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    Mongabay, a leading resource for news and perspectives on environmental and conservation issues related to the tropics, has launched Tropical Conservation Science - a new, open access academic e-journal. It will cover a wide variety of scientific and social studies on tropical ecosystems, their biodiversity and the threats posed to them. Tropical Conservation Science - March 8, 2008.

    At the 148th Meeting of the OPEC Conference, the oil exporting cartel decided to leave its production level unchanged, sending crude prices spiralling to new records (above $104). OPEC "observed that the market is well-supplied, with current commercial oil stocks standing above their five-year average. The Conference further noted, with concern, that the current price environment does not reflect market fundamentals, as crude oil prices are being strongly influenced by the weakness in the US dollar, rising inflation and significant flow of funds into the commodities market." OPEC - March 5, 2008.

    Kyushu University (Japan) is establishing what it says will be the world’s first graduate program in hydrogen energy technologies. The new master’s program for hydrogen engineering is to be offered at the university’s new Ito campus in Fukuoka Prefecture. Lectures will cover such topics as hydrogen energy and developing the fuel cells needed to convert hydrogen into heat or electricity. Of all the renewable pathways to produce hydrogen, bio-hydrogen based on the gasification of biomass is by far both the most efficient, cost-effective and cleanest. Fuel Cell Works - March 3, 2008.


    An entrepreneur in Ivory Coast has developed a project to establish a network of Miscanthus giganteus farms aimed at producing biomass for use in power generation. In a first phase, the goal is to grow the crop on 200 hectares, after which expansion will start. The project is in an advanced stage, but the entrepreneur still seeks partners and investors. The plantation is to be located in an agro-ecological zone qualified as highly suitable for the grass species. Contact us - March 3, 2008.

    A 7.1MW biomass power plant to be built on the Haiwaiian island of Kaua‘i has received approval from the local Planning Commission. The plant, owned and operated by Green Energy Hawaii, will use albizia trees, a hardy species that grows in poor soil on rainfall alone. The renewable power plant will meet 10 percent of the island's energy needs. Kauai World - February 27, 2008.


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Friday, October 24, 2008

Natural and social sciences urged to cooperate to solve key global issues

Natural and social sciences must work together to help solve some of the most pressing issues facing society. That’s the message in a report delivered today to the global scientific community at the 29th General Assembly of the International Council for Science (ICSU) in Maputo, Mozambique. Global change, the environment and natural resources management, sustainable development, poverty reduction, human health, are some of the major scientific research challenges of our days. But these issues cannot be solved without understanding the impact of people on these issues and the impact of these issues on people — that is, social science, the report concludes.

According to Anne Whyte, a member of ICSU’s Committee on Scientific Planning and Review (CSPR) and a former Director General for Environment and Natural Resources of the International Development Research Centre (IDRC) in Canada, scientists who study nature and health must cooperate more closely with sociologists, cultural anthropologists, psychologists and economists, in interdisciplinary ways.

The report, ‘Enhancing Involvement of Social Sciences in ICSU’ [*.pdf], identifies social sciences as being essential for the implementation of the ICSU Strategic Plan 2006-2011. Recommendations in the report include: that ICSU continue to encourage the participation of social sciences on its committees, task forces and collaborative research initiatives; stimulate more social sciences unions to join ICSU; and to work with the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC) as a key partner in strengthening international social science of relevance for implementing ICSU’s Strategic Plan.
High quality social scientific knowledge is becoming necessary knowledge for policymakers, business and community leaders, and natural scientists alike. In this environment the ISSC has taken on the challenge of becoming the major global social scientific player alongside, and in collaboration with, ICSU in addressing key global challenges. - Heide Hackmann, Secretary-General of the International Social Sciences Council (ISSC)
But it’s not all smooth sailing. There are barriers that must be overcome: natural and social scientists speak different languages; many institutions are not equipped to deal with interdisciplinary research; and there is resistance among some scientists from both sides of the table:
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The key to success is that natural and social scientists must work together on research agenda setting. One field cannot merely provide services for the other—they both must be involved in setting research goals. And you need to choose the right people. - Roberta Balstad of the Center for Research on Environmental Decisions, at Columbia University in New York
Over the years, ICSU has actively involved the social sciences, particularly through its global environmental change programmes. The Earth System Science Partnership (ESSP) successfully integrates natural and social sciences in order to investigate how changes in the Earth System affect global and regional sustainability.

