OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Study identifies high level of “food insecurity” among college students

 

The study this story is based on is available in ScholarsArchive@OSU: http://bit.ly/LCp10Y

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – One of the few studies of its type has found that a startling 59 percent of college students at one Oregon university were “food insecure” at some point during the previous year, with possible implications for academic success, physical and emotional health and other issues.

Contrary to concerns about obesity and some students packing on “the freshman 15” in weight gain, another reality is that many students are not getting enough healthy food to eat as they struggle with high costs, limited income, and fewer food or social support systems than are available to other groups.

The findings were published recently in the Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, by researchers from Oregon State University, the Benton County Health Department, and Western Oregon University. Students at Western Oregon were surveyed as the basis for the study.

“Based on other research that’s been done, we expected some amount of food concerns among college students,” said Daniel López-Cevallos, associate director of research at OSU’s Center for Latino/a Studies and Engagement. “But it was shocking to find food insecurity of this severity. Several recent trends may be combining to cause this.”

The researchers said a combination of rising college costs, more low-income and first-generation students attending college, and changing demographic trends are making this issue more significant than it may have been in the past.

“For past generations, students living on a lean budget might have just considered it part of the college experience, a transitory thing,” said Megan Patton-López, lead author of the study with Oregon’s Benton County Health Department.

“But rising costs of education are now affecting more people,” she said. “And for many of these students who are coming from low-income families and attending college for the first time, this may be a continuation of food insecurity they’ve known before. It becomes a way of life, and they don’t have as many resources to help them out.”

Most college students, with some exceptions, are not eligible for food stamps and many are often already carrying heavy debt loads. And the study found that even though many of them work one or more jobs, the financial demands are such that they still may not have enough money for healthy food at all times.

Food insecurity is defined as limited or uncertain availability of nutritionally adequate and safe foods, and the ability to acquire such food in acceptable ways. It has been associated with depression, stress, trouble learning in the classroom, and poor health. When similar issues have been addressed with elementary school students, improvements were seen in academic performance, behavior and retention of knowledge.

But these problems have received scarcely any attention in the 19-24 year old, young-adult demographic that predominates in college, the scientists said.

Among the findings of this study:

  • While about 14.9 percent of all households in the nation report food insecurity, the number of college students voicing similar concerns in this report was almost four times higher, at 59 percent.
  • In the past three decades the cost of higher education has steadily outpaced inflation, the cost of living and medical expenses.
  • Food insecurity during college years could affect cognitive, academic and psychosocial development.
  • Factors correlated with reports of food insecurity include fair to poor health, a lower grade point average, low income and employment.

Employment, by itself, is not adequate to resolve this problem, the researchers found. Students reporting food insecurity also worked an average of 18 hours a week – some as high as 42 – but the financial demands they faced more than offset that income.

These findings were based on a survey of 354 students at Western Oregon University, a mid-size public university in a small town near the state capitol in Salem, Ore. Students at Western Oregon supported and assisted in this research, and Doris Cancel-Tirado and Leticia Vazquez with Western Oregon co-authored the study.

The findings probably reflect similar concerns at colleges and universities across the nation, the researchers said, although more research is needed in many areas to determine the full scope of this problem.

“One thing that’s clear is that colleges and universities need to be having this conversation and learning more about the issues their students may be facing,” said López-Cevallos. “There may be steps to take locally that could help, and policies that could be considered nationally. But it does appear this is a very serious issue that has not received adequate attention, and we need to explore it further.”

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Food assistance for students

Student food bank

More benefits emerging for one type of omega-3 fatty acid: DHA

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1dDuf7i

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A study of the metabolic effects of omega-3 fatty acids, especially DHA, concludes that these compounds may have an even wider range of biological impacts than previously considered, and suggests they could be of significant value in the prevention of fatty liver disease.

The research, done by scientists at Oregon State University and several other institutions, was one of the first of its type to use “metabolomics,” an analysis of metabolites that reflect the many biological effects of omega-3 fatty acids on the liver. It also explored the challenges this organ faces from the “Western diet” that increasingly is linked to liver inflammation, fibrosis, cirrhosis and sometimes liver failure.

The results were surprising, researchers say.

Supplements of DHA, used at levels that are sometimes prescribed to reduce blood triglycerides, appeared to have many unanticipated effects. There were observable changes in vitamin and carbohydrate metabolism, protein and amino acid function, as well as lipid metabolism.

Supplementation with DHA partially or totally prevented metabolic damage through those pathways often linked to the Western diet – excessive consumption of red meat, sugar, saturated fat and processed grains.

