How to Build the White Cliffs of Dover

By Tom Evans

The White Cliffs of Dover are one of Britain’s greatest natural wonders. Indeed, the oldest known name for our sceptered isle is Albion—based on the Indo-European root for “white”, an allusion to this majestic landscape. The cliffs, which reach up 110 metres high, are composed of a fine, soft chalk that mostly consists of layers of intricate structures known as coccoliths, thin plates of calcium carbonate.

public domain, no creditThe plates are produced by microscopic photosynthetic algae in the sea known as coccolithophores and these single-celled creatures assemble their plates to form a protective shell, known as a coccosphere. The most abundant of these algae is Emiliania huxleyi, or EHUX. This algae is famous for its ability to bloom: dense populations of the phytoplankton can cover up to 100,000 square kilometers and are easily visible by satellites in orbit as the chalk plates turn the colour of the water a milky white.

Eventually the bloom fades away as the algae gradually die. And remarkably, their cause of death is quite often a virus. We usually think of viruses living in the air or inside our bodies, but in fact the ocean is teeming with viruses – up to as many as 100 billion viruses can be found in just one litre of seawater! EHUX virus 86 infects the algal bloom, and just as quickly as they bloomed, the algae die off. When the algae die, their coccosphere sinks to the seabed. Their boom and bust lifestyle means it gradually accumulates. And if you wait a few million years you end up with the vast and glittering White Cliffs of Dover.

Acid in the face of marine life

By James Forsythe

So the planet is warming up like the 19th century chemist Svante Arrhenius theorised it would, due to an increase in carbon dioxide (CO2) and the resulting greenhouse effect. But the oceans have absorbed approximately half of all human-caused CO2 emissions from the time of Arrhenius onwards, significantly slowing down climate change. This may sound wonderful but what are the effects of that on the ocean environment?

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Credit: Mikhail Rogov

Dissolving CO2 in the ocean leads to the formation of carbonic acid. This is predicted to lower the pH of the ocean by about 0.4 units by the end of the century, to levels unexperienced by sea creatures for over 20 million years, and the rate of acidification is already 100 times faster than the last time the oceans acidified 20,000 years ago.

The CO2 will also react with water and carbonate ions to form bicarbonate ions, decreasing carbonate ion availability. This combined with acidification will be bad for organisms with calcareous shells and skeletons including corals, molluscs and plankton, as they will not be able to form such shells or skeletons as easily. Some of these species are economically important, and the knock on effects of any reduction in the numbers of the affected species will doubtlessly change the face of marine life.

If you want to help a mammoth, buy them flowers….

By Charlie Whittaker

Mammoths have been in the news a lot lately, predominantly due to the recent discovery of a particularly well preserved specimen. There was talk of good condition blood being found, perhaps facilitating the extraction of DNA and the generation of new, 21st century edition woollies.

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A gift for a discerning mammoth?
Credit Jamiesrabbits

But how did they die out in the first place? Everything from climate change, to comet impact, through to human based overhunting have been bandied as reasons for the loss of the majestic mammoth from the face of the earth. But a new study suggests the answer may be a little more mundane than that.

I am, of course, talking about a grass invasion. Anti-climax I know, but consider this: the primary staple of mammoths and other “megafauna” found in that region of the world at the time were broad leafed, flowering plants called “forbs”. This is a diverse family, including tansies and yarrow, and would have represented a key source of protein for the animals.

This all changed about 10,000 years ago: the composition of the flora inhabiting the Arctic shifted substantially, becoming dominated by grasses.

Past studies have failed to pick up this shift, due to their reliance upon pollen analysis. An exceptionally useful marker of flora presence, fossilised pollen found in permafrost or frozen soil can paint a vivid picture of the diversity and makeup of the vegetation inhabiting a region at a given time. This picture can be skewed however, particularly in the case of grasses, which produce huge amounts of pollen and therefore bias the picture of the landscape painted.

