Thursday, November 24, 2016

The top 10 policies needed now to protect pollinators

Bee thankful: “If you enjoyed a bountiful Thanksgiving Day dinner, you should give thanks to pollinators,” says Emory biologist Berry Brosi.

By Carol Clark

Scientific experts from eight different countries developed a list of the top 10 policies needed to reverse the decline of pollinators crucial to the world’s food supply.

The journal Science is publishing the recommendations for the global community in a forum article, “10 Policies for Pollinators.” The recommendations will be presented at the United Nations Convention of the Parties on Biological Diversity (CoP13), to take place in Mexico December 4 to 17.

“If you enjoyed a bountiful Thanksgiving Day dinner, you should give thanks to pollinators,” says Berry Brosi, a biologist and ecologist in Emory University’s Department of Environmental Sciences and a co-author of the article.

Brosi cites the first policy recommendation on the list as the most concrete and actionable: Better pesticide regulatory standards.

He adds that several of the recommendations related to sustainable agriculture more broadly include making chemical control for insects and other pests a last resort.

“Especially in light of the emergence of the Zika virus, and widespread public concern about mosquito-borne diseases, we are likely to see increased demands for pesticide use,” Brosi says. “Mosquito control is, of course, important, but we also need to be thoughtful about what kinds of pesticides we use and how we use them. We should carefully consider the impact on pollinators and other biodiversity.”

The Environmental Protection Agency is currently reviewing a class of insecticides commonly used in agriculture, neonicotinoids, which have been linked to wide-scale bee declines and impacts to other pollinator species by a range of scientific studies.

"Neonicotinoids are known to kill bees and other insect pollinators in very low doses, and to cause behavioral disruptions in even minute concentrations, measured in parts-per-billion," says Brosi, whose research focuses on both managed honeybees and wild bees.

In 2014, Emory began taking steps to eliminate the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides and pre-treated plants on its campus grounds, the first university to do so worldwide.

The EPA’s review of the safety of neonicotinoids is not due until 2017.

The complete list of recommended policies for pollinators is as follows:

1. Raise pesticide regulatory standards
2. Promote integrated pest management
3. Include indirect and sublethal effects in GM crop risk assessments
4. Regulate movement of managed pollinators
5. Develop insurance schemes to help farmers
6. Recognize pollination as agricultural input in extension services
7. Support diversified farming systems
8. Conserve and restore “green infrastructure” (a network of habitats that pollinators can move between) in agricultural and urban landscapes
9. Develop long-term monitoring of pollinators and pollination
10. Fund participatory research on improving yields in organic, diversified and ecologically intensified farming

The policy recommendations follow a United Nations warning in February that pollinators were under threat. Brosi was among 77 international experts who worked on that report, the first global pollinator assessment for the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel for Biodiversity Ecosystem Services (IPBES).

The assessment found that more than 40 percent of invertebrate pollinator species, particularly bees and butterflies, face extinction. And 16 percent of vertebrate pollinators are under threat. The issue is critical to agricultural, economics and the health of humans and ecosystems: 75 percent of the world’s food crops depend on pollination by at least one of 20,000 species of pollinators, including bees, butterflies, moths, wasps, beetles, birds, bats and other vertebrates.

Pollinators vital to food supply facing extinction, U.N. report warns 
Emory to ban bee-harming pesticides, protect pollinators

Monday, November 21, 2016

Learning to love our bugs

Each of us is a mobile ecosystem, teeming with trillions of living organisms. (Illustration by Giula Ghigini) 

By Jerry Grillo
Emory Medicine

They live on us and inside us, surround us like an invisible cloud, maintain and sustain us, ignore us, occasionally attack and kill us, and, ultimately, define us.

The human microbiome is made up of bacteria, fungi, viruses, and the like, and they cover every surface of our bodies.

"These microbiota are mostly in your gut, but also in your mouth, on your skin, in your lungs," says Emory biologist Nicole Gerardo. "They're playing critical roles in how you interact with the environment, how you process food, how you fight off pathogens, how you interact with drugs.

"Some of our remarkably fertile microbes are identical to those that live in other humans. But many are a distinct reflection of our individual experiences, shaped by who or what we've touched, where we've been, what we've breathed, and what we've consumed.

