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Environmental Responsibility: Protecting Native Lands

Alejandra Bravo
© Micheline Pelletier for L'Oréal Foundation
Alejandra Bravo

When Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva realized the devastating toll that many years of toxic pesticide use had taken on her native country, Uzbekistan, she had to do something. Under Soviet rule, Uzbekistan kept cotton production high through the use of harmful and toxic chemicals that now contaminate about 90 percent of Uzbekistan's land and water—and cause chronic renal and lung disease in Uzbek children living in these regions. Additionally, cotton's thirst for water left high salt levels in the soil from over-irrigation.

A mother herself, Dilfuza knew there had to be a better way to produce healthier fruits and vegetables using biological, not chemical, fertilizers and fungicides. Microbes were the key. During the last 10 years, she successfully patented a microbial product. The bio-fertilizer contains beneficial bacteria able to stimulate plant growth, control tomato and cucumber diseases, and enhance the nitrogen and phosphorous levels often lacking in salty soils. The product is used on agricultural lands growing cotton, wheat, and vegetables through-out the country.

Dilfuza says her high-profile work led to international recognition including the UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship. The recognition not only helped her establish research networks, she was also asked to work with the country's international relations department, representing her country at global conferences. "I'm happy the world knows about the science going on in Uzbekistan," she says

Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva
© Deroubaix/Gamma for L'Oréal Foundation
Dilfuza Egamberdiyeva

L'Oréal-UNESCO Awards often offer scientists a platform to raise important issues—such as the increasing need to find substitutes for toxic agricultural chemicals. One Award laureate, Alejandra Bravo, a molecular microbiologist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico in Cuernavaca, has harnessed the natural pesticide produced by an insect-killing bacteria called Bacillus thuringiensis, to protect Mexico's vast corn crops—without harming the environment. By inserting certain genes from the bacteria, nicknamed Bt, into corn DNA, the plant can produce its own personal pesticide, which is non-toxic to other organisms and degrades completely in the environment.

The only problem is that insects can evolve resistance to Bt. But Alejandra uses her collection of 8000 different Bt bacteria from soils across her country to keep crops one step ahead of insects. Once she figured out how Bt kills insects, Alejandra used that information to develop modified Bt toxins that would render insects defenseless.

More recently, Alejandra has found that the Bt toxins can safely and effectively control mosquitoes that transmit devastating human diseases such as malaria and dengue fever—diseases that have usually been controlled by toxic chemicals. Alejandra's enthusiasm is, itself, infectious. "Science keeps you alive—because you are always thinking and learning, identifying the next question to ask," she says.

Scientists, like Dilfuza and Alejandra, are a unique breed: women using science to protect their native lands.

Crossing Cultures, Building Bridges

Sarrah Ben M'Barek
Sarrah Ben M'Barek

Sarrah Ben M'Barek is using her cross-cultural research experience to build bridges between countries. Born in Tunisia, Sarrah would travel often to visit her mother's family located near one of the oldest tree cultivation centers in the Netherlands. As a child, traversing between tree nurseries in Boskoop, The Netherlands, and wheat fields in Beja, Tunisia, plant biology ran through Sarrah's veins, as did a growing desire to protect one of the world's most important crops, wheat, from disease.

Sarrah is something of a detective. "What excites me is using science to uncover the interaction between the host and the pathogen," she says. A current UNESCO-L'Oréal fellow, Sarrah dedicated her Ph.D., conducted at Plant Research International & Wageningen Research Center in The Netherlands, to investigating the genome of a killer fungus, Mycosphaerella graminicola, a disease so devastating that $600 million is spent each year in Europe alone to apply fungicides to prevent the annual 15–50 percent yield losses.

Sarrah wants to find the genes that make this fungus so harmful—clues that will lead to more sustainable ways to keep the fungus at bay. As she looks for signs of the fungus' weaknesses in its DNA, she hopes to follow in Dilfuza and Alejandra's footsteps—decreasing the use of fungicides by finding other ways to control disease.

Sarrah wants to take advantage of her unique position, straddling two countries and fluent in four languages, to encourage student exchanges between Tunisia and the Netherlands. "I want to keep this connection alive between one of the world's most important wheat producing regions and one of the world's most important agricultural universities," says Sarrah. 

