Archive | June, 2012

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Your Intervention to Protect the Arctic

Posted on 27 June 2012 by Jerry

Ice is melting in the Arctic and as a result it is warming twice as fast as the rest of the globe.  Sea lanes are opening up for longer periods in the year prompting attention from nations seeking to exploit the Arctic’s underwater oil, gas, and mineral resources.  Unlike Antarctica, which is protected by the 1959 Antarctic Treaty, the only protection for the North Pole is that it is defined in international treaties as the high seas.  Unfortunately several countries are attempting to enforce territorial boundaries and actively lay claim to the seabed.  This includes Canada, Russia, Denmark, Norway and the United States, all of which lay claim to various parts of the Arctic.

Examples of the attention the Arctic is receiving include recent military war games, Exercise Cold Response, hosted by Norway involving 16,300 troops from 14 countries.  The exercise involved “training on the ice for everything from high intensity warfare to terror threats…. The U.S., Canada and Denmark held their own major exercises and hosted a meeting of the military chiefs of the eight main Arctic powers – Canada, the U.S., Russia, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Norway and Finland.” 

A June 2, 2012 Reuters article reports on a recent visit by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating, “Clinton boarded a research ship in Tromso, a Norwegian town north of the Arctic Circle, to illustrate U.S. interests in a once inaccessible region where resources are up for grabs and new sea routes between Europe and Asia are opening up.  ‘A lot of countries are looking at what will be the potential for exploration and extraction of natural resources as well as new sea lanes,’ Clinton told reporters after taking a two-hour boat tour of the local fjord.”

Recognizing that this type of attention and development can only accelerate the melting of the sea ice and further contribute to global warming, Greenpeace has marshaled celebrities and citizens from around the world calling for the Arctic to be designated a drill free reserve where all plant and animal species are protected.  This would put it on a similar footing as Antarctica.

Greenpeace has launched an effort to get 1,000,000 signatures on-line on a petition to be circulated around the world and planted at the North Pole to encourage nations to step up and protect the Arctic.  You can participate, if you hurry, by adding your name to the petition at www.savethearctic.org

You will be in good company joining other signers who include Sir Paul McCartney, Jack White, Penelope Cruz, Robert Redford, Edward Norton, Sir Richard Branson, and Lucy Lawless.  Other signers include Radiohead, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Emily Blunt, Baaba Maal, Javier Bardem, Slumdog Millionaire star Dev Patel, and a group of China’s most famous musicians.  You can be amongst the nine Oscar winners, ten Golden Globe winners and five Grammy Award winners who are signers of the petition.

This kind of direct action, while symbolic, represents your desire to keep countries and companies from exploiting and accelerating the very global warming they have created.  Adding your name to this petition is a small step to slow an accelerating problem.

Use the following links to find more information on these issues:

http://news.yahoo.com/ice-cap-melts-militaries-vie-arctic-edge-072343565.html

http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/06/03/us-arctic-clinton-idUSBRE8510CQ20120603

http://www.nsf.gov/od/opp/antarct/anttrty.jsp

http://www.greenpeace.org/usa/en/media-center/news-releases/GLOBAL-STARS-LAUNCH-CAMPAIGN-TO-SAVE-THE-ARCTIC/

http://www.savethearctic.org

http://www.webpronews.com/jude-law-and-radiohead-lend-their-voices-to-save-polar-bears-2012-07

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Bonobos and Chimpanzees: How Close are our Closest Relatives?

Posted on 24 June 2012 by Jerry

It is difficult to be precise when comparing three different animal genomes, each with billions of base pairs, to assess similarity.  Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, have however completed sequencing the DNA of a contemporary bonobo and have declared it the second great ape with which human beings share 99.6% of their DNA.  This mirrors an assessment in 2005 when researchers studied the chimpanzee genome.

This finishes sequencing of the genomes of the three most related of the great apes; the human being, chimpanzee, and the bonobo.  Their common genetic ancestry shows that human beings, chimpanzees and bonobos took separate evolutionary paths more than four million years ago, with chimpanzees and bonobos diverging from each other in a more recent timeframe of one to two million years.