This study looked at plant genetic material found in numerous permafrost samples, as well as analysing the DNA found in the guts of fossilised faeces of 8 animals (4 wooly mammoths, 2 wooly rhinoceroses, 1 bison and a horse) that lived in the Arctic during that period.

All of this showed the forbs to be a stable in the diet of these animals: rich in protein and other nutrients, their continued perseverance in the Arctic landscape is thought to have been essential to continued survival of the animals there.

When these disappeared, 10-15,000 years ago, being replaced with comparatively non-nutritious grasses, the animals there were deprived of a staple foodstuff. This is thought to have massively hastened their extinction.

So, if we do eventually resurrect any woolly mammoths, and you want to be kind, then get on their good side and buy them flowers!

Read the full study here.

The Hidden Costs of Ethanol

By Sophie Harrington

For the last few years, biofuels have been a hot topic in the discussion of alternative fuel sources. The addition of ethanol to fuel, in particular, has helped spur the industry on. In the United States, 3.75 billion gallons of ethanol are required to be blended into petrol supplies.

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Credit: Seth Anderson

However, as ethanol began to be added to petrol supplies, significant concerns were raised regarding the effect on corn prices. The initially small size of ethanol production failed to have much of an effect on corn prices as a whole. However, dramatic increases in the industry size have reached the point where ethanol is expected to soon become the predominant use for corn in the U.S., overtaking livestock feed.

The Food and Agriculture Administration (FAO) has claimed that the increasing demand for ethanol has drastically raised the prices of maize worldwide, nearly tripling between 2002 and 2012. In the United States, the Renewable Food Standard has been critical in driving the growth of the biofuels industry, primarily ethanol, by requiring a minimum fraction of petrol to be made up of biofuels. According to some reports, if only 10.6% of global corn production was diverted towards ethanol rather than towards food production, a 68% rise in global corn prices would be expected.

While certain groups have argued that the purported link between ethanol production and rising corn prices is merely a symptom of rising food prices as a whole, significant concerns have been raised regarding the effect of biofuel production on food security across the world.

Debate is currently ongoing in the US regarding the fate of the new Renewable Fuel Standard. Cuts to biofuel requirements are being considered, supported particularly by the oil lobby. Biofuel lobbyists are contending that removing federal support from the industry would only serve to increase reliance on foreign fuel and hurt investment in the industry. The revisions include a cut of between 1.25 and 2.25 billion gallons of the ethanol required to be blended into fuel.

Many have pointed towards second-generation biofuels as the answer to the food conundrum. After all, developing fuel from non-food crops would eliminate the concern that biofuels were driving up prices. Yet research into other sources of biofuels has yet to present alternatives with the same yield and profit margin as ethanol. Whether or not the changes to the Renewable Fuel Standard go into effect could potentially have a dramatic impact not only on the price of corn worldwide, but also on the research funding provided to second-generation biofuels.

For more information, see the Heritage Foundation’s report on the Renewable Fuel Standard.

Prototaxites: Fungal Obelisks or World’s Oldest Carpet?

By Nathan Smith

A long time ago in a galaxy far far aw…..well actually in our galaxy, indeed on our planet, there existed tree-like organisms up to 8.8m tall (that’s approximately 4.5 doors tall or, for a more enjoyable measurement, roughly the size of two T-Rexs standing one on top of the other with the one on top wearing a party hat) and 1.36m wide. Found between 420 and 370 million years ago, its internal structure consisted of tiny intertwining tubes less than 50 micrometres in diameter.

Prototaxites_Dawson1888Prototaxites existed well before the developments of trees; its surrounding environment consisted of mats of moss and liverworts, populated by giant invertebrates, such as an ancient form of scorpion that could reach up to a metre long. The historical views of these structures are that they are the fossilised remains of huge external fungal structures; organic statues standing defiant in an otherwise flat landscape.  There are also suggestions that these giant structures may have had algal symbionts, and therefore should be classified as a lichen. Amongst other things, this suggestion would give good reason for why such structures became ‘extinct’ —this being that they were outcompeted by the emergence of vascular land plants in terms of being able to access the light they required.

