By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

The Michael Crichton book “Jurassic Park” and the movie based on the best-seller presented what might happen if scientists were able to clone extinct dinosaurs, bringing them back to life. While nothing like that is possible at this time — a good thing when you recall the mayhem the dinos caused in the world Crichton conjured up — sometimes scientists surprise themselves in breathing new life into old organisms.

One example of some success in what’s sometimes called “resurrection ecology” comes from a small island that lies off Antarctica. The place is called Signy Island. It’s one of the South Orkney Islands. Signy experiences short summers (during our northern hemisphere winters), but long winters during much of the year characterize the place. The local environment is too harsh to support trees: instead, the land is carpeted by thick beds of moss.

Peter Convey, a scientist with the British Antarctic Survey, has worked on the island for some 25 years. He recently described the carpet of moss to The New York Times.

“It’s just like a big, green, spongy expanse,” he said.

But only the top layer of the moss is a growing mass of vegetation. The deeper layers don’t get sunlight, so they turn brown. In time, they freeze and join the permafrost that is the core of the island. That frozen moss has been building up in place for thousands of years.

In their short summer field seasons, Convey and colleagues have drilled down through the carpet of moss and into the permafrost. In the cores they removed, they found shoots of moss within the permafrost and even down in gravel layers. Generally, plants break down when they become permafrost, but something different seemed to be happening with the moss shoots.

Convey and his co-workers wondered if the ancient moss might be able to grow again.

“It was just kite-flying,” he said of his idea to a reporter from The New York Times.

The researchers took a core of the permafrost and put it near a lamp in a laboratory. They also misted it with water. In just a few weeks, they were rewarded with moss that was generating new, green growth, even from the zone three and a half feet below the surface.

As they have now reported in the journal Current Biology, they analyzed the moss for carbon-14, the radioactive or “hot” form of carbon that decays naturally over time at predictable rate. This gave the researchers a well-established method to test for how old the buried moss was. The moss they revived in the lab was more than 1,500 years old. In other words, it’s been dormant since around the year 500, but was able to spring back to active life when conditions were favorable. A pretty good trick!

But, obviously, it’s a far cry from reviving old moss to reviving animals like dinosaurs. Still, science yields some surprises now and then. Let’s not rule out anything when it comes to resurrection.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

A tale of two stoves

June 7, 2014

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My elderly aunt in Canada recently came into some money. She decided — very generously — to send part of it to each of her nieces and nephews. This gave me the rather wonderful task of deciding how I wanted to spend $1,000 that I had not anticipated receiving. After a bit I decided on a new range for my kitchen. I wouldn’t otherwise buy a new appliance, and by spending the money on a range I will be able to remember my aunt and bless her name each night as I cook supper.

My old range was electric. The oven was a bit slow, but otherwise baked things OK. The burners, however, were constantly problematic. I had replaced them all but still had to suffer with unpredictable and inconsistent heating.

I grew up with a natural gas cook stove and so decided to buy something similar for my house. I like gas because you can see when it’s on, because it cuts off instantly when you turn off the flame, and because I think of natural gas as a pretty clean fuel we can get from domestic sources.

No sooner had I made up my mind about what to do with the unexpected money than my brother Nils explained he plans to change from a gas range to an electric one. (Leave it to siblings to always disagree?)

Nils thinks a lot about climate change and his family’s use of energy. Some of his ideas are at odds with mine, but I’m (mostly) OK with that.

My brother is truly concerned about humankind’s production of greenhouse gases and the climate change we may bring about during the remainder of this century. He wants to eliminate his own household’s greenhouse gas pollution and he’s willing to do some real work to meet that goal. While I’m more concerned about other political issues, I respect Nils’ earnestness and his willingness to think and spend differently because of climate change concerns. He sees the matter as a moral one, and he’s committed to doing what he can to help bring about changes in both his household and his community.

One step for my brother is to switch his appliances from natural gas to electricity. His idea is that if he uses natural gas to do things like cook supper, he’s making carbon dioxide that adds to what’s building up in the global atmosphere. If he uses electricity to do those same tasks, he can — at least in principle — not create greenhouse gases. While he waits to purchase solar panels, for pays the power company extra each month to purchase electricity from wind.

