OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Sea star disease epidemic surges in Oregon, local extinctions expected

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Kristen Milligan, 541-737-8862

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Tracking potato famine pathogen to its home may aid $6 billion global fight

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The cause of potato late blight and the Great Irish Famine of the 1840s has been tracked to a pretty, alpine valley in central Mexico, which is ringed by mountains and now known to be the ancestral home of one of the most costly and deadly plant diseases in human history.

Research published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, by researchers from Oregon State University, the USDA Agricultural Research Service and five other institutions, concludes that Phytophthora infestans originated in this valley and co-evolved with potatoes over hundreds or maybe a few thousand years, and later spread repeatedly to much of the world.

Knowing the origin of the pathogen does more than just fill in a few facts in agricultural history, the scientists say. It provides new avenues to discover resistance genes, and helps explain the mechanisms of repeated emergence of this disease, which to this day is still the most costly potato pathogen in the world.

Potato late blight continues to be a major threat to global food security and at least $6 billion a year is spent to combat it, mostly due to the cost of fungicides and substantial yield losses. But P. infestans is now one of the few plant pathogens in the world with a well-characterized center of origin.

“This is immensely important,” said Niklaus Grunwald, who is a courtesy professor in the Department of Botany and Plant Pathology in the College of Agricultural Sciences at Oregon State University, a researcher with the USDA Agricultural Research Service, and lead author on the study.

“This is just a textbook example of a center of origin for a pathogen, and it’s a real treat,” Grunwald said. “I can’t think of another system so well understood. This should allow us to make significant headway in finding additional genes that provide resistance to P. infestans.”

Finding ways to genetically resist the potato late blight, scientists say, could help reduce the use of fungicides, and the expense and environmental concerns associated with them.

There had been competing theories about where P. infestans may have evolved, with the leading candidates being the Toluca Valley near Mexico City, or areas in South America where the potato itself actually evolved thousands of years ago.

Gene sequencing technology used by this research group helped pin down the Toluca Valley as the ancestral hot spot. The P. infestans pathogen co-evolved there hundreds of years ago with plants that were distant cousins of modern potatoes, which produced tubers but were more often thought of as a weed than a vegetable crop.

Today, the newly-confirmed home of this pathogen awaits researchers almost as a huge, natural laboratory, Grunwald said. Since different potato varieties, plants and pathogens have been co-evolving there for hundreds of years, it offers some of the best hope to discover genes that provide some type of resistance.

Along with other staple foods such as corn, rice and wheat, the potato forms a substantial portion of the modern human diet. A recent United Nations report indicated that every person on Earth eats, on average, more than 70 pounds of potatoes a year. Potatoes contain a range of vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, fiber and – for hungry populations – needed calories.

It’s believed that the potato was first domesticated more than 7,000 years ago in parts of what are now Peru and Bolivia, and it was brought to Europe by Spanish explorers in the late 1500s. A cheap and plentiful crop that can grow in many locations, the ability to increase food production with the potato eventually aided a European population boom in the 1800s.

But what the New World provided, it also took away - in the form of a potato late blight attack that originated from Mexico, caused multiple crop failures and led, among other things, to the Irish potato famine that began in 1845. Before it was over, 1 million people had died and another 1 million emigrated, many to the U.S.

That famine was exacerbated by lack of potato diversity, as some of the varieties most vulnerable to P. infestans were also the varieties most widely cultivated.

Collaborators on the research were from the University of Florida, the James Hutton Institute in Scotland, the University of the Andes in Colombia, Cornell University, and the International Potato Center in Beijing. It was supported by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Scottish government.

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Niklaus Grunwald, 541-738-4049

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Toluca Valley


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Potato relative


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Infected plant

Amber discovery indicates Lyme disease is older than human race

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Tick carrying spirochetes


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Spirochetes that carry lyme disease



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Rickettsia-like cells


Rickettsia Cretaceous tick (4)

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Humpback whale populations more distinct than previously thought

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new genetic study concludes that humpback whales in three different ocean basins are distinct from one another and are on independent evolutionary trajectories – and should be considered separate subspecies.

