Thomas R. O'Donnell

Posts Tagged ‘National Science Foundation’

Run, run reindeer: Climate change, other factors sap herd

In University research on December 21, 2016 at 2:27 pm
Reindeer on the run in Norway.

Reindeer on the run in Norway. Photo credit: zetson Running via photopin (license).

It was inevitable, given the timing, that Andrey Petrov’s latest research would get some unusual treatment.

At the Fall Meeting of the American Geophysical Union in San Francisco last week, Petrov presented a report showing that one of the world’s largest reindeer herds is contracting. After reaching a peak population of around a million in 2000, the pack has fallen to around 600,000 in the Taimyr Peninsula, its home territory and one Russia’s northernmost parts.

With Christmas just days away, some websites relayed the news with a tongue-in-cheek approach.

At Gizmodo, the headline was “400,000 Reindeer Vanish in Ongoing War on Christmas.”

LiveScience introduced its piece with “Santa’s Reindeer Feel the Heat as Numbers Shrink Worldwide.” The lead goes on with “Santa Claus better stock up on reindeer, because he may have trouble scrounging up replacements in the not-too-distant future, new research suggests,” before continuing with a serious and thorough report.

The BBC, meanwhile, played it straight.

I’ll admit: the Christmas time peg is one reason I’m also jumping on this study. But there are serious reasons and ramifications for the worldwide reindeer decline. Read the rest of this entry »

Those wild and crazy snails are back, with lessons about sex

In University research on April 27, 2016 at 11:50 am
 In a study involving multiple generations of a freshwater snail in New Zealand, researchers at the University of Iowa found that polyploidy doesn't appear to be an asset—nor is it a drawback—for females bearing offspring without the help of a male. Instead, it's the snails' sexuality that creates the advantage: Asexual females, the study found, grew twice as fast during the late juvenile phase and reached reproductive maturity 30 percent faster than female snails that mated with males. Photo by Justin Torner.

In their cups: University of Iowa researchers grew multiple generations of tiny freshwater snails in the lab to study whether having multiple genomes provides advantages. Photo by Justin Torner from the U of I news website.

The snails are back. Or more precisely, researchers using snails as a model to understand the biological benefits of sexual reproduction are back with results.

I wrote about the research about two years ago, when conservative news outlets began ridiculing an $876,000 National Science Foundation grant to study “snail sex.” Two University of Iowa researchers, Maurine Neiman and John Logsdon, were among those receiving the grant.

Although multiple conservative outlets had reported and commented on the grant, none had asked the researchers to explain its significance. I was the first writer to contact them for any more than a cursory question. To me it was an example of a gap in science reporting in Iowa and conservative bias against government spending.

The bottom line: The tiny New Zealand snails are good models to study the evolutionary benefits of sexual reproduction, the true purpose of the study. The snails, Potamopyrgus antipodarum, have two genetic lines, one that reproduces sexually and another asexually, allowing the scientists to compare their genes for signs of advantages or disadvantages to sex.

Now results are coming out of this and related snail research, and the results are surprising. Sex and its biology, it turns out, aren’t as simple as scientists thought. Read the rest of this entry »

This biotech discovery could help malnourished millions; plus a rare earth landmark and a distant dirty river

In University research on December 6, 2015 at 12:02 pm
Arabadopsis thaliana.

Arabadopsis thaliana. © Marie-Lan Nguyen / Wikimedia Commons, via Wikimedia Commons.

For many people, running low on protein is an easily corrected annoyance. For instance, new vegetarians who fail to replace the protein meat once provided can feel sluggish, weak and brain-fogged.

For those with the means, a cure is quick: a dose of some kind of protein, whether animal or vegetable.

Unfortunately, millions of children and adults in poorer countries don’t have the means. For them, prolonged protein deficiency can mean retardation, organ damage and death.

Two Iowa State University professors have a possible solution, thanks to an unusual gene found in a common plant. The question is whether the very countries that could most benefit from the high-protein grain the gene produces will permit it.

Elsewhere in this month’s roundup: Honoring a rare earths pioneer, and the University of Northern Iowa plans to study one of the world’s most polluted rivers – in one of the world’s most beautiful regions. Read the rest of this entry »

Cold facts: UNI-led effort probes Arctic sustainability

In University research on March 10, 2014 at 10:07 am
UNI Geography Professor Andrey Petrov, in furry hat and gloves, holds a piece of Lake Baikal ice in front of his face  during his most recent Siberian visit.

UNI Professor Andrey Petrov hold a piece of Lake Baikal during his recent Siberian visit. Credit: Andrey Petrov.

When I contacted Andrey Petrov a week ago, he was returning from the Irkutsk region of Siberia.

The University of Northern Iowa geography professor makes frequent visits to Siberia and other similarly remote – and cold – regions, including Canada’s Yukon Territory and northern Russia. This time he was interviewing residents of villages and towns near Lake Baikal about the region’s reindustrialization. In the last century the area had seen an inflow of industry that went bust. Now it’s rising again, thanks to the search for oil.

“Unfortunately, it’s warmer there than here,” Petrov said from Cedar Falls on Monday, when the thermometer was scraping to get above zero Fahrenheit. “It was pretty sunny there and it was probably 20s. … For them it’s warmer than usual.”

The extreme conditions and isolation are some of the reasons Petrov, a native Russian, returns to places like Irkutsk and Yellowknife. “I’m fascinated with the resilience of people living in difficult conditions,” he says, but the challenges facing Arctic communities go beyond the weather and distance.

Those challenges are the subject of a new project Petrov directs. Headquartered at UNI, the five-year program, supported with nearly $750,000 of National Science Foundation money, will knit researchers from multiple institutions around the globe’s northern regions. Their goal: understanding Arctic communities and how they can enhance their development, health and well being while preserving societies and ecosystems.

It’s a big job. Five years won’t be enough, Petrov says. Read the rest of this entry »

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