removed at a given location to allow for native fish recovery. At 24 coral reefs near Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, researchers then removed the necessary amount of lionfish to reach this threshold, and monitored recovery of the ecosystem.

On reefs where lionfish were kept below threshold densities, native prey fish increased by 50-70 percent. It’s one of the first studies of its type to demonstrate that reduction of an invasive species below an environmentally damaging threshold, rather than outright eradication, can have comparable benefits.

Some of the fish that recovered, such as Nassau grouper and yellowtail snapper, are critically important to local economies. And larger adults can then spread throughout the reef system – although the amount of system recovery that would take place outside of treated areas is a subject that needs additional research, they said.

Where no intervention was made, native species continued to decline and disappear.

The lionfish invasion in the Atlantic, believed to have begun in the 1980s, now covers an area larger than the entirety of the United States. With venomous spines, no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, and aggressive behavior, the lionfish have been shown to eat almost anything smaller than they are – fish, shrimp, crabs and octopus. Lionfish can also withstand starvation for protracted periods – many of their prey species will disappear before they do.

Governments, industry and conservation groups across this region are already trying to cull lionfish from their waters, and encourage their use as a food fish. Some removal efforts have concentrated on popular dive sites.

The scientists said in their report that the model used in this research should work equally well in various types of marine habitat, including mangroves, temperate hard-bottom systems, estuaries and seagrass beds.

A major issue to be considered, however, is where to allocate future removal efforts. Marine reserves, which often allow “no take” of any marine life in an effort to recover fish populations, may need to be the focus of lionfish removal. The traditional, hands-off concept in such areas may succeed only in wiping out native species while allowing the invasive species to grow unchecked.

Keeping lionfish numbers low in areas that are hot spots for juvenile fish, like mangroves and shallow reefs, is also crucial, the report said.

This research was done in collaboration with scientists at Simon Fraser University, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the Cape Eleuthera Institute. It has been supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Boston Foundation and a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.

“Many invasions such as lionfish are occurring at a speed and magnitude that outstrips the resources available to contain and eliminate them,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Our study is the first to demonstrate that for such invasions, complete extirpation is not necessary to minimize negative ecological changes within priority habitats.”

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Stephanie Green, 541-908-3839

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Video of researcher netting lionfish in the Bahamas:

High resolution downloadable video: http://bit.ly/1jnJ1mD

YouTube: http://bit.ly/LUj6VX

New compounds discovered that are hundreds of times more mutagenic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered novel compounds produced by certain types of chemical reactions – such as those found in vehicle exhaust or grilling meat - that are hundreds of times more mutagenic than their parent compounds which are known carcinogens.

These compounds were not previously known to exist, and raise additional concerns about the health impacts of heavily-polluted urban air or dietary exposure. It’s not yet been determined in what level the compounds might be present, and no health standards now exist for them.

The findings were published in December in Environmental Science and Technology, a professional journal.

The compounds were identified in laboratory experiments that mimic the type of conditions which might be found from the combustion and exhaust in cars and trucks, or the grilling of meat over a flame.

“Some of the compounds that we’ve discovered are far more mutagenic than we previously understood, and may exist in the environment as a result of heavy air pollution from vehicles or some types of food preparation,” said Staci Simonich, a professor of chemistry and toxicology in the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences.

“We don’t know at this point what levels may be present, and will explore that in continued research,” she said.

The parent compounds involved in this research are polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs, formed naturally as the result of almost any type of combustion, from a wood stove to an automobile engine, cigarette or a coal-fired power plant. Many PAHs, such as benzopyrene, are known to be carcinogenic, believed to be more of a health concern that has been appreciated in the past, and are the subject of extensive research at OSU and elsewhere around the world.

The PAHs can become even more of a problem when they chemically interact with nitrogen to become “nitrated,” or NPAHs, scientists say. The newly-discovered compounds are NPAHs that were unknown to this point.

This study found that the direct mutagenicity of the NPAHs with one nitrogen group can increase 6 to 432 times more than the parent compound. NPAHs based on two nitrogen groups can be 272 to 467 times more mutagenic. Mutagens are chemicals that can cause DNA damage in cells that in turn can cause cancer.