I like to say to my brother that not all his power can come from windmills or solar panels. After all, he uses electricity on calm winter nights when the wind isn’t blowing and the sun isn’t shining. In short, we all need what the utility people call “base load power.” Across the country, that kind of power comes from several different things, but part of it is from natural gas power plants. So, from my perspective, we all of us are “sinners” when it comes to greenhouse gas production, including people who only own electric appliances.

Nils counters that our need for base load power is not a rationale to continue business as usual, it’s just another challenge to be met by conservation or energy storage. In the meanwhile, he is working hard constructing a new building on his property. It’s the size of a small house and will be used as a commercial kitchen. The building is super-insulated, and it has a solar air heater and a solar water preheater. Nils is putting in LED lighting (more efficient than compact fluorescents). The heat is electric, but because of the clever designs my brother is using, very few kilowatt-hours are needed to keep the place warm. Nils plans to use what he’s learning as he builds the kitchen to retrofit two other buildings on his property to reduce their carbon footprints.

I’ve got to respect parts of my brother’s thinking. And I really applaud his building efforts. Not many of us put our money where we say our values are.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

When you fill your tank, you likely see a little sticker on the pump saying part of the fuel is ethanol. Ethanol is a biofuel, which means it comes from plants like corn, rather than from fossil fuel — ancient carbon that’s been buried within the Earth for millions of years.

Producing more biofuels is on the agendas of governments and private industry alike. Biofuels can potentially help nations become more energy independent. If a country can grow plants and produce biofuels from them, that nation could potentially import less crude oil. Biofuels, if done right, also could reduce the total amount of greenhouse gas emissions produced in the transportation sector.

But there are drawbacks, at least with corn-based ethanol. For one thing, using ethanol in our vehicles means we are essentially burning food as we tootle down the road. Food is pretty precious stuff in a hungry world, so a number of people are worried about corn-ethanol. It also takes considerable petroleum-based fuel to grow corn, harvest it, and process it into ethanol. So researchers around the world are on the lookout for better ways to make biofuels.

Biodiesel is another biofuel that you’ve likely heard something about. It’s blended into petroleum-based diesel to power trucks and diesel-fueled cars. Biodiesel is quite simple to make from vegetable oil. In freshman classes, I’ve led students to make it in small batches. But if biodiesel is made from oils we eat, it has some of the same drawbacks as corn-based ethanol.

Recently there was an interesting report about an advance made by scientists researching a new approach to making biodiesel. A team of researchers used genetically modified E. coli bacteria to convert sugar into a material very similar to petroleum-based diesel fuel. The fuel produced is so much like petroleum diesel, it can be used at full strength in engines.

Professor John Love, a synthetic biologist at the University of Exeter, was one of the scientists involved in the work. Talking with a reporter from BBC News, he said, “What we’ve done is produced fuels that are exactly the chain length required for the modern engine and exactly the composition that is required.”

Some people fear bioengineering when it comes to the food we eat, but there might be less resistance to the approach if it is used to produce fuel rather than vittles.

But there is more work to be done. E. coli doesn’t produce a lot of fuel. According to the BBC news report, it would take over 100 quarts of E. coli to produce a teaspoon of diesel fuel.

“Our challenge is to increase the yield before we can go into any form of industrial production,” Love said. “We’ve got a timeframe of about three to five years to do that and see if it is worth going ahead with it.”

The devil is in the details when it comes to biofuels developed so far. But don’t count researchers out – there are many good ideas being pursued all the world around.

 

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I’m quite a dinosaur. I get some of my news the old fashioned way from hardcopy newspapers, and I still pay my bills with paper checks sent through the mail. But even I own a smart phone. The ability to keep up with work-related email, as well as messages from friends and family, is one fantastic benefit of the modern cell phone. I do, indeed, value the technological revolution through which we all are living.

Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey are two research scientists at Washington State University who are doing work in dusty wheat fields that is being transformed by technology.

“It used to be that weighing the bag (of grain) was the only way we had to evaluate a variety of wheat,” Pumphrey said to me. “Yield is still the bottom line, but technology gives us tools for earlier identification of what will be fruitful lines of wheat.”

