Man-made genetic material escapes labs into water supplies

7 January 2013

During 2012 Droplets cautioned about the need to consider all the nasties that can get into raw potable water supplies from wastewater (sewage) discharges – a source of both human and industrial chemicals and pharmaceuticals.  For some time, sci-fi and futuristic stories have made use of the theme of man-made organisms and drugs escaping from the laboratory into the environment.  A report from China indicates that this has already happened (Environmental Science and Technology , reported in Nature 492).

Researchers have apparently found man-made genetic elements in microorganisms sampled from six rivers.  This “lab waste” – which should only be disposed of under the most stringent and controlled conditions, can lead to increased resistance to antibiotics.

These days we read more and more about illegal dumping of medical waste and drug products – irresponsible disposal of genetic material takes this to another level. Read more »

Amphibians best ‘surrogates’ for freshwater conservation planning

5 January 2013

New research from members of the BioFresh team has found that amphibians are the best group of animals to act as ‘surrogates’ for freshwater conservation planning.

There is plenty of information out there about the patterns and predictors of biodiversity on land. But the picture gets a little murkier when we dive beneath the surface into freshwater ecosystems. While many freshwater species and ecosystems are among the most threatened in the world, global conservation priorities have, to a large extent, overlooked freshwater ecosystems. Yet without sufficient information, effective conservation planning and actions are made all that much more difficult.

Photo: WWF/TNC
Photo: WWF/TNC

That’s why BioFresh is so passionate about making as much information about freshwater ecosystems, and the creatures that live within them, as open and accessible to scientists, policy-makers and practitioners as possible. And new research from members of the BioFresh team has shed some light on the situation for freshwater ecosystems.

Their research, which appeared in the Journal of Animal Ecology in a paper titled ‘Global diversity patterns and cross-taxa convergence in freshwater ecosystems’, analysed for the first time the global distribution of five different freshwater animal groups or taxa across 819 river basins around the world. The taxa investigated were aquatic mammals, aquatic birds, freshwater fish, crayfish, and amphibians. The study looked at how environmental factors drive biodiversity patterns at the river basin level and tested the ‘convergence hypothesis’, which takes the view that the environment drives evolution in a predictable direction (i.e. the same causes should produce the same effects).

Golden Tree Frog. Photo: Creative Commons
Golden Tree Frog. Photo: Creative Commons

The study found that species richness and endemism patterns are significantly correlated and that contemporary climate, history and area are the main factors in explaining species richness and endemism patterns for most of the taxa at the river basin scale. In addition, and importantly, the research also found that amphibians, and then freshwater fish, display the highest level of congruency with other groups (taxa) of animals.

BioFresh member and co-author of the study Thierry Oberdorff, explains just why the results have potentially important implications for global freshwater conservation planning: “as most of the examined taxa display convergent patterns, one taxon can be used to predict patterns for the others.” This is significant because by using one group of animals, such as amphibians, to base conservation planning around may be the best and most cost-effective means of protecting the largest number of species, and broader freshwater ecosystems, in the resource-constrained world of conservation. And, says Oberdorff, the research suggests that ”as amphibians and fishes display the  highest levels of congruency with other taxa, these two taxa appear to be good ‘surrogate’ candidates for developing global freshwater conservation planning at the river drainage basin scale.” In addition, because amphibians are considered highly threatened and have previously been listed as potential surrogates in terrestrial ecosystems, the use of amphibians to represent spatial patterns of  biodiversity may also help unify terrestrial and freshwater conservation efforts under a common framework.

You can read more about amphibians in our 6-part amphibian special feature.

The reference for the BioFresh paper is: Tisseuil C. et al. 2012, ‘Global diversity patterns and cross-taxa convergence in freshwater ecosystems’, Journal of Animal Ecology.

(BlogPost reproduced with the kind permission of BioFresh).

EPA fiddles while algae bloom…

3 January 2013

Latest chapter in EPA’s epic dithering over algae


dog in algae.jpg

You would think that the EPA would be eager to seize hold of opportunities to deal with a massive pollution debacle it characterizes as “one of America’s most widespread, costly, and challenging environmental problems.”   We’d hoped so too.  That’s why a number of environmental groups, primarily ones based in the Mississippi River basin, submitted two petitions to EPA laying out a proposed path forward for checking the spread of toxic green mats of algae that are choking our nation’s waterways and creating a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico bigger than some states.

