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Monday, 17 June 2019

The free and independent press (2)

On June 10, the "New York Times [] decided to end its political cartoons altogether after the backlash over an anti-Semitic cartoon it published in its international edition" (WE). On June 11, I cancelled my recent NYT basic subscription over that decision, while arguing that "U.S. political correctness is going into absurd directions" and that "humour is essential in human lives."

I agree with longtime NYT cartoonist Patrick Chappatte, who blames "moralistic mobs [who] gather on social media and rise like a storm, falling upon newsrooms in an overwhelming blow" (PC). Nevertheless, Mr Chappatte feels a victim over "a single cartoon - not even mine - that should never have run in the best newspaper of the world".

From a Dutch perspective, there's nothing wrong with this cartoon, featuring a blind Trump wearing a kippah, led by a lap dog wearing the star of David, representing the Israeli PM. Dutch newspapers feature far more critical cartoons. Indeed this cartoon is not funny, but neither is it a falsehood. It's just a perspective on what's happening in the Middle East.

Arguing that this cartoon is anti-semitic is a mockery of anti-semitism (my 2016 blog). People in a victim role are easily hurt and often use reverse psychology and projection for blaming others. Unfortunately, victim roles are quite popular in the Middle East. I'm often reminded of my 2017 blogYou can only hurt someone with the truth

Succumbing to fake allegations of anti-semitism is another example of political correctness. This drive for political correctness is making other people furious for losing part of their identity. I agree with HBO host Bill Maher's recent assessment that "this far-left political correctness is a cancer on progressivism" (WE).

This storm in a teacup at the the New York Times is another example that there is no such a thing as a "free and independent press". Ultimately, the volume of advertisements, donations, and subscriptions is what keeps a newspaper in business. Any media blitz is soon yesterday's news, once you have a spine and live up to your words, deeds and intentions.

Arguably, the U.S. far-left and their climate of extreme political correctness are feeding Trump's 2020 reelection campaign. To paraphrase a familiar saying: With enemies like the liberals and the far-left, who needs friends?? Trump wouldn't even be able to survive, once common sense would return to America. Latter is extremely unlikely, however.

Any way the wind blows (1974) by JJ Cale featuring Eric Clapton

Some like this and some like that 
And some don't know where it's at 
If you don't get loose, if you don't groove 
Well, your motor won't make it and your motor won't move

Note: all markings (bolditalicunderlining) by LO unless stated otherwise

Sunday, 16 June 2019

The Self-Destruction of American Power (Foreign Affairs)

Foreign Affairs title: The Self-Destruction of American Power
Foreign Affairs subtitle: Washington Squandered the Unipolar Moment

Author: Fareed Zakaria

Publication date: 11 June 2019

"Sometime in the last two years, American hegemony died. The age of U.S. dominance was a brief, heady era, about three decades marked by two moments, each a breakdown of sorts. It was born amid the collapse of the Berlin Wall, in 1989. The end, or really the beginning of the end, was another collapse, that of Iraq in 2003, and the slow unraveling since. But was the death of the United States’ extraordinary status a result of external causes, or did Washington accelerate its own demise through bad habits and bad behavior? That is a question that will be debated by historians for years to come. But at this point, we have enough time and perspective to make some preliminary observations.

As with most deaths, many factors contributed to this one. There were deep structural forces in the international system that inexorably worked against any one nation that accumulated so much power. In the American case, however, one is struck by the ways in which Washington—from an unprecedented position—mishandled its hegemony and abused its power, losing allies and emboldening enemies. And now, under the Trump administration, the United States seems to have lost interest, indeed lost faith, in the ideas and purpose that animated its international presence for three-quarters of a century.

U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire. Writers are fond of dating the dawn of “the American century” to 1945, not long after the publisher Henry Luce coined the term. But the post–World War II era was quite different from the post-1989 one. Even after 1945, in large stretches of the globe, France and the United Kingdom still had formal empires and thus deep influence. Soon, the Soviet Union presented itself as a superpower rival, contesting Washington’s influence in every corner of the planet. Remember that the phrase “Third World” derived from the tripartite division of the globe, the First World being the United States and Western Europe, and the Second World, the communist countries. The Third World was everywhere else, where each country was choosing between U.S. and Soviet influence. For much of the world’s population, from Poland to China, the century hardly looked American.

