Trashtacular

Regular readers of my blog may notice that I’m a little preoccupied with trash. Here on the Protopian Pickle Jar, I’ve been negotiating my relationship to all the Stuff in my life. Reducing and reusing get reframed as a moral component of consumption.  Composting becomes a personal virtue! Upcycling provides a creative outlet for the human-made objects I just can’t let go of.

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Residential garbage trucks dumping a load in Savage, Minnesota, USA. At the landfill by Redwin Law (2007) CC by 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/JMKJ9

I spend a lot of time thinking about trash. And then I found out that some people do it professionally! At the Discard Studies Blog, I got a glimpse into the work of academics examining the many different issues surrounding waste and waste disposal.
Thanks to the Discard Studies feed, I read a blurb posted on a new book, Waste Away by Joshua Reno, focused on the author’s experience working at a Metro Detroit landfill. Having recently moved to the area, I was curious about the massive landfills “rising like ziggurats from a flat glacial plain.” (I was particularly pleased with that metaphor.) Thanks to the magic of interlibrary loan, the folks at my local public library were able to source me a copy of the book. Twice. (Thanks MeLCat!)

Reno (now a Prof at SUNY Binghamton) was a grad student at the University of Michigan in anthropology, when he got a job at local landfill as part of field research for his dissertation. As part of his deal with his employer, he disguised the names and identifying features of the landfill and surrounding communities. So even if I don’t know the particulars (there are many large landfills in this area of western Wayne county), Reno’s descriptions of his work at a laborer at the landfill and communities impacted by it, offer a fascinating glimpse into a major local industry within a historical and cultural context. I especially enjoyed sifting through the local clues in the book to try to figure out what towns/landfills (or composites thereof) the author was *really* talking about.

I also learned the word “taphonomy,” the formative process by which an item (dinosaurs, shucked oyster shells, used plastic tableware) is buried and later discovered. It means slightly different things in the paleontology and discard studies subdisciplines. I am going to try to subtly sneak it into casual conversations whenever I can.

Edit (Dec 9, 2016): I found one!

The Onion, America’s Finest News Source, delves into taphonomy with their (satirical) article, Man’s Garbage To Have Much More Significant Effect On Planet Than He Will.

Tangents for this post:

Oscar the Grouch singing I Love Trash!

The Rule of Names

Pink slime
Wolf’s Milk Slime by Jason Hollinger, (2007) CC By 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/2Yn956

In Ursula Le Guin’s Earthsea stories, knowing a person or animal or object’s “true name” gives a wizard power over him or her or it. Therefore, humans (and other sentient beings, like Dragons) take particular care to avoid sharing their true names with others, lest they be compelled by a power-hungry wizard.

I first learned about Linnean taxonomy, and the practice of classifying organisms by binomial nomenclature (e.g. Homo sapiens) in my middle school science classes. This was also about the same time I was reading the Earthsea books. Not surprisingly, these two concepts, The Rule of Names and the taxonomy of biological naming, remained linked in my mind for a long time.

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My field notebooks looked sort of like this. DG_1_023 Myristicaceae by Aber TREC, (2014) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/py7Eae

In my field science courses in college, I was an omnivorous species identifier. Samples of Sonoran desert plants (well, the ones that would smush flat) made their way into my field notebooks, with carefully labeled common and scientific names.  With each new named species, it felt like I was slowly mastering control over my unfamiliar environment. If only I could learn all the names, I would know everything about the ecosystem.

When I got to TEVA, teaching environmental education, I was surprised that we were discouraged from telling kids an organism’s names (common or scientific) outright in response to the question, “What is that?”

Instead, of answering with “Oh, that’s an Eastern Hemlock (Tsuga canadensis,)” our training was to turn the question around to the kids.
“What do you notice about it? What about its color, smell, or texture can you describe?”

The best part was that kids would come up with their own names for plants based on their observations and continue to identify them for the rest of the time we were on the trail. For example, Eastern Hemlock became “Dragon Tree” (because of its large floppy wing-like branches and white-striped scales). It was only later that we told them the “real” names of the organisms, or let them look them up in a field guide by characteristics.

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Striped white scales of “Dragon Tree.” Eastern Hemlock by Seabrooke Leckie, (2010) CC By-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/7BKVjY

Some of my favorite names students came up with were Bubble Gum Slime (aka Lycogala epidedrum – a pink slime mold); Smurf Caps (aka Lactarius indigo – a mushroom that oozed blue goo); Ghost Roses (aka Monotropa uniflora – a flower-like bleached white plant); and Velcro balls (aka Arctium minus – burdock seedpods  covered with tiny hooks that snared hair and clothing.)

