Grapefruit Juice Diet Stems Weight
Gain in Mice

PHOTO: iStockPhoto

Fad diets come and go, but might there be something to the ones that involve consuming grapefruit and grapefruit juice? New research suggests that a closer look at grapefruit juice is warranted.

A study published Oct. 8 in the journal PLOS ONE found that mice fed a high-fat diet gained 18 percent less weight when they drank clarified, no-pulp grapefruit juice compared with a control group of mice that drank water. Juice-drinking mice also showed improved levels of glucose, insulin, and a type of fat called triacylglycerol compared with their water-drinking counterparts.

If these findings sound somewhat familiar, it may be because the link between grapefruit juice and weight loss—or just decreased weight gain—has been touted in Hollywood diets before. However, the earlier studies behind those claims were often small, not well controlled, and contradictory, according to nutritional sciences and toxicology professors Andreas Stahl and Joseph Napoli, who led the new research.

This latest work was funded by the California Grapefruit Growers Cooperative, but the Berkeley researchers emphasized that the funders had no control or influence over the study design or research findings. Both Stahl and Napoli said they went into this research with some skepticism.

“I was surprised by the findings,” said Stahl. “We even re-checked the calibration of our glucose sensors, and we got the same results over and over again.”

Napoli added that “we see all sorts of scams about nutrition. But these results, based on controlled experiments, warrant further study of the potential health-promoting properties of grapefruit juice.”

Alameda County Enters Global Lyme-Light

Berkeley’s own Alameda County is home to one of the highest diversities of tick- or mammal-associated spirochetes found in any county within the United States, according to a study led by ESPM professor emeritus Robert Lane.

Spirochetes are spiral-shaped bacteria causing such well-known and dreaded diseases as Lyme disease, syphilis, and leptospirosis. In a study published online in July in the European journal Ticks and Tick-Borne Diseases, Lane’s research team, in collaboration with Lucia Hui’s group at the Alameda County Vector Control Services District, reported finding seven different Borrelia spirochetes among ticks surveyed at 71 sites and an eighth Borrelia species in the roof rat.
Natalia Fedorova, a molecular biologist affiliated with Lane’s lab and Hui’s group, is the lead author.

Although Alameda County averages less than a handful of reported Lyme disease cases per year, a few woodland hotspots were identified in the warmer, drier south-central region, where tick-infection rates with Lyme disease spirochetes exceeded 17 percent. These findings inform health-care providers and the public that even in heavily populated counties where the Lyme disease incidence is low, isolated pockets exist where the risk of encountering potentially infected ticks is elevated.

Tiny Survivor

Group of Devils Hole pupfish in the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility, hatched from eggs that were removed from Devils Hole in November 2013. PHOTO: Olin Feuerbacher, courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service

Scientists estimate that fewer than 100 Devils Hole pupfish remain in their Mojave Desert home, but conservation biologist Steven Beissinger, a professor of environmental science, policy, and management, is guiding the efforts to rescue them by establishing a captive breeding program. 

Considered the world’s rarest fish, with one of the smallest geographic ranges of any wild vertebrate, the tiny pupfish (Cyprinodon diabolis)—about 1 inch long as an adult—lives only in a 426-foot-deep limestone cavern in Devils Hole, a 93°F geothermal pool that’s part of Death Valley National Park. The fish neared extinction in spring 2013 when populations dropped to an all-time low of 35 observable pupfish. While more recent fish counts showed some recovery, the species is considered critically endangered. 

The dire situation spurred the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to open the Ash Meadows Fish Conservation Facility near Devils Hole. Previous attempts to establish refuge populations of pupfish have not fared well, either because the transplanted fish did not survive or because they cross-bred with other species of pupfish. Biologists from the agencies managing the pupfish captive breeding program wanted to determine which methods have the highest chance of success. 

Beissinger found that to reduce the impact on the wild population, it was better to transfer pupfish eggs rather than adults to a captive breeding facility. And, he found, it was preferable to move fish in the fall when the population tends to be larger, rather than in the spring. He also found that moving more than six adults per year for three consecutive years rapidly increases the risk of extinction. The results, published Sept. 9 in the open-access journal PeerJ, showed that the wild pupfish faces a 28–32 percent risk of extinction over the next 20 years.

“The study really puts out more empirically the risk of extinction for this fish,” said Kevin Wilson, an aquatic ecologist at Death Valley National Park who is working on the recovery of the pupfish. “These findings are providing us with very good tools for our toolbox.” See Q&A: The Next Century of America's Best Idea."

Farming Practices Can Save 600 Million Years of Biodiversity

The collared trogon declines in agriculture but thrives in tropical rainforests. PHOTO: Daniel Karp

A new study by biologists at Stanford University and UC Berkeley highlights the dramatic hit on the evolutionary diversity of wildlife when forests are transformed into agricultural lands.

The researchers studied nearly 500 species of birds in Costa Rica in three types of habitat and calculated the birds’ phylogenetic diversity, a measure of the evolutionary history embodied in wildlife. “If you have an area with lots of closely related species, you won’t have a lot of phylogenetic diversity,” said co-lead author Luke Frishkoff, a biology doctoral student at Stanford. “The further apart species are on the evolutionary tree, the more phylogenetic diversity your system represents.”

