College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

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July 24, 2003

Research Challenges Theory that Microbes Follow Different Evolutionary Rules as Higher Organisms

by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - A new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, has found genetic differences in a sampling of a species of hot spring-loving microbes from around the world.

The findings, published online today (Thursday, July 24) by the journal Science, at the Science Express website, challenges the prevailing theory of microbial biodiversity.

It is well accepted in evolutionary science that species of animals and plants are more closely related when they are geographically near each other. When it comes to the tiny world of microbes, however, most scientists believe that different evolutionary rules apply.

"The current dogma has been that, for microbes, what determines diversity is not geographic distance but specific environments," said John Taylor, professor of plant and microbial biology at UC Berkeley's College of Natural Resources and the head of the lab where the study was conducted. "The motto for microbes has been, 'Everything is everywhere, but the environment selects.' "

To test this theory, Rachel Whitaker, a UC Berkeley graduate student in Taylor's lab and lead author of the paper, trekked around the globe - by helicopter in some remote areas - to collect samples of a microbe called Sulfolobus islandicus, which thrives in the extreme environments of geothermal hot springs and volcanic vents. Sulfolobus microbes belong to the domain archaea - discovered in the 1970s - and can withstand highly acidic conditions and temperatures as high as 180 degrees Fahrenheit.

The samples were collected from the Mutnovsky Volcano and the Uzon Caldera-Geyser Valley region on the Kamchatka Peninsula in eastern Russia, the Lassen Volcanic and Yellowstone national parks in North America, and the volcanic region of western Iceland.

The researchers' analysis also includes a large portion of previously collected Sulfolobus samples that were provided by co-author Dennis Grogan, associate professor of biological sciences at the University of Cincinnati.

In all, the researchers analyzed the DNA of 78 separate cultures of Sulfolobus islandicus and found small but significant levels of genetic differentiation between populations that live in different areas, despite the fact that they existed in similar ecological conditions.

"It makes sense that thermophiles cannot migrate over long distances since they are specifically adapted to life in the extremely hot acidic environments of a geothermal hot spring," said Whitaker. "It's not too surprising that geographically isolated populations are evolving independently. This is predicted by population genetic theory but has never before been shown in microbial species."

Moreover, the study shows that genetic differences increased in direct correlation with geographic distance.

"If this type of geographic pattern occurs in other microbes, it means the microbial world is even more diverse than we had previously predicted, which is astounding," said Whitaker.

Taylor said the study has implications for how researchers view and treat microbes that emerge in different parts of the world.

"Many bacteria and fungi cause disease, and genetically different species may exhibit different behavior," said Taylor. "To treat diseases, researchers need to understand exactly which species they're working with."

Scientists working on a pathogen that emerged in China, for example, cannot automatically assume that the same species of pathogen that emerged in the United States will behave the same way, the researchers said.

NASA provided funding for Whitaker's graduate studies. The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation also provided support for the study.

July 11, 2003

Biotechnology is One Key to Feeding the World, says Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug

by Kathryn Stelljes

BERKELEY - Biotechnology, chemical fertilizers, and policy changes will be key to feeding the world's increasing population and protecting the environment, Nobel Laureate Norman E. Borlaug told a full crowd last night at UC Berkeley.

Members of the audience questioned whether expensive technologies developed in industrialized nations are appropriate for developing countries. But Borlaug believes low-income countries can realize significant benefit from such technologies.

Borlaug noted that in the book Silent Spring, Rachel Carson advocated using sprays of the natural bacteria Bacillus thuringiensis, or Bt, instead of synthetic chemicals to control agricultural insect pests. "Now we put the Bt gene directly into corn and cotton. That controls the most important insect pests of cotton in China and Pakistan and can reduce insecticide spray from 12 to 13 (times) annually to two to three."

In African nations, he continued, family farms are limited by weeds, which are usually controlled by the women of the family with machetes and hoes. Herbicide-resistant crops thatallowed for chemical weed control could allow families who only have access to hand tools at present to produce more food and to spend their time in education and other worthwhile activities.

Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for his scientific and humanitarian contributions to what is known as the "Green Revolution" in the 1960s. He and other scientists developed high-yield, semi-dwarf, disease-resistant wheat varieties that were well adapted to growing conditions in Mexico and the Indian subcontinent. He and the scores of young scientists that he trained at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center in Mexico are credited with saving millions from starvation.

