A new study on mice showed that ginger may counter certain autoimmune disorders such as lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome.
- A new Michigan Medicine study on mice suggests that the primary bioactive compound of ginger root, 6-gingerol, could help counter the autoimmune disorders lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome.
- The researchers found that the mice had lower levels of NETs (which play a role in the pathogenesis of lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome by stimulating autoantibody formation) after being giving 6-gingerol.
- 6-gingerol won't be able to be the primary therapy for individuals with lupus or active antiphospholipid syndrome, but the research team is eager to see if the natural supplement offers help to those at high risk for developing the diseases.
Ginger is traditionally known to have anti-inflammatory and anti-oxidative effects, which has made it a popular herb in treating inflammatory diseases. Now, a new Michigan Medicine study on mice suggests that it could help counter certain autoimmune disorders.
The study, recently published in JCI Insight, found that the primary bioactive compound of ginger root, 6-gingerol, is therapeutic in countering the mechanism that facilitates certain autoimmune diseases in mice.
Treating lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome
Specifically, the researchers looked at lupus, which attacks the body's own immune system, along with antiphospholipid syndrome (often associated with lupus), which causes blood clots. Both the diseases cause widespread inflammation and ravage organs overtime. In mice with either of the disease, 6-gingerol stopped the neutrophil extracellular trap release caused by the diseases' production of autoantibodies.
"Neutrophil extracellular traps, or NETs, come from white blood cells called neutrophils," explained lead author Ramadan Ali, Ph.D in a press release. "These sticky spider-web like structures are formed when autoantibodies interact with receptors on the neutrophil's surface."
The webs, according to Ali, play a fundamental role in the pathogenesis of lupus and antiphospholipid syndrome in which they set off autoantibody formation and contribute to clots in blood vessels and other damage.
Ginger's anti-inflammatory properties
The authors wanted to find out if the anti-inflammatory properties associated with ginger would extend to neutrophils. They also wanted to know if the natural medicine would be able to halt neutrophils from creating neutrophil extracellular traps that facilitate disease progression.
"This pre-clinical study in mice offers a surprising and exciting, 'yes'," Ali said.
The authors found that the mice had lower levels of NETs after being giving 6-gingerol. The NET's tendency to form clots was also dramatically reduced by the 6-gingerol, which also seemed to inhibit neutrophils enzymes called phosphodiesterases. This, in turn, reduced neutrophil activation.
Most surprisingly, the mice had reduced autoantibodies regardless of whether they had antiphospholipid or lupus. This suggests that the 6-gingerol was able to break the inflammatory cycle of autoantibodies stimulating NETs, which in turn stimulate more autoantibodies.
The study was done on rodent models. However, the authors think that the promising preclinical data, which showed that 6-gingerol has surprising anti-neutrophil properties that may guard against the progression of certain autoimmune diseases, encourages the clinical trial development.
"As for basically all treatments in our field, one size does not fit all. But, I wonder if there is a subgroup of autoimmune patients with hyperactive neutrophils who might benefit from increased intake of 6-gingerol," Knight said, noting that it will be important to look and analyze neutrophils before and after treatment so to determine the subgroup most likely to see benefit.
While 6-gingerol won't be able to be the primary therapy for individuals with lupus or active antiphospholipid syndrome, the research team is eager to see if the natural supplement offers help to those at high risk for developing the diseases.
"Those that have autoantibodies, but don't have activated disease, may benefit from this treatment if 6-gingerol proves to be a protective agent in humans as it does in mice," Ali said.
"Patients with active disease take blood thinners, but what if there was also a natural supplement that helped reduce the amount of clots they produce? And what if we could decrease their autoantibodies?"
Giving herbal medicine a deeper look
bulbs of garlics
Though the use of supplements has been growing in popularity in the U.S. over the past decade, it's still something that remains under-researched.
"Through my years of medical training I wasn't taught much about supplements, but it's something that so many patients ask me about," said study author and rheumatologist Jason Knight, M.D. in the press release. "When Ramadan brought the concept to me, I was enthusiastic to pursue it in my lab, as I knew it would matter to them. Sometimes our patients give us really good ideas!"
