Archive for January, 2012

Originally published in Nature (read the original post HERE) Written by Zoe Cormier.

19 January 2012

Bioengineers have devised a way to produce ethanol from seaweed, laying the groundwork for a biofuel that doesn’t sacrifice food crops.

Yasuo Yoshikuni and his colleagues at the Bio Architecture Lab in Berkeley, California, engineered the bacterium Escherichia coli so that it could digest brown seaweed and produce ethanol. Their work is published in Science today1.

Yoshikuni says that his group chose brown seaweed because it was both sustainable and scalable. “Seaweed is already produced in huge quantities around the world without taking up any fresh water or arable land.” Brown seaweed also grows faster than red or green seaweed, with varieties such as the giant kelp, found off the coast of California, growing by up to a meter a day.

Many researchers are exploring ways to produce ethanol without using food crops such as sugar cane or maize (corn), and have turned to different feedstocks including switchgrass, the succulent plant jatropha, cyanobacteria and green algae. However, producing biofuels from sugar cane or maize not only detracts from food supplies, but also takes up huge areas of arable land. In the case of maize, more energy is required for growing and harvesting the crop than can be gained from the ethanol produced.

But producing biofuels from seaweed has so far proved difficult for bioengineers. Seaweed produces four kinds of sugars — laminarin, mannitol, alginate and cellulose. The biggest fraction in brown seaweed is alginate, which is a complex polysaccharide and tricky for microbes to digest.

“The carbohydrates are rather exotic compared to traditional terrestrial sources like corn or sugar cane,” says Yoshikuni. “Alginate is the key to unlocking the potential of brown seaweed.”

Seaweed solution

So using Vibrio splendidus, a marine microbe that can digest brown seaweed, Yoshikuni and his team isolated a biochemical pathway that breaks down alginate. They inserted the genes responsible into a strain of E. coli, which could then digest the alginate into simple sugars. The team also engineered the strain so that it could convert those sugars into ethanol, enabling the direct production of ethanol from brown seaweed. This strain of E. coli could, in theory, be engineered to produce a variety of other useful chemicals and fuels.

“This is very impressive work — it really is a groundbreaking achievement,” says Yong-Su Jin of the Institute for Genomic Biology at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign, who also studies biofuel production from seaweed. Jin works with red seaweed, which is less abundant in the world’s oceans than brown seaweed, but “relatively easy to ferment using yeast”, he says, because of its lower alginate content2.

Stephen Mayfield, director of the San Diego Center for Algae Biotechnology at the University of California San Diego, calls the work “a very sophisticated engineering feat”, but adds “so far this has almost nothing to do with bioenergy production”. The main challenge in biofuels is not the ability to degrade complex carbohydrates and turn them into simple sugars, he explains: “It’s the rest of the steps involved in the lifecycle of growing and transporting the biomass.”

Scalability remains the big problem: people have farmed seaweed for hundreds of years, but only produce several thousand tonnes a year for food. Biofuel production would require billions of tonnes. “We still face a huge technical gap for large-scale cultivation,” says Jin.

That’s the next step, says Yoshikuni: this year his team will demonstrate the feasibility of their ethanol-production process at a pilot plant being built in Chile.


  1. Wargacki, A. J. et al. Science 335, 308–313 (2012). Show context
  2. Ha, S.-J. et al. Appl. Environ. Microbiol. 77, 5822–5825 (2011). Show context

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Originally published HERE, and written by Keph Senet.

Evo Morales speaks at the UN

With the cooperation of politicians and grassroots

organizations, Bolivia is set to pass the Law of Mother Earth which will grant nature the same rights and protections as humans. The piece of legislation, called la Ley de Derechos de la Madre Tierra, is intended to encourage a radical shift in conservation attitudes and actions, to enforce new control measures on industry, and to reduce environmental destruction.

The law redefines natural resources as blessings and confers the same rights to nature as to human beings, including: the right to life and to exist; the right to continue vital cycles and processes free from human alteration; the right to pure water and clean air; the right to balance; the right not to be polluted; and the right to not have cellular structure modified or genetically altered. Perhaps the most controversial point is the right “to not be affected by mega-infrastructure and development projects that affect the balance of ecosystems and the local inhabitant communities”.

In late 2005 Bolivia elected its first indigenous president, Evo Morales. Morales is an outspoken champion for environmental protection, petitioning for substantive change within his country and at the United Nations. Bolivia, one of South America’s poorest countries, has long had to contend with the consequences of destructive industrial practices and climate change, but despite the best efforts of Morales and members of his administration, their concerns have largely been ignored at the UN.


Just last year, in 2010, Bolivian Foreign Minister David Choquehuanca expressed his distress“about the inadequacy of the greenhouse gas reduction commitments made by developed countries in the Copenhagen Accord.” His remarks were punctuated by the claim that some experts forecasted a temperature increase “as high as four degrees above pre-industrial levels.” “The situation is serious,” Choquehuanca asserted. “An increase of temperature of more than one degree above pre-industrial levels would result in the disappearance of our glaciers in the Andes, and the flooding of various islands and coastal zones.”

