OH Digest: CRISPR and dogs with muscular dystrophy, venom to treat medical conditions, and more

OH Digest: CRISPR and dogs with muscular dystrophy, venom to treat medical conditions, and more

Researchers have used CRISPR gene-editing software to treat dogs with muscular dystrophy. (Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/mo01229/)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

CRISPR used to repair gene mutation in dogs with muscular dystrophy
The Wall Street Journal, August 30, 2018
Researchers at UT Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas and the Royal Veterinary College in London have tackled Duchene muscular dystrophy in dogs by repairing the gene mutation with CRISPR gene-editing. This method could eventually treat the same disease in humans.

Beavers—once nearly extinct—could help fight climate change
National Geographic, August 24, 2018
Beavers play an important role not only in ecosystems and have a wide-ranging effect on our landscapes and economy. As climate change intensifies, beavers could serve as “ecological and hydrological Swiss army knives.”

How animal venoms are helping to treat a wide range of medical conditions
Live Science, August 31, 2018
While we rightfully avoid venomous animals, it turns out components of their venom can treat an array of medical conditions including chronic pain, diabetes, and epilepsy, according to a new article published in Science.

Despite many threats, some coral reefs are thriving
Scientific American, September 9, 2018
Almost half of the Great Barrier Reef is threatened by bleaching. What can researchers and communities do to protect these reefs, as well as reefs that continue to thrive against all odds?

Toxic red tide algae moves north near Tampa Bay, killing hundreds of thousands of fish
The Washington Post, September 9, 2018
Tampa Bay’s toxic algae bloom has moved north along the coastline, leaving behind worrying numbers of dead fish, turtles, dolphins, and even sharks.

A deadly pig disease raging in China is bound to spread to other Asian countries, experts warn
Science, September 10, 2018
Animal health experts warn that an August outbreak of African swine fever will spread from northeast China to other Asian countries. There is no cure for ASF, and though the disease cannot infect humans, it’s almost always universally fatal for pigs.

OH Digest: Gene drive mosquitoes, the extinction crisis, and more

OH Digest: Gene drive mosquitoes, the extinction crisis, and more

Scientists are set to release “gene drive” mosquitoes, which could control mosquito populations in Africa. (Photo credit: James Gathany, courtesy of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention)

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

Researchers to release genetically engineered mosquitoes in Africa for the first time
Scientific American, September 5, 2018
“Gene drive” mosquitoes, which have mutations that would efficiently reduce mosquito populations, will be released in three African countries: Burkina Faso, Mali, and Uganda.

The bugs are coming, and they’ll want more of our food
The New York Times, August 30, 2018
Climate change–induced warming is set to increase the number of bugs that consume our crops, according to a recent study published in Science.

The world of an oyster: Scientists are using microphones to spy on reef life
NPR, September 4, 2018
Scientists use water cannons to create reef-like habitats for oysters. But what impact does this have on overall biodiversity?

Eight bird species are first confirmed avian extinctions this decade
The Guardian, September 4, 2018
The extinctions appear to result from an increasingly worrisome crisis. Scientists warn that this is part of a human-driven sixth great extinction.

How plant microbes could feed the world and save endangered species
Science News, September 6, 2018
Each plant has its own microbiome, and scientists are exploring how to use them to help endangered plants.

With limited funds for conservation, researchers spar over which species to save—and which to let go
Science, September 6, 2018
Scientists are making tough decisions about allocating funds to save certain species—but this also involves deciding when a species is too far gone to even try.

OH Digest: A fatal pig virus, floating farms, and more

OH Digest: A fatal pig virus, floating farms, and more

African swine fever threatens to impact agriculture in China, the world’s biggest pork producer. (Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Neil Turner)

Our weekly round-up compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

By Jacob Williamson-Rea

Can China, the world’s biggest pork producer, contain a fatal pig virus? Scientists fear the worst
Science, August 21, 2018
An outbreak of African swine fever has emerged in China. Four provinces in the country’s northeast have reported the virus, which poses a serious threat to the largest pork producer in the world. ASF does not harm humans, but causes internal bleeding, high fever, and death in pigs. Farm workers can spread the disease via contaminated equipment and clothing.

The world’s first floating farm making waves in Rotterdam
BBC, August 17, 2018
Cities may not seem like ideal farm locations, but a Dutch company has built a floating one in a city port. The idea is to reduce the distance between production of the produces and tables where it’s eaten, which limits transport pollution.

Should you get an amber collar for your pet? Probably not.
Slate, August 20, 2018
Several pet companies have released amber collars for pets, claiming the collars will repel ticks and fleas. But might this “natural” solution put pets at greater risk?

Plan bee: The rise of alternative pollinators
The New York Times, August 21, 2018
Honeybees, or Apis mellifera, face consistent threats from pesticides and other problems. As the species’ population declines, farmers are turning to other pollinators, such as the bumblebee or blue orchard bee.