Other herbal supplements that have been found to treat health conditions include:
- Echinacea for strengthening the immune system
- Garlic for high cholesterol
- Hawthorn for heart-related conditions
- St. John's Wort for treating depression
However, it's important to remember that herbal supplements are not subject to regulation by the FDA, and so have not been tested in an FDA-approved clinical trial to scientifically prove their effectiveness in the treatment of the listed medical conditions. So it's critical to talk to your doctor about the use of herbal remedies for your symptoms before using them.
Scientists find a new species of flower in a remote part of Hawaii.
- Botanists have discovered a new species of flower on a remote slope in Hawaii.
- The new plant is called Cyanea heluensis and features white, curved flowers.
- The plant is so rare, there is only one of its kind found so far.
A flower was found in Hawaii that is one of a kind—in fact, it's the only known example of its species. It's name is Cyanea heluensis, and the only place you can see it in the world is in a remote location in West Maui.
It was discovered above the town of Lahaina by botanists Hank Oppenheimer and Jennifer Higashino "in the deep shade of a healthy ohia forest," as the press release from Hawaii's Department of Land and Natural Resources poetically stated.
The scientists were studying the very steep and rugged slopes of the area when they came upon the flower. The inaccessibility of the spot and the difficulty of traversing the terrain likely contributed to the fact that this plant likely hadn't been found for centuries.
The white flower has similarities to a native plant called the hāhā, but its curved flowers are quite distinct. They get pollinated by birds and eventually produce orange fruit that local fruit-eating birds eat while dispersing the seeds. The botanists have been scouring the area where the rare plant was found, trying to find more such seeds, but currently to no avail.
The plant has been added to the list of 250 species supervised by the University of Hawaii's Plant Extinction Prevention Program (PEPP).
"Since being found, numerous surveys using ropes to access steep cliffs have failed to locate any more individuals, making the conservation of the only known plant critically important," the state pointed out on Facebook, adding "before a goat could eat the plant or another catastrophe caused immediate extinction, Hank Oppenheimer applied a special paste ... to produce new growth on the plant."
This new growth was moved to Maui's Olinda Rare Plant Facility, where it is being protected and nurtured. The site of the find itself has seen safeguards installed, especially against slugs, rats, pigs, and goats.
Botanist climbing up steep slopes in West Maui.
Credit: Hawaii DNR
The steep slopes of the area where the new plant was found.
Credit: Hawaii DNR
Botanist Steve Perlman of PEPP, shared his feelings on the thrill of finding a new species like this:
"So, few people study and know the flora and fauna well enough to recognize when a new species of plant, insect or bird lies in front of them," said Perlman. "Saving the plants that have evolved all over the world is so important. The age of discovery is not over! These jewels of creation represent the wonderful diversity of the planet earth and we will never see their like again."
DLNR is looking for funding to put up a fence that would keep out anyone who might damage numerous sites it is protecting.
Modern crops have been optimized for a lot of things, but not for climate change.
- Growers are struggling to protect their crops from failure as conditions change due to global warming.
- Modern crops lack the fortifying genetic diversity of their ancestors.
- Scientists publish a new guide for strengthening crops through the reintroduction of wild-variety traits based on the latest science.
The climate we've known for thousands of years is going, going, gone. There are few, if any, places where weather patterns haven't changed and aren't continuing to do so. As we witness increasingly dramatic weather events and climate conditions unfold, there's an arguably even more significant climate crisis occurring in agriculture.
Methods that have served growers well in the past are now jeopardizing the world's food supply, not to mention the growers' livelihoods. Centuries of breeding have helped plants thrive and endowed them with characteristics that enhance their appeal in the marketplace. This crop optimization comes at a cost, however: A lack of the genetic diversity that might help them adapt to rapidly changing climate conditions. Many of these crops have been bred to grow well in a climate that no longer exists.
