Triple copies of gene make maize tolerant to toxic soil

Rendering some of the world’s toxic soils moot, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), Boyce Thompson Institute for Plant Research and Cornell researchers are learning to grow stress-tolerant crops on formerly non-farmable land.

In this effort, when plant scientists searched the maize genome for clues as to why some plants can tolerate toxic aluminum in soil, they found three copies of the same gene known to affect aluminum tolerance, according to new USDA/Cornell-led research.

Aluminum toxicity comes close to rivaling drought as a food-security threat in critical tropical food-producing regions…

“We found three functional copies that were identical,” said senior author Leon Kochian, director of the…USDA-ARS Plant, Soil and Nutrition Laboratory at Cornell. “This is one of the first examples of copy number variation contributing to an agronomically important trait.”

The finding points to the importance of looking for multiple copies of a gene for higher expression of certain traits. “This could be a key factor for other traits of agricultural importance,” said Kochian.

The research came out of a long collaboration on aluminum tolerance with Embrapa Maize and Sorghum in Brazil, which provided the aluminum-tolerant maize germplasm where the 3-copy allele was discovered…By sequencing the genomic regions that harbor the MATE1 gene in aluminum-tolerant and aluminum-sensitive plants, lead author Lyza Maron found a similar MATE1 allele…in both types of plants. But when she examined copy number variation, she found the aluminum-tolerant plant had three copies, while the intolerant plant had only one copy of the MATE1 allele.

Bravo! Lousy soil chemistry is as difficult a problem in many lands as water shortage.

Bee declines in the Northeast US confirmed


Bombus affinus

Northeastern bees have suffered population declines over the last century and a half, largely due to human encroachment, which has fragmented their environments. But none has faced a more devastating, rapid and recent collapse than the genus Bombus — the humble bumblebee — say entomologists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences…

Combing through the Cornell University Insect Collection — with some 7 million insect specimens representing more than 200,000 species — and other collections, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, Rutgers University and the University of Connecticut, entomologists were able to track patterns of bee abundance in eastern North America over 140 years…

Studying more than 30,000 museum specimens representing 438 bee species present in the Northeast from 1872 to 2011, the researchers found slight declines in the number of bee species over time. Also, they found that more than half of all bee species changed in relative size proportion over time. Species found in lower proportions now tend to have larger body sizes and more restricted diets, and are active fewer months of the year. Bees without these characteristics do not show evidence of decline.

The researchers found that three species in the genus Bombus suffered recent and rapid population collapses: the rusty-patched bumblebee, Bombus affinis, a crop pollinator for potato and apple; B. pensylvanicus; and B. ashtoni. Of special worry is the Macropis patellata, an oil bee, which had shown gradual, historical decline before 1950 and not been collected in the Northeast since 1991.

Regional species found at lower latitudes increased in abundance, possibly due to global climate change. The results, say the authors, could help guide conservation efforts aimed at protecting native bee populations and the pollination services they provide.

Kudos to the researchers from Cornell, American Museum of Natural History and Rutgers. I realize this is a labor of love; but, it doesn’t get any easier when researching old collections – with old catalogues.

And it doesn’t get any easier when a lot of what you’re discovering is bad news.

Great Backyard Bird Count goes global for the first time


Cedar Waxwing: Ben Thomas, 2012 GBBC 1st place photo

From Antarctica to Afghanistan, bird watchers from 101 countries made history in the first global Great Backyard Bird Count (GBBC), Feb. 15-18.

In the largest worldwide bird count ever, bird-watchers set new records, counting more than 25 million birds on 116,000 checklists in four days — and recording 3,138 species, nearly one-third of the world’s total bird species. The data will continue to flow in until March 1.

Building on the success of the GBBC in the United States and Canada for the past 15 years, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Audubon and Bird Studies Canada opened the count to the world for the first time this year, powered by eBird, a system that enables people to report birds globally in real time and explore the results online. Bird-watchers are invited to keep counting every day of the year at http://www.eBird.org

Hurricane Sandy: The weather system that caused Sandy’s landfall also blew some European birds to North America, and evidence of this is still showing up in GBBC results. The colorful, crested northern lapwing was reported in Georgia, New Jersey and Massachusetts during the GBBC.

…A red-flanked bluetail has wintered at Queens Park, Vancouver, and was also reported in the GBBC for the first time. This British Columbia bird has been drawing bird-watchers from all over the United States and Canada hoping to see this rarity. This little thrush is one of the only birds in the world with a striking blue tail and is native to Asia: the other GBBC report of the red-flanked bluetail this year was from Japan.

RTFA for interesting stats. Visit the ebird site.

When you can, join in next year and help build knowledge at the grassroots level about the feathered critters who share this planet with us.

