College of Natural Resources, UC Berkeley

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November 28, 2012

Estrogenic plants linked to hormone, behavioral changes

By Sarah Yang, UC Berkeley Media Relations

Eating certain veggies not only supplies key nutrients, it may also influence hormone levels and behaviors such as aggression and sexual activity, says a new study led by researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, that could shed light on the role of diet in human evolution.

The research is the first to observe the connection between plant-based estrogenic compounds, or phytoestrogens, and behavior in wild primates — in this case, a group of red colobus monkeys in Uganda.

The more the male red colobus monkeys dined on the leaves of Millettia dura, a tropical tree containing estrogen-like compounds, the higher their levels of estradiol and cortisol. They also found that with the altered hormone levels came more acts of aggression and sex, and less time spent grooming — an important behavior for social bonding in primates.

The study, published in the current issue of the journal Hormones and Behavior, suggests how potentially important consuming phytoestrogens is in primate ecology and evolution.

“It’s one of the first studies done in a natural setting providing evidence that plant chemicals can directly affect a wild primate’s physiology and behavior by acting on the endocrine system,” said study lead author Michael Wasserman, who conducted the research as a graduate student at UC Berkeley’s Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management. “By altering hormone levels and social behaviors important to reproduction and health, plants may have played a large role in the evolution of primate — including human — biology in ways that have been underappreciated.”

Read the complete story on the UC Berkeley News Center.

November 26, 2012

Scientists look to Hawaii’s bugs for clues to origins of biodiversity

By Robert Sanders, UC Berkeley Media Relations

To Rosemary Gillespie, the Hawaiian Islands are a unique and ongoing series of evolutionary and ecological experiments. As each volcano rises above the waves, it is colonized by life from neighboring volcanoes and develops its own flora and fauna.

A new $2 million grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to the University of California, Berkeley, will allow Gillespie and her colleagues to focus on the islands’ insect and spider life in search of clues to how animals explore and settle into new niches, leading to increasing biodiversity over time.

“One of the most puzzling features of the high diversity of species on remote islands is that these species almost certainly arose from one or very few colonizers,” said Gillespie, director of UC Berkeley’s Essig Museum of Entomology. “How was variability regained after such genetic bottlenecks, and how did it give rise to ecological diversity?”

Their findings will answer questions not only about how communities have come together over the 700,000-year-lifespan of the Big Island, but also about the impacts of biological invasions. And, as the Hawaiian ecosystem adapts to a changing climate and a growing human population, the research will help develop successful conservation management practices and more effective programs in restoration ecology.

Continue reading "Scientists look to Hawaii’s bugs for clues to origins of biodiversity" »

New Wetland Design Shows Leap in Cleansing Toxins from Salton Sea

By Ann Brody Guy, College of Natural Resource

A rotten-egg stench that fouled a swath of Southern California in September was traced to the Salton Sea — the latest episode in the environmental woes of California’s largest, but rapidly shrinking, inland lake. Now a new study has demonstrated a cost-effective method for using manmade wetlands to clean contaminants out of the freshwater rivers that flow into the sea, which is overly salty from evaporation and polluted with selenium, fertilizer nutrients and other chemicals from agricultural run-off.

The study was aimed at providing a wildlife habitat at the south end of the sea with low-salt, clean water, but the new wetland design also has the potential for broader environmental and agricultural applications, researchers say.

Previous attempts to use constructed wetlands for cleansing selenium from water were only able to reduce selenium in the outflow to about 5 or 6 parts per billion, not low enough to mitigate the negative environmental effects of the contaminants, scientists say. The new wetland design reduced selenium in the water column to extremely low levels, less even than 1 part per billion, the study found.

“No other published studies have shown any cost-effective system that approaches this level of efficient selenium removal,” said Norman Terry, a professor of plant and microbial biology at the University of California, Berkeley, and principal investigator of the study. “The only other way to get water this clean is to use microbial bioreactors, which are prohibitively expensive and not feasible on the vast scale of the Salton Sea.”

