Thursday, October 30, 2008

Natural Science Lecture on "Small Mammals"

Sarawak Planted Forest Sdn. Bhd. and Natural Science Society Bintulu

presents a conservation talk:

Title:: “Small Mammals”

By Antony Shadbolt

Date:: 08 November 2008

Time:: 04..00 p..m.. (Registration at 4..00-4:30 p.m.)

Venue:: Conference Room 2, Li Hua Hotel,, Bintulu

The Planted Forest Project (pulp and paper), Bintulu Division target is to plant the fast growing
Acacia mangium species for the supply of pulp and paper industry. A large forested areas (210,000 ha) of the PFZ will be reserved for conservation of flora and fauna in the project. The Conservation Program is based on cooperative studies with local and international experts on biodiversity, conducting biological inventories with Conservation Program staff, university students and NGOs. Conservation program plans to catalogue the species richness of the PFZ, and to develop an effective long-term biodiversity conservation models for the PFP.

Antony Shadbolt is a Landscape Architect/Landscape Ecologist with the Christchurch City Council in the South Island of New Zealand. He is involved in a broad range of landscape planning and design related projects including many which involve wildlife population modeling, species
reintroduction, wildlife management and ecological restoration within the urban and per-urban
environment. Antony is now in the second year of his PhD research investigating these small
mammals, and this year will be Antony’s fourth visit to Sarawak and the Planted Forest Zone.

Antony’s talk will discuss his current research in the Planted Forest Zone, describing the unique
techniques he and the team from the Conservation Program had employed to reveal how small
mammals use and react to fine scale habitat features of the landscape including fallen logs,
haul-trails, forest roads, and Acacia mangium, compartments. The talk will also include the
striking differences between the fauna of Borneo and New Zealand, but will also draw attention
to some unexpected similarities, including parallels with wildlife management in urban areas.

All are welcomed and registration will be done upon arrival. We especially welcomes members of
local NGOs such as the Sarawak Nature Society, Malaysia Nature Society and the Society For
Wilderness to attend and enjoy this talk. Refreshment is provided.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Natural Science Lecture "Swiftlets of Malaysia" by Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook

“Natural Science Lecture” presented by The Natural Science Society

Lecture Title:

"Swiftlets of Malaysia, and sustainable management of this wildlife resource.”

Speaker: Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook

Time: 6-7.30pm

Date: 14th November 2008

Venue: New World Suite Bintulu, Level 5 Meeting Room

Datuk Seri Lord Cranbrook's first post-graduate appointment was Technical Assistant to the Curator of the Sarawak Museum, Kuching, in 1956. After a brief period in Indonesia on a post-doctoral fellowship, he was appointed to the Zoology Department of the University of Malaya (1961-1970). Through a subsequent career as biologist and parliamentarian (in the UK House of Lords, 1978 - 1999) he has maintained close links with Sarawak and pursued research in zooarchaeology, wildlife conservation and the ecology of living vertebrates. Among other studies, he has specialised in the cave swiftlets of the Indo-Pacific region, researching over 50 years. He is the author of many scientific papers concerning the field identification of these birds, their breeding biology and echolocation, including a book co-authored with former student Dr Lim Chan Koon, "Swiftlets of Borneo - builders of edible nests", published in Malaysia in 2000 by Natural History Publications (Borneo) Sdn Bhd.

Earth in the midst of 6th Mass Extinction: 50% of all species dissappearing

ScienceDaily (Oct. 21, 2008) — The Earth is in the midst of the sixth mass extinction of both plants and animals, with nearly 50 percent of all species disappearing, scientists say.

Because of the current crisis, biologists at UC Santa Barbara are working day and night to determine which species must be saved. Their international study of grassland ecosystems, with flowering plants, is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
"The current extinction event is due to human activity, paving the planet, creating pollution, many of the things that we are doing today," said co-author Bradley J. Cardinale, assistant professor of ecology, evolution and marine biology (EEMB) at UC Santa Barbara. "The Earth might well lose half of its species in our lifetime. We want to know which ones deserve the highest priority for conservation."
He explained that the last mass extinction near the current level was 65 million years ago, called the Cretaceous Tertiary extinction event, and was probably the result of a meteor hitting the Earth. It is best known for the extinction of non-avian dinosaurs, but massive amounts of plant species became extinct at that time as well.
According to the current study, the most genetically unique species are the ones that have the greatest importance in an ecosystem. These are the ones that the scientists recommend be listed as top priority for conservation.
"Given that we are losing species from ecosystems around the world, we need to know which species matter the most –– and which we should pour our resources into protecting," said first author Marc W. Cadotte, postdoctoral fellow at UCSB's National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis (NCEAS).
Cadotte, Cardinale, and co-author Todd Oakley, an EEMB associate professor, put together a "meta-analysis" of approximately 40 important studies of grassland ecosystems around the world. They reconstructed the evolutionary history among 177 flowering plants used in these studies by comparing the genetic makeup of the plants.
The scientists found that some species are more critical than others in preserving the functions of ecosystems and that these species tend to be those that are genetically unique. Therefore, they are looking to evolutionary history for guidance in conservation efforts and in understanding the potential impacts of species loss.
Recent studies show that ecological systems with fewer species generally produce less biomass than those with more species. Less plant biomass means that less carbon dioxide is absorbed from the atmosphere and less oxygen is produced. So, as the biomass of plants plummets around the globe, the composition of gasses in the atmosphere that support life could be profoundly affected. Additionally, there are fewer plants for herbivorous animals to eat. Entire food chains can be disrupted, which can impact the production of crops and fisheries.
The loss of species that are not closely related to other species in the ecosystem reduces productivity more than the loss of species with close relatives. And the more genetically distinct a species is, the more impact it has on the amount of biomass in an ecosystem.
"Losing a very unique species may be worse than losing one with a close relative in the community," said Oakley. "The more evolutionary history that is represented in a plant community, the more productive it is."
Cadotte explained that the buttercup is a very unique species, evolutionarily. Losing the buttercup, where it occurs in grasslands, would have a much bigger impact on the system than losing a daisy or a sunflower, for example. The latter species are closely related. Each could therefore help fill the niche of the other, if one were to be lost. The daisy and sunflower also have a more similar genetic make-up.
"These 40 studies are showing the same thing for all plants around the world," said Cardinale. "It is not a willy-nilly conclusion. This study is very robust. It includes studies of plants that are found throughout the U.S., Europe, and Asia. We can have a high degree of confidence in the results. And the results show that genetic diversity predicts whether or not species matter."