Iron in new maize strains absorbed readily, easily


Raymond Glahn and Elan Tako – and broiler chicks

Researchers at Cornell have developed a strain of maize with a high iron bioavailability, meaning more of the iron that is present naturally in these maize lines can be absorbed.

The researchers, all from the U.S. Department of Agriculture – Agricultural Research Service’s Robert Holley Center on the Cornell campus, tested more than 100 maize strains for differences in iron bioavailability. They did this by introducing simulated digestions of the individual maize strains to cultured human intestinal cells and measuring the iron bioavailability. Using a technique known as quantitative trait loci (QTL) mapping, they correlated this measure with areas of the maize genome, which helped guide the maize breeding.

Iron deficiency is the most prevalent nutritional deficiency and cause of anemia in the world. Although boosting the nutritional quality of iron in staple food crops can help, increasing iron concentrations in the crop does not guarantee increased iron absorption.

“We had two options: to increase the concentration or to increase the bioavailability. Our maize breeder, Dr. Owen Hoekenga [a Cornell molecular biologist], chose to select for iron bioavailability as these regions appeared more easy to isolate,” said food scientist Elad Tako, lead author of the study…published in the January issue of Nutrition Journal…

As part of the study, the researchers developed techniques to test the results of the cell culture assay in a live animal — in this case, the broiler chicken. Such a model is “cost-effective, easy to handle, sensitive to dietary mineral deficiencies, including iron, and could consume the broad range of staple crops that we plan to test,” said Tako.

In the future, the researchers hope to identify QTLs that govern the availability of other vital nutrients in crops. “We have done a lot with beans, lentils, sorghum, wheat — looking into factors that can affect the bioavailability of iron, but we are also interested in zinc bioavailability,” said Tako.

“Biofortification of grains with iron and zinc not only gives better nutrition for the consumers but it’s also an incentive for the farmers because they promote crop yield. Without that feature, the farmers wouldn’t adopt it,” said Glahn.

The World Health Organization reports that almost a quarter of the world’s population is anemic, with prevalence rates at almost 70 percent in African countries, where maize is an integral part of the diet. “The ultimate game is to take this to an area where the population is iron-deficient,” said Glahn, in hopes of curbing anemia.

Cornell students will get to volunteer for the necessary human studies in the near-term. A worthwhile endeavor if there ever was one.

I always count the volunteer work I did as a human guinea pig in medical studies as advancing the life of my species as much as the decades of activism. And without the risk of being clubbed over the head by some enthusiastic right-wing cretin.

China becomes the world’s biggest trading nation

China surpassed the U.S. to become the world’s biggest trading nation last year as measured by the sum of exports and imports, a milestone in the Asian nation’s challenge to the U.S. dominance in global commerce that emerged after the end of World War II in 1945.

U.S. exports and imports last year totaled $3.82 trillion, the U.S. Commerce Department said last week. China’s customs administration reported last month that the country’s total trade in 2012 amounted to $3.87 trillion. China had a $231.1 billion annual trade surplus while the U.S. had a trade deficit of $727.9 billion.

China’s emergence as the biggest global trading nation gives it increasing influence, threatening to disrupt regional trading blocs as it becomes the most important commercial partner for countries including Germany, which will export twice as much to China by the end of the decade as it does to neighboring France, said Goldman Sachs Group’s Jim O’Neill.

“For so many countries around the world, China is becoming rapidly the most important bilateral trade partner,” O’Neill, chairman of Goldman Sachs’s asset management division and the economist who bound Brazil to Russia, India and China to form the BRIC investing strategy, said in a telephone interview. “At this kind of pace by the end of the decade many European countries will be doing more individual trade with China than with bilateral partners in Europe.”

Still, the U.S. economy is more than double the size of China’s, according to the World Bank. In 2011, the U.S. gross domestic product reached $15 trillion while China’s totaled $7.3 trillion.

“It is remarkable that an economy that is only a fraction of the size of the U.S. economy has a larger trading volume,” Nicholas Lardy, a senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said in an e-mail. “The surpassing of the U.S. is not because of a substantially undervalued currency that has led to an export boom,” said Lardy, noting that Chinese imports have grown more rapidly than exports since 2007…

Of course, the typical American politician – whether he knows the facts or not – will still try to trade xenophobia for votes.

Continue reading

Just a bite can be satisfying enough for a snack

If you’re giving in to cravings for chocolate or other snacks, think smaller, take a bite and wait. A new Cornell study finds that eating smaller portions of commonly craved foods will satisfy a person just as well as a larger portion of the same food would.

“This research supports the notion that eating for pleasure — hedonic hunger — is driven more by the availability of foods instead of the food already eaten,” said Brian Wansink…a co-author of the study, “Just a bite: Considerably smaller snack portions satisfy delayed hunger and craving…”

The study found that portion size has a direct impact on calorie intake — and portion size did not have a direct impact on the level of satisfaction in the person eating the snack. The researchers came to these conclusions after giving one group of 104 adults regular-size portions of the same snack — either chocolate, apple pie or potato chips — and offering another group just a couple of small bites of the same snacks.

