Month: January 2019

England’s backs hold key to rugby future

Two moments at either end of England’s spirited 30-22 loss to world champions New Zealand at Twickenham on Saturday demonstrated the gap Stuart Lancaster’s men must close if they are to lift the Webb Ellis Trophy on home soil in two years.

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The first came inside two minutes when New Zealand’s Kieran Read delivered a delightful inside pass, which took out three covering England defenders, to Julian Savea for the first of the All Blacks’ three tries.

The second was in the 64th minute when centre Ma’a Nonu produced a deft pass out of the tackle that sent in dashing wing Savea in for his second try.

Not only did England’s backs fail to equal Nonu’s effort, they didn’t produce a piece of handling skill to rival that of No 8 Read.

By contrast, England’s lone try of the match came when lock Joe Launchbury pounced on a loose ball from a five-metre scrum.

England, 14 points down after just 17 minutes, saw their pack perform heroically.

And they certainly had the means to make sure the penalties their forwards won turned into scoreboard pressure, with fly-half Owen Farrell kicking England into an improbable 22-20 lead heading into the final quarter.

However, Clive Woodward, who coached England to the 2003 World Cup title and was himself a talented Test centre, was just one of several pundits who said they needed more class behind the scrum to truly challenge the world’s best.

“The lesson of the autumn is that England have a magic bunch of forwards tough enough to win a World Cup,” Woodward wrote in Monday’s Daily Mail, having seen Lancaster’s side defeat Australia and Argentina in their other two November Tests at Twickenham.

“But — and it is a big but — there is simply no element of genuine fear of our back division.

“We have learned little other than we have a pragmatic back-line who fail to exploit the brilliant work of the pack and are a long way off the standard required if England really do have aspirations to lift the World Cup again.”

Philippine corruption hinders aid efforts

The government of President Benigno Aquino III is promising full transparency in reconstruction spending in areas devastated by Typhoon Haiyan, known in the Philippines as Yolanda.

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It announced on Monday that it has established a website called the Foreign Aid Transparency Hub where funds given by foreign donors can be tracked.

“There’s an urgent call now for us to monitor the movement of foreign aid funds for Yolanda so they will go exactly where they’re supposed to – to the survivors of the typhoon,” Undersecretary of Budget and Management and Chief Information Officer Richard Moya said in a statement.

More than $US270 million ($A288.65 million) in foreign aid has been donated to help the victims of the November 8 typhoon, which killed at least 3976 people and left nearly 1600 missing, according to government figures updated on Monday.

More than 4 million people have been displaced and need food, shelter and water.

The typhoon also wrecked livelihoods on a massive scale, destroying crops, livestock, coconut plantations and fishing boats.

Several battered communities appeared to be shifting from survival mode to one of early recovery on Monday.

Markets were reopening, though with very limited wares.

Some petrol stations were pumping and residents were repairing damaged homes or making temporary shelters out of the remains of their old ones.

“The darkest night is over but it’s not yet 100 per cent,” regional military commander Lieutenant General Roy Deveraturda said.

On Sunday, Aquino toured the disaster area and promised to step up aid deliveries.

Aquino said he was happy to see typhoon-battered areas slowly rising from the devastation.

The aid effort remained daunting, he said, adding that the government is feeding about 1.4 million people a day.

“One is tempted to despair,” Aquino told reporters in Alangalang town in Leyte province, where he met with officials and survivors.

“But the minute I despair, then everybody gets hampered in the efforts to get up.”

Presidential spokesman Ricky Carandang said Aquino would stay for a second night in Tacloban city and visit more typhoon-battered towns on Tuesday.

In one sign of how much work is ahead, Energy Secretary Jericho Petilla pledged to restore power in all typhoon-battered regions by December 24, a job that will require erecting about 160 giant power transmission towers and thousands of electrical posts toppled by the typhoon.

Petilla said he will resign if he fails.

“It’s difficult to celebrate Christmas without light,” he said.

The government wants to show that it will be more responsible than previous administrations were following other natural disasters, when funds intended for reconstruction were allegedly siphoned off.

