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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

August 22, 1997

Air Date: August 22, 1997



One of the world's most important living systems lies just out of view, in the ocean. Every four years the world's leading coral reef experts gather to try to assess the present health of the world's reef ecosystems. Bob Carty reports from Panama, with snorkel in hand, on the latest findings. (13:50)


Steve Curwood speaks with Susan Carol Hauser, author of the book titled Nature's Revenge, for practical advice on avoiding, identifying and coping with outbreaks from contact with poison ivy. (06:30)

The Living on Earth Almanac

Facts about... the National Parks Act. (01:15)

TALL GRASS PARK / Catherine Winter

Among new national parks recently designated by congressional decree is a protected tall grass prairie in Kansas. With only ten percent of the nation's prairie remaining from what existed a century ago, the new national park is part of a larger plan for prairie preservation. Catherine Winter reports. (07:35)


In this feature, Steve Curwood meets with bioengineers who are taking cues from nature's design to solve problems. Since nature is intelligent as well as often lethal, bioengineers encounter ethical issues as to how their research may be applied. Steve Curwood narrates this segment produced by Sandy Tolan. (16:15)

Show Credits and Funders

Show Transcript

HOST: Steve Curwood
NEWSCASTER: Lisa Mullins
REPORTERS: James Jones, Deirdre Kennedy, Peter Hatfield, Bob Carty,
Catherine Winter, Steve Curwood
GUESTS: Susan Carol Hauser

(Theme music intro)

CURWOOD: From National Public Radio, this is Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood.

WOMAN: It has been said that the first generation to enjoy scuba may be the last to see our coral reefs.

CURWOOD: Undersea coral reefs are disappearing rapidly around the world. Off Panama, one scientist revisited a reef where he had found more than 20 different species of coral in years past.

PORTER: I've just begun my count here. I have 4 no (gurgling sounds) I've got 5 now. There's star coral, brain coral, some branching coral, lettuce coral. The commonest species are still here, with the exception of the branching coral that's almost all gone. But the rare species don't seem to be here. I can't find them.

CURWOOD: The decline of coral reefs. And, in the season of the itch, how to cope with poison ivy. We'll have that and more this week on Living on Earth, but first this news.

Environmental News

MULLINS: From Living on Earth, I'm Lisa Mullins. The Environmental Protection Agency has for the first time issued a regulation aimed at reducing toxic emissions from medical waste incinerators. But as James Jones reports, the rule has drawn a hostile response from environmental activists.

JONES: EPA says the new rule would cut mercury and dioxin emissions from medical waste incinerators by nearly 95%. Those facilities are a major source of mercury and dioxin, which are blamed for a host of health problems, including cancer. But environmental activists are sharply criticizing the rule, saying it should have been much tougher.

PEW: We're really dismayed. I mean, we know that there are medical waste incinerators out there that are already achieving emission levels that are 100 times lower than the rule allows.

JONES: That's Jim Pew of the Natural Resources Defense Council, who says tougher standards would have forced incinerators to reduce waste before they burn it.

PEW: The best facilities are using pollution prevention and they're using good pollution control technology. To meet really tough standards, you'd have to do both.

JONES: Pew says the battle over the rule isn't over. His group is considering suing EPA, charging the rule may not meet Clean Air Act requirements. For Living on Earth, this is James Jones in Washington.

MULLINS: A plan to build a 2,000-mile waterway through five South American countries is being opposed by an international panel of scientists. The panel, convened by environmental groups in Brazil and the US, is challenging official studies of the Hidrovia Project's impact on the world's largest wetland. The widening and dredging of the Paraguay and Parana Rivers is intended to increase commercial traffic, but scientists argue the potential damage was greatly underestimated. They say the project may drain the wetlands and threaten farmers who rely on seasonal floods.

Water managers in California have come up with an unusual plan to quench the state's insatiable thirst. It involves recycling water from sewage plants. Deirdre Kennedy reports from San Francisco.

KENNEDY: Recycling water isn't new. Water districts in California already reclaim millions of gallons of wastewater for use in industry and agriculture. Now, local water boards in Orange County, San Francisco, and San Diego, are developing advanced systems to repurify that nonpotable water and provide it to their customers. San Diego is hoping to be the first city in the state to use recycled water. David Schlesinger of the city's Metropolitan Wastewater Department says the toughest problem will be convincing the public that it's safe.

SCHLESINGER: We've had a tremendous amount of oversight and review from the regulatory agencies, from the EPA, from the Department of Health Services. We've tested it on a scale model basis, and it's met and exceeded all expectations for Federal drinking water standards.

KENNEDY: San Diego is aiming to get its new water purification plant up and running by the year 2000. For Living on Earth, I'm Deirdre Kennedy in San Francisco.

MULLINS: Australian scientists have found a way to make solar energy cells cheaper and more efficient. The new technology is the latest in a series of innovations from Australia and elsewhere that are helping to make solar power more affordable. The new method saves on expensive silicon because it produces solar cells 10 times thinner than existing cells. Instead of slicing a log of silicon into disks, scientists using the new method grow silicon crystals atom by atom. The new method could make solar cells 20% more efficient, but it will be a few years before the new cells are commercially available.

The 2005 World Expo will be held in a forested area of Japan 100 miles west of Tokyo. Its theme will be Beyond Development: Rediscovering Nature's Wisdom. But environmentalists say the expo's slogan is hypocritical. Peter Hadfield reports from Tokyo.