Had we told them the “real” name outright, the kids would have heard a name and promptly forgotten it.  Maybe even thought that the label encapsulated everything you could know about the organism. We would have missed a tremendous opportunity for kids’ exploration and engagement with the natural world.

Most recently, I get my nature fix by going on walks outdoors here in Michigan.  Sometimes, if I see something that I haven’t seen before,  (or that just looks really cool), I take out my cell phone and snap a picture with the camera.    I could (and often do) look up the species in a field guide.  I also started uploading my photos to the site iNaturalist, to source community identifications for my observations. By adding my photos, with dates and geographic data to the online database, it provides a record that other members can refer to. It’s a resource for researchers and a form of participatory citizen science.

I also have been learning to identify new species from the system, as well as tagging “Unknown” photos with high level identifications (i.e. “Plant” or “Fungi”) in order to make the photos more widely searchable to community members who can provide more detailed identifications. It’s a form of social media in some ways as addictive as Facebook or online dating sites (but instead of rating pictures of potential dates, I attach a label if I think it’s a vertebrate.) There is also definitely a serotonin hit when other members agree with your identification, or provide additional comments on an observation that is as potent as the “FB like” button.

I wonder (dubious seratonin hits aside), if I am I reverting to an earlier understanding of “Name *ALL* the things” vs. a more nuanced engagement and exploration of the natural world. Sure, the site has leaderboards to track which members have made the most identifications or posted the most observations. Is it a competition ala a birder’s Big Year or just creating a sense of order in a chaotic and messy world? And are either of these appropriate forms of interacting with nature? What about if they are tempered by the sense of wonder and Radical amazement that I feel on my walks, or looking at pictures of really, really cool organisms?

Beneath the Surface

Abstract by Andy Maguire (2016) CC By 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/GirZqA]
Abstract by Andy Maguire (2016) CC By 2.0, on Flickr https://flic.kr/p/GirZqA

While I was watching the surface-bound shenanigans of other humans via Facebook, soil microbes have been steadily plugging away,  keeping the bio-geochemical cycles of the planet going.   A team led by scientists at the Lawrence Berkeley National Labs & UC Berkeley has reconstructed the genomes of 2500+ microbes that live in soil and groundwater of a Colorado aquifer. In addition to identifying (and naming) new phyla of bacteria, the researchers found new insights into how bacteria work together to power the carbon, nitrogen and other chemical cycles of the entire planet!

The paper appears online in Nature Communications. The soil microbiome census, using genomic techniques (“terabase-scale shotgun DNA sequencing”) to identify new taxa of bacteria in the samples, is especially important because while 1/5th of the Earth’s biomass exists underground, we still don’t know very much about about these organisms.

Once the genomes of the different bacteria were sequenced, scientists combed the data looking for genes related to microbial energy metabolism (gaining/losing electrons, carbon and nitrogen fixation, etc). By looking at which microbes with specific abilities were present in the samples, the researchers could infer what reactions (and combination of reactions) are taking place community-wide.

These combination of reactions are called “the metabolic handoffs.” Organisms may only have one or two metabolic tricks up their own sleeves (okay, I know microbes have neither hands nor sleeves, but bear with me here.) However, in the community of subterranean microbes, there are *a lot* of metabolic abilities across the different species. The waste products of one organism are food for another one that has the ability to extract energy from it. Or, as we liked to say as Teva Educators, “Waste equals food! Waste equals food! Waste equals food!”

TL;DR From the Press Release:

The scientists found the carbon, hydrogen, nitrogen, and sulfur cycles are all driven by metabolic handoffs that require an unexpectedly high degree of interdependence among microbes. The vast majority of microorganisms can’t fully reduce a compound on their own. It takes a team. There are also backup microbes ready to perform a handoff if first-string microbes are unavailable.

Previously unnoticed by humans, soil microbes are hard at work shuffling electrons as a team to keep the carbon, nitrogen, sulfur and hydrogen cycling around our biosphere. They deserve a shoutout from this grateful macro-organism.

Tangents for this Post:
Okay, I wasn’t just watching humans on FB. Other organisms include:
Glockenspiel-playing chickens
Mudskippers
Rescued Cows
Pigeons (here and here)
Left-handed snail romance
Ticklish Rats

Lunar madness

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Supermoon by Brad Scruse (2014) CC-By-NC-ND 2.0, on Flickr [url=https://flic.kr/p/eTjgnP]

Last week, the students I teach in an after school science class were bouncing off the walls. No matter how many times I tried to quiet and refocus the attention of the room, there was always one kid out of his or her chair, a constant barrage of high pitched noise and so many interrupted sets of directions that even *I* wasn’t sure what we were supposed to be doing. By the end of the hour, when I finally released the last student to her grownup, I felt like a wrung-out dishrag.