The United States’ post–Cold War supremacy was initially hard to detect. As I pointed out in The New Yorker in 2002, most participants missed it. In 1990, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher argued that the world was dividing into three political spheres, dominated by the dollar, the yen, and the deutsche mark. Henry Kissinger’s 1994 book, Diplomacy, predicted the dawn of a new multipolar age. Certainly in the United States, there was little triumphalism. The 1992 presidential campaign was marked by a sense of weakness and weariness. “The Cold War is over; Japan and Germany won,” the Democratic hopeful Paul Tsongas said again and again. Asia hands had already begun to speak of “the Pacific century.”

U.S. hegemony in the post–Cold War era was like nothing the world had seen since the Roman Empire.

There was one exception to this analysis, a prescient essay in the pages of this magazine by the conservative commentator Charles Krauthammer: “The Unipolar Moment,” which was published in 1990. But even this triumphalist take was limited in its expansiveness, as its title suggests. “The unipolar moment will be brief,” Krauthammer admitted, predicting in a Washington Post column that within a very short time, Germany and Japan, the two emerging “regional superpowers,” would be pursuing foreign policies independent of the United States.

Policymakers welcomed the waning of unipolarity, which they assumed was imminent. In 1991, as the Balkan wars began, Jacques Poos, the president of the Council of the European Union, declared, “This is the hour of Europe.” He explained: “If one problem can be solved by Europeans, it is the Yugoslav problem. This is a European country, and it is not up to the Americans.” But it turned out that only the United States had the combined power and influence to intervene effectively and tackle the crisis.

Similarly, toward the end of the 1990s, when a series of economic panics sent East Asian economies into tailspins, only the United States could stabilize the global financial system. It organized a $120 billion international bailout for the worst-hit countries, resolving the crisis. Time magazine put three Americans, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Federal Reserve Chair Alan Greenspan, and Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, on its cover with the headline “The Committee to Save the World.”

Just as American hegemony grew in the early 1990s while no one was noticing, so in the late 1990s did the forces that would undermine it, even as people had begun to speak of the United States as “the indispensable nation” and “the world’s sole superpower.” First and foremost, there was the rise of China. It is easy to see in retrospect that Beijing would become the only serious rival to Washington, but it was not as apparent a quarter century ago. Although China had grown speedily since the 1980s, it had done so from a very low base. Few countries had been able to continue that process for more than a couple of decades. China’s strange mixture of capitalism and Leninism seemed fragile, as the Tiananmen Square uprising had revealed.

But China’s rise persisted, and the country became the new great power on the block, one with the might and the ambition to match the United States. Russia, for its part, went from being both weak and quiescent in the early 1990s to being a revanchist power, a spoiler with enough capability and cunning to be disruptive. With two major global players outside the U.S.-constructed international system, the world had entered a post-American phase. Today, the United States is still the most powerful country on the planet, but it exists in a world of global and regional powers that can—and frequently do—push back.

The 9/11 attacks and the rise of Islamic terrorism played a dual role in the decline of U.S. hegemony. At first, the attacks seemed to galvanize Washington and mobilize its power. In 2001, the United States, still larger economically than the next five countries put together, chose to ramp up its annual defense spending by an amount—almost $50 billion—that was larger than the United Kingdom’s entire yearly defense budget. When Washington intervened in Afghanistan, it was able to get overwhelming support for the campaign, including from Russia. Two years later, despite many objections, it was still able to put together a large international coalition for an invasion of Iraq. The early years of this century marked the high point of the American imperium, as Washington tried to remake wholly alien nations—Afghanistan and Iraq—thousands of miles away, despite the rest of the world’s reluctant acquiescence or active opposition.

