Archive for January 19th, 2011

Friends of a Feather

Friends of a Feather

Do our genes influence who we choose as comrades?

By Vanessa Schipani, Faculty of 1000, The Scientist,

[Published 17th January 2011 08:00 PM GMT]

The age-old idioms “birds of a feather flock together” and “opposites attract” might have some truth in them — along with laughter and secrets, friends may share genetic similarities, as well as some differences, according to a new study published in the January 17th issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

Wikimedia Commons, Kevin Jaako
“This paper is an invitation for people to think about the genetics of human behavior,” an area of research that has long eluded scientists, said Ting Wu, a geneticist at Harvard University, who was not involved in the study.

“Our ability to make friends and keep friends is a part of humans that makes us unique,” added James Fowler, professor of medical genetics at the University of California, San Diego and first author on the paper, yet “the biology of social networks is relatively unstudied.”

Drawing on data collected from two long-term health studies, Fowler and his team found that social networks may form from a genetic predisposition to surround ourselves with people who are like us in some ways and unlike us in others. Specifically, the researchers found that friends tend to share the DRD2 gene, which is associated with a propensity for alcoholism. Because drinkers are obviously more likely to surround themselves with people who are “slightly more likely to have a well-stocked liquor cabinet or meet you in a bar,” the finding is not all that surprising in and of itself, Fowler said. But the fact that the genetic landscape of human populations may be affected by these friendships is a new and interesting concept, he added.

As a result, studies that make associations between an individual’s genes and behaviors could be inherently biased if they don’t take into account the genotype of their subjects’ social groups. For example, if a person with the DRD2 gene hangs around people who also have DRD2 gene, that individual may be more likely to drink alcohol than if he or she associated with people who lack the gene. Thus, a study linking alcoholism and DRD2 may be skewed if it doesn’t take into account the genotypes of the subjects’ friends.

The group also found that people with the gene CYP2A6, which may be tied to the trait for open-mindedness, tended to make friends who lacked the gene. While it doesn’t make sense that open-minded people would befriend close-minded individuals, and vice versa, said Fowler, such a negative correlation could simply reflect an unconscious choice to associate with people who are genetically different from oneself. When searching for mates, for example, people are known to select for individuals with different immune systems to increase the health and survival of one’s offspring. The same idea might also apply to making friends, Fowler said. “It makes sense to be surrounded by people that get different diseases,” he said, because it may limit transmission.

But it’s just speculation at this point, he added. Though “there’s something about Mary that draws you to her,” whether for reproduction or friendship, he said, “researchers haven’t figured out what that something is.”

The group controlled for population stratification, or the likelihood that people of similar ethnicity or ancestry congregate in the same geographic area, but sociobiologist Dalton Conley of New York University said he would have liked to see controls for alcoholism as well. Being a drinker is an obvious trait that can be identified by a potential friend relatively quickly, said Conley, so it’s possible that it’s not the DRD2 gene itself, but the behavior that DRD2-positive folks are selecting. Without controlling for alcoholism, it would be impossible to know, he said.

It is the complexity of these relationships that “makes studying the genetics of human behavior so difficult,” said Conley. While studies such as these might reveal tantalizing correlations, there are many subtle factors influencing the patterns that might be overlooked.

J.H. Fowler et al., “Correlated genotypes in friendship networks,” PNAS, AOP, doi:10.1073/pnas.1011687108, 2011.

Amoeba agriculture

Amoeba agriculture

Some slime molds transport and farm the bacteria they eat

By Megan Scudellari, Faculty of 1000, The Scientist,

[Published 19th January 2011 06:00 PM GMT]

Humans, ants and numerous other species farm their food, but no microoganism has been shown to participate in agriculture, until now. For the first time, researchers have discovered that a species of social amoeba — a slime mold — carries, seeds, and harvests a crop of their bacterial diet, researchers report in this week’s issue of Nature.

