Friday, May 12, 2017

Climate change is in Atlanta's air

"We're all partly responsible for our local air quality," says Emory graduating senior Emily Li. "Even if we don't hold ourselves accountable, our health will." (Emory Photo/Video)

By Carol Clark

Emory 2017 graduate Emily Li is leaving Atlanta this summer, but her student research will continue to have a presence here. For her undergraduate thesis, Li investigated the effects of shifting weather patterns on the air quality of Atlanta and the region — and how that relates to human health. She’s compiled her findings into a web site, Climate Change is in the Air, as a resource for local residents. 

“The web site explains some of the science involved, but it’s not just statistics,” Li says. “It also tells stories of real people. I wanted to put faces on these complex, scientific processes and explain how individuals are being directly affected by climate change, right now.”

In addition to science and stories from real people, the site offers solutions — what communities and individuals can do to address the issue.

Li, who majored in Environmental Sciences and English, sampled classes from a range of disciplines during college. No matter what the course, however, climate change kept coming up. “I think that it’s the most important issue that we face today, and I want to be part of the solution,” she says.

As a junior, Li took a course called Environmental Journalism, taught by Sheila Tefft, and realized that she could combine her two passions: Science and communication.

The web site focuses on how climate change is connected to Atlanta’s air quality, and how air quality is connected to the health of everyone living here. “Everybody has to breathe the air,” Li says. “We each need about 50 pounds of air a day and we can only go without it for about five minutes. Air is what we use the most and need the most to survive.”

The air pollutants that are contributing to a warming climate also contribute to problems of human health across the body — from the functions of lung and bronchial airways to cardiovascular diseases and central nervous system disorders. For the web site, Li concentrated on the respiratory health impacts of aeroallergens, wildfire emissions and ground-level ozone.

In lush Atlanta, a city famous for its “pollen explosions,” a warming climate may mean a longer exposure to pollen from many plants. Li tells the story of a fellow Emory student with a range of plant allergies to show the impact that high pollen counts can have on an individual’s life. “It’s hard to enjoy a nice spring day when you have to take a nap afterwards just for breathing the air,” she writes.

Hot, dry conditions also contribute to wildfires in Georgia, including an ongoing blaze in the Okefenokee National Wildlife Refuge. Hundreds of firefighters are currently battling the fire as it threatens to spread beyond the swamp to nearby communities.

To personalize the impact of the wildfire emissions, Li interviewed a firefighter from north Georgia. She described his experience of a minor smoke inhalation episode: “The condition is first initiated by a deep-set exhaustion: He’s already usually hot, sweaty and tired out from the firefighting work. Overwhelmed, his respiratory system begins to let down its defenses. Then he starts to get a tightness in his chest, like his upper body is being squeezed by an invisible fist. It becomes hard for him to fully catch his breath, and he can feel a distinct obstruction in his windpipe with every attempt to suck air into his lungs. At the same time, his energy levels plummet dangerously.”

The firefighter explained to Li: “With wildfire, typically there’s a lot of walking that has to happen and a lot of strenuous activity getting to remote areas. It’s just not possible or feasible to carry air packs or self-contained breathing apparatus into the wilderness or remote areas and sustain that air supply.”

The topic of ground-level ozone is also covered on the web site, although the personal story for that section remains under construction.

Li is leaving Atlanta to pursue a masters degree in education from the University of Pennsylvania, but she plans to keep adding to the site — and perhaps expand it to encompass other cities across the country.

“My goal is to create an immersive experience that people can not just learn from, but connect to,” Li says. “I want to bridge the emotional distance between people and the science of climate change.” 

The solutions offered on the site are a critical part of that goal, she adds. “One of my main suggestions is to just stay informed and aware and spread that awareness any way that you can,” Li says. “The more people that understand the problem, the better.”

Atlanta residents also have a chance to make a difference as the Atlanta Regional Commission works on a Regional Transportation Plan aimed at meeting Clean Air Act requirements. “Anyone can join the conversation to help make the plan a reality,” Li says.

