A few months ago, in the ‘silly season’ of summer, we were fretting about the future of food – how we were ever going to produce enough to feed and fuel the world, whether we were all going to be subsisting on fermented barley sludge and have to give up milk.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to meet with some very sound-minded people, who have pointed out to their fellow agriculturalists – the food producers – that no, we’re not going to starve.
Looking out of the office window at this time of year, I'm fortunate enough to be able to enjoy the sight of trees turning all possible shades of red and orange. In parts of the USA, autumn foliage is big business for tourism, with 'leaf peepers' descending on New England every autumn to see forests full of spectacular reds, oranges and yellows. But while skimming the tourism news this week as part of my job of editor of Leisuretourism.com, my eye was caught by news from the Nashua Telegraph of an unusual threat to tourism: beetles.
It’s normal enough to see drunk students hanging off of tree branches (isn’t it?), but what about small rat-like creatures? It turns out that wild mammals may also be behaviourally and physiologically challenged by alcohol in their food. Frank Wiens and colleagues recently discovered that pentailed treeshrews (Ptilocercus lowii) and 6 other mammalian pollinators of the bertam palm (Eugeissona tristis), chronically consume alcoholic nectar from the palm’s flower buds. The buds harbor a fermenting yeast community which facilitates the production of nectar with the highest ever alcohol concentration reported in a natural food. Their study in a West Malaysian rainforest found that the pentailed treeshrew spends around 2 hours consuming the equivalent of 10-12 glasses of wine with an alcohol content of up to 3.8% every night!
European vets are gearing up for their first veterinary week, which will be held from 10-16 November in various locations across Europe. This is a joint initiative organised by the European Commission and the Federation of Veterinarians of Europe (FVE). The organising team is also supported by an advisory group of stakeholders (farmers’ organizations, industry and other stakeholders) and the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE). The initiative is aimed at promoting the Community Animal Health Strategy, "Prevention is better than cure", as well as the "One Health" concept. It will also focus on biosecurity, and in particular biosecurity on farms and at country borders.
As the world's attention has been focussed on the global financial crisis,
little notice has been taken of the emergence of a new deadly disease in
southern Africa. In September a woman tourist guide living near Lusaka, Zambia
was evacuated to South Africa in a critical state. Her symptoms included fever
myalgia, vomiting, diarrhoea, followed by rash, liver dysfunction and
convulsions. Within a few weeks she died of acute respiratory distress syndrome.
A paramedic who had cared for the patient during the evacuation developed
similar symptoms and died, as did an intensive care nurse who treated the
patient. A fourth person also fell ill.
The culprit of this deadly disease appears to be an Arenavirus (Family
Arenaviridae),. These are enveloped viruses with a bi-segmented negative
strand RNA genome. The African and Old World arenaviruses (like Lassa fever virus)
differ from the New World viruses such as Junin virus in their use of primary
receptors. The prototype Arenavirus is Lymphocytic Choriomeningitis virus
(LCMV) which can cause meningitis. Rodents such as mice and hamsters can harbour
the virus and pass it on to humans. It is a potential problem particularly for pregnant women
who should avoid handling pet (or laboratory) rodents. Other Arenaviruses cause
haemorrhagic fever, such as Lassa fever virus, Guanarito virus, and Machupo virus.
Lassa fever virus causes thousands of cases of disease each year throughout West
Africa, with estimates of around 500 deaths a year. As with LCMV, these other
viruses are also found in rodents, which act as reservoir hosts, and humans can
contract the disease by contact with faeces, urine, blood or saliva of infected
The Arenavirus isolated from the recent South African cases of disease have
yet to be identified, but could be a new virus. In a brief news item in the New
Scientists there is a quote from Bob Swanepoel of the South African National
Institute for Communicable Disease saying "how little we know about the
viruses circulating in Africa". A look on the CAB Abstracts and Global
Health Databases show that there is more than 800 records on this viruses. Of
these over 200 are on Lassa fever virus. A brief look through these records
helps to create a picture of the effect that these viruses are having, what the
current state of knowledge is, and where the work is being done.
