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Oregon State University agricultural research updates

New method pinpoints meth hot spots

Daniel Sudakin
Daniel Sudakin oversees the National Pesticide Medical Monitoring Program and the National Pesticide Information Center, cooperative agreements between Oregon State University and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Photo by Tiffany Woods.

Public health officials have a new tool for fighting methamphetamines.

“There are a lot of people analyzing the issue of methamphetamine, but they do it from different angles,” said OSU toxicologist and physician Daniel Sudakin. “Some focus on health problems, others focus on hazardous chemical releases from meth labs.”

Sudakin used statistics from four sources to identify counties with the most meth-linked incidents per capita, a new approach toward studying a significant public health concern.

“This method gives us a bigger picture of what’s going on across the state,” Sudakin said. “It also includes rural areas, which tend not to be studied as much as urban areas in terms of meth use and production.”

The study gathered countywide data on 2,570 meth-related incidents documented from 1998 to 2007 by the Oregon Poison Center, the Oregon Narcotics Enforcement Association, the Oregon State Police’s Medical Examiner Division, and the Oregon Public Health Division’s Hazardous Substances Emergency Events Surveillance System.

The data included deaths connected with the stimulant; the discovery of places where meth was made; the release of dangerous fumes and chemicals from these “labs”; the accidental ingestion of toxic chemicals used to make the addictive drug; the haphazard dumping of waste from the labs; and calls to the Oregon Poison Center regarding overdoses and other meth-related concerns. (The study, however, didn’t include crime-related data like arrests for possession of meth.) Sudakin then analyzed the data using software that epidemiologists use to map the spread of diseases.

The analysis found that on a per-capita basis, these problems were most common in sparsely populated, rural Umatilla County when compared with other counties and the state overall. After Umatilla, Sudakin’s study identified Multnomah, Marion, Linn, and Lincoln counties as having significant meth-related problems per capita.

Sudakin’s study found that meth labs in Oregon have decreased since 2006, when Oregon became the first state in the country to require a prescription to obtain cold medicines containing pseudoephedrine, which is used to make meth.

Turning a cancer bodyguard into a cancer killer

body cells illustration by Tom Weeks

If you’re a cancer cell, you want a protein called Bcl-2 on your side because it decides if you live or die. It’s usually a trusted bodyguard, protecting cancer cells and allowing them to grow and form tumors. But sometimes it turns into a cancer cell’s assassin.

Scientists knew it happened, but they didn’t know how to prompt such a betrayal. Now they do.

“Now we can force this protein to backstab the cancer cell where it resides,” said Siva Kolluri, a cancer biology researcher in the environmental and molecular toxicology department at OSU. With colleagues at the Burnham Institute for Medical Research and elsewhere, Kolluri has developed a peptide that converts the Bcl-2 protein from a cancer cell’s friend to its foe.

The findings could lead to the development of cancer-fighting drugs that target Bcl-2, Kolluri said. Bcl-2 is an attractive drug target because its levels are elevated in a majority of human cancers and it is responsible for cancer cells’ resistance to many chemotherapeutic drugs and radiation.

Linda Wolff, a leukemia researcher at the National Institutes of Health’s Center for Cancer Research, said the researchers’ discovery is “rare” in the world of cancer research. She added that it’s important for two reasons.

“First, it may lead to a therapy that could potentially be used against many types of cancer,” she said. “Because it targets Bcl-2, and Bcl-2 is expressed in many types of cancers, it could be useful in breast cancer and other carcinomas and leukemia, for example. The second reason it’s important is that although the peptide they studied causes cancer cells to die, its effect on normal cells seems to be quite minimal. A big problem in cancer research has been getting therapies that don’t kill normal cells.”

Isolated white oak trees provide critical habitat in farm fields

white oak photo by Lynn Ketchum

The magnificent white oak trees that stand alone in farmers’ fields may provide a critical resource to a wide range of bird species in the Willamette Valley.

