Cyanobacteria Identified as Cause of Elephant Mass Mortality Event

The largest contiguous population of elephants in Africa lives in the Kavango-Zambezi Trans Frontier Conservation Area (KAZA TFCA) which encompasses parts of Botswana Zimbabwe, Zambia, Angola and Namibia. Within KAZA, nearly 90% of the elephant population is concentrated in Botswana (58%) and Zimbabwe (29%). In June of 2020, over 300 elephants were found dead in Botswana under mysterious circumstances. Less than two months later—in a span of only 27 days—34 more elephant deaths were reported in neighboring Zimbabwe. The news of these mass mortality events was both notable and concerning given the importance of the KAZA elephant metapopulation to species conservation.

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Coral, Ferrets and a Lot of Elephant Poop: 5 Years of the Revive & Restore Catalyst Science Fund

“We are expanding the toolkit available for conservation,” says Bridget Baumgartner, Director of Research and Development at Revive & Restore. “We’re a technology-focused organization with a network of technology experts – we’re here to help make researchers in this space as successful as possible.”

Bridget manages the Catalyst Science Fund for the non-profit Revive & Restore. This program has awarded more than 70 grants to researchers applying biotechnology tools in a unique way to support genetic rescue of endangered or extinct species. The fund was launched in 2018 with a $3 million pledge from Promega, and this year celebrated its fifth anniversary. In that time, projects supported by the Catalyst Science Fund have cloned a black footed ferret, developed methods for analyzing population genetics of isolated elephant herds, and much more.

“The donation from Promega enabled us to demonstrate that this long-term ‘Go Big or Go Home’ approach can create new capabilities that are going to be high-impact for wildlife conservation,” Bridget says.

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How do Scientists Connect Extreme Weather Events to Climate Change?

This year ushered in a series of intense weather events that impacted communities across the globe: record-breaking heat waves; super-charged cyclones; intense flooding; coastal waters hitting a balmy 38°C (1–4). Attributing extreme weather to climate change has become the norm when reporting on these seemingly more frequent and intense events. But beyond simply acknowledging weather to be more violent or destructive than it was in the past, how is it that climate experts are able to determine if increasing greenhouse gas levels are the culprit behind these extreme weather events? The answers can be found in climate attribution science.

Waves are whipped up on a flooded street while palm trees are bending under the force of the wind during hurricane Irma.
Attribution studies have shown that climate change increased the amount of rainfall during Hurricane Irma, a particularly intense 2017 hurricane (5).
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2023 Promega iGEM Grant Winners: Tackling Global Problems with Synthetic Biology Solutions

On June 15, 2023, we announced the winners of the 2023 Promega iGEM grant. Sixty-five teams submitted applications prior to the deadline with projects ranging from creating a biosensor to detect water pollution to solving limitations for CAR-T therapy in solid tumors. The teams are asking tough questions and providing thoughtful answers as they work to tackle global problems with synthetic biology solutions. Unfortunately, we could only award nine grants. Below are summaries of the problems this year’s Promega grant winners are addressing.

UCSC iGEM

An immature night heron against the green surface of Pinto Lake. 2023 Promega iGEM Grant Winner, UCSC iGEM seeks to mitigate these harmful aglal blooms.
A night heron hunts on Pinto Lake, California.

The UCSC iGEM team from the University of California–Santa Cruz is seeking a solution to mitigate the harmful algal blooms caused by Microcystis aeruginosa in Pinto Lake, which is located in the center of a disadvantaged community and is a water source for crop irrigation. By engineering an organism to produce microcystin degrading enzymes found in certain Sphingopyxis bacteria, the goal is to reduce microcystin toxin levels in the water. The project involves isolating the genes of interest, testing their efficacy in E. coli, evaluating enzyme production and product degradation, and ultimately transforming all three genes into a single organism. The approach of in-situ enzyme production offers a potential solution without introducing modified organisms into the environment, as the enzymes naturally degrade over time.

