Lyme Disease – Been Around for Perhaps 15M Years

ABSTRACT.  Lyme disease is a stealthy, often misdiagnosed disease that was only recognized about 40 years ago, but new discoveries of ticks fossilized in amber show that the bacteria which cause it may have been lurking around for 15 million years — long before any humans walked on Earth.

The findings were made by researchers from Oregon State University, who studied 15-20 million-year-old amber from the Dominican Republic that offer the oldest fossil evidence ever found of Borrelia, a type of spirochete-like bacteria that to this day causes Lyme disease. They were published in the journal Historical Biology.

As summer arrives and millions of people head for the outdoors, it’s worth considering that these tick-borne diseases may be far more common than has been historically appreciated, and they’ve been around for a long, long time.

“Ticks and the bacteria they carry are very opportunistic,” said George Poinar, Jr., a professor emeritus in the Department of Integrative Biology of the OSU College of Science, and one of the world’s leading experts on plant and animal life forms found preserved in amber. “They are very efficient at maintaining populations of microbes in their tissues, and can infect mammals, birds, reptiles and other animals.

“In the United States, Europe and Asia, ticks are a more important insect vector of disease than mosquitos,” Poinar said. “They can carry bacteria that cause a wide range of diseases, affect many different animal species, and often are not even understood or recognized by doctors. It’s likely that many ailments in human history for which doctors had no explanation have been caused by tick-borne disease.”

Lyme disease is a perfect example. It can cause problems with joints, the heart and central nervous system, but researchers didn’t even know it existed until 1975. If recognized early and treated with antibiotics, it can be cured. But it’s often mistaken for other health conditions. And surging deer populations in many areas are causing a rapid increase in Lyme disease — the confirmed and probable cases of Lyme disease in Nova Scotia nearly tripled in 2013 over the previous year.

The new research shows these problems with tick-borne disease have been around for millions of years. Bacteria are an ancient group that date back about 3.6 billion years, almost as old as the planet itself. As soft-bodied organisms they are rarely preserved in the fossil record, but an exception is amber, which begins as a free-flowing tree sap that traps and preserves material in exquisite detail as it slowly turns into a semi-precious mineral.

Humans have probably been getting diseases, including Lyme disease, from tick-borne bacteria as long as there have been humans, Poinar said. The oldest documented case is the Tyrolean iceman, a 5,300-year-old mummy found in a glacier in the Italian Alps. “Before he was frozen in the glacier, the iceman was probably already in misery from Lyme disease,” Poinar said. “He had a lot of health problems and was really a mess.”

Coming Soon, An Oil Well Near You?

Jurassic shale of the Weald Basin: resource estimation report

The British Geological Survey (BGS) in association with the Department of Energy and Climate Change (DECC) has completed an estimate for the amount of shale oil and shale gas in the Weald Basin in south-east England [that is, Hampshire through to Kent and laying between the North and South Downs]; published 23 May 2014.

The estimate is in the form of a range to reflect geological uncertainty. The range of shale oil in place is estimated to be between 2.20 and 8.57 billion barrels (bbl) or 293 and 1143 million tonnes, but the central estimate for the resource is 4.4 billion bbl or 591 million tonnes.

No significant gas resource is recognised using the current geological model. This is mainly because the shale is not thought to have reached the geological maturity required to generate gas. The figure for oil represents the total amount of oil present in the rocks. It is not known what percentage of the oil present in the shale could be commercially extracted. In order to estimate the shale oil reserve, drilling and testing of new wells will be required to give a better idea of oil production rates.  In addition, non-geological factors such as oil price, operating costs and the scale of development agreed by the local planning system will affect the amount of oil produced.

Shale oil clearly has potential in Britain but it will require geological and engineering expertise, investment and protection of the environment. It will also need organisations like the BGS to play their part in providing up to date and accurate information on resources and the environment to the public, industry and government.


But Professor Andrew Aplin, a shale expert at Durham University, says the heavy, viscous nature of the Weald oil and the tight, clay-rich rocks mean little oil may be extractable. “We might estimate that 1% of the Weald oil resource might be recoverable. This would equate to 0.05 billion barrels, which is about two months UK consumption. From a national perspective, this seems to be a rather small prize.” The same dashing of hopes has just occurred in the US, where the official government estimate for the nation’s largest shale oil prospect has just plummeted by 96%.

Some British Wildlife Has A Taste For The Exotic

No more environmental xenophobia: [Some] British wildlife has a taste for the exotic and can thrive on non-native plant species

Tom Bawden, The Independent, Sunday 20 April 2014.

