Friday, October 9, 2009

Conservation Research Explores Uncharted Territory

Five to seven hours by bus, and up to three days by canoe. Not your average commute, but that’s how long it took for Duke undergraduate Varsha Vijay to reach the site of her research in the Ecuadorian Amazon, January through August of this year. Vijay would stay with the Waorani people in that region for one to three weeks at a time.

“They’re known as the fiercest tribe of the Amazon. It’s not hard to believe. But to me, they were very welcoming,” Vijay said.

Her research culminated with a co-authored paper released a few weeks ago: Ecuador's Yasuní Biosphere Reserve: a brief modern history and conservation challenges (Finer, Vijay, Ponce, Jenkins, & Kahn, 2009). The paper brings together a wealth of information about biological, social, and political issues pertaining to the area.

Vijay’s route to this village and research subject started with an interest in the relationship between the environment and health. After taking professor Stuart Pimm’s class sophomore year (Preserving the Diversity of Life), she asked him to be her advisor.

“I was pretty certain I wanted to visit these interesting places, but I didn’t know how to get there,” Vijay said.

Pimm put her in touch with then-PhD student Luke Dollar, who was doing research in Madagascar. Vijay conducted biological surveys and learned about people’s perceptions of and connections with the environment.

While she enjoyed the experience, “it sparked a wanderlust in me. I wanted to go somewhere else.”

In the summer of 2008, Vijay ventured to Ecuador with a fellow undergraduate. She discovered something surprising about the scientific process there.

“My impression was that a lot of researchers were going for data collection and disappearing. They never asked the natives. Investigating the native community is a really important part of doing scientific research in highly biodiverse areas -- these areas support very unique communities of people, who themselves display an extraordinary knowledge of the environment around them. To study the environment without involving these people is kind of nonsensical.”

Following that experience, Vijay returned to the states and worked for an organization in Washington, Save America's Forests, where she met paper co-author Matt Finer. Both had a common interest in Ecuador and wanted to know more.

Unfortunately, “there wasn’t any resource we could turn to. We needed more background information just to do our own projects,” Vijay said. “We thought, if that background is lacking, let’s just create it ourselves.”

With support from Pimm’s lab and other Duke funding, Vijay went back to Ecuador. She overcame significant linguistic and cultural barriers and created a second family there.

“At one point, I stopped seeing their actions as strange and it became more mundane. I must have really adjusted,” Vijay said. “Ceremonially, they are nude. They eat monkey, tapir and anaconda. I was raised in a vegetarian home, so I eased myself into it.

“There’s a difference between living in an agrarian, sedentary society and a hunter-gatherer society. They can walk forever. Their knowledge of the jungle and their ease within it still amazes me. There’s one type of knowledge that you can gain in school, and there’s a whole other type that they have. They have an innate knowledge of what’s around that no amount of schooling would allow me to gain.”

Vijay believes her immersive experience gave the data another dimension. “To study conservation, you have to put it in the context of health and well-being. In some senses, it’s super multi-disciplinary, going back to anthropology and backing it up with scientific data.”

One of Vijay’s most important discoveries was how the Waorani’s idea of health encompasses the environment. For them, environmental factors such as scarcity of food and water, bad weather or poor hunting exert a sizable influence on everyday well-being.

Vijay has some advice for the idealistic adventurers of the future. “People who are idealistic have a great chance to impact the world, but you have to strike a balance between dreaming and being practical. Don’t be so set in your idea-- you don’t have enough information to make perfect projects.”

“Let your heartstrings be pulled, but don’t lose your focus. Know the things you are good at and passionate about. Foster that in yourself.”

Preemies' Intestinal Microorganisms Surprising

A research pediatrician and an ecologist are joining forces at Duke to improve the prospects for very premature infants by exploring which bacteria first colonize their intestines.

"We hope this will allow us to ask if there are organisms that, when acquired early, provide early warning or reduce the risk of serious disease," said Patrick Seed, an assistant professor of pediatrics, molecular genetics and microbiology at the Duke Medical Center.

"We're examining which microbes are there, what's their relative abundance and how quickly do pathogenic organisms appear," added Robert Jackson, a Biology and Nicholas School of the Environment professor of biology and global climatic change. He provided Seed with DNA detection tools originally developed to identify which species of microorganisms live in soil samples.

While all babies are thought to be sterile in the womb, they are immediately exposed to their mother's microbes during delivery and through nursing as well as via tender loving handling by relatives, Seed said.

As a result, by the time researchers can assess them, these recent arrivals already have thriving microbial mixtures living in their intestines.

"Living with microbes is a fundamental part of the human experience," Seed said. The growing microbe collections are generally user-friendly species needed for digestion. But bad actors can quickly be acquired in some cases, sometimes causing problems such as diarrhea.

By contrast, the tiny very premature infants arriving months too early are immediately isolated and treated with antibiotics to ward off infections. Even nursing is delayed. Instead, they are initially nourished through a catheter. Thus protected, preemies should enter the world as blank slates for microbes.

So Seed is applying Jackson's molecular toolkit on preemies' stool samples to establish which bacterial varieties are first taking up residence in their immature intestines. As a result, perhaps treating physicians would better know which problem species to anticipate. "Or perhaps we can identify which kinds of organisms could form cornerstones for healthy bacterial communities," Seed said.

So far, Seed has surveyed 11 infants, two of those in great detail, several weeks after their premature deliveries and after they were taken off antibiotics. While Jackson's DNA tests are revealing some diversity in bacterial populations, each baby's gut seems to be harboring the same "predominant organisms," according to Seed.

"I'm just surprised that the infants' immature systems wouldn't give more organisms a chance to move in, he said. "However, this also seems like a real opportunity. We may have more of a chance in the future to help babies develop 'healthy' groups of microbes that promote growth and development while keeping the particularly dangerous players out," Seed said.