Rock Doc

Earth’s Next Epoch

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I was raised in the Baptist church. As a grade school child, I memorized the books of the Bible. Maybe because of that personal history, when I started to study geology I didn’t resist memorizing the many pieces of the geologic time scale. The next to the last piece of geologic time is the Pleistocene Epoch (known informally by many as the Ice Age). It is followed by the Holocene Epoch (the warm time we are living in now.)

The Holocene Epoch has seen the rise of human civilization. It is the time when people around the world started to shape the surface of the Earth through farming. From the kingdoms of ancient Egypt to the wars of the last century, the history you study in school occurred in the Holocene.

As a geology student I was taught that not only were we in the Holocene, but that we would be for the foreseeable future. But now there’s a move afoot to declare that we are in a new epoch. It’s not just a matter of names, but of our understanding of our place in the world. The new epoch is one in which we humans are taking over the reins from Mother Nature. The proposed new epoch is called the Anthropocene — from “anthro” for people.

Here’s the key: while we humans have been shaping the environment for thousands of years — through farming, early irrigation, and the cutting or burning of forests — our impact on the Earth has been rapidly accelerating.

It’s not easy to see exactly where we should draw the line that marks the start of our biggest impacts. Was it with the Industrial Revolution and the construction of modern cities?

A number of geologists think the line that marks the end of the Holocene should come a bit later.

What’s proposed now is that we declare the Anthropocene Epoch started near the end of World War II. That was the time humans exploded the first nuclear bomb and rival nations started testing nuclear weapons around the world, creating radioactive isotopes that fell to Earth in diverse environments.

This period also saw a new pulse in the increase in global population, as well as the start of industrialization in less developed nations. We poured artificial fertilizer onto fields and produced billions of tons of plastics. The Earth had never seen the like, as a group of scientists called the Anthropocene Working Group recently argued in the journal Quaternary International.

No matter where the line is drawn, the argument is clear that we are entering a new phase of Earth history, one in which we shape more of our own environment. Welcome to the Anthropocene — a time where we are in the driver’s seat. Let’s hope we steer the world as carefully as we can.

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.


To Feed or Not to Feed?

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

During the winter I like to feed the birds. I have a very simple arrangement for this: pouring a mix of seeds on a flat railing outside my dining room window. I regularly attract several species of small birds to the seed.

Buster Brown, my mutt from the pound, has a role to play in the bird feeding. It’s his job to make the squirrels wary of coming up to the railing and stealing the seed. Buster has a dog-door, so he always has access to the area in question, and although he has never in his life caught a squirrel, he is glad to give chase. (Buster agrees with my mother that squirrels are really just rats with furry tails.)

Buster and I are really a team when it comes to squirrels. When I see one out the window on the railing, I call “Buster Brown, squirrel, squirrel!” My faithful dog then charges out the dog-door, putting him about 4 feet from the rodent. The chase is on, often going across the yard to where the squirrel can climb a tree where it scolds Buster to its heart’s content.

But am I really doing a favor to the birds by feeding them each winter? That question was the subject of a recent blog post by Joe Smith published by The Nature Conservancy. It turns out there’s a bit of scientific research on the matter.

Common sense suggests feeding birds during the tough, cold months helps them survive the most challenging of seasons. Our feathered friends need food energy to keep themselves warm, and winter limits the availability of food. Some scientific studies do agree with common sense: more birds survive the winter when they are fed than otherwise.

The Nature Conservancy blog post referenced a study in the upper Midwest of black-capped chickadees. Those fed by people had a higher survival rate over the winter (69 percent) versus those that weren’t fed (only 37 percent survived).

But for some birds in given locales, feeding may be, paradoxically, detrimental. Researchers in Great Britain discovered that certain fed birds laid fewer eggs the following spring and summer than did unfed birds. And the fledglings of the fed birds were less likely to survive than the offspring of unfed birds.

It’s not abundantly clear why fed birds would have less success with their offspring than unfed ones. It may be that store-bought bird seed isn’t really a balanced diet for birds compared to what Mother Nature provides, and there may be other factors, too.

Still, many studies suggest feeding the birds helps them out in tough times. That’s why, with the help of Buster to fend off the squirrels, I’ll continue to feed birds in my backyard.

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.

Wake up and smell the genes

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Like millions of Americans, my day starts by plugging in the coffeepot. In my case, it’s an old fashion percolator. It clears its throat and brews my coffee while I rub sleep out of my eyes and brush my teeth.

My habit of starting my day with coffee — and following that initial cup with doses of java in the mid-morning, the late morning and the early-afternoon — may be at least partially grounded in my genes.

Researchers have long believed that genetics influences a person’s daily coffee consumption. Early this fall, a new study fleshed out just how many variations in genes may be involved in determining who drinks a lot of java.

Marilyn Cornelis of the Harvard School of Public Health helped orchestrate the research published in a journal called Molecular Psychiatry. The work rested on about two dozen previous research projects that had a total of about 120,000 subjects. That’s a big group, made up of people who answered questions about how much coffee they consumed and then donated a sample of their DNA to researchers at the Harvard School of Public Health and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

In the past, scientists had identified two genetic variants that “code” for coffee consumption. Now six new gene variations have been found to be common in people who drink a lot of coffee and other caffeinated beverages. Four of the newly discovered variants are linked either to the stimulating impact of caffeine on the body or to how we break down caffeine — two loci (POR and ABCG2) change the metabolism of caffeine; two other loci (BDNF and SLC6A4) appear to relate to how rewarding is the experience of caffeine.

The last two loci (GCKR and MLXIPL) found in the study were not expected: they are not clearly associated with caffeine but rather act to control blood sugar and cholesterol levels. It’s not known how they relate to the propensity to quaff coffee and other caffeinated beverages.

Cornelis told the New York Daily News that the genetic variants don’t correspond to how strong coffee tastes to an individual. That result surprised her, as it does me.

The Harvard Gazette also wrote a piece on the findings. It mentioned the fact that some studies have shown benefits from drinking coffee each day. Cornelis has not been a coffee drinker, but because of some of the information coming out in recent years, she is giving java a go.

I wish Cornelis well in her personal experiment. I can admit I didn’t like the strength and taste of coffee when I first tried it in college. But now I think coffee tastes good and, to me, the taste of good coffee seems quite mild. I also think coffee-flavored ice cream is grand – in particular when it comes with a cup of hot coffee on the side.

Maybe my love of coffee was determined when my genes first formed in utero. It’s an interesting thought.

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.

Keeping warm with gold fever

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I own a couple of small gold nuggets. They came from the Round Mountain gold mine in Nevada, which I visited a few years ago. A tour of the open-pit mine was crowned by a visit to their foundry where the molten metal was poured into gold bars. Those bars are what’s called doré gold, that is, it’s the metal as it comes out of the ground with minor impurities in it like silver. The doré bars are then transported to a refinery where pure gold can be separated from other metals. I got to heft one of the doré bars, and I can attest that gold is, indeed, remarkably dense.

A mega-gold nugget found in California was in the news recently. It was large enough to about fill a human hand and weighed just over 6 pounds. That’s about 75 troy ounces. It was dubbed the “Butte Nugget” because it was found last summer in Butte County, supposedly on public land. The nugget sold for about $400,000 to a buyer who chose to remain anonymous.

News reports — sketchy because of the secrecy of the discovery and sale — said the nugget was found with a metal detector. When the detector indicated an extremely strong signal, the operator thought he had likely found a piece of pipe or a horseshoe. Happily, he had the good sense to dig down about a foot into the soil where the nugget lay.

Gold occurs in the Earth in two main forms: as lode gold or as placer gold. Lode gold is found in veins, usually made of quartz, that cut across rocks. You may recognize the word “lode” as part of the famous idea of the Mother Lode, the mythical deep and rich vein thought to be that from which other smaller veins branch off. If you find the Mother Lode, your financial problems are over.

When gold veins occur at the surface of the Earth they are broken down, or weathered, by water. The quartz in the veins crumbles into quartz pebbles and sand. The gold is liberated from the vein material, falling out as loose nuggets or small gold grains that can be as fine as sand. Because gold is dense and doesn’t react with water under most conditions, loose gold can accumulate and form what’s known as placer gold ore. In streams, placer gold is found where running water slows down and the gold settles out: on the inside bend of turns in streams and behind boulders.

Patience, a good metal detector, and lots of luck can clearly still lead to stupendous gold nugget finds. Like winning the lottery, dreaming of mega-nuggets keeps hope alive even in the dark days of December. Writing about this subject makes me think that, as I sit by the fire in my woodstove one evening this week, I’ll get out my little gold nuggets to remind myself of longer days and outdoor activities we can look forward to in the New Year.

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.

How much does it hurt?

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

When I take my elderly mother to the emergency room, the nurse asks how much pain she is in, on a scale of 1 to 10. There is a chart with pictures of little smiley faces, neutral faces, and grimacing faces to help a person — perhaps a child — determine a number. Pain management is an important part of human medicine.

Despite what the 17th century philosopher and naturalist René Descartes said about animals being merely organic machines, it’s clear to me they feel pain in a manner similar to us. But we can’t ask Fido or Felix to tell us what they are experiencing. That point has been abundantly clear to me recently because my 11-year old mutt from the dog pound, Buster Brown, is having arthritic pain in several weight-bearing joints. He gets up from a lying position with difficulty, and he takes the stairs slowly and only when he must.

“In veterinary medicine, we have pain scales similar to what they use in the ER, but they are based on our observations,” Dr. Raelynn Farnsworth told me. Farnsworth instructs vet students at Washington State University’s veterinary teaching hospital.

Farnworth showed me a four-point scale with sketches of dogs in various positions and written descriptions of the way the dogs are behaving. Vet students are trained to assess animals and locate them on this type of pain scale.

“We go on what we can observe, our examination, and what the owners tell us about how the animal is behaving at home,” Farnsworth said.

Practicing veterinary medicine rather than the human variety has other challenges than assessing pain. Medications that are helpful to dogs are not all good for cats. Drugs good for people can kill an animal.

“You’ve got to check with your vet before you treat your animal for pain,” she said. “One thing your vet may discuss with you is pre-treating your animal, say before a big walk, if you know he’s likely to be sore afterward.”

The good news is that veterinarians now treat pain more aggressively in animals and there are also a wider variety of medications that are available to help.

“Many of the pain meds we use now were new or not available at all when I started practicing 21 years ago,” Farnsworth said.

