Have You Seen Bats Lately? Interview with Mike Scafini from the Pennsylvania Game Commission.

 

Many people in Pennsylvania might have noticed that, nowadays, it is not easy to encounter bats any more at night during the summer. My guest today has spent years working with bats in Pennsylvania, and he will talk to us about the story behind the dramatic declination of bat populations in PA.

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Mike Scafini

Mike Scafini is the endangered mammal specialist of the Pennsylvania Game Commission. Mike works with all non-game mammals including everything from bats to Northern Flying Squirrels, Allegheny woodrats, water shrews and other small mammals that people don’t normally think of when it comes to the Pennsylvania wildlife.

Hey Mike, How are you today?

“Pretty good, how are you doing ?”

I am good thank you! Thanks for joining me today.

So, at the beginning at the talk, I want to start with “misunderstanding”. Perhaps, no other mammals in the Northeast are as misunderstood as bats. Because of their dark, small, flying and nocturnal features, bats, unfortunately, have been considered vicious animals that bite and can carry diseases. Could you please tell us whether these rumors about bats are true?

“Well… yea, there are a lot of misconceptions about bats. From you know all the horror movies you see, and the things you see on the news. But actually up close, bats are pretty cute. You mentioned drinking blood, that’s vampire bats, that’s central and South America.”

“We owe a lot to bats: they are the only predators of night flying insects. I have seen a lot of different figures saying bats can eat 45 insects in a single evening, which equals to a million insects in an entire year. So, the agriculture industry in PA owes a lot to bats. They eat your crop pests and they eat all your nuisance pests like flies and mosquitos that people don’t want around the summer time and so yea… we owe a lot to bats and they are really not scary once you see what they are all about and see them up close.”

There are nine species of bats commonly living in Pennsylvania. Among the nine species of bats, six of them, which include the little brown bat, big brown bat, eastern pipistrelle bat, northern long-eared bat, Indiana bat, and eastern small-footed bat, are short distance hibernating bats, meaning that they don’t make long migratory trips when winter comes. Instead, they will hibernate in Pennsylvania or in adjacent states. The rest of our bat species, which are silver-haired bat, eastern red bat, and hoary bat, in contrast, will migrate to the south when winter approaches, some birds.

The population of hibernating bats in Pennsylvania, has dramatically declined over the past decade.

“Back to the six species again, we have three of them; well actually four of them; are actually 99% declined.”

The terrible drop in hibernating bats in Pennsylvania, and along the entire east coast of North America is primarily caused by a new bat disease called white nose syndrome.

“White nose is a bat that’s been infected with PD, which is a sack? fungi and it’s believed to be transferred from Europe. It is proposed that it came from humans that went caving to Europe and brought it back to New York State. And since then, it spread up and down the east cost and moved its way westward even up into Canada. Bats that get infected with this fungus, it irritates them when they are hibernating. So, they become dehydrated, they wake up more often, and oftentimes they will fly out in the middle of winter when it’s cold and there is no insects to eat and that’s primarily the cause of all these deaths.”

“I have a figure here in front me that shows our hibernacula surveys: it compared those sites that we checked before white nose and we also have surveys after white nose in PA. So each year, we survey more sites, each winter. And so we have more sites to compare with the pre-white nose years. And each year four of our species: little brown, Indiana, long-eared, and tri-colored have really not rebounded. Their numbers, for examples, we have Altenburg County in central part of the PA; we have a site called canoe-creek mine. It had at one point hit a high of 34,000 bats, and now we are at between 70 and 80 total.”

Unfortunately, there is no cure for white nose syndrome for bats right now, but scientists are working hard to find the cure.

“There is actually; we had an interesting experiment that’s worth mentioning. There are kinda two different things and I will tell you the one we are more involved with—it’s called PEG 8000, Polyethalglyco 8000. I guess it’s found in the pharmaceutical community a lot. It’s what it does is to trick the fungi into thinking its water stressed, so it doesn’t grow. And we kinda set up an experiment with three cages, seven bats in each cage. One was control, one had this PEG 8000 applied to one of their wings and the other one had the PEG applied to the roost itself on the wall. And what we saw was the one that we applied to the wing it didn’t make any difference, it still got the PD fungus, it didn’t have any effect. And the one we applied to the roost, they were fine; they didn’t pick up the spore. So, we were thinking the PEG 8000 could be almost a roost cleaning application. It would be near impossible to treat a whole cave, but being that bats are creature of habits, they go back to some of the same spots in the cave. So if we could treat maybe the main spots where they go each winter, where they all congregate together, we may have beyond something as first.”

