News

      Why winemakers from around the world are turning to Israel

      Nana Winery
      Israel’s Nana Winery has created their own blend.

      Drive three hours south of Jerusalem towards the southern tip of Israel – between ancient stone terraces and barren golden hills – and a surprising sight rises above the horizon: a lush wine vineyard spanning dozens of acres. The pastoral carpet of green stands out amidst the sandy surroundings.

      The Nana Estate Winery is just one of approximately 250 wineries that have, quite literally, cropped up in Israel in recent decades. Together, they’ve turned the small Mediterranean country into not only a wine lover’s paradise, but also a haven for viticulture experts.

      Which brings us to Zohar Kerem. The 57-year-old heads up Hebrew University’s master’s program in winemaking. To earn the degree, students spend 20 months taking classes in everything from agricultural studies to business management. It’s all capped off with an excursion to the University of Bordeaux in France where they get firsthand experience in one of winemaking’s most storied regions.

      On the day we catch up with him, Kerem finds himself in San Francisco – part of a five-city U.S. tour to promote the program and recruit new students. Apparently, talking about wine at 9 AM is nothing new for the professor. Especially one whose last name is the Hebrew word for vineyard. “It was my destiny. It was written in my cards,” he laughs, clarifying that, “I didn’t change my name in order to become a wine researcher.”

      Kerem, who grew up in the fertile plains of Israel’s Jezreel Valley, began his career as a chemist before pivoting to food science. Like the wine he studies, his research is bold and complex: One day he may be looking into the health benefits of drinking wine, while on another he’s focused on how Israel’s unique climate can serve as a laboratory for liquor. It’s the latter that has him particularly jazzed today.

      Visitors attend a wine-tasting session amongst the barrels at the Yarden Vintage 2010 International Wine and Gourmet Festival in Israel.
      Visitors attend a wine tasting session among the barrels at the Yarden Vintage 2010 International Wine and Gourmet Festival in Israel. (Photo: David Silverman / Getty Images)

       

      “In Israel, you can experience many different climate regions within a radius of 200 miles,” he tells From The Grapevine. “You can see climates that are ranging from very cold to very warm, from very dry to very humid, soils that are basalt and lime and gravel. You can see all of this in close proximity.”

      Having all of that at your fingertips allows Israeli vintners to experiment, to see how different varietals perform in specific climates. That type of research is of particular importance in recent years as hotter temperatures are making extreme weather more frequent. “It’s not only warmer temperatures, but it’s the distribution of rain days,” Kerem explains. “So now we may have a few strong storm days, and then a long time with no rain at all.”

      Galilee vineyards
      The rolling vineyards in northern Israel provide a cooler climate for grapes to grow. (Photo: Noam Armonn / Shutterstock)

       

      Climate change is impacting the world’s leading winemaking countries – like France and Italy – and they are increasingly turning to Israel as a resource for how to better grow grapes in such arid temperatures. Drip irrigation techniques, which were modernized in Israel more than half a century ago, are continuously being refined. WiFi-connected drones now fly over vineyards to study every single water drip in the process, allowing winemakers the ability to irrigate specific vines. Several Israeli startups are focusing on other agricultural and fertilization technologies.

      What’s more, Kerem and his colleagues are researching the archaeology of Israeli wine, which dates back for centuries. As an example, he points to an epidemic called the “phylloxera plague” which destroyed most of the grape vineyards in Europe more than 150 years ago. New roots had to be shipped in from America to graft with the European vines to help them grow again. Meanwhile, many of the vines in Israel proved resistant to the disease.

      Studying why could lead to the introduction of new varietals of wine, if not new flavors entirely. A pinot grown in one country will taste different when grown in other conditions. “There are varietals that are known to work well in different geographical regions, and we try to introduce them to different climate zones in Israel and see how they perform there,” Kerem explains.

      Zohar Kerem teaches Israel's only accredited winemaking class.
      Zohar Kerem teaches Israel’s only accredited winemaking class. (Photo: Courtesy Hebrew University)

       

      The master’s students he oversees are each given their own row to tend to in a vineyard in Israel. “It’s a scientific experiment, which we then harvest and try to see what are the differences,” Kerem says. With 20 rows of cabernet, for example, they can try different levels of irrigation to see which produces the best wine. As all the classes are taught in English, many of the students come from outside of Israel. The hope is that upon completing the program, they return to their home countries and take what they learned from Israeli winemaking to the wider industry.

