BunsenBwog: A Strange Kind of Optimism

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See you real soon!

It’s the end of the semester and the end of BunsenBwog for another year. While last week focused on science’s somber stories, today Bwog’s enthusiastic arborist Zach Kagan brings you amazing accounts of nature in a world altered by man.

New York City is an “urban heat island,” a zone of increased temperatures caused by the high heat capacities of artificial structures like buildings and roads. BunsenBwog has previously discussed the costs of living in “urban heat islands.” Thousands die each year due to heat waves and it costs the city millions in electricity. But for trees it turns the city into a giant arboretum. A new study led by Columbia alum Stephanie Y. Searle found that red oak seedlings planted in Central Park grow eight times faster than those outside the city in the Hudson Valley and Catskill Mountains. While Searle (who planted the trees as an undergrad) admits that city pollution can harm trees, or fertilize them with extra airborne nitrogen, heat is the major factor. With temperatures averaging 4 to 8 degrees higher inside the city, urban trees can more quickly perform the chemical reactions necessary for photosynthesis. This agrees with other studies which suggest that certain plants thrive in the “urban heat island,” but others are not as resilient. For now, though, New York in summer is just hot enough for red oaks to shoot up like weeds.

This is good news for the campaign to green NYC. But besides parks and boulevards where can the city squeeze in a bit more plant life? Answer: take to the rooftops! Transforming bare, heat capturing downtown rooftops (a contributing factor to the “urban heat island”) into Greenwich Village gardens not only looks good, but also saves energy. One of the most popular plants used for green roofs is sedum (stonecrop), a low growing plant often used a garden ground cover. The advantage of sedum is its ability to efficiently retain water runoff, but recently a team of Columbia researchers have found that some grass species may do better. But whether it’s sedum, grass, or trees, more vegetation is a good thing. For example, trees can reduce certain types of common urban pollution by 15-20%, which is great for asthma sufferers. A Columbia study found that those living in neighborhoods with more street trees tended to have significantly lower childhood asthma rates, meaning that planting a tree is good for both you and the planet!

Stem cells start their lives in a cluster (referred to as a niche), where they are created and maintained until needed. Once the stem cells move away from the niche they’re able to mature and differentiate into whatever cell the body requires. Dr. Navarrone and his colleagues at Columbia’s Medical Center are interested in stem cell niches that form along cerebral-fluid-filled ventricles, the brain’s neurological nursery. In particular they are interested in a set of proteins that prevent stem cells from flying the nest too quickly, inhibition differentiation molecules (IDs). To understand how IDs work, the researchers genetically modified mice with missing (turned off) ID genes. The mice died within 24 hours of birth, their brains depleted of stem cells. Turns out that ID molecules directly regulate levels of adhesion molecules that keep stem cells attached to their niche. With a faulty adhesion process, stem cells detach from their niches until the body can no longer maintain brain function. These adhesion genes now could be studied with the goal of developing therapies for a variety of neurological diseases.

Text messages. They cause death and destruction in their wake, be it though texting-and-driving or carpal tunnel. Could anyone ever use such technology for good? Dr. Melissa S. Stockwell and contributors at the Medical Center stepped up to the challenge. They wanted to see if they could increase flu vaccination rates amongst low-income, inner city children by sending parents reminders via text. The results: children whose parents were nagged via text were 3.7% more likely to be immunized over parents who just received informational pamphlets and phone calls.

Already have too much reading? You can learn about the study in the video below:

Kagan & Co. via Wikimedia Commons

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  1. Anonymous

    Green trees, green roofs, green Earth! Thanks bunsenbwog!

  2. Panana Red

    Lots of my friends would be cultivating roof tops where the authorities more reasonable, and my stem cells would be more compliant and adhere to their comfortable niches.

  3. Anonymous

    Looks like text messaging works. Text messaging to parents should be used to improve vaccinations against measles.

  4. Anonymous

    Hey, what would be the best roof at Columbia to plant a green rooftop?

  5. Nebuchadnezzar II

    Your ivy covered walls are a good start as I learned in Babylon that nearly any structure with proper irrigation could be covered in hanging gardens: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hanging_Gardens_of_Babylon

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