Fighting Bad Fat with Good Fat

PHOTO: Jon Dempersmier

As with cholesterol, when it comes to fat, there’s a good kind and a bad kind. And UC Berkeley scientists recently discovered how to engineer the growth and expansion of energy-burning “good” fat. This led to findings that such fat actually helped to reduce weight gain and lower blood glucose levels in mice. A study published in the August issue of the journal Diabetes may eventually lead to new approaches to combating obesity, diabetes, and other metabolic disorders.

The Berkeley researchers used a specifically tailored hydrogel to “scaffold” and control an implant containing stem cells, in order to form a functional brown-fat-like tissue. While white fat stores excess energy and is associated with obesity, brown fat serves as a heat generator, burning calories as it does its job.

“This is figuratively and literally a hot area of research right now,” says Andreas Stahl, associate professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology (NST) and the study’s senior author. “We’re the first to implant in mice an artificial brown-fat depot and show that it has the expected effects on body temperature and beneficial effects on metabolism.”

Studies have also shown that cold temperatures can bump up activity in brown fat. Stahl notes, however, that the exposure to cold often leads to increases in food intake as well—potentially negating any calorie-burning benefits from brown-fat activity.

“What’s truly exciting about this system is its potential to provide plentiful supplies of brown fat for therapeutic purposes,” says study lead author Kevin Tharp, an NST PhD student. “The implant is made from the stem cells that reside in white fat, which could be made from tissue obtained through liposuction.”

Environmental Health Hazards Correspond with Racial Disparities

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In the past, studies have found that neighborhoods with higher percentages of Hispanic and African American residents have poorer air quality, are in closer proximity to hazardous waste sites, or have fewer parks than whiter neighborhoods. Now an online tool has further revealed that those communities hit hardest by environmental hazards can be identified by racial makeup, according to an analysis by UC Berkeley researchers and the California Environmental Protection Agency (CalEPA).

Information on race and ethnicity was obtained from 2010 census data. The median cumulative impact score was 75 percent higher for Hispanics and 67 percent higher for African Americans than for non-Hispanic white populations.

“What’s unique about this study is that we’re looking at multiple hazards at once and including factors that make populations more vulnerable to the effects of pollution, such as age and disease status,” says study lead author Lara Cushing, a PhD student in the Energy and Resources Group (ERG). “Still, it’s surprising to see such a consistent and stark disparity by race. It was a bigger factor than income.”

Published online in the American Journal of Public Health, the study used the California Communities Environmental Health Screening Tool (CalEnviroScreen), developed by CalEPA’s Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment.

CalEnviroScreen utilizes publicly available data on 11 indicators of pollution burden, such as exposure to ozone and pesticides, traffic density, and proximity to hazardous waste sites. The authors also included six indicators of population vulnerability, such as relatively high numbers of elderly and children under five living in the area, lower levels of education among residents, and higher poverty rates.

Millet: The Perfect Crop for a State in a Drought

Amrita Hazra weeds at the Millet Project, which operates at the UC Gill Tract Community Farm in Albany. PHOTO: Patricia Bubner

Amrita Hazra, a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB), is on a mission: to introduce people to the benefits of eating millet, which in this country is primarily used in bird feed and as a forage crop for cattle and poultry. Hazra is the leader of the six-member Millet Project team, which, with a Berkeley Food Institute Seed Grant and support from the UC Global Food Initiative’s CLEAR Project, is cultivating millets, testing millet recipes, and offering samples of millet-based products at local food events and exhibits.

“California’s ongoing four-year drought has united growers, consumers, policy makers, and food activists in the belief that diversity in agriculture and in the food we consume is critically important—we shouldn’t be only growing water-intensive monocultures,” says Hazra. Millets are robust dryland crops, and many millet varieties are inherently drought-tolerant. They can be grown from seed quite easily at higher temperatures, can grow in skeletal soils, and seldom require synthetic fertilizers. They have a short growing period of 100 to 110 days from seed to grain, and as a result are commonly used as rotation crops. In addition, most millet grains are not easily affected by storage pests.

They’re also nutritious, gluten-free whole grains. Different members of the millet family contain different portfolios of nutrients, but millet grains often contain fewer carbohydrates than rice, corn, or wheat and higher levels of proteins, fiber, and minerals such as calcium, magnesium, phosphorous, and iron, Hazra says.

