Category: Earth

Examining the history of plants

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Morning_glory.jpgIt sounds like the title of a cable documentary (a good one! And maybe it is) but scientists from North America, Europe and China have published a paper in PNAS that reveals important details about key transitions in the evolution of plant life on Earth:

From strange and exotic algae, mosses, ferns, trees and flowers growing deep in steamy rainforests to the grains and vegetables humans eat and the ornamental plants adorning people's homes, all plant life on Earth shares over a billion years of history.

"Our study generated DNA sequences from a vast number of distantly related plants, and we developed new analysis tools to understand their relationships and the timing of key innovations in plant evolution," said study co-author Jim Leebens-Mack, an associate professor of plant biology in the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences.

As part of the One Thousand Plants, or 1KP, initiative, the research team is generating millions of gene sequences from plant species sampled from across the green tree of life. By resolving these relationships, the international research team is illuminating the complex processes that allowed ancient water-faring algae to evolve into land plants with adaptations to competition for light, water and soil nutrients.

Great stuff, congratulations to this international team. More lights come on and we are able to understand our world and how it works a little better.

Image: Morning glory (Ipomoea purpurea) is a beautiful flowering plant and agricultural weed. (Credit: Lindsay Chaney/Brigham Young University)

Observatory open house Oct. 17

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Hubble_Ring_Nebula.jpgAfter a short pause, the UGA observatory open house returns this Friday Oct. 17 from 8 to 9:30 pm:

During the early part of the viewing, Mars will be visible. In addition Albireo, a double star in the constellation of Cygnus, and the Ring Nebula, a glowing shell of gas blown off a giant star in the final phase of that star's life, also should be visible. The Ring Nebula is in the  constellation of Lyra.

Visitors can view the objects through the 24-inch telescope in the dome on top of the building. Faculty and students from the department will be on hand to point out the various celestial objects and to answer questions. Free parking is available immediately to the north and west of the building, which is located at the corner of Cedar Street and Sanford Drive.

This is a fun campus activity - take a date or take your family. As always, the back up plan incase of cloudy skies is an astronomy talk by professor Loris Magnani, "The Gas and Dust in the Milky Way," in the auditorium of the physics building. Who ever gets to experience such wonderful things, except you?

Anthropocene: Economics of the transition

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renewable_energy.jpgSomething that often goes missing in conversations on, much less debates about, what to do about climate change is optimism. If, for example, a discussion of the economics of the transition to an industrial model from the agricultural age had occured, there would have been great gnashing of teeth but a convincing case could have been made, though likely with some strict limitations toward eventual consequences, if these could have been imagined. The point is, the same dynamics are at play when trying to imagine the transition away from a dependence on fossil fuels; we're limited by how things work now - travel, food production, growth, defense - and that present bias makes any transition all the more unimaginable, optimism evaporates and we choose to do nothing as though it's an preferable option. The next Anthropocene Lecture takes on this very question:

The lives of six out of the seven billion people now living on Earth are dependent on a combination of technology and fossil fuels.  Green Revolution crops have greatly increased food production, but only when supplied with plentiful fossil fuel inputs.  Supporting an even larger world population without using fossil fuels will pose a major technological challenge.  Transitioning away from fossil fuels on a global scale is a huge challenge but deploying new technologies is our best hope.  This lecture assembles a variety of data to present a coherent, quantitative view of both the challenges and the opportunities.  It concludes by examining the current state of the art of using markets to drive the transition to carbon-free energy systems. 

These are the discussions we need to have, led by the folks who need to lead them. Come be a part of the discussion. Knowledge is power and the switch gets flipped at 7 pm Thursday Oct. 9 in the Chapel. Free and open to the public.

Science at the Stadium

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One the greatest missed opportunities of gathering so many people on campus several Saturdays each fall for football is not engaging them in other ways with the research mission of the university. Franklin colleagues in marine sciences have designed a new way to make inroads with some of the many UGA supporters who will be here for the Homecoming matchup with Vanderbilt:

marine sciences department and faculty will present "Science at the Stadium" on Saturday, Oct. 4, from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at the north entry to the Georgia Center for Continuing Education across from the Lumpkin Street entrance to the South Campus parking deck.

The new public outreach series, led by Athletic Association Professor of Arts and Sciences Samantha Joye and her research team known as ECOGIG, is designed to educate fans attending home football games about oceanography and the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

"I want to engage and excite kids about science in general and oceanography specifically, and seeing a mini-remotely operated vehicle in action is a great way to give these kids a feel for what we do out on the water," Joye said. "Athletic venues draw a diverse and large crowd and present a fantastic place to share our knowledge and enthusiasm with young people of all ages and their parents.