Some of the technology is pretty cool. The breeders now have tiny, unmanned helicopters they use to look at crops in the field. These remotely controlled copters are just a couple of feet in diameter. Special cameras on board record more than what the human eye can perceive.

“The cameras tell us information about photosynthesis and the water use of the plants,” Carter said. “They can even take the temperature of the plants.”

The devices can measure small changes.

“It’s best for us to work on sunny days with little wind,” Pumphrey said. “If a cloud comes over the sun, the plants change how they are photosynthesizing and that’s picked up by our sensors.”

In addition to sending aerial devices over fields of wheat, the pair of researchers uses a special GPS-guided tractor that has a variety of high-tech sensors on it.

“Instruments that are too bulky for the helicopters are on the tractor,” Pumphrey said.

Work like what Carter and Pumphrey do requires interaction with a variety of specialists. Engineers, for example, are an important resource for the wheat breeders.

“There’s a lot of diversity in our work,” Carter said. “We have to do a little bit of everything, from studying diseases in the wheat, to soil properties, to engineering. So, for example, we might pull in an engineer to help us develop a particular sensor, then apply that to what’s growing in the field.”

Pumphrey grew up in the number one wheat-producing county in Oklahoma. As a young kid, he didn’t even know you could grow anything but wheat. He later got into his line of work for pretty idealistic reasons.

“I had a love of plants, but I also wanted to do good. In this field, we work to produce more food using less resources and to help the farmers have lower environmental impact,” Pumphrey said. “We really affect many lives.”

If you like to eat bread and other foodstuffs made from wheat, you’ve got to wish modern wheat breeders well as they embrace technology to improve varieties of wheat on which farmers — and the rest of us — depend.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

High technology meets fields of wheat

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As my friends and relatives know, I’m quite a dinosaur in several respects. I get a lot of my news the old fashioned way from hardcopy newspapers. I still pay my bills with paper checks sent through the mail. And nothing pleases me more when I get home at night than to find I have a “snail mail” letter from an old friend who took the time to put down ideas on paper with a pen.

But even I own a smart phone. The ability to keep up with work-related email, as well as messages from friends and family, is one fantastic benefit of the modern cell phone. I do, indeed, value the technological revolution through which we all are living.

Arron Carter and Mike Pumphrey are two research scientists at Washington State University who are doing work in dusty wheat fields that is being transformed by technology.

“It used to be that weighing the bag (of grain) was the only way we had to evaluate a variety of wheat,” Pumphrey said to me. “Yield is still the bottom line, but technology gives us tools for earlier identification of what will be fruitful lines of wheat.”

Some of that technology is pretty cool. Plant breeders now have tiny, unmanned helicopters they use to look at crops in the field. These drones are just a couple of feet in diameter and are operated by remote control. Special cameras on the helicopters record more than what the human eye can perceive.

Researchers can fly the helicopters 100 yards above a field to take a broad picture, or fly them 5 yards off the ground to measure properties in a test plot.

“The cameras tell us information about photosynthesis and the water use of the plants,” Carter said. “They can even take the temperature of the plants.”

These copters cost a few thousand dollars. The real money is in the cameras and sensors, which may cost up to $50,000.

Cameras on satellites high in the sky can also help characterize plants growing in a field. But it can be many days before a satellite makes a pass over a particular location. With smaller devices that the researchers can control, more measurements can be taken at the most opportune time.

“It’s best for us to work on sunny days with little wind,” Pumphrey said. “If a cloud comes over the sun, the plants change how they are photosynthesizing and that’s picked up by our sensors.”

In addition to sending small aerial devices over fields of wheat, the pair of researchers uses a special GPS-guided tractor that has a variety of high-tech sensors on it.

“Instruments that are too bulky for the helicopters are on the tractor,” Pumphrey said.

The instruments on the copter and the tractor are looking at what’s called “phenomics.” That’s a term that includes everything about the plant from growth rates to photosynthetic efficiency to the temperature in the canopy of the plants.

Work like what Carter and Pumphrey do requires interaction with a variety of specialists. Engineers, for instance, are an important resource for the wheat breeders.

