OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

New compounds discovered that are hundreds of times more mutagenic

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Staci Simonich, 541-737-9194

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Grilled meat

Grilled meat

Amber fossil reveals ancient reproduction in flowering plants

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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George Poinar, 541-752-0917

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Ancient flowers

Ancient flower


Pollen tubes

Pollen tubes

Efforts to curb climate change require greater emphasis on livestock

CORVALLIS, Ore. – While climate change negotiators struggle to agree on ways to reduce carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions, they have paid inadequate attention to other greenhouse gases associated with livestock, according to an analysis by an international research team.

A reduction in non-CO2 greenhouse gases will be required to abate climate change, the researchers said. Cutting releases of methane and nitrous oxide, two gases that pound-for-pound trap more heat than does CO2, should be considered alongside the challenge of reducing fossil fuel use.

The researchers’ analysis, “Ruminants, Climate Change, and Climate Policy,” is being published today as an opinion commentary in Nature Climate Change, a professional journal.

William Ripple, a professor in the College of Forestry at Oregon State University, and co-authors from Scotland, Austria, Australia and the United States, reached their conclusions on the basis of a synthesis of scientific knowledge on greenhouse gases, climate change and food and environmental issues. They drew from a variety of sources including the Food and Agricultural Organization, the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) and recent peer-reviewed publications.

“Because the Earth’s climate may be near a tipping point to major climate change, multiple approaches are needed for mitigation,” said Ripple. “We clearly need to reduce the burning of fossil fuels to cut CO2 emissions. But that addresses only part of the problem. We also need to reduce non-CO2 greenhouse gases to lessen the likelihood of us crossing this climatic threshold.”

Methane is the second most abundant greenhouse gas, and a recent report estimated that in the United States methane releases from all sources could be much higher than previously thought. Among the largest human-related sources of methane are ruminant animals (cattle, sheep, goats, and buffalo) and fossil fuel extraction and combustion.

One of the most effective ways to cut methane, the researchers wrote, is to reduce global populations of ruminant livestock, especially cattle. Ruminants are estimated to comprise the largest single human-related source of methane. By reflecting the latest estimates of greenhouse gas emissions on the basis of a life-cycle or a “farm to fork” analysis, the researchers observed that greenhouse gas emissions from cattle and sheep production are 19 to 48 times higher (on the basis of pounds of food produced) than they are from producing protein-rich plant foods such as beans, grains, or soy products.

Unlike non-ruminant animals such as pigs and poultry, ruminants produce copious amounts of methane in their digestive systems. Although CO2 is the most abundant greenhouse gas, the international community could achieve a more rapid reduction in the causes of global warming by lowering methane emissions through a reduction in the number of ruminants, the authors said, than by cutting CO2 alone.

The authors also observed that, on a global basis, ruminant livestock production is having a growing impact on the environment:

  • Globally, the number of ruminant livestock has increased by 50 percent in the last 50 years, and there are now about 3.6 billion ruminant livestock on the planet.
  • About a quarter of the Earth’s land area is dedicated to grazing, mostly for cattle, sheep and goats.
  • A third of all arable land is used to grow feed crops for livestock.

In addition to reducing direct methane emissions from ruminants, cutting ruminant numbers would deliver a significant reduction in the greenhouse gas emissions associated with the production of feed crops for livestock, they added.

“Reducing demand for ruminant products could help to achieve substantial greenhouse gas reductions in the near-term,” said co-author Helmut Haberl of the Institute of Social Ecology in Austria, “but implementation of demand changes represent a considerable political challenge.”

Among agricultural approaches to climate change, reducing demand for meat from ruminants offers greater greenhouse gas reduction potential than do other steps such as increasing livestock feeding efficiency or crop yields per acre. Nevertheless, they wrote, policies to achieve both types of reductions “have the best chance of providing rapid and lasting climate benefits.”

Such steps could have other benefits as well, said co-author Pete Smith of the University of Aberdeen in Scotland. "Cutting the number of ruminant livestock could have additional benefits for food security, human health and environmental conservation involving water quality, wildlife habitat and biodiversity,” he explained. 

