Archive | December, 2015

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Paris Climate Conference 2015: a Beginning

Posted on 25 December 2015 by Jerry

Many people watching the proceedings at the Paris Climate Change Conference that took place this December did not have the right expectation. They were disappointed that the 195 or so countries did not legally commit to absolute levels of emissions and penalties they would incur should they fail to achieve the targeted levels. They also reacted negatively to the failure to address the carbon fossil fuel yet to be taken out of the ground. There was no mention of a ban on further mining or extracting fuel from the ground around the world.

The detractors have to understand that all of the representatives were from sovereign nations. Sovereign nations cannot be forced to accept penalties that they would just ignore and not pay. The United Nations has tried the top down imposition of penalties for many years. In 2015 it switched to a bottoms up expression of voluntary cuts on emissions. As unpleasant as it may be, this approach has worked by bringing everyone to the table. India and China both offered reductions of emissions.

One other reason for the change in approach is Obama’s need to get congress to ratify a treaty that requires U.S. approval or additional expenditures. The scuttlebutt is this agreement, since it is voluntary and does not require any approval of additional funds, can be ratified by Obama without the further involvement of congress.

Yes, the emissions do not add up to the low level necessary to avoid a significant increase beyond 2° C. Present commitments add-up to a 2.7° C level. As cited in an earlier article on this blog (see ) this 2.7° Celsius level converts to a 4.9° Fahrenheit increase.

To deal with the carbon fuel still in the ground the present approach is voluntary to each country. Representatives at the UN will allow the countries themselves to regulate their own energy industries. The betting is that the governments will let the prices of un-pumped oil and un-mined coal fluctuate to a level that is uneconomic. They believe that under this approach the Keystone pipeline project will not be revived.

Of course there were winners and losers at the conference. While the European Union wanted to be perceived as the leader in climate change (and their achievements actually make them a leader) they were not perceived as such. This is while France, a EU country recovering from an attack, showed that it could marshal the world’s nations to reach a major agreement to save the world from climate change in the face of terrorism.

China emerged as a full participant instead of blocking agreement as was perceived at the climate summit six years ago. At the same time India had wanted access to western technology with no restraints from intellectual property rights and did not gain the free access they were seeking.

The big winners of the climate conference were the small islands of the world.   They won a commitment from the world’s developed nations to provide funding for emergency efforts in the event of rising seas from climate change. They also received a concession from the world’s nations that the world would actually seek to not go beyond a 1.5° Celsius temperature rise.

This conference was marked by discussion of mass migration due to climate change’s effects. Scientists and scholars have said that a drought in Darfur, Sudan in part caused migration in the last decade. In addition, they cite a drought lasting from 2006 to 2011 in Syria as a factor in the mass migration of the Syrians.

E.U. leaders warned the world about mass migrations as a result of climate change in the future. Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission on Climate Change was quoted as warning world leaders that climate change could “destabilize entire regions and start massive forced migrations and conflicts over natural resources.” This quote appeared in an article in the New York Times by Sewell Chan on December 12, 2015.

The same article quoted Marine Franck who works on climate change and migration for the high commissioner for refugees. He stated, “Climate-related displacement is not a future phenomenon. It is a reality; it is already a global concern.”

People who read this blog know that migration and how the world handles immigrants is a continuing topic. Among the prominent mentions of migration, the article appearing on September 8, 2013 comes to mind (see ). Migration because of drought or other climate change induced calamity should be top of mind for all of us. We need to consider how we relate to distressed migrants from many countries. Do we personally try to help them or resist? Are we sensitive to their plight or not?

This recent conference on climate change represents a new beginning that unfortunately does not lessen our personal workload. While it does signal a worldwide agreement to fight climate change, it also signals continued work within each country to agitate and apply pressure to keep our governments working on lowering emissions.

We need each country to reduce their emissions further than they have committed. Especially the big offenders (USA, China and India) need to continually work the issue to better their performance. This will require further work from each of us and signals a long haul for the world to once and for all control climate change.

