Wednesday, October 14, 2009

The Nobel prize and the grandeur view of life

As news of the latest Nobel prizes in physics and medicine were announced, science became a central story for many news outlets. Numerous stories and interviews were held about the discoveries that earned the laureates their just rewards. I’ve heard interviews with medicine winners, Elizabeth Blackburn and Carol Greider (2/3 of the prize, the other being Jack Szostak), about their discovery of telomeres and telomerase, and with Willard Boyle (for physics) on inventing an imaging semiconductor circuit (i.e., digital recording of light). The media play up the applications to humanity. Telomeres and telomerase offer a deeper understanding of cancer and potential treatments. The digital recording of light gave us digital cameras (among a plethora of other technologies).

However, in the interviews with these great scientists, there was a common thread in what they said. They reiterated the need to support basic science and that the pursuit of curiosity-driven science is a worthy and valuable enterprise. I found the fact that they found it necessary to reiterate this to be interesting and something that interviewers thought worthy of reiterating themselves. I know that news stories need to relate to a person’s everyday experience, but, I think, basic science offers something more. To quote Darwin “There is grandeur in this view of life”. That is, while the products of science have surely improved our quality of live, science has given us something deeper and more meaningful. Basic curiosity-driven research has changed our understanding of the world and our place in it. We now look up at the stars and have a pretty good idea of what they are. We know what causes thunder and lightening. We understand why our pet cat looks kinda of like a lion and gorillas like people. We no longer look to superstition and myth to explain these aspects of nature. To me, this is the fundamental contribution of science to humanity, and I wish this were as celebrated as technological advances. Though being able to take 2 gigabytes of photos and movies when my daughter is doing something cute is pretty cool too, I guess.

Friday, October 9, 2009

Blog your way to North Carolina!

(sorry for reiterating what you may have already seen)

Science in a web-base universe now has the potential to link vast numbers of researchers together and be communicated to the global citizenry. Exploring the power of the web in science is the fourth annual Science
Online 2010 conference, which will be held from Jan. 14-17 in the Research Triangle Park, NC. The conference is free, but of course you still must pay for travel and housing. Unless of course you've written an outstanding evolution blog post! NESCENT, the National Evolutionary Synthesis Center, is offering two $750 awards for the best evolution blog post about an evolutionary-oriented paper published in 2009.

For more details see the Deep-Sea News post. Be sure to tell your blogger friends!

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Exotic plants integrate into plant-pollinator networks

ResearchBlogging.orgAt almost any spot on the globe, there are species present that are not native to that locale, having been transported by human activities. Whether and how exotic species impact communities is a multifaceted problem that requires understanding the multitude of direct and indirect species interactions that occur. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, B, Montserrat Vila and colleagues asked if exotic plants where integrated into plant-pollinator networks, and whether this integration had any observable impacts on these networks. This is an important question, as most ecological theory predicts that plant-pollinator networks are actually quite resilient to perturbations since most associations tend to be between generalists as opposed to the more susceptible specialists.

They studied invaded plant communities across Europe, observing pollinator visits to flowers in multiple 50 x 50 m plots. They calculated connectance as the number of interactions standardized by network size. They showed that exotics fully integrated into plant-pollinator networks. Exotic species accounted for 42% of all pollinator visits and 24% of all network connections -a testament to the overall abundance of exotics in many communities. However, these exotics did not affect overall changes in network connectedness, revealing that these networks are quite robust to invasions.

That said, researchers must now ask if this is true in networks that do contain high numbers of specialists (e.g., orchids) or if the relative few specialists in generalist-dominated systems are more susceptible to changes from exotics.

Vila, M., Bartomeus, I., Dietzsch, A., Petanidou, T., Steffan-Dewenter, I., Stout, J., & Tscheulin, T. (2009). Invasive plant integration into native plant-pollinator networks across Europe Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 276 (1674), 3887-3893 DOI: 10.1098/rspb.2009.1076

Friday, October 2, 2009

How to keep up on your favorite journals

Researchers live busy lives. Either you are spending your waking hours writing grant proposals, running experiments, analyzing data, writing papers, preparing lectures, supervising students, attending committee meetings, and not to mention taking care of your personal life. Often the activity that slips to the bottom of this list is keeping up on the current literature. How should one go about maximizing their ability to efficiently peruse recent publications. I think the best approach is to use journals RSS feeds (otherwise known as Really Simple Syndication). RSS is a web format that allows publishers to syndicate the abstracts of papers as they are published online.