HADFIELD: Expo 2005 will feature a massive eco-city showing how humans can, in the words of the expo's promotional brochure, "once more resonate in harmony with the rest of life and nature. The organizers say the expo will teach visitors the folly of reckless development in the 20th century. But local people say the expo itself is an example of reckless development. They live in the Kaisho Forest, a pristine area of hilly woodlands west of Tokyo, home to rare wildflowers and 104 species of birds. The expo organizers want to cut down 200 acres of woodland to make way for the eco-city. They also want to build new roads into the area as well as a railway line and an airport to handle visitors. Opponents say they won't stop protesting until the project is scrapped. For Living on Earth, this is Peter Hadfield in Tokyo.

MULLINS: There's a new breed of criminal in the northern Indian state of Punjab: monkeys. The pugnacious animals are being locked up for everything from attacking university students to snatching handbags. The primates may have learned their bad behavior from people who press them into service before abandoning them in cities.

That's this week's Living on Earth news. I'm Lisa Mullins.

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CURWOOD: I'm Steve Curwood, with an encore edition of Living on Earth. Coral reefs are some of the most beautiful, diverse, valuable and endangered environments on Earth. Already, perhaps 10% of the world's reefs have suffered serious harm, and researchers predict that unless something can be done, most coral reefs will be lost during the next century. Every 4 years, the world's coral reef experts gather to take a snapshot of the global health of the world's most productive ecosystem save for tropical rainforests. The International Coral Symposium held one such meeting recently in Panama. Living on Earth contributor Bob Carty took along his mask and snorkeled to join them. He sent us this report.

(Waves and gulls)

PORTER: We're standing now on the Galeta Reef Flat in Panama. Galeta Reef is important because we have more records here of the population structure of plants and animals than on any other coral reef in the world. And coming back here after 25 years is really an emotional thing for me because it's changed.

CARTY: Jim Porter is an ecologist from the University of Georgia with a special attachment to Galeta Reef. Twenty-five years ago, Jim Porter did his PhD research here, counting corals day after day in the waters just a bit east from the Atlantic entrance to the Panama Canal and just a bit west of the rainforests of Panama's Darien Province. Twenty-five years later, Dr. Jim Porter is putting on his mask and snorkel with the eagerness of a schoolboy. He wades into the water and swims out to the reef to see if, like elsewhere around the globe, Galeta is in decline.

(Splashing in water, breathing through mask)

PORTER: There's a lot less coral here. There's definitely less coral. The big change to me (splash) is the loss of the alcord coral and its replacement by the stubby little fire coral. That would be like taking a forest of giant redwood trees and replacing it with a poison ivy patch.

CARTY: In the water around Jim Porter, a dozen other scientists are also floating over the Galeta Reef. This is excursion day, a chance for the participants of the Eighth International Coral Reef Symposium to trade their file folders for flippers. But all during the week, back in Panama City, they've been assessing the state of the world's coral reefs. The report card is not good.

(Ambient mulling conversation)

MAN 1: Well, this used to be a wonderful, joyous occasion of people coming together to talk about what they love. I think we now all realize, those of us who have children, that our children may never see what we've spent our lives studying. It casts a pall.

WOMAN 1: We are loving our reefs to death. Six million divers a year visit the Florida Keys, but are unaware of the impacts that their very visitation is causing. Some scientists predict that our reefs will be gone within five years.

MAN 2: Seventy percent of the reefs are rather severely damaged, under immediate threat, or in a chronic state that if we don't do something about it in the next few generations we'll lose them as well, or they'll become so severely degraded that we won't be able to call them coral reefs as such.

WOMAN 2: It has been said that the first generation to enjoy scuba may be the last to see our coral reefs.

(Splashing, snorkeling)

PORTER: Well, beneath us, there are 4 common species. I'm expecting on a similar day under similar conditions in the past I would see 26 species. I've just begun my count here, I have 4 -- no, I've got 5 now. They're star coral, brain coral, some branching coral, lettuce coral. The commonest species are still here with the exception of the branching coral that's almost all gone. But the rare species don't seem to be here; I can't find them.


CARTY: Coral reefs cover less than one fifth of one percent of the ocean floor, but their contribution to ocean ecosystems is enormous. Reefs protect coastlines and help maintain the pH balance of the sea. They are nurseries and breeding grounds and feeding habitats for a quarter of all the ocean species. Corals are actually tiny animals smaller than a pencil eraser. They excrete limestone and slowly build structures that resemble bulbous brains or branching bushes. They also have live-in partners, a type of algae that gives the coral food and oxygen in return for shelter. But this mutually beneficial relationship is sensitive to numerous environmental stresses and diseases. Humans are the main culprit. Jeremy Jackson, a biologist at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute, says one of the major threats to coral reefs is overfishing.

JACKSON: Many of the fish that are taken are fish that consume the enemies of coral. Basically, seaweeds, which are normally cropped back by grazing fishes. When the fishes are removed, then there's nothing there to consume the seaweed and their naturally more rapid growth rate results in their very, very rapid overgrowth and killing of corals.

CARTY: Overfishing has been exacerbated by the use of some strange but efficient fishing techniques. In parts of Southeast Asia, fishermen make homemade explosives, a pop bottle with some commercial fertilizers and a fuse, to kill fish. But in the process reefs are blasted apart. In the Philippines, more than 300,000 pounds of cyanide is used each year to stun and catch tropical fish for aquariums. In the process, reefs are poisoned and coral habitats destroyed. In addition to overfishing, there is another major human made threat to coral reefs.

(Snorkeling sounds)

PORTER: It's hard to see very much through this water, and that was not the case before. This brown stuff that's here is sediment coming off from the land. I mean if I lift my head above the water here, I can see the Darien off in the distance, and it's mostly green, but then there are these fires. And there are places that people have cleared. That's the sediment that's moving down into the water. That's what's turning it brown.