"Research interest in the human microbiome is exploding now," says Gerardo, who gave the introductory presentation at Emory's first microbiome symposium in November.

Spurred on by ambitious efforts like the National Institutes of Health's Human Microbiome Project, such research is demystifying the role of our myriad microbial passengers.

"It's like we're entering a new frontier of science, something that was basically ignored by medicine for a long time," says infectious disease researcher David Weiss, director of Emory's Antibiotic Resistance Center. "We're really at the beginning of studying all this, but I do think that in our lifetime, we'll be able to monitor each person's microbiome and intervene to improve their health. Looking at what type of bacteria we have and how resistant or sensitive they are to drugs will be an important part of health care. Most of the bugs we tote around are helpful, but they can also be ticking time bombs."

We may be able to someday diffuse the situation, replacing pathogenic microbes with a friendlier variety.

"There's great promise in manipulating the microbiome, in actually changing it," says geneticist Michael Zwick. "Actually, it's already happening."

Read the whole article in Emory Medicine.

What aphids can teach us about the microbiome and the immune system

Monday, November 14, 2016

Companies pushing 'toddler milk' for 'growth' need oversight, experts warn

"Parents are commonly concerned about the size of their children and how well they are doing developmentally," says Emory's Michelle Lampl, MD, PhD, adding: "Not all kids who are smaller than average have a problem."

By Carol Clark

Liquid-based nutritional supplements, originally formulated for malnourished or undernourished children, need more regulatory oversight as they are increasingly marketed to promote growth in children generally, warn researchers at Emory University.

The journal Healthcare published their commentary article, citing the lack of scientific evidence to support marketing claims of the benefits for growth of giving healthy children liquid-based nutritional supplements, commonly known as “toddler milks.”

“A plumper baby is not necessarily a healthier baby,” says Michelle Lampl, who is the lead author of the article, director of the Center for the Study of Human Health at Emory University and an internationally recognized expert in human growth.

In fact, toddler milk supplements may actually be doing harm by fueling rapid, unnecessary weight gain in young children in the midst of a global obesity epidemic, she adds.

She notes that the liquid supplements may have as much as 240 calories per serving and have the potential to turn a healthy, lean toddler into an overweight one. “Healthy developmental growth does not mean gaining weight and getting fat,” she says. “It is primarily measured by whether a child is growing a stronger, longer skeleton.”

Liquid-based nutritional supplements fall into a regulatory loophole, because the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) does not consider supplements to be a drug or a “conventional” food. “When a mother goes into a store and sees a toddler milk supplement on a shelf, she has no idea that it falls into a less rigorous FDA category than those covering so-called conventional food and medicine,” Lampl says. “We have a product aimed at a vulnerable population – infants and young children – that does not have adequate oversight.”

Co-authors of the commentary article are: Meriah Schoen, a research assistant at Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health and a graduate student focused on nutrition at Georgia State University; and Amanda Mummert, who recently received a PhD in Anthropology from Emory's Laney Graduate School.

The commentary appears in a special issue of Healthcare, dedicated to the physician-scientist David Barker, who died in 2013. He originated the Barker Hypothesis, also known as the Developmental Origins of Health and Disease model, linking fetal and early infant experiences to an individual’s health status across the lifespan.

“David Barker opened the door to the importance of early influences, including nutrition and other environmental factors, for lifelong health,” Lampl says. “He believed that we have an ethical responsibility to ensure that the next generation is as healthy as it can be.”

Companies have marketed infant formulas for decades. In 1981, however, the World Health Organization (WHO) voted to recommend banning marketing of formulas for babies under six months, since the formulas were associated with lower rates of breastfeeding, and increased disease and malnutrition in the developing world.

Countries around the world adopted the rules and breastfeeding rates went up globally. The formula industry responded by focusing on toddler milk supplements, aimed at children ages six months and up.

Liquid-based supplements containing vitamins and minerals may be beneficial to children that are malnourished, or suffering from chronic diseases that prohibit their ability to consume solid foods, Lampl says. The problem, she adds, is that toddler milks have grown into a multi-billion-dollar industry that is expanding internationally to encompass healthy children.

