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Analysing tree-specific microbes in the Brazilian rainforest; Too many plants in collections have not yet been identified; Clouds and climate change; Can we see the effects of climate change already?

Analysing tree-specific microbes in the Brazilian rainforest
Scientists in Brazil are using 'meta-genomics' – the use of DNA decoding to work out what is in the mass of micro-organisms in the environment. They basically make a 'soup' of the DNA found in a certain area and then work out what they have. So far they have found thousands of bacteria, fungi and other micro-organisms that live on or in tropical trees in Brazil's threatened Atlantic Forest. These microbes are specific to each tree species. So if one species of tree goes extinct, could it take thousands of previously unknown, and possibly useful micro-organisms with it?

Thousands of new species of plants left on the shelf
Plants are vital to our survival and the functioning of the planet. So it is important to know what plants we have and where they are found. For hundreds of years people have been collecting, drying and pressing plants and storing them in collections – or herbaria. But a new study has found that there is a log jam in processing and identifying them. That means an estimated 35,000 species of flowering plants are lying unknown and unrecognised in plant collections or herbaria.

Clouds and climate change
We often hear about carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases causing a rise in the global temperature. Less well known is the expected global warming as a result of other processes. The most complex and least understood is something called 'cloud feedback'. In very simple terms, clouds insulate the Earth and keep heat from the Sun trapped in the atmosphere. But they can also reflect the Sun's rays, preventing them from reaching the surface of the planet. This is a fine balance, so that a small shift either way can lead to clouds overall trapping heat, or keeping it out. And then the balance could change as carbon dioxide is added to the atmosphere, changing the amount of global warming due to the greenhouse effect. This general principle has been known about for a while, but climate scientists have now estimated the actual magnitude of this feedback effect using satellite data from the past 10 years.

Can we see the effects of climate change right now?
That is a question members of the BBC World Service's Global Minds Network and listeners to American Public Media, have been answering. It is not a scientific survey and many people may argue that anecdotal observations of things like; changes in flowering times; lack of snow in winter and the changing behaviour of wildlife are just artefacts of weather or other factors, not climate. But what if people logged these changes over the next 100 years?

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28 minutes

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Sun 12 Dec 2010 15:32GMT


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