      Varietals from Israel are already competing with the likes of wine from Napa and France in international competitions, which makes it an exciting time for wine enthusiasts. “I wasn’t born with a glass in my hand,” says Kerem, who admits to catching up by trying a new wine every week.

      When asked if he prefers a cabernet over a chardonnay, a merlot versus a zinfandel, Kerem pauses for a moment. He swirls the question around as if tasting something new. “I think my favorite wine is the wine that raises discussion, the wine that lets you just enjoy and relax and think about the wine. Wine that has something in it that makes me daydream for a second – this will be the wine that I’m interested in.”

      Read the source article at From the Grapevine

      Spotlights

      From Vineyard to Bottle-Hebrew University’s Master’s in Viticulture and Enology

      At the heart of every exhilarating wine are years of knowledge, experience, and hard work. The key to creating your next bottle of wine will be your true passion for knowing and understanding soil, climate and local conditions, and your readiness to spend many long days in cultivating it. The Hebrew University of Jerusalem Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food, and Environment’s new academic program is designed to impart this knowledge comprehensively and in depth, from the vineyard to the bottle.

      The first of its kind in Israel, this program is intended for wine connoisseurs, newcomers and those already working in the industry; for a new generation of skilled wine professionals who desire to take their place among the world’s experts.

      The program spans four consecutive semesters and is comprised of theoretical studies on campus and practical hands-on learning in the vineyard and winery. Students will be able to participate in a professional workshop abroad and at the end of the program, they will be given the opportunity to intern at a commercial winery in Israel or abroad. The program will focus on thorough training in the fundamental sciences and comprehension of all the different processes related to grape production and winemaking.

      Students who successfully fulfill the program requirements will earn a Master of Science degree in Viticulture and Enology from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Graduates may participate in a practical internship in a commercial winery in Israel or abroad for a span of 140 hours, at the end of which they will submit a summary report. The internship grants a specialization diploma in
      enology.

      News

      Israelis develop system for cleaning industrial pollution

      A new process under development in Israel could provide the economical, earth-friendly solution many industries seek for cleaning up soil, sludge and sediment polluted by their activities.

      Phased transaction extraction (PTE) is meant as a new tool to help get rid of industrial pollution both for nonvolatile organic and metal pollutants, especially in wet conditions.

      PTE uses a combination of methods to remove and concentrate the substances. All components – both the pollutants and the materials that separate them – can be recycled.

      Prof. Amos Ullman devised the system with fellow Tel Aviv University Faculty of Engineering Prof. Naima Brauner and Prof. Zvi Lodmer of the Faculty of Agriculture at the Hebrew University’s Rehovot campus, and a team of graduate students.

      The two-step customizable process uses lightly heated solvents to extract organic compounds, while simultaneously removing heavy metals with one or more chelating agents — large molecules that bond to the toxic metals and separate them from the source medium.

      The professors have been testing the technology for a decade and have published their findings in Environmental Engineering Science, Hazardous Materials and Chemical Engineering Journal. A grant from the Israeli Ministry of Science and Technology recently enabled them to build a pilot lab in a former greenhouse on the Rehovot campus.

      “Now we can show that what works well at lab scale also works at the same efficiency at pilot scale, in a reactor of about 50 liters,” Ullmann tells ISRAEL21c.

      “Scale-up is the main obstacle when taking a process from lab to market. Now we are ready to look for a site where we can implement the process as a trial. We are in discussions with someone ready to invest some money so we can advance.”

      The pilot PTE installation for cleaning polluted soil, sludge or sediment. Photo: courtesy

      The pilot lab setup also allowed the inventors to add ancillary facilities to develop the end processes.

      “We have to recycle the solvents and the chelating agents we are using to catch the metals. Without recycling those ingredients it would be too expensive,” Ullmann says.

      Solutions for cleaning pollution from wet sources is necessary, he explains, because historically industrial plants have been situated on or near rivers for easy access to water, transportation and disposal of sewage and industrial byproducts.

      “Another source of pollution we think we can handle is industrial wastewater treatment plants, when the water coming from the plants contains organic and inorganic pollutants,” he says.

