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Archive for the 'Biodiversity' Category

07
Feb
12

Terrifically Useful Tuesday: Fungi will save the world, one hypha at a time

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

Paul Stamets: Mycelium Running

For a truly mind-blowing experience you need to see this video. Hell, everyone needs to see it–you won’t look at the earth the same way again. Microscopic cells called mycelium—the fruit of which are mushrooms—recycle carbon, nitrogen, and other essential elements as they break down plant and animal debris in the creation of rich new soil. These mycelium can help save the universe in six specific ways:

  • Mycoremediation – decompose toxic wastes and pollutants,

  • Mycofiltration – catch and reduce silt from streambeds and pathogens from agricultural watersheds),

  • Mycopesticides – control insect populations,

  • Mycoforestry and Myco-gardening – generally enhance the health of our forests and gardens,

  • Myco-pharmaceuticals – treating smallpox, tuberculosis and flu

  • Mycocolonisation – terraform other worlds in our galaxy by sowing a mix of fungal spores and other seeds to create an ecological footprint on a new planet.

http://video.ted.com/assets/player/swf/EmbedPlayer.swf

Love the video? Buy the book: Mycelium Running by Paul Stamets at The Book Depository.

Want proof? Pestalotiopsis microspora eats plastic!

Quick, cheap and easy to produce but taking an extremely long time to breakdown, polyurethane is everywhere. But an Amazonian fungi can eat it for breakfast (and lunch, and dinner).

Polyurethane is one of the most commonly used plastics.  Trouble with all plastics-how do you get rid of it? When burned polyurethane releases hydrogen cyanide and carbon monoxide, so of course it ends up in landfills.

Future landfills could be seeded with the hungry fungi Pestalotiopsis microspora to chomp through all those discarded garden hoses, mattresses, shoes, sportswear, composite wood panels, foam seating, insulation panels, seals and gaskets, tyres, adhesives, surface coatings and sealants, spandex, carpet underlay and hard-plastic parts.

P. microspora resides in the Ecuadorian rainforest and was discovered by a group of student researchers led by molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel as part of Yale’s annual Rainforest Expedition and Laboratory. Student Pria Anand discovered that the fungi ate polyurethane and could even do so in anaerobic conditions.

This is huge news for waste management. Another fine example of fungi saving the world (for others see Paul Stamet’s fine work, video above) and should be applauded as such. But how will this affect the fungi? A steady stream of trash in, what comes out? How will the fungi evolve based on this new diet?

P. microspora has another significantly beneficial use for humans. The fungi is an endophyte of certain yew trees (Taxus spp.), meaning it lives happily within the yew not causing disease. Endophytes can produce some of the same bioactive natural products as the host plant. In this case taxol, a high-effective anticancer agent is produced by the fungus as well.

Biodegradation of Polyester Polyurethane by Endophytic Fungi

Yale researchers find fungus that can break down plastic

http://eplayer.clipsyndicate.com/cs_api/get_swf/3/&pl_id=21394&wpid=10006&page_count=12&windows=1&va_id=2718596&show_title=0&auto_start=0&auto_next=1

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31
Jan
12

Terrifically Useful Tuesday: Kigelia – Sausage Tree

Image credit: bsterling @ FlickrCC licence

This post is part of Terrifically Useful Tuesday looking at the immense benefits plants have for people. See more in this series here.

One of the things I love about the internet is that you can set up systems to send you alerts for wonderful things. My french toast this morning was interrupted by sausages, actually sausage trees, thanks to an interesting auction on Trade Me.

Sausage trees are crazy looking things. Known as Kigelia africana in botanical circles, these sub-Saharan trees have berries that way around 12 kg and dangle from trees with the colour and shape of sausages. Those berries have a huge variety of uses in traditional and Western medicine. And you can now by the cream in NZ thanks TradeMe user gp.ca.johnson.