“There’s a lot of diversity in our work,” Carter said. “We have to do a little bit of everything, from studying diseases in the wheat, to soil properties, to engineering. So, for example, we might pull in an engineer to help us develop a particular sensor, then apply that to what’s growing in the field.”

Pumphrey grew up in the number one wheat-producing county in Oklahoma. As a young kid, he didn’t even know you could grow anything but wheat. He later got into his line of work for pretty idealistic reasons.

“I had a love of plants, but I also wanted to do good. In this field we work to produce more food using less resources and to help the farmers have a lower environmental impact,” Pumphrey said. “We really affect many lives.”

If you like to eat bread and other foodstuffs made from wheat, you’ve got to wish modern wheat breeders well as they embrace technology to improve varieties of wheat on which farmers — and the rest of us — depend.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Years ago I was a light smoker. Back in the day I thought nicotine did good things for my ability to think and learn. I was a serious student at the time, studying intensively seven days a week, so a powerful complement to black coffee was welcome in my life.

I both sympathize and empathize with smokers around me today. But I’m awfully glad I quit long ago, and I know many other former smokers who feel the same way. Quitting is worth all the short-term distress it can entail.

Some recent scientific news got me thinking again about smoking and how it affects both smokers and those around them. In short, there’s plenty of evidence that passive or second-hand smoke is detrimental to people living with smokers. That means that quitting helps not just smokers, but those who share homes (and cars) with them.

Recently the European Heart Journal published a study about the effects of parental smoking on kids. The research focused on some 2400 children in a cohort in Finland and over 1300 in a group in Australia. Researchers noted the smoking behavior of parents — whether the adults were non-smokers, or if one or both of them smoked. When the kids grew up, the researchers examined the kids’ arteries via ultrasound exams.

The study found that artery walls were thicker in kids who had grown up in homes where both parents smoked. Thicker arteries are bad news, making for greater risk of strokes or heart attacks. On average, the kids who grew up in homes where both parents smoked had arteries that were 3.3 years “older” than those who grew up in smoke-free homes. These changes were permanent — a sobering fact to contemplate for any parent (and I might add, any grandparent around the grandkids).

Dr. Seana Gall, lead author of the study, told ScienceDaily, “Parents…should quit smoking. This will not only restore their own health but also protect the health of their children into the future.”

There was further bad news for kids who had two parents who smoked.

“Those with both parents smoking were more likely, as adults, to be smokers or overweight than those whose parents didn’t smoke,” Gall said.

Once again, the news from the world of medical research suggests it’s time for people to quit smoking. If you smoke and you have kids (or grandkids) to consider, please talk with your health care provider about an approach to help you kick the habit. Even if you’ve tried in the past to quit but have failed, this next effort could set you free. It took me more than one attempt to quit, but it was one of the best things I did back in the day.

I know first-hand it ain’t easy to stop smoking. But the life you save might be your own — and you could also be helping the next generation avoid permanent and harmful changes to their young bodies.

I’m pulling for both you and your family.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I once experienced a small earthquake when I was visiting the Sam Francisco Bay Area in California. The natives thought little of the temblor but I was impressed that the ground beneath my feet could suddenly and without warning start to shake.

Later, when I majored in geology in college, I learned that my native Northwest is also at risk for earthquakes, as is much of Alaska. Another part of the country with a history of large quakes is called the New Madrid Seismic Zone. It’s a pretty large region centered near where the states of Arkansas, Missouri, Illinois, Tennessee and Kentucky come together in the lower Midwest.

Some earthquake-rich areas are easier for geologists to understand than are others. In the Pacific Northwest, for example, major tectonic plates are coming together. Their movement guarantees earthquakes from time to time. In California, quite famously, the San Andreas fault marks the place where two plates are moving past each other. This leads to shallow earthquakes that can be particularly destructive. But there are also regions of the country — like the New Madrid area — where major quakes can occur away from plate boundaries .

To understand the New Madrid Seismic Zone in the middle of the continent, we first need to review a bit of history. Mother Nature was heard from in a big way in late 1811 and early 1812 in that region. According to a U.S. Geological Survey website, during that time the area experienced three very large quakes with magnitudes over 7.