The research, led by scientists from the British Antarctic Survey and Oregon State University, is being published this week in Proceedings of the Royal Society B.

The new study builds on previous research led by Scott Baker at Oregon State and published in December 2013, which identified five distinct populations of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean. This latest study found that populations of humpback whales in the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere are more distinct than previously thought.

Lead author Jennifer Jackson, of the British Antarctic Survey, said that despite seasonal migrations by humpback whales of more than 16,000 kilometers, whale populations are more isolated from one another than previously thought.

“Their oceanic populations appear separated by warm equatorial waters that they rarely cross,” Jackson said. “But until this study, we didn’t realize the extent of long-term isolation between the North Pacific, the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere.”

Humpback whales are listed as endangered in the United States under the Endangered Species Act, but had recently been downlisted by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature on a global level, according to Baker, who is associate director of the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport, Ore.

However, two population segments recently were relisted as endangered by the IUCN – one in the Sea of Arabia, the other in Oceania (the South Pacific) – and it is likely that at least one of the newly identified populations in the North Pacific will be considered endangered, Baker pointed out.

The newest findings – that humpback whales in the world’s major ocean basins are genetically different – should change the way scientists and resource managers look at these animals, the researchers say.

“This has implications for how we think about conservation of humpback whales,” Baker said. “We now propose that oceanic populations should be recognized as subspecies. Within ocean basins, we would also recognize a number of ‘Distinct Population Segments’ – each of which has a different history of exploitation and recovery.”

The researchers gathered genetic samples from free-swimming humpback whales using a small biopsy dart and then analyzed both mitochondrial DNA inherited from the mother and nuclear DNA from both parents. Mitochondrial DNA enabled the researchers to trace the exchange of female humpback whales among the world’s oceans over the past million years; the nuclear DNA provided insight into male interchange and reproductive isolation.

“We found that although female whales have crossed from one hemisphere to another at certain times in the last few thousand years, they generally stay in the ocean of birth,” Jackson said. “This isolation means oceanic populations have been evolving independently on an evolutionary time scale.”

In addition to Jackson and Baker, the project team included researchers from Florida State University, James Cook University, University of Auckland, Fundacion CEQUA, Wildlife Conservation Society, the American Museum of Natural History and the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium.

The study was funded by the New Zealand Royal Society Marsden Fund and the Lenfest Ocean Program.

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Scott Baker, 541-867-0255 (cell phone: 541-272-0560), scott.baker@oregonstate.edu

Study finds Oregon’s most common fish at least three distinct species

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that the most common fish species in Oregon – the speckled dace – is actually at least three separate and distinct species.

The findings suggest that Oregon may have greater biological diversity in its native fish populations than previously recognized, said researchers at Oregon State University who led the study. The management implications for the discovery are not yet known.

Results of the study are being published this week in the journal Molecular Phylogenetics and Evolution.

The speckled dace is a small minnow that appears in ponds, rivers, springs, lakes and other waterways from Canada to Mexico. It is the most common fish in Oregon, meaning that it appears in more bodies of water than any other fish, the researchers say, yet little is known about its genetic makeup.

“For some reason, the speckled dace has never been fully investigated,” said Kendra Hoekzema, a faculty research assistant in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and lead author on the study. “Yet it varies greatly in genetics and morphology and now we’re finding that more than one species is out there in a small corner of Oregon.

“Who knows how many other species there might be?” she added. “The Great Basin has a lot of springs.”

The study began as a review of the Foskett Spring speckled dace which, as a listed federally threatened subspecies, must be investigated every five years. This particular dace has only been found in a single spring within Warner Valley in southeast Oregon, and as part of her study, Hoekzema collected speckled dace from surrounding basins, including the Warner system, Goose Lake, Lake Abert, Silver Lake and the Malheur River system, as well as Stinking Lake Spring on the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge.