Researching the potential impacts of climate change was overwhelming at times but ultimately rewarding, Li says. “Working on this project has made me much more deliberate in my actions. It’s also made me aware of not only how I can contribute to solutions to climate change, but how I can help other people stay hopeful and helpful so they can take action as well.”

How will the shifting political winds affect U.S. climate policy?

Monday, May 8, 2017

A Reddit Science Q&A on medical ethnobotany

What does a medical ethnobotanist have growing in her home garden? Is it possible to patent the berry of a plant? What's the difference between a natural and a synthetic product?

Emory ethnobotanist Cassandra Quave answered these questions and many more during her popular Reddit Science Ask-Me-Anything (AMA) session last Friday. The lively session sparked more than 400 comments within a few hours. Quave, assisted by members of her lab, answered most of the questions posed to her. "I've enjoyed the opportunity to discuss our research with so many interested people," Quave told the Reddit community.

Click here to read her archived Reddit AMA.

Brazilian peppertree packs power to knock out antibiotic resistant bacteria
Chestnut leaves yield extract that disarms deadly bacteria 

Friday, April 21, 2017

Better pollen barcoding breaking down barriers to plant identification

"We're interested in pulling pollen off of bees, sequencing that pollen, and figuring out what the bees have been eating," says Emory biologist Berry Brosi. "We can start to construct networks between plants and pollinator species."

By Carol Clark

Pollen goes back about 491.2 million years, to the Devonian Period. Analysis of its traces have long been used to help solve mysteries related to the history of plants on Earth — from dating rocks for oil exploration to understanding the cultural practices of ancient peoples and investigating past habitats.

Now pollen analysis is poised to play an increasing role in solving modern-day mysteries, aided by gene-sequence libraries and advances in DNA barcoding, or the use of DNA to identify species. DNA metabarcoding enables the analysis of multi-species samples, if those species are contained in a gene-sequence reference library.

The Berry Brosi lab in Emory’s Department of Environmental Sciences recently expanded this gene-sequence library, adding a database for the rbcL gene to the already developed ITS2-gene library to improve the accuracy of plant species identification.

“We’re interested in pulling pollen off of bees, sequencing that pollen, and figuring out what the bees have been eating,” says Brosi, whose lab studies both managed honeybees and wild bees. “We can start to construct networks between plants and pollinator species.”

While Brosi is focused on bee research, pollen analysis contains temporal and spatial signatures that have the long-range potential for a broad range of applications, including forensic investigations. Examples include pinpointing the origin of an illicit drug, testing whether the marketing labels on products such as honey and olive oil match their actual geographic provenance, and determining whether the body of a murder victim had been moved.

The journal Applications in Plant Sciences published the work on the new rbcL library, and the database is publicly available.

“We chose rcbL because the length of the gene is readily applied to modern high-throughput sequencing methods,” says Karen Bell, who led the work as an Emory post-doctoral fellow.

The new rbcL library contains sequences from more than 38,400 plant species, adding to the ITS2 library of sequences from more than 72,000 species. After combining the two markers, the Brosi lab demonstrated that it could identify eight of nine plant species in a mixture, compared to only six species-level identifications based on ITS2 alone.

“Now you can simultaneously run a single analysis for both markers on the same sample,” Brosi says. “It’s a streamlined process that reduces false positives and false negatives coming back from the bioinformatics pipeline.”

If a plant species is not included in the reference library, however, it cannot be identified by DNA barcoding, so more sequences from the estimated 450,000 species of flowering plants must be added to make the pollen databases more comprehensive.

The Brosi lab tweaked the DNA metabarcoding bioinformatics pipeline to make it capable of using additional DNA barcodes once their databases have been developed. “The more genetic markers available,” Bell says, “the greater the chance of genetic identification.”