"When the human race first domesticated crops, the climate and environment were completely different — what we are seeing in the last 50 years is a rapid change in climate. The world is now frequently facing catastrophic climate events like droughts and in the UK we are now seeing some crops being harvested up to a month earlier than they used to be." — Dr. Rocio Perez-Barrales, University of Portsmouth
Clearly, it's time to rethink agriculture. Now, scientists from the University of Portsmouth and Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew Gardens — have developed a guide for agriculture in the face of climate change. If it has an overriding theme, it's that it's time to reintegrate wild variants of plants back into the genetic mix to strengthen crops' survivability.
The research is published in the Botanical Journal of the Linnean Society.
The problem with domestication
Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash
"When plants were domesticated," says Dr. Perez-Barrales, one of the study's authors, "they were artificially selected for a specific desirable trait. Artificial selection and farming have led to quality improvements in foods such as meat, milk, and fruit. However, over hundreds of years, there has been a negative impact to this process — a reduction in plant genetic diversity."
This lack of diversity could spell doom for crops as the conditions in which they grow are impacted by climate change. Scientists believe that a plant's natural genetic makeup, which evolved in response to its surrounding conditions, makes it more likely to be able to continue to adapt. Domesticated crops may lack such flexibility.
According to Dr. Perez-Barrales, "Climate change is altering the way crops behave." Unfortunately, she adds, "Crops have lost so much genetic diversity they are less able to adapt and respond to climate change. Scientists are now looking at wild crop relatives to see what traits can be improved to make crops better adapted to the current environmental challenges."
This revisiting of crops' ancestors is very much on the mind of the new study's authors.
A break from past practices
Credit: ittipon/Shutterstock/Big Think
The researchers began with a re-visiting of guidelines published in 1971 to see how they might be modified. Says Perez-Barrales, "The classification developed in the early 1970s needed to be updated, and in effect rebooted, to integrate this modern information."
The study's lead author Juan Viruel of Kew Garden explains, "With this information we can better select the wild species to improve our crops. It is an invaluable checklist for plant breeders and will help production of crops in a more sustainable way."
Those earlier guidelines also endorse the use of pesticides, now understood to harm fauna and leave fields toxic. The new study suggests a more benign, forward-looking way to deal with pests, says Perez-Barrales: "An alternative for plant breeders is to use wild crop relatives and use the natural genetic variation in those species that protects them against the natural enemies."
An example: linseed
To explain the type of guidance offered in the new study, Perez-Barrales offers linseed as a case in point:
"Some crops have just a few closely related species, whilst others might have a hundred or so," she says. "For example, linseed has more than 150 related species, and the challenge is how do we select the relevant traits and from what wild relatives? In answering this question, we realized that we needed to learn more from the biology of the species, which can only be done by using modern classification developed using the latest science."
"There may be a demand to grow linseed, for example, in countries at different latitudes. Linseed (Linum usitatissimum) was domesticated in the Middle East 10,000 years ago, and we can grow it in England because it naturally captured genes from pale blue flax, Linum bienne, allowing the crop to grow in northern and colder environments. My research looks at the natural variation in flowering of wild Linum species to see if we can use it to improve linseed. That way the right genes can be selected and introduced into the crop, something that plant breeders do regularly. These new guidelines will help plant breeders become more sustainable and efficient. We believe it is the future of farming."
Declining bee populations could lead to increased food insecurity and economic losses in the billions.
Bees have endured a disastrous half-century. In the winter of 2018, U.S. beekeepers reported losing 37.7 percent of their honeybee colonies. It was the largest die-off reported since the Bee Informed Partnership began its survey in 2006, yet in that decade, average winter losses of managed colonies were 28.7 percent. That's near twice the historic rate and part of a 50-year trend of declining species richness in wild bees and other pollinators.
That's bad news for the bees and also anyone who depends on the food generated through their labor. That is, all of us. According to the USDA, approximately 35 percent of the world's food crops depend on animal pollinators to reproduce, with some scientists estimating that "one out of every three bites of food we eat exists because of animal pollinators."