Iraq in particular marked a turning point. The United States embarked on a war of choice despite misgivings expressed in the rest of world. It tried to get the UN to rubber-stamp its mission, and when that proved arduous, it dispensed with the organization altogether. It ignored the Powell Doctrine—the idea, promulgated by General Colin Powell while he was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Gulf War, that a war was worth entering only if vital national interests were at stake and overwhelming victory assured. The Bush administration insisted that the vast challenge of occupying Iraq could be undertaken with a small number of troops and a light touch. Iraq, it was said, would pay for itself. And once in Baghdad, Washington decided to destroy the Iraqi state, disbanding the army and purging the bureaucracy, which produced chaos and helped fuel an insurgency. Any one of these mistakes might have been overcome. But together they ensured that Iraq became a costly fiasco.

After 9/11, Washington made major, consequential decisions that continue to haunt it, but it made all of them hastily and in fear. It saw itself as in mortal danger, needing to do whatever it took to defend itself—from invading Iraq to spending untold sums on homeland security to employing torture. The rest of the world saw a country that was experiencing a kind of terrorism that many had lived with for years and yet was thrashing around like a wounded lion, tearing down international alliances and norms. In its first two years, the George W. Bush administration walked away from more international agreements than any previous administration had. (Undoubtedly, that record has now been surpassed under President Donald Trump.) American behavior abroad during the Bush administration shattered the moral and political authority of the United States, as long-standing allies such as Canada and France found themselves at odds with it on the substance, morality, and style of its foreign policy.

So which was it that eroded American hegemony—the rise of new challengers or imperial overreach? As with any large and complex historical phenomenon, it was probably all of the above. China’s rise was one of those tectonic shifts in international life that would have eroded any hegemon’s unrivaled power, no matter how skillful its diplomacy. The return of Russia, however, was a more complex affair. It’s easy to forget now, but in the early 1990s, leaders in Moscow were determined to turn their country into a liberal democracy, a European nation, and an ally of sorts of the West. Eduard Shevardnadze, who was foreign minister during the final years of the Soviet Union, supported the United States’ 1990–91 war against Iraq. And after the Soviet Union’s collapse, Russia’s first foreign minister, Andrei Kozyrev, was an even more ardent liberal, an internationalist, and a vigorous supporter of human rights.

The greatest error the United States committed during its unipolar moment was to simply stop paying attention.

Who lost Russia is a question for another article. But it is worth noting that although Washington gave Moscow some status and respect—expanding the G-7 into the G-8, for example—it never truly took Russia’s security concerns seriously. It enlarged NATO fast and furiously, a process that might have been necessary for countries such as Poland, historically insecure and threatened by Russia, but one that has continued on unthinkingly, with little concern for Russian sensitivities, and now even extends to Macedonia. Today, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s aggressive behavior makes every action taken against his country seem justified, but it’s worth asking, What forces produced the rise of Putin and his foreign policy in the first place? Undoubtedly, they were mostly internal to Russia, but to the extent that U.S. actions had an effect, they appear to have been damaging, helping stoke the forces of revenge and revanchism in Russia.

The greatest error the United States committed during its unipolar moment, with Russia and more generally, was to simply stop paying attention. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans wanted to go home, and they did. During the Cold War, the United States had stayed deeply interested in events in Central America, Southeast Asia, the Taiwan Strait, and even Angola and Namibia. By the mid-1990s, it had lost all interest in the world. Foreign-bureau broadcasts by NBC fell from 1,013 minutes in 1988 to 327 minutes in 1996. (Today, the three main networks combined devote roughly the same amount of time to foreign-bureau stories as each individual network did in 1988.) Both the White House and Congress during the George H. W. Bush administration had no appetite for an ambitious effort to transform Russia, no interest in rolling out a new version of the Marshall Plan or becoming deeply engaged in the country. Even amid the foreign economic crises that hit during the Clinton administration, U.S. policymakers had to scramble and improvise, knowing that Congress would appropriate no funds to rescue Mexico or Thailand or Indonesia. They offered advice, most of it designed to require little assistance from Washington, but their attitude was one of a distant well-wisher, not an engaged superpower.

