Julia Whitty

Julia Whitty

Environmental Correspondent

Julia is an award-winning author of fiction and nonfiction (Deep Blue Home, The Fragile Edge, A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga), and a former documentary filmmaker. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

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Julia is a writer and former documentary filmmaker and the author of The Fragile Edge: Diving & Other Adventures in the South Pacific, winner of a PEN USA Literary Award, the John Burroughs Medal, the Kiriyama Prize, the Northern California Books Awards, and finalist for the Dayton Literary Peace Prize, and Deep Blue Home: An Intimate Ecology of Our Wild Ocean. Her short story collection A Tortoise for the Queen of Tonga won an O. Henry and was a finalist for the PEN Hemingway Award. She also blogs at Deep Blue Home.

Malaria Cure for Mom Risks Child's Immunity

| Fri Feb. 24, 2012 3:06 PM EST

Life cycle of malaria.

Being born with immunity to the diseases prevalent in your 'hood because you inherited the antibodies from your mother (who suffered and survived the disease) is an important factor in human survival and adaptability This is especially true in places where you're likely to be reinfected with the same disease/parasite multiple times in your lifetime.

But what happens if you treat the mother for the infection? Will her children inherit maternal immunity? The evidence remains inconclusive as to whether treating human moms for malaria improves the survival rate of their kids. But a new study in mice shows: not so much.

The paper in Proceedings of the Royal Society B finds that:

  • Baby mice born to moms who had been infected by malaria had their mortality reduced by 75 percent compared to babies born to moms who had never been infected with malaria and had no antibodies to confer. 
  • Baby mice born to infected moms treated with antimalarial drugs received fewer maternal antibodies and consequently died at a rate 25 percent higher than babies born from infected, untreated moms.

The authors write:

We observed the same qualitative patterns across three different host strains and two parasite genotypes. This study...highlights a potential trade-off between the health of mothers and offspring, suggesting that anti-parasite treatment may significantly affect the outcome of infection in newborns.

I wrote in an earlier post how rising global temperatures are likely drive malaria into 'hoods where it doesn't live now. 

The open-access paper:

  • Vincent Staszewski, Sarah E. Reece, Aidan J. O'Donnell, and Emma J. A. Cunningham. Drug treatment of malaria infections can reduce levels of protection transferred to offspring via maternal immunity. Proc. R. Soc. B 2012 : rspb.2011.1563v1-rspb20111563.


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DIY Weather Records

| Thu Feb. 23, 2012 3:17 PM EST

 Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012.: Wundergound

Record extreme temperatures for 1-23 February 2012: WundergoundWundergound has launched a cool new tool today called Record Extremes that lets you see and sort US and international records for temperature, rainfall, and snowfall set on a map and a table.

The image above is one I generated for the month of February (so far: 1-23 Feb 2012), looking at daily-maximum-high-temp records and all-time-max-high-temp records for the lower 48. It returned 450 record highs plotted on the map, plus a list of each record in a table format (not shown).

The site is a lot more interactive than this screen save. You can click on each record on the map and see its stats, then zoom in for a closer look.

Many of the icons on the map above are actually bundles of several records in close proximity. As you can see, it's been a record-breaking February in the US, with some places breaking multiple records (gray icons).

As for the data behind the tool, here's what Angela Fritz at WunderBlog writes:

The product uses data from three sources: (1) NOAA's National Climate Data Center [NCDC], (2) Wunderground's US records, and (3) Wunderground's International records. The NCDC records begin in 1850 and include official NOAA record extreme events for... weather stations in all 50 US states as well as Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, and the Pacific Islands. In this database you can find records for maximum high temps, minimum high temps, maximum low temps, minimum high temps, snow, and precipitation on daily, monthly, and all-time scales.


Human Superbug Started On Farms

| Wed Feb. 22, 2012 5:37 PM EST
Pigs in a factory farm.

It's long been suspected that administering large amounts of antibiotics to livestock promotes antibiotic resistance.

Now a new paper in mBio describes how a particularly nasty strain of MRSA—the CC398 strain found primarily in pigs but also in cattle and poultry—likely did that. 

Sequencing the genomes of 88 closely-related strains of S. aureus, the researchers found the CC398 strain likely originated as a harmless bacterium living in humans, which acquired antibiotic resistance only after it migrated into livestock. From there it migrated back to humans, where it now causes skin infections and sepsis, mostly in farm workers.

So far the strain has not evolved the ability to transmit between humans.

From the paper:

The CC398 strain of MRSA, which appeared in 2003, is now commonplace in US livestock. 

