SciTech Now Episode 440

In this episode of SciTech Now, we take a look at how researchers are finding ways to safeguard Honey Bees; Joaquim Goes discusses invasive Algae Blooms; Co-Host of True North John Iadarola discusses his journey to the Arctic; and the race to find an Ebola Vaccine.

TRANSCRIPT

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Coming up, safeguarding honeybees.

1/3 of all the food that ends up on our table depends on honeybee pollination.

Invasive algae blooms.

It's a tiny organism, which is very, very different from other algae.

A journey to the Arctic.

There are areas where maps are continually going out of date because the glaciers just aren't in the positions that they used to be.

The race to find an Ebola vaccine.

We had the largest outbreak of all time, infecting close to 30,000 people.

It's all ahead.

Funding for this program is made possible by...

Hello.

I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Welcome to 'SciTech Now,' our weekly program bringing you the latest breakthroughs in science, technology, and innovation.

Let's get started.

Colony collapse disorder is a phenomenon that occurs when the majority of worker bees in a colony disappear and leave behind a queen.

This poses a major threat to populations of honeybees.

Now researchers at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, are working on innovative ways to safeguard honeybees.

Here's the story.

Ralph Carter's family has been farming blueberries on this patch of Bladen County Farm in White Lake for generations.

From that road there to about where that little clump of trees is right there is what we started at, my parents started.

Things have changed a lot through the years.

More acres were added.

There's more machinery and technology to process the produce.

And there's one other change.

There are fewer bees to pollinate all those blueberries.

Carter says bees make everything happen.

Every one of those berries that's on the bush, the bee has to go to each one of them, and we'd like for him to at least hit it at least half a dozen times.

And it's the same story nationwide.

Almost half of the bee colonies in the United States have been wiped out by a combination of habitat loss, pesticides, climate change, and disease.

So Carter rents thousands of bees from out of state for a few weeks in the spring to pollinate the bushes.

What we try to do is an average of at least two to two and a half hives per acre is what we try to get.

And the reason you want that many -- number one, you got to look at all the blossoms, but also every day is not a good working day.

You have some cloudy days, some cool days, rainy days.

So the more bees that you have, those moments that conditions is right, the more bees you have in the fields.

You know, 1/3 of all the food that ends up on our table depends on honeybee pollination.

And that means just, you know, fertilizing the flowers so that they can actually fruit.

[ Bees buzzing ]

This is what the inside of a healthy honeybee hive looks like.

In this mass of activity, there is a single queen; hundreds of male drones, whose main function is reproduction; and more than 20,000 female worker bees, who forage for food, build combs, and store honey for the winter.

And so, somewhere in the middle of all of this is one single queen.

And she lays all the eggs.

Basically, she can lay up to 2,000 eggs per day.

Researchers at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, hope to find in their beehives, tucked away in a corner of campus, a way to save the honeybee.

Queen has a green dot on her, basically, so she's walking here right where my finger is.

And so she is basically just inspecting all the cells and making sure that they are all filled with brood.

And if she finds an empty cell, she'll lay an egg.

They're looking for a practical, cost-effective, nontoxic approach to fighting infestation of Varroa mites.

It's a tiny parasite that is the primary cause of the crash of honeybee colonies worldwide.

We're one group that is trying to harvest the natural defenses that honeybees have to improve those defenses and combat the mite that way.

Those red dots are Varroa mites.

It's not just a physical burden to the bee.

Mites transmit viruses that can wipe out entire colonies.

A Varroa mite will go into a honeybee cell just before that cell is capped, and about two weeks later, the Varroa will emerge with about five fertile offspring as that developed honeybee emerges as an adult.

That exponential reproduction rate explains why just a few Varroa mites can quickly wipe out a honeybee colony.

But researchers believe what happens when the mites lay their eggs in the cells could be the key to saving the honeybee.

So, right there is an adult bee coming out right now.

Right. So this is an adult bee emerging.

She is fully developed.

And if this cell had been infested with a Varroa --

There, just came out.

Right. If this cell had been infested with a Varroa, she would be emerging not with one Varroa that was originally there but with as many as four or five adult Varroa ready to repeat the cycle.

It turns out the honeybee larvae give off a chemical signal that alerts nurse honeybees to the presence of mites.

The nurse bees uncap the wax covering of the cell and remove the mites if they are found.

It's called hygienic behavior.

Where's the...?

There he is.

Or she.

She won't breed fast on your fingers.

That's the Varroa mite?

Mm-hmm.

Yep.

UNCG researchers want to understand the chemical signal that triggers hygienic behavior.

My research, I'm looking to see if the visitation rate, so these nurse bees' continually visiting cells to feed the larva, is what's really bringing in these mites into the cells.

