Archive | May, 2012

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Mexico Says Andele to Climate Change

Posted on 28 May 2012 by Jerry

On April 19, 2012 Mexico became only the second country in the world, joining the United Kingdom, in passing a comprehensive climate change law with specific and legally mandatory emissions targets.  While a number of other nations have passed policy statements and adopted non binding objectives, e.g. Australia, South Korea, China, the EU, and Brazil, Mexico is the first and only developing nation to be legally bound to progress.

This law commits Mexico to reduce its carbon emissions by 30% from the year 2000 levels by 2020 and 50% by 2050.  It also targets conversion of 35% of Mexico’s electric power output to renewable and clean sources by 2024.  These are viewed as very ambitious targets considering that Mexico is the 11th largest emitter of carbon dioxide and has the 11th largest economy in the world. 

The passage of this Mexican law preceded the latest round of international negotiations that were conducted in Bonn, Germany following up on agreements reached in Durban, South Africa in 2011.  In Durban it was agreed that countries will work to draft another legally binding international agreement by 2015 for ratification and adoption by 2020 to replace the Kyoto protocol which expires this year.  Only the countries of the EU have agreed to a voluntary extension of the Kyoto protocol.  Canada and Japan have opted out of the agreement while the U.S. never ratified the 1997 accord.

Observers were disappointed with the little progress made in identifying a work plan for the next three years during the two week meeting.  Instead the meeting was characterized as largely political posturing over the issue of financing by rich countries of progress to be made in the developing world.  With the conference only drawing up a partial agenda for future talks participants stated it was clear that both China and India were working to delay substantive talks about a future treaty.

Use the following links to obtain more information on these topics: (Select “Policy and Legislation”, then select “Climate Change Act 2008” to see a description of the UK law)

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Troubling Progress for Synthetic Biology

Posted on 17 May 2012 by Jerry

In the last couple of years substantial progress has been made towards creating synthetic life.  At the beginning of the century synthetic biologists identified a series of accomplishments they would need before synthetic life that would never occur naturally, would be possible. This year marks a point in time by which substantial progress has been made in all of the key areas they identified. 

They knew as a first step, they might have to work with a natural living “shell” they could insert their synthetic creations into, counting on the life shell to continue living and sustaining its synthetic parts. This was viewed as a more practical target than trying to create brand new life in a laboratory. They knew they needed an inventory of synthetic parts that could be manufactured to order and mixed and matched to create a targeted life form.  Probably hardest of all, they knew they had to create complex molecules, synthetic nucleotides, enzymes and proteins that were capable of retaining genetic information, replicating and allowing change and mutation over time.  Only this would mimic the evolution of a natural living system.

In May of 2010, Craig Venter and his research team at the J. Craig Venter Institute announced the accomplishment of the first step or the creation of a laboratory produced synthetic bacterial cell.  The researchers took two related mycoplasma species, M. mycoides subspecies Capri (GM12) as donor and M. capricolum subspecies capricolum (CK) as recipient to make their synthetic bacterial cell.  These two bacterial species are forms of a microorganism parasite in ruminants, like cattle and goats, causing lung disease.

The team created in the laboratory a synthetic but faithful copy of the GM12 bacterial chromosome referred to as the donor and inserted it into a stripped down CK cell, which had selected genes removed and was identified as the recipient.  This was the natural living shell referred to earlier.  The CK cell accepted the transplanted chemically synthesized chromosome.  The resulting bacterial cell was controlled by the synthetic GM12 chromosome and the accepting CK cell functioned as a GM12 cell.  The team proclaimed they were first to synthesize, assemble, clone, and transplant a synthetically produced chromosome, creating a new cell controlled by the synthetic genome.  Others would argue a similar achievement was accomplished some years earlier by Eckard Wimmer and a research team that chemically synthesized a complete viral genome that was used to regenerate a live polio virus.