Saturday, October 18, 2008

Deatils of Evolutionary Transition From Fish to Land Animals Revealed

Details Of Evolutionary Transition From Fish To Land Animals Revealed
ScienceDaily (Oct. 15, 2008) — New research has provided the first detailed look at the internal head skeleton of Tiktaalik roseae, the 375-million-year-old fossil animal that represents an important intermediate step in the evolutionary transition from fish to animals that walked on land.

A predator, up to nine feet long, with sharp teeth, a crocodile-like head and a flattened body, Tiktaalik's anatomy and way of life straddle the divide between fish and land-living animals. First described in 2006, and quickly dubbed the "fishapod," it had fish-like features such as a primitive jaw, fins and scales, as well as a skull, neck, ribs and parts of the limbs that are similar to tetrapods, four-legged animals.
The initial 2006 report did not describe the internal anatomy of the head, because those parts of the fossil were buried in rock. In the October 16, 2008, issue of Nature, the researchers describe this region and show how Tiktaalik was gaining structures that could allow it to support itself on solid ground and breathe air.
"We used to think of this transition of the neck and skull as a rapid event," said study author Neil Shubin, PhD, of the University of Chicago and Field Museum and co leader of the project, "largely because we lacked information about the intermediate animals. Tiktaalik neatly fills this morphological gap. It lets us see many of the individual steps and resolve the relative timing of this complex transition."
"The braincase, palate, and gill arch skeleton of Tiktaalik have been revealed in great detail by recent fossil preparation of several specimens," said Jason Downs, PhD, a postdoctoral research fellow at the Academy of Natural Sciences and lead author on the new study. "By revealing new details on the pattern of change in this part of the skeleton, we see that cranial features once associated with land-living animals were first adaptations for life in shallow water."
"The new study reminds us that the gradual transition from aquatic to terrestrial lifestyles required much more than the evolution of limbs," said Ted Daeschler, PhD, of the Academy of Natural Sciences and co-leader of the team that discovered Tiktaalik. "Our work demonstrates that, across this transition, the head of these animals was becoming more solidly constructed and, at the same time, more mobile with respect to the body." These changes are intimately associated with the change in environment.
Fish in deep water move and feed in three-dimensional space and can easily orient their body in the direction of their prey. A neck, seen for the first time in the fossil record in Tiktaalik, is advantageous in settings where the body is relatively fixed, as is the case in shallow water and on land where the body is supported by appendages planted against a substrate.
Another important component of this transition was the gradual reduction of the hyomandibula, a bony element that, in fish, coordinates the cranial motions associated with underwater feeding and respiration. In the transition to life on land, the hyomandibula loses these functions and the bone becomes available for an eventual role in hearing.
In humans, as in other mammals, the hyomandibula, or stapes, is one of the tiny bones in the middle ear. "The bony part of Tiktaalik's hyomandibula is greatly reduced from the primitive condition," said Downs, "and this could indicate that these animals, in shallow water settings, were already beginning to rely less on gill respiration."
The discoveries were made possible by laboratory preparators Fred Mullison and Bob Masek, who prepared the underside of the skull of specimens collected in 2004. This painstaking process took several years. This work showed the underside of the skull and gill bones "beautifully preserved," said Shubin, "to a degree unlike any creature of its kind at this transition."
Having multiple Tiktaalik specimens enabled the researchers to prepare the fossils in ways that showed the bones of the head in "exceptional detail," Downs said.
The team discovered Tiktaalik roseae on Ellesmere Island, in the Nunavut Territory of Canada, 600 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Though this region of Nunavut is now a harsh Arctic ecosystem, at the time that Tiktaalik lived, the area was much further south and was a subtropical floodplain ecosystem.
The formal scientific name for the new species, "Tiktaalik" (tic-TAH-lick), was derived by the Elders Council of Nunavut, the Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit. The Inuktikuk word means "a large, shallow-water fish." The paleontology team works in Nunavut with authorization from the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth. All fossils are the property of the people of Nunavut and will be returned to Canada after they are studied.
The fossil research in Nunavut is carried out with authorization from the Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, Government of Nunavut. All fossils are the property of the people of Nunavut and will be returned to Canada after they are studied.
A cast of Tiktaalik, along with a fleshed-out model of the animal, are on display in the Evolving Planet exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum, where Shubin serves as Provost.
The research was supported by private donors, the Academy of Natural Sciences, the Putnam Expeditionary Fund (Harvard University), the University of Chicago, the National Science Foundation, and the National Geographic Society Committee for Research and Exploration.

Microbes Useful for Environmental Cleanup and Oil Recovery

Microbes Useful For Environmental Cleanup And Oil Recovery
ScienceDaily (Oct. 16, 2008) — A unique, patent-pending collection of microbes that can be used both for cleaning up the environment and addressing our energy needs has earned the U.S. Department of Energy's Savannah River National Laboratory kudos from a newsletter covering the rapidly expanding field of nanotechnology.

