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The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC)—funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland—is dedicated to solving society’s most challenging and complex environmental problems. As one of only a few U.S. transdisciplinary research centers, SESYNC brings together different disciplines and stakeholders to increase knowledge on the complex interactions between human and ecological systems. Learn more about SESYNC.

Extracting the Excess, Fueling the Future

August 25, 2014

The Internship Program at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) provides undergraduate students with opportunities to deepen their understanding of socio-environmental issues. Interns spend the majority of their time working with mentors at their offices or labs on research projects and participate in weekly Internship Program events, including field trips and seminars. Below, we highlight the summer research experience of one of our interns.

SESYNC intern
University of Maryland student

What do you think smells worse: a power plant, spewing noxious greenhouse gases and heavy particulates into the atmosphere; a landfill, full of used, unwanted trash and the scraps of society and civilization; or a heap of degrading cow manure, festering of flies and oozing liquid just as rancid as its solid mother form? It’s something we don’t often think about, thanks to effective waste removal and storage systems. But that doesn’t mean our current level of consumption and waste output doesn’t pose a problematic habit to kick if we want to get serious about climate change and environmental degradation.

As traditional non-renewable energy sources deplete, there is great need for alternative energies on both industrial and small scales. Anaerobic digesters (AD) create an ideal environment for anaerobic (i.e., non-oxygen using) bacteria to break organic wastes down to simpler organic hydrocarbon products used for fuel, such as methane, by a process called methanogenesis. Microbial fuel cells (MFC) utilize the sulfate reducing anaerobic bacteria present in the organic waste, which reduce hydrogen sulfate to hydrogen sulfide gas, to harness energy via a chemical electric current. Coupled together, the resulting system presents a sustainable, renewable energy source. Digesters provide energy independence by decreasing reliance on fossil fuels and producing heat usable for space heating. Multiple successful digesters operate on a commercial level, but prove too expensive on a small scale, creating a demand for the optimization of digesters for cost effective use, in particular for use by small farmers.

For the study I worked on during my internship, a series of different substrates, including iron additives and bactericides, have been added to the AD in hopes of finding an additive that optimizes the amount of methane and electricity extracted from the organic wastes. In addition, this study evaluates the production of hydrogen sulfide gas (a source of corrosion for the AD) for each substrate.

While operating the digesters and treatments themselves seems like the nitty gritty, my work with the digestate truly digs to the core of the process. By quantifying the microbial community behind each sample, we determine the amount of bacteria for each sample and relate it to the amount of methane and hydrogen sulfide gas produced by the AD—and how that might affect the optimization of conditions for methogen production, decreasing hydrogen sulfide production, and optimally powering a MFC after methanogenesis.

To determine the microbial community composition and quantity, we extract the microbial DNA from the samples and quantify it using a process called qPCR (qualitative polymerase chain reaction.) Much molecular biological work uses kits manufactured by biotech companies and involve adding a series of solutions and filtering your original sample to isolate out the particular substance you want—and from the brown, murky digestate soup emerges a clean, indiscriminate sample, as clear as if it were pure water. Then, the samples were diluted to a concentration of 1.25 ng/uL and a final volume of 25 uL: a tiny sample, but jam packed with genetic material!

The next step: amplify the DNA with qPCR. qPCR uses a fluorescent dye to measure the actual amount of DNA amplified in each cycle. Since we focus on particular types of bacteria, we amplify the DNA with respect to the gene unique to that community—mcrA, a methanogenesis gene; dsrA, a sulfate reducing gene; and 16S, a gene only found in bacteria and archaea (to quantify the entire bacterial and archaeal community in each sample). qPCR plates for the 16S gene run as I type this, and plates for dsrA will follow.

Looking over the graphs of the preliminary data shows the trend that iron additives result in a decreased gene copy number compared to treatments without iron additives. This correlates with the decreased methane production trends from the iron additive treatments. But since some additives reduce H₂S production, the decreased methane production might be worth it!

Top photo: Intern Tamara Walsky pipetting in the Yarwood Lab
Bottom photo: Doctoral candidate Annie Yarberry and the treatment samples in the Lansing Lab


July 29, 2014

By now, we’ve all seen the before-and-after photo (above) illustrating what our grocery stores would look like if pollinators disappeared from our food system. Given our well-established intolerance of threats to our (pollinator-dependent) avocado supply (Guacapocalypse, anyone?), it was only a matter of time before the President himself would step in to help save the honeybees and hoverflies.

