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‘Humongous fungus’ takes toll on fir forest
Root rot – The world’s largest organism is the size of 1,600 football fields

Richard Cockle, Portland Oregonian
Question: What does the world’s largest living organism do all day? Answer: Pretty much whatever it wants. But very slowly.

The U.S. Forest Service has adopted an informal live-and-let-live policy for the enormous tree killer it calls the “humongous fungus.”

The huge root-rot infestation underlies 2,200 acres east of Prairie City in a remote corner of eastern Oregon’s Blue Mountains at an elevation of about 6,500 feet near the Strawberry Mountain and Monument Rock wilderness areas.

The Forest Service plans to publish a brochure about the gigantic fungus, Armillaria ostoyae, this summer. “There is no way to eliminate it,” said Malheur National Forest ecologist and tree expert Mike Tatum of John Day.

Most people walking by would never know the fungus lurks just below the ground’s surface, occupying its time in the quiet business of sending out shoestring-like tentacles called rhizomorphs and wrapping them around tree roots.

Its sheer mass — it’s roughly the size of 1,600 football fields — makes Herman Melville’s fictional white whale Moby Dick seem like a tadpole. And it could get bigger.
(10 June 2007)
No connection to energy, but fascinating nonetheless. We aren’t the biggest kids on the block. -BA

Antibacterial Products May Do More Harm Than Good

Coco Ballantyne, Scientific American
.. Soap works by loosening and lifting dirt, oil and microbes from surfaces so they can be easily rinsed away with water, whereas general cleaners such as alcohol inflict sweeping damage to cells by demolishing key structures, then evaporate. “They do their job and are quickly dissipated into the environment,” explains microbiologist Stuart Levy of Tufts University School of Medicine.

Unlike these traditional cleaners, antibacterial products leave surface residues, creating conditions that may foster the development of resistant bacteria, Levy notes. For example, after spraying and wiping an antibacterial cleaner over a kitchen counter, active chemicals linger behind and continue to kill bacteria, but not necessarily all of them.

When a bacterial population is placed under a stressor—such as an antibacterial chemical—a small subpopulation armed with special defense mechanisms can develop. These lineages survive and reproduce as their weaker relatives perish. “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger” is the governing maxim here, as antibacterial chemicals select for bacteria that endure their presence. ..

Apart from the potential emergence of drug-resistant bacteria in communities, scientists have other concerns about antibacterial compounds. Both triclosan and its close chemical relative triclocarban (also widely used as an antibacterial), are present in 60 percent of America’s streams and rivers, says environmental scientist Rolf Halden, co-founder of the Center for Water and Health at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. ..

Both chemicals are efficiently removed from wastewater in treatment plants but end up getting sequestered in the municipal sludge, which is used as fertilizer for crops, thereby opening a potential pathway for contamination of the food we eat, Halden explains. “We have to realize that the concentrations in agricultural soil are very high,” and this, “along with the presence of pathogens from sewage, could be a recipe for breeding antimicrobial resistance” in the environment, he says. ..

“What is this stuff doing in households when we have soaps?” asks molecular biologist John Gustafson of New Mexico State University in Las Cruces. These substances really belong in hospitals and clinics, not in the homes of healthy people, Gustafson says. ..
(7 June 2007)

As N.E. warms, tiny pests take root
Insect’s assault on trees growing

Beth Daley, Boston Globe
The woolly adelgid is turning Hemlock Hill in Boston’s Arnold Arboretum into a hemlock graveyard.

The voracious insects, which feed on the trees’ sap, can transform century-old conifers into brittle gray skeletons in as little as four years. Hemlock Hill has lost about 350 trees in the last decade, and arboretum officials estimate that almost all of the more than 1,500 trees that remain have some level of infestation.

Since the invasive pest’s discovery in Virginia in 1951, it has advanced about 20 miles a year, and was discovered in Massachusetts in 1989.

Scientists were confident that Mother Nature had the answer to protecting the woods further north: the cold. Hemlock woolly adelgids die if hit with even a short blast of northern New England’s frigid winter temperatures.

But it does not get as cold as it used to in New England and the rest of the world. And as temperatures continue to rise, researchers believe the tiny adelgid and dozens of other pests could dramatically expand their range and abundance.

One of the most sobering projections about global warming is that species — including those that bring disease or harm — will reach a climate “tipping point” that will allow them to survive in new locations. Now, researchers are racing to unlock exactly what temperature, humidity, and other climate thresholds could drive the spread of scores of species. The answers are critical, these researchers say, because even a tiny change in temperature could have an exponential effect on some populations.
(10 June 2007)

Stemming tide of plastic bags in California

Peter Hecht, Sacramento Bee
Nation’s first mandatory recycling program for the pesky containers
Assemblyman Lloyd Levine, D-Van Nuys, thought he was out for a pleasant jog in nature one winter’s day. But as he came upon trees lining Los Angeles’ Sepulveda Basin, a sickening sight overwhelmed him: windblown plastic shopping bags draping from the branches.

“There were just thousands and thousands of bags hanging from the trees. I was disgusted,” Levine said.

They were just some of the 19 billion plastic shopping bags that Californians dispose of each year, creating litter, clogging landfills and presenting major environmental challenges.

On July 1, California will become America’s first state to initiate a mandatory recycling program to cut down on its mounds of plastic bags.

Under legislation sponsored by Levine — Assembly Bill 2449 — and signed into law by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year, supermarkets, pharmacies and other major retail outlets must provide recycling bins to make it easier for customers to recycle their bags.
(12 June 2007)