Laura Echarte
© Deroubaix/Gamma for L'Oréal Foundation
Laura Echarte

These passionate scientists are able to use their research to build bridges between countries, or even continents. Following her successful postdoctoral research at the University of Waterloo in Canada, Laura Echarte has built a long-term series of experiments that provide opportunities for young researchers in her native Argentina. Now a crop physiologist at the National Research Council of Argentina in Balcarce, Laura is collaborating with Canadian coworkers to determine which farming system uses resources most efficiently.

For example, Laura, a UNESCO-L'Oréal fellow, has found that planting maize together with soybeans is a good combination. Soybeans, traditionally intensively cropped in Argentina, take nitrogen from the air and "fix" it in the soil, but they also use up many other important nutrients, systematically reducing soil fertility. However, maize produces tall stalks that, when they decompose, return to soil those nutrients stripped out by soybeans. Grown together, the crops maintain a healthy balance of soil nutrients. "I want to help farmers decrease the gap between potential and actual yield," Laura says. She is taking the research one step further by finding ways to improve soil conservation and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. "The magnitude of the problems we face is great, and I hope women, who are often drawn to environmental science, understand the opportunities that exist," Laura says.

And there are opportunities everywhere. Some scientists are urgently trying to retrieve valuable biological specimens from the last untouched places on Earth—before it's too late.

Documenting the Wild

Understanding how limited water and nutrients leads to unusually high plant diversity in a small belt of fynbos, or shrubland, in the Western Cape of South Africa is what drives Karin Jacobs' research. Even though water is scarce, over 9,000 plant species live here—two-thirds of which grow nowhere else in the world. Karin, trained as a fungal taxonomist, has found that the microbes in the soil are as unique and diverse as the plants above. "Anything that disturbs the plant diversity disturbs the microbes," she says. Yet it is the microbes that control the nutrients that the plants need.

Karin Jacobs
L'Oréal; Foundation
Karin Jacobs

Karin was drawn to the arid, low nutrient soils, in part, because she wanted to understand how such low fertility soils support such a diverse plant community. She's come to realize that it may be because the ice ages that devastated species diversity in northern hemispheres never occurred here. Unfortunately, only a few stretches of the fragile fynbos ecology remain intact; many are the focus of conservation efforts. Karin is investigating how important the microbes are to recovering the ecological processes that occur in these regions.

Karin is using new molecular tools to explore this underground world. Most soil microbes can't yet be grown in a laboratory, so they remain a mystery. Using molecular fingerprinting techniques, Karin is able to determine which of these tiny organisms are simply present and which are key to cycling nutrients. "So far we've only seen and described a fraction of the microbes on Earth," she says. As she wades through the mountain of data that come from microbial DNA profiles, Karin says the UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship gave her the confidence that, in the male-dominated world of science in South Africa, she was pursuing important questions. "In the end, hard work and good ideas are rewarded—no matter one's gender."

Lina Saavedra Diaz is working on a plan to quell the chaos that threatens another male-dominated world—that of small-scale fishers in her native country, Colombia. She says overfishing will continue to deplete Colombia's fisheries resources until the country comes up with a fisheries management plan. Without better regulation, she says, fishermen's livelihoods are in jeopardy. "It's a mess. It's open disorder because anyone can fish whatever they want, however they want, without supervision," she says.

Lina Saavedra Diaz
© N. Gouhier/Abacapress for L'Oréal Foundation
Lina Saavedra Diaz

Lina has interviewed 300 fishermen and fisheries experts in nine fishing communities on both the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of Colombia. Her goal? Giving the fishermen a voice and at the same time providing her government the fishing records and economic data it needs to take the first steps towards creating a fisheries management plan.

Lina agrees that winning the UNESCO-L'Oréal fellowship builds confidence—confidence she needed when she felt overwhelmed by the duty entrusted to her by these fishermen. "When I started, this was just a research project. Now I feel like it is a life project," she says. "The fellowship gave me the strength and hope to believe in my dream to help bring order to the seas in my country," she says.

What is Environmental Responsibility?

Environmental Responsibility loosely defines scientific strategies to improve the responsible use or protection of our environment. Environmental researchers monitor the planet—in both its clean and polluted states—to find ways to reduce growing human impact on ecosystems. Over land and in the sea, the world's resources are increasingly scarce or threatened. Therefore, finding new ways to make efficient use of resources—soil nutrients, water, or fish—is considered the key to living in a sustainable way.