OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

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Scientists caution against exploitation of deep ocean

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The world’s oceans are vast and deep, yet rapidly advancing technology and the quest for extracting resources from previously unreachable depths is beginning to put the deep seas on the cusp of peril, an international team of scientists warned this week.

In an analysis in Biogeosciences, which is published by the European Geosciences Union, the researchers outline “services” or benefits provided by the deep ocean to society. Yet using these services, now and in the future, is likely to make a significant impact on that habitat and what it ultimately does for society, they point out in their analysis.

“The deep sea is the largest habitat on Earth, it is incredibly important to humans and it is facing a variety of stressors from increased human exploitation to impacts from climate change,” said Andrew Thurber, an Oregon State University marine scientist and lead author on the study. “As we embark upon greater exploitation of this vast environment and start thinking about conserving its resources, it is imperative to know what this habitat already does for us.”

“Our analysis is an effort to begin to summarize what the deep sea provides to humans because we take it for granted or simply do not know that the deep sea does anything to shape our daily lives,” he added. “The truth is that the deep sea affects us, whether we live on the coast or far from the ocean – and its impact on the globe is pervasive.”

The deep sea is important to many critical processes that affect the Earth’s climate, including acting as a “sink” for greenhouse gases – helping offset the growing amounts of carbon dioxide emitted into the atmosphere. It also regenerates nutrients through upwelling that fuel the marine food web in productive coastal systems such as the Pacific Northwest of the United States, Chile and others. Increasingly, fishing and mining industries are going deeper and deeper into the oceans to extract natural resources.

“One concern is that many of these areas are in international waters and outside of any national jurisdiction,” noted Thurber, an assistant professor (senior research) in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Yet the impacts are global, so we need a global effort to begin protecting and managing these key, albeit vast, habitats.”

Fishing is an obvious concern, the scientists say. Advances in technology have enabled commercial fisheries to harvest fish at increasing depths – an average of 62.5 meters deeper every decade, according to fisheries scientists. This raises a variety of potential issues.

“The ability to fish deeper is shifting some fisheries to deeper stocks, and opening up harvests of new species,” Thurber said. “In some local cases, individual fisheries are managed aggressively, but due to how slow the majority of the fish grow in the deep, some fish populations are still in decline – even with the best management practices.”

The orange roughy off New Zealand, for instance, is both a model of effective and conservation-based management, yet its populations continue to decline, though at a slower rate than they would have experienced without careful management, Thurber noted.

“We also have to be concerned about pollution that makes its way from our continental shelves into the deep sea,” he added. “Before it was ‘out of sight, out of mind.’  However, some of the pollution can either make it into the fish that we harvest, or harm the fishers that collect the fish for us. It is one of the reasons need to identify how uses of the deep sea in the short term can have long-term consequences. Few things happen fast down there.”

Mining is a major threat to the deep sea, the researchers point out in their analysis. In particular, the quest for rare earth and metal resources, which began decades ago, has skyrocketed in recent years because of their increased use in electronics, and because of dwindling or limited distribution of supplies on land. Mining the deep ocean for manganese nodules, for example – which are rich in nickel – requires machines that may directly impact large swaths of the seafloor and send up a sediment plume that could potentially affect an even larger area, the scientists note.

These mining resources are not limited to muddy habitats, Thurber pointed out. Massive sulfides present at hydrothermal vents are another resource targeted by mining interests.

“The deep sea has been an active area for oil and gas harvesting for many years,” he said, “yet large reservoirs of methane and other potential energy sources remain unexploited. In addition to new energy sources, the potential for novel pharmaceuticals is also vast.

“There are additional threats to these unique habitats, including ocean acidification, warming temperatures and possible changes to ocean circulation through climate change.”

The next step, the researchers say, is to attach an economic value to both the services provided by the deep sea – and the activities that may threaten those services.

“What became clear as we put together this synopsis is that there is vast potential for future resources but we already benefit greatly through this environment,” Thurber said. “”What this means is that while the choices to harvest or mine will be decided over the coming decades, it is important to note that the stakeholders of this environment represent the entire world’s population.”

“The Bible, the Koran, the Torah, and early Greek texts all reference the deep sea,” he added. “Maybe it’s time for all of us to take a closer look at what it has to offer and decide if and how we protect it.”

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Andrew Thurber, 541-737-4500; athurber@coas.oregonstate.edu

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Strategies identified to improve oral contraceptive success with obese women

PORTLAND, Ore. – The findings of a new study suggest two ways to effectively address the problem that birth control pills may not work as well in obese women, compared to women of a normal body mass index.

