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Oregon State University Agricultural Research updates

Antarctica May Harbor Clues to What's 'Out There'

A research team that includes OSU Agricultural Experiment Station scientist Stephen Giovannoni has discovered that bacterial colonies are thriving underneath ice on one of the coldest, driest deserts on Earth in conditions that might compare to those on Mars or Europa, a large moon of Jupiter. These colonies provide insights for life forms that could be found elsewhere in our solar system.

Man with icy mustache standing in snow.

OSU's Steve Giovannoni at Antarctica's McMurdo Dry Valleys, where he and other scientists discovered bacterial colonies under the ice. Photo: John Prisco

The findings were reported recently in the journal Science.

The study was conducted on ice-covered lakes in the McMurdo Dry Valleys of Antarctica, which have an average annual temperature about 20 degrees below zero and get less than four inches of precipitation.

But in that frigid, arid environment, the scientists from OSU and four other institutions found liquid water pockets embedded about six feet deep in solid ice, where a combination of sediments, water and solar radiation during long summer days supports a viable population of bacteria.

"This is a very barren environment with virtually nothing we usually associate with living organisms," said Giovannoni, an associate professor of microbiology at OSU. "But these photosynthetic cyanobacteria are alive, self-sufficient and growing. They're able to live through the harsh freeze-thaw cycle of the seasons, fix nitrogen and release oxygen as they make carbohydrates from water. They have their own little world there we knew nothing about."

The nutritional requirements of these life forms are minimal, Giovannoni said-a little light, water, phosphate, nitrate and other minerals. But in fact the primitive life processes they are undertaking are quite similar to those that first formed the oxygen-rich atmosphere of Earth and made higher life forms possible.

And in the study, the researchers cite two locations where they feel conditions may exist that are similar to those found in barren Antarctica: Mars and Europa.

"It's been suggested that Mars is too dry and cold for life to exist," Giovannoni said. "But it's also known that both Mars and Europa have frozen water on or near their surfaces. We speculate that similar life forms could exist on Mars or Europa."

While Mars may have had extensive liquid water at one time, the researchers say in their report, it rapidly cooled and ice would have become the dominant form of water on Mars' surface, as it is today. A search for fossil evidence of the most recent life on Mars' surface could be based on life within ice, they say.

The process of life formation is still largely unknown and very complex, says Giovannoni.

"Any cell, even a very basic cell such as those found in bacteria, is a very complicated thing," he said. "But experiments have shown you can get fairly complicated molecules, like sugars and amino acids, from the interaction of simple chemicals and electricity."

Giovannoni has studied bacteria all over the Earth, including Oregon's Crater Lake and the oceans. With OSU geologist Martin Fisk, he investigates life in basalt rocks from the deep sea floors. Mars, he notes, is mostly made of basalt, and the Martian interior is another place to look for life. Researchers continue to be amazed, he said, at how little is known about microbes, how few have actually been described, how they function and their ecological interaction with the rest of the world.

"Recent advances in molecular biology now allow us to identify these unknown organisms," said Giovannoni, "and what we're learning is the world is full of bacteria we know virtually nothing about. I could probably isolate a new, previously unknown bacterium from the sole of your shoe."

Past research has been held back by lack of funding, Giovannoni believes, because agencies seemed unsure that studies of the evolution or behavior of bacteria in extreme environments had practical value. But new applications of bacterial research in understanding the global carbon cycle and creating antibiotics or enzymes for industrial use have raised interest.

The search for life elsewhere in the universe might first be successful, he added, when bacteria such as those being identified in Antarctica, or perhaps from the rocky interior of earth, are one day found on Mars.

Will Global Warming Help NW Agriculture?

Possible warming of the Earth's average temperature in the next century actually may be good news for agricultural production in the Northwest, according to a recent scientific report.

Rich Adams, an agricultural economist at Oregon State University and a leading world authority on the effects of climate on agriculture, is the principle author of the report, titled "Agriculture and Global Climate Change."

Men working in field at sunset.