CARTY: Runoff from the land threatens coral in several ways. On Galeta Reef, the sediment in places is 3 feet deep, entirely covering some corals. That's mostly because of deforestation. Other corals have been killed off by human pollution, such as a major oil spill that happened here 10 years ago. And some corals here are being smothered by algae. The runoff from the land has introduced nutrients like agricultural fertilizers, and the algae just love it. Biologist Jeremy Jackson.

JACKSON: All of these different processes work in the same direction. The increase in nutrients favors seaweeds against corals. The runoff of sediments favors seaweeds against corals. The removal of the fishes favors seaweeds against corals. And so there's this unfortunate dynamic where the principle insults to the environment all seem to be working in the same direction.

CARTY: Not all reefs are being threatened by overfishing and pollutants. In remote parts of the ocean far from human populations, reefs are doing just fine. But that may not be the case for long. There is now a new global threat to coral.

PORTER: There are some corals that are showing signs of distress. They've turned white. The whiteness is striking even through this turbid water. You can see the skeletons as they face upward and they look like white dinner plates dropped on the bottom. The white corals are called bleached corals.

CARTY: In the last 15 years, bleached corals have been showing up all around the world. Scientists fear it's a sign of global warming and the rise of ocean temperatures. It's a subject being studied now by Barbara Brown, a marine biologist at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne.

BROWN: Corals are normally brown or pink. The color is mainly derived from these plant cells which live inside the coral. But when they bleach they can turn completely white. Corals live close to their lethal temperatures. If the temperature exceeds the seasonal maximum by one degree, then the corals lose their algae and bleach. And so our prediction for coral reefs is that they are going to bleach more and more regularly and perhaps with greater and greater intensity. And the real question is, can corals adapt to increased seawater temperatures?

CARTY: Dr. Barbara Brown believes that some corals may be able to respond to global warming by migrating to cooler waters. But that won't help the people who depend on reefs. As biologist Jeremy Jackson explains, in many countries coral reef survival is essential for the survival of people. For the health of their economies and for the stability of their societies.

JACKSON: Tourism represents really one of the greatest hopes for the economies of island nations and the decline of coral reefs represents the cutting off of the livelihood, of vast sectors of the populations of countries like Jamaica, Barbados or the Virgin Islands. They also provide an ever-diminishing but yet still important marginal source of nutrition. More than half of the protein to those peoples. The collapse of reefs and the associated fisheries is therefore a genuine calamity.

(Splashing water)

PORTER: Coral reefs are by far the most diverse environments on Earth. Even a tropical rainforest contains only 8 of the major divisions of animal life called phylum, but on this coral reef there are 33 phyla. Different ways in which animals have learned to survive on planet Earth.

CARTY: That means that each time a reef species dies, it's like destroying a unique library of genetic information and a possible cure for a deadly disease. Drug companies and government agencies are now investigating the use of compounds that come from coral reefs, coral fish, and coral plants for treating cancer, arthritis, leukemia, and AIDS. Coral skeletons are even being tried in bone transplants. The pharmaceutical value of reefs may be as great as rainforests, which is one reason why Steve Hubble was invited to the reef symposium. Steve Hubble is a professor of ecology at Princeton and a specialist on rainforest conservation. He believes the techniques for saving jungles can be applied to corals.

HUBBLE: One of the things we've learned from rainforests is that you need a large area to preserve biodiversity, and the same thing is true for corals. They're much more dispersive as organisms than trees, so you have to worry about the meta-community, as it were, over a huge area like the Caribbean or the western Pacific. The whole system is interlinked. The advice to coral people is that -- and to policy makers, is that we have to think about very large reserves but also a regulatory commission on the conservation of coral reefs-- like the Whaling Commission.

CARTY: Large reserves and international regulatory commissions are only part of the answer. Two years ago 8 governments, including the United States, set up a partnership with international institutions and environmental groups. The International Coral Reef Initiative is trying to help national governments conserve their reefs and find ways to use them sustainably. Claude Wilkinson, an Australian scientist, says that means finding a way to assist the poor people who live near, and from, coral reefs.

WILKINSON: I think we need to get people involved. There's an interesting community-based project in the Philippines; it's been running for about 20 years now. A guy named Anga Alkala sat down and quietly and patiently talked to the local villages and convinced them that if they set aside 25% of their coral reefs as a reserve, they would catch more fish on the outside. Okay, at first they were skeptical. But then they came on board, they worked with the scientists and then they noticed themselves that the fish were getting bigger outside. Plus, they've got tourists coming to look at their marine reserve. So they're on a double win, they're win-win.


PORTER: The boat has just passed over 2 large coral heads almost 6 feet in diameter and both of them are dead. One of them is covered by a black sponge, which has replaced the living coral tissue.

CARTY: Jim Porter is finishing his swim over the Galeta Reef. It's been just a brief survey, 25 years since his earlier studies here. But he's seen enough to know that there are definitely less coral here and fewer varieties. It makes him somewhat sad.

PORTER: My memories of this place were sun-filled and now colors just aren't as bright.

CARTY: And the colors are not bright in 93 countries around the world, where human activity has damaged coral reefs. Understandably, the scientists who study corals are a somber lot these days. But they are not without hope. Corals, after all, have been around for millions of years. There's every reason to expect that they can make a comeback, if we stop harming them. For Living on Earth, I'm Bob Carty on Panama's Galeta Reef.