Birth control pills are a one-size-fits-all method, researchers say, but as the population has increased in weight, concern has grown about how well the pill works for obese women. Studies have consistently found that obesity has a negative impact on drug levels in the body, which may in turn affect how well the pill prevents pregnancy. 

“Birth control pills have been shown in a large population study to fail at a higher rate in women who are obese,” said Ganesh Cherala, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy.

“Our original studies were focused on why this might occur,” Cherala said, “and we found that obesity changes how a woman’s body clears contraceptive hormones.”

It takes longer for the pill to reach a steady state level in obese women, with possible impacts on efficacy of the birth control, and putting them at greater risk for a pill failure if they forget to take a pill or take it later.

In order to offset these changes, Cherala and Dr. Alison Edelman, an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Oregon Health & Science University, studied two alternative strategies. They found that either a slight increase in the pill dose, from a very low dose to a low dose pill; or using the pill continuously without a “period week” off, appeared to counteract the changes that obesity causes.

This, in turn, may provide improved pregnancy prevention for women of differing weights who use the pill, the researchers said. Their work is published in Contraception, a professional journal, and was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

“Since oral contraception remains one of the most popular forms of birth control in the United States and the majority of our population is obese or overweight, it’s important to find methods of contraception that work for all women, no matter what their weight,” Edelman said.

“The strategies that we studied can be, and are currently being used by women, but now we know that they help to counteract the adverse effects of weight on contraceptive hormones,” she said.

For obese women, simply shifting to an alternative form of birth control is an option, the researchers said. But they also pointed out that oral contraceptives are the most preferred form of birth control and that a woman’s individual preference influences her adherence and continuation with any method.

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Ganesh Cherala, 503-418-0447

Synchronization of North Atlantic, North Pacific preceded abrupt warming, end of ice age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Scientists have long been concerned that global warming may push Earth’s climate system across a “tipping point,” where rapid melting of ice and further warming may become irreversible – a hotly debated scenario with an unclear picture of what this point of no return may look like.

A newly published study by researchers at Oregon State University probed the geologic past to understand mechanisms of abrupt climate change. The study pinpoints the emergence of synchronized climate variability in the North Pacific Ocean and the North Atlantic Ocean a few hundred years before the rapid warming that took place at the end of the last ice age about 15,000 years ago.

The study suggests that the combined warming of the two oceans may have provided the tipping point for abrupt warming and rapid melting of the northern ice sheets.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, appear this week in Science.

This new discovery by OSU researchers resulted from an exhaustive 10-year examination of marine sediment cores recovered off southeast Alaska where geologic records of climate change provide an unusually detailed history of changing temperatures on a scale of decades to centuries over many thousands of years.

“Synchronization of two major ocean systems can amplify the transport of heat toward the polar regions and cause larger fluctuations in northern hemisphere climate,” said Summer Praetorius, a doctoral student in marine geology at Oregon State and lead author on the Science paper. “This is consistent with theoretical predictions of what happens when Earth’s climate reaches a tipping point.”

“That doesn’t necessarily mean that the same thing will happen in the future,” she pointed out, “but we cannot rule out that possibility.”

The study found that synchronization of the two regional systems began as climate was gradually warming. After synchronization, the researchers detected wild variability that amplified the changes and accelerated into an abrupt warming event of several degrees within a few decades.

“As the systems become synchronized, they organized and reinforced each other, eventually running away like screeching feedback from a microphone,” said Alan Mix, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the paper. “Suddenly you had the combined effects of two major oceans forcing the climate instead of one at a time.”

“The example that we uncovered is a cause for concern because many people assume that climate change will be gradual and predictable,” Mix added. “But the study shows that there can be vast climate swings over a period of decades to centuries. If such a thing happened in the future, it could challenges society’s ability to cope.”

What made this study unusual is that the researchers had such a detailed look at the geologic record. While modern climate observations can be made every day, the length of instrumental records is relatively short – typically less than a century. In contrast, paleoclimatic records extend far into the past and give good context for modern changes, the researchers say. However, the resolution of most paleo records is low, limited to looking at changes that occur over thousands of years.

In this study, the researchers examined sediment cores taken from the Gulf of Alaska in 2004 during an expedition led by Mix. The mountains in the region are eroding so fast that sedimentation rates are “phenomenal,” he said. “Essentially, this rapid sedimentation provides a ‘climate tape recorder’ at extremely high fidelity.”

