OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Ban on microbeads offers best chance to protect oceans, aquatic species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – An outright ban on the common use of plastic “microbeads” from products that enter wastewater is the best way to protect water quality, wildlife, and resources used by people, a group of conservation scientists suggest in a new analysis.

These microbeads are one part of the microplastic problem in oceans, freshwater lakes and rivers, but are a special concern because in many products they are literally designed to be flushed down the drain. And even at conservative estimates, the collective total of microbeads being produced today is enormous.

In an article just published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, scientists from seven institutions say that nontoxic and biodegradable alternatives exist for microbeads, which are used in hundreds of products as abrasive scrubbers, ranging from face washes to toothpaste. Around the size of a grain of sand, they can provide a gritty texture to products where that is needed.

“We’re facing a plastic crisis and don’t even know it,” said Stephanie Green, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellow in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and co-author of this report.

“Part of this problem can now start with brushing your teeth in the morning,” she said. “Contaminants like these microbeads are not something our wastewater treatment plants were built to handle, and the overall amount of contamination is huge. The microbeads are very durable.”

In this analysis, and using conservative methodology, the researchers estimated that 8 billion microbeads per day are being emitted into aquatic habitats in the United States – about 2.9 trillion beads per year, enough to wrap around the Earth more than seven times if lined up end to end.

The other 99 percent of the microbeads – another 800 billion – end up in sludge from sewage plants, which is often spread over areas of land. Many of those microbeads can then make their way into streams and oceans through runoff.

“Microbeads are just one of many types of microplastic found in aquatic habitats and in the gut content of wildlife,” said Chelsea Rochman, the David H. Smith Conservation Research Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of California/Davis, and lead author on the analysis.

“We’ve demonstrated in previous studies that microplastic of the same type, size and shape as many microbeads can transfer contaminants to animals and cause toxic effects,” Rochman said. “We argue that the scientific evidence regarding microplastic supports legislation calling for a removal of plastic microbeads from personal care products.”

Even though microbeads are just one part of the larger concern about plastic debris that end up in oceans and other aquatic habitat, they are also one of the most controllable. With growing awareness of this problem, a number of companies have committed to stop using microbeads in their “rinse off” personal care products, and several states have already regulated or banned the products.

The researchers point out in their analysis, however, that some bans have included loopholes using strategic wording. Many microbeads are used in personal care products that are not “rinse off,” such as deodorants and cleaners. And some regulations use the term “biodegradable” to specify what products are allowed – but some microbeads can biodegrade just slightly, which may allow their continued use.

If legislation is sought, “new wording should ensure that a material that is persistent, bioaccumulative, or toxic is not added to products designed to go down the drain,” the researchers wrote in their report.

“The probability of risk from microbead pollution is high, while the solution to this problem is simple,” they concluded.

All the authors on this study were funded by the David H. Smith Postdoctoral Research Fellowship Program, which works to develop science-based policy options for conservation and environmental issues. Other collaborators were from the University of Wyoming, University of California/Berkeley, Wildlife Conservation Society, College of William and Mary, and Georgia State University.

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(Editor's Note: A data error was printed in the sixth paragraph of an earlier version of this story that was publicly released. That error has been fixed and this version of the story is now accurate. OSU News and Research Communications regrets the error.)

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Microbeads

Tiny beads


Microplastic
Microplastic

First-ever discovery of a salamander in amber sheds light on evolution of Caribbean islands

CORVALLIS, Ore. – More than 20 million years ago, a short struggle took place in what is now the Dominican Republic, resulting in one animal getting its leg bitten off by a predator just before it escaped. But in the confusion, it fell into a gooey resin deposit, to be fossilized and entombed forever in amber.

The fossil record of that event has revealed something not known before – that salamanders once lived on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Today, they are nowhere to be found in the entire Caribbean area.

The never-before-seen and now extinct species of salamander, named Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae by the authors of the paper, adds more clues to the ecological and geological history of the islands of the Caribbean. Findings about its brief life and traumatic end – it was just a baby – have been published in the journal Palaeodiversity, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

“I was shocked when I first saw it in amber,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the OSU College of Science, and a world expert in the study of insects, plants and other life forms preserved in amber, all of which allow researchers to reconstruct the ecology of ancient ecosystems.

