Agriculture

Happy Pollinator Week!

BumblebeeGarden copy

June 19th-25th 2017 is designated as Pollinator Week by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Department of the Interior! So go out and hug your local pollinator…or maybe just plant some native wildflowers. And lay off those pesticides.

To find out more about Pollinator Week and activities in your area: http://pollinator.org/pollinatorweek/

https://www.fws.gov/pollinators/

Or join a Citizen Science Project: Bumble Bee Watch Butterflies and Moths of North America

A print of this illustration can be purchased through my Etsy shop, ScienceStories: https://www.etsy.com/listing/523902966/bumble-bee-garden-85×11-inch-watercolor

Pollinator Week 2016

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Happy Pollinator Week!

About The Illustration

Top Left: Mexican Long-Nosed Bat (Leptonycteris nivalis) Top Right: White-Lined Sphinx (Hyles lineata) Middle Right: Buff-Tailed Bumblebees (Bombus terrestrial) Bottom Right: Monarch Butterfly (Danaus plexippus) Bottom Left: Ruby Throated Hummingbird (Archilochus colubrids)

For More Information

Pollinator Partnership

USFWS Pollinator Home Page

The Xerces Society

USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service Pollinator Page

USDA Forest Service Pollinator Page

Attack of the Ladybug

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Harmonia axyridis

So it’s wintertime and you notice a mass of ladybugs in your house. Did you try to disturb them and get bitten? Did they release a foul smelling yellow fluid that stained the walls? Yes? Alas you are housing an undesirable house guest, the Asian ladybug (Harmonia axyridis).  

The Asian ladybug belongs to the family Coccinellidae which includes all ladybugs (if you are in the US) or lady birds (if you are in the UK). They are larger than most ladybug species and have a M-shaped marking by their head. The Asian ladybug is also known as Japanese ladybug, Asian lady beetle, Harlequin lady bird, Halloween lady beetle or other common names. Beginning in the early 1900’s the Asian ladybug (a native of eastern Asia) was introduced to the United States by the US Department of Agriculture to control pests such as aphids from feasting on important crops. Intentional introductions also occurred in Europe for the same purposes. They did a great job but (there is always a but when talking about introduced species) the Asian ladybug is spreading throughout the US, Europe, Canada, parts of Africa, and parts of South America at an alarming rate.  The invasive beetle is now considered one of the fastest spreading invasive species in the UK. In addition to property damage and discomfort to home owners the Asian ladybug is contributing to the decline of native ladybug species through predation and biological warfare.

What can you do to help stop Harmonia axyridis world domination? This summer when the aphids (or other pests) start munching on your vegetables and you are considering purchasing a container of ladybugs as a non-chemical solution to your pest problem, do your research and make sure you are purchasing native ladybugs. If you are really interested in native ladybugs, join the the Lost Ladybug Project and help scientists track native ladybug populations.

The Epoch of Humankind

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On January 8th a group of scientists published a paper in the journal Science to advance their hypothesis that we are no longer living in the Holocene Epoch but rather we are living in a new and very different epoch called (unofficially) the Anthropocene (anthropo- means humankind and -cene means recent).

Before I go any further let me fill you in on some details. An epoch is part of the division of geologic time. It is longer than an age and shorter than a period. Currently we are in the Quaternary Period (the present to~2.6 million years ago) and the Subatlantic Age(the present to~2,500 years ago). These divisions are based on changes in the rock layer that indicate different conditions or events throughout the earth’s history.

Technically we are still in the Holocene Epoch (the present ~11,700 years ago) but that designation might change if the Anthropocene Working Group has it’s way. The Anthropocene Working Group is part of the International Commission on Stratigraphy. Stratigraphy is a branch of geology which studies the rock layers or strata. These rock jockeys (or stratigraphers) take the designation of geological time very seriously. Vvveeerrrryyyyy seriously

The creation of the term “Anthropocene” is credited to Dr. Paul Crutzen, a Nobel Prize-winning atmospheric chemist. According to Dr. Crutzen, humankind is a major driver for change across the planet and our shift to mass production in agriculture and industry should be considered a major geological event. From the invention of plastics and the atomic bomb to large scale deforestation and intense breeding of plants and animals-we as a species have left a indelible mark during our short time on the planet. Dr. Crutzen and others believe we can no longer consider ourselves to be living in the Holocene Epoch but in an entirely new one based on the rapid and expansive changes made since the Industrial Age (or earlier).