Praetorius then led an effort to look at past temperatures by slicing the sediment into decade-long chunks spanning more than 8,000 years – a laborious process that took years to complete. She measured ratios of oxygen isotopes trapped in fossil shells of marine plankton called foraminifera. The isotopes record the temperature and salinity of the water where the plankton lived.

When the foraminifera died, their shells sank to the sea floor and were preserved in the sediments that eventually were recovered by Mix’s coring team.

The researchers then compared their findings with data from the North Greenland Ice Core Project to see if the two distinct high-latitude climate systems were in any way related.

Most of the time, the two regions vary independently, but about 15,500 years ago, temperature changes started to line up and then both regions warmed abruptly by about five degrees (C) within just a few decades. Praetorius noted that much warmer ocean waters likely would have a profound effect on northern-hemisphere climates by melting sea ice, warming the atmosphere and destabilizing ice sheets over Canada and Europe.

A tipping point for climate change “may be crossed in an instant,” Mix noted, “but the actual response of the Earth’s system may play out over centuries or even thousands of years during a period of dynamic adjustment.”

“Understanding those dynamics requires that we look at examples from the past,” Mix said. “If we really do cross such a boundary in the future, we should probably take a long-term perspective and realize that change will become the new normal. It may be a wild ride.”

Added Praetorius: “Our study does suggest that the synchronization of the two major ocean systems is a potential early warning system to begin looking for the tipping point.”

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Summer Praetorius, 541-737-6159, spraetorius@coas.oregonstate.edu; Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, amix@coas.oregonstate.edu

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15-year analysis of blue whale range off California finds conflict with shipping lanes

NEWPORT, Ore. – A comprehensive 15-year analysis of the movements of satellite-tagged blue whales off the West Coast of the United States found that their favored feeding areas are bisected by heavily used shipping lanes, increasing the threat of injury and mortality.

The researchers note that moving the shipping lanes off Los Angeles and San Francisco to slightly different areas – at least, during summer and fall when blue whales are most abundant – could significantly decrease the probability of ships striking the whales. A similar relocation of shipping lanes in the Bay of Fundy off eastern Canada lowered the likelihood of vessels striking endangered right whales an estimated 80 percent.

Results of the study – which was supported by the Office of Naval Research, the National Geographic Society, the National Science Foundation, private gifts to the Oregon State University Marine Mammal Institute and others – are being published this week in the journal PLOS ONE.

The analysis is the most comprehensive study of blue whales movements ever conducted. It was led by researchers at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, who tracked the movement of blue whales off the West Coast to identify important habitat areas and environmental correlates, and subsequently to understand the timing of their presence near major ports and shipping traffic.

“The main areas that attract blue whales are highly productive, strong upwelling zones that produce large amounts of krill – which is pretty much all that they eat,” said Ladd Irvine, a researcher with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute and lead author on the PLOS ONE study. “The whales have to maximize their food intake during the summer before they migrate south for the winter, typically starting in mid-October to mid-November.”

“It appears that two of their main foraging areas are coincidentally crossed by shipping lanes,” Irvine added.

In their study, the researchers attached transmitters to 171 blue whales off California at different times between 1993 and 2008 and tracked their movements via satellite. Their study looked at seasonal as well as individual differences in whale distribution, documenting a high degree of variability – but also a strong fidelity to the upwelling zones that coincide with ship traffic to and from the major ports of Los Angeles and San Francisco.

Blue whales can grow to the length of a basketball court, weigh as much as 25 large elephants combined, and their mouths could hold 100 people, though their diet is primarily krill – tiny shrimp-like creatures less than two inches in length. The blue whale is the largest creature to ever inhabit the Earth, yet little was known about their range or where they went to breed until Oregon State’s Bruce Mate led a series of tracking studies featured in the popular 2009 National Geographic documentary, “Kingdom of the Blue Whale.”

An estimated 2,500 of the world’s 10,000 blue whales spend time in the waters off the West Coast of the Americas and are known as the eastern North Pacific population. The huge whales can travel from the Gulf of Alaska all the way down to an area near the equator known as the Costa Rica Dome.

The majority of the population spends the summer and fall in the waters off the U.S. West Coast, with the areas most heavily used by the tagged whales occurring off California’s Santa Barbara and San Francisco, which puts them in constant peril from ship strikes.

