Earth and Environment
Understanding the history of molecules is invaluable in numerous applications, such as food authentication and identifying the source of natural gas. Based at the Tokyo Institute of Technology in Japan, Dr Alexis Gilbert and his team are developing analytical tools that can be used to reveal the origin and history of molecules. Their work has already been applied to several areas, including the detection of fake alcohol and environmental research.
Insects are one of the most important – and ancient – groups of organisms. They were around long before dinosaurs roamed the planet and before plants evolved flowers. Fossils from millions of years ago are a priceless record of ancient insects, helping scientists to piece together the evolutionary history of modern species. Insects contained in amber and sedimentary deposits can give us valuable clues about their life histories and ecology. Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History curator and researcher, Dr Conrad Labandeira, has been examining the insect fossil record to answer important questions with implications for today’s living species.
The phasing out of ozone-depleting gases has set the ozone layer on the road to recovery. However, atmospheric changes wrought by rising greenhouse gas levels may represent a new threat to Earth’s protective shield. Dr Susan Strahan from the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center and Dan Smale from the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) in New Zealand combine atmospheric measurements with simulations to track and explain recent changes to the ozone layer, towards ensuring its protection into the future.
The climate crisis and the chemistry of the oceans are inextricably connected. The oceans have absorbed close to a third of our carbon dioxide emissions since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution, leading to an increasingly acidic environment and making it more difficult for organisms such as corals, molluscs, and plankton to form their shells and skeletons. Mapping future changes in ocean chemistry is the first step in developing mitigation strategies. However, our knowledge of the future state of the oceans relies on mathematical models that are often not calibrated with modern ship-based observations. Dr Li-Qing Jiang of the University of Maryland and his collaborators are improving ocean acidification predictions by coupling millions of past and present ocean chemistry measurements with the best model projections at each location of the global ocean.
It is not just the polar ice caps that are melting. On our warming planet, the ice buried within the layers of ground around the Arctic Circle is thawing, irreversibly changing these spectacular landscapes and posing risks to the communities that call these areas home. Understanding the dynamics of ‘permafrost’ is vital for predicting its future responses to climate change. The long-term research of permafrost expert Dr Christopher Burn, from the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at Carleton University, Canada, is integral to shaping our collective knowledge of these icy environments.
Domestic herbivores – such as cattle, sheep, and goats – are remarkably important to ecosystems. Their feeding behaviours aid the management of natural habitats by preventing any individual plant species dominating the landscape. Thus, understanding livestock dietary preferences is vital for informing land management decisions. Dr John Walker from the Texas A&M AgriLife Research and Extension Center has devoted his career to exploring livestock dietary preferences, and how they can be manipulated to benefit rangelands. His ‘Aggie Cedar Eater’ (ACE) goats are now helping to control invasive juniper shrubs across the Great Plains of the US.
How to support the expanding human population is one of the greatest societal challenges in the 21st century. To meet the demand for food, fuel and fibre, agricultural productivity will need to dramatically increase. However, to ensure long-term sustainability and resilience, increased productivity must not sacrifice the health of the surrounding ecosystems. Led by Dr Dennis Busch and Dr Andrew Cartmill, the University of Wisconsin-Platteville’s Agro-Ecosystem Research Program draws on the expertise of local and international collaborating scientists and farmers to develop alternative agricultural practices that support sustainable intensification for future food security.
The Galapagos Islands are facing increasing danger. Local and global forces – including tourism and climate change – threaten the fragile island ecosystems. The high number of unique plants and animals on the islands means that the loss of a Galapagos species may represent a global extinction event. The Galapagos Initiative, founded by Dr Stephen Walsh of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Dr Carlos Mena of the Universidad San Francisco de Quito, aims to save the Galapagos Islands with an innovative, sustainable strategy combining evidence from key interdisciplinary projects and a robust mapping and modelling program.
The bacteria that causes fire blight in apple and pear trees is notoriously difficult to control without antibiotics. With new regulations in the US preventing antibiotic use in organic orchards after 2014, organic farmers faced an impossible choice – lose their organic certification or risk the death of their trees. Working against the clock, plant pathologist Dr Kenneth Johnson from Oregon State University accelerated his efforts to provide organic farmers with another option. With his team of researchers and outreach specialists, he developed and evaluated non-antibiotic management strategies for fire blight in organic apple and pear orchards.
Beginning 80 kilometres above Earth’s surface, and extending to the edge of the atmosphere, the thermosphere occupies a large proportion of Earth’s upper atmosphere. So far, studies of this expansive region have largely focused on how the air it contains flows over global scales. Now, Dr Ying Zou at the University of Alabama in Huntsville has explored how the thermosphere is also significantly influenced by ‘mesoscale’ interactions with Earth’s magnetosphere, creating flows spanning just hundreds of kilometres. Her team’s work could greatly improve our knowledge of how the upper atmosphere behaves.
Fracking has long been controversial for its potential to contaminate local water sources and cause damage to the environment. Dr Kathleen Mullen at Littleton Equine Medical Center in Colorado and her team have carried out novel research into how fracking in close proximity to a horse-breeding farm may be the cause of a specific birth defect in the foals born there. Her findings may be relevant to human babies and considerations of the implications of fracking on long-term health.
