Category: Earth

Genome analysis creates tree of life for modern birds

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Long long ago in a land far far away not so far from here at all, crocodiles, dinosaurs, and birds all arose from early reptiles called thecodonts.

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Using new computational methods developed by assistant professor of statistics Liang Liu, Travis Glenn of the College of Public health and others, an international team of scientists has shed more light on an obscure period of avian evolution and further untangle the bird family tree.

Members of the Avian Phylogenomics Consortium—composed of 200 researchers from 80 institutions and 20 countries—have sequenced and analyzed the genomes of 48 species of birds and three species of crocodiles to better understand the fundamental evolutionary events that led to feathers, flight and song.

The consortium simultaneously published 28 papers this past week—eight papers in a special Dec. 12 issue of Science and 20 more in Genome Biology, GigaScience and other journals.

Glenn, an associate professor of environmental health science in the College of Public Health; Liu, an assistant professor in the department of statistics and Institute of Bioinformatics in the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences; and John Finger Jr., a doctoral student in the Interdisciplinary Toxicology Program and College of Public Health, were co-authors on two of the eight papers published in Science.

The first of these two papers, "Whole genome analyses resolve the early branches to the tree of life of modern birds," creates the most reliable tree of life for birds to date.

Fantastic work by our faculty and all members of the consortium, all celebrated in a special issue of Science. This is the kind of atmosphere that attracts the best graduate students, among other interested parties. So we celebrate this marvelous achievement and all the other indicators it provides, campus-wide and beyond.

Eco-initiatives and individual motivation

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A new UGA study in the American Review of Public Administration, from faculty in the School of Public and International Affairs, presents findings on individual behaviors by public employees that is all well and good:

Authored by Justin M. Stritch, a former doctoral student in public administration and policy, and Christensen, who also is the school's Ph.D. director in the department of public administration and policy, the research found that public servants were likely to engage in eco initiatives.

"Eco initiatives are discretionary, pro-environmental behaviors that an employee can participate in during the day," said Stritch, who is now an assistant professor at Arizona State University. "Eco initiatives involve things like recycling or energy conservation. Reusing water bottles and turning off your computer screen are examples."

Eco initiatives include sustainable micro-level behaviors, small tasks that are done voluntarily by the employee. When an employee chooses to do things like save paper or turn off lights at work, they are participating in eco initiatives. Eco initiatives are done because employees choose to do them, not because they're enforced.

But how does this behavior, if at all, translate into policy initiatives? Individual eco-mindedness is terrific but also no substitute for broader policy measures to incentivize changes in habits and behaviors on a societal level. Even if I were to walk to campus everyday, it would not begin to offset the fuel consumption and emissions from the thousands of vehicles that pass me on the street. I might feel better personally, in any number of ways, but the overall issues of traffic congestion, pollution and carbon emissions would remain. Translating this individual eco-initiative into public policy is the real question. Maybe we can start by rewarding positive individual behaviors; but we also have to find some ways to leverage them into new policy initiatives.

Understanding how plants adapt to water stress

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SiphonTubes.jpgIf there's one thing we take for granted more than the infinite availability of water, it would be the technical ability of our best scientists should that availability ever come into question.

Well, the infinite availability of water is very much in quesiton and what is the reaction of scientists? Looking to Mother nature for clues to survival in water-limited environments:

[With] a $1.5 million collaborative grant from the National Science Foundation, researchers at the University of Georgia, the University of California at Riverside, the University of Texas and the University of Buffalo are looking to Mother Nature for clues about how plants survive in water-limited environments and what people can do to engineer crops that require less of this precious commodity.

"Agaves, yuccas and their relatives, together with orchids living in the canopies of tropical dry forests, are known for their ability to thrive in water-limited environments," said Jim Leebens-Mack, associate professor of plant biology in UGA's Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and principal investigator for the project. "If we can understand how these plants adapt to water stress at the molecular level, we can learn how to increase water efficiency in economically important plants like biofuel and food crops."

During normal photosynthesis, most plants absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere through pore-like structures on leaves known as stomata. The CO2 combines with water and sunlight to produce the carbohydrates a plant needs to grow as well as oxygen.

This approach is both humbling and inspired. When scientists realize their limits, recognize and reconcile that fact that humans can refine our sustainability efforts with help from nature - rather than fighting against it - we can empower conservation efforts that truly make a difference - because they will exist in harmony with our environment. I realize that the use of words like 'harmony' can sound/read as too touchy-feely for some. But living in concert with our surroundings and resources will be the key to the best stewardship practices - and hence our own health and happiness.

Congratulations to Leebens-Mack and his colleagues around the country. Let's learn from nature and live better - in every sense.