The White House recently issued a presidential memorandum establishing a federal task force to develop a strategy for reversing the declining populations of pollinators. In addition to ensuring the availability of our avocados, pollinators are important for a myriad of ecological and economic reasons—and are a perfect example of the interdependent socio-environmental systems on which SESYNC focuses. But pressures such as habitat loss and degradation, pesticides, and climate change threaten these busy workers and the ecosystem services they provide. In response, the President’s Pollinator Health Task Force is charged with focusing federal efforts to research, prevent, and recover from pollinator losses; to develop a public education campaign that teaches people about how they can help pollinators in their own communities; and to take specific measures to substantially expand pollinator habitat on federal lands, as well as build on federal efforts with public–private partnerships.

The memo establishes pollinator protection as a national priority: an important step in the right direction. And because the federal government owns a great deal of land (roughly 635–640 million acres), it has an opportunity to make a big impact through its management strategies for increasing and improving pollinator habitat on those lands.

The memo’s Pollinator Research Action Plan also opens the door for synthesis amongst the agencies and organizations already doing good work on pollinators. Many of the items identified in the memo’s Pollinator Research Action Plan are being studied by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (including its Colony Collapse Disorder Steering Committee), U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, and a number of state land grant institutions and non-profits, such as The Xerces Society and the North American Pollinator Protection Campaign. Dr. David Hawthorne, SESYNC’s Director of Education and Outreach and Associate Professor of Entomology at the University of Maryland, is hopeful that the federal task force will aggregate the information and perspectives from these diverse sources with those of the agencies tasked with creating the action plan to effectively synthesize both the ecological and the social information needed to develop an effective plan.

But does the memorandum go far enough? The pollinator crisis is a remarkably complex problem, shaped by different landscapes and plant communities; insect, bat, and bird populations; and numerous land uses and governmental jurisdictions. And although economic concerns are a prominent impetus for the memorandum, the engagement of social scientists appears lacking in the research plan.

“The plan could end up a traditional, natural science-oriented search for solutions and best practices,” says Hawthorne. “One thing that would make it stronger would be to include social science and governance expertise. How, for example, does improving pollinator habitat impact the utility of the land for the people who use it? If improved pollinator habitat is at odds with another designated land use, how does that conflict affect the vitality of the pollinator habitat over time?”

SESYNC’s Quantitative Programs Researcher Kelly Hondula notes that we don’t necessarily recognize negative impacts on pollinators or ecosystem services until it affects us personally—until we see, for example, either a sharp rise in avocado prices at the grocery store or their complete disappearance from produce displays.

“The point of understanding pollination as an ecosystem service that underlies the things we care about,” says Hondula, “is to prevent that price spike or product loss before it happens in the first place, because intervention is better, easier, and cheaper than trying to recover something after it’s lost.”

The social science perspective, therefore, would be important to an effective pollinator research and action plan because it would provide a context for valuation of trade-offs. The complexity of the pollinator crisis means there’s no single, silver bullet solution. Potential solutions should be evaluated within a socio-environmental framework to determine at what “costs” we are willing to save our pollinators … and our avocados.

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through an award to the University of Maryland from the National Science Foundation, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

SESYNC, USDA Partner to Catalyze Data-Driven Research on Food Systems Resilience to Climate Change

Annapolis, Md — In partnership with the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC) announces the “Data to Motivate Synthesis” Program for early career scientists and researchers at the agriculture, environment, and social nexus to identify and understand the factors that influence food systems resilience to climate change.

Now You See It

June 24, 2014

Many researchers in the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences (CMNS) are harnessing the power of “big data”—a popular term used to describe the massive amount of information that is acquired, stored, searched, shared, analyzed and visualized—in the quest for answers to some of the world’s most complex problems. Using the latest computational tools to extract the most important pieces of information from these huge data sets and applying sophisticated analytic techniques, researchers are discovering patterns and making unexpected connections in virtually every scientific discipline.

Director of Cyberinfrastructure Joseph JaJa, Postdoctoral Fellow Mary Collins, and SESYNC Scientific Programmer Ian Muñoz are featured in the June 2014 issue of Odyssey Magazine, published by CMNS at the University of Maryland.

Click here to read the story.