The tree’s fruit, bark, roots and leaves are all used for their curative properties – anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory, anti-microbial, anti-amoebic and anti-skin-aging effects. And this TradeMe auction comes with some very good sources. I love it when people add scientific studies to support use. See refs below (I went and found the URLs so you can just click away).

The kigelia sausage tree grows prolifically across sub-Saharan tropical Africa and as far south as South Africa. It is also grown as an ornamental in Australia and parts of the US.

Kigelia is considered a very important tree economically and for the ecosystem around it. Bats pollinate the dark red and stinky flowers (which is quite odd as flowers pollinated by bats are usually white). Monkeys and elephants love the fruit.  Leaves are excellent livestock fodder. The fruit is poisonous to humans causing blistering and violent vomiting, but roasted fruits are used to flavour beer. The wood itself is used for canoes and when planted along river banks stops soil erosion.

Houghton P.J. (2002) The sausage tree (Kigelia africana): ethnobotany and recent scientific work. South African Journal of Botany 68: 14-20. 

Jackson, S. J., Houghton, P.J., Retsas, S. and Photiou, A. (2000). In Vitro Cytotoxicity of Norviburtinal and Isopinnatal from Kigelia pinnata Against Cancer Cell Lines. Planta Medica 66: 758- 761. (PDF)

Picerno, P., G. Autore, et al. (2005). Anti- inflammatory activity of verbinoside from Kigelia africana and evaluation of cutaneous irritation in cell cultures and reconstituted human epidermis. Journal of Natural Products 68: 1610-1614.

12
Dec
11

Being fair to Fonterra

Previously, I have noted with disdain, some of the activities of Fonterra that I have not found favourable. Because my Mama raised me right I thought I should give praise where praise is due.

It has been announced that it will be mandatory to fence all waterways on Fonterra farms as condition of supply. Bloody good work! This is a fantastic step forward.

Cows trampling, polluting and eating their way through waterways and verges has caused significant damage. Water pollution, toxic algal blooms, habitat destruction – nasty realities of rural streams and waterways.

River Dog (trailer) from James Muir on Vimeo.

23
Nov
11

Becoming New Fonterraland: GE, TPPA and BS


Holstein Freisian dairy cow – there’s 4.4 million of them in New Zealand. Image from Wikipedia. This is not a diatribe against cows, as previously stated I really do like the beasties.

So news is out that National seek to allow the introduction of genetically engineered organisms into New Zealand. You know New Zealand–that previous bastion of 100% Pure; that primary exporting country that has so, so much to loose from lax biosecurity, resource-depletion, dirty dairying, environmental degradation and/or GE-contamination? Are we still a nation or are we quickly becoming a corporation? Should we be renaming ourselves New Fonterraland?

Government ministeries don’t do things with huge policy implications off their own backs. Especially during a period of public service restructure and redundancy. But Dr Nick Smith, Minister for the Environment, apparently had no idea that his Ministry was compiling a study into how much money can be made by changing genetic engineering laws. The reason anyone found out about it? MfE put out to tender the study that looks at promoting greater use of novel organisms  in the open environment.

“They are working against a brand strategy for ethical applications of new organisms in containment. They have forgotten gorse, and possums, and the refusal by the Insurance industry to cover GM organisms,” says Jon Carapiet from GE-Free NZ in food and environment.

So why is NZ’s GE-free status at risk? Well, lobbying from two major power players–Fonterra and the US-backed biotech industry.

Fonterra: Dairying with GE–dropping quality, going for quantity

Fonterra wants GE pastures. This year it dropped it’s support for organic dairy production by 50% at a time when organic markets continue to rise. Organic dairy exports from New Zealand grew 400% between 2005-2009. Organic product sales in the USA grew 7.7% compared with total food sales increase of less than 1% in 2010. So why drop support for a ever-growing value-driven niche? Because organic production has been identified as the main obstacle to introducing GE grasses and crops into NZ.