And by developing a way to increase hygienic behavior, nurse bees could be encouraged to inspect cells more often and remove mite-infected larvae.

The team is also researching whether that chemical trigger could be used to breed more disease-resistant hives.

And that means that bees can detect Varroa mites that are inside these wax cells with the young bees and parasitizing these young bees.

They can uncap those cells and interrupt the mite life cycle.

The goal is to develop a way to help honeybees help themselves.

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In the middle of the Arabian Sea, algae blooms are taking over the base of the food chain, which could prove catastrophic for 120 million people living on the sea's edge.

Joining me now to discuss this growing problem is Joaquim Goes, research professor at Columbia University's Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory in New York City.

You know, when you look at the pictures from space, this is an enormous amount of algae that's blooming all... in a very short amount of time.

Yes, so to put it in perspective, it's about three times the size of Texas.

And that's pretty huge.

And these changes have happened really recently.

And so we are talking about a period of about 10 to 15 years that this transformation has happened.

Why is it happening there?

In 2005, we showed that the Himalayan snowcaps were melting, and it was intensifying the monsoon winds.

So, when you have intense monsoon winds, it brings up nutrients from the bottom, gives rise to algal blooms.

But these are the good algal blooms, okay, and those are the ones that support fisheries -- their diet and blooms.

But we have had too much of that.

And so most of it goes unconsumed.

It sinks to the bottom.

It sucks out the oxygen from the system, and bacteria start acting on it.

It's a tiny organism, which is very, very different from other algae.

It is a mixotroph, so it can photosynthesize, and it can also do heterotrophic uptake of food.

So they feed on other stuff in the water, like fish eggs, other --

They eat everything.

Everything.

What feeds on them is things like jellyfish, and then you have some things called [ Speaks indistinctly ] And that in fact has changed the food chain so you're getting more squid, more cuttlefish, and then turtles.

So you're eliminating this food chain that goes into the fish, which is consumed by most people in that area.

And then the other part is that this algae also just clogs up the vents and the gills of fish, and --

And that's true.

And if it's taking out the oxygen, then they're suffocating.

Yeah, and in fact, this year off the coast of India we've seen massive sardines beaching, and this is because the hypoxic layer, the ocean layer is coming right up to the surface, and the fish have tried to escape that.

But this hypoxic layer is actually what fuels these algal blooms.

And we have been able to isolate this organism for the first time, and we have been -- we are the only lab in the world, probably, that has this in culture now.

So we have been able to study it very closely, and we're seeing things that we have never, ever seen in other algae, so --

Such as?

For instance, we talk about ocean acidification, okay?

And we think that it will affect the food chain, but this algae, this the 'sea sparkle' that is the invasive algal bloom, has got [ Speaks indistinctly ] within it, which live in an acidic environment, which is much, much lower -- the pH is much lower than our current sea-level pH.

So they can be around for a much longer time.

As the ocean increases in acidity, these will thrive.

This will thrive.

We are going to experience larger and more widespread blooms.

So it's going to be a problem.

And those blooms threaten entire marine ecosystems.

Yes. Not only marine ecosystems.

It's threatening water supply in the Middle East because they depend on desalination plants to bring in water, so those desalination plants get clogged, and so they have to shut down systems.

It affects their refineries, which also require seawater for cooling.

So there is a cascading effect on everything.

Tourism, for instance, in Oman -- I mean, these blooms are so thick that it's decimating the tourism industry as well.

So, you're also working on an early-warning system, on trying to figure out how to predict when these blooms will happen.

Yeah. So, this is a project that was recently founded by NASA.

And so we are supposed to be working with the Ministry of Fisheries in Oman.

And we have been studying... We have been developing a model for quite some time, a couple physical, biology, chemical model, which is done with the Naval Research Lab in Mississippi and with UMaine.

And so we have been able to study the physical processes which bring up this hypoxic water.

So, if you know at what time these hypoxic waters come to the surface, you can tell that the next thing you'll see is algal blooms, blooms.

So, we can do this in advance, but it's five to seven days, and so Oman has a lot of aquaculture farms, so they can move them, you know, to a place where there's enough oxygen.

You're also working on a way to put a microchip inside a cell?

How does that work?

Yeah, this is a fascinating piece of study that we've recently started.

So the cell is about 1 millimeter in size.

And so, as I told you, the internal environment is very different from any algae that we have ever studied.

But it's large enough so that you can put something in it, the organism, and start looking at what has happened within the cell.

So we are interested at looking at the carbon dioxide content, the oxygen content, and without killing the cell, we can study how these variations happen and how it affects the algal -- [ Speaks indistinctly ] environment living within it.

Perhaps I'm naive, but is there anything good that can come out of these cells?

Can we turn this algae into a biofuel?

Can we have it pick up plastic in the ocean?