As I dragged my box of supplies on a collapsible cart out to my car in the parking lot, I managed to knock it over. Twice. The kind school social worker helped me carry the stuff the last 20 feet to my car, when it was clear I was seriously “into the weeds.” She commiserated when I mentioned by rough session with kids, mentioning that school staff had also noticed a spike in behavior issues that week.

At home, a scan of my friends’ posts on social media revealed teachers and parents at their wits’ end dealing with sudden bouts of mass child misbehavior. “Hmm,” I thought, “something is going here.” Then I noticed another common thread in my feed: Supermoon! and The Occultation of Aldebaran.

Could the lunar phase be affecting human kiddos’ behavior? Many terrestrial species are influenced in some way by celestial phenomena. Creatures of the intertidal zone (and their predators) follow daily patterns as ocean tides roll in and out, pulled by the moon’s gravity. Baby sea turtles have higher disorientiation during new moons, when artificial light becomes distraction, which implies they use the moon to help them get back into the ocean after hatching. African dung beetles use the Milky Way to navigate straight paths as they roll balls of dung on clear nights.

Scientific consensus? The moon is probably not affecting my students’ behavior. Statisticians have repeated analyzed the occurrence of events such as crimes, suicides, psychiatric problems and crisis center calls and determined they are entirely unrelated to the phase of the moon. University of
Washington Neuroscience for Kids has a great list of published studies looking at a relationship between weird behavior and moon. Lunar cycles don’t even seem to affect how much sleep kids get.

So why did I blame the full moon? Part of it may come from the human brain’s propensity to look for patterns in what seems like random data. Illusory correlation is the “phenomenon of perceiving a relationship between variables (typically people, events, or behaviors) even when no such relationship exists.” I wanted to see a pattern, so my brain selectively made one for me out of my day’s experiences and news from my FB feed.

I wonder what I’ll notice in a couple of weeks when November 2016 Supermoon will be visible. Sheer lunacy, most likely.

Drosophila houseguests

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Fruit-fly nervous system by Albert Cardona, via the Wellcome Trust. (2015) CC-BY-NC-ND 2.0,  https://flic.kr/p/rmVZg4 on Flickr. 

I have been keeping my tomatoes on the counter, mostly because if I can’t readily see my fresh produce, I forget to eat it. When garden and farmer’s market folks told me to keep them out of the fridge to preserve the flavor, I was already on board.

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A dramatic reenactment with a nicer looking kitchen. Homegrown by Ewen Roberts (2015) CC By-SA 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/uqFe5k

I feel a little bit vindicated after my mom sent me an article about how refrigeration really *does* ruin tomatoes. Apparently, the cold temperatures interfere with the ripening process enzymes. Chilling the enzymes inhibits the release of volatile compounds which give tomatoes their flavor.

Additionally, I have also been going to some trouble to purchase home-grown tomatoes from the farm stand around the corner (along with squashes, peppers, and fresh corn the owners grow in the fields out back.) These tomatoes are so much more delicious than regular grocery-store tomatoes that it would be a shame to put them in the fridge.

However, indulging my tomato counter storage habit has produced one unintended consequence: I have hoards of tiny red-eyed fruit flies (aka vinegar flies, aka Drosophila melanogaster) swarming around my kitchen. The flies are pretty much harmless houseguests, with their chief vice of mostly being annoying to me.

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Drosophila by Veljo  Runnel (2015) CC By-NC 2.0, on Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/zmDtDw

My first attempt to reduce my Drosophila population was by putting out a yogurt container full of apple cider vinegar, with the hope that the acetic-acid sotted flies would fall into the cup and drown. This did not happen. I may try some of these other home-made Drosophila traps.

Turns out with Drosophila, you can actually catch more flies with vinegar. Or I might try some Truvia (aka erythritol). A 6th grade science project which later became a university-led study, found that fruit flies who eat the stuff show motor impairments and significantly shorter lifespans.

However, after dealing with my insecticidal impulses, I considered Drosophila‘s history as a hero of genetic research. (Having once purchased one of these, I should know better.)
When I taught 9th grade biology, we spent quite a lot of time on Thomas Hunt Morgan’s sex chromosome research. As an undergrad at Columbia University, I was dimly aware of the “fly room” where Morgan conducted his experiments on the 6th floor of Schermerhorn Hall. (I think it was part of the geology department when I was there.) Filmmakers have created a new documentary about Morgan’s Fly Room in 603 Schermerhorn, which will be available for release on DVD and streaming in December 2016.