What is intriguing about these findings is not the great similarity but rather the differences.  Researchers found that there is about 1.6% of human DNA that is shared with the bonobo that is not found in the chimpanzee.  Conversely, they found about the same proportion of human DNA that is shared with the chimpanzee that is not found in the bonobo. 

While chimpanzees are found throughout equatorial Africa, bonobos are only found in the Democratic Republic of Congo.  The population of bonobos was thought to be isolated from chimpanzees with the formation of the Congo River which may have physically separated the two groups more than a million years ago.

There are some notable behavioral differences between the two species.  Male chimpanzees are territorial and dominant.  The males compete aggressively for rank dominance within the group, and sex. They cooperate to defend their territory and attack other groups.  Bonobo males, on the other hand, are subordinate to the females and do not compete aggressively for dominance rank.  In addition, they are playful and show almost continual sexual behavior including with same sex partners.  They do not form alliances with each other and there is no evidence of aggression with other groups.  

Researchers would like to know if their genetic differences can explain the very different behavior of the three animals. What makes the bonobos playful, the chimpanzees aggressive, and the humans cerebral?

Background: In Beyond Animal, Ego and Time, Chapter 16 – Transcending Egocentricity argues that our outdated belief in meaningful differences between groups of human beings is persuasively contradicted by their known genetic similarities.  It states “For these reasons we have to allow perceived human differences to slip away as insignificant and inconsequential.” The results of this research further demonstrate the evolutionary ancestry of human beings and show the behavioral similarities between related species.

Use the following links to obtain more information on the topics in this article:

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/vaop/ncurrent/full/nature11128.html

http://news.sciencemag.org/sciencenow/2012/06/bonobo-genome-sequenced.html

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Are We Passing Climate Change Tipping Points?

Posted on 18 June 2012 by Jerry

A variety of discouraging beliefs are emerging from the world’s scientific community revealing pessimism about climate change. Scientists and policy makers are frustrated by the glaring lack of progress being made in marshalling humanity to recognize and accept the threats the world is facing. Too much time is passing creating fear that we are unwittingly allowing options to expire and our situation to deteriorate beyond critical “tipping points”.  With great determination, scientists are developing different ways to show people the reality of climate change.

Climate scientists fear they cannot enhance present climate systems to make them more forceful in proving the case for action.  They believe they are losing the ability to make the systems more precise in estimating the timing and magnitude of future events.  Present systems can only be generally and directionally predictive.  They cannot predict specific outcomes on specific dates.

Some scientists have turned their attention away from predictive systems.  They are trying to identify “tipping points” or “tipping elements” to describe large-scale aspects of the Earth system that may pass critical thresholds where we experience a change in climate that we cannot correct or reverse.  Tipping elements identified in “Tipping elements in the Earth’s climate system” by Messrs. Lenton, Held, Kriegler, Hall, Lucht, Rahmstorf, and Schellnhuber, include the Arctic summer sea-ice, Greenland ice sheet, West Antarctic ice sheet (WAIS), Atlantic ocean thermohaline circulation (THC), El Niño-Southern Oscillation (ENSO), Indian Summer monsoon (ISM), Sahara/Sahel and West African monsoon (WAM), the Amazon rainforest and the Boreal forest. 

In the opinion of the researchers we may have already passed critical thresholds in the two underlined elements, Arctic summer sea-ice and Atlantic Ocean thermohaline circulation. In addition to the nine tipping elements identified, there are another six areas that were listed but did not make the statistical cut to be truly imminently influential to the future.

In a well documented paper entitled “The Anthropocene: From Global Change to Planetary Stewardship”, written by some of the most famous scientists of our time and published by the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences in 2011, the argument is made that rather than continue to define the present as a part of the Holocene epoch, which provided a very stable and accommodating period for human development, we should recognize we have entered the Anthropocene epoch.  This new epoch is identified as the time when human beings moved from being hunter-gatherers to where “Humanity itself has become a global geophysical force, equal to some of the ‘great forces of nature’.”

These scientists argue we have destabilized the accommodating Holocene epoch with the “Great Acceleration” (Hibbard et al. 2006) which occurred after the Second World War.  Since 1960 through 2009 the human population has grown by 1 billion people and the global economy and material consumption have increased disproportionately faster.  They believe we have now entered the Anthropocene epoch, an epoch of our own creation.

