OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

New chemical could yield therapy to prevent Type 1 diabetes

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Oregon State University researchers have discovered a chemical that blocks Type 1 diabetes in laboratory mice and may work the same way in humans.

The chemical, nicknamed BBQ, works at the genetic level to prevent a rogue immune response from destroying insulin-producing cells in diabetic mice, researchers said.

If it works the same way in humans, it could yield a breakthrough therapy for Type 1 diabetes and possibly have applications in other autoimmune diseases as well, including colitis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis.

“This compound has a very targeted effect, and it’s safe at therapeutic doses in mice,” said Nancy Kerkvliet, a professor in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences and lead researcher on a new study just published in the Journal of Immunology.

“If it works in human clinical studies, we envision a therapy that could be started early to block the onset of Type 1 diabetes, and maybe even cure it in the long run,” she said.

Type 1 diabetes — sometimes called juvenile diabetes — causes the immune system to destroy insulin-producing cells in the pancreas. The disease often doesn’t show symptoms until the pancreas damage is irreparable, Kerkvliet said.

The body needs insulin to move food energy, in the form of glucose, from the bloodstream into tissues. Type 1 diabetics usually have to take artificial insulin for the rest of their lives. Among U.S. children up to age 19, the incidence of Type 1 diabetes has increased 21 percent from 2001-2009, according to a 2014 study in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

In the new research, Kerkvliet’s laboratory worked with mice bred to develop Type 1 diabetes, one group of which received BBQ three times a week. A control group of untreated mice developed diabetes, while the BBQ-treated mice were protected from disease.

The treated mice showed virtually no inflammation in their pancreatic “islets” — the pockets of cells in the pancreas that make insulin, Kerkvliet said. Inflammation of these islets is a telltale sign of the disease. In contrast, all of the control mice showed extensive islet inflammation.

Researchers say that BBQ works by binding to a protein within cells called the aryl hydrocarbon receptor, or AhR, which then regulates genes that influence immune responses.

After the BBQ locks onto the AhR, it moves into the nucleus of T cells — white blood cells that coordinate the body’s immune response. There, AhR latches onto the DNA and changes the messaging of the genes, which prevents the T cell from attacking the pancreatic islets.

Allison Ehrlich, a postdoctoral fellow in the Kerkvliet Laboratory and co-researcher on the study, said the beauty of BBQ is that it works without shutting down the rest of the immune system, unlike current steroid-based immunosuppressants.

Erlich said that T cells are born “naïve,” and “learn” to attack harmful pathogens. As this happens, the cells become more specialized — a process called differentiation.

“When BBQ binds to the AhR, it stops new T cells from differentiation,” Ehrlich said. “The ‘memory’ T cells, those that already exist, aren’t affected. So the body stays protected against pathogens it has been exposed to in the past.”

In earlier studies, Kerkvliet discovered that the chemical TCDD — better known as dioxin — also binds to AhR and prevents Type 1 diabetes in mice. But dioxin is not a good candidate for an immune-suppression therapy, she said, because it lingers in the body for years after exposure and is considered a toxic chemical.

“So we went looking for another compound that would function in the same way but without the bad effects,” said co-researcher Siva Kolluri. After screening tens of thousands of chemicals, Kolluri’s laboratory hit upon BBQ. Unlike dioxin, BBQ has a good safety profile, he said.

Kerkvliet said BBQ also has potential for treating other autoimmune diseases such as colitis, psoriasis and multiple sclerosis. It holds promise for alleviating graft-versus-host disease by suppressing the immune response in, for example, organ-transplant surgery.

The study was funded by the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences, National Institutes of Health and appears in the January 2016 issue of The Journal of Immunology.

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Nancy Kerkvliet, 541-737-4387, nancy.kerkvliet@oregonstate.edu

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Nancy Kerkvliet, Oregon State University immunotoxicologist, researches chemicals that suppress the immune system. Photo by Stephen Ward.
Nancy Kerkvliet, Oregon State University

Exercise DVDs could be psychologically harmful for users

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Using fitness DVDs to work out at home may seem like a good way to get started on new exercise goals this year, but those DVDs may also include negative imagery and demotivating language.

A study of 10 popular commercial exercise DVDs showed that the imagery in the fitness videos may be perpetuating and reinforcing hyper-sexualized and unrealistic body images, said Brad Cardinal, a kinesiology professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at Oregon State University. 

In addition, researchers found that one in every seven motivational statements on the DVDs was actually a demotivating statement that could reduce the effectiveness of the workout, diminish the user’s hope and potentially cause psychological harm, said Cardinal, the lead author of the study.