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

Innovative Technology for Global Food Waste Solutions

June 19, 2014

From simple sun drying systems for produce to home appliances networked with food distributors, food scientist John Floros sees a major role for technology in reducing worldwide food waste.

Science Communication Fellow

As much as one-third to one-half of the world’s food harvest is lost from field to plate every year, experts estimate. Food scientist John Floros wants to change those numbers—and he’s betting on a new food science and innovation center to help turn things around.

How ingenuity will feed the world.The new lab’s work will be critical to food security by preserving more and better quality food for the world’s growing population, says Floros, dean of the College of Agriculture at Kansas State University and director of K-State Research and Extension. The new food center, called the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for the Reduction of Post-Harvest Loss, is housed at Kansas State University and coordinates with the U.S. Agency for International Development. Initially the new lab will focus on helping the countries of Bangladesh, Ethiopia, Ghana and Guatemala reduce their post-harvest losses and food waste for grain and oil seed crops, tuberous root crops, and peanut and legume crops. Researchers will investigate how to prevent insect pests and fungus when crops are stored as well as improved techniques for measurement, drying and storage.

Continue reading at FutureFood 2050.

Mapping the Landscape of Land Change Synthesis

June 12, 2014

Much of what we know about how humans use land, and how those practices change over time, is informed by local case studies. But determining whether individual case studies are merely anecdotal—or if they can be scaled up to help explain regional or even global land use patterns—can be a challenge.

To reconcile local information with regional–global knowledge, researchers who study land change must also reconcile the diversity of disciplines involved in land change science. From urban economics to geophysics and ecology to geography, each brings with it disparate data types and research questions.

The research approach of synthesis—which “draws upon and distills many sources of data, ideas, explanations, and methods in order to accelerate knowledge production beyond that of less integrative approaches”—is especially useful in this context.

“People who study land use change are often dealing with both quantitative and qualitative data, due to the human component of the field,” said Dr. Nicholas Magliocca, computational research associate at the National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center (SESYNC). “If you’re trying to integrate, for example, satellite remote sensing imagery with farmer surveys, your synthesis techniques will necessarily vary from those used for highly-controlled and standardized field experiments.”

In a new study published in Regional Environmental Change, lead author Magliocca and co-authors map the landscape of synthesis within land change science, and identify specific techniques born of the land change community that are specifically designed to integrate these types of diverse data sets. The study tasks itself with helping researchers identify which synthesis methods are most appropriate for what they’re trying to do and what type of data they have—and, importantly, with identifying ways to improve upon these methods.

“Synthesis, and meta-studies in particular, are becoming a very popular approach within the land change community,” said Magliocca. “This paper highlights some of the more innovative approaches that enable us to link local observations with regional and global patterns. Considering both at the same time is pretty unique, and pretty powerful.”

Access the article online at: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10113-014-0626-8

The National Socio-Environmental Synthesis Center, funded through a National Science Foundation grant to the University of Maryland, is a research center dedicated to solving complex problems at the intersection of human and ecological systems.

Top photo: Charles Tilford, Flickr/Creative Commons

Associated SESYNC Researcher(s): 

How Weeds Could Help Feed Billions in a Warming World

June 5, 2014

Scientists in the U.S. and elsewhere are conducting intensive experiments to cross hardy weeds with food crops such as rice and wheat. Their goal is to make these staples more resilient as higher temperatures, drought, and elevated CO2 levels pose new threats to the world’s food supply.

Science Communication Fellow

Weeds that resemble knee-high grass grow in planter pots in a small room at a U.S. Department of Agriculture lab just outside Washington, D.C. Light, heat, and carbon dioxide reach the plants at steady levels. For more than a month, the weeds have sustained the same conditions expected to be earth’s norm 35 years from now — carbon dioxide levels equivalent to an urban traffic jam, and temperatures tipping into the dangerous zone for the planet’s health.

But rather than choking from such treatment, the weeds — a wild plant called red rice — are thriving. The test lab mimics conditions expected around the world by 2050, when an additional 2.6 billion people will be wondering what’s for dinner.

Lewis Ziska, a plant physiologist with the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service, studies, among other things, weeds in food production and human health. Weeds beguile Ziska. Weeds may be the largest single limitation to global crop yield. But they also have traits that are useful to plant growth. Red rice, for instance, can adapt to more carbon dioxide and heat by producing more stems and grain — red rice has 80 to 90 percent more seed than cultivated rice.

Continue reading at Yale Environment 360.


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