For technical reasons based on how the mutagenic assays are conducted, the researchers said these numbers may actually understate the increase in toxicity – it could be even higher.

These discoveries are an outgrowth of research on PAHs that was done by Simonich at the Beijing Summer Olympic Games in 2008, when extensive studies of urban air quality were conducted, in part, based on concerns about impacts on athletes and visitors to the games.

Beijing, like some other cities in Asia, has significant problems with air quality, and may be 10-50 times more polluted than some major urban areas in the U.S. with air concerns, such as the Los Angeles basin.

An agency of the World Health Organization announced last fall that it now considers outdoor air pollution, especially particulate matter, to be carcinogenic, and cause other health problems as well. PAHs are one of the types of pollutants found on particulate matter in air pollution that are of special concern.

Concerns about the heavy levels of air pollution from some Asian cities are sufficient that Simonich is doing monitoring on Oregon’s Mount Bachelor, a 9,065-foot mountain in the central Oregon Cascade Range. Researchers want to determine what levels of air pollution may be found there after traveling thousands of miles across the Pacific Ocean.

This work was supported by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences and the National Science Foundation. It’s also an outgrowth of the Superfund Research Program at OSU, funded by the NIEHS, that focuses efforts on PAH pollution. Researchers from the OSU College of Science, the University of California-Riverside, Texas A&M University, and Peking University collaborated on the study.

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Staci Simonich, 541-737-9194

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Grilled meat

Grilled meat

Amber fossil reveals ancient reproduction in flowering plants

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A 100-million-year old piece of amber has been discovered which reveals the oldest evidence of sexual reproduction in a flowering plant – a cluster of 18 tiny flowers from the Cretaceous Period – with one of them in the process of making some new seeds for the next generation.

The perfectly-preserved scene, in a plant now extinct, is part of a portrait created in the mid-Cretaceous when flowering plants were changing the face of the Earth forever, adding beauty, biodiversity and food. It appears identical to the reproduction process that “angiosperms,” or flowering plants still use today.

Researchers from Oregon State University and Germany published their findings on the fossils in the Journal of the Botanical Institute of Texas.

The flowers themselves are in remarkable condition, as are many such plants and insects preserved for all time in amber. The flowing tree sap covered the specimens and then began the long process of turning into a fossilized, semi-precious gem. The flower cluster is one of the most complete ever found in amber and appeared at a time when many of the flowering plants were still quite small.

Even more remarkable is the microscopic image of pollen tubes growing out of two grains of pollen and penetrating the flower’s stigma, the receptive part of the female reproductive system. This sets the stage for fertilization of the egg and would begin the process of seed formation – had the reproductive act been completed.

“In Cretaceous flowers we’ve never before seen a fossil that shows the pollen tube actually entering the stigma,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology at the OSU College of Science. “This is the beauty of amber fossils. They are preserved so rapidly after entering the resin that structures such as pollen grains and tubes can be detected with a microscope.”

The pollen of these flowers appeared to be sticky, Poinar said, suggesting it was carried by a pollinating insect, and adding further insights into the biodiversity and biology of life in this distant era. At that time much of the plant life was composed of conifers, ferns, mosses, and cycads.  During the Cretaceous, new lineages of mammals and birds were beginning to appear, along with the flowering plants. But dinosaurs still dominated the Earth.

“The evolution of flowering plants caused an enormous change in the biodiversity of life on Earth, especially in the tropics and subtropics,” Poinar said.

“New associations between these small flowering plants and various types of insects and other animal life resulted in the successful distribution and evolution of these plants through most of the world today,” he said. “It’s interesting that the mechanisms for reproduction that are still with us today had already been established some 100 million years ago.”

The fossils were discovered from amber mines in the Hukawng Valley of Myanmar, previously known as Burma. The newly-described genus and species of flower was named Micropetasos burmensis.

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George Poinar, 541-752-0917

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Review: Most clinical studies on vitamins flawed by poor methodology

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1lbi4PB

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Most large, clinical trials of vitamin supplements, including some that have concluded they are of no value or even harmful, have a flawed methodology that renders them largely useless in determining the real value of these micronutrients, a new analysis suggests.