“There are very few salamander fossils of any type, and no one has ever found a salamander preserved in amber,” Poinar said. “And finding it in Dominican amber was especially unexpected, because today no salamanders, even living ones, have ever been found in that region.”

This fossil salamander belonged to the family Plethodontidae, a widespread family that today is still very common in North America, particularly the Appalachian Mountains. But it had back and front legs lacking distinct toes, just almost complete webbing with little bumps on them. As such, it might not have been as prolific a climber as some modern species, Poinar said, and it probably lived in small trees or tropical flowering plants.

This specimen, Poinar said, came from an amber mine in the northern mountain range of the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Santiago.

“The discovery of this fossil shows there once were salamanders in the Caribbean, but it’s still a mystery why they all went extinct,” Poinar said. “They may have been killed by some climatic event, or were vulnerable to some type of predator.”

Also a mystery, he said, is how salamanders got there to begin with. The physical evidence suggests the fossil represents an early lineage of phethodon salamanders that evolved in tropical America.

This fossil is 20-30 million years old, and its lineage may go back 40-60 million years ago when the Proto-Greater Antilles, that now include islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, were still joined to North and South America. Salamanders may have simply stayed on the islands as they began their tectonic drift across the Caribbean Sea. They also may have crossed a land bridge during periods of low sea level, or it’s possible a few specimens could have floated in on debris, riding a log across the ocean.

Such findings, Poinar said, help both ecologists and geologists to reconstruct ancient events of the Earth’s history.

“There have been fossils of rhinoceroses found in Jamaica, jaguars in the Dominican Republic, and the tree that produced the Dominican amber fossils is most closely related to one that’s native to East Africa,” Poinar said. “All of these findings help us reconstruct biological and geological aspects of ancient ecosystems.”

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Salamander in amber

Salamander in amber


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Artist's image of fossil

Toxic blue-green algae pose increasing threat to nation’s drinking, recreational water

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A report concludes that blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are a poorly monitored and underappreciated risk to recreational and drinking water quality in the United States, and may increasingly pose a global health threat.

Several factors are contributing to the concern. Temperatures and carbon dioxide levels have risen, many rivers have been dammed worldwide, and wastewater nutrients or agricultural fertilizers in various situations can cause problems in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

No testing for cyanobacteria is mandated by state or federal drinking water regulators, according to scientists from Oregon State University, nor is reporting required of disease outbreaks associated with algal blooms. But changes in climate and land use, and even increasing toxicity of the bacteria themselves, may force greater attention to this issue in the future, the researchers said.

An analysis outlining the broad scope of the problem has been published in Current Environmental Health Reports, by scientists from OSU and the University of North Carolina. The work was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation.

The researchers also noted that problems with these toxins reach their peak during the heat of summer – as they are doing right now.

In 2015, drought and low snow pack throughout the West has led to large and toxic algal blooms earlier than in previous years. Toxic blooms have occurred for the second consecutive year in the Willamette River near Portland, Ore., and Upper Klamath Lake and most of the Klamath River have health warnings posted.

In a related marine concern, all along the West Coast many shellfish harvests are closed due to an ongoing event of domoic acid shellfish poisoning, producing what is thought to be the largest algal bloom in recorded history.

Cyanobacteria are ubiquitous around the world, and a 2007 national survey by the EPA found microcystin, a recognized liver toxin and potential liver carcinogen, in one out of every three lakes that were tested. Some of the toxic strains of cyanobacteria can also produce neurotoxins, while most can cause gastrointestinal illness and acute skin rashes.

Exposure to cyanobacteria is often fatal to pets or wildlife that drink contaminated water, and there have been rare cases of human fatalities. Last year the drinking water supply was temporarily shut down in Toledo, Ohio, a city of 500,000 people, due to cyanobacterial contamination of water taken from Lake Erie.

“The biggest health concern with cyanobacteria in sources of drinking water is that there’s very little regulatory oversight, and it remains unclear what level of monitoring is being voluntarily conducted by drinking water utilities,” said Tim Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU Department of Microbiology, and lead author on the study.