Scientists believe they are well on their way to debunking one of the most pervasive of all axioms in gardening: that when it comes to plants, “native is best”. A team of researchers from the Royal Horticultural Society (RHS) has just completed a four-year study into how much wildlife can be supported by native, near-native and exotic plants. It is the first scientific experiment to test a widely accepted hypothesis that plants that originate in Britain are better at sustaining our insect populations.

In a finding that looks set to overturn generations of gardening advice, early indications strongly suggest that all classes of plant are capable of supporting a large and diverse range of invertebrate creatures, according to the project’s assistant manager, Andrew Salisbury.

“This is very exciting. The idea is solidly out there that if you want native insects you should only plant native plants. That’s been the advice for years. Initial analysis shows this is not the case,” said Mr Salisbury, though he cautioned there was much more detailed analysis to be done.

“This is great news for gardeners because it indicates that no matter what you plant it will support a wide range of biodiversity,” he added. “Even if this knowledge doesn’t change what you plant, it will make you feel less guilty about the near-native and exotic plants in your garden.”

The research emerged just days after the EU announced plans to clamp down on harmful non-native plant and animal species such as Japanese Knotweed, which can destroy the foundations of skyscrapers, and Zebra mussels from Russia, which grow prolifically and clog intake pipes at water treatment plants. The EU will draw up a blacklist of invasive alien species in order to limit their spread.

However, only a small minority of the estimated 2,000 alien plant species in the UK are invasive – or fast-spreading – and causing problems for natural habitats or the infrastructure. The RHS research indicates that, overall, non-native plants are a significant force for good.

Native plants are classed as species which arrived in Britain after the last ice age without the assistance of humans. They include holly, ivy, honeysuckle, foxglove, majoram, purple loosestrife and raspberry. However, today they account for only about 30 per cent of garden plants, the remainder being non-native species such as sunflowers, lavender, dahlias, Echinacea and the Malus pumila apple, which have entered the country through trade.

British Wildlife. “There is still much work to do but I suspect the final conclusion will be that we don’t necessarily need just natives and that we should give careful consideration to natives, near-natives and exotic species,” Mr Salisbury said.

For its so-called Plants for Bugs programme, the RHS has coined the new term of “near-native” plants for species not native to Britain but originating in the Northern hemisphere and arising from similar eco-systems. The clearest conclusions the RHS has come up with so far relate to pollinators. They are that, while hoverflies prefer native plants, bees are drawn more to near-native species and wasps are most attracted to exotic plants.

Mr Salisbury and his colleagues have recorded the activities of approximately 80,000 invertebrates on plots at the main RHS garden in Wisley, near Woking in Surrey. They will analyse the data over the next two years, starting with pollinators. They will then examine the relationship between various classes of plants and herbivores such as caterpillars and aphids, predators such as spiders and ground beetles and with the whole natural community. “Ultimately we’ll be producing a guide on the optimum way gardeners can help wildlife by using native and non-native plants in gardens,” said Plants for Bugs project manager Helen Bostock.

Caution.  Adrian Thomas, gardening expert at the RSPB, said: “This doesn’t mean that every exotic plant is wildlife manna, but choose them well and you can have a garden full of gorgeous flowers from across the globe which delivers a home for nature at the same time.”

But not everybody is convinced. Matt Shardlow, head of the Buglife insect charity, has scrutinised the findings the project. He said: “There are very few relationships that look robust and likely to be scientifically proven. Even when recording the visits to flowers by bees, it is nearly impossible to tell if the bee is examining the flower and being disappointed by not finding suitable pollen and nectar or is delighted to find the resource it is seeking.”


As the two final quotes show, caution should be exercised here before going gung-ho on plants from far afield. A good variety of different flowers in the is garden fine, (as long as they have been raised in this country and not from somewhere else and carrying the next plant epidemic!).

Polluting Emissions From Top 10 Food & Drinks Companies!

Rebecca Smithers, The Guardian, Tuesday 20 May.

The ‘big 10’ global food and drink companies together emit more greenhouse gases than the Nordic countries and would rank as the 25th most polluting country in the world if grouped together, the international charity and agency Oxfam claims in a new report on Tuesday.

In a highly critical overview of their climate change policies, it warns the companies – which represent the world’s most famous household brands – that they are risking financial ruin if they do not do more to use their clout and size to tackle the climate crisis.

The companies are Associated British Foods, Coca-Cola, Danone, General Mills, Kellogg, Mars, Mondelez International, Nestlé, PepsiCo and Unilever.

