Category: Environment

Three ways synthetic biology could annihilate Zika and other mosquito-borne diseases

In just a few short weeks, Zika has shot from being an obscure infection to a headline-hitting public health disaster. The virus is spreading rapidly across the Americas (and potentially beyond), is suspected of being associated with birth defects that affect brain development and currently has no specific vaccine or treatment. Understandably, scientists are scrambling to respond to what the World Health Organization is now calling a “Public Health Emergency of International Concern.” In the arsenal of weapons against the mosquito-borne disease, there are tried and tested approaches that include the liberal application of insecticides and repellents, widespread use of mosquito nets and elimination of breeding sites. Yet to combat Zika and other mosquito-borne disease, more is needed. Which is why scientists are increasingly turning to emerging technologies such as synthetic biology for solutions. The joke goes that if you get 10 synthetic biologists in a room together, you’ll get 10 different explanations of what they do. After all, synthetic biology is a young and rapidly evolving field. But underneath this lack of clarity lies a clear and profound shift in our technological capabilities – the ability to “upload” genetic code to computers, edit and manipulate it, and then “download” it into living organisms. In effect, we’ve discovered how to hack biology – how to code in DNA and computer-design living things. It’s early days yet – biology is complex and messy and doesn’t follow the same rules as computer code. But increasingly, scientists are learning how to use synthetic biology to change how organisms operate – including insects that carry dangerous human diseases, such as Zika. Aedes aegypti mosquitoes carry Zika, dengue and chikungunya. Paulo Whitaker Turn off a gene and goodbye mosquitoes Using synthetic biology-based genetic engineering techniques, the British company Oxitec (owned by U.S.-based Intrexon Corp) has

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Cancer - Countering the bad luck hypothesis

A new study has just been published in the journal Nature that calls the so-called “bad luck hypothesis”of cancer formation into question, and concludes that cancer risk is heavily influenced by external factors.

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Are vegetarian diets really more harmful to the environment

Carnegie Mellon University had an eye-catching headline on its news feed this morning: Eat More Bacon. It was based on a new study that suggests fruit and veg have a higher environmental impact per calorie than meat. However, the analysis failst to take account of the nutritional needs in a healthy diet.

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Are you breathing carbon nanotubes and should you be worried

For over two decades, carbon nanotubes have been attracting attention.  First, they were seen as a super-strong, super-conductive new form of carbon that could potentially revolutionize everything from space travel to drug delivery.  Later, concerns were raised that these long, thin, fiber-like materials might cause or exacerbate lung diseases if inhaled. Now, a new study in the journal EBioMedicine has suggested that these microscopic carbon fibers are ubiquitous in the air many of us breathe every day.  And the obvious question that results is: should you be worried? The new paper – a collaboration between scientists in Paris in France, and Texas in the US – analyzed carbon particles found in lung fluid samples from 64 asthmatic children living in Paris.  Using high resolution Transmission Electron Microscopy (TEM), they found carbon nanotube-like fibers in each sample.  Similar fibers were found in lung cells from five patients, and dust samples taken from deposits around vehicle tailpipes, and inside buildings close to minor roads. The authors concluded that carbon nanotube are the main component of inhaled particulate matter. At first blush, the paper seems alarming – carbon nanotubes that could be harmful were found in the lungs of children with a lung condition.  However – as the authors acknowledge in the paper – the results, while interesting, don’t provide evidence that these exposures are a health risk. To start with, it wasn’t too surprising that some fibrous carbon-based particle were found in the samples.  Research over the past ten years has indicated that carbon nanotube-like particles are incidentally formed as a by-product in a number of high temperature processes.  In 2006 for instance, Murr and Guerrero found multiwalled carbon nanotubes in soot collected from burning pine wood.  And in 2013, Jung and colleagues found carbon nanotubes amongst diesel exhaust particles under controlled

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New-report-on-sustainable-hydraulic-fracking

