3/24/15

Cure to TB may be living at the bottom of Lake Michigan

Scientists at the University of Illinois at Chicago have unearthed a species of Lake Michigan bacteria that may become a powerful weapon in the fight against tuberculosis. Found in the sediment off the coast of Milwaukee, the microbe’s medicinal power lies in the small compounds it makes to defend itself. 

UIC researcher Brian Murphy and colleagues at the College of Pharmacy are still trying to pin down how the molecules attack the M. tuberculosis bacterium, but they know that the compounds display drug-like potency against a range of antimicrobial-resistant strains that rivals existing clinical treatments.

This study is part of a larger effort by Murphy and others to determine the disease-fighting potential of aquatic actinomycete bacteria. Current treatments for many diseases are built around the chemical defenses used by land-based bacteria, but a growing number of pathogens are now resistant to standard drugs. Results like these in Lake Michigan suggest that freshwater bacteria may create molecules that dangerous pathogens have yet to evolve defenses against, making the Great Lakes a potentially untapped reservoir of treatments for some of the world’s deadliest diseases.  

To understand the potential of the lakes, Murphy has collected more than 600 strains of freshwater actinomycete bacteria with support from an IISG Discovery Grant. The size and diversity of the library will help reveal both whether these bacteria are significantly different than their land-based cousins and if strains found in different lakes produce unique chemical defenses.

This analysis is still underway, but Murphy and his team have already discovered that the makeup of actinomycete communities in Lake Huron varies both by location and depth, a diversity that makes the lake a potentially important site in the hunt for new cures. 

3/20/15

Friday Foto: Spring has officially sprung

Happy spring! The Chicago Flower and Garden Show, which continues through Sunday, gives us a jump on the season. Come visit Illinois-Indiana Sea Grant’s booth and learn how to help prevent the spread of invasive aquatic plants.  

3/19/15

Medicine disposal draws a crowd at public engagement symposium

Allison Neubauer and Kirsten Walker were at the University of Illinois Public Engagement Symposium last week to raise awareness of IISG outreach in Champaign-Urbana. Allison had this to say about the event. 

The public engagement symposium was a great opportunity to find out what other local organizations and academic programs are working on. The crowds of people—both those staffing booths and walking through and exploring—were a true testament to Champaign-Urbana’s widespread effort to get involved and take collective action on local initiatives.

Our IISG table generated a lot of traffic. With spring on the horizon, many visitors were excited to learn about our mobile walking tour of downtown Chicago. Others stopped to discuss invasive species and ways they can help halt their spread.

But the biggest draw was our university Learning in Community (LINC) course poster, created by undergraduate students enrolled in our section last fall. These students focused on increasing awareness on campus about how pharmaceuticals contaminate our waterways. They also coordinated a take-back event for students and community members to properly dispose of their unwanted medication. The event was a big success, collecting 15 pounds of unused medicine for incineration in just six hours.

For Kirsten and I, what was particularly exciting and unique about this symposium was our ability to connect with others working locally on related problems. For example, a Champaign community health center invited us to discuss pharmaceutical disposal with their patients. There was also a UIUC engineering student interested in the homemade filtration system our LINC students created with local high schoolers to show how some contaminants can slip through wastewater treatment processes. She is currently working to design and implement a water system and health program in a rural Honduran community and was looking for ways to engage with local residents.

3/18/15

Species spotlight: Lake sturgeon

Where we take a moment to explore some of the unique and impressive species that call the Great Lakes home.

Skin like a shark, feeding habits akin to those of a whale, and a lifespan comparable to our own—the lake sturgeon is a peculiar species indeed. Found in large lakes and rivers, this toothless, whiskered bottom feeder is the largest, longest living, and one of the most ancient species in the Great Lakes. With an average length of 3-5 feet and a weight of 10-80 pounds, some lake sturgeon have grown to be 8 feet long and 300 pounds. Males typically live around 50 years while females’ lifespans range anywhere between 80-150. And with origins during the late cretaceous period, this species has remained relatively unchanged since the time of the triceratops and the tyrannosaurus rex.

