Thursday, February 29, 2024

Genetically Modified Banana Resistant to Panama Disease: Approved in Australia

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Nature, Agriculture, Sustainability, Global Change, Climate Change

Ed Hessler

Bananas suffer a worldwide devastating fungal disease known as Panama Tropical Race 4. So far it has eluded treatment or cure.  
Nature Briefing from the journal Nature reported on February 19, 2024 about a genetically modified (GM) banana known as QCAV - 4 that regulators have "approved in Australia and New Zealand as a 'safety net' in case biosecurity efforts fail to restrict the spread of the disease." Readers were pointed to a story about this development from ABC News, Australia.

Lydia Burton reported the story on QLD Country Hour (QLD = Queensland, Australia). It is comprehensive and includes several pictures.

Burton leads the story with a short summary.

"In short: The genetically modified banana has been developed as an industry back-up in case Panama TR4 breaks out, but will not replace the Cavendish variety.

"Scientists have used a gene from a wild banana that is almost immune to TR4 and placed it in a Cavendish variety. 

"What's next? Scientists hope to use gene editing to develop other disease-resistant and climate-smart varieties to future-proof the banana industry."

In a conversation with James Dale who leads the banana biotechnology program at Queensland University of Technology Burton reports that Dale told her "'About 95 per cent of Australia's bananas are grown in Queensland, and Cavendish banana accounts for 97 per cent of production.'"

The TR4 disease was first reported in an area of Queensland in 2015 and has been quite well controlled with management. However, recent floods have raised concerns about containing it since the fungus thrives in the soil.

Burton ask about biosafety, always first and foremost when GM interventions and crops are grown. Dale commented on one difference in this biotechnology. "'We have moved a banana gene from one banana to another. There's nothing scary, The gene was already present in Cavendish ... it just doesn't work so we have put in a version that works.'"

Burton reports on what's next, e.g., field testing (these are called paddocks in Australia) going from somewhat controlled environments to those that have fewer controls, developing a banana resistant to other diseases and there is one. Again Dale explains. "'The biggest disease other than TR4 in the world is black sigatoka … a leaf-infecting fungus.

"'In Australia, we're very lucky. We have a milder version of that. But in some countries, particularly in Central America, they spray up to 60 times a year to try to control this fungus.'"

And climate change includes new threats according to Dale, the development of "'new cultivars that are able to cope with all these new conditions'" or what Dale refers to as  "'future proofing'." 

Here is the story.

Wednesday, February 28, 2024

Sabine Hossenfelder on Car Emission Standards

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Pollution, Global Change, Climate Change, Sustainability

Ed Hessler

Sabine Hossenfelder takes on "the recent Toyota emissions scandal," which she refers to as the "tip of the iceberg."

She begins with some observations on "the tension between words -- 'lip confessions'"-- and the "confessions that get written into law." 

Hossenfelder explores three examples from Japan, the EU, and the USA." Japan "manipulated the results of emissions tests, again while "in Europe, lawmakers (learned) that their regulations on car emissions have had absolutely no effect." And here, in the United States, "scientists urge the Biden administration to reconsider the export of liquified natural gas." 

Hossenfelder takes a closer look at each in her subscription series on You Tube, "Science News With Sabine Hossenfelder." Transcript and responses are behind the subscription paywall.  
Here is the 8m 37s presentation.
Sabine Hossenfelder's web page and the Wiki entry about her.

Tuesday, February 27, 2024

Fodor's No List: 2024

Monday, February 26, 2024

A Mudhif in Houston

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Sustainability, Biodiversity, Society, Culture, Archeology

Ed Hessler

As you know Iraq's famous marsh wetlands were ordered by Saddam Hussein to be drained  "to deny rebels a place to hide after the Gulf War." The dikes that were constructed resulted in denying them of replenishing spring floods, a cycle of wetland ecology that had been occurring for thousands of years (and also rending a  human culture).

An aspect of this culture is the subject of an essay by Arthur P. Clark in Aramco World (January/February 2024). He tells the story of the construction of a Mudhif, thousands of miles away from the marshes, in Houston. Texas.

Mudhifs are constructed entirely of Phragmites reeds and served "as a hall for senior male village members to consult with their leader, of sheikh, a place to celebrate holidays and hold wkes, and guesthouse for visitors." They have a 5000 year history.