The simplest way to do this is to make sure you have a Google account and use their Google reader. If you go to a journal's website you click on either of these symbols:

You'll be sent to their RSS feed page and at the top is a subscription option and you can select Google to subscribe using:

When you click on 'Subscribe Now', it prompts you to select the Google homepage or reader -I use reader, but that just depends on your preference. You can subscribe to as many Journals as you want, and I think that all the major ones have RSS set up. Then to keep up on recently published papers, you simply go to your Google reader and scroll through the journals you have RSS subscriptions. Or if you check it more often, the reader keeps a list of the most recent items from all your subscriptions. No more getting e-mail alerts and no more going to a bunch of different journal pages.

By the way, you can also subscribe to this blog in the same way (see 'subscribe to' links on side panel).

Friday, September 25, 2009

Global warming and shifts in food web strucutre

ResearchBlogging.orgPredicting the effects of global warming on biological systems is of critical importance for informing proactive policy decisions. Most research so far has been on trying to predict shifts in species distributions and changes in interactions within local habitats. But what many of these studies assume is that the basic biological processes and requirements of the individual species will not change -that is their biology is fixed and they simply need to find the place that best suits them. Not so, say Mary O'Connor and colleagues, in a just-released study in PLoS Biology.

O'Connor and colleagues experimentally warmed marine microcosms and tested two alternative hypotheses on food web structure: 1) that productivity increases with warming; and 2) warming increases metabolic rates, thus changing consumer-autotroph (i.e., primary producers) interactions. What they found was that warming indeed altered consumer-autotroph interactions. Warming increased base metabolic rates of consumers, as well as primary production, and the net effect was that food webs shifted towards increasing consumer control (i.e., top-down control).

What this research means is that global warming may alter food web interactions by increasing resource needs of organisms as their metabolic rates increase. This may increase the stress on communities and change diversity patterns as increased needs may shift competitive hierarchies or affect autotroph's ability to withstand consumer effects.

O'Connor, M., Piehler, M., Leech, D., Anton, A., & Bruno, J. (2009). Warming and Resource Availability Shift Food Web Structure and Metabolism PLoS Biology, 7 (8) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pbio.1000178

Monday, September 21, 2009

Everything but extinct: invasion impacts on native diversity

ResearchBlogging.orgThere has been a persistent debate in the plant invasions literature about whether exotic plant invasions are a major threat to native plant persistence. While there are clear examples of animal invasions resulting in large scale extinction -e.g., the brown tree snake or Nile perch, evidence has been ambiguous for plants. Most ecologists are not so sanguine as to actually conclude that plant invasions are not a threat, and I think most believe that plant invader effects are an issue of temporal and spatial scale and that the worst is yet to come.

In a forthcoming paper from Heinke Jäger and colleagues in the Journal of Ecology, Cinchona pubescens invasions on the Galápagos Islands were monitored in long-term plots for more than seven years. What they found was that there was a four-fold increase in Cinchona density as the invasion progressed and that this increase had measurable effects on native species abundance. While they did not observe any native extirpations in their plots, native densities decreased by at least 50%. Of the greatest concern was that Island endemics appear to the most susceptible to this invasion.

What these results show is that, while there were not any observed extinctions, there were serious deleterious changes to native diversity. Further, the native species, and especially the endemics, are now more susceptible to other invasions or disturbances due to their lower abundances. The impact of exotic invaders may not be readily apparent but may be a major contributor to increased extinction risk.

Jäger, H., Kowarik, I., & Tye, A. (2009). Destruction without extinction: long-term impacts of an invasive tree species on Galápagos highland vegetation Journal of Ecology DOI: 10.1111/j.1365-2745.2009.01578.x

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

BES day two...

