Tag Archive | "China"

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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.

http://go.nature.com/enfxjz

http://go.nature.com/fes1wc

http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-a-path-through-the-thicket-1.18748

http://www.nature.com/news/global-summit-reveals-divergent-views-on-human-gene-editing-1.18971

http://www.nature.com/news/splice-of-life-1.17476

http://iamaguardian.com/category/protect/genetic-engineering/

http://www.nature.com/news/biohackers-gear-up-for-genome-editing-1.18236

http://www.nature.com/news/china-s-bold-push-into-genetically-customized-animals-1.18826

http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-tweak-may-help-gene-edited-crops-bypass-biosafety-regulation-1.18590

http://www.nature.com/news/gene-drive-mosquitos-engineered-to-fight-malaria-1.18858

http://www.nature.com/news/human-genome-editing-summit-to-sample-global-attitudes-1.18879

http://www.nature.com/news/caution-urged-over-editing-dna-in-wildlife-intentionally-or-not-1.18123

http://www.nature.com/news/caution-urged-over-editing-dna-in-wildlife-intentionally-or-not-1.18123

http://www.nature.com/news/future-proofing-1.18977

https://alumni.stanford.edu/get/page/magazine/article/?article_id=82406

http://www.nature.com/news/crispr-the-disruptor-1.17673

http://www.nature.com/news/scientists-sound-alarm-over-dna-editing-of-human-embryos-1.17110

http://www.nature.com/news/don-t-edit-the-human-germ-line-1.17111

http://www.sciencemag.org/content/348/6230/36.summary?sid=0cb82e64-12bf-4f39-b102-24be88c4e5bc

 

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Will the Paris Climate Meeting Make a Difference?

Posted on 24 November 2015 by Jerry

We know this September was the hottest it has been since the year 1880 and that 2015 promises to be the hottest year on record. We also know that the World Meteorological Organization has said that 2016 will be the first year when the carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere will average over 400ppm (parts per million). We have measured the 2015 ozone hole over Antarctica and know that it is the third largest ever observed. It is only eclipsed by holes in the years 2000 and 2006.

We know that planning for the climate change conference in Paris the nations of the world have committed to an amount of greenhouse gas emissions that go over the two degree Celsius limit. The two degree Celsius limit is believed necessary to keep the world’s average temperature at a safe level. They have committed to 2.7° C. The commitments now in hand converted to Fahrenheit are a 4.9° increase and are insufficient.

As a world, at the end of 2015, we will pass the average of one degree Celsius (or 1.8°F) warmer temperature measured since pre-industrial times. This places us as halfway to the 2°C level so frequently talked about.

Even while missing the two degree Celsius limit, cynics point out a number of reservations about the commitments. They first object that the commitments are not real. They were designed to solve other problems as a matter of expedience. These commitments are being repurposed to be for climate change.

The biggest case in point is the commitment from China. They claim the smog over Peking had become so bad the reduction they are committing to is really to eliminate smog in Peking. They point out that China has not cut back on its plans for additional coal fired power plants. They state that getting electricity for the entire country is their primary objective and they will not let this year’s commitment get in the way.

The cynics point out that commitments that span decades can easily be changed along the way. While optimists believe the freedom to change them means they will increase the commitments and achieve their goals earlier, the naysayers suggest they will only weaken commitments as the years pass. Critics say we cannot wait long enough to see because it will be too late to stop an additional rise in heat.

The final big criticism is that many of the commitments that have been made are conditional upon assistance the developed countries will provide to underdeveloped nations. Fully 25% of the world’s commitments are tied to receiving aide from developed nations. The underdeveloped nations are saying they will reduce their greenhouse pollution to a certain level if they receive a certain amount of help from a fund established by developed countries.

So far the potential donor nations must live up to providing the $100 billion per year by 2020 in climate financing to which they have committed. Unfortunately, in lots of areas nations are behind in living up to their commitments to fund various efforts. For example, the Congress of the U.S. for years was late in funding the United Nations.

A gross example is India that has committed to reduce its carbon intensity per unit of gross domestic product by 33% – 35% by 2030 compared to its levels of intensity shown in 2005. This is tied to its commitment to source 40% of its electricity from non-fossil fuel sources consisting largely of renewables and other low-carbon sources by 2030. This commitment will be achieved after it receives $2.5 trillion from the developed countries over the next 15 years. This $2.5 trillion is their estimate of the amount of money they will have to spend to change their energy infrastructure and plans in order to hit their targets.

So the biggest question that remains is “Is there still time?” This is the most difficult question we have. If you look at our average temperature rise we are halfway to our two degree Celsius limit. Should we be looking to the Paris conference to settle all issues or should we be looking at more decades of questioning?