D. discoideum fruiting bodies containing spores and bacteria. Credit: Scott Solomon
“This is an eye-opener,” said Jacobus Boomsma, an evolutionary biologist at the University of Copenhagen who studies insect farming societies and was not involved in the research. “I would never have imagined that things as simple as slime molds could do a primitive version of farming.”

When soil-dwelling Dictyostelium discoideum amoebas run out of nearby bacteria to eat, the social organisms group together into slugs — conglomerations of 100,000 individuals — and inch along to a new location. There, they produce a fruiting body filled with spores that are released to take up residence in different, hopefully more productive environments.

While collecting D. discoideum fruiting bodies in the wild, Debra Brock of Rice University in Houston, Texas, noticed that some appeared to contain bacteria in addition to spores. Analyzing 35 wild D. discoideum colonies, Brock and colleagues discovered that one-third of the colonies tested did not eat all of the available bacteria in their location, but instead incorporated some of them into their fruiting bodies to seed a new crop of bacteria in a new location. They christened the bacteria-harboring amoebas “farmers.” The other two-thirds of the amoebas, though the same species, were “non-farmers” — they ate all the bacteria in their current location, never transporting any along with the spores of the fruiting bodies.

“This is a bet-hedging strategy,” said Brock. “There is a definite fitness advantage in a couple of scenarios,” she said. First, in habitats with no bacteria to eat, farming amoebas that bring their bacteria with them are significantly more successful — they proliferate abundantly, while non-farmers barely survive. The farmers also thrive when grown on soil containing a variety of bacteria, suggesting that the transported bacteria were preferable to the bacteria in the soil. “It was quite surprising,” said Brock. “Just like we don?t like some foods,” the amoebas didn’t like the local bacteria, she noted.

Credit: Owen Gilbert
Yet in situations with plentiful preferred bacteria to eat, non-farmers always outperform the farmers, Brock said, likely because they eat all the bacteria in the location and have more nutrients to proliferate and produce more spores. There may be another drawback to farming, the authors pointed out: Carrying bacteria may expose farmer amoebas to harmful bacteria.

The trade-offs of farming may be why some of the clones farm while others don’t, noted Boomsma. The actual genetic or molecular differences that cause some colonies to farm while others don’t are still unknown, said Brock.

The finding suggests that farming may be a far more widespread endeavor than previously suspected. Over the last ten years, for example, researchers have also identified primitive farming societies in snails and damselfish, noted Boomsma in an accompanying News & Views article in Nature. And now there’s an example of a farming microorganism. “I wouldn’t exclude that there are more hiding out there,” he added.

Brock, D.A., et al., “Primitive agriculture in a social amoeba,” Nature, 496: 393-6, 2011. doi:10.1038/nature09668.

Experts predict climb in grizzly conflicts

Experts predict climb in grizzly conflicts

Grizzly Bear

By Laura Zuckerman, Reuters,

SALMON, Idaho | Tue Jan 18, 2011 5:07pm EST

SALMON, Idaho (Reuters) – Conflicts between people and grizzlies in the Yellowstone National Park region are likely to rise this year as more bears try to recolonize areas now inhabited by people, wildlife managers said on Tuesday.

The news comes as federal and state agencies gather beginning on Wednesday in Montana to craft measures they hope will reduce the number of grizzlies they must kill in 2011 for threatening people and livestock.

Problems between Yellowstone area grizzlies and people reached unprecedented levels last year, with bear managers in Wyoming alone grappling with an all-time high of 52 grizzly captures.

But the estimated 600 grizzlies in the park and nearby Wyoming, Montana and Idaho won’t be the focus of renewed efforts to contain conflicts.

“We can cope with the bears, now we need to work on the humans,” said Gregg Losinski, member of a federal and state task force on bear recovery.

Hunting and trapping of the outsized, hump-shouldered bears drove them to near extinction before they were added to the threatened and endangered species list in 1975.

The grizzly population in the Yellowstone region has climbed to an estimated 600, 100 more than the recovery goal.