Years ago, it was sometimes considered good to keep an animal in a moderate amount of pain after surgery, so the animal wouldn’t move around a lot and tear out stitches. But those days are long gone. Veterinarians treat pain aggressively now. That strikes me as more merciful.

Fortunately, the news from my household is good. Buster Brown has been taking an anti-inflammatory and two supplements in recent weeks and he is getting around much better. He goes by me at a canter when we are outside, he runs up and down the stairs, and he stands up from a lying position without the difficulty he was displaying earlier this fall. I’m greatly relieved — I like to think that pain isn’t bothering him nearly so much, and I hope I can keep him in the land of the living a good while longer.

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.

Ancient climate change

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Climate is always changing. That’s one truth that stands out from the record around the world of natural samples of Earth materials, of tree rings, ice layers, and so much more. But how much has past climate change influenced human affairs?

In anthropology it’s been relatively commonplace to look at the twists and turns of ancient human history and assign at least some major population collapses to climate change. It certainly stands to reason that climate stress may have impacted early human populations — the only real question is how often.

One collapse of an early human society that has often been linked to climate change happened at the end of the Bronze Age in northwestern Europe. Many archeologists have believed that a shift in climate to cold, wet conditions ushered in the end of the late Bronze Age, stifling its complex societies, so that a poorer culture with a smaller population started off the early Iron Age. But it looks like climate may not have been to blame for what befell humans at that time.

European researchers from the University of Bradford, the University of Leeds, the University of College Cork and Queen’s University Belfast are now making the case that the human population collapsed about a century earlier than the climate changed. Their work was recently published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

Professor Ian Armit of the University of Bradford was the lead author of the piece in PNAS.

“Our evidence shows definitively that the population decline in this period could not have been caused by climate change,” Armit told ScienceDaily because the climate change came later.

What, then, caused societies to fall apart in the late Bronze Age? That is less clear, but Armit speculates that economic changes were most likely the culprit. Bronze is made of copper and tin, relatively rare metals. Bronze Age societies had to trade with one another, over large distances, to supply themselves with the metals that make bronze. Controlling those trade routes led to the growth of complex societies dominated by a warrior elite, Armit said.

When more commonplace iron started to replace bronze as the metal from which implements and weapons were made, the trade networks fell apart. That in turn led to societal collapse. Thus, Armit argues, changing economics and all that went along with those changes may have led to the fall in population.

“Although climate change was not directly responsible for the collapse, it is likely that the poor climate conditions would have affected farming,” Armit is quoted as saying by ScienceDaily. “This would have been particularly difficult for vulnerable communities, preventing population recovery for several centuries.”

Skipping up to the present, this research does not say that the production of greenhouse gases won’t stress the environment — and human societies — in the remainder of this century. But the argument can be made that climate change wasn’t the reason for widespread population decrease as the Bronze Age was succeeded by the Iron Age in Europe.

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.

Harvesting energy from sunlight

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

What if there were a two-for-one sale on kilowatts? Your power bill would be cut in half — not a bad result for your monthly budget.

Energy drives everything we produce and consume, and global energy consumption continues to grow year after year. The two-for-one image came to mind as I talked with Professor Jeanne McHale of Washington State University. McHale is a chemist who researches an alternative approach to making solar cells that produce electricity.

“There’s no question we have a lot of solar energy that strikes the planet each day,” McHale told me. “It’s an often-quoted statistic that just one hour of sunlight all over the planet has enough energy to give us what we need for a year.”

The challenge is capturing that energy at economical rates. Traditional solar cells are made of expensive and high-tech ingredients. They work, but at a relatively high price and with negative environmental impacts. For some time now, scientists have been looking at an alternative version, called dye-sensitized solar cells. Most researchers use synthetic organic dyes or dyes containing an element called ruthenium. The McHale lab is one of the few using plant dyes.

McHale studies pigments like betanin, one of the molecules that makes beets red. Betanin can be used in these alternative solar cells. Recently McHale and her team found a way to have each photon striking the betanin produce two electrons.

“This means we could double the electrical current of dye-sensitized solar cells,” McHale told me.

One of the challenges for McHale is that a one-electron reaction occurs in parallel with the desired two-electron reaction, producing what chemists call a “free radical.” Those are highly reactive and damaging molecules. The free radicals in the dye-sensitized solar cells damage the betanin. Currently McHale is working on what are called co-pigments — molecules that can be attached to betanin to make it more stable under the influence of free radicals.

“The way I think of it is that we have a molecule that’s a model: one that can help us design better molecules that would produce two electrons per photon without the degradation problem,” McHale said.

Calculations show that the maximum possible efficiency of dye-sensitized cells is about 30 percent. What’s been achieved so far is 13 percent. That doesn’t sound too good until you learn that plants — in their process of photosynthesis — have an efficiency of about 1 percent.

“The joke is that if plants went to the government for funding, they would never be awarded a grant,” McHale said.

Although I’m a geologist who spent part of her early career studying the geology of fossil fuels, I think that securing more of our energy needs through solar power would be potentially good for the planet and a triumph of sophisticated science. Here’s wishing McHale’s lab the very best!

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.

Better Ways to Clear Snow and Ice

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As you watch the falling snow, do you marvel at the beauty of the scene or immediately dread driving to work on icy pavement?

Most of our nation’s roads get at least some snow most years, and that means clearing snow and ice from pavement is big business. For highways alone, agencies in the U.S. spend $2.3 billion each season trying to remove snow and ice. And billions more are spent by local governments battling Mother Nature on city streets and county roads.

A traditional way of addressing roadway snow and ice is by spreading salt. In my home state of Washington, workers use about 4 tons of salt in each lane of a mile’s worth of pavement each year. In Minnesota the figure is 9 tons per lane per mile, and in New York it’s a whopping 12 tons.

“That reflects the fact salt is cheap in New York — and they have high traffic volume as well as lots of snow in places like around the Great Lakes,” said Professor Xianming Shi. Shi is a civil engineer at Washington State University. He researches new and better ways to melt ice on pavement or even prevent it from accumulating in the first place.

The problem with road salt is that it doesn’t vanish with the snow. Instead, via snowmelt, it trickles into groundwater and pollutes local streams and well water. The Environmental Protection Agency recently reported high levels of sodium and chloride, the ingredients of common table salt, in East Coast groundwater. The runoff from roadway salt threatens drinking water supplies, Shi told me.

For a number of years there have been some greener alternatives to spreading salt on roads. Any substance that lowers the freezing point of water can be helpful. One alternative substance that’s well established is a waste product from sugar beet refining.

“That’s a well-known, patented technology,” Shi said.

Shi and his research team are looking at local wastes that can be upcycled for winter roadway operations. These materials range from residue from wine production to materials from flower growers and the biodiesel industry.

Another goal of the work is to find substances that are less corrosive but achieve the same level of pavement friction.

“Magnesium chloride is sometimes sprayed on roads to combat ice,” Shi said. “But magnesium exchanges with calcium in concrete at depth.”

That exchange weakens the concrete, a bit like an elderly person losing bone mass. Overall, the strength of the concrete can be reduced by up to 50 percent.

“So we need to design concrete to better withstand exposure to magnesium chloride,” Shi told me.

It would be wonderful, of course, if pavement resisted the accumulation of ice. The texture of pavement can be manipulated to some extent to resist ice buildup. Nano- and micro-sized particles can be added to concrete to weaken its bond to ice or compacted snow.

“It’s more costly,” Shi said. “Still, it can be useful in some places, like in mountain passes.”

There’s some good research in progress at WSU. But while waiting for further developments, don’t throw out your back as you shovel.

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.

Fat And The Year You Were Born

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

New Year’s resolutions are being put to the harshest of tests. Gone are the days of early January when all things seemed so easily possible. Now we are in the tougher phase of the year when the will to establish new patterns is being sorely tested by the tug of old habits.

One of the most popular resolutions Americans make, year after year, is to lose weight. Earlier studies have shown a correlation between being overweight and having a specific variant of the gene called FTO. Now a study reported in PNAS Early Edition makes the case that the year you were born plays a crucial role in fat accumulation — whether you have the variant of the FTO gene or not. In short, there is no correlation between FTO and obesity in people born longer ago, but there is a correlation for people born more recently.

This work comes out of a very long-running study called the Framingham Heart Study that follows individuals over decades. The lead author of the PNAS report is Dr. James Niels Rosenquist of the Massachusetts General Hospital.

Rosenquist told ScienceDaily that “(our) results…suggest that this and perhaps other correlations between gene variants and physical traits may vary significantly depending on when individuals were born, even for those born into the same families.”

The new work comes out of long-term follow-ups with the children of participants in the original Framingham Heart Study. Called the Framingham Offspring study, the later research consisted of following people from 1971 — when the people ranged from 27 to 63 years old — through 2008.

Looking at body mass index (BMI), the medical researchers found that only for people born in later years was there a correlation between the FTO gene variant and obesity.

What’s so magical about the year of your birth and the struggle to win the battle of the bulge? The study couldn’t nail down specific answers, but it seems likely there are a couple of factors. For instance, more and more of us have sedentary jobs. But beyond that, there has been an increasing reliance on processed foods, with less cooking from scratch — a fact that may shape eating habits particularly for the young. Eating processed foods tends to correspond to consuming more calories, a double whammy for those of us who don’t get exercise at work.

“The fact that [the] effect can be seen even among siblings born during different years implies that global environmental factors such as trends in food products and workplace activity…may impact genetic traits,” Rosenquist said. “Our results underscore the importance of interpreting any genetic studies with a grain of salt.”

My take away from the report is that both diet and exercise remain the keys for taking off weight. Good luck to all of us as we try to reform habits early in this New Year.

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.

All That Glitters Is Not (Pure) Gold

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Recently I had the pleasure of going to the wedding celebration of my assistant at work — whom I count as a good friend — and her new husband. Theirs is an international marriage: the bride was born and raised in this country, the groom born and raised in China. The wedding celebration had elements of traditions from both the U.S. and China: the bride wore red, as is the custom in China, and the marriage was celebrated with a ring, as is the custom here.

Engagement and wedding rings interest geologists from a technical point of view. Long ago, I did geologic research related to gold mining. My Ph.D. thesis was on gold-bearing hot springs in California and the associated gold-mercury ore in the ground. Gold has been a precious metal since time immemorial. Its warm color and the fact it doesn’t tarnish made it a favorite for jewelry long ago. So even though the hot springs stank of sulfur, they smelled like gold to me.