Craig DeMars, an Oregon State University graduate student in fisheries and wildlife, found that large, isolated white oak trees, hundreds of years old, act as “habitat magnets,” concentrating tree-dependent bird species.

DeMars compared bird use of oaks in agricultural lands to use in reserve areas. He found that as many as 47 species of birds use the isolated white oaks to perch, feed, sing, and nest, both on and off reserves. The larger the trees, the more kinds of birds used them, especially where trees were sparse in the surrounding landscape.

The Willamette Valley’s white oak savanna habitat is only about one percent of what it was 200 years ago, said DeMars, who bases the number on old photos and journals. “For birds associated with oak savanna habitats, a single isolated tree in an agricultural field may be a critical resource for nesting, safe refuge, and foraging as well as providing a high perch for singing.”

As he drove back roads to find old, so-called legacy white oaks to study, DeMars was worried about how landowners would react to a biologist asking to come onto their land to study birds. He found most were “quite interested,” he said; only one said no.

DeMars found that most landowners treasured the trees for their beauty and longevity; these trees have become part of life on many farms. “I grew up with that tree,” one farmer told DeMars.

Natural beauty trumps remoteness for rural communities

bicycling image © stock.xchng

Remoteness is the main cause of disparities between communities that flourish and those that do not, according to agricultural economists at Oregon State University. The greater the distance between a community and its closest urban neighbor, the less likely it is to prosper.

But the enhancement of natural amenities—a lake for boating or greenways for hiking—can tip the scales in favor of a remote community. According to economists JunJie Wu and Munisamy Gopinath, the physical characteristics that make a location a nice place to live can offset the degree to which remoteness matters in terms of attracting new households and enticing businesses to locate in rural areas.

In the past, economic sustainability was linked to physical services (such as transportation, water, sewer, power, sanitation, communication) and social services (such as education, available technology, and health care). Add the knowledge and skill in a community’s population and you get what Wu calls “accumulated capital.” When these factors were favorable, wages were supposed to be high, housing was affordable, most people were employed, and communities thrived. Or so it was thought.

Yet “it’s hard to tell sometimes why some communities do so well while others suffer,” said Wu.

Wu and Gopinath found that about 80 percent of the variations between thriving and failing communities is accounted for by the degree of remoteness. Nonetheless, natural amenities turn out to have a positive effect on wages, employment, and housing prices.

This has implications for the design of policies to promote economic development in rural communities, the researchers say.

Nationwide, the communities where wages are lowest are mostly in remote areas. The models developed by Wu and Gopinath can be used to highlight ways that public investments can enhance accumulated capital in these areas, and thus entice businesses to locate there.

As information technology advances, the U.S. population is becoming more footloose, and communities that are rich in natural amenities are becoming more attractive to many people. In turn, communities with knowledgeable, skilled work forces are attractive to new businesses, and towns with high-valued amenities are among the fastest growing in terms of population and income.

Public policies that support ecological conservation and environmental protection can contribute to economic sustainability if they enhance high-valued natural amenities. Used in this light, the research can augment the development of policies that are good for both the environment and rural communities.

Tending to the growth of farmers’ markets

vegetables photo © stock.xchng

Farmers’ markets continue to grow in popularity in communities across Oregon. But just like the fruits and vegetables on display, these markets require careful planning and tending.

OSU researchers polled 53 Oregon farmers’ market organizers to learn how they manage their markets. Organizers of successful farmers’ markets are those who plan ahead for future growth, explained Garry Stephenson, an OSU Extension small farms specialist and one of the authors of the study.

“Keeping farmers’ markets open and operating efficiently is important both for the farmers that sell at these markets and the communities these markets serve,” said Stephenson.

Stephenson and his colleagues found that markets of different sizes use different management tools. Small markets anticipating growing into a medium-sized market should be prepared to add a salaried manager, rather than a volunteer, to handle market operations. Medium markets might add site maps or boards of directors as they grow. Larger markets might add paid staff to manage budgets and operations.

The report, “Understanding the Link Between Farmers’ Market Size and Management Organization” (SR 1082-E) is available online at no charge.