Monthly Archives: July 2018

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Nuclear Science and Your Apple

The Okanagan Valley in southern British Columbia is known for its beautiful beaches, pristine lakes and fruit production. In fact, this sweet snack is one of the main drivers of the local economy. But did you know that nuclear science plays a key role in protecting apple crops?

The value of tree fruit is almost a billion dollar per year business, making it one of the most important industries in the region. Apples reign king in the Okanagan, comprising over half of all planted land.

However, fruit growers in the Okanagan region have not always made headlines for bumper crops. Pests and disease have seriously threatened the viability of orchard growers in the past and one culprit- the codling moth, has taken a huge bite out of the B.C. apple industry.

This moth, or worm in your apple, directly attacks the fruit and can damage between 50-90% of crops. Using pesticides to control the moth and subsequent crop damage, brought with it negative environmental and health effects. The prolonged use of pesticides contributed to another challenge; immunity as the moths became resistant to chemicals.

To find a solution that was safe for the environment while controlling the devastation caused by the codling moth, researchers looked to nuclear technology. The team at the Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program has found success with the Sterile Insect Technique (SIT). This technique has been able to reduce fruit damage and control the codling moth population in the B.C. Interior, all while reducing the use of chemicals. And they’ve been doing it successfully for over 20 years.

“Climate change is resulting in an increase of pests per season and there are growing concerns about resistance to chemical controls (pesticides). In B.C., we have reduced pesticides used to control codling moth by over 90%,” stated Cara Nelson, General Manager/Director of Business Development with the Okanagan-Kootenay Sterile Insect Release Program.

This locally funded and operated program has proven itself as a successful way to control a pest problem. Like birth control for pests, SIT uses small amounts of radiation to make the moths sterile thereby preventing reproduction.

“It’s like having an X-ray taken at the dentist. The patient does not become radioactive. While the radiation is different it’s a similar concept in that the radiation goes through the insect,” states Nelson.

While not widely known, research into codling moth SIT goes back to the 1970s when it was discovered that SIT could have profound benefits for the apple industry. The B.C. facility can produce approximately 780 million sterile moths per year at their facility. Currently, they deliver approximately 2,000 sterile moths to local growers per week. Traps are placed one hectare apart and they are checked weekly for both sterile and wild captures. The data is then uploaded via a smartphone app and sent off to local growers. Staff also carry out visual fruit inspections and monitor for “moth” hot spots.

“Many growers in the area don’t even know what codling moth damage looks like because they’ve never experienced it,” says Nelson. “However, if we stop the program the pest will infest again,” she warns.

For Nelson, she would like to see the success of this program go beyond B.C.’s borders. She hopes that both the provincial and federal government will make investments in further research and applications of SIT due to its ability to save agriculture economies while reducing the use of harmful chemicals. She believes that the benefits for SIT go beyond Canada’s borders and is currently working with other regions in Europe and the U.S. to provide both sterile moths and by way of knowledge transfer to help grow the acceptance and use of SIT as part of agriculture techniques. All thanks to nuclear science.

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Nuclear Science: Mapping Out Red Tide

Seafood lovers could one day find their plates dry thanks to climate change. Findings reported on by the Marine Stewardship Council indicate that increasing greenhouse gas emissions absorbed by our world’s ocean are causing them to heat up and become more acidic. These changes threaten the very habitats that fish and other marine organisms like shellfish need to survive.

Coral habitat destruction, rising sea levels and red tides are just a few examples of ocean degradation due to climate change. Red tide or colonies of harmful algae blooms (HABs) is nothing new to coastal communities. This phenomenon has been documented for centuries, however it is only recently that researchers are investigating how changes to our ocean environment could be impacting this coastal occurrence.

This is where nuclear science comes in.​ Scientists with the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) Environmental Laboratories in Monaco are using a nuclear technique known as receptor binding assay (RBA) to help better detect and map these harmful algae bloom outbreaks (HABs) to help protect human populations.

RBA works like this. In each sample, toxins and radiotracers or radioactive isotopes compete to bind to receptors or cells within the sample. How the isotopes behave tells scientists how much toxicity is present in the sample.

Red tides are transported by wind and ocean currents and are usually found close to the shoreline.  Ocean warming due to the absorption of greenhouse gases brought about by climate change has resulted in these toxic blooms become more frequent and more severe.

As the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) pointed out, “recent research suggests that the impacts of climate change may promote the growth and dominance of harmful algal blooms through a variety of mechanisms including warmer water temperatures, changes in salinity, increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, changes in rainfall patterns, intensifying of coastal upwelling and sea level rise.”

Red Tide outbreaks can be devastating to the aquaculture economies of developed and developing countries alike. A red tide outbreak that affected Luzon Island, Philippines in 2006 which had adverse impacts on the nearly 12,000 families that rely on shellfish to make their living.  When these toxic plants enter the food web they can kill off large numbers of fish and marine life. The US National Library Institutes of Medicine and Health discovered high levels of toxins in dead manatees and dolphins following a red tide outbreak.

However, the impacts of red tide are not limited to marine life. HABs can also cause illnesses in humans, mainly affecting the nervous system. Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning (PSP) is a potentially fatal condition that occurs when people consume shellfish that contain red tide toxins. Ingesting infected shellfish can impact the nervous system and cause dizziness or difficulty swallowing. In extreme cases, it can lead to death.

While science may not be able to stop red tide outbreaks, a method known as receptor binding assay (RBA) can help to better detect and map out these harmful algae bloom outbreaks, taking a step towards health protection of both marine environments and human populations.

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in partnership with International Oceanographic Commission of ​UNESCO is working with approximately 40 countries is transferring the knowledge of nuclear technology to stop the effects of red tides on human population, making seafood safer thanks to nuclear science.