Esther came into our lives more than 19 months ago. In that time our world has been turned upside down and spun around in the most incredible ways. Our eyes and minds have been opened. We've been thrown headfirst into a world we knew little about. We've become "accidental activists."
Let's go back to the beginning. It was a typical Friday night when I noticed a message from a friend on my Facebook wall. We hadn't spoken in years but "kept in touch" as many do via Facebook. She asked me if I was interested in a mini pig and I, being a huge animal lover jumped all over it. I said I needed to do a little research before I could agree. This research also included figuring out how my partner Derek felt about the idea as he had absolutely no idea what was going on at this point. About two hours after this initial message, I got another one saying somebody else was interested. I had already allowed myself to get somewhat excited so I panicked and took the bait. I agreed to meet her the following morning to pick up Esther without having time to do any of the "research" I had planned ... including speaking to Derek.
I spent the remainder of that day hiding at friends' houses until Derek left for work so I could sneak our new 5 lb. "mini pig" into the house. It was a pretty tense day and by the time Derek got home I was fit to be tied. The following few hours were somewhat heated but Derek was no match for Esther infectious personality. A week or so later he agreed to change her name from "Kijiji" as he had been calling her, to Esther, and away we went.
Within a week or so we had found a local vet who had plenty of experience with pigs. We set our first appointment and that's when things got really interesting. Esther's tail is cropped and little did we know that's pretty much a dead give away that you're dealing with a commercial pig. Prior to the day Esther arrived, neither of us had any experience with pigs whatsoever. We were horrified but hoped for the best and we began the adventure of training a piglet with no idea what was to come.
It proved to be some of the most trying experiences we could've imagined. Many times I sat on the floor with Esther and cried my eyes out worried we had made a huge mistake. She was getting into everything, and housetraining was a nightmare. We were absolutely lost and broken over the thought of having to admit defeat and give up. For whatever reason almost overnight everything seemed to fall into place. Her attitude calmed down, she started listening to commands like "no" and "come" and best of all, the accidents in the house stopped.
What made this even harder was all along knowing we had a commercial pig on our hands. We couldn't stop thinking about "what could've been" for Esther had we not brought her home. We imagined her brothers and sisters and what happened to them. It was horrifying and a realization that changed our lives forever.
We began watching documentaries on living a vegan lifestyle and what the pros and cons were. We also watched a few documentaries on farming and it was those that had the biggest impact. We had seen Esther's personality flourishing along with her mannerisms and the routine she had developed. She was like a little person that had every emotion we did. We could tell when she was happy, scared, mischievous or grumpy just by looking at her face. There's a level of awareness and consciousness in her that we had never experienced in an animal before. We saw all this and couldn't help but think of what was happening in farms around the world. To imagine how horrified, tormented and aware they are is enough to bring tears to my eyes. We had to become vegan. It wasn't a decision so much as what needed to be done.
The transition to being vegan was definitely a challenge at first but the more we learned about the factory farming industry, the more we were sure we had to keep going. The treatment of the animals is absolutely atrocious, we couldn't believe what we were seeing. We had no idea how much animals had been reduced to "products" with no regard whatsoever for their treatment. The idea of a "factory farm" meant nothing to us until we saw the mass scale of these places and the complete disregard for the animals. One of the worst things we saw was footage of pigs with their feet frozen to the floor of transport trailers because they were ankle deep in urine. Pigs are amazingly clean animals however they will go to the bathroom anywhere when they're scared. Those poor pigs were horrified and frozen near solid only to be beaten and jabbed with electric prods to make them break their legs free of the ice.
One of the other things that became very clear to us was the environmental impact of factory farms. The waste and gasses created by the animals and transporting them to and from factory farms are major contributors to climate change. Then when you consider the amount of beautiful countryside cleared of natural habitats for wildlife so it can be dedicated to growing corn to feed livestock, you realize there's a giant snowball of reasons to make changes. So for us it was a total no brainer.
Almost two years later we're as madly in love with our now 385ish pound "mini pig" as we ever were. She makes us laugh and smile every single day and we can't imagine life without her. We are trying to get our affairs in order so we can open a sanctuary of our own. We're not sure how soon it'll happen, but it will. Too many people just like us get completely taken advantage of and their pigs end up abandoned or worse.
Had anyone told us two years ago that in January of 2014 we'd have a pet pig with tens of thousands of followers on Facebook from around the world telling us we're "an ambassador for change" and that Esther is "gonna change the world for farmed animals," we would've thought you were crazy.
Fast forward 19 months and the messages and comments we receive are absolutely indescribable. The support and love being sent our way is overwhelming and it's all for Esther. It's all for a pig who got a chance at life, a pig who already changed our world in the most amazing ways. People have said that "she's the luckiest pig in the world" and while that may be somewhat true, we know we are really the lucky ones. She opened our eyes and our minds in ways we could never have imagined. We owe her more than she'll ever owe us.
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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>
This Saturday, June 6, marks National Trails Day, an annual celebration of the remarkable recreational, scenic and hiking trails that crisscross parks nationwide. The event, which started in 1993, honors the National Trail System and calls for volunteers to help with trail maintenance in parks across the country.
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By John Letzing
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The Navajo Nation covers the corners of three different states. Google Maps
Growing Contribution<img lazy-loadable="true" src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yMzM3NDY5Ny9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY0NjM4MTgyM30.IuQTKQs1stvYYKD6vaVTrqAyoBsUG0BhDvlhxsyKwPA/img.png?width=980" id="02a05" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="2841f82b1785df5d5ed7bf64d3bb882b" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
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Scuba divers around the world are holding their metaphorical breath to see if a coronavirus infection affects the ability to dive.
DAN medical experts explained the difference between normal lungs, on the left, and "very serious lungs caused by COVID-19," on the right. Matias Nochetto / Divers Alert Network (DAN)
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