By looking through the records on CAB it appears that this outbreak in Africa
is not the only recent case of Arenaviruses emerging and causing fatalities. Earlier this year another new Arenavirus was reported in a cluster of fatal
cases associated with transplant complications in the USA. The virus in this
cluster was found to resemble the LCMV virus*. Most of the new viral diseases,
such as SARS, Nipah, and Hendra virus infection, that crop up in humans have
crossed the species barrier and come from other animals. This would reinforce
the importance of information across the medical and the veterinary areas
in understanding and controlling these diseases.
*Arenavirus in a cluster of fatal transplant-associated diseases. Palacios, G. (et. al), New
England Journal of Medicine, 2008, Vol. 358, No. 10, pp. 991-998.
A report from India Reuters says the number of tiger attacks on people is growing in India's Sundarban Islands, possibly the largest mangrove ecosystem in the world. Seven fishermen were killed in the past six months in a location called Netidhopani, according to report by P. Sanuyal, from the World Conservation Union. The report suggests this could be put down to recent climatic change, but how?
Just a week after finding out that Paget’s disease might be linked to distemper virus, I was surprised to see the disease mentioned in a story in the Guardian newspaper, in connection with a pianting I know well from visits to the National Gallery. The painting entitled ‘A Grotesque Old Woman’, is one of the most popular in the National Gallery, London, is commonly known as the ‘Ugly Duchess’. It was painted by the Flemish artist Quinten Massys, in 1513. The painting inspired illustrations for the Duchess (who owned the Cheshire cat) in Lewis Carroll's Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Sir John Tenniel.
According to the Guardian story, the painting was studied by Michael Baum, Emeritus professor of Surgery at University College, and his student Christopher Cook who concluded that the subject was suffering from a rare form of Paget’s disease. Paget's disease, osteitis deformans, is named after Sir James Paget, the British surgeon who first described it in the late 19th century The disease usually affects the lower body such as the pelvis and femur, and when it does affect the skull it is normally just the cranium so the woman was suffering from a particularly rare form. The condition most likely happened later in life so, according to Baum, she may even have been a beauty before the condition set in. Aside from the effect on her looks, she may have suffered no more than headaches and a damaged pituitary gland. Nothing else is known about the woman who was so meticulously portrayed, who she was, or why she was the subject of the painting. Baum speculates that she was a rich, powerful person who paid the artist handsomely to paint the picture.
The other interesting thing to emerge from research into the painting is that the theory that the painting was made from drawings by Leonardo Da Vinci is probably not true, and that it is more likely that Leonardo or his followers copied the Massys painting.
I am sure that we will never be know how she came to have Paget's disease, or if there was any connection with distemper or dogs, but it is a thought, and one to ponder on the next visit to the National Gallery.
Switching on the radio this morning, I was snapped out of the usual early-morning drowsiness by hearing CABI mentioned towards the top of the news bulletins. Among the usual stories of global financial meltdown, US presidential elections and the like, was news of how my scientific colleagues are hoping to bring Japanese knotweed, an aggressive invasive species, under control in the UK. (In fact I hear the breakfast show presenter on one of the national BBC radio stations said this story was a deliberate plan to distract us all from the financial crisis).
Even at this time of financial worries it appears that the story of how Japanese knotweed could be brought under control by introducing plant-eating predators from Japan has caught the public imagination: at the time of writing this it is tracked on the BBC news website as the 'most emailed' story, and for much of the day it has been in the top 3 most read articles. It describes how CABI biocontrol expert Dick Shaw and colleagues have been searching for natural enemies of the plant which was originally introduced as an ornamental species, but has since spread rapidly in the UK causing damage not only to native plant diversity, but also causing problems for hard structures, including buildings, paving stones and flood defence structures.