“These findings raise concerns about the value of exercise DVDs in helping people develop and commit to a workout program,” said Cardinal, who is a national expert on the benefits of physical activity. “There are a lot of exaggerated claims through the imagery and language of ‘do this and you’ll look like me.’ ” 

The findings are being published in the latest issue of the Sociology of Sport Journal. Co-authors of the study are: OSU graduate students Kim A. Rogers, Brian Kuo, Rosalee L. Locklear and Katelyn E. Comfort; and Professor Marita K. Cardinal of Western Oregon University.

Fitness DVDs are a $250 million a year industry but there is no scientific evidence about their safety and effectiveness or the accuracy of the information contained in them, and the industry is largely unregulated, Cardinal said. 

For the study, the researchers reviewed 10 popular, instructor-led fitness DVDs, evaluating both the imagery used in the videos as well as the motivational language used by the instructors. The goal was to better understand the visual and auditory messaging and how it might affect users.

Researchers found that most of the instructors and models were slim, female and white, and they typically wore revealing attire. That sends a subtle message about what people who are fit should look like, Cardinal said. This perpetuates objectification of the female body in particular and emphasizes physical appearance as opposed to improved health, he said.

The researchers also found that a quarter of the language used by instructors was motivational, but one of every seven motivational statements was considered negative. Negative statements included phrases such as “say hello to your sexy six-pack,” “you better be sweating,” and “you should be dying right now.” 

 

Those kinds of phrases focus on outcomes, encourage social comparison, and don’t take into account individual differences in health or fitness, Cardinal said. “Tough love” phrases and strategies can also have a harmful effect because they can lead to injuries or other adverse health outcomes, he said.

Such messages could be particularly harmful to users who are turning to exercise DVDs to start a new fitness routine or who are uncomfortable in a gym or fitness class setting, Cardinal said. The exercise videos were marketed to novice exercisers while the movement skills tended to be designed for intermediate or advanced levels of fitness, and the instructors’ verbal messages sometimes taunted observers to keep up. 

“You’re inviting into your home these images and messages that could make you feel bad about yourself, and ultimately hinder your efforts to improve your health,” he said. “If the experience is not positive, the likelihood the person is going to continue with an exercise program diminishes.”

Cardinal urged potential fitness DVD consumers to be mindful of the potential pitfalls of the product when selecting and using exercise videos. 

“Buyers should beware when making these purchases,” he said. “Remember that we all have different body shapes and styles, and our bodies may respond differently to the exercises being shown. Don’t expect to get the same results as what you see on the screen or compare yourself to others.”

The findings indicate that there is a need to further study commercial fitness DVDs, Cardinal said. Along with the language and imagery used in the videos, researchers should consider studying the effectiveness and safety of the types of exercises and techniques used, he said. In addition, many of the instructors appear to have little or no credentials in fitness instruction, he said. 

“We don’t think the videos are very psychologically safe,” Cardinal said. “There are also questions about some of the exercises, which could lead to injuries and pose a real danger to the user.”

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Brad Cardinal, 541-737-2506, brad.cardinal@oregonstate.edu

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Brad Cardinal

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Injuries among Dungeness crab fishermen examined

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Commercial Dungeness crab fishing on the West Coast is one of the highest risk occupations in the United States, based on fatality rates. But non-fatal injuries in the fishery appear to go largely unreported, a new study from Oregon State University shows.

While the fatality rates in the Dungeness crab fleet have been reported in the past, the incidence of non-fatal injuries have not been previously studied, said Laurel Kincl, an assistant professor of environmental and occupational health and safety in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

“The commercial Dungeness fishing fleet, which operates along the coast of Oregon, Washington and Northern California, is a vital economic commodity,” she said. “Injuries can be life-threatening and life-altering, leading to disability, decreased quality of life and lost wages.”

Understanding the type and nature of fatalities and injuries, including describing and categorizing the types of injuries, is the first step in identifying safety issues and pinpointing areas for prevention, she said.

Kincl and a team of researchers examined 12 years of death and injury data, and found that 28 people died while commercially fishing for Dungeness crab from 2002-2014. In that same period, 45 injuries were reported to the U.S. Coast Guard.

The fatality rate among Dungeness crab fishermen is several times higher than the national rate for commercial fishing. But the injury rate among Dungeness fishermen is much lower than injury rates in other commercial fishing fleets that have been studied.

“Fatal injuries are tracked in a national system, but non-fatal injuries are not,” Kincl said. “We knew there was likely underreporting, but we had no idea how low the injury numbers were until now.”