The findings were published last month in PLOS One, an online professional journal.

“We were shocked to find so many biological pathways being affected by omega-3 fatty acids,” said Donald Jump, a professor in the OSU College of Public Health and Human Sciences. “Most studies on these nutrients find effects on lipid metabolism and inflammation.

“Our metabolomics analysis indicates that the effects of omega-3 fatty acids extend beyond that, and include carbohydrate, amino acid and vitamin metabolism,” he added.

Omega-3 fatty acids have been the subject of much recent research, often with conflicting results and claims. Possible reasons for contradictory findings, OSU researchers say, are the amount of supplements used and the relative abundance of two common omega-3s – DHA and EPA. Studies at OSU have concluded that DHA has far more ability than EPA to prevent the formation of harmful metabolites. In one study, it was found that DHA supplementation reduced the proteins involved in liver fibrosis by more than 65 percent.

These research efforts, done with laboratory animals, used a level of DHA supplementation that would equate to about 2-4 grams per day for an average person. In the diet, the most common source of DHA is fatty fish, such as salmon, mackerel or sardines.

The most recent research is beginning to break down the specific processes by which these metabolic changes take place. If anything, the results suggest that DHA may have even more health value than previously thought.

“A lot of work has been done on fatty liver disease, and we are just beginning to explore the potential for DHA in preventing or slowing disease progression,” said Jump, who is also a principal investigator in OSU’s Linus Pauling Institute.

“Fish oils, a common supplement used to provide omega-3, are also not prescribed to regulate blood glucose levels in diabetic patients,” he said. “But our studies suggest that DHA may reduce the formation of harmful glucose metabolites linked to diabetic complications.”

Both diabetes and liver disease are increasing steadily in the United States.

The American Liver Foundation has estimated that about 25 percent of the nation’s population, and 75 percent of those who are obese, have nonalcoholic fatty liver disease. This can progress to nonalcoholic steatohepatitis, cirrhosis and cancer.

This study established that the main target of DHA in the liver is the control of inflammation, oxidative stress and fibrosis, which are the characteristics of more progressively serious liver problems. Omega-3 fatty acids appear to keep cells from responding to and being damaged by whatever is causing inflammation.

Collaborators on this research were from OSU, the Baylor College of Medicine, Vanderbilt University Medical Center, and Metabolon, Inc. It was supported by the USDA and the National Institutes of Health.

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War on lionfish shows first promise of success

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1f9fqbg

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – It may take a legion of scuba divers armed with nets and spears, but a new study confirms for the first time that controlling lionfish populations in the western Atlantic Ocean can pave the way for a recovery of native fish.

Even if it’s one speared fish at a time, it finally appears that there’s a way to fight back.

Scientists at Oregon State University, Simon Fraser University and other institutions have shown in both computer models and 18 months of field tests on reefs that reducing lionfish numbers by specified amounts – at the sites they studied, between 75-95 percent – will allow a rapid recovery of native fish biomass in the treatment area, and to some extent may aid larger ecosystem recovery as well.

It’s some of the first good news in a struggle that has at times appeared almost hopeless, as this voracious, invasive species has wiped out 95 percent of native fish in some Atlantic locations.

“This is excellent news,” said Stephanie Green, a marine ecologist in the College of Science at Oregon State University, and lead author on the report just published in Ecological Applications. “It shows that by creating safe havens, small pockets of reef where lionfish numbers are kept low, we can help native species recover.

“And we don’t have to catch every lionfish to do it.”

That’s good, researchers say, because the rapid spread of lionfish in the Atlantic makes eradication virtually impossible. They’ve also been found thriving in deep water locations which are difficult to access.

The latest research used ecological modeling to determine what percentage of lionfish would have to be removed at a given location to allow for native fish recovery. At 24 coral reefs near Eleuthera Island in the Bahamas, researchers then removed the necessary amount of lionfish to reach this threshold, and monitored recovery of the ecosystem.

On reefs where lionfish were kept below threshold densities, native prey fish increased by 50-70 percent. It’s one of the first studies of its type to demonstrate that reduction of an invasive species below an environmentally damaging threshold, rather than outright eradication, can have comparable benefits.

Some of the fish that recovered, such as Nassau grouper and yellowtail snapper, are critically important to local economies. And larger adults can then spread throughout the reef system – although the amount of system recovery that would take place outside of treated areas is a subject that needs additional research, they said.

Where no intervention was made, native species continued to decline and disappear.