      The main innovation in the Israeli researchers’ process is the heating of the mixture of organic solvent and chelating agent, which allows these substances to better penetrate the polluted particles. Once cooled, the separation happens quickly without the formation of a stable emulsion.

      Ullmann says PTE is for situations when an existing method isn’t efficient enough.

      “The simplest approach is to dig out the contaminated soil or sediment and move it somewhere else, although that is not cheap. We concentrate the pollutants to very small volumes and you then have to move only that very small volume rather than all the dirt,” he points out.

      The target markets for PTE and SR-PTE (soil remediation phased transaction extraction) are Europe, China and the United States with their massive polluted industrial sites.

      “To handle or remediate a polluted area is quite expensive. If you don’t have a government forcing you to do it, or if the contaminated piece of land is not valuable as real estate, people prefer to ignore the problem,” says Ullmann. “But in Israel and many other countries, governments are taking more measures to force industries to clean up their messes. And most of the industry is close to residential areas.”

      In fact, land rehabilitation is one area with great economic potential for the Israeli professors’ system. Areas that were closed or off limits due to pollution can be cleaned up and transformed safely into public parks, building construction sites or agricultural fields.

      The four-meter PTE pilot facility is capable of handling several kilograms in a few hours. The area required for a full-size facility including auxiliary services will be in the range of 100 square meters and is based on a single reactor.

      The researchers are in advanced talks with a company in Israel dealing with the treatment of solid waste, including polluted land.

      For more information, email one of the developers: [email protected][email protected][email protected]

      Read the source article at ISRAEL21c

      News

      Yissum Launches NanoTech Fund

      JERUSALEMOct. 9, 2018 /PRNewswire/ — Yissum, The Technology Transfer Company of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, announced today the launch of its new NanoTech Fund which will focus exclusively on promising innovations emerging from Hebrew University’s elite nanotech research. The Fund has already secured $6M from top international strategic and institutional investors, and will raise up to $9M.

      The NanoTech Fund will focus on smart materials and nanotechnologies, funding deep technologies offering integrated solutions in the areas of 3D printing, quantum science, and renewable energy. As the global nanomaterials and nanotech markets continue to grow, the fund will ensure the continued leadership of Hebrew University researchers such as Prof. Uri Banin (Qlight founder, acquired by Merck), Prof. Shlomo Magdassi (serial entrepreneur including DipTech acquired by Ferro, and Nano Dimension (TLV: NNDM)) and Prof. Oded Shoseyov (serial entrepreneur including Valentis Nanotech, Collplant, (NASDAQ: CLGN), and SP NANO Ltd) in nanotech research with significant commercial potential.

      “Yissum’s NanoTech fund is uniquely positioned to invest in the most innovative smart materials technologies created by Hebrew University researchers,” said Dr. Yaron Daniely, CEO and President of Yissum. “Drawing on the experiences and successes of our other two funds focused on healthcare and foodtech, this fund will leverage core strengths of Hebrew University for the benefit of its investors and, most importantly, the world.” The fund has already made preliminary investments in three technologies including 3D printing of wood, a diamond-based hand-held MRI, and metal-free display in solar cells.

      Yissum’s NanoTech fund is the third investment vehicle created by Yissum in the last six years, with more than $50M raised by these funds to date. It joins Integra Holdings, founded in 2012, focused on Hebrew University biotech technologies including therapeutics, medical devices and diagnostics, and Agrinnovation, founded in 2015, focused on agricultural and food innovations originating from The Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture Food and Environment.

      The NanoTech fund is launching as the Nano IL 2018 international conference is underway in Jerusalem.  With over 800 participants from around the world, the three-day event is the leading international nanotechnology conference in Israel and is taking place in cooperation with the nanotechnology centers at Hebrew University and other Israeli universities.