Prosecutors are investigating allegations that $US20.7 million in government funds for rebuilding towns devastated by a 2009 storm in northern Luzon island were stolen by local officials via bogus nongovernmental agencies.

On November 7, a day before Typhoon Haiyan hit, Filipinos were glued to their television screens, watching Senate testimony in which Janet Lim Napoles denied allegations that she masterminded a plot to plunder millions of dollars of government funds intended for projects to relieve poverty.

It is far too soon to say how much aid intended for victims of last week’s Typhoon Haiyan might end up in the wrong hands.

Foreign donors demand strict anti-graft measures in projects they fund, but privately admit that “leakage” of funds is sometimes inevitable.

Much of the assistance in the early phase of a disaster response is in the form of food, water and other supplies.

Far richer opportunities for graft occur later when rebuilding occurs and contracts are up for grabs.

The typhoon has come at a time when some feel the Philippines might finally be cracking down on corruption.

In its latest global corruption report, Transparency International found the Philippines was just one of 11 countries in which people said they were noticing an improvement in corruption levels.

US families watch zoo lion kill lioness

A lion at an American zoo suddenly turned on a lioness in their enclosure and killed her in front of horrified families.

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Officials at the Dallas Zoo in Texas say they have no idea what caused the attack.

The pride of five siblings – two brothers and three sisters – had lived together “peacefully” for years without incident, the zoo said.

Then on Sunday, one of the males wrapped his jaws around the neck of five-year-old lioness Johari. She died quickly.

“Johari was a remarkable animal, as are all of our lions,” said Lynn Kramer vice president of animal operations and welfare at the Dallas Zoo.

“This is a very rare and unfortunate occurrence. In my 35 years as a veterinarian in zoos, I’ve never seen this happen.”

Visitor Michael Henshaw described the shocking scene.

“At first you think they’re playing; then you realise he’s killing her … and you’re watching it,” Henshaw told WFAA news. “You just can’t believe your eyes.”

Visitor Dylan Parker described the attack as eerily calm as the lion just lay beside her and held her by the neck for like 10 minutes … just holding it there, waiting until it quit moving.”

Zoo officials said they may never know the reason for the attack, but noted that lions do sometimes kill members of their pride in the wild.

Keepers swiftly separated the two males from the remaining two females after the attack while security guards ushered visitors away from the exhibit.

They plan to keep the lions apart while the attack is investigated but will “absolutely not” euthanise the killer lion.

“We are heartsick,” the zoo said in one of a number of tweets sent in response to concerned messages.

Egypt train crash kills 27

Twenty-seven people, most of them returning from a wedding, have been killed in Egypt when a train ploughed into a mini-bus and a truck at a railway crossing.

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Another 36 people were injured on Monday night in a desert area 45km south of Cairo, according to a revised casualty toll.

An AFP photographer at the site saw rescue workers removing the body of a three-year-old girl from under the train.

Local police chief Kamal al-Dali told state television the mini-bus had been carrying guests home from a wedding.

The head of the Egyptian Railway Authority said the drivers of the vehicles had ignored warning lights and chains blocking entry to the crossing, and tried to go across the tracks.

“The bus stormed the crossing, according to initial reports,” Hussein Zakaria told state television.

“The crossing was closed with chains, (and) there were warning lights,” he said.

The train, whose driver survived the crash, continued for almost one kilometre before coming to a halt, he said.

Egypt’s rail network has a poor safety record stemming largely from lack of maintenance and poor management.

In January, 17 people died when a train transporting conscripts derailed, and in November 2012, 47 schoolchildren were killed when a train crashed into their bus.

Both the transport minister and the railway authority head were forced to resign as a result of that accident, which was blamed on a train signal operator who fell asleep on the job.

The government formed a panel to investigate, but as with similar tragedies in the past, it did little to shed light on the details and less still to bring about accountability.

In Egypt’s deadliest railway tragedy, the bodies of more than 360 passengers were recovered from a train after a fire in 2002.