The wedding I went to featured a traditional gold ring with a diamond solitaire. Apparently, it bucks the trend of what’s in fashion these days — when many engagement and wedding rings are made of “white gold.” What, you may ask, is “white gold” when gold — the metal itself — is known for its warm yellow color?

The answer depends, in part, on understanding that gold in jewelry is an alloy, a mixture of gold and other metals that have various properties. In the jewelry biz, the purest gold is called 24 karat. It’s 99.7 percent gold. Eighteen karat gold is 75 percent gold. Fourteen karat gold is about 58 percent gold.

Why not use pure gold in jewelry since the color and value of the metal are so high? Twenty-four karat gold is too soft to be used in jewelry that gets worn every day. Other metals added to the gold make it more durable. When metals are mixed, they create alloys. A wide variety of alloys are available in jewelry. Here are the ingredients of just two types of gold alloys you may see in stores:

“Red gold” can be a mixture of gold and copper.
“Green gold” can be an alloy of gold and copper, possibly with some silver, and a little bit of cadmium.

It makes sense that higher karat gold tends to be more golden in color — it’s the addition of other metals that makes a variety of other colors possible.

To get back to the white gold that’s in fashion for wedding rings these days: it can be a mixture of gold and palladium, nickel, manganese, copper, silver or zinc.

The color of white gold doesn’t come from the alloys in the ring itself. Rather, white gold jewelry has a coating of a metal called rhodium. It’s the rhodium that makes white gold rings white in color.

Personally, I’m glad my friends went with a traditional golden band. It is, to my old mind, “as good as gold” — as I hope their international relationship will be for the decades to come.
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.

Let the Sun Shine In

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My scientific training tells me that the days are getting a little bit longer now. And I do believe that. But my spirits say it remains dark awfully long into the morning and the sun surely sets early in the afternoon.

Even if you aren’t affected emotionally by the short days of winter, could they affect your health? That depends on whether low levels of vitamin D in the body are bad for you.

One way we get vitamin D is by manufacturing it in our bodies when sunlight strikes our skin. In the winter, not only are the days short, but we often are covered up for warmth, making the manufacture of vitamin D fall considerably from summer values.

Doctors have struggled for some time over the question of whether a low vitamin D level in the blood causes disease or whether poor health is the cause of low vitamin D values. A recent study in Europe makes the case that a low level of the vitamin is, itself, a factor that increases the death rate. The study used a technique called Mendelian randomization to pick apart what was causing what in a large data set.

Shoaib Afzal of Copenhagen University Hospital was the lead author of the study recently published in the journal BMJ. The research used information from over 95,000 people in Denmark. The entire group was tested for a natural genetic condition that reduces vitamin D in the body. Over 35,000 people in the group also had their serum levels of vitamin D measured. Using medical records, the researchers knew 10,349 of the people in the group died from the period from 1981 to 2013.

The study hinges on the fact that it had two large sets of people to study: one that had the genetic condition for low vitamin D and the other that did not. The researchers assumed that so-called confounding factors — like cigarette smoking, obesity, diabetes, etc. — were similar in the two groups. In other words, the only difference between the two large groups was the genetic condition and its associated impact on vitamin D levels.

The researchers found that having the genetic variant — and hence low vitamin D levels — increased the risk of death by some 30 percent. It increased the risk of death due to cancer by more than 40 percent. Interestingly, it had no effect on death caused by cardiovascular disease.

When it comes to vitamin D levels and death, “this study shows there may be a causal relationship,” Afzal was quoted as saying to The New York Times. But more work must be done before Afzal’s team would recommend you take vitamin D tablets.

There are some gray areas when it comes to Vitamin D — just like the gray weather common this time of year. Ask your doctor if you should be tested for Vitamin D levels or what her opinion is about the risks versus the benefits of supplements.

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.

Seas on Titan and Your Heating Bill

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Like most regions of the country, the area where I live suffered through colder than average temperatures in mid-November. If you pay for your heating bill month by month, you are now facing the sticker shock that results from those bitter times. Happy holidays.

I heat my home with a natural gas furnace supplemented by a woodstove in the living room. It’s a small stove, really designed only for emergencies and for fires built for fun on a Sunday afternoon. In other words, it doesn’t heat the whole house, and it works only with constant tending. But during our cold snap, I built some fires in the woodstove to try to take the edge off the natural gas bill I was incurring. The woodstove is in the same room as the thermostat for the house, though, so heating with it caused the temperatures in the rest of the house to crash. Still, I was doing what I could to lessen what I would later owe the power company.

The main ingredient in natural gas is methane. It’s colorless and odorless, so utility companies add a “rotten egg” smell to it. That way, if there is a leak, your nose becomes aware of it and you can evacuate your home, then call 911.

Methane occurs elsewhere in the solar system besides the Earth. It’s abundant on Titan, one of the moons of Saturn. On Titan, methane is a liquid because temperature there is almost 300 degrees below zero Fahrenheit. Scientists have now plumbed the depths of three frigid seas of methane on Titan. An article online at told me that the second largest of the seas, called Ligeia Mare, holds enough methane to fill Lake Michigan three times.

NASA’s Cassini probe reached the neighborhood of Saturn in 2004 and it’s still sending back data. The spacecraft was told to send radar pulses directed toward Titan’s seas. Results in some places included two sets of reflected energy. The first set of waves were from radar bouncing off the surface of the methane sea. The second, weaker, set of waves were from radar bouncing off the floor of the methane sea, under the surface. Together, these indicate the depth of the liquid methane.

The shallow parts of the sea are some 20 to 40 yards deep. In other parts of the Ligeia Mare, however, the methane is so deep no reflections from the bottom were detected, indicating places that are more than 200 yards deep.

It’s amazing to me what we are continuing to learn about our solar system — information ranging from data beamed back from a spacecraft landing on a comet to this information about Titan’s methane seas. I’m also amazed by what I owe the power company for methane I used in November — but I’m trying to keep some perspective about it.

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.

Correcting Errors in the Language of Life

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

My word processor is set up to deal with the errors I make when writing. The programmers who wrote the computer program knew I’d screw things up, so they built in corrective functions like spellcheck and the ability to simply backspace to delete typos. Those of us old enough to remember manual typewriters still sometimes marvel at the ease with which corrections in documents can now be made.

Mother Nature also has a built-in corrective function, one at work in organisms as simple as yeast and as complex as people.

“Each human cell experiences 10,000 to 100,000 injuries or lesions in its DNA per day,” Professor Michael Smerdon of Washington State University told me. “And there are about 30 trillion cells in an adult human, which makes a lot of errors to correct in each of us.”

To cope with all that error in the language of life, complex repair processes are at work within us every microsecond. Our cells have repair proteins that can correct errors in the genetic code. In other words, DNA is a fragile molecule, prone to problems, but nature copes by having repair capabilities in every cell in your body.

Unfortunately, damaged DNA can block the activity of proteins, called RNA polymerases, that “read” the content of genes in DNA for making proteins.

“Even small problems in repair can lead to major diseases,” Smerdon said. “There are regions in DNA that, if they get damaged and are not repaired quickly, cause more problems than other regions.”

Diseases like leukemia, breast cancer, and colon cancer can result from faulty repairs. More rare maladies like Cockayne Syndrome and xeroderma pigmentosum are created by some of the same fundamental processes.

Smerdon is nearing retirement. In recent years he’s worked with a young man from China, Peng Mao, a post-doctoral researcher in Smerdon’s laboratory.

In a recent article in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Mao, Rithy Meas, Kathy Dorgan and Smerdon described how RNA polymerase can be helped to perform its corrective function. That is an important result in part because someday ill people may be given agents that will increase the effectiveness of repair proteins in the cell.

“Repair will never be perfect,” Smerdon said. “If it were, there would be no mutations and therefore no evolutionary change. We wouldn’t be here if all repairs were perfectly carried out. But it’s got to be pretty close to perfect to avoid disease.”

For Smerdon, the recent publication in PNAS has been an extension of work he began 40 years ago when he was a post-doc.

“I’ve been fortunate to live through major changes in molecular biology,” Smerdon said. “It’s been an exciting time in my field.”

Improvements in laboratory techniques have been one factor leading to the advancement of molecular biosciences. Mao, the young post-doc, expects that there will be many new techniques available to researchers when he is Smerdon’s age.

“By the time I retire, more techniques will have led to new theories and a deeper understanding of DNA repair systems,” Mao said. “And there will be applications to human medicine.”

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.

Triggering the Ice Age

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

From time to time I give public talks on climate change — those large scale changes geologists have been studying since the 1830s. At those talks I’m often asked a basic question about climate that, until now, has stumped scientists. Here’s the background.

In the 1830s a Swiss naturalist named Louis Agassiz started promoting the idea that Europe had once been enveloped in a cold time in which large areas had been covered in glacial ice. He called that interval “the Ice Age.”

Working in this country in later decades, geologists studying glacial debris and soil layers came up with the idea that there had really been multiple episodes of extreme glacial advances. By 1900 most geologists agreed there had been at least four bitter intervals during which massive glaciers had covered Canada, with a sheet of ice extending down into the upper Midwest and New England.

Today, geologists believe there have been numerous cold times during the past 2.5 million years. Those long, bitter intervals have been separated by milder times like the present. The current warm interval has now lasted about 10,000 years. It’s really no different from the previous warm times except that human civilization has grown up within it.

But what triggered the start of the Ice Age? That’s the question I’m often asked by members of the public. After all, most of Earth’s history has been much warmer than the present and not marked by periodic advances of giant glaciers.

A team of researchers recently put forward a hypothesis that addresses the question of what may have started the Ice Age. They studied wind-blown dust in north central China, near the Tibetan plateau. That dust reflects changes in temperature and monsoons.

The idea coming out of the research is that the salinity of the Pacific Ocean was changed when North and South America were joined by the creation of the land bridge that now links them. The salinity change created more sea ice, which, in turn, led to changes in wind patterns, with intensified monsoons. Finally, the new wind and rain regime led to increased snowfall at high latitudes — and thus were born the massive glaciers geologists have longed believed in.

Thomas Stevens of the University of London was one of the researchers who recently put forth the new work.

“Until now, the cause of [the Ice Age] had been a hotly debated topic,” Stevens told ScienceDaily. “Our findings suggest a significant link between ice sheet growth, the monsoon, and the closing of the Panama Seaway, as North and South America drifted closer together.”

Once the Panama region took its present shape, a feedback cycle in climate was established. More sea ice promoted more precipitation of snow, creating the conditions for the growth of massive glaciers in the northern parts of our hemisphere.

