Scientists Wonder If A Fungus Creating Undead Cicadas Could Help Humans

Jul 25, 2019

On today’s program: The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership wants to study how downtown streets could be used in the future; a look back at Karen Hacker’s time at the Allegheny County Health Department; kids and adults with autism have a new place to relax at Pittsburgh International Airport; a fungus bugging cicadas has psychedelic properties; and how a federal proposal to change SNAP could affect Pennsylvanians.

Downtown planners assess city infrastructure
(0:00 – 12:24)

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership wants to work with Port Authority, the City and the Southwestern Pennsylvania Commission to look at how Downtown Pittsburgh’s narrow streets could be used more effectively. Chris Watts, the PDP's Vice President of Mobility, says the study is crucial to grow the Golden Triangle.

“The intention behind the study is to plan for that future growth, and to make sure that we can optimize what we currently have,” he tells The Confluence.

The study would map out the complicated network of mass transit options Downtown to reduce single-passenger vehicles and create space for pedestrian walkways and ride-sharing pickup locations. Watts says that they hope to pick a consultant within the next month, who will then solicit feedback at public meetings and events Downtown, as well as through online surveys, to establish “guiding principles” for future development Downtown. The Port Authority Board will vote on whether or not to approve the study when it meets Friday. 

Former Health Department director’s environmental legacy
(13:52 – 17:52)

Dr. Karen Hacker, director of the Allegheny County Health Department, is leaving her position at the end of this month to take a job at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. During her tenure at the Health Department, she took on issues like the opioid crisis, air pollution and lead. For The Allegheny Front Environment Update, Kara Holsopple spoke to Oliver Morrison, environment reporter for Public Source, about Hacker’s legacy and the future of the department. 

Sensory space provides a respite at PIT
(17:53 – 21:50)

Earlier this week, Pittsburgh International Airport opened a quiet, sensory-friendly space for kids and adults on the autism spectrum to decompress from the stress of air travel. 90.5 WESA’s Kathleen Davis reports that though airports have a long way to go to make them more comfortable for people with special needs, those at Pittsburgh International Airport intend for this sensory space to make it easier them to travel.

A hallucinogenic fungus is creating zombie cicadas
(21:52 – 31:22)

A fungus called Massospora cicadina is infecting cicadas in the Northeast. West Virginia University researchers studying the fungus have found amphetamines and some properties only previously found in psychedelic mushrooms. Matt Kasson, a forest pathologist and professor at West Virginia University, spoke with The Confluence’s Kiley Koscinski about his team's research on the fungus. 

The infected bugs lose about a third of their body to the chalky fungus and show bizarre behavioral changes like compulsive mating and aggression. Kasson says he hopes future studies of the fungus reveal uses for the pharmaceutical industry. 

In this Feb. 26, 2018, file photo, Carl Lewis in his market in Rankin, Pa. About half of Lewis' customers pay with benefits from the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
Credit Gene J. Puskar / AP

Proposed cuts for SNAP would have vast impact
(31:25 – 39:08)

The Trump Administration has renewed debate over the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) after proposing a new policy that would strip benefits from up to three million people nationwide, including many Pennsylvanians.

Current federal guidelines dictate that a family’s income must fall below 130% of the poverty line to be eligible for SNAP, but states have some flexibility to adjust that number based on the needs in their state. Under the new proposed rule, all states would have to adhere to the federal guideline. 

Ann Sanders, public policy advocate of the hunger advocacy group Just Harvest told The Confluence’s Megan Harris that the cut would result in 9 percent of recipients—about three million people—losing benefits. She says that the cuts could leave some families scrambling to supplement their food budget, and could also reduce the number of children eligible to get free and reduced breakfast and lunch at school.

A 60 day comment period has begun. After that, the U.S. Department of Agriculture must consider all of the comments, meaning that the final rule would not go into effect for at least a year.

90.5 WESA's Julia Zenkevich, Julia Maruca, and Hannah Gaskill contributed to this program.

The Confluence, where the news comes together, is 90.5 WESA’s daily news program. Tune in weekdays at 9 a.m. to hear newsmakers and innovators take an in-depth look at stories important to the Pittsburgh region. Find more episodes of The Confluence here or wherever you get your podcasts.