Air Pollution: A Radiation Umbrella

By: Kate Good

In the world of climate change there is much debate over the reality of greenhouse gases and the volatile nature of toxic chemical emissions. However, in a new study, published February 17, 2010, scientists are beginning to look at air pollution as a possible inhibitor of global warming.

The thick black clouds of smog produced from coal burning power plants in Asia seem to be having the reverse effect of warming in the atmosphere. In fact, the dark layer acts like an umbrella, blocking the sun’s radiation from reaching Earth’s surface reflecting them back into space.

The most recent work being done on the climate effects of air pollution is being done in New York at NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies, led by scientist Drew Shindell.

In Shindell’s study, a number of scenarios have been run for the years 2000-2080, putting controls on the output of SO2 and NOX from power plants. While initially SO2 creates a cooling effect, when unchecked, once controls are put on the warming potential of CO2 comes into effect. When run for longer time trials, without controls on SO2, the effects of CO2 eventually catch up to SO2, eliminating the net cooling effect.

In the 1970’s, the United States began the Clean Air Act, which cut emissions of SO2 and NOx to reduce acid rain and to improve public health. Many other industrial countries followed curbing their own emissions, interestingly, during this period global temperatures increased rapidly after having been stable in the preceding decades.

If having high levels of air pollution in fact produces lower global temperatures, all the work done by environmentalists in the past will be completely void.

Meinrat Andreae, an expert on aerosols from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz, Germany, is quoted describing this phenomenon as,  “enjoy now and make others pay later.”

While SO2 may seem like a good temporary fix to rising global temperatures, it is also a deathly chemical. Sulfur dioxide is associated with increased respiratory disease, difficulty in breathing and premature death. So, even though this chemical may aid in blocking the sun’s radiation, it is still a harsh chemical compound that is harmful to humans when present in air.

Fungus to the rescue

by Allison Younkins

How one fungus is changing the way we battle pests

The fungus Muscodor albus rarely gets to play the hero-but that could all be changing according to USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists.   In February 2010, results from an ARS study regarding the effects of this fungus on a common wheat disease were published in The Canadian Journal of Microbiology. Throughout multiple experiments in recent years, researchers have found that Muscodor albus was effective in eliminating common insect and fungus pests that attack wheat, apples, and grapes.

The super powers of Muscodor albus

This natural fungus could be the answer to eradicating numerous agricultural pests.  But how does this fungus do it?  Instead of physical strength, or even the ability to fly like other superheroes, this fungus emits Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) that are known to naturally kill pests and other fungi.   The most recent Muscodor experiment tested the fungus’ ability to eliminate another fungus T. tritici, which reduces wheat yield and lowers crop quality.  In laboratory experiments, the VOCs from Muscador killed 100% of the T. tritici spores and prevented the spread of the fungus.  This is just one of numerous experiments regarding Muscodor albus-results show that this fungus is also effective against agricultural villains like potato tuber moths, apple codling moths, and the fungus Botrytis cinerea.

from "Fungal Fumes Clear Out Crop Pests" in the February 2010 issue of Agrictultural Research magazine. Blair Goates, plant pathologist, examines wheat seed after applying a formulation of the biocontrol fungus Muscodor albus, shown in the foreground.

This biocontrol may be the answer for growers and consumers: how fungus is actually better for you

Fungi such as T. tritici are currently controlled in the field by chemical pesticides, which are effective-for now.  Researchers are interested in biocontrol solutions because it is possible that these agricultural scoundrels will become resistant to the chemical pesticides.  This could expose growers to tremendous financial losses because they have “become reliant” on chemical solutions, according to plant pathologist Blair J. Goates, with the ARS Small Grains and Potato Germplasm Research Unit.  And while chemical effects on humans and the environment are a constant concern with chemical pesticides, the use of Muscodor albus does not harm humans or animals and leaves little residue on treated plants.  This biocontrol could also benefit organic growers, because currently there is no available natural treatment for these extremely common pests.  While Muscodor albus doesn’t fight crime, it may progress as a useful biocontrol method for a different kind of villain.  Don’t expect this fungus to wear or cape, or even to star in a comic book, but you can expect Muscodor albus to continue making headlines as a potentially powerful biocontrol agent.

