Wednesday, October 28, 2009

"World interest in Australian fishery impact test" - Press release from CSIRO

An Australian method for assessing the environmental impact of marine fisheries has caught the eye of fishery management agencies worldwide. [click on title to connect to source]
[CSIRO = Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation]

26 October 2009

Aspects of the 'ecological risk assessment' (ERA) method have been adopted in the US, Canada, Ecuador, and the Western and Central Pacific, and by the international eco-labelling organisation the Marine Stewardship Council.

The method was developed in research led by Dr Tony Smith and Dr Alistair Hobday from CSIRO’s Wealth from Oceans Flagship in association with the Australian Fisheries Management Authority (AFMA).

“AFMA needed a tool for assessing the ecological risk associated with a diverse range of fishing practices: from the hand-selection of rock lobsters in the Coral Sea, to the trawling of Patagonian Toothfish deep in the Southern Ocean,” Dr Smith says.

“We met the challenge with a three-step method that considers targeted and incidentally caught species, as well as threatened, endangered and protected species. Ongoing research is further developing the method for habitats and ecological communities.

“Each level of analysis potentially screens out issues of low concern and directs attention to higher risk issues. This helps fishery managers to guard against unacceptable changes to the ecosystem, while being strategic about where to focus dollars and time,” Dr Smith says.

Dr Hobday says the completion of ERA reports for more than 30 AFMA-managed fishing sectors has been a mammoth undertaking involving many years of work by a large research team.

“Our ERA reports document the most comprehensive assessment of the ecological impacts of fishing in Australia’s commercial fisheries and for any large set of fisheries in the world,” he says.

“More than 1200 species have been assessed, highlighting the diversity of Australian fisheries and pointing to risks requiring analysis and management, both for individual fisheries, and on a cumulative scale.”

The ERA process contributes to the strategic assessment of fisheries under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 and flags priorities for research, data collection, monitoring and management.

AFMA is responding with environmental risk management strategies for each fishery and other initiatives such as a guide for fishery managers to help manage shark bycatch. (Sharks and rays come out repeatedly as high-risk species across many fisheries.)

The research has also yielded a database of information on more than 1000 species of mammals, seabirds, reptiles, scalefish, and sharks and rays.

The Bureau of Rural Sciences, Fisheries Victoria, Fishwell Consulting, and the Queensland Department of Primary Industries and Fisheries assisted with the ERA research.

CSIRO initiated the National Research Flagships to provide science-based solutions to Australia’s major research challenges and opportunities. The 10 Flagships form multidisciplinary teams with industry and the research community.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Can USDA's NIFA be ag's NIH? - Bob Grant's NewsBlog from The Scientist

Commentary on prospects for agricultural and food research after the establishment of the National Institute of Food and Agriculture (new name and mission for the Cooperative State Research, Education, and Extension Service), looking in particular at the consequences of neglecting publicly available research, and issues for public/private collaborations.

Unlike university-based biomedical research, however, which in general has enjoyed robust funding in the recent past, academic agricultural research has withered under a USDA that has traditionally meted out small, non-competitive grants to land grant universities, often at the behest of US legislators trying to direct funds to their home districts or states. The result is an intellectual landscape where much of the knowledge surrounding plant science and agriculture resides not in universities but in industry, locked behind the walls of large agribusinesses.

"We're starting at a different point with NIFA than the one at which we find ourselves at NIH," said Keith Yamamoto, a University of California, San Francisco, molecular biologist who serves as an advisor to the NIH and led the agency's recent efforts to revamp its peer-review process. "The current tilt in the fundamental knowledge about plants, their growth, and development is on the industry side and I would say that it's precisely because of the lack of resources on the public side," he told The Scientist. "It's the basic, fundamental information that needs to be in the realm of the public sector."