How this happened in Houston is like navigating these dense wetlands, knowing where you want to go, but not knowing what faces you in getting there. In addition, the construction technique has been nearly lost, the master builder who had agreed to do it decided not to, the Phragmites reeds (the species is australis, genus Phragmites) which "grow up to 7.5 meters (24.6 feet) had to be harvested", "the ship carrying the container of reeds...caught fire in the Suez canal and had to be transferred to another vessel, and "customs official tore apart (the) contents of the container (which) had been packaged in components and, of course funds had to be raised. 

One aspect of funding included supporting "a Rice University film student to document the project "which is in "a Rice archive 'to preserve knowledge of mudhif construction--currently known to elders in Iraq--helping to preserve heritage, cultural identity and community.

Iraqi American civil engineer Azzam Alwash stepped in to manage the construction, who said the task which took "about five weeks , or twice the time it takes skilled builders in the marshes." Alwash noted that they were amateurs but "gave the project a '90 percent' grade". Arthur Clark who wrote the story said that "British explorer and writer Wilfred Thesiger would immediately have recognized even the '90 percent' mudhif." Thesiger is the author of The Marsh Arabs.

Some design features of a mudhif include a "pretensioned arch that gives the building stability" (a very clever solution which is described here for this non-concrete structure), "binding ropes "are made of crushed reeds, as are the mats that form the roof" and sides", there is no door, the entry is low so that anyone coming in 'must a sign of respect to the mudhif'" (a wonderful way of saying thanks, they are aligned to take advantage of the prevailing wind (summer temps can exceed 50 degrees Celsius or122 degrees Fahrenheit)".

By the way, the life of a mudhif is about 15 years.

This is also a story of early engineering practices which included trial and error, something that is done in projects today with computer simulations with far less trial and error because so much is known now.

The story is lavishly illustrated by photographer Nick de la Torre. The interior of the finished mudhif was the photograph used on the front cover of Aramco World for January February 2024.

Sunday, February 25, 2024

Scientists and the Public: About One Bridge

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Wildlife, Nature, Art & Environment, Nature of Science, History of Science.

Ed Hessler

Microscopy Today (March 2023) in its Pioneers feature focuses its microscope on Levon Biss who is "best known for his macrophotography of first, insects, and most recently, seeds."

Writer Cameron Varano Casasanta is a AAAS Science and Technology Policy Fellow at the US Department of Defense chose an interesting way to describe Biss asking, often indirectly whether he is any or all of the following.

-- a microscopist 

-- a pioneer 

-- a scientist

-- an explorer of nature

-- a bridge to the public about the wonder of science

-- one who erases the boundary between art and science

For each she provides some evidence and her conclusion--yes, to all of the above leaving the door open to others to draw their own conclusions which is one of the main reasons I cite her work. You may have different views on one or all of the questions. Fine, but include the evidence for your claim. The references and links below provide some sources to use in reaching a decision.

Dr. Casasanta has an extensive section on Biss's construction of his photographic system, including one time when he showed "his rig to a room full of scientists at a notable microscope company."  They offered a collaboration and loaned Biss "a state-of-the-art microscope" and an engineer to train him in its use.  You can read about  those results.

References and Links

Casasanta 's essay.

Casasanta on LinkedIn.

Levon Biss's Website

Casasanta's essay includes a reference and link to the website "Microsculpture - The Insect Portraits of Levon Biss" and I repeat it.
This story reminded me of an observation that the late Harvard evolutionary biologist, Stephen Jay Gould made about science after McLean v. Arkansas Board of Education, where Judge William Overton ruled, on January 5, that Arkansas Act 590 was unconstitutional.

Here is one account from the Arkansas Times by Guy Lancaster, May 31, 2019.
"[S]cience is the pursuit of understanding reality, and in that, science is not so different from other pursuits of ours. Harvard University biologist Stephen Jay Gould, who testified in the McLean trial, recounted later how, when he returned to his hotel room in preparation to leave Little Rock, he encountered a plumber looking for the source of a water leak that had caused the ceiling in the room below to collapse. Said plumber gave the biologist “a fascinating disquisition on how a professional traces the pathways of water through hotel pipes and walls” that “was perfectly logical and mechanistic.” However, when Gould asked the plumber his opinion on the trial across the street, “he confessed his staunch creationism, including his firm belief in the miracle of Noah’s flood.” Apparently, the plumber did not recognize the fact that the principles underlying his own work — tracing effects back to causes — also served as the foundation of evolutionary biology."