Agricultural researchers are also studying methane reduction through improved animal genetics and methods to inhibit production of the gas during digestion.

International climate negotiations such as the UNFCCC have not given “adequate attention” to greenhouse gas reductions from ruminants, they added. The Kyoto Protocol, for example, does not target ruminant emissions from developing countries, which are among the fastest-growing ruminant producers.

In addition to Smith and Haberl, co-authors include Stephen A. Montzka of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Clive McAlpine of the University of Queensland in Australia and Douglas Boucher of the Union of Concerned Scientists in Washington D.C.

 

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Bill Ripple, 541-737-3056

Significant advance reported with genetically modified poplar trees

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Forest geneticists at Oregon State University have created genetically modified poplar trees that grow faster, have resistance to insect pests and are able to retain expression of the inserted genes for at least 14 years, a report in the Canadian Journal of Forest Research just announced.

The trees are one of the best successes to date in the genetic modification of forest trees, a field that is much less advanced than GMO products in crop agriculture. The advance could prove especially useful in the paper and pulp industries, and in an emerging biofuel industry that could be based on hybrid poplar plantations.

Commercial use of such trees could be done with poplars that also had been engineered to be sterile so they would be unlikely to spread their characteristics to other trees, researchers said.

Development of male sterile trees has been demonstrated in the field, which can be used for male varieties of poplar. Female sterility has not yet been done but should be feasible, they said. However, it is unclear if regulatory agencies would allow use of these trees, with sterility as a key mitigation factor.

“In terms of wood yield, plantation health and productivity, these GMO trees could be very significant,” said Steven Strauss, a distinguished professor of forest biotechnology in the OSU College of Forestry. “Our field experiments and continued research showed results that exceeded our expectations. And it is likely that we have underestimated the value these trees could have in improved growth and production.”

A large-scale study of 402 trees from nine “insertion events” tracked the result of placing the cry3Aa gene into hybrid poplar trees. The first phase was done in field trials between 1998 and 2001, and in 14 years since then study continued in a “clone bank” at OSU to ensure that the valued traits were retained with age.

All of the trees were removed or cut back at the age of two years before they were old enough to flower and reproduce, in order to prevent any gene flow into wild tree populations, researchers said.

With this genetic modification, the trees were able to produce an insecticidal protein that helped protect against insect attack. This method has proven effective as a pest control measure in other crop species such as corn and soybeans, resulting in substantial reductions in pesticide use and a decrease in crop losses.

“Insect attack not only can kill a tree, it can make the trees more vulnerable to other health problems,” said Amy Klocko, an OSU faculty research associate. “In a really bad year of insect attack you can lose an entire plantation.”

Hybrid poplar trees, which are usually grown in dense rows on flat land almost like a food crop, are especially vulnerable to insect epidemics, the researchers said. Manual application of pesticides is expensive and targets a wide range of insects, rather than only the insects that are attacking the trees.

A number of the GMO trees in this study also had significantly improved growth characteristics, the researchers found. Compared to the controls, the transgenic trees grew an average of 13 percent larger after two growing seasons in the field, and in the best case, 23 percent larger.

Some of the work also used a drought-tolerant poplar clone, another advantage in what may be a warmer and drier future climate. The research was supported by the Tree Biosafety and Genomics Research Cooperative at OSU.

Annual crops such as cotton and corn already are routinely grown as GMO products with insect resistance genes. Trees, however, have to grow and live for years before harvest and are subjected to multiple generations of insect pest attacks. That’s why engineered insect protection may offer even greater commercial value, and why extended tests were necessary to demonstrate that the resistance genes would still be expressed more than a decade after planting.

Some genetically modified hybrid poplar trees are already being used commercially in China, but none in the United States. The use of GMO trees in the U.S. still faces heavy regulatory obstacles, Strauss said. Agencies are likely to require extensive studies of gene flow and their effects on forest ecosystems, which are difficult to carry out, he said.

Strauss said he advocates an approach of engineering sterility genes into the trees as a mechanism to control gene flow, which together with further ecological research might provide a socially acceptable path for commercial deployment.

