Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The End of the Line or over it?

This blog is about something I don’t know anything about, which believe it or not is a first for me. But I’ve been seeing a lot of news and reviews for a new documentary on overfishing, and although I can’t get to see it at the moment, I’m fascinated by the campaign to make this film into a happening, “An Inconvenient Truth of the Oceans.”

The film is called The End of the Line. Its makers describe it this way –
Imagine an ocean without fish. Imagine your meals without seafood. Imagine the global consequences. This is the future if we do not stop, think and act. In the film we see firsthand the effects of our global love affair with fish as food.

It examines the imminent extinction of bluefin tuna, brought on by increasing western demand for sushi; the impact on marine life resulting in huge overpopulation of jellyfish; and the profound implications of a future world with no fish that would bring certain mass starvation.
Filmed over two years, The End of the Line follows the investigative reporter Charles Clover as he confronts politicians and celebrity restaurateurs, who exhibit little regard for the damage they are doing to the oceans.

Overfishing – catching fish faster than their populations reproduce - is indeed a threat to the marine ecosystem, to the human food supply, and to the economic well-being of many regions. The UN Fisheries and Agriculture Organization’s 2008 report on the state of the world’s fisheries concluded that 75% of the fish stocks it monitors are fully exploited, overexploited, or depleted, and that sustainable management practices are lacking worldwide. The End of the Line explicitly aims to tackle this situation –

The film lays the responsibility squarely on consumers who innocently buy endangered fish, politicians who ignore the advice and pleas of scientists, fishermen who break quotas and fish illegally, and the global fishing industry that is slow to react to an impending disaster.

The End of the Line points to solutions that are simple and doable, but political will and activism are crucial to solve this international problem.

The End of the Line premiere at Sundance will also kick-off a global campaign for citizens to demand better marine policies. Leading international environmental organizations are lending their full support to the film.

The End of the Line will be released worldwide in 2009 using multiple formats and venues including theaters, broadcast and cable television networks, film festivals, online video campaigns, aquariums, museums and special screenings for environmental and educational organizations.

Now this is where it gets really interesting to me, this unabashed mingling of science and activism. I’ve found that I have to be very careful exposing introductory and non-majors students to subjective material. They often struggle to recognize the biases in advocacy science, or can be mislead into thinking that all scientific work comes with an agenda. I suspect though, that the blatancy of The End of the Line is exactly why it could work well as a teaching tool. From what I’ve seen, the film makes its points with a sledgehammer – that can open a lot of avenues for study. Students often react strongly to being hit over the head, and are motivated to dig deeper into a subject, to look for other ways of interpreting the data, and to debate the issues with their classmates.

The End of the Line will be released to theaters in selected cities on June 19th. In the meantime, you can poke into the story around the documentary at the sites below -

The End of the Line website

National Geographic has a page on the documentary, and links to their own articles and videos on overfishing

Babelgum is streaming segments of the film and additional videos online.

In addition, a number of science blogs have already reviewed the film. And the book of the same name by Charles Clover is widely available in bookstores and libraries.

Anyone seen The End of the Line? What did you think about it’s suitability for the classroom? I’ll blog again once I’ve watched.

Monday, June 1, 2009

You'll Never Walk Alone

The Human Genome Project was launched to map the DNA sequences carried inside every human cell. Now that the HGP is largely complete, biologists are working to map the DNA of our closest and most intimate companions, the bacteria carried in and upon every human body. The Human Microbiome Project seeks to identify and describe the complement of microbes that inhabit healthy humans, and to see how changes in that biota correlate with disease and other environmental disruptions. The project subdivides the body into biomes. In ecology, biomes are geographic regions characterized by distinct climate patterns and plant and animal communities. In the microbiome project, biomes are body regions distinguished by their physical and chemical conditions and their bacterial communities. The first steps in HMP research are sampling various biomes, such as the skin, digestive tract, nose and mouth and identifying and comparing their bacterial inhabitants.

Biologists have known for a long time that our skin teems with microbial life. But most of these bacteria don’t grow well in petri dishes, so it’s been very difficult to study them in any detail. DNA sequencing has provided a new way of exploring the microbiota. Ribosomal RNA is extracted from swab samples taken from a biome, sequenced, and analyzed to determine the diversity and composition of the bacterial community. The results of such a study of the skin have just been released. Samples collected from 20 places on the skin of each of 10 volunteers yielded over 1000 species from 200 different genera and 12 phyla. Samples from the same site on different people were far more similar than those from different spots on the same person, suggesting that the biota of human biomes do represent real communities. The forearm bacteria were the most diverse, averaging 44 species, with a paltry 19 found behind the ear.

Researchers now plan to gather samples from volunteers with skin disorders such as psoriasis, eczema, acne, and skin infections. They hope that differences in the bacterial communities between healthy and sick people will provide insights into the development and progression of disease and suggest new treatments.

As an active area of research and a novel way of approaching human health, the Human Microbiome Project has a lot of natural hooks for biology education. There’s something very charming and at the same time slightly unsettling about thinking of your body as a complex and crowded ecosystem, isn’t there? I find myself giving my forearms a lot of sidelong glances lately. Just what is going on over there?

Illustration: Skin sample sites for a study of bacterial diversity. Credit: Jane Ades, NHGRI