Arrived at Yanayacu last night after a long 14 hr travel day. Rough weather conditions with many inches of rain made the long canoe ride out of the jungle and later bus transfers quite the adventure. As we ascended from the lowlands into the mountains we passed more than a dozen mud slides that had been cleared the same day. We are lucky that we made it in at a good hour…Could have been a very long night waiting for roads to be cleared. Still dumping rain now.
A bit hypnotizing on the tin roof of the biological station. Enjoying a coffee in the cold cloud forest at first light, watching a trogon (pictured left) about 5 meters away (or it’s watching me). Hummingbirds are starting their morning feeding frenzy. Life is good and the students are starting to rise. It is going to be another great day.
~ Dr. Bill Hopkins, trip co-leader and professor of fish and wildlife conservation at Virginia Tech
Throughout this trip, Matthew Lacey and I have been setting out camera traps, hoping to catch glimpses of the wild cats of the Amazon. We’ve been placing them on game trails and near locations where the local guides have seen tracks. At Sani Lodge, we were lucky enough to get a picture of an ocelot on the first night they were set. Unfortunately we haven’t gotten any more cat pictures, but we have collected pictures of lots of other jungle wildlife. Through these cameras, we’ve seen red brocket deer picking their way through the undergrowth, agouti shuffling past, and a Grey-Winged Trumpeter investigating the novelty in this strange object on its territory. We’re looking forward to setting the cameras out again now that we’re in the cloud forest, and getting candid snapshots of wildlife.
~ Virginia Tech student Elizabeth Zadnick
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador. – See more at: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/ResearchBlog/#sthash.ZgBtKYWz.dpuf – See more at: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/ResearchBlog/#sthash.q8nNKmH3.dpuf
Today we visited the Sani community of the Quichua people. This community center is located on the Napo River. The common welcome phrase is Alipunja. When we arrived to the community center we were greeted by a few of the women. A leader of the women’s group took us around their gardens. We stopped and saw their turtle sanctuary for Yellow Spotted Amazon River turtles. We next visited their school and learned about their education system. After the school we visited the farm and harvested the native crop of yuca and weaved head bands with leaves that are also used to make the Panama hats. We tasted fresh sugar cane that was so sweet it was almost candy. After this, we went to the kitchen to see what was for lunch. They had a traditional cooking fire with food roasting above. We tried the native chicha drink while three people were brave enough to eat a live grub. For lunch we ate locally caught fish (a variety of paraña) with heart of palm wrapped in a leaf that had been cooking on the fire. Behind the kitchen was a full size soccer field with local teams competing with one team from Sani lodge. As we were getting ready to leave our guide painted our faces with natural oil paint from a fruit. Finally, we had the opportunity to adopt a Yellow Spotted Amazon river turtle and name it before we released it into the Napo river. We really enjoyed this opportunity to learn about the indigenous Quichua people. Not only have we had the opportunity to explore the endemic biodiversity of the Amazon, but we also were exposed to the culture that is unique to Ecuador.
Photo: Mmmmm grubs!
~ Virginia Tech students Erin Dailey and Emily Reasor
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador. – See more at: http://blogs.lt.vt.edu/ResearchBlog/#sthash.ZgBtKYWz.dpuf
Brown, an assistant professor of biological sciences in the College of Science, studies community ecology, and one ecological system in particular: the relationship between crayfish and their worms.
These aquatic worms, known as branchiodellidans, eat the biofilm and sediments that accumulate on crayfish bodies. In exchange, the worms live on the crayfish in a systemic relationship commonly known in biological research as a symbiosis – a bond in which both species mutually benefit.
Recently, several summers of hard work culminated in a paper co-authored by former Fralin fellows Samuel Doak and Meredith Leonard.
Along with Brown and colleague Robert Creed of Appalachian State University, Sam and Meredith spent months – even years – performing fieldwork and analysis to further explore the crayfish-worm relationship, which serves as an effective biological model for various research fields.
“We were fortunate to have these incredible undergraduates help with the research,” said James Skelton, lead author on the paper who, at the time, was a Virginia Tech doctoral student with Brown; Skelton is now a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Florida.
“They learned how to catch and identify species, so we were able to collect a huge mass of data and make observations that paint a more thorough picture of how community dynamics change the relationship between crayfish and worms.”
With Sam and Meredith’s help, the team was able to observe that, among other things, when the worms are beneficial to the crayfish, they are more diverse in abundance and interact more. However, this changes as crayfish age, which shifts the relationship dynamic from parasitic to mutually beneficial.
