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Is This Fungus the Future of Farming?

Mother Jones

Mycorrhizal fungi growing on a petri dish in Alia Rodriguez’s lab Cynthia Graber

This article was originally published on Gastropod.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the past couple of years, you’ve probably heard about the human microbiome.

Research into the composition, function, and importance of the galaxy of bacteria, fungi, and viruses that, when we’re healthy, live in symbiotic balance in and on us has become one of the fastest moving and most intriguing fields of scientific study. But it turns out that plants have a microbiome too—and it’s just as important and exciting as ours.

In this episode of Gastropod, a podcast that looks at food through the lens of science and history, we look at the brand new science that experts think will lead to a “Microbe Revolution” in agriculture, as well as the history of both probiotics for soils and agricultural revolutions. And we do it all in the context of the crop that Bill Gates has called “the world’s most interesting vegetable“: the cassava.

We now know that we humans rely on bacteria in our gut to help us digest and synthesize a variety of nutrients in our food, including vitamins B and K. There’s a growing body of evidence that the different microbial communities we host—in our guts, on our skin, in our mouths, and deep inside our bellybuttons—help protect us against disease and may even play a role in regulating mental health.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, plants, including all the ones that we rely on to provide grains, vegetables, and fruit for our tables, have an equally tight relationship with microbes. And, as in humans, the symbiotic partnership between a plant and the microbes that live on its leaves and roots and in the soil around it is utterly essential to the plant’s continued existence and health. Indeed, the very plant-ness of plants—their photosynthetic ability to harness light and transform it into food—comes from an ancient microbe that plants came to depend on so closely that they incorporated it into their own cells, transforming it into what we now know as a chloroplast.

But, despite its importance to their (and thus our) survival, the plant microbiome is perhaps even less well understood than its human equivalent. The main way in which scientists study such tiny creatures is by growing colonies of a particular microbe on a petri dish in a lab. But researchers estimate that only about 1 percent, the tiniest sliver of the plant world’s microbial citizens, can be cultured that way.

High-tech tools such as metagenomics, proteomics, and transcriptomics help researchers take a snapshot of the genetic diversity of life in a given bit of soil. But it’s still incredibly difficult to tease out exactly which bacteria or fungus performs what function for a given plant. Janet Jansson, whose lab at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory is studying the role of soil microorganisms in the cycling of carbon, calls this great unknown “the earth’s dark matter.” She’s part of a new venture called the Earth Microbiome Project, an international collaboration of scientists working to understand microbial communities in soils all around the world.

While researchers scramble to map and analyze the plant and soil microbiomes, companies have sensed that there’s money to be made. When it comes to the human microbiome, processed food giants have started adding probiotics and prebiotics to everything from frozen yogurt to coconut water. In the field, scientists, small biotech companies, and agricultural behemoths such as Monsanto are all racing to develop probiotics for plants: learning from bacteria and fungi to develop supplements that can help crops grow better, using less fertilizer and pesticide, even in challenging environmental conditions.

In this episode, we focus on one particular kind of microbe: mycorrhizal fungi. These are ancient fungi that are believed to have lived on plant roots ever since plants first moved onto land, and they still co-exist with and support 80 percent of all plant species on the planet. We meet British scientist Ian Sanders, whose career has been devoted to studying mycorrhizal fungi genetics. Sanders’ latest big idea is that, by breeding better mycorrhizal fungi, he can help plants grow more food. He’s been working with agronomist Alia Rodriguez to test this theory in the cassava fields of Colombia, and we join him to find out his astonishing, as yet unpublished, results. Can the Microbe Revolution live up to its promises, out of the lab and in the field?

Rusty Rodriguez’s Seattle greenhouse Cynthia Graber

Along the way, we discuss other research into plant microbes, some of which has already been commercialized. For example, Rusty Rodriguez, head of a company called Adaptive Symbiotic Technologies, has scoured extreme environments to find fungi that can help plants survive heat, cold, drought, and floods. During trials, AST’s new product, BioEnsure, which was released onto the market this fall, enabled crops planted during the 2012 drought in the American Midwest to produce 85 percent more food than untreated ones.