Those who ate large portions consumed 77 percent more calories than those who ate a few bites. Although they ate substantially more calories, their hunger decreased the same amount as those eating small portions. For both groups, cravings significantly decreased 15 minutes after eating, and they were equally satisfied.

“So, how much chocolate would you need to eat to be satisfied? Less than half as much as you think,” Wansink said. “If you want to control your weight, here’s the secret: Take a bite and wait. After 15 minutes all you’ll remember — in your head and in your stomach — is that you had a tasty snack.”

Every year I continue a never-ending battle with portion control. Happily, I mostly seem to be winning. At least my weight has declined each of the past 8 years.

My evening chocolate snack is only 47 grams – with damned little sugar. But, other impulsive snacks can be larger – and higher in calories. I’ll start experimenting with this. The whole day.

Major crop gene breakthrough can increase photosynthesis

With projections of 9.5 billion people by 2050, humankind faces the challenge of feeding modern diets to additional mouths while using the same amounts of water, fertilizer and arable land as today. Cornell researchers have taken a leap toward meeting those needs by discovering a gene that could lead to new varieties of staple crops with 50 percent higher yields.

The gene, called Scarecrow, is the first discovered to control a special leaf structure, known as Kranz anatomy, which leads to more efficient photosynthesis. Plants photosynthesize using one of two methods: C3, a less efficient, ancient method found in most plants, including wheat and rice; and C4, a more efficient adaptation employed by grasses, maize, sorghum and sugarcane that is better suited to drought, intense sunlight, heat and low nitrogen…

The finding “provides a clue as to how this whole anatomical key is regulated,” said Robert Turgeon. “There’s still a lot to be learned, but now the barn door is open and you are going to see people working on this Scarecrow pathway.” The promise of transferring C4 mechanisms into C3 plants has been fervently pursued and funded on a global scale for decades, he added.

If C4 photosynthesis is successfully transferred to C3 plants through genetic engineering, farmers could grow wheat and rice in hotter, dryer environments with less fertilizer, while possibly increasing yields by half, the researchers said.

By looking closely at plant evolution and anatomy, Thomas Slewinski recognized that the bundle sheath cells in leaves of C4 plants were similar to endodermal cells that surrounded vascular tissue in roots and stems.

Slewinski suspected that if C4 leaves shared endodermal genes with roots and stems, the genetics that controlled those cell types may also be shared. Slewinski looked for experimental maize lines with mutant Scarecrow genes, which he knew governed endodermal cells in roots. When the researchers grew those plants, they first identified problems in the roots, then checked for abnormalities in the bundle sheath. They found that the leaves of Scarecrow mutants had abnormal and proliferated bundle sheath cells and irregular veins.

In all plants, an enzyme called RuBisCo facilitates a reaction that captures carbon dioxide from the air, the first step in producing sucrose, the energy-rich product of photosynthesis that powers the plant. But in C3 plants RuBisCo also facilitates a competing reaction with oxygen, creating a byproduct that has to be degraded, at a cost of about 30-40 percent overall efficiency. In C4 plants, carbon dioxide fixation takes place in two stages. The first step occurs in the mesophyll, and the product of this reaction is shuttled to the bundle sheath for the RuBisCo step. The RuBisCo step is very efficient because in the bundle sheath cells, the oxygen concentration is low and the carbon dioxide concentration is high. This eliminates the problem of the competing oxygen reaction, making the plant far more efficient.

Bravo. Increasing ease of food production in more difficult climates is always an achievement.

Grad students press on with fundraiser — facing an apple shortage

Cornell University — This year’s smaller apple crop didn’t stop College of Agriculture and Life Sciences graduate students from continuing a favorite fall tradition at the New York State Agricultural Experiment Station (NYSAES): using apples from the station’s field trials and breeding programs to press cider, and selling that cider to fund scholarships for high school seniors.

“We use different varieties depending on the year,” said Erik Smith, a graduate student and member of the Student Association of the Geneva Experiment Station (SAGES). “Our main varieties this season were Empire and Crispin. Empires are quite sweet while Crispin tend to be more acidic, so combining the two makes for a nice balance of flavors.”

The student-made cider has become a popular autumn offering at NYSAES, and the students’ biggest concern this year was making enough to meet the demand.

“The unusual spring weather did affect the crop,” said Smith. “There weren’t as many apples, and the quality of those we had to pick from wasn’t what it usually is.” But thanks to donations from the programs of Kerik Cox, associate professor of plant pathology, and Herb Cooley, food science technician, the students stockpiled enough for the year’s pressings.

