Dangers of Whirling Disease

Much like a dog chasing its tail, some fish are swimming in tight circles, but they are unable to stop. Since its introduction to the United States some 60 years ago, “Whirling Disease” has ridden relatively clean waters with disease. Fish in the slamonid family such as salmon, trout, and whitefish are susceptible to the disease via a microscopic parasite, known as Myxobolus cerebralis. The parasite is found in the rivers and streams of 23 states, several European countries, South Africa and New Zealand.

This Myxobolus cerebralis parasite comes into contact with a common aquatic worm and uses the worm as its intermediate host. As time progresses, the parasite enters into its free-floating life phase. When the parasite contacts a slamonid during this stage in its life, the parasite forces its way through the fish’s head and spinal cartilage. The parasite begins to multiply rapidly after finding its new host. The organ pressure of the infected fish is disrupted because of the parasite’s growth and the fish begins exhibiting strange swimming behavior—swimming in circles. The abnormal swimming pattern that the parasite inflicts upon its host makes the fish unable to avoid predators or nourish itself. When an infected fish dies, the parasite thrives. Thousands of parasitic spores are released and the cycle begins again. These spores can withstand drastic temperature fluctuation and have a lifespan of an average 25 years.

The parasite was introduced to the United States in the 1950s, originating from Europe. Since 1997, extensive research initiatives have been put in action to combat the spread of and learn about Whirling Disease. This research has confirmed which fish are high risk and which are better at fending off the parasite. In 2000, low stream flows in Montana resulted in high levels of infectivity. Thus, the conclusion has been that drought, causing low stream flows, results in higher infection rates of whirling disease. For those who fear that they too will contract Whirling Disease and begin running in circles, fear not, for only fish in the slamonid family are prone; however, the disease is causing a rapid depletion of trout and salmon across the United States. Currently, there is no cure or effective remedy to eliminate the parasite’s presence in the waters, nor is there a way to eradicate the parasite from individual fish. Juvenile fish infected with Whirling Disease have a high mortality rate. Other than the characteristic “tail chasing” behavior, infected fish may exhibit a blackened tail or head or spinal deformities.

Felt-bottomed boots have been largely blamed for the widespread of the disease. When fisherman wear felt-bottomed boots, the parasite gets trapped in the fabric, so when the fisherman travels to another river, the parasite is also transported and the disease is introduced into previously Whirling Disease-free waters. Wildlife is also attributed to the rapid spread of the disease, but it’s practically impossible to restrict their movement between different streams. Thus, the focus has been on human activity. 

Whirling Disease is posing a great threat to the survival of slamonid fish. The rapid spread of the disease is especially concerning because no efficient method of containment have been developed, despite great efforts. As of now, the focus is on fisherman and urging them to clean their gear after leaving a river stream. 

Photo credit: nas.er.usgs.gov/queries/SpeciesList.aspx?Size=50&Group=&Sortby=1&status=0&FMB=0&pathway=0&HUCNumber=02070003

Fountain of Youth: The Immortal Jellyfish Spans Oceans

The concept of immortality has long captivated man. The novel idea of starting-over, beginning anew, and wiping the slate clean for eternity has become the obsession of scientists and the inspiration for countless beauty campaigns. Novels, plays, and films imagine the outcome of attaining immortality. But for the Turritopsis dohrnii jellyfish species, the notion of true rejuvenation isn’t unattainable—it’s routine.

Most jellyfish have a lifespan of hours or months, but Turritopsis dohrnii, dubbed the “immortal jellyfish,” breaks the norm. In many ways, Turritopsis dohrnii are similar to most jellyfish. They have the same umbrella shaped body and flowing tentacles. They grow from polyps, asexually reproduce to form many jellyfish and sexually reproduce at maturity. As the lifecycle ends there for most jellyfish species, for Turritopsis dohrnii, it has only begun. When a Turritopsis dohrnii is deprived of ample nutrition or physically injured, the animal becomes, simply, a blob. The damaged jellyfish attaches its fragile body to a stable object and its cells revert to their juvenile stage. The process of transdifferentiation allows cells to be used for different functions than they previously served as the animal rebuilds itself. The jellyfish goes back to its polyp stage and then grows into its full mature stage again. This process repeats as needed for survival.  

While some species of salamanders can grow new limbs (arms, legs, tails) after one has been amputated, these jellyfish are the only animal known that can revert to its polyp stage after sexual maturation. These 4-millimeter creatures are the only immortal animals known to man.