If the new hypothesis holds up, it will address one question about geologically recent climate change on Earth. And it’s another example of how numerous factors influence climate. In this case, a dash of plate tectonics moving land masses closer together led to climate changes half a world away. Or so some now think.

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.

Bones Can Tell Quite a Story

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

His teeth had no cavities, but they were heavily worn. He was about my height — some 5 feet, 7 inches tall. He wasn’t petite, likely weighing around 160 pounds. Well before his death, he broke six of his ribs. Five of them never healed, but he kept going nevertheless.

A recent article in “The Smithsonian Magazine” details all this and more about Kennewick Man, an ancient skeleton found on the banks of the Columbia River in south-central Washington State in 1996. The occasion for the article is the publication of a 680-page book on Kennewick Man being released this fall by Texas A&M University Press.

Carbon-14 dating indicates Kennewick Man lived about 9000 years ago. His ancient bones have told researchers an interesting tale about the route the first people to reach North America may have taken in their journey to reach our part of the world.

But first, some specifics about the man himself. People who study bones closely can tell which muscles were well developed when a person was alive because of the marks that muscle attachments leave behind. According to the piece in “The Smithsonian,” Kennewick Man’s right shoulder was very well developed. That indicates he likely made a living throwing a spear with his right arm. His right shoulder even has a fracture in its socket, perhaps because he once threw something a little too hard, like baseball pitchers do today.

It may have been because he threw right-handed that the five ribs on his right side never properly healed after they were broken. As the article says, “This man was one tough dude.”

A stone spear-point was embedded in Kennewick Man’s hip. It had a downward arc, perhaps meaning it was thrown from a distance. Looking at bone growth around the point, scientists believe he encountered that spear when he was 15-20 years old (Kennewick Man is believed to have been around 40 when he died.) The injury to his hip from the 2-inch long point was significant. Researchers think he must have been helped by other people to survive and regain his health. So although he was a tough dude, he wasn’t a lone wolf.

Kennewick Man’s skull reveals still more injuries. He had two small skull fractures, one on his forehead. Possibly he was in a serious fight. Another thing that might explain the injuries could be a bola. That weapon involves whirling a couple of rocks connected by a rope above the head. A miscalculation with a bola could have injured Kennewick man’s skull.

The bonus question in anthropology is where Kennewick Man came from. The features of the famous specimen can be seen as an indicator that North America was originally peopled by coastal Asians who worked their way around what’s now Japan and Kamchatka to Alaska and then points south. That’s a hypothesis that will no doubt be tested over time as other ancient bones are discovered and analyzed.

Stay tuned.

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 Better Way to Shine Light in a Dark World

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Years ago I purchased a headlamp — a small flashlight that straps around your head to light your way. It’s really useful because it leaves both your hands free as you work or walk. I used my headlamp during the dark half of the year to exercise my dog in dark pastures and an undeveloped No Man’s Land on a steep hill near my house.

My headlamp used an old fashioned light bulb and a fairly heavy battery to run it. I used it for years but it finally stopped working, so I recently purchased a new headlamp. Technology has changed, and for the better — the new light uses a light emitting diode, or LED, and much smaller batteries. I’ve tested it, and I think it puts out more light than my older, heavier model used to do. One thing is for sure, it’s easier on my head because it weighs a good deal less than my old model.

Recently the Nobel committee in Sweden announced that three scientists have been awarded the Nobel Prize in physics for their role in creating the LED light, such as the one that powers my new headlamp. Two of the scientists, Isamu Akasaki and Hiroshi Amano, are in Japan, at Nagoya University. A third, Shuji Nakamura, is at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The three will receive a total of 8 million Swedish kronor, which is worth about $1.2 million according to a CNN report. They received the award for their work creating the blue LED in the 1990s.

For more than a generation, scientists labored to create a blue LED. Green and red LEDs had existed for years, but a blue LED remained elusive. When the trio of researchers created the blue LED, white light from LEDs became possible.

“They succeeded where everyone else had failed,” said the Nobel committee as quoted by the CNN report.

It’s rare that a Nobel Prize in physics directly touches our lives. But the new LED technology is important to all of us because LEDs are more efficient than old light bulbs and even compact fluorescents. In addition, fluorescent bulbs often contain mercury, something not found in LEDs. To top it all off, LEDs last a long time. People like my brother are putting LED lights into new buildings because of their advantages over old technology. And LEDs are found in more and more of our gadgets and devices.

It’s getting darker earlier each evening here in the Northern Tier state where I live. I will soon be relying on my LED headlamp as I walk the dog after work. I’ll remember the three scientists who made my new headlamp possible and celebrate their Nobel Prize in Physics.

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.

Plants Respond to Sounds of Insects Eating Leaves

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Plants are not as dumb as they look.

At least to me, plants have never seemed like the brightest bulb in the box. They stand around, looking green, hoping for a sunny day but not able to walk, talk or turn on the TV. However, due to a recent university press release, I’ve got to rethink my attitudes about vegetation.

Two scientists at the University of Missouri, Heidi Appel and Rex Cocroft, studied a plant called Arabidopsis. That’s a common experimental plant, used by researchers because it’s fast growing and a great deal is known about it. Arabidopsis is a flowering plant that you can think of as a cousin to mustard and cabbage.

The researchers let caterpillars feed on a group of Arabidopsis plants. Using special devices, they recorded the sounds or vibrations made by the insects chewing on the leaves.

Next Appel and Cocroft and their team took two new sets of plants and separated them. To one set, they played back recordings of the sounds and vibrations the insects had made as they fed on the Arabidopsis leaves. To the second set of plants, they played back a silent tape – in other words, this second set of plants was the “control” in their experiment.

Then the team let caterpillars feed on both sets of plants. Results showed that the Arabidopsis that had been exposed to the sounds of the insects feeding on leaves had more mustard oils in their leaves than did the control group. Mustard oils are chemicals many insects don’t like and will avoid.

“What is remarkable is that the plants exposed to different vibrations, including those made by a gentle wind or different insect sounds…did not increase their chemical defenses,” Cocroft said in a press release. “This indicates that the plants are able to distinguish feeding vibrations from other common sources of environmental vibration.”

Plants really are not dim bulbs.

“Plants have many ways to detect insect attack,” Cocroft said in the press release. “But [insect] feeding vibrations are likely the fastest way for distant parts of the plant to perceive the attack and begin to increase their defenses.”

Next steps for the researchers include learning more about exactly how vibrations are sensed by the plants and what parts of the complex sounds may be the most important. The results of this type of work are not just academic. A long way down the road, such research may be able to improve crop plants, giving them a natural way to boost their own defenses against insect pests.

“Caterpillars react to this chemical defense by crawling away, so using vibrations to enhance plant defenses could be useful to agriculture,” Appel said. “This research opens the window of plant behavior a little wider, showing that plants have many of the same responses to outside influences that animals do, even though the responses look different.”

I’ve got a new respect for plants — and the researchers who are learning surprising things about them.

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.

How ‘bout Them Apples?

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Do you have a good gut feeling about apples? Your body may — and that could be important to your overall health.

Some of the components of apples survive their trip through the upper part of the human digestive tract. Non-digestible compounds, including fiber and substances called polyphenols, stand up to chewing and the effects of enzymes in spit. They even remain intact after a bath in stomach acid. These compounds move all the way to the colon, where they undergo a transformation that can be quite beneficial to you.

The non-digestible compounds are fermented in the colon. That’s right, you could say you have a little brewery at work in your body. The fermentation allows for the growth of certain bacteria in the gut.

Which bacteria flourish in your colon really matters. Studies have shown that obese mice have different bacterial families and diversity of bacteria in their gut than do lean mice.

Now researchers at Washington State University have concluded that apples — especially Granny Smith apples — may lead to healthy bacteria in the colon and this, in turn, may help prevent a variety of medical disorders.

“Apples are a good source of non-digestible compounds,” Professor Giuliana Noratto told me. “We have now studied the differences in apple varieties to look for the most useful types.”

Results of the study were recently published in the journal Food Chemistry by Noratto and her co-researchers Luis Condezo-Hoyos and Indira P. Mohanty.

The new research indicates that Granny Smiths contain more non-digestible compounds than many other apples including Braeburn, Fuji, Gala, Golden Delicious, McIntosh and Red Delicious.

As a first step toward understanding the gut processes better, Noratto’s team simulated colon fermentation in test tubes. Fecal bacteria were cultured in apple compounds that survived gastrointestinal enzyme digestion.

“The non-digestible substances in the Granny Smith apples actually changed the proportion of fecal bacteria from obese mice to be similar to what you find with lean mice,” Noratto told me.

Now Noratto is feeding Granny Smiths directly to rats. This takes the ideas suggested by the test tube experiments and tries them out in the real-world condition of flesh-and-blood guts. Noratto expects results from the animal trials sometime in the New Year.

One thing about the rats interested me as an aside. The obese and lean rats are fed the same number of calories each day. But a high fat diet produces overweight rats, while a lower fat diet leads to lean rats. I’ll try to remember that the next time a bowl of ice cream is calling to me.

Down the road, Noratto’s work with apples could be important in the battle of the bulge that so many of us face. Beyond that, it could be useful in combatting diabetes. From Noratto’s perspective, obese people have an unfortunate community of bacteria in their gut. The bad bacteria make for byproducts that can lead to inflammation and influence metabolic disorders associated with being overweight.

It would be interesting if modern science can show that “an apple a day” really is a helpful addition to the human diet. Stay tuned!

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.

How Hard Is That?

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

A good friend of mine checks each morning on the web for the final “Jeopardy” question. It’s the last question on the taped “Jeopardy” program to be broadcast later that day. I don’t go to movies or follow sports, so I’m often at a loss when it comes to many quiz show questions. But recently I was in a position to answer the “Jeopardy” question because of my early training in geology.

The category of the question I got right was “to ‘dum’ it up.” That means, in Jeopardy-speak, that the answer will have the syllable “dum” in it. The clue mentioned that there is a substance a chemist would call aluminum oxide that’s sometimes used as an abrasive. How could it be named with “dum” in the word?

Aluminum oxide, or Al2O3, is well known to geologists. You likely know aluminum oxide with certain impurities in it as the gemstone sapphire. With somewhat different impurities, the gem is ruby. So if you find a deposit of the right kind of aluminum oxide in the back of beyond, your financial problems could be over.