PORTER: Over here, one of the branching corals that we thought was going to be entirely gone is still here. There are little ones that have settled, juveniles, and they look like they -- they're growing. So maybe in 5 years we'll know whether this is a story of loss or hope.

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CURWOOD: Poison ivy is called nature's revenge. We'll have the secrets of how to beat it just ahead right here on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Summer is the time to enjoy the great outdoors, right? Well, Mother Nature isn't always glad to see us. The itch inducing trio of poison ivy, poison oak, and poison sumac, lurk just about everywhere in North America. And just because you've never had it before doesn't mean you won't get it. Author Susan Carol Hauser, author of the book Nature's Revenge, thought she was immune until -- well, let's let her tell the story.

HAUSER: Well, I thought I was one of the chosen immune. That I was not going to get poison ivy. I waded through it all of my life, merrily, with people yelling at me, you're going to get poison ivy. And I never did, so I didn't pay any attention until about 5 years ago. And I was helping a friend clear some brush, and I wore leather gloves and jeans and I covered up all my skin, and 3 days later I broke out in a terrible rash that -- I'd been sitting on berries and the juice from the berries soaked through the back of my jeans --

CURWOOD: Uh ohhh...

HAUSER: And the backs of my legs became like raw hamburger. So I became inspired to find out about poison ivy and found there was very little reliable information on it. It was very difficult. So I started doing some heavy research.

CURWOOD: All right. So you went out, you did that research, and you can tell us now the secrets of it. First of all, what is it that happen when you're exposed to poison ivy or poison oak or sumac? Is it the same thing?

HAUSER: Yes. The oil in the plants, in all 3 plants, is exactly the same. It's called arusiol, and it's an almost invisible -- well, it's invisible to us in the quantities that we would see it in. It's a very clear, thin oil that flows in canals in all parts of the plant. When the canals get broken by something such as a broken leaf or even an insect bite, the arusiol comes out and sits on the leaf and waits for a human to pass by, and when it gets on our skin 85% of us will have an allergic reaction after our first exposure. As with most allergic reactions you have to have a sensitizing exposure. Then the next exposure, the body decides that this allergen is a dangerous thing and goes after it.

CURWOOD: You started scratching.

HAUSER: I did start scratching and I will probably continue to do so for a while. Because the experience of having poison ivy is so intense that even thinking about it brings back the memory. I think the skin remembers the assault.

CURWOOD: All right. Now we called you here today specifically to get the secrets of how to deal with this stuff once you get it.


CURWOOD: What do you do if you're exposed to it? What should you do if you think you've been exposed to poison ivy?

HAUSER: The first thing you do if you're going to be outside is to have someone help you identify the plants and do learn what they look like, because it does help to avoid contact. But the second thing to do is to take care to respond to the presence of the arusiol if you think you might have gotten into it. And there are a couple of ways to do that. One is to bathe in lots and lots of water; it takes copious amounts of water. Don't just use a washcloth over your skin; get under running water so that you dilute the arusiol. But the best thing I found out in my research and it's wonderful, it's inexpensive, wonderful, pretty much benign, is that rubbing alcohol is an organic solvent and neutralizes the arusiol.

CURWOOD: Okay. But what if we didn't notice so we didn't have the alcohol with us or we didn't wash and we're starting to get that itchy feeling?

HAUSER: Yes. It'll start with just a little kind of itch and you won't even realize it's poison ivy. And then it'll start getting red. As you start reacting, if you have a mild case and you can avoid scratching, use home remedies and over the counter drugs like cortisone creams, calamine lotion, compresses of Avena, oatmeal solutions, vinegar and water is another good one. And whatever you can use that's comforting to your skin and allows you to not scratch it. If you must scratch, and you have a big case with bad blisters and over more than a fourth of your body or on your face, you should get some kind of help. There are prescription drugs that stop the reaction. The prednisone, cortical steroids, injection and pills, will stop the itching. They have side effects, they might make you feel bad, but they will stop the itching.

CURWOOD: What about the home remedies, or rather the folk remedy I'm thinking of, of jewel weed?


CURWOOD: You know, it's a long, spindly plant, and you're supposed to be able to use the sap from that to protect you.

HAUSER: Yes. The stem of jewel weed is very juicy, like an aloe plant.


HAUSER: And it's an old American Indian remedy for poison ivy and for other things. Many people report good effect from using this immediately; as a preventive they wash with it after they've been in the woods. Or as soon as they feel a rash they start using it. They've done clinical studies with this, and it works about 30% of the time.

CURWOOD: Okay, but for right now what I should do is, I'm out walking, I should stay on the path. If I get off the path I should look out for those plants.

HAUSER: That's right. Also, watch out for your clothes, your bicycle tires, any tools you're using. The oil arusiol bonds within 10 to 15 minutes to human skin, but it stays active for years on objects. So if you get some on your tennis shoe laces and you put your tennis shoes away in the fall and take them out again in the spring, or in January, you can get arusiol on your hands from your tennis shoes. And then you scratch your face and you've got poison ivy in January, and you wonder where in the world it came from.

CURWOOD: Susan Carol Hauser's book is called Nature's Revenge: the Secrets of Poison Ivy, Poison Oak and Poison Sumac and the Remedies. And now you know the secret remedies that she does. Thanks for coming and joining us.

HAUSER: Thank you so much. I enjoyed it.

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CURWOOD: You're listening to NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the National Science Foundation for coverage of science in the environment; the Ford Foundation; the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation; and Stonyfield Farm, makers of pure all-natural organic yogurts and ice cream. 1-800- PROCOWS for Stonyfield's Moosletter.

