OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY

scientific research and advances

Hospice patients, practitioners face quandary about antibiotic use

PORTLAND, Ore. – A survey of hospice programs in Oregon found that only 31 percent had policies for initiating the use of antibiotics, and only 17 percent a policy for when to discontinue them – pointing to a continued uncertainty about the use of such medications in this select group of terminal patients.

The findings, published in the American Journal of Hospice and Palliative Medicine, are among the first to quantify policies for antibiotic use in hospice, where the primary goal is to promote patient comfort and quality of remaining life, but not to prolong it.

A concern highlighted in the research is that antibiotics may have unwanted side effects that can decrease a patient’s comfort, such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea or yeast infection. It found that such symptoms were observed “sometimes or often” by about half or more of responding hospice programs.

Respondents to the survey did say that they rarely or never use antibiotics to prolong patient’s lives – but 14 percent of programs also reported that this sometimes occurs.

“The lack of specific policies and guidelines about antibiotic use in hospice care reflects the difficulty and uncertainty that still exists in how to manage end-of-life care, even among this group of people who have chosen not to prolong their life,” said Jon Furuno, an associate professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy, and lead author on the study.

“There may be situations where antibiotic use does improve symptoms and patient comfort,” Furuno said. “On the other hand, antibiotic use is not always benign. They can have adverse events associated with their use, such as gastrointestinal problems. These are difficult decisions in a situation where we’re trying to reduce the number of medications taken at the end of life.”

The development of policies is also complicated by medical uncertainty over exactly how a patient may respond to antibiotic use, Furuno said, and by a paucity of scientific evidence over how well they may work to reduce symptoms in patients who are already terminally ill and often have compromised immune systems.

“The goals of hospice, in general, are fairly well understood by the parties involved, but the application in the field is much more variable,” Furuno said. “There will always be, and should be, flexibility in decisions that vary from patient to patient, and even if we did develop policies they could not be too rigid. But it would help if we could develop some better guidelines to help inform these decisions.”

According to Barbara Hansen, CEO of the Oregon Hospice Association, this study is an important first step toward quantifying the issues related to antibiotic use in hospice patients, and understanding current practices.

“This issue is challenging and problematic, but we all face it, and this research has now laid the groundwork to know what is happening in the field,” Hansen said. “We do need to be more systematic in our approaches, and give hospice practitioners more support in how to talk with patients and their families about antibiotic use.”

A step toward policies, Hansen said, might be guidance about determining whether an infection is actually causing a patient significant discomfort – if not, some may be better left untreated, rather than risk the additional complications that could ensue from treatment. And there may be communication that could be developed earlier to help family members understand the wishes of the patient being care for, she said.

Complicating the problem, the researchers said, is that antibiotic use is so ingrained in contemporary medicine. Previous studies at OSU have shown that 27 percent of hospice patients are still taking antibiotics in the final week of their life. This is a special concern for people who have specifically chosen an end-of-life approach that is focused on protecting the remaining quality of life without aggressively continuing medical treatment.

Hospice is covered by Medicare for people with a life expectancy of less than six months. It often allows people to die in their own homes, helps to reduce medical costs and hospital stays, and its services are now used by more than one third of dying Americans.

Collaborators on this study were from the OSU/OHSU College of Pharmacy and the Oregon Health & Science University. It was supported by the National Institutes of Health.

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Jon Furuno, 503-418-9361

Survey: Oyster industry more sold on ocean acidification impacts than public

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Although some people in the general public remain skeptical about the impacts of ocean acidification, a growing number of professionals who make their living off the ocean have become believers.

A newly published survey found that more than 80 percent of respondents from the United States shellfish industry on the West Coast are convinced that acidification is having consequences – a figure more than four times higher than that of public perception, researchers say. About half of the people in the industry report having already experienced some impact from acidification.

Results of the study, led by researchers at Oregon State University, are being published this week in the Journal of Shellfish Research. It was funded by Oregon Sea Grant.

“The shellfish industry recognizes the consequences of ocean acidification for people today, people in this lifetime, and for future generations – to a far greater extent than the U.S. public,” said Rebecca Mabardy, a former OSU graduate student and lead author on the study. “The good news is that more than half of the respondents expressed optimism – at least, guarded optimism – for the industry’s ability to adapt to acidification.”

The mechanisms causing ocean acidification are complex and few in the shellfish industry initially understood the science behind the issue, noted George Waldbusser, an OSU marine ecologist who has worked with Northwest oyster growers on mitigating the effects of ocean acidification. However, he added, many have developed a rather sophisticated understanding of the basic concepts of carbon dioxide impacts on the ocean and understand the risks to their enterprise.

“Many have seen the negative effects of acidified water on the survival of their juvenile oysters – and those who have experienced a direct impact obviously have a higher degree of concern about the issue,” Waldbusser pointed out. “Others are anticipating the effects of acidification and want to know just what will happen, and how long the impacts may last.”

“Because of some of the success we’ve had in helping some hatcheries adapt to changing conditions, there is a degree of optimism that the industry can adapt,” added Waldbusser, who was Mabardy’s mentor in the College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences at OSU.