The answer will probably be that there will be more questioning. There are reasons however to be hopeful. We may be seeing tipping points that are good news and should give us optimism that people will do the right thing to save our planet over the long haul ahead.

The Pew Research Center released its November 2015 World Survey of 40 countries (45,435 respondents) that shows a clear majority response to the question ‘Do you support or oppose your country limiting its greenhouse gas emissions as part of an agreement at the 2015 Paris conference?’ All nations of the world (except Pakistan) responded with their majority support for limiting greenhouse gas emissions. The majorities were not small across the countries. Most were greater than 65%. Only Poland, Turkey, Palestinian territory, Indonesia, and South Africa had majorities less that 65%.

In addition, in order to reduce the ozone hole, countries that were parties to the Montreal Protocol of 1987 agreed to take under management the reduction of substitutes for CFCs or hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) which are ozone friendly replacements that are used as refrigerants. Unfortunately, many of the HFC replacements are also very powerful greenhouse gases.

The use of these powerful greenhouse gases has risen as the world replaces the ozone killing CFCs with HFCs. The agreement of the Montreal Protocol countries to extend their management to include HFCs is a boon to fighting climate change. This is in addition to continuing their efforts to reduce the ozone hole. So far these countries have proven effective and tireless at attempting to shrink the ozone hole.

In addition, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has announced it has adopted new rules for the use and management of HFCs. The Department of Defense also has announced plans to use alternate chemicals at some facilities and on its ships. Both of these efforts will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions and fight climate change.

There is also a report that President Obama has 81 U.S. large companies that have signed a pledge committing at least $180 billion to fight climate change. These companies include Intel, Johnson and Johnson, The Hershey Company, Levi Strauss, Nike, and Siemens.

These are all encouraging events that we hope are positive tipping points that indicate more progress in the future. Where human beings are involved, there will always be a good chance that we will do what is right. No matter what happens at the 2015 Paris Climate conference there are hopeful developments that indicate trends that should increase our optimism. We must continue our pressure to make progress on climate change. We cannot afford to give ground and must succeed if we want planet Earth to be a livable habitat.

Use the following links to obtain more information or see the original source documents used to prepare this article.

http://www.nature.com/news/the-week-in-science-30-october-5-november-2015-1.18711 (scroll to second item)

https://www.wmo.int/media/content/large-antarctic-ozone-hole-observed

http://www.cnn.com/2015/01/21/us/climate-change-us-obama/index.html

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/14/un-climate-change-summit-paris-planet-future-balance-science

http://www.livescience.com/10325-living-warmer-2-degrees-change-earth.html

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/news/2014/03/141001-two-degrees-global-warming-climate-science/

http://phys.org/news/2015-02-negative-carbon-dioxide-atmosphere.html

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/nov/09/worlds-climate-about-to-enter-uncharted-territory-as-it-passes-1c-of-warming

http://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-34763036

http://www.smh.com.au/environment/climate-change/global-warming-passes-1-degree-mark-as-el-nino-builds-20151109-gkutqc

http://earthobservatory.nasa.gov/IOTD/view.php?id=86869

http://www.nature.com/news/combined-climate-pledges-of-146-nations-fall-short-of-2-c-target-1.18693

http://www.pewglobal.org/2015/11/05/global-concern-about-climate-change-broad-support-for-limiting-emissions/ (access pdf of entire report)

http://www.theguardian.com/environment/2015/jul/03/indias-climate-pledge-critically-important-says-un-climate-chief

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2015/oct/02/india-pledges-40-percent-electricity-renewables-2030

http://www.bna.com/indias-global-climate-n57982059082/

http://www.nature.com/news/india-unveils-climate-change-pledge-ahead-of-global-talks-1.18489

http://www.indiagazette.com/index.php/sid/237774359

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Ozone Progress but India Pollutes China, U.S.

Posted on 10 September 2015 by Jerry

The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer, effective a little over 25 years ago has been labeled the most successful international agreement in history. Since the banning of substances that destroy the ozone in the upper atmosphere, we have seen concrete improvement or slight shrinkage of the Ozone Hole over the South Pole.

The agreement banned substances used in refrigeration (air conditioning, freezers, etc.) to do away with the ozone hole. Unfortunately, many of the substitutes, hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs), while sparing the ozone, “have a substantial global warming potential.” So says a July 31, 2015 article released by the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development (IGSD).

The article speaks to efforts to get the Open Ended Working Group (OEWG), the group of nations that have been meeting to monitor the original Montreal agreement, to take on the management of the elimination of the HFCs. This would put these parties directly in the middle of the climate change problem.