Image: Surface irrigation system using siphon tubes. USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Anthropocene lecture: repairing the world

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moral_imperative.jpgThe final event in this fall's very successful Anthropocene Lecture Series takes place tonight at 7 p.m in the Chapel. No scientific investigation can be complete without the inclusion of a moral perspective and tonight's lecture looks at the ways theology and science can work together:

The physical sciences tell us the what and the how regarding the condition of the earth, but the why question -- why should we engage in helping to repair our world -- is a matter seriously addressed by people of faith.  There are also many people of no faith equally concerned and willing simply because it is the right thing to do.  We trust science every day because it is based on facts and it improves the quality of our lives.  Good theology and good science make a powerful team in dealing with the condition of our home, the foremost issue of our future.

 Tonight's speaker is the Reverend Bill Coates, Jr., pastor at the First Baptist Church of Gainesville.

Congratulations and great job on the series to Dr. Mark Farmer, professor and chair of our biological sciences division in the Franklin College. Fantastic way to present these issues to our campus and community.

Dorsey, Garfinkel and Joye elected to AAAS

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dorsey_alan_0.jpgFantastic news for the Franklin College and UGA, as three faculty members including Franklin dean Alan Dorsey were elected to the American Association for the Advancement of Science:

an honor bestowed upon them by their peers for "scientifically or socially distinguished efforts to advance science or its applications."

These three faculty members are among 401 new AAAS Fellows who will be presented with an official certificate and a gold and blue rosette pin—representing science and engineering, respectively—on Feb. 14 at the AAAS Fellows Forum during the 2015 AAAS Annual Meeting in San Jose, California.

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Dorsey, dean of the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences and professor of physics: Dorsey's research in theoretical condensed matter physics seeks an understanding of the peculiar properties of matter subjected to extreme conditions, such as low temperatures and high magnetic fields. Such conditions reveal fundamental quantum-mechanical phenomena that lead to wholly new phases of matter, such as superconductors, superfluids and supersolids.

David J. Garfinkel, professor of biochemistry and molecular biology: Garfinkel's research focuses on "jumping genes" known as transposons, which make additional copies of themselves and insert those copies throughout the genome. The Garfinkel lab has contributed to understanding the mechanism by which transposable genetic elements are mobilized, shape genome structure and function and are regulated by host factors.

Samantha Joye, UGA Athletic Association Professor of Arts and Sciences and professor of marine sciences: Joye is a microbial geochemist by training, and her expertise lies in quantifying rates of microbial hydrocarbon metabolism and environmental geochemical signatures in natural environments. She has studied Gulf of Mexico natural seeps for 20 years and has tracked the environmental fate of oil and gas released from the Macondo well blowout since May 2010.

Thrilling news. New AAAS members from UGA is a key indicator to our peer institutions and a great sign of the intellectual engagement on campus by these leaders in research. Wonderful accolades for the individuals, our college and the university.

New funding for ECOGIG-2

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Joye.AuSt_0.jpegSamantha Joye's tireless work in the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the 2010 Macondo well blowout will continue thanks to a major new support stream:

Joye has received a new grant to continue its studies of natural oil seeps and to track the impacts of the BP/Deepwater Horizon oil spill on the Gulf of Mexico ecosystem.

The project, known as ECOGIG-2 or "Ecosystem Impacts of Oil and Gas Inputs to the Gulf," is a collaborative, multi-institutional effort involving biological, chemical, geological and chemical oceanographers. The research team has worked in the Gulf since the weeks following the 2010 Macondo well blowout.

The three-year, $18.8 million dollar ECOGIG-2 program was funded by the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiative, or GoMRI.

"I am so thrilled that the ECOGIG-2 research program was selected for funding by the GoMRI research board," said Joye, the UGA Athletic Association Professor of Arts and Sciences and a professor of marine sciences. "Our work will explore the basics of oil and gas cycling at natural seeps, discern the impacts of chemical dispersants on microbial populations and their activity and on the fate of discharged hydrocarbons, use sophisticated instrumentation and physical and biogeochemical models to track hydrocarbon transport and continue to document recovery of deep-water ecosystems from the Macondo blowout."

Congratulations to Joye and her colleagues. So many facets to this work, which will produce a better understanding of natural and not-so-natural hydrocarbon discharges into marine ecosystems. With energy exploration and regional economies interconnected perhaps as never before, Joye's research focus and expertise continue to play a crucial role in policy debates that try to reconcile the common interests of the two.

Image: Samantha Joye aboard a research vessel Atlantis, courtesy the Gulf of Mexico Research Initiaitive

The 'Anthro' in Anthropcene

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housing.jpgWho is the 'Anthro' in Anthropocene? A very good question, and professor of philosophy and women's studies Chris J. Cuomo provides the answer Thursday at the Chapel in this week's installement of the Anthropocene Lecture Series:

The term “anthropocene” has gained enormous popularity among scientists who believe that we are currently in a global geological era that is distinguished by the extensive and lasting impacts that “human” activities (i.e. fossil fuel combustion, deforestation, pollution, etc.) are having on all of Earth’s vital systems. But should the practices, institutions and decisions that have led to the current global ecological crisis be identified as human activities? Or is it more appropriate to label these activities as Western, modern, or produced by particular value systems? Does the entire human species deserve the “blame” for the problems of current “man-made” global changes, or should scholars and scientists have more specific analyses of the historical causes of present geological trends?