The best time for birding is early in the morning. We rose well before the sun and everyone stumbled down to breakfast. Stomachs full, slowly beginning to wake up we hopped in canoes and headed down the lagoon. The shorelines were littered with birds, anticipation building as we neared the boat landing.
A short hike through the jungle brought us to the base of a massive Kapok tree. The tree rose high above the canopy and was straddled by a 90 foot metal staircase, which we promptly climbed. A massive platform sat atop the tree, yielding breathtaking views of endless rainforest. With no mountains in sight, only a few clouds could be seen on the horizon.
Binoculars in hand we quickly spotted a Great Potoo resting just above our heads; tanagers chasing each other through the tree top; macaws and toucans soaring above the canopy it was hard to know where to look.
All of the sudden our Quichua guide, Javier, noticed something in the distance and ushered over our American guide Rudy. Rudy called over Ignacio and Bill, who were overcome with excitement as they gazed upon one of the most exciting birds in the bird world. In the distance we could see a white speck, with closer examination we made out a massive bird of prey. With talons the size of a human hand, with a crown of gray-white feathers surrounding its head, it sat still as a statue giving everyone an opportunity to admire it. The harpy eagle was the main focus of our group for half an hour as it remained perched for us to observe the illusive creature, and after about an hour it had disappeared into the mist.
Photo: Amazon kingfisher at Sani Lodge.
~ Virginia Tech students Matt Lacey and Caman Skelton
Follow the Adventure! You are invited to follow the VT Ecuador students as they report back from South America during their 3-week journey, May 16-June 7. They will be blogging @VTResearch and posting to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram using the hashtag #VTEcuador.
Imagine a small flat 3×1 square of clear glass. On top rests another piece of glass with small holes open to the square underneath.
Now imagine if a full-scale wet lab – complete with rows of flasks, tubes, pumps and a centrifuge – could fit on this miniature surface.
If you’re Virginia Tech cancer researcher Iuliana Lazar, that’s your goal.
“This is the lab-on-a-chip concept,” said Lazar, an associate professor of biological sciences in the College of Science. “Essentially you have an entire lab shrunk down to a few square-inch chip. The plan is to integrate various functional [lab] elements by minimizing their size or developing new designs and new principles that will allow scientists to accomplish new experiments.”
This lab-on-a-chip technology will decrease the amount of time it takes to prep and study cells in a lab. It will also allow Lazar and other researchers to capture what’s going on in cancer cells earlier than what can usually be accomplished with standard technology in a full-scale wet lab setting.
“The beginning of the cell signaling process happens very fast, so even a simple lab procedure such as cell harvesting will perturb the entire process,” said Lazar, whose work is currently supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
“So, what we have suggested instead,” Lazar continued, “is to stimulate the cells on the chip, then perform a quick lysis procedure with an electrical field. This will instantly release the cell’s content to enable further analysis, which would allow us to capture events that otherwise cannot be monitored unless the cells have been subjected to special treatments or genetic modifications.”
Lazar designs this technology to specifically look at the phosphorylation of proteins – a process occurring in early stages of cell stimulation that can inform how cancer cells code for proteins, grow, and further proliferate.
“We also look at differential protein expression,” said Lazar, who is also a Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. “This information then is used to infer some biological mechanism to figure out how cancer cells early on bypass the restriction point and manage to move through the cell cycle.”
So far, she has developed three chip-sized systems that mimic laboratory procedures, two of which she has patents on. Now the trick is integrating all three into one.
“We hope this will open the door, perhaps a new field, to a completely new way of analyzing and looking at the disease,” she said.
As far as sources of renewable energy are concerned, poop would seem a likely candidate as a never-ending supply of fuel.
But it turns out wastewater energy plants stink at maximizing their energy output in a sustainable way.
Nationally, treatment plants consume 5 percent of the country’s total output, but that could be significantly reduced if the plants could harvest the energy from the waste that people flush down their drain pipes every minute of every day.
Two Virginia Tech researchers have discovered a way to harness the energy from wastewater using two distinct methodologies: using a novel tracing technology to determine which bacteria work well together to chew through waste, and also which ones are good conductors of energy.
Xueyang Feng and Jason He traced bacteria, which led them to discover that the working relationship between two specific substrates produced more energy than either did separately. This work will help take the mystery out of how electrochemically active bacteria create energy. It could help in the development of new treatment system called a microbial fuel cell.
“Tracing the bacteria gave us a major piece of the puzzle to start generating electricity in a sustainable way,” said Feng, an assistant professor of biological systems engineering. “This is a step toward the growing trend to make wastewater treatment centers self-sustaining in the energy they use.”