Back in 2011 – while I was Director of the University of Michigan Risk Science Center – I was part of a larger team exploring the possibility of conducting a full-blown assessment of hydraulic fracturing (fracking) possibilities and pitfalls in Michigan.  We were interested in applying the Integrated Assessment methodology developed at the University of Michigan to a growing challenge – the sustainable development and use of fracking. Four years later, the final report from the resulting program on high volume hydraulic fracturing in Michigan has just been published. This represents three intensive years of research and analysis by University of Michigan experts in evaluating fracking options across multiple dimensions, and developing options for proceeding sustainably. While the report focuses on Michigan, the analysis is broadly applicable to other states and beyond, and provides a deep and broad analysis of fracking. The program  set out to explore the best environmental, economic, social, and technological approaches for managing hydraulic fracturing in the State of Michigan.  Today’s final report presents options for moving forward sustainably that cover public participation in decision making, use of water resources, chemicals use policies.  It also provides a comprehensive introduction to fracking, and the challenges and opportunities it presents. Complimenting the final report are seven technical reports that address the technology of fracking; the geological/hydrological context of fracking; environment and ecology considerations; public health issues, policy and law aspects of fracking; the economics of fracking; and public perception around fracking. Together with today’s report, these provide an exceptionally comprehensive overview of the multidimensional challenges presented by fracking, and the options available to develop sustainable uses of the technology. While I’m no longer at Michigan, I’m proud that the Risk Science Center and its members were able to contribute support and expertise to this initiative, as part of helping enable informed decisions on risk within society. Feature image: Process of

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Microbeads the science behind the risk

There’s a new viewpoint article in the Journal Environmental Science and Technology that calls for a ban on the use of microbeads, based on available evidence, and that has been causing something of a stir. The authors argue that the number of microbeads being washed into the environment from personal care products raises sufficient concerns to justify replacing them with alternative materials, or removing them from products altogether. These small beads of plastic – usually polyethylene – are added to many personal care products products like facial scrubs, shampoos, and even toothpaste – as an exfoliant.  The problem is, they are designed to wash down the sink, where they get into environmental water systems.  And because they don’t degrade, they accumulate, and eventually enter the food chain. More worryingly, they have a tendency to adsorb toxic materials such as dioxins – making them even more worrisome. Totally serendipitously, the latest video from Risk Bites takes a look at the science behind microbead risks. – worth watching as a quick and understandable primer on the issue. The video was made in collaboration with Ana Sophia Knauf, who is the author of a new series on cosmetics, health and the environment on Grist.org.  It also had valuable input from Professor Sherri (Sam) Mason at the State University of New York at Fredonioa – a leading expert on microbead contamination. One comment from Sam that isn’t highlighted particularly in the video – but is important – is that microbeads are just one segment of the growing issue of microplastics in bodies of water.  These millimeter-sized fragments of plastic are what becomes of the masses of plastic products we discard into the environment and that make their way into our rivers, lakes and oceans.  Sam pointed out that, because these fragments are often odd sizes, they have

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Lubchenco - delivering on science's social contract

In 1998, then-president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Dr. Jane Luchenco called for a “New Social Contract with science”. She argued that, in the face of emerging challenges, scientists needed to rethink their roles and responsibilities within society. Next Wednesday she will be examining how far we’ve come – and how far we still need to go – on delivering on science’s social contract, at the University of Michigan meeting on Academic Engagement in Public and Political Discourse.

