Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Cutting bacteria's cell service

            Scott Ulrich is working to create a drug that disrupts the communication system that bacteria use to coordinate disease-causing behaviors, and he was just awarded a major grant from the National Institutes of Health to help him do it.
            The Ithaca College associate professor of chemistry will use the three-year $360,000 grant to design complex molecules that will block the communication system known as quorum sensing.
            “Bacteria communicate with each other using chemical signals,” explained Ulrich. “When their signaling is engaged, the population undertakes a new behavior. Sometimes that behavior causes diseases in people. If we can block that signaling, then the behaviors the signaling controls would also be suppressed. I want to accomplish that by creating a drug-like inhibitor.”
            Ulrich has been studying quorum sensing for more than a decade. In his previous work, he and two students – in collaboration with scientists from Princeton University – created a drug that blocked the bacterial signal detector, essentially making the bacteria deaf so they did not know that other bacteria were trying to communicate. Now he is attempting to render the bacteria mute by preventing their ability to generate a communication signal in the first place.
            “This is a very hard thing to do. Few other chemists have found such drugs,” he said. “Several IC students and I have worked without much success since 2010 to set up the biochemical system needed to find such compounds. I was ready to give up.”
            Then came Erin Higgins, a biochemistry student who insisted on working on the project last year despite Ulrich’s repeated advice not to.
            “She re-created the signal generation system in a test tube using purified bacterial proteins, and it actually makes the signaling molecule,” he said. “Now we can add candidate drugs to the system to see if they block the process of making the signal. It’s the most impressive work I’ve ever seen an undergraduate do. Her results led directly to the grant and serve as the foundation for the work my students and I will do for many years.”
            There is still plenty of difficult work ahead. Ulrich said that the enzyme that produces the communication signal provides clues to the kind of organic structures that might block the system from working. And he already has some designs in mind. So his students will spend the next three years building as many different kinds of molecules as they can and testing to see which ones are most successful at disrupting the bacteria from communicating.
            “The ideal outcome would be to find a molecule that blocks the quorum sensing signal production without requiring a large dosage,” Ulrich said. “Generally, more potent compounds work better against the intended target and are safer.”
            Assuming he succeeds at building an effective molecule, his next step would be to work with his Princeton collaborators to test the molecule to see if it inhibits the disease-causing behavior.
            “That’s the outcome we’re looking for,” he said.

This article first appeared on the Ithaca College News website on October 30, 2018.

Tuesday, October 23, 2018

Award-winning carver brings wooden birds to life

            When Ray Tameo was a young boy and his friends invited him to play baseball, he usually turned them down in favor of going birdwatching. The retired highway bridge designer from Attleboro later combined his passion for birds with his interest in duck hunting and began experimenting with carving duck decoys.
            Today, Tameo is an award-winning bird carver whose carvings are in numerous private collections and exhibited around the region. He will be one of a dozen carvers who will display their work at the Audubon Society of Rhode Island’s annual Bird and Wildlife Carving Exposition in Bristol on November 3 and 4 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
            “I’m entirely self-taught, and the longer you’re at it, the better you get,” said Tameo. “The more you put into it, the more you get out of it.”
            Tameo’s carving evolved from duck decoys to small songbirds, which typically take him about 125- to 150-hours to complete. Working in his basement workshop or garage, depending
on the weather, he carves highly detailed birds perched in lifelike settings. His carvings are made almost exclusively from tupelo wood from Louisiana because of its light weight, absence of grain, whitish color and ease of carving.
            “It also takes paint beautifully,” he said.
            The first step, he said, is to draw the bird’s profile on the wood, then cut it out using a small band saw.
“From that, I put a centerline down the middle and start shaping the bird and cutting off excess wood. Then I use Dremel tools – a rotary tool – to start shaping it finer and finer. Once that’s done, I do relief carving.”
            For the final details, he uses an Exacto knife to give texture to the feathers and finishes with a burning tool. Painting the birds involves two coats of acrylic sealer and seven or eight layers of paint.
            “I’m very meticulous; I’m a perfectionist,” he said. “Down the road, I’m going to be long
gone, and my carvings are going to be in somebody’s house, so I don’t want to produce a mediocre bird. I want a bird that will last. It will speak for me when I’m gone.”
            Most of Tameo’s carvings are commissioned by clients and collectors he meets at exhibits like the Audubon show. One man in Bristol has purchased 17 of his shorebird carvings over the last five years.
            While he occasionally enters carving competitions or gives lessons to beginning carvers, Tameo said he’s too busy to focus on anything but the work his clients commission him to produce. He just finished painting carvings of an eastern bluebird perched next to an abandoned woodpecker hole and a Baltimore oriole on a maple tree branch. He even carved each maple leaf on the branch. Now he is in the early stages of work on a three-quarter size common loon and a life-sized black-capped chickadee and northern cardinal.
His most visible work, however, was done for Greg Esmay, the owner of the popular Old Grist Mill Tavern in Seekonk, which burned down in 2012 after a tractor trailer rolled over, slid into the building, and ruptured a gas line. Prior to the fire, the restaurant displayed Esmay’s extensive collection of antique duck decoys, most of which were damaged in the fire and subsequent demolition of the structure. Tameo restored 35 of them.
            “I put new heads on some, made other repairs on others, and I made them all look antique-ish again,” he said proudly. “Then he asked me to carve three Canada geese flying that I mounted on a piece of wood from the original restaurant.”
            The geese are now hanging over the rebuilt restaurant’s fireplace. Esmay purchased several original Tameo carvings as well, including a puffin and kingfisher.
            Out of all of his carvings, Tameo is most proud of his rendering of an eastern meadowlark perched on a barbed wire-wrapped fencepost, the bird’s head tilted back and its beak open wide as if in full song.
            “That’s my favorite,” he said. “I won’t part with that one.”
            The Bird and Wildlife Carving Exposition takes place at the Audubon Nature Center and Aquarium, 1401 Hope St., Bristol. In addition to the exhibition of finished carvings, some of the participants will demonstrate their carving techniques. For more information, visit www.asri.org or call 401-949-5454. Admission is $5.