Feng is in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the College of Engineering; He, an associate professor of environmental engineering, is in the College of Engineering.
The discovery is important because not all organics perform the same job in the same way. Some work because they are food for the electricity-generating bacteria while others are good at conducting energy.
While one substrate known as lactate was mainly metabolized by its host bacteria to support cell growth, another substrate known as formate was oxidized to release electrons for higher electricity generation.
The team found that when these two substrates are combined, the output of energy is far greater than when they are working separately. The organics work in tandem with receptors in fuel cells, and while research using microbial fuel cells is not new, the kind of organics that Feng and He used was novel in generating electricity because they were able to measure the symbiotic nature of two particular organics.
The unique methodology that allowed them to trace the metabolic pathways of the different strains of bacteria, called carbon 13 pathway analysis, was the first time this type of isotope labeling process was used in measuring metabolism in microbes, the researchers said. The analysis works by creating a non-radioactive isotope on a carbon group that is visible through a mass spectrometry.
Harnessing energy from wastewater is a sustainability measure that even urban plants such as the wastewater treatment facilities in Washington, D.C.
The results of this work encouraged the further development of microbial fuel cells, especially system scaling up. The He lab is currently operating a 200-L microbial fuel cell system in a local wastewater treatment plant for evaluating its long term performance with actual wastes.
For now, however, Feng and He are not only giving wastewater it’s moment in the sun, they are making sure that, whether it’s ammonia or organic waste, that producing energy from wastewater is part of a movement.
While the Zika virus has been busy grabbing headlines as a public health menace that seemingly came out of nowhere, it is in fact just the latest iteration of viruses — from a family called flaviviruses — to rear its head as a public health menace. Flaviviruses stealthily adapt quickly to changing environments to infect the human population.
“Today, it’s Zika virus. Yesterday it was West Nile virus and chikungunya virus,” said Kevin Myles, an associate professor of entomology in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate. “It’s always going to be something and you can’t predict what it’s going to be next. So what you have to do is develop a sound research infrastructure that’s in place and ready to go so you can rapidly respond to the next threat.”
That’s exactly what Myles and colleague Zach Adelman, also an associate professor of entomology and College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and Fralin Life Science Institute affiliate, are doing in their labs.
The flavivirus family also includes other important pathogens, such as yellow fever virus and four different dengue viruses.
Myles and Adelman will now begin work on Zika virus.
“Viruses evolve very rapidly, especially these types of viruses because they are RNA viruses,” said Myles. “In fact, the traditional definition of a species doesn’t even apply to a RNA virus. They actually exist as what’s called a quasi-species, which can be thought of as a swarm of RNA sequences. This allows these viruses to adapt to a changing environment very rapidly.”
Zika virus has infected a growing number of Americans over the past few months, and the disease may cause a birth defect called microcephaly, in which infected pregnant women give birth to brain-damaged babies with abnormally tiny heads.
While Zika had only previously been associated with mild symptoms in humans, it may produce more severe symptoms in areas where the virus has been recently introduced because populations have no pre-existing immunity.
Myles pointed out that the development of a vaccine is paramount to resolving the current public health crisis. However, other tools, such as new strategies for vector control, for example gene drives, should also be explored to prevent future viral outbreaks.
One application of gene drive might involve genetically engineering a mosquito to either increase or decrease its immunity to a virus; the mosquito would either never become infected or would die quickly before it could transmit the virus to another host. Of course there are also more conventional approaches to vector control, which would involve regional, state, or national organization participation in coordinated spraying.
Read about more actions you can take to protect yourself from Zika virus here.
From Italy to Tanzania to Mexico, no matter if they are garnish in a salad or the base of a sauce, tomatoes are a food staple the world over.
Unfortunately an invasive tomato pest known as the South American tomato leafminer, has become just as prolific as the tomato crops themselves.
The pest, whose scientific name is Tuta absoluta, is a particularly terrible threat. It globetrotted from its native Latin America to Europe in 2006 and later crossed the Mediterranean to Africa.
Now threatening Asia, the moth strikes small-holder farmers around the world, leaving a destructive path in its wake.
But Virginia Tech researcher Muni Muniappan is working to quell the effects of the pest. Muniappan noticed Tuta’s arrival in Africa in 2012 and subsequently led several workshops in Senegal, Ethiopia, Nepal, Bangladesh, Kenya, and Tanzania to raise awareness of the pest and give tips on controlling its prolific destruction.
“When the tomato leafminer strikes, it can cause between 80 and 100 percent crop loss unless proper management technologies are adopted,” said Muniappan, entomologist and director of the Virginia Tech-led Integrated Pest Management Innovation Lab. “The moth can’t be completely eradicated. The best you can do is control it.”
