Lake Erie Fish Die-Off

Photo by Carl Feagans

Photo by Carl Feagans

Recently, I was in Ohio on vacation and I snapped this photo while on a ferry ride between South Bass Island and the mainland. Every few meters during the trip I noticed dead fish floating near the surface.

Seeing so many dead fish is disconcerting to say the least and asked one of the deckhands on the ferry but he didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. Is it possible that he never noticed all these fish floating on the surface? Because of the busy nature of being on vacation, I nearly forgot the matter until I was looking over some my photos today. The fish appear to me to be Freshwater Drum (though I could very well be wrong), so I googled “lake erie dead fish” and started following links to see if there was any news on the issue. Apparently there is.

According to the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), there is a problem with not just fish but mudpuppies as well. I was in Ohio near South Bass Island, not the New York side of the lake, but it is all one big body of water. The article explains that fish die offs have a variety of causes, including temperature changes and diseases. One notable culprit, according to the article, is Type E botulism toxin, a poison produced by by Clostridium botulinum, which can be harmful to humans if infected fish are eaten. This bacterium has been problematic in the past in the Great Lakes, so it may be making a comeback.

It occurred to me also that there could be alien toxins or diseases being introduced from the bilges of ships that enter the Lake from outside via the canal systems that link Lake Erie to the Hudson River. It might also be that nitrogen from agricultural run-offs into the lake create algae blooms that, in turn, create anoxic zones in the lake where the fish simply choke to death then rise to the surface.

On a brighter note, but perhaps not for those who suffer from ophidiophobia, the Lake Erie Water Snake population seems to be increased enough that the snake may soon be removed from the endangered list. This nonvenomous snake was placed on the endangered list in 1991 after nearly being eradicated by people who mistook it for poisonous. Though it isn’t poisonous, they’re certainly willing to bite when handled and they have an anticoagulant that makes the tiny wound continue to bleed for a while, appearing as if you opened up an artery.

Photo by Carl Feagans

Photo by Carl Feagans

I shot this picture at the ferry dock when my daughter noticed it sunning on the rock. They’re most commonly seen in the spring and further investigation revealed several dozen more of his friends, also hanging out on the rocks. Most of them tangled in knots of six or seven.

If anyone has information regarding the dead fish in Lake Erie or links, please share. I’m definitely not an expert on the subject and only admit to having a few thoughts and questions on the subject, not answers.

Playing God? Life Created in the Laboratory


Newsweek’s Cover story is about abiogenesis and synthesis of self-replicating organisms. I just finished reading this article online [NewsWeek at MSNBC.Com] and noticed that PZ Myers has a post on it already. Before I read his, I thought I’d post a quick review of the article with a few quotes and encourage others to check it out.

The Newsweek article’s author refers to biological researchers concerned with creating life synthetically as “SynBio practitioners,” giving the field a near religious moniker. The article was informative but the slant seemed decidedly against science in this regard, going out of its way to point out the “dangers” and “immorality” of research in this field:

Despite the opposition, the researchers who work in the field, which is known as Synthetic Biology, have a disarming casualness about their work—almost as though they were building machines, rather than living things.

And,

Like most biologists, SynBio practitioners have a more materialist view of life. “Life is not magic,” says Princeton’s Ron Weiss, an electrical engineer who now concentrates on genetic programming of cells. He thinks older biologists like Kass have not kept up with advances in science. Of course, SynBio scientists haven’t quite proven that a cell is a kind of biochemical machine, and religious biologists like Kass and Collins hang on tightly to this uncertainty. Proof will come when the first discrete, self-maintaining, self-replicating, stable organic creature—Life 2.0—is created from scratch in the lab.

And, of course, the very lead in for the magazine is the cover, which has “Playing God” in big, bold type. Then the subtitle of the article reads, “[a] new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch.”

It benefits a magazine like Newsweek, of course, to use lead-ins and call-outs that hook the reader by highlighting the controversial aspects. They’ll already have the attention of those interested in the science behind the story, but such editorial strategies will ensure that those that question the research will read as well. So I really can’t fault Newsweek much for playing both sides of the fence. Particularly when they include many positive aspects of the research as well:

A few projects are already giving us a glimpse of the power of this new field. The most extraordinary effort is to create a microbial organism that would produce a powerful antimalarial drug.

And,

Christopher Voigt, of UC San Francisco, and Christina Smolke, of Caltech, are in the early stages of designing microbes that would circulate through the human bloodstream, seeking out cancerous tumors anywhere in the body. The microbes might be equipped with a biodevice that detects the low oxygen levels characteristic of a tumor, another that invades the cancer cells, a third that generates a toxin to kill the cells and a fourth that hangs around afterward in case the cancer comes back.

And,

Venter and Church are eyeing an even bigger prize: a self-sustaining, highly efficient biological organism that converts sunlight directly into clean biofuel, with minimal environmental impact and zero net release of greenhouse gases.

So maybe those skeptical because of religious reasons will see what they came for: like minded scientists that dissent from the research (albeit a small minority). But, at the same time, maybe some will be swayed by the benefits and begin to question their dogmatic opposition.

Related Links:
Silver, Lee (2007) Life 2.0:
A new generation of scientific mavericks is not content to merely tinker with life’s genetic code. They want to rewrite it from scratch. Newsweek, found on the web at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/18882828/site/newsweek/

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