Chemical exposure linked to premature birth

Pregnant women who are exposed to chemicals known as phthalates found in plastics, lotions and food packaging may face higher odds of giving birth prematurely, a US study said Monday.

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The findings are important because prematurity is a leading cause of infant death around the world, said the report in the Journal of the American Medical Association.

“Our results indicate a significant association between exposure to phthalates during pregnancy and pre-term birth,” said the study led by Kelly Ferguson of the University of Michigan School of Public Health.

“These data provide strong support for taking action in the prevention or reduction of phthalate exposure during pregnancy.”

The study was carried out at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts.

A total of 130 women who gave birth before full term took part, along with 352 control participants.

Researchers analysed the women’s urine samples at different times throughout their pregnancies for levels of phthalate metabolites.

They found that the pre-term cases showed “significantly elevated levels” of certain phthalates, including di-2-ethylhexyl phthalate (DEHP), mono-(2-ethyl)-hexyl phthalate (MEHP) and mono-(2-ethyl-5-carboxypentyl) phthalate (MECPP).

The higher the exposure, the more likely it was that the women would give birth too early.

For example, among the women whose concentration of the phthalate metabolite mono-(2-ethyl-5-carboxypentyl) phthalate was above the 75th percentile, the odds ratio for spontaneous pre-term birth was 5.23, compared to 2.39 among all pre-term births.

Phthalates are commonly found in perfumes, hair spray, nail polish, deodorants, and body lotions.

They are also used in packaging, plastic toys, vinyl, medical supplies and pharmaceuticals.

An accompanying editorial in JAMA by Shanna Swan of Mount Sinai hospital in New York said the research makes an “important public health contribution by demonstrating a sizable impact of phthalates, a class of commonly used chemicals, on a health outcome of major public health concern.”

More research is needed to find out if phthalates may be causing the problem by increasing inflammation of the uterus, she wrote.

Some 15 million babies around the world are born pre-term, or before 37 weeks in the womb.

Rates have been climbing over the past two decades across the globe, with the highest rates in Southeast Asia, South Asia, and sub-Saharan Africa.

The United States is sixth among the 10 countries with the greatest number of pre-term births.

Previous research has found that pre-term births are on the rise in the United States, going from a rate of 10.6 per cent in 1989 to 12.4 per cent in 2004.

“The evidence reported in this new study is strong enough to encourage pregnant women to avoid phthalates if possible, to help minimise their chances of premature birth,” said Sarah Robertson, director of The Robinson Institute at the University of Adelaide in Australia.

“The good news is that it’s possible to reduce exposure fairly quickly by reading labels and choosing products carefully, using fragrance-free cosmetics, and fresh rather than packaged food.”

England beat Australia to snap tour duck

Australian opener Aaron Finch scored a century but it was all in vain as England snapped their eight-game losing streak with a 57-run triumph at the WACA Ground on Friday.

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Chasing 317 for victory, a second-string Australian outfit were bowled out for 259 in 47.4 overs despite the best efforts of Finch.

The 27-year-old blasted 108 off 111 balls, but he couldn’t find a willing ally as England beat Australia for the first time this summer.

With Australia’s loss, they drop back from top spot in the one-day rankings just two days after reclaiming the No.1 mantle from India.

Had England lost in Perth, they would have equalled their record losing runs of 10 set in 1993 and 2001.

Instead, their drought-breaking win has given England skipper Alastair Cook some rare joy ahead of Sunday’s fifth and final one-dayer in Adelaide.

Before Friday’s game, Cook revealed he was keen to stay on as captain of the one-day side despite having reservations about his position just days earlier.

Cook (44), Ben Stokes (70) and Ian Bell (55) laid the platform for England’s innings, before wicketkeeper Jos Buttler rammed home the advantage with a dazzling 71 off 43 balls.

Buttler’s knock featured six fours and four sixes as Australia’s pacemen were carted to all parts of the ground.

Pace ace Mitchell Johnson finished with 0-72 from his 10 overs, while fellow speedster James Pattinson (0-63 off eight) also struggled.

Allrounder James Faulkner claimed 4-67 after picking up two cheap wickets in the final over.