The Salton Sea is a habitat for more than 400 species of resident and migrating birds.

Continue reading "New Wetland Design Shows Leap in Cleansing Toxins from Salton Sea" »

November 13, 2012

Arsenic-Tainted South Berkeley Lot Focus of Rehab Project

By Judith Scherr, Contra Costa Times

pallud-celine.jpgPart of a weed-filled arsenic-contaminated south Berkeley lot will soon turn leafy green, thanks to some 2,000 Chinese brake ferns to be planted as an experiment aimed at sucking the arsenic out of the soil and into the fronds.

"This fern (Pteris vittata) has been studied a lot, but mainly in greenhouses," said Céline Pallud, an assistant professor at UC Berkeley's Department of Environmental Science who will head up the two- to five-year project, funded initially through Berkeley Partners for Parks by a $40,000 UC Berkeley Chancellor's grant.

The project will use about one-fourth of the old Santa Fe Railroad right of way between Ward and Derby streets, just west of Sacramento Street.

Read the complete story at the source.

November 9, 2012

New Interview With Biochemist Andrew Benson Is Online

Benson_still_175.pngHow plants use carbon dioxide is at the heart of biology, but it wasn’t until Andrew Benson ’39 got together with Melvin Calvin, a UC Berkeley chemistry professor, in the years following World War II, that the process was elucidated. A new video, titled "A Conversation with Andrew Benson: Reflections on the Discovery of the Calvin-Benson Cycle," captures Benson's perspective on this collaboration.

Ernest Lawrence, director of what became the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, saw the research potential of carbon-14, a radioactive isotope that became available after the war, and encouraged Calvin to apply it to photosynthesis. Calvin, in turn, hired Benson, who is now an emeritus professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, California. Benson brought expertise in organic chemistry—specifically in carbohydrate chemistry—along with research experience with photosynthesis and carbon-14.

The pair conducted seminal work on the problem from 1946 to 1954, and, together with many collaborators, revealed how CO2 functions in plants, thus answering a centuries-old question that opened the door to a new realm of advances in biology and chemistry. Specifically, they identified the series of reactions by which plants use CO2 in photosynthesis. The pathway is called the Calvin-Benson Cycle. In 1961, Calvin was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry.

Continue reading "New Interview With Biochemist Andrew Benson Is Online" »

November 8, 2012

"An Agro-Ethical Aesthetic:" A Conversation with Wendell Berry

Avenali Chair in the Humanities Wendell Berry discussed food, agriculture, the environment, and a range of related social and cultural topics at an October 31 event with UC Berkeley faculty panelists Michael Pollan, Graduate School of Journalism; Robert Hass, English; Miguel Altieri, Environmental Science, Policy, and Management; and Anne-Lise Francois, English and Comparative Literature.


Wendell Berry is a conservationist, farmer, essayist, novelist, and poet. He is the author of over 40 books including The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture, and the well-known “Port William" series. The master of many genres, Berry’s focus on farming, community, and agricultural and ecological thinking has remained a constant throughout his work. He has farmed a hillside in his native Henry County, KY, for more than 40 years.

Berry earned a B.A. and M.A. in English at the University of Kentucky, and in 1958 he attended Stanford University’s creative writing program as a Wallace Stegner Fellow, studying under Stegner in a seminar that included Edward Abbey, Larry McMurtry, Robert Stone, Ernest Gaines, Tillie Olsen, and Ken Kesey.

Continue reading ""An Agro-Ethical Aesthetic:" A Conversation with Wendell Berry " »


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Estrogenic plants linked to hormone, behavioral changes
Scientists look to Hawaii’s bugs for clues to origins of biodiversity
New Wetland Design Shows Leap in Cleansing Toxins from Salton Sea
Arsenic-Tainted South Berkeley Lot Focus of Rehab Project
New Interview With Biochemist Andrew Benson Is Online
"An Agro-Ethical Aesthetic:" A Conversation with Wendell Berry


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