But most aluminum oxide in the world isn’t gem quality. Instead it’s the mineral corundum. That was the answer to the “Jeopardy” question. I knew the answer because like all geology students and many a rock hound, I learned the names and properties of scores and scores of minerals (and a few gems) when I was young. Call it my misspent youth.

Like sapphire and ruby, corundum is very hard. On the scale geologists use to measure such things, it has a hardness value of nine. Some gemstones are eight on the hardness scale. Diamond – the hardest natural substance in the world – has a hardness value of ten.

Most sandpaper is made of small quartz grains. Quartz has a hardness of seven. That’s generally hard enough for smoothing down a bit of wood. Depending on its exact chemical composition, garnet is a bit harder than quartz, and in a good hardware store you’ll find garnet sandpaper. Corundum is harder still, making it an abrasive for tough jobs.

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that Apple is investing $700 million to give its new iPhone and smartwatches what are termed “sapphire screens.” The idea is that the screen of the phone won’t be scratched as it rattles around in your pocket or purse with your car keys, and the watch face won’t be scratched if you scape it against a wall – even a brick wall.

Mineralogy to the rescue. But don’t ask what proportion of “Jeopardy” clues I can usually solve.

Dr. E. Kirsten Peters was trained as a geologist at Princeton and Harvard Universities. This column is provided as a service of the College of Agricultural, Human and Natural Resource Sciences at Washington State University.  See more columns or listen to the Rock Doc’s broadcasts of them at


The Start of a Better Trend for Diabetes 

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

“Eat right and exercise.”

It’s good advice. But millions of us Americans struggle every day to live up to our hopes regarding diet and activity. Some of us are pretty good at one thing (for me, it’s exercise) but not good at the other (starch and sweets make up too much of my diet). It just ain’t easy to both eat right and exercise, and do so every day.

But maybe we have been making some progress on our personal goals regarding diet and activity. It looks like our collective efforts to address obesity — and associated diseases like diabetes — may be starting to have some results.

A new study from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was recently published in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Although the devil is in the details, the publication argues that if you look at Americans as a group, obesity and diabetes are no longer increasing as they had been in recent decades.

As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, the rate at which Americans are being newly diagnosed with diabetes has now actually fallen. The statistic reflects how many new cases doctors found per thousand people. In 1990, for Americans between 20 to 79 years old, the number of new diabetes cases was 3.2. That figure shot up to 8.8 in 2008. The good news is that for 2012, the figure was 7.1, a downward trend worth celebrating.

But three groups are not participating in that improvement. They are Latinos, African Americans, and people with only a high school education or less. For a variety of reasons, people in those groups are still experiencing a rising rate of diabetes.

“It’s not good news for everybody,” Shakira Suglia told the Los Angeles Times. Suglia is an epidemiologist at Columbia University’s Mailman School of Public Health.

And that bad news really matters because diabetes is such a debilitating disease. People with diabetes are more likely than the general population to suffer heart attacks and strokes, to name only two maladies that crop up in the medical statistics. Beyond that there’s blindness and kidney failure to fear, and problems in feet and legs that, in the worst case, can lead to amputation.

The overall problem posed by diabetes in the U.S. remains enormous. Nearly 1 in 10 Americans have the disease. There is the human dimension of the suffering that diabetes brings to people, and there is also the financial cost associated with treating the disease. Our national health care bill is significantly impacted by the cost of diabetes, which was estimated at $245 billion in 2012.

But even if it’s fragmentary, let’s be thankful for at least a bit of good news in the fight against obesity and diabetes. Let’s keep up the good work and encourage one another to eat right and exercise. Everyone needs to get on board this wagon, and that includes me.

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.

Forensic Science Meets Nuclear Chemistry

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

As a kid, I read the Sherlock Holmes stories and the mysteries of Agatha Christie. As an adult, I wrote four mysteries that focused on a Quaker heroine solving crimes she happened across in her religious community. (I published them using my grandmother’s name — Irene Allen — as a pseudonym.) And, as a geologist, I’ve read about real-life criminal investigations that involved samples of sand and soil.

But it wasn’t until I talked with Dr. Nathalie Wall of the chemistry department at Washington State University that I got my head around forensic science that relates to radioactive materials.

“The basic definition of forensics is that it gives you information about the past,” Wall said to me. “The best known type of forensics is the criminal kind.”

Nuclear forensics is the study of radioactive materials found on places like a suspect’s hand. The goal is to develop information about such things as the source of the nuclear material. One part of the research Wall does is to help develop techniques that can be used for prosecution of people linked to illegally transporting or trafficking in radioactive substances.

“A fingerprint belongs to just one person, so it has real importance as evidence,” Wall said. “But you can’t arrest someone just for having a trace amount of uranium on their hands. There is uranium in granite, so a person can pick up trace amounts of it just from handling rocks.”

That’s part of the reason why it can be much more complicated to make a legal case against a person for dealing in radioactive materials than it can be to prove other kinds of criminal cases.

“The cool thing about nuclear chemistry is that radioactive elements come in sets or suites,” Wall told me. “If you find a specific suite of elements of different proportions, you can potentially tell where the material came from and what it’s been used for. So this is the ‘fingerprint’ we look for.”

Wall’s work is in the chemistry of various radioactive elements. She collaborates with people who make sophisticated devices for testing trace samples of materials.

“Just as the TSA may swipe your hand to see if you’ve touched conventional explosives, our goal is to develop tests for trace amounts of radioactive isotopes,” Wall said. “Part of the challenge is to make the tests both accurate and fast.”

Wall got a start in the research world working on nuclear repositories and contaminated sites. Nuclear forensics has been a recent addition to her work.

“From a chemist’s point of view, it’s all the same story,” Wall said.

Wall’s work is part of a broader who-done-it effort that’s important to all of us. I’m glad she and others like her are at work on real-life investigatory techniques that can stop terrorists.

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.


Designing new food products

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Today’s snack food aisle in the grocery store contains a lot more products than when I was a kid. Back then, we mainly had potato chips and saltines, but not much more. Now there’s a multitude of choices designed to help you satisfy your cravings for something crunchy.

It’s fair to say most of us don’t spend a lot of our time cooking from scratch. “Processed foods” – everything from snacks to boxed dinners – make up a great deal of what most Americans eat. Indeed, the majority of what most of us eat is processed to one degree or another.

Some highly processed foods are not so healthy, especially the ones made with refined flours and ingredients. Some experts think there’s a link between specific groups of processed foods and the obesity epidemic. Surveys in the U.S. and Great Britain show that most people consume less than one serving per day of whole-grain cereals. That’s a shame because research has shown that three servings of whole grains a day are better for us.

In part because of the possible link between processed foods made with refined ingredients and the obesity epidemic, the question arises: Can we make convenient foods that are both tasty and good for us? To put it another way, how can we increase the whole-grain content of processed foods in a way that won’t sacrifice taste and texture?

Into this fray has walked a new variety of wheat, called “waxy wheat.” Waxy wheat was first bred around the turn of the 21st century.

Whole grain waxy wheat has unique processing properties. Basically, it forms a paste at a significantly lower temperature than does regular wheat, and it swells with more water than do standard varieties of wheat.

“Waxy wheat holds real potential for improving processed foods,” said Dr. Girish Ganjyal, a faculty member in the School of Food Science at Washington State University.

Ganjyal recently taught me several things about the food we eat. One is that snack foods contribute a whopping 25 percent of the calories most adult Americans take in. Obviously, that means snack foods are important to human health in the U.S.

In recent years there has been a serious effort by the food industry to increase the fiber and protein content of processed foods. Part of that effort revolves around a wide range of foods made with what’s termed “extrusion” processing.

Extrusion processing involves passing food ingredients through a barrel with an opening at the end known as a die. The food ingredients are cooked as they pass through the extruder and exit through the die that gives shape to the food. Extrusion processing is crucial to everything from elbow macaroni and tortilla chips to Cheetos and Fruit Loops, as well as things like snack bars and military field rations.

“Extrusion processing is one of the mainstays of the food industry,” said Ganjyal.

But as you incorporate more fiber and protein into the extruded food, you change its taste and texture. In general, U.S. consumers like “light” foods that crunch and then dissolve in the mouth. The good news is that waxy wheat, when processed through extruders, cooks at low energy inputs and produces light textured products.

Ganjyal is researching how using waxy wheat may make it possible to side-step the problem of whole-grain extruded foods being “darker” than many people like. In other words, he wants to keep the melt-in-your-mouth texture that consumers like, even while incorporating more nutrition into the extruded foods.

Recently Ganjyal applied for funding from the federal government to pursue more research in this area. He proposes working with a miller to grind the waxy wheat in very specific ways. The wheat flour will then be further processed and extruded. The taste of the resulting products will be evaluated by panels of testers, folks like you and me. The goal is to make more whole wheat foods that people will thoroughly enjoy even while they get whole-grain nutrition.

Remember Ganjyal the next time you choose some snack foods at the grocery store. There’s a lot of research work that goes into our daily vittles.

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.

What Antibiotics May Be Doing To Us

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

It’s astonishing to think about, but when my grandfather was born, tuberculosis was the number one cause of death in our country. Worse still, one in five children didn’t live to see their fifth birthday, in large part due to endemic and epidemic diseases. Today that’s all changed.

But although doctors can now often do a great deal to help the ill, it’s also true that chronic diseases plague us. And a number of these maladies seem to be on the rise. Diabetes, asthma, celiac disease and food allergies are all increasing in frequency. Most obvious of all, obesity is becoming more and more common.

Dr. Martin Blaser of New York University thinks he understands at least part of what’s going on. And according to him, medical treatments themselves are contributing to the rise of some chronic health problems. His new book, “Missing Microbes: How the overuse of antibiotics is fueling our modern plagues,” explores the link between changes in our internal microbes and the list of chronic diseases so many of us now face.

Antibiotics are a blessing. But if Blaser is right, they are also a curse. Both things can be true. To take just one malady, let’s focus on obesity.

There’s no doubt obesity is on the rise. Back in 1990, about 12 percent of people in the U.S. were obese. Recently, the figure has grown to about 30 percent. And people in other countries are following our lead, packing on the pounds. Those are just facts. What other facts can we bring to bear on the issue?

Your body is host to many trillions of microorganisms. The microorganisms on and in your body change over time. One simple example is that the proportions of bacteria in your mouth are altered depending on whether you are breathing through your nose or your mouth. That’s because some microorganisms can’t live in the presence of oxygen. At night, you breathe mostly through your nose and the proportion of bacteria in your mouth that don’t cope with oxygen can increase. They are stinky little buggers, and that’s what gives you “morning mouth” when you wake up.