Finch, who scored 121 in the series-opening win in Melbourne, kept Australia’s hopes of victory alive as he moved the score to 4-189 in the 36th over.

But when he was caught in the deep, attempting to guide Tim Bresnan over third man, Australia’s chances were shot.

Stokes was the hero for England, with the 22-year-old following up his crucial knock with figures of 4-39 with the ball.

Australia entered the match missing a host of their best players, with captain Michael Clarke, wicketkeeper Brad Haddin, allrounder Shane Watson and opener David Warner all rested.

Stand-in skipper George Bailey elected to bowl after winning the toss, but the decision backfired as England raced to 0-73 from their first 10 overs.

Buttler and Eoin Morgan (33) provided the fireworks late in the innings to lift England above 300.

“It’s been a long time coming,” a relieved Cook said.

“We know the series is gone, but the thought of losing 10-0; the prospect was there.”

Australia’s stand-in captain Bailey conceded the absence of Clarke, Haddin, Warner and Watson played a role.

Bailey said his decision to bowl first was based on the “tackiness” of the wicket.

“It certainly felt like it swung around a lot, but I don’t think we utilised that well at all,” Bailey said.

“I think it was probably the worst we’d bowled at the start of a game. It just looked like the bowlers found it a little hard to control.”

Podolski double helps Arsenal rout Coventry in FA Cup

Podolski’s goals were set up by fellow Germans Mezut Ozil and Per Mertesacker as the 10-times winners eased into the last 16 on a rainy night in north London.

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The Polish-born forward rifled home from inside the area after a pass from midfielder Ozil in the 15th minute and headed in a corner at the far post from defender Mertesacker’s flick-on at the near post in the 27th.

Podolski was replaced by Olivier Giroud in the 79th and within five minutes the Frenchman had scored Arsenal’s third goal with a tap-in from left back Kieran Gibbs’ cross.

Fellow substitute Santi Cazorla completed the rout in the 89th from a rebound after keeper Joe Murphy had parried a shot.

Three minutes after the opening goal Coventry, the 1987 FA Cup winners who now play in League One, almost hit back with Arsenal stopper Lukasz Fabianski making a diving save to keep out midfielder Carl Baker’s fine shot from outside the area.

Striker Leon Clarke also missed two good chances to get a more enterprising Coventry side back into the game early in the second half.

Fabianski saved his first effort and the striker then hit the post from a central position inside the box after Franck Moussa’s square pass with the second.

“In the first half we did the job and took the game to them in a serious way and played the way we know we can,” Arsenal manager Arsene Wenger was quoted as saying by the BBC.

“In the second half we dropped off and, give them credit, they gave it a go. Coventry should be pleased with their performance and we should be pleased with the result.”

Former European champions Nottingham Forest, now in the second tier Championship, were held 0-0 at home by League One side Preston North End in a clash of former FA Cup winners.

The fourth round continues on Saturday with holders Wigan Athletic, who were relegated from the top flight three days after their dramatic late win over Manchester City in last season’s final, at home to Premier League Crystal Palace.

Cup favourites Manchester City host second-tier Watford, also on Saturday, while seven-times winners Chelsea face Stoke City in an all-top flight tie at Stamford Bridge on Sunday.

(Writing by Rex Gowar; Editing by Ken Ferris)

Comment: An end to China’s apartheid?

For over half a century, the Chinese Communist Party has sought to control where Chinese people live under the hukou system of household registration, which has separated people into two distinct groups — those with rural ‘passports’ and those with urban ones.

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While the Afrikaans term ‘apartheid’ may be a harsh way of describing this system, its literal meaning — ‘the state of being apart’ — suggests that it is also fairly apt.

Even though millions of rural citizens have made their way into Chinese cities in recent decades, hundreds of millions more are still unable to do so.

As a result, rural Chinese currently earn on average around one third of their urban counterparts, with the vast percentage of the 185 million Chinese people living on under US$1.25 a day residing in rural areas. These disparities simply would not exist in an economy with perfect labour mobility since migrants would continue to head for urban centres as long as the wages there were higher. The hukou system prevents this equalising force and is therefore a major source of China’s rural–urban income inequalities today.