Soil Depletion Is Threatening Global Food Security

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When it comes to the health of our soils, agriculture is the primary game changer, warns a review paper authored by some of the nation’s top soil scientists. Published in the journal Science, the paper notes that humans have been depleting the planet’s soil resources faster than the nutrients can be replenished. If this trajectory isn’t altered, soil erosion—combined with the effects of climate change—will pose a huge risk to global food security over the next century.

“Ever since humans developed agriculture, we’ve been transforming the planet and throwing the soil’s nutrient cycle out of balance,” says the paper’s lead author, Ronald Amundson, a professor in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM). “Because the changes happen slowly, often taking two to three generations to be noticed, people are not cognizant of the geological transformation taking place.”

The paper also explains that soil erosion has accelerated since the Industrial Revolution. We’re now entering a period when the ability of soil—“the living epidermis of the planet”—to support the growth of our food supply is plateauing. The publication appeared in time for the Global Soil Security Symposium at Texas A&M University, held in conjunction with the United Nations declaration that 2015 was the International Year of Soils.

Plant Immunity Plays a Key Role in Food Security

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When confronting the challenges to global health, some scientists are tackling the problem from the ground up. Through evolution, plants have developed an array of immunity mechanisms to ward off diseases, including receptors that help them resist infection by disease-causing microbes. Not only can plant disease have an economic impact, but it can also affect our health and natural ecosystems; understanding plant immunity is essential to reducing diseases that can radically alter the production and quality of food. With a rapidly growing global population, losses among important food crops—like potatoes and wheat—can be disastrous.

Now Berkeley researchers have joined a newly funded global effort to improve food security and develop better disease resistance in staple crops that feed the world, including potatoes, tomatoes, mustard greens, and domesticated wheat. Brian Staskawicz, a professor in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB), is one of the researchers who will receive grants from the Two Blades Foundation, a charitable organization dedicated to the discovery, advancement, and delivery of durable disease resistance in crops.

Research teams will investigate the mechanisms used by three major agricultural plant systems—Brassicaceae (crucifers), Solanaceae (nightshades), and Triticeae (domestic wheat and related species)—to resist infection by disease-causing pathogens. They will also develop a publicly available database containing sequence information on the plant species investigated. This open-access database will help other scientists and agricultural agencies around the world to improve disease resistance in plants and better address food insecurity.

Wildfires Are Key Culprit in Greenhouse Gases

PHOTO: Patrick Gonzalez

Last summer’s devastating wildfires in Northern California will have an impact beyond just the forests and communities they destroyed. A new study, published last spring in the journal Forest Ecology and Management, quantifies the amount of carbon stored by and released from California forests and wildlands and finds that wildfires and deforestation are contributing more than expected to the state’s greenhouse gas emissions.

The study—a collaborative project led by the National Park Service and UC Berkeley—could have implications for California’s efforts to meet goals mandated by the state Global Warming Solutions Act (AB 32), whose ultimate objective is to reduce state greenhouse gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2020. The bill, which passed in 2006, assumed no net emissions for wildland ecosystems by 2020.

“National parks and other protected areas clearly provide an important function in removing carbon from the atmosphere and storing it,” says John Battles, the principal investigator on the project and an ESPM professor. “But we also know from previous research that a century of fire suppression has contributed to a potentially unsustainable buildup of vegetation. This buildup provides abundant fuel for fires that contribute to carbon emissions. Meeting the state greenhouse gas targets for 2020 might require a reconsideration of wildland management policies.”

Researchers observe that the information available at the time that the bill was passed may have led to underestimates of the amount of carbon released through landmass conversions and wildfires, which are projected to increase in intensity in the western United States due to climate change. The authors point out that California is one of the few jurisdictions in the world to have set mandatory goals for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

Epigenetics: An Important New Term in Drought-Plagued Areas

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As the effects of climate change are felt in California and globally, an area of increasing concern for agriculture is how plants will survive under conditions of long-term drought. Biotechnology expert Peggy Lemaux, cooperative extension specialist in the Department of Plant and Microbial Biology (PMB), is leading a $12.3 million project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy to examine the role of epigenetics in helping plants to survive in drought conditions.

Epigenetics is the study of cellular and physiological trait variations that are caused by external or environmental factors that switch genes on and off. These factors affect how cells read genes, as compared with variations caused by changes in the DNA sequence. Over three years of field-testing, researchers will dissect mechanisms that allow sorghum—a close relative of corn—to survive water deprivation.