Waldbusser’s colleague Burke Hales has worked with the Whiskey Creek Shellfish Hatchery and others to create a chemical monitoring and treatment regimen for seawater. Waldbusser’s research has shown there is a fine line in how quickly larval oysters must develop their shell at a stage when they are most vulnerable to the corrosiveness of acidified water.

Shellfish industry leaders were asked who should take the lead in responding to the challenges of acidification and their strong preference was the shellfish industry itself, followed by academic researchers. A majority said that any governmental regulations should be led by federal agencies, followed by the state and then local government.

“As a whole, the industry felt that they should be working closely with the academic community on acidification issues,” Waldbusser said. “In the spirit of full disclosure, there were some people who reported a distrust of academics – though without any specifics – so we clearly have some work to do to establish credibility with that subset of the industry.”

Among the other findings:

  • Of those respondents who said they have been affected by ocean acidification, 97 percent reported financial damage, while 68 percent cited emotional stress.
  • The level of concern reported by industry was: 36 percent, extremely concerned; 39 percent, very concerned; 20 percent, somewhat concerned; 4 percent, not too concerned; and 1 percent, not at all concerned.
  • Most respondents felt that ocean acidification was happening globally (85 percent), along the U.S. West Coast (86 percent), and in their local estuary (84 percent).

“One thing that came out of this survey is that we learned that not only is the shellfish industry experiencing and acknowledging ocean acidification,” Mabardy said, “they are committed to learning about the issue and its implications for their business. They want to share their insights as they are forced into action.”

“The next step is to continue shifting conversations about ocean acidification from acknowledgement of the problem, toward solution-oriented strategies,” she added.

Since graduating from OSU, Mabardy has worked at Taylor Creek Shellfish Hatchery in Washington and is now beginning a position as the outreach and project coordinator for the Pacific Coast Shellfish Growers Association.

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George Waldbusser, 541-737-8964, waldbuss@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Becky Mabardy, beckymabardy@gmail.com

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George Waldbusser (near) and Burke Hales of OSU work with the oyster industry on acidification monitoring and mitigation. Photo link: https://flic.kr/p/xn83LK

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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George Waldbusser (left) and Burke Hales.

 

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Industry leaders are concerned about the impact of ocean acidification on oysters.

Greenhouse gases caused glacial retreat during last Ice Age

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A recalculation of the dates at which boulders were uncovered by melting glaciers at the end of the last Ice Age has conclusively shown that the glacial retreat was due to rising levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, as opposed to other types of forces.

Carbon dioxide levels are now significantly higher than they were at that time, as a result of the Industrial Revolution and other human activities since then. Because of that, the study confirms predictions of future glacial retreat, and that most of the world’s glaciers may disappear in the next few centuries.

The findings were published today in Nature Communications by researchers from Oregon State University, Boston College and other institutions. They erase some of the uncertainties about glacial melting that had been due to a misinterpretation of data from some of these boulders, which were exposed to the atmosphere more than 11,500 years ago.

“This shows that at the end of the last Ice Age, it was only the increase in carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that could have caused the loss of glaciers around the world at the same time,” said Peter Clark, a professor in the OSU College of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Sciences, and co-author on the study.

“This study validates predictions that future glacial loss will occur due to the ongoing increase in greenhouse gas levels from human activities,” Clark said. “We could lose 80-90 percent of the world’s glaciers in the next several centuries if greenhouse gases continue to rise at the current rate.”

Glacial loss in the future will contribute to rising sea levels and, in some cases, have impacts on local water supplies.

As the last Ice Age ended during a period of about 7,000 years, starting around 19,000 years ago, the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere increased from 180 parts per million to 280 parts per million. But just in the past 150 years, they have surged from 280 to about 400 parts per million, far higher than what was required to put an end to the last Ice Age.

The new findings, Clark said, were based on a recalculation of the ages at which more than 1,100 glacial boulders from 159 glacial moraines around the world were exposed to the atmosphere after being buried for thousands of years under ice.

The exposure of the boulders to cosmic rays produced cosmogenic nuclides, which had been previously measured and used to date the event. But advances have been made in how to calibrate ages based on that data. Based on the new calculations, the rise in carbon dioxide levels - determined from ancient ice cores -matches up nicely with the time at which glacial retreat took place.

“There had been a long-standing mystery about why these boulders were uncovered at the time they were, because it didn’t properly match the increase in greenhouse gases,” said Jeremy Shakun, a professor at Boston College and lead author on the study. “We found that the previous ages assigned to this event were inaccurate. The data now show that as soon as the greenhouse gas levels began to rise, the glaciers began to melt and retreat.”

There are other forces that can also cause glacial melting on a local or regional scale, the researchers noted, such as changes in the Earth’s orbit around the sun, or shifts in ocean heat distribution. These factors probably did have localized effects. But the scientists determined that only the change in greenhouse gas levels could have explained the broader global retreat of glaciers all at the same time.