      About Yissum
      Yissum is the technology transfer company of The Hebrew University of Jerusalem. Founded in 1964, it is the third company of its kind to be established and serves as a bridge between cutting-edge academic research and a global community of entrepreneurs, investors, and industry. Yissum’s mission is to benefit society by converting extraordinary innovations and transformational technologies into commercial solutions that address our most urgent global challenges.  Yissum has registered over 10,000 patents covering 2,800 inventions; licensed over 900 technologies and has spun out more than 135 companies. Yissum’s business partners span the globe and include companies such as Boston Scientific, Google, ICL, Intel, Johnson & Johnson, Merck, Microsoft, Novartis and many more. For further information please visit www.yissum.co.il

      Read the source article at PR Newswire

      News

      Students and faculty show off the latest food technology

      The future of healthy eating drew crowds Thursday at the Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture at Hebrew University in Rehovot. Celebrating the institution’s 75th anniversary and giving students the opportunity to showcase their work, about 300 people came to the event featuring some of the latest developments in Israeli food technology from 3D printing meals to protein powder from fly larva.

      “The purpose [of the conference] is to combine industry and academia together,” Institute of Biochemistry, Food Science and Nutrition head Oren Froy said. “We have a course of developing food products and so we thought it would be a great idea to combine all that into a conference and present the products developed during that course.”

      In the class, students focus on topics including why new products are developed, the raw materials necessary for creating a new product and current trends in the food industry. When they create their product, they have a deadline and limited resources, just like in the real world.

      “If they’re small, medium or multinational companies, they know that they continuously have to find the next product,” said Tammy Meiron, who teaches the new food product development course, in which all students who were presenting were enrolled. “And this is the purpose of our class, to give [students] the tools how to be there.”

      One group of students made a gluten-free health bar with dates using avocado powder.

      “In the avocado oil industry there’s a lot of food waste…so with that food waste we had to create a new product,” said Reut Rov, a student who worked on the project. “We tried a lot of applications for this avocado…and we found that the best thing to do with it is to make a kind of powder, and the best quality of the avocado is something that is very fibrous.”

      This powder can go in many types of foods, even fruit shakes and cookies, Rov said.

      Oded Shoseyov, a Hebrew University professor who works on 3D food printing, said he thinks this product has “huge potential.”

      “Particularly because I could feel the slight bitterness, so that for me indicates a lot of polyphenols, which are known to be healthy,” he said. “They still need to work on the taste there, but that’s doable…the level that they reached so far with taking into consideration the relatively short period of time—they did a good job.

      For his part, Shoseyov aims to use cellulose to print veggie burgers. In the future, he said he believes he’ll be able to make steak on a bone and possibly foods that don’t exist, such as burgers with fries in the middle.

      This product may also have important practical uses.

      “For example, the regular kitchen in a hospital has so many requirements…here it’s digital so you can, really with the same basic ingredients, you can do everything,” Shoseyov said, citing patients who may need low fat or low salt. “This is going to be also a dramatic change to the supply chain because all these materials have a long shelf life.”

      Another group of students producing ice cream and sherbets enriched with protein from fly larva. They said their ice cream has 10% protein and their sherbert has five percent.

      “The world is going to a place where food is going to end, so we need to find new sustainable foods or sources of foods,” said Ariel Rudik, who worked on the project.

      Froy said although Israel has the same the problems in the food technology industry as in other industries—“being small, not in a common market at least not with its neighbors,” European and American markets love these products and accept Israeli innovations “We’ve come to a conclusion that joining forces together entrepreneurs, investors, academia, food industry, new ideas that’s what makes us a start-up nation,” Froy said.

      Read the source article at Jpost

      News

      Lab-grown meat co FutureMeat Technologies raises $2.2m

      The Israeli company is developing a distributive manufacturing platform for the cost-efficient, non-GMO production of meat directly from animal cells.

      Jerusalem-based biotechnology lab-grown meat company Future Meat Technologies has announced a $2.2 million seed investment round co-led by Tyson Ventures, the venture capital arm of Tyson Foods. Tyson Foods is a Fortune 100 company, and one of the world’s largest food producers. Future Meat Technologies is developing a distributive manufacturing platform for the cost-efficient, non-GMO production of meat directly from animal cells, without the need to raise or harvest animals.

      In addition to Tyson Ventures, the Neto Group, one of the largest food conglomerates in Israel, S2G Ventures, a Chicago-based venture capital fund, BitsXBites, China’s first food technology venture capital fund, and Agrinnovation, an Israeli investment fund founded by Yissum, the Technology Transfer Company of The Hebrew University, participated in this round. New York-based HB Ventures also joined the round.