Want to learn more?  Check out the resources I used for this blog:

Fungal Fumes Clear Out Crop Pests

Mud volcano (debate) still hot nearly four years later

By Marci Wills,   Feb 19, 2010

When I first heard the highly scientific term “mud volcano” I thought it sounded awfully lame, but those in Indonesia would likely argue otherwise. On May 29, 2006, a mass of boiling mud unexpectedly erupted from beneath the densely populated Sidoarjo district of Java. The “Lusi mud volcano” (a conjunction of Lumpur, the Indonesian word for mud, and Sidoarjo) killed 13 people in 2006 due to ruptured gas pipelines and displaced an estimated 30,000 more. I vaguely remember hearing about this back when I was graduating from high school. So I was rather shocked when I learned this week, in my senior year of college, that the Lusi eruption hasn’t stopped!

The Lusi mud volcano erupting two days after its birth. From Mazzini et al (2007).

Nearly four years later, the mud volcano continues to ooze at an alarming rate of 160,000 cubic meters of 100°C mud every day (enough to fill 50 Olypmic-sized swimming pools!) It covers an area of 7 square kilometers (~3 square miles) up to 20 meters (65 feet) deep. The muck has defeated all efforts to thwart it, including dams, levees, drainage channels, and even attempts at plugging the center with large concrete balls. The volcano shows no signs of slowing, much less stopping, and researchers estimate it could continue to erupt for several decades. Naturally, a lot of people want to know why it happened.

Lusi is one of the largest examples of about 700 recognized mud volcanoes throughout the world. (Although the number varies depending on definition. Do you call a 1 meter high mound that seeps every so often a mud volcano too?) In addition to Indonesia, they are concentrated in Azerbaijan, Turkmenistan and the South Caspian Sea, often in regions associated with petroleum deposits. Mud volcanoes form when a large volume of water, mud, clay and gas becomes trapped underground. These liquid chambers can sit under very high pressures for millions of years until until they suddenly find a pathway to the surface.

Homes in Sidoarjo flooded by the mud

Two possible triggers have been identified for the Lusi mud volcano; a magnitude 6.3 earthquake which occurred 2 days earlier on May 27th, 2006, 250 km away in Yogyakarta, and a gas exploration well located only 150 m from the eruption. The drilling firm Lapindo Brantas has desperately refuted claims that poor drilling practices in their well lead to the eruption, while many other independent scientists try to prove them wrong. The resulting debate has seemingly quadrupled research on mud volcanoes, while delaying the establishment of liability and compensation to thousands of people affected.

The dispute culminated just this last month (February, 2010) in two studies from the opposing sides. Nurrochmat Sawolo, senior drilling advisor to Lapindo Brantas, and his colleagues asserted their claims in the journal Marine and Petroleum Geology, blaming the Yogyakarta earthquake for the eruption. An international team of scientists from the UK, USA, Australia and Indonesia, lead by Michael Davies of the Durham Energy Institute, responded with a paper in the same journal, providing the most definitive evidence yet that the well was the source of the drilling.

The Davies team found that the Yogyakarta earthquake was too small and distant to have triggered the Lusi mud volcano; the forces felt from the earthquake 250 km away in Sidoarjo were less than those felt there normally simply by weather and the tides. They also cite an on-site daily drilling report which states that Lapindo Brantas successfully pumped drilling mud back into the well immediately after the eruption to slow it. “The observation that pumping mud into the hole caused a reduction in eruption rate indicates a direct link between the wellbore and the eruption”, Davies says.

Such definitive evidence that the well caused the Lusi volcano is expected by many to resolve the debate, but what will legally come of the disaster remains to be determined. Either way, Lusi will surely continue to make its own muddy statement for years to come.