The findings, published in the latest issue of the journal International Maritime Health, are the first step to better understanding fishing injuries among Dungeness crab fishermen. The research is part of an OSU-led research project to identify and reduce the risks of injuries in the industry, Kincl said.

The Fishermen Led Injury Prevention Program, or FLIPP, is designed to take a new approach to fishing industry injury prevention by working with commercial Dungeness crab fishermen to identify and reduce injury risks. The project is supported by a three-year, $825,000 grant from the National Institutes for Occupational Safety and Health. Kincl is the principal investigator.

The lead author of the paper, Samantha Case, is a researcher in the NIOSH office in Alaska. Other co-authors are OSU Associate Professor Viktor Bovbjerg; OSU doctoral student Laura Syron and Devin Lucas, who earned his doctorate at OSU and works at NIOSH.

The researchers found that the majority of the fatalities, about 71 percent, occurred during vessel disasters, such as boats capsizing or sinking. The other deaths were the result of a fisherman drowning or falling overboard. Fractures were the most commonly reported injury, at 40 percent, followed by hypothermia, lacerations and digit amputations.

Working with Oregon Sea Grant and community researchers in local fishing communities, Kincl and her colleagues are meeting with focus groups of fishermen and surveying fishing crews along the Pacific coast to learn more about safety and injuries in the industry.

“No one has ever gone up and down the coast and learned from the fishermen,” Kincl said. “What are they doing to stay safe? Are there things that can be improved? How can we share that information among the various crews?”

By the end of the project, researchers plan to come up with and test several interventions that could help reduce injuries among crab fishermen.

“We want to identify some things that might work, but we don’t want to tell them what to do,” Kincl said. “We want to let them decide what would be most helpful.”

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Laurel Kincl, 541-737-1445, Laurel.kincl@oregonstate.edu

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Crab pots on the Oregon Coast

 

Public Health and Sea Grant

Researcher Laurel Kincl

Laurel Kincl Lab

Water deficits and rising temperatures increase stress on Pacific Northwest forests

CORVALLIS, Ore. — Rising temperatures and late summer dryness are teaming up to push some types of forests beyond their ability to cope with stress, according to a new analysis of forest response to climate change across the Pacific Northwest.

Particularly vulnerable forests include those in drier areas such as the east side of the Cascade Range, the Blue Mountains and the Rocky Mountains of northeast Washington. High-elevation forests in these areas are poorly adapted to increasingly hot, dry conditions. Sensitive species include lodgepole pine, subalpine fir, spruce and mountain hemlock.

Over the last decade, increasing stress has peaked in August and September as greater water deficits and rising temperatures combined to affect forests across the region. This has created conditions potentially lethal to trees in some highly vulnerable areas, according to a report published this week in the journal Remote Sensing of Environment.

In those two months, the region’s extensive Douglas-fir forests saw an increase in the area subject to stressful conditions, from about 1 percent in August to almost 8 percent in September, said David Mildrexler, a doctoral student in the Oregon State University College of Forestry, and lead author of the report. Areas of high Douglas-fir vulnerability were largely concentrated in the southern portion of the Oregon Coast Range and western Cascade Range.

In ponderosa pine forests, the area of vulnerability rose from 5 percent in August to 33 percent in September. These forests are more adapted to drought but could be affected if prolonged stress continues.

Instead of focusing on air temperatures — the numbers commonly heard in daily weather reports — the analysis uses the actual temperature of surfaces, such as leaves and soil. Trees cool themselves by pumping water from the ground through their leaves, much as humans reduce heat stress by sweating on a hot summer day.

When moisture is lacking, that natural air conditioning shuts down.

“As soon as that stops, the canopy starts to heat up,” Mildrexler said. “When there is no water available to cool the leaves, at about 104 degrees Fahrenheit photosynthesis starts to decline in many plant species. At about 122 degrees, we start seeing effects that are lethal, even with fairly short time exposure. Higher temperature droughts really start to stress trees fast. And it’s projected to get much worse in the future, pushing more forests to the edge.

“You don’t see many places on Earth where forests get that hot,” he said. “It’s why forests are so important for cooling the Earth. With their deep roots that can access groundwater, forests help regulate high temperatures in the summer. The increasing dieback of forests globally is very concerning for this reason.”

In their analysis, Mildrexler and his colleagues tracked the month-to-month difference between water availability and surface temperature starting in 2003, using data from the Terra and Aqua satellites launched by NASA. These two satellites generate images of the entire Earth’s surface every day.