The way that geologists now think of the quakes is basically this: the first mega-quake occurred on December 16 of 1811. The second quake occurred about a month later, on January 23, 1812, and the third two weeks after that, on February 7, 1812. But those quakes were not isolated. There were numerous other quakes that geologists now interpret as likely aftershocks. The aftershocks may have been as big as magnitude 6 or 6.5. That means the “aftershocks” would count as large quakes in their own right by human standards. Numerous smaller aftershocks also shook the region.

There are written accounts from people living in the lower Midwest at the time of the big quakes that describe ground movement that went on and on. Structures in St. Louis were damaged. In short, it was not a good place to be when the Earth decided to release enormous amounts of energy that were pent up within it.

From that time down to the present there have been small temblors in the New Madrid Seismic Zone. One question that has arisen for geologists is whether to think of these quakes as long-term aftershocks of the major events of 1811-1812, or to think of them as something else. It’s an important question because if the quakes have been aftershocks, there might be little stress building within the Earth in the area. That would be good news for everyone living in the lower Midwest.

Recently two researchers published a piece in Science about their efforts to understand the long history of quakes in the region. Morgan Page and Susan Hough of the U.S. Geological Survey used computer modeling of aftershocks to analyze what’s been happening in the New Madrid area. They found that there haven’t been many quakes of “moderate” size – that is, in the approximately magnitude 6 range — but there have been a lot of small quakes in the region.

This pattern, the scientists argue, isn’t consistent with the idea that all the quakes are aftershocks of the events of 1811 and 1812. Instead, the recent history of quakes in the area suggest that ongoing Earth processes continue to generate stress in the region. And that means some energy will likely need to be released — perhaps in another quake on the scale of those that hit in the early 1800s.

Geologists are so far unable to make specific predictions of when quakes will occur. But it seems likely, if Page and Hough are right, that one day the lower Midwest will have to cope with a major quake. It’s not good news, but it’s a risk we need to face squarely — and it highlights the importance of preparedness for individuals, families and municipalities.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My household accumulates quite a number of plastic shopping bags. Most come home with me from the grocery store. I use them to line the little garbage pail that sits under the kitchen sink and the wastebasket that’s in the bathroom. I also have the joy of using them to pick up poop deposited by Buster Brown, my faithful mutt from the pound.

But if you don’t have uses for the plastic shopping bags you bring home, what do you do with them? Researchers hope that one day — perhaps sooner rather than later — your bags may be turned into alternative fuels such as diesel. That’s right, plastic shopping bags could help power diesel engine cars and pickup trucks.

It’s not as pie in the sky as it may sound. Converting shopping bags into fuel requires less energy than it produces. The key is the high-temperature breakdown of plastic in the bags — done in the absence of oxygen, or anaerobically.

The lead author of a recent study on this topic is Dr. Brajendra Sharma of the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center. The ISTC is part of the University of Illinois. His research write-up was recently published in the journal Fuel Processing Technology. Sharma’s article points out that about a trillion plastic bags were produced in the U.S. in 2009, the last year for which figures are available. Of these, only about 13 percent were recycled. Some of the rest were doubtless reused for household purposes, like mine are, and after that headed to landfills. But many of the bags aren’t recycled or reused and go either directly to landfills or are released into the environment as litter.

Plastic bags that become litter blow around and cause a number of problems beyond being an eyesore. They can kill animals that ingest them or become tangled with them. In the oceans, they compose part of what’s termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch of floating trash.

“Over time, this material floating in the oceans breaks into tiny pieces. It’s ingested along with plankton by aquatic animals,” Sharma emailed me.

The material in plastic shopping bags has been detected in the oceans near both the north and south poles. It’s also a problem in the Great Lakes. Because the plastic apparently takes centuries to fully degrade in nature, the issues that the bags pose are long term.

But Sharma and his colleagues have an alternative use for the bags. Once the plastic is broken down anaerobically in a lab, it yields a variety of useful chemicals including solvents, engine oils, gasoline and natural gas. The bulk of the material produced is an alternative diesel fuel — one that Sharma and his co-workers found to be a good blending component for regular diesel.