The study, published in the Sept. 12 issue of Science, found that the phylogenetic diversity of the birds fared worst in habitats characterized by farmlands consisting of single crops. Such intensive monocultures supported 900 million fewer years of evolutionary history, on average, compared with untouched forest reserves.

The researchers found a middle ground in diversified agriculture—farmlands with multiple crops adjoined by small patches of forest. Such landscapes supported on average 600 million more years of evolutionary history than the single-crop farms.

“The loss of habitat to agriculture is the primary driver of diversity loss globally, but we hadn’t known until now how agriculture affected diversity in an evolutionary context,” said study co-lead author Daniel Karp, a postdoctoral research fellow working in the lab of ESPM professor Claire Kremen, one of the study’s senior authors. “We found that forests outperform agriculture when it comes to supporting a larger range of species that are more distantly related, so by maintaining patches of tropical trees and multiple crops on their land, farmers can enhance evolutionarily distinct species,” he said.

“While we knew that a diverse range of crops supports more species than monoculture agriculture, we had no idea until this study that these species comprise much more of Earth’s evolutionary history than those found in monocultures,” said Kremen, who is also faculty co-director of the UC Berkeley Food Institute. “It shows how important it is for biodiversity conservation to surround protected areas with productive forms of diversified agriculture, whenever possible.”

Karp began work on this project while he was a PhD student in biology at Stanford. He continued the research at Berkeley as a NatureNet fellow, funded through The Nature Conservancy.

Wildlife Declines Driving Crime, Slave Labor

A child grabs sleep wherever possible after a long day of labor in West Africa’s struggling fishery. PHOTO: Jessica Pociask, WANT Expeditions

Global decline of wildlife populations is driving increases in violent conflicts, organized crime, and child labor around the world, according to a policy paper led by Justin Brashares, associate professor of ecology and conservation. The authors call for biologists to join forces with experts, such as economists, political scientists, criminologists, public health officials, and international development specialists, to collectively tackle the complex challenge. 

The paper, published July 24 in Science, highlights how losses of food and employment due to wildlife decline increase human trafficking and other crime, and also foster political instability.

“This paper is about recognizing wildlife decline as a source of social conflict rather than a symptom,” said Brashares. “Billions of people rely directly and indirectly on wild sources of meat for income and sustenance, and this resource is declining. It’s not surprising that the loss of this critical piece of human livelihoods has huge social consequences. Yet, both conservation and political science have generally overlooked these fundamental connections.”

Laborers—many of whom are children—are often sold to fishing boats and forced to work 18–20 hour days at sea for years without pay, the authors said. “As more labor is needed to capture scarce wild animals and fish, hunters and fishers use children as a source of cheap labor. Hundreds of thousands of impoverished families are selling their kids to work in harsh conditions,” said Brashares.

The authors tied the rise of piracy in Somalia to battles over fishing rights, and compared wildlife poaching to the drug trade, noting that huge profits from trafficking luxury wildlife goods, such as rhino horns, have attracted guerrilla groups and crime syndicates worldwide.

Forestry Centennial Book Unveiled

A Century of Cal Forestry book cover

A Century of Cal Forestry is a special publication celebrating the UC Berkeley Forestry Program’s enormous contributions to both the study and practice of forestry in California, the United States, and the world. With a preface by Governor Jerry Brown, the book is an informative and visually rich keepsake honoring the centennial and our influential faculty and alumni. Contact forestry100@berkeley.edu to request your free book. Supplies are limited.

KUDOS: On August 27, 2014, the California State Board of Forestry and Fire Protection presented the UC Berkeley Forestry Program with its highest honor, the Francis H. Raymond Award for Outstanding Contributions to California Forestry.

Powerful New Microscope Enables Unprecedented Views

A transverse section of a mouse retina, at the depth of the outer nuclear layer. IMAGE: courtesy of Steve Ruzin

Microscopy expert Steve Ruzin has won a grant to purchase an Elyra PS.1 Super Resolution microscope, a powerful new tool that allows scientists to study the tiniest of organisms.

“This new microscope will enable researchers to see objects that are impossible to see using technology available at Berkeley today,” said Ruzin, who is the director of the CNR-based Biological Imaging Facility, which serves thousands of faculty, students, and staff. Not only are a wide variety of microscopes available for researchers to use, but the lab also teaches students and other researchers about microscopy, the technical field of using microscopes to view samples and objects that cannot be seen with the naked eye.

The new $600,000 instrument, purchased with a National Institutes of Health grant, is a “structured illumination microscope,” which allows researchers to image and differentiate various parts of a cell using fluorescent dyes.

“Cells have bustling shipping centers,” said Amita Gorur, a graduate student in the lab of Nobel laureate Randy Schenkman. “The Elyra PS.1 Super Resolution microscope will allow me to track and visualize cargo on a freight car moving along cellular railroads from destination A to B in real time. These cellular shipping units are so small that only the resolution achieved by this microscope will allow us to see them. That’s powerful!”

