Farmers in Kashmir Try Growing Saffron Indoors

Dar Yasin wrote . . . . . . . . .

As climate change impacts the production of prized saffron in Indian-controlled Kashmir, scientists are shifting to a largely new technique for growing one of the world’s most expensive spices in the Himalayan region: indoor cultivation.

Results in laboratory settings have been promising, experts say, and the method has been shared with over a dozen traditional growers.

Agriculture scientist Nazir Ahmed Ganai said indoor cultivation is helping boost saffron production, which has been adversely hit by environmental changes in recent years.

“If climate is challenging us, we are trying to see how we can adapt ourselves. Going indoors means that we are doing vertical farming,” said Ganai, who is also the vice chancellor of the region’s main agriculture university.

Kashmir’s economy is mainly agrarian and the rising impact of climate change, warming temperatures and erratic rainfall patterns has increased worries among farmers who complain about growing less produce. The changes have also impacted the region’s thousands of glaciers, rapidly shrinking them and in turn hampering traditional farming patterns in the ecologically fragile region.

Strife in the region has also impacted production and export. For decades, a separatist movement has fought Indian rule in Kashmir, which is divided between India and Pakistan and claimed by both. Tens of thousands of civilians, rebels and government forces have died in the conflict.

For the last three years, saffron farmer Abdul Majeed Wani has opted for indoor cultivation. He said his experience has been satisfying and the technique “has benefited us in a good way.”

“We faced some difficulties initially because of lack of experience, but with time we learned,” Wani said.

A kilogram (2.2 pounds) of the spice can cost up to $4,000 — partly because it takes as many as 150,000 flowers to produce that amount.

Across the world, saffron is used in products ranging from food to medicine and cosmetics. Nearly 90% of the world’s saffron is grown in Iran, but experts consider Kashmir’s crop to be superior for its deep intensity of color and flavor.

Source: AP






The Mysterious, Vexing, and Utterly Engrossing Search for the Origin of Eels

Christina Couch wrote . . . . . . . . .

Every three years, Reinhold Hanel boards a research ship and voyages to the only sea in the world that’s located in the middle of an ocean. The Sargasso, bounded by currents instead of land, is an egg-shaped expanse that takes up about two-thirds of the North Atlantic, looping around Bermuda and stretching east more than 1,000 kilometers. Dubbed the “golden floating rainforest” thanks to the thick tangles of ocher-colored seaweed that blanket the water’s surface, the Sargasso is a slowly swirling sanctuary for over 270 marine species. And each year, the eels arrive.

The European eel and the American eel—both considered endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature—make this extraordinary migration. The Sargasso is the only place on Earth where they breed. The slithery creatures, some as long as 1.5 meters, arrive from Europe, North America, including parts of the Caribbean, and North Africa, including the Mediterranean Sea. Hanel, a fish biologist and director of the Thünen Institute of Fisheries Ecology in Bremerhaven, Germany, makes his own month-long migration here alongside a rotating cast of researchers, some of whom hope to solve mysteries that have long flummoxed marine biologists, anatomists, philosophers, and conservationists: What happens when these eels spawn in the wild? And what can be done to help the species recover from the impacts of habitat loss, pollution, overfishing, and hydropower? Scientists say that the answers could improve conservation. But, thus far, eels have kept most of their secrets to themselves.

The idea that eels have sex at all is a fairly modern notion. Ancient Egyptians associated eels with the sun god Atum and believed they sprang to life when the sun warmed the Nile. In the fourth century BCE, Aristotle proclaimed that eels spontaneously generated within “the entrails of the earth” and that they didn’t have genitals.