In 2009, directly following the resolution of the General Assembly to designate April 22 “International Mother Earth Day“, Morales addressed the press, stating “If we want to safeguard mankind, then we need to safeguard the planet. That is the next major task of the United Nations”. A change to Bolivia’s constitution in the same year resulted in an overhaul of the legal system – a shift from which this new law has sprung.


The Law of Mother Earth has as its foundation several of the tenets of indigenous belief, including that human are equal to all other entities. “Our grandparents taught us that we belong to a big family of plants and animals. We believe that everything in the planet forms part of a big family,” Choquehuanca said. “We indigenous people can contribute to solving the energy, climate, food and financial crises with our values.” The legislation will give the government new legal powers to monitor and control industry in the country.

“Existing laws are not strong enough,” said Undarico Pinto, leader of the 3.5m-strong Confederación Sindical Única de Trabajadores Campesinos de Bolivia (a group that helped draft the law). “It will make industry more transparent. It will allow people to regulate industry at national, regional and local levels.”


Bolivia will be establishing a Ministry of Mother Earth, but beyond that there are few details about how the legislation will be implemented. What is clear is that Bolivia will have to balance these environmental imperatives against industries – like mining – that contribute to the country’s GDP.

Bolivia’s successes or failures with implementation may well inform the policies of countries around the world. “It’s going to have huge resonance around the world,” said Canadian activist Maude Barlow. “It’s going to start first with these southern countries trying to protect their land and their people from exploitation, but I think it will be grabbed onto by communities in our countries, for example, fighting the tarsands in Alberta.”


Ecuador has enshrined similar aims in its Constitution, and is among the countries that have already shown support for the Bolivian initiative. Other include Nicaragua, Venezuela, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and Antigua and Barbuda.

National opposition to the law is not anticipated, as Morales’ party – the Movement Towards Socialism – holds a majority in both houses of parliament. On April 20, two days before this year’s “International Mother Earth Day”, Morales will table a draft treaty with the UN, kicking off the debate with the international community.

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Below is an article written by Janeen Madan on Nourishing the Planet that was originally posted on December 29th about the importance of empowering farmers around the world and specifically encouraging the growth of Urban Farming. The entire article has been re-posted below, but if you would prefer to read the original, click HERE.

Julius Musimenta, from the Agency for Integrated Rural Development in Kampala Uganda, spent 6 weeks in April working at Growing Power, a U.S. nonprofit working to improve access to healthy and safe food. At the headquarters based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Julius conducted vermi-composting projects, using worms to improve soil fertility, and worked on backyard poultry projects.

Food security fellows share ideas on practices in urban agriculture that are working on the ground. (Photo credit: Supriya Kumar)

Julius is one of 53 Professional Food Fellows in Food Security – an exchange program that brings together young leaders from the U.S. (Wisconsin, Colorado, and Indiana) and Africa (Uganda and Kenya), who are working to alleviate hunger in their home communities. They are involved in a wide range of agricultural projects, including expanding extension services, improving nutrition, and raising livestock and poultry in urban areas.

The program is supported by Bold Leaders—a Denver-based non-profit that provides training services for young leaders around the world—in partnership with Growing PowerMazingira Institute, andEnvironmental Alert. It aims to foster collaboration among farmers, activists, and educators, working in the field of urban agriculture and encourages them to share ideas of what’s working on the ground.

During the two-year fellowship program, fellows visit each other’s countries twice a year, where they participate in training workshops, meet local organizations, and engage in discussions on the social, economic, and political factors that impact urban farming. The program hosts an interactive online forum where fellows can stay connected with each other and continue to share ideas, discuss best practices, and ask for advice.

The program is empowering fellows to make direct impacts on food security issues in their communities. After sharing his ideas and learning from other fellows, Stephen Makere Alexander developed a plan to start a school poultry farming project in his home community in Tanzania. The project will teach students to raise poultry, boosting nutrition and enabling them to earn extra money to pay for school supplies and uniforms.

The program emphasizes protecting environmental resources that small-scale farmers depend on for their food and income. According to Julius, food security has a symbiotic relationship with the environment. During his experience working with Growing Power, Julius worked with other fellows to find practices that can sustainably rebuild soil fertility.

Rather than silver bullet solutions, the program emphasizes the value of local innovations and seeks to find ways to connect farmers with ongoing research, says Alex Zizinga, founder and coordinator of  The Community Garden Project in Uganda. He adds that researchers—especially in Africa—are focused on scientific knowledge and often ignore the vital local knowledge of farmers.

This experience has enabled the visiting fellows to share lessons from their own work and to learn about similar food security issues facing communities in the U.S. “We shared our experiences with them and they told us what’s working. Now we’re taking a lot back home,” said Sylvia Galuoch, an urban farmer from Nairobi, Kenya.

Sharing ideas of what’s working and learning from each others’ experiences is an important first step in finding concrete solutions to the common challenges that urban farmers face.

Do you know of other exchange initiatives that foster collaboration among farmers across borders?

Janeen Madan was a communications associate with the Nourishing the Planet project. She is currently working with the World Food Programme in Dakar, Senegal.

