160+ Eco-Films Featured at This Year's Environmental Film Festival
I had the chance last week to interview Stephanie Flack, executive director of the Environmental Film Festival. The festival runs from March 17-29 in Washington, DC. Now in its 23rd year, it’s the nation’s largest and longest-running environmental film festival, which will screen more than 160 films on a wide range of environmental issues, and 96 of those films will either be DC, U.S. or world premieres.
Q. Is there a theme for the 2015 Festival?
A. Our theme for around one-quarter of our 160+ films this year is “Climate Connections,” exploring the impact of climate change on our world. Two of our films highlighting this subject are “Ice & Sky,” Oscar-winning filmmaker Luc Jacquet’s work-in-progress about French glaciologist Claude Lorius’ 60-year study of climate change in glaciers and “Penguin Counters,” examining how penguins in Antarctica are coping with their changing climate—and the implications for humans. We are also presenting a panel discussion with The Climate Reality Project, “Climate Connections: Filmmakers as Catalysts for Change,” considering how storytelling and film can effectively address the climate crisis and a special evening of film and discussion celebrating Earth Hour with World Wildlife Fund.
Q. Why is it important to keep offering this event in Washington, DC?
A. Washington, DC, our national capital, is an ideal place to present the Environmental Film Festival because it has perhaps the greatest concentration of national and global decision makers and thought leaders in the world. It also has experts on many of the topics featured in the films we show. By presenting our films here, we can reach people in government, NGOs and a wide variety of other organizations who shape national and global environmental policy. I think it’s more important than ever to keep doing the festival as environmental challenges intensify in severity and scope, and documentary films illuminate these vital topics. Our focus on climate change is especially timely this year, shining a light on the global climate imperative prior to the Paris United Nations Climate Conference in December.
Q. Orion's current issue has a special section on Cuba, so I was glad to see the festival's own focus on the island nation. What will the Cuba program tackle?
A. In our program, “Frozen in Time: Cuba’s Pristine Coral Reefs and Their Future After the Embargo,” marine biologist Dr. David E. Guggenheim, who visits Cuba often, will explore its vibrant coral reefs and consider the impact that lifting the U.S. embargo could have on the country’s environment. Guggenheim will also show clips of healthy coral reefs in Cuba’s National Park, Gardens of the Queen and from the film, “Cuba: The Accidental Eden,” showcasing Cuba’s virtually untouched wild landscapes. He will discuss lessons the rest of the world can learn from Cuba’s protection of its environment.
Q. What life experiences prepared you to run this massive, independent arts event? I know you love film since you’ve watched the AFI top 100.
A. The festival truly is a massive and impressive undertaking. I’ve attended it casually as an audience member for 20 years, and appreciated the films and discussions without a full understanding of the incredible work and organization that went into identifying, selecting and securing the films—not to mention coordinating with the 55+ venue partners and many more collaborating partner organizations that help to host and present the festival.
I worked in conservation for 20 years before moving to the festival. During those years, I managed large teams from my organization and partner organization to meet shared objectives—in many cases, teams over whom I had no direct authority—so I had to define and help steer the teams towards meeting shared objectives. One of these collaborative, multi-partner projects won an award from the Department of Interior as a great example of a public-private partnership. Plus, I am a mother of three children ages 10 and younger, so I have some experience keeping a bunch of balls in the air.
And to answer your second question: the AFI Top 100 is a list of the Top 100 films of the first 100 years of moviemaking. The list was determined by the American Film Institute from a poll of more than 1,500 artists and leaders in the film industry who chose from a list of 400 nominated movies. I have always loved film, it has been my interest and hobby beyond my professional focus throughout my career in conservation, so the Environmental Film Festival has been a perfect marrying up of my professional and formerly personal interests.
Q. What are you most looking forward to at this year's festival?
A. This year, I am most looking forward to our opening night festival kick-off with “Bikes vs Cars” on March 17; our closing night and Advocacy Award screening presentation of “Racing Extinction” on March 29; and our three other award evenings: presenting the Eric Moe Sustainability Film Award for a short film in sustainability to “Silent River;” screening George Butler’s new film “Tiger Tiger,” which will win our new William W. Warner Beautiful Swimmers Award for a film reflecting a spirit of reverence for nature; and showing Sturla Gunnarsson’s new film “Monsoon,” which will win our Polly Krakora Award for Artistry in Film. In addition, we have two great Saturday nights lined up: Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D on March 21 at the National Museum of Natural History, and the new film “Planetary” in association with the annual celebration of Earth Hour with World Wildlife Fund on March 28 at the National Geographic Society.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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