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Chernobyl and decomposers

Growing up near the end of the cold war I remember hearing jokes about how the only thing that would survive a nuclear war were cockroaches. In later years I supposed in my own mind I assumed that bacteria and fungi should also be on that list. Microbes have survived for billions of years, so what could humans possibly do to make a dent in their life cycle at a regional scale? Well, apparently quite a lot. There’s some interesting research published recently that has been studying decomposition (partially mediated by bacteria and fungi) in the area around the Chernobyl nuclear disaster in Ukraine. Apparently the radiation has affected all levels of biological organization, including microbes and primary decomposers. This has led to a surprising slow down in decomposition of wood. I just gained a new found respect for the destructive power of radiation.

Smithsonian magazine has a nice summary here .

Mountaintop mining

This is a bit off topic, but this is a major environmental issue that doesn’t seem to get as much press as it should. The sheer area of Appalachian mountains that have been strip mined and leveled in is staggering. We still rely heavily on coal for power in this county, and regardless of what you think about clean coal the reality of how we mine for coal makes it a very problematic source of energy.

Below is the story from Science. It’s about Margaret Palmer at the University of Maryland who has contributed a lot of important science that shows the deleterious effects of this method of mining.

Side note on the prettiest and ugliest college campuses

I ran across these links in the Chronicle of Higher Education. It’s a bit lighter fair, but amusing. What makes a college campus pretty or ugly? Hard to say, since it’s pretty subjective. The majority in the ugliest colleges category seem to have a lot of poured concrete plazas and brutalist buildings. I’m just happy to report Boston U. didn’t make that list despite having plenty of both of those criteria. On the plus side, two of my homes, Duke and Cornell, made the list of most beautiful. I do find it a bit odd about Cornell since many of buildings are spectacularly ugly. I guess it gets a big pass because not even a windowless 11 early 70’s ugly tower can detract too much from the natural beauty of the gorges and waterfalls.

Most Beautiful


Do we (the US) feed the world?

I ran across an interesting piece on NPR about the efficiency of US agriculture. The full test is located here. Not really anything earth shattering, but it does drive a few point that I’ve thought about over the years. First is that many people argue for conventional agriculture because it has higher yields, but those yields tend to be commodity crops like corn and soy, which aren’t the most efficient way of supplying nutrients to people. Plus as the article points out, a large portion of the corn in the US is siphoned off for gasoline additive. Second, the externalized environmental costs of conventional farming in terms of nutrient leaching, soil degradation, erosion, and denitrification are well know. I don’t mean to be entirely critical of conventional agriculture, but I certainly don’t like the implication that it is the only possible avenue to efficient and sustainable food production.

Molecular techniques have finally identified the potato famine strain

There is some interesting work being done recently on identifying the strain of phytophthera that caused the Irish potato famine back in the 1840s. Really very interesting from a technical angle. They managed to get enough DNA from dried museum samples to identify the strain of phytophthera and how this oomycete strain differed from modern strains.

It is also very interesting since it highlights how this fungal cousin has changed and adapted to the introduction of new blight resistant potato crops. Clearly, we can’t forget about infectious diseases of the past, and we should keep working on developing new disease resistant strains and ways we can manage agriculture that reduce ecosystem susceptibility to pathogens.

The BBC has a pretty good summary of the work located here.

100 Years of Haber-Bosch Nitrogen Fertilizer

Just read an interesting article that noted 2013 is the 100th anniversary of the development of synthetic nitrogen fertilizer. It is odd to think that one of the greatest technological feats in agriculture might also be one of the worst environmental threats we face today. My only complaint with the article is that they don’t talk very much about organic or agroecological attempts to address our over reliance on nitrogen fertilizers. Most of the research I’ve seen suggests that our nitrogen problems will not be solved by fertilizer management alone.

Harvesting new incubators

Just finished a lab incubation of agricultural soils varying in management type. Also looking forward to seeing how the soils respond to simple substrates versus cellulose additions. Many thanks to all the folks who helped with the processing and handling.

Planting Organic Potatoes

I recently got out of the lab for a day to help the Organic Cropping Systems group with some field work. It was a beautiful day to plant potatoes. I’m looking forward to the harvest in the fall. Hopefully some of the techniques the group is working on will produce a bumper crop with relatively low impact.

Furnace vs. ceramics

So I was working with our carbon/nitrogen analyzer a few months back, and it had a pretty bad air leak. I opened up the combustion chamber and found that the intense heat of the furnace had cracked the ceramic combustion tube. For future reference 1300 degrees C is pretty dang hot. The new combustion tube seems to be ok so far, but it looks like even the slightest defect can really kill these tubes.



Soil Sampling in Upstate NY Winter

I went sampling this past weekend, because I realized that if I wanted any soils for winter greenhouse experiments I needed them soon. Any later and the ground would be completely frozen solid. As it was, I feel like a real hardcore soil scientist because it was about 28 degrees with gusty winds when I sampled. Luckily the thin layer of snow and corn stover kept the soils from being totally frozen. See below for pictures of the sites near Penn Yan, NY and my collection of 90 plus gallons of soil.

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