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.

Read more at Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. Phys.org article

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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UMass Amherst Professor Hazen Aimes 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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Professor Bartlett Investigating Plant Stem Cells' Role in Yielding More and Bigger Fruit

Madelaine Bartlett, biology, and plant genome scientist colleagues elsewhere have received a four-year, $4 million grant from the National Science Foundation ($812,000 to Bartlett) to study the genes that regulate plant stem cell biology and the role they play in yielding more and bigger fruit. One goal is to experimentally speed up the mutation process, she says. “Instead of waiting for the next thousand years to see what new mutations arise in these genes, we will accelerate evolution in a very controlled and intelligent way to create genetic diversity for use by traditional plant breeders.”

The evolutionary biologist adds, “All the plants we eat have been domesticated, that is, selected by ancient farmers to be more convenient to grow and to yield more food. Because of all we know about how evolution works, we’ll use the same tools that nature does to create new genetic diversity.”

The research collaboration, which will focus on tomatoes, corn and the model plant Arabidopsis thaliana, is led by principal investigator David Jackson of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory, N.Y. Others on the team are colleague Zachary Lippman at Cold Spring, Bartlett and Zachary Nimchuk of the University of North Carolina. In earlier studies by the Jackson lab published in Nature Genetics with Bartlett as a co-author, the researchers showed that weak alleles of a gene in the CLAVATA gene network can enhance fruit yield in corn. The researchers plan to build on that success.

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