With early results like these, microbes are being called the next big thing in agriculture. There’s plenty of hype: Monsanto’s BioAg Alliance claims to be “rewriting agricultural history,” the American Academy of Microbiology recently issued a report titled “How Microbes Can Help Feed the World,” and even normally sober scientists have declared that this research may well “precipitate the second Green Revolution.”

But the first Green Revolution has plenty of critics, and the process of translating promising science into food on tables is never without its challenges. Listen in to this episode of Gastropod for the scoop on the history and potential impact of the Microbe Revolution.

Gastropod is a podcast about the science and history of food. Each episode looks at the hidden history and surprising science behind a different food and/or farming-related topic—from aquaculture to ancient feasts, from cutlery to chile peppers, and from microbes to Malbec. It’s hosted by Cynthia Graber, an award-winning science reporter, and Nicola Twilley, author of the popular blog Edible Geography. You can subscribe via iTunes, email, Stitcher, or RSS for a new episode every two weeks.

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Is This Fungus the Future of Farming?

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Pony up, frackers: Texas family wins $3 million in contamination lawsuit

Pony up, frackers: Texas family wins $3 million in contamination lawsuit


What should you do when a fracking company sets up a drilling site right in your backyard? After you stock up on extra-strength Tylenol and Kleenex for the forthcoming chronic headaches and copious nosebleeds, you might want to call a good lawyer.

Yesterday, a jury in a Texas county court issued a landmark ruling against Aruba Petroleum for contaminating a family’s property and making them sick. The company has been ordered to pay $2.925 million in damages to Lisa and Bob Parr of Wise County, Texas.

In March 2011, the Parrs filed a lawsuit against Aruba Petroleum, alleging that air and water contamination from the company’s 22 drilling sites within two miles of their ranch had devastating effects on the family’s property and health.

“My daughter was experiencing nosebleeds, rashes,” said Ms. Parr in a 2011 press conference. “There were mornings she would wake up about 6:00 … covered in blood, screaming, crying.”

Before filing the lawsuit, the Parrs had been forced to sell their ranch and move due to fracking-related contamination to both their land and their animals — oh, and also the small matter of regularly waking up soaked in blood pouring from their nasal cavities.

Parr v. Aruba Petroleum, Inc. is being called the first case in which a jury has awarded compensation for fracking-related contamination. Most such cases are settled out of court. Like the suit filed in 2010 by Stephanie and Rich Hallowich of the ironically named Mount Pleasant, Penn., who were forced to relocate after shale drilling in the area polluted the air and water near their home, resulting in serious health problems. They sued Range Resources and ended up settling their case for $750,000. The terms of the settlement famously included a highly restrictive lifelong gag order that prohibits the Hallowich family, including their children, from ever discussing their case or fracking in general.

The Parrs’ lead attorney, David Matthews, praised the family for persisting in its fight: “It takes guts to say, ‘I’m going to stand here and protect my family from an invasion of our right to enjoy our property.’ It’s not easy to go through a lawsuit and have your personal life uncovered and exposed to the extent this family went through.”

Julia Roberts, are you listening? Erin Brockovich 2: Get Off My Shale is guaranteed box office gold!

$3 million verdict for ‘first fracking trial’, MSNBC
In Landmark Ruling, Jury Says Fracking Company Must Pay $3 Million To Sickened Family, ClimateProgress

Eve Andrews is a Grist fellow and new Seattle transplant via the mean streets of Chicago, Poughkeepsie, and Pittsburgh, respectively and in order of meanness. Follow her on Twitter.

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Pony up, frackers: Texas family wins $3 million in contamination lawsuit

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Corn on "Hardball": John Boehner Moves Forward With Clean Debt Ceiling Extension, Angers Tea Party

Mother Jones

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Mother Jones DC Bureau Chief David Corn spoke with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews about John Boehner’s decision to move forward with a clean debt ceiling extension and the “inevitable clash between two wings within the Republican party.” Watch here:

David Corn is Mother Jones’ Washington bureau chief. For more of his stories, click here. He’s also on Twitter.