In order to make a formal change the International Commission on Stratigraphy and the International Union of Geological Sciences (the overarching body on rocks) will need to look at the evidence and make a decision…some day. Remember we are talking about geological time here so nothing is done on Twitter time. To build a case for the Anthropocene, a working group of scientists (including Dr. Crutzen) formed to collect the needed evidence. Once that decision is made science textbooks all over the world may (or may not) need to be updated to reflect the change in designation.

This may not mean much to you but consider that by changing the geological designation we are, in way, recognizing our role in the history of the planet. And by recognizing our role we may reflect (and act) on how we shape the future ages, epochs, periods, eras, and eons for the better. Or at least the future for the next generation of Homo sapiens.

About the illustration: Watercolor, colored pencil, and pens-A simple image of a bison looking over a prairie full of hydraulic fracking platforms.

Banana Races

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I apologize for the break in my posts. For the past two weeks I was wrapped up in holiday craziness, art commissions, and painting my house.  Now I am back! So for my second to last post for the year I am writing and illustrating about the oncoming banana decline (or extinction). This post is inspired by a recent Science Friday podcast.

Before I talk about the current threat to bananas I need to give you some historical context. The bananas we currently eat throughout the world, the Cavendish, was not common before the 1950’s. The “it” banana back in the day was the Gros Michel, a superior banana to the Cavendish in both flavor and ease of transport. Unfortunately the Gros Michel’s “reign” ended with the spread of the soil fungus Fusarium, commonly known as Panama Disease, which decimated crops throughout Latin America in the 1950’s. Panama Disease infects bananas through their root system and eventually infects the entire plant. The strain of Panama Disease that killed off the Gros Michel is known as Race 1. After the loss of the Gros Michel, banana producers began to grow the Cavendish which is resistant to Race 1. All is well in the world of bananas! For now…

Fast forward to the present, a new strain of Panama Disease known as Tropical Race 4 is currently killing off Cavendish bananas throughout Asia. It is only a matter of time before this strain makes landfall in Latin America where most banana production occurs. Once it infects the soil it will remain thus ending banana production. Currently there is no known cure and there is no replacement for the Cavendish. When Tropical Race 4 infects Latin American crops a major food source and economic resource will be no more. Goodbye banana bread

Why is Panama Disease so lethal to the Cavendish banana? Bananas are currently produced as a monoculture i.e. no other varieties just Cavendish 24/7. This helps increase production and yield a more consistent product. However this makes the Cavendish more vulnerable to infection. The pathogen, in this case Fusarium, can focus on just one type of plant and become an infection machine. By growing different varieties you will lower production and consistency but you may still have something to grow after an intense pathogenic attack because you are allowing your crops to adapt to the new crisis. A field of clones does not have that same capacity.

In the evolutionary arms race with pathogens (or predators), variety is more than the spice of life, it is the key to survival. But more about that next week…

About The Illustration:

Acrylic paint on canvas paper with micron pens for details. This image is available through Redbubble.

For More Information:

Everything you ever wanted to know about bananas or Panama Disease: http://panamadisease.org

https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2015/12/04/the-worlds-most-popular-banana-could-go-extinct/

http://www.pri.org/stories/2015-12-10/deadly-fungus-threatening-future-bananas-asia-and-spreading-everywhere

http://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2015-06-04/banana-killer-on-the-march-fuels-risk-of-fruit-s-next-extinction

 

Bugs, It’s What’s For Dinner

 

Bugs, it's what's for dinner

Meat is so yesterday. Entomophagy, the eating of insects by humans, is the now. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nation’s report, Edible Insects: Future Prospects for Food and Food Security, insects are the future of food. High in protein, cheap, bountiful, and easy on the planet, insects are already consumed by a large parts of the world in all their life stages i.e. eggs, larvae, pupae, and adult. They are a smart alternative to traditional meat, particularly beef which is expensive to produce and has a huge carbon footprint.  I have eaten cricket tacos in the past and they were delicious. At some point in the future we will need to get over the ick factor and embrace the bugs.