Bear experts say more conflicts are an ironic outcome of the steady recovery of the species.

“Conflicts are a natural result of the increasing number of bears; the two go hand in hand,” said Chris Servheen, grizzly recovery coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

And scientists say those conflicts will climb as grizzlies venture into areas that made up their historic habitat.

“They used to live only in the park and wilderness areas; now they live right next door to where we live,” said Chuck Schwartz, head of the Interagency Grizzly Bear Study Team.


The comeback by Yellowstone area grizzlies is the chief reason the Obama administration wants the bears to be delisted, which opens the way for public hunting.

Dan Ashe, President Barack Obama’s pick to head the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which oversees the bulk of imperiled species, told Reuters last month that the administration “will delist the grizzly” in the Yellowstone region, predicting final action within 18 months.

With delisting — and hunting — at least a year away, bear managers say they will be stepping up campaigns at campgrounds and in communities about safeguarding food and garbage that draw bears.

And some areas in national parks and forests will require campers and trailers instead of tents, a policy that stems from a deadly campground attack last summer.

On July 28, a mother grizzly killed a camper and injured two others at a campsite for tents in a national forest in Montana. That rampage came just weeks after a grizzly mauled a hiker to death in northwestern Wyoming.

An estimated 75 Yellowstone area grizzlies were killed in 2010, many targeted by wildlife managers because of problem behavior like raiding chicken coops, rifling tents or trash at popular campsites and preying on domestic livestock.

Schwartz is eyeing a link between last year and 2008, when grizzlies experienced record mortality at a projected 79, for conflicts and for a delay in the start of spring.

In both cases, a late spring with snow still in the high country pushed bears to lower elevations for food earlier and delayed or even destroyed the crop of fruit-producing plants like huckleberries which the omnivores favor.

Yellowstone area grizzlies were delisted in 2007. Sportsmen were eager to harvest the trophy animals but states had to put hunts on hold after environmentalists gained a legal victory in 2009 that relisted the bears as threatened.

Conservation groups successfully argued the government failed to analyze the impact of climate changes on Yellowstone area grizzlies, pointing to the dwindling supply of whitebark pines and cutthroat trout bears rely on.

Scientists say a warming West is the leading cause of a sharp drop in whitebarks, high-elevation trees under assault by diseases and pests. Climate changes also play a role in the decline of cutthroat trout, which depend on cold water.

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Jerry Norton)

India plans Asian tidal power first

By Richard Black, Environment correspondent, BBC News
18 January 2011 Last updated at 10:05

Tidal turbine The Atlantis AK1000 turbine will be deployed in the Gulf of Kutch

The Indian state of Gujarat is planning to host Asia’s first commercial-scale tidal power station.

The company Atlantis Resources is to install a 50MW tidal farm in the Gulf of Kutch on India’s west coast, with construction starting early in 2012.

The facility could be expanded to deliver more than 200MW.

The biggest operating tidal station in the world, La Rance in France, generates 240MW, while South Korea is planning several large facilities.

To claim the title of “Asia’s first”, the Indian project will have to outrun developments at Sihwa Lake, a South Korean tidal barrage under construction on the country’s west coast.

Atlantis’s recent feasibility study in Gujarat concluded that the state had good potential for tidal exploitation.

“About two and a half years ago we ran a global study of tidal power resources and came up with some hotspots where resource seemed pretty well matched to load,” said Atlantis CEO Tim Cornelius.

“One of them was the Gulf of Kutch – and since then we’ve had wonderful support from the government, culminating in the annoucement that the project was going ahead,” he told BBC News.

Projections indicate that the cost of the initial 50MW farm – to consist of 50 1MW turbines – will come in at about $150m.

As much of the manufacturing as possible will take place in Gujarat, taking advantage of the skills base in India’s booming wind turbine industry.

Tide turning?The current timescale has the project’s final engineering plans completed by the end of this year, with construction commencing early next year and completing by 2013.