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Steven Strauss, 541-737-6578

OSU spinoff company NuScale to receive up to $226 million to advance nuclear energy

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A promising new form of nuclear power that evolved in part from research more than a decade ago at Oregon State University today received a significant boost: up to $226 million in funding to NuScale Power from the United States Department of Energy.

NuScale began as a spinoff company based on the pioneering research of OSU professor Jose Reyes, and since has become one of the international leaders in the creation of small “modular” nuclear reactors.

This technology holds enormous promise for developing nuclear power with small reactors that can minimize investment costs, improve safety, be grouped as needed for power demands and produce energy without greenhouse gas emissions. The technology also provides opportunities for OSU nuclear engineering students who are learning about these newest concepts in nuclear power.

“This is a wonderful reflection of the value that OSU faculty can bring to our global economy,” said Rick Spinrad, vice president for research at OSU. “The research conducted by Professor Reyes, colleagues and students at OSU has been a fundamental component of the innovation at NuScale.”

NuScale has continued to grow and create jobs in Oregon, and is bringing closer to reality a nuclear concept that could revolutionize nuclear energy. The Obama administration has cited nuclear power as one part of its blueprint to rebuild the American economy while helping to address important environmental issues.

In the early 2000s at OSU, Reyes envisioned a nuclear power reactor that could be manufactured in a factory, be transported to wherever it was needed, grouped as necessary to provide the desired amount of power, and provide another option for nuclear energy. It also would incorporate “passive safety” concepts studied at OSU in the 1990s that are already being used in nuclear power plant construction around the world. The design allows the reactor to shut down automatically, if necessary, using natural forces including gravity and convection.

The Department of Energy announcement represents a milestone in OSU’s increasing commitment to university and business partnerships and its goals of using academic research discoveries to promote new industries, jobs, economic growth, environmental protection and public health.

“OSU has made a strong effort to build powerful partnerships between our research enterprise and the private sector,” said OSU President Edward J. Ray. “The DOE support for NuScale is a vote of confidence in the strategy of building these meaningful relationships, and they are only going to pick up speed with our newest initiative, the OSU Advantage.”

The Oregon State University Advantage connects business with faculty expertise, student talent and world-class facilities to provide research solutions and help bring ideas to market. This effort is in partnership with the Oregon State University Foundation.

News of the NuScale grant award was welcomed by members of Oregon’s Congressional delegation.

 

“Oregon State University deserves a lot of credit for helping to develop a promising new technology that the Energy Department clearly thinks holds a lot of potential,” said Sen. Ron Wyden, chairman of the U.S. Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee. “Today’s award shows that investing in strong public universities leads to innovative technologies to address critical issues, like the need for low-carbon sources of energy, while creating private sector jobs.”

U.S. Rep. Peter De Fazio added, “Congratulations to NuScale and Oregon State University. This is a big win for the local economy.” 

“This is an exciting time for us, as our students and faculty get incredibly valuable real-world experience in taking an idea through the startup and commercialization process,” said Kathryn Higley, professor and head of the Department of Nuclear Engineering & Radiation Health Physics. “We continue to work with NuScale as it goes through its design certification process, and we are particularly proud of Jose Reyes for his vision, enthusiasm and unwavering commitment to this concept.”

OSU officials say the development of new technologies such as those launched from NuScale could have significant implications for future energy supplies.

“The nation’s investment in the research of small-scale nuclear devices is a significant step toward a diverse and secure energy portfolio,” said Sandra Woods, dean of the College of Engineering at OSU. “Collaborative research is actively continuing between engineers and scientists at Oregon State and NuScale, and we’re proud and grateful for the role Oregon State plays in assisting them in developing cleaner and safer ways to produce energy.

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Rick Spinrad, 541-737-0662 or 541-220-1915 (cell)

Older, wealthier Oregonians most likely to take water conservation seriously

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A survey about water use and attitudes toward conservation among Oregonians has found that older, more affluent residents are most likely to take steps to conserve water.

Contrary to some past research, the Oregon State University analysis did not find significantly more conservation behavior among younger residents, those with more education, or those who live in urban, as opposed to rural settings.

The findings, published in The Social Science Journal, outline some of the challenges policy makers may face in motivating more people to conserve water, as the state increasingly will struggle to keep up with demand in the future.