That many crops depend on pollination to reproduce is well-established; however, how much pollination proves a limiting factor to crop yield is less understood. If wild bee and managed honeybee populations continue to decline, will the amount of food available to feed us decline, too? That's the question a Rutgers-led team of researchers sought to answer.
From bee to farm to table
A bar graph showing the percentage of pollination limitation for the seven crops studied.
The research team selected seven crops to study: apples, almonds, pumpkins, watermelons, sweet cherries, tart cherries, and highbush blueberries. These were chosen because each is highly dependent on insect pollination for reproduction. The researchers then established a nationwide study across 131 U.S. and British Columbia farms. They selected only commercial farms in top-producing states—for example, Michigan and Oregon farms for blueberries. This way, their sample would represent the conditions and farming practices in which a majority of these crops are grown.
After collecting data on pollinator visitation rates and crop production, the researchers measured the data through three statistical models. They also analyzed the contribution differences between wild bees and managed honeybees as well as the economic value of the bees' service.
"We found that many crops are pollination-limited, meaning crop production would be higher if crop flowers received more pollination. We also found that honey bees and wild bees provided similar amounts of pollination overall," Rachael Winfree, a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources at Rutgers University-New Brunswick and the study's senior author, said in a release. "Managing habitat for native bee species [and] stocking more honey bees would boost pollination levels and could increase crop production."
Of the crops studied, apples, blueberries, sweet cherries, and tart cherries were hit hardest when pollination decreased. Watermelon and pumpkin yields weren't as limited by pollinators, possibly because these crops sport fewer blooms and flower in summer when the weather is less inclement. Almonds proved the outlier as the crop is the earliest bloomer yet not pollination limited. The researchers speculate that this is due to the almond industry's intense reliance on managed honeybees.
"Our findings show that pollinator declines could translate directly into decreased yields or production for most of the crops studied, and that wild species contribute substantially to pollination of most study crops in major crop-producing regions," the researchers write.
For the seven crops studied, the researchers estimate the annual production value of pollinators to be more than $1.5 billion. They also found that wild bee species provided comparable pollination, even for crops in agriculturally intensive regions.
Their findings were published in the most recent Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences.
Ecological and edible incentives
A protester shows a handful of bees that died by pesticides. The protest was held during the Bayer AG shareholder meeting in 2019.
(PhooMaja Hitiji/Getty Images)
The concern extends beyond these seven. Crops such as coffee, avocados, lemons, limes, and oranges are also highly dependent on pollinators and may prove pollination limited. If declining bee populations are tied to such yields, it could mean barer supermarket shelves and increased prices. While that may only be an annoyance to some, to poor and vulnerable communities who already struggle to secure salubrious, affordable food, such a deficit would present another barrier to the vital micronutrients necessary for a healthy life and diet.
Unfortunately, the threats to bees are numerous. Parasites, agrochemicals, monoculture farming, and habitat degradation all play a role, and neither stressor works in isolation. Sublethal exposure to neonicotinoids, an insecticide, can cause impairments in bees, while monoculture farming serves up a monotonous and unhealthy floral buffet. Both impede bees' immune systems, rendering them vulnerable to parasites such as Varroa destructor, a mite that can transmit debilitating viruses as it feeds on bees' fat bodies. And all of these stressors will likely be inflamed by climate change in the years to come.
Some have proffered mechanical solutions, such as Japan's National Institute of Advanced Industrial Science and Technology where technicians are developing robotic bees. These micro-drones are covered in gelled horsehair and have successfully cross-pollinated Japanese lilies. Other experiments include pollen sprays. However, the large-scale viability of tech-centric solutions seems questionable. After all, wild bees currently perform their ecological services pro bono and are as effective as managed honeybees. Any technological solution implemented in their absence would add to the agricultural costs and likely increase prices anyway.