Many projects have tried to study nutrients that are naturally available in the human diet the same way they would a powerful prescription drug. This leads to conclusions that have little scientific meaning, even less accuracy and often defy a wealth of other evidence, said Balz Frei, professor and director of the Linus Pauling Institute at Oregon State University, in a new review published in the journal Nutrients.

These flawed findings will persist until the approach to studying micronutrients is changed, Frei said. Such changes are needed to provide better, more scientifically valid information to consumers around the world who often have poor diets, do not meet intake recommendations for many vitamins and minerals, and might greatly benefit from something as simple as a daily multivitamin/mineral supplement.

Needed are new methodologies that accurately measure baseline nutrient levels, provide supplements or dietary changes only to subjects who clearly are inadequate or deficient, and then study the resulting changes in their health. Tests must be done with blood plasma or other measurements to verify that the intervention improved the subjects’ micronutrient status along with biomarkers of health. And other approaches are also needed that better reflect the different ways in which nutrients behave in cell cultures, lab animals and the human body.

The new analysis specifically looked at problems with the historic study of vitamin C, but scientists say many of the observations are more broadly relevant to a wide range of vitamins, micro nutrients and studies.

“One of the obvious problems is that most large, clinical studies of vitamins have been done with groups such as doctors and nurses who are educated, informed, able to afford healthy food and routinely have better dietary standards than the public as a whole,” said Frei, an international expert on vitamin C and antioxidants.

Vitamin or mineral supplements, or an improved diet, will primarily benefit people who are inadequate or deficient to begin with, OSU researchers said. But most modern clinical studies do not do baseline analysis to identify nutritional inadequacies and do not assess whether supplements have remedied those inadequacies. As a result, any clinical conclusion made with such methodology is pretty much useless, they said.

“More than 90 percent of U.S. adults don’t get the required amounts of vitamins D and E for basic health,” Frei said. “More than 40 percent don’t get enough vitamin C, and half aren’t getting enough vitamin A, calcium and magnesium. Smokers, the elderly, people who are obese, ill or injured often have elevated needs for vitamins and minerals.

“It’s fine to tell people to eat better, but it’s foolish to suggest that a multivitamin which costs a nickel a day is a bad idea.”

Beyond that, many scientists studying these topics are unaware of ways in which nutrients may behave differently in something like a cell culture or lab animal, compared to the human body. This raises special challenges with vitamin C research in particular.

“In cell culture experiments that are commonly done in a high oxygen environment, vitamin C is unstable and can actually appear harmful,” said Alexander Michels, an LPI research associate and lead author on this report. “And almost every animal in the world, unlike humans, is able to synthesize its own vitamin C and doesn’t need to obtain it in the diet. That makes it difficult to do any lab animal tests with this vitamin that are relevant to humans.”

Even though such studies often significantly understate the value of vitamin supplements, the largest and longest clinical trial of multivitamin/mineral supplements found a total reduction of cancer and cataract incidence in male physicians over the age of 50. It suggested that if every adult in the U.S. took such supplements it could prevent up to 130,000 cases of cancer each year, Frei said.

“The cancer reduction would be in addition to providing good basic health by supporting normal function of the body, metabolism and growth,” he said. “If there’s any drug out there that can do all this, it would be considered unethical to withhold it from the general public. But that’s basically the same as recommending against multivitamin/mineral supplements.”

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Balz Frei, 541-737-5078

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Lab studies

Vitamin D studies

Large study shows pollution impact on coral reefs – and offers solution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the largest and longest experiments ever done to test the impact of nutrient loading on coral reefs today confirmed what scientists have long suspected – that this type of pollution from sewage, agricultural practices or other sources can lead to coral disease and bleaching.

A three-year, controlled exposure of corals to elevated levels of nitrogen and phosphorus at a study site in the Florida Keys, done from 2009-12, showed that the prevalence of disease doubled and the amount of coral bleaching, an early sign of stress, more than tripled.

However, the study also found that once the injection of pollutants was stopped, the corals were able to recover in a surprisingly short time.