Saturday, February 24, 2024

Nature Podcast February 21, 2024

Science & Environmental Education, STEM, Miscellaneous

Ed Hessler

Nature Podcast - February 21 2024

From the entry in Nature News, British science journal Nature, February 21, 2024

--At 00:45 Why are humans so helpful? About cooperation.

--At 10:55 Research Highlights. About the discovery of the discovery of an ancient stone wall discovered underwater AND teasing in great apes.

--At 13:14 The DVD makes a comeback

--At 20:10 Briefing Chat The famous fossil that turned out to be a fraud, and why researchers are making hybrid ‘meat-rice’.

Here is the article from the journal Nature by Benjamin Thompson and Nick Petric Howe which includes podcast access. This includes full descriptions, information about the publication on which the story is based, and often access to supporting materials and popular articles.

Here is the podcast in the event access is denied.  It is just the podcast.


Friday, February 23, 2024

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment

Ed Hessler

See also the Wiki entry on Ben-Yitzak.

Thursday, February 22, 2024

Moths and Light Bulbs

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Biodiversity, Biological Evolution, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

"Moths love a light bulb. And it’s not just moths — all sorts of insects congregate around artificial lights at night. But what makes these lights so apparently attractive?"

New research shows...which is explained in this video (7 m 07 s) from the British journal Nature.

The original research report which was published in Nature is linked below the video.

Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Dr. Gerti Cori: What She Left Behind

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Science & Society, History of Science

Ed Hessler

Dr. Gerti Cori who shared the 1947 Nobel Prize in Physiology with her husband, Dr. Carl Cori, and Dr. Bernardo Houssay, is the subject of The Right Chemistry, Montreal Gazette, February 3, 2024, in a video by Dr. Joe Schwarz of the Office for Science & Society, University of Montreal.
Each of the Cori's received 1/4 of the prize with Houssay receiving 1/2.

Perhaps some marathon organizers will one day have a run in recognition of her contribution to running.

Here is the 4 m 53 s video.

Tuesday, February 20, 2024

David Tillman and Cedar Creek Ecosystem Science Reserve

Monday, February 19, 2024

Health Issues and Age of United States Presidential Candidates

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Health, Medicine, Miscellaneous, Science & Society, History of Science, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

A Reading Recommendation

The author is Lawrence K. Altman who has "reported on the health of every president since Reagan."

Altman reported "on the health of American and foreign political leaders for the New York Times, bringing (his) experience as a physician to what became a new journalism niche." Altman is a clinical professor of medicine at New York University.

The period Altman covers is from Reagan to the current candidates, Trump and Biden. He discusses problems with Special Counsel Robert Hur's report in which Biden's cognitive capacities were called into question. Altman reminds us that  "Hur is a lawyer, not a doctor with expertise in evaluating cognitive function decline."

It may seem long - my access copy is frequently divided into sections by announcements, etc. so I suspect it is not as long as it appears. The important thing is that it is reported in sufficient detail to inform. He reviews one reason we can't draw conclusions from the Hur report. So far full access to the tapes and transcripts have not been made available.
Altman closes with some advice for all of us.

What is indisputable "is that risks of developing many ailments increase with advancing age. A particular concern is the incidence of Alzheimer's and other forms of dementia among older people." Altman cites studies showing "that 17% of Americans aged 75 to 84 years and 32% if those 85 or older have dementia.

"But that means more than two-thirds do not have dementia. (My underline)

"It would behoove voters and political journalists to keep that in mind." (My italics)

Sunday, February 18, 2024

A Nature Podcast

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Biodiversity, Nature of Science, History of Science, Earth & Space Science, Earth Systems, Sustainability, Nature, Wildlife

Ed Hessler

A UK science journal Nature podcast to which you can listen in its entirety how you want. Because it is divided into segments you can listen to one and return or simply choose the one that interests you. The podcast is 35m 23s long.

You can listen to all of it or decide which segments you want to hear. 

What follows are the menu descriptions provided below the podcast. Each provides a link to relevant reports,  research article; research highlights, news features, and Nature news..

0:46  Borrowing tricks from cancer could help improve immunotherapy. The link, 0.46 is hot.

