Monthly Archives: July 2013

Pollen Architecture

A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse

A variety of pollen grains in different stages of folding
Image via ScienceFriday / Slow Muse

Pollen grains – not all of them, but some of them – have specific architecture which allows them to seal in upon themselves to maintain enough internal moisture to remain intact over distance. Upon arrival, the grain unfolds again, and is ready to reproduce.

We are having a bit of the summer pollen blues at our place this week, and I found this nifty image and short film on how pollen travels without drying out before it reaches its destination.

The paper on pollen folding was published a couple of years ago, but the images and the film provide a beautiful insight into a process that we might otherwise simply find a nuisance.

Pollen Origami:


Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences study (2010) – Foldable structures and the natural design of pollen grains by E. Katifori, S. Alben E. Cerda, D.R. Nelson, J. Dumais

Film – Pollen Origami, Science Friday 



Rippling the Surface

Great White Shark fin

Great White Shark fin

Great white sharks make for such wonderfully fearsome nightmares, those terrfiying tooth-rimmed maws opening into that most primeval of fears, being eaten alive. This apex predator feeds mainly on marine mammals – seals, sea lions, elephant seals, dolphins – and fish. The only real predator that faces the great white is another mammal. Humans.

For all we might think we know about the great white, Carcharodon carcharias, it turns out we don’t really know very much – the rest is beneath the surface, down there with myth, fear and assumption.

From an article in LiveScience,

“One of the most ambitious expeditions ever to tag great white sharks will set sail on July 30 off Cape Cod, Mass. The researchers hope to tag as many as 20 of the enormous sharks, about which very little is known.

The project is expected to be the largest shark-tagging mission in U.S. history, according to the nonprofit shark research group OCEARCH, which is leading the mission along with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI). The effort is part of an initiative to better understand the animals and to inform the public about the importance of sharks, which serve as top predators and are vital for the proper function of ocean food webs, said WHOI researcher Simon Thorrold. As many as 100 million sharks are killed per year due to both legal and illegal fishing, a recent study found.

“Given how much interest there is in great white sharks, we are still scientifically trying to find out the very basics,” Thorrold said.”

My closest encounter with a great white shark? As I’ve mentioned before, fishermen caught a great white off the California coast where I grew up – we viewed it, gazed down its dead gullet – then it was butchered and we ate it. It gave us shivers to think of what we were eating, and it was too bad that I don’t believe in any kind of magical transfer of powers gained from eating a powerful animal.

Deep sea photographer Daniel Botelho has logged 24-hours in total diving out of a cage with great white sharks. Photo: Botelho/Barcroft Media via DailyMail

Deep sea photographer Daniel Botelho has logged 24-hours in total diving out of a cage with great white sharks.
Photo: Botelho/Barcroft Media via Daily Mail

Peter Benchley, who wrote JAWS and thus authored a generation of shark fear, apparently repented of his nightmare tale even as it made him a fortune. He spent many years working for shark conservation, and is quoted as saying, “”[T]he shark in an updated Jaws could not be the villain; it would have to be written as the victim; for, worldwide, sharks are much more the oppressed than the oppressors.”

I hope this latest research project will go some way towards showing us a bit of what’s hidden under the surface.

Monday Rain


This is what I get for complaining about the searing summer heat over the weekend: A Monday of torrential summer rain.

We’ve had an impressive display of window-rattling thunder and showy mountain lightning over the past twelve hours, and the kind of non-stop, utterly vertical precipitation that is actually a warm joy to dance in if you aren’t trying to revive your electrical power or to keep the garage from flooding.

For the moment, fingers crossed, we’ve got power and the flooding has been averted, so I found myself thinking about where all this precious sweet fresh water might go. We have a couple of water cisterns for our roof run-off – we use it to water the plants when the inevitable summer drought conditions set in. But whither the rest of this watery plenty?

Drawing Water Source: David Wicks via sansumbrella

Drawing Water (2011)
Infographic: David Wicks / sansumbrella

I couldn’t find information for France, but I did find this intriguing image of water flow in the United States. Called Drawing Water and created by David Wicks, it illustrates the relation between where water falls to where it is consumed, based on government data. From Wicks’ site, sansumbrella:

“Each line in Drawing Water corresponds to a daily rainfall measurement. The length of the line and its initial placement are determined by the amount of rainfall measured and where it fell. The final placement and color of each line are determined by the influence of urban water consumers. The more water a city uses, the stronger its pull on the rainfall.”