The no-genital theory held for generations. Roman naturalist Pliny the Elder asserted that eels rubbed against rocks and their dead skin “scrapings come to life.” Others credited eel provenance to everything from horses’ tails to dew drops on riverbanks. In medieval Europe, this presumed asexuality had real economic consequences and helped make the European eel a culturally important species, according to John Wyatt Greenlee, a medieval cartographic historian who wrote part of his dissertation on the subject. Frequent Christian holidays at the time required followers to adhere to church-sanctioned diets for much of the year. These prohibited adherents from eating “unclean” animals or meat that came from carnal acts, which could incite, as Thomas Aquinas put it, “an incentive to lust.” Fish were the exception, Greenlee says, and eels, given their abundance and “the fact that they just sort of appear and that nobody can find their reproductive organs at all,” appealed to anyone trying to avoid a sexy meal.

Eels could be practically anything to anyone: dinner or dessert; a cure for hangovers, drunkenness, or ear infections; material for wedding bands or magical jackets. They were even used as informal currency. Since yearly rent and taxes in medieval Europe were often due during Lent—the roughly 40-day period preceding Easter—and monasteries owned land people lived on, tenants sometimes paid with dried eels. Entire villages could pay 60,000 eels or more at once.

Eventually, spontaneous generation theories died. But eel genitals landed in the spotlight again after an Italian surgeon found ovaries in an eel from Comacchio, Italy, and the findings were published in the 18th century. The legitimacy of the so-called Comacchio eel remained in question for decades until an anatomist published a description of ovaries from a different Comacchio eel, launching a race to find testicles. Even the granddaddy of psychosexual development theory got involved: near the beginning of his career, in 1876, Sigmund Freud dissected at least 400 eels in search of gonads. It would be about another two decades before someone discovered a mature male eel near Sicily.

It’s no surprise that it took so long to find eel sex organs. There are more than 800 species, about 15 of which are freshwater varieties, and their bodies change so dramatically with age that scientists long thought the larvae were a different species than adult eels. Eels transform from eggs to transparent willow-leaflike larvae, to wormy see-through babies called glass eels, and onward until full size. Like most eel species, American and European eels don’t fully develop gonads until their last life stage, usually between 7 and 25 years in. Around that time, they leave inland fresh and brackish waters, where people can easily observe them, and migrate up to about 6,000 kilometers—roughly the distance from Canada’s easternmost tip to its westernmost—to the Sargasso.

By now, researchers have seen eels mate in lab settings, but they don’t know how this act plays out in the wild. The mechanisms that guide migration also remain somewhat enigmatic, as do the exact social, physical, and chemical conditions under which eels reproduce. Mature eels die after spawning, and larvae move to freshwater habitat, but when that happens and how each species finds its home continent are also unknown.

“We think that the European eel reproduces in the Sargasso Sea because this is the place where we have found the smaller larvae, but we have never found a European eel egg or the eels spawning,” says Estibaliz Díaz, a biologist at AZTI marine research center in Spain, who studies European eel population dynamics and management. “It’s still a theory that has not been proven.” The same applies to the American eel, and yet more questions remain about how many eels survive migration, what makes the Sargasso so singular, and how factors like climate change might affect it.

Both species have dropped in number, but researchers debate which threat is the biggest. Habitat loss is huge—humans have drained wetlands, polluted waters with urban and agricultural runoff, and built hydropower turbines that kill eels and dams that block the animals from migrating in or out of inland waters. Fishing further reduces eel numbers. Commercial fisheries for adult eels exist, but most eels consumed globally come from the aquaculture industry, which pulls young glass eels from the wild and raises them in farms. American and European eels are among the top three most commercially valuable species alongside the Japanese eel, which is also endangered. While it’s legal to fish for all three, regulations on when, where, and how many eels can be sold vary between countries. The European Union requires member nations to close their marine fisheries for three consecutive months around the winter migration season each year—countries themselves determine exact dates—and prohibits trade outside of member countries, but these management efforts are undermined by black-market traders who illegally export more than 90 tonnes of European eels to Asia every year.

The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) lists European eels as critically endangered—populations have plummeted more than 90 percent compared with historical levels, and it’s “rather unclear,” as one report notes, whether the decline continues today. By counting glass eels in estuaries and inland waters, researchers found that eel numbers dropped precipitously between the 1980s and 2011, but plateaued afterward without clear cause. American eels are thought to be faring better—they’re considered endangered only by IUCN standards, not by other conservation and research groups—though their numbers have also decreased since the 1970s.