“At this point we only have toxicology data for a handful of these toxins, and even for those it remains unclear what are the effects of chronic, low-dose exposures over a lifetime,” Otten said. “We know some of the liver toxins such as microcystin are probable carcinogens, but we’ve really scratched only the surface with regard to understanding what the health effects may be for the bioactive metabolites produced by these organisms.”

Otten referred to the “precautionary principle” of protecting human health before damage is done.

“In my mind, these bacteria should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and in drinking water treated as potential pathogens,” he said. “I think cyanobacteria should be approached with significant caution, and deserve better monitoring and regulation.”

The issue is complex, because not all cyanobacteria are a problem, and in fact they play many positive roles as primary producers in oceans and fresh waters. They are among Earth’s oldest life forms, and more than two billion years ago helped produce much of the oxygen that made much other life on Earth possible, including humans. But various strains of them have likely always been toxic.

Scientists said a concern is that nutrient over-enrichment may select for the more toxic populations of these bacteria, creating a positive feedback loop that makes the problem even worse.

Researchers said in their analysis that modern water treatment does a reasonably good job of making drinking water safe, but the lack of required or widespread monitoring remains a problem. No one should drink untreated surface water that may be contaminated by cyanobacteria, and another serious concern is recreational exposure through swimming or other water sports.

Cyanobacteria-associated illnesses are not required to be reported under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, as most pathogens are. This makes accurate assessments of the incidence and severity of adverse health outcomes difficult to determine.

A recent study identified 11 freshwater lake, algal-bloom associated disease outbreaks, and 61 illnesses from 2009-10, based on reports from New York, Ohio, and Washington. The most common symptoms were skin rashes and gastroenteritis. There were no fatalities.

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, and sea otter deaths in Monterey Bay have been attributed to them eating shellfish contaminated with microcystin that came from an inland lake.

Until better monitoring standards are in place, the researchers note, an unfortunate indicator of toxic algal bloom events will be illness or death among pets, livestock and wild animals that drink contaminated water.

One cannot tell visually if an algal bloom will be toxic or not, Otten said, and traditional microscopic cell counting and other approaches to assess risk are too slow for making time-sensitive, public health decisions. But the future holds promise. New DNA-based techniques can be used by experts to estimate health risks faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Cyanobacterial toxins are not destroyed by boiling. However, individuals concerned about the safety of their drinking water may use regularly-changed point-of-use carbon filtration devices that are effective in reducing these health risks.

People should also develop an awareness of what cyanobacteria look like, in a natural setting appearing as green, paint-like surface scums. They should avoid water recreation on a lake or river that has these characteristics, researchers said.

 

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Tim Otten, 541-737-1796

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Toxic algal bloom
Algal bloom

Fossils indicate human activities have disturbed ecosystem resilience

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A collection of fossilized owl pellets in Utah suggests that when the Earth went through a period of rapid warming about 13,000 years ago, the small mammal community was stable and resilient, even as individual species changed along with the habitat and landscape.

By contrast, human-caused changes to the environment since the late 1800s have caused an enormous drop in biomass and “energy flow” in this same community, researchers reported today in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The dramatic decline in this energy flow - a measurement of the energy needed to sustain the biomass of this group of animals for a given amount of time - shows that modern ecosystems are not adapting as well today as they once did in the past.

While climate change is one part of this problem, researchers at Oregon State University and the University of New Hampshire have found that changes in land cover have been far more important in the last century. A particular concern is the introduction and expansion of invasive, non-native annual grasses at the expense of native shrublands. The end result, they say, is the transformation of the Great Basin into an ecosystem that is distinct from its 13,000-year history.

The study is the first of its type to track an ecosystem-level property, energy flow, over many thousands of years, and is ultimately based on the study of owl vomit – little pellets of undigested bones, hair, and teeth that owls regurgitated over millennia into Homestead Cave near the Great Salt Lake. These pellets contain the remains of owls’ prey, mostly mammals that are smaller than a house cat.

“These owl pellets provide a really spectacular fossil record that allows us to track biologic changes continuously through thousands of years,” said Rebecca Terry, an assistant professor in the College of Science at Oregon State University.

“They show a dramatic breakdown in ecosystem behavior since the late 1800s, in a way that doesn’t parallel what happened when major climatic warming took place at the end of the last Ice Age,” she said. “The current state is driven by human impacts to habitat, and these impacts have been a stronger force in shaping the mammal community over the last century than just climate change.”