Ecological amelioration will be necessary. To combat habitat fragmentation and strengthen biodiversity, many cities are implementing green-way strategies. For example, the Dutch city of Utrecht has decked its bus stop roofs with plants and grasses to create bee and butterfly shelters, while other cities are looking to foster bee-friend roadsides. And government initiatives incentivize farmers and landowners to adopt bee-friendly management practices. These solutions aren't only a matter of ecological conservation but also food security and public health.
Each pile of dung contains a cornucopia of seeds, perfect for reforesting.
- Tapirs produce towering piles of feces full of large-tree seeds other animal can't pass.
- Stashing tasty fecal morsels for later, dung beetles bury the seeds.
- Tapirs prefer burned-out areas, making them ideal re-foresters.
The Amazon rainforest has been in trouble for some time. In the last 40 years, more than 18% of Brazil's rainforest, for example, has been decimated by logging, farming, mining, and cattle ranching. That's an area about the size of California. If it isn't deliberate deforestation for commercial purposes, it's fires. Last years's unprecedented rainforest conflagrations, 85% more severe than the previous year's, were absolutely devastating, burning away some 10.123 square kilometers of forest. This year looks worse — in the first four months of 2020 alone, 1,202 square kilometers have been incinerated.
Often poking their way though the charred remains are trunk-nosed lowland tapirs (Tapirus terrestris), and that's a great thing. "Tapirs in Brazil are known as the gardeners of the forests," says ecologist Lucas Paolucci of Amazon Environmental Research Institute in Brazil. They're prodigious defecators whose feces is packed with a remarkable assortment of seeds from the plants they ingest. Paolucci has great hopes for the role that tapirs, along with dung beetles, their partners in grime, can play in reforesting the Amazon. It's something they're already doing on their own.
Tapir poop in a zoo
Image source: Kulmalukko/Wikimedia
The tapir is South America's largest native mammal, looking a bit like a pig with a trunk. It's actually more closely related to a horse or rhinoceros, and is believed to have been around for tens of millions of years.
Paolucci found tapir's massive mounds of dung — "bigger than my head" — hard to miss. Inside each pile is a treasure trove of seeds including those from large, carbon-storing trees that are just too big to pass through the digestive tracts of smaller mammals. This makes them invaluable disseminators of exactly the sort of trees needed to rebuild a forest.
Tapirs seem to prefer the burned-out areas in which they're most needed, too. In 2016, Paolucci joined other researchers in studying the type of areas tapirs like to frequent. In eastern Mato Grasso, they tracked the goings-on in three plots of forest land. Two of these plots had been subjected to controlled burns from 2004 to 2010. One of then was burned every year, while the other was torched every three. The third plot was left unburned as a control.
Patrolling the plots, the researchers recorded the locations of 163 tapir-dung piles, confirming their source with camera-trap recordings of the perpetrators. The tapirs, it turned out, spend much more time in the burned out forest plots than the untouched one. Paolluccis suggests they may prefer the warm sunshine in areas not covered by forest canopy.
When the researchers extracted and counted up the seeds in those piles, an impressive array was cataloged: 129,204 seeds representing 24 plant species. Biodiversity writ in poo.
Image source: Jasper_Lensselink_Photography/Shutterstock
Seeing the tapirs' deposits leading to widespread new growth meant that something, or someone, else, had been spreading them out for planting: Dung beetles, of the superfamily Scarabaeoidea. Paolucci conducted an experiment that confirmed that dung beetles break off piles of tapir dung, roll them away, and bury them for later munching. The seeds in their snacks are in effect planted where they can grow.
Early last year, Paolucci retrieved 20 kilograms of tapir poop from the Amazon, breaking it apart into 700-gram clumps. He returned these clumps to the Amazon after stuffing each one with plastic pellets to serve as as dummy seeds. After 24 hours, Paolucci collected the clumps and counted the pellets gone missing, a simple way to calculate the number of new plants the dung beetles had planted that day. He hopes to publish the details of his study next year.
While tapirs and their dung-beetle buddies clearly can help reforest the Amazon, they, like everything else trying to live in the rainforest region, are themselves endangered by the raging forest fires. If they're lost, going with them will be a fantastic means of spreading large-tree seeds through the region.