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Highlights from the Week's News

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High Hopes for the High Seas

March 05, 2023

After Decades of Trying, Countries Agree to Protect the High Seas

The member states of the UN have reached an agreement to protect the high seas from climate change, overfishing, seabed mining, and other dangers that threaten marine life. The world’s ocean covers nearly three-quarters of the planet, but there has never been a comprehensive international treaty to protect its biodiversity.

This humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) and calf  |  Credit: J. Moore/NOAA

Negotiations have been going on for nearly 20 years to accomplish an understanding to set up marine protected areas, or MPAs.  This weekend’s agreement will provide a legal mechanism to protect wildlife and share resources from the high seas—areas that are 200 nautical miles beyond a country’s coast.

The New York Times reports that U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Monica Medina said that the world came together to protect the ocean for the benefit of our children and grandchildren with the ability to create protected areas and the ambitious goal of conserving 30 percent of the ocean.

The high seas have unique species that need protection and can contribute to human health.  In addition, billions of people rely on the ocean for food and jobs. The treaty would move toward accomplishing the 30x30 pledge to protect one-third of the seas and land by 2030 made at the UN biodiversity conference late last year.  In a statement, Greenpeace said that the treaty was a monumental win for ocean protection and provides a pathway to create marine protected areas worldwide.

Before it becomes effective, countries will have to adopt the treaty and then must ratify it, which in the U.S. would require Senate approval.

New Study Says Dirty Sea Spray Dirties the Air in Coastal Communities

After large rainstorms, runoff from the land containing contaminants from cars, trucks, farms, ranches, septic tanks, and sewage is one of the largest sources of ocean pollution. Sometimes, beaches are closed because of E.coli and other bacteria from waste in the water, but now there are concerns that pollutants can become airborne in sea spray and reach people a mile or two inland—far beyond surfers, swimmers, and other beachgoers.

Imperial Beach, California | Credit: Dstana/Creative Commons

A first-of-its-kind study from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography shows that viruses, compounds, and bacteria transfer into the atmosphere. As a wave breaks, about one-fifth of the bacteria in it bubbles up and then launches into the air.

The team conducted their study at Imperial Beach in Southern California near the Mexican border and were able to link air samples to bacteria and compounds from the polluted Tijuana River that flows into the sea. The beach in that area was closed a record number of days last year because of sewage.

The researchers determined that three-quarters of the bacteria in the air came from sewage in the surf zone, however, they currently don’t know whether the aerosols can make people sick. Most bacteria and viruses are harmless, and more research is needed. Still, the authors say their findings are further support for prioritizing the clean-up of coastal waters.   

The study was published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Here’s a Reason Strawberries May Look Good but Taste Blah

Spring is right around the corner, and soon we can look forward to some of our favorite seasonal fruits and vegetables, like juicy strawberries. But a new study says, buyer beware. Looks can be deceiving. That package of plump, red strawberries might end up tasting bland and watery—and the reason could be pesticides.

Credit: Henning 48/Creative Commons

We sense a fruit’s flavor by its taste and aroma. Sweetness results from the amount of dissolved glucose or fructose, and smell comes from volatile compounds, such as esters and terpenes. But new research found pesticides can disrupt the processes in strawberries that produce these important compounds as well as the fruit’s nutrients, including vitamin C, folic acid, and antioxidants.

A team led by China Agricultural University grew three groups of strawberries (Fragaria x ananassa Duch) and treated two of them with common fungicides used on berries, boscalid (BOS) and difenoconazole (DIF). Although the fruit looked the same at maturity, they found chemical changes in the groups exposed to pesticides. The strawberries had fewer sugars, which notably turned into acids, making the berries less sweet. They also found lower amounts of vitamin C and that the number of volatile compounds changed, subduing the berry’s aroma.

A blind taste test was the ultimate proof. People consistently preferred the untreated group of strawberries when given the choice, which it turns out were healthier too.

The study was published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry.

This Bug Uses Superpropulsion to Get Rid of Its Pee

Many insects pee. Just like us, what goes in must come out. And for a bug called the glassy-winged sharpshooter (Homalodisca vitripennis) that lives off only water from plant stems, it means hitting the loo a lot.

Comic Credit: Jordan Collver with Rik Worth, Bhamla Lab

But with such few calories, how do sharpshooters muster the strength to pee? That’s what Dr. Saad Bhamla of Georgia Tech wondered when he saw the insects, which are a type of leafhopper, doing their business in his backyard. After filming sharpshooters under a microscope using high-speed video, Bhamla observed the bugs weren’t streaming urine like we would. Rather, they were conserving energy by ejecting water droplets one at a time using a catapult-like appendage on their butts called an anal stylus to launch waste away from their bodies.

And the droplets were propelled with amazing velocity. In a remarkable discovery, Bhamla saw that the catapult first squished the water droplet so it would spring from the insect’s bottom at a speed 40 times faster than a sprinting cheetah. It’s a feat of physics and bioengineering known as “superpropulsion,” where an object moves faster than the thing launching it, and sharpshooters are the first organisms observed to deploy it.  Bhamla says the discovery has potential for bio-inspired solutions such as removing moisture from wearables like smartwatches or preventing droplets from fogging up glasses.

The study was published in the journal Nature Communications.