What gives this move its impetus in part is a working paper issued by the IGSD that says that a quick elimination by 2020 of these HFCs could prevent half a degree of world temperature rise by the year 2100. This is viewed as a significant contribution to progress of efforts to control global warming.

Once again there was disagreement over how best to tackle the issue. Whether it was best to deal with the HFCs in this group or give the issue to those organizations fighting climate change. The last few meetings of this group showed promise when several nations changed their positions. Led by India these countries put forward proposals to confront the problem. Pakistan however, blocked adoption of any one of the four different plans presented by stating that none of the substitutes for the HFCs would be an effective refrigerant against the heat in their country.

At the same time a report published in Nature magazine in its August 10, 2015 issue blamed pollution wafting across the ocean from India and China as the reason the West Coast of the U.S.A. has not made any progress in lowering the ozone pollutants in its atmosphere.  Citing the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory that undertook the study, Nature reported that this Chinese pollution was the reason the Western states of the USA showed no lessening of its atmospheric pollutants after reducing its production of ozone-forming pollutants by 21 percent between 2005 and 2010.

NASAs JPL said in its release that “Scientists from the Netherlands and from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California looked at ozone in the mid-troposphere, about 10,000 to 30,000 feet (3 to 9 kilometers) above ground level….In the mid-troposphere, ozone has a measurable greenhouse effect.”

Finally, scientists have reported on the Nature Geoscience web site on February 16, 2015 that they have discovered that a very short-lived substance, less than six months, is a significant contributor to the destruction of ozone. This article says, “Halogens released from long-lived anthropogenic substances, such as chlorofluorocarbons, are the principal cause of recent depletion of stratospheric ozone, a greenhouse gas.”

Their research results, “Show atmospheric levels of dichloromethane, a short-lived chlorine substance not controlled by the Montreal Protocol, are rapidly increasing. We conclude that potential further significant increases in the atmospheric abundance of short-lived halogen substances, through changing natural processes or continued anthropogenic emissions, could be important for future climate.”

We are seeing unprecedented success to keep the benefits of our ozone depletion fighting efforts. In fact, the choices our scientists have selected are contributing to climate change and they are being pressed into service to start helping with climate change as well.

At the same time we see that our world is interdependent. Our weather and the continued effort are worldwide phenomena and our responsibility. We see that India pollutes China that in turn pollutes the West Coast of the U.S. We also understand there is another chemical that needs to be covered by the Montreal Protocol in order to continue our progress against ozone destruction.

We must not forget the ozone depletion and the danger an ozone hole represents to life on earth. We must continue our forward movement. We must also continue to support those scientists and countries that are fighting to protect our ozone.

Use the following links to access additional information or the original documents used to formulate this article.

http://www.ictsd.org/bridges-news/biores/news/hfc-negotiations-under-the-montreal-protocol-inch-forward

http://www.mepielan-ebulletin.gr/default.aspx?pid=18&catigoryld=12&articleld=215&article=montreal-protocol-inches-closer-to-negotiations-on-hfc-phase-down (Scroll down on right to this article)

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v8/n9/full/ngeo2493.html

http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?release=2015-263

http://phys.org/news/2015-08-china-exporting-ozone-pollution.html

http://www.nature.com/ngeo/journal/v8/n3/full/ngeo2363.html

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The More We Understand Ozone, the Less We Know

Posted on 29 December 2013 by Jerry

The Ozone Hole over the Antarctic in 2013 was slightly smaller than the average sized hole in recent decades.  This has led some scientists to believe we are beginning to see proof that the world’s ozone depletion has leveled off with the first signs of improvement.

Most of the world’s scientists are more cautious however, pegging the first date for when we will see tangible evidence of healing at a decade from now.  At that projected rate, full recovery will not occur until 2070.

In the short term there are annual fluctuations in the size of the hole that have puzzled scientists.  For instance while the size of the 2011 ozone hole was almost as big as that in 2006, which was the largest hole on record, the size of the ozone hole in 2012 was the second smallest on record.

Recent studies indicate that weather patterns play a more important role in the size of the hole in any given year than previously thought.  Dr. Susan Strahan of Nasa’s Goddard Space Center in Maryland said, “We have identified another factor that wasn’t fully recognized before: and that is how much ozone gets brought to the polar regions in the first place, by the winds.”

This revelation has forced scientists to come up with an alternate explanation of the annual size of the ozone hole.  Their analysis is that it depends on the various layers of the stratosphere that are involved and the wind’s influence.  Scientists believe that the more ozone is blown into the lower stratosphere there is a greater supply to destroy and the hole looks bigger.  They believe this is what happened in 2006.

In 2011 the winds blew less ozone into the lower stratosphere so the ozone there was destroyed more quickly making the hole look bigger.  The scientists theorize that in 2012 the ozone was pushed into the upper stratosphere that masks the hole below and makes it look smaller.