The new report, Standing on the Sidelines, says together they churn out more than Finland, Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Iceland’s annual total of 250 million tons of greenhouse gases, according to its analysis of the Carbon Disclosure Project for company emissions and the most recent data for country emissions.

Oxfam insists the companies are capable of cutting their combined emissions by 80 million tons by 2020 and says they are not doing enough despite the threat climate change poses to the sustained supply of ingredients needed for their products, their economic might and the need to feed a growing population. Between them, they generate £650m ($1.1bn) a day in revenues, equivalent to the total GDP of all the world’s lower income countries.

Oxfam singled out Kellogg and General Mills as two of the worst on climate change policies and is calling on these “clear laggards” to lead the sector towards more responsible policies and practices. Both have huge UK food businesses – Kellogg best-known for its Corn Flakes and Rice Crispies cereals and General Mills for Haagen-Dazs and Jus-Rol – and Oxfam urges them to disclose their agricultural emissions and biggest polluting suppliers, and set targets to cut emissions from their supply chains.

Climate change is linked to storms, floods, droughts and shifting weather patterns, which affect food supplies and put pressure on prices, causing more hunger and poverty. Oxfam projects that the price of products like corn flakes could spike by up to 44% in 15 years because of climate change.

Oxfam’s director of UK campaigns and policy Sally Copley said: “By failing to cut emissions adequately the ‘big 10′ are putting short-term profits ahead of the long-term interests of both themselves and the rest of us. Their influence and wealth are the perfect ingredients to stop putting their businesses at risk and making climate change worse.”

Kellogg said: “Kellogg is committed to doing what’s right for the environment and society. As part of this commitment, we are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions – along with energy use and water use – by 15–20% at our manufacturing facilities by 2015. Oxfam has recognised our commitment to working with global palm oil suppliers to source fully traceable palm oil, produced in a manner that’s environmentally responsible, socially beneficial, and economically viable.”

General Mills said: “Climate Change is a serious issue, and as a food company we are very aware of the impact that climate change could have on agriculture and the world’s food supply. General Mills has been actively engaged in positively influencing climate policy and has been taking steps to reduce greenhouse gas emissions in its operations for many years.”

Dutch Elm Disease Control

I attended the opening debate in Alfriston this morning on the future of the campaign to control Dutch elm disease (DED) in the Cuckmere valley and the launch of the ‘Ulmus Maritimus’ project. I was very disappointed with what I heard – no where near enough funding; concentrating on the valley as if the bark beetle (the vector) are not going to fly into it; policy of prioritising which diseased trees to fell and when, almost completely utterly wrong.

Such a shame that a working scheme was allowed to unravel in the mid-2000’s and then the remaining debacle left to East Sussex CC to try and sort out (with little funding). Where is the South Downs National Park, when a downland speciality landscape needs desperate help!

(I ran the East Sussex DED programme from 2007 to 2004, so feel quite bitter!).


Wednesday, May 15. While checking some of the ponies in the Ashdown area: saw three cuckoos in flight together, two calling. A pair of lapwings calling and displaying over a marshy area. The third year that I’ve observed this and in the same area.  Ponies have made a real difference here; I wonder if they are breeding?

Cup of Coffee a Day May Reduce Retinal Damage

May 2, 2014

Coffee drinkers, rejoice! Aside from java’s energy jolt, food scientists say you may reap another health benefit from a daily cup of coffee: prevention of deteriorating eyesight and possible blindness from retinal degeneration due to glaucoma, aging and diabetes.

Raw coffee is, on average, just 1 percent caffeine, but it contains 7 to 9 percent chlorogenic acid (CLA), a strong antioxidant that prevents retinal degeneration in mice, according to a Cornell study published in the Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry (December 2013).

The retina is a thin tissue layer on the inside, back wall of the eye with millions of light-sensitive cells and other nerve cells that receive and organize visual information. It is also one of the most metabolically active tissues, demanding high levels of oxygen and making it prone to oxidative stress. The lack of oxygen and production of free radicals leads to tissue damage and loss of sight.

In the study, mice eyes were treated with nitric oxide, which creates oxidative stress and free radicals, leading to retinal degeneration, but mice pretreated with CLA developed no retinal damage.

The study is “important in understanding functional foods, that is, natural foods that provide beneficial health effects,” said Chang Y. Lee, professor of food science and the study’s senior author. Holim Jang, a graduate student in Lee’s lab, is the paper’s lead author. Lee’s lab has been working with Sang Hoon Jung, a researcher at the Functional Food Center of the Korea Institute of Science and Technology in South Korea. “Coffee is the most popular drink in the world, and we are understanding what benefit we can get from that,” Lee said.