Map showing Gulf of Kutch

“Gujarat has significant resource in the waters of its coast, so tidal energy represents a huge opportunity for us,” said DJ Pandian, chairman and managing director of Gujarat Power Corporation.

“This project will be India’s and indeed Asia’s first at commercial scale, and will deliver important economic and environmental benefits for the region, as well as paving the way for similar developments within Gujarat.”

Tidal power is a tiny contributor to global electricity generation, even compared with other renewables.

But there is a feeling in the industry that a phase of fast expansion is beginning.

In October, a consortium including Atlantis was given the right to develop a tidal farm involving about 400 turbines in the Pentland Firth in Scotland, which as things stand would be the world’s biggest – although South Korea’s proposed Incheon barrage would come in at over 1GW.

China, and other parts of India, are also seen as productive areas in the near future.

Book Review: Walter-Echo-Hawk’s “The Ten Worst Indian Cases Ever”

James Botsford Reviews Walter-Echo-Hawk’s “Ten Worst Cases”


By James Botsford, Turtle Talk,

Finally someone has written a book that shines a light into the dark corners of the Supreme Court’s thievery of the rights of Native America. Did you ever wonder by what quiet sleight-of-hand huge dimensions of the inherent rights and cultures of Native people disappeared or were radically reduced? Turns out some of the worst damage ever done to the original people came from the highest level of the judicial branch… the Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court who historically have enjoyed (and cultivated) the perception that they are objective, neutral and above the fray of politics and ideology. Oh, if only it were true.

The book is In the Courts of the Conqueror, The 10 Worst Indian Law Cases Ever Decided. And this book isn’t written by just any old someone. It was painstakingly researched and written by Walter Echo-Hawk (Pawnee) who Vine Deloria Jr. once referred to as “the best Indian law attorney in America.” Echo-Hawk earned his chops as a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund for 35 years where he was personally involved in many of the biggest Indian rights issues of our time.

Echo-Hawk sets the bar high when it comes to intellectual honesty, cultural values and the ethics of legal analysis. From that perspective he walks us through what he believes are the ten worst Indian law cases ever decided. Scholars and activists will quibble over a few of his top ten (or is it bottom ten?), but they’ll risk missing the bigger point, which is the devastation of these decisions as they change the course of history.

Echo-Hawk could’ve selected 20 such cases, but as it is this book weighs in at a hefty 470 pages, not counting notes. You’ll get your money’s worth out of this one. The book looks thoughtfully at the context and circumstances from which these cases emerge and then gives a careful assessment of how the high court turns phrases and facts in such a way as to devastate the cultural integrity of Indian Country… well beyond the implications of the specific question before them.

To be fair one has to concede that the Court could not in all instances anticipate the scope of damage it inflicted, but as Echo-Hawk points out with clear reasoned logic there was no law or legal necessity that compelled the damage done by their decisions. In other cases, the case is solidly made that the Court is fully aware of the consequences of its decisions and actually manipulates facts and law to inflict those negative consequences anyway in order to protect other interests.

But perhaps the highest value of this thought provoking book is its intriguing analysis of what we might do to restore dignity to the legal relationship between the United States and the indigenous cultures and governments that share this country.

Is the First Amendment of any use at all to Indian people, or is it a danger to their survival? Is there any realistic hope that the U.S. will self-correct in Indian rights in a dignified way? Does the United Nations’ Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People offer any realistic hope? If so, how could that come to be?

These are the issues and discussions that make this book so uniquely valuable. There is a long conversation that must happen, and Echo-Hawk knows it from the inside. That’s why he has given us this truly important and urgent book, graciously written, as he winds down his career, to further us into that long conversation with a balanced historical assessment so that we, like he, can make this world better than the way we found it.

(The book is published by Fulcrum Publishing, 2010. James Botsford is an Indian rights attorney in Wisconsin who has co-counseled with Echo-Hawk numerous times in the past quarter century.)