I mean [ Chuckles ]...

You ask an interesting question, actually, because we have some students working, high school students from the Bronx School of Science.

As you know, Columbia and Lamont provide amazing opportunities for kids from all over the tri-state area.

They can come in and do research projects.

And so we had a student from the Bronx Science School, and there's another student coming from New Jersey -- I'm not sure what's the name of the school -- but they worked this summer, and we tried to find out because we needed a way to try and get the microchip into the cell, and so we were exploring different ways.

One possible way is to micro-inject it.

But we found out that they were able to take up these silicon particles directly and put them into their cytoplasm.

Eat them?

They were eating them.

And so we said, 'If they're eating silicon particles, why don't we try plastic particles and see whether it will enter the food chain?'

And so we found out that they take up plastic as well.

All right.

Joaquim Goes, thanks so much.

You're most welcome.

Thank you so much for having me.

Some say there's no better place to understand the impact of climate change than Earth's northernmost region, the Arctic.

Now a show called 'True North,' launched by online news network The Young Turks, takes viewers on a journey through this remote and rapidly changing region.

Co-host of 'True North' John Iadarola joins us via Google Hangout to discuss his adventures.

First of all, that sounds like an amazing reporting trip, and even the trailer shows you having way too much fun to get paid for it.

But I guess big picture-wise, after having done the trip, what did you learn?

Well, I now have a lot more context for the statement and the truth that the Arctic is being impacted by climate change at a faster rate and in different ways than the rest of the world.

I got to see it with my own eyes.

I got to speak to people who have lived and grown up in the region, people who have worked for decades as scientists or as sailors in the region.

And it is very true -- things are heating up fast there.

The geography itself is being perhaps irreparably changed.

The flows of water are different.

The migration routes of different animals are different.

So a lot is changing there, and I was able to see it, thankfully, with my own eyes.

You were on a research ship for a while.

What were those scientists studying?

Well, it was an international crew, and in the same way that they had a diversity of origins in terms of national origin, they also were working on different areas.

All of it had to do largely with climate change in one way or another, but some of the scientists were doing some of the initial work on deploying of experimental underwater gliders that are able to autonomously collect data for weeks at a time, but they're very delicate, and so one of the sort of dramatic arcs of a couple of the episodes of the show was our quest to recover it -- the fear that it had been destroyed by ice.

Some of them were doing pretty complicated mapping of dozens of different variables at hundreds of different points along the depth of the ocean to map out temperature and density, conductivity, all of that, to get an idea of how changing water patterns and things like that in the Arctic... Some people were doing mapping of ice floes and things like that, so there was also... There was one biologist on the ship.

They represented a lot of different scientific disciplines, but all of them had to do with water and with climate change.

So, these scientists are trying to put numbers and hard facts onto this.

You also had a chance to talk to some of the indigenous peoples that have lived there for generations.

What have they been noticing in their kind of longer history there?

There's been a few different things.

As I alluded to in the intro, the geography is literally changing.

There are areas where maps are continually going out of date because the glaciers just aren't in the positions that they used to be.

The retreat has been pretty drastic.

We did an episode of digging fossils in areas that you wouldn't have physically been able to get to 10 or 20 years ago.

And so for the people who've lived there for multiple generations, they can say that they're able to go into some areas that they couldn't before, the mountains themselves look different, and so in a way, it can be an aesthetic change, it can be a geographic change, but it's also significant in terms of there are areas where housing has become uninhabitable because the permafrost is literally melting out from under these buildings.

Lives were lost in Svalbard just a few years ago when an avalanche destroyed some housing.

And there've also been concerns about the re-release of previously frozen and trapped viruses and things like anthrax.

Those obviously are a concern for their effect on human life, but especially for the native people who do things like reindeer herding, they've absolutely devastated the populations of reindeers in a lot of areas of the Arctic and Russia and things like that.

Now when you bump into, online or in real life, a climate-science denier, what do you tell them?

Well, it is difficult.

What I think is important is to acknowledge that climate-science denial comes in a couple of different varieties.

There are some people who I believe are influenced in that direction to hold that set of beliefs because of economic concerns.

They've been convinced that if we are to take climate change seriously and take the solutions that are necessary seriously that that'll harm jobs or economic growth.

And so if you can identify that sort of climate denial, I think you can try to make the case that doing something about climate change in terms of transitioning to cleaner energy and things like that -- this is not necessarily something that's just going to threaten jobs.

It's an area where any number of new industries could be developed where jobs could be grown as well.

There are some people that take it as sort of a religious stance.

I've found that personally a lot harder to actually do anything about.

But humans do have to live on this planet.

And I have found that if you focus the conversation in some cases away from climate change and more to fighting pollution, fighting contamination of the water and the air, those sorts of things, people's natural instinct for self-preservation, for the health of their kids, can sometimes override these other concerns.