Nanotech Briefs awarded SRNL's BioTiger™ a spot on its fourth annual Nano 50™ list, described as the top 50 technologies, innovators and products expected to revolutionize the industry. Nanotech Briefs will present the awards during the National Nano Engineering Conference, Nov. 12-13 in Boston. For more information, visit
BioTiger™ resulted from over eight years of extensive work that began at a century-old Polish waste lagoon. "DOE had originally funded us to work with our Polish counterparts to develop a microbe-based method for cleaning up oil-contaminated soils," explains Dr. Robin Brigmon, SRNL Fellow Engineer. From that lagoon, they identified microbes that could break down the oil to carbon dioxide and other non-hazardous products. "The project was a great success," Dr. Brigmon says. "The lagoon now has been cleaned up, and deer now can be seen grazing on it."
Recent efforts have shown that BioTiger™ naturally produces chemicals that may have other industrial uses as well. For example, BioTiger™ can be applied directly for cleaning up oil residues on surfaces such as concrete slabs and building foundations.
In addition to its original environmental cleanup uses, BioTiger™ has recently been shown to be highly effective for increasing oil recovery from oil sands without added chemicals. Oil sands (also referred to as tar sands) are a combination of clay, sand, water, and bitumen, a heavy black viscous material. Currently, oil sands represent about 40 percent of Canada's oil production. Approximately 20 percent of U.S. crude oil and refined products come from Canada, and a substantial portion of this amount comes from tar sands.
Oil sands are mined and processed to generate oil similar to that pumped from conventional oil wells, but extracting oil from these sands is more complex and requires more energy than standard oil recovery. Current methods require multiple steps including heating, mechanical mixing, and chemical additions to extract hydrocarbons from the oil sands.
There have been concerns about the environmental impact of these operations, including concerns about the amount of water used in the process, energy cost to operate the systems, runoff from the tailings ponds, wastewater from the facilities, and chemical residues in the water left over from the extraction process. Past efforts have generated large tailings ponds that still contain varying amounts of bitumen indicating that the process did not efficiently extract all of the available oil.
An enhanced oil recovery process using BioTiger™ could provide a means to maximize capacity and minimize environmental impact, while remaining cost effective. The BioTiger™ microbes attach themselves to the oil sands, separating the oil from the sand particles. The microbes make the separation step easier, resulting in more removed oil and, potentially, reduced energy costs.
In a test using oil sands from Ft. McMurray, Canada, BioTiger™ demonstrated a 50 percent improvement in separation over 4 hours, and a five-fold increase at 25 hours.
It may also have potential for other oil recovery initiatives, including oil shale and other underground areas with oil deposits.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

NSS Board of Directors Meeting

Board of Directors Meeting

Date: 15th October 2008

Time: 5.30pm-7.00pm

Venue: 87 Park City Commerce Square

Virgin Birth by Shark

ScienceDaily (Oct. 11, 2008) — Scientists have confirmed the second-ever case of a “virgin birth” in a shark, indicating once again that female sharks can reproduce without mating and raising the possibility that many female sharks have this incredible capacity.
Lead author Dr. Demian Chapman, shark scientist with the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, Beth Firchau, Curator of Fishes for the Virginia Aquarium & Marine Science Center, and Dr. Mahmood Shivji, Director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and Professor at Nova Southeastern University in Florida, have proven through DNA testing that the offspring of a female blacktip shark named “Tidbit” contained no genetic material from a father. Tidbit had lived at the Virginia Aquarium in the Norfolk Canyon Aquarium for eight years since shortly after her birth in the wild.
In May 2007, Chapman and Shivji were part of a team that made the groundbreaking scientific discovery confirming -– for the first time ever -- a virgin birth in a female shark. That shark was a hammerhead residing at an Omaha, Nebraska zoo and had not been in contact with male sharks for at least three years. That study was published in the journal Biology Letters and captured global media and scientific attention. The DNA-fingerprinting techniques used to prove both cases of virgin birth (scientifically known as “parthenogenesis”) are identical to those used in human paternity testing.
“It is now clear that parthenogenesis occurs in sharks other than just hammerheads,” Chapman said. “The first case was no fluke. It is quite possible that this is something female sharks of many species can do on occasion.”
Sharks’ ability to reproduce alone should not be viewed as an adequate replacement for normal sexual reproduction, Chapman cautioned. For one, the blacktip and hammerhead sharks that reproduced without mating both only produced one pup, rather than an entire litter. Shark litters can contain anywhere from a few to more than a hundred shark pups, depending upon the species. “The revelation that female sharks can reproduce alone shouldn’t stop us from worrying about driving shark populations to very low levels through overfishing,” said Chapman. “It is very unlikely that a small number of female survivors could build their numbers up very quickly by undergoing virgin birth.”
Tidbit was an Atlantic blacktip shark whom Virginia Aquarium biologists believe had only just reached sexual maturity.
“We have never observed her in reproductive behavior or showing typical signs of having been bred,” said Firchau. Scientists did not even know that Tidbit was pregnant until after she unfortunately died and an autopsy (called a necropsy for animals) was performed. “Sadness turned to surprise during the necropsy when we found that she was pregnant,” Firchau said. “There were no male blacktips in the tank for the past eight years!”
The phenomenon of “virgin birth” occurs when a baby is conceived without male sperm having first fertilized the female’s eggs, and has been proven in some bony fish, amphibians, reptiles, and birds. In the type of parthenogenesis seen in these sharks, known as automictic parthenogenesis, the newly forming pup acquires one set of chromosomes when the mother's chromosomes split during egg development. But instead of uniting with similarly split chromosomes from sperm, as occurs in sexual reproduction, the mother’s set is paired with a copy of itself. This results in offspring of reduced genetic diversity who may be at a disadvantage for surviving in the wild.
“The finding of parthenogenesis in blacktip sharks, which are close relatives of some of the larger predatory sharks in the ocean including the tiger, bull and dusky sharks, raises intriguing questions about how frequently parthenogenesis may occur in the wild in this group of heavily fished sharks,” said Shivji. “It is possible that parthenogenesis could become more common in these sharks if population densities become so low that females have trouble finding mates.” Populations of all of these sharks have declined in the past twenty years due to overexploitation, mainly to supply the shark fin markets.
There have been nearly a dozen reports of suspected virgin births in sharks in recent years, but scientists largely assumed these cases were the result of long-term sperm storage by females after mating with males. Virgin birth is now the more probable explanation, and DNA testing is underway to confirm it in additional sharks. Chapman is currently analyzing the DNA of yet another shark species with Dr. Kevin Feldheim of the Field Museum in Chicago.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Bird Diversity Lessens Human Exposure to West Nile Virus

