Conflict in Syria Shuts Down the Aleppo Seed Vault

Seeds are stored at a drying room of a German seed bank in 2015. Image Credit: TOBIAS SCHWARZ/AFP/Getty Images

Destruction in Syria has reached into the global food supply. The seed vault in Aleppo—a crucial resource for scientists and the future of our planet—has been forced to shut down by the chaos and conflict of the civil war. Scientists are now busy readying sister sites in Lebanon and Morocco in order to keep the seeds accessible and safe.

The first seed banks were founded in the 1980s with the goal of preserving our planet’s biodiversity, shoring up agricultural seed reserves, and creating a genetic backup in the event of food crop shortages. The mother of them all is the Global Seed Vault (also known as the Doomsday Vault) in Svalbard, which holds more than 200 million seeds from around the world in a former coal mine on an island in the Arctic.

Other centers are more locally focused. The seed bank in Aleppo is run by the International Center for Agricultural Research in the Dry Areas (ICARDA), which aims to preserve the DNA of plants from the driest parts of the world. The vault houses over 141,000 seeds representing 700-plus species, including the wild ancestors of modern staple crops like wheat, barley, and lentils.

Unlike the Doomsday Vault, which is, well, a vault, the seed bank in Aleppo was designed for both deposits and withdrawals. Its contents represent a vital resource to scientists, plant breeders, and farmers, who all need to be able to draw upon the samples within for their work.

But lately, that’s been just about impossible to do. Most of the staff was forced to leave in 2012. The most recent inspection of the facilities found the vault itself intact, but the work of managing the bank cannot go on.

Recognizing the need for a new plan, ICARDA made the world’s first withdrawal from the Doomsday Vault last year. The group withdrew samples of some of the same plants stored within the Aleppo bank and sent them to nearby sites in Rabat, Morocco and Terbol, Lebanon. The idea is to duplicate the Aleppo bank’s contents as closely as possible—to create a backup of the backup.

The seeds from Svalbard were used to start new lineages at both sites, and soon the originals will be returned to the vault.

Ahmed Amri is head of genetic resources at the ICARDA research station in Rabat. “The situation in Syria did not allow us to continue our core activities,” he told Nature. “I’m happy that we have established ourselves back to normal.”

But the seed banks’ troubles are far from over. Like so many scientific enterprises, ICARDA is threatened by a lack of funding. The sister sites' combined capacity maxes out at 135,000 seeds. And Lebanon is not exactly the safest place these days, either.

Amri brushes the latter concern aside. “It’s gone through 20 years of fighting, and we never had any problems,” he said.

Still, he’s sorry to leave Syria for Terbol. “We enjoyed our lives in Aleppo. It was one of the nicest places to live—wonderful people and a good environment for research at ICARDA.”

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Feeling Anxious? Just a Few Minutes of Meditation Might Help

Some say mindfulness meditation can cure anything. It might make you more compassionate. It can fix your procrastination habit. It could ward off germs and improve health. And it may boost your mental health and reduce stress, anxiety, depression, and pain.

New research suggests that for people with anxiety, mindfulness meditation programs could be beneficial after just one session. According to Michigan Technological University physiologist John Durocher, who presented his work during the annual Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California on April 23, meditation may be able to reduce the toll anxiety takes on the heart in just one session.

As part of the study, Durocher and his colleagues asked 14 adults with mild to moderate anxiety to participate in an hour-long guided meditation session that encouraged them to focus on their breathing and awareness of their thoughts.

The week before the meditation session, the researchers had measured the participants' cardiovascular health (through data like heart rate and the blood pressure in the aorta). They evaluated those same markers immediately after the session ended, and again an hour later. They also asked the participants how anxious they felt afterward.

Other studies have looked at the benefits of mindfulness after extended periods, but this one suggests that the effects are immediate. The participants showed significant reduction in anxiety after the single session, an effect that lasted up to a week afterward. The session also reduced stress on their arteries. Mindfulness meditation "could help to reduce stress on organs like the brain and kidneys and help prevent conditions such as high blood pressure," Durocher said in a press statement, helping protect the heart against the negative effects of chronic anxiety.