Unlike traditional microscopes, whose resolution is limited to the wavelength of light used to illuminate the sample, structured illumination induces a complex light pattern that is emitted from the sample. Subsequent computer processing of the emitted pattern reveals sub-resolution structures. The new microscope has a resolution of 100nm and can see objects that are 10 times smaller than a bacterium, or 10,000 times smaller than a period.

INQUIRING MIND: Nature writer Sharman Apt Russell ’76 explores self-driven scientific inquiry in Diary of a Citizen Scientist, released this fall by Oregon State University Press.


A sweat bee collects pollen from a California poppy. PHOTO: Rollin Coville.
[+ PHOTO]

Abuzz

California Bees & Blooms: A Guide for Gardeners and Naturalists is a user-friendly new guidebook that shows readers how to encourage native bees to thrive in an urban environment. Coauthors are entomology professor Gordon Frankie, Rollin Coville, PhD Entomology ’78, University & Jepson Herbaria curator Barbara Ertter, and UC Davis professor emeritus Robbin W. Thorp.

INQUIRING MINDS: Nature writer Sharman Apt Russell ’76 explores self-driven scientific inquiry in Diary of a Citizen Scientist, released this fall by Oregon State University Press.

Over-Achievers

Ag-Econ Student Wins Innovation Fellowship

Gavin McCormick

Agricultural and resource economics PhD candidate Gavin McCormick is the recipient of this year’s Echoing Green Climate Fellowship for WattTime.org, his innovative nonprofit company that empowers people and business to control their own energy choices.

WattTime combines real-time electricity data and the Internet with groundbreaking predictive algorithms to inform and engage consumers, as well as to enable smart devices to automatically prioritize cleaner power sources in real time. Echoing Green’s Climate Fellowship targets next-generation social entrepreneurs committed to working on innovations in mitigation and adaptation to climate change. Winners receive a stipend of up to $90,000, plus leadership development and network access.

Ray to Co-Lead Rural Water Initiative

Isha Ray

The Institute for South Asia Studies was selected for a prestigious Obama-Singh 21st Century Knowledge Initiative Award, one of only four U.S. universities to earn the honor in 2014. A UC Berkeley team, led by energy and resources associate professor Isha Ray and civil and environmental engineering (CEE) professor Kara Nelson, will collaborate with faculty at the Centre for Technology Alternatives for Rural Areas in the Indian Institute of Technology, Bombay, Maharashtra, on the three-year project “Sustainable Indian Water Infrastructure Project: A Systems Approach.” CEE professors David Sedlak and Ashok Gadgil are also on the Berkeley team.

Junior a USDA/World Food Prize Fellow

Nicole Wong

Conservation and Resource Studies junior Nicole Wong completed a prestigious World Food Prize fellowship this summer at the Western Human Nutrition Research Center in Davis, Calif., part of the Agricultural Research Service. Wong was one of 33 students nationwide—and the only UC Berkeley student—selected to participate in the Wallace-Carver Fellowship, a program hosted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Food Prize Foundation.

Anthrax-Killing Virus Holds Promise for Treatment

Vultures gather at a zebra carcass in Etosha National Park in Namibia. Anthrax is caused by a bacterium that invades and kills its animal host. PHOTO: Holly Ganz

From a zebra carcass on the plains of Namibia in Southern Africa, an international team of researchers has isolated a new, giant bacteriophage—a type of virus that invades and kills a bacterial host—that specifically infects the bacterium that causes anthrax. The discovery could open up new ways to detect, treat, or decontaminate the anthrax bacterium, Bacillus anthracis, and its relatives that cause food poisoning.

The anthrax bacterium forms spores that survive in soil for long periods of time. Zebras are infected when they pick up the spores while grazing. The bacteria multiply, and when the animal dies, they form spores that return to the soil as the carcass decomposes.

The first thing the team noticed was that the bacteriophage, or phage, was a voracious predator of B. anthracis, said Holly Ganz, a research scientist at the UC Davis Genome Center and first author on the study. She began the work as a postdoctoral scientist on a team led by Wayne Getz, professor of environmental science, policy, and management (ESPM).

Bacteriophages are often highly specific to a particular strain of bacteria. When they were first discovered in the early 20th century, there was strong interest in using them as antimicrobial agents. But the discovery of penicillin and other antibiotics eclipsed phage treatments in most of the world. “With growing concerns about antibiotic resistance and superbugs, people are coming back to look at phages,” Ganz said.

Christina Law ’10 and molecular and cell biology professor Richard Calendar contributed to the National Institutes of Health–sponsored study, which was published on January 27 in PLOS One.