Summer alfalfa harvesting near Hermiston, Oregon. A new report encourages farmers to consider the implications of global warming. Photo: Bob Rost

The report predicts that if temperatures increase by 4 to 5 degrees Fahrenheit, as many scientists expect, the result will be regional agricultural winners and losers. Under this scenario, a longer growing season and higher dioxide levels in the Pacific Northwest and the northern tier of states could increase crop yields to 135 percent of 1990 totals.

By contrast, southern and eastern states could see crop losses of 10 to 25 percent as a result of expected higher temperatures and lower rainfall in those regions.

The report cautions that more frequent droughts, floods and other extreme weather events are likely to affect agricultural production in all regions, including the Northwest.

As industries see more regulations enacted to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, Adams said, agriculture is likely to be among the few that not only will be able to help minimize carbon dioxide levels, but could benefit economically from the adjustments.

For example, growers could help themselves and the effort to reduce harmful production of greenhouse gases by growing biofuels that burn cleanly, he said.

Planning could begin immediately to shift agricultural transportation and storage facilities to the regions likely to see increased agriculture. Researchers at land grant universities such as OSU could develop crops adjusted to warmer temperatures.

Discussion of other ways that agriculture can reduce the buildup of greenhouse gases has begun, according to Adams. For example, growers could reduce their overall emission of carbon dioxide through no-till farming methods and by switching to non-petroleum fuels to run farm equipment.

Farmers also could plant trees and improve wetlands on their land to create "carbon sinks" that actually remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Such activities would have other environmental benefits, such as increased wildlife habitat and reduced erosion.

National leaders such as Sen. Bob Kerrey, D-Neb., support creation of an international permitting system to trade in carbon dioxide emissions. Farmers then could sell their "saved" emission allowances to utilities and other industries that emit carbon dioxide.

Adams said creation of so-called "carbon markets" provides income opportunities for agricultural producers and has the added benefit of being far less expensive for utilities than retrofitting technology to reduce emission of carbon dioxide.

Adams' co-authors on the report were Brian Hurd of Stratus Consulting, Inc. in Boulder, Colorado, and John Reilly of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The Pew Center on Global Climate Change, which funded the study, has made the full text of the report available on the Internet.

Heating May Cool Sprout Safety Issue

Alfalfa sprouts, a crunchy addition to salads and sandwiches, have been implicated in an increasing number of food poisoning cases over the last five years. Now Oregon State University and Oregon Department of Agriculture researchers have initiated a study of a heating technique used in the plywood industry they believe can combat the problem.

Sprout-related illness is a public safety issue and a threat to Oregon agriculture, which supplies a significant portion of the nation's sprout seed supply. Occasionally a strain of E. coli bacteria, labeled 0157:H7, and salmonella bacteria are found on alfalfa seeds used for sprouting. These bacteria can rapidly multiply while the seeds are in the warm, moist environment needed to produce sprouts.

OSU and ODA researchers think innovative packaging and "capacitive dielectric heating"-a process similar to microwave heating-might be a solution to the problem of foodborne illness associated with sprouted seeds.

Many other fruits and vegetables are eaten raw, but they are handled from farm to table as a food product, explains Norma Corristan, ODA administrator of lab services. Also, people generally wash these foods before they eat them.

Alfalfa seeds don't start as food products. The seeds are grown to be replanted for crops. A small percentage are set aside for sprouts. The seeds are sifted to remove weed seeds, but they are never really cleaned with food safety in mind. Cleaning them after the fact is possible, Corristan says. However, methods such as bleaching, conventional heating or irradiation all either leave residues or adversely affect the germination properties of the seeds, yielding fewer sprouts.

A research project administered jointly by OSU and ODA as part of the Food Innovation Center in Portland will examine capacitive dielectric heating of seeds embedded in edible films as a way to greatly reduce the chance of spreading foodborne illness through sprouts.

Seeds will be embedded in an edible film, resembling a thick sheet of plastic wrap, to keep them from coming in contact with any contaminants after they are heated, says John Henry Wells, an OSU food packaging engineer.

"One of the challenges of the research project will be determining the precise heating frequency that will heat the seeds but not melt the film," he says.