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NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.

CURWOOD: When the buffalo disappeared from the American West do did the ecosystem that supported them. Now there's a move to protect and restore the once vast prairies. The story is just ahead right here on Living On Earth.


(Theme music up and under)

CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood

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The Living on Earth Almanac

CURWOOD: August fifteenth marks the inauguration of the Panama Canal. Once referred to as the Big Ditch, it opened in 1916 and remains vital to international commerce. Its completion was an incredible engineering feat, but the lessons learned along the way helped solve one of the most important health mysteries of all time. Soon after work began by the French in 1881, malaria and yellow fever emerged as serious threats to completing the project. Scientists were baffled as to why the diseases were spreading so rapidly. In 7 years the French lost almost 25,000 workers. As it turned out, the carrier was the tiny mosquito. Scientists discovered that work crews disturbing mosquito habitat helped spread the diseases. When the United States took over the project in 1904, it immediately began pest control. It wasn't until breeding sites were destroyed and patients quarantined that the epidemic finally ended and construction of the canal was completed. And for this week, that's the Living on Earth Almanac.

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CURWOOD: One of the nation's newest national parks is in the state of Kansas. It also has the distinction of being the nation's first protected tall grass prairie. Less than a century ago, millions of acres of North America were covered with prairie: vast expanses of grasslands that were home to the buffalo, wolves, and of course prairie dogs. Today, only a tiny fraction of that prairie remains, and much of it is scattered in isolated pockets. The US Fish and Wildlife Service is working on a plan to buy and protect more prairie land remaining in western Minnesota and northwestern Iowa. Producer Catherine Winter has our report.

(Footfalls through high grasses)

WINTER: On a cool fall day biologist Howard Lipke wades through a field of prairie grasses in northwest Minnesota, climbing to the top of a hill. The grass has turned to its fall colors, purple and orange and red and yellow. It flickers like fire racing down the hill.

LIPKE: That's a big blue stem. Another word for it is turkey foot. Let's see, Indian grass.

WINTER: Tiny yellow flowers.

LIPKE: Mm hm.

WINTER: This is a small island of prairie grass, about 300 acres in an ocean of farm land. And it's not native prairie. The US Fish and Wildlife Service planted these prairie grasses on an old farmstead. Howard Lipke says the field is missing most of the plant species that would be found in a real prairie. But all the same, it's providing valuable habitat.

(Barking dogs, fading to crickets)

LIPKE: Some of the prairie songbird species are beginning to show up. And you're starting to see some of the insect life. And many of those are critical grassland species that are on the downward slide, simply because of the fragmentation and shrinkage of habitat.

(Dog barking continues)

WINTER: Prairie once spread from Texas to Canada, from the Rocky Mountains to Illinois. The first Europeans to reach the Midwest stood in grasses as high as their chests and saw prairie stretching to the horizon in every direction. But settlers plowed the land and planted grain. Minnesota had 18 million acres of prairie when they arrived. Today, only about 300,000 acres are left. About half the native prairie is already owned by conservation groups or the government. The US Fish and Wildlife Service plans to buy some of the few pieces of prairie that remain in private hands. Howard Lipke is leading that effort, the Tall Grass Prairie Project. He hopes to buy about 77,000 acres of prairie and land surrounding prairie remnants in Iowa and Minnesota. On a recent morning, Mr. Lipke went on a scouting mission in small plane to look for land the government might buy in northwest Minnesota.

(Ambient voices, followed by plane engines)

WINTER: Biologists from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources led the trip. From the air, there's little sign across most of the state of the vast grasslands that once covered the area. The land is cut into neat brown and green squares with white farm houses here and there. But near the Canadian border the landscape changes.

LIPKE (over the roar of the engines): The reddish, purplish color that you're seeing now is the tall grass, Indian grass, big blue stem. Some of this, where you have this interspersion of wet meadows and probably the stronghold for sandhill crane nesting within the state of Minnesota...

WINTER: Prairie like this is important, not just for sandhill cranes but for other rare birds, butterflies, and flowers. And this part of Minnesota, Kitson County, has some of the largest chunks of native prairie left in the state. Prairie that was never plowed because it would have made poor crop land. The Fish and Wildlife Service wants to preserve some of this land, but many local farmers don't want more prairie preserved.

HEWETT: They feel that the Federal Government has enough land for birds and animals and so forth, and that government doesn't need any more land.

WINTER: Kitson County Commissioner Beverly Hewett says her constituents fear if the government owns all the surrounding land, they won't be able to expand their farms. She says ranchers think the government already has too much power.

HEWETT: You can't go out and ride horses and things on DNR land because you might break a stick or something. And people just feel like they can't use it, they can't do anything on it and it's closed to them for so many things that they would like to do. And they feel it's their land and yet they can't do anything on it.

WINTER: The Fish and Wildlife Service's Howard Lipke replies that some of the land the government buys could still be used for haying or grazing, which doesn't destroy prairie. And he says the government won't force anyone to sell land. They'll only buy from willing sellers.

(A door slams)

WINTER: In the remote town of Hallock, the biologists pile into a van to get a closer look at what they saw from the air. During the brief tour, they drive past a moose cow and calf, a bald eagle eating a fox, and a coyote that fools them briefly into thinking he's a wolf.

MAN: Hey, a timber wolf back there.

WINTER: Sharp-tailed grouse rise up from the road. Sandhill cranes stand tall and awkward in a farm field. The van pulls over, and George Davis of Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources pulls out a map. He shows the Federal biologists where the DNR is preserving native prairie that was never plowed, and where it plans to restore prairie on land that was plowed by re-planting prairie species.