— Adapted from a story by Andy Fell on Egghead, a UC Davis research blog

Key Process in Photosynthesis Likely Evolved Before Oxygen

PHOTO: Chris German, courtesy of NOAA Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory

Scientists studying methane-producing microbes, like the ones found in deep-sea hydrothermal vents, discovered that a process critical to contemporary photosynthesis likely developed on Earth 2.5 billion years ago, long before oxygen became available. The research, led by professor emeritus of plant and microbial biology Bob B. Buchanan, with Virginia Tech colleague Biswarup Mukhopadhyay, opens new scientific areas in the fields of evolutionary biology and microbiology and has broad societal implications as it can shed light on natural gas production, climate change, and related fields. The findings were described in the February 7 Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

African American Voices in Entomology

Left: Rakim Turnipseed is a second-year ESPM PhD candidate with an emphasis in entomology. Right: Cooperative Extension specialist Vernard Lewis is an expert on bed bugs. PHOTOS: Left, Kenyetta Turnipseed; right, Robin Tabuchi

Genealogy of African-American Entomologists
1955–2013, UC Berkeley

10 earned PhDs
2 earned MS degrees
2 appointed to faculty (one adjunct)
2 took undergraduate courses (graduated in other majors)
1 current PhD student



ESPM Cooperative Extension specialist Vernard Lewis was invited to give a presentation on African Americans in entomology for the symposium, “Connecting with the World’s Best Talent: Attracting and Retaining Diverse Entomologists.” Nine other speakers at the November 2013 Entomology

Society of America meeting covered a wide array of underrepresented groups in the field.

Lewis dug into a case study of UC Berkeley. No other university had attempted this type of research exercise at their home institution, he later learned at the symposium. Expecting to be able to count his results on one hand, Lewis was surprised that his research turned up 15 individuals over 60 years who self-identified as African Americans and had taken undergrad courses in entomology, with most graduating. Two on the list held faculty positions. The list skewed mostly male, but two women had taken courses and had gone on to receive PhDs.

At least half of the people on the list went on to have careers in entomology. But Lewis thinks the numbers have a clear message. “Obviously, a lot more needs to be done to attract and retain diverse and talented individuals in entomology, as well as for science and math in general.”

— Ann Brody Guy and Vernard Lewis

OUTREACH: A new alliance that includes Berkeley, Stanford, UCLA, and Caltech, funded by the National Science Foundation, will attempt to recruit more underrepresented minority PhD students in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Golden Rice: The Cost of Inaction

Field of golden rice

A large body of scientific evidence points to Vitamin A–enriched rice (golden rice) as a cost-efficient means to significantly improve nutrition—and thereby lower health costs—for the world’s hungry masses. Yet despite golden rice being available since early 2000, the crop has not been introduced in any country. Why the delay? Agricultural and resource economics (ARE) professor David Zilberman postulated that governments perceive that the added costs of addressing the public controversy around genetically modified organisms, or GMOs, will outweigh the crop’s social benefits.

Zilberman and co-author Justus Wesseler, a professor at the Technische Universität München in Germany, developed a model to quantify those “perceived costs.” The results, based on a case study of India, show the annual perceived costs of GMO adoption to be at least US$199 million per year for most of the past decade. “This is an indicator of the economic power of the opposition toward golden rice,” said Zilberman, citing this perceived cost as the explanation for the delayed approvals.

The researchers also calculated the human cost of delaying golden rice implementation to be approximately 1.4 million life years lost over the past decade, mainly due to hunger-related deaths or shortened lifespans. The perceived costs are 85 times larger than the actual costs of implementing a golden rice agricultural program, the researchers reported.

“These findings explain why it’s more difficult to convince regulators when a strong vocal opposition exists to a technology,” said Zilberman. “Having a better understanding of the political economy behind the perceived costs, and studying how to reduce them, seems to be economically much more important than conducting additional investigations into the costs of implementation planning, such as social marketing and maintenance breeding.” The study was published in January’s Environment and Development Economics.

In a related study, Zilberman documented the positive social impact that genetically modified foods have already had. While acknowledging that agricultural biotechnology warrants continued investigation, and that each new transgenic crop might bring new or bigger risks, the article, published in the Winter 2014 Journal of Economics, concludes that the “balance of scientific knowledge weighs in favor of continued adoption of genetically engineered seed.” ARE PhD student Geoffrey Barrows and Steven Sexton, assistant professor at North Carolina State University, Raleigh, are co-authors.

— Ann Brody Guy

Protecting Food Crops from Powdery Mildew

Mary Wildermuth, associate professor of plant and microbial biology, in her lab. PHOTO: Peg Skorpinski

It looks harmless enough—a light dusting like baby powder sprinkled on the leaves. But powdery mildew can cause billions of dollars of crop damage in California. For example, the fast-spreading fungus is the most significant disease affecting grapes in California. Borne by the wind, its spores race through fields, resulting in crop losses of 30 percent or more.

Growers combat powdery mildew with sulfur, fungicides, and other deterrents, but treatment is costly, and timing is difficult. But a much more precise strategy may be on the way. Using highly refined dissection of infected plant cells, coupled with genetic analysis, plant and microbial biology associate professor Mary Wildermuth identified genes critical to a plant’s response to mildew attack. Her research focuses on plant breeding strategies that can weaken powdery mildew’s grip.

Wildermuth is applying her discoveries to protect commer-cially valuable crops. She uses a plant in the mustard family popular with researchers for its small, sequenced genome and a short life cycle. “We’ve already identified the parallel genes in a number of important crops,” she said. “By targeted breeding to limit these genes’ powdery mildew–promoting effects, we should be able to protect plants without extensive chemical treatments.” Wildermuth’s work is funded from the Bakar Fellows Program, which supports early-career faculty conducting commercially promising research.