The area covered by the Lusi Volcano seen from the air in May, 2009.


Sawolo, N., Sutriono, E., Istadi, B.P., and Darmoyo, A.B., 2009, The LUSI mud volcano triggering controversy: was it caused by drilling?: Journal of Marine and Petroleum Geology, v. 26, p. 1766-1784.

Mazzini, A., Svensen, H., Akhmanov, G.G., Aloisi, G., Planke, S., Malthe-Sørenssen, A., and Istadi, B.P., 2007, Triggering and dynamic evolution of the LUSI mud volcano, Indonesia: Earth and Planetary Science Letters, v. 261, p. 375-388.–set021110.php

One Degree Makes All The Difference


By: Kate Good

Among the laundry list of harmful “greenhouse gases” that are thought to be responsible for global warming, water vapor just does not seem to fit in. It is known that water vapor in the lower stratosphere dominates temperature as it is able to absorb and radiate heat, much like water vapor can on Earth’s surface. This ability to hold heat qualifies water vapor as a viable greenhouse gas. However, new research shows that water vapor has not only played a key role in global warming but now may be responsible for the recent plateau in global temperatures.

A team of researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Boulder, Colorado, reported a 10% drop in the amount of water vapor in the stratosphere (the atmospheric layer 10-50 km above Earth’s surface) since 2000. This decrease in stratospheric water vapor offset the previous predictions for greenhouse gas warming by approximately 25%.

Interestingly, water vapor projections from researchers at the University of Reading, UK, in 1999, found that an increase of stratospheric water vapor could have boosted present day warming by up to 40% compared to carbon dioxide on its own. Meaning, the current decrease of water vapor levels is a very good sign.

While the exact cause for this sudden decrease of stratospheric water vapor is unknown, scientists believe that the simultaneous drop of 1° Celsius in the temperature of the stratosphere is to blame. The colder temperature freezes out water vapor that would have otherwise entered the stratosphere and added to warming. However, like the fall in the amount of water vapor, the fall in temperature is too not yet completely understood.


The Carbon Footprint of Disaster

By: Kate Good

Damaged Buildings in Petionville, Port-au-Prince

When a 7.0 magnitude earthquake hits, the first reaction of most people would not be to think of the environmental consequences of the natural disaster, but rather of the people who have been affected. While the devastation on the population of Haiti, as a result of the January twelfth earthquake is the first and foremost focus for relief, the future consequences on the distressed country’s environment could be as detrimental as the quake itself. No systems or equipment have yet been placed to dispose of hazardous medical waste, over 1,000,000 people have been displaced, and the possibility of landslides on the already eroding island’s shore demonstrate both short and long term problems that will plague the exhausted country.

Haiti’s General Hospital, the largest public hospital in Port-au-Prince sustained massive damage in the earthquake and as a result, many makeshift medical stations have been put in place. Described as a “war zone”, the first objective of aid workers is to treat those in need, meaning normal procedures taken to properly dispose of used medical equipment and wastes are not always followed.

While this is one of the short-term problems affecting the Haitian environment, the spread of medical wastes throughout waterways could lead to further contamination outside of the capital. Similarly, wastes from oil and chemical spills from a large number of badly damaged small industry and storage sites have become a concern as the impact of Persistent Organic Pollutants (POPs) have yet to be assessed.

It is estimated that in the epicenter of damage the percentage of destruction to buildings is 60-80%, not only does this mean tens of millions of tons of waste, but to make matters worse, cleared debris is deposited on roadsides because of the lack of other means of disposal. While efforts are being made to recycle as much material as possible, the waste generated by the reconstruction of these buildings will be equally significant in the future.

Approximately 1,000,000 people have been displaced into less affected rural and urban areas, however, the addition to the population of already stressed environments has put a serious threat on the area’s natural resources. With a dark history of deforestation and erosion, the addition of the earthquake makes the possibility of landslides much more likely. Due to the country’s natural dry conditions and coral sand geology, the already reported small landslides on hillsides in Port-au-Prince, will inevitably grow with the addition of heavy rains.