“This research showed that most Oregonians clearly understand we are going to face water shortages in the future, although most of them say they haven’t yet been affected by this,” said Erika Wolters, an instructor of political science in the OSU College of Liberal Arts, which supported this study.

“We expected to find young people more involved in water conservation, but actually found the opposite,” Wolters said. “Gender also didn’t appear to play much of a role. Water conservation was most closely associated with age and income, possibly the ability to afford water-saving devices and interest in reducing costs.

“Those with higher income may also have more time and resources to commit to the environmental causes they believe in,” she added.

The report suggested that if higher income is predictive of water conservation behavior, then efforts to motivate such behavior may need to consider discussion of rebates, incentives or other programs that would appeal to lower-income residents.

The study also concluded, however, that some water-saving practices are fairly common by many people of all ages, incomes and situations – things like washing full loads of laundry, repairing leaky faucets, watering plants less often.

Both climate change and population growth in Oregon and the West are expected to place much greater demands upon limited water supplies in the future, the report noted. And although Oregon has a reputation for being an environmentally progressive state – it was named number two in “America’s Greenest States” in one 2007 survey – it’s not as certain whether environmental attitudes will always translate directly into behavior.

This study of 808 Oregonians tried to determine what sociodemographic factors were most closely linked to water conservation behavior. It did find that most residents understand there’s a problem, and a majority of them take at least some personal steps to save water. But unlike some other research, the analysis did not find that young, female and urban residents were the ones most likely to conserve water. Only higher income was predictive of that behavior.

The research ultimately concluded that neither attitudes nor sociodemographics could completely predict environmental behavior, and that old, established habits and issues of self-identity may play a large role.

 

 

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Erika Wolters, 541-737-1421

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US Drought Monitor
Drought map


McKenzie River

Future water declines

Ethnic identification helps Latina adolescents resist media barrage of body images

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

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A strong sense of ethnic identity can help Latina girls feel positive about their body and appearance, a new study concludes, even as this group slips further into dissatisfaction with themselves when compared to a media-filled world of unrealistic images of thin white women.

Identification and pride in their ethnic background can act as a partial buffer against a deluge of advertisements, magazines, television shows and movies that show white women in sexualized roles, researchers said, and help teenage girls feel more comfortable with themselves and their appearance.

Scientists say anything that can help is necessary as sensitive young teenagers compare themselves to an onslaught of thin and glamorous models portrayed by the media, and suffer as a result. One out of every two advertisements featuring women depicts them as sex objects.

Some past research has suggested that women of color were less vulnerable to concerns about body image, but the latest studies found that Latina girls are reporting body dissatisfaction at a rate similar to that of Caucasian girls.

“We’re in a perfect storm of dissatisfaction,” said Elizabeth Daniels, an assistant professor of psychology in the College of Liberal Arts at Oregon State University–Cascades.

“This is a serious problem among girls, and our media environment and consumer culture has been making it worse for some time,” said Daniels, who is an expert on gender, body image and youth development. “The issue of young teenagers feeling bad about their appearance is so prevalent that we now call it normative. In other words, it’s normal to feel dissatisfied with your body.”

Most adults have more real-life experience to help protect them, Daniels said, but impressionable adolescents too often feel seriously unhappy with their appearance, think about their bodies constantly, and are easily persuaded to buy the latest beauty products that advertisers tell them will help. For some, severe dissatisfaction can turn into an eating disorder.

But in this research, which studied 118 Latina girls ages 13-18, scientists found that a stronger sense of ethnic identity helped some girls feel positive about themselves. The analysis was done by showing images of white women taken from advertisements to separate groups of girls. Some images were “sexualized” in settings, such as wearing bikinis or lingerie; and others had more conventional, fully-clothed poses. The girls then created statements about how they visualized themselves.

Those who included reference to their ethnic identity – by saying something like “I am Latina” or “I am Hispanic” – tended to view themselves overall more positively. But Daniels pointed out that while the association with ethnicity appears to be helpful and partially protective, it’s not a panacea.