As the last Ice Age ended in this region, vast lakes dried up and vegetation made a transition from forests and sagebrush steppe to desert shrublands. But throughout these major environmental changes, Terry said, the “energy flow” stayed just about constant - as one group of animals would decline, another group would naturally rise and take its place.

Since the late 1800s, another episode of rapid warming is under way, but the reaction of the system has been different.

“Species distributions change over time, and that’s not necessarily bad in itself,” Terry said. “But this research shows that ecosystem level properties, which are often assumed to stay relatively stable even when perturbations happen, are now changing as well. The ecosystems are losing their natural resilience, the ability of one group of species to compensate for the loss of another.”

A major impact since the late 1800s has been the introduction of invasive cheatgrass that displaces native bunchgrass and desert shrub habitats, while increasing fire frequency, the researchers said. They show this invasion has also caused an observed shift in the composition and structure of the small mammal community, moving it toward small, grass-affiliated species, while larger shrub-affiliated species have declined.

Cheatgrass thrives on disturbance, and much of this region is now affected by this exotic annual grass. Many human activities have facilitated its spread, including livestock grazing which was historically intense, establishment of mining camps and railroads, and an increase in fires, the researchers said. The Great Basin is now one of North America’s most threatened ecosystems.

Research that merges both modern and prehistoric data can help inform modern conservation biology, the study’s authors said.

“For conservation and management it is important to understand when, how, and why the responses of animals today differ from times of environmental change in the past,” said Rebecca Rowe, an assistant professor of natural resources and the environment at the University of New Hampshire. “The fossil record allows us to do just that.”

Studies such as these provide a window into natural baselines prior to the onset of human impacts in the last century. The effects of human land use on ecosystems can then be separated from the forces of climate change today.

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Rebecca Terry, 541-737-3723

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Homestead Cave

Homestead Cave

Owl pellets

Owl pellet

Skeletal record

Skeletal record

View of “nature as capital” uses economic value to help achieve a sustainable future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers today outlined in a series of reports how governments, organizations and corporations are successfully moving away from short-term exploitation of the natural world and embracing a long-term vision of “nature as capital” – the ultimate world bank upon which the health and prosperity of humans and the planet depend.

The reports, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, suggest that significant progress has been made in the past decade, and that people, policy-makers and leaders around the world are beginning to understand ecosystem services as far more than a tree to cut or fish to harvest.

“Valuing nature means understanding the myriad ways in which our communities, health and economies depend on ecosystems,” said Jane Lubchenco, a distinguished professor at Oregon State University, former director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and co-leader of this group of studies.

“There is now broad appreciation of nature’s values and we are learning how to incorporate that knowledge into policy and management decisions by governments, financial institutions and businesses,” she said. “In 10 years we’ve gone from very little specific understanding to powerful examples, where working with nature is benefitting people now and in the future.”

The stakes are high. The world’s gross domestic product has increased nearly 60 times since the start of the Industrial Revolution, the researchers point out, allowing a dramatic increase in the standard of living even as Earth’s population surged.

But with global environmental threats in the future and a world population that may approach 10 billion by 2100, the health of nature will literally become a life-support system that no longer can tolerate short-term production and consumption at the expense of natural stewardship. Disasters such as the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill are being evaluated not just based on the immediate damage, but also the long-term costs such as lost water filtration, hunting and fishing.

Scientists say that just in recent years, we may be turning the corner toward approaches that could help the planet and all its natural inhabitants to live long and prosper.

In the U.S., some coastal restoration practices gained support as more people understood their additional value for carbon sequestration and storage. In Denver, a water board provided $32 million for forest restoration work to avoid damage to water quality caused by large wildfires.

Costa Rica has transformed itself from having the world’s highest deforestation rate to one of the few countries with net reforestation. South Africa has linked development and ecosystem service planning to better allocate water, reduce poverty and avoid disasters. China is creating a network of “ecosystem function conservation areas” that focus conservation in areas with a high return on investment. In the Brazilian Amazon, environmental protection has helped reduce the incidence of malaria, acute respiratory infection and diarrhea.