This paper rises to a higher level of abstraction where threats to our well being include climate change as one of nine aspects of our planet that require management for our survival; Climate change, Ocean acidification, Stratospheric ozone depletion, Nitrogen cycle – Phosphorous cycle, Global freshwater use, Change in land use, Biodiversity loss, Atmospheric aerosol loading, and Chemical pollution.  A hint of the thoroughness of this paper is given in a filmed Nobel Laureate Symposium in 2011 in Stockholm where Will Steffin role played the Prosecutor in a mock trial of “Planet Earth vs. Humanity”.  In this video he is speaking on behalf of the planet.

In response to failed negotiations, policy makers are devising new ways to think about getting countries to step up their efforts.  Some believe seeking worldwide agreement on the single problem of climate change does not and will not work.  They think a different set of negotiating parameters might be more productive. Approaching the problem from the nine aspects requiring planetary management (previously mentioned), they suggest a much broader set of negotiations should be initiated.  They argue that not all countries of the world equally share the remedies required to reverse climate change, that some countries, for example would be much more central to protecting the rain forests of South America.  They suggest the role of each country should be identified with the issues and problems with which they have a more causal role and upon which they can have a greater impact.

While progress on climate change is slow in coming, we must recognize that human beings have a long history of solving problems.  Scientist continue to try and are looking to us for the support they need to alter the world’s course on these issues.  We must continue to fight until we collectively win.

Use the following links to obtain further information on climate change and issues raised in this article:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/2011/jun/17/climate-talks-end-no-agreement

http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-18455947

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2012/05/24/un-climate-conference-bonn-struggles_n_1541760.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7402/full/486183a.html

http://www.nature.com/nature/journal/v486/n7401/full/nature11018.html  

http://www.pnas.org/cgi/doi/10.1073/pnas.0705414105 , to obtain the complete article try  

http://www.pnas.org/content/105/6/1786.full.pdf+html

http://rd.springer.com/article/10.1007/s13280-011-0185-x

Exceptional video: http://youtube.com/watch?v=_Jmp6DwDreg

To access the full report PDF use your normal browser to try to search and select

http://www-ramanathan.ucsd.edu/files/pr185.pdf

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Genetic Engineering Influence Peddling and Profit

Posted on 13 June 2012 by Jerry

The world is full of influence peddlers with countless people on both sides of the transaction. There are the influencers with money, power, and prestige who tempt people around them to take actions which benefit the influencers to the exclusion of everyone else.  There are also those who are waiting to be influenced and act compliantly or at minimum turn a blind eye toward someone else taking advantage of a situation. They view their personal corruption by others as the most direct way for them to progress and prosper.  In their world every issue is a shade of gray rather than black and white.  There is always an argument to justify the most self serving answer of the moment.  These groups view the world as dog-eat-dog and view their personal prosperity and that of their interest group as all that matters.

There are an infinite number of angles that can be worked for personal profit and/or to facilitate influence peddling, too many angles to list and explain.  There are however, notable examples that garner public attention, outcry and deserve further elaboration.  This is certainly true in the areas of greatest opportunity where large amounts of money are being paid and where the corporate and venture capital consensus sees a future bonanza.  This is specifically true in genetic engineering of modified foods and in the field of synthetic biology.

The first example is of a very straight forward phenomenon, the movement of people back and forth between government and the corporations who wish to control government’s actions.  The case in point is that of Michael R. Taylor who was appointed by the Obama administration to be the Deputy Commissioner of Foods at the Federal Drug Administration (FDA) in 2010.  In this capacity, Mr. Taylor, an attorney by trade, is in charge of food safety in the United States.

To illustrate how influence peddlers groom their collaborators we look first at Wikipedia that gives a fairly straight forward description of Mr. Taylor’s background.  The Wikipedia article describes that after law school he went to the FDA as a staff attorney, then to a law firm where he led the firm’s “food and drug law” practice and represented Monsanto for many years.  Then he was appointed as Administrator of Food Safety and Inspection in the Department of Agriculture.  From there he went back to his prior legal practice where he was shortly named at Monsanto as the Vice President for Public Policy.  Then he went into academia as a Research Professor of Health Policy before returning to the government to become a “senior advisor” to the FDA Commissioner.  He held this position for a few years before Obama promoted him to his present position.