— adapted from an article by Wallace Ravven

TOP PAPER: ARE professor emeritus George Judge was a co-author, with colleagues in the United Kingdom and Russia, on the winning entry for the 2014 Best Paper Award from the journal Entropy, it was announced in February.

Cal Forestry Turns 100

Cal Forestry Centennial

FORESTRY 100 ACTIVITIES
North American Forestry Summit
May 7–9 (by invitation)Centennial Party
Sept. 19, UC Berkeley Faculty ClubCentennial Publication
Available beginning Sept. 19 (distributed free to Centennial Party guests)Support Forestry Camp
The S. Donald and Bernice Schwabacher Fund provides CNR with critical resources to preserve our forestry field class for future generations. See Save Our Only-at-Cal Forestry Camp, page 28, or go to nature.berkeley.edu/forestry100 and click the “Give Now” button.

This year, forestry education at UC Berkeley turns 100. Over the past century, the Cal Forestry program has had an impact on every dimension of the field and has produced the profession’s most influential thinkers and doers.

Alumni of the program hold critical positions for the management of 95 percent of the industrial forestlands in California, and the research of our alumni and faculty has expanded knowledge in fire, remote sensing and geographic information systems, ecology, climate change, forest economics, the social sciences, and numerous other areas. For a forestry that crossed several of these disciplines, see Taming Sierra Flames, just in time for the fire season.

Cal Forestry is celebrating its centennial in style, with a party, a special publication highlighting faculty and alumni contributions to the field, and a conference that looks to the future of forestry education. The program is also holding a campaign to secure the future of the beloved summer field program in the Sierras, known as Forestry Camp.


ESPM TURNS 20: In a special anniversary Q&A section, Planet Earth interviews the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management.

Golf Goes Green

Golf ball

Bay Area golf lovers can thank Stacey Baba ’77 and her cohorts in the Northern California Golf Association (NCGA) for making a local golf course more sustainable. The group owns Poppy Ridge in Livermore and Poppy Hills in Pebble Beach. “The Poppy Hills renovation project cut water consumption by reducing the area of irrigated turf from 82 to 66 acres, even though the course was lengthened,” said Baba, who is on NCGA’s board of directors. Poppy Hills reopened this spring after completing a year of renovations that include a new irrigation system that applies water—already ultra-filtered sewage runoff—more selectively, among other enhancements.

— Ann Brody Guy

Harrison Fraker Named Top 2014 Architecture Educator

Harrison Fraker

Harrison Fraker, an architecture professor known for his trailblazing work in sustainability, is the 2014 recipient of the Topaz Medallion for Excellence in Architectural Education, the leading award in architectural education in the United States. Fraker currently serves as the chair of the Energy and Resources Group and is a former dean of the College of Environmental Design.

The Topaz Medallion honors an individual who has been involved in architecture education for more than a decade and whose teaching has influenced a broad range of students. The prize was announced December 17 by the Board of the American Institute of Architects and the Association of Collegiate Schools of Architecture, who commended Fraker for pushing the academic study of energy use in buildings to the forefront of the sustainability movement.

— Adapted from an article by Kathleen Maclay

Go-Getters

María Fernández-Giménez

María Fernández-Giménez, MS ’92 Range Manage-ment, PhD ’97 Wildland Resource Science, received the Outstanding Achievement Award for Research at the Society for Range Management’s 67th annual meeting, held in February. Fernández-Giménez is a professor in the Forest and Rangeland Stewardship Department at Colorado State University.

Nicole Abreu

Plant and microbial biology (PMB) graduate student Nicole Abreu has been awarded the American Society for Microbiology’s prestigious Robert D. Watkins Graduate Research Fellowship and will receive up to $21,000 annually over the next three years to continue her work on how bacteria function at a cellular level.

Rebecca Peters

Rebecca Peters, a senior who focuses on water rights, has won a Marshall Scholarship, one of the nation’s top honors for undergraduates. Peters is a double major in society and environment and international development economics. The scholarship funds U.S. students with high leadership potential to pursue graduate studies in the United Kingdom.

Michael Gomez

CNR graduate students dominated the 2013 Dow Sustainability Innovation Student Challenge Awards, which rewards graduate students working on innovative, interdisciplinary, and sustainable solutions to world challenges in energy and climate change, water, food, housing, and human health. Grand prize winner Michael Gomez, a PhD candidate in PMB, won $10,000 for his efforts to engineer resistance to cassava brown streak disease, a serious threat to a vital food supply in Africa. Gavin McCormick and Dilek Uz, agricultural and resource economics PhD students, along with their biophysics and chemistry teammate Anna Schneider, were named runners-up for WattTime, a method for tuning electricity-consuming equipment to favor power from cleaner sources.

Go Bears! U.S. News & World Report has once again chosen Cal for the No. 1 spot on its 2013 ranking of public universities.