And new ICSU programmes, such as ‘Integrated Research on Disaster Risk’ and ‘Ecosystem Change and Human Well-being’, have involved both the natural and social sciences from the earliest planning stages. ‘Indeed, it could be argued that ICSU is at a point in its history where it is increasingly dependent on social science to fulfil its mission. Thus, better integration of the social sciences into ICSU is no longer an option, it is a necessity,’ said Balstad.

Founded in 1931, ICSU is a non-governmental organization with a global membership of national scientific bodies (114 Members, representing 134 countries) and International Scientific Unions (29 Members). The Council is frequently called upon to speak on behalf of the global scientific community and to act as an advisor in matters ranging from the environment to conduct in science. ICSU’s activities focus on three areas: planning and coordinating research; science for policy; and strengthening the Universality of Science.


Picture: ecological anthropologist Glenn Davis Stone studies the ways in which Indian farmers deal with GM seeds and agro-industrial agriculture, and how this fits into their views on nature and the environment. Credit: Washington University in St Louis, Dept. of Anthropology.

References:

ICSU: ‘Enhancing Involvement of Social Sciences in ICSU’ - October 2008.

ICSU 29th General Assembly.


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Thursday, October 23, 2008

Extremely potent greenhouse gas 4 times more prevalent than thought

A greenhouse gas that is 17,000 times more potent that carbon dioxide is at least four times more prevalent in the atmosphere than previously estimated, according to a team of researchers at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Using new analytical techniques, a team led by geochemistry professor Ray Weiss made the first atmospheric measurements of nitrogen trifluoride (NF3), which is thousands of times more effective at warming the atmosphere than an equal mass of CO2. The gas is used by manufacturers of flat panel televisions, computer displays, microcircuits, and most worryingly, solar panels. Its use is growing rapidly. The researchers therefor suggest taking NF3 up into the (post-)Kyoto Protocol.

The amount of NF3 in the atmosphere, which could not be detected using previous techniques, had been estimated at less than 1,200 metric tons in 2006. But the new research shows the actual amount was 4,200 metric tons. In 2008, about 5,400 metric tons of the gas was in the atmosphere, a quantity that is increasing at about 11 percent per year.

Accurately measuring small amounts of NF3 in air has proven to be a very difficult experimental problem, but the researchers are very pleased to have succeeded in this effort, professor Weiss said. The research will be published Oct. 31 in Geophysical Research Letters, a journal of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

Emissions of NF3 were thought to be so low that the gas was not considered to be a significant potential contributor to global warming. It was not covered by the Kyoto Protocol, the 1997 agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions signed by 182 countries. However, the gas is 17,000 times more potent as a global warming agent than a similar mass of carbon dioxide and it survives in the atmosphere about five times longer than CO2. Current NF3 emissions, however, contribute only about 0.15 percent of the total global warming effect contributed by current human-produced carbon dioxide emissions. But use of the gas is increasing rapidly.

Nitrogen trifluoride is one of several gases used during the manufacture of liquid crystal flat-panel displays, thin-film photovoltaic cells and microcircuits. Many industries have used the gas in recent years as an alternative to perfluorocarbons, which are also potent greenhouse gases, because it was believed that no more than 2 percent of the NF3 used in these processes escaped into the atmosphere.

The Scripps team now analyzed air samples gathered over the past 30 years, working under the auspices of the NASA-funded Advanced Global Atmospheric Gases Experiment (AGAGE) network of ground-based stations. The network was created in the 1970s in response to international concerns about chemicals depleting the ozone layer. It is supported by NASA as part of its congressional mandate to monitor ozone-depleting trace gases, many of which are also greenhouse gases. Air samples are collected at several stations around the world. The Scripps team analyzed samples from coastal clean-air stations in California and Tasmania for this research.

The researchers found concentrations of the gas rose from about 0.02 parts per trillion in 1978 to 0.454 parts per trillion in 2008. The samples also showed significantly higher concentrations of NF3 in the Northern Hemisphere than in the Southern Hemisphere, which the researchers said is consistent with its use predominantly in Northern Hemisphere countries. The current observed rate of increase of NF3 in the atmosphere corresponds to emissions of about 16 percent of the amount of the gas produced globally.

