Evolution at its finest: Plant roots in snow

Ecologists have discovered yet another astonishing way that plants defy all manner of physical obstacles to get what they need. Researchers have discovered alpine plant roots that grow upwards, against gravity, and out of the soil…into the snow. A group of researchers centered at VU University in Amsterdam discovered the plant roots high in the mountains of southern Russia. The plant, Corydalis conorhiza, is in what’s sometimes referred to as the fumewort family, and has relatives around the globe. This particular species, however, has a tough time finding the nutrients it needs because of a thick ice layer that covers the ground well into the summer, preventing nutrients from leaching into the soil from aboveground organic matter. Publishing online last week in the journal Ecology Letters, the scientists say that C. conorhiza has evolved specialized roots that grow up through the soil, penetrate the ice layer and branch out in to the snow layer above. The roots then were thought to take up essential nutrients, such as nitrogen, directly from the snow.  To confirm their hypothesis, the researchers added an isotope of nitrogen to the snow surrounding the plants; sure enough, days later, they discovered high signatures of that nitrogen isotope in C. conorhiza, but not in other nearby plant species. Said corresponding author Hans Cornelissen in a statement: “These roots help the plant to feed on nutrients in snow before the plant shoots appear above the surface in the growing season. This gives the plant an advance on other plant species, which can only take up nutrients through roots in the soil during the very short growing season.” Read more in the New Scientist...

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SEEDS alumni receive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship

The SEEDS program (Strategies for Ecology Education, Diversity, and Sustainability) is an education initiative of ESA. Since its founding in 1996, the SEEDS mission has been to diversify and advance ecology as a profession through opportunities that stimulate and nurture the interest of underrepresented students. Focused at the undergraduate level, the program sponsors student field trips, research fellowships, semi-annual leadership workshops and travel awards to attend the ESA Annual Meeting. This year, three SEEDS students were awarded the competitive NSF Graduate Research Fellowship, which supports graduate students in PhD programs for three years. Their stories are memorable and inspiring tales of SEEDS’s success. Israel Del Toro will attend the University of Massachusetts Amherst’s program in Organismic and Evolutionary Biology. His graduate research with Aaron Ellison will investigate how terrestrial invertebrate communities are likely to be affected by regional climate change in New England.  Del Toro first heard about the NSF fellowship at last year’s ESA Meeting in Milwaukee, from his SEEDS mentor, Amy Freestone of the Smithsonian. Says Del Toro: “When I first received the notification of the NSF Fellowship, I literally shouted out loud and ran a victory lap around the lab. SEEDS has truly been a supportive network that I can count and has magnified the excitement I have about the field of ecology. Any success that I have had to this point is partially attributed to the spectacular SEEDS chapters, members and coordinators.” Kimberly Komatsu is currently in the Yale program in Ecology and Evolution, where her research involves top-down and bottom-up controls of grassland communities and the processes that interact to determine productivity and community composition. As she puts it, she was “shocked and amazed” to discover she had been awarded the NSF Graduate Fellowship. Komatsu says that meeting Scott Collins on her first SEEDS field trip to the Sevilleta Long-Term Ecological Research (LTER) site in 2005 that she landed where she is today.  Reflecting on recently traveling across South Africa with Collins, she remarked that “it’s funny it is how one four-day field trip can really change your whole life.” Christina Wong graduated is pursuing a PhD at the School of Sustainability at Arizona State University, working with Nancy Grimm. She hopes to study urban water provisioning systems by evaluating the tradeoffs between the benefits to cities and the costs of foregone ecosystem services. For Wong, her career literally sprouted from SEEDS. As she puts it: “None of this would have been remotely feasible if it weren’t for SEEDS. SEEDS introduced me to ecology and the array of opportunities within the field. SEEDS allowed me to envision a future where I could aspire to...

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NOAA adminstrator Lubchenco on Living on Earth

Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA (who, by the by, is a former president of ESA), gave a great interview on this week’s Living on Earth series.  If you don’t listen to Living on Earth, it’s an excellent weekly radio show by Public Radio International that focuses on environmental issues. Lubchenco told the Living on Earth folks that she wants to start a National Climate Service, which would be akin to the National Weather Service and would predict the effects of climate change on different sections of the U.S. in the coming decades.   She gave the example of changing water availability as one important use of such a service: “…Fundamental changes in the availability of water are so basic to planning, not just for city managers, but for agriculture, for traffic on rivers, how to think about droughts, floods, fire, insect outbreaks… The ability to have an idea of what’s down the road, even though it’s not super precise, is immensely useful in planning. So there are lots and lots of requests now – by water managers, by city planners, and others – for information, and there’s no one place they can go.” She said that she would like NOAA to be able to get climate information and predictions to managers at at the regional scale for a “twenty to fifty year time horizon.”  She also commented that she thinks the goals the Obama administration has put forth for curbing climate change – such as an 80 percent decrease in greenhouse gas emissions by the year 2050 – is an appropriate and achievable goal. Finally, she pointed to the urgency of addressing climate change, again quoting Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.: “Over the bleached bones and jumbled residue of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words: ‘too late’.” Listen to a podcast of the interview here. Image courtesy of...