Sadly, EPA’s response to the petitions has only served to highlight its paralysis in the face of this challenge.  Following on its denial last year of the first petition, which NRDC has sued over, EPA two weeks ago denied the second petition as well.

While the first petition called on EPA to use its standard-setting authority to limit the concentration of algae-fueling pollutants – nitrogen and phosphorus – in lakes, rivers, and streams, the second petition called on it to limit discharge of those pollutants by one of their major sources:  sewage treatment plants.  The petition pointed out that the Clean Water Act requires EPA “from time to time” to take a look at what kind of pollution removal can be achieved by secondary treatment, meaning the biological systems that treatment plants use to clean up sewage before discharging it back into waterways.  Last time EPA did that was in 1985. Although the Act doesn’t define exactly what “from time to time” means, we’re pretty sure it means something other than once every 30 or so years.  Particularly since, in the intervening time, the technology has evolved to the point where it can be used to pretty effectively remove significant amounts of nitrogen and phosphorus from the treated sewage.  In its response, EPA claimed it lacked sufficient information to say what kind of nitrogen and phosphorus removal secondary treatment can achieve – even though NRDC had provided it in the petition with extensive technical information regarding the capability of the technology, and invited EPA if it disagreed to perform its own analysis on this pretty important subject.  What was really ironic, though, was the Agency’s blithe assertion that a better way to deal with the problem would be through permits for individual sewage plants, linked to water quality standards for their particular receiving waters – when it had just finishedrefusing to set water quality standards in response to our other petition.

motor in algae.jpgThis head-in-the-sand response is merely the latest chapter, unfortunately, in the history of EPA’s epic-scale dithering over the nation’s growing algae problem.  The Agency has known about the huge and growing Gulf “dead zone,” the result of decomposing algae sucking oxygen out of the Gulf waters, since the 1980s.  EPA even said in 1998 that if states did not immediately act to establish standards for nitrogen and phosphorus, it would take charge and do so itself – but never followed through.  And not long after that Lake Erie began to turn green again with the reappearance of slimy, malodorous mats of algae.  (The poor condition of Lake Erie was actually referenced in the original 1971 version of Dr. Seuss’s iconic story of the doomed humming fish, but removed when the lake’s condition improved.)  The problem now threatens Lake Michigan and countless other water bodies throughout the nation, annually ruining recreation, driving up drinking water treatment costs, and in some cases killing pets and threatening human health with its toxic by-products.  EPA, although frequently acknowledging the problem, for all those years has done little more than paint a caricature-quality portrait of bureaucratic paralysis, periodically emerging from hiding to issue yet another “urgent call” for more meetings, study, and collaboration.

child in algae.jpg

EPA has been so paralyzed, in fact, that it didn’t even respond to our petitions for years.  We sent the sewage pollution petition in 2007, and finally had to sue the agency this year in federal district court to get a response.  The Agency didn’t respond to the water quality standards petition, sent in 2008, until we threatened a similar lawsuit.

It’s unfortunate that NRDC and our partners need to relentlessly pressure EPA to take basic steps to address an environmental problem that the Agency itself has identified as costly and massive.  But that’s what we’ll continue to do as long as need be.   Because it’s been pretty well established that dithering over algae is not going to make it go away.

(sound familiar in your country…?)

Article by Ann Alexander, NRDC, reproduced with permission.  Photos by Amy Goerwitz


At the bird feeder…

1 January 2013

Its hot, dry and windy in our part of the world right now – and our small orchard provides a cool haven for hundreds of birds – we have four species of sunbirds as part of a total of thirty-odd varieties currently “in residence” – with most of them with their children in tow.

Competition can be pretty fierce at times…

…with tempers frayed and feathers ruffled…

…but with sharing, ultimately, being the best option…

…while others look on in amazement and find it all quite “beneath them” (Photos: Bill Harding)