IISc-Bengaluru

Endometriosis is a condition that affects roughly 190 million (10%) women of reproductive age worldwide. Currently, there is no treatment for endometriosis except surgery and hormonal therapy, and both approaches have limitations. The IISc-Bengaluru team at the Indian Institute of Science, Bengaluru, India, received 2023 Promega iGEM grant support to investigate the inflammatory nature of endometriosis by targeting IL-8 (interleukin-8) a cytokine. Research by other groups has snow that targeting IL-8 can reduce endometriotic tissue. This team will be attempting to create an mRNA vaccine to introduce mRNA for antibody against IL-8 into affected tissue. The team is devising a new delivery mechanism using aptides to maximize the delivery of the vaccine to the affected tissues.

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Confronting an Emerging Pathogen: Candida auris

Candida auris illustration
Candida auris is a fungal infection sweeping through healthcare sites across the U.S.

HBO’s The Last of Us has successfully brought fungal pathogens to the forefront of the pandemic discourse, raising questions as to whether a fungus could really pose a significant threat to humans. While scientists agree that the fungus featured in the show, cordyceps, won’t be making the required inter-species jump any time soon, there is a fungal pathogen that has been taking root in hospitals across the U.S. which gives some cause for concern: Candida auris.

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“Forever” Chemicals: Forever No More

If you were tasked with destroying something called “forever chemicals”, chances are you’d be leaning towards rather harsh methods. Incineration would probably be on the table.

These so-called “forever chemicals”, or per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), are a family of organic compounds where fluoride replaces hydrogens atoms on carbon chains. They are very water and oil repellent, which makes them ideal for use in non-stick cookware, stain-proof fabrics and fire-suppressing foams. Recent studies, however, show that exposure to PFAS is linked to a range of health issues—from increased cholesterol levels to some cancers. Even levels of PFAS present in drinking water in as low as parts per billion levels can pose risks to human health. These risks are exacerbated by the tendency for PFAS to bioaccumulate, or become concentrated in the tissues of humans and animals.

Methods do exist to filter out PFAS from water. But what do you do when it’s time to replace those filters? Simply throwing out PFAS-contaminated equipment just moves the problem to a landfill.

Person getting a glass of water from a kitchen faucet.

Instead, these “forever chemicals” need to be destroyed. Most existing strategies for breaking down PFAS use harsh conditions, such as incinerating PFAS residues in furnaces or oxidizing them in supercritical water—water that is at more than 37°C and 200atm of pressure. Now, scientists reporting in Science have discovered that such extreme methods may not be needed to destroy “forever chemicals” (1).

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How Fire Coral has an Edge Over Other Species in the Caribbean Reef

Coral reefs are the most productive marine ecosystem known, providing essential habitats and shelters for fish and other organisms. Additionally, they help protect coastlines, support economies, provide important food sources for local fisheries, and so much more. Coral reefs are ecologically essential—but are continuing to vanish. Fire coral (Millepora) brings new hope to this marine crisis due to their unusual ability to grow in two forms and survive under various habitat stresses.

Bladed fire coral (Millepora complanata) undersea, Caribbean Sea, Cuba, Playa Cueva de los peces
Bladed fire coral (Millepora complanata) undersea, Caribbean Sea, Cuba

What Is Fire Coral?

Fire coral has been around for millions of years and is most commonly found in sunny, shallow reefs. They tend to grow in tropical and subtropical waters with many thriving in different areas of the Caribbean Sea, one of the planet’s most biologically diverse ecosystems. Fire coral resembles typical stony corals but has a wicked sting that can cause burning skin reactions, reflecting their relationship as a close relative to jellyfish.

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Explore the World From a New Lens with Nature Photography

Each year, on June 15, we celebrate Nature Photography Day. This globally recognized day was designated by the North American Nature Photography Association (NANPA) to embrace the value of nature and encourage the enjoyment of nature photography.

Photography helps us explore the natural world and advance conservation efforts to protect plants, nature, and wildlife both locally and globally. One of the great things about Nature Photography Day is that you can participate wherever you are, with whatever equipment you have—nature is all around us!

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