Science & Health

Global Study: Governments Ill-equipped to Protect Mangroves

The majority of the world’s mangroves are managed by government agencies that are too poorly equipped to protect them, according to a global review of the forests known for their effectiveness in absorbing carbon.

Four of the five countries with the largest mangrove areas are middle income nations – Indonesia, Brazil, Mexico and Nigeria – which lack the capacity to protect their millions of hectares of mangrove forest, the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) said on Thursday.

Mangroves’ management often falls under the jurisdiction of multiple ministries, from forestry to fisheries, creating a maze of vague responsibilities that deliver little protection on the ground, the report said.

Global attention on mangroves has grown due to their effectiveness in absorbing atmospheric carbon, one of the main drivers of climate change, as well as sheltering fisheries and protecting against coastal erosion.

Compounding the mangrove management problem is a lack of clear or documented rights and incentives for the communities living in the forests to use them sustainably, CIFOR said.

“Despite government intentions to manage them sustainably, governance regimes are generally ineffective at conserving mangroves because they generally fail to involve communities,” said Steven Lawry, CIFOR’s director of forests and governance research.

Instead, the study recommends that governments support existing community-based mangrove management programmes, which allow locals to sustainably fish and harvest timber in forests.


Since the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, Thailand and Indonesia have had the most successful mangrove rehabilitation programs.

The tsunami marked the moment when many governments realized the importance of mangroves as a “bioshield” that buffers coastal communities from damage, said Mani Ram Banjade, a researcher at CIFOR.

In Indonesia, home to more than one-fifth of the world’s mangrove forests, the government has been supporting community projects, Banjade, who wrote the Indonesian section of the report, said.

“People have a positive attitude to mangrove conservation, so with a little bit of support from external agencies – in the form of technical input or funding support – they’re really willing to contribute to mangrove rehabilitation efforts,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Although Indonesia is in favor of an approach that puts communities in partnership with charities and government, the situation remains mostly disjointed, said Banjade.

In protected coastal areas, where local communities are banned form harvesting mangrove timber, the government must understand that sustained conservation can only be achieved with added financial incentives, he added.

As in Indonesia, most countries lack a coherent and sustained policy on mangroves.

Only one country among those covered in the report, Mexico, has passed laws specifically designed for the management of mangrove forests.

Too often mangroves are caught in a middle-ground between territorial forest and seas, leaving no government agency with direct responsibility.

Government’s can improve the situation by creating a dedicated “mangrove agency,” the report recommended, but it should work to support local communities.

Science & Health

Malaria-carrying Mosquitoes Becoming Resistant to Bed Nets in Southern Africa

Malaria-carrying mosquitoes are becoming resistant to the insecticide used in bed nets to prevent the disease.  Researchers say it is important to stay ahead of the resistance to avoid what they are calling a public health catastrophe.  

Bed nets treated with inexpensive pyrethroid insecticides are the main defense against biting, malaria-carrying mosquitoes, and they have significantly cut down on the number of cases. The World Health Organization reports malaria infected an estimated 212 million people in 2015, killing some 429,000 of them.

That reflects a 21 percent drop in the incidence of between 2010 and 2015.

But a new study, published in the journal PLoS Genetics, found that the primary mosquito that harbors the parasite in southern Africa, Anopheles funestus, is rapidly becoming resistant to the insecticide. In at least one country, Mozambique, researchers discovered that 100 percent of A. funestus remained alive after direct exposure to the chemical.

Charles Wondji, a mosquito geneticist at the School of Tropical Medicine in Liverpool, England, notes that resistance to pyrethroid insecticides occurred rapidly, in about eight years.

Resistant gene identified

Wondji said scientists were able to identify the resistance gene in the mosquito. Speaking with VOA from Cameroon, he said that will give scientists an important tool to monitor the spread of insect resistance throughout the continent.

“That form of the gene is now very prevalent in southern Africa with the risk that if we do nothing there’s a chance that those control measures won’t work against those type of mosquitoes,” he said.

By having identified the responsible gene, Wondji said it will be possible to stay ahead of what he calls the “resistance curve” in places where insecticides are starting to fail to kill the mosquitoes. He added other more expensive insecticides can then be deployed to treat the bed nets. He mentioned a compound called PDO that targets the gene, killing the mosquitoes.

Wondji said control efforts, such as eliminating mosquito larvae that inhabit standing pools of water, can also be redoubled.

Wondji noted other species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes, like Anopheles gambiae, are starting to become resistant to pyrethriods, although that is occurring through a different biological mechanism.