DAVIS: This is Moose Point. We've got about 600, 700 acres that we're in the process of restoring. We'll be another 5 years getting that done.

WINTER: When you say restored, can you ever really make it like it was?

DAVIS: No. Even the stuff that is native is probably not the way it really was, because of miscellaneous disturbances and everything else. We don't know what it was. And number one, we don't have bison, and we don't even know what the burning procedures were that the Native Americans followed. Did they burn in August? Did they burn in June? Have no idea.

WINTER: George Davis says even if they did know, the DNR doesn't have the resources to do all the burning needed. And even if they did have the resources, fragments of prairie will never provide the same sort of habitat vast grasslands once did. But biologists say fragments are worth saving. Robert Dana, an ecologist with the Minnesota DNR, says small plots may contain unique species.

DANA: You know, there's nowhere in Minnesota that you can go and see what the prairie country actually looked like. And that is sad. You know, I keep my hopes up by saying yeah, we are stuck with these little places and we'll never have the bison herds and we'll never have the elk herds, and we won't see the prairie wolf again. But there are still small pleasures, and I think they're important.

WINTER: Still, more prairie disappears every year. It's plowed or dug up for gravel or developers build on it. Robert Dana says the biggest threat to prairie remnants is neglect. Without burning and grazing, they become overgrown and the native species are crowded out. Organizers of the Tall Grass Prairie Project say it may take 25 years for them to buy the 77,000 acres they want. The project is in a race against time, trying to preserve those last patches of prairie before they disappear forever. For Living on Earth, I'm Catherine Winter.

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CURWOOD: If you have a question or a comment, call our listener line any time at 800-218-9988. That's 800-218-9988. Or write us at 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. That's 8 Story Street, Cambridge, Massachusetts 02138. Our e-mail address is LOE@NPR.ORG. Once again, that's LOE@NPR.ORG. And check out our web page at www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. Transcripts and tapes are $12.

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CURWOOD: Today, taking cues from nature to solve problems. We meet a scientist who's trying to find out why tuna can swim so fast and turn on a dime. The story is next on Living on Earth.

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CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

(A crow caws)


CURWOOD: Human beings in western civilization have always had a troubled relationship with nature. Fear and respect have long mixed with attempts to harness nature's power, even to dominate her. "There are still laid up in the womb of nature many secrets of excellent use," wrote Francis Bacon, one of the founders of modern science 4 centuries ago. Secrets, he wrote, which must be bound into service. Now, near the end of the millennium, scientists are turning with a new vigor to the secrets of the natural world, this time to understand how the simplicity and beauty of nature's design might suggest a way human beings can live more efficiently and ecologically. Some say by emulating nature, we can learn how to live in a greener world. But it may not be as simple as all that. Today on Living on Earth, we meet the bioengineers.

(A motor, swirling water)

HALLAHAN: This is the influent pipe. It comes in here and basically it's ...

CURWOOD: She stands in the shadow of dull gray concrete, the hulking bowels of San Francisco's Oceanside Sewage Treatment Plant. An ecologist beside her 18-wheel trailer opened up to display a row of blue steel tanks. She's overseeing an experiment to study how nature can clean human waste.

HALLAHAN: We built a food chain in here, and in the hope that we can turn what we consider waste back into something that will be of use to nature...

CURWOOD: Michelle Hallahan of the Cape Cod-based Ocean Arcs Institute is studying how natural systems can clean city waste without huge, power guzzling sewage plants, without chemical laden sludge bound for landfills. This sewage is being treated by good bacteria that eat the coliform and other bad bacteria in a kind of marsh reproduced in these tanks.

HALLAHAN: So we have the good guys living in here, and they're reproducing. And it's their one function in life is just to grab an ammonia molecule and break it down for their food. And by doing this they turn it into nitrate.

CURWOOD: The water moves through willows, over pumice, between mosquito fish and tiny shrimp, through the rows of tanks. In the effluent water at the end of the process, darting fish clean enough to eat, big enough to sell at the market. This little ecosystem is turning bad water into good. They call it a living machine.

HALLAHAN: The idea of the living machine is to build an ecosystem using the tools of nature. So you go out into nature and you say guys, we need something to treat our sewage. Can you help us?

CURWOOD: The living machine was born through an ecologist's careful observation of nature. John Todd saw that marshes and ponds somehow were able to clean up dirty wastewater. So Mr. Todd brought together a team to study how human beings could replicate that process in a kind of natural sewage plant.

HALLAHAN: In some ways it's a movement toward doing things in the more natural sense, learning from nature and taking examples from nature. Looking at nature and seeing that it can clean its own stuff. I mean, man was on the earth long before, like sewage treatment plants ever came along and nature always dealt with man's waste long before we ever became, you know, big settled populations. So obviously the tools are out there, and we just need to find them and use them to our benefit. I think it's foolish not to be -- to be disregarding nature as just oh, something that's pretty. Obviously there's some intelligence there, that we're completely disregarding. We should be taking advantage of it.

CURWOOD: The intelligence of nature. The beauty of a living machine. Engineer Michael Triantifillou was considering this a few years ago while having lunch with colleagues at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod.

TRIANTIFILLOU: It's called Eels Pond. It's a little pond right in Woods Hole where the compass is, and we're going, we have lunches outside on the deck of one of the restaurants, yeah? And we sit around and we talk. And we can see the fishes.

CURWOOD: And that got Michael Triantifillou to thinking: could engineers learn lessons from fish?

TRIANTIFILLOU: Then we went to the market and we bought the tuna, a small tuna, just to see how it looks like.