      Israeli startup Future Meat Technologies focuses on developing a new generation of manufacturing technology that enables the cost-efficient production of fat and muscle cells, the core building blocks of meat.

      Future Meat Technologies expects to use the funds to establish its engineering activities and increase its biological research. The company is currently recruiting engineers, chefs and scientists.

      “It is difficult to imagine cultured meat becoming a reality with a current production price of about $10,000 per kilogram,” said Prof. Yaakov Nahmias, the company’s founder and Chief Scientist. “We redesigned the manufacturing process until we brought it down to $800 per kilogram today, with a clear roadmap to $5-10 per kg by 2020.”

      Tyson Foods EVP Corporate Strategy and Chief Sustainability Officer Justin Whitmore said, “This is our first investment in an Israel-based company and we’re excited about this opportunity to broaden our exposure to innovative, new ways of producing protein. We continue to invest significantly in our traditional meat business but also believe in exploring additional opportunities for growth that give consumers more choices.”

      Animal fat produces the unique aroma and flavor of meat that “makes our mouth water,” noted Nahmias, and Future Meat Technologies is now the only company that can produce this fat, without harvesting animals and without any genetic modification. “I want my children to eat meat that is delicious, sustainable and safe,” said Nahmias. “This is our commitment to future generations.”

      Future Meat Technologies CEO Rom Kshuk said, “Global demand for protein and meat is growing at a rapid pace, with an estimated worldwide market of more than a trillion dollars, including explosive growth in China. We believe that making a healthy, non-GMO product that can meet this demand is an essential part of our mission Cultured meat production may also be eco-friendlier than traditional meat production. “We want to feed the world while protecting the environment.”

      Future Meat’s technology is based on Prof. Yaakov Nahmias’ research at The Hebrew University of Jerusalem and is licensed through Yissum. Dr. Yaron Daniely, President and CEO of Yissum, noted that Israel is a leader in cultured meat technologies. “Hebrew University, home to Israel’s only Faculty of Agriculture, specializes in incubating applied research in such fields as animal-free meat sources. Future Meat Technologies’ innovations are revolutionizing the sector and leading the way in creating sustainable alternative protein sources.”

      Read the source article at globes.co.il

      News

      The Goal: Printing the Perfect Burger from Cellulose

      Israeli food tech company Chef-it is about 18-24 months away from disrupting the fast food burger industry, according to Oded Shoseyov, Chef-it’s co-founder. The startup’s secret weapon: cellulose.

      Chef-it is developing a machine that can instantly “print” a juicy burger from a cartridge containing plant-based proteins, fats, and flavor components and the aforementioned cellulose, a common fiber that can be manipulated into a variety of textures, including that of beef muscle and fat. Chef-it’s technology uses infrared light to simultaneously cook the food as it prints.

      Oded Shoseyov. Photo: Tal Azoulay
      Oded Shoseyov. Photo: Tal Azoulay

      According to Mr. Shoseyov, a professor of plant molecular biology, protein engineering and nano-biotechnology at The Hebrew University in Jerusalem, Chef-it can imitate the flavor effect of different cooking styles, such as grilling, baking, and frying.

      A prototype of this machine, located at the Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot, in central Israel, currently takes 10 minutes to print a single burger, Mr. Shoseyov told Calcalist in an interview Tuesday. Chef-it’s team is hard at work bringing the printing time down to three minutes, he added.

      The company’s first target markets include coworking spaces, offices, and food trucks, Mr. Shoseyov said. The company successfully printed its first burger six months ago and is expecting to hit the market within two years.

      A fast and convincing alternative to meat, Chef-It is setting out to deliver products that are environmentally-friendly and potentially healthier than traditional processed foods. Cellulose, Mr. Shoseyov says, has a zero glycemic and caloric value.

      Along with Scientific co-founder Ido Braslavski, Mr. Shoseyov began the research behind Chef-It’s technology in 2013. In 2016, the company received a $282,000 (NIS 1 million) grant from Israel’s government innovation investment arm. Currently employing a team of eight, the company is in the process of raising a $2 million funding round, which Mr. Shoseyov said is expected to complete within two months.

