Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Red Sea Corals

At the tail end of our trip to Petra, Jordan in October we spent one night along the Jordanian section of the Red Sea shore.  Mom and I took a boat tour with a see through seating level below the water line.  It was a fun way to see the coral reefs, including a sunken ship and an old American tank that was placed there specifically to try to encourage new coral development.

On our drive back to town, we talked to the staff of the company and it turns out they are involved in the preservation of the corals, as well as running their tourism business. 

Below is a summary I wrote following the speaker at the first class meeting on November 3rd. 

During our first seminar, Eugene Rosenberg, Dept. of Molecular Microbiology and Biotechnology at TAU provided us an overview of his lab’s research into coral bleaching.  He shared with us the three anthropogenic factors contributing to coral reef deterioration – 1) water pollution, 2) over fishing, and 3) seawater temperature increases.  He elaborated on the impact of temperature increases which correlated with a loss of endosymbiotic algae every summer from 1995-2002.  

However, since then, his team has not been able to isolate V. shiloi, the bacteria studied and understood to act as an infectious disease for the O. patagonica coral found in the eastern Mediterranean.  This discovery led to development of his coral probiotic hypothesis.  The importance of this finding is that it shows that coral, like all other plants and animals, live in a symbiotic relationship with a set of bacteria.  This combination of host and microorganisms is called a holobiont.  The bacteria are more rapidly adaptable to changes in the holobiont’s environment than the host is.  Over time, the type and quantity of bacteria that joins the host impacts the overall function of the holobiont.  In this case, the coral acquired beneficial bacteria that killed V. Shiloi. 

It is only in recent decades that the ability to study bacteria that are “viable but not culturable,” (VBNC) has become possible.  New techniques like this have increased our knowledge, and yet we are only at the beginning.  For example, Professor Rosenberg shared the history of knowledge on bacteria in the human gut, believed to have about 100 types in the 1970s, and now known to have at least 40,000.  In addition, he stated that these bacteria hold 200 times greater genetic material than we, as the human host, do.  It is also important to note that the holobiont is not just the sum of the genetic material of the host plus the microorganisms.  The symbiotic relationship enhances the adaptability and survival of the collective group.

His findings are significant because he has extrapolated the coral probiotic hypothesis to the hologenome theory of evolution.  This theory has far-reaching, cross-disciplinary implications, from human health, to social structures, and just about every topic under the umbrella of environmental studies.  It has the potential to change the way we view relationships between species, from the Darwinian focus on competition, to that of cooperation.

Back to School

I haven't been posting much lately, as I have become a bit busier this past month. After 10 years, I am going back to school. I signed up for the International Environmental Studies masters degree program at the Porter School of Environmental Studies at Tel Aviv University. This is the first year of the new English language program, but it is based on the Hebrew program that is internationally recognized, and many courses are taught by the same Professors.  I have 15 classmates and they range in experience, from an Economics masters, a school teacher, a variety of social science majors, and several environmental studies undegrads.  Some are just out of undergrad, but I discovered that my German classmate shares my birthday - yes, my exact birthday!

The last week of October was orientation week. We began on Monday and Tuesday with meetings on campus at Tel Aviv University.   I had to temper my expectations for organization as the University runs like the rest of Israel - they don't seem to get too concerned about the details. ID cards weren't ready, course offerings were not finalized (and therefore neither were syllabi), online access was not yet available, and yet we were being asked to meet deadlines utilizing these tools. To our program coordinator's credit, it appeared that our class was considerably more organized than other programs. But she was running into the same institutional barriers that we were, and working feverishly to address them.   As an American who immigrated to Israel about 10 years ago, she has been wonderful in helping us navigate this new experience.

Wednesday and Thursday of orientation consisted of a "Tiyul," or field trip. We were taken north to Israel's national water carrier, Mekorot, for a tour and lectures about the country's water sources. Israel has only one fresh water lake as I have mentioned before - the Sea of Galilee, known locally as the Kinneret. It also has two natural aquefers in the north. Already over 30% of their water comes from desalination, and this is expected to become 50-70% in the next 5-10 years. They re-use grey water (waste from homes) at a rate of 78%, far beyond any other country in the world. They treat it, then send it out for agricultural use.

We stayed overnight at a simple kibbutz hotel, common in the north, then visited one of the few significant year-round water sources (I would call it a stream, but they call it a river). It is in the Banias Valley (We visited this site with my dad last May, when it was rushing full of muddy water from spring rain. This time it was clear.)

Our last stop was the Hulu Valley, where feeding practices have made it a major stop on the bird migration from Europe to Africa and back. We saw pelicans and cranes by the thousands. They gave us a brief demonstration of the bird research they do here, and I released one of the tiny tagged birds.

In case you are interested in learning with me, our pre-program reading included:

1. Tal, Alon, Pollution in a Promised Land: An Environmental History of Israel, 2002. Chapters 1, 2, 12.

2. Meadows, Donnella H. "Envisioning a Sustainable World," 1996. http://www.sustainer.org/?page_id=107

3.  Hardin, Garret "The Tragedy of the Commons",
Science, December 1968, Volume 162, pp. 1243-1248. 

4. Lovins, Amory; Lovins, L. Hunter; Hawken, Paul "A Road Map for Natural Capitalism," 1999.

Summer Reading

Two books that I read over the summer, and highly recommend:

Last Child in the Woods:  Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, by Richard Louv

Changing Planet, Changing Health:  How the Climate Crisis Threatens Our Health and What We Can Do about It, by Paul Epstein and Dan Ferber

I have run out of free reading time outside course assignments at this point, but I will try to share interesting course readings this year as well.  There have been some great ones already in the first four weeks - in Environmental Economics, Ethics, and Corporate Environmental Strategy. 

Lots to think about, and maybe even to build a career around....

Finished my beginner jewelry class

My 11 sessions of metal jewelry making classes are over.  In addition to the two rings, I made a pendant (right) which required sawing out a design, saudering the thin sheet of silver to a thicker one, saudering a raised, open edge (this was a technique they wanted us to learn), and then using acid to change the color of the silver.
My final project was a pair of earrings in which square stones needed  be set.  I found some little moon stones, and designed these silver flowers to go with them, with the flower stem acting as the piece through the ear.
I also snuck in a little extra project between waiting for assistance from the teachers, which you can see on the right side of this photo - small rounded and hammered silver stud earrings. 
I hope to continue learning, but need to see how demanding my masters program is first.  Even fun activities lose their appeal when they become another thing you have to squeeze into a week.