It’s worth heading over to sansumbrella to play with the interactive links for this illustration and read the more extensive descriptions of how the image was created.

Meanwhile, I will listen to the steady millions of drops falling outside, picture their onward journey across, through and under the ground, and learn to complain neither about the heat, nor about the rain. Because, for the moment, the water table where I live has plenty of water from which to draw.

A bit of whisky, a few Bad Seeds


The summer oven of heat got turned up a few notches this week, and I’ve been keeping within the cool confines of our stone house as much as possible. If I don’t move much, and stay mostly in rooms kept shadowed from the sun by the green volets (the old wood shutters that close with iron hooks that let air in but hold the sun at bay), I can make it through most days without keeping my feet in a pan of ice water. It goes without saying that an old French house like ours doesn’t have air-conditioning.

But we can’t spend all our time indoors, and yesterday we ventured out to the Paleo Festival in Nyon, an annual music festival with six stages, countless bands, and a week-long schedule, all set out in a field near Lake Geneva. My good friend, journalist Catherine Nelson-Pollard, goes every year, and she took a few aerial shots earlier this week on a morning before the festival got underway. Her blog, Living in Nyon, has a great round-up of the Paleo festival as well as terrific photos.

This is the nearby town of Nyon, Switzerland.

And this is the festival grounds about ten minutes from the medieval town. The festival, now in its 38th year, attracts just under a quarter-million visitors and has a large campsite. There are around 170 acts this year.

Paleo Festival Nyon 2013
Photo: Catherine Nelson-Pollard / Living in Nyon

The thermometer was up around 33°C (91°F) when we arrived at 7:30 in the evening – clouds of mist issued from water walls, a fireman patrolled, spraying water on any festival-goers who looked overheated. The atmosphere is relaxed, friendly, very international (around 40% of residents in this area are foreigners who work international companies and organizations headquartered in the Lake Geneva region), and in spite of the heat, large crowds were dancing to the various bands on the different stages.

But we were there to see one act in particular: Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. This is a group I remember from my university days, and we were excited to get to see them live. They didn’t disappoint. The band was dressed in funereal black suits, the lighting was as indigo-shaded as the music, and as the concert progressed and the sun sank behind the mountains, the twilight sky matched the mood of the ballads and tales of life’s dusky underbellies. Nick Cave’s akimbo moves and basso storytelling were mesmerizing. The crowd was ecstatic and the show was better than we could have hoped. balvenie-doublewood-12-year-old-whisky

We met the heat with large bottles of water, but deep whisky music calls for good whisky, which is why we brought along a flask of The Balvenie Doublewood 12-year-old to share (yes, Paleo lets you bring in your own food and drink). Smooth, hints of sweet amber from the ageing in sherry casks, some spice and just a faint hint of dark smoke, it is almost too cheerful a drink for the dire lyrics of Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, but nevertheless, added just the right flavor.

In honor of my physicist hubby and festival partner who braved the Lake Geneva heat with me, here’s the Higgs Boson Blues.


Paleo festival website

Living in Nyon website

Krill Gratitude


Via: OneYearNovel

Massive ocean krill swarms – hundreds of millions of tons of them – are a keystone of one of the great planetary life cycles.

A new Australian study published in the journal Nature Climate Change called Risk maps for Antarctic krill under projected Southern Ocean acidification, looks at the threshold at which krill – specifically, their eggs – no longer survive acidification levels caused by CO2 emissions. Krill eggs, as it turns out, are more resistant that some other calcifying creatures such as oysters and sea butterflies. Like the sea butterfly, krill shells are critical to the global carbonate cycle, part of which is the deep-sea calcium carbonate sediment formed by the shells of krill – these shells bind carbon and carry it to depths of the ocean.

But even krill have their limits and those are rapidly approaching.

The impact of higher acidification comes with an increase in fishing – krill are industrially harvested for food products, health supplements, and as feed for fish farming.

