As synthetic biology emerges into the public sphere, so too does a discussion about the ethical and regulatory questions posed by the field. Because synthetic biology researchers will themselves have broad influence in both the field and the conversations surrounding it, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Wisconsin–Madison sought to shed light on their views. The group first identified a unique sample of synthetic biologists and researchers who focus on ethical, legal, and social issues, then polled them regarding their attitudes and values related to synbio.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we are joined by Dr. Dietram Scheufele, who discusses the poll's results and also the ways in which synthetic biologists might best engage the public—as experts and as listeners—during and after the field's entrance onto the public and regulatory stage.
Photo credit: Kyle Cassidy, Annenberg School for Communication.
Improving training in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) fields is a major priority, crucial to the nation's economy and international competitiveness. However, to date, research evaluating the effectiveness of STEM training programs and initiatives has often been lacking.
Writing in BioScience, Alan Wilson of Auburn University, Eric Nagy of the Mountain Lake Biological Station at the University of Virginia, and their colleagues present an assessment of the National Science Foundation Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) Site programs. They compared the scientific outcomes of demographically matched participants and non-participants and found substantial differences between the two groups. For instance, participants in the REU Site programs were more likely to obtain a STEM PhD and to receive awards, make scientific presentations, and publish the results of their research.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, Wilson and Nagy join us to explain their assessment approach and describe the research opportunities at the REU Site programs at their institutions.
Ticks pose numerous threats to human health and well-being, ranging from the familiar Lyme threat to spotted fever rickettsiosis and even mammalian meat allergies. For this special bonus episode of BioScience Talks, we chatted with Brian Allan of the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who works with ticks hands on and leads important research on the ecology of infectious disease. He discussed tick species, their life stages and threats to human health, and the ways that people can avoid exposure to ticks during their most active periods. He also delved into recent research into the techniques and tactics that land managers are using to abate tick overabundance in the face of expanding ranges and growing numbers of many arthropod disease vectors.
To date, the conservation of global biodiversity has relied on a patchwork of international goals and national- and regional-level plans. Hampered by poor planning, competing interests, and an incomplete view of large-scale ecosystem function, these efforts are failing. Effective biodiversity conservation will instead require a broad-based approach that relies on the empirical evaluation of ecosystem dynamics and conservation actions.
Writing in BioScience, William Arlidge, E. J. Milner-Gulland, and colleagues present a unified framework to address these challenges: global mitigation hierarchies. These mitigation hierarchies encompass a four-step process of harm avoidance, minimization, remediation, and offsetting. The authors argue that by implementing such processes, global conservation priorities can be established in a way that bridges gaps in current regulatory regimes and enables more effective conservation. In this episode of BioScience Talks, Arlidge and Milner-Gulland join us to explain the approach in more detail and describe the possible paths to implementation.
The linkages between environmental health and human well-being are complex and dynamic, and researchers have developed numerous models for describing them. The models include attempts to bridge traditional academic boundaries, uniting fields of study under rubrics such as social–ecological frameworks, coupled human and natural systems, ecosystem services, and resilience theory. However, these efforts have been constrained by varying practices and a failure among practitioners to agree on consistent practices.
Writing in BioScience, Jiangxiao Qiu of the University of Florida and his colleagues describe this state of affairs and propose an alternative approach to understanding the interplay of social and ecological spheres: causal chains. The authors describe these chains as an "approach to identifying logical and ordered sequences of effects on how a system responds to interventions, actions, or perturbations." The idea was originally formed as result of a workshop funded by the Packard Foundation, and Dr. Qiu joins us in this episode to discuss causal chains and their implications for the future of policy and management.
In October 2017, through the collaboration of the American Institute of Biological Sciences and the American Society for Gravitational and Space Research (ASGSR), BioScience Talks hit the road. We attended ASGSR's annual meeting in Seattle, Washington, where we had the chance to speak with numerous presenters and participants about a diversity of space-related topics, ranging from the International Space Station (ISS) and zero-gravity plant growth to human health at high altitudes and space-based pharmaceutical development.
This special episode brings together the foremost thought leaders in space-related biology and physical science, highlighting the broad spectrum of research being conducted at unique venues such as and the ISS.
