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Winter 2015 Volume 7, Issue No. 5

ENSURING A HEALTHY ENVIRONMENT Research news and information from the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences



Conservation easement funds research endowment The deer and the antelope, along with 30 other species listed as endangered or at risk, will be able to play on the Faculty of ALES’ sprawling 5,000-hectare Mattheis Ranch forever. The faculty signed a conservation easement with Western Sky Land Trust, ensuring development will never occur on the ranch. As compensation, ALES received $3.8 million from Western Sky Land Trust, made possible through funding by Alberta Environment and Parks’ Land Trust Grant program. The money, for which ALES must raise an equal amount within the next three years, was used to create an endowment in order to provide stable, secure funding for the faculty’s Rangeland Research Institute. Established in 2010 when Edwin and Ruth Mattheis donated the ranch to the University, the RRI manages a comprehensive research program to develop innovative best management

practices capable of balancing socioeconomic considerations with the ongoing maintenance of environmental goods and services. To date, more than 30 research projects have or are being conducted on the ranch, according to Edward Bork, director of the RRI. “They include basic biology and ecology, important land uses such as grazing management, cattle production efficiency, and land reclamation following disturbance from oil and gas extraction,” said Bork. “We’re also quantifying the benefits of native grasslands in providing environmental goods and services like wildlife habitat, pollination of crops, water purification and carbon storage. “The research enables us to become better managers of the land,” he added, “and ensure that the way we use the land and grow our food will continue to respond to changing times and circumstances, including climate change.”



What our guts tell us … literally


Discovery adds new health benefits to common crops Prevalent Canadian crops such as canola and flax may soon have cancer-fighting benefits, due to a process developed by ALES researcher. Elzbieta Mietkiewska, a research associate working at Phytola, an Alberta Innovates Centre, isolated three genes from pomegranates and incorporated them into high-value oilseed crops. The process added punicic acid — a polyunsaturated fatty acid that can help slow the growth of skin, prostate and breast cancer cells — to the crops’ nutritional benefits. Until now, punicic

acid had only been found in pomegranates and Chinese cucumber seed oil, where it was difficult and expensive to extract. Punicic acid also assists with weight loss, has anti-inflammatory characteristics and can even act as a chemical agent to help paints dry quicker. Due to punicic’s unique benefits and the progress made so far with Canadian crops, interest in Mietkiewska’s research is growing. Phytola and TEC Edmonton have applied for a patent on the research to begin the commercializing process.

The good sanitation and treated drinking water we take for granted may also be reducing the diversity of beneficial bacteria in our gastrointestinal tract that contributes to the development of the immune system. ALES researcher Jens Walter led a study that found adults from the U.S. lacked approximately 50 bacterial types that were key members of the gut microbiota found in adults of two rural, nonindustrialized regions of Papua New Guinea. “Scientists … have hypothesized for some time now that modern lifestyle might deplete the human gut microbiota, and by doing this, might predispose us to the chronic lifestyle diseases like obesity and type-1 diabetes that are increasing in westernized societies,” he said. However, research clearly shows that non-industrialized societies have a high incidence of infectious diseases, including life-threatening diarrhea. More research is required to determine how to prevent the negative impact of westernization on our microbiome while preserving its benefits.


COMMUNITY GARDENS AND FARMERS’ MARKETS PROVIDING LIMITED FIX FOR LOCAL FOOD DESERTS research revealed most food deserts are in higher-income neighbourhoods. Wang closely examined the data on four of those eight neighbourhoods and discovered that he couldn’t make any conclusive statements about the impact of the city’s 17 farmers’ markets but when he factored in the city’s 61 community gardens, those four food deserts essentially disappeared. Wang and his supervisors provided the city with a set of three recommendations, based on their research findings.