Borlaug gave the audience historical insight into agricultural advances of the last 50 years but also offered his opinion on several of today's political and social issues. He criticized the large amount of U.S. spending on the military.

"Today we're worried about terrorism. Is there any better, fertile seedbed for terrorism than hunger and human misery? It's a time bomb to have as many miserable people as we have in the world today," he said.

Borlaug also rallied against the currently popular Precautionary Principle, which suggests that preemptive actions to protect human health and the environment take precedence over use of a beneficial technology if there are potential risks.

"The Precautionary Principle depends on where you are and how long it's been since you've seen hungry people," Borlaug said. "We should use any new crop variety that has an advantage over what is already out there. If you wait for perfection, you'll never produce anything."

He emphasized that the environment also benefits from increasing farmland productivity.

"When I was born in 1914 there were 1.6 billion people in the world. Today we have 6.2 billion, with 80 million more each year. By using improved technology, we have been able to feed the world on 660 million hectares of land. If we used the same methods that were used in the 1950's, we would have had to put an additional 1.1 billion hectares under the plow," Borlaug stated.

"People want simple answers to complex questions and they aren't forthcoming," he said.

Today, Borlaug and former president Jimmy Carter lead the Sasakawa-Global 2000 program, which is developing appropriate technology to increase crop production in Sub-Saharan Africa. Borlaug's other accolades include the Presidential Medal of Freedom and more than 50 honorary degrees from universities around the world.

He also founded the World Food Prize, the highest international honor bestowed upon an individual for achievements in improving the world's food supply and reducing hunger. UC Berkeley has had two World Food Prize recipients, former visiting professor Pedro Sanchez and the late Ray Smith, professor in the Division of Insect Biology.

Borlaug's dreams for biotechnology include transferring the natural rust-resistance found in rice to other grains like wheat, and transferring the proteins in bread wheat that allow leavening to rice and maize.

Borlaug is at Berkeley this week to speak to participants in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program. This summer certificate course, sponsored by the College of Natural Resources' Center for Sustainable Resource Development, brings together mid-career environmental professionals from around the world to tackle complex environmental management issues. The program began in 2000 with a generous gift from Cal alumni Richard and Carolyn Beahrs.

While Borlaug has fiery answers to issues he holds dear, he also seems open to debate.

"If you never want to be criticized and never want to make a mistake, never do anything in science," he told Beahrs participants.

• View a webcast of the Borlaug lecture (

• "The Next Green Revolution" - July 11 New York Times op-ed article by Norman Borlaug, available at

• Paul Ludden, Dean of the College of Natural Resources, spoke with Borlaug about the educational and scientific needs of the next generation of scientists. A webcast of that discussion will be available on July 14.

July 7, 2003

Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug to Speak July 10

Norman E. Borlaug
Free public lecture
July 10, 7:30-9:00 pm
145 Dwinelle Hall, UC Berkeley

Norman E. Borlaug was awarded the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for developing methods to help the world's poorest nations feed themselves. Born of Norwegian descent, Dr. Borlaug was raised near Cresco, a small farming community in northeast Iowa. He earned a B.S. in forestry and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in plant pathology from the University of Minnesota. From 1942 to 1944, Dr. Borlaug worked as a microbiologist for E.I. Dupont de Nemours Foundation, in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives.

In 1944, Dr. Borlaug joined the Rockefeller Foundation's pioneering technical assistance program in Mexico, where he was a research scientist in charge of wheat improvement. It was on the research stations and in the farmers' fields of Mexico that Dr. Borlaug developed dwarf, high-yielding, disease-resistant wheat varieties. These high-yielding varieties and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in Mexico and later in Asia and Latin America--sparking what today is known as the "Green Revolution."

In 1985, Dr. Borlaug created the World Food Prize, which today is the foremost international award recognizing the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world. Today, Dr. Borlaug still serves as Chair of its Council of Advisors. He currently splits his time as a senior consultant to the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) in Mexico and as Distinguished Professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University. He holds honorary doctoral degrees from close to 50 universities and memberships in 17 academies of science worldwide.

Dr. Borlaug is on campus as the featured speaker for the 2003 Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, a unique educational opportunity for mid-career environmental professionals established in 2000 with a generous gift from Richard and Carolyn Beahrs

July 3, 2003

Experts from Around the World Convene to Discuss War, Poverty and the Environment

by Sarah Yang

Berkeley - Kazim Niaz, a Pakistani who has worked with Afghan refugees the past two years, has come to the University of California, Berkeley, this summer to shed light on how war and political turmoil impact the environment.