The researchers said that sometimes, but not always, it can help to literally translate ecosystem services into a dollar value – what something is worth, and what would it cost if we lost it. Such approaches have helped set the stage for cap-and-trade of carbon emissions, taxes on activities with negative ecosystem impacts, and certification systems to help inform consumers and realign incentives in the private sector.

One notable success story, outlined today in a different publication co-authored by Lubchenco in the journal Oceanography, is fisheries policy and marine management in the U.S. and European Union.

The approach incorporates a commitment to end overfishing, complete with time tables and strict accountability, plus the option of using rights-based approaches to fishery management. In the U.S., these are called “catch shares,” and they give fishermen a say in the present and a stake in the future, within scientifically determined limits. Catch shares, plus the mandate to end overfishing, are turning fisheries around, to the benefit of fishermen, consumers and ecosystems. 

This approach has transformed U.S. fisheries. For example, the number of overfished stocks in U.S. federal fisheries has plummeted from 92 stocks in 2000 to 37 in 2014.  The number of stocks that were previously depleted and have now recovered to a point where they can be fished sustainably has increased dramatically, from zero in 2000 to 37 in 2014.

Elsewhere in the world, other rights-based approaches to fisheries are also ending overfishing and protecting biodiversity.  For example, so-called ‘TURF reserves’ combine an exclusive right to fish in a particular area with no-take marine reserves.  Under this system, fully protected marine reserves provide a wide range of ecological benefits while helping to produce larger and more diverse fish species that can “seed” the areas around the reserve. Those areas can then be fished, using science-based harvest levels, by fishermen who have exclusive rights to certain areas, and gain a personal interest in protecting the sustainability of the system.

Such an approach can help protect natural systems in perpetuity while promoting economic health, and may be especially critical for food security in parts of the developing world, where nearly three billion people depend on fish for at least 20 percent of their animal protein intake.

“The challenges in fishery management are significant, but we also have good news to celebrate,” Lubchenco said. “We can end overfishing at the same time we return fisheries to profitability and sustainability.

“Much work remains to be done,” Lubchenco said. “Our global economic, political and social systems depend on the world’s natural resources, but many policy decisions do not yet explicitly incorporate natural capital into the decision-making process. However, these new results from around the world show what works. The real opportunity is widespread adoption of these ideas and approaches.”

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Jane Lubchenco, 541-737-5337

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Rice terraces
Rice terrace in China

Decades of research yield natural dairy thickener with probiotic potential

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Microbiologists at Oregon State University have discovered and helped patent and commercialize a new type of dairy or food thickener, which may add probiotic characteristics to the products in which it’s used.

The thickener is now in commercial use, and OSU officials say it may have a significant impact in major industries. The global market for polymers such as this approaches $7 billion, and there are estimates the U.S. spends up to $120 billion a year on probiotic products such as yogurt, sour cream and buttermilk.

The new product is produced by a natural bacterium that was isolated in Oregon. It’s the result of decades of research, beginning in the early 1990s when a novel polymer with an ability to rapidly thicken milk was discovered by an OSU microbiologist. The polymer is known as Ropy 352 and produced by a non-disease-causing bacterium.

“This is one of many naturally occurring, non-disease-causing bacterial strains my research program isolated and studied for years,” said Janine Trempy, an OSU microbiologist. “We discovered that this bacterium had a brand-new, never-before reported grouping of genes that code for a unique polymer that naturally thickens milk. In basic research, we’ve also broadened our understanding of how and why non-disease-causing bacteria produce polymers.”

This polymer appears to give fermented foods a smooth, thick, creamy property, and may initially find uses in sour cream, yogurt, kefir, buttermilk, cream cheese and artisan soft cheeses. Composed of natural compounds, it offers a slightly sweet property and may improve the sensory characteristics of low-fat or no-fat foods. And unlike other polymers that are now commonly used as thickeners, it may add probiotic characteristics to foods, with associated health benefits.

“There are actually very few new, non-disease-causing bacterial strains that produce unique polymers with characteristics desirable and safe for food products,” Trempy said. “In the case of a dairy thickener, for instance, a bacterium such as Ropy 352 ferments the sugar in the milk and produces a substance that changes the milk’s properties.”

These are chemical processes driven by naturally occurring bacteria that do not cause disease in humans, Trempy said, but instead may contribute to human health through their probiotic potential.

