Floods and foods, dogs protecting cats and microbial munchers

This post contributed by Molly Taylor, ESA Science Writing Intern. Tiny critters: Though all smaller than a millimeter in size, four critters highlighted by Neatorama are much larger in effectiveness. When there is no oxygen around to speak of (or to breathe in), shewanella inhales the likes of uranium and chromium. The bacterium exhales the toxic metals with a few extra electrons, which prevents the toxins from moving through ground water. By surrounding toxic waste sites with the bacteria, scientists are hoping to protect lakes and streams from pollutants. And despite the harsh reputation, E. coli is not all bad either. Not only is it one of the most important bacteria inside the human intestinal tract, its rapid reproduction time has contributed to research exploring the role of chance in evolution. And there is a wormier side to the fountain of youth. A transparent, low-maintenance roundworm that shares 35 percent of human genes may reveal the key to diminishing the effects of aging. Read more at “4 Little Creatures That Pack a Big Scientific Punch.” Floods and foods: Floods, such as those in the Mississippi River valley, raise concerns about food safety. According to a recent Scientific American article, “the [U.S. Food and Drug Administration] doesn’t allow any flooded out crops—organic or otherwise—to be sold or consumed by people,” and the FDA policy governing farmers’ response to floods is designed to make sure that consumers have access to safe food. According to a group of Italian researchers working in the Swiss Alps, however, we can expect more floods as long as the global temperature continues to rise. The study showed that global warming does increase flood risk significantly, with so-called “100 year floods” increasing in frequency by as often as every 20 years. Read more at “Sop Soil: Have the Recent Record Floods Compromised the Safety of Organic Farm Produce?” Active learning: Graduate student David Haak wanted to boost the performance of educationally and economically disadvantaged students in introductory science classes. Disadvantaged students were previously more than twice as likely as their classmates to fail the huge intro lecture courses that serve as key portals to higher-level sciences. To address this challenge, Haak turned to the latest K-12 teacher books to design a more structured course, including small group discussions, short weekly exams and class-wide quizzes that enable instructors to get instant feedback on the class’s comprehension. The new design, which was based on an active learning model, saw improved learning for all students, especially the disadvantaged students. “Even as class size more than doubled, lab time was cut by 30 percent and the ratio of teaching assistants-to-students fell...

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Living video games, seed science and bat rescues

Video games that guide the movement of paramecia, dogs trained to aid in data collection, the evolution of seeds in the Amazon Rainforest, environmental degradation captured as art and the successful rescue of more than 100 bats stranded by the devastating floods in Australia. Here are stories in ecology for the third week in January 2011. PAC-mecium: Stanford University researchers have developed, not a life-like video game, but a video game that incorporates life into its programming, according to New Scientist. “A game called PAC-mecium is Pacman with a twist: players use a console to change the polarity of an electrical field in a fluid chamber filled with paramecia, which makes the organisms move in different directions,” explained the article. As shown in the above video, the user shapes the behavior of the organisms according to what the game board shows, such as avoiding “Pacman-like fish.” Read more at “Play Pacman, Pinball and Pong with a paramecium.” Beautiful and dangerous: There has been quite a bit of news surrounding an increase in the prevalence of jellyfish in China, Australia, North America and around the world; the population boom has been linked to ocean acidification, overfishing and climate change. Researchers suggest that the jellyfish numbers indicate a larger issue of imbalanced ecosystems and an overall decline in ocean health. While often times beautiful, jellyfish can also pose a risk to humans and other marine life and have even caused power outages. Scat hunters: According to The New York Times, researchers have been using dogs to sniff out scat, making it easier to collect population distribution data. A study published recently in The Journal of Wildlife Management examined factors that would affect the dogs’ abilities to detect scents in the field. “Trained dogs can detect scat up to 33 feet away about 75 percent of the time, the researchers found,” wrote Sindya Bhanoo. “Humans, on the other hand, can see scat only within three to five feet.” Read more at “Four-Legged Assistants Sniff Out Wildlife Data.” The science of seeds: Botanists examined some of the seeds found in the Amazon Rainforest and cataloged the evolution, distribution and role that these seeds play in the most diverse rainforest in the world. “Some [of the seeds] look like brains, some like arrowheads, others like beads, propellers or puffs of cotton,” began the Scientific American article. “Seeds have evolved many of these striking features to help them propagate in the wild.” Read more at “Seeds of the Amazon” or view the slide show. Degradation as art: The New York Times highlighted the work of photographer J. Henry Fair, who collects aerial images of environmental degradation...

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