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Cross-posted from Risk Sense This week’s Risk Bites video takes a roller-coaster ride through some of the hottest topics in risk science. Admittedly this is a somewhat personal list, and rather constrained by being compressed into a two and a half minute video for a broad audience. But it does touch on some of the more exciting frontier areas in reducing health risk and improving well-being through research and its application. Here are the five topics that ended up being highlighted: BIG DATA   Despite pockets of cynicism over the hype surrounding “big data”, the generation and innovative use of massive amounts of data are transforming how health risks are identified and addressed. With new approaches to data curation, correlation, manipulation and visualization, seemingly disconnected and impenetrable datasets are becoming increasingly valuable tools for shedding new insights into what might cause harm, and how to avoid or reduce it. This is a trend that has been growing for some years, but is now rapidly gaining momentum. Just four examples of how “big data” is already pushing the boundaries of risk science include: High throughput toxicity screening, where rapid, multiple toxicity assays are changing how the potential hazards of new and existing substances are evaluated; “Omics”, where genomics, proteomics, metabolomics, exposomics and similar fields are shedding new light on the complex biology at the human-environment interface and how this impacts on health and well-being; Risk prediction through the integrated analysis of related datasets; and Designing new chemicals, materials and products to be as safe as possible, by using sophisticated risk data analysis to push risk management up the innovation pipeline. CLOUD HEALTH, or C-HEALTH   Hot on the tails of mobile-health, the convergence of small inexpensive sensors, widespread use of smart phones and cloud computing, is poised to revolutionize how risk-relevant

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Call me a fool, but I recently agree to join the editorial board of the new Springer journal Environment, Systems and Decisions (formerly The Environmentalist).  Actually it was a bit of a no-brainer – I’ve been looking for a journal to get involved with that more closely matched my interests in risk, technology innovation and decision-making for some time, and this fit the bill pretty well. The newly re-branded journal is set to hit the streets next year, and to kick things off we are putting together a special issue on Scenario and Risk Analysis – details below (and also downloadable here).  If you are interested in submitting a paper for the special edition, the deadline for submission is June 30.

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Cross-posted from the Risk Science Blog The World Economic Forum Global Risks Report is one of the most authoritative annual assessments of emerging issues surrounding risk currently produced. Now in its seventh edition, the 2012 report launched today draws on over 460 experts* from industry, government, academia and civil society to provide insight into 50 global risks across five categories, within a ten-year forward looking window. Global Risk Landscape 2012. Source: World Economic Forum Global Risks 2012, Seventh Edition As you would expect from such a major undertaking, the report has its limitations. There are some risk trends that maybe aren’t captured as well as they could be – chronic disease and pandemics are further down the list this year than I would have expected. And there are others that capture the headlining concerns of the moment – severe income disparity is the top-listed global risk in terms of likelihood. But taken as a whole, the trends highlighted capture key concerns and the analysis provides timely and relevant insight. Risks are addressed in five broad categories, covering economic, environmental, geopolitical, societal and technological risks. And cutting across these, the report considers three top-level issues under the headings Seeds of Dystopia (action or inaction that leads to fragility in states); How Safe are our Safeguards? (unintended consequences of over, under and unresponsive regulation); and The Dark Side of Connectivity (connectivity-induced vulnerability). These provide a strong framework for approaching the identified risks systemically, and teasing apart complex interactions that could lead to adverse consequences. But how does the report relate to public health more specifically? The short answer is that many of the issues raised have a direct or indirect impact on public health nationally and globally. Many of the issues are complex and intertwined, and are deserving of much more attention

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Here’s an interesting idea – build a free iPad app that kicks off a global conversation about the future of the human species. The Human Project is the brain child of Erika Ilves & Anna Stillwell.  At its core is a yet-to-be-built iPad app that captures the essence of humanity past and future – who we are, where we are going, and how we are going to get there.  As Erika and Anna explain: There are so many challenges that confront the species as a whole. The ones that get a lot of press (like climate change, food & water shortages, poverty, war, overpopulation and economic crises). The ones that don’t (like comets and asteroids, extreme experiments in science, technological terror and error). The ones that we humans don’t even imagine we can solve (like mega volcanoes, mega earthquakes, nearby supernova explosions, a dying sun, an aging universe). And there are plenty of visions too (like a space-faring civilization, transhumanism, zero carbon world, general artificial intelligence, the end of poverty, universal human rights, designing life and matter, zero nuclear weapons, the end of aging). Everything is so fragmented. Every expert claims their issue matters most. Everyone fighting for their share of attention. So few have the big picture. Nobody seems to have their eye on the species as a whole. So why not capture the big picture in a compellingly sleek package, make it free, and watch it take off? Sounds like a great idea.  But here’s the kicker – someone has to pay for the up-front development.  To cover this, a crowd-funding initiative has just been launched on Kickstarter – if $25,000 are raised by Sept 28, a matching $25k is put in the pot, and the project goes ahead. If you are interested in finding out more, check