Discovered in 1883, the Turritopsis dohrni’s regenerative capacity was recently realized in the 1990s. Today, genetically identical Turritopsis dohrni have invaded tropical and cooler waters, adapting with ease to the environment. Though the species originated in the Caribbean ocean, swarms of these jellyfish are found worldwide. Scientists speculate that the jellyfish glom onto ships in their cyst state and are transported to faraway oceans, populating the seas with these undying creatures. These animals are only susceptible to death by contracting a disease in their polyp stage or by being prayed upon.

But as these jellyfish continually replicate, fears are arising concerning the ever-booming population. Found off the shores of Spain, Japan, Panama and the Caribbean, these jellyfish may overrun the oceans. Scientists only recently discovered the presence of these immortal jellyfish after the species was well established, highlighting the inconspicuous spread of the species. Scientists have emphasized how difficult it is to detect the presence of these jellyfish until a full swam of them hits the sea. Now, the question remains if the immortal jellyfish population needs to be monitored to prevent an aquatic imbalance and how their presence will affect the existing ocean habitat.

As far as applying this discovery for human benefit, scientists insist that the information they obtain will not work toward advancing beauty creams or other products. Instead, the focus is on cancer. They suspect that these jellyfish have an unparalleled cellular repair mechanism and cancer is spawned from rogue cells. Understanding these jellyfish’s regenerative abilities may shed light upon the cancer epidemic that plagues so many people.

Photo credit: flickr.com/photos/phoenixation/2984477902/

The Anti-Plastic Movement

The plastic bag option at grocery stores and pharmacies has come under attack worldwide. If the trend continues, the familiar phrase “Paper or plastic?” will be lost on the generations to come just as dial-up and bookstores are falling from the radar. As the United States uses over 250 million plastic bags each year, this apparent movement has spread quickly in the last decade. 

Beginning in the early 2000s, European countries began taxing plastic bag use at grocery stores. Ireland taxes 33 cents per bag, leading to a 94% decrease in plastic bag use, and Italy has banned them this year. While Italy pioneered the ban in Europe, the European Commission is currently discussing regulating plastic bag use as it applies to the European Union.  

While Europe has typically foraged the way for environmentally protective legislature, Bangladesh became the first country to ban plastic bags all together in 2001. The law was passed after plastic bags obstructed storm drains, leading to a destructive flood. Surprisingly, China took this same step. Prior to hosting the Olympic games, China banned plastic bags in the hope of lessening “white pollution.” Before the 2008 ban, China allotted 37,000,000 barrels of oil annually for plastic bag production alone. So as much of an environmental act, the ban has significant economical implications as well. A north Indian state, Himachal Pradesh, was the first in India to institute the total plastic bag ban. India boasts some of the strictest laws against them: steep fines of about 2,000 US dollars and even imprisonment if caught using a plastic bag. With hills littered with plastic bags, the Indian government has spoken out about the serious damage that polythene pollution has caused to the soil and the subsequent decline in agricultural wealth of Indian land.  

California has taken the lead in the plastic bag ban movement in the US. San Francisco became the first US city to eliminate plastic bags from grocery stores, followed by Malibu, Santa Monica, Long Beach, Marin County, and Los Angeles. Although the state did not pass a state-wide law to ban plastic bags, Californian cites no longer have to submit environmental impact reports of plastic bag use to make their case against them. This has made it much easier to ban plastic bags in Californian. Elsewhere in the US, Washington, D.C. and New York both charge 5 cents per bag, Portland, OR has banned plastic bags this month, and Austin is moving toward a city-wide ban. 

Unsurprisingly, the Plastic Industry has retaliated. Their tactics have been linked to the Tobacco Industry and specifically Phillip Morris. The American Chemical Council (AAC) umbrellas ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical amongst other petroleum based companies. The AAC has organized the Progressive Bag Affiliates and strives to overturn legislation aimed at banning plastic bags. The AAC has launched campaigns insisting that state-wide bans will spur hidden taxation and burden the typical, hardworking american citizen. Their efforts overturned Seattle’s 20 cent tax per bag law. The California Senate rejected the plastic bag ban largely to the 2 million dollar campaign that the American Chemical Council waged against it. Oregon’s efforts to ban plastic bags mirrored California’s outcome. Along with the campaigns, the Plastics Industry has filed Strategic Litigation Against Public Participation (SLAPP) suits against activists and companies that combat plastic bag usage and/or support banning efforts. 

While curbing plastic bag use has gone less hindered overseas, it remains to be seen if the AAC can truly halt the efforts to reduce plastic bags in the US. With the movement solidly rooted in Europe and heavy economic powers like China, it seems inevitable that the US will follow in tow.

Photo credit: zev.lacounty.gov/news/environment/finally-its-in-the-reusable-bag