Tag Archives: Janet Fang

What’s Happening To The Flowers At Fukushima?

July 23, 2015 | by Janet Fang

photo credit: raneko/Flickr CC BY 2.0.

It’s been over four years since an earthquake and subsequent tsunami struck the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, releasing radiation out into the environment. Asrobot-led investigations and cleanup efforts grind on, research teams from around the world have been studying the impacts of the contamination on wildlife, both in the short term and for years to come.

In 2014, we learned that the lifespans and population sizes of certain bird and butterfly species have dropped. Some also showed signs of abnormal growths and growth rates: atypical feathers on barn swallows, for example, and smaller forewings on pale grass blue butterflies. Meanwhile, irradiated monkeys exhibited low red and white blood cell counts. However, for each of these sorts of conclusions, there’s also news of animals adapting. Some bird species living in the exclusion zone around Chernobyl, for instance, aren’t just coping – they appear to be benefiting.

And what about plants? A genetic analysis of rice seedlings exposed to radiation near Fukushima revealed changes to DNA repair mechanisms and the induction of genes involved in cell death. Near Chernobyl, dead trees and fallen leaves aren’t decaying (even decades later) because radiation inhibited the microbial decomposers.

Then there’s this. Back in May, Twitter user @san_kaido from Nasushiobara posted this striking photo:

According to International Business Times, the tweet reads: “The right one grew up, split into 2 stems to have 2 flowers connected each other, having 4 stems of flower tied belt-like. The left one has 4 stems grew up to be tied to each other and it had the ring-shaped flower. The atmospheric dose is 0.5 μSv/h at 1m above the ground.”

They might look like deformed victims of a nuclear disaster, but these daisies are likely the result of a rare, but natural condition called fasciation, or crested growth. This can happen when the parts of a growing embryo fuse abnormally, resulting in a flattened-looking stem. And oftentimes, flowers and leaves will develop unusual shapes and show up at odd angles to that stem. As gardeners will tell you, fasciated plants are not exclusive to disaster sites. The causes of this condition range from infections and severe pruning to hormonal imbalances and (run-of-the-mill) genetic mutations.

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Ancient Virus Revived From 700-Year-Old Caribou Feces

Sounds like something stupid to start a zombie apocalypse movie…

October 28, 2014 | by Janet Fang

photo credit: An ice core containing ancient caribou feces. Caribou DNA, digested plants, and viruses were frozen within layers of ice for thousands of years, enabling researchers to detect the genomes of ancient viruses / Brian Moorman

Researchers have reconstituted a viral genome from centuries-old caribou feces frozen in the subarctic, and they’ve used the ancient viruses to infect lab plants. The findings, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences this week, offer a rare glimpse of viral evolution.

Ancient viruses provide snapshots of past diversity and a way to trace viral evolution, but their concentrations are low and intact samples are rarely successfully isolated from the environment. Cryogenically preserved samples in nature may be an untapped repository of preserved ancient viral genetic material.

A team led by Eric Delwart from the University of California, San Francisco, analyzed viral genetic material contained in an ice core obtained by drilling through layers of accumulated caribou feces up to 4,000 years old in a permanent ice patch in the Northwest Territories of Canada. Caribou gather on ice patches to escape pesky flying insects and heat in the summertime. After eating nearby veggies, they deposit feces that contain their DNA, partially digested plant material, as well as viruses—which can remain frozen for millennia. Here’s an aerial photograph of one such caribou congregation:

From a 700-year-old layer of the ice core, the team isolated the complete small circular genome of a DNA virus that was distantly related to plant and fungi-infecting viruses today. They named it aCFV, for ancient caribou feces associated virus. They also isolated a partial viral RNA genome that was related to an insect-infecting virus. They call this one Ancient Northwest Territories cripavirus, or aNCV.

These never-before-seen viruses either originated in plants eaten by caribou or insects attracted to fecal matter, and they were preserved at constant freezing temperatures within protective viral capsids.

The team used a “reverse genetic approach” to reconstitute the genome of the DNA virus. Then, to confirm that the virus infects plants, they inoculated the tobacco relative Nicotiana benthamianawith the ancient viral DNA. The inoculated plants displayed evidence of infection: The DNA virus replicated and systemically spread in the inoculated leaves (orange arrow) as well as their newly emerging leaves (white arrow).

As far as Delwart can tell, these viruses aren’t dangerous, NPR reports. But as the climate warms and more ice melts, more caribou poo infected with ancient viruses might be making its way into the modern ecosystem.

Images: Brian Moorman (top), Glen MacKay (middle), Li-Fang Chen (bottom)




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