"Plus, the kids (and some of the parents, too) will learn to ‘drive' an ROV. It's a great way to get people excited about science and to educate them about the ocean and environmental conservation and sustainability at the same time."

Since a few days after the Deepwater Horizon disaster in the Gulf in 2010, Dr. Joye has been on the scene assessing the damage and learning how the ecosystem has been and will be effected. Her expertise about conditions there is second to none, but her willingness to share her knowledge and experience with visitors is inspiring and truly extraordinary. Her dedication to teaching beyond the classroom reaches the public in ways of lasting importance, engaging with future scientists and fellow citizens. great job. Come by Saturday and speak with one of our leading researchers.

Geology to partner with Chevron to support graduate assistantships

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Chevron5.jpgAthens, Ga. – The Chevron Corporation and the University of Georgia Franklin College of Arts and Sciences department of geology will partner to support two research assistantships for geology graduate students. The new stipends, part of Chevron’s University Partnership Program, were announced Sept. 26 at a ceremony on the UGA campus.

Chevron’s President of North American Exploration and Production and UGA Geology alumnus Jeff Shellebarger (BS’78 MS’80) visited campus to take part in the ceremony and to speak with geology students, faculty, and alumni. 

“Chevron is investing in geology, a strong statement of support for a program worthy of such student/research investment,” said Sara Cook, director of development for the Franklin College. “Our alumni go on to be leaders in competitive industries all over the world and Jeff is a prime example of the impact of quality that comes from the UGA Franklin College experience.”

Through the partnership with the department of geology, Chevron will support two research assistantships for geology graduate students. Each assistantship will be funded at $21,000 and allow the department to recruit students to study geophysics and stratigraphy. In addition, Chevron will support a team of five graduate students in geology to travel to the Imperial Barrel Award competition in Denver, CO. They will also be able to travel to Houston, TX to meet with Chevron consultants for training prior to the competition, as well as have access to equipment and software. 

“Chevron is proud to support the UGA geology department with a gift of $50,000 made through our University Partnership Program,” said Bill Hunter, manager, Chevron University Affairs. “We believe that UGA geology students receive an outstanding education in the basic geologic fundamentals required for a successful career in the oil and gas industry and Chevron looks forward to recruiting UGA students to help us meet energy demands around the world.”

“Funding from Chevron in the form of RA stipends and IBA team support will allow us to recruit high caliber graduate students to work on research related to energy resources,” said Douglas Crowe, professor and head of the department of geology. “As we move forward in the 21st century we face enormous challenges to continue to find and produce sufficient energy to allow society to grow and prosper, and this partnership is certainly a step in the right direction."

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UGA discovery: building better plants

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xylan.jpgThe complexity of natural materials has long been a point of fascination for scientists, and has only increased as the technology to look closer has itself evolved. The structure and development of sea shells, for example, holds great potential for nanotechnology and building light weight materials of great strength. So, too, the cell walls of plants, whose flexibility and strength depend on two critical proteins. Now UGA scientists have discovered how these fundamental components of plant life might one day help scientists engineer improved plants for biofuels, construction materials, medicine and food production:

"The scientific community has identified a large number of proteins that the plant uses to assemble its cell walls, but it has been very difficult to identify those few proteins that are directly involved in the construction of key polysaccharides like xylan," said Will York, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology in UGA's Complex Carbohydrate Research Center and principal investigator of a CCRC research team that recently published the paper describing its results in The Plant Journal.

"The work we've done gives us the fundamental knowledge we need to manipulate plants for industry and agriculture," said York, who is a member of the Bioenergy Science Center, a partnership of Oak Ridge National Laboratory, the University of Georgia and other university and industry partners. It is one of three bioenergy research centers established by the Department of Energy in 2007 to accelerate progress toward development of liquid biofuels that add an affordable, sustainable, domestically produced option to the nation's energy supply.

Understanding how and why plants don't make enough xylan and so do not grow normally and thus cannot transport life-giving water from the roots to the leaves is potentially major breakthrough. The complexity evinced by millions of years of evolution holds unlimited promise, and as scientists continue to unlock different rooms in the grand, mysterious mansion of life on Earth, unimaginable connections, products and processes become possible. The force of great research is as humbling as the wonders of life it seeks to understand. Congratulations to the teams at the CCRC and the national research centers who support their work. 

Image: Electron micrograph scan shows a dried film of polymeric xylan isolated from Arabidopsis thaliana stems.