This article first appeared in EcoRI.org on Oct. 18, 2018.

Saturday, October 20, 2018

Rhode Island at crossroads of migration express

Plenty of Rhode Islanders have begun making plans to migrate south for the winter. For almost all, the move is entirely about the weather. They’re trying to avoid the cold and snow and ice that invariably comes with winter in the Ocean State.
Lots of different kinds of wildlife are preparing to make a similar move, and while the weather has a lot to do with it, their migration is often driven by the availability of food.
Birds are the animals most frequently associated with migration. Every fall, billions of birds take off from Canada and the northern U.S. and head to South America, Central America, the Caribbean and the southern states in search of a reliable food supply. Most are bug eaters seeking a location where insects are abundant during the winter months.
Seed eating birds don’t usually migrate as far as the bug eaters. Many sparrows, finches
and other seed-eaters end their migration in southern New England, knowing that seeds and berries – and bird feeders – are abundant here during the winter. Those species also have unique physiological adaptations to weather the weather here.
But birds aren’t the only animals for whom migration is a successful strategy. And not all travel in the same southerly direction.
Bats for instance. Those that roost in trees for the winter, like red bats and hoary bats, do so in the southern U.S. after a short fall migration. But those that hibernate in caves, including little brown bats and tricolored bats, migrate north from Rhode Island to caves and mines in New Hampshire, Vermont and upstate New York where the temperatures remain steady at about 40 degrees throughout the season. Many big brown bats don’t migrate at all, choosing instead to spend the winter here with the rest of us.
Some butterflies and dragonflies are in the midst of migration right now. Monarchs are the most famous of them all, traveling to the mountains of central Mexico to winter. But it’s not uncommon to see swarms of dragonflies like green darners or wandering gliders along the coast or even out over the ocean at this time of year as they seek warmer climes.
Reptiles and amphibians in our area are on the move now, too, though their movements are comparatively short. Some frogs just move from local ponds to nearby forested upland areas, while others seek out a comfortable spot in the mud or along a stream. Garter snakes often migrate to communal dens underground to hibernate.
In many mountainous states, especially in the West, migration occurs in a vertical direction. Mammals like elk, mountain goats and bighorn sheep migrate from high elevations down to lowlands to escape winter’s icy conditions to where they can find food more easily.
Migration happens in the ocean environment, as well. Harbor seals are now beginning to arrive in Narragansett Bay after breeding along the coast of Maine and the Canadian Maritimes. Humpback whales are on their way to the Caribbean to breed during the winter months. Bluefish and striped bass are headed south to warmer waters, too, and horseshoe crabs are slowly making their way to deep water after summering along the coast.
So as you make your winter migration – regardless of where your plans take you – don’t be surprised if you’re joined by some of Rhode Island’s wild summer residents.

