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Noted nature films in the spotlight at Annual Meeting

Dim the lights and break out the snacks -- it’s movie time.

The AAAS Annual Meeting wasn’t all about lectures and presentations. The conference also hosted a mini film festival where participants could hang back and watch some of the top recent documentaries about science and scientists. The films were part of the Jackson Hole Films ​On Tour series, a traveling exhibition put on by the Wyoming-based Jackson Hole Wildlife Film Festival and were winners or finalists in the festival’s various categories.

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The Kingdom

Showing at AAAS is “a huge honor,” said Annamaria Talas, director of “The Kingdom,” a close-up look at the world of fungi and the role it’s played in the evolution of our world today. “I can’t tell you how happy I am when my films get the response from scientists that they like it, they approve it … so I’m thrilled that this film is going to be screened at such a prestigious event.”

The Kingdom” looks at how fungi have adapted to and helped shape the world around us. They’re both the causes of illness and sources of medicine, life-sustaining food and instruments of decomposition. Talas said she wanted the film to convey not just how fascinating fungi can be, but how “different and weird” they are. Some have managed not only to survive but thrive inside the walls of the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl, the site of the world’s worst nuclear accident – and appear to be feeding off the radiation the way plants use sunlight for photosynthesis. 

 “They really are kind of aliens on our planet, because they really don’t look anything like animals and plants,” Talas said. Without them, however, “the world will be very, very different,” Talas said.

And while many species of fungus may be threatened by climate change, a warming world may mean some fungal infections are likely to pose threats to humans that they didn’t before. Only a relative handful of the roughly 1.5 million fungal species can cause infections in humans today, because most can’t survive at our internal body temperature.

With warming bringing extended stretches of high temperatures to parts of the world, fungi species are likely to adapt to survive – “and we might lose this thermal barrier against fungi,” Talas said. But there’s little research into new anti-fungal medicine, and she said her film was aimed in part at raising interest in that field.

“It’s very important to maintain the environment as is and to be very aware of not tipping the balance that is set throughout many hundreds of millions of years, that allows things to thrive,” she said. 

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Mosquito

Climate change is also a big part of “Mosquito,” which looks at that historic pest and its role as a conduit for disease. Told against the backdrop of the 2016 outbreak of the mosquito-borne zika virus in South America and the Caribbean, the film shows how warmer temperatures turbocharge the insects’ life cycle and widen their range.

“Mosquitoes breed faster, they live longer and therefore the viruses within them replicate more quickly,” said Elizabeth Trojian, the film’s executive producer. Zika is carried by the aedes mosquito genus and can cause fevers, encephalitis and birth defects. The illness was little known outside East Africa before spreading to South America in the last decade. The 2016 outbreak led to more than 36,000 people contracting the virus in Puerto Rico and another 5,000 cases on the U.S. mainland, mostly travelers coming back from other countries. Other mosquito-borne illnesses such as dengue fever, West Nile and chikungunya are also spreading hazards in a warming world.

 “It’s incredibly important to me that the film be recognized and shown at AAAS, because it’s that gold standard of scientific research and scientists that we are so honored our film speaks to,” Trojian said.

Trojian shared that she got interested in the subject while listening to her stepfather’s stories about growing up in South Africa, where another mosquito-borne illness, malaria, took a devastating toll on children and families. And in a warmer, wetter world, she said, “This is something we really need to have all levels engaged in, from politicians down to schoolchildren.”

“We are the ones making it worse,” Trojian said. “We have created a warmer, wetter world, but we can do things to change this.” She said more efforts need to be made to control vector-borne disease, from government funding for research to seemingly small steps like draining standing water where mosquitoes can breed or eliminating plastic waste -- which also provides a haven for the pests to develop.

Other films screened at the meeting looked at the battle between masters of the complex Asian strategy game of Go and a Google-programmed computer trained to learn from trial and error; a National Geographic-produced, Phillip Glass-scored documentary on groundbreaking chimpanzee researcher Jane Goodall; and “David Attenborough’s Ant Mountain,” which focuses on an insect mega-colony in the mountains of Switzerland.

 “There has never been a more dynamic time in scientific discovery and innovation, and the need for communicating science to public audiences and policy-makers has never been more important,” said Lisa Samford, Jackson Hole WILD’s executive director. “These remarkable films explore new ways of communicating the wonders of science to global audiences in our rapidly-changing media landscape.”

The conference also included a look at NASA’s Voyager probes, still beaming back data from the vast gulf between the stars decades after giving us close-up glimpses of our solar system’s outer planets. The film was a 2018 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award winner. So was “Ozone Hole: How We Saved the Planet,” which looks at how the world came together to ban the chemicals that were destroying the Earth’s atmospheric shield against ultraviolet radiation.

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Matt Smith