Ever since the end of World War I, the United States has wanted to transform the world. In the 1990s, that seemed more possible than ever before. Countries across the planet were moving toward the American way. The Gulf War seemed to mark a new milestone for world order, in that it was prosecuted to uphold a norm, limited in its scope, endorsed by major powers and legitimized by international law. But right at the time of all these positive developments, the United States lost interest. U.S. policymakers still wanted to transform the world in the 1990s, but on the cheap. They did not have the political capital or resources to throw themselves into the effort. That was one reason Washington’s advice to foreign countries was always the same: economic shock therapy and instant democracy. Anything slower or more complex—anything, in other words, that resembled the manner in which the West itself had liberalized its economy and democratized its politics—was unacceptable. Before 9/11, when confronting challenges, the American tactic was mostly to attack from afar, hence the twin approaches of economic sanctions and precision air strikes. Both of these, as the political scientist Eliot Cohen wrote of airpower, had the characteristics of modern courtship: “gratification without commitment.”

Of course, these limits on the United States’ willingness to pay prices and bear burdens never changed its rhetoric, which is why, in an essay for The New York Times Magazine in 1998, I pointed out that U.S. foreign policy was defined by “the rhetoric of transformation but the reality of accommodation.” The result, I said, was “a hollow hegemony.” That hollowness has persisted ever since.

The Trump administration has hollowed out U.S. foreign policy even further. Trump’s instincts are Jacksonian, in that he is largely uninterested in the world except insofar as he believes that most countries are screwing the United States. He is a nationalist, a protectionist, and a populist, determined to put “America first.” But truthfully, more than anything else, he has abandoned the field. Under Trump, the United States has withdrawn from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and from engaging with Asia more generally. It is uncoupling itself from its 70-year partnership with Europe. It has dealt with Latin America through the prism of either keeping immigrants out or winning votes in Florida. It has even managed to alienate Canadians (no mean feat). And it has subcontracted Middle East policy to Israel and Saudi Arabia. With a few impulsive exceptions—such as the narcissistic desire to win a Nobel Prize by trying to make peace with North Korea—what is most notable about Trump’s foreign policy is its absence.

When the United Kingdom was the superpower of its day, its hegemony eroded because of many large structural forces—the rise of Germany, the United States, and the Soviet Union. But it also lost control of its empire through overreach and hubris. In 1900, with a quarter of the world’s population under British rule, most of the United Kingdom’s major colonies were asking only for limited autonomy—“dominion status” or “home rule,” in the terms of the day. Had the country quickly granted that to all its colonies, who knows whether it would have been able to extend its imperial life for decades? But it didn’t, insisting on its narrow, selfish interests rather than accommodating itself to the interests of the broader empire.

There is an analogy here with the United States. Had the country acted more consistently in the pursuit of broader interests and ideas, it could have continued its influence for decades (albeit in a different form). The rule for extending liberal hegemony seems simple: be more liberal and less hegemonic. But too often and too obviously, Washington pursued its narrow self-interests, alienating its allies and emboldening its foes. Unlike the United Kingdom at the end of its reign, the United States is not bankrupt or imperially overextended. It remains the single most powerful country on the planet. It will continue to wield immense influence, more than any other nation. But it will no longer define and dominate the international system the way it did for almost three decades.

What remains, then, are American ideas. The United States has been a unique hegemon in that it expanded its influence to establish a new world order, one dreamed of by President Woodrow Wilson and most fully conceived of by President Franklin Roosevelt. It is the world that was half-created after 1945, sometimes called “the liberal international order,” from which the Soviet Union soon defected to build its own sphere. But the free world persisted through the Cold War, and after 1991, it expanded to encompass much of the globe. The ideas behind it have produced stability and prosperity over the last three-quarters of a century. The question now is whether, as American power wanes, the international system it sponsored—the rules, norms, and values—will survive. Or will America also watch the decline of its empire of ideas?"

Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit plan ‘will trigger early election’ (Guardian)

The Observer title: Boris Johnson’s no-deal Brexit plan ‘will trigger early election’

Observer subtitle: Top Tories say attempt to appease hardliners means coalition of support for his leadership bid will not survive the autumn

Publication date: 15 June 2019

"Boris Johnson’s attempts to appease hardline Tory Brexiters will tilt the party into a “disastrous general election” that could be just months away, senior Conservatives are warning.