Food insecurity directly impacts a third of the world’s population and perpetuates a cycle of hunger and malnutrition that is inherited through generations. Previous relief efforts have largely been donor-focused, providing only temporary solutions. To break the cycle of food insecurity, poverty, and hunger, relief efforts must empower communities and facilitate real transformative changes. Professor James Simon of Rutgers University and colleagues have developed a transferable horticulture model that builds upon local ecosystem knowledge and cultural infrastructures while embedding science-driven, market-first, and value chain methodologies. Introduced into several countries in sub-Saharan Africa, the model includes agribusiness and technical skills training to strengthen the participation of farmers and local entrepreneurs, particularly women and youth, in profitable value chains. Using this novel approach, the Rutgers team and their African colleagues have successfully demonstrated how horticulture can contribute to a real reduction in poverty and malnutrition, while fostering job creation, pride and creativity.
Modern industrial agriculture has helped farmers meet rising food demands, but these practices are contributing to a range of environmental problems. Regenerative agriculture holds promising solutions that could help to restore and maintain healthy ecosystems and contribute to climate change mitigation, while keeping pace with food demands and enhancing farmers’ resilience to environmental stressors. Through her research, Dr Hannah Gosnell aims to understand what motivates cattle and sheep farmers – also known as ranchers – to adopt and sustain the use of regenerative practices and what challenges must be navigated. Her work is informing efforts that encourage farmers to transition to these methods.
Radio frequency inteferometric lightning maps are important tools for researchers exploring the electrical processes that unfold within storm clouds. Dr Xuan-Min Shao and colleagues at Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico, who first introduced broadband interferometry to lightning research over two decades ago, have now developed an advanced ‘beam steering’ interferometry technique to significantly improve the accuracy of lightning mapping. This approach, together with their recently developed polarisation detection technique, has begun to reveal new physics involved in lightning discharges. Their recent work shows how lightning initiation, which has been poorly understood until now, may be linked to high-energy cosmic particles entering Earth’s atmosphere.
Farmers in the East Coast of the US are struggling to compete against the larger farms of other regions. Coupled with rising production costs and increasingly difficult growing conditions, producing conventional commodity crops is no longer viable for these farms. Switching to speciality and niche ethnic crops could help these farmers break into a growing market, improve profitability and future viability – and help fulfil the needs of ethnic communities. Dr Ramu Govindasamy from Rutgers University uses a market-first approach to investigate and develop opportunities for farmers to transition to ethnic crop production.
Although the theories researchers use to describe the structural properties of Earth’s interior have now persisted to decades, the assumptions they make are far from realistic. Through their research, Dr Hatam Guliyev and Dr Rashid Javanshir, both of the National Academy of Sciences in Azerbaijan, have integrated concepts from both mechanics and Earth sciences to produce ground-breaking new theories about Earth’s ‘nonlinear’ properties. Their discoveries have yet to be widely accepted by the scientific community, but through concerted collaboration efforts, they hope that their ‘non-classically linearised’ approach could soon become a key aspect of geophysical research.
The region of space in which Earth’s magnetic field interacts with flowing charged particles is home to a rich array of physical processes – but studying them is no easy task. Through a career spanning over 50 years, Dr Gerhard Haerendel at the Max Planck Institute for extraterrestrial physics has carried out world-leading research into these processes. His discoveries have now led to ground-breaking insights in the field of plasma physics – including explanations of striking arcs in the aurora, the discovery of characteristic prominences on the Sun’s surface, and analysis of artificial comets seeded directly into space.
Enzymes make life as we know it possible. These active proteins are vital in nutrient cycling, metabolism, and cell functioning. With their diverse range of functions and ubiquity, enzymes could offer techniques to support healthy agricultural ecosystems, and as such, improve sustainability and future food security. Understanding their activities is vital to the organic agriculture revolution. Dr Zachary Senwo and his team at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical (A&M) University have contributed years of important research to uncover the potential of enzymes towards informing novel agricultural practices.
As global emissions of greenhouse gas continue to rise, it is increasingly important for researchers and policymakers to identify exactly where and how much greenhouse gas is emitted and absorbed worldwide for global climate change mitigation. Over the past decade, Dr Tomohiro Oda of the Universities Space Research Association (USRA) in Maryland has aimed to realise this need by combining emission data with night-time observations from satellites. Through this work, his team has now produced global maps that distinguish sources of carbon at unprecedented resolutions – high enough to identify variation across the regions where emissions are most intense: Earth’s cities.
Natural levels of biodiversity support healthy, resilient ecosystems, and thus also support valuable ecosystem services – such as providing clean water. However, pressures from climate change and habitat destruction are altering biodiversity across the globe. Understanding the mechanisms that give rise to biodiversity patterns is imperative to monitoring how it is changing and informing effective conservation strategies. Until recently, these mechanisms have been rarely explored and poorly understood. Dr Marta Jarzyna and her team at The Ohio State University are improving our understanding of biodiversity through extensive research, and developing novel modelling techniques.