Rapidly boosting the weight of children who are simply smaller than average but healthy could have lifelong consequences, she says. Barker, for instance, found a direct link to higher rates of metabolic disorders among individuals who were born relatively small and grew rapidly in the first few years of life.

“Parents are commonly concerned about the size of their children and how well they are doing developmentally,” Lampl says, adding that the growth charts used in pediatrician offices are often misunderstood. “Not all kids who are smaller than average have a problem.”

Busy mothers on the go, who may be consuming “energy drinks” and liquid supplements themselves, are primed to buy toddler milk for young children under the assumption that they are healthy choices, particularly for children who may be picky eaters.

“Although it can take a picky eater up to 20 times of trying a food to decide if they like it, most mothers offer a food fewer than five times before switching to something more convenient,” Lampl says. “It’s much easier to hand your child a sugary ‘toddler milk,’ thinking it’s healthy and it helps them grow.”

The WHO is set to consider recommendations concerning calorie amounts and ingredients for liquid-based nutritional supplements marketed to toddlers and older children during a meeting in early December.

Those recommendations will not have teeth, however, and it will be up to individual governments whether they decide to adopt them and enforce them.

“We are really behind when it comes to regulatory oversight for the marketing of these supplements, and for rigorous scientific research showing the impact of their widespread use on children,” Lampl says.

Support mothers to curb the global rise in chronic diseases
Grandma was right: Infants wake up taller

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Emory's Rolosense wins bronze in Collegiate Inventors Competition

Emory graduate student Aaron Blanchard, left, and Kevin Yehl, who recently received his PhD in chemistry from Emory, were awarded bronze medals at the recent Collegiate Inventors Competition in Washington D.C. (Photo by the National Inventors Hall of Fame.)

By Carol Clark

Emory University’s Rolosense – the first rolling DNA motor – took the bronze medal in the graduate division of the 2016 Collegiate Inventors Competition, held recently in Washington D.C.

The Rolosense, and its application as a chemical sensor, was developed in the lab of Emory chemist Khalid Salaita by his students Aaron Blanchard and Kevin Yehl. Blanchard is a PhD student in Emory’s Laney Graduate School and the Coulter Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME) at Georgia Tech and Emory, while Yehl recently received his PhD in chemistry from Emory.

The Rolosense is the biological equivalent of the invention of the wheel for the field of DNA machines. “It’s a completely new approach at using DNA motors for sensing and diagnostics,” Yehl says. “We now hope to keep broadening the scope of the technology and really prove it out in the field.”

The Rolosense is 1,000 times faster than other synthetic DNA motors. Its speed, which is powered by ribonuclease H, means a simple smart phone microscope can capture its motion through video.

Watch a video to learn more about the rolling DNA motor:

The researchers have filed an invention disclosure patent for the concept of using the particle motion of the rolling molecular motor as a sensor for everything from a single DNA mutation in a biological sample to heavy metals in water. It offers a way of doing low-cost, low-tech diagnostics for researchers working in settings with limited resources, or for consumers themselves.

Yehl and Blanchard were one of six teams of graduate students that competed in early November in the finals at the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Washington D.C. The Collegiate Inventors Competition is considered the foremost program in the country encouraging invention and creativity in undergraduate and graduate students. The entries of the elite student teams represent the most promising inventions from U.S. universities.

The judges included inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, officials from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and scientists from the global healthcare firm AbbVie.

“It was really cool to meet students from the other teams, and also the judges, to get their feedback,” Yehl says.

His main takeaway message: Keep on inventing.

Yehl is taking that advice to heart. In his new position as a post-doctoral associate in a synthetic biology lab at MIT, he’s now working on novel therapeutics to target drug resistant bacteria.

Blanchard agrees that a highlight of the competition was networking with the other competitors and the judges. “Several of the judges encouraged me to focus on areas of research that I’m passionate about, and not just choose things to pad my resume,” he says. “The judges are inventors themselves and, in some cases, they’ve had an impact on millions of people, so their input is important to me. I really took a lot away from the competition besides a bronze medal.”