The runaway favourite to replace Theresa May is being told that the coalition of support set to deliver him Downing Street “won’t survive the autumn”, when he will have to decide whether to accept a deal with the EU or try to force a no-deal Brexit – a move likely to precipitate an election.

Senior party figures are already warning of a “wipeout” in some parts of the country, such as Scotland and London, should it go into an election pledging to deliver a no-deal Brexit. They believe that once in office, Johnson will either be toppled by hardline Eurosceptic MPs should he back away from no deal, or provoke an election by pursuing such a policy.

We cannot be the party that sticks two fingers up to the rest of the world.
Jeremy Hunt

With leadership contenders ruling out a coronation on Saturday, Tory critics are demanding increased scrutiny of Johnson’s Brexit plans. David Gauke, the justice secretary, said: “Boris is saying that he will definitely leave the EU by 31 October, but he is refusing to say how he will do this if parliament takes steps to stop a no-deal Brexit. Will he respond by suspending parliament? Will he seek a general election? This lack of clarity is helping him maintain a broad base of support for now but it won’t survive the autumn. This is why his position on Brexit needs to be tested thoroughly now.”

Alistair Burt, the former foreign office minister, said: “The risk of a serious confrontation in the party seems to be growing – the only way to avoid this is to get a deal. Jeremy Hunt is the best bet to open up the impasse, otherwise … we seem to be heading for a disastrous general election, with all the risks.”

It comes as former Tory chancellor Ken Clarke reveals he would be prepared to vote down a Conservative government led by a new prime minister who tried to push through a no-deal Brexit, which a majority of MPs in parliament oppose. In an interview with the Observer, Clarke said that in those circumstances “then you have to bring that government down”.

“If some idiot was sailing into a no-deal Brexit I’d decide politics had finally gone mad and vote against it.” Clarke also said that if it came down to a choice between no deal and a second referendum, he would abandon his lifelong opposition to referendums and back a second public vote.

Kenneth Clarke: ‘If there’s no other way you’ve got to bring the government down’

“If the choice eventually became no deal or a second referendum, then they’d try to win my support – I’d stop abstaining and I’d vote for it.”

Writing in Sunday’s Observer, Johnson’s closest challenger for the leadership, foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt, takes a swipe at Johnson over his lack of credibility on the world stage.

Hunt says that with the UK facing not only Brexit but a series of threats, including Russian aggression, Chinese resurgence and instability in the Middle East, the UK needs a leader with an internationalist outlook. “We cannot become the party that pulls up the drawbridge or sticks two fingers up to the rest of world,” he writes. “It has never been more important to re-engage.”

Tory moderates are already convinced Johnson has adopted a Brexit strategy that is impossible to deliver. Former universities minister Sam Gyimah said: “There is no sweet spot between what the [European Research Group] sees as the ideal resolution and what is right for the party and country. You either please them and imperil the government, country and party, or you pivot away from them and your own position is at risk. This is going to come to a head pretty quickly.

“For all the differences, this is Theresa May’s script. He will try to say he believes in the project and wants to deliver Brexit, but it is parliament that is standing in the way. This is what Theresa May attempted.”

Alan Duncan, a senior foreign office minister, said: “Those more moderate colleagues who are tempted by Johnson need to think if the arithmetic or issues have in any way changed. If they haven’t, then changing leader is not going to change our fortunes.”

On Sunday, Lord (John) Kerr, former UK ambassador to Brussels and the author of article 50, attacks the leadership candidates for making promises on Brexit that they will never be able to meet.

“What alarms me most about the current Conservative party leadership race is that fiction and fantasy are back, and harsh facts again forgotten, as new promises, no less unrealistic, are made. The unicorns are back, frolicking in the Tory forest. Claims that the withdrawal agreement can be renegotiated ignore the solemn undertakings given by the UK government in March that it will not seek to do so, as well as the EU’s repeated statements saying it will not do so.”

Meanwhile, former Tory leadership contender Esther McVey has come out in support of Boris Johnson. Writing in The Sunday Telegraph, McVey – who was eliminated in the first ballot of MPs – said Johnson had agreed to back her agenda for “blue collar Conservatism”. "


Judge Andrew Napolitano's lonely, one-man war against Trump (VF)

Vanity Fair title: Judge Andrew Napolitano's lonely, one-man war against Trump

VF subtitle: The Fox News contributor is a rare voice of sanity at the pro-Trump network. Is anyone listening?