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Friends of the Earth have just released a new report challenging claims that nanotechnology will lead to greener, more energy-efficient technologies, lower-impact technologies. I’ve only had the chance to skim through the report so far, and so don’t have detailed comments on it.  But on my initial skim a number of things struck me:

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Ten years ago at the close of the 20th century, people the world over were obsessing about the millennium bug – an unanticipated glitch arising from an earlier technology.  I wonder how clear it was then that, despite this storm in what turned out to be a rather small teacup, the following decade would see unprecedented advances in technology – the mapping of the human genome, social media, nanotechnology, space-tourism, face transplants, hybrid cars, global communications, digital storage, and more.  Looking back, it’s clear that despite a few hiccups, emerging technologies are on a roll – one that’s showing no sign of slowing down. So what can we expect as we enter the second decade of the twenty first century?  What are the emerging technology trends that are going to be hitting the headlines over the next ten years? Here’s my list of the top ten technologies I think are worth watching. I’m afraid that, as with all crystal ball gazing, it’s bound to be flawed. Yet as I work on the opportunities and challenges of emerging technologies, these do seem to be areas that are ripe for prime time.

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By George Kimbrell, International Center for Technology Assessment, and the Center for Food Safety A guest blog in the Alternative Perspectives on Technology Innovation series Andrew asked us to write about “how technological innovation should contribute to life in the 21st century.”  Technological innovation is often blindly referred to as “progress.”  The question is — progress towards what? We live in the age of technology.  In past generations, most people spent the majority of their time in nature, and then in later years more often in social settings.  In the modern world, most of us spend an ever-increasing amount of time in an interconnected web of machines.  I’d like to say I’m writing this on a riverside, but unfortunately I’m not – I’m in my office typing on my laptop, with my email open on a different web browser. What currently drives this technological innovation, this technological bubble that defines our age?  In modern society, self-interest, greater productivity, greater consumption, the laws of supply and demand and the commoditization of the world are all drivers.  This economic system, which has now succeeded in global hegemony, dictates all our social interactions. Far from being a natural state of being, it is of course only as old as the United States (Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations was published in 1776) and not based on any natural law.

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It feels good to be ahead of the curve sometimes. About this time last year, I was slaving away painting my roof white – much to the bemusement of my Northern Virginia neighbors and friends. So I couldn’t help feeling just a little smug this morning as I read that US Secretary of Energy Steve Chu is also a great fan of roof-painting to combat global warming…

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Back in April, the folks at the PBS station THIRTEEN asked me to answer 13 questions on nanotechnology and the environment for their website feature Green Thirteen.   The questions ended up covering most of nanotechnology – what it is, what it’s good for, what the downsides might be, and how we might overcome potential problems to use it effectively.  With this in mind, I thought it worth posting the Q&A here as a brief nanotechnology primer…

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Reading yesterday’s New York Times, it seems China could well be poised to leapfrog the West in advanced battery technology (China Vies to Be World’s Leader in Electric Cars). According to the article, Chinese leaders have adopted a plan aimed at turning the country into one of the leading producers of hybrid and all-electric vehicles within three years, and making it the world leader in electric cars and buses after that. If they deliver the goods, the economic ramifications will be significant.  But then so will the resulting breakthroughs in battery technology. Despite our ever-increasing addiction to battery-powered gizmos, current technologies are seriously limited.  My laptop and cell-phone (and this morning, my e-book) constantly seem to die at most inopportune moments.  And remembering to recharge the 1001 things in my life that depend on batteries (while working out which recharger goes with which device) is a time-suck I could easily live without. No question, personal electronics are desperately in need of a major battery upgrade. But that’s small fry compared to the challenges of developing usable batteries for power-hungry cars. The problem is, it’s hard to get electricity into batteries fast; hard to get it out again; and once you’ve got a lot of it in there, hard to prevent the battery having a melt-down—remember the stories of igniting/exploding PC batteries?  These are tractable problems for the small stuff—cell phones and the like—but they present enormous obstacles to scaling up batteries large enough to power cars. Yet developing battery-powered cars makes a lot of sense…