So far we have talked about the decline of hibernating bats, what about the non-hibernating bats? Are they also being threatened?

“We also have the migratory bats, and they are being hit by wind farms. That’s part of what I did my graduate work on. There is a wind farm in Schuylkill county where I did what they called post-construction mortality surveys. And just an estimate of a roughly 12/13 turbine wind farm is killing 500 or more bats every summer. So, there have been different ideas of why that is: they are following the top where they think that the turbine is a tree to roost on. But so far, they haven’t come up with…they come up with some ways to help slow the turbine blades when wind speeds are low, which is when bats typically fly, and the turbine isn’t creating that much of energy anyway. So they come up with some different way to curtail the impact, but between white nose for the hibernating bats and turbines for migratory bats, and then just the normal fact that bats are really slow reproducers—most of their species only have one pup per year. Big browns and red bats can have two, but for the most part, with this kind of decline it is hard for them to rebound. Just from natural death and all these other factors, that’s been a pretty steady decline.”

Sometimes bats come into our backyards or into the house. What should people do if bats visit their home?

“The bats in homes is something that we more see as a problem in the summer. I get emails left and right in the summer time: people that have bats in their homes and they want them out, or bats in their barn. Essentially, bats form maternity colonies in the summer to raise their pups, so, when it’s the hottest months of the year, that’s when females are with their pups—June and July. When you see them in your home, there are different things that you can do. One option is to call us and we can try to direct you to someone—cuz we can’t really response to all calls, we can kinda guide you through the process—we can it eviction and exclusion. Eviction is where you put a one-way door, say, if you know where the opening is, if they are coming into your attic, there will be a door where they can fly out but not back in. The only problem with that is you can’t do it when there are flyless pups. So, like I said, they are forming maternity colonies. So, there is a window time in the middle of the summer that this won’t work—you’ll be trapping bats inside and the adults fly out to feed the pups are gonna try whatever they will to get back in, but otherwise, it’s a really good technique—once all the bats fly through that door, you can the seal any openings.”

As PA residents, we are constantly hearing depressing stories of endangered or threatened wildlife and diseases that affect bats. What do you think are things we can do here in central PA to help protect bat populations?

“Some of the big things that you can do, hum, the one like I mentioned is the Appalachian bat count. That gives us a handle on not only where the bats are, a good majority of the year during the summer, but also if they are reproducing. Because the ABC counts are designed to count before and after they (bats) have their pups. So, we can actually see how much they are reproducing. So, kinda give us this idea in the handle on bat populations, where they are, that’s probably the biggest that they can do, is participating that program.”

Opening/ending Song:

Leaving Song by Barefoot McCoy

“EVERYTHING IS GOING DOWN”: PENNSYLVANIA’S VANISHING BATS

IT WAS AN ODDLY WARM DAY in late February. Hibernating squirrels were out looking for food. Birds, too, began to twitter on the telegraph poles along the road. “At least you can still see these animals, but bats… even at night… you can’t see them” I murmured to myself while I was driving to meet up with Mike Scafini, endangered mammal specialist for the Pennsylvania Game Commission, to talk about Pennsylvania’s declining bat populations.

Mike greeted me right after I walked through the automatic door of the Pennsylvania Game Commission building. “How are you today?” he asked me, while giving me a warm handshake. Mike—a tall, somewhat slim, 34-year-old fella with thick beard, short hair, cotton shirt, and a pair of professor-style glasses—is a wildlife biologist for the PA Game Commission. His job is to manage all non-game mammals, such as northern flying squirrels, woodrats, and of course, bats, across the state of Pennsylvania.

The building of the PA Game Commission itself is quite interesting. Located on the edge of the state capital Harrisburg, the appearance of the building from the outside—medium sized, two floored, yellowish wall with red roof—doesn’t distinguish it much from other typical public buildings, say the DMV or middle school auditoriums. Only the sculptures of deer, and various flagpoles adorned with state and national flags, standing in front of the building seem to hint at the work going on inside by those working to protect our nature and animals. The inside, I realized, is a peculiarly harmonious combination of natural history museum, country pub, and the visitor center of a natural park—green carpet, a couple of wooden benches, deer heads hanging on the wall, wildlife taxidermy mounts, a canoe in the center of the lobby, a TV showing videos of animals, and exhibitions displaying law enforcement officer uniforms.

“When people think of the Game Commission,” Mike told me at the beginning of the interview, “they usually think of elk or deer or bear, but here, we actually are also in charge of small mammals that people don’t usually think of as Pennsylvania wildlife.”