Publication date: 7 June 2019

"Occasionally, when the time is right and fewer people are watching, Fox News tosses a few Donald Trump critics into the mix. They generally receive airtime in the middle of the day—where the more moderate hosts Shep Smith and Bret Baier hold court—before the party line is reestablished by the Trump liege men of primetime (Laura Ingraham, Tucker Carlson, Sean Hannity). And then there is Judge Andrew Napolitano, the Libertarian Party voter and legal commentator, who seems to be disappearing from Fox News altogether as he’s grown more and more critical of the Trump administration and its treatment of the Mueller report.

Fox News hasn’t dispatched with Napolitano altogether, of course—one presumes he has some kind of contract with the network—and Napolitano still makes more regular appearances on Fox Business. (Network insiders tell The Wrap that he is still a prominent figure inside Fox Corp. headquarters.) But for the most part, Napolitano’s diatribes against Trump appear to have been confined to his digital-only web series “Judge Napolitano’s Chambers,” where the former New Jersey Superior Court judge expresses opinions that are not often heard on the cable network: that Trump likely obstructed justice during Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian collusion, for instance, or that Attorney General William Barr is now covering for the president by saying the Mueller report exonerated him. (As if to underscore the apostasy of these positions, “Judge Napolitano’s Chambers” is typically filmed outside 1211 Avenue of the Americas, practically in the street.)

On Thursday, Napolitano went further, criticizing Mueller for letting Trump off the hook. “We know that presidential obstruction of justice is an impeachable offense because both President Richard Nixon and President Bill Clinton—each of whom instructed aides to lie to FBI agents and falsify evidence—were charged with it,” he wrote for Fox News’s website. Mueller, he argued, shirked his own mandate by citing a 2000 DOJ memo that argued that indicting a sitting president would prevent him from carrying out his constitutional duties. That opinion, Napolitano writes, “is just one of three that the DOJ has commissioned in the modern era. Of the three, two say the president ought not to be charged while in office, and one says that he may be charged. None says he cannot be charged.”

Napolitano points out that federal prosecutors previously dealt with the issue by threatening to prosecute Clinton the day after he left office, and laments that by kicking the impeachment can to the angst-ridden House Democrats and making it their problem, Mueller has made it harder for justice to be served. “Trump’s legal woes are behind him,“ He said. “Impeachment is a political process that can only be successfully undertaken with broad public sentiment behind it. I doubt there is such sentiment today.”

Trump, for his part, probably won’t care about Judge Nap’s opinion, having written him off ages ago as “very dumb” after a Fox News segment featuring Napolitano and Alan Dershowitz. (Trump, naturally, claims that Napolitano only became “hostile” toward his administration after Trump turned down his request to be appointed to the Supreme Court.) It’s not clear whether Fox News viewers will care either, depending on the number who manage to stumble across Napolitano’s digital-only musings. In the meantime, Fox can claim, at the very least, that it is not entirely antagonistic to countervailing opinions. They feature Democrats in town halls! They’ve got the Judge! If any viewers actually hear his commentary, anyway."


Saturday, 15 June 2019

Billions of fungi belong to just a few types - and some are carnivorous (Phys)

Phys title: Billions of fungi belong to just a few types (and some are carnivorous)

Publication date: 31 May 2019

Cordyceps fungus consumes the body of a grasshopper and ejects spore-bodies out of the grasshopper. Credit: Flickr/Aaron Pomerantz - under Creative Commons 2.0

"Pick up a handful of soil and you'll be holding a vast, rich community of microbes numbering in their billions. Scientists have recently begun to analyze the microbial "fingerprint" of these organisms to determine which types and how many of each are present.

Results of this study have been published in Nature Communications and found that although the numbers of microbes in soils are vast, most belong to just a few common species. This means that the diversity of common microbes in soils is far less than predicted.

"Scientists know that different fungi in soils are responsible for the way that forests and farmlands work," said Dr. Eleonora Egidi, Postdoctoral Fellow in Soil Microbiology at the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment.