In response to the growing use of the gas and concerns that its emissions are not well known, scientists have recently recommended adding it to the list of greenhouse gases regulated by Kyoto:
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As is often the case in studying atmospheric emissions, this study shows a significant disagreement between 'bottom-up' emissions estimates and the actual emissions as determined by measuring their accumulation in the atmosphere. From a climate perspective, there is a need to add NF3 to the suite of greenhouse gases whose production is inventoried and whose emissions are regulated under the Kyoto Protocol, thus providing meaningful incentives for its wise use. - Professor Weiss

This result reinforces the critical importance of basic research in determining the overall impact of the information technology industry on global climate change, which has already been estimated to be equal to that of the aviation industry. - Larry Smarr, director of the California Institute for Telecommunications at UCSD

Michael Prather is a UC Irvine atmospheric chemist who predicted earlier this year that based on the rapidly increasing use of NF3, larger amounts of the gas would be found in the atmosphere. Prather said the new Scripps study provides the confirmation needed to establish reporting requirements for production and use of the gas.

I'd say case closed. It is now shown to be an important greenhouse gas. Now we need to get hard numbers on how much is flowing through the system, from production to disposal. - Michael Prather

Co-authors of the paper are Scripps researchers Jens Mühle, Peter Salameh and Christina Harth.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography, at UC San Diego, is one of the oldest, largest and most important centers for global science research and education in the world. The National Research Council has ranked Scripps first in faculty quality among oceanography programs nationwide. Now in its second century of discovery, the scientific scope of the institution has grown to include biological, physical, chemical, geological, geophysical and atmospheric studies of the earth as a system. Hundreds of research programs covering a wide range of scientific areas are under way today in 65 countries. The institution has a staff of about 1,300, and annual expenditures of approximately $155 million from federal, state and private sources. Scripps operates one of the largest U.S. academic fleets with four oceanographic research ships and one research platform for worldwide exploration.

References:
Weiss, R. F., J. Muhle, P. K. Salameh, and C. M. Harth (2008), Nitrogen trifluoride in the global atmosphere, Geophys. Res. Lett., doi:10.1029/2008GL035913, in press.


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Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Researchers identify field grasses that will fuel the bioenergy era


Talk about a field of dreams. Cornell bioenergy plant experts are learning which field grasses are the best candidates for "dedicated energy" crops in the Northeast of the US, considering the region's climate and soil conditions. The experts hosted their first field day last month to give farmers, government officials, extension educators and researchers the opportunity to view stands of tall grasses that represent the future of bioenergy in the region.

The College of Agriculture and Life Sciences' (CALS) Bioenergy Feedstock Project, now in its second year, is the only project of its kind devoted to exploring the many species of field grass that grow in the Northeast and their potential as sources for bioenergy products. Earlier research has shown that polycultures of 'low impact high diversity' grassland bioenergy systems can not only yield large amounts of biomass, but also increase biodiversity and sequester carbon in soils (previous post).

The project has roughly 80 acres of different warm- and cool-season perennial grass varieties, growing in 11 counties across New York. The researchers' ultimate goal is to maximize the economic benefit of bioenergy production as an alternative energy source, said Donald Viands, professor of plant breeding and genetics, who heads the project, speaking against a colorful backdrop of a field of blue, green, lavender and beige hues, where some plants were withering, but some were some thriving.


Switchgrass, big bluestem and other wild grasses native to the United States have great potential for producing the quantity and quality of biomass needed for conversion to alternative, renewable energy, particularly biofuels, Viands said. The grass project will eventually provide farmers and producers with answers to such critical questions as which varieties of grasses to plant, appropriate seeding rates, weed control and other best-management practices to produce "quick, cheap" sugars that can be most easily liberated from the plant biomass and converted to fuel.

Hilary Mayton, extension associate and coordinator of the project, said that of the 12 varieties of switchgrass planted, some are showing a distinct advantage over others. Visitors saw how some strips of these warm-season grasses appeared stunted and unhealthy, while others were tall and vibrant. Julie Hansen, a Cornell plant breeding and genetics senior research associate, discussed trials on cool-season grasses, such as tall wheat grass and tall fescue, some of which are now commonly grown for feeding livestock:
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When the small plots and strip trial demonstration grass trials are harvested later this year, Mayton and her Cornell and private company collaborators will obtain data for both gasification (heat, power and liquid fuels) and cellulosic conversion technologies (biofuels and other byproducts) from the different types of grasses.