How do you save fish that can’t swim? This vet made them tiny floaties.
The Washington Post, August 23, 2018
A veterinarian designed a unique solution after noticing Leafy Sea dragons struggling to stay afloat at an aquarium.

The battle for the soul of biodiversity
Scientific American, August 23, 2018
As plants and animals disappear at an alarming rate, researchers warn that we’re heading towards a mass extinction. However, an organization tasked with slowing climate change and another with addressing the impending mass extinction can’t seem to reach an agreement.

Pro tips from Penn’s gardeners

Pro tips from Penn’s gardeners

Cole Jadrosich and Lila Bhide of Facilities and Real Estate Services care for edible growing spaces around campus, including the Penn Community Garden. (Photo: Scott Spitzer)

By Katherine Unger Baillie

Gardening as a pastime can seem so relaxing, even meditative—hands working the soil, communing with nature—yet it also has its share of frustrations: seeds that fail to germinate, plants that wither as temperatures rise, pests of every variety bent on decimating crops before harvest time.

Lila Bhide, coordinator of the University of Pennsylvania’s Community Garden, and Cole Jadrosich, an intern for the Penn Park Orchard, have experienced their share of setbacks when it comes to coaxing plants to bear fruit. Here they share their expertise on growing five different crops commonly found in urban gardens.

One mistake that Bhide herself made this year was to wait too long to get started with her tomatoes. “I see people just putting tomato plants in the ground in June or even July because that’s when it feels hot,” she says. “They’re not going to thrive.” If space allows, she recommends starting them indoors from seed in early spring, then transplanting them outdoors once the risk for frost is past. A rule of thumb for this region is that Mother’s Day is a good time to get tomato plants in the ground.

Once these vining plants get big enough, Bhide says to prune them. “What I usually do is pick one main stem and two main branches—or sometimes I’ll give them three if I’m feeling nice—and just pinch off or trim off the other branches,” she says. “Tomatoes naturally want to vine out so you want to direct them, you don’t want to let them go a million directions.”

Those with shady outdoor spaces may want to steer clear, Bhide notes, as tomatoes are a full-sun crop. They should be supported with trellises or cages. And lovers of Italian cuisine, rejoice; tomatoes pair well with basil growing nearby.

Cucumbers, like tomatoes, are vining plants and also need the support of trellises, “especially if you’re in an urban garden, that will help you create more space,” Bhide says. Cucumbers are mostly water, and, as such, require plenty of water to grow well and develop a nice, smooth flavor. “Make sure they’re well-weeded and give them lots and lots of water,” Jadrosich says.

The jury is out on pruning cucumbers, Bhide says. “Some people do, and some do not.” YouTube has a wealth of videos on techniques, she notes.

Fungal diseases are a common problem of many vegetable plants, including tomatoes and cucumbers. Bhide has sometimes used a copper spray to prevent fungal problems on both crops, and using proper mulch can also ward off such infections.

Perennial herbs like mint, thyme, and oregano are good choices for beginning gardeners. “Herbs are a really good bang for your buck because you can use them almost every day,” Bhide says. Annual herbs like basil and cilantro can also be grown easily in containers.

Though many herbs like sun, Bhide notes, “if you’re in a West Philly rowhouse and don’t get a lot of sun, mint is a good choice; it will grow almost anywhere.”

When it’s time to harvest, cut or pinch back the herbs from the top, leaving the sides. This will encourage the plants to branch out instead of continuing to grow straight and go to seed, Bhide says.

A versatile culinary crop, garlic is not terribly demanding. It’s possible to special order cloves for planting, but Bhide says any organic clove from a grocery store or farmer’s market will suffice. “Plant it around Halloween, then mulch over it and just leave it,” Bhide says.

Garlic is typically ready for harvest some time in July, when several of the leaves die back and turn yellow, says Jadrosich.

Although garlic doesn’t require much care while it is growing, Bhide and Jadrosich say it’s not a foolproof crop. “There has been a huge wave of new pests, like allium leafminer, that target garlic,” Bhide says.

Though most of the other plants mentioned are ready for harvest in the summer, there are plenty of choices for fall gardening as well. Different types of greens, such as lettuce, kale, and collards, can all be started in the garden now to be ready for autumn picking. The cold weather doesn’t hinder them and may even be a help. It’s often said that kale, for example, takes on a sweeter flavor when picked after a frost.

For fall harvest, now is the time to sow greens. Root vegetables such as carrots, beets, and turnips can also be planted now and enjoyed when the weather turns cooler.


OH Digest: Toxic red tide, ‘zombie genes,’ and more

OH Digest: Toxic red tide, ‘zombie genes,’ and more

Toxic red tides pose a serious threat to marine life. One in Florida (not pictured) has led to a declared state of emergency.  (Photo: Alejandro Díaz/Wikimedia Commons)

Our weekly digest compiles stories and news, both from here at Penn and around the world, that highlight the intersection of animal, environmental, and human health.