ScienceDaily (Oct. 8, 2008) — This one's for the birds. A study by biologists at Washington University in St. Louis shows that the more diverse a bird population is in an area, the less chance humans have of exposure to West Nile Virus (WNV). Now, let's hear it for the birds.
"The bottom line is that where there are more bird species in your backyard, you have much lower risk of contracting West Nile fever," said Brian Allan, doctoral candidate in biology in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis. "The mechanisms are similar to those described for the ecology of Lyme disease. Most birds are poor reservoirs for West Nile Virus, and so mosquito bites taken on them are 'wasted' from the perspective of the virus. Where many bird species exist, very few mosquitoes get infected, and so we humans are at low risk. A few bird species are highly competent reservoirs, and these tend to occur in urbanized and suburbanized areas where bird diversity suffers."
The most common "reservoir" species that urbanites and suburbanites and even rural dwellers in heavily farmed landscapes see are crows, grackles, house finches, blue jays, sparrows and American robins, with the robin being the most prolific carrier of WNV. Robins are anthrophilic — they love being around humans — and it's relatively easy for mosquitoes to take their blood meals from them because robins feed so much on the ground.
Allan, his advisor Jonathan M. Chase, Ph.D., associate professor of biology, and 14 collaborators from numerous institutions will publish their findings in a forthcoming issue of Oecologia.
While diversity of bird species is important in this scenario, that factor alone doesn't tell the whole story.
"It's not just about the number, but their relative proportions," Allan said. "It's a combination of richness - the number of species — and evenness — their relative proportions. In urban and suburban areas you see lower species richness and lower community evenness. For instance, you might have five species present, but in 100 animals 90 are just one species. That's why species number is only half the equation."
Allan and numerous graduate students began the research five years ago as they just entered graduate school and the topic of West Nile Virus was just beginning to receive lots of attention and the ecology of the organism hadn't been studied much. They identified a variety of field sites, both urban and rural, with their base of operations at Washington University's Tyson Research Center, a facility 22 miles west of St. Louis comprised of 2,000 acres of woods, glades and prairie.
They performed bird surveys at the sites, put up a variety of mosquito traps and studied different mosquito species and their ability to transmit the virus. Using kits provided by the Center for Disease Control, they tested the mosquitoes and found three positive pools.
"The infection rates are actually remarkably low, with maybe one in 1,000 carrying WNV," Allan said.
They expanded their study to include mosquito infection data from the St. Louis City and St. Louis County Health departments. They saw the same patterns. The greater bird diversity, the lesser incidence of WNV; the lesser diversity, the greater likelihood of WNV.
To broaden their finding even more, Allan and his colleagues used national data sets on human cases of WNV and a tool called the Shannon Diversity Index to estimate the diversity of bird populations across the U.S. These data are conducted nationwide by amateur bird watchers for the United States Geological Survey's Breeding Bird Surveys.
"We're seeing locally and nationally that bird diversity is a buffer against the occurrence of West Nile Virus in humans," Allan said. "That's a win-win situation for both conservation and public health."

Deepest-living Fishes Caught on Camera for First Time

ScienceDaily (Oct. 8, 2008) — Scientists filming in one of the world’s deepest ocean trenches have found groups of highly sociable snailfish swarming over their bait, nearly five miles (7700 metres) beneath the surface of the Pacific Ocean. This is the first time cameras have been sent to this depth.
‘We got some absolutely amazing footage from 7700 metres. More fish than we or anyone in the world would ever have thought possible at these depths,’ says project leader Dr Alan Jamieson of the University of Aberdeen’s Oceanlab, on board the Japanese research ship the Hakuho-Maru.
‘It’s incredible. These videos vastly exceed all our expectations from this research. We thought the deepest fishes would be motionless, solitary, fragile individuals eking out an existence in a food-sparse environment,’ says Professor Monty Priede, director of Oceanlab.
‘But these fish aren’t loners. The images show groups that are sociable and active – possibly even families – feeding on little shrimp, yet living in one of the most extreme environments on Earth.’
‘All we’ve seen before of life at this depth have been shrivelled specimens in museums. Now we have an impression of how they move and what they do. Having seen them moving so fast, snailfish seems a complete misnomer,’ he added.
Although some species of snailfish live in shallow water and even rock pools, the hadal snailfish are found exclusively below 6000 metres. Here they have to contend with total darkness, near freezing temperatures and immense water pressure – at this depth the pressure is 8,000 tonnes per square metre, equivalent to that of 1600 elephants standing on the roof of a Mini car. They feed on the thousands of tiny shrimp-like creatures that scavenge the carcasses of dead fish and detritus reaching the ocean floor.
Hadal snailfish live only in trenches around the Pacific Ocean, with different species confined to each region: the Chile and Peru trenches off South America, the Kermadec and Tonga trenches situated between Samoa and New Zealand in the South Pacific, and trenches of the North-West Pacific including the Japan trench, which Priede’s team is currently investigating.
The work is part of Oceanlab’s HADEEP project – a collaborative research programme with the University of Tokyo – devised by Priede to investigate life in the hadal region of the ocean, which is anything below 6000 metres down. The expedition, funded by the Natural Environment Research Council and the Nippon Foundation in Japan, started on 24 September and ended yesterday, 6 October.
The deep-sea equipment needed to survive the extreme pressure at these depths was designed and built by the Oceanlab team specifically for this mission. The submersible camera platforms, or ‘landers’, take five hours to reach the depths of the trenches and remain on the seafloor for two days before the signal is given for them to surface.