Important changes in populations of microorganisms within us occur when we take antibiotics. When a doctor gives you penicillin or one of the host of newer antibiotics, the goal is to eradicate what’s making you ill. Blaser’s book outlines the ways in which a number of microorganisms, including ones that are useful to you, are also affected by antibiotics.

I was surprised to learn from the book that most antibiotic doesn’t end up in pills we get from pharmacies. Instead, most of the drugs go into the cattle, swine and poultry that we eat. The reason so much antibiotic is given to livestock is that the animals gain more weight when they are given antibiotics in their feed. It pays for farmers to buy antibiotics and give them to whole herds.

Blaser’s book asks whether antibiotics given to people could have a similar effect as in livestock. Antibiotics, especially those given to kids, may be leading both to more growth and to putting on more fat, including in later life. The book reviews experiments with mice in Blaser’s lab that address this connection, as well as studies in human populations. Blaser concludes we may be inadvertently fatting up our young in our rush to use antibiotics to treat every sore throat or cough.

As Blaser sees it, antibiotics contribute to obesity and a host of other chronic diseases that have been on the rise in recent decades. He argues that our attitudes need to change. Doctors should be trained to think twice before prescribing antibiotics. The drugs should be reserved for truly serious conditions that aren’t going away on their own.

“Doctors and patients alike have never fully taken into account all the costs of using antibiotics. Once they do, I predict their use, especially in early childhood, will greatly diminish,” Blaser wrote in an email to me.

The progress we’ve made combatting many diseases is stupendous. No one wants to go back to the problems that were common when my grandfather was born. But it’s time we looked at what the overuse of antibiotics may be costing us.

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.


Resurrection Ecology Revives Ancient Organism

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.

Seize The Day: Visit a Park

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

This is the time of year to get outdoors and observe Mother Nature in all her glory. With a simple field guide to trees or birds and a Sunday afternoon trip to a local park, you can play amateur scientist and immerse yourself in forces larger than those we humans create.

A friend and I are making plans for an extended road trip to two national parks in southwest Utah. We will spend two or three days in Bryce Canyon National Park and a day touring Zion. We won’t go until the end of September, though, after the heat of summer in Utah has passed. The days will be shorter then, of course, but, in some ways, the sunlight is all the more sweet as the evenings draw in closer and earlier.

The last time I was in rural Utah and Nevada I was driving by myself and towing a 1972 travel trailer that was as small as it was ratty. The trip is seared in my mind in part because I had trouble with tires blowing out when I was in the middle of nowhere. When the first one blew, I wasn’t too distressed about it. I just put on my spare and loaded the shredded tire into my aging vehicle. But I well remember the stress of losing the second tire before I had reached a town big enough to have a supply of tires to fit my vehicle. It took some doing and the help of strangers to get me back to civilization where I could buy what I needed to continue the trip.

This time around I have new tires on my vehicle (what a concept!) and two spares. One is the little “donut” that came with my car when I bought it and the second is a real spare on a wheel I purchased. I have tied that spare to the top of the vehicle, “safari” style.

Planning a road trip can be half the fun, and my friend and I are well into that part of the experience. I called a tourist bureau in Utah and got some maps and materials about Bryce and Zion. Another friend gave us a book full of glossy pictures about the national parks of Utah.  The book discusses both the geologic history of the area and early human history, too.

Us geologists are fond of the southwest because it’s easy to see the rocks of the area. In wetter parts of the country, soil and plants obscure the view of the local geology, but in places like southwest Utah you can see rocks in all directions.

But you don’t need to go to a famous national park to immerse yourself in what Mother Nature shows us. A simple pair of binoculars and a field guide to birds could add a rich dimension to your summer. Seize the day sometime this week and take a trip to a local park. You’ll be glad for the break from your ordinary routine and concerns.

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 Brisk Walking Pace is Better

by Dr. E. Kirsten Peters
One of the things my mutt from the pound and I like to do together is go on long walks. Sometimes on weekends, Buster Brown and I stroll at the bottom of the Snake River Canyon where dogs can be off-leash (as Mother Nature intended). There’s a six-mile walk in the canyon we like to do; me limping along in a straight line, Buster ranging over a wider area of ground sniffing for wildlife.
Closer to home, there is a six-mile loop around town we enjoy. I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we simply feel better about the world when we’ve completed a long walk.
While I do walk what many Americans would consider significant distances, I am not fast. I think I average about three miles per hour. Recently published research suggests that if I want to do my health the most good, I should check with my medical provider and then work on picking up my pace.
The idea about speedier walking comes from work done on the National Walkers’ Health Study, a database that records the walking patterns maintained by thousands of Americans who like to walk for exercise. People in the study were recruited starting in 1998. They gave researchers detailed information about their walking habits and their health histories.
Medical authorities recommend we do at least some moderate-intensity exercise for 30 minutes each day, five days a week. For walkers, that translates to walking at about a four-mile-per-hour pace. In other words, Buster Brown and I don’t make the grade. We walk, all right, but not fast enough to get some of the health benefits of exercise. Still, isn’t it possible that the long distances we go makes up for our relatively leisurely pace?
Enter a statistician named Paul T. Williams of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who has worked through the data on about 39,000 middle aged walkers in the National Walkers’ Health Study. His analysis was recently published in the journal PLoS One and summarized in the New York Times.
Death catches up to all of us, even the most lean and serious of walkers. Almost 2,000 people out of the total of 39,000 in the database have died since 1998. Williams’ work –– alas for me –– shows that the deaths were disproportionately drawn from the ranks of those who stroll slowly rather than those who stride quickly along. Perhaps worst of all for the likes of me, the death rate among the slow walkers was high even if the distances trekked were long. In other words, it really seems to matter that some walkers move at a brisk pace, and do so for at least 30 minutes per day.
“Our results do suggest that there is significant health benefit to pursuing a faster pace,” William said to the New York Times.
One factor that Williams’ work doesn’t fully control for is that the leisurely walkers may have been slow because they had a health condition that limited what they could do –– and potentially also limited their longevity. That’s true. But that same idea, according to Williams, leads to one practical result of his work: If you clock your natural walking speed, you may be able to get a basic sense of your overall health.
The bottom line appears to be that brisk walking is better than a slower stroll, even if us slow-pokes walk for long distances. But as I understand it, anything is better than nothing when it comes to walking, and many Americans don’t walk or otherwise exercise hardly at all. I’m a geologist, not a medical doctor, but I think that if you exercise every day, as I come close to doing, it’s important to have enjoyment in what you do. Walking with a friend and my dog on the weekend is a pleasure, and long walks are great pleasures. Still, more vigorous walking than what some of us naturally do could be more helpful to our health.
I’ve got to talk the matter over with Buster Brown, but perhaps we can try to pick up the pace when we go out together for our weekend jaunts.
 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.•

Grizzly Bear Research May Help Human Medicine

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.

Air Pollution Knows No Borders

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

We’ve all seen globes in classrooms. They represent the Earth well — better than flat maps can do. But all the globes I’ve seen in schools have national boundaries on them, usually indicated by having nations in different colors. The U.S. is yellow, Canada is light green, Mexico is pink, and so on. When I was a child my big brother owned a globe like that, and I got to pore over it sometimes.

My sister-in-law has a different globe, one specially purchased for her by her father. It has no national boundaries — so all of North America is presented as a unit, as indeed is each of the land masses. I think her globe may have been inspired by the view of Earth from the moon, an image beamed back to us by astronauts.

Recently I thought of my sister-in-law’s globe when I read the news about a study concerning how air pollution in China affects us here in North America.

“Pollution from China is having an effect in the U.S.,” said Dr. Don Wuebbles, a faculty member in atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. His remarks were reported by CNN.

Wuebbles is co-authored a piece recently published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. At first, I was taken by surprised by the research findings. My thinking was that the Pacific Ocean is vast and would protect us from Chinese air pollution. But apparently winds carry particulates and ozone over the ocean and some of it reaches our shores. It takes just days for the pollution to travel long distances, crossing both the Earth’s largest ocean and national boundaries as it does so.

It’s not that China can be criticized for air pollution while we congratulate ourselves for being “green.” One of the reasons China is the world’s leading emitter of man-made air pollution is that China is producing so much of the world’s manufactured goods. A lot of those goods come to us. In other words, we have outsourced our manufacturing to China, and that means we’ve outsourced the associated air pollution as well.

Wuebbles and his colleagues argue that air pollution in China that’s related to exports contributes meaningful amounts of sulfate pollution in the western U.S. Ditto for ozone. Those results are nothing to sneeze at.

One way of putting the facts in simple terms is to note that it’s a small world. We don’t see China’s smokestacks from our shores, but they impact the air those of us in the western U.S. breathe. We Americans are connected to our Chinese brothers and sisters, just as they are to us for a market for their many goods.

The bottom line for me is that my sister-in-law’s globe has the best representation of the Earth I’ve ever seen. There are no national boundaries when it comes to either Earth processes or man-made pollution. And what happens in one place can affect conditions on the ground thousands of miles away.

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.

Termites and Better Biofuels

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Every time I fill my gas tank, I see the notice on the pump that explains part of the fuel I’m buying is ethanol. Ethanol is alcohol, a type of biofuel rather than fossil fuel. While biofuels can be good to promote national energy independence and possibly help with greenhouse gas emissions, the ethanol in our gasoline is made from corn. (The starch in the corn is broken down into sugars that are then fermented into alcohol.) With corn ethanol, we are essentially putting food into our gas tanks, a fact that some people take exception to because it drives up food prices and deprives people of basic foodstuffs.

A different way of producing biofuels is to use crop residues and woody materials as the source for the fuel. Those materials are full of cellulose and a molecule called lignin. The lignin is bonded to the cellulose within each plant cell. Researchers are working to find a cheap and straight-forward way to neutralize the lignin and break down the cellulose into simple sugars. The sugars can then be fermented into fuel.

We can break down lignin at high temperature and pressure, and with harsh chemicals. But can we find a way to remove it that doesn’t require high costs and harm to the environment?

Researchers are looking at two organisms that can do the needed chemical tricks at room temperature and pressure and without harsh chemicals. Certain types of fungi can do this. It’s impressive what the right fungus can do, but fungal action is slow — very slow. So a number of scientists are looking at termites. As we all know, termites can eat solid wood and make a living doing so. Their digestive systems break down tough plant material at room temperature and pressure in as little as 24 hours.

