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Tasmanian Devils

Australian scientist, Kathy Belov, discovered a genetically distinct colony of Tasmanian devils that may save the species from being extinct from a contagious cancer.

“We think these devils may be able to see the cancer cells as foreign and mount an immune response against them,” Ms. Belov said. “We think more animals might survive in the wild than we initially thought.”

“I don’t think this means that we can sit back and go, ‘Everything is OK,’ because we’ve already seen that the tumor has started to evolve,” Belov warned. “But now we can say that we’ve got a glimmer of hope. There may be some animals that may survive this epidemic.”

Tasmanian devils with large facial tumours were photographed in north-east Tasmania during 1996. More than a decade later, we know these characteristics are consistent with Devil Facial Tumour Disease (DFTD) – a fatal condition in Tasmanian devils, characterised by cancers around the mouth and head.

As at February 2010, the Tasmanian devil population has decreased by approximately 80%. DFTD has been recorded across more than 60% of the state, spreading between seven to 20km easterly per year (depending on the habitat). To date, there has not been any evidence of DFTD found in the far north-west of Tasmania.

The Save the Tasmanian Devil Program is the official joint strategy of the Australian and Tasmanian Governments. It features:

•Captive and free-ranging Insurance Populations
•Collaborative laboratory-based investigations of DFTD
•Management strategies for wild populations.
See the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program information on the Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment website.

What we know about the disease
The Tasmanian devil disease is a new disease, an infectious cancer, that is restricted to Tasmanian devils.

No affected animals were reported among the 2000-plus Tasmanian devils trapped by wildlife biologists between 1964 and 1995.

Once the cancer becomes visible, it always appears to be fatal – usually within three months. Small lesions, or lumps, in and around the mouth quickly develop into large tumours on the face and neck (and sometimes other parts of the body).

Tasmanian devils with facial tumours find it difficult to eat. Death results from starvation and the breakdown of body functions.

In diseased areas, nearly all the Tasmanian devils that are sexually mature (older than two years of age) become infected and succumb to the disease. Juveniles as young as one year old can also be infected.

Devil listed as “endangered”
In May 2009, the Australian Government uplisted the Tasmanian devil from “Vulnerable” to “Endangered” under national environmental law.

Tasmania’s Threatened Species Act 1995 has also listed the devil as “Endangered” since May 2008. Federal Environment Minister, Peter Garrett, said the species was under continued threat, but that the uplisting would provide it with greater protection.

“Fortunately, strong action is being taken to find out more about the Devil Facial Tumour Disease and to stop its spread,” Mr Garrett said.

“The Australian Government has already committed $10 million over five years to the Save the Tasmanian Devil Program. This is to help with research into disease transmission and treatment, and to support captive and wild populations.”

Sightings of the devil have declined by 80% since before 1996, when DFTD was first observed. As at February 2010, DFTD has been found across more than 60% of Tasmania. No cases of DFTD have been recorded west of the Murchison Highway, which roughly runs between Burnie and Queenstown.

In September 2006, DFTD was gazetted under the Animal Health Act 1995 as a List B notifiable disease. The Tasmanian devil has also been listed as “Endangered” on the Red List of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) – widely considered the most authoritative and objective system for classifying species in terms of their risk of extinction.

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The potentially deadly yellow-fever-transmitting Aedes aegypti mosquito detects the specific chemical structure of a compound called octenol as one way to find a mammalian host for a blood meal, Agricultural Research Service (ARS) scientists report.

Scientists have long known that mosquitoes can detect octenol, but this most recent finding by ARS entomologists Joseph Dickens and Jonathan Bohbot explains in greater detail how Ae. aegypti—and possibly other mosquito species—accomplish this.

Dickens and Bohbot, at the ARS Invasive Insect Biocontrol and Behavior Laboratory in Beltsville, Md., have shown that Ae. aegypti taps into the “right-handed” and “left-handed” structural nature of octenol, which is emitted by people, cattle and other mammals. This ability to detect the “handedness” of molecules has been shown in mammals, but the discovery is the first case of scientists finding out how it works in an insect, according to the researchers.

