Why trees fix nitrogen and what it means for carbon and climate change

A paper just published online by Nature resolves a major puzzle about nitrogen fixation by forest trees. The nitrogen cycle affects how fast trees can grow and absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, so it’s important for understanding what role forests can play in mitigating climate change.

UC Davis Assistant Professor Benjamin Houlton is first author on the paper, with colleagues from Stanford University and the CSIRO in Australia.

California’s carpet of flowers, gone

California was once carpeted in wildflower pastures that have been destroyed by introduced plants, says a UC Riverside ecologist in a new book.

“We need to recognize that California was not at all grasslands in the past,” said Richard Minnich, the author of California’s Fading Wildflowers, published this month by the University of California Press. “In the late eighteenth century, land all the way from San Francisco to San Diego was carpeted by wildflower pastures. Today these pastures have vanished, with brome grass taking their place.”

Zoo Vets and Jane Goodall on KVIE tonight

KVIE promo photoTonight’s “Viewfinder” on KVIE-6 follows UC Davis veterinarians making house calls at the Sacramento Zoo, and also includes an exclusive interview with Jane Goodall. The documentary, by our in-house broadcast specialist Paul Pfotenhauer, airs at 7 p.m. tonight.

Reef Fish Fly

Some fish on the Great Barrier Reef use their front fins in a novel way to “fly” through the water, researchers at the Australian National University have found. UC Davis fish anatomist Peter Wainwright was involved in the research project.

Instead of using their fins as oars with a power and return stroke, parrotfish, wrasse and surgeonfish sweep their fins in a figure-of-eight pattern rather like a birds’ wing. This provides power throughout the stroke, the researchers say.

ANU’s Chris Fulton says that the fish probably need the extra power because they live in shallow water over the reef, with strong currents and lots of wave movement.

Fizzy Vodka Inventor Credits UC Davis

A British company has launched a line of sparkling vodka, apparently inspired by research by UC Davis neurobiologist Earl Carstens. Some years ago Carstens and colleagues showed that a number of taste sensations, including hot peppers and carbonated drinks, are mediated through pain receptors in the mouth.

They have also shown that too much pain suppresses the ability to taste other flavors, so you might bear that in mind when mixing drinks based on fizzy vodka.

Slurp

BluegillHow do fish get food into their mouths without it swimming or floating away? In many cases they use suction. Peter Wainwright’s lab at UC Davis studies how fish such as the bluegill do that.

The researchers use high-speed cameras and laser-light scattering to measure how fish move their jaws and the forces that they generate on their prey.

Tomatoes take a turn in the food poisoning spotlight

Of all the things that might be unhealthful in a fast-food restaurant, tomatoes would come pretty far down the list. But not this week as the FDA issues a warning against eating raw round and roma tomatoes from certain states because of an outbreak of Salmonella poisoning.

California tomatoes appear to be ok, good news in Sacramento, a town sometimes called “The Big Tomato.” Most of the tomatoes in the fields around Davis are processed into paste and ketchup.

Let’s round up some of the coverage.

Chevy’s Volt Plug-in Hybrid Powers Ahead

General Motors Vice-President Bob Lutz blogs about driving a “test mule” for the Chevrolet Volt, GM’s attempt at a new generation of fuel-efficient vehicle. The car Lutz was driving was rigged up to test the lithium ion batteries that will power the Volt. Lutz calls the experience “electrifying” (of course) although he notes that the batteries need to go through much more testing before they are ready for a production vehicle.

For one thing, they are very expensive.

“They’re over $1,000 a kilowatt hour,” Tom Turrentine, director of the Plug-in Hybrid Electric Vehicle Research Center at UC-Davis, told Wired.com. “The Volt battery is 16 kilowatt hours. That’s $16,000 just for the battery.”

Young voters see Obama’s race as an asset

Barack Obama’s support is strongest among young voters and declines in older age groups, according to this AP story. It’s not just that race is not an issue for younger voters who have grown up with black celebrities and politicians: his biracial background actually seems to be an advantage.

Patricia Turner, a professor of African-American studies at UC Davis, says that race is just one factor that appeals to Obama’s supporters.

Popular as a Pomegranate

The first off-season pomegranates have been flying off the shelves on the East Coast, the Associated Press reports, their popularity boosted by the supposed health benefits from antioxidants in the fruit.

“I’ve seen fads for all kinds of fruit, like kiwi and blueberries, but not like this – it just keeps growing and won’t peak,” said Kevin Day, a pomegranate expert at the University of California, Davis.

Whole pomegranates grown in California, Mexico or the Middle East are seasonally available in the winter. Now New Yorkers desperate for their pomegranate antioxidants can buy the red, juicy seeds imported from India. The USDA currently bans import of the whole fruit from India; last year the department relaxed rules allowing the import of whole mangoes from India.