Modern food animal production is characterized by densely concentrated animals and routine antibiotic use, which may facilitate the emergence of novel antibiotic-resistant zoonotic pathogens. Our findings strongly support the idea that livestock-associated MRSA CC398 originated as MSSA in humans. The jump of CC398 from humans to livestock was accompanied by the loss of phage-carried human virulence genes, which likely attenuated its zoonotic potential, but it was also accompanied by the acquisition of tetracycline and methicillin resistance. Our findings exemplify a bidirectional zoonotic exchange and underscore the potential public health risks of widespread antibiotic use in food animal production.

Last month the FDA announced new restrictions on antibiotics in livestock. But New Scientists reports these rules cover only 0.2 percent of antibiotics used on farms in the US.

The paper:

  • Price LB, et al. 2012. Staphylococcus aureus CC398: host adaptation and emergence of methicillin resistance in livestock. mBio 3(1):e00305-11. doi:10.1128/mBio.00305-11.

Image-of-the-Week: Boozy Fruit Flies

| Fri Feb. 17, 2012 3:07 PM EST

 Credit: David Marquina Reyes via Flickr.

Credit: David Marquina Reyes via Flickr.

Fruit flies live on fruit, and a lot of fruit rots and ferments, so that fruit flies also live to some extent on alcohol. A new paper in Current Biology reports on whether this boozy lifestyle contributes anything besides slurred flight, impromptu couplings, and fruit fights (okay, I made that part up). What they found was that having an elevated blood alcohol was the best defense against a parasitic wasp that lays its eggs in their bloodstream. In lab tests, researchers from Emory U in Georgia found the larvae of infected fruit flies self-medicated with booze (the first ever case for an insect) equivalent in alcohol to beer, and that boozers survived infestation better than teetotalers... To the holidays—all 365 of them.

Exxon Valdez Oil Walloping Mom and Pup Sea Otters

| Thu Feb. 16, 2012 3:59 PM EST

 Sea otter nursing pup.: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

Sea otter nursing pup: Mike Baird via Wikimedia Commons.

A new paper in MEPS reports on the strong lingering effects of oil on sea otters in western Prince William Sound from the Exxon Valdez disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of birds and thousands of marine mammals 23 years ago.

The researchers report that exposure to oil has hardly ended—and the likelihood of exposure is highest for mothers with pups than any other members of the otter population.

Although initial assessments found the Exxon Valdez oil decayed quickly and therefore was of little consequence long-term to wildlife, these assessments have not held up in the long term. From the paper:

[C]ontrary to claims of rapid recovery and limited long-term effects, ample evidence accumulated in the decades since the spill has demonstrated that not all injured species and ecosystems recovered quickly, with protracted recovery particularly evident in nearshore food webs... Sea otter population recovery rates in heavily oiled western [Prince William Sound] were about half those expected, and in areas where oiling and sea otter mortality were greatest, there was no evidence of recovery through 2000.

Click for larger image: James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523James L. Bodkin, et al. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523

To get a better sense of why this might be, the researchers recorded the foraging behavior of 19 sea otters in waters where lingering oil and delayed ecosystem recovery have been well documented. They found that while otters can forage up to 302 feet (92 meters) deep, much foraging takes place in the more heavily-oiled waters of the intertidal zone. Here's how that breaks down:

  • Between 5 and 38% of all foraging was in the intertidal zone.
  • On average female sea otters made 16,050 intertidal dives per year.
  • 18% of the females' dives were at depths above the 262-foot-deep (0.80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.
  • Males made 4,100 intertidal dives per year.
  • 26% of male intertidal foraging took place at depths above the 262-foot-deep (80-meter-deep) tidal elevation.  

Joe Robertson via Wikimedia CommonsJoe Robertson via Wikimedia Commons

Overall, estimated annual oil encounter rates ranged from up to 24 times a year, with a conservative average of 10 times a year for females and 4 times for males.

Worrisomely, exposure rates increased in spring when intertidal foraging rates doubled and when females were nursing small pups. The problem apparently arises most from the otters' habitat of digging in intertidal and subtidal sediment for clams:

Exposure levels [to oil] cannot be quantified, and the biological and ecological consequences of the exposure that results from the identified [clam-eating] path are difficult to assess and largely remain unknown. However, we now know that variation in individual and seasonal dive patterns means that some sea otters are much more likely to be exposed to oil than others. We also know that most exposure comes at a time of year when most adult females are giving birth, and that pups have few mechanisms to avoid or mitigate exposure to oil. 

The open-access paper:

  • Bodkin JL, Ballachey BE, Coletti HA, Esslinger GG and others (2012) Long-term effects of the 'Exxon Valdez' oil spill: sea otter foraging in the intertidal as a pathway of exposure to lingering oil. MEPS. DOI:10.3354/meps09523


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