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Part 1 of a series on rethinking science and technology for the 21st century We live in a crowded, science and technology-dependent word.  And things aren’t getting any better!  The global population is currently around 6.8 billion.  Over the next four years it’s projected to grow to over 7 billion.  And by 2050, the US Census Bureau estimates there will be over 9.5 billion men women and children on the planet; all of them expecting food, water, shelter, and a first world standard of living.  The only way such demands can be met—if indeed they can be (and it’s a big “if”)—is through the increasingly sophisticated and strategic use of science and technology. The level of scientific knowledge and technological ability that exists now underpins modern society.  Remove it, and things collapse.  But what is less obvious is that science and technology need to continually develop in a changing world.  As new challenges, needs and wants arise, we need a steady stream of new knowledge and new technology innovation.  Without science progress and technology innovation, our ability to sustain a healthy global society will not keep pace with the challenges to achieving this. Of course, this is nothing new. 

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Like it or not, society is dependent on science and technology.  The only way we can cram 6 billion people plus onto the earth and use resources at the rate we do, is through the support of scientific discovery and technology innovation.  Take our technology-based infrastructure away and civilization as we know it would collapse. Perhaps more worrying, our dependency on science and technology is accelerating.  The world’s population continues to grow, lifestyle expectations are going up, and supporting technologies are becomes increasingly sophisticated.  But this “progress” can only be sustained through increasing the rate with which new discoveries are made and new technology innovations are implemented. At some point this cycle of technology addiction probably needs to be broken if society is to avoid a rather nasty crash.  But I suspect that such a crash is some way off yet.  And it is entirely plausible that the solution for avoiding such a crash will itself arise from technology-based innovation. Which means that if global society is to continue to mature and prosper, we have to get the whole science and technology enterprise right. The only alternative is to face a radical “recalibration” of society, leading to a population level and demands on resources that are more in keeping with the Earth’s load-carrying capacity. Assuming that we want to avoid a rapid and potentially catastrophic reduction in the world’s population, we need to ask whether the way we currently “do” science and technology is good enough.  And if it isn’t what needs to change?

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It’s been a big week for geoengineering.  First there was the news that the world’s largest geoengineering experiment to date is about to start in the Southern Ocean.  Following close behind was a new study on how geoengineering projects could potentially impact global climate change, ranging from covering vast tracts of desert with a reflective coating to suspending giant mirrors in space.  And today sees the publication of a new paper in the journal Nature indicating that, while fertilizing oceans with iron compounds can remove carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, the sequestration rate is far lower than previously estimated. Reading through these and other accounts, it seems clear that the deliberate modification of the Earth’s environment on a vast scale is rapidly moving from the realms of fantasy to those of possibility.  Almost overnight it seems, geoengineering has become respectable. Climate change is largely responsible—it has hammered home the message more than anything else perhaps that humanity is now able to influence the environment on a global scale.  Just the sheer magnitude of the possible impacts of global warming has made people think seriously about countering the effects through mega-engineering.  And the simple realization that our actions can make a difference to the global environment has contributed to an intellectual leap of imagination; scientists and engineers now have the audacity to think “yes we can” when it comes to countering anthropogenic climate change with engineered interventions. This would all be wishful thinking though if it wasn’t for rapid advances in science and technology that are underpinning the emerging “yes we can” geoengineering mentality.  Although its early days still, scientists and engineers are beginning to develop the understanding and tools to put grand schemes into place, and start playing around with Earth’s systems on a global scale. This confluence of need,

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