The scientists created a mathematical model — what they call the forest vulnerability index — that captures the relationship between water and temperature trends from one month to the next. In the Pacific Northwest, late-summer stress shows up clearly across the region.

In areas where seasonal dryness occurs regularly, forests have evolved mechanisms to cope with these conditions. Drought in the West isn’t that unusual, but the combination with higher surface temperatures makes this trend a concern, said Mildrexler.

By providing a way to monitor forest stress, the research will help managers in government agencies and private companies focus their efforts on vulnerable areas. Among the options that forest managers can pursue are removal of less drought-tolerant species such as grand fir from drier forests, and prescribed burning to improve fire- and drought-adapted stands.

Other actions include improving water retention in soils, retaining streamside vegetation and restoring beavers, whose dams can raise water tables and retain summer water flows.

“This monitoring method allows managers to better prioritize their activities,” Mildrexler said. “Right now, it isn’t always so clear, but we’re showing where on the landscape vulnerability is increasing and how it varies in each forest type. There is a lot of forest land out there, and the Forest Service has limited budgets for treatments across the landscape, so there’s a real need to get the maximum benefit for what they are doing.”

Co-authors of the Remote Sensing of Environment report include Zhiqiang Yang in the OSU College of Forestry and Warren B. Cohen and David M. Bell in the Pacific Northwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service.

 

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David Mildrexler, 541-786-9354

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OSU study: Packaging insecticides in tiny capsules may make them more toxic

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Encasing insecticides in microscopic plastic capsules—a common formulation for many pest sprays on the market—may make them more toxic than the active ingredient alone, according to a new study from Oregon State University.

Environmental toxicologist Stacey Harper and her team found that a common agricultural insecticide in its “capsule suspension” formulation—with molecules of the active ingredient encapsulated in tiny, inert plastic pellets—was more toxic than the same amount of active ingredient delivered straight up in water.

Their study appeared in this month’s edition of the journal Environment International.

Harper, an associate professor in the College of Agricultural Sciences and the College of Engineering, and her doctoral student Alicea Meredith studied a commercial pyrethroid-type insecticide with an encapsulated active ingredient, lambda-cyhalothrin. The product is a broad-spectrum insecticide approved for use in many field and row crops. Its label warns that it is toxic to fish and other water-dwelling organisms.

The capsules encasing the product’s active ingredient range from micron-sized (a red blood cell is about 8 microns in diameter; a human hair is 40-75 microns thick), to nanometer-sized, a thousand times smaller.

“We set out to see whether the size of the capsule made any difference in toxicity or environmental fate,” Harper said. She hypothesized that the tinier capsules would be more toxic than the bigger ones, because they would be able to penetrate cells more readily.

The researchers spun the off-the-shelf product in a centrifuge and sorted its capsules into two size classes. There was a wide range of sizes; most capsules were in the neighborhood of micron-sized, but some were nanometer-sized.

They exposed the embryos of zebrafish to six successively stronger doses of the pesticide’s active ingredient. One group got it in micron-sized capsules, and another group got the same dose in nanometer-sized capsules. As a control, a third group of embryos got the same dose of active ingredient, but it was not encapsulated.

In all cases, the lowest dose administered (20 micrograms of active ingredient per liter of water) was higher than any likely to be used in a commercial spray. “We started with a dose we knew to be toxic because we wanted to compare the toxicity of these two capsule sizes,” Harper said.

Zebrafish, a fast-growing species common in home aquariums, are useful for toxicology testing, Harper said, because their bodies are transparent as they grow, enabling researchers to spot developmental anomalies from exposure to toxic chemicals.

Over five days the embryos showed the effects of pesticide poisoning, including physical malformations, tremoring, paralysis and death. But the pesticide in the smaller capsules was no more toxic than the pesticide in the larger ones, Harper said—the higher doses were more toxic across the board, regardless of capsule size.

“What was more surprising,” she said, “was that the active ingredient alone was significantly less toxic than either of the encapsulated formulations. We didn’t set out to test this, but it’s what we found.”

Chemical manufacturers have offered encapsulated formulations of pesticides for more than 50 years, Harper said, because encapsulation is thought to improve the product’s dispersal and durability. “Our findings indicate that these formulations may be affecting where a chemical spreads through an environment and how it interacts with biological systems,” she said.  

While the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency requires pesticide manufacturers to test a product’s active ingredient for toxicity, it doesn’t require testing of commercial formulations of the product, which are usually trade secrets. This means toxicity screening may underestimate—or perhaps overestimate—the actual environmental hazard of a chemical when it’s used in real-life situations, said Harper.

