Get Out and Count: The Great Backyard Bird Count of 2018

2018 has been designated “The Year of the Bird”, and beginning today, Friday, February 16, 2018, bird lovers around the world will grab their binoculars, fill their bird feeders, update their eBird app, and look toward the skies. The 21st Annual Great Backyard Bird Count, one of the largest and longest running citizen science projects, begins today, and you can be part of this grand event of data collection.

All it takes is a mobile device (or computer) to log your results, an account at gbbc.birdcount.org , and 15 minutes of your time during the four-day event.

Can’t tell a red-tailed hawk from a red-winged black bird? That’s okay. The GBBC web site provides a handy online bird guide.  The web site also provides a guide for tricky bird IDs, including: Which Red Finch is it, Identifying Some Common Sparrows, and Identifying Doves.

I recently spent some time talking to Brian Schneider, one of the educators at the Aldo Leopold Nature Center in Monona, WI, to get some tips for first-time birders. Continue reading

Evaluating the Costs of Endotoxin Testing

http://www.eniscuola.net/en/mediateca/king-crab/

Recently, I had the opportunity to attend a fascinating symposium held at Promega featuring conservationist Steward Brand, where he described some of the projects developed by his foundation, Revive & Restore.

The organization’s mission is to apply emerging biotechnology techniques to endangered and extinct species with the intent to increase genetic diversity, provide disease resistance and facilitate adaptation to changing climates. Although the overall message of enhancing biodiversity through the application of new genetic technology was inspiring, the project that resonated most for me was related to the plight of horseshoe crabs.

Horseshoe crabs, often referred to as living fossils, include four extant species with origins dating back about 450 million years. Although they look like crabs, they belong to their own subphylum and are more closely related to spiders. When horseshoe crabs spawn, they leave their usual habitat on the ocean floor and migrate to shore in large numbers. As a result, they have been exploited for bait and fertilizer for decades.

Enter endotoxins, an indicator for bacterial contamination in biologicals, drugs and medical devices. U.S. Food & Drug Administration regulations dictate that finished products be tested for the presence of endotoxins. These pyrogenic compounds, found in the cell wall of Gram-negative bacteria, can cause fever and affect a wide range of biological activity, possibly leading to aseptic shock and death. The most common method for testing is the gel clot and Limulus Amebocyte Lysate (LAL) Test.

I first learned about the LAL test during graduate school, where it was presented as a ubiquitous and standard requirement for testing bacterial contamination in injectable drugs. I remember being fascinated that horseshoe crabs (Limulus sp.), contain a substance that could be used to detect endotoxins. Although the instructors mentioned the need to collect blood from horseshoe crabs in order to produce the test, the method or scale of this harvest wasn’t discussed, nor were the true costs of using this method of endotoxin testing.

The LAL test has served as a faster, more inexpensive replacement for the rabbit pyrogens test for the past 35 years. Every year during mating season horseshoe crabs move to shallow water, where they are removed in huge numbers. (To get an idea of scale for the harvest and read a much more comprehensive investigation of the issue, check out this article in The Atlantic, which features an archive photo of Delaware Bay horseshoe crab harvest from 1928—for fertilizer, not pharmaceutical testing.)

After collection, the crabs end up in a lab where up to 30% of their blood is drained from a needle stuck in tissue around their heart. The LAL is extracted from the blood and can yield a product worth up to $15,000/quart. In order to avoid recollection, the crabs are returned to the ocean far from the shore where they were collected a few days before. Although it’s estimated that only 10-30% of these crabs die as a result of the process, there are indications that the horseshoe crab population and their ecosystems are impacted in other ways.

Researchers at the University of New Hampshire and Plymouth State University used accelerometers attached to recently bled female horseshoe crabs to test the hypothesis that harvesting for LAL was affecting their ability to spawn. While the research supported previous estimates with a death rate of 18%, females were found to be less likely to mate after being bled.

During his talk, Brand shared results from a study still in review that confirm the effect of over-harvesting Limulus on the survival of long distance migratory shorebirds. These birds synchronize their migration with horseshoe crab spawning, which provides a needed feast of eggs before the homestretch of their journey. Along with other ecosystem threats from climate change, the accelerated decline in the horseshoe crab population and dependency of migratory birds will likely to lead to a devastating ecological domino effect.

Fortunately, a synthetic alternative to LAL, recombinant factor C (rFC), has been available for nearly 20 years. Alas, there has been no significant shift by pharmaceutical companies away from the test based on horseshoe crab blood. rFC was patented and licensed to one company, Lonza, which Brand posited as one reason for the reluctance of drug companies to adopt its use.

Obviously, relying on one source for an essential testing reagent with no competition to temper cost is quite unattractive. But that argument has less bearing now that the patent is scheduled to expire in a few months, opening the door for additional manufacturers and creating an economic incentive for switching to the synthetic test.