T-cell based immunotherapies have revolutionized the treatment of certain types of cancer. However these therapies — which involve taking someone’s own T cells and reprogramming them to kill cancer cells — have struggled to treat solid tumours, which put up multiple defences. To overcome these, a team has taken mutations found in cancer cells that help them thrive and put them into therapeutic T cells. Their results show these powered-up cells are more efficient at targeting solid tumours, but don’t turn cancerous themselves.

11:39 Research Highlights:

How researchers solved a submerged-sprinkler problem named after Richard Feynman, and what climate change is doing to high-altitude environmental records in Switzerland.

14:28 What might the car batteries of the future look like?

As electric cars become ever more popular around the world, manufacturers are looking to improve the batteries that power them. While conventional lithium-ion batteries have dominated the electric vehicle market for decades, researchers are developing alternatives that have better performance and safety — we run though some of these options and discuss their pros and cons.

25:32 Briefing Chat:

How a baby’s-eye view of the world helps an AI learn language, and how the recovery of sea otter populations in California slowed rates of coastal erosion.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

One Year of Young Moons

Friday, February 16, 2024

Friday Poem

Environmental & Science Education, Poetry, Art & Environment, Children

Ed Hessler

Mother to Son by Langston Hughes - February 1, 1902 - May 22, 1967.

Thursday, February 15, 2024

The Death of Kenneth Eugene Smith Through the Eyes of an Informed Anesthesiologits.

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Science & Society, Nature of Science, History of Science

Ed Hessler

On January 25, 2024, nitrogen gas was used to execute Kenneth Eugene Smith, a death row inmate in Alabama. Of course, the following is disturbing but this issue cannot be avoided under current conditions.

Anesthesiologist Joel Zivot of the Emory School of Medicine applied "to attend as a member of the media but the Alabama Department of Corrections granted only permission for him to be "near the prison, but without a mechanism of direct observation...I decided not to attend. Instead, I learned the details of Smith's death by the accounting of the few who were there".

Dr. Zivot wrote a First Opinion piece for STAT, January 29, 2024 which is linked below.

There are two competing stories about Smith's death: "humane and effective" and "cruel and tortuous". Some points Zivot makes follow.

--"Executions are highly curated events."  Witnesses who view the "execution must surrender their cellphones, paper, pen, and watch. They can use only memory to record what they see."

--"Alabama shared facts of the preamble" to the execution in great detail" --what he had for breakfast and the final meal.

--The execution was described by the Alabama Department of Corrections as "textbook" However, this was the first death in which nitrogen gas was used, causing Zivot to wonder: Where might I find such a textbook?"

--The claim has been made that the gas "would lead to unconsciousness in seconds, and death would rapidly follow. Witnesses observed something else: convulsions and minutes of open eyes. "And that's as much as we know. The viewing curtain was closed to witnesses before the official time of death. Reports vary from 22 minutes to 28 minutes following administration of the gas. Zitov writes that the witness reports appear to be accurate. This leads Zitov to claim that the intent was to torture." Zitov reminds us that his execution was punishment not torture.

--I'd forgotten that this was the second attempt by the state to execute him and the second time Alabama had failed because they didn't have a piece of  necessary equipment.

--Zitov makes some comments on what he knows about death, us he knows a great deal about death based on research with death row inmates who are injected. It turns out that it is by "drowning in your own blood."

--In describing Smith's death, Zitov draws our attention to Smith's death, writing that it "was devoid of anything that could be confused with a scientific investigation apart from the petty theft of a few scientific-sounding words." He reminds us that it is "only by watching can we know that an execution is or is not cruel."

--Smith was given two choices: death by injection or gas. About this Zitov write "In asking for nitrogen, Smith hoped to die by a method that would not be torture. He did not get his wish."

I think this thoughtful essay is "must reading."
Dr. Zivot's profile.

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Cornell Bird Academy: Woodpeckers

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Biodiversity, Wildlife, Nature, Biological Evolution

Ed Hessler

The Cornell Bird Academy of the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology has a new on-line course, "The Wonderful World of Woodpeckers". The announcement includes a preview where you will learn "what makes a woodpecker....then see if you can spot the difference between male and female woodpeckers from around the world."

Kevin McGowan is the course instructor.

What a diverse and beautiful group of birds as you will see in a video from the course.