“The testing assumes that the encapsulation makes no difference in the toxicity,” she said, “but in this case, at least, it does. So it’s important to figure out how the carrier of a chemical product affects its toxicity in order to determine whether our current risk assessments offer enough protection against products that incorporate this encapsulation technology.”

Harper, also an environmental engineer, studies the environmental effects of human-made nanoparticles—microscopic bits of matter engineered to have commercially useful properties. Nanoparticles are widely used in pharmaceuticals, pesticides and personal care products, but little is known about their long-term environmental or health effects.

The study was funded by the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Institute of Food and Agriculture and by OSU’s Agricultural Research Foundation.

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Stacey Harper, 541-737-2791, stacey.harper@oregonstate.edu

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Zebrafish are used to test toxicity of environmental chemicals. Photo by Stephen Ward

zebrafish

Stacey Harper. Photo by Frank Miller

Stacey Harper, OSU environmental toxicologist

Climate can grind mountains faster than they can be rebuilt, study indicates

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Researchers for the first time have attempted to measure all the material leaving and entering a mountain range over millions of years and discovered that glacial erosion can, under the right circumstances, wear down mountains faster than plate tectonics can build them. 

A study of the St. Elias Mountains on the Alaskan coast by researchers from The University of Texas at Austin, University of Florida, Oregon State University and elsewhere found that erosion accelerated sharply about one million years ago.

The study adds insight into a longstanding debate over the balance of climate and tectonic forces that influence mountain building, which defines how landscapes are shaped by and in turn influence climate. The findings will be published this week in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The international research team, working under the Integrated Ocean Drilling program, included Oregon State University Professors Alan Mix and Joe Stoner and postdoctoral researcher Maureen Walczak as well as other scientists from the U.S., Germany, Brazil, Norway, India, China, Japan, Canada, Australia and the United Kingdom.

The seagoing expedition was the culmination of more than a decade of field work. On a previous expedition, the researchers first mapped a huge submarine sediment fan in the Gulf of Alaska built by sediment eroded from the nearby mountains. Next, they recovered sediment cores to understand the fan environments and recent history. The cores are now archived in the national repository at Oregon State.

Most recently, the researchers collected and dated almost four kilometers of drill cores from the floor of the gulf and the Alaskan continental shelf, revealing millions of years of geologic history.

“It turned out most sediments were younger than we anticipated, implying that erosion was higher than we expected,” said lead author and co-chief scientist Sean Gulick of the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics.

Mountain ranges form when tectonic plates thrust into one another over millions of years and scrunch up the Earth’s outer crust. But even as mountains are built by these titanic forces, other agents work to wear them down.

“About a million years ago, short, 40,000-year climate oscillations jumped into a new mode with stronger, 100,000-year long glacial cycles, and erosion of the mountains accelerated under attack from the ice,” Gulick said. “In fact, more rock was eroded than tectonics has replaced.”

Co-chief scientist John Jaeger of the University of Florida added: “People often see mountain ranges as permanent, but they aren’t really. If more rock is pushed in, they grow, and if more rock is eroded away, they shrink.”

Since the mid-Pleistocene, erosion rates have beaten tectonic inputs by 50 to 80 percent, demonstrating that climatic processes that ultimately drive the glaciers can outstrip mountain building over a span of a million years. The findings highlight the pivotal role climate fluctuations play in shaping Earth’s landforms.

“We were pleasantly surprised by how well we could establish ages of the sediment sequences and the composition of the sediment gave clear evidence of when the glaciation started and then expanded, in sync with global climate trends,” said co-author Mix of OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences. “Only by drilling the sea floor where the sediment accumulates could we see these details in focus.” 

The study was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation and the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program.

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Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, mix@ceoas.oregonstate.edu

Low-oxygen ‘dead zones’ in North Pacific linked to past ocean-warming events

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found a link between abrupt ocean warming at the end of the last ice age and the sudden onset of low-oxygen, or hypoxic conditions that led to vast marine dead zones.

Results of the study, which was funded by the National Science Foundation, are being published this week in the journal Nature.

Large-scale warming events about 14,700 and again 11,500 years ago occurred rapidly and triggered loss of oxygen in the North Pacific, raising concern that low-oxygen areas will expand again as the ocean warms in the future. Anomalous warmth occurring recently in the Northeastern Pacific Ocean and the Bering Sea – dubbed “The Blob” – is of a scale similar to the events documented in the geologic record, the researchers say. If such warming is sustained, oxygen loss becomes more likely.