Captive breeding might one day reduce the aquaculture industry’s dependence on wild catches, but isn’t yet viable. Scientists must induce eel gonad development with synthetic hormones. It’s also hard to keep larvae alive. Many researchers believe that, in their natural habitat, larvae eat marine snow—a mélange of decaying organic matter suspended in the water that is impractical to reproduce at commercial scales. Illuminating what happens in the Sargasso could help guide better conservation measures. That’s why Reinhold Hanel heads to sea.

After three years of COVID-19-related delay, in 2023, Hanel will send a research vessel on a 14-day trip from Germany to Bermuda. He’ll fly there and meet up with 11 other eel researchers, then he’ll spend about a month slowly traversing the southern Sargasso, recording ocean conditions, trawling for eel larvae with mesh plankton nets, and sampling for environmental DNA—genetic material shed from skin, mucus, and poop—to track eels by what they leave behind.

Hanel has led voyages like these since 2011. His main goal is to document the abundance of larvae and young eels and, secondarily, to identify possible locations for spawning. By sampling estuaries and inland waters, researchers can identify trends over time to figure out if glass eels in continental waters are increasing or not, but without comparing those trends with similar ones in the Sargasso, it’s impossible to judge whether either American or European eels are bouncing back. Meanwhile, protective regulations aren’t enough, Hanel contends. In 2007, the European Union mandated that member countries develop European eel recovery plans, but several prominent fishery and marine science organizations have criticized the particulars.

In tandem with other measures aimed at reducing eel mortality, provisions like closing fisheries make sense, Hanel says—last year, an international consortium of researchers, of which Hanel is a member, recommended closing fisheries until glass eel stocks recover. But other requirements aren’t rooted in research, including one to ensure 40 percent of adult eels survive to migrate from inland waters to the sea each year. “Scientists cannot say if 40 percent is sufficient to recover the stock,” Hanel says.

That’s why Hanel’s work is so important, says Martin Castonguay, a marine biologist and scientist emeritus at Fisheries and Oceans Canada, who has collaborated with Hanel. Financial obstacles often prevent eel scientists from conducting research outside of inland waters. Research vessels can cost anywhere from CAN $30,000 to $50,000 per day, or just under $1-million for a month-long trip, Castonguay says, requiring scientists to have hefty grants or government support to venture all the way to the Sargasso.

Despite the barriers, scientists keep trying to find answers to how to help eels recover. They have planted hydroacoustic devices in hopes of tracking migrating eels by sound, pored over satellite photos, and injected eels with hormones to induce gonad development before releasing them into the Sargasso to try to study how deep beneath the surface they spawn. Back at home in the lab, they’ve developed algorithms to scan for and spot eels in sonar images of inland waters and built hyperbaric swimming tubes to observe how eels respond to changes in pressure and current strength. They’ve even tried to follow them with satellite transmitters.

In the mid-2010s, Castonguay and four other researchers sewed buoyant trackers to 38 American eels and released them off the coast of Nova Scotia. Every 15 minutes, the trackers recorded the depth at which the eels were swimming, the water temperature, and light levels. The sensors were designed to detach several months later and transmit the data along with the eels’ final location. Unfortunately, they detached before the eels reached any specific spawning locations, though one eel got as close as 100 to 150 kilometers from the spawning region. Still, “it was the first time that an [adult American] eel was documented in the Sargasso,” says Castonguay. Previously, only larvae had been found there. “We were extremely excited.”

If more governments and research institutions were willing to spend the resources, Castonguay adds, these eels wouldn’t be so mysterious. Research on a similar species in Japan offers a case study for how that could work.

On the other side of the globe from the Sargasso, the Japanese eel makes a 3,000-kilometer annual migration from Japan and surrounding countries to the West Mariana Ridge in the western Pacific Ocean. With support from the Japanese government and other scientific institutions, researchers there have identified a spawning location, collected fertilized eggs, and tracked tagged eels swimming to their spawning area—all feats never attained in the Sargasso. They’ve found that Japanese eels spawn over a period of a few days before the new moon, at depths of 150 to 200 meters, and that spawning is triggered in part by temperature shifts that happen as eels move from deep to shallower water. Some eels, they learned, might spawn more than once during a spawning season.