In the wild, many of these native perennial grasses can survive, and even thrive, on marginal land. Some of the Cornell trials were specifically planted on land that is not suitable for such domesticated, monoculture food crops as corn.

Paul Salon, a plant material specialist with the Natural Resources Conservation Service of the U.S. Department of Agriculture who is working closely with Cornell on the project, noted that the close proximity of agricultural land to major population and transportation centers in the Northeast makes this region ideal for developing bioenergy crops and industrial byproducts, which is why so much is riding on these fields of mixed greens.

The project is funded by the New York Farm Viability Institute, CALS and the Cornell Agricultural Experiment Station.


Picture 1: Extension associate Hilary Mayton discusses the future of bioenergy in the Northeast in a field of switchgrass Sept. 10. Credit: Lauren Chambliss.

Picture 2
: Cool-season perennial grass varieties have great potential for producing the quantity and quality of biomass needed for conversion to alternative, renewable energy. Credit: Lauren Chambliss.

References:

Cornell Chronicle: Which grass is greener? Project identifies Northeast grasses that will fuel bioenergy era - October 2, 2008.

Bioenergy at Cornell Univeristy's College of Agriculture & Life Sciences.

Biopact: Scientists debate benefits of low-input high-diversity grassland bioenergy systems - June 15, 2007



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No-till in trouble: increased N2O emissions offset reduced CO2 emissions in some soils


Scientists have found that the potential of no-till farming to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from soils, is offset by increased nitrous oxide emissions - at least in some soil types. Nitrous oxide (N2O) is a very potent greenhouse gas. Importantly, the results hint at the fact that biochar may be a better soil conservation strategy when the goal is reducing net emissions, because biochar has been shown to significantly slash N2O emissions in a range of soil types (previous post).

The practice of no-till has increased considerably during the past 20 years. The absence of tillage coupled with the accumulation of crop residues at the soil surface modifies several soil properties but also influence nitrogen dynamics. Soils under no-till usually host a more abundant and diverse biota and are less prone to erosion, water loss, and structural breakdown than tilled soils. Their organic matter content is also often increased. In addition, no-till has been proposed as a measure to mitigate the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentration. But to accurately assess the net effect of no-till on greenhouse gas emissions, other gases also have to be examined, in particular N2O.

Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada (Québec City) investigated the short-term impacts of no-till on soil nitrous oxide emissions. They compared emissions of nitrous oxide as well as nitrogen contents and physical properties between moldboard plowed (early fall) and no-till soils near Québec City, Canada. Measurements were made during three growing seasons in a poorly drained clay and a well-drained loamy soil cropped to barley. The results of the study were reported in the 2008 September-October issue of the Soil Science Society of America Journal (available for free for 30 days, here).

The authors concluded that their investigation indicates that there is a limited potential of no-till farming in fighting climate change:
No-till can result in incremental nitrous oxide emissions that can more than offset the soil carbon dioxide sink during the first 5 yr after adoption of this soil conservation practice in a heavy clay soil. Consequently, the potential of no-till for decreasing net greenhouse gas emissions may be limited in fine-textured soils that are prone to high water content and reduced aeration.


Differences in the response of nitrous oxide emissions when converting to a no-till practice between the clay and loam soils were striking. While emissions were similar in both tillage treatments in the well-aerated loam, they more than doubled under no-till in the clay soil (graph, click to enlarge):
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Differences in emissions between tillage practices in the clay soil were observed in spring and summer but were greater and more consistent in the fall after plowing operations. The influence of plowing on nitrous oxide flux in the heavy clay soil was likely the result of increased soil porosity that maintained soil aeration and water content at levels restricting denitrification and nitrous oxide production. Accordingly, denitrification rates are usually increased in denser and wetter no-till soils and the anticipated benefits of the adoption of soil conservation practices on net soil-surface greenhouse gas emissions could be offset by increases in nitrous oxide emissions.

Predicting the impacts of no-till on nitrous oxide emissions is required for a full assessment of the influence of this practice on net greenhouse gas emissions. Researchers at Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada are pursuing their investigations to understand the factors that control the mechanisms leading to nitrous oxide emissions under contrasting soil tillage practices.