Although many scientists believe that a series of low-oxygen “dead zones” in the Pacific Ocean off Oregon and Washington during the last decade may be caused by ocean warming, evidence confirming that link has been sparse.

However, the new study found a clear connection between two prehistoric intervals of abrupt ocean warming that ended the last ice age with an increase in the flux of marine plankton sinking to the seafloor, ultimately leading to a sudden onset of low-oxygen conditions, or hypoxia.

“Our study reveals a strong link between ocean warming, loss of oxygen, and an ecological shift to favor diatom production,” said lead author Summer Praetorius, who conducted the research as part of her doctoral studies at Oregon State University and is now a postdoctoral researcher at Carnegie Institution for Science.

“During each warming event, the transition to hypoxia occurred abruptly and persisted for about 1,000 years, suggesting a feedback that sustained or amplified hypoxia.” Praetorius added.

Warmer water, by itself, is not sufficient to cause diatom blooms, nor hypoxia, the researchers note. Just as warming soda pop loses its fizzy gas, warmer seawater contains less dissolved oxygen, and this can start the oxygen decline. But it isn’t until there is accelerated blooming of microscopic diatoms – which have large shells and tend to sink more efficiently than other smaller types of plankton – that deoxygenation is amplified.

Diatoms are known to thrive in warm, stratified water, but they also require sources of nutrients and iron, according to Alan Mix, a professor in Oregon State’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and co-author on the Nature study.

Surface warming also reduces upward mixing of nutrients from the deep sea. “So there are some competing effects,” Mix said, “and the final story depends on which effect wins.”

“The high-latitude North Pacific is rich in the common nutrients such as nitrate and phosphate, but it is poor in iron and this seems to be the key,” Mix said. “A partial loss of oxygen causes a chemical reaction that releases iron previously trapped in continental margin sediments – and this iron then fuels the diatoms, which bloom, die, and sink toward the seafloor, consuming oxygen along the way.”

The concern is just how rapid the ocean can respond, the researchers say.

“Many people have assumed that climate change impacts will be gradual and predictable,” Mix said, “but this study shows that the ecological consequences of climate change can be massive and can occur pretty fast, with little warning.”

Because the competing effects of mixing and iron may happen on different timescales, the exact sequence of events may be confusing.  On the scale of a few years, mixing may win, but on the scale of decades to centuries, the bigger effects kick into gear.  The geologic record studied by Praetorius and colleagues emphasized these longer scales.

The new discovery was the result of a decades-long effort by numerous researchers at Oregon State to collect marine sediment cores from the North Pacific, creating comprehensive, high-resolution records of climate change in the region. The temperature records come from trace quantities of organic molecules, called biomarkers, produced by plankton. This method of temperature sensing from sedimentary records was developed and tested by Fred Prahl, a professor emeritus at OSU.

“We tested many different strategies for reconstructing past temperature and looked at the imperfections of the geologic record, but these temperature records emerged as the most precise available,” Prahl said.

In addition to “The Blob” – the unusually warm ocean temperatures seen across the North Pacific – this year has seen a record-breaking algal bloom dominated by a certain species of diatom, Praetorius noted.

“While it’s too soon to know how this event ties into the long-term climate patterns that will emerge in the future, the current conditions seem eerily reminiscent of the past conditions that gave way to extended periods of hypoxia,” she said.

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Summer Praetorius, 510-648-5027, spraetorius@carnegiescience.edu; Alan Mix, 541-737-5212, mix@ceoas.oregonstate.edu

Safe spaces play important role in community-based HIV prevention, research finds

CORVALLIS, Ore. – The creation and sustainment of “safe spaces” may play a critical role in community-based HIV prevention efforts by providing social support and reducing environmental barriers for vulnerable populations, a new study from an Oregon State University researcher has found.

Safe spaces often are run by community-based organizations working with vulnerable populations. They can be used to provide social support and services such as job and education assistance and health testing and treatment. Such spaces appear to be an important but under-used public health tool for prevention and treatment of HIV, said Jonathan Garcia, lead author of the study and an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Public Health and Human Sciences.

“These safe spaces serve as surrogate homes, creating an environment with a brotherhood or family undertone for men who have often been marginalized by their families and communities and do not trust public institutions such as churches, schools or law enforcement agencies,” he said. “Often they have no other place to go.”

Garcia studies how social experiences influence health, with a focus on developing new public health approaches to address needs of vulnerable populations and communities. His latest research was published recently in the journal PLOS ONE.