2008 Nobel Prize in Chemistry

Green Fluorescent Protein Pioneers Share 2008 Nobel Prize In Chemistry
ScienceDaily (Oct. 8, 2008) — The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2008 jointly to Osamu Shimomura, of the Marine Biological Laboratory and Boston University Medical School, Martin Chalfie of Columbia University, and Roger Y. Tsien of the University of California, San Diego "for the discovery and development of the green fluorescent protein, GFP."

Glowing proteins – a guiding star for biochemistry
The remarkable brightly glowing green fluorescent protein, GFP, was first observed in the beautiful jellyfish, Aequorea victoria in 1962. Since then, this protein has become one of the most important tools used in contemporary bioscience. With the aid of GFP, researchers have developed ways to watch processes that were previously invisible, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain or how cancer cells spread.
Tens of thousands of different proteins reside in a living organism, controlling important chemical processes in minute detail. If this protein machinery malfunctions, illness and disease often follow. That is why it has been imperative for bioscience to map the role of different proteins in the body.
This year's Nobel Prize in Chemistry rewards the initial discovery of GFP and a series of important developments which have led to its use as a tagging tool in bioscience. By using DNA technology, researchers can now connect GFP to other interesting, but otherwise invisible, proteins. This glowing marker allows them to watch the movements, positions and interactions of the tagged proteins.
Researchers can also follow the fate of various cells with the help of GFP: nerve cell damage during Alzheimer's disease or how insulin-producing beta cells are created in the pancreas of a growing embryo. In one spectacular experiment, researchers succeeded in tagging different nerve cells in the brain of a mouse with a kaleidoscope of colours.
The story behind the discovery of GFP is one with the three Nobel Prize Laureates in the leading roles:
Osamu Shimomura first isolated GFP from the jellyfish Aequorea victoria, which drifts with the currents off the west coast of North America. He discovered that this protein glowed bright green under ultraviolet light.
Martin Chalfie demonstrated the value of GFP as a luminous genetic tag for various biological phenomena. In one of his first experiments, he coloured six individual cells in the transparent roundworm Caenorhabditis elegans with the aid of GFP.
Roger Y. Tsien contributed to our general understanding of how GFP fluoresces. He also extended the colour palette beyond green allowing researchers to give various proteins and cells different colours. This enables scientists to follow several different biological processes at the same time.
Osamu Shimomura, a Japanese citizen, was born in 1928 in Kyoto, Japan. He obtained his Ph.D. in organic chemistry in 1960 from Nagoya University, Japan. He is now professor emeritus at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA, and at Boston University Medical School.
Martin Chalfie, a US citizen, was born in 1947 and grew up in Chicago. He obtained his Ph.D. in neurobiology in 1977 from Harvard University. He has been the William R. Kenan, Jr. Professor of Biological Sciences at Columbia University in New York since 1982.
Roger Y. Tsien, another US citizen, was born in 1952 in New York. He obtained his Ph.D. in physiology in 1977 from Cambridge University. He has been Professor at University of California, San Diego since 1989.
The prize amount, SEK 10 million, will be shared equally between the laureates.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

2008 Nobel Prize in Physiology/Medicine

Human Papilloma Virus And Cancer, HIV Discoveries Recognized In 2008 Nobel Prize In Physiology Or Medicine
ScienceDaily (Oct. 6, 2008) — The Nobel Assembly at Karolinska Institutet has today decided to award The Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for 2008 with one half to: Harald zur Hausen for his discovery of "human papilloma viruses causing cervical cancer" and the other half jointly to Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier for their discovery of "human immunodeficiency virus."