DNA analysis led Hoekzema and co-author Brian Sidlauskas, an assistant professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at OSU, to determine that there are three “highly divergent” evolutionary lineages of speckled dace that warrant species-level status – the Malheur stream dace, Stinking Lake Spring dace, and dace from the other four basins combined.

“The speckled dace has been on the books for decades as one species and yet when we look at one small corner of Oregon, we find three distinct species,” Sidlauskas said. “Typically, when we think about new species being discovered, we think about some isolated part of the tropics. This is in our own backyard.”

“It goes to show both how much diversity may exist,” he added, “and how little we know about it.”

Hoekzema said the Stinking Lake Spring dace appeared to have branched off genetically some 2.5 million years ago, while the Foskett Spring dace – and perhaps others – became isolated just 10,000 years ago.

The researchers also recommended that the Foskett Spring dace should be listed as an “Evolutionarily Significant Unit” (ESU) and not a subspecies, a technical status change that would not necessarily affect how it is protected.

Paul Scheerer, a biologist with the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, has been working at Foskett Spring since 2005 evaluating population status, trends and habitat conditions. He and his colleagues became concerned, Scheerer said, that the speckled daces’ population was declining and that their habitat was shifting from open water vegetated habitat to emergent marsh.

The Bureau of Land Management, ODFW and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service conducted controlled burns of some of the vegetation in 2009 and then excavated new pools fed by the spring.

“Foskett speckled dace quickly expanded into the new pools,” Scheerer said, “and since then we’ve experienced a seven-fold increase in the speckled dace to about 13,000 fish. We also introduced dace into nearby, recently restored ponds to expand their abundance and reduce the risk of catastrophic loss.

“The OSU study results suggest there are more dace species out there than we previously knew,” he added. “It will allow us to adequately protect and enhance these unique fish into the future. The work by OSU is invaluable and will allow us to better understand the diversity of the fish fauna that has evolved in these isolated desert basins.”

The management implications on a broader scale are unclear, Sidlauskas said, because while the new species have been recognized as genetically distinct, their full geographic ranges are unknown. Nevertheless, the discovery of a distinct, unrecognized and possibly endemic species within the Malheur refuge underscores the importance of such areas, he added.

“This suggests that the refuge may harbor even more diversity than we knew and highlights the importance of preserving and valuing such wild places,” Sidlauskas said.

Although the minnows, which grow to a length of about three inches, don’t carry the iconic status of Northwest salmon or steelhead, they are important parts of the food web in many areas. Many species of fish-eating fish love them.

“Speckled dace are the bon-bons of the fish world for piscatorial fish,” Sidlauskas said, “and they are likely important prey for birds and other animals as well.”

The study was funded by the Bureau of Land Management, Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, and the OSU Research Office.

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Kendra Hoekzema, 541-737-6035, Kendra.hoekzema@oregonstate.edu; Brian Sidlauskas, 541-737-6789, brian.sidlauskas@oregonstate.edu

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Study of marine life near Newport finds no red flags for toxicity

NEWPORT, Ore. – Oregon State University scientists have examined a variety of coastal marine species near Newport, Ore., for concentrations of heavy metals and organic pollutants and found only trace amounts with no bioaccumulation of significant concern.

Their report is being presented May 19 to the City of Newport, which commissioned the study. It is available online at: http://www.thecityofnewport.net/

Newport city officials were concerned that effluent from a Georgia-Pacific containerboard plant outfall pipe, located some 4,000 feet off Nye Beach, may be exposing some marine life to contaminants. A 2010 study by CH2M-Hill looked for heavy metals in the surrounding water and sediments and found little with which to be concerned. Their study did not investigate marine organisms, however.

“There was some concern that metals and organic pollutants may be bioaccumulating in nearby marine life,” said Sarah Henkel, a marine ecologist at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and primary investigator on the study. “We tested for 137 different chemicals and only detected 38 of them – none at levels that remotely approach concern for humans.”