Co-authors of the paper are Caroline Parker, Richard G. Parker and Patrick A. Wilson and Jennifer S. Hirsch of Columbia University and Morgan M. Philbin of the HIV Center for Clinical and Behavioral Studies at the New York State Psychiatric Institute. The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute of Mental Health.

For the study, researchers spent nearly a year conducting observations and in-depth interviews with 31 black men who were gay or bisexual, or who may not have identified as such but who had sex with other men. They also interviewed 17 others with knowledge of the men and the safe spaces they frequented in the New York City area. 

They focused on black men who have sex with other men because that population is considered particularly vulnerable to HIV, Garcia said. While these men make up just 2 percent of the U.S. population, they accounted for about 75 percent of new HIV infections between 2008 and 2010.

About half of the men interviewed were homeless or were living in unstable housing situations and nearly half were unemployed. About two-thirds of the men had some kind of health insurance, with 17 receiving federal Medicaid. 

The researchers found that these men were using safe spaces as places to hang out and connect, but they also served to address vulnerabilities, including exposure to violence; lack of social support; feelings of fear or mistrust against institutions or law enforcement; and limited employment opportunities.

Addressing those issues and providing a safe, community environment provides a better basis for which men are open and amenable to seeking HIV testing and treatment, Garcia said. 

“The meaning of safety is different for people who don’t feel like they are safe at home, or that the police are on their side,” Garcia said. “Safe spaces help create that feeling of security not found elsewhere.”

The findings are already being used to help shape a clinical trial that is now under way. Men who are at substantial risk of exposure to HIV are given daily HIV medication even though they have not contracted the disease. The goal of this pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PREP, is to prevent HIV infection from taking hold if the person is exposed. The trial incorporates the use of safe spaces, both in person and in online settings, for the men receiving the treatment, Garcia said. 

Safe spaces also could be used in prevention and treatment of other diseases that carry a stigma, including sexually-transmitted infections and Hepatitis C, which is common among intravenous drug users, he said.

One problem facing organizations that operate safe spaces is funding, Garcia said. The safe spaces often are the first thing eliminated when a group or organization experiences a funding shortfall. The rationale is to use funds first on treatment or prevention services. 

“Safe spaces are recognized as something important but are more unofficial,” he said. But the spaces can play such a critical role in educating and providing health services to the affected men that eliminating the spaces could reduce the effectiveness of health programs, Garcia said.

“If that support is what they are lacking, then providing it is likely to help them continue to seek treatment and services,” he said.

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Jonathan Garcia, 541-737-1609, jonathan.garcia@oregonstate.edu

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Jonathan Garcia

Jonathan Garcia

Changing habits to improve health: New study indicates behavior changes work

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Improving your heart health may be as simple as making small behavioral changes – a new study of behavioral health interventions suggests that they are effective at helping people alter their lifestyles and lead to physical changes that could improve overall health.

The findings also indicate a shift is needed in the way such interventions are evaluated by researchers and used by health care providers, said Veronica Irvin of Oregon State University, a co-author of the study just published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine

Behavioral treatments such as individual counseling or group training to improve nutrition or physical activity, reduce or stop smoking, or adhere to a drug treatment plan, often are overlooked because medical care providers tend to believe it is too difficult for people the make changes to their established lifestyles, said Irvin, an assistant professor in the College of Public Health and Human Sciences at OSU.

But large clinical drug trials for potential new medications often fail to show that those treatments make patients better, and drugs sometimes are associated with undesirable side effects, she said. Modification of health behavior is another option for health providers and their patients, Irvin explained, but is underutilized in clinical medical practice as well as in public health policy because many providers remain unconvinced that people can change their behavior to improve their health. 

She and her co-author, Robert M. Kaplan of the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, conducted a comprehensive and systematic review of large-budget studies funded by the National Institutes of Health that involved behavioral interventions such as individual counseling or group training to improve nutrition or physical activity, reduce or stop smoking, or adhere to a drug treatment plan.

More than 80 percent of the randomized clinical trials that included a behavioral intervention reported a significant improvement for the targeted behavior and a significant physiological impact such a reduction in weight or blood pressure. Greater improvements were observed when the intervention simultaneously targeted two behaviors, such as nutrition and physical activity, which are considered lifestyle behaviors. 

“This research suggests that behavioral interventions should be taken more seriously,” Irvin said. “It indicates that people are able to achieve realistic behavioral changes and improve their cardiovascular health.”

But the researchers also noted that few of the studies documented morbidity and mortality outcomes that are often required for drug trials. Previous research by Irvin and Kaplan found that most drug trials fail to reduce mortality. Behavioral interventions should be studied in a similar fashion, Irvin said. 