Significant progress was made in creating an inventory of synthetic parts when a 2011 research team headed by Steven Benner, founder of the Westheimer Institute for Science and Technology, announced it had created two new molecules which could be slotted into DNA alongside a chromosome’s natural bases, adenine (A), guanine (G), cytosine (C), and thymine (T).  An August 2011 article in the RSC Chemistry World stated “The new bases, dubbed ‘P’ and ‘Z,’ look similar to natural ones but have orthogonal hydrogen bonding patterns.”  While this was not the first time unnatural nucleotides have been inserted into DNA, they typically are eliminated during replication by un-accepting copying enzymes.  Benner’s team claims they have overcome this rejection.  Benner says his group “have already obtained GACTZP DNA replication in artificial cells, and are working to introduce [it] into E. coli.”

Finally, in the search for a complex molecule that will mimic life by retaining genetic information, replicating and allowing change and mutation over time, a research team headed by Phillip Holliger at the UK Medical Research Council’s Laboratory of Molecular Biology reports they have created selected alternatives to or competitors with DNA.  The team has developed six alternative polymers that they call xeno-nucleic acids (XNA).  These XNAs differ from the familiar DNA in that the team has substituted different sugars for the deoxyribose (the D in DNA).  Dr. Holliger explained, “We’ve been able to show that both heredity – information storage and propagation – and evolution, which are really two hallmarks of life, can be reproduced and implemented in alternative polymers other than DNA and RNA.”

A DNA strand is composed of three basic materials, sugars, phosphates and bases.  An article appearing in explains these XNAs as follows, “DNA looks like a twisting ladder.  Its sides are chains of a sugar called deoxyribose (the D in DNA), connected by phosphate groups.  Each sugar is attached to one of four ‘bases’ – these form the rungs of the ladder, and are signified by the letters A, C, G and T.”  Each of the six XNA’s has a slightly different molecule making up its sugar replacement.  Like DNA “all the XNAs use the same bases and the same phosphate groups.  Any of them could pair up with a complementary strand of DNA or RNA.”

The article further describes a key breakthrough by Vitor B. Pinheiro, a research team member, “Pinheiro created his XNAs by tweaking a natural enzyme called DNA polymerase, which copies DNA.  It ‘reads’ a piece of DNA, grabs nearby bases, and assembles a matching strand….Here is the clever bit. DNA polymerase is normally very fussy about the bases it grabs. It only selects ones with a deoxyribose sugar so that it assembles DNA, rather than any other nucleic acid.  But Pinheiro evolved the enzyme so it prefers to use the building blocks of his XNAs instead.” The replication is accomplished using these special polymerases (enzymes) that not only synthesize XNA from a DNA template but also copy XNA back into DNA. The copying to and from DNA is achieved with a high degree of accuracy which is a requirement that is essential to evolution.

Pinheiro cited yet another advantage researchers see with the new XNAs.  The natural nucleic acids, DNA and RNA, can be made to evolve so they bind tightly to specific molecular targets.  The problem is they are unstable because they are rapidly broken down by enzymes called nucleases which snip and degrade things in the body.  The new XNAs because of their different chemical composition, should not be easily recognized by these enzymes.  Their chemistry already makes them more stable and consequently more resistant to the enzymes.  As an example, Pinheiro incubated one of them, HNA (with a five carbon sugar called anhydrohexitol), in an extremely acidic solution for an hour and the XNA molecule was unaffected.  “DNA just would have been shredded,” said Pinheiro.

Gerald F. Joyce, a professor at The Scripps Research Institute, commented on the limitations of this research in an article in the April 20, 2012 issue of Science.  He observed that the replication that was achieved was still dependent on the participation of DNA.  He stated, “Finally, construction of genetic systems based on alternative chemical platforms may ultimately lead to the synthesis of novel forms of life.  For that goal to be realized, the XNA must be able to catalyze its own replication, without the aid of any biological molecules, and thus be capable of undergoing Darwinian evolution in a self-sustained manner.”