Researchers for the study estimate that by 2300, unless drastic measures are undertaken to reduce carbon emissions, the world’s krill might be gone. But they state these estimates might be conservative – a tipping point could be reached earlier.

One proposal underway is the creation of a protected Antarctic zone.

What would really help is the same old answer: a move away from a carbon-based fuel economy.

Krill (watercolor) Source: Wikipedia

Krill (watercolor)
Source: Wikipedia


The Guardian articleAntarctic krill face unhappy Hollywood ending if fossil fuel emissions keep rising by Graham Readfearn

Microbe Migration

Chromatography of soil sample, a low-tech method for assessing soil composition and health. Source: Eugenio Gras / Milkwood

Chromatography of a soil sample, a low-tech method for assessing soil composition and health, including microbial population.
Source: Eugenio Gras / Milkwood

When we think of healthy soil, we usually think of pH levels, mineral content, and availability of water. When we think of biodiversity, we think of animals and plants.

And then there’s soil biodiversity. One tonne of soil can harbor up to 25% of its weight in living microorganisms. And it is this group of life that is responsible for the nutrient exchange of the soil, its carbon and nitrogen content, its structure.

Microcoleus vaginatus, one of the soil-dwelling microbes examined in the study

A recently published study published in Science suggests that soil-dwelling microbes may be temperature dependent, and that their composition in a given soil may change with rising temperatures. Microbes that currently enrich soils in temperate regions could find themselves competing against arid-climate microbes.

This could in turn, of course, affect soil health as much as drought or other climate change impact. The question as to just how microbe migration might impact larger environments remains open.

Simplified Soil Food Web, showing bacteria and microorganisms at the 2nd trophic level. Source: European Soil Portal

Simplified Soil Food Web, showing bacteria and microorganisms at the 2nd trophic level.
Source: European Soil Portal


Science studyTemperature Drives the Continental-Scale Distribution of Key Microbes in Topsoil Communities by F. Garcia-Pichel, V. Loza, Y. Marusenko, P. Mateo, R.M. Potrafka

Scientific American post/podcastClimate Change Alters Soil Bacteria Distribution

Temperature Loss


Skullpture Series – Moose: Gaia’ (Left Antler – Phase 2)
Carved bronze antler sculpture
Source: Shane Wilson

I noticed earlier this year that the moose-hunting season had been cancelled in Minnesota due to concerns over the decline of the state’s moose population. While some areas of North America have seen the numbers of these animals increase – notably North Dakota – other areas like New Hampshire and Minnesota have seen their numbers drop.

It was only recently that I realized just how sudden, how precipitous the decrease has been in Minnesota. A 35% drop in a single year.

Moose, those lumbering giants that look goofy without their antlers and daunting with them, are built for cool weather. The insects that feed on them (tens of thousands of ticks and mosquitoes – that’s per moose) thrive in higher temperatures.

The more ticks and other blood-sucking insects that attack the moose, the more the moose rub against trees, the more hair they rub off, leaving hairless patches which are all the more vulnerable to attack. Researchers estimate the amount of ticks they are finding on moose are 10-20 times the normal amount, leading to anemia. And there may be other factors – internal parasites, disease, and overall weakness due to higher temperatures for which the moose are ill-equipped.

Photo credit: CC/Flickr/ajburcar

Photo credit: CC/Flickr/ajburcar

A report issued by the U.S. National Wildlife Federation, Wildlife in a Warming World, concludes,

“Extreme weather is devastating communities and habitats; species’ range shifts are happening two to three times faster than previous estimates; and more and more wildlife species are on the brink of extinction due to human- caused climate change. Now is the time for America to take swift, bold action to reduce carbon pollution that is heating the planet and properly deal with the unavoidable impacts of an already changing climate.”

Conservation efforts are often rooted in estimates, timelines and practices based on how a species has survived in previous environments. Looking at this makes me realize that the variables may change more quickly than anyone, or any animal, can adapt.

There were always going to be winners and losers in the climate change process. In the case of the Minnesota moose, it looks like the parasites are winning.