“That’s why I am here today, to talk to you about bats,” I told Mike while nodding my head, as I agreed that most people I know had little awareness of these small creatures in their local environments.


THERE ARE NINE SPECIES OF BATS living in Pennsylvania: little brown bat, big brown bat, eastern pipistrelle bat, northern long-eared bat, Indiana bat, eastern small-footed bat, silver-haired bat, eastern red bat, and. Among the nine species, silver-haired, red, and hoary bats are migratory bats, meaning they, like some birds, will migrate to the south when winter approaches. The rest of the species are short distance hibernating bats—they don’t make long migratory trips when winter comes. Instead, they will hibernate in Pennsylvania or in adjacent states. The most common species in Pennsylvania nowadays, Mike told me, is the big brown bat. Therefore, when a person sees a bat here in Pennsylvania, it will most likely be the big brown bat.

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For states like Pennsylvania, which depend heavily on agriculture, bats are extremely important for the economy. Bats are the state’s primary night-flying predator of insects and thus help protect us and agriculture from pests. Research shows, a single bat can forage as many as 500 insects in an hour, which equals to 3,000 insects every night.1 A colony of 150 big brown bats, which is the most common bat species in Pennsylvania, can consume 38,000 cucumber beetles, 16,000 June bugs, 19,000 stinkbugs, and 50,000 leafhoppers, and by devouring the adult beetles, they can also prevent the hatching of 18 million corn rootworms in a summer1.

“The Pennsylvania agriculture industry owes a lot to bats,” Mike said while pointing at a figure from a study published in Science in 2011 (by Justin G. Boyles and his team) and captioned, “Estimated economic value of bats to Pennsylvania farmers…Bats can save farmers $74 per acre—and millions of dollars each year—by eating bugs that can ruin a harvest.”


THE DESTINY OF HIBERNATING BATS in Pennsylvania, however, like the destiny of their peers in many eastern states across North America, has become catastrophic, because of a new bat disease called White-nose Syndrome. First discovered in February 2006, White-nose Syndrome has spread stormily across the east side of the United States and Canada, wiping out millions of hibernating bat population. According to Mike, White-nose Syndrome was first noticed in Pennsylvania around the winter of 2008 and 2009, and since then, the population of hibernating bats in Pennsylvania has dramatically declined.

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Tri-colored bat with visible signs of WNS from Cumberland Gap National Historic Park.            U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Headquarters

“Off the six (hibernating) species (common in Pennsylvania),” Mike explained, “we have four of them close to or approaching ninety-nine percent declined.”

“Geez…ninety-nine percent?” I couldn’t believe what I had just heard.

“Yes…it’s a lot of bats.” He answered with frustration. Then he showed me another figure from surveys he conducted by comparing the winter bat species population from 2013 to 2016 with population counts of pre-White-nose Syndrome years at the same sites. In the graph, I could clearly see the populations of little brown, Indiana, northern long-eared, and tri-colored bats have almost declined one hundred percent.

“You can also see from the graph, each year, the number of bats has not rebounded,” Mike added.


THE FUNGUS THAT CAUSE White-nose Syndrome in bats is called Pseudogymnoascus destructans. This fungus is native to Europe but not to North America. Scientists have proposed that people who went to Europe for caving brought this fungus back to New York State. Hibernating bats infected with White-nose Syndrome will become irritated and dehydrated. They will wake up and fly out more often during the cold winter while there are no insects to eat, which becomes the primary cause of death for hibernating bats infected with White-nose Syndrome.

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Scanning electron micrograph of G. destructans culture isolated from a Little Brown Bat.       Photo by Deborah J. Springer

Although scientists have been working around the clock to find the cure of White-nose Syndrome for bats, the remedy still remains a mystery. Nevertheless, there are some new hopes recently discovered by scientists that might be able to end this disease for bats.

“There is actually an interesting experiment that is worth mentioning,” Mike said, “it’s called PEG-8000.”

PEG stands for polyethylene glycol, and it is a class of chemical compounds that have a wide range of medical, chemical, biological, and industrial uses. PEG-8000 is one specific type of PEG that can cause microbes to think that they are deficit of water, thus tricking them them into slowing growth. Plus, because PEG-8000 is non-toxic and chemically stable in fungi, it is considered as an ideal compound to stop White-nose Syndrome by hindering the growth of Pseudogymnoascus destructans—the fungus that causes White-nose Syndrome. Based on what Mike described, when scientists applied PEG-8000 to the wall of the roost, bats in the experiment were able to avoid picking up the spore of Pseudogymnoascus destructans. “This indicates PEG-8000 could be used as a roost cleaning application,” he added, “and being that bats are creatures of habits—they go back to the same spots in a cave in the winter. If we can treat these spots where bats congregate, we may have something.”