Public outreach efforts have also been important, says University of Tokyo eel biologist Michael Miller. The researcher who led most of the eel work, Katsumi Tsukamoto—a University of Tokyo scientist emeritus known as Unagi Sensei, or Dr. Eel—has worked hard to raise the eels’ public profile. His findings have helped build the case that eels are “something other than just a meal,” Miller says. “It’s something [that’s] part of the Japanese culture and it’s worth conserving,” which has helped boost efforts to protect them.

Hanel is trying to do the same for the eels of the Sargasso and for other species. He speaks to the press and the public as often as he can. He believes, as many others do, that successfully conserving these creatures hinges on whether there’s a unified international effort to do so. But so long as data snapshots come only every few years, answers to questions about spawning and species well-being will stay hidden somewhere in the watery depths, just like the eels themselves.

Source: Hakai Magazine





The Benefits of Adding a Drizzle of Olive Oil to Your Diet

KC Wright wrote . . . . . . . . .

The ancient Greeks were on to something when they referred to olive oil as an “elixir of youth and health.” Centuries later, research offers evidence about the benefits of olive oil in our daily diets.

Consuming more than half a tablespoon of olive oil a day may lower heart disease risk, a 2020 study found. And earlier this year, researchers reported in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology that people who ate more than half a tablespoon per day had lower rates of premature death from cardiovascular disease, Alzheimer’s disease and other causes compared to people who never or rarely consumed olive oil.

“Olive oil is the hallmark of the Mediterranean diet, and its link to lower mortality is well established in southern European countries. But this is the first long-term study to show such a health benefit here in the U.S.,” said Dr. Frank Hu, the study’s senior author and a professor of nutrition and epidemiology at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in Boston.

Among all edible plant oils, olive oil has the highest percentage of monounsaturated fat, which lowers “bad” LDL cholesterol and increases “good” HDL. It’s been shown to lower blood pressure and contains plant-based compounds that offer anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties known to reduce the disease process, including heart disease.

Olive oil is derived from the fruit of the olive tree, cultivated mainly in the Mediterranean for over 5,000 years. Spain is by far the largest producer of olive oils in the world, followed by Italy and Greece. In the 18th century, Spanish missionaries brought olives to California and planted them along the coast. Today, over 40,000 acres of olive trees grow exclusively for oil in California, Arizona, Georgia, Florida, Oregon and Hawaii. Just 5% of the 90 million gallons of olive oil consumed annually in the U.S. are produced here, according to the American Olive Oil Producers Association.

Several grades of olive oil are found on store shelves in the U.S., from regular to extra virgin olive oil – commonly known as EVOO. EVOO is the staple fat source for the Mediterranean diet, considered one of the healthiest dietary patterns and a diet emphasized by the American Heart Association for preventing cardiovascular disease.

EVOO is the fatty fraction of olive juice extracted only by mechanical and physical processes without any refinement. It’s the lack of refinement that maintains both its sensory and health properties. “First-pressed” and “cold-pressed” are terms that emphasize the EVOO is an unrefined, natural product that has undergone a single, simple milling process without any processing to alter its quality.

Regular olive oil, on the other hand, has been refined, bleached, deodorized and then blended with 5% to 15% EVOO. “Pure” or “light” are marketing terms used for olive oil that has been refined and mixed with a small amount of EVOO to yield a product that’s lighter in flavor, aroma or color.

Hu’s recent study did not differentiate between grades of olive oil, but he said European studies have shown better health results with EVOO which has a higher amount of plant compounds and antioxidants than other edible oils. Hu said future research may compare the different grades of olive oils for beneficial effects.