In the study of climate change, glaciers have always been of considerable interest, because their long-term behavior is a more reliable barometer that helps sort out the ups-and-downs caused by year-to-year weather variability, including short-term shifts in temperature and precipitation.

Other collaborators on this research were from the University of Wisconsin, Purdue University, and the National Center for Atmospheric Research. The work was supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation.

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Peter Clark, 541-737-1247

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Glacial melting

“Quantum dot” technology may help light the future

CORVALLIS, Ore. – Advances at Oregon State University in manufacturing technology for “quantum dots” may soon lead to a new generation of LED lighting that produces a more user-friendly white light, while using less toxic materials and low-cost manufacturing processes that take advantage of simple microwave heating.

The cost, environmental, and performance improvements could finally produce solid state lighting systems that consumers really like and help the nation cut its lighting bill almost in half, researchers say, compared to the cost of incandescent and fluorescent lighting.

The same technology may also be widely incorporated into improved lighting displays, computer screens, smart phones, televisions and other systems.

A key to the advances, which have been published in the Journal of Nanoparticle Research, is use of both a “continuous flow” chemical reactor, and microwave heating technology that’s conceptually similar to the ovens that are part of almost every modern kitchen.

The continuous flow system is fast, cheap, energy efficient and will cut manufacturing costs. And the microwave heating technology will address a problem that so far has held back wider use of these systems, which is precise control of heat needed during the process. The microwave approach will translate into development of nanoparticles that are exactly the right size, shape and composition.

“There are a variety of products and technologies that quantum dots can be applied to, but for mass consumer use, possibly the most important is improved LED lighting,” said Greg Herman, an associate professor and chemical engineer in the OSU College of Engineering.

“We may finally be able to produce low cost, energy efficient LED lighting with the soft quality of white light that people really want,” Herman said. “At the same time, this technology will use nontoxic materials and dramatically reduce the waste of the materials that are used, which translates to lower cost and environmental protection.”

Some of the best existing LED lighting now being produced at industrial levels, Herman said, uses cadmium, which is highly toxic. The system currently being tested and developed at OSU is based on copper indium diselenide, a much more benign material with high energy conversion efficiency.

Quantum dots are nanoparticles that can be used to emit light, and by precisely controlling the size of the particle, the color of the light can be controlled. They’ve been used for some time but can be expensive and lack optimal color control. The manufacturing techniques being developed at OSU, which should be able to scale up to large volumes for low-cost commercial applications, will provide new ways to offer the precision needed for better color control.

By comparison, some past systems to create these nanoparticles for uses in optics, electronics or even biomedicine have been slow, expensive, sometimes toxic and often wasteful.

Oher applications of these systems are also possible. Cell phones and portable electronic devices might use less power and last much longer on a charge. “Taggants,” or compounds with specific infrared or visible light emissions, could be used for precise and instant identification, including control of counterfeit bills or products.

OSU is already working with the private sector to help develop some uses of this technology, and more may evolve. The research has been supported by Oregon BEST and the National Science Foundation Center for Sustainable Materials Chemistry.

 

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Greg Herman, 541-737-2496

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First-ever discovery of a salamander in amber sheds light on evolution of Caribbean islands

CORVALLIS, Ore. – More than 20 million years ago, a short struggle took place in what is now the Dominican Republic, resulting in one animal getting its leg bitten off by a predator just before it escaped. But in the confusion, it fell into a gooey resin deposit, to be fossilized and entombed forever in amber.

The fossil record of that event has revealed something not known before – that salamanders once lived on an island in the Caribbean Sea. Today, they are nowhere to be found in the entire Caribbean area.

The never-before-seen and now extinct species of salamander, named Palaeoplethodon hispaniolae by the authors of the paper, adds more clues to the ecological and geological history of the islands of the Caribbean. Findings about its brief life and traumatic end – it was just a baby – have been published in the journal Palaeodiversity, by researchers from Oregon State University and the University of California at Berkeley.

“I was shocked when I first saw it in amber,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the OSU College of Science, and a world expert in the study of insects, plants and other life forms preserved in amber, all of which allow researchers to reconstruct the ecology of ancient ecosystems.

“There are very few salamander fossils of any type, and no one has ever found a salamander preserved in amber,” Poinar said. “And finding it in Dominican amber was especially unexpected, because today no salamanders, even living ones, have ever been found in that region.”

This fossil salamander belonged to the family Plethodontidae, a widespread family that today is still very common in North America, particularly the Appalachian Mountains. But it had back and front legs lacking distinct toes, just almost complete webbing with little bumps on them. As such, it might not have been as prolific a climber as some modern species, Poinar said, and it probably lived in small trees or tropical flowering plants.

This specimen, Poinar said, came from an amber mine in the northern mountain range of the Dominican Republic, between Puerto Plata and Santiago.

“The discovery of this fossil shows there once were salamanders in the Caribbean, but it’s still a mystery why they all went extinct,” Poinar said. “They may have been killed by some climatic event, or were vulnerable to some type of predator.”

Also a mystery, he said, is how salamanders got there to begin with. The physical evidence suggests the fossil represents an early lineage of phethodon salamanders that evolved in tropical America.