The positive mental health effects of nature exposure in urban environments are well known, and the literature on the subject is growing fast. However, many previous studies have relied only on cross-sectional data that offer coarse measurements of the phenomenon. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Andrea Mechelli of King's College London and his colleagues describe a new approach: the Urban Mind smartphone app. By collecting data several times daily, the app provides real-time information on both the environment and the subjective well-being of its users. Through this approach, Mechelli and his colleagues were able to quantify nature's effects on human well-being with previously unseen accuracy and timeliness. Dr. Mechelli joins us in this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss these findings and to explain the next steps for Urban Mind.
The benefits of specimen collection are well known. Natural-history archives are increasingly used by researchers to investigate evolutionary processes, examine the effects of climate and environmental change, explore the ecology of emerging diseases, and so on. However, the effects of specimen removal on the wild populations and communities is a question that has rarely been addressed. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Andrew Hope and his colleagues draw on historical data from a Long-Term Ecological Research site to examine the effects of one such specimen collection program. In this episode of the podcast, we discuss those results in particular, as well as broader the research opportunities afforded by natural-history collections.
Although the aims of environmental legislation are well known, measuring the effects of regulation is often a difficult task. Inadequate data for baseline conditions and the recovery period can hamper efforts to quantify the effects of a regulation. In a rare exceptional case, Dr. Daniel Gibson-Reinemer and his colleagues describe in BioScience the successful recovery of the Illinois Waterway following the implementation of the 1972 Clean Water Act. Using a robust, multi-decadal data set, the authors demonstrate a tight linkage between water quality and the rebound of numerous fish populations. Dr. Gibson-Reinemer joins us in this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the article's findings and to explain their possible application in future recovery efforts.
The illicit wildlife trade is a multi-billion-dollar business that spans the globe. Unfortunately, efforts to control it have often fallen short, and massive numbers of organisms are regularly removed from ecosystems and sold as pets, food, and traditional medicines. Writing in BioScience, Dr. Mary Blair, Dr. Minh Le, and their colleagues describe an integrative framework to help characterize and mitigate the wildlife trade. Based on Elinor Ostrom's social–ecological systems thinking, the framework incorporates biological, anthropological, socioeconomic, and other types of data to paint a holistic picture of the problem. Drs. Blair and Le join us on this episode of BioScience Talks to describe the ways in which this holistic view will help practitioners and stakeholders untangle the complex dynamics underlying the wildlife trade.
With the rapid expansion of the urban landscape, successfully managing ecosystems in built areas has never been more important. However, our understanding of urban ecology is far from complete, and the data at hand are often patchy, leaving stakeholders without the tools they need to successfully manage human-affected ecosystems. Recent BioScience author Chris Lepczyk, a biologist working at Auburn University, joins us for this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the future of urban biodiversity, highlighting trends and raising questions whose answers will be crucial for successful "green" management and healthy urban ecosystems.
Fish that migrate between freshwater and sea ecosystems play a multitude of ecological roles. In the centuries since Europeans first colonized the Americas, damming and other disruptions to river connectivity have greatly decreased the migration opportunities of these species. Recent BioScience author Steven Mattocks of the University of Massachusetts, in Amherst, joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to discuss the effects of lost habitat and river connectivity for these crucial fish. In particular, he explains that because of a dearth of information on pre-1950 conditions, past estimates of lost biomass may drastically underestimate the ecological harm of damming.
The Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology (SICB), an American Institute of Biological Sciences member society, fosters research, education, public awareness, and understanding of living organisms from molecules and cells to ecology and evolution. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we chatted with presenters and personnel from SICB's 2017 annual meeting, which was held earlier this year in New Orleans. At the meeting, researchers shared hundreds of findings that highlight the value of interdisciplinary, cooperative science integrated across scales, as well as new models and methodologies to enhance research and education.
Abstracts are now being accepted for the 2018 Annual SICB Meeting in San Francisco. See http://sicb.org/meetings/2018 for details.
Each year, low oxygen levels, known as hypoxia, strike the deep waters of Chesapeake Bay. Arising from a combination of human-induced and natural factors, low oxygen levels have profound effects on fish and other important ecosystem players. Writing in BioScience, Jeremy Testa of the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory (at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science) and his colleagues describe the phenomenon in detail—and the ongoing efforts to better predict the yearly occurrence.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. Testa shares more details about hypoxia, its causes, and perhaps most important, the ways in which forecasting it can help us understand and plan for the future of the bay.