Previous studies have shown that coffee also cuts the risk of such chronic diseases as Parkinson’s, prostate cancer, diabetes, Alzheimer’s and age-related cognitive declines.

Since scientists know that CLA and its metabolites are absorbed in the human digestive system, the next step for this research is to determine whether drinking coffee facilitates CLA to cross a membrane known as the blood-retinal barrier. If drinking coffee proves to deliver CLA directly into the retina, doctors may one day recommend an appropriate brew to prevent retinal damage. Also, if future studies further prove CLA’s efficacy, then synthetic compounds could also be developed and delivered with eye drops.

The Korea Institute of Science and Technology funded the study.

Climate Change Making Food Crops Less Nutritious

Damian Carrington, The Guardian, Wednesday 7 May 2014.

Rising carbon dioxide emissions are set to make the world’s staple food crops less nutritious, according to new scientific research, worsening the serious ill health already suffered by billions of malnourished people.

The surprise consequence of fossil fuel burning is linked directly to the rise in CO2 levels which, unlike some of the predicted impacts of climate change, are undisputed. The field trials of wheat, rice, maize and soybeans showed that higher CO2 levels significantly reduced the levels of the essential nutrients iron and zinc, as well as cutting protein levels.

“We found rising levels of CO2 are affecting human nutrition by reducing levels of very important nutrients in very important food crops,” said Prof Samuel Myers, an environmental health expert at Harvard University, Boston, and lead author of the study. “From a health viewpoint, iron and zinc are hugely important.”

Myers said 2 billion people already suffer iron and zinc deficiencies around the world. This causes serious harm, in particular to developing babies and pregnant women, and currently causes the loss of 63m years of life annually. “Fundamentally the concern is that there is already an enormous public health problem and rising CO2 in the atmosphere will exacerbate that problem further.”

While wheat, rice, maize and soybeans are relatively low in iron and zinc, in poorer societies where meat is rarely eaten they are a major source of the nutrients. About 2.4bn people currently get at least 60% of their zinc and iron from these staples and it is over 75% in Bangladesh, Iraq and Algeria.

“This is yet another example of the impact climate change is already having on people’s ability to grow and access the nutritious food they need,” said Hannah Stoddart, Oxfam’s head of policy for food and climate. “With 25 million more children under five at risk of malnutrition by 2050 because of climate change, action to cut emissions and support communities to adapt is crucial.”

The research, published in the journal Nature, represents a major advance in the understanding of how rising CO2 levels affect food nutrition. The scientists compared nutrient levels in field crops grown in ambient CO2 levels, about 380-390 parts per milliion (ppm) at the time of the work, with those grown in the elevated CO2 levels expected by 2050. The latter level, 545-585ppm, is expected even if substantial curbs on emissions are put in place by the world’s governments. In order to take account of variable growing conditions, the researchers analysed 41 different strains grown in seven locations on three different continents.

Wheat grown in high CO2 levels had 9% less zinc and 5% less iron, as well as 6% less protein, while rice had 3% less iron, 5% less iron and 8% less protein. Maize saw similar falls while soybeans lost similar levels of zinc and iron but, being a legume not a grass, did not see lower protein.

The precise biological mechanism that causes nutrient levels to fall is not well understood as yet. But Professor Brian Thomas, a plant development expert at the University of Warwick and not involved in the research said: “The work is convincing and consistent with what we do know about the plant physiology.”

The impact on human health resulting from the drop in the level of protein is less clear than for the zinc and iron loss. Myers said the resulting increase in carbohydrate in the crops could increase the rate of metabolic syndrome, the diabetes, heart disease and stroke that currently afflicts many in developed countries due to high levels of obesity. But Myers said obesity is not necessary for the risk of metabolic syndrome to rise. “It is something to do with the switch of foods itself.”

Myers said simply eating more staple foods to meet zinc and iron requirements was not realistic when food production already must double by 2050 to meet the demand of rising populations. Some of the varieties used in the research performed better than others, raising the prospect of breeding strains that are less vulnerable to rising CO2. But the researchers noted: “Such breeding programmes will not be a panacea for many reasons including the affordability of improved seeds and the numerous criteria used by farmers in making planting decisions that include taste, tradition, marketability, growing requirements and yield.”

Myers acknowledged that rising CO2 can improve crop yields on some circumstances, but said: “There may be a little positive effect, but the people who work in this area would not want to hang their hat on that in the face of the many other negative effects of climate change, including heatwaves droughts and floods.”

April saw the first month for millions of years in which the CO2 level was greater than 400pm every day: before the industrial revolution started the large-scale burning of fossil fuels the level of CO2 in the atmosphere was 280ppm.