This fossil is 20-30 million years old, and its lineage may go back 40-60 million years ago when the Proto-Greater Antilles, that now include islands such as Cuba, Jamaica, Puerto Rico and Hispaniola, were still joined to North and South America. Salamanders may have simply stayed on the islands as they began their tectonic drift across the Caribbean Sea. They also may have crossed a land bridge during periods of low sea level, or it’s possible a few specimens could have floated in on debris, riding a log across the ocean.

Such findings, Poinar said, help both ecologists and geologists to reconstruct ancient events of the Earth’s history.

“There have been fossils of rhinoceroses found in Jamaica, jaguars in the Dominican Republic, and the tree that produced the Dominican amber fossils is most closely related to one that’s native to East Africa,” Poinar said. “All of these findings help us reconstruct biological and geological aspects of ancient ecosystems.”

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Salamander in amber

Salamander in amber


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Artist's image of fossil

Advance in photodynamic therapy offers new approach to ovarian cancer

PORTLAND, Ore. – Researchers at Oregon State University have made a significant advance in the use of photodynamic therapy to combat ovarian cancer in laboratory animals, using a combination of techniques that achieved complete cancer cell elimination with no regrowth of tumors.

The findings were just published in the journal Nanomedicine: Nanotechnology, Biology and Medicine, and after further research may offer a novel mechanism to address this aggressive and often fatal cancer that kills 14,000 women in the United States each year.

Ovarian cancer has a high mortality rate because it often has metastasized into the abdominal cavity before it’s discovered. Toxicity and cancer-cell resistance can also compromise the effectiveness of radiation and chemotherapy that’s often used as a follow-up to surgery.

The new approach being developed by researchers from the OSU College of Pharmacy and the University of Nebraska takes existing approaches to photodynamic therapy and makes them significantly more effective by adding compounds that make cancer cells vulnerable to reactive oxygen species, and also reducing the natural defenses of those cells.

“Surgery and chemotherapy are the traditional approaches to ovarian cancer, but it’s very difficult to identify all of the places where a tumor has spread, and in some cases almost impossible to remove all of them,” said Oleh Taratula, an assistant professor in the Oregon State University/Oregon Health & Science University College of Pharmacy.

“Photodynamic therapy is a different approach that can be used as an adjunct to surgery right during the operation, and appears to be very safe and nontoxic,” Taratula said. “In the past its effectiveness has been limited, but our new findings may make this technology far more effective than it’s ever been before.”

Using the new approach, a patient is first given a photosensitizing compound called phthalocyanine, which produces reactive oxygen species that can kill cells when they are exposed to near-infrared light. In addition, a gene therapy is administered that lowers the cellular defense against reactive oxygen species.

Both the phthalocyanine and genetic therapy, composed of “small, interfering RNA,” are attached to what researchers call “dendrimer-based nanoplatforms,” a nanotechnology approach developed by OSU researchers. It delivers the compounds selectively into cancer cells, but not healthy cells.

Compared to existing photodynamic therapies, this approach allows the near-infrared light to penetrate much deeper into abdominal tissues, and dramatically increases the effectiveness of the procedure in killing cancer cells.

Using photodynamic therapy alone, some tumors in laboratory animals began to regrow after two weeks. But with the addition of the combinatorial genetic therapy to weaken the cancer cell defenses, there was no evidence of cancer recurrence. During the procedures, mice receiving the gene therapy also continued to grow and gain weight, indicating a lack of side effects.

“Cancer cells are very smart,” Taratula said. “They overexpress certain proteins, including one called DJ1, that help them survive attack by reactive oxygen species that otherwise might kill them. We believe a key to the success of this therapy is that it takes away those defensive mechanisms.”

The overexpression of DJ1, researchers said in their study, is associated with invasion, metastasis, resistance to cancer therapies, and overall cancer cell survival. That excess of DJ1 is silenced by the genetic therapy composed of siRNA.

The findings of this research, Taratula said, could also build upon some other recent advances in photodynamic therapy, in which a different compound called naphthalocyanine could be administered prior to surgery, causing the cancer cells to “glow” and fluoresce when exposed to near-infrared light. This provides a literal road map for surgeons to follow, showing which tissue is cancerous and which is not.

There’s no reason that approach couldn’t be combined with the newest advance, Taratula said, providing multiple mechanisms to improve surgical success and, with minimal side effects, help eradicate any remaining cancer cells that were not completely removed.

“Our study established a prospective therapeutic approach against ovarian cancer,” the researchers wrote in their conclusion. “The tumors exposed to a single dose of a combinatorial therapy were completely eradicated from the mice.”

The studies were supported by the Medical Research Foundation of Oregon and the College of Pharmacy at OSU. Continued research will take place with treatment of malignant tumors on live dogs in the OSU College of Veterinary Medicine, prior to any human clinical tests.

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Oleh Taratula, 503-346-4704

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Toxic blue-green algae pose increasing threat to nation’s drinking, recreational water

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A report concludes that blooms of toxic cyanobacteria, or blue-green algae, are a poorly monitored and underappreciated risk to recreational and drinking water quality in the United States, and may increasingly pose a global health threat.