Compare this background description with the two press releases issued by the FDA announcing his appointment as senior advisor to the FDA Commissioner in 2009 and the announcement of his appointment as Deputy Commissioner for Foods in 2010.  In the 2009 announcement there is no mention whatsoever of his past affiliation with Monsanto.  In the 2010 document from the FDA there is one mention of Monsanto in the next to last sentence of the press release.

Lest you think these two press releases go out of their way to downplay, if not completely omit, description of Mr. Taylor’s Monsanto connections, you would be completely right.  Among the many WikiLeaks disclosed cables from within the State Department are a number of cables that reveal the full and explicit U.S. government support for U.S. chemical and agriculture business’ genetically modified foods.  It is particularly instructive to learn that the strategic policy of the United States is to support and promulgate genetically modified foods around the world as one of our most important exports.

In addition, we have two examples of descriptions of Mr. Taylor’s appointment to his latest position.  The article in the New York Times mentions his past affiliation with Monsanto only once in passing.  The corresponding article in the Washington Post is much more balanced and provides full disclosure of Mr. Taylor’s past affiliations with Monsanto and his support, while in government, for controversial Monsanto issues like not needing to label milk from cows that were given growth hormones.

Our next example received more public attention but unfortunately it was largely confined to the European Union.  Such is the case of Diána Bánáti who was the unpaid chairwoman of the management board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Union’s top risk assessment body.  She concurrently held the salaried food safety commissioner and chief scientific advisor positions at the Hungarian Ministry of Rural Development.  As reported in the cited article, Ms. Bánáti was asked to resign from both positions when she announced she was being appointed as the executive and scientific director of the Brussels based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). 

Previous controversy surrounded Ms. Bânâti when it was discovered that she had not disclosed an earlier appointment to the ILSI’s Board of Directors before her last re-election to the EFSA Board.  After her ILSI Director appointment was disclosed she was forced to give it up so as not to jeopardize her position as EFSA chair.

Her new position was possibly recognition for a job well done at the EFSA.  Within a few weeks of her resignation, the European Food Safety Authority rejected a French Government attempt to ban a genetically modified strain of corn developed by the U.S. based Monsanto Corporation.  The rejection is now slated to go for decision to the European Commission for ratification or rejection.

While not going to work directly for a chemical or agriculture business, her move is a variation of the revolving door that Michael Taylor is using.  The ILSI is an industry funded think tank. Its membership list is a who’s who of the agriculture, food and chemical industries world-wide. 

Our final two examples are in the area of synthetic biology and represent a different gambit to achieve personal profit.  This involves concurrent leadership of non-profit research institutes and venture capital backed private businesses.  One can suspect that this puts a scientist entrepreneur in the position to use government grants and nonprofit status to conduct research in a promising area and then redirect the research into their own startup when they think a scientific breakthrough is eminent.  In at least one of these situations, we see the entrepreneur hedge his bets by having his private company fund the research in his own research institute.  This would appear to be a way to limit argument about who owns the science that is developed.  The entrepreneur sits at the key pivot point and is in a position to choose where, how and with whose money to conduct ongoing breakthrough research.

While this is happening, selected individuals in the scientific community, governmental departments or grant making nonprofit organizations at a minimum turn a blind eye to what may be happening.  This is because they can argue that the research needs to be done no matter how it is accomplished or who benefits.  A cynical assessment is that these people are hoping for future positions in one of the organizations, stock options of the private companies or the favors of the scientist entrepreneur helping them pursue their own future opportunities. 

To see this organizational structure consider J. Craig Venter who on the nonprofit side heads the J. Craig Venter Institute “with more than 300 scientists and staff”.  This Institute was assembled by the merger of several of Craig Venter’s earlier organizations, specifically The Institute for Genomic Research (TIGR), The Center for Advancement of Genomics, The J. Craig Venter Science Foundation, The Joint Technology Center, and the Institute for Biological Energy Alternatives.  On the for profit side, Craig Venter leads Synthetic Genomics, a high tech synthetic biology private startup funded in part by Draper Fisher Jurvetson, BP, the Meteor Group, Biotechonomy LLC and Plenus, S.A. de C.V.