  • A Stuck Spirit

    A recent press release from NASA states that the Mars Rover Spirit will no longer be a mobile research platform. After driving into a sand trap in April 2009, the rover lost nearly all of its mobility and operators at NASA have periodically attempted to drive Spirit out of the trap with no success. Currently, the engineers are attempting to maneuver Spirit in such  a fashion so that its solar panels will face northward for the coming Martian winter. With a northern tilt, the rover can gain more power through its solar panels and remain operational.

    Spirit’s mission was originally supposed to be 90 days, but the little rover has been performing scientific research for the last six years, far beyond its original mission parameters. Two years into its mission, the right front wheel stopped operating, and the rover pushed forward with only five operable wheels. In late November of 2009, six months after the rover was rendered immobile by the sand trap, the right-rear wheel stopped working as well. With only four full functioning wheels, the rover is in a spot of trouble. However, there is an upside to the rover’s immobility.

    Steve Squyres, a researcher at Cornell University and principal investigator for Spirit and Opportunity, said “There’s a class of science we can do only with a stationary vehicle that we had put off during the years of driving…Degraded mobility does not mean the mission ends abruptly. Instead, it lets us transition to stationary science.” Possibly the most tantalizing opportunity presented to the researchers at NASA is the ability to study the planet’s core, and determine if the core is solid or liquid. “If the final scientific feather in Spirit’s cap is determining whether the core of Mars is liquid or solid, that would be wonderful — it’s so different from the other knowledge we’ve gained from Spirit,” said Squyres.



    Paleontologists discover dinosaurs with surprising colors

    By Marci Wills

    As a student of both geology and biology, it’s exciting when I hear about research integrating these two very diverse fields. So I’ll report a bit of paleontology news for this first week. And there’s not a topic in paleontology much more exciting than dinosaurs right?

    Dinosaurs were a great subject to draw when I was in elementary school in the 90s because, as my art teacher cheerfully pointed out, “nobody knows what color they are, so you can color them however you’d like!” But the future of interpretive dinosaur drawing is looking a little less optimistic for children today, thanks to a study published online in Nature this week.

    Sinosauropteryx fossil (The Nanjing Institute)

    An international team of paleontologists from the Institute of Vertebrate Paleontology and Paleoanthropology (Beijing), the University of Bristol (UK), University College Dublin and the Open University (UK) revealed the first ever evidence for the color of dinosaur feathers. Yes that’s right, feathers. The feathers were those of early Cretaceous Therapod dinosaurs, a group thought to be the evolutionary stem group of modern birds. The suborder Therapoda contains those famous carnivores Velociraptor and Tyrannosaurus rex, but some of the group’s genera were rather less daunting. For instance, Sinosauropteryx measured only ~27 inches in length. It had simple feather-like bristles, precursors to flight feathers of modern birds, running down the length of its back and tail.

    It was in fossilized remnants of these bristles from the Liaoning province of northeast China that the paleontologists found clues to their color. Pigmented organelles called melanosomes give color to the feathers and hair of modern birds and mammals, and because they are imbedded within a protein structure, they are highly resistant to deterioration. Although the pigments themselves had long since decayed, the team used powerful scanning electron microscopy to recognize surviving melanosomes by their shape in early Cretaceous bird and Therapod fossils over 100 million years old.

    The fossils contained two types of melanosomes; sausage-shaped eumelanosomes, which contain black pigment found in the stripes of zebras, and spherical phaeomelanosomes, which contain the red pigment of red tailed hawks and some human hair. The distribution of these melanosomes led the paleontologists to believe Sinosauropteryx had alternating bands of orange and white feathers down the length of its tail! The study also reports that individuals of another small Therapod genus, Sinornithosaurus, varied in color from orange to black.