Several factors are contributing to the concern. Temperatures and carbon dioxide levels have risen, many rivers have been dammed worldwide, and wastewater nutrients or agricultural fertilizers in various situations can cause problems in rivers, lakes and reservoirs.

No testing for cyanobacteria is mandated by state or federal drinking water regulators, according to scientists from Oregon State University, nor is reporting required of disease outbreaks associated with algal blooms. But changes in climate and land use, and even increasing toxicity of the bacteria themselves, may force greater attention to this issue in the future, the researchers said.

An analysis outlining the broad scope of the problem has been published in Current Environmental Health Reports, by scientists from OSU and the University of North Carolina. The work was supported by the U.S. Geological Survey and the National Science Foundation.

The researchers also noted that problems with these toxins reach their peak during the heat of summer – as they are doing right now.

In 2015, drought and low snow pack throughout the West has led to large and toxic algal blooms earlier than in previous years. Toxic blooms have occurred for the second consecutive year in the Willamette River near Portland, Ore., and Upper Klamath Lake and most of the Klamath River have health warnings posted.

In a related marine concern, all along the West Coast many shellfish harvests are closed due to an ongoing event of domoic acid shellfish poisoning, producing what is thought to be the largest algal bloom in recorded history.

Cyanobacteria are ubiquitous around the world, and a 2007 national survey by the EPA found microcystin, a recognized liver toxin and potential liver carcinogen, in one out of every three lakes that were tested. Some of the toxic strains of cyanobacteria can also produce neurotoxins, while most can cause gastrointestinal illness and acute skin rashes.

Exposure to cyanobacteria is often fatal to pets or wildlife that drink contaminated water, and there have been rare cases of human fatalities. Last year the drinking water supply was temporarily shut down in Toledo, Ohio, a city of 500,000 people, due to cyanobacterial contamination of water taken from Lake Erie.

“The biggest health concern with cyanobacteria in sources of drinking water is that there’s very little regulatory oversight, and it remains unclear what level of monitoring is being voluntarily conducted by drinking water utilities,” said Tim Otten, a postdoctoral scholar in the OSU Department of Microbiology, and lead author on the study.

“At this point we only have toxicology data for a handful of these toxins, and even for those it remains unclear what are the effects of chronic, low-dose exposures over a lifetime,” Otten said. “We know some of the liver toxins such as microcystin are probable carcinogens, but we’ve really scratched only the surface with regard to understanding what the health effects may be for the bioactive metabolites produced by these organisms.”

Otten referred to the “precautionary principle” of protecting human health before damage is done.

“In my mind, these bacteria should be considered guilty until proven innocent, and in drinking water treated as potential pathogens,” he said. “I think cyanobacteria should be approached with significant caution, and deserve better monitoring and regulation.”

The issue is complex, because not all cyanobacteria are a problem, and in fact they play many positive roles as primary producers in oceans and fresh waters. They are among Earth’s oldest life forms, and more than two billion years ago helped produce much of the oxygen that made much other life on Earth possible, including humans. But various strains of them have likely always been toxic.

Scientists said a concern is that nutrient over-enrichment may select for the more toxic populations of these bacteria, creating a positive feedback loop that makes the problem even worse.

Researchers said in their analysis that modern water treatment does a reasonably good job of making drinking water safe, but the lack of required or widespread monitoring remains a problem. No one should drink untreated surface water that may be contaminated by cyanobacteria, and another serious concern is recreational exposure through swimming or other water sports.

Cyanobacteria-associated illnesses are not required to be reported under the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s guidelines, as most pathogens are. This makes accurate assessments of the incidence and severity of adverse health outcomes difficult to determine.

A recent study identified 11 freshwater lake, algal-bloom associated disease outbreaks, and 61 illnesses from 2009-10, based on reports from New York, Ohio, and Washington. The most common symptoms were skin rashes and gastroenteritis. There were no fatalities.

Many large, eutrophic lakes such as Lake Erie are plagued each year by algal blooms so massive that they are visible from outer space. Dogs have died from drinking contaminated water, and sea otter deaths in Monterey Bay have been attributed to them eating shellfish contaminated with microcystin that came from an inland lake.

Until better monitoring standards are in place, the researchers note, an unfortunate indicator of toxic algal bloom events will be illness or death among pets, livestock and wild animals that drink contaminated water.

One cannot tell visually if an algal bloom will be toxic or not, Otten said, and traditional microscopic cell counting and other approaches to assess risk are too slow for making time-sensitive, public health decisions. But the future holds promise. New DNA-based techniques can be used by experts to estimate health risks faster and cheaper than traditional methods.

Cyanobacterial toxins are not destroyed by boiling. However, individuals concerned about the safety of their drinking water may use regularly-changed point-of-use carbon filtration devices that are effective in reducing these health risks.

People should also develop an awareness of what cyanobacteria look like, in a natural setting appearing as green, paint-like surface scums. They should avoid water recreation on a lake or river that has these characteristics, researchers said.