Myers told the Guardian: “It is very hard to predict all the challenges to human health resulting from climate change. My guess is there will be many more surprises as we remake the environmental conditions on the planet. As a civilisation we are now living with 400 ppm for the first time: it’s a new world.”

Britain’s Honeybee Colony Deaths Among Worst in Europe

The Guardian, Monday 7 April 2014 17.06 BST

A landmark study has revealed the UK is suffering one of the worst rates of honeybee colony deaths in Europe. In the cold winter of 2012-13, 29% of honeybee colonies in the UK died, with only Belgium suffering a higher rate of losses (34%) of the 17 countries surveyed. By contrast, only 5% of colonies in Italy were lost. Summer losses of colonies were also high in the UK, at 9.7%, with only France (14%) exceeding this.

The Epilobee study surveyed 31,800 colonies and is the first pan-European assessment of the rate of colony deaths. It provides a valuable baseline for future research but does not indicate the relative effects of factors such as disease, habitat loss and pesticide use in honeybee decline. Neither does it examine why some countries are worse affected.

The European commission said the study revealed mortality rates were better than had been expected. “These data show that, while higher bee colony mortalities do exist in some parts of the EU, bees are neither disappearing, nor is colony collapse disorder taking place.”

But noted that it did not assess wild pollinators which, alongside honeybees, are vital in pollinating three-quarters of all food crops. “Scientific data on wild pollinators, including wild bees is scarce, but current indicators show a worrying decline. Preliminary results [of other research] already suggest that wild bees face a serious threat,” said an EC statement. A recent European assessment of bumblebees indicated a quarter of the 68 species were threatened with extinction.

“While overwintering honeybee colony losses in Europe are variable and sometimes considered unacceptable, on the whole they are still much lower than in the US,” said Prof Simon Potts from the University of Reading.

Prof David Goulson, a biologist at the University of Sussex, criticised the report: “It does seem odd that the EC spent over €3m on a project on bee health and the words pesticide and insecticide are not used once in the document.” The commission banned the use of specific insecticides linked to serious harm in bees from December 2013. The EC had requested that pesticide monitoring was included in the Epilobee project. It had requested that pesticide monitoring was included in the Epilobee project but, it said, experts from member states did not consider it “feasible” to do so.

The UK was one of a minority of nations to oppose the insecticide ban.


Update on threats to bees in US.

ABSTRACT.  The mysterious vanishing of honeybees from hives can be directly linked to insectcide use, according to new research from Harvard University. The scientists showed that exposure to two neonicotinoids, the world’s most widely used class of insecticide, lead to half the colonies studied dying, while none of the untreated colonies saw their bees disappear.

“We demonstrated that neonicotinoids are highly likely to be responsible for triggering ‘colony collapse disorder’ in honeybee hives that were healthy prior to the arrival of winter,” said Chensheng Lu, an expert on environmental exposure biology at Harvard School of Public Health and who led the work.

In the new Harvard study, published in the Bulletin of Insectology, the scientists studied the health of 18 bee colonies in three locations in central Massachusetts from October 2012 till April 2013. At each location, two colonies were treated with realistic doses of imidacloprid, two with clothianidin, and two were untreated control hives.

The Past Week’s Pony News, May 4th

A fairly average week but with a burst of activity at either end…

Saturday, May 26.  Sussex Pony Grazing at the village hall in East Hoathly. All went well and was well attended, finishing with an illustrated talk from the RSPB’s Wealden Sites Manager, Steve Wheatley on the advantages gained by pony grazing. More on Steve in the minute.

On Thursday, we moved the six Herd 2 ponies from off our stand-by ground up to the eastern compartment of the RSPB’s Broadwater Warren. This is the third year that we have grazed this particular area though it changed dramatically last winter with the felling of some 40 acres of scots pine plantation. It should be easier to find the ponies this summer!

Friday, and we gathered and corralled the ten ponies of Herd 4 from off Berwick Down near Alfriston, this achieved on our second gathering attempt. The day ended up a rather long one as we decided to use the truck and trailer – three trips up to our stand-by ground. Some of these ponies will later graze a new, small site for Crowborough Town Council and some may move on to the western compartment of Broadwater Warren, an area we have not grazed yet.

Talking of Broadwater, Friday was also the day that Steve Wheatley, left for pastures new – or rather that should be woodlands new, for he’s going to work for Trees For Life in Scotland. I’ve enjoyed working with Steve in connection with pony grazing for some ten years. Good luck Steve in the far north!