This year's Nobel Prize awards discoveries of two viruses causing severe human diseases.
Harald zur Hausen went against current dogma and postulated that oncogenic human papilloma virus (HPV) caused cervical cancer, the second most common cancer among women. He realized that HPV-DNA could exist in a non-productive state in the tumours, and should be detectable by specific searches for viral DNA. He found HPV to be a heterogeneous family of viruses. Only some HPV types cause cancer. His discovery has led to characterization of the natural history of HPV infection, an understanding of mechanisms of HPV-induced carcinogenesis and the development of prophylactic vaccines against HPV acquisition.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier discovered human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). Virus production was identified in lymphocytes from patients with enlarged lymph nodes in early stages of acquired immunodeficiency, and in blood from patients with late stage disease. They characterized this retrovirus as the first known human lentivirus based on its morphological, biochemical and immunological properties. HIV impaired the immune system because of massive virus replication and cell damage to lymphocytes. The discovery was one prerequisite for the current understanding of the biology of the disease and its antiretroviral treatment.
Discovery of human papilloma virus causing cervical cancer
Against the prevailing view during the 1970s, Harald zur Hausen postulated a role for human papilloma virus (HPV) in cervical cancer. He assumed that the tumour cells, if they contained an oncogenic virus, should harbour viral DNA integrated into their genomes. The HPV genes promoting cell proliferation should therefore be detectable by specifically searching tumour cells for such viral DNA. Harald zur Hausen pursued this idea for over 10 years by searching for different HPV types, a search made difficult by the fact that only parts of the viral DNA were integrated into the host genome. He found novel HPV-DNA in cervix cancer biopsies, and thus discovered the new, tumourigenic HPV16 type in 1983. In 1984, he cloned HPV16 and 18 from patients with cervical cancer. The HPV types 16 and 18 were consistently found in about 70% of cervical cancer biopsies throughout the world.
Importance of the HPV discovery
The global public health burden attributable to human papilloma viruses is considerable. More than 5% of all cancers worldwide are caused by persistent infection with this virus. Infection by the human papilloma virus is the most common sexually transmitted agent, afflicting 50-80% of the population. Of the more than 100 HPV types known, about 40 infect the genital tract, and 15 of these put women at high risk for cervical cancer. In addition, HPV is found in some vulval, penile, oral and other cancers. Human papilloma virus can be detected in 99.7% of women with histologically confirmed cervical cancer, affecting some 500,000 women per year.
Harald zur Hausen demonstrated novel properties of HPV that have led to an understanding of mechanisms for papilloma virus-induced carcinogenesis and the predisposing factors for viral persistence and cellular transformation. He made HPV16 and 18 available to the scientific community. Vaccines were ultimately developed that provide =95 % protection from infection by the high risk HPV16 and 18 types. The vaccines may also reduce the need for surgery and the global burden of cervical cancer.
Discovery of HIV
Following medical reports of a novel immunodeficiency syndrome in 1981, the search for a causative agent was on. Françoise Barré-Sinoussi and Luc Montagnier isolated and cultured lymph node cells from patients that had swollen lymph nodes characteristic of the early stage of acquired immune deficiency. They detected activity of the retroviral enzyme reverse transcriptase, a direct sign of retrovirus replication. They also found retroviral particles budding from the infected cells. Isolated virus infected and killed lymphocytes from both diseased and healthy donors, and reacted with antibodies from infected patients. In contrast to previously characterized human oncogenic retroviruses, the novel retrovirus they had discovered, now known as human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), did not induce uncontrolled cell growth. Instead, the virus required cell activation for replication and mediated cell fusion of T lymphocytes. This partly explained how HIV impairs the immune system since the T cells are essential for immune defence. By 1984, Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier had obtained several isolates of the novel human retrovirus, which they identified as a lentivirus, from sexually infected individuals, haemophiliacs, mother to infant transmissions and transfused patients. The significance of their achievements should be viewed in the context of a global ubiquitous epidemic affecting close to 1% of the population.
Importance of the HIV discovery
Soon after the discovery of the virus, several groups contributed to the definitive demonstration of HIV as the cause of acquired human immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). Barré-Sinoussi and Montagnier's discovery made rapid cloning of the HIV-1 genome possible. This has allowed identification of important details in its replication cycle and how the virus interacts with its host. Furthermore, it led to development of methods to diagnose infected patients and to screen blood
products, which has limited the spread of the pandemic. The unprecedented development of several classes of new antiviral drugs is also a result of knowledge of the details of the viral replication cycle. The combination of prevention and treatment has substantially decreased spread of the disease and dramatically increased life expectancy among treated patients. The cloning of HIV enabled studies of its origin and evolution. The virus was probably passed to humans from chimpanzees in West Africa early in the 20th century, but it is still unclear why the epidemic spread so dramatically from 1970 and onwards.
Identification of virus-host interactions has provided information on how HIV evades the host’s immune system by impairing lymphocyte function, by constantly changing and by hiding its genome in the host lymphocyte DNA, making its eradication in the infected host difficult even after long-term antiviral treatment. Extensive knowledge about these unique viral host interactions has, however, generated results that can provide ideas for future vaccine development as well as for therapeutic approaches targeting viral latency.
HIV has generated a novel pandemic. Never before has science and medicine been so quick to discover, identify the origin and provide treatment for a new disease entity. Successful anti-retroviral therapy results in life expectancies for persons with HIV infection now reaching levels similar to those of uninfected people.
Harald zur Hausen, born 1936 in Germany, German citizen, MD at University of Düsseldorf, Germany. Professor emeritus and former Chairman and Scientific Director, German Cancer Research Centre, Heidelberg, Germany.
Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, born 1947 in France, French citizen, PhD in virology, Institut Pasteur, Garches, France. Professor and Director, Regulation of Retroviral Infections Unit, Virology Department, Institut Pasteur, Paris, France.
Luc Montagnier, born 1932 in France, French citizen, PhD in virology, University of Paris, Paris, France. Professor emeritus and Director, World Foundation for AIDS Research and Prevention, Paris, France.

