The science of human microbiomes is advancing at an incredible pace. With each passing day, more is known about the vast suite of microorganisms that inhabit human bodies—and about the important role that they play in maintaining our health.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, we look at the human microbiome from an environmentalist's perspective. What are the health benefits of microbiota from environmental sources? What are the threats of altered microbiota? How should we manage the landscapes that play host to this crucial microbial diversity?
To help answer these questions, we spoke with Craig Liddicoat of the University of Adelaide and the South Australian government's Department of Environment, Water and Natural Resources. Liddicoat and his colleagues recently published an article in BioScience that shines a light on the myriad benefits of preserving environmental microbiomes and proposes a unifying conceptual framework for the multidisciplinary approach needed to tackle this emerging research area.
Over 1 million dams exist worldwide. These structures have numerous environmental effects, and there is no shortage of research on the various ecological consequences of dams. But there is another major threat arising from dammed waters: the release of greenhouse gases.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Bridget Deemer of the US Geological Survey. Deemer and her colleagues recently embarked on a systematic effort to synthesize reservoir greenhouse-gas data. The results, described in BioScience, point to reservoirs as a substantial yet often unrecognized source of greenhouse gases.
Scientists have long debated the best methods to achieve sound findings. In recent decades, hypothesis-driven frameworks have been enshrined in textbooks and school courses, with iterative and inductive approaches often taking a back seat. However, the advent of big data poses a challenge to the established dogma, as large data sets often require broad collaborations and make traditional hypothesis-driven approaches less tractable. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Michigan State University professors Kendra Cheruvelil, Georgina Montgomery, Kevin Elliott, and Patricia Soranno. Their interdisciplinary work highlights the changing scientific landscape, in which large data sets and new computational methods encourage a more iterative approach to science.
Most interactions between humans and bears result in no harm to either party. However, aggressive bears can occasionally pose a serious threat to human well-being, such as occurred in a recent attack in the Montana backcountry. In this bonus episode, bear behavior expert Dr. Tom Smith of Brigham Young University sheds light on what may have spurred the attack and shares recommendations for avoiding negative interactions with bears when traveling in their habitats.
The installation of structures to protect against coastal threats, called shoreline hardening, is a common practice worldwide, with many coastal cities having 50% or more of their shores protected against floods and erosion. Despite increasing evidence of negative ecosystem effects, shoreline hardening is expected to continue as growing coastal populations scramble to address rising seas and severe storms. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Rachel Gittman of Northeastern University. Gittman and her colleagues recently conducted a meta-analysis of 54 existing studies on shoreline hardening. The results, described in the journal BioScience, highlight a stark impact to biodiversity but also point to approaches that may mitigate the harm.
The burgeoning field of citizen science offers the public an opportunity to participate directly in research and data analysis—and it offers scientists access to robust data sets that previously would have been impossible to collect. Unfortunately, research on citizen science itself has often been lacking, with most studies focused on existing participants, with little attention paid to the wider public's interest in these important projects. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Vicki Martin of Southern Cross University, in Lismore, Australia, who describes the results of a groundbreaking 1145-person survey of marine users and their attitudes toward citizen science projects. We talked about the study's implications both for the general public and for researchers eager to catch a ride on the citizen science wave.
Hydropower dams generate more energy than all other renewable sources combined. However, they can also produce dire environmental consequences, including the devastation of aquatic insect populations and the food webs that those insects underpin. A practice called "hydropeaking" is evidently to blame. By altering river flows to meet power-generation needs, hydropeaking generates artificial tides that extirpate insect species. In this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Ted Kennedy, a research ecologist with the US Geological Survey's Grand Canyon Monitoring and Research Center. In this month's BioScience, he and his colleagues describe the underlying phenomenon and the citizen science project that brought it to light. In our discussion, Dr. Kennedy explains his findings and offers possible solutions to the hydropeaking conundrum.
Gene drives have the potential to revolutionize approaches to major public health, conservation, and agricultural problems. For instance, gene drives might one day prevent mosquitoes from spreading a variety of deadly diseases, including Zika virus, malaria, and others. A form of genetic modification, the technology works by causing a particular genetic element to spread through populations, thereby making it possible to change species in the wild. Despite the significant promise, caution is warranted, says a new report from the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine's Committee on Gene Drive Research. According to the committee, gene drives raise a variety of ecological and regulatory questions that have yet to be answered. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by committee co-chair Dr. James P. Collins of Arizona State University and committee member Dr. Joseph Travis of Florida State University. They fill us in on the specifics of the report and on the future of gene drives.