“There are more positive outcomes with these trials, but they don’t often measure mortality,” Irvin said.

“The next step for behavioral trials should be to measure results using clinical outcomes, such as the number of heart attacks and hospitalizations, experienced by participants.”  

Most behavior interventions reviewed for the study showed benefits using surrogate markers for these kinds of clinical events. For example, treatments for high cholesterol have the goal of reducing heart attacks and extending life. Measures of cholesterol are surrogate markers because they are believed to be related to the clinical goal of reducing deaths. 

But the surrogate markers are not always predictive of clinical outcomes, which is a potential concern for medical researchers. Future behavioral trials should investigate these clinical events as they would be in a traditional drug trial, Irvin said.

In this study, 17 trials reported a morbidity outcome, with seven showing a significant effect on reducing morbidity outcomes such as hospitalization or cardiovascular events. 

Irvin and Kaplan began work on the study while the two worked together in the National Institutes of Health’s Office of Behavior and Social Science Research. They reviewed all large-budget clinical trials evaluating behavioral interventions for the treatment or prevention of cardiovascular disease that had received funding from the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute or the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive and Kidney Diseases between 1980 and 2012.

In all, 38 studies were included in the research. They were did not include 20 large-budget trials from the period in this study because no results from those trials have been published. 

This underscores the need for more publication of research even if the outcomes were not as expected, Irvin said. Publishing these null outcomes prevents the unnecessary replication of studies and also may inform doctors and patients about which treatments are not likely to be helpful.

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Veronica Irvin, 541-737-1074, Veronica.Irvin@oregonstate.edu

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Veronica Irvin

Oregon Flora Project takes first comprehensive look at state’s plants in a half century

CORVALLIS, Ore. – While some plant species may have disappeared from Oregon in the last half century, other species are moving north, adding to the state’s floral diversity.

Those are among the results reported by the Oregon Flora Project in a new book, the first comprehensive assessment of the state’s native and naturalized plants since 1961.

“This book is for a broad audience,” said Linda Hardison, project director and an assistant professor in the Oregon State Department of Botany and Plant Pathology. “The information has practical uses for so many people: ranchers, gardeners, landscapers, planners. We are always striving to make it useful for people.”

For more than two decades, from the high desert to the Cascades and the Willamette Valley to coastal rain forests, botanists and citizens have assembled almost 600,000 observations of Oregon’s diverse flora. Among the findings:

  •  Oregon is home to about 4,700 plant taxa (species, subspecies and varieties), making it the fifth most diverse state in the country, despite differences in area. This is 15 percent more than were recorded here in 1961.
  •  A total of 159 taxa collected prior to 1961 have not been documented since then.
  • Some plant species have moved into Oregon from Nevada and California, possibly reflecting the impacts of climate change.

Flora of Oregon: Volume 1: Pteridophytes, Gymnosperms, and Monocots, was published by the Botanical Research Institute of Texas. It can be ordered for $75 on the project website, oregonflora.org.

“Oregonians love their land and its natural resources,” said Hardison. “Individuals statewide have contributed to make the book and our website a better resource.” More than 1,000 volunteers shared photos, reviewed data and submitted lists of plants seen on hikes. Plants have also been included from studies by university researchers, the Native Plant Society of Oregon and state and federal agencies.

In addition to descriptions of grasses, sedges, lilies, ferns, and conifers, the volume includes a history of botanists in Oregon, color photos and descriptions of the state’s 11 ecoregions and 50 mapped locations for exploring botanical sites. Artist John Myers contributed 86 new pen and ink drawings.

“Plants are the foundation of life on Earth, and correctly identifying plants can help us make good decisions,” added Hardison, such as being aware of the presence of rare plants or invasive weeds. “With a new Flora, a rancher can recognize a new noxious weed that invades their property and, by controlling it, save their rangeland. This work is the basis for knowledge that touches every citizen of this state.”

Volume 2 is due to be published in the fall of 2017 and volume 3 in late 2019.

In addition to individual donations, support was provided by the Bureau of Land Management, the Oregon Community Foundation and the Native Plant Society of Oregon.

Editors include Hardison, Stephen C. Meyers, Thea Jaster and Katie E. Mitchell. The book is dedicated to the memory of Scott Sundberg, an Oregon native, former Oregon State researcher and University of Oregon graduate who founded the Oregon Flora Project in 1994. Sundberg died in 2004.

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Linda Hardison, 541-737-4338

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