But other researchers have had a more cautious outlook on mindfulness research in general, and especially on studies as small as this one. In a 2017 article in the journal Perspectives on Psychological Science, a group of 15 different experts warned that mindfulness studies aren't always trustworthy. "Misinformation and poor methodology associated with past studies of mindfulness may lead public consumers to be harmed, misled, and disappointed," they wrote.

But one of the reasons that mindfulness can be so easy to hype is that it is such a low-investment, low-risk treatment. Much like dentists still recommend flossing even though there are few studies demonstrating its effectiveness against gum disease, it’s easy to tell people to meditate. It might work, but if it doesn't, it probably won't hurt you. (It should be said that in rare cases, some people do report having very negative experiences with meditation.) Even if studies have yet to show that it can definitively cure whatever ails you, sitting down and clearing your head for a few minutes probably won't hurt.

Ted Cranford
Scientists Use a CT Scanner to Give Whales a Hearing Test
Ted Cranford
Ted Cranford

It's hard to study how whales hear. You can't just give the largest animals in the world a standard hearing test. But it's important to know, because noise pollution is a huge problem underwater. Loud sounds generated by human activity like shipping and drilling now permeate the ocean, subjecting animals like whales and dolphins to an unnatural din that interferes with their ability to sense and communicate.

New research presented at the 2018 Experimental Biology meeting in San Diego, California suggests that the answer lies in a CT scanner designed to image rockets. Scientists in San Diego recently used a CT scanner to scan an entire minke whale, allowing them to model how it and other whales hear.

Many whales rely on their hearing more than any other sense. Whales use sonar to detect the environment around them. Sound travels fast underwater and can carry across long distances, and it allows whales to sense both predators and potential prey over the vast territories these animals inhabit. It’s key to communicating with other whales, too.

A CT scan of two halves of a dead whale
Ted Cranford, San Diego State University

Human technology, meanwhile, has made the ocean a noisy place. The propellers and engines of commercial ships create chronic, low-frequency noise that’s within the hearing range of many marine species, including baleen whales like the minke. The oil and gas industry is a major contributor, not only because of offshore drilling, but due to seismic testing for potential drilling sites, which involves blasting air at the ocean floor and measuring the (loud) sound that comes back. Military sonar operations can also have a profound impact; so much so that several years ago, environmental groups filed lawsuits against the U.S. Navy over its sonar testing off the coasts of California and Hawaii. (The environmentalists won, but the new rules may not be much better.)

Using the CT scans and computer modeling, San Diego State University biologist Ted Cranford predicted the ranges of audible sounds for the fin whale and the minke. To do so, he and his team scanned the body of an 11-foot-long minke whale calf (euthanized after being stranded on a Maryland beach in 2012 and preserved) with a CT scanner built to detect flaws in solid-fuel rocket engines. Cranford and his colleague Peter Krysl had previously used the same technique to scan the heads of a Cuvier’s beaked whale and a sperm whale to generate computer simulations of their auditory systems [PDF].

To save time scanning the minke calf, Cranford and the team ended up cutting the whale in half and scanning both parts. Then they digitally reconstructed it for the purposes of the model.

The scans, which assessed tissue density and elasticity, helped them visualize how sound waves vibrate through the skull and soft tissue of a whale’s head. According to models created with that data, minke whales’ hearing is sensitive to a larger range of sound frequencies than previously thought. The whales are sensitive to higher frequencies beyond those of each other’s vocalizations, leading the researchers to believe that they may be trying to hear the higher-frequency sounds of orcas, one of their main predators. (Toothed whales and dolphins communicate at higher frequencies than baleen whales do.)

Knowing the exact frequencies whales can hear is an important part of figuring out just how much human-created noise pollution affects them. By some estimates, according to Cranford, the low-frequency noise underwater created by human activity has doubled every 10 years for the past half-century. "Understanding how various marine vertebrates receive and process low-frequency sound is crucial for assessing the potential impacts" of that noise, he said in a press statement.


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