Termites start breaking down their food when they chew it and coat it with an enzyme. We humans do something similar — the spit in our mouth’s can break down starches into sugars. But breaking down starch is easy compared to dealing with lignin and cellulose-rich materials like the termites do.

After breaking their food into smaller particles by chewing, the termites then pass the material into a three-part digestive system consisting of the foregut, the midgut, and then the larger hindgut. By the end of that – in just a day’s time – the lignin is out of the way and the cellulose has been broken down into sugars that the termites live on.

Professor Shulin Chen of Washington State University is one scientist studying what termites do with an eye toward adopting some similar processes to make biofuels from crop residues and woody materials.

“We are studying the mechanisms for how the termite does what it accomplishes in its digestive system,” Chen told me. “The goal is to employ a similar mechanism in an engineered system.”

In other words, we want to learn from termites and ultimately set up biorefineries that can break down crop residues and woody materials, doing so economically and in a way that doesn’t harm the environment.

“The final goal is to do better than the termite, to do the same basic work but at a faster rate and on a larger scale,” Chen said. “We know the basics of what’s going on in the termite, but we need to nail down some specifics.”

Chen’s research is partially supported by WSU, the university where both he and I work. But his research team is also funded by the National Science Foundation. Chen emphasizes that without federal funding of scientific research, teams like his could make little progress.

It’s tax time, of course — the season in which people like to grumble about federal taxes. But Chen feels strongly that if our government doesn’t support basic research in science and engineering, we all would pay a steep price.

From where I stand when I fill up my gas tank, thinking about pumping food into my engine to be burned there, I’ve got to wish Chen and his team the very best. Biofuels made from crop residues and woody materials would be a great step forward.

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.

Mercury Contamination from the Good Old Days

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

When I was a younger and more sprightly woman, I spent part of my life investigating unusual hot springs in rural California. They were salty and quite stinky springs out in the middle of nowhere, and several of them occurred right in the center of an old gold-laced mercury deposit.

No one was actively mining the small area where the springs are found – there just wasn’t enough ore to make the project economic. But the rocks of the location had small veins of chalcedony, calcite and other minerals that had elevated values of both gold and mercury in them. Working with a couple of colleagues, I took samples of the spring waters, the gases bubbling out of the springs, the precipitates forming around them, and anything that looked interesting in the nearby rocks.

The fieldwork had its challenges. In the afternoon it was routinely over 100 degrees, and the sun was relentless. One afternoon I even flirted with heat stroke. Another problem was that the rattlesnakes were numerous and big.

I spent a lot of time in the laboratory back east analyzing the waters of the springs. They were transporting gold, and the question was how. Gold is normally quite insoluble – that’s why it can be used to crown a tooth. Even in an environment rich in warm spit and sips of hot coffee, a golden tooth won’t dissolve away because gold is quite insoluble under most conditions. But clearly the hot springs were different. In the end, I concluded that sulfur in the spring waters was keeping the gold in solution until the waters broke to the surface and the gold precipitated out as temperature and gas concentrations changed.

There were some other interesting things about the strange springs, too. Some of the cooler ones had the larval stage of an insect living in them. I took samples of the wiggling little creatures and gave them to a biologist to identify. The insect normally lives around the ocean in salt-marshes, but it was making use of the salty springs even though they were well inland.

The area where I worked in California hadn’t played a direct role in the Gold Rush of 1849. There just wasn’t enough gold around the hot springs to have caught the attention of the Old Timers who made fortunes elsewhere in California. But the place where I worked had been mined for mercury, including back in the old days. That was because mercury was used to concentrate gold in materials miners elsewhere were processing.

In the old days, miners worked with pans, hydraulic hoses, and sluices to remove and concentrate gold-rich sediment. Because gold is attracted to mercury, the miners poured liquid mercury on the earthen material they had concentrated. The gold moved into the mercury. The miners could then heat the mercury and boil it away, leaving a concentrated “button” of gold behind.

There was a lot of mercury being slopped around in the old processes the miners used. Much of it went into the air when the miners heated the mercury-gold mixture, but some of the mercury stayed behind, in the sediments.

New research is highlighting the environmental challenges those old mining techniques continue to create for us today. As explained in a recent piece on the website Inside Science, one of the key places at issue is the Yuba Fan, a volume of sediment built up around the Yuba River, a tributary of the Sacramento River.

“The Yuba Fan is totally artificial, created by humans,” Michael Singer of the University of St. Andrews said to Inside Science.

The Yuba Fan contains more than a billion cubic yards of sediment. Terraces in the fan act like small dams, keeping the material from moving downstream. But about once every ten years there is a substantial flood that kicks loose materials that then move downhill toward the lowlands – which include agricultural areas like California’s rice fields.

The recent research was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which is a measure of its importance. In part because California’s agricultural bounty is a keystone to all of us who like to eat, I’m sure more follow-up research will be done.

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 New Medication that May Help People Stay Sober

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Alcoholism runs in part of my family. I lost a grandfather to it, and a couple of others in the family have been affected by it to greater or lesser degrees. Perhaps something like that is true for you, or maybe you have a friend or coworker who wrestles with the malady.

This is a challenging time of year for alcoholics trying to stay sober. New Year’s Eve alone can be a real test.

But medical researchers are investigating new ways that doctors may be able to help people not drink. One method, recently written up by NPR’s “Shots” website, is a medication called gabapentin. Gabapentin — the generic equivalent of the brand name drug Neurontin — has been used for years to treat a variety of ailments ranging from epilepsy to bipolar disease to fibromyalgia.

Recently researchers at the National Institutes of Health did a study of gabapentin and its effects on people with alcoholism. They enrolled 150 people in a 12-week experiment. Everyone who signed up to be part of the study got counseling. Some of the people in the study were given placebos, while others received either 900 or 1,800 milligrams of gabapentin daily.

The people taking the 1,800 milligram dose of the drug drank nothing during the study four times as often as the placebo group. And, if they did drink, they were more likely to refrain from heavy drinking. In other words, it looks like gabapentin helped — results that were recently published in JAMA Internal Medicine.

Dr. Barbara J. Mason was the leader of the research effort. She thinks that gabapentin is useful to people with alcoholism who are trying to stay dry because it helps lessen some of the withdrawal symptoms people often encounter when they stop drinking.

“Gabapentin improved sleep and mood in people who were cutting down or quitting drinking,” Mason told NPR. Feelings of anxiety and losing sleep are often experiences that drive people to start drinking again, she said.

One good thing about gabapentin compared to some other medications is that it isn’t processed by the liver. That’s important because the livers of people with alcoholism are often damaged from years of drinking. Gabapentin moves from the stomach to the blood to the kidneys and finally into the urine, all mostly unchanged.

But there is still a long road to travel before gabapentin is considered by the Food and Drug Administration as a possible treatment for alcoholism. And even if the FDA took action today to approve gabapentin for such use, people who suffer from alcoholism would still have a tough row to hoe.

“It’s not magic,” Mason said. “And making big behavior changes is hard work.”

Still, it’s good to know researchers may be finding new ways to aid people with alcoholism in the struggle to stay sober.

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.


From Washington State to Washington, D.C.

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

I know we are still only in Advent. But at this point in December, my mind starts to turn toward Christmas. It just can’t be helped, especially in light of all the ads featuring Santa.

Christmas is about tradition: traditional foods, traditional songs, traditional church services. For a few geeks, Christmas is also an ideal time to get in a little bit of scientific research. What could be better than to combine some of the traditional activities of the season with the chance to learn a bit more about the natural world?

Katie McKeever is a graduate student in plant pathology at the Washington State University Research and Extension Center (REC) in Puyallup, Washington. She has been hard at work in recent weeks learning about how moisture is lost or retained from a truly mega-Christmas tree. An 88-foot-tall Engelmann spruce was recently shipped from north-central Washington State to what we natives of the Northwest call the “other Washington,” namely the District of Columbia.

It took some 25 days for the spruce to move from its home in Washington State to a place of pride at the capitol in D.C. The 2013 National Christmas Tree was harvested from the Colville National Forest in Pend Oreille County. The last time Washington State gave the capitol its Christmas tree was in 2006. That one came from the Olympic National Forest in the northwestern part of the state.

Once this year’s tree was cut, McKeever placed three small sensors in the canopy of the great tree as it lay on the bed of the semi that would haul it across the country.

“The sensors are data loggers that automatically record temperature every 15 minutes to provide statistics about the ambient environment inside the tree canopy,” McKeever told me.

Professor Gary Chastagner, also at the Puyallup REC, has long worked on various Christmas tree issues. He’s an expert on what’s called the post-harvest moisture and retention of needles of Christmas trees. To be sure, most Christmas trees are not 88 feet tall, but some of the issues with mega-trees and the kind in your living room are similar.

In general, helping Christmas trees retain moisture can help them keep their needles. If you are tired of trying to get a lot of needles out of your living room carpet each January (one tradition I would gladly skip), you might wish McKeever and Chastagner well with their work.

The research on the National Christmas Tree involves cooperation between the U.S. Forest Service and WSU. Forest Service technicians from the Colville National Forest who have accompanied the tree are taking periodic samples of small twigs from the enormous tannenbaum. The samples are sent to Puyallup where they are carefully weighed, dried thoroughly in an oven, and then reweighed to determine how much moisture was in the twigs.

The data the WSU researchers are gathering is part of their on-going work to make recommendations that can help improve the quality of Christmas trees for consumers. That’s the technical challenge for the tree specialists. For the rest of us, their work is just a way of improving our live tannenbaum tradition, year after year.

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.

Shake, Rattle and Roll

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

“It’s 8:16 on a chilly, wet morning…You’ve just arrived at work and are pouring a cup of coffee when you become aware of a low rumbling noise. Within seconds, the rumbling becomes a roar, the floor beneath you heaves, and the building begins to pitch and shake so violently that you’re thrown to the floor. The roaring is joined by a cacophony of crashing as windows shatter and every unsecured object in the room – from the desk chair to the coffee pot – is sent flying. Shaken loose by the shuddering and jolting of the building, dust and ceiling particles drift down like snow. Then the lights flicker and go out.”