But in this report, GE lobbyists “fail to mention the significant GE contamination of non-GE farms, the loss of markets, the massive increase in herbicide use, the new resistant weeds and disease problems, higher seed and production costs, loss of biodiversity, or the human and animal health problems associated with genetic engineering (GE),” says Soil & Health – Organic NZ spokesperson Steffan Browning.

Fonterra are ready to overlook all of this hoping to see 20% higher production over the next couple of years. Fonterra apparently is only interested in returning higher profits to investors, shafting the rest of the country in the process. They’ve managed to do it with milk prices, now they’re stepping it up a notch.

Biotech businesses want more billions

The US biotech industry isn’t happy with it’s $50.7 billion a year revenue. It wants to weaken GE laws as part of the Trans Pacific Partnership agreement (TPPA) allowing companies like Monsanto to sell it’s genetically modified organisms to a farming nation.

The Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement should have been the main political issue this election. Loss of sovereignty and backroom deals by National for the TPPA will complete the introduction of GE crops into NZ . To have Pharmac, tobacco regulation, intellectual property, pro-corporate regulatory biases, finance, foreign investment, mining, water rights and GE straight-jacketed by a mega-treaty done in secret (All documents except the final text will be kept secret for four years after the agreement comes into force), is an astounding affront to New Zealand as a nation.  And why is the government pursuing it? What does New Zealand hope to gain from this? Helping Fonterra gain access to the lucrative US market. Feel sick yet?

New Zealand: Value-driven?

Our point of difference as a nation, our brand, our selling point, how we can add-value to New Zealand products–is being sold out to open up room for the big boys of the industry to rape and pillage? Our world-renowned environment, our precious birds, our native flora, our health and welfare all put at risk by organisms that aren’t fully understood.  There is no going back. Once they are here they are here

Threats of future enviro-degradation, monopolisation and health concerns from novel organisms don’t seem to scare most people.The incredible lack of knowledge and apathy on these issues is because people live more in the day to day, the future can be worried about in the future, we’ve still got to get through today. But New Zealand consumers are going to have to very quickly face up to decisions about eating GE. Feeding GE grass to cows that we then eat and get dairy products from (and NZers eat a lot of beef and dairy), is a very close relationship with novel GE organisms. Do we trust our scientists and the corporations that fund them enough to bypass all evolutionary safeguards, test all possible permutations and be concerned enough about the consequences to let those organisms loose into our environment and our bodies?

And no we don’t know the full ramifications of GE in our food supply–it simply hasn’t been around long enough. We’re only just finding out that plants you eat can affect the regulation of some of your genes through the effects of plant-derived miRNAs.

Vote this Saturday

It seems almost certain that National will returned to power this election. But please consider voting for the Greens–the only party willing to stand up on this issue. With clear environmental, child poverty and economic policies, the Green Party are important players in New Zealand politics. Hopefully a strong Green presence in parliament will mean that these issues are addressed and don’t turn into policy pushed through under urgency.

References

‘Super-grass’ aims to boost milk production (02 Mar 2010)

BioTechnology Learning Hub: Amazing Ryegrass

GM grass may not be so green (18 Jun 2011)

Something smells bad (15 Jun 2011)

Warning on GM laws from the NZ Sustainability Council (10 Nov 2011)

GE law probe a big surprise (20 Nov 2011)

GE Free New Zealand in Food and Environment

Soil & Health / Organic NZ

Trans Pacific Partnership Watch

New Zealand Green Party

12
Sep
11

Taro: The vegetable that could feed a small village

OK – I have a new appreciation for taro Colocasia esculenta. I had no idea they could get that big.

Somehow found myself checking out Scot Nelson’s photos on Flickr – I don’t know how, it’s the internet, it does these things. I was quite taken by Some important plants of Hawaii and just smitten with his snaps of Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden, Papaikou. And maybe a little grossed out by some of his other images. Man, I wanna go to Hawaii. Oh how I’d love to move there and do plant science at University of Manoa. Sigh…

15
Jun
11

Something smells bad

I like cows. I enjoy a nice piece of steak every so often, consider cheese not only a separate food group but a necessity for life and think cream is floaty. I’m also thankful for some of the manure that graces my compost pile, invigorating my soil microbes. But what the hell is this country going to do with the effluent produced by 4.4 million dairy cows?