The disparity between private and public agriculture research becomes apparent when one considers data from the US Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Lists of recent patent holders in technology classes related to biomedicine -- surgery, drugs, prosthesis, etc. -- are replete with universities, which typically hold patents generated by publicly-funded research. Agricultural patents from 2004-2008, however, are overwhelmingly held by large agribusinesses such as Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta. In the USPTO's "Multicellular Living Organisms and Unmodified Parts Thereof and Related Processes" technology class (which includes genetically modified organisms), six companies -- Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Monsanto Technology, Stine Seed Farm, DuPont, Syngenta, and Mertec -- were awarded a total of 255 patents in 2008, while the Regents of the University of California system, which held the most patents in that technology class out of any university or university system last year, was awarded only six. Other technology classes relating to agriculture, such as "Plant Protecting and Regulating Compositions" and "Planting," have been devoid of university-held patents over the past 4-5 years.

Friday, October 09, 2009

"What have we found out about the influenza A (H1N1) 2009 pandemic virus?" - article in Journal of Biology (BMC open access)

Question and answer format.
Published online September 18, 2009. Questions include:

The 1918 pandemic influenza virus is said to have started by causing relatively mild disease in the summer but to have become more severe in the winter. Do we know why, and might influenza A (H1N1) 2009 do the same?

What about the possibility that influenza A (H1N1) might recombine with other more virulent viruses?

Might immunity built up in the course of the Northern hemisphere summer lessen the impact of the pandemic in the winter?

Friday, October 02, 2009

"Scientists Decry Isotope, DNA Testing of ‘Nationality"

In the special issue of Science out today, a news item describes a dismaying misuse of science and technology. As one of its tests, the Borders Agency in Britain is piloting use of DNA analysis and isotope testing of soft tissues to verify (or not) whether a person applying for asylum in the U.K. comes from the country they claim to have come from.
"My first reaction is this is wildly premature, even ignoring the moral and ethical aspects," says Alec Jeffreys of the University of Leicester, who pioneered human DNA fingerprinting. ...

After reviewing the Border Agency's plans, Jeffreys [wrote] in an e-mail to Science: "The Borders Agency is clearly making huge and unwarranted assumptions about population structure in Africa; the extensive research needed to determine population structure and the ability or otherwise of DNA to pinpoint ethnic origin in this region simply has not been done. Even if it did work (which I doubt), assigning a person to a population does not establish nationality - people move! The whole proposal is naive and scientifically flawed."
Because the hue and cry over this is so widespread in the scientific community, I wondered if this might be a case of those in power trying to use science to intimidate rather than actually expecting to get at the truth. Questionable asylum-seekers might be threatened with the use of "scientific tests" in hopes that they will admit to falsifying their country of origin. This might be deemed reasonable if the tests would actually produce relevant information, but, instead, what is questionable is the attempt to assign country of origin by these means.

Ardipithecus ramidus - special issue of Science magazine

Science 2 October 2009:
Vol. 326. no. 5949, pp. 60 - 61
DOI: 10.1126/science.326_60a

from Introduction to the Special Issue, by Brooks Hanson, "Light on the Origin of Man"

This issue presents 11 papers authored by a diverse international team (see following pages) describing an early hominid species, Ardipithecus ramidus, and its environment. The hominid fossils are 4.4 million years old, within this critical early part of human evolution, and represent 36 or more individuals, including much of the skull, pelvis, lower arms, and feet from one female. The papers represent three broad themes. Five focus on different parts of the anatomy that are revealing for human evolution. These show that Ardipithecus was at home both moving along trees on its palms and walking upright on the ground. Three characterize Ardipithecus's habitat in detail, through analysis of the hosting rocks and thousands of fossils of small and large animals and plants. These show that Ardipithecus lived and ate in woodlands, not grasslands. The first paper presents an overview, and it and the last two papers trace early human evolution and synthesize a new view of our last common ancestor with chimps. One conclusion is that chimps have specialized greatly since then and thus are poor models for that ancestor and for understanding human innovations such as our ability to walk.