Along with the promise of this experimental remedy, PA government agencies such as the PA Game Commission has strictly implemented protocols released by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to reduce the chance of their bat survey participants spreading this disease to bats when working in the field. “We are working closely with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and one big step was the decontamination protocol that they (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) put out,” Mike said. According to the newest (2016) version National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol, individuals in contact with the bats or going into the hibernacula of bats is recommended to decontaminate their gear—an effective way to prevent the spread of the spores of the fungus—and these procedures are strictly followed by bat survey participants like Mike and many other scientists from the state government agencies.

Mike also told me that the Game Commission, too, is trying to work closely with the caving community to spread the word of which caves people should go into and which they should avoid, as well as implementing the decontamination guidelines to the caving community. “Most (caving) people don’t have any problems following the decontamination protocol,” Mike says. “Some caving groups are actually helping with bat surveys,” he added, “ they get to go caving and help to count the bats at the same time, and sometimes we even invite them to go into the cave and help out the survey.” To survey the bat population, Mike along with other bat scientists often enters dozens of sites each winter to count bats.

“So, do you consider yourself a good caver?” I asked.

“I’d say so.” Mike laughed with a blend of humbleness and confidence.


WHILE HIBERNATING BATS have been suffering from White-nose Syndrome, migratory bats are also not without life-threatening, human-caused threats. “Migratory bats are being hit by wind farms,” said Mike, who also did part of his master’s work in biology on surveying the mortality caused by wind farms. “Just an estimate of a thirteen-turbine wind farm was killing five hundred or more bats every summer.” He went on.

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Bat killed by collision with wind turbine.                                                                                                Photo by Tomaž Jančar

“Altogether—the wind farms for migratory bats and White-nose (Syndrome) for hibernating bats—are dramatically wiping out the PA bat population,” Mike added.

Mike’s concerns are important to consider as the United States is now one of the world’s leading producers of wind energy. Although wind energy is considered “good” energy for us, it might not be as “good” for flying animals. With tens of thousands wind turbines operating nowadays and a great number planed, the death of flying animals—not only bats, but also birds—have been increasing every year. According to American Bird Conservancy, the annual mortality of birds caused by wind turbines was estimated as high as 573,000 in 2012. And the Department of Energy predicts, if the U.S. meets its goal of 35% of the electrical power from wind energy, up to five million birds would be killed annually by the wind turbines. Therefore, despite the significance of producing clean energy with wind, people also need to find a solution to protect the flying animals being killed by wind farms!

While most of us currently don’t use wind farms energy, we can nonetheless also protect bats in our backyards. Not only just me, I believe many people have also wondered what to do with bats when they show up in our homes. “So, what can we do to save bats when they visit our homes?” I asked.

“Bats in homes is something we see more as a problem in the summer; essentially bats form maternity colonies (where female bats congregates to bear and raise the baby bats) during the summer to raise their pups.” Mike answered. In some cases they will try to set up a colony in your attic, or another warm, dark space. “When that happens, one option is that you can call us…and we can guide you though the process.” “The other option is what we call ‘eviction and exclusion’, where you can put a one-way door in the opening of the house so that bats can fly out the house but not back in…and once all the bats fly out you can seal the openings.” However, Mike also warned, the second option won’t work if there are flight-less pups in the colony—the adult bats fly out to feed the pup, and will try whatever way to get back to the house.

“If it is a single bat, you can wait for it to land on something and put a Tupperware over it and slice a piece of card board behind it and just take it out and release it on a tree.” Mike continued. “If it is a larger number of bats, we have what’s called NWCO, which is Nuisance Wildlife Control Operators…they know how to deal with bats.”

Time flies by quickly and, unwittingly, I have already spent almost an hour talking with Mike in the conference room. As I got ready to leave, I asked Mike what was his most unforgettable moment in his career as a bat scientist. His answer was, “to actually go into a cave for a winter survey and see thousands and thousands of bats, which was what it used to be like at the larger sites here in Pennsylvania.”