Disabling an Enzyme Cripples Cancer Cells

Illustration of an aggressive cancer cell IMAGE: O'Reilly Science Art

Knocking out a single enzyme dramatically cripples the ability of aggressive cancer cells to spread and grow tumors, offering a promising new target in the development of cancer treatments, according to a UC Berkeley study published August 26 in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. The research sheds new light on the importance of lipids, a group of molecules that includes fatty acids and cholesterol, in the development of cancer.

Researchers have long known that cancer cells metabolize lipids differently than normal cells. Levels of ether lipids — a class of lipids that are harder to break down — are particularly elevated in highly malignant tumors, although the nature of that correlation has been unclear for decades.

"Cancer cells make and use a lot of fat and lipids, and that makes sense because cancer cells divide and proliferate at an accelerated rate, and to do that, they need lipids, which make up the membranes of the cell," said the study principal investigator Daniel Nomura, assistant professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology. "Lipids have a variety of uses for cellular structure, but what we're showing with our study is that lipids can also send signals that fuel cancer growth."

In the study, Nomura and his team tested the effects of reducing ether lipids on human skin cancer cells and primary breast tumors. They targeted an enzyme, alkylglycerone phosphate synthase, or AGPS, known to be critical to the formation of ether lipids, and found that inactivating it substantially reduced the aggressiveness of the cancer cells. "The cancer cells were less able to move and invade," said Nomura.

The researchers also found that in mice injected with cancer cells, disabling AGPS resulted in no tumor growth, whereas mice with the enzyme intact rapidly developed tumors.

Future steps include the development of AGPS inhibitors for use in cancer therapy, Nomura said. The study co-authors also include Kunxin Luo, professor of molecular and cell biology and faculty scientist at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.

— Adapted from an article by Sarah Yang

Repairing Acid Rain Damage Improves Forest Health

Maple leaf

Acid rain from industrial pollution has damaged the health of forests for close to 50 years. Working in the American Northeast, researchers led by John Battles, professor of forest ecology, restored soil calcium that had been depleted by acid rain. As a result, the forests have increased their levels of carbon sequestration and improved their resiliency to major disturbances like ice storms, which are likely to increase with climate change.

Researchers have also measured significant improvements to the health of the iconic sugar maple, a tree species sensitive to acid rain effects. The findings were published in September in Environmental Science and Technology Letters.

— Adapted from an article by Sarah Yang

VENERABLE: The Society of American Foresters awarded Kevin O'Hara, professor of silviculture, the 2013 Carl Alwin Schenck Award "in recognition of devotion and demonstrated outstanding performance in the field of forestry education." O'Hara was honored at a ceremony held in October in Charleston, S.C.

Park It

Carolyn Finney

Geographer Carolyn Finney, assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management (ESPM), is one of 12 appointees to the distinguished leadership panel of the Parks Forward Commission, it was announced in August.

Parks Forward, created following the passage of the California State Park Stewardship Act of 2012, is tasked with designing and adopting a blueprint for "a financially sustainable and functionally relevant State Park System that meets the needs of a changing population and provides an innovative park system model for the rest of the nation," according to a press release from the California Resources Agency. Caryl Hart Ph.D. '09, ESPM, director of Sonoma County Regional Parks and a CNR Advisory Board member, is also serving on the new leadership panel.

Store Credit

Shop mannequin

Energy and resources doctoral candidate Laura Schewel was named the winner of the 2013 Young Researcher of the Year award at the International Transport Summit in Leipzig, Germany, on May 23.

Her title-winning paper, "Shop 'Till We Drop: A History and Policy Analysis of Retail Goods Movement," analyzed two large data sets to understand how much time both shoppers and merchandise delivery trucks spend motoring on the road to retail. Improving the data and understanding interactions between sectors could lower shopping-related greenhouse gas emissions and lead to more sustainability-oriented policies, Schewel says. See NewsMakers.

Scientists Use Today's Cells to Date Origins of Photosynthesis, Biodiversity

Photosynthesizing cyanobacteria invaded the earliest one-celled plants about 900 million years ago, eventually becoming chloroplasts (pictured) that conferred on plants the ability to convert sunlight into energy. PHOTO: iStockphoto

Long before Earth became lush, when life consisted of single-celled organisms afloat in a planet-wide sea, bacteria invaded the ancient ancestors of plants and animals and took up permanent residence. One bacterium eventually became the mitochondria that today powers all plant and animal cells; another became the chloroplast that turns sunlight into energy in green plants.

A new analysis by two UC Berkeley graduate students more precisely pinpoints when these life-changing invasions occurred, placing the origin of photosynthesis in plants hundreds of millions of years earlier than once thought. The paper was published in June in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"When you are talking about these really ancient events, scientists have estimated numbers that are all over the board," said study co-author Patrick Shih, Ph.D. '13, Plant and Microbial Biology. Estimates of the age of eukaryotes — cells with a nucleus that evolved into all of today's plants and animals — range from 800 million years to 3 billion years ago.

"We came up with a novel way of decreasing the uncertainty and increasing our confidence in dating these events," he said. Shih and colleague Nicholas Matzke, Ph.D. '13, Integrative Biology, believe that their approach can help answer similar questions about the origins of ancient microscopic fossils.

