Dung Beetles to the Rescue!

Dung beetles do their thing in Namibia: Photo copyright, Johan Strydom, Creative Commons.

Dung beetles do their thing in Namibia: Photo copyright, Johan Strydom, Creative Commons.

Sometimes it’s hard to improve upon nature. For example, nature has invented numerous ways to process poop. But when farmers introduced cattle to Australia, they began to have poop problems, as Australia’s nature wasn’t equipped to deal with that animal’s excrement. In the late 1960s, Australia’s national science agency decided that a natural solution was better than high tech and began importing dung beetles to tackle the job. Bernard Doube worked on that team for 30 years and now sells beetles via mail order. Here, he chats with Climate Confidential about his life’s work. Continue reading

Bug-Inspired Solutions For Climate Change

Creating technology that cribs genius design tricks from, say, termites or spiders can help humans live more lightly on Earth – or even adapt to climate change. Called biomimicry, the concept taps into vetted methods that have been developed over millions of years of evolution and adaptation. But replicating nature’s solutions isn’t easy, and much of the work remains in academic research labs.

Oriental hornet

Leonardo da Vinci was essentially practicing biomimicry when he closely observed birds to sketch flying machines. But modern academic and commercial interest in biomimicry has taken flight only in the past three decades, when Connie Lange Merrill coined the term in a 1982 research paper for Rice University and scientist Janine Benyus published a book on the topic in 1997. Many researchers are trying to figure out ways to clean up pollution, harvest water, generate low-carbon electricity, and cool a room more efficiently. Biomimicry is an exciting idea, and it has spawned nonprofits, consulting firms, and competitions to highlight how it could help us manage our resources more efficiently.

For this month’s Bug Issue, I’m showcasing some of the intriguing research that uses biomimicry to address the cause and consequences of climate change, from water scarcity to antibiotics development.

To continue reading this story, visit Climate Confidential on BEACON

When Climate Bites: The Race to Decode and Disarm Disease-Spreading Bugs

Just as coastal cities are looking to bolster themselves for sea level rise, public health systems must now develop a disease-prevention and tracking strategy for a warming world. That’s because, as climate change alters the rhythm and range of environments that allow mosquitoes, ticks, flies, and other insects to thrive, it’s also shifting the burden of diseases like malaria, dengue fever, and Lyme disease. The first story in our series about bugs explores the new world of vector-borne disease (and technologies harnessed to fight it) in the era of climate change. Check out the whole story over on Beacon, or read on for an excerpt.

Globally climate change will hit health hardest in places where infrastructure is lacking and “public health disasters” are the baseline, where children are undernourished, and maternal deaths are the highest, said Perry Sheffield, a pediatrician and lecturer of environmental health sciences on faculty at Columbia University. (Image credit: WHO.)

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Editor’s Note: The Bug Issue

Bugs: Both our bane (disease-bearing mosquitoes) and our everything (hello, bees), bugs tend to play villain or hero in the stories humans tell — but more often villain. Our primal ick response can blind us to their importance in our world. This month Climate Confidential takes a closer look at some of our small planetary cohorts to discover why — and how — they matter.

Like many people, I felt icky toward insects — until a college friend, an amateur entomologist, showed me some weevils in his collection. They were shades of gorgeous turquoise, with long snouts, adorable antennae, and delicate, segmented feet.

They are also stunning in their diversity. Weevils are a type of beetle, and beetles are so prolific and diverse that they make up 20 percent of all species on Earth. Found in nearly all earthly habitats, their various adaptive eating habits ensure they play many roles in different ecosystems. They are vegetarians, scavengers, predators, and parasites. They are prey, feeding reptiles, birds, mammals and fish. And they infamously bug our crops and trees. They are also pollinators and champion nutrient recyclers, breaking down unpleasantries like carrion and cow poop while enhancing soil fertility and mitigating other buggy pests. In these latter roles, they are a foundation of healthy ecosystems. Continue reading

Our Food Fight, Co-Published with Modern Farmer

We’re taste-testing a new story format (actually two new formats) this week. Plus, another first: We’ve co-published a story (actually, two stories that form a whole) with Modern Farmer, a magazine that aims to connect people with their food by telling stories about that food and the people who produce it.modern_farmer_logo

Cultured meat (also known as “lab meat” or “in vitro meat”) is a means of growing animal muscle cells inside a bioreactor, using stem cells removed from live animals. It is being pursued as a means of producing meat without the environmental or ethical fallout of factory farming.

From the beginning, we knew a story about the nascent cultured meat industry would fit well in our Food & Technology issue. We could have written our standard reported feature about cultured meat: What is it, where did it come from, where is it going, what are the promises and the pitfalls? Then we realized that a topic like this is perfect for a debate format. Continue reading

Beyond GMOs: What happens when synthetic DNA comes to the farm and table?


Thousands of researchers will descend on Boston this fall for an event billed as the world’s largest gathering of synthetic biologists. The field is evolving so rapidly that even scientists working in it don’t agree on a definition, but at its core synthetic biology involves bringing engineering principles to biotechnology. It’s an approach meant, ultimately, to make it easier for scientists to design, test, and build living parts and systems – even entire genomes.

If genetic sequencing is about reading DNA, and genetic engineering as we know it is about copying, cutting, and pasting it, synthetic biology is about writing and programming new DNA, with two main goals: create genetic machines from scratch and gain new insights about how life works.

In Boston, scientists and students will showcase synbio projects developed over the summer, including systems ranging from new takes on natural wonders, like the conversion of atmospheric nitrogen to a useful form (nitrogen fixation), to newly imagined functions, like an odorless E. coli cell meant to crank out a lemony, edible “wonder protein” containing essential amino acids. Continue reading

On the Ground: A Visit to Putah Creek

putah creek

Elizabeth Case was the first intrepid reporter who along with her newspaper, the Davis Enterprise, signed on as a partner for Local Edition, our community-based reporting initiative. She’s developing an in-depth look at 15 years of restoration efforts along Putah Creek, and her piece will be out as part of our December issue on Borders & Limits. Over the next few months, she’ll be sharing some behind-the-scenes notes from her reporting. In emails, she says her research has taken her deep into the county archives, but she’s also climbed out from under her pile of legal papers to get her feet wet — literally.

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Editor’s Note: The Food Issue

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How is climate change making food production more challenging? What role could technology play in addressing those challenges? Technology is influencing how we produce and consume food, and it could help us feed a growing population. But tech-enabled tweaks to our food system raise concerns as well. This month we’ll take a look at everything from water tech to synthetic foods to explore how we will eat in the coming century. Continue reading

Outlawing Water Conflict: California legislators confront risky groundwater loophole

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

New Hogan Lake, a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Sacramento District park and recreation area in Valley Springs, Calif. The water level was significantly lower than usual on Jan. 6, 2014. Photo credit: U.S. Army, Kaitlin Blagg.

Water has pushed people to conflict throughout history, and California, where ambitious agriculture sucks up 80 percent of the state’s developed water, is no stranger to water wrangles. Now one of the worst droughts in state history is pushing legislators to reckon with its unwieldy water laws, especially one major oversight: California has been the only western state without groundwater regulation — but now that looks set to change. Still, the state needs more reform of its convoluted water rights system to reduce conflict as climate change intensifies.

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