The lionfish invasion in the Atlantic, believed to have begun in the 1980s, now covers an area larger than the entirety of the United States. With venomous spines, no natural predators in the Atlantic Ocean, and aggressive behavior, the lionfish have been shown to eat almost anything smaller than they are – fish, shrimp, crabs and octopus. Lionfish can also withstand starvation for protracted periods – many of their prey species will disappear before they do.

Governments, industry and conservation groups across this region are already trying to cull lionfish from their waters, and encourage their use as a food fish. Some removal efforts have concentrated on popular dive sites.

The scientists said in their report that the model used in this research should work equally well in various types of marine habitat, including mangroves, temperate hard-bottom systems, estuaries and seagrass beds.

A major issue to be considered, however, is where to allocate future removal efforts. Marine reserves, which often allow “no take” of any marine life in an effort to recover fish populations, may need to be the focus of lionfish removal. The traditional, hands-off concept in such areas may succeed only in wiping out native species while allowing the invasive species to grow unchecked.

Keeping lionfish numbers low in areas that are hot spots for juvenile fish, like mangroves and shallow reefs, is also crucial, the report said.

This research was done in collaboration with scientists at Simon Fraser University, the Reef Environmental Education Foundation, and the Cape Eleuthera Institute. It has been supported by the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada, the Boston Foundation and a David H. Smith Conservation Research Fellowship.

“Many invasions such as lionfish are occurring at a speed and magnitude that outstrips the resources available to contain and eliminate them,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “Our study is the first to demonstrate that for such invasions, complete extirpation is not necessary to minimize negative ecological changes within priority habitats.”

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Stephanie Green, 541-908-3839

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Hunting lionfish

Hunting lionfish


Lionfish

Lionfish


Reef research

Stephanie Green

 

Video of researcher netting lionfish in the Bahamas:

High resolution downloadable video: http://bit.ly/1jnJ1mD

YouTube: http://bit.ly/LUj6VX

One step at a time, researchers learning how humans walk

 

 

The study this story is based on is available online: http://bit.ly/1d1KZ3u

 

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Humans and some of our hominid ancestors such as Homo erectus have been walking for more than a million years, and researchers are close to figuring out how we do it.

It’s never been completely clear how human beings accomplish the routine, taken-for-granted miracle we call walking, let alone running. But findings published last month in the Journal of Experimental Biology outline a specific interaction between the ankle, knee, muscles and tendons that improve the understanding of a leg moving forward in a way that maximizes motion while using minimal amounts of energy.

The research could find some of its earliest applications in improved prosthetic limbs, said researchers in the College of Engineering at Oregon State University. Later on, a more complete grasp of these principles could lead to walking or running robots that are far more agile and energy-efficient than anything that exists today.

“Human walking is extraordinarily complex and we still don’t understand completely how it works,” said Jonathan Hurst, an OSU professor of mechanical engineering and expert in legged locomotion in robots. There’s a real efficiency to it – walking is almost like passive falling. The robots existing today don’t walk at all like humans, they lack that efficiency of motion and agility.

“When we fully learn what the human leg is doing,” Hurst added, “we’ll be able to build robots that work much better.”

Researchers have long observed some type of high-power “push off” when the leg leaves the ground, but didn’t really understand how it worked. Now they believe they do. The study concluded there are two phases to this motion. The first is an “alleviation” phase in which the trailing leg is relieved of the burden of supporting the body mass.

Then in a “launching” phase the knee buckles, allowing the rapid release of stored elastic energy in the ankle tendons, like the triggering of a catapult.

“We calculated what muscles could do and found it insufficient, by far, for generating this powerful push off,” said Daniel Renjewski, a postdoctoral research associate in the Dynamic Robotics Laboratory at OSU. “So we had to look for a power-amplifying mechanism.

“The coordination of knee and ankle is critical,” he said. “And contrary to what some other research has suggested, the catapult energy from the ankle is just being used to swing the leg, not add large amounts of energy to the forward motion.”

Walking robots don’t do this. Many of them use force to “swing” the leg forward from something resembling a hip point. It can be functional, but it’s neither energy-efficient nor agile. And for more widespread use of mobile robots, energy use is crucially important, the researchers said.

“We still have a long way to go before walking robots can move with as little energy as animals use,” Hurst said. “But this type of research will bring us closer to that.”

The research was supported by the German Research Foundation. The Dynamic Robotics Laboratory at OSU is supported by the Human Frontier Science Program, the National Science Foundation and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, and has helped create some of the leading technology in the world for robots that can walk and run.