“We were shocked to see the rapid increase in disease and bleaching from a level of pollution that’s fairly common in areas affected by sewage discharge, or fertilizers from agricultural or urban use,” said Rebecca Vega-Thurber, an assistant professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

“But what was even more surprising is that corals were able to make a strong recovery within 10 months after the nutrient enrichment was stopped,” Vega-Thurber said. “The problems disappeared. This provides real evidence that not only can nutrient overload cause coral problems, but programs to reduce or eliminate this pollution should help restore coral health. This is actually very good news.”

The findings were published today in Global Change Biology, and offer a glimmer of hope for addressing at least some of the problems that have crippled coral reefs around the world. In the Caribbean Sea, more than 80 percent of the corals have disappeared in recent decades. These reefs, which host thousands of species of fish and other marine life, are a major component of biodiversity in the tropics.

Researchers have observed for years the decline in coral reef health where sewage outflows or use of fertilizers, in either urban or agricultural areas, have caused an increase in the loading of nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. But until now almost no large, long-term experiments have actually been done to pin down the impact of nutrient overloads and separate them from other possible causes of coral reef decline.

This research examined the effect of nutrient pollution on more than 1,200 corals in study plots near Key Largo, Fla., for signs of coral disease and bleaching, and removed other factors such as water depth, salinity or temperature that have complicated some previous surveys. Following regular injections of nutrients at the study sites, levels of coral disease and bleaching surged.

One disease that was particularly common was “dark spot syndrome,” found on about 50 percent of diseased individual corals. But researchers also noted that within one year after nutrient injections were stopped at the study site, the level of dark spot syndrome had receded to the same level as control study plots in which no nutrients had been injected.

The exact mechanism by which nutrient overload can affect corals is still unproven, researchers say, although there are theories. The nutrients may add pathogens, may provide the nutrients needed for existing pathogens to grow, may be directly toxic to corals and make them more vulnerable to pathogens – or some combination of these factors.

“A combination of increased stress and a higher level of pathogens is probably the mechanism that affects coral health,” Vega-Thurber said. “What’s exciting about this research is the clear experimental evidence that stopping the pollution can lead to coral recovery. A lot of people have been hoping for some news like this.

“Some of the corals left in the world are actually among the species that are most hardy,” she said. “The others are already dead. We’re desperately trying to save what’s left, and cleaning up the water may be one mechanism that has the most promise.”

Nutrient overloads can increase disease prevalence or severity on many organisms, including plants, amphibians and fish. They’ve also long been suspected in coral reef problems, along with other factors such as temperature stress, reduced fish abundance, increasing human population, and other concerns.

However, unlike factors such as global warming or human population growth, nutrient loading is something that might be more easily addressed on at least a local basis, Vega-Thurber said. Improved sewage treatment or best-management practices to minimize fertilizer runoff from agricultural or urban use might offer practical approaches to mitigate some coral reef declines, she said.

Collaborators on this research included Florida International University and the University of Florida. The work was supported by the National Science Foundation and Florida International University.

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Rebecca Vega-Thurber, 541-737-1851

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A video interview with
Dr. Vega-Thurber is also
available online:
http://bit.ly/IdPqAt

“Flipping the switch” reveals new compounds with antibiotic potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have discovered that one gene in a common fungus acts as a master regulator, and deleting it has opened access to a wealth of new compounds that have never before been studied – with the potential to identify new antibiotics.

The finding was announced today in the journal PLOS Genetics, in research supported by the National Institutes of Health and the American Cancer Society.

Scientists succeeded in flipping a genetic switch that had silenced more than 2,000 genes in this fungus, the cereal pathogen Fusarium graminearum. Until now this had kept it from producing novel compounds that may have useful properties, particularly for use in medicine but also perhaps in agriculture, industry, or biofuel production.

“About a third of the genome of many fungi has always been silent in the laboratory,” said Michael Freitag, an associate professor of biochemistry and biophysics in the OSU College of Science. “Many fungi have antibacterial properties. It was no accident that penicillin was discovered from a fungus, and the genes for these compounds are usually in the silent regions of genomes.

“What we haven’t been able to do is turn on more of the genome of these fungi, see the full range of compounds that could be produced by expression of their genes,” he said. “Our finding should open the door to the study of dozens of new compounds, and we’ll probably see some biochemistry we’ve never seen before.”

