How a Cow Can Help the Climate (TakePart)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

BAHIA STATE, Brazil—Grande Sertão Veredas National Park got its name from João Guimarães Rosa’s sprawling poetic novel about the bandit gangs and cattle ranchers who lived in the lawless sertão, or outback, in the early 20th century. Today the park preserves a piece of this myth-infused region, a savanna that once covered more than a quarter of Brazil’s territory and harbors 5 percent of the world’s species. The tracks of tapirs, jaguars, maned wolves, giant anteaters, and wild horses can be found in the dirt roads here.

But the park is now an island of wilderness in a sea of monocrop farms. Much of the land outside Grande Sertão Veredas has been razed for cattle pasture or converted for farming soy, coffee, and eucalyptus, which is burned for charcoal. Less than half of the dry forests, brush, and grasslands in this savanna, known as the Cerrado (pronounced “sey-HA-do”), remains intact.

Help has arrived in the unlikely form of a dairy farmer from New Zealand named Simon Wallace. Using a technique imported from his homeland, Wallace aims to reverse the process of deforestation and high-carbon cattle rearing that’s prevalent in Brazil and develop island farms amid a sea of wilderness. The technique leverages increased efficiency so that more dairy can be produced from significantly less pasture, reducing pressure to clear wilderness and allowing more native habitat to stand.

Read the rest at TakePart

Two new stories about the Brazilian Cerrado (Mongabay)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A tale of two maps: Brazilian state won't use new atlas to close Cerrado deforesation loophole

Farmers in north-central Brazil, where the savanna meets the Amazon rainforest, are clearing land at an unprecedented rate. The government hasn’t stopped the cutting, partly because it is using inaccurate, outdated maps that hugely underestimate the extent of its endangered dry forests. State regulators in Tocantins have continued using the old maps, even after commissioning superior, detailed vegetation maps that could identify at-risk forest patches and help curb deforestation. 

Read more:

Conservation and carbon storage goals collide in Brazil's Cerrado

The Cerrado has long been a neglected ecosystem. Approximately 46 percent of the Brazilian Amazon has been preserved, but just 7 percent of the Cerrado is protected. There's a saying in Portuguese: The Cerrado é para serra. The Cerrado is for sawing. 

"I'm afraid that in the future, few natural areas in the Cerrado will be left," says Carlos Bianchi, an ecologist at the Federal University in Goías. "Agriculture is moving much faster than conservation can." 

The failure to protect the Cerrado glaringly highlights a conflict policymakers would rather not talk about: the mismatch between biodiversity conservation and carbon mitigation strategies. 

Read more:

Trove of VA reports reveals research misconduct, medical malpractice (Retraction Watch)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

I can't believe it's been five years since I wrote something for my old friend Ivan Oransky. He was a real mentor to me at The Scientist and put me onto some great investigations when he moved to Scientific American and Reuters Health. Here's a quick story I did for him at Retraction Watch, which is expanding thanks to a MacArthur Foundation grant.



Tiny Brazilian opossum could be farmers’ friend (Mongabay and Scientific American)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

André Mendonça pops open the spring-loaded door on the shoebox-sized trap and peeks inside. Two bulging, black eyes glare back at him. He pulls the trap off the tree limb and shakes the stunned, sopping wet creature into a clear plastic bag. “One more!” he says excitedly. 

The animal, a gracile mouse opossum (Gracilinanus agilis), has a long, pointy nose, adorable pink ears, and slender hairless legs. Mendonça, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Brasília, weighs and measures the animal, clips its ears and adds two metal tags. Then, lets it go and watches it amble into a sapling. This little drama takes place at the Botanical Garden of Brasília, a few miles from the center of the Brazilian capital. 

Preserving Brazil’s Cerrado savanna landscape, Mendonça tells me, isn’t just good for biodiversity, it’s also good for neighboring farms and farmers. A reason why: these researchers just recently learned that this little opossum species likes to feast on a local soybean pest. “If farmers maintain a natural [wooded] area next to their soy plantation,” where these animals can live, “they may not have to use as much pesticide,” he said. 

Read more:

This is the second story from my trip to Brazil, which was supported by the Mongabay Special Reporting Inititative

Farmers Urge Return of Jaguars to Protect Crops (Scientific American & Mongabay)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The big cats could return to do the job they once did in Brazil's grassland—hunt a growing population of wild pig relatives, called peccaries, that decimates crop yields

Margie Peixoto was driving her pickup across her farm in the Brazilian state of Mato Grosso do Sul one February afternoon when she spotted some broken corn stalks and a trio of white-lipped peccaries (Tayassu pecari) ambling along the red-clay road as if they owned it. The moment these wild pig relatives spotted the truck, they snorted, snarled and disappeared into the head-high crop, where dozens more likely hid. 