IUCN Red List 2008

IUCN Red List reveals world’s mammals in crisis
06 October 2008 News - Press Release
Barcelona, Spain, 6 October, 2008 (IUCN) – The most comprehensive assessment of the world’s mammals has confirmed an extinction crisis, with almost one in four at risk of disappearing forever, according to The IUCN Red List of Threatened Species™, revealed at the IUCN World Conservation Congress in Barcelona.
The new study to assess the world’s mammals shows at least 1,141 of the 5,487 mammals on Earth are known to be threatened with extinction. At least 76 mammals have become extinct since 1500. But the results also show conservation can bring species back from the brink of extinction, with five percent of currently threatened mammals showing signs of recovery in the wild.“Within our lifetime hundreds of species could be lost as a result of our own actions, a frightening sign of what is happening to the ecosystems where they live,” says Julia Marton-Lefèvre, IUCN Director General. “We must now set clear targets for the future to reverse this trend to ensure that our enduring legacy is not to wipe out many of our closest relatives.”The real situation could be much worse as 836 mammals are listed as Data Deficient. With better information more species may well prove to be in danger of extinction. “The reality is that the number of threatened mammals could be as high as 36 percent,” says Jan Schipper, of Conservation International and lead author in a forthcoming article in Science. “This indicates that conservation action backed by research is a clear priority for the future, not only to improve the data so that we can evaluate threats to these poorly known species, but to investigate means to recover threatened species and populations.”The results show 188 mammals are in the highest threat category of Critically Endangered, including the Iberian Lynx (Lynx pardinus), which has a population of just 84-143 adults and has continued to decline due to a shortage of its primary prey, the European Rabbit (Oryctolagus cuniculus).China’s Père David’s Deer (Elaphurus davidianus), is listed as Extinct in the Wild. However, the captive and semi-captive populations have increased in recent years and it is possible that truly wild populations could be re-established soon. It may be too late, however, to save the additional 29 species that have been flagged as Critically Endangered Possibly Extinct, including Cuba’s Little Earth Hutia (Mesocapromys sanfelipensis), which has not been seen in nearly 40 years. Nearly 450 mammals have been listed as Endangered, including the Tasmanian Devil (Sarcophilus harrisii), which moved from Least Concern to Endangered after the global population declined by more than 60 percent in the last 10 years due to a fatal infectious facial cancer. The Fishing Cat (Prionailurus viverrinus), found in Southeast Asia, moved from Vulnerable to Endangered due to habitat loss in wetlands. Similarly, the Caspian Seal (Pusa caspica) moved from Vulnerable to Endangered. Its population has declined by 90 percent in the last 100 years due to unsustainable hunting and habitat degradation and is still decreasing. Habitat loss and degradation affect 40 percent of the world’s mammals. It is most extreme in Central and South America, West, East and Central Africa, Madagascar, and in South and Southeast Asia. Over harvesting is wiping out larger mammals, especially in Southeast Asia, but also in parts of Africa and South America.The Grey-faced Sengi or Elephant-shrew (Rhynchocyon udzungwensis) is only known from two forests in the Udzungwa Mountains of Tanzania, both of which are fully protected but vulnerable to fires. The species was first described this year and has been placed in the Vulnerable category. But it is not all bad news. The assessment of the world’s mammals shows that species can recover with concerted conservation efforts. The Black-footed Ferret (Mustela nigripes) moved from Extinct in the Wild to Endangered after a successful reintroduction by the US Fish and Wildlife Service into eight western states and Mexico from 1991-2008. Similarly, the Wild Horse (Equus ferus) moved from Extinct in the Wild in 1996 to Critically Endangered this year after successful reintroductions started in Mongolia in the early 1990s.The African Elephant (Loxodonta africana) moved from Vulnerable to Near Threatened, although its status varies considerably across its range. The move reflects the recent and ongoing population increases in major populations in southern and eastern Africa. These increases are big enough to outweigh any decreases that may be taking place elsewhere. “The longer we wait, the more expensive it will be to prevent future extinctions,” says Dr Jane Smart, Head of IUCN’s Species Programme. “We now know what species are threatened, what the threats are and where – we have no more excuses to watch from the sidelines.”The project to assess the world’s mammals was conducted with help from more than 1,800 scientists from over 130 countries. It was made possible by the volunteer help of IUCN Species Survival Commission’s specialist groups and the collaborations between top institutions and universities, including Conservation International, Sapienza Università di Roma, Arizona State University, Texas A&M University, University of Virginia, and the Zoological Society of London.More than mammalsOverall, the IUCN Red List now includes 44,838 species, of which 16,928 are threatened with extinction (38 percent). Of these, 3,246 are in the highest category of threat, Critically Endangered, 4,770 are Endangered and 8,912 are Vulnerable to extinction. New groups of species have appeared on the IUCN Red List for the first time, increasing the diversity and richness of the data. Indian tarantulas, highly prized by collectors and threatened by the international pet trade, have made their first appearance on the IUCN Red List. They face habitat loss due to new roads and settlements. The Rameshwaram Parachute Spider (Poecilotheria hanumavilasumica) has been listed as Critically Endangered as its natural habitat has been almost completely destroyed. For the first time, all 161 grouper species have been assessed, of which 20 are threatened with extinction. The Squaretail Coral Grouper (Plectropomus areolatus) from the coral reefs of the Indo-Pacific has been listed as Vulnerable. The fish is seen as a luxury live food and is typically fished unsustainably at its spawning aggregations, a major threat for many grouper species.Amphibians are facing an extinction crisis, with 366 species added to the IUCN Red List this year. There are now 1,983 species (32 percent) either threatened or extinct. In Costa Rica, Holdridge’s Toad (Incilius holdridgei), an endemic species, moved from Critically Endangered to Extinct, as it has not been seen since 1986 despite intensive surveys.New reptiles assessed this year include the La Palma Giant Lizard (Gallotia auaritae). Found on the Canary Island of La Palma and thought to have become extinct in the last 500 years, it was rediscovered last year and is now listed as Critically Endangered. The Cuban Crocodile (Crocodylus rhombifer) is another Critically Endangered reptile, moved from Endangered because of population declines caused by illicit hunting for its meat and its skin, which is used in clothing. The Dow Jones Index of biodiversityThe IUCN Sampled Red List Index (SRLI) is a new initiative of the IUCN Red List, developed in collaboration with the Zoological Society of London. It is set to revolutionize our understanding of the conservation status of the world’s species. The approach takes a randomized sample of species from a taxonomic group to calculate the trends in extinction risk within that group, in much the same way that an exit poll from a polling station can be used to calculate voting trends. This means that it is possible to track the fate of these species, in the same way as the Dow Jones Index tracks the movement of the financial markets. Although species coverage on the IUCN Red List has increased in number each year, assessments have in general been restricted to the better known species groups such as birds and mammals. As a consequence, until recently the conservation status of less than four percent of the world’s described biodiversity has been known. It can no longer be considered appropriate to base conservation decisions on such a restricted subset of species and the SRLI, which is more representative of global biodiversity, can be used to provide a broader picture. “We are now emerging from the dark ages of conservation knowledge, when we relied on data from a highly restricted subset of species,” says Dr Jonathan Baillie, Director of Conservation Programmes at the Zoological Society of London (ZSL). “In the future we will expand the scope of our species knowledge to include a far broader range of groups, thus informing and assisting policy makers in a hugely more objective and representative manner.”Designed to broaden the types of species covered in the IUCN Red List, the SRLI uses a sample of at least 1,500 species from selected groups to show trends in extinction risk. All the world’s birds, amphibians and mammals have now been assessed for the IUCN Red List. The first results from the SRLI are revealed this year and include results for reptile species, giving us a clearer indication of the status of terrestrial vertebrates, as well as other less well-known groups such as freshwater crabs.One of the newly assessed freshwater crab species, the Purple Marsh Crab (Afrithelphusa monodosa) from West Africa, was almost completely unknown to science until recently. The first living specimen was found in 2005 and it has been listed as Endangered because of habitat disturbance and deforestation from agriculture in all parts of the Upper Guinea forest. In the future the SRLI will sample other lesser-known groups such as beetles, molluscs, mushrooms, lichens and plant species like mosses and liverworts, and flowering plants. Over the coming years this new approach, which could be considered the Dow Jones Index for biodiversity, will enable us to build a clearer picture of the status of all the world’s species, not just the furry and feathered.“Over the years, the rigour of the IUCN Red List process has built it into the ‘global gold standard’ for monitoring the conservation status and trends of species and the threats they face worldwide,” says Dr Holly Dublin, Chair of IUCN’s Species Survival Commission (SSC). “The SSC is the largest and oldest IUCN Commission, its members are proud to contribute their knowledge and expertise to delivering this amazing conservation tool to the world.