In the past, the search for new antibiotics was usually done by changing the environment in which a fungus or other life form grew, and see if those changes generated the formation of a compound with antibiotic properties.

“The problem is, with the approaches of the past we’ve already found most of the low-hanging fruit, and that’s why we’ve had to search in places like deep sea vents or corals to find anything new,” Freitag said. “With traditional approaches there’s not that much left to be discovered. But now that we can change the genome-wide expression of fungi, we may see a whole new range of compounds we didn’t even know existed.”

The gene that was deleted in this case regulates the methylation of histones, the proteins around which DNA is wound, Freitag said. Creating a mutant without this gene allowed new expression, or overexpression of about 25 percent of the genome of this fungus, and the formation of many “secondary metabolites,” the researchers found.

The gene that was deleted, kmt6, encodes a master regulator that affects the expression of hundreds of genetic pathways, researchers say. It’s been conserved through millions of years, in life forms as diverse as plants, fungi, fruit flies and humans.

The discovery of new antibiotics is of increasing importance, researchers say, as bacteria, parasites and fungi are becoming increasingly resistant to older drugs.

“Our studies will open the door to future precise ‘epigenetic engineering’ of gene clusters that generate bioactive compounds, e.g. putative mycotoxins, antibiotics and industrial feedstocks,” the researchers wrote in the conclusion of their report.

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Michael Freitag, 541-737-4845

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Pigment produced

Pigments produced



Fungal infection in corn

Fungus on corn

Breakthrough in study of aluminum should yield new technological advances

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University and the University of Oregon today announced a scientific advance that has eluded researchers for more than 100 years – a platform to study and fully understand the aqueous chemistry of aluminum, one of the world’s most important metals.

The findings, reported in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, should open the door to significant advances in electronics and many other fields, ranging from manufacturing to construction, agriculture and drinking water treatment.

Aluminum, in solution with water, affects the biosphere, hydrosphere, geosphere and anthrosphere, the scientists said in their report. It may be second only to iron in its importance to human civilization. But for a century or more, and despite the multitude of products based on it, there has been no effective way to explore the enormous variety and complexity of compounds that aluminum forms in water.

Now there is.

“This integrated platform to study aqueous aluminum is a major scientific advance,” said Douglas Keszler, a distinguished professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, and director of the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.

“Research that can be done with the new platform should have important technological implications,” Keszler said. “Now we can understand aqueous aluminum clusters, see what’s there, how the atomic structure is arranged.”

Chong Fang, an assistant professor of chemistry in the OSU College of Science, called the platform “a powerful new toolset.” It’s a way to synthesize aqueous aluminum clusters in a controlled way; analyze them with new laser techniques; and use computational chemistry to interpret the results. It’s simple and easy to use, and may be expanded to do research on other metal atoms.

“A diverse team of scientists came together to solve an important problem and open new research opportunities,” said Paul Cheong, also an OSU assistant professor of chemistry.

The fundamental importance of aluminum to life and modern civilization helps explain the significance of the advance, researchers say. It’s the most abundant metal in the Earth’s crust, but almost never is found in its natural state. The deposition and migration of aluminum as a mineral ore is controlled by its aqueous chemistry. It’s found in all drinking water and used worldwide for water treatment. Aqueous aluminum plays significant roles in soil chemistry and plant growth.

Aluminum is ubiquitous in cooking, eating utensils, food packaging, construction, and the automotive and aircraft industries. It’s almost 100 percent recyclable, but in commercial use is a fairly modern metal. Before electrolytic processes were developed in the late 1800s to produce it inexpensively, it was once as costly as silver.

Now, aluminum is increasingly important in electronics, particularly as a “green” component that’s cheap, widely available and environmentally benign.

Besides developing the new platform, this study also discovered one behavior for aluminum in water that had not been previously observed. This is a “flat cluster” of one form of aluminum oxide that’s relevant to large scale productions of thin films and nanoparticles, and may find applications in transistors, solar energy cells, corrosion protection, catalytic converters and other uses.

Ultimately, researchers say they expect new technologies, “green” products, lowered equipment costs, and aluminum applications that work better, cost less and have high performance.