"The wide distribution of a few major fungal types could have been driven by agriculture as these fungi are often associated with crops," said Dr. Egidi.

Advances in genetic identifications systems have created huge databases of fungal DNA profiles that can be used to identify the microbes present in a soil sample. Scientists use these databases to match samples from the environment against known fungi and can determine which fungi are present.

This is increasingly important as the natural world and farmland changes and scientists look towards naturally-occurring organisms to improve environmental, agricultural and even medical outcomes using bacteria, fungi and other microbes.

For example, members of the group of fungi known as Ascomycetes have been used to make insecticides as they colonize the bodies of insects and then consume the insect's body as the fungus emerges.

"Having a baseline understanding of which fungi are out there in our forests, grasslands, farms and deserts can help us preserve these environments and find innovative new uses for many of the natural inhabitants of those places," said Dr. Egidi."

Notes Phys:
More information: Nature Communications (2019).
Journal information: Nature Communications
Provided by Western Sydney University 

Brainless fungi trade resources with plants like a stock market (NewScientist)

NewScientist title: Brainless fungi trade resources with plants like a stock market

Publication date: 6 June 2019

"In soils across the world, fungi trade resources with the plants they colonise in a mutually beneficial relationship. But it turns out the fungi are savvy traders, taking advantage of their partners by shuttling goods to nutrient-starved areas where plants are willing to pay more than usual.

The discovery is the latest demonstration that even simple, brainless organisms are capable of sophisticated trading strategies.

The roots of most land plants are colonised by arbuscular mycorrhizal fungi, which comprise elaborate networks of fine white filaments. The fungi provide plants with phosphorus and receive carbon in return.

A single fungal network can be connected to many plants, and vice versa, meaning the two parties can switch between trading partners and there is plenty of scope of wheeling and dealing.

Toby Kiers, an evolutionary biologist at the Free University of Amsterdam in The Netherlands has previously shown that fungi tend to avoid trading with plants growing in the shade. She has even caught them hoarding phosphorus to inflate the amount of carbon they get in return.

Now, inspired by economist Thomas Piketty’s best-selling book on the subject, she was curious to see how the fungi deal with resource inequality. How do they adapt their trading strategies when phosphorus supply is patchy?

To find out, Kiers and her colleagues used differently coloured light-emitting particles called quantum dots to tag phosphorus, allowing them to track its movements through fungal networks connected to a host root in petri dishes.

They exposed the networks to unequal distributions of the mineral. In one dish, the left side received 70 per cent of the phosphorus while the right got 30. In another, the left got 90 per cent and the right 10. In a control, the two sides received 50 per cent each.

After 60 days of exposure, the researchers noticed two clear patterns in the unequal treatments. First, inequality stimulated trade. The greater the disparity across its network, the more the fungus transferred phosphorus to the root.

Second, the fungus did this in an unusual way. “We could see the fungus was moving phosphorus across the network to its lower-resource side,” says Kiers. If the resource-rich patch was on the right side of the dish, for example, most of the phosphorus ended up on the left side.

Buy low, sell high

This suggests the fungus shifts its resources to the side of the root bundle where resources are scare. “Here, demand is higher, and the plant is potentially willing to pay more,” says Kiers. It’s a classic trading strategy – buy low, sell high.

The researchers hope to conduct another experiment tracking carbon trading between the roots and fungus to firm up this conclusion. “That would allow us to study variation in local exchange rates across more complex trade networks,” says Kiers.

David Johnson, a soil ecologist at the University of Manchester, UK, was not surprised that the fungi have this ability. “The fungus is not merely a passive passenger in this symbiosis,” he says. “It may be dependent on the plant but it is there for its own benefit, and it has evolved mechanisms to look after itself, which include the ability to move resources around in response to environmental conditions.”

The big mystery is how fungi coordinate trading strategies in the absence of cognition. This new fluorescent tracking technique should help, says Johnson. “They may be able to identify hotspots of activity and look at what the molecules are doing there, compared to places where there is no activity.”