“During one year, while we were filming the documentary, five blue whales were hit off of southern California during a seven-week period,” said Mate, who directs the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore. “Blue whales may not be as acoustically aware as species that rely on echolocation to find prey and there is some evidence that the location of the engines in the rear of the ship creates something of an acoustic shadow in front of them, making it hard for whales to hear the ship coming.

“Putting some kind of noise deterrent on the ships isn’t really an option, however,” Mate added. “You don’t really want to drive endangered whales out of their prime habitat and best feeding locations.”

Moving the shipping lanes would not be unprecedented, the researchers note. Scientists brought concerns about right whale ship strikes in the Bay of Fundy to the International Maritime Organization, and the industry led the effort to modify shipping lanes in the North Atlantic more than a decade ago.

Daniel Palacios, also a co-author on the paper and a principal investigator with OSU’s Marine Mammal Institute, said vessel traffic between Santa Barbara and Los Angeles moved south of its current location in the past to comply with the California Clear Air Act, but shifted back to its current location after getting an exemption to the legislation.

“It is not often that research results are so applicable to a policy decision.” Palacios said, “It’s not really our place to make management decisions, but we can inform policy-makers and in this case it is pretty straightforward. You will eliminate many of the ship strikes on blue whales by moving the shipping lanes south of the northern Channel Islands.”

The solution for the San Francisco area is similar, the researchers note, though not quite as simple. Three separate shipping lanes are used in the region and all cross through the home range and core areas of blue whales tagged in this study.

“We did find that the northernmost shipping lanes crossed the area that was most heavily used by tagged whales,” Irvine noted. “Restricting use of the northern lane during the summer and fall when more whales are present is one option; another would be to extend one lane further offshore before separating it into different trajectories, minimizing the overlap of the shipping lanes with the areas used by blue whales.”

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is planning a review of shipping lanes in the southern California area, which will be informed by this study. A variety of stakeholders must be consulted, however, before any changes are implemented.

Other funding sources for this study over the years including the TOPP Program (Tagging of Pacific Pelagics), the OSU Marine Mammal Institute Endowment, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Packard Foundation, NASA, the U.S. Geological Survey, the National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Smithsonian Institution.

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Ladd Irvine, 541-867-0394, ladd.irvine@oregonstate.edu; Bruce Mate, 541-867-0202, bruce.mate@oregonstate.edu; Daniel Palacios, 541-990-2750, Daniel.Palacios@oregonstate.edu

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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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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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Antibiotic use prevalent in hospice patients despite limited evidence of its value

CORVALLIS, Ore. – New research suggests that use of antibiotics is still prevalent among terminal patients who have chosen hospice care as an end-of-life option, despite little evidence that the medications improve symptoms or quality of life, and sometimes may cause unwanted side effects.

The use of antibiotics is so engrained in contemporary medicine that 21 percent of patients being discharged from hospitals directly to a hospice program leave with a prescription for antibiotics, even though more than one fourth of them don’t have a documented infection during their hospital admission.

About 27 percent of hospice patients are still taking antibiotics in the final week of their life.

This raises serious questions about whether such broad and continued antibiotic use is appropriate in so many hospice cases, experts say, where the underlying concept is to control pain and protect the remaining quality of life without aggressively continuing medical treatment.

Additional concerns with antibiotic use, the study concluded, include medication side effects and adverse events, increased risk of subsequent opportunistic infections, prolonging the dying process and increasing the risk of developing antibiotic resistant microorganisms.

The findings were just published in Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy by researchers from Oregon State University and the Oregon Health & Science University. It was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

“Hospice care is very patient centered and in terminal patients it focuses on palliative care and symptom relief, not curative therapy,” said Jon Furuno, an associate professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy.

“It’s not for everyone, and it’s a serious decision people usually make in consultation with their family, nurses and doctors. These are tough conversations to have.

“Having decided to use hospice, however, the frequency and prevalence of antibiotic use in this patient population is a concern,” Furuno said. “Antibiotics themselves can have serious side effects that sometimes cause new problems, a factor that often isn’t adequately considered. And in terminally-ill people they may or may not work anyway.”

Issues such as this, Furuno said, continue to crop up in the evolving issue of hospice care, which is still growing in popularity as many people choose to naturally allow their life to end with limited medical treatment and often in their own homes. Hospice is covered by Medicare for people with a life expectancy of less than six months, helps to control medical costs and reduce hospital stays, and its services are now used by more than one third of dying Americans.