CURWOOD: Okay, what did you see?

TRIANTIFILLOU: Well, it's a masterpiece of design, because of all the skin is extremely smooth and shiny, and there are places on the body of the fish where it can retract inside its fins, so when it's swimming fast they don't protrude and don't disturb the flow at all.

CURWOOD: And so, from an engineer daydreaming on Cape Cod in 1990, fast forward now to 1996, to a long narrow pool in a basement lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Meet Robo-Tuna, designed to emulate the great bursts of speed and maneuverability of the real thing.

TRIANTIFILLOU: It is an exact copy of a bluefin tuna hanging from the wall. It's about a meter and a half long.

CURWOOD: Here in MIT's Ocean Engineering Lab, diagrams of fish are taped to overhead pipes. Models of fish ribs and fish tails designed and redesigned lie on cluttered desks next to tool boxes on top of filing cabinets. Real fish in small tanks swim nearby fake fish in big tanks. Every week Dr. Triantifillou, his brother George, and their students, come to watch their new creation.

(Cranking sounds)

CURWOOD: First it's lowered by a winch into the water.

(Cranking continues)

CURWOOD: And then, silently, the mechanical tuna swims in the current, swishing its tail like a real bluefin tuna.

TRIANTIFILLOU: The basic principle is that fish, by wiggling their bodies, create eddies. They create moving parts of water, which are swirling. Which are all down their body. And by the time they reach their tail, the tail just repositions those eddies. In the process they reduce drag on the body, and their tail becomes more efficient.

CURWOOD: Dr. Triantifillou comes off as quiet, almost shy. Yet he's a pioneer in an emerging science. It's called biomimesis, or mimicking nature. The idea is that there's more to gain from respecting and emulating nature than in trying to defeat it.

TRIANTIFILLOU: The fish has achieved perfection in swimming. Fish have developed a way of manipulating the flow around their body over hundreds of millions of years of evolution. By replaying the living organism, we're able to watch and record things that would take us years of study in the laboratory. That's the excitement. By imitating nature, the ultimate goal is to find out what is behind it. In the long run we will not like to make the ships look like tunas. We would like the ships to use the principles that make the tunas go fast.

CURWOOD: The engineer believes his research could bring about the day when real ships start and turn, accelerate and stop, just like their fleshy counterparts. But for many potential funders, this is too dreamy a notion to support with real research dollars. Today there are few places where this kind of wide-eyed inquiry can still get support.

CURWOOD: Who supports your research?

TRIANTIFILLOU: The major support comes from the Office of Naval Research.

CURWOOD: What do you think the Navy wants to get out of this?

TRIANTIFILLOU: The Navy wants always to be at the forefront, and this is one avenue that will lead to new ways of achieving this excellence in [washing?] and propulsion.

CURWOOD: Do you see this as part of a weapons system?

TRIANTIFILLOU: It could lead to all sorts of applications. Has no immediate goal. Right now we're at the point where we are discovering those mechanisms. The application will follow in a few years.

CURWOOD: But to others, it's dangerous not to make the connection between the research and the institution that's paying for it.

NOBLE: On the face of it, the fact that this is being done by the Navy should raise some concerns. The Navy has a mission, a military mission.

CURWOOD: David Noble is a professor of history at York University in Toronto. A former MIT professor, Dr. Noble says technology is by nature indifferent to potential implications. So the engineer needs to be guided by a moral compass. The problem, he says, is that too often researchers don't consider the consequences of their work.

NOBLE: The reason they all go to work for the military or so many of them have, is because the military's the biggest playpen, you know, sandbox around, because of the money. So that the enthusiasms of these scientists are indulged by the military. The scientists are given the appearance that they are free to do whatever they want. That in fact is never the case. Their results all have to be reported to their sponsor. We live in an age in which weapons are made by people who don't make weapons.

CURWOOD: The Wright Brothers, of course they invented an airplane, and it gets people around very quickly, but people drop bombs from them, too.

TRIANTIFILLOU: You have always to think about this, but I think those decisions are made when you go to the polls and you vote, and you make sure that proper people take proper care of their situation. Otherwise you cannot prevent something from being discovered.

CURWOOD: Scientists and engineers argue that the quest to learn nature's secrets is unstoppable. And no matter who supports their work, they say, social benefits ultimately flow out of military research. Think of computers, the Internet, radar, and microwaves. They all started with military dollars. Dr. Triantifillou believes Robo-Tuna could someday transform the shipping industry, bringing dramatic efficiencies in the use of fuels. Possibilities abound, say the researchers, whether it's the macro-engineering to craft a robotic fish or the microscopic science that unlocks the genetic code of a spider's silk.

(A large sliding door)

KAPLAN: This is a deep freezer where we keep our biological materials, and it's basically minus 80 degrees Celsius, approximately 140 degrees Fahrenheit. And --

CURWOOD: David Kaplan stands beside the deep freeze in a science building at Tufts University. He reaches into the wisps of cold vapor and pulls out a tiny plastic bottle. In it, argiope aranchia, a large yellow and black spider, whose silk may hold the key to another kind of natural step for science.

KAPLAN: We try and understand both the protein chemistry and the genetics of spider silk designs and then synthesis and eventually assembly. The silks are very intriguing because of the mechanical properties that they exhibit. Not only are they exceptionally strong, but they're also very flexible, and this is not a combination of mechanical properties that you see with synthetic materials.