The National Inventors Hall of Fame does outreach around the country. Blanchard says he hopes to get involved in future outreach projects in his hometown of El Paso, Texas. “It’s an amazing city,” he says, because it’s in the United States but is predominantly Hispanic. You encounter many different types of people and that helps drive adaptability and creativity. Unfortunately, it’s also geographically and culturally isolated so it’s harder for students to obtain exposure to scientific research. El Paso produces some great minds with great potential to make a difference in science, technology, engineering and math disciplines. I think it’s important to give kids there more exposure to STEM fields so they have an idea of the possibilities.”

Meanwhile, Blanchard and Yehl will continue developing the Rolosense with Salaita.

“We have this phenomenal technology that can make a difference in the world and we want to keep moving forward with it,” Blanchard says.

Emory's 'Rolosense' rolling to finals of Collegiate Inventors Competition
Nano-walkers take speedy leap forward with first rolling DNA motor

Thursday, November 3, 2016

The White House celebrates math and mentorship

By Carol Clark

“It’s not every day that the White House invites you to a reception in honor of what you do for a living,” said Emory mathematician Ken Ono.

He was a featured speaker at “Math and the Movies,” recently hosted by the White House Office of Science, Technology and Policy (OTSP) and the National Science Foundation (NSF).

The evening included a screening of the film “The Man Who Knew Infinity,” the true story of how the genius of an obscure Indian clerk, named Srinivasa Ramanujan, was discovered and nurtured by G. H. Hardy, a leading mathematician at Cambridge University. Their unusual collaboration changed the field of math and science forever.

Ono served as an associate producer and math advisor for the film, and afterwards helped found “The Spirit of Ramanujan Math Talent Initiative,” which aims to find exceptional mathematicians around the world and match them with advancement opportunities in the field.

France Cordova, director of the NSF, was among the speakers during the evening at the White House, which was focused on the importance of inspiring and mentoring students of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

Ken Ono (center), accompanied by U.S. chief Data Scientist D. J. Patil (left) and actor Jeremy Irons, presents a math problem to the nation while at the White House: What is the smallest number that is the sum of two cubes in two different ways? Click here for the answer.

“Tonight’s event addresses issues that we at NSF believe are critical for the nation,” Cordova said. “There is widespread recognition of the need to open up STEM opportunities for everyone. We’re looking for ways to broaden opportunities and include those who are underrepresented. That includes working with partners in museums, in social media and the entertainment industry to do a better job of telling the diverse stories of science and scientists.”

Hannah Larsen, a senior majoring in math at Harvard University, thanked the NSF for funding the Research Experience for Undergraduates program at Emory, where she spent three summers doing number theory research with Ono. The steadfast support of Ono and other mentors “deepened my love of mathematics,” Larson said, and was key to her decision to apply to graduate school and pursue a career in math research. Larsen recently won the Alice T. Schaefer Prize, given annually to the top undergraduate woman in math in the United States.

Following are highlights of remarks by other speakers.

Ken Ono: “Every few months you’ll hear about breakthroughs in black hole physics. Or solutions to ancient mathematical mysteries. Or even applications that help drive the Internet. I can tell you that the work of Ramanujan plays a role in all of those. If you want a role model for young students, if you want to help create world-class scientists, I think we should all do our part to make Ramanujan a household name.”

Andrea Hariston, applied research mathematician at the National Security Agency (NSA): “Exposure is a big, big deal for students who may not know what their options are. I had a mathematical curiosity growing up but I saw it as a hobby – solving puzzles – not as a career. A fellowship obligated me to do an internship at the NSA. That’s when I got mentors who opened up mathematics for me. They showed me you can do really interesting things with mathematics, really important things for the nation, using mathematics.”

D.J. Patil, chief data scientist for the OTSP: “People don’t always appreciate how much president Obama has done to return science to its rightful place, at the forefront of the nation, in leading and driving innovation. … What gets a kid excited about math? There are lots of different paths, but one of them is inspiration. I had really excellent coaches, people who were there to inspire, shape and mold me.”

Actor Jeremy Irons, who plays Hardy in the film: “Pure mathematics is rather similar to poetry and art. It’s something about which you can become passionate. It’s something that requires a mind that is really open and free to allow whatever to come to you. I thought, I know about that because that’s the state I try to get into when I’m acting.”

The beauty of math and Pi: Ken Ono chats with Neil deGrasse Tyson
Mathematicians find 'magic key' to drive Ramanujan's taxi-cab number