Gender Bender
How, and why, sea bass change to the other sex.

Black sea bass are protogynous hermaphrodites: they begin life as females and can switch to male. But how they do it, and why, is not completely understood. Now, research suggests that the change is triggered by a decline in the number of males in a population. Not enough guys? Some black sea bass females make the switch.

“It sounds crazy, right? But from an evolutionary perspective, it’s a perfect way to keep balance in a population,” says Olaf Jensen, an assistant professor with the Department of Marine and Coastal Sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, who is leading a study that could improve understanding of the bass population and help the beleaguered recreational fishing industry. “If it’s operating out in nature, maybe we don’t have to worry so much about fishing pressure that is removing the big males and skewing the sex ratio.”

This self-propelling sex change could also help biologists and managers of government fisheries to better assess the overall black sea bass stock, calculations that up to now have been forcing seasonal closures and lost money for the New Jersey shore’s party and charter boat fleet. Ignoring the influence of sex changes on population dynamics could lead to mistakes in estimating the stock size and how fishing seasons and catch limits should be set. — Kirk Moore

Bargain Hunting
An inherited trait?

If you enjoy the hunt for a good  bargain, there’s a good chance that one of your parents had the same enthusiasm. That’s the finding of Robert Schindler, a professor of marketing at the School of Business–Camden and an expert in pricing dynamics. He says that even if parents don’t explicitly teach their children how to shop for deals, children observing their parents avidly looking for sales are apt to demonstrate the same  habits when they become adult  consumers. — Ed Moorhouse

Photo of bee on flower


Rachael Winfree, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences, has led a study revealing that the number of wild bees is more important than the diversity of bee species in effectively pollinating plants.

(Wild) Bees Do It
Large numbers, not types, of bees are key to pollination.

When it comes to effective pollination of plants, the number of wild bees is more important than the diversity of bee species, according to Rachael Winfree, an associate professor of ecology, evolution, and natural resources at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences. In a study of fruit plants in New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and California, Winfree, working with a team from Rutgers and the University of Calgary, found that an abundance of a few dominant species of wild bees is more important than the diversity of bee species pollinating crops.

“This is not to say that biodiversity is unimportant; far from it,” says Winfree. “Biodiversity is a good thing to have for the environment in general, but for the pollination of a particular crop plant, it’s better to have more individual bees.”

Indeed, thousands of species of wild bees are responsible for pollinating about 80 percent of flowering plants around the world, according to earlier research conducted by Winfree, and they are particularly vital to the plants that Winfree and her team studied. Wild bees, for instance, pollinate 62 percent of watermelons, 25 percent  of cranberries, and 14 percent of  blueberries. — Ken Branson

Strawberry Fields Forever
The Rutgers Scarlet strawberry is unveiled to wide acclaim.

Ten years after embarking on a mission to develop a strawberry that could thrive in New Jersey’s seasonal weather swings while also achieving a better balance in taste between sweetness and acidity, Rutgers recently unveiled the Rutgers Scarlet strawberry. The breakthrough was achieved by specialists at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station (NJAES), a network of 10 research facilities statewide and also the administrator of field offices collectively known as the Rutgers Cooperative Extension.

“Our goal was to develop a sweet and juicy Jersey strawberry with exceptional flavor that would encourage more people to search it out and buy local,’’ says Bill Hlubik, a professor and agricultural agent for Rutgers Cooperative Extension. Hlubik CC’82, GSNB’88 was part of a research team that included a Rutgers food scientist, plant biologist, and agricultural agents who worked together to develop the new strawberry.

The berry, undertaken with the urging of the state’s farmers, is the latest in a long list of plant varieties—including tomatoes, asparagus, and squash—that the NJAES has developed to draw more customers to local markets and pick-your-own farms. The experiment station works closely with New Jersey farmers to develop plants as part of  its mission to share Rutgers’ research for the benefit of the public. — Andrea Alexander

Arctic Advisory
A warming North Pole adds to extreme weather

Findings from a new Rutgers climate change study support research that has demonstrated a link between the rapidly warming Arctic and an increase in extreme weather. Climate scientists Jennifer Francis and Natasa Skific GSNB’06,’09 at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences studied 48 years of daily atmospheric information to detect repeating weather patterns, which turned out to validate earlier findings: the polar jet stream has been meandering more north and south in the past two decades rather than traveling in a relatively straight path. Scientists are studying the relationship between changing jet stream patterns because of Arctic warming and extreme weather conditions.

“When the jet stream has large northward bulges (called ridges), strong Arctic warming intensifies the ridge, causing it to become more persistent,” says Francis. These large waves have become more frequent in recent years and are a key factor in fomenting extreme weather, such as the severe cold spells in the Northern Hemisphere last winter, the enduring drought in the West, and major storms like Hurricane Sandy in 2012. — Dory Devlin

Breathe Deep
Bacteria discovered to neutralize uranium.

A strain of bacteria that “breathes” uranium may hold the key to cleaning polluted groundwater at sites where uranium ore was once processed to make nuclear weapons. A team of Rutgers scientists and collaborators discovered the bacteria in the soil at an old uranium ore mill in Rifle, Colorado, one of nine mills in the state that were used during the height of nuclear weapons production.

The team’s discovery, published in Public Library of Science (PLOS) One, is the first known instance where scientists have found a bacterium from a common class known as betaproteobacteria that breathes, or ingests, uranium. This  bacterium can breathe either oxygen or uranium to drive the chemical reactions that provide life-giving energy. The research is part of a U.S. Department of Energy program to see if microorganisms can lock up uranium that leached into the soil years ago and continues to  contaminate well water in the area.

“After the newly discovered bacteria interact with uranium compounds in water, the uranium becomes immobile,” says Lee Kerkhof, a professor of marine and coastal sciences at the School of Environmental and Biological Sciences who is leading the Rutgers team that is working with researchers from the U.S. Department of Energy. “It is no longer dissolved in the groundwater and therefore can’t contaminate drinking water brought  to the surface.”

Breathing uranium is rare in the microbial world. Most examples of bacteria that can respire uranium cannot breathe oxygen but often breathe compounds based on metals—typically forms of solid iron. Scientists had witnessed decreasing concentrations of uranium in groundwater when iron-breathing bacteria were active, but they have yet to show that those iron-breathing bacteria were directly respiring the uranium. — Carl Blesch