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Science outreach is becoming hip

The world of academia used to be a place where professors and students stayed shuttered away in their research labs and offices, doing their research for the benefit of one another, with no desire to engage in the public eye. Cynics may chuckle and comment that this stereotype is still largely true today. But more and more, institutions and granting agencies are looking favorably, instead of suspiciously, at scientists who step out of the ivory tower and engage the public. In a Fresh Perspectives column in this month’s issue of Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment (subscription required), we hear from Olivia Messinger and Scott Schuette, two graduate students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale who outline the many merits (and pleasures) of engaging in public school outreach during their graduate careers. They make the case that graduate students’ knowledge combined with the resources of the university – in ecology, such resources as insect collections will always thrill school students – is a vast, untapped resource that can help to rectify the fact that most American adults lack a solid foundation in scientific concepts.  Outreach, they say, is becoming increasingly favored by academic reviewers. Such “synergistic activities” are losing the stigma of having only detrimental effects on time spent on research. In a response, Janet Hodder and Alan Shanks, professors at the University of Oregon and co-PIs on an NSF GK-12 grant, say that in their experience, public school outreach makes students better able to explain their work: “Most notably, we have seen a considerable increase in the ability of our students to successfully explain their research to diverse audiences. Students are able to gauge the information suitable for each audience, and they understand how to present their research findings in an organized and clear manner.” Hodder and  Shanks acknowledge that participation in outreach takes time, they’ve noticed that although students supported on GK-12 grants spend 15 hours a week teaching and preparing for their classes, they are no slower to finish their dissertations than other students. It’s a great development that agencies like NSF are encouraging this behavior – scientists and the public alike can only stand to benefit. Messinger, O., Schuette, S., Hodder, J., & Shanks, A. (2009). Bridging the gap: spanning the distance between high school and college education Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, 7 (4), 221-222 DOI:...

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Obama speaks to National Academy of Sciences

President Obama addressed the attendees at the 146th annual meeting of the National Academy of Sciences this morning, where he highlighted new directives that support his science initiatives, including a new agency for high-risk energy research and increased funding for education at the secondary and graduate levels. According to NAS President Ralph Cicerone, who gave introductory remarks, every room of the NAS building in Washington, including the hallways, was packed with people -scientists and politicians alike. The president began by addressing a recent major complaint: that increasing funding for science isn’t practical in this recession, a claim with which he “fundamentally disagrees.” “Science is more essential for our prosperity, our security, our health, our environment and our quality of life than it has ever been,” Obama said. Here are some highlights from his speech. Funding: The President promised that more than three percent of the U.S. gross domestic product will be used to fuel science and development.  He reiterated his campaign promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent by 2050 and highlighted his budget’s planned $150 billion over the next ten years to invest in sources of renewable energy and energy efficiency. Research: The president announced funding for the Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy, which was signed into law in the 2007 America COMPETES Act. ARPA-E will seek to do high-risk, high-reward energy research. Obama said this agency will help “make renewable energy the profitable kind of energy in America.” Secondary education: States making strong commitments and progress in math and science education will be eligible to compete this fall for funds, the President said, under the $5 billion Race to the Top. Examples of this progress could be by raising standards, modernizing science labs, upgrading curriculum, and forging partnerships to improve the use of science and technology in our classrooms, he said. Graduate education: The president’s budget will triple the number of National Science Foundation graduate research fellowships. But the one announcement that drew the greatest reaction, in the form of raucous applause and even shouts from the crowd, was a hark back to the last eight years. “Under my administration, the days of science taking a back seat to ideology are over,” Obama said. “Our progress as a nation, and our values as a nation, are rooted in free and open inquiry. To undermine scientific integrity is to undermine our...

