Becoming Weeds

Ana Caicedo is an author on a new paper about a new resequencing analysis of weedy rice (Oryza sativa L.) biotypes illuminates distinct evolutionary paths and outcomes of de-domestication and ferality. This largest effort to date in weedy plant genomics gives a better understanding of weediness while also providing a promising source of alleles for rice breeding.

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Experts Say EU Commission Proposal Would Limit Ability to Protect Public from Endocrine Disruptors

University of Massachusetts Amherst biologist Thomas Zoeller, an internationally recognized expert in the health effects of endocrine-disrupting chemicals, with the Washington, D.C.-based Endocrine Society, this week expressed disappointment in the European Commission’s revised proposal on defining and identifying endocrine-disrupting chemicals, citing unnecessarily narrow criteria for identifying them.

The new move “will make it nearly impossible for regulatory agencies to meet the unrealistically high burden of proof and protect the public from dangerous chemicals,” the society stated. Zoeller adds, “The commission is known to be heavily influenced both by multinational chemical industries and their trade groups, as well as the U.S. State Department, in designing language that would dilute European regulations to be more consistent with those in the U.S.”

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Desert Songbirds May Face Expanding Threat of Lethal Dehydration

Alexander Gerson, Biology, is a co-author of a new study of songbird dehydration and survival risk during heat waves in the United States desert Southwest that suggests that some birds are at risk of lethal dehydration and mass die-offs when water is scarce, and the risk is expected to increase as climate change advances. Using physiological data, hourly temperature maps and modeling, Gerson, along with first author Tom Albright at the University of Nevada, Reno, and co-author Blair Wolf at the University of New Mexico, investigated how rates of evaporative water loss varied in five bird species with varied body mass. They mapped potential effects of current and future heat waves on lethal dehydration risk for songbirds in the Southwest and how rapidly this can occur in each species.

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Geneticist Craig Albertson to Study Shaping of Skull and Facial Skeleton

Evolutionary and developmental geneticist Craig Albertson, biology, has received a five-year, $1.76 million National Institutes of Health grant to study the development of the craniofacial skeleton, work he says will address a significant knowledge gap. Albertson explains, “While we know a lot about how the skull and facial skeleton form, we know comparatively very little about how the head is shaped over development.”

Albertson’s lab will first use a combination of micro-CT scanning, 3D reconstructions and genetic mapping in cichlid fish to generate hypotheses about the specific genes that control head shape variation. Cichlids are famous for their remarkable morphological diversity, including craniofacial diversity, and are therefore an excellent model for such studies, he says. Next, he and colleagues will test these genetic hypotheses by manipulating the genomes of zebrafish, what he calls “a powerful experimental model system,” to look for differences in skull shape.

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Hazen Aims to Improve Pine Biomass Yield

Global demand for forest products such as pulp for paper, saw timber and wood pellets for fuel is expected to increase in coming years. To meet this need, UMass Amherst plant geneticist Sam Hazen, whose research has led to higher biomass yield in grasses, recently received a grant to demonstrate that his new technology can be translated to grow trees that produce more wood than conventional trees.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded Hazen a three-year, $713,000 grant to study gene regulation of cell wall growth in the model grass species Brachypodium. His experiments will advance understanding of the transcription networks that regulate secondary cell wall biosynthesis in grasses. Understanding the cell wall, which is a complex blend of polysaccharides, proteins and lignin, plus the processes and genes that regulate them, could have a big impact on commercial agriculture, he points out.

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