When cooking, olive oil can be a healthy substitute for butter, margarine and other types of fat. In Hu’s study, for example, replacing unhealthy fats with olive oil was associated with a lower risk of dying. “Olive oil is a much healthier replacement for dietary fats, especially animal fats,” Hu said.

Other liquid vegetable oils make good substitutes, too. Strong evidence demonstrates the heart-healthy benefits of soybean, canola, corn, safflower, sunflower and other plant oils.

According to Christopher Gardner, director of nutrition research studies at Stanford Prevention Research Center in California, no single food or nutrient has as much health impact as the whole dietary pattern.

“A moderate amount of plant-based fat and reduced intake of refined grains and sugars are important goals for any healthy dietary pattern,” said Gardner.

EVOO can be more expensive than other vegetable oils, so it works well to keep several healthy plant oils on hand for different uses.

Since EVOO has a fragrant aroma and strong flavor, its best uses may be to dress salads or vegetables, in place of butter on whole-grain bread, or in Thanksgiving’s mashed potatoes. Canola oil is virtually flavorless, so it tends to work well in baked goods. Other plant oils can be used for sauteing, marinades and more.

Source: American Heart Association





Could Artificial Sweeteners Be Bad for Your Heart?

Artificial sweeteners are a popular way to try to keep slim, but French researchers suggest they may also increase your risk for a heart attack or stroke.

The finding stems from tracking heart health among more than 103,000 men and women in France for close to a decade.

“We observed that a higher intake of artificial sweeteners was associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular diseases,” said study author Mathilde Touvier. She is director of the nutritional epidemiology research team at the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research and Sorbonne Paris Nord University, both in France.

Roughly 80% of participants in the NutriNet-Santé cohort were women (average age: 42). The study began in 2009 to investigate links between nutrition and health.

At the outset, nearly four out of 10 participants reported they regularly used artificial sweeteners, including Nutrasweet (aspartame), Splenda (sucraclose) and Sunett or Sweet One (acesulfame potassium). They added them to food or beverages and also consumed them in processed products.

Those who said they used such sweeteners were generally younger; less active; more likely to be overweight or obese; more likely to smoke; and more likely to be dieting. They also tended to consume more red meat, dairy, salt, and sugar-free drinks. They drank less alcohol and ate fewer fruits and vegetables, less carbs and fats, and fewer calories overall, dietary records showed.

Participants’ heart health was then tracked and compared for an average nine years.

During that time, more than 1,500 heart problems occurred, including heart attacks, strokes, severe chest tightness or pain (angina), and/or the need for surgery to widen blocked arteries (angioplasty).

After stacking artificial sweetener consumption up against heart trouble, the researchers concluded that the former was associated with the risk for the latter.

The Calorie Control Council, which represents the artificial sweetener industry, did not respond to a request for comment.

Touvier and her team stressed that their work does not definitively prove that sweeteners directly undermine heart health, only that there’s a link between the two.

And that should give people pause before drawing firm conclusions, said Connie Diekman, a St. Louis food and nutrition consultant who is former president of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.

“The challenge with most of the studies, and that is true here, is that studies have yet to provide a cause-and-effect outcome,” Diekman said. “When looking at non-nutritive sweeteners it is hard to tease out how much the overall health of the subjects is a factor in the disease outcome.”

For example, she pointed to study participants’ own description of their diet and health habits.

“The authors state that higher consumers of non-nutritive sweeteners had higher BMI’s [a measure of body fat based on height and weight], smoked more, had less physical activity, and ate more sodium and red meats, with fewer fruits and vegetables,” Diekman noted.

She also stressed the importance of accounting for the “trade-off” factor, in which someone who uses a no-calorie sweetener for an iced tea, for example, might then rationalize indulging in a bowl of ice cream. That, Diekman said, is why “the whole diet is what must be assessed.”

While the authors said they took such factors into account when determining risk, Diekman had reservations.

“Can we really determine how one single variable impacted the health of the body?” she asked. “The answer is no.”

Still, if artificial sweeteners do pose trouble for the heart, why might that be?