Mike walked me through that natural-history-museum, country-pub, and national-park-visitor-center-style Game Commission lounge and walked me out of the building. The weather was still oddly warm outside. On the way driving back to campus, I could still see squirrels climbing up the trees or birds twittering on the telegraph poles. But still, there were no bats. I was thinking about how after Mike showed me all the figures about bats he prepared for this interview, he had said with sadness, “ Yup… everything is going down…”


1 Data from Wildlife Outreach Center, Penn State Extension. http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/bats/a-homeowners-guide-to-northeastern-bats-and-bat-problems

Explore More

Bat Conservation International: http://www.batcon.org

BIRD-SMART WIND ENERGY: PROTECTING BIRDS FROM POORLY SITED WIND TURBINES:

https://abcbirds.org/program/wind-energy/

PennState Extension-Wildlife Nuisance and Damage-Bats:

http://extension.psu.edu/natural-resources/wildlife/wildlife-nuisance-and-damage/bats/wildlife-damage-control-4-bats

Using a Novel Partitivirus in Pseudogymnoascus destructans to Understand the Epidemiology of White-Nose Syndrome: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5189944/

National White-Nose Syndrome Decontamination Protocol – Version 04.12.2016:

https://www.whitenosesyndrome.org/sites/default/files/resource/national_wns_decon_protocol_04.12.2016.pdf

“Friends with Benefits”

DRIVING HIS red, decrepit, Ford pick-up truck on a narrow country road that winds through endless farms, rivers, and villages, Dr. Kerney finally took Liz and I to our familiar-enough destination, Michaux State Forest, on a chilly spring day. Here, thirteen miles west of Gettysburg College, is where we were authorized to collect spotted salamander embryos under our Pennsylvania state permit.

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Going out to the field to collect spotted salamander embryos in the early spring is a routine for the Kerney Lab. Picture of Dr. Kerney walking in the forest looking for salamander embryos.

Michaux State Forest, of course, is not the only place to find spotted salamanders embryos. If you live in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Ontario, Québec of Canada, or Alabama, Arkansas, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Vermont, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin of America, chances are you could easily encounter spotted salamander embryos in a local pond after the first warm rain in the spring.

These beautiful tiny salamander eggs, which look like marble beads sprayed with green glitters, are each surrounded by an egg capsule. Coating these eggs is a thick layer of jelly coat, forming a big egg mass amid the vegetation in water. “Deep inside these egg masses, there are cells that are interacting between the world of algae and the world of salamander,” says Dr. Ryan Kerney, biology professor at Gettysburg and my research advisor who is known as the “salamander guy” for his dedication of salamander studies.

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Egg mass of spotted salamander: they can easily be found in ponds during the spring across the East Coast of the United States.

It takes two to tango

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Spotted salamander embryo observed under fluorescent microscope: the right dots are the light emitted by algae under fluorescent light.

The association between spotted salamander embryos and green algae was first discovered by naturalist-scientist Henry Orr in 1888. Orr’s discovery offers a great demonstration of a mutualistic symbiosis—the harmonious living together of two species: algae provides oxygen to salamander host by photosynthesis while the salamander apparently offers nitrogen-rich waste products to the algae as nutrients. According to Dr. John A. Burns, postdoctoral researcher in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology at American Museum of Natural History and our research collaborator, the symbiosis between algae and spotted salamander is more than beneficial but rather necessary, “Salamander embryos tend to be smaller and have a lower chance of survival if the algae stops supplying oxygen by photosynthesis or if the algae is taken away from the salamander,” says John.

Questions, however, arise around how these beneficial algae get through the thick jelly surrounding the embryos, and how these algae can break through the egg capsule that further protects the salamander embryos from the environment? The “salamander guy” decided to observe these salamander embryos under a microscope to find some hints. Fortunately, the photosynthetic property of algae offers some convenience to be easily observed—because algae are photosynthetic, if you shine one wavelength of light on them, they will emit another wavelength of light back, making them easily to be observed under a fluorescent microscope (microscope that can emit certain wavelength of fluorescent light to the object).

The High-Five Moment

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Transmission electron microscope of a spotted salamander cell containing endosymbiotic algal cells.

When Dr. Kerney observed the salamander embryos under fluorescent microscope, he found something very exciting. “ I looked at a later stage of embryo with a fluorescent microscope to see if there is any sign of algae persisting near the time of hatching,” Dr. Kerney says, “and it was totally surprising to see there is algal cells embedded inside the embryo itself.”

To further investigate what is happening between the salamander embryo and algae, Dr. Kerney took a step further by observing the specimen under a transmission electron microscope—microscope that have high enough resolution and can magnify objects for 10,000,000 times. Seeing the image from the electron microscope, Dr. Kerney realized he had just discovered something totally unexpected and astonishing: the algal cells not only live around salamanders, but also they go INSIDE the individual cells of the salamander embryo. Indeed, this cell living within a cell relationship, which scientists refer to as “endosymbiosis” that occurs between algae and spotted salamander embryo—like a Russian matryoshka doll—is the FIRST known example of a symbiont entering into the host cells of a vertebrate.