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The Ecologists go to Washington

With massive issues like invasive species, climate change and protection of biodiversity moving onto the world stage, ecological knowledge has perhaps never been in higher demand than today. Support for most (about 67 percent) of biological research in the U.S. comes from the National Science Foundation’s Biological Sciences Directorate (affectionately known as NSF BIO);  a similar granting program at the USDA, the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (successor to the National Research Initiative), funds research in the agricultural sciences. However, funding to both of these directorates has been stagnant for nearly ten years, creating fierce competition for grants: NSF BIO currently rejects 85 percent of grant proposals it receives. In response, more than 30 agricultural and biological scientists put on their policy caps this week to advocate for increased and sustained federal funding to these agencies. The researchers descended upon Washington D.C. from 21 different states, were given a crash course in the federal budgets, got to know one another, and finally set off in groups to the offices of their Congressmen. Their message was clear: Investment in the sciences is an investment in the country’s future. ESA’s invited scientists were the four recipients of the ESA Graduate Student Policy Award (pictured), along with Scott Collins of the University of New Mexico. All met with staff members in their home state Congressional offices, giving examples of their own and other research projects that benefit constituents in a variety of ways, such as providing jobs, enhancing agriculture, increasing environmental protection and advancing education. The event was sponsored by the Biological Ecological Sciences Coalition (BESC, of which ESA is a part) and the Coalition on Funding Agricultural Research Missions...

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Wikipedia: A scientific and educational opportunity

Emilio Bruna of the University of Florida wanted to assign students in his graduate seminar on plant -animal interactions something different than a term paper.  So he devised a novel plan that would help them learn some crucial concepts while writing concisely: rewriting Wikipedia entries.  I caught up with Emilio and student Kristine Callis, who is the first author of their resulting Trends in Ecology and Evolution paper, to learn about their experience. What prompted the idea to edit Wikipedia entries in class? Emilio Bruna: I was looking for an alternative to the standard research review paper for class, so I went onto Wikipedia.  I noticed that although some of those entries are really good, the ones for the class I was teaching, which was plant-animal interactions, were really bad. And it’s not the authors’ fault – they wrote about what they were interested in and what they knew. But I thought it was an opportunity to do better. So at first I thought I’d give it to them as an assignment.  And then the idea came up to write a paper about the experience, and that’s the product you can read in TREE. What was the assignment? EB: Students were working in groups of 3 or 4. Each group tackled a different Wikipedia entry: frugivory, herbivory, pollination, granivory and seed dispersal. The groups had to critique the entry, rewrite it, and upload the changes. Some groups had an easier time than others, depending on the critiques of other authors. Kristine Callis: All of us were familiar with Wikipedia, but we’d been told in the past, since most of us are teaching assistants, that you can’t really use Wikipedia because you don’t know how good the content is. By doing this project we discovered instead that there weren’t a lot of things in the entries that were outright wrong, but there were a lot of things that were either misleading or left out. Or, in some cases, given too much treatment? KC: Definitely. We discovered that most entries seemed to have an anthropomorphic spin. The human aspect is important, of course, but in many cases it went too far. For example, the entry for the term “frugivore” spent a lot of time talking about humans who eat only fruit. EB: That was everyone’s favorite. The fruitarians were a real highlight for us. Were other authors resistant to your changes? KC: At first we didn’t know how the culture of Wikipedia worked.  One group just uploaded their changes directly, so another author just reverted their changes back to the old entry. What we didn’t realize is that there is a...

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SICB: ‘No thanks, New Orleans’

The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology announced this week in a letter to Gov. Bobby Jindal that the society would not hold future scientific meetings in Louisiana in response to the recent passage by the state legislature of the Louisiana “Science Education Act.” The letter was first reported Monday in the New Orleans Times-Picayune and has also drawn coverage in The New York Times and at Discover.com. Passed in December, the state law allows use of alternative materials and textbooks in the science classroom, including creationist ideas. The law was championed by the Louisiana Family Forum, a Christian group that says “evolutionism” is “a controversial issue” that “gets attention because it sells newspapers!” [sic]. SICB conferences generally draw about 2,000 scientists, and the Society has held three past meetings in New Orleans. For 2011, SICB has instead selected Salt Lake City, applauding the Utah State Board of Education’s rejection of a similar bill and its passage of a resolution stating that “the Theory of Evolution is a major unifying concept in science.” Other societies are also speaking up: The American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology president Gregory Petsko has declared that after its meeting in New Orleans this year, “No future meeting of our society will take place in Louisiana as long as that law stands.”   The American Institute of Biological Sciences has also written letters to the state legislature and Gov. Jindal. So bravo, SICB, for making a stand against subterfuge in the science classroom. If this bill is allowed to stand, the quality of science education in Louisiana will produce students far behind their counterparts elsewhere, in the U.S. and around the world. Also check out the Louisiana Coalition for Science web page – a voice of reason in...

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