Use the following links to gain additional information or access the source documents used for this article.;_ylu=X3oDMTByb2lvbXVuBGNvbG8D3ExBHBvcwMx


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Concerns Grow About CRISPR & Gene Editing

Posted on 16 December 2015 by Jerry

International controversy is growing about the potential of the new genetic engineering technologies, especially CRISPR. All sorts of groups are meeting to gain some measure of control over these technologies by setting up agreements on how to evaluate the ethical issues and control the experiments that are done.

These include in 2015 the Hinxton Group, the National Institute of Health, the Welcome Trust and various conferences like one hosted in Washington DC and another in Napa, California. In addition, interested parties are writing editorials that oppose strict limits on or banning alterations of the human germline using CRISPR etc. Most notably Frank Church at Harvard Medical School.

In a previous article on CRISPR (see the August 2015 posting on this web site under Genetic Engineering, “CRISPR”, Breakthrough or Trouble), there is an outline of the technological innovation. The problem is that the development of CRISPR/Cas9 and other technologies have made alteration of DNA too accessible and available even to amateurs playing in their garages. This technology is very accurate and extremely low cost.

As an example, an article in the December 3, 2015 issue of Nature magazine identifies the cost of a widely used genetic plasmid created with the CRISPR-Cas9 technology at $65 or less.  It is ordered online and shipped in the normal mail.  It requires little specialized training to use.

Most scientists say that serious alterations to genetics are still beyond the hobbyist. They say the CRISPR technology and understanding of it are not enough for mastery or major changes. They also claim that most institutions do all of their experiments as a function of government grants that are not given to hobbyists. Even though there is no direct regulation of the area they claim this indirectly regulates experimentation at least for now.

There are many issues but the one that troubles scientists most is the new ability to cheaply and effectively edit the genomes of all sorts of living entities. Particularly troubling are alternations to germline cells (sperm and eggs) in early human embryos. By definition, germline cell alterations can be passed to future offspring of the resulting human. This raises the specter of “designer babies” with their genes altered to reflect the wishes of expectant parents.

Beyond the specter of eugenics, it also recognizes that in theory altering the germline cells of human embryos can change a number of genetic traits. The elimination of babies carrying harmful, disease-ridden genes that inhabit various family trees is an objective most people would favor. Unfortunately, these potential applications remain a way off into the future.

Of course there are also positive possibilities from CRISPR. CRISPR-Cas9 is being used to develop “gene drives” that spread proper genetic changes quickly throughout an entire population. Groups that want to eradicate malaria are testing a couple of methods on mosquitos. One group is using the technology to produce DNA that is not infected by or is immune to the parasite P. falciparum that causes malaria. The drive represents creating two or more strings of the requisite DNA to be passed on to all offspring. Normally, a mutation is spread to only 50% of the offspring. The “gene drive” feature allows the new DNA to be passed to all offspring.

The second alternative is being worked on at the Imperial College London and involves a gene drive that inactivates genes that control egg production in female mosquitos. They believe this would be a way to drastically reduce the overall population of mosquitos.

The concerns raised with these two approaches relate to the use of gene drives and fear that genetic changes would wipe out mosquitos entirely in an area. This would eliminate a species that might fill a significant need in the local food chain. The fear is there would be no way to call back a change that produced unforeseen effects elsewhere in the DNA.

Already the CRISPR technology is being used to alter the genetic code of plants that are subject to some regulation.   This has been identified as a faster and more accurate way of engineering insect resistant strains of crops by disabling specific genes in wheat and rice. Disabling genes is not subject to the same regulation as introducing new genes into an organism i.e. in the European Union.   For this reason, some South Korean scientists see this method as a way to side step normal regulation imposed in the EU and elsewhere.

Genetic engineering is a technology area to be mastered and is a governmental objective in countries that have international ambitions. An article in the November 18, 2015 issue of Nature magazine quotes Minhua Hu, a geneticist at the Guangzhou General Pharmaceutical Research Institute as stating, “It’s a priority area for the Chinese Academy of Sciences.”

The availability and the ease of altering genes have prompted a host of new experiments including those overseas.   For example, the previously cited article discusses the flurry of experiments taking place in China and research papers being written that describe CRISPR-modified mammals such as sheep, goats, pigs, monkeys and dogs.

In addition, there is discussion in the same article about research in China to increase the muscle and hair growth of goats. So far 10 modified goat kids have larger muscles and longer fur than normal goats. The article calls them “designer livestock”.