Another example of this dual nonprofit and for profit structure is that assembled by Steven A. Benner.  On the non-profit side, Benner heads The Westheimer Institute of Science and the Foundation for Applied Molecular Evolution (FAME).  On the profit side, he leads private startup Firebird BioMolecular SCiences LLC.  He sold another private company, EraGen Biosciences, to Luminex.

As a side note, synthetic biology as expressed in earlier posts creates significant risks if you assume there is a potential for release of a synthetically created organism outside the laboratory.  Apparently Firebird Biomolecular Sciences, LLC, agrees.  It posts a disclaimer that reads “All products sold by Firebird Biomolecular Sciences LLC., are for research and development purposes only, and are not for use in humans.  It is the responsibility of the buyer to determine the suitability of the product for any given purpose.  Products should be handled by trained personnel who understand the potential hazards of working with such materials.  Responsibility for accidents arising from the handling and use of Firebird products rests solely with the buyer.”  While approving of the warning, it would be great if it was this easy to insulate one’s company and one’s self from future lawsuits and responsibility.  

As has been observed in previous posts, the world’s largest chemical and agricultural businesses are pushing, with the U.S. government’s help, the adoption of genetically modified foods throughout the world.  At the same time, scientist entrepreneurs looking to benefit from synthetic biology are arguing aggressively and successfully there should be no government oversight or intervention in synthetic biology. 

Citizens around the world must be cynical as they consider what is happening in their governments.  They must examine every appointment to high government position and identify the biases these individuals bring with them.  They must be vigilant about the present positions their governments are taking on issues surrounding our ozone, climate change, nuclear weapons and genetic engineering and synthetic biology.  They must identify influence peddling for what it is and marshal public opinion against it.

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

Michael R. Taylor:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michael_R._Taylor (Select “search for Michael R. Taylor in Wikipedia.”  You will see a message saying there is no listing for Michael R. Taylor.  Select the first Taylor option offered and you will go to the page)

http://www.fda.gov/NewsEvents/Newsroom/PressAnnouncements/2009/ucm170842.htm?utm  

http://www.fda.gov/food/newsevents/constituentupdates/ucm197828.htm?utm

http://www.theatlantic.com/health/print/2011/01/us-presses-europe-to-worship-genetically-modified-foods/69633

http://www.rodale.com/genetically-modified-organisms-foods-0

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/14/health/policy/14fda.html

http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/01/13/AR2010011304402.html

Diána Bánáti:

http://news.sciencemag.org/scienceinsider/2012/05/european-food-safety-official-re.html

http://www.europeanvoice.com/article/2012/may/eu-rejects-french-gm-ban/74415.aspx

http://phys.org/news/2012-05-eu-food-agency-france-monsanto.html

J. Craig Venter:

http://dnalc.org/view/16830-Biography-39-John-Craig-Venter-1946-.html

http://edge.org/memberbio/j_craig_venter

http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/about/

http://www.syntheticgenomics.com/about/genesis.html

Steven Benner:

http://www.westheimerinstitute.org/about.php

http://www.gtecflorida.com/tech_industry-GTEC_start-ups.aspx

http://www.ffame.org/sbenner.php

http://www.firebirdbio.com/index.html

http://www.firebirdbio.com/AboutUs.html

Presidential Bioethics Panel:

http://www.nytimes.com/2010/12/17/health/17synthetic.html

To see the text of the report from the Presidential Bioethics Panel, select “the report” in the first line of the second paragraph of the NY Times article listed above.

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Beyond Animal, Ego and Time Wins Eric Hoffer Book Award

Posted on 10 June 2012 by Jerry

Beyond Animal, Ego and Time has been awarded a 2012 Eric Hoffer Book Award.  Recognized in the Legacy Non Fiction category, the Hoffer Award review says in part “At first the subject matter might challenge you, but amazingly Parrick manages to pull it all together in an interesting and thought-provoking book.  Never talking over his readers head, he breaks the topics down into easily digestible subtopics.  Not quite the light reading that other books are, but an enjoyable read all the same.

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