One thing that sets the students’ cider apart is how fully local it is. Not only are the apples grown and harvested at NYSAES, but some of the varieties used were first developed by Cornell apple breeders. The Empire apple, developed in 1966, is one of 66 Cornell-developed varieties and one of the most successful varieties ever released by the station.

Even the pasteurization process is homegrown. The ultraviolet pasteurization technique the students use was developed at NYSAES by Randy Worobo, associate professor of food microbiology, and his lab members as an alternative to thermal pasteurization…

Seven high school seniors have received awards.

“For me, this is a way of giving back to the community,” said Smith. “Most of us are studying in Geneva for only a short time, but we want to be able to call it home. Since so much of the region’s economy depends on agriculture, we’ve decided to lend a hand to students who’ve chosen agriculture as a career. Plus, our cider tastes great.”

My kind of university. Rooted in the community. Serving humanity.

Upper middle-class Americans believe the Bible tells True Believers to vote Republican

Every four years, the differences between the U.S. political parties are thrown into sharp relief, thanks to presidential elections. A study of three decades of voter choice has shown that while the influence of religion on voter choice intensified in the years between the elections of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and Barack Obama in 2008, the phenomenon is limited to upper-income white Protestants and Catholics.

In a study…Thomas Hirschl and…James Booth analyzed two large surveys of voter choice. The General Social Survey is a nationally representative, repeat cross-section of American voters across eight presidential elections from 1980 to 2008, and the Cornell National Social Survey (CNSS) recovered identified presidential choice in 1,000 households for the 2008 election. In addition to basic demographic information collected in both surveys, the CNSS included a “biblical authority scale” to assess the degree to which a respondent agreed with such statements as “The Bible is without contradiction” and “The Bible is to be read literally.”

A thorough analysis of voter presidential choice and personal characteristics, from family income to race, gender and religious identity, allowed the researchers to identify not only the magnitude of polarization, but also its specific source within the general population.

Upper-income white Protestants who believe the Bible is the literal word of God have more than doubled their odds of voting Republican — from 2.7 GOP voters for every one Democratic voter among this group in 1980, to 6.1 for every one in 2008,” said Hirschl. “Conversely, secular-minded, upper-income white Protestants reversed their partisan preference, from 1.9 to 1 in favor of the Republican Party in 1980, to a 2.2 to 1 advantage for Democratic voters in 2008.”

A less dramatic but significant increase in religious-partisan differences was also found in upper-income white Catholics. Contrary to popular belief, this polarization was evident only in white households that had a total income greater than $75,000 (2009 equivalent) per year — the “comfort class.”

“There was no comparable trend among lower income white Protestants or Catholics,” Hirschl noted. “In addition, African-Americans remained loyal Democratic voters throughout the 28-year study period, regardless of their religious identity…”

The finding that an increase in secular-religious polarization was restricted to the upper-income white voters, even during a period of increasing economic inequality, runs counter to the predictions of a society-wide “culture war.” According to Hirschl, the study’s results are evidence of a decoupling of religious politics from the politics of economic inequality, presenting opportunities for the political parties to market themselves differently to different sectors.

Yup, somewhat of a surprise to me. If you accept that income follows education – at least in the most general terms – I would think acquired knowledge would override the knee-jerk responses generally required by religion. I guess not.

American exceptionalism at work, again?

Ice field in Patagonia is melting 1.5 times faster than previously


The color image is the same HPS 12 glacier in 2010 using data from the ASTER instrument onboard the NASA Terra satellite…The loss of ice thickness is comparable to the height of the Empire State Building

A little-studied mass of ice in South America is undergoing some big changes: The Southern Patagonian Ice Field lost ice volume at a 50 percent faster rate between 2000-2012 than it did between 1975-2000, according to new analysis of digital elevation models performed by Cornell researchers.

The researchers from Cornell’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences developed a new way of using digital topography maps obtained from a stereo camera on a NASA satellite to draw their conclusions…

The researchers stacked more than 100 of the digital maps, Michael Willis explained, so that a time-stamped pixel on one map is at the same place as a time-stamped pixel on a second map, and so on, like a pile of perfectly aligned pancakes, oldest on the bottom. At any particular place, there is a time series of ice topography changes coded by color…

The Cornell analysis better isolates the ice field changes only, Andrew Melkonian said. “While it’s not directly measuring mass, it is isolating the ice field signal, and by making some assumptions about what the density is, we can say how much mass these ice fields are actually losing,” he said…

Though it’s not nearly as studied as Greenland and Antarctica, the Southern Patagonian Ice Field is the world’s second-largest temperate (not frozen all the way through) ice field. The researchers call Patagonia a “poster child” for rapidly changing glacier systems, so studying them could be key to learning how melting cycles work and how they may be affected by climate change.

Ah, Patagonia. A terrible place to climb. Which means, of course, the world’s best mountain climbers always want to climb there.