China’s top leaders are well aware of this fact and are deeply contemplating hukou reforms, as evidenced by a report released following a meeting on 12–13 December of the Communist Party’s 18th Central Committee, headed by President Xi Jinping. The report, which reaffirms China’s commitment to an urbanisation strategy that will drive economic growth in the decade ahead, claims that the government will allow migrant workers who live permanently in cities to gain urban residency status ‘in an orderly way’.

It is clear, however, that there are no plans to abolish the hukou system altogether. Instead, cities have been divided into four categories: hukou reform will focus on ‘fully open’ small cities and ‘orderly’ mid-size cities, but big cities and megacities will continue to have strictly controlled hukous. In other words, the government is not prepared to relinquish all control just yet.

This is understandable, given the enormity of the challenges facing both central and local governments as China embarks on a plan to shift 250 million more rural people into urban areas by 2025, in addition to the 200-plus million migrant workers who already live in cities but are largely excluded from the education, healthcare and social welfare services available to urban hukou holders.

Given these figures, a comprehensive ‘big bang’ approach to granting urban residency to anyone who wanted it, in any city they wanted to go, isn’t a realistic option. The pressure on cash-strapped city-level governments would be far too great and, although new ways for them to raise funds are underway — including tax-system reforms and the establishment of financial institutions to support urban infrastructure and housing — these will clearly take time.

Instead, hukou reform is likely to continue in the gradual, piecemeal and experimental way that has characterised China’s 35-year-long transition towards a market economy.

In Chengdu, for example, a new system of land credits that enables farmers to swap their rural land for urban housing has led to regulations issued in late 2010 that enable all Chengdu citizens — including five million farmers — to move freely into the city and register as urban citizens, receiving all the benefits that go with it. As Tom Miller points out in his 2012 book China’s Urban Billion: “If the Chengdu government is as good as its word, this would represent a huge breakthrough for hukou reform”.

Other experiments include the use of points systems for migrants, first introduced in Shanghai in 2004 and in Guangdong province in late 2010, under which urban residency status is granted to those migrants who achieve a certain number of points based on their employment, education, income and other (mainly economic) attributes. Although points systems can be justified on efficiency grounds, the distributional consequences are likely to be dire: creating an underclass of the already second-class rural Chinese who don’t make the grade. Whether points systems should be allowed to spread across the country is something the central government in Beijing will need to consider very carefully.

As the most recent indication of gradual reform, a news release by state news agency Xinhuanet on 18 December indicates that the Ministry of Public Security and 11 other ministries and commissions have drafted reform guidelines for the hukou system that aim to establish a new system by 2020. If approved by the central government, the new system will be based on a person’s place of residence and employment, not their birthplace. This is a positive sign for those migrants already working in cities, albeit requiring some patience. What it means for the 640 million people still residing and working in rural China is another question.

This latest string of announcements came shortly after the death of Nelson Mandela, who led the decades-long struggle to abolish apartheid and secure a multi-racial democracy for South Africa. President Xi Jinping has the opportunity to end China’s own form of apartheid, and may well become a national, even if not an international, hero in the process. The challenges are immense, but not insurmountable.

Dr Jane Golley is associate director at the Australian Centre on China in the World, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.

This article was first published at East Asia Forum, a blog from the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific examining politics, economics and society across Asia and the Pacific.

Comment: Why we still fail the online security test

By Peter Norrington, University of Bedfordshire

It’s as easy as “123456”, or so we’ve learned from Splashdata’s annual worst password of the year list.

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Slipping down to number two in this most recent list was last year’s favourite, the ever-popular password, “password”. It might be funny to laugh at the fools who use passwords like this but is your record really any better?

The top 25 list makes delightful reading: iloveyou, letmein, monkey, shadow, sunshine and princess all feature. If you prefer to lock up your data with numbers, there’s the full range, from 1234 to the ingenious 123456789. Or if you’re feeling powerful, how about admin? That’s a long-time favourite.