A Learning Process

After the exciting moment of revealing the first known example of vertebrate endosymbiosis between algae and spotted salamander, more questions regarding this unique intimate relationships were apparent. “The question that we are currently tackling is what kind of molecular change is happening when these salamander and green algal cells are together,” says our collaborator Eunsoo Kim, who is the assistant curator of microbial diversity and systematics in the Division of Invertebrate Zoology in American Natural History.

So far, our research team has compared mRNA (the middle-step information code between DNA and protein) from four different groups of cells: salamander cells with algae endosymbiont, salamander cells without algae edosymbiont, algal cells live within salamander host, and algal cells outside the salamander hosts. The goal for this RNA comparison was to discover the differences of gene expression for both algal and salamander cells when they have come together.

Things started to become clearer with more and more investigations being done for this unique endosymbiosis relationship. We have discovered that several genes in both algae and salamander have changed their expressions to adapt to their host or symbiont. Genes that are responsible for importing inorganic nutrients for algal cells, for instances, have been turned off when algal cells are inside the salamander cells, since inside the salamander cells, there are enough organic nutrients for algae. (Will you still do grocery shopping if there is already enough food for you?)

Uncovering the bigger secrets

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Like how spotted salamanders are closely associated with microbes, humans also have trillions of microbes (called microbiome) living on and inside our bodies. Illustration from American Natural History Museum.

“We are learning that the algal cells and salamander cells are dramatically changing each other to adopt each other,” Eunsoo says, “This change may be relevant for other symbiotic systems including human and parasitic bacteria relationships.” In fact, we, the humans, also have trillions of microorganisms living in or on or bodies. Therefore, our project is also hoping to shed light on the secret of how microbes can interact with vertebrates—like us—and affect our physiology.

One afternoon in the forest, we have collected enough embryos for the next round of experiment. Though exhausted, I am very proud of myself for helping propel science by dressing in the waders and trekking through the cold, muddy ponds to collect the embryos, I told myself. Here we are again—in Dr. Kerney’s red, decrepit, Ford pick-up truck—heading back to the campus. Awaits us are more excitements and more unknowns to unveil!

Thinking about switching to a healthy diet? You might need to consult with your gut microbes first.

PREVIOUS DIETARY EXPERIENCE AND GUT MICROBIAL EXCHANGE WITH OTHER INDIVIDUALS HAVE IMPLICATIONS ON AFFECTING A PERSON’S RESPONSE TO NEW FIETS.

EATING HEALTHILY is at the top of the list for many of those setting New Year’s resolutions. However, changing your diet could be more complicated than you think—researchers have found that your previous dining experience could impact your new diet efficiency through gut microbiota. This might explain why so many New Year diets don’t work.

But hold on… researchers also found that if there’s another person in your household who already eats healthily, you might have a better chance of success. The reason might be that their gut microbes are influencing your dietary practices, according to a recent study published in Cell Host & Microbe. The implications suggest possibilities in developing probiotics that simulate a similar healthy gut microbiota community to support your dietary changes.

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Gut Microbiota: Our Native Flora by Micah Lidberg

The study conducted by Dr. Jeffery I. Gordon, director of the Center for Genome Sciences & Systems Biology at Washington University in St. Louis and his team, was interested in if and how, gut microbiota—the tens of trillions of microorganisms in our intestine—affect, and are affected by, our dietary practices. These tiny microbes usually live happily within our gut and pay the “rent” to our body by helping digest food and synthesize essential vitamins such as vitamin B and K. Gut microbiota also function as an armor for our intestine to defend against other aggressive microorganisms.

Previous studies suggest that typical unrestrictive American diets might result in a weakened gut microbiota, which can compromise overall health. To put this idea to the test, Dr. Gordon and his colleagues genetically analyzed fecal samples from 34 adult donors who have maintained healthy diets and 198 donors who have typical unrestrictive American diets. The results indicated that people who practice healthy diets bear a significantly richer and more diverse gut microbiota than people who do not, including many microbes that seem to only be associated with the healthy diet.

Dr. Gordon’s team also found that when transferring the fecal microbiota from the unrestricted-diet individuals to germ-free mice, these mice were not able to adjust to a new diet as easily as their counterparts, who were received healthy-diet microbiota. Based on these results, the researchers suggest that reduced bacterial diversity caused by the prior dietary practice can influence our body’s response to a new diet.