All right.

John Iadarola, co-host of the show 'True North,' thanks so much for joining us.

Anytime. Thank you.

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The West Africa Ebola epidemic of 2014 was the most widespread outbreak in the disease's history.

While today doctors are better equipped at containing the spread of this virus, there's a lot more work to be done in order to prevent future epidemics.

In this segment, we visit the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio, Texas, where scientists are tirelessly working to find a vaccine for this deadly disease.

Just last week, an Ebola outbreak in the Democratic Republic of Congo entered a new dangerous phase as it spread to the regional capital of Mbandaka, a city of nearly 1.2 million people.

Some world health experts fear a repeat of the devastating West African Ebola outbreak that killed over 11,000 people between 2014 and 2016.

The Ebola virus is endemic in Africa, and since 1976, the first outbreak, we've probably had about 20 to 30 outbreaks.

They're relatively small outbreaks affecting less than a couple hundred people.

However, recently, as recent as the 2014 outbreak, we had the largest outbreak of all time, infecting close to 30,000 people.

So it was the largest outbreak of Ebola virus on record, and with a case fatality of about 50%. Up until then, case fatality for Ebola virus would be about 90%, so 9 out of 10 people that would come down with the disease would end up dying.

Ebola is a rare and deadly disease mainly affecting Sub-Saharan Africa.

It is spread through direct contact with an infected animal or a sick or dead person infected with the Ebola virus.

It's a blood-borne pathogen, and what we found from the '013-'014 outbreak is that it can persist in humans that survive.

Dr. Jean Patterson is a Texas biomed scientist and chair of the Biosafety Level-4 Task Force.

We used to think that it was primarily lethal and that those that survived were fine.

But in fact what we find is that it can survive in eyes, so people develop Ebola blindness, and that's in large part because we didn't have that many survivors that we could find these more rare occurrences.

Thus far, there is no approved vaccine for Ebola, but the race to develop a vaccine is on at the Texas Biomedical Research Institute in San Antonio.

Texas Biomed is conducting research for Mapp Biopharmaceutical, makers of an experimental Ebola drug called ZMapp.

We teamed with a company, Mapp Bio, that has a therapeutic, a candidate treatment for Ebola virus.

It's an antibody-based treatment.

Dr. Ricardo Carrion Jr. is an associate scientist and associate director of the Biosafety Level-4 Laboratory at Texas Biomed.

When a virus infects a human cell, it usually tags on to a receptor and then is engulfed into the cell, and it replicates and creates more viruses.

And what this antibody does is it targets either the virus or a receptor to prevent that virus from entering.

And by preventing it from entering, it gives time for you to clear the virus through this therapeutic, or our own body can respond and clear the virus to reduce the chances of coming down with full-blown Ebola virus disease.

If approved, ZMapp could become part of the strategic national stockpile as a countermeasure for public health emergencies.

Because Ebola is such a deadly pathogen, it is studied in this biosafety level-4 laboratory at Texas Biomed.

Well, they're wearing a pressurized space suit.

It's essentially like being in 'A Space Odyssey.'

You have a life-support system, which provides your air and your breathing.

And that protects you from the environment within the laboratory.

You assume everything at L safety level 4 is contaminated -- the surfaces, the walls, et cetera -- so you have to protect yourself from every aspect of the laboratory itself.

So there's negative pressure in the lab, so nothing can come in.

And then within the pressure suit, you're positive, so nothing can get into you, either.

So you stay positive to the air.

So if you were to get a glove tear, the virus wouldn't necessarily go through the tear.

It would be pushing out because the air is positive within the suit.

So the doors are very important.

The doors are submarine doors.

And when you're entering the laboratory, there are two doors.

When you open this door, this door remains closed.

Then when you shut this door, then you can go into this door.

So that means that there's no breach of air between the outside of the lab and the inside of the lab.

The United States... Viruses don't know borders.

And in 2014 during the outbreak, we had a patient that came from Africa, was placed in a Dallas hospital, and he ended up succumbing to the disease, and two nurses became infected touching some of his sample.

So it is a concern to the United States.

However, we hope this therapeutic can be available to treat individuals that might be infected.

Well, we're going to continue this research in hopes that whenever there's an emerging virus or any pathogen that we can jump in and take care of it immediately.

We have the capability working with any serious pathogen, with any animal model, and I think that we're in a place that we could be ready and able to affect any emerging disease that occurs.

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And that wraps it up for this time.

For more on science, technology, and innovation, visit our website, check us out on Facebook and Instagram, and join the conversation on Twitter.

You can also subscribe to our YouTube channel.

Until next time, I'm Hari Sreenivasan.

Thanks for watching.

Funding for this program is made possible by...