It was a day full of talks, and I really enjoyed being able to spend the whole day just absorbing the presentations. Here are some highlights from today's events:

  • Ian Wright gave an interesting talk about the history of functional plant ecology. Basically, covering where trait ecology has been and where we are now. It is really amazing to see the truly large scale analysis and collaborations currently driving modern trait analysis.
  • In another overview type talk, Gerlinde De Deyn, talked about carbon sequestration in soils. I'm sure to many ecosystem ecologists this maybe well known, but I found it fascinating. Did you know that tundra ecosystem have as much soil carbon as tropical rain forests? The reason is that tundra has very slow process rates (cold) while rain forests have fast production rates. In fertilization experiments, soil carbon is reduced, so in order to manipulate soil carbon stores one must understand the interaction between plant traits and soil organisms.
  • Finally, Kyle Dexter, in a great field survey of Inga tree species in a region of Peru, showed that different functional diversity metrics show differing patterns of over- and under-dispersion. For example, phylogenetic diversity tends to be under-dispersed for Inga assemblages, while chemical and anti-herbivory traits are over dispersed and leaf size measures are under-dispersed.

Also, there was the annual general meeting, which was rather somber as three obituaries were read aloud. The three deceased, John Harper, Bob Jefferies and Simon Thirgood, were all superb ecologists who absences were obviously felt. Harper (my Master's advisor's advisor) and Jefferies (my colleague at Toronto) were both eminent ecologists with long and distinguished careers, while Thirgood (a fellow Senior Editor at the Journal of Applied Ecology) was in the prime of his very successful career.

Exploring ecology through GMOs

This year's Tansley Lecture at the BES meeting was a superb presentation given by Ian Baldwin from the Max Planck Institute for Chemical Ecology. He was enjoyable to watch as his folksy, mid-western American style disarmed the listener and leaving them unprepared for his ascorbic wit and, at times, controversial message. Prof. Baldwin* is a chemical ecologist who studies plant biochemical and physiological processes and their interaction with herbivores. Through his use of molecular tools and superb natural history, he has gained new insights into how and why plants respond to herbivory. He has discovered the pathways allowing wild tobacco, Nicotiana attenuata, to detect chemicals in tobacco hornworm spit and the resulting chemical defense response. More than this though, part of his talk was about the use of transformed plants to study this plant defense response. Using genetic tools, his group was able to knockout certain segments of these biochemical pathways in order to determine how various chemicals affected hornworms. He showed chemical responses involved signaling hornworm predators whereas other responses directly targeted wornworm's ability to digest plant material.

I think that ecologists are often wary of GMOs and his talk was a convincing case for their use in basic research, and he advocated for a more reasoned approach to their use.

*Note: He has run into trouble with German authorities over using the title 'Dr.' -see here.

Monday, September 7, 2009

An ecological meeting, British style.

I'm in Hatfield, outside of London, for the British Ecological Society (BES) meeting, and I'll be blogging thoughts, happenings, etc. I posted several observations from the American equivalent (ESA) last month, and one thing is readily apparent, even though talks do not start until tomorrow. While the ESA meeting is a great chance to meet a lot of people and see a lot of talks, at a few thousand conference goers, it can be a bit overwhelming. At any given time the ESA meeting had up to 26 concurrent sessions, which makes for a lot of running around if there are talks you want to see in different sessions. At the BES there is a maximum of 7 concurrent session. The BES is definitely smaller than ESA and the meeting and venue feel compact and intimate. I'm looking forward to experiencing the BES meeting this week.

Check back for more.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Ecology and evolution jobs 2009

After a horrendous year of canceled job searches and a barren landscape lacking many opportunities for academic-track job seekers, the jobs posted this season seem to be a stark contrast. In a previous post, I blogged about the best ecology job wiki, and when you look through last year's job postings you notice that the 'updates' column contains a multitude that had their searches canceled. Most people assumed that there wouldn't be very many tier-one academic jobs this year, but looking at the list of jobs announced so far this year, things look pretty good! I've also caught wind of a few other positions at good institutions that have not yet advertised. Job seekers keep your eyes open, and definitely check the job wiki regularly. This could be your year!

I for one have been (overly) optimistic and really didn't buy the hype that the job market would crash this year and for the foreseeable future. I think that many institutions over-reacted to the recession. Of course some states, like California, are in absolute dire straights. But my feeling is that over the next couple of years many institutions will try to recover from their self-imposed professor deficits, meaning that many similar-sounding job searches will be active at the same time. The net result is that schools will be competing against one another for good researchers.