 

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Tim Otten, 541-737-1796

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Wildlife ecologist working on teaching conservation in Africa

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A wildlife ecologist from Oregon was in Namibia last month, teaching a course to African students and faculty on the importance of maintaining connecting animal migration pathways when an American hunter killed a revered lion named Cecil in nearby Zimbabwe.

The irony was not lost on Susan Haig, a senior scientist with the U.S. Geological Survey and a professor of wildlife ecology at Oregon State University. Here she was at a tiny campus near the Okavango Delta in southern Africa, having paid her own way to teach a course on wildlife conservation to 35 African students, when a wealthy American trophy hunter fired the shot heard ‘round the world.

“The students thought it was just terrible,” Haig said. “It was an affront to their sense of nationalism that a person would come into Africa and do something like that. It was also ironic because their own government sells trophy hunting tags to foreign visitors.”

Haig said the shooting of Cecil underscores the lack of formal wildlife management programs in many African countries. Namibia has only one full-time wildlife professor in the country – and he is from Poland, she pointed out. Many of the Namibian students and faculty in her class are interested in pursuing a career in conservation and at least two may enroll this year at Oregon State if they can secure funding.

“Ideally, I would like to see a handful of Oregon State students go to the University of Namibia satellite campus at Katima and study each year, and bring a handful of Namibian students to OSU,” Haig said. “Oregon State is a national leader in conservation biology, and Katima is near one of the most important wildlife migration areas in Africa.”

The Okavango Delta is where several major rivers – including the Zambezi, Chobe, Okavango and others – meet in a huge wetland that provides critical habitat for a wide array of animals. The countries of Namibia, Angola, Zambia and Botswana recently signed an agreement to protect the migratory movements of large mammals in the region – an important first step in formalizing a conservation strategy, Haig said.

Botswana went so far as to ban many forms of hunting, she pointed out.

“Some of the governments are getting wise to the idea that there is more money to be made from tourism than from killing the animals,” she said. “There’s a pretty good job market now for tour guides, which is where a lot of students work. The next step is to get students at a younger age to think about conservation concepts.

“I would love to help start a grade-school curriculum about wildlife there,” she added. “The only time they think about lions is when they’re walking to school and worry about being attacked. One reason I wanted to teach the course in Katima is that there are so few opportunities for students there to learn about conservation – and these students are the future leaders of wildlife management.”

In her course, Haig discussed the importance of understanding wildlife corridors and migration patterns – and how that knowledge can be applied to other areas. One example, she said, is how the airline industry has studied migratory birds to reduce the frequency of plane crashes caused by collisions with birds.

She also outlined different ways to track animals, from molecular markers to listening devices to satellites. The students then had to design their own study. Haig and the students also had ample time to go into the field, where the diversity of Africa’s wildlife was on full display.

“There are more bird species in that one area of the Okavango Delta than in all of the United States and Canada combined,” Haig said. “We saw some incredible sights. One day we came upon a lioness with three cubs that had just killed a kudu, when a couple of hyenas arrived. They began calling and soon there were 23 of them. They assembled into a military-like position and systematically lunged at the lions until they ran off.

“Then the hyenas all started laughing, for lack of a better term, in that hyena-like way,” she added. “It was an incredible experience. I’ve never seen such organization and communication in animals.”

But her most memorable experiences came from traveling through small villages in Namibia, where she and incoming OSU student Kelly Huber gave away soccer balls. Haig, a veteran of trips to Africa and South America, had brought nearly a dozen deflated soccer balls on the trip and an air pump.

“The look in the eyes of the kids and parents when we brought out a soccer ball was unforgettable,” she said. “Outside of one village, we came across three little kids in the road and gave them a ball. Their eyes were just huge. It seems like such a small thing, but they acted like we had just given them a new house.”

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Sue Haig, 541-750-0981, susan.haig@usgs.gov

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Hippos in the Okavango Delta.

 

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A cheetah warily eyes the photographer.

 

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An African Grey Crowned Crane

Researchers studying Oregon’s “resident population” of gray whales

NEWPORT, Ore. – Every year, some 20,000 gray whales migrate between the breeding lagoons of Baja, Mexico, and the bountiful feeding grounds off British Columbia and Alaska, often passing close to shore along the Northwest coast – creating a popular tourist attraction.

For some reason, however, about 200 of these whales annually cut short their northern migration, opting instead to cavort along the coastline from northern California to Washington throughout much of the summer. Although they don’t live year-round off the Northwest coast, they are known informally as Oregon’s “resident” gray whales.

Scientists don’t know as much as they’d like about our ocean-dwelling neighbors, thus a team of researchers from Oregon State University, led by master’s student Florence van Tulder, aims to learn more. She is leading a project this summer to spot gray whales that like to frequent the Oregon coast, track their movements and behavior, and compare them with photo archives in an attempt to identify individual whales.

As part of the study, the OSU researchers will also monitor activities of commercial, charter and recreational fishing boats – as well as whale-watching vessels – to determine if they have an effect on the whales’ behavior.

