Tag Archives: nature

The scientific exception: A whale of a problem

Image from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Eubalaena_glacialis_with_calf.jpgRecent news headlines have been splashed with stories of South Korea’s decision to begin issuing scientific whaling permits to its citizens. Earlier this month, South Korea publicly declared this choice; now, amid backlash, the country has indicated that it plans to reconsider.

The world over, societies have hunted whales for thousands of years. Historically, this was for the purposes of religion and survival. More recently, however, stories such as “Moby-Dick” have chronicled whaling as more a sport than a societal necessity.

In 1946, at a meeting in Washington, D.C., the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was inaugurated by nations across the globe. The purpose of the commission was to oversee and regulate whale populations, largely from the perspective of the commercial whaling industry, which had grown unsustainably large. Throughout the 20th century, however, as whale populations continued to decline, the IWC was forced to reconsider its position. In 1982, the IWC officially adopted an indefinite whaling moratorium, scheduled to go into effect in 1986. There were exceptions, however. Aboriginal societies were issued whaling permits, guaranteed as part of their cultural rights and heritage. Today, the North American Inuit population still whales for food and other heritage purposes.

BSR Issue 23 Highlights

It’s not too late to get your hands on the Spring 2012 issue of the Berkeley Science Review, released last month. Magazine racks located in front of science buildings all over campus are ready and waiting with fresh copies of the issue that will be stocked throughout the summer. If you haven’t had a chance yet to catch up with the BSR, here are a couple of snapshots of what you’ve missed.


Freeze frame: what lies beneath the permafrost

Microorganisms exist all around us, as well as in us. In fact, humans contain more bacterial cells than human cells. Entire communities of bacteria can be studied through metagenomics, the sequencing of DNA from an environmental sample directly, without first culturing each of the organisms in the sample individually. Metagenomics has been used to study bacterial communities in environments ranging from oceans to the human gut. In “Finding a Needle in the Permafrost,” Susanne Kassube reports on a recent metagenomics study of microorganisms in permafrost. First published in the journal Nature, the study reports the draft genome assembly of a previously unidentified methane-producing microorganism and analyzes changes in the abundance of genes involved in carbon and nitrogen cycling upon thaw to understand how microorganisms in permafrost could respond dynamically to climate change.

Grads give Strawberry Creek a bit of attention

This past Saturday morning, a contingent of UC Berkeley graduate students awoke extra early, donned “play” clothes, and headed to campus to spend several hours giving our very own Strawberry Creek a bit of much-needed attention.

The grads enjoyed their morning in the campus sunshine, as they socialized with each other and uprooted invasive grasses. Later, the cleared area will be replaced with native plants, as part of a continued effort to return the creek to its natural state. Right now, the plants are just seedlings, being tenderly cared for in the Native Plant Nursery, by Giannini Hall.

Problematic prions and the history of Mad Cow Disease

Well, folks, it has happened again. A dairy cow from California was recently diagnosed with bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), also known as “mad cow disease.” The cow was already at a rendering plant when the diagnosis was made and, apparently, was never headed toward our food supply. The last confirmed BSE infection in US beef was in 2006, and in total, only four cows have ever tested positive in our country’s entire beef industry. Meanwhile, in just a handful of decades, over a hundred people in the UK have gone “mad” and ultimately died from consuming BSE-tainted beef. In addition, over four million head of cattle have been culled in the UK in an effort to eradicate the problem.

The history of spongiform encephalopathy, however, begins long before the relatively recent BSE crisis — and its victims have included everything from human cannibals to farmed mink. Yet, rarely does science news cover spongiform encephalopathy beyond the context of the grilled burger patty. Burgers are indeed delicious (I prefer mine with BBQ sauce and cheddar cheese), but trust me, the history of spongiform encephalopathy as a disease is way more interesting than this one dairy cow might lead you to believe.

Circa 1920, two German doctors, Hans Gerhard Creutzfeldt and Alfons Maria Jakob, each individually identified the symptoms of spongiform encephalopathy in humans. Hence, the pathology was named Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease (CJD) in their honor. The patients that the doctors studied, however, did not develop their diseases as a result of eating tainted beef. Rather, these patients “spontaneously” developed the condition as the result of a rare (and natural!) genetic anomale.