The City of Newport had asked the OSU researchers to look at a variety of species, including flatfish (speckled sand dab), crustaceans (Dungeness crab and Crangon shrimp), and mollusks (mussels and olive snails) because they could bioaccumulate metals and organic pollutants at different rates. The researchers collected a variety of samples in 2012 near the G-P outfall, as well as at sites north of Yaquina Head and south of Yaquina Bay. In fall of 2013, they also collected and analyzed rock scallops.

The organisms were analyzed for trace metals including copper and lead, polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs) and congeners, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which are used in flame-retardant materials, and other potentially carcinogenic compounds. They also were analyzed for organic-based compounds, which are commonly derived from pesticides.

Not a single organism was found with a bioaccumulation of metals or organic pollutants that approached levels of concern for humans established by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, the researchers reported.

“The system is pretty darn clean,” said Scott Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife and co-primary investigator on the study.  “I was certainly interested personally going into the study because my family goes crabbing in some of the places we sampled. If we had found anything, we would have had to come up with a new place. But we found nothing approaching the level of intervention for humans and that’s reassuring.”

The OSU researchers did find one area of potential future concern – trace levels of arsenic in mussels at sites both north and south of Yaquina Bay. The arsenic levels were still below the FDA level of concern for human consumption (86 parts per million), Heppell said, but in some cases exceeded the established level of concern for impacts to the mussels themselves, which is 3.6 ppm. Some of the samples analyzed by the researchers reached 5.0 ppm.

“It is still 15 times lower than the threshold for human concern, but there is potential for damage to the mussels themselves,” Heppell said. “It is also worth noting because the arsenic was in virtually all of the mussel samples we collected on beaches from Seal Rock to north of Yaquina Head. There is no way to draw a link to the G-P outfall.

“But because it was so common, it may be a good idea to study mussel populations up and down the entire coast to see what arsenic levels are at beyond our study area.”

Arsenic is often used in pressure-treated lumber and wood preservatives, the researchers noted.

Among other findings:

  • The researchers found three derivatives of dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane, or DDT, a pesticide that has been banned for 40 years. Although it was detected at very small amounts, “the fact that it is still present in organisms four decades later shows why it was banned,” Henkel said.
  • No significant bioaccumulation could be attributed to the G-P outfall. In fact, fish, crabs and shrimp collected from subtidal sites away from the outfall often had higher concentrations of metals than those adjacent to the pipe, though still at levels safe for human consumption.
  • Two DDT derivatives (2,4’-DDE and 4,4’-DDD) were found in a single crab sample. Another, hexochloro-benzene, was detected in just two crab samples – at concentrations some 10,000 times less than the toxicity level listed as potentially affecting the crabs themselves.

“It is worth noting that the instrumentation today is so sensitive it can detect trace amounts of compounds at concentrations not possible just a few years ago,” Heppell said.

The OSU researchers praised the City of Newport for seeking data that potentially could have been damaging, yet was important to know.

“This is one of those reports that, thankfully, turns out to be rather boring,” Henkel said.

Other researchers on the project included Selina Heppell, a biologist with the OSU Department of Fisheries and Wildlife; and OSU faculty research assistants Kristin Politano and Vincent Politano.

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Sarah Henkel, 541-867-0316, sarah.henkel@oregonstate.edu; Scott Heppell, 541-737-1086, scott.heppell@oregonstate.edu

White House appoints OSU’s Spinrad as NOAA’s chief scientist

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The White House announced today the appointment of Richard (Rick) Spinrad, the vice president for research at Oregon State University since July 2010, as chief scientist for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Spinrad will resign from his position as vice president and take a leave of absence from the Oregon State faculty to accept the NOAA appointment, which begins in July. He is a professor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences.

As NOAA’s chief scientist, Spinrad will help drive the policy and program direction for all science and technology priorities at the agency and advise NOAA Administrator Kathy Sullivan and agency program leaders on research matters.