This article first appeared in the Independent on October 18, 2018.

Thursday, October 4, 2018

Solution to lobster shell disease remains elusive

            Despite more than 20 years of declining lobster populations in southern New England and extensive studies of the shell disease that is a major factor in their decline, scientists are still struggling to provide definitive answers to help restore hope to those working in the local lobster fishery.
            A new study of lobsters along the eastern Connecticut coast has found that the disease is linked to warming water temperatures, while progress is slow in efforts to identify probiotics to counteract the disease and to better understand why so many lobsters are blind.
            “Epizootic shell disease first appeared around 1996 and became quite prevalent around 1999, and it continues to be prevalent,” said Maya Groner, who conducted the Connecticut study
Diseased lobster (Jeff Shields/VIMS)
as a post-doctoral researcher at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science. “It’s been a challenge to figure out what the pathogen associated with the disease is. The best evidence suggests it may be a suite of bacteria that chews away at the carapace, but that suite of bacteria changes over the course of the disease.”
            Her study found that the increased prevalence of the disease stems from warmer water temperatures that induce the lobsters to molt their shells earlier than usual.
            Using data on 200,000 lobsters collected over 37-years in Waterford, Conn., as part of the biological monitoring near the Millstone Nuclear Power Station, Groner found that about 80 percent of male lobsters have the disease during warm years, with females contracting the disease at a slightly lower rate.
            “Molting their shell resets their health,” she said. “If they don’t molt, there’s no way they can recover. But now that they’re molting earlier in the spring, the molt happens before they’re even challenged with the disease.” And the earlier molt allows the disease to progress longer than if the lobsters molted in summer, as they typically do.
            Groner found that for every 1.8 degree increase in the average temperature of the bottom-water in May, lobsters molted about 6 days earlier. In early-molting years, disease prevalence doubled by September.
            “It’s very consistent with trends we’ve seen with other marine diseases,” Groner said. “Organisms at the southern part of their range – like lobsters in Long Island Sound – are limited by temperature. They’re at their thermal tolerance limit. So as temperatures increase, they’re becoming stressed and less able to cope with diseases.”
            University of Rhode Island fisheries researcher Kathy Castro has been studying lobsters for more than two decades, and she decided to look for a solution to help lobsters recover from the disease even though the precise cause of the disease was still uncertain. She is collaborating with URI colleagues who are studying probiotics on oysters.
            “Why can’t we identify good bacteria that normally occur on lobsters, take the bad bacteria off, and repopulate their shells with good bacteria?” she wondered. “In essence, the idea works, but we don’t know what’s the right bacteria, how do we treat the lobsters, how often, and how to do it in a reasonable time frame.”
            In a laboratory setting, Castro’s URI colleagues David Nelson and David Rowley isolated probiotics from healthy lobsters and tested them against what they believe may be the “bad bacteria.” The strategy looked promising. Initial trials on adult lobsters were positive as well. But it may not be practical.
            “Our initial idea was that lobstermen could treat the lobsters on their boat,” she said. “But it’s hard to do; you have to do it in a lab. Maybe we still haven’t identified the right probiotic. And are we even working with the right pathogens?”
            While that work is continuing, Castro is investigating why about half of the lobsters she has tested are functionally blind.
            “That’s a more concerning issue to me than shell disease,” she said. “My question is, is it related to shell disease. The lobster’s endocrine control system is located in their eye stalk, so if a lobster is blind, is it molting incorrectly, and is that contributing to the disease.”
            Castro said a colleague in Virginia thinks the cause of the blindness may be manganese, a neurotoxin that harms optic nerves and is released from sediments under low oxygen conditions. But studies are just now under way.
            “In my mind, it has to be related to shell disease. That’s my gut feeling,” she said.
            One of the challenges to finding the answers has been inadequate research funding, Castro said, so much of the research is being done piecemeal.
“I really wish there was something fundamentally easy that we could do to solve all these problems,” she said. “That would be my greatest dream. But I know it takes time. And as much as we know about lobsters, there’s a lot more we don’t know.”

This article first appeared on EcoRI.org on October 3, 2018.