When they hunt for a blood meal, mosquitoes hone in on a variety of chemicals, including carbon dioxide, lactic acid, ammonia and octenol. Octenol is one of many carbon-based compounds that have a molecular structure that can take on either a “right-handed” or “left-handed” form. Each form is a mirror image of the other, and a form’s “handedness” is determined by how its molecular bonds are assembled.

The scientists used frog eggs to help them make their discovery. They injected RNA from Ae. aegypti into the frog eggs, allowing the egg membranes to mimic the mosquito’s ability to detect octenol. Then they attached microelectrodes to the frog egg cell membranes, passed octenol over them and recorded the electrical signals stimulated by the odors.

They ran the tests using both the right- and left-handed forms of octenol. The scientists found heightened electrical activity when the membrane was exposed to the right-handed form, and weakened activity when it was exposed to the left-handed form.

There are many natural compounds that can take on either a right-handed or left-handed form. While the effects of those differences on many plants and animals remains a mystery, the report, published in PLoS ONE, shows the effects of octenol’s dual structure on the yellow fever mosquito and adds to scientists’ understanding of how mosquitoes sense the world around them. It also may open the door to speedier development of better mosquito repellents and traps, according to Dickens.

The team’s research is being funded by the Department of Defense Deployed War Fighter Protection Research Program.

ARS is the principal intramural scientific research agency of the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

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Navy Goes Solar

The U.S. Navy awarded a $200 million contract in February to construct up to 40 megawatts (MW) of solar photovoltaic power plants at Navy and Marine Corps facilities throughout the Southwestern United States. The Navy chose five solar development companies to compete for individual projects, which will range from 1 to 15 MW. The five companies—SunEdison, AECOM Energy/Solar Power Partners Inc., SunPower Corporation, SunDurance Energy LLC, and Chevron Energy Solutions Company—will construct, own, operate, and maintain the systems, selling the power to the Navy and Marine Corps through power purchase agreements. The first three solar projects will be located in California and are expected to be awarded later this spring, becoming fully operational within a year. The new solar projects will help the Navy achieve its goal to produce at least 50% of the Navy’s shore-based energy requirements from renewable sources by 2020.

Most federal agencies are now exploring the use of renewable energy at their facilities, including solar power. For instance, the National Park Service (NPS) announced on March 4 it is installing a solar power system on Alcatraz Island, part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, to replace the island’s existing diesel-generated power. The NPS is funding this and 65 other high-priority projects using $138 million in American Recovery and Reinvestment Act funds freed up when other projects came in at lower cost or were cancelled. The NPS is also drawing on Recovery Act funds for solar energy projects at Golden Gate National Recreation Area, Mojave National Preserve, Point Reyes National Seashore, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks, all located in California; at Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado; at Everglades National Park and Gulf Islands National Seashore in Florida; at Cumberland Island National Seashore and Kennesaw Mountain National Battlefield Park in Georgia; at Craters of the Moon National Monument and Preserve in Idaho; at the Adams and Lowell National Historical Parks in Massachusetts; at Sleepy Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan; at Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area and Mount Rainer National Park in Washington; and at the American Memorial Park in the Northern Mariana Islands.

The NPS Recovery Act projects also include the addition of wind turbines at the Gates of the Arctic National Park and Preserve in Alaska and at the Lowell National Historical Park in Massachusetts. In addition, various energy efficiency improvements, such as new insulated windows and heating system upgrades, are slated for 23 NPS facilities in 19 states, including Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, New Jersey, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Maryland, Michigan, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, Tennessee, Utah, Virginia, Vermont, and Washington. The NPS will also boost clean transportation in California’s Yosemite National Park, which will get two hybrid electric buses, while Cape Cod National Seashore in Massachusetts will buy two alternative-fuel trams and trailers.

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