One model can run a nine-minute mile and step off a ledge, and others are even more advanced. Robots with the ability to walk and maneuver over uneven terrain could ultimately find applications in prosthetic limbs, an exo-skeleton to assist people with muscular weakness, or use in the military, disaster response or any dangerous situation.

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Jonathan Hurst, 541-737-7010

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How humans walk

Walking mechanics

Loss of large carnivores poses global conservation problem

CORVALLIS, Ore. – In ecosystems around the world, the decline of large predators such as lions, dingoes, wolves, otters, and bears is changing the face of landscapes from the tropics to the Arctic – but an analysis of 31 carnivore species to be published Friday in the journal Science shows for the first time how threats such as habitat loss, persecution by humans and loss of prey combine to create global hotspots of carnivore decline.

More than 75 percent of the 31 large-carnivore species are declining, and 17 species now occupy less than half of their former ranges, the authors reported.

Southeast Asia, southern and East Africa and the Amazon are among areas in which multiple large carnivore species are declining. With some exceptions, large carnivores have already been exterminated from much of the developed world, including Western Europe and the eastern United States.

“Globally, we are losing our large carnivores,” said William Ripple, lead author of the paper and a professor in the Department of Forest Ecosystems and Society at Oregon State University.

“Many of them are endangered,” he said. “Their ranges are collapsing. Many of these animals are at risk of extinction, either locally or globally. And, ironically, they are vanishing just as we are learning about their important ecological effects.”

Ripple and colleagues from the United States, Australia, Italy and Sweden called for an international initiative to conserve large predators in coexistence with people. They suggested that such an effort be modeled on the Large Carnivore Initiative for Europe, a nonprofit scientific group affiliated with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature.

The researchers reviewed published scientific reports and singled out seven species that have been studied for their widespread ecological effects or “trophic cascades.” This includes African lions, leopards, Eurasian lynx, cougars, gray wolves, sea otters and dingoes.

Ripple and his Oregon State co-author Robert Beschta have documented impacts of cougars and wolves on the regeneration of forest stands and riparian vegetation in Yellowstone and other national parks in North America. Fewer predators, they have found, lead to an increase in browsing animals such as deer and elk. More browsing disrupts vegetation, shifts birds and small mammals and changes other parts of the ecosystem in a widespread cascade of impacts.

Studies of Eurasian lynx, dingoes, lions and sea otters have found similar effects, the authors reported.

Lynx have been closely tied to the abundance of roe deer, red fox and hare. In Australia, the construction of a 3,400-mile dingo-proof fence has enabled scientists to study ecosystems with and without the animals, which are closely related to gray wolves. In some parts of Africa, the decrease of lions and leopards has coincided with a dramatic increase in olive baboons, which threaten farm crops and livestock. In the waters off southeast Alaska, a decline in sea otters through killer whale predation has led to a rise in sea urchins and loss of kelp beds.

The authors call for a deeper understanding of the impact of large carnivores on ecosystems, a view that they trace back to the work of landmark ecologist Aldo Leopold. The classic concept that predators are harmful and deplete fish and wildlife is outdated, they said. Scientists and wildlife managers need to recognize a growing body of evidence for the complex roles that carnivores play in ecosystems and for their social and economic benefits.

Leopold recognized such relationships between predators and ecosystems, Ripple said, but his observations on that point were largely ignored for decades after his death in 1948.

“Human tolerance of these species is a major issue for conservation,” Ripple said. “We say these animals have an intrinsic right to exist, but they are also providing economic and ecological services that people value.”

Among the services that have been documented in other studies are carbon sequestration, riparian restoration, biodiversity and disease control.

Where large carnivores have been restored — such as wolves in Yellowstone or Eurasian lynx in Finland — ecosystems have responded quickly, said Ripple. “I am impressed with how resilient the Yellowstone ecosystem is. It isn’t happening quickly everywhere, but in some places, ecosystem restoration has started there.”

In those cases, where loss of vegetation has led to soil erosion, for example, full restoration in the near term may not be possible, he said.

“Nature is highly interconnected,” said Ripple. “The work at Yellowstone and other places shows how one species affects another and another through different pathways. It’s humbling as a scientist to see the interconnectedness of nature.”

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Leopard. credit Kirstin Abley copy 2
Leopard


Dingo, credit Ken Shaw copy 2
Dingo


Gray Wolf, credit- Doug McLaughlin copy 2
Gray Wolf


Sea otter, credit Norman S. Smith copy
Sea Otter


Eurasian lynx, credit Bodel Elmhagen copy
Eurasian Lynx


puma also known as cougar, credit william ripple
Puma

lion, credit kirstin abley
African Lion

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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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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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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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)