Climate focus "good news for species"

Climate focus 'good news for species'

VIEWPOINTRussell Mittermeier
Climate change could actually benefit some of the world's most endangered species, says Conservation International president Russell Mittermeier. In this week's Green Room, he explains that conservationists should capitalise on the worldwide attention being given to global warming.

The good news is that the unprecedented spotlight on climate change is also shedding light on how tropical forests balance our Earth's climate Climate change could be the best thing that ever happened to the amazing array of animal and plant species that make up the Earth's biodiversity.
Don't get me wrong; climate change is the most serious environmental threat we have ever encountered, and it is already taking a terrible toll on species, as well as people, all over the world.
The silver lining is that climate change has triggered a universal wake-up call that we all hear, and are beginning to heed.
Never before have so many sectors of society been equally concerned and motivated to combat an environmental threat.
Of course, some die-hard pessimists say it's too late, that the climate change train has left the station and there is nothing we can do but get ready for catastrophic consequences.
Nothing could be more wrong. Just ask the thousands of participants at the World Conservation Congress (WCC) now taking place in Barcelona, Spain.

Representatives from governments, indigenous peoples, industry and environmental groups are meeting to present innovations and create partnerships.
Climate change and protecting species are focal points, and pessimism is not on the agenda. Instead, smart constructive ideas for solutions are being shared.
We estimate the Earth harbours a minimum of six million living species, from microscopic bacteria to magnificent great apes.
The major news announced at the WCC on Monday was that the latest assessment of the world's mammals shows more than 20% to be threatened with extinction.
That includes 188 mammals, such as the Iberian Lynx, in the highest threat category of Critically Endangered.
This assessment is part of the IUCN Red List of Threatened Species, which now includes 44,838 species, of which 16,928 (38%) are threatened with extinction.
Self preservation society
Why should people care about the fate of these plants and animals?
In the most simple terms, we should care because the quality of our lives ultimately depends on them.
Without species diversity, we wouldn't have the healthy ecosystems that supply our food, cleanse our air and water, provide sources of life-saving medicines and help stabilise our climate.

We would also miss out on a free and ubiquitous source of miraculous beauty and endless possibilities.
We continue to discover new species every day. Just since 1994, we've discovered 54 new lemur species on the Indian Ocean island nation of Madagascar.
The thrill of documenting a new primate is tempered, however, with the knowledge that many species will become extinct before they are even discovered.
On a global scale, we're losing species 1,000 times faster than what scientists consider normal.
It is an insidious, silent epidemic that could wreck our planet's ability to heal itself.
While the Red List does make headlines, somehow the irreplaceable loss of species does not stay in the minds of the general public, and it has certainly never prompted major financial investments.
This has always puzzled me. As a colleague of mine puts it: "Imagine what would happen to us if rainfall was a thousand times more than normal? What if snowfall were a thousand times more than normal? What if rates of disease transmission for malaria or HIV/AIDS were a thousand times higher than they are now? That is what is happening to plant and animal biodiversity today."
Just as climate change threatens us with rising sea levels, droughts, floods and more category five hurricanes, it is also one of the greatest threats to species.
We could lose more than 30% of the Earth's plants and animals this century due to shifts in the Earth's climate.

So where is the silver lining?
The good news is that the unprecedented spotlight on climate change is also shedding light on how tropical forests balance our Earth's climate.
At least and possibly much more than 20% of the greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change come from forest destruction - that's more than from all the world's cars, trucks, airplanes and trains combined.
At the same time, forests are effectively our life support system, absorbing carbon dioxide and emitting oxygen.
Those same tropical forests are also home to the world's greatest preponderance of species diversity.
Remove the forests and you will also exterminate countless species. By the same token, the species are essential to healthy forests for many reasons, including pollination and seed dispersal.
There is still time to protect these forests while also providing economic opportunities to developing countries and local people.
One of the key issues at the WCC in Barcelona is how conserving standing tropical forests to fight climate change must be included in a new United Nations agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, the current climate change treaty that expires in 2012.
If we ensure that nations will be compensated for forest conservation that reduces emissions, we will also contribute to redressing some of the huge economic imbalances that exist in the world, since many tropical forest countries are among the more economically stressed.
A message Barcelona can send to the rest of the world is that it is not too late to protect species as well as combat climate change.
On both counts, the welfare of humanity is at stake.
Russell A. Mittermeier is president of Conservation International and chairman of global conservation group IUCN's Species Survival Commission's Primate Specialist Group