The two researchers employed fossil and genetic evidence to estimate the dates when bacteria set up shop as symbiotic organisms in the earliest one-celled eukaryotes. They concluded that a proteobacterium invaded eurkaryotes about 1.2 billion years ago, in line with earlier estimates. They found that a cyanobacterium — a blue-green algae that had already developed photosynthesis — invaded eukaryotes 900 million years ago, much later than some estimates, which are as high as 2 billion years ago.

Shih and Matzke realized that they could get better precision than previous fossil-based estimates by studying today's mitochondria and chloroplasts, which from their free-living days still retain genes that are evolutionarily related to genes currently present in plant and animal DNA. "These genes ... were present in our single-celled ancestors and are present now and are really, really conserved," Matzke said. "These go back to the last common ancestor of all living things, so it helps us constrain the tree of life."

— Adapted from an article by Robert Sanders

Bedbugs Won't Take the Bait

Bed bugs

Detecting bedbugs is key to controlling them, and a new UC study shows that current methods for finding the blood-sucking pests aren't very reliable. Researchers tested three commercial monitors. At best, the monitors containing attractants captured only 10 percent of the bedbugs, scientists wrote in the July–September issue of California Agriculture. The researchers call for improving monitors as well as developing new methods to lure the insects more effectively.

"If we could put out bait and the bedbugs find it and die, wouldn't that be great?" said Vernard Lewis, UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy, and Management and lead author of the article. Lewis is testing attractants for bedbugs and observing their behavior.

— Adapted from an article by Pam Kan-Rice

New Ecological Twist on Climate Change

Male and female (yellow forehead) green-rumped parrotlets in Venezuela.

Yes, those spring wildflowers did arrive earlier this year. The timing of flowering, egg-laying, and migratory behavior — breeding behavior known as phenology — in many plants and animals has been altered by climate warming that affects their food supply and other environmental conditions. A new study, published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in September, provides the first evidence that phenological responses to climate change might be more complicated than previously thought.

The green-rumped parrotlet breeds multiple times from May to November in Venezuela, with variations driven by year-to-year differences in rainfall and population size, the study found. "It's advantageous for the birds to nest early in the breeding season to produce more offspring per year, but both the offspring and the breeding female survive better into the next year if nesting starts later," said Steven Beissinger, ESPM professor and the study's principal investigator. This pattern is called "opposing selection" and results from trade-offs between the timing of reproductive success and survival. Opposing selection could explain why many field studies of plants and animals report strong selection on heritable traits, such as bill length or body size in one direction — either larger or smaller — without accompanying changes in the trait over generations.

"Our results also highlight the importance of measuring the evolutionary basis for phenological shifts, not just documenting the shift, if we want to understand how species will cope with climate change," Beissinger said.

— Ann Brody Guy

POWER PLANTS: The Energy Biosciences Institute was granted its first patent since the public-private research partnership was established in 2007 between UC Berkeley, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and energy giant BP. U.S. Patent No. 8,431,360, titled "Methods and Compositions for Improving Sugar Transport, Mixed Sugar Fermentation, and Production of Biofuels," was granted on April 30. The discovery resulted from work that uses yeast to improve the conversion of plant cell wall sugar to produce biofuel.

Farewell to a Friend

Norma Gallins Kobzina: 1944–2013

Norma Gallins Kobzina. PHOTO: Peg Skorpinski

On May 6, Dean J. Keith Gilless sadly announced the death of Norma Kobzina, the head of Information Services at the Marian Koshland Bioscience and Natural Resources Library. She was 69 years old. The cause was pancreatic cancer. We are sharing just a few excerpts from the outpouring of affection for Kobzina, who had a Ph.D. in Spanish from Cornell as well as her M.L.I.S. from UC Berkeley. "Norma loved her work and always felt a part of the College of Natural Resources," John Kobzina, her husband of 45 years, told Breakthroughs. Norma, the feeling is mutual.

"Norma was considered by all who dealt with her to be the ultimate librarian and professional. However, she also should be remembered for the practical and scholarly contributions that she made that went far beyond the needs of Berkeley faculty and students. She wrote articles questioning the value of impact factors in evaluating research, looking at which journals contributed most to specific fields, and which papers were most influential. However, to me, she'll first be remembered as a great friend."
Vince Resh

"Norma was so kind and patient with me. She was a wonderful educator. I have adored her since I was a graduate student. She always ordered the books I wanted, and she helped this big institution seem like a community."
Lynn Huntsinger

"Norma remembered everyone's name, and her joy for helping people learn how to do research in her ever-changing library-scape only seemed to increase each year. She was a lovely and unique person."
Nancy Peluso

"I met Norma 25 years ago as we commuted on BART when she spotted a soil science journal in my hands and asked why I was reading it. Her sparkling curiosity was one of the hallmarks of the working relationship we had since then, particularly when she was offered the challenge of teaching the library training sessions for the large freshman course I give on environmental studies with Professor Robert Hass of the English Department. Norma developed an extraordinary approach to combining environmental science and nature writing in these sessions, thereby ensuring that the broadest variety of library resources would be exposed to our students. Insofar as I am aware, this represented the first time humanities and natural sciences were integrated to give library instruction to Berkeley undergraduates. Through her remarkable efforts, the intrinsically interdisciplinary spirit of the course was made manifest in a way neither Bob Hass nor I had expected. She was truly one of the great treasures of the Berkeley Library."
Garrison Sposito

To help support the work that Norma loved, send a check for the Norma Kobzina Library Fund to: Development and External Relations, The University Library, 131 Doe Library, Berkeley, CA 94720-6000.