I was thinking how gross that was when it suddenly struck me, “Hold up a minute, that’s only milking cows!” Add another third on for my rough estimate of total dairy herd – 6 million. Now add say 5 million beef cattle. Ta da! That’s 11 million very large bovine eating machines. That’s a lot of grass. That’s a hell of a lot of poo – a cow produces around 11 tonnes of it a year. That’s about 121 million tonnes of cow manure produced every year in New Zealand. (This is my own rough estimation. Not all cows poop the same).

121 million tonnes, let’s reflect on that for a minute…

Global sugar production each year

– Weighs the same as 121 million 1990 Honda Civics

– 121 x more grain than is produced in NZ each year

I’ve been told that cows produce two-thirds more manure than is required to fertilise and replenish it’s food supply. So it’s understandable why we have such problems with runoff issues in this country. Add to this no natural native excrement-dwellers to go to work and help break this shit down. Thank goodness the mighty dung beetle army is on it’s way to help remediate. Because left to decompose, manure is a powerful emitter of greenhouse gas emissions.

The smart solution may be the better management of effluent collection for use as fertiliser and put a lot of it through a biodigester for power generation. Surely NZ could be powered by wind, solar and poo power?

According to the University of Alberta, Canada around 7,500 cattle can produce 1 megawatt (MW) of electricity (1MW can power the average home in the developed world), according to the University of Alberta, Canada. The university also says it would take all of the manure of 6 million cows to fulfill the needs of 1 million homes — or about six cows per home.

There! Energy problems solved.

For more info please read Cow power: the energy and emissions benefits of converting manure to biogas

07
Dec
10

Megaherb smacks down Killer Nettle

 

In a true demonstration that cute and cuddly beats pesky and prickly, the Chatham Island forget-me-not (Myosotidium hortensia) has become New Zealand’s favourite plant for 2010. In a national poll by the New Zealand Plant Conservation Network (NZPCN) to find the country’s preferred plant, the potentially deadly tree nettle Ongaonga (Urtica ferox) dominated voting until the Chatham Island forget-me-not overtook its rival in the final fortnight.

The Chatham Island forget-me-not is an iconic megaherb, growing in patches up to 1m tall. It is endemic to the Chatham Island archipelago where it grows on wild coastal cliffs, rock outcrops, above the strand zone on beaches, and in coastal forest openings.  With its large blue-flowered inflorescences, it is revered by gardeners nationwide but is threatened with extinction in the wild.

Supporters of butterfly conservation – the red admiral in particular – placed their votes in favour of the tree nettle that is a host plant for the butterfly. Others cited its home security value, saying that the killer plant was perfect for deterring burglars when planted below windows.

 
The Top 10 native plants for 2010 (To view the top 100 go to – http://www.nzpcn.org.nz):
Myosotidium hortensium (Chatham Island Forget-me-not, kopakopa, kopukapuka)

Urtica ferox (ongaonga, tree nettle)

Sporadanthus ferrugineus (bamboo Rush, giant wire rush)

Metrosideros bartlettii (rata moehau, Bartlett’s rata)

Rhabdothamnus solandri (New Zealand gloxinia, kaikaiatua)

Clianthus maximus (kakabeak, Kowhai Ngutu-Kaka)

Cordyline australis (cabbage tree, ti, ti Kouka, palm lily)

Muehlenbeckia astonii (shrubby tororaro, wiggywig, mingimingi)

Dacrydium cupressinum (rimu, red pine)

Metrosideros robusta (northern rata)

 

The more traditional New Zealand plant icons missed out again with the silver fern placing only 11th and the pohutukawa 23rd. Previous winners of the annual poll have included pohutukawa, Cook’s scurvy grass and pingao (the golden sand sedge) in 2009.




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