The research was made possible, in part, by collaboration between chemists at OSU and the University of Oregon, through the Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry. This is a collaboration of six research universities, which is sponsored and funded by the National Science Foundation.

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Douglas Keszler, 541-737-6736

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Aluminum in manufacturing

Aluminum manufacturing

Increasing toxicity of algal blooms tied to nutrient enrichment and climate change

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Nutrient enrichment and climate change are posing yet another concern of growing importance – an apparent increase in the toxicity of some algal blooms in freshwater lakes and estuaries around the world, which threatens aquatic organisms, ecosystem health and human drinking water safety.

As this nutrient enrichment, or “eutrophication” increases, so will the proportion of toxin-producing strains of cyanobacteria in harmful algal blooms, scientists said.

Researchers from Oregon State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill will outline recent findings in an analysis Friday in the journal Science.

Cyanobacteria are some of the oldest microorganisms on Earth, dating back about 3.5 billion years to a time when the planet was void of oxygen and barren of most life. These bacteria are believed to have produced the oxygen that paved the way for terrestrial life to evolve. They are highly adaptive and persistent, researchers say, and today are once again adapting to new conditions in a way that threatens some of the life they originally made possible.

A particular concern is Microcystis sp., a near-ubiquitous cyanobacterium that thrives in warm, nutrient-rich and stagnant waters around the world. Like many cyanobacteria, it can regulate its position in the water column, and often forms green, paint-like scums near the surface.

In a high-light, oxidizing environment, microcystin-producing cyanobacteria have a survival advantage over other forms of cyanobacteria that are not toxic. Over time, they can displace the nontoxic strains, resulting in blooms that are increasingly toxic.

“Cyanobacteria are basically the cockroaches of the aquatic world,” said Timothy Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU College of Science and College of Agricultural Sciences, whose work has been supported by the National Science Foundation. “They're the uninvited guest that just won't leave.”

“When one considers their evolutionary history and the fact that they've persisted even through ice ages and asteroid strikes, it's not surprising they're extremely difficult to remove once they’ve taken hold in a lake,” he said. “For the most part, the best we can do is to try to minimize the conditions that favor their proliferation.”

Researchers lack an extensive historical record of bloom events and their associated toxicities to put current observations into a long-term context.  However, Otten said, “If you go looking for toxin-producing cyanobacteria, chances are you won't have to look very long until you find some.”

There are more than 123,000 lakes greater than 10 acres in size spread across the United States, and based on the last EPA National Lakes Assessment, at least one-third may contain toxin-producing cyanobacteria. Dams; rising temperatures and carbon dioxide concentrations; droughts; and increased runoff of nutrients from urban and agricultural lands are all compounding the problem.

Many large, eutrophic lakes such as Lake Erie are plagued each year by algal blooms so massive that they are visible from outer space. Dogs have died from drinking contaminated water.

Researchers studying cyanobacterial toxins say it’s improbable that their true function was to be toxic, since they actually predate any predators. New research suggests that the potent liver toxin and possible carcinogen, microcystin, has a protective role in cyanobacteria and helps them respond to oxidative stress. This is probably one of the reasons the genes involved in its biosynthesis are so widespread across cyanobacteria and have been retained over millions of years.

Because of their buoyancy and the location of toxins primarily within the cell, exposure risks are greatest near the water's surface, which raises concerns for swimming, boating and other recreational uses.

Also, since cyanobacteria blooms become entrenched and usually occur every summer in impacted systems, chronic exposure to drinking water containing these compounds is an important concern that needs more attention, Otten said.

“Water quality managers have a toolbox of options to mitigate cyanobacteria toxicity issues, assuming they are aware of the problem and compelled to act,” Otten said. “But there are no formal regulations in place on how to respond to bloom events.

“We need to increase public awareness of these issues,” he said. “With a warming climate, rising carbon dioxide levels, dams on many rivers and overloading of nutrients into our waterways, the magnitude and duration of toxic cyanobacterial blooms is only going to get worse.”

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Tim Otten, 541-737-1796

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Green wake

Green wake


Toxic bacteria

Toxic bacteria


Lake sample

Toxic algal bloom