Unnecessary and inappropriate antibiotic use is already a concern across all segments of society, researchers said in the report, and more efforts are clearly needed to address the issue in hospice patients. The design of the study probably leads to it underestimating the significance of the problem, the researchers wrote in their conclusion.

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Jon Furuno, 503-418-9361

Review: Lead ammunition can be deadly, though mitigation may help

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The ingestion of lead ammunition and lead fishing tackle accounts for illness and mortality in more than 120 different species of birds in North America, according to a newly published review of scientific studies on the issue.

What impact that has at the population level for species is less clear, the researchers say, as is how to deal with the growing controversy over the use of lead for hunting and fishing. The lead issue is complex and steps to mitigate the impacts will be challenging – from cost and performance factors to manufacturing output – but they are possible, the authors point out.

“Although lead shot has been banned for waterfowl hunting in the United States since 1991, and in Canada since 1999, exposure to lead remains a problem for many bird species,” said Susan Haig, supervisory wildlife ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and lead author on the study. “However, we did find several examples of ways wildlife managers have helped reduce exposure of birds to lead.”

The review of scientific studies, conducted by biologists from several different institutions and agencies, was published in the July edition of the journal The Condor: Ornithological Applications. A companion perspective article, written by Clinton Epps, an associate professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University, examines the challenges of transitioning to non-lead ammunition.

In their papers, the researchers do not call for any policy changes, but they outline some of the challenges of reducing the use of lead and explore tactics that have been used to reduce lead exposure.

“Shifting to non-lead alternatives is a lot more complicated than some people think,” said Epps, who has hunted for more than 30 years. “Any efforts to shift hunters and fishermen from using lead needs to be well-informed and collaborative. Everyone concerned with this issue must be prepared to invest time, money, and expertise to work not only with hunters and fishermen, but with ammunition and tackle manufacturers.”

Epps has looked at copper bullets as one less-toxic alternative to lead and notes that they generally work well in modern firearms commonly used for big game hunting. However, effective non-lead alternatives have not yet been developed for all types of hunting firearms, he added.

In the review article, the researchers outline the availability of non-lead ammunition in October 2013 in 35 different calibers and 51 rifle-cartridge configurations at three major online retailers. Of the non-lead options sold by those retailers, only a small proportion was actually in stock: Cabela’s had non-lead ammunition in 18 percent of available sizes; Cheaper Than Dirt, 27 percent; and Bass Pro Shops, 10 percent.

“Non-lead bullets can be difficult to find in all calibers needed, but availability is improving,” Epps said. “Premium quality hunting ammunition costs about the same for lead-based and non-lead options, but I see a lot of people using the cheaper options, which invariably contain lead, so cost may be an issue – particularly for high-volume users.”

The physical properties of lead – including high density, low melting point, malleability and resistance to corrosion – have made it popular in the manufacturing of ammunition and fishing sinkers. However, many birds are sensitive to lead exposure, affecting the structure and function of kidneys, bones, the central nervous system and the blood system. Impacts range from lethargy and anorexia, to reproductive issues and death.

In their review, the researchers noted that lead has widely varying impacts.

  • One study of common loon carcasses found across six New England states found that about 23 percent (118 of 522) of the deaths were caused by ingestion of lead fishing tackle and ammunition;
  • California condors are extremely susceptible to lead poisoning and suffer significant mortality, yet a related species known as turkey vultures can survive with greater and longer exposure to lead;
  • Few studies have been done on population-level impacts of lead with the most complete studies conducted on waterfowl, where deaths from lead poisoning are estimated to be 2-3 percent overall, and 4 percent in mallard ducks.

A survey by the U.S. Geological Survey in 2013 found that 69,000 metric tons (a metric ton is about 2,204 pounds) of lead were used in the production of ammunition in the United States in one year. Annual estimates of lead fishing weights sold in the U.S. equal 3,977 metric tons.

Birds and other animals ingest lead in different ways, according to Haig. Loons, for example, were found to have swallowed lead sinkers and jigs, perhaps mistaking them for prey. Scavengers including condors and eagles often feed on carcasses of animals killed by hunters and cannot avoid incidental lead ingestion.

“Some birds use lead pellets or fragments as grit to aid in digestion after consuming it at hunting areas or shooting ranges,” said Haig, who is a courtesy professor of wildlife ecology at OSU. “Another potentially important lead source is recreational shooting of ground squirrels, which leaves lead-laced carcasses available to be eaten by golden eagles, Swainson’s hawks and other birds of prey.