Tuesday, February 13, 2024

Mammoth Roamings

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Behavior, Wildlife, Paleontology, Genetics, Molecular Biology, Nature of Science

Ed Hessler

Thanks to the curiosity of University of Alaska - Fairbanks isotope scientist, Matthew Wooler, much is known about a wooly mammoth named Kik. He was born ~ 17100 years ago in the area of Alaska that is now known as the "mammoth steppe". This area is shown on a map accompanying a story about Kik and how it has been possible to learn so much about him. It is by Richard Grant in Smithsonian Magazine (November 2023).

The map is at the bottom of the preceding link with a short story about Kik by Ted Scheinman. The map is by Haisam Hussein. The story and the map add some details not included in the story.

Grant reviews what prompted Wooler to do the study, the chemistry of isotopes and how they were used to answer Wooler's motivating question ("'Where does a mammoth move?"). Wooler "'compares a mammoth tusk to a diary written in ivory'"; how the tusk was selected, the challenge of "splitting the roughly 50-pound tusk (it is five-and-a-half feet long) in two," and how it was then treated for laboratory analysis. We also learn how Kik got his name.

Because it was known where he died, isotopic analysis could be used to travel his walks backwards. It was learned that at about age 16 "Kik broadened his range" and according to the researchers this is when he likely left the matriarchal herd "to wander alone or with other males, like a male elephant who has reached sexual maturity."
Details of Kik's final summer are known. It is likely that he was starving. Patrick Druckenmiller, a contributor to the study, explains. "When an animal starts to starve, it essentially eats its own body, and you get a very distinctive nitrogen spike." The analysis shows such a spike Kik was middle aged at his death (28 yo) based on "the average lifespan of an Arctic woolly mammoth (which) has been estimated at 60" yo.

The story of how the map of Kik's movements was created tells "how rodents' teeth offered the key mapping aid," one many of us would not have suspected

This story is also tells us of how scientists work and reason (including the use of good old common sense informed, I think, by some facts known about this group of mammals). And in terms of what's next, the Wooler group is "now analyzing another mammoth tusk...from the Alaskan interior, (likely) a female, about 19 years old, who lived around 14000 years ago". This is just before mammoths went extinct and "at a period when humans were on the landscape."
Kik faced some very dangerous predators; it is possible that this female faced another, new to her and other woolly mammoths: "us" as Grant writes. 

Quirks & Quarks, CBC News, Bob McDonald, devoted a segment (~ 8 m 30 s) to the travel tales told by an analysis of Kik's tusk. You may listen to the conversation here. It is the third one for which you must scroll down.

Monday, February 12, 2024

The First Enzyme Known to Break Silicon-Carbon Bonds

Environmental & Science Education, STEM, Nature of Science, History of Science, Science & Society

Ed Hessler

-- Our enzyme is terrible. It's not a good enzyme, but it shows that it can be done. -- Frances Arnold, 2018 Chemistry Nobel Laureate.

Chemical & Engineering News just reported a story by Bethany Halford, writing for the January 29, 2024 issue. She begins by describing a difficult problem.stating that by "using directed evolution, scientists have created the first enzyme known to break a silicon-carbon bond. The finding could be a preliminary step toward biodegrading volatile methyl siloxanes—chemicals that are made by the megaton each year."

Here are short quote from Halford's essay to whet your appetite.

--Nicholas Sarai who is the first author said "'Part of the reason we embarked on this research was the detrimental effects of siloxanes on biota as well as the environment." He was a Caltech graduate student in Frances Arnold's laboratory when he worked on the project.

"Arnold is known for creating enzymes that can forge new bonds...The work got the attention of scientists at Dow, a major producer of volatile methyl siloxanes, who reached out to Arnold to see if her lab could develop an enzyme that broke Si–C bonds. Arnold and Dow’s Dimitris Katsoulis led the latest project."

 --“'We’ve only been able to demonstrate that chemistry on one methyl group,' Sarai says. He notes that oxidizing a single Si–C bond in a volatile methyl siloxane does not biodegrade the molecule. 'But it is a proof of concept that enzymes are able to do this silicon-carbon bond cleavage.'"
--This is a hard problem as Frances Arnold explains “'There are no organosilicons in nature. And that’s why nature doesn’t break them down,'” Arnold says. 'It’s just a bond that nature doesn’t really care about.'”

Halford closes with two comments from siloxane researchers on the finding as well as ideas for further research.

Halford's essay is short and may be read here.