High up on Mount Rainier in Washington, there’s a stunning view of the other white-capped peaks in the Cascade Range. But Scott Hotaling is looking down toward his feet, studying the snow-covered ground.
“It’s happening,” he says, gesturing across Paradise Glacier.
“There are so many,” says Hotaling, a biological sciences researcher at Washington State University. An estimated 5 billion ice worms can live in a single glacier.
For a long time, he says, biologists have written off high-altitude glaciers such as these as basically sterile, lifeless places. Ice worms, however, show that this fragile environment — where the glaciers are vulnerable to climate change and are retreating — is potentially far more complicated.
The National Park Service’s visitors center near Paradise Glacier, for example, has a nice display on alpine wildlife, Hotaling says, “and there is somehow nothing about ice worms. And it is a source of frustration for me.”
A research team led by Washington State University has created a computer model to understand how plants store energy in the thylakoid membrane, a key structure to photosynthesis in plant leaves.
The team confirmed the accuracy of the mathematical model with lab experiments. Their work was recently published in the journal Nature Plants. Co-authors on the study include Hans-Henning Kunz, assistant professor of biological sciences at WSU.
Figuring out how plants make adjustments to changes in environmental conditions could improve understanding of how they perform in the field and help develop new plants that can withstand rising temperatures from climate change.
The findings could have broad implications and benefits in years to come, as the model is integrated with others to learn more about how exactly photosynthesis works.
New research is providing worrying evidence that your grandparents’ exposure to toxic pollutants like DDT could increase the risk of illnesses for you and all your future offspring.
Michael Skinner, a biologist from Washington State University, studies how environmental toxicants, like DDT, affect epigenetic inheritance. That is the science of how changes to the way our DNA gets expressed can be transmitted to future generations.
He’s found the effects of DDT exposure can be passed down four generations in rodents, but said based on other studies with different animals, and with different toxic chemicals, the effects could be expected to last many more generations, and may, in fact, be permanent.
Given the effects he and other scientists have seen, Skinner said our current and ancestral exposures — to DDT and many other toxic synthetic chemicals we’ve been exposed to over the years — could be behind the rise in chronic diseases around the world today.
Fire can put a tropical songbird’s sex life on ice. Following habitat-destroying wildfires in Australia, researchers found that many male red-backed fairywrens failed to molt into their red-and-black ornamental plumage, making them less attractive to potential mates. They also had lowered circulating testosterone, which has been associated with their showy feathers.
“Really, it ended up all coming down to testosterone. There’s no evidence that the birds were actually stressed. Wildfire was just interfering with their normal, temporal pattern of elevating testosterone and then producing that colorful plumage,”Jordan Boersma, study lead author and doctoral student in biology at Washington State University.
In an earlier study, Boersma and his colleagues showed that testosterone helps the fairywren process pigments in their diet called carotenoids to create their colorful feathers. This study adds further evidence of that connection as well as the birds’ response to wildfire.
A research team led by Washington State University scientists analyzed the epigenetics—molecular factors and processes that determine whether genes are turned on or off—of a group of Poecilia mexicana fish, or Atlantic molly, that live in springs naturally high in hydrogen sulfide, which is normally toxic to most organisms.
“After two generations in laboratory conditions, the fish generally retained their same epigenetic marks, which was really unexpected,” said Joanna Kelley, WSU associate professor of evolutionary genomics and a corresponding author on the study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. “In an evolutionary context, the study shows that these epigenetic marks are fairly stable.”
For this study, Kelley collaborated with WSU environmental epigenetics and reproductive biologist Michael Skinner, to do the epigenetic analysis. The researchers raised a sample of sulfidic and non-sulfidic fish in freshwater environments. When the fish produced two generations of offspring, they measured their epigenetic similarities, specifically regions of DNA methylation, a type of chemical modification that can regulate gene expression, turning a gene on or off, without changing the DNA sequence string itself.