More studies needed

Therefore, Wondji, said it’s important to study all species of malaria-carrying mosquitoes in order to implement appropriate and successful malaria management strategies.

In another just-released study in the journal The Lancet Infectious Diseases, scientists in Thailand have found widespread malaria parasite resistance to artemisinin and combination therapies using artemisinin, considered the gold standard treatment.  

They say the development threatens global malaria control and eradication efforts.

Science & Health

Sleep Shrinks Synapses, Preps For New Learning

Sleep, is an enduring mystery, and scientists continue to study its forms and its functions, and some new research shows sleep helps make us smarter.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison have found sleep helps improve brain function by shrinking synapses, the junctions between nerve cells.

VOA spoke with researcher Chiara Cirelli who said the research team started with the hypothesis that we sleep so that our brain can restore and recharge itself.  She said the idea seems simple, elegant and logical, but testing it and discovering how it works has been incredibly difficult.

Cirelli and Giulio Tononi of the Wisconsin Center for Sleep and Consciousness have been trying to prove the “Synaptic Homeostasis Hypothesis” since they published a first version of it in 2003.

Cirelli said they began by “literally, measuring the size of the synapses” in the brain.  “There are 100 billion synapses in our brain,” she says and we know that “that stronger synapses are also bigger.”

They knew that during sleep the brain “can sample all our synapses, and renormalize them in a smart way, comprehensive and balanced.”

So they decided to see if that renormalization has a physical component, that is, are they bigger after being awake all day, and smaller after a good night’s sleep.

How to measure a synapse

Synapses are only about 20-40 nanometers wide, and the team looked for changes in these already tiny gaps between nerve cells.  They had to wait until advances in electron microscopy made it possible to see these tiny changes.

A university press release said it was “a massive undertaking, with many research specialists working for four years to photograph, reconstruct, and analyze two areas of cerebral cortex in the mouse brain.  They were able to reconstruct 6,920 synapses and measure their size.”

Cirelli says it is an incredibly painstaking process because “all the actual measurements of the synapses (what we call the “segmentation”) has to be done manually.”

To make sure there was no bias, “the team deliberately did not know whether they were analyzing the brain cells of a well-rested mouse or one that had been awake.”

The result proved the SHY hypothesis by finding a few hours of sleep led on average to an 18 percent decrease in the size of the synapses.  “This shows,” Cirelli says, “in unequivocal ultrastructural terms, the balance of synaptic size and strength is upset by wake and restored by sleep,”

“Sleep,” the study concludes, “is the price we pay for brains that are plastic and able to keep learning new things.”

Cirelli says what “happens with sleep, is that salient and novel information is integrated within our body of knowledge, irrelevant details are forgotten, and new space is created for new memories to be formed the next day.”

She says our synapses shrink as our brain cleans house, and we wake up refreshed and ready to fill up those synapses with new information.

What can we do with this information

Cirelli says the work gets more complex from here on by researching the effect lack of sleep has on synapses.  The preliminary data says without sleep those synapses never shrink, and the concern is that “if synapses continue to strengthen, they will saturate, and thus neurons, which use synapses to communicate, will start responding too often and too much, also to inappropriate stimuli.” 

In short, the noise in the brain will increase, at the expense of the real ”signal.”

The team is also interested in the possibility there could be other ways to help the brain sift through material, perhaps through meditation or other forms of quiet wakefulness.  The research also holds out hope that could help people with chronic sleep disorders.

The team has already found one of possibly several molecules that make the synapses downsize.  It’s called Homer 1a, and is only present in the brain during sleep.  If they can chart more of these molecules and discover how they get the synapses to shrink there could one day be a way to refresh the brain without the need for sleep. 

The research findings are the culmination of more than a decade of work performed by researchers at the University of Wisconsin – Madison (UWM) and is published in the journal Science.


Science & Health

Fast Food Packaging Could Be Dangerous

Fast food packaging contains chemicals that could be harmful, a new study suggests.

Writing in the journal Environmental Science & Technology Letters, researchers from the Silent Spring Institute say the grease-proof packaging often used by fast food chains contain potentially dangerous fluorinated chemicals and can leak into the food.

In what they are calling the “most comprehensive analysis to date on the prevalence of highly fluorinated chemicals in fast food packaging in the United States,” researchers say they tested 400 samples from 27 fast food chains for chemicals called PFASs (per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances), also called PFCs, which are often found in “nonstick, stain-resistant, and waterproof products, including carpeting, cookware, outdoor apparel, as well as food packaging.”

