SciEnvy

For All Things Environmental Science
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Nature's Farmers

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The transition from human hunter-gathering to agriculture occurred approximately 10,000 years ago and is often heralded as a major transition in human evolution. However, millions of years earlier, several other unsuspecting species had already taken the step towards intensive agriculture and were busy cultivating their own crop varieties.
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Scat Dog Blog


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As a Conservation Scientist, it’s important to have a thorough understanding of the animal you are studying, and the environment in which it lives. This often involves spending long periods of time in the middle of nowhere conducting field surveys and, in my case, at the mercy of miniature predators such as leeches, ticks and mosquitoes in hot and humid rainforest. Surveys are a necessary routine when playing wildlife detective. Usually repeated over several weeks, months or years, depending on your animal and scientific questions, they provide a range of valuable information on a chosen species, helping us to build a picture of their behaviours such as habitat selection, diet, and mating habits.

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Chai, Massai and a long way to fly

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Fairly early on in my PhD, I started the process of applying for a research permit for Kenya. I’d hoped to model changes to water resources that could arise because of climate change and then discuss my findings with those making decisions on water management in the country. After facing long delays to this process, I finally (if slightly reluctantly) decided to take my research in another direction.

Now, as well as using computer models to examine changes to water resources, I also investigate changes to the distribution of plants, animals and agricultural crops. Integrating these topics into my research has been fascinating and I will never regret my decision to change pathways, but not being able to visit the country I was researching - that
was something that always haunted me. At every conference, public talk or training course, I felt like someone was going to call me out. What right had I to talk about this place, when I’d never spent any time there?
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From soil microbe to saviour of humanity – How Streptomyces (could) save the world.

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Why do I do what I do? Well firstly, what do I do?

My PhD is in molecular microbiology, which means I study the molecular fundamentals of microbes - the nuts and bolts of microscopic life. Think of me as like a mechanic for cells, except I don’t really know how the engine works, so I just break random bits to see what happens. Specifically, I look at a type of bacteria called Streptomyces, they are weird (for bacteria) because, unlike most, they grow in long chains of cells (Figure 1) called mycelia, these spread throughout the soil (where the bacteria live) and feed off decomposing matter (called detritus). They are famed (amongst microbiologists at least) for being prolific producers of antibiotics. In order to reproduce, a colony of Streptomyces must produce spores which can then disperse, allowing the bacteria to colonise new areas (Figure 2). At this stage in their life cycle (sporulation) they begin to make antibiotics as a chemical weapon to defend the colony from invading microbes, competing for that nutritious detritus (see a colony of
Streptomyces coelicolor producing a blue antibiotic in figure 3).

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Connecting volcanoes to Earth’s ancient climate…what is the origin of volcanic carbon and why do we care?

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When it comes to both the life and climate of our planet, you’d be hard pressed to think of a more important element than carbon. It forms the basis of all life and in carbon dioxide (CO2) it plays a fundamental role in the variation of Earth’s temperature (think the Greenhouse effect).

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