However, there is still hope in the story of gut microbiota. Although each of us has our unique collection of gut microbiota, it is never isolated or static. Instead, we are constantly shedding our microbiota—picture that we are all surrounded by a cloud of our microbes. Our microbiota and other individuals’ microbiota come together and make up a large microbial community called a metacommunity. Within the metacommunity, we continuously exchange our microbes with people who live in close association with us.

In a follow-up experiment, Dr. Gordon and his colleagues created an artificial metacommunity by placing together mice harboring unrestricted-diet microbiota and mice with healthy-diet microbiota to further understand whether promoting bacterial dispersal between these mice could affect their responses to diet change. Interestingly, it turned out that mice with unrestricted-diet microbiota, which previously showed inefficient response to the new diet, have significantly improved their digestive performance by being in close proximity to mice with healthy-diet microbiota.

These findings suggest important implications for how dietary practices can be prescribed for success. However, since this study was primarily on mice, it will take more research to determine the health outcomes of the interpersonal microbiota exchanges for humans. The researchers believe that with a richer understanding of how humans exchange microbiota with other individuals and its effects on health, one day our concept of “social” diseases will be refreshed to incorporate perspectives of metacommunity dynamics in public health.

For many people, switching a diet can be challenging. Therefore, uncovering microbial potentials and ensuring a positive response to new diets for our body have always been a major goal of these studies. The hope in the near future is to be able to identify microbes that are associated with different dietary practices, and use these microbes to make probiotic products in order to enhance people’s digestive responses to their new diet.

After all, switching to a healthy diet is always a smart choice for your health!

General Tso’s Chicken Is Not General.

“So, what is this General Tso’s Chicken?”

“It’s hard to explain… It’s a sweet, Americanized dish made out of chicken. Americans love it.

Above was the conversation I had with the owner of the first Chinese restaurant I stepped into in the United States. After arriving to a small town in central Pennsylvania for college, I decided to visit one of the few Chinese restaurants in town hoping to get some food that would ease my feelings of being homesick. Unfortunately, not only did I get little comfort from the authenticity of the food, I became even more jumbled by what appeared on the menu. Why on earth does General Tso, this national hero I learned about in high school history books, have anything to do with chicken?

Perhaps, even General Tso himself would not have expected that one day his name would become famous all the way across the Pacific Ocean—but not for his battle achievements, rather for a chicken dish.

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General Zuo Zongtang (1812 – 1885), often known as General Tso, was a famous Chinese military leader and statesmen of the late Qing Dynasty.

Best known as a nineteenth-century general, politician, and national hero to Chinese people, General Tso’s full name is Zuo Zongtang (Tso Tsung-t’ang was the transliteration of his name before the standard Chinese phonetic system came out). He was born in 1812 in Hunan province, a region in southwest China that is famous for its spicy food and its people’s firey military tradition. As a formidable general, Tso led many successful battles to defeat rebel groups on the northwest border. His most famous achievement was recapturing the Xinjiang region from the Uyghur rebellions. After serving the Qing Dynasty for his entire military career, General Tso died in 1885, leaving his legendry stories to be shared and passed down from generation to generation.

So, how did General Tso end up entitling a chicken dish? The roots can be traced back to a famous chef named Peng Chang-kuei, who came from the same region as General Tso. Born in 1919, Peng grew up in a deprived family during the most troubled times in contemporary China. As a teen, Peng served as apprentice to Cao Jingchen, who was a private chef for the Nationalist officials and the owner of a famous restaurant. After years of apprenticeship, Peng became a famous chef himself and his cooking was so exceptional that he became the executive chef for the Nationalist government banquets.

In 1949, the Chinese civil war broke out, during which the Communist army defeated the Nationalist government. When the Nationalist party fled to Taiwan, many service people were brought with them, and among them was Peng. In Taiwan, Peng continued serving the Nationalist government as a chef and soon opened his own restaurant “Peng’s Huanan Yuan”—the most famous Hunan-style restaurant at the time. In his restaurant, Peng created many dishes that were inspired by his much-missed hometown and reflected Human cuisine. One of them includes General Tso’s chicken—a heavily sour, salty, and spicy chicken named after one of Hunanese favorite historical figures General Tso.

The “General” did not arrive in the U. S. until the early 1970s when America’s first Hunanese restaurant, “Hunan,” opened in Manhattan, New York. Inspired by Peng’s General Tso’s chicken in Taiwan, chef T. T. Wang, of the Hunan restaurant, also devised a dish called General Tso’s chicken with more American flavor and introduced this dish on the menu. With the huge success of Hunan restaurant, General Tso’s chicken—this fried, buttery and sweet chicken dish that fits American people’s tastes all around—soon got its own reputation. Shortly afterwards, it was copied by other Chinese restaurants all over the country, making General Tso’s chicken one of America’s favorite Chinese dishes.