Again, we are very lucky to have this series of engaged, informative public presentations by some of our best faculty members. The ethical and political dimensions of the systems that guide us are probably one of the few routes to informed solutions on public policy questions. But it takes time to learn, and great expertise to teach. You can increase your own level of understanding and build your informed opinion by attending this talk at 7 pm on Thursday. Very few things are so simple and straightforward.

Fritjof Capra lecture: Systems view of Life

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Genomics_GTL_Program_Payoffs.jpgThe Franklin College is one of the sponsors of an important Chapel lecture this week by Physicist and systems theorist Fritjof Capra on the "Scientific Understanding of Living Systems and the Systems View of Life" Nov. 13 at 3 p.m.

What is a systems view? That's why we'll attend the lecture but, the namesake of our Odum School of Ecology, Eugene Odum, along with his brother Howard T., was an early pioneer of systems ecology - a holistic view of an ecosystem as a complex system exhibiting emergent properties. Systems ecology focuses on interactions within and between biological and ecological systems, and is especially concerned with the way the functioning of ecosystems can be influenced by human interventions.

It's a fascinating perspective, capable of illuminating much about how we interact as a part of the natural world. I'm sure that Dr. Capra will tell us even more tomorrow. See you at the Chapel, Thursday at 3.

Carbon Sequestration in Salt Marshes

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DeepakMishra-marshes.jpgThe importance of the world's rainforests, and to some extent the mangroves, as storage sinks for atmospheric are carbon well-known. But salt marshes, too, are extraordinarily efficient mechanism for photosynthesis and the production of biomass that work together to sequester carbon at a high rate. So disappearing wetlands along the coast present much more peril than loss against storm surge, which itself plays significant part in their role in an ecosystem.

Now, Deepak Mishra, associate professor in the department of geography, has developed tools and techniques to map carbon storage in coastal marshes using satellite data:

[Mishra] is principal investigator on the new prototype demonstration study that will use NASA's MODIS—Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer—Earth Observatory satellite to gather data to model the marshes.

"There is high demand to understand wetlands, and it's not just about land lost, land gained, marsh lost or restored-people want to know more about these marshes," Mishra said. "How they are performing in terms of their productivity, their resiliency, do they produce enough underground biomass to be stable? We hope to be able to answer these questions.

"The idea is to see what kind of carbon loss to the atmosphere is happening by means of satellite-derived proxies as we lose wetlands, not only in terms of area but also productivity."

Restoration projects along coastal areas are expensive, and their success is judged primarily by the amount of vegetation gained. This new modeling capability will allow for more complete assessments of the marshes' overall productivity: carbon capture, light-use efficiency for photosynthesis and biomass production. It also will differentiate which species of marsh grass provides better productivity.

"Right now, monitoring wetlands via satellite is problematic because of the way water and soil moisture interferes with the signal," Mishra said. "It can be difficult to effectively separate the water contribution from the vegetative contribution."

Data from the two monitoring stations along the Gulf Coast will be used to establish models for other areas around the U.S. as well. As Mishra explains, being able to quantify the carbon capture in these areas will become increasingly important as we begin to put a dollar value on carbon as a part of our ability to responsibly limit emissions - and more precisely, value the overall productivity of an ecosystem.

Joye at Blue Ocean Film Festival

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BLUE_logo-2014.pngSamantha Joye, Athletic Association Professor in Arts and Sciences, is participating as a judge in the internationally acclaimed "BLUE Ocean Film Festival and Conservation Summit", underway in St. Petersburg Florida.  Joye joins global leaders in ocean conservation including Sylvia Earle, founder of Mission Blue, marine advocates Fabien and Celine Cousteau, grandchildren of Jacques Cousteau, and royal philanthropist Prince Albert II of Monaco. Other luminaries include renowned actor of stage and screen Jeremy Irons (narrator of Trashed a marine debris film), global explorer and discover of the Titanic Robert Ballard, who has his deep ocean exploration vessel, the E/V Nautilus on display at BLUE, and famed adventurer Sir Robert Swan, the first human to walk both Poles. About Blue Ocean:

BLUE is an enlightening and entertaining 7-Day summit showcasing the world's finest ocean films and award winning marine photography along with a filmmakers marketplace, science and conservation seminars, international policy discussions and a robust ocean media industry conference.

This is tremendous and high profile public outreach from one of the world's leading marine scientists. Joye is also serving as a member of a Mission Blue youth education session, "Ocean Gems" (http://ocean-gems.org/)​, and as a panel member discussing the current state of the Gulf of Mexico after the 2010 Deepwater Horizon explosion.