      The global meat industry is ripe for disruption, being one of the world’s biggest polluters, generating as much greenhouse gas emissions as all of the world’s cars, trucks, trains, ships, and airplanes combined, and using 30% of all land and over 25% of all freshwater on Earth, Mr. Shoseyov said Monday speaking at a Food and Tech conference. The conference was hosted by Calcalist, and by Israel’s Bank Leumi at Labs TLV, a co-working and events space in central Tel Aviv.

      By using cellulose as a malleable binder, Chef-It could potentially print every type of food known to men, and even invent new foods, Mr. Shoseyov said.

      As a first target, the company set out to print the perfect its burger. By utilizing adjustable infrared cooking levels the company hopes it can get it just right.

      “We are a few months away from delivering a burger that is indistinguishable from the real thing,” Mr. Shoseyov said.

      Read the source article at calcalistech.com

      News

      Koalas, horses and pygmy goats (oh my!) in Israeli-UC Davis vet team-up

      A list of the collaborative work between the UC Davis School of Veterinary Medicine and the Koret School of Veterinary Medicine — the only veterinary school in Israel — reads something like a “who’s who” of the animal kingdom.

      Nearly 65,000 cats, dogs, horses, cows and goats (including pygmy and Nubian varieties) are cared for annually at the Davis and Rehovot facilities, along with the occasional gorilla, koala and wallaby.

      Though 7,300 miles apart, the universities have been collaborating on research, grants, academic papers and faculty exchanges for more than three decades, thanks to support from an endowment at the S.F.-based Koret Foundation.

      Read the source article at jweekly.com

      Achievements

      What growing food in a desert taught us about surviving droughts

      THE CHALLENGES WE’RE WORKING ON

      In the 21st century, we must figure out how to feed a global population with less land and more intense droughts.

      HOW WE’RE SOLVING THEM

      Professor Zvi Peleg and his team from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem crossbred wild wheat with domesticated wheat, creating a more drought-resistant, water-efficient cultivar. Extensive research revealed that the gene pool of wild wheat contains traits that make it more resilient. The new cultivar produced the same yield as modern wheat but required 30% less water.

      THE IMPACT OF OUR WORK

      This innovation is no small feat as wheat is the most consumed crop in the world. This advancement also holds the potential to be used for growing rice, soy, and maize. The outcome could be the difference between food shortages and food security for future generations.

      This is just one example of the work you fund when you donate to American Friends of the Hebrew University.

      ABOUT AFHU

      Founded in 1925, AFHU is a national, not-for-profit 501(c)(3) organization, headquartered in New York City. We connect the passions of Americans to the talent at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, one of the world’s most distinguished academic and research institutions. Collectively, its students, faculty, and alumni have won eight Nobel Prizes, developed treatments for diseases, and ignited innovation that has led to more than 8,900 patents.

      Discover how you can advance knowledge in humanity, technology, medicine, cybersecurity, and more.

      News

      Hebrew U. researchers show which foods prevent, promote dementia

      Foods can determine whether someone will suffer from dementia in later years, according to researchers at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment in Rehovot.

      A large-scale international study that included the university recently examined how food affects brain health for people aged 50 and older. The researchers were able to show that diet affects the risk of dementia.

      This conclusion, although logical, is not self-evident, said Prof. Aron Troen, an expert in nutritional neuroscience and the prevention of cerebrovascular disease and dementia, and the principal investigator of Hebrew University’s Nutrition and Brain Health Laboratory in Rehovot.

      Among the foods proven to prevent dementia are: blueberries (not just the juice), healthful fats (as in olive oil), nuts (in small amounts to avoid excess calories) and fish. Other beneficial foods include: beans and legumes, fruits, low-calorie dairy products like yogurt, chicken and whole-grain cereals.

      Among the foods that have been shown to promote dementia are: fried foods, sugary foods, processed foods, red meat, fat, cheese and salt.

      The report was published in the journal of the American Association of Retired Persons, the most widely circulated journal in the US.

      The study was conducted in collaboration with dozens of countries, including the US, China, Switzerland and Australia. It examined the scientific basis of preserving brain health and preventing dementia in old age.

      The team produced a consensus report with convincing evidence that diet affects the risk of dementia.

      Read the source article at Jpost

      News

      Can Israeli scientists save Darwin’s finches?