U.S. National Wildlife Federation reportWildlife in a Warming World (2013) by A. Staudt, C. Shott, D. Inkley, I. Ricker

OnEarth article that documents the determined efforts to find out what, exactly, is at the root of moose decline in Minnesota – What’s Killing Minnesota’s Moose? by Jessica Benko article – Where the wild things aren’t: Moose, other species fade with climate change by Ron Meador

Reuters article – Minnesota moose population plummets, activists blame climate by Deborah Zabarenko

Shaking the Tree

Tree of Life  Image: Tree of Life Web Project

Tree of Life
Image: Tree of Life Web Project

The current phylogenetic tree, which organizes the known types of life into groups that share certain characteristics, may have just gained an extra branch way down near the roots. There are three domains: Archaea, Bacteria, and Eukoryota.

While we are used to hearing about a new species of frog or beetle or plant being discovered, these are usually branches or even twigs far up the Eukaryotic line. And it’s accepted that only a fraction of bacteria, one of the three main branches, have been identified.

So it’s kind of major news that a family has been found that don’t fit anything yet known. French scientists at CNRS, the French national research agency, have found viruses that are massive (massive compared to other known viruses, that is). They are large enough to be seen with a regular light microscope, and have almost twice the number of genomes, a different  structure and different physical appearances from that of other known viruses.

Pandoraviruses have a much bigger genome, an atypical shape, and different genes from megaviruses (inset), the next largest viruses known to date. Credit: IGS – CNRS/AMU; IGS CNRS-AMU/Chantal Abergel Via Science

Pandoraviruses have a much bigger genome, an atypical shape, and different genes from megaviruses (inset), the next largest viruses known to date.
Credit: IGS – CNRS/AMU; IGS CNRS-AMU/Chantal Abergel Via Science

From the original paper: “Because more than 93% of Pandoraviruses genes resemble nothing known, their origin cannot be traced back to any known cellular lineage…The absence of Pandoravirus-like sequences from the rapidly growing environmental metagenomic databases suggests either that they are rare or that their ecological niche has never been prospected.”

I count it as a good day when a major assumption is expanded or upended by scientific research. I would welcome the Pandoravirus family to the Tree of Life, but congratulations are more appropriate in the other direction. Thank you, researchers, for alerting us to something that has been right under our collective noses.


Science paperPandoraviruses: Amoeba Viruses with Genomes Up to 2.5 Mb Reaching That of Parasitic Eukaryotes by N. Philippe, M. Legendre, G. Doutre, Y. Couté, O. Poirot, M. Lescot, D. Arslan, V. Seltzer, L. Bertaux, C. Bruley, J. Garin, J-M. Claverie, C. Abergel

Science articleEver-Bigger Viruses Shake Tree of Life by Elizabeth Pennisi



Redcurrant and Galileo


20946642_sThere are events and opportunities that demand attention in the moment they occur. One of those is processing and preserving fresh garden produce. It doesn’t matter whether there are a multitude of other worthy distractions, the fruit won’t wait.

So in spite of our current heat wave, I’ve been at the stove, processing the bounty of redcurrant we’ve had this year. Masses of the fat red berries, all from a single bush.

Redcurrant chutney with rosemary. Redcurrant jam with peaches from the neighbor’s place. Redcurrant sorbet, which is a tart complement to the prosecco sorbet we made last week.

Another opportunity which required immediate action was the discovery of a small supply of Ardbeg’s limited edition Galileo whisky at a Geneva wine shop. All the more shocking, it was reasonably priced, well under the online offers I’ve seen. Since that almost never happens in Geneva, I took it as a sign that I shouldn’t hesitate.

The Galileo bottling, which won the title of World’s Best Single Malt at the 2013 World Whiskies Awards, must be the only whisky created in honor of a whisky experiment on the International Space Station. More on that here.

My personal impression of the Galileo is of a complex set of aromas and tastes that were so wintry, it cooled me off in this

Ardberg Galileo

Ardberg Galileo

swelter of a summer. A peaty, maritime nose with a hint of fruity sweetness; a smoked fish taste, a sharp palate opener that made me feel I’d just bitten off a corner of the Atlantic Ocean, then brown sugar, spice, turpentine, and a round sherry sweetness from those Marsala casks in which the whisky was kept for part of its ageing. An abrupt and clean finish, a window opened wide and then crisply shut.

All I can say is, I’m so glad I seized the moment.

Now, back to those canning jars…