“We found one estimate that more than 1.1 million ground squirrels were shot in one state during a one-year period,” she added. “It would be helpful to better understand what kinds of risk this poses to raptor scavengers.”

The review outlines some steps to reduce lead exposure to birds, including redistributing shot in the surface soil by cultivating sediments; raising water levels in wetlands to reduce access by feeding birds; and providing alternative uncontaminated food sources.

“Managers have found a number of ways to reduce the risk of lead exposure to birds while preserving the important role hunting plays in wildlife conservation,” Haig said.

One example cited involved Arizona Game and Fish working with other groups in that state on a voluntary approach to the issue.

“They formed a coalition to educate hunters about the negative effects of lead,” Haig pointed out. “The result was more than 80 percent compliance with voluntary non-lead ammunition use among hunters on the Kaibab Plateau and no birds were found with lead poisoning the following year.”

Other authors on the review include Jesse D’Elia, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; Collin Eagles-Smith, U.S. Geological Survey and OSU Fisheries and Wildlife; Garth Herring, U.S. Geological Survey; Jeanne M. Fair, Los Alamos National Laboratory; Jennifer Gervais, Oregon Wildlife Institute and OSU Fisheries and Wildlife; James W. Rivers, OSU Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society; and John H. Schulz, University of Missouri.

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Susan Haig, 541-750-0981, susan_haig@usgs.gov; Clint Epps, 541-737-2478, Clinton.epps@oregonstate.edu

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Figure 2 Magpie on carcass
magpie feedng on a carcass

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.

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

Video games could provide venue for exploring sustainability concepts

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Could playing video games help people understand and address global sustainability issues such as pollution, drought or climate change? At least two researchers believe so, outlining their argument in a concept paper published in the journal “First Monday.”

Video games have the potential to educate the public and encourage development of creative solutions to social, economic and environmental problems, said Oregon State University’s Shawna Kelly, one of the two authors of the article.

“Video games encourage creative and strategic thinking, which could help people make sense of complex problems,” said Kelly, who teaches new media communications in the School of Arts and Communication at Oregon State’s College of Liberal Arts.

“Entertainment has always been a space for exposing people to new ideas. Using video games, it’s possible to introduce sustainability concepts to the mass public in a way that’s not pedantic, that’s not educational,” Kelly said. “Instead, it could be fun and it could be challenging.”

Kelly wrote the paper with Bonnie Nardi, an anthropologist with University of California, Irvine's Department of Informatics, who studies sustainability, collapse-preparedness and information technology. 

Kelly and Nardi identified four key areas in which video games could support sustainable practices. The areas are:

  • Shift away from growth as the end goal of a game. Uncontrollable growth is unsustainable and asks little of players’ imaginations.
  • Emphasize scavenging instead of combat to collect resources. Encourage players to interact with their environment in creative ways instead of simply looking for targets.
  • Offer complex avenues for social interaction. Move beyond “us versus them” and focus on other types of social collaborations.
  • Encourage strategizing with resources such as scenarios that incorporate long-term consequences and interdependencies of resource use.

Some video games already are using some of the elements Kelly and Nardi recommend. Economics-based games such as “EVE Online” challenge players to strategize between their short-term personal resource demands and the long-term needs of a larger group of players, their corporation. “DayZ” is a combat simulation game that requires players to scavenge for resources and work with other players, deciding on their own which players are friends and which are enemies.

Those are the kinds of game mechanics that make video games fun and challenging, but those mechanics also could be used to encourage players to think about real problems related to sustainability, Kelly said.

The culture of video gaming rewards people for solving problems and coming up with unique solutions. There is a common interest and connection among players, and knowledge is easily shared via game-specific wikis, message boards, instant messaging and more, Kelly pointed out.

“There’s a huge set of people out there who love to problem-solve,” she said. “Why not harness that power that is already there?”

That doesn’t mean someone should go out and develop “The Sustainability Game,” Kelly said. While video games have proven to be a good educational tool, there is a sense that those who play video games for entertainment don’t want forced educational components, she said.

“The attitude is ‘don’t make me learn something,’ ” Kelly said. “Instead, make the problems accessible to the gaming community and see what emerges.”

Kelly plans to continue exploring the relationship between video games and sustainability through additional research supported by OSU’s New Media Communications department. She’s planning to conduct a systematic survey of the use of sustainability concepts in current video games during the 2014-15 school year using undergraduate student research assistants and resources from New Media Communications.

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