One of the most common polymers, xanthum gum, has been in use since 1969 and is found in a huge range of food products, from canned foods to ice cream, pharmaceuticals and beauty products. Xanthum gum is “generally recognized as safe” by the FDA, but is derived from a bacterium known to be a plant pathogen and suspected of causing digestive distress or being “pyrogenic,” or fever-inducing.

Trempy’s research program has determined the new polymer will thicken whole and non-fat milk, lactose-free milk, coconut milk, rice milk, and other products designed for use in either dieting or gaining weight. Beyond that, the polymer may have a wide range of applications such as thickening of pharmaceuticals, nutraceuticals, fruit juices, cosmetics and personal care products.

In their broader uses, microbial polymers are used for food production, chemical production, detergents, cosmetics, paints, pesticides, fertilizers, film formers, lubricants, explosives, pharmaceutical production and waste treatment.

OSU recently agreed to a non-exclusive license for the patented Ropy 352 technology to a global market leader for dairy starter cultures. It’s also available for further licensing through OSU’s Office of Commercialization and Corporate Development.

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Janine Trempy, 541-737-4441

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Food thickener
Dairy thickener

Licensing agreement reached on brilliant new blue pigment discovered by happy accident

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A brilliant new blue pigment – discovered serendipitously by Oregon State University chemists in 2009 – is now reaching the marketplace, where it will be used in a wide range of coatings and plastics.

The commercial development has solved a quest that began thousands of years ago, and captured the imagination of ancient Egyptians, the Han dynasty in China, Mayan cultures and others – to develop a near-perfect blue pigment.

It happened accidently.

OSU chemist Mas Subramanian and his team were experimenting with new materials that could be used in electronics applications and they mixed manganese oxide – which is black in color – with other chemicals and heated them in a furnace to nearly 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit. One of their samples turned out to be a vivid blue. Oregon State graduate student Andrew Smith initially made these samples to study their electrical properties.

“It was serendipity, actually; a happy, accidental discovery,” Subramanian said.

The new pigment is formed by a unique crystal structure that allows the manganese ions to absorb red and green wavelengths of light, while only reflecting blue. The vibrant blue is so durable, and its compounds are so stable – even in oil and water – that the color does not fade.

These characteristics make the new pigment versatile for a variety of commercial products. Used in paints, for example, they can help keep buildings cool by reflecting infrared light. Better yet, Subramanian said, none of the pigment’s ingredients are toxic.

OSU has reached an exclusive licensing agreement for the pigment, which is known as “YInMn” blue, with The Shepherd Color Company. It will be used in a wide range of coatings and plastics.

“This new blue pigment is a sign that there are new pigments to be discovered in the inorganic pigments family,” said Geoffrey T. Peake, research and development manager for The Shepherd Color Company. Commercial quantities of the pigment will be available later this year, he added.

The lack of toxic materials is critical, Subramanian pointed out, and a hallmark of the new pigment.

“The basic crystal structure we’re using for these pigments was known before, but no one had ever considered using it for any commercial purpose, including pigments,” Subramanian said.  “Ever since the early Egyptians developed some of the first blue pigments, the pigment industry has been struggling to address problems with safety, toxicity and durability.”

Another commercial use of the product – in addition to coatings and plastics, may be in roofing materials. The new pigment is a “cool blue” compound that has infrared reflectivity of about 40 percent – much high than other blue pigments – and could be used in the blue roofing movement.

“The more we discover about the pigment, the more interesting it gets,” said, Subramanian, who is the Milton Harris Professor of Materials Science in the OSU College of Science.  “We already knew it had advantages of being more durable, safe and fairly easy to produce. Now it also appears to be a new candidate for energy efficiency.”

In addition to testing the blue pigment for other applications, Subramanian is attempting to discover new pigments by creating intentional laboratory “accidents.” His original work was funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Who knows what we may find?,” he said.

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Mas Subramanian, 541-737-8235, mas.subramanian@oregonstate.edu

New zebrafish model should speed research on parasite that causes toxoplasmosis

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1e2jPlB

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have found a method to speed the search for new therapies to treat toxoplasmosis – by successfully infecting zebrafish with Toxoplasma gondii.