Lei Qu, a genetic researcher from Yulin, who has implemented CRISPR-Cas9, is quoted as stating, “We believe gene-modified livestock will be commercialized after we demonstrate (that it) is safe.” He predicts it is a simple way to boost the sale of goat meat and cashmere sweaters from his province in China.

The dilemma faced by scientists the world over is that these new genome splicing technologies almost take these experiments out of their hands and put them into the hands of amateurs. This raises alarm bells in most of the scientific community. Most scientists want to rely on peer pressure to limit the behavior of hobbyists. They feel that if enough organizations voice concern and restraint this will cause neophytes to pause before they try major alterations of genetic material. They want self-regulation rather than have the government step in.

A strong case can be made for government regulation to protect the populous and more importantly the genetics of life itself. It would be so easy to alter the DNA of an organism and set it free in the environment that havoc might result. While government control would surely slow down progress and reduce the personal opportunities all these scientists have to make money, it would protect people and the genetics of all living organisms on the planet. The trade-off would be worth it from the perspective of a non-scientist.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or see the original articles used for reference in this article.


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Is Synthetic Biology Now Safe?

Posted on 06 December 2015 by Jerry

A couple of years ago a team led by George Church at Harvard Medical School, which included Farren Isaacs now a synthetic biologist at Yale University, made a strain of Escherichia coli that abandoned an old instruction to terminate protein synthesis and had a new instruction to make a synthetic amino acid within its proteins. It required this new strain of E-coli to look for the new amino acid or die as too reliant on the synthetic amino acid.

Now two teams independently have produced other genetically modified bacteria that are dependent upon amino acids that are not naturally occurring in the environment. Both bacteria will die if not nourished by the synthetic amino acids that of course only occur in a laboratory. This offers a protection should either bacteria escape the laboratory environment.

Dan Mandell, leader of the Harvard Medical School team (with George Church) is quoted in a January 22, 2015 article in Nature magazine as saying, “Our strains, to the extent that we can test them, won’t escape.” The article goes on to state, “The microbes also do not swap their engineered DNA with natural counterparts because they no longer speak life’s shared biochemical language.”

The article continued that the Mandell (and Church) team at Harvard started with protein structures “and added elements to help integrate and accommodate the artificial amino acids.” To the contrary, the Isaacs team from Yale began with genomic sequencing looking for sites in the proteins where microbes could use synthetic amino acids with no detrimental effect on the microbe.

“Establishing safety and security from the get-go will really enable broad and open use of engineered organisms,” stated Farren Isaacs, a Yale synthetic biologist. Farren Isaacs who led the second study was quoted from the same Nature magazine article.

In the original article from Yale that appeared online on on January 21, 2015 the report says, “Here we describe the construction of a series of genomically recoded organisms (GROs) whose growth is restricted by the expression of multiple essential genes that depend on exogenously supplied synthetic amino acids (sAAs).” Farren Isaacs believes in this containment so much that he and Alexis J. Rovner applied for a provisional patent at the US Patent and Trademark Office. A “Corrigendum: Recoded organisms engineered to depend on synthetic amino acids” was filed in conjunction with this report. This filing also identifies Isaacs as a founder of enEvolv, Inc.

Isaacs was also quoted by BBC News on January 21, 2015 as saying “What we’re seeing here is an important proof of concept that re-coding genomes and engineering dependence on synthetic amino acids is technically feasible and in not just E coli but other micro-organisms and multicellular organisms such as plants.”

It would appear it is now possible to develop synthetically modified organisms that would be safer than today’s synthetic organisms. They are dependent on a continuous supply of synthetic amino acids for continued sustenance in all environments. Whether these developments are actually used by other researchers and companies in their products remains to be seen. It is safe to say we should applaud this research as a breakthrough that has the safety of the populous and its environments in mind.

We must increase and continue regulatory oversight over this synthetic biology area. We need caution from the government, private entrepreneurs and venture capitalists concerning synthetic biology experiments. But we should feel heartened that progress is being made and scientists are looking for ways to contain the resulting synthetic organisms.

Use the following links to obtain additional information or access the source articles used for this report.


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