So all hail Drosophila melanogaster, my unwelcome houseguests. Turns out the tomato season in Michigan is ending very soon, anyway. If I hide the rest of my produce in the fridge, the infestation will mostly likely diminish as the flies die of old age.

Tangent for this post:
Drosophila also have an acute sense of smell.

Paleoproterozoic Rust Belt

banded iron formation
Jaspilite banded iron formation (BIF) (Vulcan Iron-Formation, Paleoproterozoic, ~1.8 Ga; Iron Mountain, Menominee Iron Range, Upper Peninsula of Michigan, USA) by James St. John, (2011) CC BY-SA 2.0, via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/oWHUNf%5D

As a human being living on Planet Earth in the 21st century, the physical surroundings of every place I encounter have been deeply modified by the passage of other human beings. Our cities and infrastructure, our farms and factories, are changing the chemistry, ecosystems and physical face of our planet. In Michigan, as in other Rust Belt places of former manufacturing glory, the shuttered factories and rusting machines are starkly visible as a symbol of decline and decay.

Rusty factory in Cleveland
Rust Belt Reflection by Bob Jagendorf, (2009) CC BY-NC 2.0 via Flickr. https://flic.kr/p/7eZ3p5

But humans are not the first organisms with the power to massively modify their environment. We’re not even the first to create a Rust Belt.

About 2 billion (that’s a 2 with 9 zeroes after it) years ago, colonies of photosynthetic bacteria figured out how to use sunlight to capture energy contained in the shared electron bonds between the hydrogen and oxygen atoms in water (H2O) molecules. This metabolic innovation opened up a whole new source of food for prokaryotic organisms, but there was a problem. The chemical reaction produced a toxic by-product: Highly reactive oxygen gas. The atmospheric oxygen (02) molecules exhaled by the bacteria, as well as the UV radiation from Sun, were harmful to the membranes of the living cells. However, the bacteria were safe as long as they stayed submerged under a protective layer of seawater.

However, a dramatic effect occurred when enough free oxygen gas accumulated to react with ferrous iron (Fe2+) ions dissolved in the oceans. The oxygen combined with the iron to create iron oxides (aka Rust.)
Let me emphasize this. The oxygen gas the bacteria were breathing out was not just poisoning the atmosphere with a toxic gas that would steal your electrons, it was literally rusting the planet. The precipitated iron oxides settled to the bottom of the ancient oceans, producing what geologists call Banded iron formations(BIFs).

I first learned the story of the oxygen-producing bacteria in my undergraduate biology class. It was shocking to me because it illustrated how tiny living things changed the face of the planet (i.e. “Once there was no oxygen, now our atmosphere is 21% oxygen *and* we need it to breathe!”) However, it was even more jarring to realize that this vital substance I take for granted, oxygen, was toxic to the first creatures who breathed it out. It seemed incredible that my ancient bacterial ancestors ever survived their own success in exploiting a new energy source, in the face of causing such widespread atmospheric pollution. (But that is a story for another blog post.)

In Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, the abundant iron ores that enabled the state’s mining and manufacturing industries of the 19th and 20th centuries come from Banded Iron Formations. The automobiles and steelworks of the Motor City owe their existence (in part) to the oxygen exhalations of 2 billion year old cyanobacteria.

This brings us to the modern parallel of how humans are contributing to changing the atmosphere by our burning of fossil fuels, super handy energy source in our civilization. While as oxygen-breathing organisms, we breathe out CO2, we’re adding it even more quickly to the atmosphere through burning the ancient sunlight stashes of coal, oil and natural gas. This year, we hit the atmospheric CO2 benchmark of 400 ppm. It’s been a long time (in human reckoning) since the atmosphere has held that concentration of CO2.

We’re seeing some of the effects in changing weather patterns, warming temperatures and increased ocean acidification (carbonic acid produced from greater concentrations of dissolved CO2, like in seltzer water.) The corals of the oceans’ great reef ecosystems have been hit pretty hard.  
I think about this each time I fill my the gas tank on my car, so I can drive to work. I think about how the oxygen produced by the ancient bacteria, in addition to rusting the oceans, triggered a possibly planet-wide ice age known as the Huronian Glaciation (named for sediments discovered in Lake Huron), aka “Snowball Earth.” If the ancient photosynthetic bacteria could change the face of the planet so drastically, what does that say about us humans who are at least beginning to understand the effects of our collective actions?