To that end, he notes, knowledge of the specific dielectric properties of edible films and alfalfa seeds is essential in determining optimum heating frequencies. This is an early focus of the project.

Edible films are already used with food products such as hot dogs to enhance freshness and increase resistance to spoilage and bacteria, Wells says. The edible films, made from milk and milk byproducts, were developed by Hongda Chen at the University of Vermont.

Capacitive dielectric heating has been used successfully in the plywood industry to heat glue between layers of wood, he says. The University of Vermont and Flugsted Engineering, a technology development firm in Charleston, Oregon, will collaborate on the project.

High School Student Bytes into Sage Grouse Research

After 19 years, who finally sent scientists soaring into the computer age in their study of a low-flying Oregon game bird that could be headed for the endangered species list?

Gideon Juve, who hadn't been born when the scientists started their work.

Student working at computer.

Gideon Juve enters grouse information at a "wing bee" at Hines, Oregon. A program Juve developed helps researchers analyze field data faster. Photo: Andy Duncan

The slender, soft-spoken 17-year-old junior at Grant Union High School in John Day was in the eastern Oregon community of Hines on a clear, cold morning this spring to unveil a computer program he developed as a class project. The occasion was the annual Oregon "wing bee" for the North American sage grouse, which weighs up to seven pounds and is the country's largest type of grouse.

At the event, named after sewing and spelling bees, about 30 experts crowded into an Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife (ODFW) warehouse filled with fishing nets, elk antlers, bighorn sheep horns, hip boots and other such paraphernalia.

They were examining wings from sage grouse harvested across the bird's southeastern and south-central Oregon range and recording data such as sex, age and harvest location.

Hunters who received sage grouse permits in 1998 donated the wings for science, mailing them to ODFW in self-addressed, stamped manila envelopes they received from the state agency along with their hunting permits.

"When we know a harvested bird's age we can calculate when it was hatched," said John Crawford, a researcher in Oregon State University's Department of Fisheries and Wildlife who started grouse wing bees in 1980, along with Walt Van Dyke, a biologist with ODFW's Malheur district office at Ontario.

Information on when sage grouse hatch each year is "critically important" in assessing factors that affect reproduction of the bird, which generally is in decline, Crawford said.

Also, the wing analyses provide valuable information on the age of birds that have survived and are living in the state, he added.

Juve's computer program "crunched numbers" and spewed information such as hatching dates as soon as he entered data in a computer at a make-shift work station at the Hines warehouse.

"At the end of the day the biologists were able to go home with the information, not only for their areas but for the entire state," said Crawford. He noted that in past years it has taken him and OSU students many hours to make the calculations with a slide rule-type device.

Juve's computer program, a fairly simple one written with a basic computer language used in science, came about when an ODFW biologist in Grant County, Craig Foster, contacted local math and computer teacher Matt Jones and asked if one of his students could help wildlife researchers manage the wing data for sage grouse, and blue and forest grouse, with a computer.

Collaborating with Juve at the sage grouse wing bee, along with OSU and ODFW personnel, were researchers and technicians from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the federal Bureau of Land Management and Colorado's state Division of Wildlife.

Sage grouse populations are declining across their entire range in the western United States, according to OSU's Crawford.

In Oregon, "what the wing bees tell us is that from the early 80s through the early 90s, there was extremely low productivity. The last three years were relatively good," Crawford said.

Speculating on reasons for the years of good and bad productivity, Crawford said drought in the late 1980s and early 1990s probably hurt the birds, and fire suppression appears to have altered their historic habitat in a negative way. Average to above-average precipitation in recent years and improved livestock grazing management may have contributed to the recent productive years, he said.

The OSU professor noted that research he and graduate students have conducted since the early 1980s suggests that "the ability of sage grouse to reproduce is one of the most critical factors in their decline." If the birds make it to adulthood they have a relatively good rate of survival.

No one knows how large the state's sage grouse population has been, according to Crawford, "but we feel it is at an historic low now." The birds once were so plentiful "there are records from Hart Mountain (in southeastern Oregon) of cowboys collecting sage grouse eggs for breakfast," he added.

Woman holding sage grouse.