There’s a very simple point behind the use of passwords like this: we go online to get things done. We share photos with friends and family, shop, bank, book holidays, read the news, and, of course, work. We don’t go online for the joy of setting up a username and password. All we want is to log in and get on.

Advice to create “strong” passwords like XF8!#Sr fails because we won’t remember these a month, or even minutes, later. We do like passwords that are easy: birthdays, people’s names, pets, the name of the website we’re on. But these are surprisingly easy for other people to work out. And talk about “good” passwords doesn’t make any difference if you’re not convinced it’s worth the effort.

Letting people into your accounts has consequences, from the annoying to the dangerous. They can change information for a prank, like saying your relationship has ended when it hasn’t. But they might also order goods in your name or take your money. They might even send porn to your boss, stalk you or talk about you in the press. There is also information in your accounts about your family, friends and colleagues, so it’s not just you at risk.

What makes a strong password?

According to Tony Neate, head of Get Safe Online, the government initiative to help the public understand what they you can do to protect themselves, even using a password as simple as abc123 is better than having none at all. Do note though, he’s not actually saying use abc123. You’ll notice it’s on the worst of 2013 list already.

There are some simple rules to building good passwords that you should follow though. Do use eight characters or more, since short is always weak, and do use phrases. It helps if they’re ones that mean something to you, but other people wouldn’t know. Or make up a nonsense one, like greenideassleepfuriously. Don’t use this exact one; it’s got history.

You could also use abbreviated phrases and, again, they’re better if other people don’t know them. Spot how this, gNdSsPfY, relates to the phrase above. And when you decide on your password, it’s best to use a mix of lowercase and uppercase letters, and numbers and to add in some other characters (like ! @ %).

What you really shouldn’t do is use a single word, not even ones you think no-one else knows. They are all in a dictionary and can therefore be found by potential hackers or thieves, especially when they use automated techniques to test out all the different options in a matter of seconds. Even if you think it’s smart, remember that foreign words are also in dictionaries. So are names of people, places, your favourite club and your company name.

And a note to mobile phone users who connect dots on a screen to produce a shape that unlocks the device: while these can be easier to use, it isn’t yet clear that they’re any safer than a password or code in the long run. Humans like patterns, so we draw simple shapes, like squares, and even use letters, say a big X. We are predictable animals.

What else can I do?

Biometrics use fingerprints and face recognition to secure devices and information but their uptake has been limited so far. This type of technology generally still works best in controlled environments, like airports.

Password managers are also an option. These store lots of easier-to-remember passwords in a file or system with one much stronger password. Generally, to use these you have to pay money and indeed, companies such as Splashdata offer services like this and benefit from worst password lists. This isn’t a surprise; they are putting in effort to make something that works.

There’s also research into alternatives to text-based passwords which might offer a ray of hope to those of us who can’t move on from abc1234. Examples include clicking or tapping on different parts of a picture, solving puzzles, and recognising faces. The general idea is that humans are better at remembering images than words or jumbles of characters.

Blame game

If you choose easy passwords, sadly, you do leave yourself open to other people’s bad intentions. But it isn’t just down to you as an individual, and blame doesn’t help. The web is becoming part of so much of our lives but is still new to all of us. Being safe and secure online has to be learnt and taught – and not by accident or magic.

Initiatives such as Get Safe Online are part of the education we need as a society. So is accessible education for people of all ages and backgrounds. Organisations, commercial or not, need to play an active and responsible role in keeping people’s data secure, and making sure that passwords are used well.

In fact, the worst passwords of the year lists are informed by the mistakes that companies, not users, make. Splashdata was able to identify what the most commonly used passwords were in the first place largely because software company Adobe lost data on 150 million customers.

We should work to inform ourselves and share information with those around us about how to keep our information secure. Just don’t share your password.

Peter Norrington received funding from The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) and Kinetic Solutions Ltd. under Industrial CASE Training Grant 4302508.

Comment: Genetics may be key to climate change solutions

By Thomas Whitham, Northern Arizona University

As the effects of climate change rapidly alter communities, economies and natural systems, the need to advance new solutions to what may be the most pressing biological challenge of our time has never been more urgent.