Lead author Charlotte Debras, a doctoral candidate at both the French National Institute for Health and Medical Research and Sorbonne Paris Nord University, suggested a number of possibilities.

One, she said, is the promotion of metabolic syndrome, which encompasses an array of conditions that raise the risk for heart attack and stroke. Among those are high blood pressure, high blood sugar, excess waist fat and high cholesterol.

“Another potential pathway could involve the interaction of artificial sweeteners with intestinal sweet taste receptors,” which can affect both insulin levels and sugar absorption, Debras said.

Artificial sweeteners may also alter the makeup of microbes found in the gut, drive up systemwide inflammation and trigger vascular malfunction, she added.

“But these are hypotheses, notably from experimental studies, that need to be confirmed,” Debras said.

Meanwhile, Diekman said the French findings do not change her dietary recommendations.

“Focus on an overall healthful eating plan,” she advised. “More plant foods, leaner or low fat animal foods, and if you enjoy something sweet, think about portions, frequency of consumption, and try to vary the types of sweeteners you use. No single food or ingredient is the ‘bad guy.’ It is how all of this comes together into your day in, and day out, eating plan.”

The report was published online in the BMJ.

Source: HealthDay





Non-nutritive Sweeteners Affect Human Microbiomes and Can Alter Glycemic Responses

Since the late 1800s non-nutritive sweeteners have promised to deliver all the sweetness of sugar with none of the calories. They have long been believed to have no effect on the human body, but researchers publishing in the journal Cell on August 19 challenge this notion by finding that these sugar substitutes are not inert, and, in fact, some can alter human consumers’ microbiomes in a way that can change their blood sugar levels.

In 2014, senior author Eran Elinav an immunologist and microbiome researcher at the Weizmann Institute of Science and the German National Cancer Center (DKFZ) and his team found that non-nutritive sweeteners affected the microbiomes of mice in ways that could impact their glycemic responses. The team was interested in whether these results would also be found in humans.

To address this important question, the research team carefully screened over 1300 individuals for those who strictly avoid non-nutritive sweeteners in their day-to-day lives, and identified a cohort of 120 individuals. These participants were broken into six groups: two controls and four who ingested well below the FDA daily allowances of either aspartame, saccharin, stevia, or sucralose.

“In subjects consuming the non-nutritive sweeteners, we could identify very distinct changes in the composition and function of gut microbes, and the molecules they secret into peripheral blood. This seemed to suggest that gut microbes in the human body are rather responsive to each of these sweeteners,” says Elinav. “When we looked at consumers of non-nutritive sweeteners as groups, we found that two of the non-nutritive sweeteners, saccharin and sucralose, significantly impacted glucose tolerance in healthy adults. Interestingly, changes in the microbes were highly correlated with the alterations noted in people’s glycemic responses.”

To establish causation, the researchers transferred microbial samples from the study subjects to germ-free mice — mice that have been raised in completely sterile conditions and have no microbiome of their own.

“The results were quite striking,” says Elinav. “In all of the non-nutritive sweetener groups, but in none of the controls, when we transferred into these sterile mice the microbiome of the top responder individuals collected at a time point in which they were consuming the respective non-nutritive sweeteners, the recipient mice developed glycemic alterations that very significantly mirrored those of the donor individuals. In contrast, the bottom responders’ microbiomes were mostly unable to elicit such glycemic responses,” he adds. “These results suggest that the microbiome changes in response to human consumption of non-nutritive sweetener may, at times, induce glycemic changes in consumers in a highly personalized manner.”

Elinav says that he expects the effects of the sweeteners will vary person to person because of the incredibly unique composition of our microbiome. “We need to raise awareness of the fact that non-nutritive sweeteners are not inert to the human body as we originally believed. With that said, the clinical health implications of the changes they may elicit in humans remain unknown and merit future long-term studies.”

“In the meantime, we need to continue searching for solutions to our sweet tooth craving, while avoiding sugar, which is clearly most harmful to our metabolic health,” says Elinav. “In my personal view, drinking only water seems to be the best solution.”

Source: Science Daily