“Every year the group gets bigger and bigger, and every year the damage to the crop is greater,” said Peixoto, a fit middle-aged woman from Zimbabwe, who met her Brazilian husband while traveling in Africa, and immigrated here to farm more than 30 years ago. 

Read the rest at Scientific American or Mongabay

This is the first story from my trip to Brazil, which was supported by the Mongabay Special Reporting Inititative

Rock Opera (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

In the northeastern Brazilian state of Bahia, not far from the city of Pindobaçu, the land is creased like an accordion. There, the earth’s crust has been squished into a series of granite ridges separated by scrub-filled valleys. These folds are rich with the elements beryllium and chromium, which have worked their way into the cracked rock and cooled to form green hexagonal crystals—emeralds. Starting in the 1960s, thousands of prospectors, known in Portuguese as garimpeiros, have flocked here to mine. Descending hundreds of feet down shafts no wider than manholes, they risk their lives to hunt for the gemstones.

One of these shafts sits below a farm owned by an elderly man. One day in early 2001, according to an investigation by Brazil’s National Department of Mineral Production, a garimpeiro there emerged from the ground with an emerald formation far larger than anyone had ever seen. It was a dark, tombstone-size hunk of shale, with a dozen greenish columns jutting out like sticks of Kryptonite. Weighing 840 pounds, the rock matrix contained an emerald estimated to be 180,000 carats in size. At the time of its discovery, it was the largest uncut emerald in the world.

Read the rest of this story at Bloomberg Businessweek


What Carbon Markets Can't Save: A Journey through the Brazilian Cerrado (Mongabay)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

I'm headed to Brazil later this month with the support of the Mongabay Special Reporting Initiative. Here's the gist:

The Brazilian Cerrado is considered one of the world’s great biodiversity hotspots, providing critical habitat for a variety of species, including the maned wolf and the giant anteater. This mosaic of dry forest and open savannah is shrinking at twice the rate of the Amazon due to the expansion of soy plantations and cattle ranches. But because the Cerrado vegetation offers little in the way of carbon storage compared to the rainforest, it has been largely ignored by policy-makers concerned with staving off climate change. Borrell plans to travel through the region to find out what’s at stake when we value climate metrics over biodiversity goals.


Cellular computers gain a hard drive (Nature)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

A new DNA-based recorder allows bioengineers to create cell cultures that detect information in their environment and store it for later use. Such 'designer' cells might in the future be used to monitor water quality in a village, or measure the amount of sugar a person eats. 

Watson's Nobel sells for $4.1 million (Nature)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

James Watson, the molecular biologist who has become nearly as famous for his unfiltered, off-colour remarks as for his role in the discovery of the double-helix structure of DNA, has achieved another scientific milestone. On 4 December, he became the first living scientist to auction his Nobel Prize medal to the highest bidder.

What color is your pygmy goat? (Pacific Standard)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The moment you set eyes upon Only Imagine’s two kids, you will want to pick them up, cradle them in your arms, and sing them goat lullabies. They have black socks, pointy white ears, and white muzzles. Their legs are stumpy. Their eyes, which are button-round, have an earnest look of terror. Since they are pygmy goats, they will grow to a height of only two feet and a weight of 80 pounds, a third of the size of an ordinary goat. Their names are Imagine and Imagine That. And they are caught up in an unlikely war over breeding.

Read the rest at Pacific Standard

Straight Talk with Geoffrey Ling (Nature Medicine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Since its founding in 1958 in response to the USSR's Sputnik launch, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has funded some of the most cutting-edge—and often highly classified—scientific research in the US. Although it is best known for its role in developing the Internet and global positioning systems, DARPA is also home to many biomedical projects, including efforts to treat battlefield injuries and to boost the physiological capacities of soldiers. Previously, health-related research was somewhat dispersed throughout the engineering-focused agency, a division of the US Department of Defense. That all changed in April, when DARPA launched the Biological Technologies Office (BTO).

The man picked to lead the BTO is Geoffrey Ling, a physician-scientist with training in neurology and pharmacology who spent 27 years in the US Army Medical Corps. Ling's research has focused on diagnosing and treating traumatic brain injuries, which he saw firsthand during two combat tours and four research missions in Afghanistan and Iraq. As a DARPA program manager, he is best known for spearheading the Revolutionizing Prosthetics program, which created an advanced prosthetic arm that interfaces with the brain. (This robotic arm won US regulatory approval on 9 May.) Ling spoke with Brendan Borrell about what the BTO will mean for the medical research community. The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Read the rest in Nature Medicine

Grounded (Nature Conservancy Magazine)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Mark Anderson is surrounded by maps. 