River temperatures have long been an area of study, but until recently, the field has been hampered by technological constraints. However, a suite of new technologies and methods, driven by inexpensive sensor technology, are enabling new insights, with significant implications for the future of river management.
Writing in BioScience, E. Ashley Steel of the USDA Forest Service and her colleagues detail the effects of these newly available data and describe the ways in which the knowledge they enable will assist future management efforts. Key among data-enabled innovations is the incorporation of measurements over time and space to create a holistic view of river thermal regimes that the authors dub the "thermal landscape," which has broad implications for the future of river science. She joins us on this episode of BioScience Talks to describe the article and the future of the field.
As species rapidly adapt to altered landscapes and a warming climate, scientists and stakeholders need new techniques to monitor ecological responses and plan future conservation efforts. Writing in BioScience, Drs. Stephen McCormick of the US Geological Survey and Michael Romero of Tufts University describe the emerging field of conservation endocrinology and its growing role in addressing the effects of environmental change. The authors argue that, bolstered by the development of new field-sampling techniques, researchers working in this area are poised to make substantial contributions to the wider field of conservation biology.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, Dr. McCormick describes the range of applications spawned by new research involving the endocrine system, which refers to the set of glands that deliver hormones directly to the circulatory system. These new applications span the measurement of birds' altered stress hormones in response to ecotourism to drone-collected blowhole spray from whales, which may contain hormonal clues about the species' broader health. Other applications include the monitoring of human-introduced endocrine disruptors in aquatic systems and various hormonal changes induced by urbanization, hunting, invasive species, habitat disruption, marine noise, and many other potential stressors.
On landscapes around the world, environmental change is bringing people and large carnivores together—but the union is not without its problems. Human–wildlife conflict is on the rise as development continues unabated and apex predators begin to reoccupy their former ranges. Further complicating matters, many of these species are now reliant on human-provided foods, such as livestock and trash.
For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Thomas Newsome of Deakin University and the University of Sydney. Writing in BioScience, Newsome and his colleagues use gray wolves and other large predators as case studies to explore the effects of human-provided foods. They find numerous instances of species' changing their social structures, movements, and behavior when these resources are available. Perhaps most concerning, they've found that human-fed populations often form distinct genetic subgroups, which could lead to future speciation events.
Nature's positive impact on mood is easily understood on an intuitive level, but a more fine-grain analysis reveals quantifiable effects with potentially serious implications for human well-being. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we are joined by Dr. Daniel Cox of the Environment and Sustainability Institute at the University of Exeter, in Penryn, United Kingdom. Writing for BioScience, Cox and his colleagues described recent work that found strong correlations between nature exposure and positive markers of mental health. In addition, the authors used dose–response modeling to uncover threshold effects that may help guide urban planning, with the ultimate goal of reducing the societal burdens of mental illness.
Climate-driven disturbances are having profound impacts on coastal ecosystems, with many crucial habitat-forming species in sharp decline. However, among these degraded biomes, examples of resilience are emerging. For this episode of BioScience Talks, we're joined by Dr. Jennifer O'Leary, a California Sea Grant Marine Biologist based at California Polytechnic State University, and Dr. Fiorenza Micheli, from Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University. Their recent article in BioScience discusses a large-scale study that uncovered numerous ecosystem "bright spots," in which habitat-forming species proved either resistant to or able to recover from sometimes severe perturbations. Of particular importance, say the authors, are the possible implications for ecosystem-sparing management.
For more than 100 years, eucalypts—woody plants that range in size from shrubs to trees—have been transported from their natural ecosystems in Australia to plantations across the globe. This unique history provides a novel lens for viewing the spread of pathogens and may shed light on future outbreaks as ecosystems face growing pressure from climate change.
In this episode of BioScience Talks, we spoke with Dr. Treena Burgess of Murdoch University in Western Australia, who also holds an adjunct appointment with the Forestry and Agricultural Biotechnology Institute at the University of Pretoria in South Africa. She describes her recent article in BioScience, written with Michael Wingfield. In it, the authors articulate seven scenarios of pathogen movement and disease epidemics, as well as the biosecurity risks that arise from poorly controlled germplasm movement. The dangers are significant, with economically important eucalypt plantations and native ecosystems both facing significant threats.
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.