“Historically, the genetic manipulation of crops, which has been critical to increasing agricultural productivity, has concentrated on altering the plant’s genetic sequence, encoded in its DNA,” says Lemaux. “However, recent studies have shown that environmental stresses—in our case, drought—can lead to epigenetic changes in a plant’s genetic information. Because these occur without altering the underlying DNA sequence, they allow plants to respond to a changing environment more quickly.”

Over the next three years, a variety of observable plant traits will be followed, such as plant height and grain yield. Leaf and root samples will be taken to investigate responses to drought at the molecular level. And researchers will track changes in the sorghum-associated microbial communities.

Promoting All-Inclusive Sustainability

Isha Ray (second from right) joined a panel at the U.N. Women in October 2014. PHOTO: Courtesy of U.N. Women

Across most disciplines and industries, “sustainability” is generally considered a golden term. But for Isha Ray, the word is loaded. In many developing countries, the move toward sustainable development discounts the needs of half the population: women and girls. Ray is an associate professor of energy and resources (ERG) and codirector of the Berkeley Water Center, an interdisciplinary consortium of researchers from across the Berkeley campus.

Since 1997, Ray’s own research has focused on access to water and sanitation for the rural and urban poor, as well as the role of technology in improving livelihoods. And since 2007, she has studied the connection between women, water, and development. What she’s found is that while everyone understands the extreme burden on a community of unsafe water or lack of water, the solutions can interfere with women’s opportunities and girls’ educations.

Conducting research in Sri Lanka, Turkey, Tanzania, India, Mexico, China, and the Central Valley of California, Ray and her students found that few public water or sanitation systems were being designed with women’s bodies and social-biological needs—such as privacy—in mind.

Ray’s work in this field led to her being invited to serve on a 2014 panel of experts at U.N. Women, which, in turn, launched the flagship report The World Survey on the Role of Women in Development (published in November 2014), with Ray as one of the contributing authors. Findings from that report evolved into a book, Gender Equality and Sustainable Development (edited by Melissa Leach and published by Earthscan in September 2015), for which Ray wrote a chapter on transformative social investments.

“Any solution that increases unpaid work for women and girls is not sustainable,” says Ray. “We should always look at initiatives and policies with the lens of equal opportunity. Gender equality has been a core U.N.-mandated human rights issue since 1948.”

Female Firefighters and Breast Cancer

Female firefighters are “canaries in the coal mine” for breast cancer. PHOTO: Courtesy of United Fire Service Women

No one would argue with the fact that firefighters face potential risks every day that they serve on the job. But the possible hazards go far beyond the threat of flames and collapsing buildings. In 2012, the San Francisco Firefighters Cancer Prevention Foundation approached environmental health advocates and the United Fire Service Women about increasingly frequent cases of premenopausal breast cancer among female firefighters.

Thus was born the Women Firefighters Biomonitoring

Collaborative Study, led by researchers at UC Berkeley, the Silent Spring Institute, and UC San Francisco, among others. These groups are testing San Francisco women firefighters for chemicals that have been shown to be mammary carcinogens in animals, and comparing the firefighters’ exposures with those of women working in other city services.

Because the San Francisco Fire Department has one of the largest ranks of women in the nation—approximately 225—they’re the ideal group for this research. It’s believed to be the first-ever study of women firefighters to assess exposures to chemicals linked to breast cancer, including combustion by-products and diesel exhaust, flame retardants, and perfluorinated chemicals.

According to principal investigator Rachel Morello-Frosch—a professor in the School of Public Health and the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management (ESPM)—the study’s greatest innovation is that local firefighters are scientific partners: They codeveloped the study design and are participating in the recruitment of subjects, data collection, biospecimen processing, and grant writing.

“Firefighters are our new canaries in the coal mine, showing the impact of environmental chemicals on our health,” Morello-Frosch says. “Women have worked extremely hard to enter the ranks of the fire department. But now they’re facing potential hazards in the workplace.” Ultimately, the research findings can be compared with documented environmental chemical exposures among women in female-dominated professions, and with the general population. “Firefighters are the ones getting the most intense toxic exposures, but these compounds are also embedded in products that we buy and use every day,” Morello-Frosch says.