Former OSU graduate student Anita Delong examines a sage grouse at the Hart Mountain National Wildlife Refuge near Lakeview, Oregon. Photo: Lynn Ketchum

In 1958, hunters harvested more than 21,000 sage grouse, said Crawford, about the estimated size of the entire state population today.

In today's controlled harvest, hunters kill only a few hundred birds. The primary reason hunting is allowed is because it's an inexpensive method of gathering important population information about the birds, according to biologist Van Dyke.

At the 1999 wing bee at Hines, Clait Braun, a biologist from the state of Colorado's Division of Wildlife told the assembled researchers and technicians that, although he didn't feel it was warranted, he and many others anticipate that a petition will be filed in the coming year to list sage grouse under the Endangered Species Act across their entire western range.

The petition will come from a private environmental group, Braun speculated, and it could takes several years for the petition to work its way through the courts.

"This is an important data set (the years of wing analyses)," said Braun, "and it will become more important as we go down the road."

Study Evaluates Hemp as a Crop

To help separate fact from myth about the production of hemp-touted by some as a miracle crop and by others as an evil, pernicious drug-an Oregon State University researcher has studied the feasibility of cultivating hemp as a fiber crop in the Pacific Northwest and concluded it may have some potential if it overcomes major obstacles.

Hemp, or Cannabis sativa, can be manufactured into everything from fine cloth to auto parts. Concentrations of the psychoactive ingredient, THC, are too low in fiber hemp to produce a high.

But a study of the scientific literature, which the OSU Agricultural Experiment Station has published as a report titled The Feasibility of Industrial Hemp Production in the United States Pacific Northwest, found that several conditions must be met before hemp could ever become a crop in this region.

First, it must become legal to grow hemp as a fiber crop; then it must be researched, developed and studied like any other potential new crop; and it must be able to compete with other fiber crops on the market, including wood fiber from the forest industry.

"Environmental awareness as well as decreasing availability and rising prices of local wood fiber resources have greatly increased commercial interest in agricultural production of alternative fiber sources in the Pacific Northwest," explained Daryl Ehrensing, a researcher in the OSU Department of Crop and Soil Science and author of the study.

"While many people have proposed industrial hemp production as both an oil seed crop and a source of raw material for textiles, paper and composite wood products, the feasibility of hemp production has not yet been demonstrated in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Major findings of the OSU study include:

o Hemp is a summer annual crop well-adapted to warm growing conditions, an extended frost-free season, highly productive agricultural soils and ample moisture through the growing season.

o Hemp will almost certainly require supplemental irrigation to reliably maximize productivity throughout the region, placing it in direct competition with the highest value crops in the region.

o Hemp production in western Europe is made economically feasible primarily by direct subsidies by the European Community. Because government subsidy is extremely unlikely in the United States, a thorough understanding of hemp production practices and costs is essential to determine the viability of production.

o Total biomass yields will need to be substantially greater than those previously recorded in other countries for hemp to be economically feasible in the Pacific Northwest at current prices for raw hemp fiber and seed.

o Improvements in hemp harvesting and processing equipment would be required to make it a viable crop.

"Since industrial hemp has not been grown in the Pacific Northwest in many decades, even on a research scale, the yield of modern hemp varieties under our conditions is unknown," stressed Ehrensing. "Until legislative restrictions are removed from hemp and production trials are completed, it is difficult to accurately assess the feasibility of hemp as a fiber crop in the region."

Hemp has been grown for many centuries for the strong fiber produced in its stems. Hemp seeds contain vegetable oil with edible and industrial uses. It is grown as a fiber crop in Europe and Asia, and regulated cultivation has been approved in Canada.

Publication Looks at Oregon Salmon

The Oregon State University Extension Service has produced a publication that may interest Oregonians who want to learn more about the Northwest salmon controversy.

Salmon jumping upstream.

The 24-page non-technical publication, A Snapshot of Salmon in Oregon, presents many points of view to give citizens a broad picture of the salmon issue, with its biological, economic and social sides.

The publication is divided into three sections, with articles that provide background information about Oregon's various kinds of salmon, examine human activities and natural forces that affect the fish, and highlight restoration efforts.