Thursday, November 29, 2007

Ecologists rule (well, advise)

I see (belatedly) that John Beddington is going to be the UK government chief science adviser, succeeding David King in January. Beddington is an applied ecologist - specializing in fisheries biology. He'll be the second ecologist out of the past three science advisers - King's predecessor was the legendary Bob May (who, like Beddington, used to work at Imperial College London).

Add to this behavioural ecologist John Krebs' (who, I see, now has the magnificent title of Baron Krebs, making him sound as if he should be wearing a monocle and shooting down British biplanes over the Somme) chairmanship of the Food Standards Agency, and it looks as if ecologists are doing rather well at getting their mitts on the UK's levers of power. (And Krebs and May are now both at Oxford, making it basically an Imperial-Oxford operation).

Why is that? Within science, ecology doesn't strike me as a particularly powerful discipline, in terms of its level of jobs and funding. It's a lot more quantitative than, say, cell biology, which I guess is useful in government, but that doesn't seem like much of an argument. Maybe it's just a blip - May's predecessors were a microbiologist (William Stewart) and a computer engineer (John Fairclough).

Monday, November 12, 2007

The Future of Amazonia

The current New York Review of Books has an excellent piece by John Terborgh looking at the history of development in the Brazilian Amazon, and the forest's future prospects.

Terborgh's story and his arguments are too detailed to do justice here, but this, roughly, is his conclusion:

Brazil will continue to pursue its long-cherished goal of integrating the Amazon into the national economy. Much of the forest will go. But I would be surprised to see it vanish entirely because an increasing portion of the Amazon in Brazil, and in neighboring countries, is under formal, legal protection...Short of a complete breakdown of civil authority, the Amazon won't be entirely "lost".

He then sounds a note of caution: "Unforeseen developments are likely to determine the future of th Amazon... One such unforeseen development is fire, which holds the potential to be the undoing of the Amazon." Pristine tropical forest, he say, doesn't burn. Logging changes that:

Logging synergizes fire in two ways. First, cutting down trees opens the forest canopy, admitting sunlight and drying out the leaf litter on the forest floor. Second, the debris of branches, chips, and stumps left behind by logging operations serves as fuel for any subsequent fire.

The first time a tropical forest burns, the damage can hardly be detected from above because the destruction is largely confined to saplings and small trees whose crowns lie below the canopy. But the subsequent presence of large numbers of dead trees greatly increases the fuel available to stoke the next fire. Consequently, second fires burn hotter and more destructively, killing large trees as well as practically all smaller ones. And, of course, second fires generate even more fuel for the third fire. Colleagues of mine who study this subject, notably, Carlos Peres and Jos Barlow of the University of East Anglia (UK) and William Laurance of the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama, assert that the third fire spells doom for the forest, since it kills all remaining trees.

Then, he adds, there's climate change, which will reduce rainfall, and dry the Amazon out from west to east (becasue the rain comes off the Atlantic) and threatens the 'savannaization' of the forest. In total, Terborgh's essay is all the more sobering for being balanced and unalarmist.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Do escaped transgenes persist in nature?

Of the things I get worked up over, genetically modified crops aren't that high up the list. (As an aside, I think the UK farm-scale trials of a few years back did a good job in showing that GM crops tended to reduce agricultural biodiversity, but that this was a result of the changes in farming methods associated ith them, rather than any property of the crop per se. Likewise, I think the issues around GM crops are more to do with big agribusiness controlling the food chain, loss of varietal diversity and so on, rather than that the technology is somehow immoral or that eating them is bad for you. It's striking that in places where they don't have the luxury of squeamishness about agriculture, such as India and China, GM is rather less of an issue.)

That said, I think this paper in Molecular Ecology by Suzanne Warwick et al is interesting. They show that herbicide resistance genes from oil-seed rape (Canola) have crossed into a weedy relative, Brassica rapa and set up home there (they've been there for 6 years, apparently).

"Most hybrids had the [herbicide resistance] trait, reduced male fertility, [and] intermediate genome structure", say Warwick et al. Whether they are more or less fit than the wild variety - and what consequences this has for the weediness of B. rapa - they don't say in the abstract. That's clearly something worth studying; I don't think panic is in order, but vigilance is, so well done to these researchers for playing the long game. Although by the time we find out we've created a super-weed it may be a bit late.

Thursday, November 08, 2007

Who's the queen? Ask the genes

Is the title of a piece by me in the current issue of Science looking at genetic caste determination in social insects (mostly ants, of which mostly harvester ants, with the occasional termite).

Here's the introduction:

In 1712, the English scholar Joseph Warder dedicated his treatise, The True Amazons: Or, The Monarchy of Bees, to Queen Anne, citing the caste divisions of the hive--the queen built for breeding and the workers tending her and her brood, foraging, and dying to defend their home--as evidence that nature adored royalty. But much of what entomologists have learned since then has made the lives of bees and other social insects seem closer to the American dream: Given the right nurturing--a diet of royal jelly in honeybees, or being reared at a certain temperature in some ants--any female grub in a beehive or in an ant's nest can grow up to be queen.

At least this nurture-over-nature paradigm was the prevailing wisdom, backed by theory that argued that any gene that required a developing insect to become a sterile worker would be committing evolutionary suicide. But a few years ago, social-insect research was rocked by the discovery that in some ant species, workers and queens are determined by their genes--in other words, born, not made.

Monday, November 05, 2007

Gonzo my arse

I thought John Bohannon's piece on the Libyan AIDS scandal in the November issue of Discover (can't see it online) was excellent. So I was interested to learn that he's just started a column called the Gonzo scientist over at Science.

I dimly remember a piece by Jon Turney from years ago asking where the gonzo school of science writing was. My guess is that science writers don't often get the opportunity to get deeply/improperly involved in their stories (although to a small extent I tried for ITBOAH, going off to collect vegetation samples in Costa Rica with Brian Enquist and his group. It really helped the book.). Scientists, meanwhile, have an excess of amour propre, which makes tham worried about dropping the veil of objectivity/looking like idiots.

The most honourable exception that I know of is Robert Sapolsky's A primate's memoir, which has some brilliantly funny passages (one about learning to fire tranquilizer darts from a blowgun springs to mind), in which he isn't afraid to look foolish.

So, what does Bohannon's gonzosity consist of? Well... he...(wait for it)...goes to vaguely off-beat conferences! And writes about them! At great length!

This, from the latest piece, might not be the worst line of science journalism written this year (the competition's always stiff), but...

"So those were American crayfish?" I asked, resisting an ironic smile.

Listen, sunshine. When you're in a Guatemalan brothel, having a naked fistfight with Martin Rees, after sinking a dozen temazepam and a bottle of Flor de CaƱa, then you can go around comparing yourself to Hunter S. Thompson. Until then, why not rename your column 'The wussy scientist'?