“Our goal is not to curtail boat use in waters near whales, but to develop a list of best-practices that we can share with the fishing and whale-watching industries,” said van Tulder, who is a student in OSU’s Department of Fisheries and Wildlife in OSU’s College of Agricultural Sciences. “We’d like to learn more about these whales and better understand how and where they feed along the Oregon coast.”

For the next several weeks, van Tulder and her research team will set up viewing locations at two popular waysides – Port Orford and Boiler Bay State Park near Depoe Bay. There they will use a surveyor’s instrument called a theodolite to track and map the movement of individual whales at a fine scale as they forage. The data collected will tell them how the whales use different areas, how they search for food patches, and how they interact with vessels.

During the team’s first week at Boiler Bay, they spotted a whale with overlapping spots on its tail that they nicknamed ‘Mitosis.’ The whale did a quick “drive-by” and left the study area, but returned two days later and foraged for more than three hours in one small area of just a few hundred yards. The following day, Mitosis arrived again and didn’t stay as long, but covered a much broader area.

“We think the reason they’re attracted to these foraging hotspots along the Oregon coast is an abundance of mysid shrimp,” van Tulder said. “During summer months, the mysid can be really dense, from the seafloor to the surface, and really close to the shore. We want to know if this wealth of foraging is enough to get them to disrupt their migration north. Or is there some other mechanism at work that makes 200 whales act differently than the other 20,000? That’s what we hope to find out.

“There’s also the question of how they even locate the shrimp,” she added. “Gray whales don’t use echo-location, so how do these whales search for and find dense prey patches? It may be possible that this knowledge is passed along from mother to calf among this population subset.”

Gray whales are one of the few endangered species success stories, scientists say. The population of eastern gray whales has recovered from the exploitation of 20th-century whaling to become robust. Their near-shore migration has spawned a new industry of whale-watching along the Oregon coast that in 2009 was worth an estimated $29 million – a figure likely higher today.

Leigh Torres, an OSU whale specialist with the Marine Mammal Institute who is van Tulder’s mentor for the project, said the work done this summer by the student research team will help scientists learn more about how the whales use their habitat – and interact with humans.

“There is still a lot we don’t know about these whales, so the fine-scale tracking of their feeding behavior, with concurrent tracks of vessels, will be very enlightening,” Torres said. “We’d like to know more about how gray whale foraging strategies differ between the two study sites or when there is a dependent calf, or multiple whales are around.

“We’re also interested in how the whales behave when there are boats in the vicinity,” Torres added. “Are there behavior differences based on boat traffic and composition? Whales might react to some boats, but perhaps not others based on speed, approach, motor type, etc. We hope to give back to the whale and fishing industries what we’ve learned so they can establish their own guidelines about how close to get to whales so they can maintain a profitable business and the whales can continue to utilize the habitat.”

Federal law prohibits boats from approaching within 100 yards of whales.

The researchers also are interested in whether other gray whales may be joining the group of 200.

“It’s possible that other gray whales historically did what this population subset is doing now, but got away from it for some reason,” she said. “Or it may be that some whales are just opportunistic and want to stick around and chow down on the shrimp. With a long-term study, we hope to find out.”

van Tulder and her research team will alternate between Port Orford and Boiler Bay through mid-September and welcome interaction from the public.

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Florence van Tulder, 206-491-1166, vantuldf@onid.oregonstate.edu;


Leigh Torres, 541-867-0895, leigh.torres@oregonstate.edu 

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The OSU research team at Port Orford.

Northwest residents should channel fear of earthquake into pragmatic action

CORVALLIS, Ore. – A national news article suggesting that everything in Oregon west of Interstate-5 “would be toast” in a major Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake certainly drew attention to the seismic reality facing the Pacific Northwest.

The concern, though, is that people are focusing on the most draconian or extreme scenarios, experts say, which can lead to a sense of fatalism. The reaction illustrates the state of earthquake and tsunami preparedness – or lack thereof – in the United States, said Patrick Corcoran, a Sea Grant education and outreach specialist at Oregon State University who works with coastal communities on disaster preparedness.

It’s a matter of feast or famine.

“The Cascadia Subduction Zone has shifted from a science project to a social studies project,” Corcoran said. “We need to find a sweet spot between fear and action. What I try to do is temper the tendency of people to toggle between the poles of ‘it won’t happen here’ and ‘it will be so bad that there’s no use worrying about it.’”

Oregon has been taking some of the first serious steps toward earthquake mitigation, said Scott Ashford, dean of OSU’s College of Engineering and chair of governor-appointed task force on preparation. Recent legislation has resulted in a large increase in funding for K-12 and emergency facility seismic retro-fitting, as well as the creation of a new position – the state’s first Chief Resilience Officer.

Oregon is also working on some of the first tsunami building codes, which likely will be implemented over the next few years.

Oregon State University scientists have been warning Pacific Northwest citizens for more than a quarter of a century about the potential of a major earthquake in the Cascadia Subduction Zone. The subduction of a tectonic plate beneath North America has the potential to trigger an earthquake ranging from  magnitude 8.0, as happened in Chile in 2010, to 9.0 (or greater), which took place in Japan in 2011.