CURWOOD: Through microscopes, Dr. Kaplan and his students squint at the images of spiders magnified 100 times, examining the silk that comes out of the abdomens, and then extracting the silk-producing glands in order to clone the genes. The genetic material could someday be inserted into plants via biotechnology. If they can do this, they'll be able to mass-produce a material found today only in a spider's web strong as steel, flexible as chewing gum.

KAPLAN: If we can understand at the molecular level how these kinds of fibers are assembled, then we can learn a lot about how to design better fibers or more unique fibers for the future, so we can make better biomedical implant materials, better scaffolding for tissue engineering, or simply better fibers for high-strength ropes or textiles, rugs, other applications.

CURWOOD: Eventually this research, Dr. Kaplan says, could also have important environmental benefits.

KAPLAN: No longer do we want to just make materials and keep them around. We want to create material life cycles that are more compatible with the natural environment. The fact that you can use a biological system to create these kinds of proteins to make very nice fibers, very strong fibers, is an advantage, because you can use renewable resources as the source of synthesis, and let the biological system, a bacterium, a plant, do the work to create the material. When you're done with the material, it can go back into the environment and be reused, recycled, without any additional new burden created for the environment.

CURWOOD: Like the makers of Robo-Tuna, Dr. Kaplan says he's on the cusp of an emerging movement of scientists who devote their energies to copying nature.

KAPLAN: Material scientists particularly are starting to realize that there is a lot to be learned from biology that can help, and this is a new direction for a lot of scientists where they start to look to biology for new insight, new inspiration.

CURWOOD: Of course, nature has long inspired the designs of man. Centuries ago, Leonardo DaVinci was studying birds for his early designs of flying machines. Author and professor David Noble says perhaps this is a return to a pre-industrial perspective that is more in sympathy with its surroundings. But that in itself, Professor Noble says, holds no great promise.

NOBLE: I mean, people got their poisons from nature. When they had poison darts, where did their poison come from? When people studied and observed nature and found out how certain plants or certain snakes, what have you, had poison that they could use to kill people, and they used it, and they were very sympathetic in their understanding of nature and very, you know, intimate in their observation and mimicking it, okay, is that good?

CURWOOD: The same could be said for the use of petroleum and uranium, both natural substances. The essential question, says Dr. Noble, is what social end is being served?

NOBLE: Good is an ethical notion. Good for what? Good for whom?

CURWOOD: So far, one of the few applied uses of spider silk, for example, has been as the crosshairs of a rifle. But let's consider another real-world example of copying nature, here on this factory floor in central Maine.

(Manufacturing noises)

ANDERSON: Essentially the operation produces no waste. All the waste is recycled into the process.

KING: It's like a closed loop.

ANDERSON: Closed, yes.

CURWOOD: The factory gleams, it's so new. It's the size of a football field, and everywhere you look the long rows of robotic arms spin twine onto spools at high speed.

(Spinning sounds)

CURWOOD: It's the christening of a yarn factory, and the CEO is giving the governor a tour.

KING: Is it fair to say this is the most modern textile facility known today in the world?

ANDERSON: Without a question, yes. Without a question. [Someone echoes: "Without question."] And probably as environmentally, sensitively designed and constructed as anything that you could find anywhere in the world, too.

KING: That's great.

CURWOOD: Ray Anderson, CEO of Atlanta-based Interface Corporation, is taking Maine Governor Angus King through his state-of-the-art textile factory. A few years ago, after reading Paul Hawkins' book The Ecology of Commerce, Mr. Anderson had an epiphany and decided to devote his corporate company with its 5,000 employees and $800 million in annual sales to the vision of sustainability. His company is incorporating the notion of turning bad waste into good product, just as John Todd's living machines. He's working with Hawkins and green designer William McDonough. The idea is to become more efficient by mimicking how nature works, cycling and recycling materials, so that waste equals food. It's a kind of industrial metabolism.

ANDERSON: Look around, you don't find a speck of lint or dust in the air. Normally in textile operations you've got a lot of waste generated going to a landfill. Here we've invested in a facility that makes no waste. This -- heat that goes out the stack, it's the ambient heat, and there's product that goes out the back door, and that's -- that's it.

CURWOOD: Reusing your waste, closing the loop, respecting nature. One day, Mr. Anderson wants to drive this factory with solar and wind power. Ray Anderson wants his business to be in keeping with his broader goal of walking more lightly on the earth.

ANDERSON: Our company's on this course to try to get to the top of that mountain we call sustainability.

KING: That's exactly the direction. And it can be done. And you can make a buck at the same time.

ANDERSON: It's a long way to the top, though. (Laughs. Spinning sounds continue.)

CURWOOD: Our story on the bioengineers was written and produced by Sandy Tolan and edited by Dan Grossman.

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(Spinning sounds continue. Crows caw. Music up and under)

CURWOOD: And for this week that's Living on Earth. Our production team includes George Homsy, Liz Lempert, Jesse Wegman, Julia Madeson, Peter Christenson, Susan Shepherd, Peter Shaw, and Daniel Grossman. Our associate editor is Kim Motylewski. And we had help from Tom Kuo, Jill Hecht, and Emma Hayes. Chris Ballman is the senior producer. Our program is produced by the World Media Foundation in cooperation with Harvard University. Our engineer is Jeff Martini. Michael Aharon composed the theme. I'm Steve Curwood. Thanks for listening.

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ANNOUNCER: Funding for Living on Earth comes from the World Media Foundation Environmental Information Fund. Major contributors include the W. Alton Jones Foundation for reporting on environmental ethics; the W.K. Kellogg Foundation for coverage of sustainable agriculture; the Great Lakes Protection Fund; and the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.

NPR ANNOUNCER: This is NPR, National Public Radio.


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