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One important part of the puzzle involves unlocking the natural genetic diversity of plants to identify those species and populations best able to cope with changing conditions.

Just as researchers have used genetics to improve food production, it can also provide solutions that maintain biodiversity and protect the services provided by native ecosystems. Genetics holds the potential to benefit native systems that range from prairies to pine forests and coral reefs.

Plants are well known to possess extensive genetic variation in drought and temperature tolerance, water-use efficiency, and other traits that can prove critical for surviving climate changes and avoiding extinction. Changing climatic conditions not only affect the plants themselves, but also other organisms that influence plant communities. For example, changing conditions may increase pest and pathogen outbreaks or allow an invasive species to move into an area that was previously inhospitable. Importantly, plants also exhibit genetic variation in their responses to pests and invasive species that can be used to mitigate their negative effects.

The use of genetics will become increasingly important in regions suffering from climate change. For example, in western US, drought and higher temperatures have doubled the rate of tree mortality since 1995, with mortality rates accelerating over time. Pinyon pine, an iconic and dominant species in the West, has suffered nearly 100% mortality at sites in Colorado and Arizona, where climate change has made trees more susceptible to bark beetle outbreaks that in turn result in increased wildfires.

Fortunately, plant genomes – all of an organism’s genetic information – are a vast storehouse of genetic variability that can be used to help prevent the loss of species suffering from climate change. New technology and research platforms are making it possible for researchers to identify those individuals and populations that will survive in the climates of the future and in the face of the myriad cascading effects of climate change.

Genetics-based environmental research is already helping to restore damaged and degraded landscapes. For more than 30 years, a consortium of researchers has examined how genetic variation in the cottonwood tree can affect entire communities of organisms from microbes to mammals. This research has been involved with a 50-year, US$626 million effort on the lower Colorado River that shows major genetics-based differences in the success of different populations that the Bureau of Reclamation and other agencies are using to restore riparian habitat. From such combined restoration-research experiments, scientists can learn which genetic lines are most likely to survive future climates.

Understanding a plant’s response to climate conditions requires the integration of diverse sciences to examine how changing conditions influence the plant through its life history and that of its offspring. Plant species become adapted to local conditions over thousands of years, meaning that what is locally adapted today could do poorly tomorrow as the climate changes. Thus, genetics-based research can help identify those individuals that possess superior traits that will allow them to survive in a future climate. This type of research involves interdisciplinary teams of climate-change scientists, biologists, geneticists, modellers and engineers who are using and developing new technologies and research platforms to unlock the vast stores of information within plant genomes.

One of these advances is the Southwest Experimental Garden Array, or SEGA, a US$5m facility which was made possible with support from the National Science Foundation, Northern Arizona University and diverse public and private land owners. SEGA is a new genetics-based climate-change research platform that allows scientists to quantify the ecological and evolutionary responses of species exposed to changing climate conditions. SEGA will create a system of 10 gardens along a steep elevation gradient in northern Arizona. Because temperature and moisture predictably change with elevation, these gardens reflect climate differences – ranging from desert to alpine forest – that mimic the effects of climate change. By planting the same plant species and genotypes in different environments, scientists can identify which ones perform best and are most likely to survive changing conditions.

SEGA is the first research platform of its kind in the world, but it must be transferred to, and replicated by, global partners, if the potential benefits of genetics-based approaches are to be realised on a broader scale. Similarly, this approach requires the education of a new generation of scientists trained in diverse disciplines – individuals who can collaborate on complex biological problems involving whole communities of organisms.

Despite the enormous challenges, we live in a time when knowledge and technology can be used to ensure the survival of whole ecosystems and the people who depend upon them. Genetics-based approaches seek to harness the natural genetic variation that exists in wild-populations to restore damaged natural systems and mitigate climate and other global change impacts. While native ecosystems are being challenged as never before, the use of genetics offers new solutions that hold great promise.


This article first appeared on LiveScience.

Thomas Whitham receives funding from the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Reclamation.