Bisphenol A: multisystem effects

These bottles were produced without BPA in response to concerns about the chemical. Photo via Creative Commons, attributed to Alicia Vorhees, thesoftlanding

Are endocrine disruptors stealing our future?

Endocrine-disrupting compounds are chemicals in the environment—usually compounds that we have introduced—that can alter normal hormone signaling processes. Often, exposure to these compounds has little immediate effect in adult animals, but it can have big effects on organisms during sensitive developmental periods, like embryogenesis. During embryonic development in vertebrates, steroid hormones govern many processes, and the fetal hormone environment is usually carefully calibrated to ensure that these processes go forward normally.

Tiny amounts, big changes

But many compounds disrupt these processes, knocking them off track and resulting in development that is unusual or abnormal. For example, male alligators exposed in the egg to these compounds—which often persist in fatty tissues or yolk—emerge with serious penile abnormalities that can affect their ability to reproduce. The banned pesticide DDT is probably one of the best-known of these compounds, and exposure to it or its metabolites has been shown to disrupt hormone signaling to the point of altering sex development completely.

When we think of hormones, we often think of puberty, the time when hormones seem to govern our every move. When we think of estrogen, we probably think “female” because estrogen has historically been considered the “female” hormone. What you might not know is that estrogen, which is made in the ovaries, is also made in our brains during embryonic development. In mammals, appropriate male development appears to require neural estrogen synthesis. When estrogen synthesis in embryonic mammals is blocked, the males that develop do not exhibit typical male behaviors when they reach reproductive maturity.

Bisphenol A: ubiquitous chemical

Among the compounds that have been identified as endocrine disruptors is bisphenol A (BPA). In the United States, we produce about 2 billion pounds of BPA a year. Previous studies have demonstrated that BPA can disrupt thyroid signaling to the point of affecting the thyroid’s role in appropriate brain development. In addition, BPA has been linked to feminization of reptiles. Some scientists were aware of BPA’s hormone-activity potential as far back as the early twentieth century.

But because no one took that knowledge or its potential seriously—the field of endocrine disruptors is relatively young—BPA has found its way into almost every aspect of our lives. It is in the dental sealants we put on our teeth to keep the cavities at bay. It is in the lining that coats the insides of food cans to keep the metal from rusting. It is in the hard plastic that we use for baby bottles and teething rings. And it can leach from these products into the food that we eat. BPA is found at high levels in some pregnant women, and it appears to accumulate in higher concentrations around the umbilical cord and in the fetal amniotic fluid.

BPA and effects on the developing brain

Work from Yale and from researchers in Japan also points to some potentially serious effects on the brain. Part of the role of estrogen in brain development is facilitating synaptic connections in a crucial brain area called the hippocampus. The hippocampus is the center where neurons organize that will later be activated to produce sex-appropriate activity in vertebrates. It is also the area of the brain involved in the formation and retention of memory.

The researchers found that small doses of BPA—doses that fall within EPA-approved levels for exposure—can inhibit hippocampal synaptic formation in rats, counteracting the effect of estrogen. That BPA is an estrogen inhibitor could be serious for our brains if the results translate into human effects. As we age and our endogenous estrogen levels decrease, for example, the hippocampus suffers and our memory does, too. If BPA sets this process in motion even earlier, hippocampal—and thus, memory—decline may occur even earlier.

Rodents, monkeys, and people–oh, my

A recent report in Environmental Health Perspectives concludes that rodents, rhesus monkeys, and people all exhibit similar pharmacokinetics with BPA and that exposures may be far greater than previously calculated. Other recent studies suggest effects on sugar metabolism related to diabetes, an association with polycystic ovarian syndrome in rats, and a relationship to the development of asthma in a mouse model.


The lovely bones: Terra preta to save our terra firma?

Charred bones set to save the world?

The Amazon river basin is home to the famous Amazonian “dark earth,” or terra preta, which recently made the news as more proof of large civilizations in the tangled Amazon forests.  This soil is renowned for its fertile properties, its loose consistency, water-holding abilities, and of course, its dark color. The people who used this earth generations ago—as many as 3000 years ago, according to one researcher—may have had no active interest in “greening” the planet, but they were very interested in getting a good crop yield for their efforts. Terra preta probably gave them just that.

Ancient farming wisdom

Somewhere along your educational path, you may have learned a few tips about farming. Rotate your crops. Let fields take a break. Till the soil. What you may not have understood as clearly were the natural processes that drove this farming wisdom.

When farmers turn over the soil, they loosen it. Earth happens to be the largest sink of carbon on terrestrial Earth, and when we move it around, some of that carbon gets released. When we try to fertilize it using dead and decomposing organic matter—compost, manure—this approach works in the short term to restore some nutrients, but microorgansims make pretty quick work of these organic remnants, returning carbon to the atmosphere again as carbon dioxide.

Thus, standard farming techniques of tilling and fertilizing and applying manure are short-lived efforts to keep the soil nutrient rich enough for planting. If nutrients are low, crop yield will be, too. And then there’s the water consideration; if the soil holds too little water or too much, that will also affect crop yield.