He has maps of wetlands and waterways, ridges and valleys, pastures and forests. He has geologic maps that look like watercolors, with pastel pinks and blues swirling from Maine to Alabama, and maps showing habitat disruptions in pointillist detail. They curl up next to the origami moose in his bookcase. They pile up on his desk, next to his latest scientific paper. They plaster the outside of his cubicle, partially obscuring his name and his title, director of conservation science for The Nature Conservancy’s Eastern United States division.

Of all these maps, there’s one in particular that Anderson and his team have agonized over. It shows all the Conservancy’s preserves, easements and land purchases in the eastern United States, more than 6 million acres in total, plotted in green and brown and protected for years to come. In fact, Anderson was one of the field ecologists who, in the early 1990s, came up with a strategy to identify the best places for the Conservancy to protect distinct examples of ecological communities. “Everything was based on the location of where species were at that time,” he says. “Then climate change comes along and—whoa!—everything is moving.”

Since 1880, average global temperatures have increased 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit, and scientists project that they will rise at least 2 more degrees by the end of the century. This warming trend has led to many ecological shifts. Some species are moving north—or up in elevation—in search of cooler habitat, while others, including invasives, fill the void. Flowers are blooming earlier in the spring and birds migrating south later in the fall. Extreme weather events such as epic droughts and storms are expected to become more common, threatening species that are already struggling to survive.

All this change raises a troubling question for the Conservancy: Even if it has set aside land with the highest levels of plant and animal biodiversity today, how can it guarantee that such a rich ecological community will remain there a century from now?

The answer may be found between the contour lines of Anderson’s maps. He champions an unconventional approach to conservation, one that focuses more on the stage than on its actors. 

“Species are really tied to physical properties of the landscape,” he says, explaining that landforms and elevation play a big role in determining biodiversity. Protecting the most diverse landscapes will help protect biodiversity by offering plants and animals the greatest number of options to cope with a changing climate. He calls these places resilient sites.

Read more in the June/July issue of Nature Conservancy Magazine

Why won't the government let you eat superfish? (Bloomberg Businessweek)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

Prince Edward Island is Anne of Green Gables country, a pastoral wonderland on the east coast of Canada. It is a Technicolor quilt of clapboard houses and potato fields where each year thousands of tourists buy straw hats with Anne’s two red braids sewn into them. It does not look like the kind of place where a risky experiment might be taking place. But that changes when, on a wintry March morning, you arrive at the AquaBounty Technologies (ABTX:LN) facility on Fortune Bay. A chain link fence surrounds the perimeter, and signs warn would-be trespassers that they are being watched by eight motion-activated video cameras.This fish hatchery is like no other. It’s run by a man who, with his white mustache, blue eyes, and reddened face, looks like he could run a candy store in a Jimmy Stewart movie. “Greenpeace parachuted in here once,” AquaBounty Chief Executive Officer Ronald Stotish says, standing just outside the building. “They stayed long enough for the TV cameras to film them.”

Inside, Stotish, 65, slips medical booties over his loafers and sloshes through a brownish puddle of disinfectant. After instructing a visitor to do the same, he signs his name on a clipboard and enters a low-ceilinged room with rows of green circular tanks, each about the size of a washing machine, linked together by a maze of white PVC piping. They are all filled with clouds of small, silvery fish, but Stotish wants to start our tour at the beginning. In a room off to the side, he points out shelves slotted with gray trays, numeric codes scribbled on them with a Sharpie. We slide one out and lift a fine screen to see thousands of pink eggs with pinprick eyes bobbing in the water.

The product of $78 million of research and development, these may be the world’s most valuable fish eggs. The AquAdvantage fish is a variation of Atlantic salmon, genetically modified to grow to market size in two years rather than three. That means money for salmon farmers, who sell about $12 billion worth of salmon every year. More important, it could relieve pressure on the environmentally taxing process of fish farming, an industry that has doubled in size in the last decade. But the prospect of an engineered fish entering our food supply and, potentially, escaping into the ocean and wiping out wild fish has caused environmental groups to launch a merciless political and public-relations assault on the company.

Read the rest at Bloomberg Businessweek

Seeds of a Cure (Scientific American)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

 Photo of Malian healer courtesy Merlin Willcox

Photo of Malian healer courtesy Merlin Willcox

The tall Fulani woman carried herself into the traditional healer's hut with the bearing of a princess. Like other members of this nomadic cow-herding tribe in southern Mali, she wore a long, flowing blue dress, painted her lips with indigo and henna, and adorned her earlobes with magnificent gold crescents. Once inside, however, the old healer watched her poise wither away. She was weak from recent childbirth, the palms of her hands were pale with anemia and her forehead was hot to the touch. The woman was so terribly exhausted that she nodded off just recounting her woes. “Soumaya,” the healer proclaimed. Malaria.