The lake sturgeon’s skeleton is partly cartilaginous. Its body has no scales and is lined with five rows of bony plates called skutes—one on top and two rows along each side. Two pairs of fleshy sensory organs called barbels hang from its shovel-like snout like whiskers to help the lake sturgeon find prey. Its diet consists primarily of benthic organisms—small bottom-dwelling creatures like mussels, snails, crustaceans, aquatic insects—but they have been known to eat small fish. With no teeth, the lake sturgeon uses its snout to dig up whatever prey it finds and then sucks it up through its protractile mouth, filtering out sediment through its gills while digesting the organic material.

As hardy as the lake sturgeon may seem, its population suffered almost incalculable losses in the late 19th century. Initially thought of as a nuisance fish that damaged fishing equipment, lake sturgeon were slaughtered en masse. They’d be buried on shore or lined up to dry in the sun like stacks of timber and later used as fuel for steam ships due to the high oil content of their meat. Over time, lake sturgeon meat and eggs became prized commodities, leading to overfishing and an eventual collapse in population. 

Recovery has historically been a challenge due to the lake sturgeon’s naturally slow reproductive cycle, with males only reaching maturity around 15 years of age and females at closer to 20. This in combination with lake and river pollution, habitat loss, and dam activity blocking access to spawning grounds has lead to a long decline of lake sturgeon populations across the U.S. and Canada. As a result, lake sturgeon are listed as an endangered, threatened, or species of special concern by 19 of the 20 states where they are found. 

But in recent years, some populations have started to rebound. State and Canadian governments now enforce strict policies that limit the number of sturgeon caught each year. Spawning habitats have been constructed, watersheds have been stocked, and eggs have been raised in artificial cultures. People are also encouraged to report any sightings of lake sturgeon to help get a better idea of their numbers. 

We'll have more species spotlights in the coming weeks. If you have a species you'd like to see featured, let us know in the comments, on Twitter, or on Facebook.

***Photo by Great Lakes Aquarium 

3/16/15

Leaks can run, but they can't hide

Household leaks cost the country more than a trillion gallons of water a year—enough to quench the water needs of roughly 11 million homes. The common culprits are toilet flappers, dripping faucets, and other leaky valves. Fortunately, there are easy steps you can take in your home and yard to save water and money. And that's what Fix a Leak Week, March 16-22, is all about. 

Sponsored by EPA's WaterSense program, Fix a Leak Week offers demonstration events and online resources to help homeowners find and fix leaky toilets, shower heads, and more. 

IISG is joining the celebration with the release of our Household Water Efficiency brochure. Created in partnership with the Northwest Water Planning Alliance, Metropolitan Planning Council, Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning (CMAP), and EPA, the brochure provides do-it-yourself tips for lowering your water bill by about 10 percent. 

Household Water Efficiency is part of a larger effort to help individuals and communities secure a sustainable water supply. The Chicago region has long benefited from an abundance of fresh water. But legal limits on how much can be pulled from Lake Michigan and strained aquifers have left many concerned that demand will outpace supply. 

In response to these concerns, CMAP led the development of a comprehensive water supply management plan for the 11 counties in the greater Chicago area. IISG research, including an overview of water rates, provided critical data for key components of the plan. IISG also developed a guide that helps city officials plan and implement water rates that encourage conservation and provide sufficient funding for utilities to detect and fix leaks in their water systems.

To learn more, visit our Water Supply page. And follow us on Twitter all week for more water conservation tips and fun facts. 

3/13/15

Friday Foto: Spring temps chase away winter ice

What a difference a week can make! Great Lakes ice cover was pushing record levels before this week's above-average temperatures melted much of it away. 

The Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies captured the dramatic difference.

3/12/15

Clean Boats Crew site leaders needed for 2015 season

The Illinois Natural History Survey is looking for Clean Boats Crew site leaders to help spread awareness about invasive species prevention. Positions are available in Illinois' Cook and Lake counties and in northwest Indiana. 

Site leaders will work weekends from May 23 to Aug. 9 educating boaters and anglers about aquatic invasive species and what they can do to help halt their spread. Successful applicants will be trained on the species threatening the region and techniques for interacting with the public prior to boating season. 

To apply, submit a cover letter with your preferred location, resume, and three references to hroffice@inhs.illinois.edu by March 23. For complete details on the positions and application requirements, see the job posting

Clean Boats Crew is a collaboration between IlSG, the Illinois Natural History Survey, and the Northeast Illinois Invasive Plant Partnership. During its four year tenure, the program has empowered more than 8,000 recreational water users to help keep our waters free of invasive species. Visit our Clean Boats Crew page for more information. 

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