Another reason may be that implementing a new test would require additional resources to validate the synthetic test for products that are already being tested with the LAL. Since the LAL has been specified in FDA guidance documents on endotoxin testing for decades, quality standards for existing products are based on the LAL, limiting momentum to change.

If both tests offered the same benefits, these arguments would make sense; however, research by one of the discoverers of rFC, Jeak Ling Ding of the National University of Singapore, shows that in many respects rFC is more efficacious than LAL. Since the raw material for the LAL test depends on an organism, there is seasonal variation in the components of the processed blood that must be taken into account. The reaction of the LAL also depends on a cascade of multiple compounds that can be affected by temperature, pH and proteins—leaving the test vulnerable to false positive results.

Although Eli Lilly is the only pharmaceutical company to date to use rFC in place of LAL, It seems the tide may be turning. According to Brand, others are interested in making the transition. It seems foolish not to, given the source for LAL shows signs of dwindling due to overexploitation. Perhaps pharmaceutical companies are beginning to see the value of a “slower/better” philosophy (the cornerstone of the Long Now Foundation, another brainchild of Brand’s), rather than “faster/cheaper.” I have certainly gained a new perspective on endotoxin testing and a deep appreciation for the work of Brand and his foundation.

Does your organization use the LAL test? What is preventing you from switching to the synthetic alternative? Let us know!

Phylo: A Crowdsourced, Beautiful Biodiversity Game

European Honey Bee card. Image credit: Phylogame.org

European Honey Bee card. Image credit: Phylogame.org

They started with one provocative thought: “Kids know more about Pokemon than they do about the plants and animals in their backyard. We’d like to do something about that.”

And then the team behind the Science Creative Quarterly released the idea to the web to see what would happen. It was 2010.

Now, just a few years later, the resulting fruit of a crowdsourced labor is Phylo: The Trading Card Game. Phylo is a frankly beautiful, “sneakily educational”, immediately compelling and truly cross-functional collaboration of the artistic, gaming, scientific, education and even intellectual property law communities all coming together to create and curate a sort of “biodiversity Pokemon.”

Okay, sounds neat, but why?

Continue reading

What Do Lions Have In Common With Teenagers? OMG, You’ll Srsly LOL!

Ah, the life of a lion roaming the African savanna: sleep, chase a wildebeest, play with your cubs, fight a little with that one uppity lioness, yawn, catch a gazelle, eat the gazelle, drink at the watering hole, sleep some more and…send a text message? Yep, it’s happening in Kenya, where conservationists are now getting automated SMS messages from GPS-enabled collars on the increasingly threatened animals. Unlike traditional texting from your garden-variety teenager, though, these messages aren’t filled with LOLs, gossip and the teen angst du jour, but up-to-the-minute location information to allow researchers to track the lions’ movements in greater detail than ever possible before. Continue reading

Inviting Mother Nature to the design table

Marble globe on green leaf, close-upSustainability is all over the news these days. Green this, eco-friendly that, recycle everything, buy the twisty lightbulbs, and “Aren’t you going to compost that?” Much like good compost, sustainability is hot, and it’s finding its way not only into our households, but also into product design. Principles like using low-impact materials, energy efficiency and designing for reuse and renewability are increasing in importance. In ever-greater numbers, designers are looking to nature for inspiration as they create the next generation of innovative and sustainable products. It’s a burgeoning discipline called biomimicry. Continue reading

Yasuní: An Ecological Paradise That Exceeds All Superlatives

This post was chosen as an Editor's Selection for ResearchBlogging.org

Traveling to the rain forests on the eastern side of Ecuador from the capital Quito is an adventure to be savored.  Even on a good day the entire journey takes a few hours to complete. En route one experiences a notable shift in climate from the cool temperatures of the Andean cordillera to the humid and damp environs of the western tip of the Amazon basin. My family and I made this trip at the end of 1994. Driving in a small 4×4, we experienced the thrill of rugged terrain, road-crossing marching ants and even an unplanned skid into a maize field. Much to our relief, we arrived safely at the town of Tena close to the Amazon’s Napo River.  After driving a further 25 km to the town of Ahuano, we took a motorized canoe ride across the water to the Casa Del Suizo hotel for our planned three-night stay.

Unknown to us at the time, the Napo River flows along the northern-most reaches of the 9820 sq. km Yasuní National Park, recognized internationally as one of the most bio-diverse regions of our planet and located only 50 km further east from where we were staying (1,2). Continue reading

Can Mushrooms Save the World?

Last Tuesday, intrigued by a poster entitled “How Mushrooms Can Save the World”, I attended a talk by Paul Stamets—renowned author, conservationist, and noted expert on all things fungi. I must admit that I was skeptical. It seemed such a bold claim—could the humble mushroom really be the answer to so many problems? The poster promised that mushrooms could be used to filter water, regenerate soil, produce antimicrobials, and literally save the planet. Continue reading