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To Stop an Insect Die-Out, the World Needs Pollinator-Friendly Policies, Scientist Warns
By Kerstin Palme
Creepy-crawlies are among the oldest life forms on this planet. Before dinosaurs ever walked the earth, insects were certainly already there. Some estimates date their origins to 400 million years ago. They're also extremely successful. Of the 7 to 8 million species documented on Earth, around three quarters are likely bugs.
But several insect species could disappear for good in the next few decades and that would have serious consequences for humans.
Insects like bees, butterflies and even certain species of beetle and ant incidentally pollinate our crops when they collect protein-rich pollen and sugary nectar, ensuring we have enough to eat.
DW spoke to Josef Settele, a professor and entomologist at the Helmholtz Centre for Environmental Research (UFZ) in the eastern German city of Halle, about whether we need to worry about our food and how politics and business could intervene to halt the insect decline.
Settele was in the global spotlight in May 2019 when the United Nations IPBES Global Assessment Report on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services was published. In the report, the entomologist and his colleagues determined that around 1 million plant and animal species are threatened with extinction.
Insects are being hit particularly hard. The scientists estimate that around 10% of all insect species are threatened with dying out over the next few decades — and that's a conservative calculation.
Entomologist Josef Settele says we need insect-friendly agriculture to help counteract the decline in pollinators.
DW: In the report, you conclude that in some world regions 40% of wild, pollinating insects, particularly wild bee species, are already facing extinction. Why don't we just put up bee boxes and hives everywhere?
Josef Settele: That will only help so much. The wild cousins of the honeybee don't necessarily live under the guardianship of humans. And the honeybee is responsible for pollinating only a certain percentage of our crops. For instance, they pollinate just a small portion of our apples. Wild pollinators whether they be hoverflies, bumblebees or other insects like butterflies are more important in this regard.
Solitary pollinators like the leafcutter bee like to nest in tunnels, like the ones provided in this insect hotel.
So my apple harvest could be less bountiful if the honeybee is the only species available to pollinate it?
Correct but even more importantly, certain plants can't be pollinated by honeybees in the first place. Bumblebees, for instance, typically pollinate broad beans. Honeybees can't do much here really.
Broad-bean blossoms are closed and the bumblebee can easily force its way in with its wide body. Another example is alfalfa, an important forage crop that is dependent on the bumblebee. Honeybees just can't get into the blossom.
What would the global community have to fork out if all pollinating insects suddenly disappeared and our food crops had to be pollinated by hand?
Global pollination [by insects and other animals] is worth at least $235 billion a year, according to our conservative estimates. And you'd really have to expend considerable resources to imitate the animals' pollination performance. Humans just haven't mastered the technique. Look at the use of brushes. The yields are always paltry in comparison to natural pollination.
The other question is: where in the world am I doing it? If I'm in a country where the labor costs are low, then it could provide some kind of alternative. But there would be no point in trying that in Germany, for instance. Your apples would suddenly be 10 times more expensive when you take our labor costs into account.
Considering those prospects, you would think that politicians and businesses would have a big interest in stopping species loss. What courses of action are there for policy makers? What shape would pollinator-friendly politics take?
Many different factors contribute to the disappearance of insects but a lot of it is very much connected to our land use. A more sustainable use of our land needs to be encouraged. That could be achieved by, for instance, having a higher diversity of habitats and by reducing pesticides, particularly insecticides.
We really need policy that would heavily promote the production of sustainable products. So, groceries that require fewer pesticides and make more sense from an energy perspective. That means eating more plants in our diet and fewer animal-based products.
I'm not a vegetarian but the strong preference in Europe and North America for consuming meat has to change. Our high meat consumption fuels the demand for soy, which is used as a feed for cattle. By importing soy from South America, we're contributing to species extinction. That's because forests and areas that were full of species-rich ecosystems are often turned into plantations. These are grave changes that are causing habitats to disappear.
But are large, blooming monoculture plantations not good for wild pollinators?
Settele advises people to plant blooming flowers in their gardens and balconies to give bees, butterflies and other pollinators a helping hand.
Pollinators need more than just food. They need nesting habitats. Solitary wild bees lay their eggs in holes in the ground or hollow stems, the likes of which are mimicked in insect hotels. Those are basically reproductions of the shelters found in nature and where they lay their eggs.
What can I do as an individual?
Being aware of the impact of how you consume is a good start, although, that is often difficult to navigate. It's always a good idea to make sure you've got a diversity of flowering plants around your home. Even just getting in touch with nature is good.
So, just get outside into nature?
Yes! Out into nature. And bringing nature to your own front door.
Kerstin Palme conducted the interview, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Reposted with permission from our media associate DW.
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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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