If you would like to learn more about entomophagy, check out the blog Girl Meets Bug and get recipes, nutritional information, and insect sources.

About The Illustration

Watercolor and micron pens- the dinner plate of the future. This image is available via Redbubble.

For More Information 

The Bug Business: http://www.cnn.com/2015/07/24/world/edible-insect-food-business/

8 Bugs to Try: http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2013/13/130514-edible-insects-entomophagy-science-food-bugs-beetles/

LIVIN Farm: http://www.dezeen.com/2015/11/10/katharina-ungers-livin-farm-edible-insects-mealworms-home-grown/

 

 

The Future Looks CRISPR

The Future is CRISPR The field of molecular genetics is constantly evolving with each new discovery. Most are baby steps towards a critical breakthrough but every once in a great while a monumental discovery is made that is a game changer. Recently that game changer is CRISPR or clustered regularly interspaced short palindromic repeats. CRISPRs are short repetitive segments of DNA that are part of the immune system of certain bacteria. CRISPR works with Cas proteins (CRISPR associated protein) as a system to identify viral DNA and remove it. Viral DNA sequences of a virus that had previously invaded that particular bacteria are incorporated between CRISPR sequences as a type of molecular mug shot to help ID a “recurrent offender”. From those viral sequences RNA is made that helps the Cas protein identify the viral gene sequence and destroy it (should it try to invade again). Think of it as a spam filter used to weed out questionable emails from your inbox.

So what? Why is this important? Up until recently characterizing a gene, i.e. determining its functional role in an organism, required a great deal of money and time. I will not go into the details of what was involved but will instead direct you to the “For More Information” section below. As researchers played around with the CRISPR system they realized they could replace the viral sequence with a DNA sequence of interest and precisely remove that sequence from a cell. When I say a cell I mean any kind of cell and the technology involved is less than a nice dinner out. The possibilities are endless for what CRISPR can do-disease treatment, agricultural improvements, invasive species eradication, the list goes on. That is why CRISPR is considered the best thing since sliced bread or in molecular speak the best thing since PCR (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polymerase_chain_reaction).

So basically I am talking about gene editing or genetic engineering. You may have heard of researchers wanting to create a woolly mammoth from elephant eggs or the Chinese researchers that tried (unsuccessfully) to genetically edit inviable human embryos for beta thalassemia, a genetic disorder that impedes the development of red blood cells. That is all based on the use of CRISPR. Google CRISPR and you will be amazed by the variety of research that is currently underway.

One of the common examples of how CRISPR technology can be used is genetically editing mosquitos to essentially wipe them out. Basically, researchers would incorporate a CRISPR system into mosquitos that removes a gene required for their survival but does not get in the way of reproduction-let’s call it gene x. Those genetically engineered mosquitos that lack gene x (gene x mosquitos) would be released so they could mate in the wild. When gene x mosquitos mate with wild mosquitos the CRISPR system would remove gene x from wild mosquito chromosomes thus leading to progeny with no gene x. With the right gene, say one that creates only male progeny, you could potentially wipe out that particular species of mosquito. This is a form of gene drive (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gene_drive). Similar work has been going on for some time now but with CRISPR the pace and efficiency of research increased at lightening speed.

So that would be great, right? No mosquitos! Except, when you eliminate a species there is a cascade effect. Think of the poor beleaguered bats and all the other critters that call mosquitos dinner. Or the other possible outcomes if we were to intentionally eradicate a species. Yes, we unintentionally cause the demise of many species but once we get rid of mosquitos where would it end? Who decides? As our ability to genetically manipulate organisms (including ourselves) improves we need to consider the ethical uses of that technology. In the future we may be able to eradicate some terrible genetic diseases such as sickle-cell anemia or invasive pests such the Emerald Ash Borer. Without discussions and regulations (all of that is happening on some level right now) things could become rather surreal. Hello saber tooth tiger…

About the Illustration

Watercolor and pencil, nothing fancy. This image is available via Redbubble.

For More Information

http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-the-disruptor-1.17673 http://blogs.scientificamerican.com/guest-blog/gene-drives-and-crispr-could-revolutionize-ecosystem-management/ http://www.wired.com/2015/07/crispr-dna-editing-2/