Archive | February, 2012

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Wild Flower From 30,000 Years Ago

Posted on 26 February 2012 by Jerry

I am always amazed at the tenacity with which life survives all manner of misfortunes.  A considerable part of Beyond Animal, Ego and Time focuses on how the experiences, memory, and information of life is indelibly recorded on matter and survives the death of an organism.  A most recent example is in a report by scientists in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences that documents the “Regeneration of whole fertile plants from 30,000 year old fruit tissue buried in Siberian permafrost.” 

The research conducted by Svetlana Yashina, Stanislav Gubin, Stanislav Maksimovich, Alexandra Yashina, Edith Gakhova, and David Gilichinsky describes how plant seeds preserved in frozen, and never thawed, late Pleistocene permafrost were retrieved from fossil squirrel burrows and induced to germinate through in vitro tissue culture and clonal micropropagation. While the Silene stenophylla commonly called a narrow-leafed campion was successfully regenerated (pictured above), similar attempts with seed from sedge, Arctic dock, and alpine bearberray had begun to germinate but subsequently died.  These plants are the oldest living multicellular organisms on Earth.

Use the following links for further information on these plants:


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Natural Gas May Speed Climate Change

Posted on 26 February 2012 by Jerry

It is very difficult, even under the best of circumstances, to know which form of energy has the least negative impact on climate change and yet can still be economically efficient.  It is generally understood that natural gas is one of the most widely available, least costly, and cleanest-burning fossil fuels, especially when compared to coal.   New measurements by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) however, indicate that natural gas may have a worse impact on climate change than coal.  This is because a small amount of natural gas (which is 70-90% methane) escaping into our atmosphere from natural gas fields can have a serious negative effect.  We must remember that methane is 25 times more efficient than carbon dioxide at trapping heat in our atmosphere.  This effect will be amplified in an environment where “Fracking” or hydraulic fracturing of hard shale formations, releases previously unavailable natural gas. 

Measurements by a team led by Gabrielle Pétron, an atmospheric scientist at the NOAA and the University of Colorado at Boulder, pegs the amount of natural gas being lost to the atmosphere at 4% at the natural gas field known as the Denver-Julesburg Basin.  This does not include gas escaping from the pipeline and distribution system.  This is more than double estimates widely used by the industry.  In the minds of many scientists this eliminates the environmental edge that was perceived for natural gas over burning coal. This test result agrees with conclusions reached last year by separate teams at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, and at the US Environmental Protection Agency.  They concluded that methane emissions from shale gas are much larger than previously thought.

Use the following links for more information on this recent study or access the study when it is published in March in the Journal of Geophysical Research:

Select CIRES Researchers Fingerprint Sources of Air Pollution in Colorado at

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Researchers Make Bird Flu (A/H5N1) Highly Contagious

Posted on 23 February 2012 by Jerry

On the periphery of the average person’s awareness is a subdued yet hotly debated topic of the need for secrecy in science, specifically genetic engineering.  Two teams of scientists have taken a particularly deadly bird flu virus (A/H5N1), which does not have a history of being easily transmitted between human beings, and have genetically re-engineered it using five mutations to make it highly contagious between mammals.  The original A/H5N1 virus was highly lethal with a history of killing about 60% of the 600 known cases of people who contracted it since its discovery in 1997.  Fortunately it was not contagious between human beings.  One version of the new genetically engineered virus can be efficiently transmitted as shown between ferrets, which are known as the best animal model for influenza in humans.

As discussed in Chapter 13 of Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, the last ten years has seen significant growth in private and public biofab laboratories that will create laboratory produced genetic material to order.  Today there are thousands, if not tens of thousands, of laboratories around the world that will perform this type of mail order service.  There has also been a profusion of hobbyist labs that have been created for less than a $10,000 investment.

Finally, there has been a growing awareness of the potential for terrorists to easily and cheaply utilize widely known genetically engineering techniques to create a deadly biological weapon.  Given the high mortality rate of this genetically engineered bird flu virus, there is fear that it may accidentally escape a laboratory environment and/or that knowledge of how it was created would make it a highly desirable pathogen for use as a biological weapon.

As a result of these fears, the U.S. government, presumably the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), asked the independent National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity (NSABB) to review two research articles, one accepted for publication in Nature and another accepted for publication in Science, to determine if the articles should be limited in terms of details and results.  As a result of this review, the National Science Advisory Board for Biosecurity just issued its report where the board concluded “the NSABB found that there was significant potential for harm in fully publishing these results and that the harm exceeded the benefits of publication, we therefore recommended that the work not be fully communicated in an open forum.”

To indicate how serious scientists view this issue the following are selected comments of concern:

“It is one of the most dangerous viruses you can make,” said Ron Fouchier, an author of the article submitted and accepted by Science magazine.

“Can’t think of another pathogenic organism that is as scary as this one,” said Paul Keim, chair of NSABB.

“It’s just a bad idea for scientists to turn a lethal virus into a lethal and highly contagious virus, and it’s a second bad idea to publish how they did it so others can copy it,” said Thomas V. Inglesby, MD, director of the Center for Biosecurity at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Use the following links for more information of the genetically engineered H5N1 virus controversy:

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