Scientists believe that a magnitude 9.0-plus earthquake, which Corcoran calls “the largest of the large,” would likely trigger a tsunami that could devastate coastal communities, while the earthquake could destroy infrastructure throughout western Oregon and Washington, including roads, bridges, water and sewer lines, and the power grid.

However, he added, the more probable scenario is an earthquake on “the average side of large,” where the damage is less. The best response isn’t necessarily to flee the region, Corcoran said, but to become pro-active in preparing for a disaster.

As residents in Japan, Nepal, Chile and other countries have done, Northwesterners need to learn to live with the realistic threat of an earthquake and tsunami – not ignore the threat and hope they don’t happen.

The best approach, Corcoran says, is to prepare for the “most likely next event” – and that doesn’t necessarily mean the destruction of western Oregon as we know it.

“We don’t insist on the worst-case scenario with driving vehicles,” Corcoran said. “We don’t have a zero-tolerance for car fatalities. We try to do our best to identify and mitigate the risks, but we assume a great deal of risk. We don’t require that all cars be able to hit a brick wall at 100 miles per hour and have passengers unharmed. That’s impractical. We need to consider a similar approach with earthquakes.”

Chris Goldfinger, a professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and a leading expert on the Cascadia Subduction Zone, estimates that the chances of a major earthquake off the coast from northern California to just south of Astoria are about 24 percent in the next 50 years. “South of Cape Blanco, Ore., the chances increase to about 37 percent,” he added.

Goldfinger said the furor in news reports and on social media about western Oregon becoming “toast” have been misconstrued. The Federal Emergency Management Agency has to prepare for a worst-case scenario as the starting point for its planning, he said, but that doesn’t mean that experts think western Oregon will be destroyed.

So, how big will the next Northwest earthquake be? No one knows. Thus outreach specialists like Corcoran say the prudent thing to do is plan for a range of events. “Discussing the range and likelihood of the next event can bring some air into the room.”

Corcoran said preparation helped save 90 percent of the 200,000 people in the inundation zone during Japan’s 2011 earthquake and tsunami. The Northwest has a much smaller coastal population, he added. On the other hand, Japan was much more prepared for disaster.

“We have to prepare commensurate with the risk,” Corcoran said. “Our society tends to be dismissive of preparation, especially evacuation drills. They are silly, they are embarrassing and it’s usually raining. The only people who actually do drills are high schools and hospitals because they are required to. But drills save lives, as they learned in Japan.”

Communities and individuals can prepare for natural disasters by understanding that they eventually will happen. Once you accept that and actually expect it, Corcoran said, preparation becomes second nature. Strap down water heaters, learn where the shutoff valve for natural gas may be in your house, and have several days of food and water available, he added.

People on the coast living in inundation zones should identify areas of high ground near their homes, work and recreation areas. “Work locally to make them accessible,” Corcoran said, “then conduct practice drills on how to get to them.”

OSU engineering dean Ashford is spearheading an initiative called the Cascadia Lifeline Project that is organizing public utilities, transportation agencies, and others to begin work on how to prepare for life after a major earthquake. Communities need to think about restoring vital services after an earthquake, including power, water, sewer and others.

Ashford testified to Congress in May about the need for public agencies, private businesses and individuals to develop the resilience to withstand an earthquake. He urged Congress to support three federal initiatives:

  • Invest in more resilient transportation networks that will be critical to rescue, relief and recovery efforts following a natural disaster;
  • Partner with states to require seismic resilience of federally regulated utilities that transport liquid fuel through pipelines and supply the majority of a state’s population, such as in Oregon;
  • Invest in applied research to improve earthquake resilience.

“It will take 50 years for us to fully prepare for this impending earthquake,” Ashford said. “We can’t simply go out and replace all of our existing infrastructure. But we can start now, and we can begin to find ways to better retro-fit, replace or repair things after an earthquake.”

Corcoran said most people are not tuned into long-term threats like300-year earthquake cycles. Since people in the Pacific Northwest only recently learned about this major recurring natural disaster, it is natural for some to feel blindsided by the knowledge and not fully embrace it, he added.

Recent media attention has wakened some people to the idea of an earthquake, but it is critical to channel that awareness into positive action, he said.

“As good as our local emergency officials are, they will be overwhelmed by the sheer magnitude of the circumstances when a major earthquake takes place,” Corcoran said. “Preparation must begin with the individual, then focus on mutual aid among neighbors, and finally on public aid and assistance. Businesses, too, must support the safety of their employees and customers.”

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Source: 

Pat Corcoran, 503-325- 8573, Patrick.corcoran@oregonstate.edu;

Chris Goldfinger, 541-737-5214, gold@coas.oregonstate.edu;

Scott Ashford, 541-737-5232, scott.ashford@oregonstate.edu

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Scott Ashford measures ground upheaval in Japan.

 

Toppled building in Concepcion

An earthquake-toppled building in Chile.

 

 

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Patrick Corcoran works with coastal communities.