“I am honored to be appointed to this position at such a critical time,” Spinrad said. “The issues that NOAA is addressing relate to natural hazards, resource management and the optimal application of research to solve problems. Being asked to help guide the agency’s scientific agenda is a humbling and exciting opportunity.”

OSU President Edward J. Ray praised Spinrad, and pointed to the long list of Oregon State faculty and administrators who recently have held high-ranking federal appointments, including former NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco and others.

“Rick Spinrad has provided exceptional leadership to the university’s research enterprise,” said OSU President Edward J. Ray. “He has successfully increased our research partnerships with industry, spearheaded the drive for a marine studies campus in Newport, and helped OSU secure a major grant to design and oversee the construction of as many as three new ships for the United States research fleet.

“We will miss his many contributions, but we know that he will make an outstanding addition to the NOAA administration.”

Under Spinrad’s leadership, the last fiscal year was OSU’s best ever in technology licensing as the university signed 88 new licenses with organizations in the fields of information technology, agriculture, industrial materials, biotechnology, forest products, healthy aging and manufacturing. OSU also received a record $7.7 million in licensing and royalty income, and research funding from the private sector reached $36 million – a 65 percent increase over the last five years.

A key component of OSU’s growth in industry partnerships under Spinrad was the launch of a new initiative in January 2013 called the Oregon State University Advantage, which is designed to boost the university’s impact on job creation and economic progress in Oregon and beyond. The program has increased access by private industry to OSU’s faculty and researchers and allows companies to take better advantage of the university’s unique capabilities.

Spinrad also played an integral role in the launch of the Regional Accelerator and Innovation Network known as Oregon RAIN and the selection of OSU – along with public and private partners in Alaska and Hawaii – to run a center to investigate the civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

He also was a member of the Corvallis Economic Development Commission.

“It was a difficult decision to leave OSU at this time,” Spinrad said. “Our success in research of late and the exciting prospects for the university’s future are testimony to the extraordinary skills and capabilities of our faculty, staff, students and administrators. I will watch OSU’s continued growth with a sense of confidence and pride in the university community.”

Before coming to OSU, Spinrad was assistant administrator for research at NOAA. He also has been the research director for the U.S. Navy; taught oceanography at two universities; directed a major national non-profit organization; was president of a private company; and worked as a research scientist.

Spinrad received his master’s (1978) and doctoral (1982) degrees in oceanography from OSU.

An interim vice president for OSU research will be appointed in the near future.

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Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662; rick.spinrad@oregonstate.edu; Steve Clark, 503-502-8217; steve.clark@oregonstate.edu

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OSU scientists part of national APLU report outlining research challenges

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The national Association of Public and Land-grant Universities released a report today outlining six “grand challenges” facing the United States over the next decade in the areas of sustainability water, climate change, agriculture, energy and education.

The APLU project was co-chaired by W. Daniel Edge, head of the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University. The report is available online at: http://bit.ly/1ksH2ud

The “Science, Education, and Outreach Roadmap for Natural Resources” is the first comprehensive, nationwide report on research, education and outreach needs for natural resources the country’s university community has ever attempted, Edge said.

“The report identifies critical natural resources issues that interdisciplinary research programs need to focus on over the next 5-10 years in order to address emerging challenges,” Edge noted. “We hope that policy-makers and federal agencies will adopt recommendations in the roadmap when developing near-term research priorities and strategies.”