This is not our first miscalculation.  When we originally attacked our ozone problem, we were not as sensitive to climate change as we are now.  Instead we were intent on the signing of the 1987 Montreal Protocol addressing ozone depletion.  In order to protect the ozone, parties to the Montreal Protocol approved the use of hydrofluorocarbons (HFCs) to replace the more ozone damaging chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), hydrochlorofluorocarbons (HCFCs) and halons.  Also, selected third world countries were left out of the agreement.  (See January 2013 posting, “Are We Trading Greenhouse Gas for Ozone”).

Unfortunately we have come to regret our endorsement of HFCs as an ecofriendly substitute for CFCs, HCFCs, and halon gas.  While HFCs do not contain chlorine or bromine and therefore do not interact with ozone, they are powerful greenhouse gases that over time could negatively contribute to climate change.  Two varieties of HFC are particularly troubling because of how long they last in the atmosphere.  HFC-134 has an atmospheric lifetime of about 14 years while HFC-23 has a lifetime of 260 years.

In 2013 President Barack Obama announced an agreement in principle with India and signed a formal agreement with China to work at eliminating completely the use of the banned chemicals CFCs, HCFCs and halon gas.  In addition, the June 8, 2013 signed agreement with President Xi of China specifically mentions the threat of HFCs and indicates a willingness to significantly reduce the use of these chemicals as well.

Although this U.S./China document and the accompanying agreement by the G-20 countries on HFCs do not specify concrete steps or binding deadlines they do represent positive developments in the formal recognition of the problem.  The positive sentiments to make progress are encouraging to those of us that continue to be concerned about ozone depletion and global climate change.

Also encouraging are developments by the world’s major chemical producers who have developed alternative chemicals to replace HFCs.  DuPont has specifically mentioned their new family of refrigerants, Opteons, as a suitable replacement for other, more harmful, refrigerants.

Use the following links to obtain more information or see the original source documents:

http://earthsky.org/science-wire/ozone-hole-2013

http://news.yahoo.com/scientists-still-waiting-clear-signs-ozone-hole-healing-202114771.html

http://www.epa.gov/ozone/defns.html

http://www.ghgonline.org/othershfcs.htm

http://www.epa.gov/ozone/intpol/mpagreement.html

http://www.rtcc.org/2012/09/25/hfc-phasedown-can-cut-100bn-tonnes-of-greenhouse-gases-by-2050-dupont/

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Limiting Iran’s Nuclear Program

Posted on 15 December 2013 by admin

There is much controversy about the very limited deal that was struck between Iran the U.S. and other member states of the Security Council of the U.N. plus Germany.  The significance is this marks the first discussion between leaders of the U.S. and Iran since 1979.

The most important step in the agreement is for Iran to freeze its nuclear development program in place except for its nuclear material enrichment activities that it will roll back from a level of 20% enrichment to a level of 5%.  While this may not be seen as significant, the 5% level is the international norm for enriched uranium for power generation while anything over that serves efforts to develop a bomb.

While this agreement is only valid for a six month time period, it is meant to give the two sides enough time to reach a more definitive agreement that will bind both for many years.  In exchange for this short-term agreement, the U.N. will loosen a minor amount of the economic sanctions on Iran.  This will give Iran access to about $7 billion of its assets while retaining sanctions on the rest of the total of about $100 billion that is presently blocked.

Countries such as the U.S., U.K., France, Russia, China and Germany support the treaty.  Regional parties who still do not trust Iran are vehement in their rejection of the deal.  Most particularly Israel and Saudi Arabia oppose any agreement.

It is said that the sanctions imposed on Iran over the years have taken quite a toll on the Iranian economy.  Stretching from sanctions on anything related to nuclear materials, oil, arm sales, certain financial institutions, including the country’s central bank, these steps have made Iran an international pariah.  They have created plummeting oil revenues, the local currency has lost 80% of its value and there is spiraling inflation and layoffs.

Considering the severe impact of the sanctions on Iran, the minor concessions granted during the agreement appear to be well worth the risk. Any agreement would also call for the unlimited access of U.N. inspectors at any interval considered necessary, including daily.  This is a hard learned lesson from previous agreements.

Use the following links to obtain more information about the agreement or to access source documents:

http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/28/world/obama-says-he-spoke-to-irans-president-by-phone.html

http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/24/world/meast/iran-deal-text/index.html

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/nov/24/iran-nuclear-agreement-q-and-a/

http://www.cnn.com/2013/11/24/world/meast/iran-nuclear-deal-qa/index.html

http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/24/netanyahu-iran-deal-israel-nuclear_n_4332906.html/

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