As the cost of genome sequencing comes down, researchers won’t be restricted to scanning the barcodes of small fragments of DNA either: “At some point in the future,” Bell says, “we’ll be doing DNA barcoding using whole plant genomes. The laboratory technology is available, but currently we don’t have enough complete plant genomes to make the databases.”

Another problem that the Brosi lab is working on is the fact that pollen samples are almost always mixed, and the current analytical methods are not quantitative. “We don’t know what the proportion of any species of pollen is within a sample,” Brosi says. “We’re currently trying to disentangle that problem.”

The Botanical Society of America contributed to this report. 

Pistil-packing science: Pollen genetics could help fight crime
Top 10 polices needed now to protect pollinators

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

For Emory students, 'a lifestyle approach to health'

First-year student Jessie Brightman participates in a class discussion in Health 200. Emory's peer-taught Health 1,2, 3 Program opens avenues for students to have stewardship of their own health. Emory Photo/Video

By April Hunt
Emory Report

If you’re going to change the way that college students talk about health, the first step is for students to do the talking.

It didn’t take long for Michelle Lampl to realize that. As director of Emory’s Center for the Study of Human Health, Lampl saw the success in a pilot “health partner” initiative conducted at the Center for Health Discovery and Well-Being, and turned it into the Human Health 1,2,3 Program for Emory College undergraduates.

The peer-taught program draws on the principles of predictive health and opens avenues for students to have stewardship of their own health. And, because Health 100 is required for every first-year Emory College student, the success of that foundational course has helped bolster student understanding of health.

“Emory is a leader in the paradigm shift in the science of health,” Lampl says. “Medicine is defined by disease. We focus on health. Our program is about changing the culture.”

Launched in 2012, human health is an interdisciplinary degree that has exploded in demand, from four majors its first year to 250 now. It has also attracted the notice of peer schools and beyond for its innovative approach that connects the liberal arts focus of Emory College with the groundbreaking research in public and global health sciences happening across the university.

Health 1,2,3 offers undergraduates the sort of education often reserved for graduate students: a framework to understand not only the science needed in health-related careers, but also the physical, mental and spiritual components of health.

Here’s how it works: All first-year students must take Health 100, which includes the study of timely health topics, such as getting enough sleep, and training for each student to set specific goals. 

Students who find Health 100 informative can enroll in Health 200, where they get training on the science of health and how to lead peers in discussions. Health 300 is the course where trained students become peer health partners for Health 100, overseeing the course with faculty supervision. 

“The way I describe it is, this is a lifestyle approach to health,” says Dylan Hurley, a first-year student who enrolled in Health 200 this spring.

“This is an integration of science and discussion, to make the concepts come to life,” Hurley adds. “That’s what makes it so essential.”

Read the whole article in Emory Report.

Human health major aims at culture change
New health course shifts to peer-led, personalized approach

Thursday, April 13, 2017

The Peeps experiments: Science that never goes stale

It’s that time of year again: The sugary, squishy, neon-bright baby chicks and bunnies known as Peeps have reappeared and people are inexplicably eating them. Vox wrote a roundup of some of the best cultural phenomena concerning Peeps over the years. It included an excerpt from a classic Emory Report story from 1999, describing how Emory researchers Gary Falcon and James Zimring “performed perhaps the most exhaustive Peeps testing in human history," exploring the candies’ durability in the face of a variety of substances:

“To test Peep solubility, they began with simple tap water, then moved on to boiling water, then to acetone, sulfuric acid and sodium hydroxide, but were left dumbfounded by Peeps' apparent invulnerability to each.

“Then they tried Phenol, a protein-dissolving solvent lethal to humans in amounts as small as a single gram. Peeps proved mortal to such a substance — well, almost. One hour after plunging an unfortunate Peep into its grisly demise, all that remained in the beaker was a pair of brown carnauba wax eyes floating in a purple Phenol soup.”

Emory’s groundbreaking Peeps research lives on at, including details of an investigation of the effects of smoking and alcohol on Peeps health and the medical miracle of separating quintuplet Peep siblings, conjoined at birth.