By Jacob Williamson-Rea 

Florida declares a state of emergency as red tide kills animals and disrupts tourism
The Washington Post, August 14, 2018
Red tide, a bloom of toxic algae, has suffocated marine life and shut down local tourism in southwest Florida. Governor Rick Scott has declared a state of emergency.

The ‘zombie gene’ that may protect elephants from cancer
The New York Times, Aug. 14, 2018
Theoretically, large animals should get cancer more frequently than smaller animals because they have more cells, which increases the chance of cell mutation. Elephants, however, have a special gene that can attack potentially cancerous cells, according to a recent study.

Palm oil: A new threat to Africa’s monkeys and apes?
BBC News, Aug. 14, 2018
Palm oil is used as a low-cost ingredient in many foods, cleaning products, and even cosmetics. As demand for such products increases, deforestation to expand oil palm tree acreage threatens native monkeys and apes in places like Indonesia and Malaysia.

A new pesticide may be as harmful to bees as the old one
Science, Aug. 15, 2018
The European Union and Canada have banned the use of several neonicotinoid pesticides, but the United States continues to use them. These pesticides have been found to have a detrimental effect on bee populations, even in low doses.

Not just land heat waves: Oceans are in hot water, too
Associated Press, Aug. 15, 2018
As summer heat waves cause droughts across the world, ocean temperatures have been spiking, too. This seriously threatens coral reefs, kelp forests, and marine life.

You don’t need to worry about Roundup in your breakfast cereal
Slate, Aug. 16, 2018
A new report from the Environmental Working Group states that glyphosate, a chemical found in Monsanto weed killer, may cause serious harm to those exposed to high concentrations. Glyphosate is found in trace amounts in popular breakfast cereals, but the amount is far below the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended threshold.

Turning up the heat on crime

Turning up the heat on crime

John MacDonald, a professor of criminology and sociology, and emergency medicine physician Eugenia South, collaborated on a prior study on environmental stressors and their impact on crime. MacDonald says the lessons learned can be applied to combating heat’s relationship to violence. (Photo: Eric Sucar/University Communications)

By Blake Cole

There are many ways to beat the summer heat: retreating to an air-conditioned space or taking a dip in a pool, to name a few. But when relief is hard to come by—especially common in communities in which resources are stretched thin—data show that high temperatures, combined with high-stress situations, can lead to violent confrontations.

“There’s long been a theory connecting temperatures and crime,” says John MacDonald, a professor of criminology and sociology who researches environmental stressors and their relationship to crime. “Southern states and southern Europe have higher rates of reported homicide and violent crime than northern states or northern parts of Europe. The classic challenge has been singling out the connection from other variables like higher rates of poverty.”

The research has become more sophisticated in recent times, charting specific instances like heat waves and temperature fluctuations in a particular location, and has consistently shown increases in violent crime in comparison to cold weather.

In a temperature-crime analysis published in the Journal of Urban Health, Drexel University researchers polled Philadelphia crime data from 2006 to 2015 and found that during warmer months, violent crime rose by almost double digits when the heat index was 98 degrees compared to days when the temperature was above 57 degrees. During colder months—October through April—crime was up 16 percent on 70-degree days as opposed to 43-degree days.

And it’s not just limited to the U.S., as MacDonald suggests. The BBC reported this past July that data from the London Metropolitan Police show that between April 2010 and June 2018, violent crime was, on average, 14 percent higher when the temperature was above 68 degrees than when it was below 50 degrees, and that harassment and weapons possession offenses were each 16 percent higher.

One factor is community stability, MacDonald says. “Communities that are resource-deprived and don’t have access to air conditioning, or a shopping mall to go to in order to avoid the heat for the day, are under more intense community pressure, and crime is a natural consequence of that.”

And the increase in crime isn’t only related to physiological stressors, he adds. “There is general consensus from a number of studies that finds when you have more people out and about, that there is less street crime. There are more stores open and more eyes on the street. Even if there are more opportunities, there’s a protective effect. During a heat wave there are going to be fewer people out policing each other. There also tends to be increased alcohol consumption due to people trying to rehydrate, which leads to a perfect storm of bad judgment.”

So how does a city combat a phenomenon dictated by nature? MacDonald has studied a similar dynamic when it comes to habitat and crime. In a recent study, he and Penn Medicine physician Eugenia South, found that mental health improved when vacant lots were remediated.

“There’s a physiological response when people are exposed to green lots. Their heart rate tends to slow down. Where do people often go when they take a vacation? To the ocean to look out on the water and cool off, or they go to the mountains. Is that just tradition or is there something about a comfortable environment that decreases irritability and other gateway emotions to violence? This same dynamic applies to temperature.”

When it comes to heat, MacDonald says there are practical policy implications to be found that would improve both the community and personal well-being.

“If we have this spike in serious assaults and homicides during heat waves, you could imagine interventions like providing more access to cooling centers and access to drinking water,” MacDonald says. “Hospitals could staff up and you could have better police presence in high-risk areas. Better preparation is really the key.”