The world faces unprecedented environmental transformation. Successfully managing and adapting to a rapidly changing Earth requires the swift action of well-informed policymakers. In a State of the Science report for BioScience, Audrey Mayer of Michigan Technological University and her colleagues describe a major role for the field of landscape ecology in informing policy and management. She joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to chat about the article and discuss some practical applications--both those in use now and those on the horizon. Because landscape ecology operates at multiple scales and across human and natural systems, it is a uniquely powerful tool for those who will make tomorrow's environmental and land-use policies.
The potentially devastating effects of ocean acidification on coral reefs are well known, but the methods used to evaluate the threats are often focused on individual species, viewed in isolation, and often in a laboratory. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Peter Edmunds of California State University, Northridge, who describes that issue and talks about the broad-scale inter-species and inter-population dynamics that may have unforeseen consequences for ocean ecosystems. In particular, differences across scales--from organisms to populations, to communities and ecosystems--will have major impacts on reefs. For instance, differently responding symbiotic species could alter a reef's community structure--and, ultimately, the health of the reef as a whole
Globally declining fish populations are a frequently cited ecological and commercial calamity, but relatively little attention has been paid to the specific threats faced by fish that gather and spawn in large groups. Because they gather in such large groups, these fish are at particular risk of overfishing and population collapse. In this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Yvonne Sadovy, of the University of Hong Kong and Science and Conservation of Fish Aggregations (SCRFA), who studies these aggregate spawners. In our discussion, she outlines the unique threats faced by these species, which also include ineffective management techniques better suited toward fish with different life histories. She also outlines the mechanisms that might help preserve these aggregations in the years to come.
Habitat destruction and the direct exploitation of species often occupy center stage in discussions of biodiversity perils. However, indirect harms, such as that posed by nitrogen pollution, remain underappreciated and poorly understood despite playing a key role in species declines. The mechanisms of nitrogen's impacts are diverse and often involve hard-to-pinpoint chains of causality. For this episode, we're joined by Dr. Dan Hernandez of Carleton College and Dr. Erika Zavaleta of the University of California, Santa Cruz. They and their colleagues recently conducted a survey of 1400 species listed under the US Endangered Species Act, finding a total of 78 that face known hazards from excess nitrogen. They describe their findings here.
Animal-borne diseases have ruled the news cycle recently—from Zika and Ebola to SARS and MERS. However, little is known about the spread of these diseases in their animal hosts. More perplexing, the mechanisms that lead to human outbreaks remain elusive. Dr. Dan Salkeld of Colorado State University hopes to change that through the study of plague—the disease responsible for the Black Death in the Middle Ages. Plague is now a worse problem for the prairie dogs that Salkeld studies than it is for humans, but understanding its unique ecology may shed light elsewhere. By using plague and its complex, multispecies dynamics as a model, Salkeld hopes that we can achieve key insights into why, how, and when diseases like Ebola and Middle Eastern Respiratory Syndrome spill over into human populations.
Across the United States, record quantities of corn and soybeans have been harvested in recent years. However, according Dr. David Gustafson of the International Life Sciences Institute Research Foundation, this trend may soon change. The combined and uncertain effects of climate change could have a devastating impact on grain yields in the US Midwest, with major global implications for food security. To address these rising threats, Dr. Gustafson and his colleagues propose a new, coordinated network of field research sites at which precise data on the performance of current and future crops, cropping systems, and farm-level management practices in the US Midwest could be gathered. Dr. Gustafson joins us to describe the plan.
Numerous studies have demonstrated the benefits of contact with nature for human well-being. However, despite strong trends toward greater urbanization and declining green space, little is known about the social consequences of such contact. Netta Weinstein, senior lecturer at Cardiff University, and her team used a nationally representative UK study to examine the relationships between social cohesion and exposure to nature. The interrelationships were complex, but the results indicate that, even when controlling for numerous possible confounds, nature exposure may account for meaningful amounts of variance in crime and perceived community well-being.