To read more about the BOLD Food Leaders, see: Community Livelihood Strengthens Food Security at Grass Root Level

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Student Posting by Olivia T.


For the past few years, scientists have been working hard to try and find a source associated with the decline of honeybee populations. The populations have been going through a “seemingly impossible spiral decline.” A new study just came out from San Francisco State University claiming that a parasitic fly, Apocephalus borealis, might be a leading factor.

            The fly will lay its eggs inside the abdomen of the honeybee. The eggs cause the bee to exhibit atypical behavior, causing the bee to flee its hive. Researchers claim that the infected bees act like zombies, flying aimlessly in the air with no control over their bodies. “Like a scene out of Alien, the eggs eventually hatch and the newborn flies burst out of the bee, killing it in the process.” When the bee abandons its hive, it causes what is known as “colony collapse disorder.” When a worker bee deserts its home, it can cause the same erratic behavior in other bees such as the fly eggs. Another theory as to why the infected bee portrays this type of behavior is a defense mechanism; the bee wants to protect other bees from the disease. However, the bee ultimately causes bees to leave their hives and causes the honeybee population to “consistently dwindle.”

From 2006-2009 the honeybee population has decreased by 35%. The decline of bees is not just occurring in America, but all over the globe in places such as Europe, China, and Japan. Researchers found that in California’s Central Valley and South Dakota, there were parasitic flies found in 77% of beehives. The flies also plant their eggs in ants, cutting off their heads in the process. This is why the fly is sometimes referred to as the “ant-decapitating fly.”

Source: http://www.enn.com/wildlife/article/43807

            If this epidemic continues, it will take a toll on our planet. Listen to what Dr Ken Walker, senior entomologist at Museum Victoria, has to say about the role of bees in our environment:

“You think of all the fruit and vegetables that we eat – without pollination that wouldn’t occur. You think of all the fruit and vegies we eat – sometimes you might get a tomato or a piece of fruit that isn’t as luscious or isn’t as large, and that is because it hasn’t been well pollinated. And so the tree says, well if it’s not well pollinated I’m not going to put as much energy into making a good piece of fruit. So pollination is an enormous thing for us. We wouldn’t die out without pollination, but life would be very different without it.”

Dr Walker believes that the health of the environment is linked to bee populations. If bee populations continue to decline, our environment will worsen. What needs to be done? How can we stop this fly?

Source: http://www.abc.net.au/rural/content/2007/s1945730.htm


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Student Posting by Haley B.










Consider what this is asking. Should we ask ourselves something like this more often? It depends on how you think of it. This can be interpreted in a number of different ways.

Possibly it is stating the fact that each living organism, species, race is co-dependent on each other and the survival of one species means the survival of another. Each species when existing according to natural law will benefit the world as a whole. Or is it asking would other species evolve to the intelligence of humans if the human race were to become extinct? That gorillas would be better off without mankind because humans have been destroying the world, because there is something fundamentally wrong with man that leads them to continue to destroy. Or another view could be that there would not be hope for gorillas (the world) without man here to act as stewards, and that if gorillas were to go extinct humans would not be affected. Instead they would continue their knowledge and mastery of the world as they have been doing. All these various interpretations make this question interesting. The way in which people would argue their points of view would show their feeling of how they view themselves in relation to the world.


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Student Blog Post by Alex Y.

Have you ever thought about the amount of water you use every day? I mean really thought about it.  That thought rarely brushes peoples minds that live in America and other places where clean water is basically unlimited.  We have the water, so everybody else probably does too.   The more common thought is probably “there’s clean water here, I’m aware that other places don’t have unlimited access to water like I do, but I live here and they live there, so there really isn’t much I can do.” The truth of the matter is that nearly 1.4 billion people in the world DO NOT have clean drinking water. That’s roughly 20% of the people living on this planet.  It’s not their fault that they don’t have clean water.  Maybe they aren’t educated in how to make clean water; maybe there is no clean drinking water where they are from.  Regardless of the reasons, there are many things one can do to help these countries without access to clean water.  There is the obvious, which is sending money. But really, what does that do? People probably don’t even know what their money is going toward.  The best gift or way of helping is to send things that help these people learn how to make their own water.   In other words, this Aquaduct.  It’s a fairly quick mechanism of filtering water as you carry it from the stream or lake  (where you get you water). Except, that instead of carrying the gallons of water you can bike….

I came across this video a few days ago and figured it would be a perfect video to share in a blog post.   Filtering water systems don’t really faze people who live in developed countries. It’s normal and mundane.  Do you even know where your water comes from? Maybe you do, maybe you don’t, but it’s probably all filtered.  Think about people in developing countries.  Clean water or filtered water is a privilege sometimes they never get. There are organizations and charities who donate fresh water and who pay to help people in developing countries have access to fresh water, however that can only go on for so long.  This Aquaduct could potentially give fresh water to millions of people.  Instead of donating fresh water and money for 1 filtering system for many people, we should donate these Aquaducts.  If every family in developing countries had an Aquaduct, or even one per several families… the amount of fresh filtered water they would have access to would increase dramatically.  What do you think about the Aquaducts? Do you think they would work? To what extent?

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