Journal reference: Current Biology, DOI: 10.1016/j.cub.2019.04.061


Zombie ants: meet the parasitic fungi that take control of living insects (Conversation)

The Conversation title: Zombie ants: meet the parasitic fungi that take control of living insects

Publication date: 11 June 2019

"In the understorey of a tropical forest, a carpenter ant has descended from the canopy away from her regular foraging trails and staggers drunkenly along a branch. Her movements are jerky and conspicuous. She twitchily moves forwards and suddenly starts convulsing with such ferocity that she falls from the branch onto the ground before resuming her erratic, zigzaging path. This is a “zombie ant”, and she’s unwittingly become part of the lifecycle of a parasitic fungus commonly known as Cordyceps.

Around noon, after several hours of climbing and aimless lurching, the ant is now no more than about 25cm above the ground, crawling aimlessly on the underside of a sapling leaf where, without warning, she forcefully sinks her powerful jaws into one of the leaf’s veins, gripping it firmly between her tightly locked mandibles.

Within six hours, she is dead. After two days, white hairs bristle from between her joints and a few days later these have become a thick, brown mat covering the whole insect. A pinkish-white stalk starts to erupt from the base of the ant’s head and continues to grow. Within two weeks it has reached twice the length of the ant’s body reaching down towards the ground below.

Finally, the stalk will release its spores into the air, ready to float off and infect more unsuspecting ants.

This bizarre behaviour was first recorded by Alfred Russell Wallace in Indonesia in 1859, but was not researched in much detail until quite recently. It has since been discovered that the fungus disrupts the normal behaviour of the ant through chemical interference in the brain, causing the infected ant to behave in ways that will improve the opportunities for the fungus to spread its spores and so reproduce.

The fungus grows throughout the body cavity of the ant, using internal organs as food while the ant’s strong exoskeleton serves as a kind of capsule, protecting the fungus from drying out, being eaten, or further infection.

Fending off the fungi

The earliest known record of a fungus visibly parasitising an insect dates from about 105m years ago. It is a male scale insect, preserved in amber, with two fungal stalks projecting from its head. But this fossil cannot tell us if the infected insect’s regular behaviour was changed or disrupted in any way.

Definitive evidence of “zombie-ant” behaviour, dating to around 48m years ago, comes from fossilised leaves that show the distinct markings on either side of leaf veins left by the lock-jawed mandibles of infected ants. Not only is this association between ant and fungus evidently ancient, it is also very common – about 1,000 species of fungal parasites of insects have been discovered so far.

In this age-old struggle for survival the ants have developed adaptations to protect themselves and their nests from fungal infections. By grooming themselves and socially cleaning each other (allogrooming) they remove potentially harmful spores before they can penetrate the skin and take hold. Some ants spray poison in their nests to act as fungicides and if that fails to stop an infestation, they partition their nests by sealing off contaminated chambers.

In some cases infected individuals are carried out of the nest by healthy workers, and as a last resort the entire colony relocates, abandoning their infected nest.

The fungal pathogens have evolved to become either strictly species-specific or more generalist in their choice of insect host, with some able to infect hundreds of different species. This astonishing variety of fungal pathogens and potential hosts has created some peculiar behaviour in insects as they have co-evolved to cope with the tactics of the fungi.

It is sometimes difficult to know what behaviour is entirely involuntary and driven by the fungus to improve its own reproductive success, and what has evolved as a form of defence against the infection. For example, when the ant host climbs to an elevated position in what is known as “summit disease”, this behaviour increases the area over which spores can spread through wind dispersal – but it also removes the ant from close proximity to its relatives in the colony, preventing the spread of infection to its sisters.

It is unclear if this behaviour is a zombie state caused by the fungus or if it is an altruistic act of self-sacrifice by the ant. If it is a deliberate act by the ant, it might be saving the rest of the colony from succumbing to the infection in what is sometimes called “adaptive suicide”.

Zombie-like behaviour in insects is also caused by many other types of parasites including bacteria and even other invertebrates. This raises fascinating questions about the nature of any organism’s true independence in what are undoubtedly highly complex interrelated living systems. Zombie-ants provide us with a glimpse into this intricately tangled web of molecular influences and behavioural adaptations. It leads us to wonder who, ultimately, controls whom?"