But maybe Prototaxites aren’t fungi. Maybe they aren’t even a unique organism. There is an alternative theory; one that suggests that these giant structures weren’t signs of fungal domination but rather the results of an epic battle between nature and itself. Specifically, it suggests that the giant structures are the result of mats of liverworts being pulled up from the ground and rolled up by means of wind, water, or gravity, with algae and fungi possibly being caught up in the mix. Its evidence for this suggestion comes from the similarity in microstructure between fossilised Prototaxites and artificially created liverwort rolls, the paper being published in the American Journal of Botany in 2009.

Whether tree-like fungi or sections of liverwort torn out of the ground, Prototaxites remain a fossilised oddity of a time long since forgotten.

Three in the bed make for a hot relationship

By Nathan Smith

A plant, a fungus, and a virus live together in an environment inhospitable to each partner on their own. This isn’t an absurdist sitcom that’s been written whilst high in the garden, but a genuine biological phenomenon.

The plant, a type of grass known as Panic Grass (Dichanthelium lanuginosum), can grow at temperatures of up to 65C (for a point of comparison, the lethal temperature for humans is about 40C). It is found growing in Yellowstone National Park but only when it has a fungal symbiont Curvularia protuberata and this in turn is ‘infected’ with Curvularia thermal tolerance virus (CThTV).

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Too close for comfort? Not for Panic Grass, found near geysers in Yellowstone National Park in the United States

The ecological love-triangle was shown to be necessary for the plant-partner’s survival. This was done by infecting the plant with a ‘cured’ fungus (one that lacks the virus) and comparing it to a plant with both fungus and virus and a plant with no symbionts. The plants were then treated to growing conditions of 65C for 10hrs and 37C for 14hrs. At the end of the treatment, only plants with both partners remained healthy. Furthermore, all plants with both symbionts remained alive whereas the majority of the plants with only the fungus or nothing at all died before the experiment was completed.

However, panic grass isn’t that important or useful to us. It’s not eaten, nor is it cultured to produce fibre or biofuels. So is there any point to this knowledge? Well, the tri-kingdom system can be translated into more economically important crops. It has been shown that the fungal symbiont can colonise the roots of tomato plants and provide protection against higher temperatures, though not to the same extent as is provided to panic grass. It also suggests that the adaption to this system is widespread in nature, as panic grass and tomatoes diverged relatively early in the evolution of plants.

This certainly is hot stuff!

International Seeds of Mystery

By Sophie Harrington

The path to new varieties of hybrid seeds created by companies such as Monsanto and Pioneer is long and expensive. They come from crosses between lines of inbred seeds, each line of which can cost between 30 and 40 million USD and take up to 8 years to develop. These seeds are closely guarded by the companies, with concerns that individuals or other companies might attempt to obtain varieties of inbred seed that they could then cross with a separate inbred, creating their own hybrid line. But until recently international espionage hadn’t been considered.

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Are spies stealing our seeds? (Credit Tony Fischer Photography)

As reported in the New York Times, various Chinese nationals are suspected of returning inbred rice seeds to crop researchers in mainland China. Mo Hailong is one of the few who has been charged with stealing trade secrets. Mr. Mo was caught in 2011 digging up seeds in a DuPont research farm, from which he fled in true super-spy style in a getaway car. The F.B.I had Mr. Mo under surveillance until his arrest last December.

While the implication of China in a case of so-called “economic espionage” is in and of itself not particularly surprising, the reach into agriculture is unprecedented. But perhaps this, too, is to be expected. Growing middle class populations have resulted in a sharp increase in demand for meat, putting pressure on the supply of corn, often diverted for use as animal feed rather than as food. In the US requirements for ethanol in fuel have also served to drive up the prices of the crop. Obtaining a new line of more virile and fit crops, such as corn, could be crucial in allowing an increase in production.