The findings were just published in the Journal of Fish Diseases, in work supported by the Tartar Foundation and the National Institutes of Health.

T. gondii, a protozoan parasite, can infect a wide range of hosts, and is one of the most prevalent parasites in the world. It has been estimated to infect about one-third of the human race. Treatment can be difficult because parasites often have biologic similarities to the hosts they infect.

Zebrafish have been found in recent years to be an excellent model for biomedical research because they reproduce rapidly, bear many similarities to human genetics and biological systems, and can be used in “high throughput” technologies to literally test hundreds of compounds in a fairly short period of time.

“This advance may provide a very efficient tool for the discovery of new therapies for this parasitic infection,” said Justin Sanders, an OSU postdoctoral fellow and lead author on the study. “With it we should be able to more easily screen a large library of compounds, at much less expense, and look at things that are unknown or have never been considered as a possible treatment.”

Although it infects many animals, T. gondii infection has never been observed prior to this in fish. But the OSU researchers found that by raising the temperature of the water in which zebrafish lived to a warmer-than-normal 98.6 degrees, or the temperature of a human body, they could become infected with the parasite but also survive.

T. gondii affects a wide range of mammals and birds, and cats are actually one of the most routine hosts,” said Michael Kent, a professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science. “It can cause congenital defects, which is one reason that pregnant women are told not to clean the catbox. Many people become infected for life. These chronic infections can cause serious eye disease and can be fatal to people with weakened immune systems.

“New therapies would clearly be of value, and now we have a better way to find them,” he said.

This work was done in collaboration with researchers from the University of Chicago, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Michael Kent, 541-737-8652

Disrupted biological clock linked to Alzheimer’s disease

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New research has identified some of the processes by which molecules associated with neurological diseases can disrupt the biological clock, interfere with sleep and activity patterns, and set the stage for a spiral of health concerns that can include a decreased lifespan and Alzheimer’s disease.

The research was published in Neurobiology of Disease by scientists from Oregon State University and the Oregon Health & Science University, in work supported by the National Institutes of Health.

Previous studies have shown that disruption of the biological clock – the natural pattern of day-night activity that’s genetically controlled in many animals – can cause neurodegeneration, loss of motor function and early death.

The newest results help outline the molecular mechanisms involved, and show how proteins associated with neurological disease can diminish the biological clock function and ultimately lead to very serious health problems, including severe cognitive deterioration. It also confirms that these risks increase significantly with age.

"The molecular basis underlying biological clock deficits in Alzheimer's disease has been difficult to tease out," said Matthew Blake, an OSU faculty research assistant and author of the study. "Only recently have we been able to utilize our model system to accurately dissect this mechanism."

This research was done with fruit flies, which have many genes and biological processes that are similar or identical to those of humans, retained through millions of years of evolution. Circadian clocks are so essential to health that they are found throughout the nervous system and peripheral organs.

Proper function of circadian rhythms has been shown to affect everything from sleep to stress reaction, feeding patterns, DNA repair, fertility and even the effectiveness of medications.

“Alzheimer’s disease has always been of interest in this research, because sleep disruption is one of its earliest symptoms, and almost everyone with Alzheimer’s has some sleep problems,” said Jadwiga Giebultowicz, corresponding author of this study, a professor in the Department of Integrative Biology in the OSU College of Science, and expert on the biological and genetic underpinnings of the biological clock.

“This research adds more support to the hypothesis that neurological damage is a circular process that, in turn, causes more disruption of the biological clock,” Giebultowicz said. “We’ve identified a new player in this process, a fragment of the amyloid precursor protein called AICD, that is able to enter the nucleus of cells and interfere with central clock function.”

One known cause of Alzheimer’s disease is cleavage of an amyloid precursor protein, which creates a peptide that’s toxic to neurons. An enzyme involved is elevated in Alzheimer’s patients. This study took that process further and showed that increased production of the enzyme, which in flies is called dBACE, reduced the expression of a core clock protein.

The results suggest that dBACE acts via dAICD to cause the disruption of the biological clock and loss of daily sleep and activity cycles. This disruptive process was much more severe in older flies.

“A general message from this is that normal day-night, sleep and activity cycles are important,” Giebultowicz said.