    Early Cretaceous fossilized feather in which melanosomes were found. (Zhang et al, 2010)

    More importantly, such findings further strengthen the argument for the evolution of birds from Therapod dinosaurs. The identical morphology of melanosomes from Therapods to very early birds and modern birds confirms that these bristles are related to modern flight feathers and not, as some skeptics believe, partially decayed collagen fibers.

    Such evolutionary progression also suggests that feathers evolved before wings and therefore must have served some purpose other than flight. Sinosauropteryx only had feathers running down the crest of its back and tail, so they  would have had limited function in insulation. Mike Benton of the University of Bristol believes these dinosaurs were making a visual statement, noting that, “you don’t have an orange-and-white striped tail for nothing”.

    The study found no evidence of other colors such as purples, yellows and blues. The proteins producing these colors degrade more easily than the black and orange pigments protected in organelles. So it seems that the dinosaur coloring books will remain largely open to interpretation, at least for now.

    Artist rendition of a living Sinosauropteryx, by Jim Robbins


    The Paper: Fucheng Zhang, Stuart L. Kearns, Patrick J. Orr, Michael J. Benton, Zhonghe Zhou, Diane Johnson, Xing Xu, and Xiaolin Wang. Fossilized melanosomes and the colour of Cretaceous dinosaurs and birds. Nature advanced online publication, 27 January 2010.

    Scientists map the soybean genome and discover implications for the future of agriculture

    Credit: Photo by Stephen Ausmus (USDA Agricultural Research Service). From "Mapping and Sequencing of Soybean Genome Paves the Way for Improved Soybean Crops".

    by Allison Younkins

    Soybeans: An insignificant plant, or the key to the future of agriculture?
    What do a $30 billion dollar US industry and 1.1 million base pairs of DNA have in common?  They are both attributes of the soybean plant.  A tremendous group of researchers, including those at the University of Missouri, have completed a study that identified over 1 million base pairs of DNA in the soybean genome.  Funded by multiple organizations for over 15 years, this project may seem like an extensive amount of research for just one plant.  But the soybean is the second most profitable crop and it is used as a component of:

    • Human food
    • Livestock feed
    • Plastics
    • Some forms of biodiesel

    Scientists at the University of Missouri and The U.S. Department of Agriculture predict that the soybean genome will allow researchers to increase soybean yield, resistance to drought, and resistance to disease.  And if you think soybeans don’t apply to you, just ask Henry Nguyen, director of the National Center for Soybean Biotechnology at the MU College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources.  He is currently working on an animal science project using the soybean genome to increase both protein and antioxidants in meat.

    From the bench to the farm: How will the soybean genome impact agriculture?
    Without experience mapping genomes, it might be difficult to see the implications of the soybean genome on our crops.  But the researchers have made it clear that it will have a direct impact.  The soybean genome is a key component to a researcher’s ability to link the plant’s physical traits to genes and to alleles, which are different versions of the same gene.  These genes could control any aspect of the soybean, but researchers are most excited about genes that control seed yield and disease resistance.  In the future, researchers will manipulate these genes to produce a desired physical trait.

    What you need to know: How soybean research affects all of us
    This example of soybean research is one of numerous projects in the field of agricultural science.  Agricultural science is one of the few fields that affects people from every socioeconomic status and people from every country.  Fresh fruits and vegetables are often too expensive for families with low income.  This affects the health of our nation’s children as well as their families.  By increasing yield and lowering losses to disease, the price of vegetables would decrease.  In a global perspective, agricultural science is an invaluable tool for the fight against world hunger.  If scientists can develop drought resistance plants by finding the appropriate genes, food production in developing nations would be increased tremendously.  It just goes to show that big things do come in small soybean shaped packages.

    Looking for more information? Check out the resources I used for this blog:

    MU Researchers Fight World Hunger by Mapping the Soybean Genome

    Soybean Genome Sequenced: Foundational Research Will Help Improve Soybeans And Other Legumes

    Mapping and Sequencing of Soybean Genome Paves the Way for Improved Soybean Crops