With that folk diagnosis in hand, the two Western doctors observing her visit—Bertrand Graz of the University of Lausanne in Switzerland and Merlin Willcox of the University of Oxford—got to work. The woman signed an informed-consent form, provided her medical history, and allowed the researchers to take a prick of her blood for parasite counts and other analyses. She would be taking part in a remarkable study to measure the cure rate of an herbal tea prepared with the leaves of a canary yellow poppy. By the time of her follow-up, three days later, she was well on her way to recovery.

Read the rest in the June 2014 issue of Scientific American

Birth of a Language (Discover)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

The indigenous village of Lajamanu, population 600, sits on the southern edge of the subtropics of northern Australia. It’s the kind of place where a truck rumbles in once a week to deliver staples to the local store, and where electricity comes from diesel and solar generators. It’s so remote that the oldest members of the community still remember the first time they saw a white person in the 1930s.

Carmel O’Shannessy landed on Lajamanu’s dirt airstrip in 1998 as a government employee sent to support local teachers of English and Warlpiri, a language spoken in several places in the Northern Territory. By 2001, she realized that the children had been busy inventing an entirely new mixed language, borrowing words and grammar from both mother tongues. O’Shannessy, now a linguist at the University of Michigan, describes how she got the chance to witness a language — which she later dubbed Light Warlpiri — in the making.

Read the Q&A at Discover

Losing His Sight, a Scientist Sees an End to a Deadly Disease (Nautilus)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell


Twenty years ago, Bill Jacobs made the tuberculosis bug glow. It was like mounting a pair of headlights on a man-eating tiger. One of the world’s deadliest infectious diseases could no longer slink around in the shadows, evading its trackers. Microbiologists could now peer into a microscope to see if a particular antibiotic turned out the lights—that is, killed the TB bacteria. Or at least they could do this so long as they didn’t happen to be Bill Jacobs. That’s because when Bill Jacobs looked into the microscope at his own creation, he couldn’t see a thing. He was going blind.

Read the rest at Nautilus

An African Skeptic Does Vegas (Pacific Standard)

Posted on by Brendan Borrell

On a stage at a Las Vegas casino, James Randi, the 85-year-old magician-turned-mythbuster, limps into view, his face framed by a long white Santa Claus beard, a black cape draped over his hunched frame. It’s early July and the esteemed skeptic is here to talk to a crowd of a thousand people at the 15th annual “Amaz!ng Meeting” of his eponymous educational foundation. Suddenly, the octogenarian launches into a cartwheel, rips off his beard, and begins a little song-and-dance number. We’ve been hoaxed. It’s not Randi, after all, but George Hrab, a chrome-domed performer in a pinstripe suit. “Who can take a person spouting off the poo and prove they’re filled with number two?” he croons. “The Randi Man can! Yes, the Randi Man can! ’Cause he’s got a rational plan to fight the fakers good!”

The audience erupts in laughter as Hrab takes jabs at chiropractors, water dowsers, and Bigfoot hunters. Hrab is the meeting’s M.C. and the corny host of The Geologic Podcast, which features comic sketches, interviews, and a dose of skepticism. His Vaudeville-style roast sets the tone for the next four days of what is perhaps the world’s preeminent gathering of self-proclaimed skeptics, people dedicated to debunking and demystifying anything that smacks of the supernatural. At this gathering of the nerdiest of the nerdy, it’s hard not to run into the likes of Michael Shermer, the charismatic publisher of Skeptic magazine, or such scientific celebrities as Michael E. Mann, the embattled climatologist famous for his hockey-stick graph of Earth’s rising temperature. “You read their books, and then there they are in person!” one astonished attendee tells his partner.

Out in the audience this morning is a man few people have heard of, Leo Igwe. A black man in a sea of white faces, he sticks out like an evolutionist in Sunday school. The previous fall, Igwe, a Nigerian, had been named a fellow at the James Randi Educational Foundationfor his high-voltage campaign against witchcraft beliefs in Africa. He has flown here straight from a witch-rehabilitation camp in Ghana to give a talk about his work. The 43-year-old is of medium height and a little soft at the belly; today he is wearing rectangular glasses perched on his broad nose. As he explores various booths out in the hall, he takes in everything from whimsical anti-religion “Praise Bacon” T-shirts to a pair of double-helix earrings. Down by the registration booth, a man pulls up a sleeve to reveal a portrait of the foundation’s white-bearded namesake tattooed on his shoulder.

Read the rest at Pacific Standard