Community gardens alleviate food deserts in Edmonton to some extent but they only provide temporary relief, new ALES research has found. Haoluan Wang, a masters student in the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology under the supervision of Feng Qui and Brent Swallow, identified eight neighborhoods that are considered food deserts because residents lack easy access to affordable nutritious food, based on limited proximity to fullservice supermarkets. Surprisingly, his


DRESS HISTORIAN FINDS FLAW IN WIDELY CITED SOCIAL EFFECTS OF FRENCH REVOLUTION Social historians who suggest French women’s fashion became quite daring during France’s Directory period, from 1793 to 1799, focussed on rare and extreme fashion rather than what the overwhelming majority of women wore, according to new research conducted by ALES researcher Anne Bissonnette. The dress historian in the Department of Human Ecology was granted unprecedented access to a trove of Paris’ Journal des Dames et des Modes, the most successful fashion paper of the era. In painstakingly executed fashion plates, JDM artists and writers recorded what real



Thawing that abets climate change will occur over decades and centuries Thawing of permafrost soils in the Arctic and subarctic will release greenhouse gases much more gradually than had been previously feared. David Olefeldt, an ALES researcher and CAIP Chair in Watershed Management and Wetland Restoration, was one of a group of researchers from around the world who reviewed current knowledge about permafrost thaw in a new study. They found that it will take decades and centuries as opposed to a single decade for thawing to release carbon that has been

women were wearing in the shops and streets. Its editors also added comments, noting extreme styles. Bissonnette applied quantitative research to the fashion plates and comments, and found that the observations about daring fashion were quite rare. By studying the entire series of JDM fashion plates and realizing a tendency for observers to focus on what’s rare and extreme, she believes historians took single pictures out of context, which is akin to saying everyone wore punk-rock spikes in 1972, she explained.

stored in these soils. “Taking into account the full body of evidence published over the last decade allows us to largely rule out catastrophic scenarios of runaway climate change in response to arctic permafrost thaw,” said Olefeldt. However, even the more moderate rate of greenhouse gas emissions associated with this organic carbon release will still make climate change happen faster than we would expect based on human activities alone.

DRYWALL PROVES TO BE GOOD COMPOSTING MATERIAL Used drywall can help bring dead soils back to life, according to new ALES research. In collaboration with the Edmonton Waste Management Centre of Excellence, land reclamation researcher Anne Naeth and her team ground and coarse unpainted drywall, mixed it with cattle manure and biosolids, and composted. The resulting mixtures were then added at four application rates to different soils: agricultural soil, urban soil and tailings sand, and seeded with three revegetation species. The team found that applying drywall biosolids compost applied at an appropriate rate resulted in greater plant biomass than biosolids compost without drywall. Naeth and her team also found that grinding drywall did not produce significantly greater results than simply using coarse chunks. “What excites me about any of this kind of work is just being able to take material that would normally be dumped into the landfills, and rather than taking up bigger land to make a bigger landfill, we can use some of that material to go back into the land,” she said.




Conservation agriculture can lead to impressive yield gains, new research reveals. In a study of small-holder farming households in Zimbabwe, ALES researcher Henry An and graduate student Patrick Ndlovu found that farmers produced 39 per cent more maize using conservation agriculture methods than by conventional farming techniques. The study’s findings are particularly important to a food insecure country such as Zimbabwe, where maize yields have significantly declined over the years due to a combination of land degradation, drought and seed and fertilizer availability. Despite the introduction of conservation agriculture relief programs, it’s difficult to convince farmers of the virtues of conservation agriculture, which advocates disturbing land as little as possible through less tillage. Conventional farming in Zimbabwe involves ox-drawn plows that


till relatively large farming plot. Plus, previous studies of conservation agriculture showed lower yields, or at best, the same yield as conventional practices. “We show you can be more optimistic than that,” said An.


Be skeptical of anti-odour clothing claims, advises researcher


Anti-odour clothing may not be living up to its promise and it could all be a matter of how the product was tested, says ALES textile scientist Rachel McQueen. In separate experiments, McQueen and her team found that some antimicrobial textiles were far more effective at performing their advertised tasks in the lab than on people. She analyzed the effectiveness of three different textiles treated with antimicrobial compounds in the lab and on human subjects and found the results quite different. “Anything from sweat to the proteins in the human body can disrupt the antimicrobial properties of a fabric,” she said. “When an antimicrobial compound gets put on a textile… it may not have the same level of effectiveness as the ones the manufacturers studied.” McQueen suggests that people who are looking for clothes that are less likely to smell, to choose natural fabrics such as cotton or wool as opposed to synthetic fabric like polyester.

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Discoveries 2015  

The research newsletter of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences

Discoveries 2015  

The research newsletter of the Faculty of Agricultural, Life & Environmental Sciences