Samples included paper wrappers, drink containers and paperboard.

“These chemicals have been linked with numerous health problems, so it’s concerning that people are potentially exposed to them in food,” said Laurel Schaider, an environmental chemist at Silent Spring Institute and the study’s lead author. “Exposure to some PFASs has been associated with cancer, thyroid disease, immune suppression, low birth weight, and decreased fertility. “Children are especially at risk for health effects because their developing bodies are more vulnerable to toxic chemicals.”

Schaider added that about one out of every three children eat fast food every day.

In their analysis of fast food packaging, researchers said 20 percent of paperboard samples, including boxes for french fries and pizza, contained fluorine. Furthermore, Tex-Mex food packaging as well as bread and dessert wrapping was most likely to have fluorine.

In a more rigorous analysis of a subset of 20 samples, researchers found that “in general,” samples were high in fluorine. They also contained PFASs.

Six of the samples contained a so-called long-chain PFAS called PFOA (perfluorooctanoic acid, also known as C8), which several U.S. manufacturers agreed to stop using after a 2011 review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.

Despite PFASs being phased out in the United States, they are still used in other countries. Some companies have been replacing them with shorter-chained PFAS compounds.

“The replacement compounds are equally persistent and have not been shown to be safe for human health,” says co-author Arlene Blum, founder of the Green Science Policy Institute. “That’s why we need to reduce the use of the entire class of highly fluorinated compounds. The good news is there are non-fluorinated alternatives available.”

Even if PFASs are phased out, researchers say they can still make their way into our bodies, either through the use of recycled materials or through accumulation in landfills, which could seep into groundwater.

“All PFASs, including the newer replacements, are highly resistant to degradation and will remain in the environment for a long time,” says co-author Graham Peaslee, a physicist at the University of Notre Dame who developed the PIGE method to screen food wrappers. “Because of this, these highly fluorinated chemicals are not sustainable and should not be used in compostable products or any product that might end up in a landfill.”


Silicon Valley & Technology

Newest Los Angeles Skyscraper Earthquake-proof

Building skyscrapers in earthquake-prone areas, such as the U.S. West Coast, may seem irresponsible, but thanks to recent advancements in construction engineering, Los Angeles will soon open a 73-story tall hotel capable of withstanding up to 8.3 magnitude earthquakes. VOA’s George Putic has more.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Machine Beats Humans for the First Time in Poker

Artificial intelligence has made history by beating humans in poker for the first time, the last remaining game in which humans had managed to maintain the upper hand.

Libratus, an AI built by Carnegie Mellon University, racked up over $1.7 million worth of chips against four of the top professional poker players in the world in a 20-day marathon poker tournament that ended Tuesday in Philadelphia.

While machines have beaten humans over the last two decades in chess, checkers, and most recently in the ancient game of Go, Libratus’ victory is significant because poker is an imperfect information game — similar to the real world where not all problems are laid out and the difficulty in figuring out human behavior is one of the main reasons why it was considered immune to machines.

“The best AI’s ability to do strategic reasoning with imperfect information has now surpassed that of the best humans,” Tuomas Sandholm, professor of computer science at CMU who created Libratus with a Ph.D. student Noam Brown, said Wednesday.

The victory prompted inquiries from companies all over the world seeking to use Libratus’ algorithm for problem solving.

“It can be used in any situation where information is incomplete including business negotiation, military strategy, cybersecurity and medical treatment,” Sandholm said.


One of the main reasons for Libratus’ victory was the machine’s ability outbluff humans.

“The computer can’t win at poker if it can’t bluff,” said Frank Pfenning, head of the Computer Science Department at CMU.

“Developing an AI that can do that successfully is a tremendous step forward scientifically and has numerous applications,” he said. “Imagine that your smartphone will someday be able to negotiate the best price on a new car for you. That’s just the beginning.”

Dong Kim, one of the four top poker players who participated in the tournament, echoed the statement. The 28-year old, originally from Seattle, had also participated in a similar poker tournament with another AI machine built by CMU in 2015, named Claudico.

“It was about halfway through the challenge [with Libratus when] I knew we wouldn’t come back,” said Kim. “It had less bugs in the algorithm. We just ran over Claudico, bluffed it everywhere, but this time I felt like it was the other way around.”

In the battle against Claudico, the human players racked up more than $700,000 over 80,000 hands, winning almost every day of the tournament.

In the same 2017 heads-up, no-limit Texas Hold ’em battle, the four human players only won five days out of 20 and split a $200,000 prize based on their performance.