The six grand challenges addressed in the report are: 

  • Sustainability: The need to conserve and manage natural landscapes and maintain environmental quality while optimizing renewable resource productivity to meet increasing human demands for natural resources, particularly with respect to increasing water, food, and energy demands.
  • Water: The need to restore, protect and conserve watersheds for biodiversity, water resources, pollution reduction and water security.
  • Climate Change: The need to understand the impacts of climate change on our environment, including such aspects as disease transmission, air quality, water supply, ecosystems, fire, species survival, and pest risk. Further, a comprehensive strategy is needed for managing natural resources to adapt to climate change.
  • Agriculture: The need to develop a sustainable, profitable, and environmentally responsible agriculture industry.
  • Energy: The need to identify new and alternative renewable energy sources and improve the efficiency of existing renewable resource-based energy to meet increasing energy demands while reducing the ecological footprint of energy production and consumption.
  • Education: The need to maintain and strengthen natural resources education at our schools at all levels in order to have the informed citizenry, civic leaders, and practicing professionals needed to sustain the natural resources of the United States.

 

Three other OSU researchers were co-authors on the report, including Hal Salwasser, a professor and former dean of the College of Forestry; JunJie Wu, the Emery N. Castle Endowed Chair in Resource and Rural Economics; and George Boehlert, former director of OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

Wu played a key role in the climate change chapter in identifying the need to better understand the tradeoffs between investing now in climate change adaptation measures versus the long-term risk of not adopting new policies.

Edge and Boehlert contributed to the energy chapter, which focuses primarily on renewable energy.

“The natural resources issues with traditional sources of energy already are well-understood,” Boehlert said, “with the possible exception of fracking. As the country moves more into renewable energy areas, there are many more uncertainties with respect to natural resources that need to be understood and addressed. There are no energy sources that do not have some environmental issues.”

Salwasser was an author on the sustainability chapter that identifies many issues associated with natural resource use, including rangelands, forestry, fisheries and wildlife and biodiversity. The authors contend the challenge is to use these resources in a sustainable manner meeting both human and ecosystem needs.

The project was sponsored by a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture to Oregon State University, which partnered with APLU and authors from numerous institutions.

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Dan Edge, 541-737-2810; Daniel.edge@oregonstate.edu

Scientists use DNA to identify species killed during early whaling days

NEWPORT, Ore. – For more than a hundred years, piles of whale bones have littered the beaches of South Georgia Island in the South Atlantic Ocean – remnants of a vast and deadly whaling industry in the early 20th century that reduced many populations of Southern Hemisphere whales to near-extinction.

This week, scientists announced they have used DNA from the bones to identify the species of whales killed at South Georgia, and to link the collection to a likely time period in the catch records. Their findings are being published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

The study represents the most comprehensive investigation of historic genetic diversity in whales from around the Antarctic region prior to commercial whaling. The researchers attempted to extract DNA from 281 whale bones and were successful in 82 percent of the cases.

Of the 231 samples they identified, the majority (158) were humpback whales. They also documented 51 fin whales, 18 blue whales, two sei whales, and one southern right whale. One of the bones turned out to be from an elephant seal.

“From a preliminary look at the DNA sequences, it appears that there was a high level of genetic diversity in these whales, which is what we’d expect from pre-exploitation samples,” said Angela Sremba, a doctoral student in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife at Oregon State University and lead author on the study.

“The DNA from the bones has been surprisingly well-preserved, but it is important to capture this information now because the bones are susceptible to further degradation and contamination with age.”

The first commercial whaling station was established on South Georgia in 1904 and more than 175,000 whales were killed during the ensuing 60 years. During the first 10 years of whaling on the island, floating factories – large converted ships anchored in the harbors – were used to process the whales and workers discarded the carcasses into harbors. Many of the bones drifted ashore and remain there today.

Beginning in 1913, the processing of whales caught from the surrounding area shifted primarily to land and became so efficient that even the bones were destroyed. Sremba believes most of the whale bones in the study are from the early period of whaling on the island, from 1904-13.

“The species composition of the bone collection is quite similar to catch records during that time,” she said.

Scott Baker, associate director of Oregon State’s Marine Mammal Institute and co-author on the paper, said whale populations still have not recovered in the Southern Ocean despite an abundance of food.