Specifically, they now focus their efforts on the role of soil aeration with the hypothesis that the “adoption of no-till only increases nitrous oxide emissions in poorly aerated soils”. Field studies and mathematical modeling of the impact of no-till on soil nitrous oxide emission has yielded contrasting results and an explanation of the high intersite variability of the influence of no-till on soil nitrous oxide emissions is still lacking.


Graph
: Flux of N2O as a function of water-filled pore space (WFPS) in (a) a heavy clay soil and (b) a loamy soil, and difference in N2O flux between no-till (NT) and moldboard plow (MP) plots ({Delta}N2Oflux as NT – MP) as a function of difference in WFPS ({Delta}WFPS as NT –MP) in (c) a heavy clay soil and (d) a loamy soil. Credit: Rochette et al, & Soil Sci Soc Am J.

References:
Philippe Rochette, Denis A. Angers, Martin H. Chantigny and Normand Bertrand, "Nitrous Oxide Emissions Respond Differently to No-Till in a Loam and a Heavy Clay Soil", Soil Sci Soc Am J., 72:1363-1369 (2008), DOI: 10.2136/sssaj2007.0371


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Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Scientists unlock mystery of 'double fertilization'

An enigma – unique to flowering plants – has been solved by researchers from the University of Leicester (UK) and POSTECH, South Korea. The have learned how 'double fertilization' exactly works. The discovery will be reported in the journal Nature on 23 October 2008.

Scientists already knew that flowering plants, unlike animals require not one, but two sperm cells for successful fertilisation.

The mystery of this double fertilization process was how each single pollen grain could produce ‘twin’ sperm cells. One to join with the egg cell to produce the embryo, and the other to join with a second cell in the ovary to produce the endosperm, a nutrient-rich tissue, inside the seed.

Double fertilisation is essential for fertility and seed production in flowering plants so increased understanding of the process is important.

Now Professor David Twell, of the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester and Professor Hong Gil Nam of POSTECH, South Korea report the discovery of a gene that has a critical role in allowing precursor reproductive cells to divide to form twin sperm cells.

The key discovery is that this gene, known as FBL17, is required to trigger the destruction of another protein that inhibits cell division. The FBL17 gene therefore acts as a switch within the young pollen grain to trigger precursor cells to divide into twin sperm cells.

Plants with a mutated version of this gene produce pollen grains with a single sperm cell instead of the pair of sperm that are required for successful double fertilization.

Interestingly, the process employed by plants to control sperm cell reproduction was found to make use of an ancient mechanism found in yeast and in animals involving the selective destruction of inhibitor proteins that otherwise block the path to cell division:
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Removal of these blocks promotes the production of a twin sperm cell cargo in each pollen grain and thus ensures successful reproduction in flowering plants.

This discovery is a significant step forward in uncovering the mysteries of flowering plant reproduction. This new knowledge will be useful in understanding the evolutionary origins of flowering plant reproduction and may be used by plant breeders to control crossing behaviour in crop plants.
In the future such information may become increasingly important as we strive to breed superior crops that maintain yield in a changing climate. Given that flowering plants dominate the vegetation of our planet and that we are bound to them for our survival, it is heartening that we are one step closer to understanding their reproductive secrets. - Professor David Twell
Researchers at the University of Leicester are continuing their investigation into plant reproduction. Further research underway in Professor Twell’s laboratory is already beginning to reveal the answers to secrets about how the pair of sperm cells produced within each pollen grain aquires the ability to fertilize.

Prof Twell’s work, in the Department of Biology at the University of Leicester is financially supported by the UK Biotechnology and Biological Research Council (BBSRC).


Image 1: the mechanism of double fertilization. Credit: Lidwien van der Horst, Radboud University, Nijmegen.

Image 2: The image shows two pollen grains viewed by fluorescence microscopy. A pair of red sperm cells are visible in the normal pollen grain (top left) whilst only one red germ cell is present in mutant pollen (bottom right). The sperm cells are visualised using the monomeric red fluorescent protein mRFP1 derived from a coral species. Credit: Lynette Brownfield and David Twell, University of Leicester

References:
David Twell and Hong Gil Nam, - no reference online yet.


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