“This approach can also be applied to other low value plastics as well,” Sharma wrote to me.

I’ve often thought that there’s no single solution for pollution problems. And while turning plastic bags into diesel may only work for some bags, it’s an interesting approach to getting rid of what otherwise would be trash — while producing a valuable commodity.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

While I have been dinking around for months, trying to lose five pounds, two of my friends have gotten serious about weight loss. Each of them is down 50 pounds. I’m pleased for them, of course, and truly impressed by their accomplishments. Successfully combatting overweight and obesity is one of the best things people can do for their health. It can help everything from joint pain to heart function, from Type 2 diabetes to certain aspects of mental health.

But it’s not always easy to know what we should eat. How many calories are in a slice of pizza or a baked potato? Is it better to reach for an apple or a banana as a snack – or does it make any difference?

The Food and Drug Administration is the branch of the government that oversees the labeling of packaged foods in our country. A great deal of processed food is eaten in the U.S., so labels are one key to trying to improve public health. Recently the FDA opened a public comment period on proposed changes to what’s called the Nutrition Facts Label. The label, introduced 20 years ago, is up for a full makeover. Here’s an overview of what’s likely to change.

- Larger, bold lines that tell you the number of calories in a serving and the number of servings per container. This information is on the old labels, but it will jump out at you on the proposed new labels. The idea is that we should be clearly told which foods pack a lot of calories.
– Modifying certain serving sizes to be more in keeping with what people really eat and drink these days. A 20-ounce bottle of soda pop, for example, which is often drunk by an individual all in one go, should be labeled as one serving and the calorie count for it declared clearly on the label.
– The new labels will tell you about “added sugars” in the package of food. Many nutritionists recommend we eat fewer calories from added sugars. Some food is naturally sweet, of course, but adding sugars in foods can needlessly increase their calorie content.
– The proposed changes to the labels also include information about Vitamin D and potassium. These two items have been declared “nutrients of public health significance.” Iron and calcium contents will continue to be required to be listed. Vitamins A and C are to be optional.
– Dropping “Calories from Fat” in favor of just the breakdown on where the fat is coming from (Saturated Fat and Trans Fat). The reason for this change is that many researchers believe the type of fat you eat is more important than the total amount.

Some of the changes being offered in the new labels should make it easier to understand whether you really want to eat those crackers or not. Maybe that will help me make better choices that can get me to shed my unwanted five pounds.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I’ve gained 5 pounds since last summer. My body mass index (BMI) is still fine, but I need to stop gaining to keep it that way.

Grizzly bears put my weight gain to shame. In the late summer, they eat some 50,000 calories per day and gain more than 100 pounds. Then, when they hibernate, they fast and live on their body fat. While sleeping the winter away, they don’t pee or poop. They conserve their energy by having heart rates around 15 beats per minute. While hibernating, the sows give birth and nurse their young – activities all fueled by what they ate in the fall. When they emerge from their dens in the spring, the bears are much slimmer. In short, their “before” and “after” pictures are quite different.

Here’s the simple version of how grizzlies manage their huge weight transition. They first succumb to diabetes and then reverse slipping into that state. We know when they do this — researchers are now investigating how they manage the trick.

Drs. Lynne Nelson and Charles Robbins of Washington State University work with grizzlies kept in the only research-based grizzly colony in the country. They study the bears as they go through their annual transformations. In the fall, when the bears are packing on the pounds, they are fed commercial kibble supplemented by such things as salmon, venison and apples. The bears also have access to a grassy meadow.

“Grizzlies are grazers,” Nelson told me. “People don’t always think of that, but they eat a fair amount of grass.”

One secret to how grizzlies manage to stay healthy while becoming obese is that they have a lot of “good” cholesterol. And their cholesterol levels don’t change much when they pack on the pounds. Studying how they do that could one day help with interventions in human medicine.

A number of things the bears do while they hibernate are fascinating. The animals have a four-chambered heart, just like we do. But when they sleep the winter away, only two of the chambers keep working while two are at rest.

“Working on 2 of 4 cylinders makes sense because the demands on the heart are low,” Nelson said.

Even with that reduced cardiac output, grizzlies can stand up and move around during hibernation. Humans would black out in a similar situation. Again, studying what bears can do may help spur advances in human medicine.