“The waters around South Georgia Island were productive feeding grounds for great whales before whaling,” Baker said, “yet they have not returned here in any numbers despite nearly 50 years of protection. That suggests the possibility that the local population was extirpated, resulting in the loss of some cultural knowledge about the habitat.”

Sremba, who is based at OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center in Newport with Baker, said knowledge of the whales’ genetic diversity captured from these bones is invaluable.

“This unique resource will allow us to compare historical genetic diversity to contemporary populations to assess the potential impact of the 20th-century commercial whaling industry,” she said.

Sremba’s study was supported by a Mamie Markham Research Award through the Hatfield Marine Science Center.

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Angela Sremba, 541-867-0384; Scott Baker, 541-272-0560

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Antarctic blue whale ((Photo courtesy of Paul Ensor, with assistance from Canon NZ Community Sponsorship Programme))

Study finds only trace levels of radiation from Fukushima in albacore

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Albacore tuna caught off the Oregon shore after the Fukushima Daiichi power station in Japan was destroyed in a 2011 earthquake had slightly elevated levels of radioactivity but the increase has been minute, according to a newly published study.

In fact, you would have to consume more than 700,000 pounds of the fish with the highest radioactive level – just to match the amount of radiation the average person is annually exposed to in everyday life through cosmic rays, the air, the ground, X-rays and other sources, the authors say.

Results of the study are being published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

“You can’t say there is absolutely zero risk because any radiation is assumed to carry at least some small risk,” said Delvan Neville, a graduate research assistant in the Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics at Oregon State University and lead author on the study. “But these trace levels are too small to be a realistic concern.

“A year of eating albacore with these cesium traces is about the same dose of radiation as you get from spending 23 seconds in a stuffy basement from radon gas, or sleeping next to your spouse for 40 nights from the natural potassium-40 in their body,” he added. “It’s just not much at all.”

In their study, the researchers examined a total of 26 Pacific albacore caught off the coast between 2008 and 2012 to give them a comparison between pre-Fuskushima and post-Fukushima radiation levels. They discovered that levels of specific radioactive isotopes did increase, but at the most extreme level, they only tripled – a measurement that is only 0.1 percent of the radiocesium level set by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for concern and intervention.

The researchers tested samples of the albacore from their loins, carcass and guts and found varying levels – all barely detectable. The findings are still important, however, since this is one of the first studies to look at different parts of the fish.

“The loins, or muscle, is what people eat and the bioaccumulation was about the same there as in the carcass,” said Jason Phillips, a research associate in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the study.

The researchers next began looking at the radionuclide levels in different aged fish and found they were somewhat higher in 4-year-old albacore than in the younger fish. This suggests that the 3-year-old albacore may have only made one trans-Pacific migration, whereas the 4-year-old fish may have migrated through the Fukushima plume twice.

The majority of the 3-year-old fish had no traces of Fukushima at all.

Although it is possible that additional exposures to the plume could further increase radiation levels in the albacore, it would still be at a low level, the researchers pointed out. Additionally, as albacore mature at around age 5, they stop migrating long distances and move south to subtropical waters in the Central and West Pacific – and do not return to the West Coast of the United States.

“The presence of these radioactive isotopes is actually helping us in an odd way – giving us information that will allow us to estimate how albacore tuna migrate between our West Coast and Japan,” Neville said.

Little is known about the migration patterns of young albacore before they enter the U.S. fishery at about three years of age, Phillips said.

“That’s kind of surprising, considering what a valuable food source they are,” Phillips said. “Fukushima provides the only known source for a specific isotope that shows up in the albacore, so it gives us an unexpected fingerprint that allows us to learn more about the migration.”

Other authors were Richard Brodeur of NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, and Kathryn Higley, of the OSU Department of Nuclear Engineering and Radiation Health Physics. The study was supported by Oregon State University and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, with continued support from Oregon Sea Grant.

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Delvan Neville,541-602-8005, dnevill@gmail.com; Jason Phillips, 541-231-5021, ajasonphillips@gmail.com

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Jason Phillips