Muniappan recently convened a group of plant protection specialists in 2015 to develop strategies to control the moth at the 18th International Plant Protection Congress in Berlin, Germany.
Some control measures include quarantining the plant and not importing tomatoes with stems, leaves, or a calyx, the green sepals of a flower that form the outer floral envelope, and using pheromone traps in border areas, and also developing a roster of Tuta’s natural enemies that could be used as biocontrol.
World production of tomato is approximately 163 million tons annually, and production of the crop covers 10 million acres worldwide, Muniappan says. In the United States, the tomato industry accounts for more than $2 billion in annual farm cash receipts, according to the USDA.
The economic impact of this insect has already been severe in countries where it has become established. In Spain, its presence led to an increase of $209 per acre per season related to pest management. In central Argentina, management of Tuta accounts for 70 percent of the pest management costs for late-season tomato crops.
It’s late January in central Namibia, the time of year when heavy rain showers become a regular source of relief for many animals. If the rains arrive, a green carpet spreads across the landscape and food becomes plentiful for all, providing the necessary resources for many species to reproduce. If the rains fail to show, dehydration and starvation sweep through the land like a plague. All individuals suffer, but the young and old, the weakest and most vulnerable, become the most common victims to drought. During these times, pining parents will often fail to rear offspring and may forego breeding altogether, forced instead to focus entirely on survival.
I’m outside Otjiwarongo, studying the local cavity-nesting guild, a specialized and highly diverse community of animals that use tree cavities for nest sites. Found in forests worldwide, cavity-nesting guilds are composed of mammals, reptiles, amphibians, invertebrates, and, my favorite, birds. I will call this area home from December through May over the next few years as I attempt to understand the structure of this particular cavity-nesting guild. Do certain species prefer certain types of cavities? How do species interact with each other while competing for cavities? How might human management impact these communities, and how can we ensure that our actions don’t jeopardize their persistence?
Hopefully I can strike it rich and obtain crucial insight into these questions. But before I can strike gold, I must first strike water. Dams have been empty for months, parched from a drought the previous year, and withered carcasses become more and more common sites in the field. Everything is looking to the sky for rain, myself included. If I’m to have any success in my research, I need the rains to come and help kick start the breeding season.
On this afternoon, it seems prayers have been answered. Two hours after gray clouds first crept into view, the sky is a dark, bulging waterbed waiting to burst. Before you can grab your raincoat, the monsoon begins. Downpouring, deluging, raining cats and dogs; throw out your best idioms, just run for cover as you do. The storm doesn’t last long, thirty minutes at most, but that’s plenty of time for two inches of rain to fall. Rivers form wherever they please, Oryx splash about like children at a water park, and hope is seemingly restored to the land.
In the days following the rain, the landscape is vastly transformed. The previously barren earth sprouts a green mane, while acacia trees finally look more leafy than thorny. Animals have also responded. Roadside puddles are filled with enormous African bullfrogs, Leopard tortoises race across roads with re-energized vigor, and the hordes of antelope, once concentrated in mass at man-made water holes, are nowhere to be found, having dispersed to newly formed pools throughout the landscape. The birds are lively as well. Prospective passerines gather grasses to build nests within barbed branches. A second visit to our nest boxes reveals that almost a dozen new female hornbills, the largest cavity-nesters here in Namibia, have begun to build. Things are looking up.
But it’s still too early to say if the weather will be fruitful. One heavy rain is far from adequate for the animals here, which are accustomed to and hoping for regular downpours from December through April. If only they knew the weather projections.
A strong ENSO (El Niño Southern Oscillation), as is predicted for 2016, usually correlates with even drier weather in southern Africa. So while California finally climbs out of a drought, Namibia may be set to plunge deeper into its own.
To make matters worse, climate change models predict increasing aridification of Namibia over the coming century. This means less annual rainfall, and more frequent and severe droughts. The current circumstance may severely hamper my own research, but these projections intensify the overall need for research on cavity-nesting guilds. How will species respond to more frequent droughts? How will less rainfall impact tree growth and cavity availability? How will these changes alter the interactions between species? If there is to be any hope of preserving these communities, it is vital that we understand their structure so that efforts can be made to maintain them.
Guest blogger David Millican
Ph.D. Student, Department of Biological Sciences, Virginia Tech
Interfaces of Global Change Fellow
Photos of cavity dwellers in Namibia (in chronological order): (1) Yellow-billed hornbill, (2) grey-billed hornbill nestings in box