As the winter months tick by, the grizzlies’ hearts lose muscle mass. Up to 25 percent of their hearts can atrophy. This change is then naturally reversed in the spring when they come out of their dens and begin a more active life.

Of course, doing cardiac research on grizzlies requires some special approaches.

“We start training the bears when they are cubs for exams we’ll want to do on them throughout their lives,” Nelson told me. “It’s easier to start on an animal that’s 4 pounds rather than one that’s 400 pounds.”

Nelson, Robbins, and those who work with them use positive reinforcement and “clicker training,” much like that used with dogs today. Food is used as the ultimate reward.

“Bears are faster learners than dogs,” Nelson said. “They are problem solvers.”

The goal is to have bears trained so that researchers can draw blood from them and administer exams like electrocardiograms (EKGs) and echocardiograms (an ultrasound test). To facilitate the research, the bears are taught to go into a crate.

“They sometimes fight to get to go into the crate first,” Nelson said.

The bears raised from cubs at the WSU facility are used to a lot of interaction with people.

“They need entertainment or work,” Nelson said. “Left to their own devices, they will dig up the sprinkler system (in their yard) or pull down the security cameras.”

The WSU bear colony currently has 11 animals in it. About half of the bears were raised at the center, while the other half were wild bears that started posing problems or a danger to humans and were brought to WSU rather than being destroyed.

As I struggle with my extra 5 pounds, I marvel at the weight transitions grizzlies naturally go through each year — and I wish the WSU researchers well as they study bear metabolism, weight transitions and cardiac function.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As a child, I learned about the “valley of the shadow of death” from the twenty-third Psalm. A similar image is conjured up by economists who talk about the “valley of death.” They mean that potentially deadly stage in the life of a business when production needs to be massively scaled up but investors aren’t willing to make that leap based only on pilot-scale results or because the economics of full-scale production are still iffy. One segment of the young biofuels industry is approaching that valley.

Here’s the background: part of the biofuel realm is called the “cellulosic” industry. It requires breaking down cellulose from woody material like trees and crop residue, then using the simple sugars that result to ferment alcohol that can be used as fuels for transportation.

One of the nation’s leading experts in cellulosic fuels research is Professor Norman Lewis of Washington State University. He understands that alternative fuels must be economical to be useful.

“At the end of the day, people want to go green, but not if it means they are red in their pockets,” Lewis told me recently.

Lewis and others working on his team have some ideas that may help bridge the gap from what’s doable in the lab to what could be economically viable in the real world. They are researching the use of genetically modified hybrid poplar trees to produce specialty chemicals that command a considerably higher price than biofuels. One such chemical is 2-phenylethanol. That’s a mouthful written down as a chemist does, but it’s a delightful noseful when you sniff it as I did, because it’s the active ingredient in the scent of roses. And the rosy chemical is valuable stuff, much more so than high-volume but low-cost fuel.

Lewis’ team is working to make poplars that are biochemical factories that produce rosy and high-value chemicals that could one day help the emerging cellulosic biofuel industry bridge the “valley of death” and make it to the promised land of economic profitability. Ultimately, fast-growing poplars might yield the highly valuable specialty chemicals as they grow, while the full-grown trees could later be broken down for cellulosic ethanol.

The fact that Lewis’ poplars are genetically engineered to produce the specialty chemicals adds to the complexities of developing his efforts commercially. But with a test plot of some 12,000 trees living on 26 miles of drip irrigation, Lewis is forging ahead.

“I believe genetically engineered plants are important for sustainability and coping with climate change,” Lewis said. “That means that some people think I’m going against nature, even with overwhelming scientific evidence of their safety.”

Lewis doesn’t seem to mind the criticism that sometimes comes with working on genetically engineered organisms.

“People in sports go from being loved to hated in an instant,” he said. “They just get used to it. I think researchers can be much too sensitive.”

With that bold spirit, Lewis’ innovative approach to bridging the valley of death for biofuels continues to move forward – smelling great as it goes.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters, a native of the rural Northwest, was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard. This column is a service of the College of Agricultural, Human, and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.