Yet the strict control that companies such as Monsanto and DuPont have maintained over their proprietary seeds has been a barrier to the easy dissemination of such traits. Corn yields per plant in China haven’t changed significantly in many years, while it’s been over 10 years since the last major Chinese hybrid strain was developed. Stealing the inbred lines developed by American corporations appears to be much quicker and more effective when you aren’t caught. It’s unlikely that this will be the last we hear of agricultural espionage.

More details on the case can be found here

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU (2)

Nick Dinan talks to James Roberts from the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union about the role of Genetically Modified Organisms in a Christian world view.

Read Part 1 of the interview here.

Nick Dinan: With regard to ‘not rushing things’, would it be right to frame your opinion as one that believes global issues such as global hunger are important, but if we want solutions we should take the slow route despite the urgency of these problems?

James Roberts: We could do a whole load of things other than GM crops to solve world hunger, such as better distributing the food we’ve got. There are perfectly adequate stopgap measures while we think about GM crops and evaluate them – whilst we make 100% sure that they’re all right. Doing that is a much better option than simply going ‘oh, GM crops are the answer here’ – it might not be.

ND: In May 2013 Monsanto sued, and won $85,000 from, a 75-year-old farmer for sowing the next generation seeds of the seeds that they had sold. Do you think there’s a major concern with the exploitation of GM crops by larger companies?

JR: You have situations where whole groups of people are dependent on the seeds of a genetically modified crop. Seeds are marked up in price and aren’t affordable, and the farmers end up in a worse position than before. We need to consider how to ensure that this technology isn’t manipulated simply for profit by big business. We need to think about how to regulate that.

ND: I assume that most people in the Christian community would agree with this?

JR: The Christian community I can say generally agrees on this, and I think this applies to a wider range of issues than GM crops as well; the issue of justice is one that hopefully would be close to home.

ND: So the ‘Christian value’ would be to help people, but in a way that conforms to what you’re taught in the Bible?

JR: I would say that the Christian moral standpoint should come from the Bible. That has to be our first authority on everything. So how we think through these issues should ultimately derive its reasoning back from the Bible.

ND: And finally – you said that your opinion came from studying biology in school, so it obviously was the result of some educational exposure. Do you think that members of the Christian community could do a lot more in educating themselves on the biology of GM crops before making an opinion?

JR: We need to make decisions based on the facts, based on what we’re presented with through the education system. I don’t think that’s our responsibility; the government has to give us the facts. Then, what we do with them has to conform with our reading of scripture. If someone’s honest view is that tampering with God’s creation is morally wrong, then I think no matter the biology that’s the conclusion they have to come to. However, if someone from scripture like myself has come to the conclusion that tampering with God’s work is not the problem, then the next step down in your reasoning has to be whether or not the biology says it’s the right thing to be doing. Have we got a full enough grasp of how it works to be able to do it in a way that isn’t going to cause damage? Can we do it as responsible stewards? If it’s yes to that, then I think the conclusion that we should come to is ‘yes, it’s fine’.

Christianity and GMOs: An Interview with CICCU

By Nick Dinan

As a scientist and atheist, a perspective of genetically modified (GM) crops rooted in religion is one that is naturally foreign to me. I sat down with James Roberts, representing the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union (CICCU), to explore the moral conflicts of GM foods – are they rebelling against scripture or are they acceptable within the standards of the Bible?

Nick Dinan: What are your personal views on GM crops? 

James Roberts: Personally, I think they’re a bad idea, but not from a Christian perspective. I don’t think that the technology is good enough to ensure that something bad doesn’t happen.

ND: Do you think that your particular views are representative of the Christian church, or at least the Christian Society within Cambridge?