It’s a long-held belief that a series of dams in the Snake River in Northwest USA constructed nearly 50 years ago has led to serious declines in Chinook salmon populations. However, new research by Dr David Welch and his team from Kintama Research Services Ltd shows that survival of Chinook salmon measured by a wide range of government agencies has fallen by 65% along the whole North American West Coast over this period. These results have significant implications for informing conservation strategies to protect and restore this important species.
Dr Patrick C. Still – Using Plants as a Source of Anti-Cancer Compounds for Undergraduate Research Experiences
Cancer, in all its forms, is one of the major causes of death across the world and we are in urgent need of more effective interventions for this global killer. Drugs used to treat diseases like cancer can be either synthetic in origin, semi-synthetic derivatives of natural products, or unmodified natural products.
Founded almost 50 years ago, the Association for Women in Science (AWIS) is a global network that inspires bold leadership, research, and solutions that advance women in STEM, spark innovation, promote organisational success, and drive systemic change. In this exclusive interview, we speak with AWIS president and world-renowned biomedical innovator Dr Susan Windham-Bannister, who describes the barriers that women face in the STEM workplace, and the many ways in which AWIS supports women in science and works towards eliminating inequality through systemic change.
First recognised over a century ago, the resistance of insects and other arthropods to pesticides is a growing problem, with implications for crop production and human health on a global scale. Dr David Mota-Sanchez and his team at Michigan State University are creating a worldwide, online database of resistance cases to catalogue the scale of the problem. Their work will aid decision makers in developing sustainable strategies to manage arthropod pests.
Climate change and environmental degradation are increasingly threatening our ability to feed a burgeoning human population. Switching to agricultural practices that support beneficial soil microbes, and thus healthy soils, may help farmers achieve the yields required for continued food security. Dr Zachary Senwo from the College of Agriculture, Life and Natural Sciences at Alabama A&M University has spent over two decades exploring how agricultural management practices impact soil health. In an extensive new project, his team is investigating soil nitrogen cycling and the role of microbes in soil health.
Tropical forests and marine ecosystems in the Caribbean are biodiversity hotspots and home to many species found nowhere else on Earth. Increasing environmental stress from a changing climate, such as hurricanes, temperature rises and droughts, threaten to irreparably alter these precious systems. Coupled with ongoing pressures from human activities, some of these areas are especially at risk. Dr Jess Zimmerman and his colleagues at the University of Puerto Rico and throughout the US aim to provide the basis for predicting the future of these ecosystems, through their research at the Luquillo Experimental Forest in north-eastern Puerto Rico.
Sweet basil is among the most popular and economically important culinary herbs, but by 2010, US production began to feel the impact of a newly emerging destructive disease: basil downy mildew. At that time, no sweet basil varieties were resistant to basil downy mildew and growers began relying heavily on fungicide application to avoid devastating crop losses. Dr James Simon at Rutgers University had been researching basil for 25 years and was eager to tackle this problem. Eight years later, Dr Simon’s team is proud to have successfully developed 12 new downy mildew resistant varieties of sweet basil and two varieties resistant to fusarium wilt disease.
Many kilometres above the Earth’s equatorial region, something strange occurs for several hours in the late evening: vast bubbles of plasma form in the upper atmosphere, which quickly rise upwards into space. Dr Joe Huba at Syntek Technologies in Virginia aims to gain a better understanding of this complex process, by recreating it through computer simulations. His team’s work is providing researchers with a more complete understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, and could also provide critical insights for satellite systems that communicate using radio waves, as well as global positioning systems.
Intensive livestock farming has contributed to environmental degradation across the globe, and is also a major source of greenhouse gas emissions. However, meeting the protein demands of a growing global population requires further increases in the food supply. Dr Luis Tedeschi and his team from Texas A&M University and Texas A&M AgriLife Research have been studying the sustainable intensification of livestock production, utilising modelling-based approaches. They consider whether these tools can be used to increase production efficiency while minimising environmental impacts, helping to preserve and regenerate the natural resources that form the basis of the industry, for future generations.
In recent decades, advancements in agricultural practices have made the large-scale production of cheap and nutritious food possible. However, these practices are often damaging to the environment, making them unsustainable in the long term. Technology is now sufficiently developed that many of these environmental impacts can be reduced or mitigated, by using ‘big data’ to inform farming management decisions. Dr Bruno Basso from Michigan State University and his network of researchers have been exploring how digital technologies could usher in a new era of sustainable agriculture that balances competing economic and social interests while minimising trade-offs.
Founded in 1947, the British Society of Soil Science (BSSS) is an international membership organisation and charity dedicated to the study of soil in its widest aspects. Funded through subscriptions and income from its publications, BSSS is a platform for exchanging ideas and representing the views of soil scientists to decision-making bodies. The Society stimulates research by hosting conferences and publishing two scientific journals, and promotes education through a number of initiatives in schools, colleges and universities. In this exclusive interview, we speak with Professor Sacha Mooney, President of BSSS, who describes the great importance of soil science research, and the varied ways that the Society advances this diverse and fascinating field.