That’s the arresting start of a new report produced by several governmental agencies that describes what can happen when a magnitude 9.0 earthquake hits what’s called the Cascadia Region, an area that stretches from the coast of Northern California northward through western Oregon, Washington, and southwestern British Columbia. The quake will be triggered by movement along the faults that lie between the oceanic tectonic plates and the plate on which North America rides. When the plates move suddenly, absolutely enormous amounts of energy are released, with violent shaking of the ground and tsunamis as the result. The report that describes all this is Cascadia Subduction Zone Earthquakes: A Magnitude 9.0 Earthquake Scenario.

Cascadia isn’t the only place in danger of having major earthquakes. Most famously, the San Andreas and associated faults in California are a constant threat to local residents. And the New Madrid fault zone, centered where the states of Missouri, Kentucky, and Tennessee come together, is a threat to the lower Midwest. Finally, states as different as South Carolina and Alaska also run the risk of significant earthquakes. In short, the U.S. has a number of regions where enormous amounts of energy can be released over the span of just seconds, with resulting damage to buildings, roads, power lines and pipelines.

The Cascadia region of the Pacific Northwest is in danger of large earthquakes because it’s a subduction zone – a place where ocean crust dives underneath the overriding North American plate. Worldwide, subduction zones harbor the greatest threats for truly enormous earthquakes, with magnitudes from 8 to 9 and even higher. In 1960 a quake off the coast of Chile had a magnitude of 9.5 – the highest ever on record. Quakes that enormous have major ground shaking that lasts for a terrifyingly long time, and they can create large tsunami at sea. In addition, such quakes have numerous aftershocks, quakes that in their own right are significant.

The scale used by geologists to measure earthquakes has its complexities. In California, the Loma Prieta quake of 1989 had a magnitude of 6.9. In 2002 a quake with magnitude 7.9 struck Denali Park, Alaska. The Alaskan quake, measuring a single unit higher on the magnitude scale, released more than 30 times more energy than the smaller Loma Prieta quake.

The most recent mega-quake in Cascadia is estimated to have had a magnitude between 8.7 and 9.2. It occurred on January 26, 1700. We know about it both from physical evidence here in our country and from written records of a tsunami that arrived in Japan some hours after the quake. The sobering fact is that we could have a similar event again, and at any time.

We can’t predict the date of the next major earthquake in the U.S. but we can anticipate some likely impacts it will have. In Cascadia the dangers spring both from ground shaking and flooding along the coasts and estuaries due to tsunami. The Oregon Legislature commissioned a report that estimated more than $30 billion in property could be lost when the next Big One hits. The death toll might stand at around 10,000 from such an event.

It behooves those of us who live in earthquake country – whether in the lower Midwest, California or Cascadia – to educate ourselves about risks. Having several days worth of food and water on hand, and a way to cook up some vittles, are simple goals most of us can achieve.

 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.

One Big Eruption

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

When I was a child, I read a lot of murder mysteries. At a young age I favored the books featuring Miss Marple by Agatha Christie. When I was a bit older I fell in love with Lord Peter Wimsey in the books by Dorothy Sayers. No matter the book, I liked to follow along as the hero of the tale put the clues together to figure out who-done-it.

So the quote from the BBC News got my attention. It was from Prof. Franck Lavigne of the Pantheon-Sorbonne University in France.

“We didn’t know the culprit at first, but we had the time of the murder and the fingerprints,” Lavigne said.

It wasn’t literally a murder that Lavigne was discussing, although many deaths may have been related to what happened. Instead, the mystery was one that hinged on geology. What’s at issue was evidence that a major volcanic eruption occurred somewhere in the world in the year 1257. The eruption was large enough its geochemical signature – or fingerprints – show up in both Arctic and Antarctic ice of medieval age.

In Europe, written records show atrocious weather hitting society hard one year later in 1258. It was cold and rainy throughout the growing season that year, with flooding replacing good harvests. In London, thousands of people were buried in mass graves, possibly due to hunger weakening the population and making it more susceptible to disease.

But where was the smoking gun, the volcano that had caused the problem? Candidates had been put forward in New Zealand, Mexico and Ecuador, but none of them quite fit the time or the specific chemical fingerprint found in the volcanic material buried in the ice.

Recently an international team of researchers announced their evidence that the Samalas Volcano on Lombok Island, Indonesia was the culprit that caused short-lived but worldwide climate change. The team looked at several different types of evidence, including sulfur and volcanic dust traces in ice, as well as what’s found at Lombok. They also did radiocarbon dating of materials and they even checked with local written records that tell of the fall of the Lombok Kingdom in the 1200s.

“The evidence is very strong and compelling,” said Prof. Clive Oppenheimer of Cambridge University, speaking to the BBC.

Oppenheimer, Lavigne and their colleagues tied together the evidence of the far-away ice with material found in the Lombok region. They argue that about 10 cubic miles of volcanic material was hurled skyward in an enormous eruption. The smallest particles launched upward would have reached an altitude of 25 miles or more. Only such an enormous eruption would have carried volcanic materials in the quantities identified in Antarctic and Greenland ice layers. And an eruption on that scale would have made for significant climate change.

It’s not always that scientists are given a full set of clues that wrap fully around the world. But such appears to have been the case in the mystery of what happened in the year 1257.

 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.

The Battle of the Bulge

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

We all know the basic medical facts: we should make healthy choices about what we eat and incorporate exercise into our busy lives. Most of the science of weight loss matches common sense. But it’s also true that more and more Americans are overweight or obese. As a nation, we are losing the battle of the bulge. How then can we motivate ourselves to address our ever-growing weight problem?

Recently published results from a study funded by Weight Watchers grabbed some headlines and offer some ideas. The fact the work was backed by Weight Watchers should be borne in mind as we consider the results of the study, but the funding source alone doesn’t mean the results are off base. According to The Los Angeles Times, the work was partially done by researchers at the Baylor College of Medicine, giving the study some independent authority.

The study took 292 people and enrolled half of them in Weight Watchers, the nation’s largest weight loss group that’s mostly built around face-to-face meetings. At the meetings, people (privately) weigh themselves and record their progress. Veterans of weight loss facilitate discussions about different topics relating to diet and exercise. People in the program record what they eat each day, either using pencil and paper or on-line.

The other half of the study’s 292 people were given a package of materials with advice for safe weight loss and sent on their way, alone. Essentially, they had a lot of the same information as the Weight Watchers group, but they had no formal social or emotional support system for what they were trying to accomplish.

Since they were participating in a study to try to lose weight, we can assume that all 292 participants had some basic motivation to shed pounds. But after six months, the difference between the two groups was clear: the people who had the support of the Weight Watchers system did much better than those sent home with the task of losing weight by themselves. At the end of six months, the folks in the Weight Watchers group were almost nine times more likely to have lost 10 percent of their body weight than those sent home to go it alone.

It seems that, at least for many people, group meetings can be useful in the battle of the bulge. That idea is also borne out by the fact that regular attendance at group meetings, according to the study, was the single best predictor of who would shed the most pounds.

We all face many daily temptations when it comes to what we eat. Whether you opt for a food diary and counting calories, a special diet like the low-carb regimen, group meetings such as those offered by Weight Watchers, or something else, what matters is that you find the path that works for you. Talk to your doctor and get started. Weight loss isn’t easy, as I know first hand. But if your health is being affected by carrying too many pounds, it has simply got to be done.

I’m pulling for you.

 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. 

Undulant Fever in Cattle and People

By Dr. E. Kirsten Peters

Normally, when a bacterium invades your body, it’s surrounded and engulfed by a white blood cell. At least that’s what we were taught in high school biology. If all goes well, the white blood cell kills the bacterium and the infection is over: case closed.

But a few bacteria have some tricks up their sleeves. One of them is the rod-shaped Brucella bacterium, the agent that causes brucellosis or what is sometimes known as “undulant fever” because it causes people to run debilitating fevers that wax and wane in intensity over long periods of time.

Brucellosis is nasty stuff. Untreated, it makes people sick for years. Over time the bacteria settle in the joints where they can do real damage. Both literally and figuratively, brucellosis is a crippling disease.

People don’t get the malady from people who already have it, but from farm animals like cattle and goats that are infected. Often it’s unpasteurized milk that transmits the disease. Diseases that are transmitted from animals to us are known as zoonotic maladies.

“Raw milk is quite risky in terms of spreading the infection from cattle to people,” Dr. Jean Celli told me recently. Celli is a new researcher at the Paul G. Allen School for Global Animal Health at Washington State University. He studies brucellosis, including how it behaves in the white blood cells of animals and people.

When the brucellosis bacterium is engulfed by a white blood cell, it hides inside a compartment of the cell called the endoplasmic reticulum (ER for short). Normally a white blood cell would kill a bacterium, but once one is inside the ER the white blood cell is hampered in any further response to the invader.

“The brucellosis bacterium multiplies in the ER,” Celli told me. “It can also be transported by the white blood cells and spread elsewhere in the body.”

On the good side, there aren’t any antibiotic resistant strains of Brucella. That helps make the malady treatable. In this country, people who are diagnosed with the disease take antibiotics for several weeks and are generally able to put the disease behind them.

But the situation is different in the developing world. In the first place, making the diagnosis is not simple. The symptoms – fever and fatigue – are the same as for some other diseases, including influenza and malaria. To make a rigorous diagnosis, doctors must culture samples of blood or bone marrow. That requires good laboratory work.

“And then there is the expense of several weeks worth of antibiotics,” Celli said.

Even in the U.S., some people who are given antibiotics may not stick with them for the whole period over which they are prescribed. That means that some patients relapse later on down the road.

“It really changes your life,” Celli said. “People who come down with the infection can be depressed for long periods as a side effect of the disease.”

In short, treating and recovering from brucellosis is nothing to sneeze at. But due to our good system for pasteurizing dairy products, brucellosis is rare in this country. Outside the U.S., however, about half a million people per year are infected. If researchers could better understand how brucellosis works within cells, disease processes could be interrupted via more effective treatment.

“If we knew how the brucellosis bacteria signal the white blood cells to reach the ER and what then leads the bacteria to exit infected cells and spread further, we might be able to develop medications that would stop the infection process,” Celli said.

Beyond that, if research leads to a better understanding of how brucellosis works in our bodies, we might be another step closer to better treatments of other diseases that hijack the immune system – diseases such as salmonella and tuberculosis.

Even setting aside the problems the disease causes people, it’s economically significant in farm animals, especially in the developing world.

Celli’s research into brucellosis is highly technical, and I’m sure it ain’t cheap. But combatting persistent diseases that affect livestock and people is the kind of investment we can make to create a better world for our children – and for the children of farmers living in the developing world.

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.