"An Afghan woman whose husband died during the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan told me that when she doesn't have enough kerosene, she's going to burn branches from trees to keep her five children warm," said Niaz, who worked as the deputy field coordinator in Pakistan for the New York-based International Rescue Committee. "It's a natural thing to do, but over the decades, this has contributed to a significant problem of deforestation in Pakistan."

Niaz is one of 40 participants in the Beahrs Environmental Leadership Program, which brings together environmentalists and policy makers from around the world to tackle the problems of natural resource management. He will be sharing his experiences with participants from other regions experiencing such challenges as political instability, land and water degradation, or devastating poverty.

The three-week summer program, which has just begun its third year and will run until July 20, was established at the campus's Center for Sustainable Resource Development with a $1 million gift from UC Berkeley alumni Richard and Carolyn Beahrs. Additional funding has been provided by grants from various foundations and some private donations.
"We're providing a forum where people from disparate regions can learn from each other at the same time they are exposed to top-of-the-line research in natural resources management," said David Zilberman, co-director of the center, which is based at the College of Natural Resources. "The goal of this program is to create a network of global leaders and to foster international collaboration. It is naïve to think that the problems of one country do not relate to or affect other countries."

For instance, figures from a government agency in Pakistan say the Afghan refugees are contributing to the country's deforestation at a rate of 17,000 to 22,000 acres per year. "This is not commercial logging, it's happening tree by tree as refugees use the wood for fuel," said Niaz. "Refugees are more focused on survival. They're not thinking of how their use of natural resources impacts the land in the long-term."

Niaz said that while there has been renewed interest in the plight of the refugees after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks in the United States, he fears that the attention will be short-lived. There was a massive repatriation of 1.5 million refugees back to Afghanistan since the fall of the Taliban and after Hamid Karzai became president. But Niaz is concerned that continued instability in the new Afghan government will lead to a new influx of refugees, adding to the current population of at least 1.5 million refugees in Pakistan and further straining the country's natural resources. There are already signs of a reverse migration, with 300,000 Afghan refugees coming back to Pakistan since late 2002, said Niaz.

What Niaz expects to gain from the Beahrs program are skills in planning and management to support the refugee population in an environmentally sustainable way. This includes how to build a water supply infrastructure so refugees do not need to use water directly from manmade ponds that are shared with native animals, which increases the risk for water-borne diseases. He also hopes to learn ways of improving coordination among international relief agencies and with the local government in Pakistan.
Abou Bamba, coordinator of the Network for Environment and Sustainable Development in Africa and another Beahrs participant, is also struggling with how best to protect his country's environment in the face of poverty and turmoil. "It's very complex to explain to our people the conservation of some resources while they are starving," he said.

And just as regional conflicts can lead to strains on natural resources, the lack of resources can impact regional stability, according to Mutuso Dhliwayo, executive director of the Zimbabwe Environmental Law Association. He expects to learn how the management of shared resources can be resolved through laws, policies and regulations relating to their management.

The summer certificate course includes six workshops, each taught by an interdisciplinary team of faculty from UC Berkeley and other experts, educational field trips that illustrate natural resource management issues in this state, and interactive panels and case study exercises. Participants will learn about issues in ecosystem management, pollution control, agricultural biotechnology and climate change, as well as effective leadership and conflict resolution skills.

On Thursday, July 10, at UC Berkeley, they will hear Nobel Peace Prize Laureate Norman Borlaug discuss agricultural development and the environment. Borlaug, known as the father of the Green Revolution, was awarded the Nobel in 1970 for his work in increasing crop yields in developing nations.

Robin Marsh, academic coordinator at the Center for Sustainable Resource Development, said that those who have completed the summer certificate course will have a chance to submit proposals for grants of up to $8,000 to help establish innovative conservation and sustainable development projects. The Richard and Rhoda Goldman Fund and the David and Lucile Packard Foundation have provided $130,000 for this small grants initiative.


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Research Challenges Theory that Microbes Follow Different Evolutionary Rules as Higher Organisms
Biotechnology is One Key to Feeding the World, says Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug
Nobel Laureate Norman Borlaug to Speak July 10
Experts from Around the World Convene to Discuss War, Poverty and the Environment


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