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Corn on "Hardball": John Boehner Moves Forward With Clean Debt Ceiling Extension, Angers Tea Party

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Colorado voters tell fracking industry to frack off

Colorado voters tell fracking industry to frack off

Helen Cassidy

Maybe it’s the polluted groundwater, river water, and air. Perhaps it’s the toxic stew that gushed over Colorado when it flooded. Or it could be the abject lies.

Whatever the fracking industry has done to earn the hostility of voters in at least three Colorado cities, it couldn’t be undone by spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a pro-fracking ad blitz in recent weeks.

On Tuesday, voters in Boulder, Fort Collins, and Lafayette all approved measures that either banned or placed a moratorium on the practice of hydraulic fracturing. Boulder was the most decisive: Three-quarters of votes cast were in opposition to fracking. A similar initiative in Broomfield was failing by a mere 13 votes at the end of unofficial counting.

This despite the Colorado Oil and Gas Association spending more than $870,000 by Halloween on an effort to defeat the four ballot measures. Supporters of the initiatives raised just over $26,000, The Denver Post reports.

Kelly Giddens, manager of the Fort Collins campaign, told KUNC that volunteers “were really excited, passionate and willing to go out there and knock doors and make phone calls and talk to their friends and family.”

The fracking industry, however, won’t take no for an answer. “A ban is not a responsible way to engage in this discussion, and we are going to continue our efforts across the state,” Tisha Schuller, CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, told The Coloradoan. That means lawsuits.

And the lawsuits won’t just come from the fracking industry; they’ll also come from Gov. John Hickenlooper’s administration. The industry and state are already suing Longmont, which passed a fracking ban last year, arguing that voters there are illegally “taking” minerals that rightfully belong to somebody else.

Tuesday’s vote didn’t just tell frackers where to go — it highlighted how out of touch the Democratic governor is on this issue.

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants: this article interesting? Donate now to support our work.Read more: Business & Technology


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Colorado voters tell fracking industry to frack off

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The Civil War Battle That Explains the 2013 Elections

Mother Jones

With Gov. Chris Christie’s massive reelection victory in the blue territory of New Jersey and Ken Cuccinelli’s embarrassing defeat to Terry McAuliffe in the governor’s race in often-red (in the off-years) Virginia, reasonable Republicans scored points against the party’s renegades in the GOP’s ongoing civil war. This internal battle has intensified since the government shutdown, as diehards led by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have insisted the Republican Party’s fortunes are tied to no-compromise conservatism and ideological confrontation, and establishment Rs have decried their party’s Kamikaze Club and contended the GOP must maintain a lifeline to the center and political reality.

Yet in the two big statewide races of Election Day 2013, the results favored those who don’t fancy hostage-taking. (In Alabama, a tea party birther was defeated by a Chamber of Commerce-backed candidate in a Republican primary for a vacant House seat.) Christie, who drew the ire of hardcore conservatives by refusing to treat President Barack Obama as the devil incarnate, coasted to an easy triumph and earned the right to declare this message: Republican success in the real world comes when GOP candidates emphasize pragmatic governing not ideological crusades. And Cuccinelli, a fierce social conservative with plenty of name recognition as the current state attorney general, was the poster boy for those right-wingers who assert that their party must stick to the far right lane to win elections and transform the nation. His defeat at the hands of a Democrat tainted by assorted money-and-politics scandals—in an election shaped by the government shutdown and Cuccinelli’s hard-right views on abortion, birth control, and divorce—will be joyously cited by those who cry bunk in the face of Cruzism. But the non-Cruzers ought to resist the urge to celebrate too much, for the Republican Party may have just experienced its own version of the Battle of Chancellorsville.

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The Civil War Battle That Explains the 2013 Elections

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We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 17, 2013

Mother Jones

US Soldiers with the 4-501st Attack Reconnaissance Battalion, 36th Combat Aviation Brigade, clean an AH-64D Apache after a training exercise with the US Navy while embarked on the USS Ponce in the Arabian Gulf. The 36th CAB is currently deployed to the Middle East in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. US Army photo.

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We’re Still at War: Photo of the Day for September 17, 2013

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Is Al Jazeera America Going to Change the Way Networks Cover Climate Change?