What is of greatest concern about all of these developments is the repeated and continued involvement of life.  None of the supposed accomplishments would have been possible without the flexibility of life processes and chromosomes.  It could be argued this flexibility is one of the strengths of life’s genetics for it facilitates life’s ongoing evolution.  Not only was the inherent malleability of natural chromosomes necessary for these changes to work but it is the absence of a “firewall” or barrier, in fact an actual attractiveness, between the resulting synthetic life properties and the rest of the gene pool that is the most troubling.  Should any of these experiments expose life outside the laboratory environment to these altered elements there are very large risks the changes would be incorporated into the mainstream genetics of life.  At the end of the aforementioned article in the April issue of Science, Dr. Joyce issues a telling admonition, “Synthetic biologists are beginning to frolic on the worlds of alternative genetics but must not tread into areas that have the potential to harm our biology.”

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, Chapter 13: Protect Life Imperative – Synthetic Biology discusses the evolution of Synthetic Biology from genetic engineering. This dedicated chapter on Synthetic Biology identifies it as one of four looming global threats to the continuation of life on our planet.

Use the following links to obtain more information on these topics:


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Distribution of World Wealth Worsens

Posted on 08 May 2012 by Jerry

An October 2011 report released by the Credit Suisse Research Institute, the second annual Global Wealth Report, shows that global wealth has increased by 14% between January 2010 and June 2011.   The largest share of this growth was in Asia Pacific which produced 23% of the growth.  This contrasted with the 9.2% growth in North America and 4.8% in Europe in the same period.  Unfortunately, this wealth continued to concentrate in the hands of the top 1%.  The report found that 29.7 million adults with household wealth greater than $1 million make up less than 1% of the world’s adult population but own 38.5% of global household wealth.  For the first time Europe surpassed North America with 37.2% millionaires to North America’s 37%.

Another recent report focuses on the least fortunate world citizens who score high on the Global Hunger Index.  The Hunger Index which combines the three equally weighted indicators of Undernourishment, Child Underweight, and Child Mortality into a single index number has declined only minimally since 1990.  South Asia continues to lead the world with the highest Hunger Index of 22.6 followed by Sub Saharan Africa with 20.5 and compared to the world’s average Hunger Index of 14.6. 

The Global Wealth Report focuses on the people with the highest Global Hunger Index when it reports on the world’s poor.  It identifies that three billion people, more than two thirds of the global adult population, have an average wealth per adult of less than $10,000.  About 1.1 billion of these adults have a net worth of less than $1,000.

With all the discussion, and envy, in the U.S. about the increasing concentration of wealth in the hands of the top 1% of its citizens, what is more important is the number of people at the other end of the scale not just in the U.S. but worldwide.  We need focus on human beings whose existence is a continuing struggle to ward off hunger and death.  Poverty and hunger in the world matter far more than the people that keep amassing all the wealth. This is not to say that the world’s wealth should continue to be concentrated in the top 1%.  It is to say that the scale of world hunger and poverty is a far larger problem and much more deserving of our attention.

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, Chapter 9: A Positive Life Experience Imperative, there is the use of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs compared with adult personal income and the World’s distribution of household wealth to derive a point of view of the net positive or net negative aggregate life experience of people in the world.  The conclusion is that the majority of the World’s population is primarily engaged in satisfying survival needs and has very limited opportunity to experience higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy and certainly not Maslow’s self-actualization. 

Use the following link to obtain more information on these topics: (If you have difficulty accessing this report, copy this url address into your browser and get the report over  your browser)

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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time Wins Silver “IPPY” Award

Posted on 01 May 2012 by Jerry

Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, by Jerry Parrick, has been named a 2012 Independent Publisher Silver medal award winner.  Identifying the book as one of the year’s best new books in the “Classical Studies/Philosophy” category, the IPPY award recognizes and encourages the work of “Publishers who exhibit the courage and creativity necessary to take chances, break new ground, and bring about change, not only to the world of publishing, but to our society.” Besides the works of small independent publishers, the IPPYs recognized books from presses such as Basic Books, Berrett-Koehler Publishers, Carnegie Museum of Arts and Design, Carnegie Mellon University Press, Kent State University Press, The MIT Press, Princeton University Press, and the Stanford University Press.

For selected quotes from Beyond Animal, Ego and Time and further information, go to the About tab on this blog and select The Book on the drop down menu.  This section will provide information on the book that served as the impetus for the blog.

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