“Media images are typically very idealized, done with white women, using lots of makeup and photo techniques, and they create a great pressure on young women to live up to this ideal,” Daniels said. “They see more than five hours a day of this unrealistic depiction on television and elsewhere, and it’s a tall order for them to just ignore it. Even the model, Cindy Crawford, once said that ‘I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.’”

However, this study indicates that cultural pride can help. One participant in the study wrote in her statements that “I am a proud Latina” and “I am not a skinny toothpick and proud of it.”

The new findings were recently published in Body Image, a professional journal, by researchers from OSU and Gallaudet University.

The researchers also cautioned that the buffering effect of ethnic identity might not stand up when Latina girls are exposed to Latina media models – instead of the white women that dominate traditional advertising. Girls with strong ethnic identity might be especially vulnerable to the negative effects of viewing idealized media images of Latina women, the report concluded.

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Elizabeth Daniels, 541-322-3186

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Rebecca Vega-Thurber, 541-737-1851

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Coral research

Diver doing research


Bleached coral

Diseased coral


Nutrient dispenser

Nutrient dispenser


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

Drug interactions causing a significant impact on statin use

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A new study has found that many people who stopped taking cholesterol-lowering statin drugs were also taking an average of three other drugs that interfered with the normal metabolism of the statins.

The other drugs can contribute to a common side effect of taking statins - muscle pain – and often led people to discontinue use of a medication that could otherwise help save their life, researchers learned.

The interactions of many drugs with statins have been known of for some time, researchers said, but are not being adequately managed by physicians and pharmacists, who could often choose different medications or adjust dosages to retain the value of statin drugs without causing this side effect.

The research, done as part of a survey of more than 10,000 current and former statin users, found that use of medications which interfere with statin metabolism almost doubles the chance that a person will discontinue statin use due to muscle pain.

The issue is of growing importance because statin drugs are some of the most widely used medications in the world, proven to lower LDL, or “bad” cholesterol, and decrease the risk of heart attacks, heart disease, strokes and death. About 20 million people in the U.S. now take statins, and new guidelines have just been issued to further expand the types of health conditions for which statins may be of benefit. Based on those guidelines, the number of statin users could increase to more than 30 million.

The findings were published in the Journal of Clinical Lipidology by scientists from Oregon State University and four other universities or research institutes.

“We’ve known for some time of many medications that can interact with statins, but only now is it becoming clear that this is a significant contributor to the side effects, and often the reason some patients stop taking statins,” said Matt Ito, a professor in the OSU College of Pharmacy and president of the National Lipid Association, which funded this study.

“This issue is something physicians, pharmacists and patients all need to be more aware of,” Ito said. “There’s a lot we can do besides discontinue use of these valuable medications. You can change dosages, use drugs that don’t cause interactions, use different types of statins. Patients need to be proactive in understanding this issue and working with their health care providers to address it.”

Persons who have problems taking statins should discuss options with their physicians or pharmacists, Ito said, and not assume the drug has be to discontinued. A Medscape web site at http://reference.medscape.com/drug-interactionchecker also can help individuals learn more about possible interactions between statins and the full range of medications they may be taking.

Statins are usually well-tolerated, but in the recent survey, a muscle-related side effect was reported by 29 percent of participants. In former statin users, 62 percent of the people said that side effects, mostly muscle pain, were the reason they stopped taking the drugs.

There are many drugs that can interfere with statin metabolism, increase systemic exposure to the statin and raise the risk of this muscle pain, the researchers said in their report. This can include some common antibiotics, cardiovascular drugs, and others taken for treatment of cancer, mental health, HIV treatment and other conditions.

These interactions are not always adequately considered by physicians and pharmacists, however. One recent report found that as many as 20 percent of significant statin-drug interactions were missed in 64 pharmacies.

Besides drug interactions, statin side effects are also more common in women and associated with increasing age, history of cardiovascular disease, and some other conditions. Statin discontinuation has been associated with increased cardiovascular morbidity and death.

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Matt Ito, 503-494-3657

“Flipping the switch” reveals new compounds with antibiotic potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Michael Freitag, 541-737-4845

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Pigment produced

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Fungal infection in corn

Fungus on corn