Mother Jones

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On its first day of broadcasting, Al Jazeera America devoted 30 minutes to climate change—more time than top shows on CNN and Fox News have given to this issue in the past four-and-a-half months, combined. In fact, the full half-hour (24 minutes, plus commercials) of broadcast of Inside Story was equal to about half of the coverage climate change received in 2012 from the nightly news on ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox, combined. For a network that promised to provide “unbiased, fact-based and in-depth, journalism,” this seems like a promising start.

According to Media Matters, Al Jazeera’s Inside Story had more coverage of climate change “than what was featured by CNN’s Erin Burnett OutFront and Anderson Cooper 360 and Fox News’ The O’Reilly Factor and Hannity combined in the past four and a half months.” It was just behind the 32 minutes that MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has devoted over the same time period, though a long way back from Chris Hayes, who has spent a whopping hour and 42 minutes of his show on the subject since April 1 (not including a two-part documentary).

Inside Story opened by explaining that “for more than 20 years, 97 percent of scientific research has said climate change is happening, and that it is indeed caused by people. But despite the scientific evidence, Americans remain divided on the issue.” Which brings us to what might be the biggest difference in how Al Jazeera has decided to cover the issue.

As Media Matters writes:

Perhaps most significantly, Inside Story explored public opinion on climate science, and even presented differing views on climate policy, without once offering marginal contrarian viewpoints as a “counterbalance.” Ehab Al Shihabi, Al Jazeera America’s acting chief executive, has cited PBS as a model, and it showed. Other cable news channels have sometimes run afoul of this standard…

Al Jazeera America focused on the impacts of climate change, with a complementary discussion of some possible ways of mitigating them through political action. Notably, no politicians were interviewed, as few politicians are credible sources of information on, say, sea level rise. Instead, the guests—Michael Mann, Heidi Cullen and Klaus Jacob—were all scientists familiar with the topic at hand. Television news outlets don’t always do this well: in 2012, 89 percent and 12 percent of Sunday and nightly news coverage of climate change, respectively, was driven by politics.

To cut through the haze that has clouded the American debate on climate change, the show started by explaining how the waters have become so muddied. “Over the past ten years,” said Michael Mann, the director of the Earth Systems Science Center at Penn State, “special interests have literally spent hundred of millions of dollars in a major disinformation campaign—a campaign aimed at confusing the public. And that’s why we see this gulf between where the scientists stand…and where the public is.” It’s easy to think that this will be written off as biased journalism—and more information can actually make people more polarized on climate change—but for a network that’s trying to give people a reason to watch, it’s a good start.

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Is Al Jazeera America Going to Change the Way Networks Cover Climate Change?

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Tom’s Kitchen: Roasted Okra with Farro and a Fried Egg

Mother Jones

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Recently, I scanned my fridge, looking for what I’ve neglected to cook from the previous week’s farmers market run, hoping to be able to avoid a trip to the food co-op. (I know, how Portlandia of me). I came across a treasure: a bag of okra I had picked up from Austin’s wonderful Green Gate Farms and had promptly forgotten about. To my relief, it was still crisp and vibrant.

Coming up with a quick meal with it wasn’t hard. In the pantry, there was a bit of pearled farro—an ancient relative of wheat that never stopped being consumed in Italy and has now found a vogue in the US. I also had eggs, an onion, some garlic, and a few small carrots. I decided to roast the okra, boil off the farro—which cooks in just 20 minutes—and toss it a quick saute of onions and carrots. I’d top that with the okra and a fried egg. And make enough for leftovers. So that’s what I did. And no, the okra wasn’t slimy at all!

Roasted Okra with Farro and a Fried Egg

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Tom’s Kitchen: Roasted Okra with Farro and a Fried Egg

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Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

Penn State

Tim Samaras.

Three researchers including a father and son who starred on the TV reality show Storm Chasers died doing what they loved on Friday night: venturing treacherously close to killer tornadoes to help the rest of us understand how they work.

Tim Samaras, founder of the tornado research company Twistex, and his son Paul Samaras were killed after a tornado struck the Oklahoma City suburb of El Reno on Friday. Their partner, Carl Young, also died.