Watchdogs

Pamela Behrsin

After getting to know each other at CNR's 2012 homecoming picnic, Pamela Behrsin '10 of MapLight, a nonprofit research organization that tracks money's influence on politics, and Hillary Lehr '07 (pictured), director of Global Exchange's Elect Democracy campaign, teamed up to create the hard-hitting report, Meet the FIRE Sector: How Wall Street Is Burning Democracy, which charted the $4.2 billion spent by finance, insurance, and real estate industries (FIRE) on lobbying, campaign contributions, and other influence efforts in the past six years.

The report's accompanying scorecard assigned each sitting member of Congress a Wall Street Loyalty rating based on the percentage of the lawmaker's votes that aligned with the FIRE lobby's positions on legislation impacting economic security.

— Ann Brody Guy

MolTox Wins New Internship

Breanna Morris PHOTO: Dwight Ford

Last spring, local startup Elara Bioscience launched a paid internship created specifically for Berkeley's molecular toxicology undergraduates. Working under the direction of Dale Johnson, the company's president and CEO and an adjunct professor of nutritional sciences and toxicology, interns will pitch in toward the company's goal of providing industry with online, secure access to chemical toxicity data and current safety regulations.

Breanna Morris, now a junior, won the inaugural spot and was joined by two more interns over the summer. "The most exciting thing about the internship is the chance to see the real-world effects of the work we've done," she says. Getting lost in small, segmented tasks can sometimes result in losing sight of the bigger picture, but she says, "as an intern I can step back and see how all of the work we put in moves us closer to the company's goals."

Morris, who has worked for a decade at her own web design and e-marketing company and is married with three children, saw her two interests come together. "The internship gave me the opportunity to see how web technologies can be applied to the biotech and toxicology industries," she says. "It's great to have a chance to merge my love of information technology with my passion for toxicology."

— Ann Brody Guy

Bob Buchanan Retires

Bob Buchanan

Plant and Microbial Biology Professor Bob Buchanan retired in June after serving on the UC Berkeley faculty for 50 years, with the last 5 as CNR's executive associate dean. During his career, he made major discoveries in microbiology and biochemistry, published more than 200 research articles, taught an estimated 10,000 students, and co-edited the leading textbook on plant biochemistry and molecular biology. His numerous honors include election to the National Academy of Sciences, being a fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, and receipt of an Alexander von Humboldt Research Award.

Read Berkeley, My Half-Century: Bob B. Buchanan

Steven Lindow, a professor of plant and microbial biology, has been appointed the new executive associate dean of the College. Lindow is a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, the American Phytopathological Society, and the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

NewsMakers


David Sunding"[The project] does clearly pass a cost-benefit test to the tune of something like $5 billion."

David Sunding, Professor, Agricultural and Resource Economics

An August 6 Los Angeles Times article covered an economic analysis, led by Sunding, that determined that the benefits of building a new tunnel system for the Sacramento–San Joaquin River Delta would far outweigh the costs. The project would stabilize water supplies from the Delta, which serves roughly two out of every three Californians, as well as restore the estuary's ecosystem. 


Laura Schewel"We have no idea what's happening on the roads. Just none. When you compare that to what we know about what people watch on TV, it's absurd."

Laura Schewel, M.S. '11, Ph.D. Candidate, Energy and Resources Group

Schewel was named one of MIT Technology Review's annual "35 Innovators Under 35," published in the September/October issue, for her company StreetLight Data. The startup developed software that uses cellphone and navigation data to generate the demographics of people who drive by or stop near any specified address. The results have applications not just for transportation but for marketing, business development, and urban planning.


Steven E. Brenner"How long will it be until an idealistic and technically literate researcher deliberately releases genome and trait information ... in the name of open science?"

Steven E. Brenner, Professor, Plant and Microbial Biology

In a June 12 opinion piece in the journal Nature, Brenner says it's inevitable that a leak of genomic information will occur. "Individual scientists, institutions, and funders should consider now how they will react when this happens," Brenner says. He stressed that discussions about the risks of a leak must also include the tremendous benefits to society of using that information to achieve medical progress.


"Tips fluctuate from shift to shift, but rent and bills are constant."

Saru Jayaraman, Director, Food Labor Research Center, and 2013 Berkeley Food Institute Visiting Scholar

In a New York Times opinion piece published June 23, Jayaraman advocates for a stable, livable base wage for restaurant workers. She appeared in numerous media outlets last year, including "The Bill Maher Show" and "Moyers and Company," promoting food workers' rights and her 2013 book Behind the Kitchen Door. See A Voice for Food Workers.