Today, you can find General Tso’s chicken almost anywhere in this country. In fact, because of this dish, General Tso has become one of the most famous Chinese people known by the American public, of similar fame to Yao Ming or Jackie Chen. Ironically, although most American people have ordered meals in his name countless times, few of them know who General Tso really was, and why this dish was named after him. People always joke that General Tso to Americans is like Colonel Harland Sanders to Chinese—people know them because of the chicken, but not so much as military officers.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, despite the fact that General Tso’s chicken was first invented in Taiwan, it never become as popular as it in the U.S.. In fact, most Chinese people have never heard of it or tasted it. General Tso is still commemorated by the Chinese people as the celebrated Qing general. Even though General Tso’s chicken is as exotic to the Chinese as it to Americans, it is still widely considered to be a Chinese dish. After all, it embodies the history of civil war, the sentimental attachment of homeland, and the struggle of early Chinese immigrants to adapt to American society. Just like how General Tso’s Chicken is rich in flavor, this dish is also rich in its cultural connotations.

“Breaking Good” on the Wonderland of the Pacific Northwest

R.V., Chemicals, science equipment, blue gloves, and a busy lab crew…, for many “Breaking Bad” fans, this scene sounds oddly familiar. Believe or not, this was how Kerney lab as well as Kerney lab’s collaborator  spent their 2015 spring break. Unlike the characters of “Breaking Bad”, we were not making drugs, but participating in our “west meats the east” co-culture research experiment.

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Walking through the ancient forest is like Alice exploring her wonderland – so much unknown excitement!

Launched by Dr. Ryan Kerney and Jasper Leavitt ’15, this co-culture experiment aims to study what will happen if we swap the algae from Northwest salamander (Ambystoma gracile) embryo with the algae from the Northeast salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) embryo during their early embryonic development. Therefore, one of the major purposes of this trip is to collect adequate Northwest salamander embryos for the experiment.

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Ambystoma gracile (AKA: the northwestern salamander) mainly inhabits the northwest coast of North America, hence the name northwestern salamander.

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Egg mass of the northwest salamander. The salamander eggs usually form a egg clutch that is coated with clear-looking, firm jelly on the outside to protect them. Did it ever occur to you that these beautiful eggs look like the bubbles in the bubble tea?

Of course Kerney lab has our own ways of doing trips! We rented a R.V., which not only was our living space at night, but also our lab space during the day. The R.V. also functioned as our mobile vehicle when we needed to travel as well as our kitchen and dining space when we needed to eat – it was as convenient as you want it to be. If you are wondering how much of a lab can be made from a R.V., you would be very surprised. Fluorescent microscope, dissecting microscope, full range of chemicals, pH meter, salinity meter, dissecting tools, centrifuge tubes, and even waste disposal were all equipped in this tiny R.V, crazy… isn’t it?

Busy crew inside the “mobile lab”.

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Similar to when doctors take out water samples from pregnant mother to test the living conditions of the babe, here we also take out the fluid surrounding the salamander baby inside the egg capsule to to chemically analysis the aquatic environment in which the embryo lives in.

You might be curious about how this trip itself went. I would say, the trip was absolutely incredible! During the seven-day trip, the crew have traveled across the entirety of Oregon state and Washington state and the furthest place we reached North was Bellingham, WA. Under states permits we collected and fixed salamander embryos from seven sites, including natural parks, local ponds, and the backyard of a few newfound friends.

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Grandma, grandpa, mom, dad, and the little young boy were all working hard to find help us find salamander eggs in their backyard!

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To express our gratitude to the family for helping us for the salamander egg hunt and offering us the delicious dinner, we invited the family into our “mobile lab” and fired up the florescent microscope to show them some cool stuff about science.

What was the most unforgettable memory for me from this trip? I would definitely say the amazing scenery and the friendly people we’ve met. Not only did we cold hike through the ancient temperate rain forests, but we also saw snow-capped volcanoes, coasts, and some old train trails in northwest. Thanks to this amazing trip, the Pacific Northwest was, is, and will always be a true wonderland from the bottom of my heart. In a simple phrase, the trip was truly “breaking good”!

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Picture of our Pacific Northwest collection crew. From left to right: Jasper Leavitt ’15, Huanjia Zhang (myself), Kyle Weis, Ryan Kerney, and John Burns.

Read more about the spotted salamander (Ambystoma maculatum) and its symbiosis relationship with green algae!