Urbanization and Climate Change: Anthropocene

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climate march.jpgComing on the heels of the People's Climate March yesterday in NYC, the next installment of the Anthropocene Lecture Series this week promises to be timely and informative:

The 21st century is the first urban century in the history of humankind.  Current projections suggest that 60-80% of the world population will live in urban settlements by the end of this century.  The urban environment alters climate, weather, and natural cycles (e.g.. water and biogeochemical).  Such interactions also influence human health, energy consumption, transportation, and planning.  Influential at various scales, urbanization is rapidly emerging as a critical area of interdisciplinary study.  The IPCC and U.S. National Climate Assessment included specific groups focused on urban interactions, processes, and feedbacks, related to climate change.  Recently, the National Academies published a report on the looming challenges of urbanization and meteorology. 
Karen Seto and Marshall Shepherd's recent paper in Current Opinions on Environmental Sustainability summarized the role of urbanization on climate and moved the discourse forward on challenges and opportunities at the intersection of the coupled-human natural system.  The objective of this lecture is to discuss the so-called "other," climate change related to human activity (urbanization).  To place urban effects on the climate system in proper context, a broader discussion on anthropogenic climate change will also be presented.

The lecture, featuring professor and atmospheric sciences expert Marshall Shepherd, will be a great opportunity to get the straight facts from one of the world's leading experts - as well as a great chance to hear Dr. Shepherd speak in person. UGA Chapel, 7 p.m.. Get there early.

Archeology of the Anthropocene

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anthropocene-small.jpgThe terrific Athropocene Lecture Series continues tomorrow night, Sept. 11, in the Chapel at 7 p.m. with an Archeology of the Anthropocene:

 

We tend to think that the human capacity for changing the face of the planet as a relatively recent development. Often we attribute its beginnings to the industrial revolution. While certainly today humankind is altering the earth on a larger scale and faster pace that is unmatched in our history, our ability to modify large portions of the earth’s ecosystem is by no means a recent phenomenon. In which case, the argument for the start of the Anthropocene is more complicated than previously stated. From fire, to plant and animal domestication, to the extinction of species from around the globe, humans have significantly modified the planet for over 10,000 years. The archaeological record provides important clues to how past people managed entire landscapes successfully and the consequences for societies whose practices were unsustainable. 

Associate professor of anthropology, Victor Thompson studies the societies that occupied the coastal and wetland areas of the American Southeast - specifically the ritual and ceremonial landscapes, subsistence systems, and the political development of the peoples who occupied these areas over extended time frames. This lecture should be great. Remember to get there early.

First Anthropocene Lecture

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R&B Anthropocene.jpgThe first in the Anthropocene Lecture Series was last night in the UGA Chapel. The Red & Black provides coverage:

Atmospheric carbon dioxide levels are increasing at two parts per million, which can be directly attributed to human activity, he said. Basic chemistry shows the carbon dioxide dissolves in water to form carbonic acid, which in turn makes the Earth’s bodies of water more acidic, significantly altering the ecosystems of aquatic life.

About 250 million years ago came the Permian extinction, during which ocean pH plunged to about 7.6, killing 90 percent of the Earth’s species. This is the projected ocean pH in about 100 years, Farmer said.

“[The lecture was] eye-opening,” said Troy Woodward, a junior health promotions student from Valdosta. “Ocean acidification is not something I think a lot of people know about.”

The heart of the problem is the rise in carbon dioxide, but with time plants’ photosynthesis and natural processes will be able to bring these levels back down, Farmer said. However, this requires cutting down on the input of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Science Learning Center: breaking ground

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UGA-ScLC-rendering.jpgThe D.W. Brooks mall on South Campus is about to [begin to] change for the better, with much-needed science instruction space in the new Science Learning Center:

The University of Georgia will break ground on its newest building-the 122,500-square-foot Science Learning Center-on Aug. 26 at 11:30 a.m. at the south end of the S10 parking lot located just off Carlton Street.

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The Science Learning Center will be situated on South Campus adjacent to Pharmacy South and across from the Miller Plant Sciences Building. Funded by Deal and the Georgia General Assembly, the center will cost $44.7 million and be designed around an environment that promotes active learning.

The building's 33 instructional labs will be designed specifically for interactive learning in core undergraduate science courses. The Science Learning Center also will contain two 280-seat lecture halls and two 72-seat SCALE-UP classrooms. SCALE-UP stands for Student-Centered Active Learning Environment for Undergraduate Programs, a learning model that focuses heavily on group-work class participation and technology-making student-to-student and student-to-teacher interaction easier in a larger class setting.

The building is scheduled to open in fall 2016.

Okay, that seems like a long way off but it will be here before you know it. Great news for students and faculty in the sciences, which more than ever, venture into many more disciolines than we have traditional associated with only chemistry or biology. But definitely for all our science majors, this new building is a welcome new addition to the campus learning environment.

Image: A rendering of the Science Learning Center shows how the new building will be situated on UGA's South Campus.