“There’s evidence that proper sleep allows neuronal repair activity and the maintenance of neuronal health,” she said. “Since neuronal damage is a destructive process that can build on itself once it begins, it’s important that sleep issues should be taken seriously by people and their doctors, especially as they age.”

Molecular clock oscillations decline with age, Giebultowicz said, and finding ways to help maintain or restore them might form the basis for a possible therapy to reduce or prevent the associated health problems.

Collaborators on this research included Eileen Chow in the Department of Integrative Biology at OSU, and Doris Kretzschmar at the Oregon Institute of Occupational Health Sciences, an international expert in the use of fruit flies as a model for neurodegenerative diseases.

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A mile deep, ocean fish facing health impacts from human pollution

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Deep-water marine fish living on the continental slopes at depths from 2,000 feet to one mile have liver pathologies, tumors and other health problems that may be linked to human-caused  pollution, one of the first studies of its type has found.

The research, conducted in the Bay of Biscay west of France, also discovered the first case of a deep water fish species with an “intersex” condition, a blend of male and female sex organs. The sampling was done in an area with no apparent point-source pollution, and appears to reflect general ocean conditions.

The findings have been published in Marine Environmental Research, by scientists from Oregon State University; the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in the United Kingdom; and other agencies. It was supported by the European Union.

The research is of particular interest, OSU researchers said, when contrasted to other studies done several years ago in national parks of the American West, which also found significant pollution and fish health impacts, including male fish that had been “feminized” and developed eggs.

“In areas ranging from pristine, high mountain lakes of the United States to ocean waters off the coasts of France and Spain, we’ve now found evidence of possible human-caused pollution that’s bad enough to have pathological impacts on fish,” said Michael Kent, a professor of microbiology in the OSU College of Science, co-author on both these research projects and an international expert on fish disease.

“Deep in the ocean one might have thought that the level of contamination and its biological impact would be less,” Kent said. “That may not be the case. The pathological changes we’re seeing are clearly the type associated with exposure to toxins and carcinogens.”

However, linking these changes in the deep water fish to pollution is preliminary at this time, the researchers said, because these same changes may also be caused by naturally-occurring compounds. Follow up chemical analyses would provide more conclusive links with the pathological changes and man’s activity, they said.

Few, if any health surveys of this type have been done on the fish living on the continental slopes, the researchers said. Most past studies have looked only at their parasite fauna, not more internal biological problems such as liver damage. The issues are important, however, since there’s growing interest in these areas as a fisheries resource, as other fisheries on the shallower continental shelf become depleted.

As the sea deepens along these continental slopes, it’s been known that it can act as a sink for heavy metal contaminants such as mercury, cadmium and lead, and organic contaminants such as PCBs and pesticides. Some of the “intersex” fish that have been discovered elsewhere are also believed to have mutated sex organs caused by “endocrine disrupting chemicals” that can mimic estrogens.

In this study, the health concerns identified were found in black scabbardfish, orange roughy, greater forkbeard and other less-well-known species, and included a wide range of degenerative and inflammatory lesions that indicate a host response to pathogens, as well as natural cell turnover. The fish that live in these deep water, sloping regions usually grow slowly, live near the seafloor, and mature at a relatively old age. Some can live to be 100 years old.

Partly because of that longevity, the fish have the capacity to bioaccumulate toxicants, which the researchers said in their report “may be a significant human health issue if those species are destined for human consumption.” Organic pollutants in such species may be 10-17 times higher than those found in fish from the continental shelf, the study noted, with the highest level of contaminants in the deepest-dwelling fish.

However, most of those contaminants migrate to the liver and gonads of such fish, which would make their muscle tissue comparatively less toxic, and “generally not high enough for human health concern,” the researchers wrote.

The corresponding author on this study was Stephen Feist at the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Weymouth, England.

In the previous research done in the American West, scientists found toxic contamination from pesticides, the burning of fossil fuels, agriculture, industrial operations and other sources, which primarily found their way into high mountain lakes through air pollution. Pesticide pollution, in particular, was pervasive.

Together, the two studies suggest that fish from some of the most remote parts of the planet, from high mountains to deep ocean, may be impacted by toxicants, Kent said.

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Testicle with egg
Trout testicle with egg