“They all unfortunately passed away doing what they LOVED,” wrote Tim Samaras’s brother, Jim, in a post on Facebook. “I look at it that he is in the ‘big tornado’ in the sky.”

“As far as we know, these are the first documented storm intercept fatalities in a tornado,” NOAA said in a statement. “Scientific storm intercept programs, though they occur with some known measure of risk, provide valuable research information that is difficult to acquire in other ways.”

The tornado researchers were among 13 people killed when five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma on Friday night. Three more people drowned in floods triggered by the storms.

From National Geographic:

Tim Samaras, who was 55, spent the past 20 years zigzagging across the Plains, predicting where tornados would develop and placing probes he designed in the twister’s path in to measure data from inside the cyclone. (Read National Geographic’s last interview with Tim Samaras.)

“Data from the probes helps us understand tornado dynamics and how they form,” he told National Geographic. “With that piece of the puzzle we can make more precise forecasts and ultimately give people earlier warnings.”

Samaras’s instruments offered the first-ever look at the inside of a tornado by using six radially placed high-resolution video cameras that offered complete 360-degree views. He also captured lightning strikes using ultra-high-speed photography with a camera he designed to 1 million frames per second.

Samaras’s interest in tornados began when he was 6, after seeing the movie The Wizard of Oz. For the past 20 years, he spent May and June traveling through Tornado Alley, an area which has the highest frequency of tornados in the world.

From Reuters:

Five tornadoes touched down in central Oklahoma and caused flash flooding 11 days after a twister categorized as EF5, the most powerful ranking, tore up the Oklahoma City suburb of Moore and killed 24 people. Severe storms also swept into neighboring Missouri, while Moore experienced only limited damage this time.

Oklahoma’s Medical Examiner on Sunday put the state’s death toll at 13, including four children. Authorities in neighboring Missouri said there had been at least three deaths on Friday in flooding triggered by the violent storms.

As usual, so-called storm chasers closely tracked the storm to measure its power, gather research and take video to feed the television and Internet appetite for dramatic images.

“It is too early to say specifically how this tornado might change how we cover severe weather, but we certainly plan to review and discuss this incident,” said David Blumenthal, a spokesman for The Weather Channel, for which Tim Samaras and Young had worked in the past.

Three employees of the channel suffered minor injuries when their sport-utility vehicle was thrown about 200 yards by the winds while tracking the El Reno storm on Friday.

In this video, Tim Samaras describes how watching The Wizard of Oz triggered his lifelong obsession with tornadoes:

John Upton is a science fan and green news boffin who tweets, posts articles to Facebook, and blogs about ecology. He welcomes reader questions, tips, and incoherent rants:

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Famous storm chasers killed by Oklahoma tornado

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How the "Inception" Soundtrack Conquered the World

Mother Jones

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This weekend, I saw Iron Man 3 plus about a dozen trailers. OK, not really. It was only half a dozen. It just seemed like more. But the soundtracks for at least two of them included the deep, throbbing duhhhhn that I associate with the movie Inception. This made me wonder: Does every action movie trailer in the world now sport an Inception-style ripoff soundtrack? Today, I discovered that Ian Crouch answered my question last week. Apparently, the answer is yes:

For the unfamiliar, a quick tour of recent trailers promoting big-budget fare gives a fuller sense of this abominable sonic trend: spots for “Transformers: Dark of the Moon,” “The Dark Knight Rises,” “Prometheus,” “Iron Man 3,” “Olympus Has Fallen,” “World War Z,” “Oblivion”—the list goes thudding on and on. Sometimes the hum is delivered by deep horns, other times by strings—often these are expertly timed to the sound of drums and/or something exploding onscreen—and recently it has taken on a digitized, layered character.

If you’re curious, Crouch has more details at the link, along with a little history of this particular bass note. Plus a mini-history of the evolution of the trailer. Unlike him, however, I don’t think his recut trailer for Ghostbusters sounds incongruous. Kinda cool, actually.

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How the "Inception" Soundtrack Conquered the World

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