JR: I think there’s a broad spectrum of viewpoints. There’ll certainly be some people who are against it, because quite stereotypically you’re ‘playing God’. However I don’t particularly think it’s an issue. The Bible in Genesis calls for us to be stewards of the world, care for God’s creation and to look after it under his ultimate rule. So I don’t think GM crops are particularly different from what we’ve been doing for thousands of years through selective breeding – it’s just skipping out a couple of steps.

ND: You point out that we help the plants skip a couple of steps ahead. Technology is progressing to the stage where we may take a few steps further than that. Where do you think the line will be drawn for GM crops to still fall under God’s natural order of things?

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Credit leyink

JR: It’s a very grey area. It depends what you’re trying to do and what you’re trying to achieve. If there is some kind of beneficial goal at the end then I think that probably justifies what you’re doing. For example, if you’re going to end up with a plant that produces something beneficial, you can probably justify it. However, if you’re just fiddling around with genes out of curiosity then that’s not such a great thing.

ND: Developing these techniques to eventually reach a positive goal is often the result of ‘fiddling around’ without knowledge of what future benefits may be. In that respect, how would you distinguish between fiddling around and aiming towards a positive goal?

JR: It comes down to your motivations – are you being a good steward? Are you keeping in mind the risks and what could potentially go wrong? Are you taking precautions? Basically, we want good scientific practice. Thinking through those things is what differentiates between carelessness and actually doing something that can benefit the scientific community and humanity.

ND: From your own perspective, do you believe that someone who disagrees with GM foods for religious reasons should then logically be against gene therapy in humans?

JR: I think the underlying question is that there’s a difference between humanity and the rest of creation; humanity is made under God’s image as a special creation. However gene therapy and GM crops seems to me almost as one in the same thing, you just need to be more careful with humans. I don’t think that if you’ve decided to be against GM crops you could say that gene therapy is okay, but I’d add a pinch of salt to that as I don’t know the ins and outs of gene therapy.

ND: So in terms of a being a steward to these resources, surely we should be doing the best to help those around us. For example, golden rice provides a precursor to vitamin A, and vitamin A deficiency is something that kills 675,000 children a year – GM crops can really help people. Is there a moral dichotomy between tampering with God’s work and helping these people?

JR: So I think being a good steward involves not only making the best use of resources, but also being responsible with what we’re using. If the risks involved in creating golden rice were too great, then no matter what the potential gain of the end goal is, it’s not right. The ends don’t justify the means if your means are full of hazards. But I don’t think that you’re tampering with God’s creation if you’re manipulating crops.

ND: I know that you’re very much focused on the risks of GM food, but putting yourself in the shoes of a someone who is against GM crops from a Christian moral context, is there a conflict between the potential gains of GM crops and the fact that GM crops could be a moral injustice?

JR: I think if their conscience is telling them that ‘to do this would be to go against God’s rule’, then for them to sanction it is wrong no matter what the potential gain is. If they see it as rebelling against God, then it is not something they should do.

ND: I want to return to your concerns that you mentioned in your first answer about the risks of accidentally putting toxins in. A wheat crop undergoing testing in the UK has been engineered for Aphid resistance using naturally occurring, non-toxic proteins existing in the food chain. Toxins are therefore highly regulated and the risk is low. Do you think that despite the chance of toxicity being very small, we shouldn’t support GM foods?

JR: I think it’s something you’d need to think very carefully through. You need to think about the long term as you could have something that could build up in the ecosystem and be toxic at higher concentrations. It’s just about caution, really. I think we should be against GM crops as a whole as it’s just not something we should rush into. We need to make sure we’ve thought of all the hazards and risks. If it’s fine, then why not, but we always need to bear in mind that we don’t think about these things properly a lot of the time. The scientific process is riddled with potential biases and errors and things that we don’t spot like thalidomide and that kind of thing. We often have an under appreciation of the hazards involved

Part 2 of this interview will appear on the 4th of February