      The Galápagos Islands are known for their unique animal species – giant tortoises, iguanas and sea lions – but none are more legendary than the group of birds known as Darwin’s finches.

      Early discoveries from these tiny songbirds, which measure no bigger than a sparrow, are credited for having helped Charles Darwin develop his theory of evolution by natural selection. Now, 11 of the 13 finch species found in the Galápagos are in danger of extinction due to a parasitic fly’s fatal impact on the populations.

      A research team from the Hebrew University’s Robert H. Smith Faculty of Agriculture, Food and Environment is embarking next week on an expedition to the islands to help save the iconic birds that have become the Galápagos’ symbol.

      Internationally acclaimed entomologist Prof. Boaz Yuval will be joined by colleagues Prof. Edouard Jurkevitch and Micki Ben-Yosef for the three-week mission, part of a four-year project funded by the US-Israel Binational Science Foundation together with the University of Minnesota.

      Prof. Boaz Yuval on a previous trip to the Galapagos in 2015. Photo courtesy of Boaz Yuval
      Prof. Boaz Yuval on a previous trip to the Galapagos in 2015. Photo courtesy of Boaz Yuval

      The team will also collaborate with George Heimpel, an entomologist at the University of Minnesota. The Galápagos’ invasive fly problem was first noticed in the 1980s and 1990s by a group of Austrian and Australian researchers who were curious as to why fledglings in the nests of finches were dying, explained Yuval, who is known for his groundbreaking work on fruit flies and mosquitoes.

      Further inspection revealed that the larvae of the Philornis downsi fly, accidentally introduced to the island from the mainland in the 1960s, attach themselves to the bird hatchlings and feed on their blood, ultimately killing them.

      The mortality rate in finch hatchlings is close to 100 percent. “What’s really worrying is that there are locations in the islands where some species of finches, over the last couple of years, have experienced close to 100% parasitism in the nests,” Yuval tells ISRAEL21c. “In these locations, recruitment to the adult population is zero.”

      Although the parasite hasn’t affected all species equally, without the introduction of a viable solution Yuval predicts the finches may be extinct within 10 years. One particular species, the mangrove finch, is already down to about 80 individuals.

      The good news is that there’s a consortium of international researchers and funding agencies helping to find solutions.

      “In the case of the mangrove finch, the San Diego Zoo and local Ecuadorian researchers are actually collecting eggs every year, incubating the eggs in a lab, hand-rearing the chicks, acclimatizing them, and releasing them back,” explains Yuval.

      Thanks to this method, practiced over the last four years, the mangrove finch population has grown by about 14% every year.

      Another promising approach is based on providing nesting materials that are saturated with insecticide, killing off the parasites and allowing fledglings to survive. However, it has yet to become a widespread solution due to the insecticide’s potential to affect many birds and the reluctance of Galápagos park authorities.

      Medium ground finches. Photo courtesy of Boaz Yuval
      Medium ground finches. Photo courtesy of Boaz Yuval

      The Israeli group is exploring a different method, which aims to target the microbes inside of the flies in order to interrupt their blood-feeding success.

      “Humans have an enormous microbiome in which a community of microbes living in our gut contributes to our well-being, immune system, combating diseases, and even affecting mood and mate choice,” explains Yuval. “We are not unique in that. Insects also have gut microbes which are very important in their nutrition and in their immune response, especially blood-feeding insects.”

      In addition to providing essential dietary supplements, which the flies don’t get in their blood meal, Yuval believes the bacteria also play an important role in communication between adult insects, including finding food and mates.

      “We can manipulate the behavior of the adults by attracting them to traps which are based on volatiles that are produced by their microbes. We have some preliminary data that is very promising and that’s going to be our second major focus during this expedition,” says Yuval.

      They will also try to help the local Ecuadorian team figure out a way to successfully grow the invasive fly in a lab setting, for use in sterile insect release – a form of pest control where overwhelming numbers of sterilized insects are released into the wild.

      A successful attempt at saving the Galápagos’ iconic finches could save more than just the bird species. Without the finch, the terrestrial ecosystems are in danger of becoming destabilized. “One can never predict what form this will take,” says Yuval.

      “The problem with extinction is that it’s forever; you can’t go back from that.”

      Read the source article at ISRAEL21c

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