Magical fairy dust for crops

These factors all combine to make the terra preta soil look like magical fairy dust for crops. The soil actually is charcoal—or, in the lingo of the scientists who work with it, biochar. It is made from the rapid, pressurized burning of dead stuff—bones, tree bark—and manure. Pack it all into a metal container with a little hole for some pressure to escape, heat it to about 400 degrees Celsius, and you’ve made yourself some biochar. It apparently looks just like the charcoal you’d use at a cookout, but it has many more uses.

The carbon in the biochar is pretty inaccessible to microorganisms that would break it up, so it lasts a lot longer in the soil than your average, uncharred manure. In fact, it’s so long lasting that it’s still around in the Amazonian river basin long after the ancient farmers who used it disappeared. In addition to being a nutrient-rich and nutrient-tight source of carbon, biochar also is quite grabby with water, holding much more water than your average soil sample. That feature means that less water is required to grow crops in a biochar-laced field than would be needed in a regular, every-day kind of field.

Could soil invented in the Amazon save the Amazon?

Plants growing in the stuff do so faster, more robustly, and in greater numbers, primarily because of the rich nutrient source the biochar provides. Research indicates that the optimum combination is biochar plus fertilizer, which gives the greatest crop yield compared to either alone or neither. Using biochar could dramatically enhance global crop yields while decreasing water use and without adding a single acre of cropland. Using soil invented in the Amazon to save the Amazon rainforest has a nice “the circle is complete” aspect to it.

Although biochar has the drawback of having to be made and transported, its benefits to the planet don’t end with crop yield and water savings. The smoke generated from its preparation, in a process called pyrolysis, can be collected and used to form bio-oil, a form of renewable energy. In addition, biochar has potential as a sponge to soak up phosphates and nitrates from fertilizers before they reach our waterways, a sort of barrier against pollution. Last, this dark, magical fairy dust not only reduces carbon dioxide emissions from cropland but also significantly decreases methane and nitrous oxide emissions, both greenhouse gases that are far more potent than carbon dioxide but get considerably less press.

Termite toots causing global warming?

Termites to blame for global warming?

I was, um, in the bathroom at the Denver Zoo listening to the info feed the nice woman with the colonial accent was providing for folks using the facilities. The facts are all about poop and related activities, which I suppose is appropriate to the moment at hand. To add to the excretory atmosphere, the stall doors bear representations of animal hindquarters. Just letting you know that in case you ever want to stare at a close-up view of a baboon’s rear while you’re micturating. At any rate, as I was washing my hands, I heard a little tidbit about termites and greenhouse gases. The pleasant voice informed me that termites contribute a good percentage of the world’s greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, in the form of methane. Tooty little buggers, they must be.

It’s true. More methane than cows

Like most animals that survive on cellulose-based diets, termites have friendly micro-organisms that help them break down normally undigestible macromolecules. In the process, the micro-organisms produce a lot of methane gas. That gas, whether it’s in a cow or a termite, has to go somewhere, and that somewhere is out. Contrary to what some people may think, and according to the pleasant voice at the Denver Zoo, termites expel more of this stuff than cows do.

Should we blame the bacteria instead?

Actually, the helpful gut micro-organisms in termites are not all bacteria. Some are protozoans, depending on the termite species. But they’d be nothing without their hosts, so I guess we can just go ahead and blame them both. And I blame the Denver Zoo and their scatalogically oriented bathroom experience for the existence of this particular blog post.

Should we kill all the termites?

Well, that’s a terrible idea for any number of reasons, but as it turns out, it’s also not gonna help. One of the primary poisons used to knock of the wood-chewing insects happens also to be a “powerful greenhouse gas.” In addition, termites serve as a model for efficient harvesting of energy from biofuels, pulling about 90% from what they take in, compared to humanity’s sadly low success rates. So, yes, they eat our houses and expel about 15% of the methane in the atmosphere, but…they’re still better than we are at efficiently extracting energy from what they take in.

Pesticide link to ADHD

It’s correlation, not causation

A common pesticide and metabolites have been linked in a large study to ADHD, an attention deficit disorder characterized also by hyperactivity and impulsivity. ADHD has previously been associated with specific genes and even hailed as a one-time advantageous evolutionary adaptation. But many neurological differences likely will trace to an interaction of genes and environment, or, in fancy science talk, a multifactorial causality.

But it’s also not a surprise

This study looked at metabolites in the urine of more than 1000 children, 119 of whom had ADHD. It’s not mechanistically outre to think that pesticides designed to send a pest’s nervous system astray might have a similar effect on vertebrate systems. But this study showed links, not mechanisms, which often is a necessary first step to justify further pursuing a hypothesis. The researchers found that levels of specific metabolites of organophosphate pesticides are associated with an increased risk–by as much as two-fold–of developing ADHD.

Join the ever-expanding club

If further research does identify a mechanistic tie to this identified correlation, then these pesticides will join an ever-growing suite of chemicals we’ve introduced into the environment that influence our endocrine and neural systems. These chemicals are called endocrine disruptors.

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