Masters of Our World: Should We Use Gene Drives to Control the Ecosystem?

Picture Credit: Michael Morgenstern | Science News

Some have called it a magic wand. Others have referred to it as the beginning of a new scientific revolution. Regardless of how you may see it, it’s a subject matter that shouldn’t be discussed by only scientists.

CRISPR-Cas9 is the latest state-of-the-art gene editing tool that has taken over the scientific community in recent years. While the concept of modifying DNA is certainly not a new invention, CRISPR’s main strength lies its transformation of the complicated process of gene editing into something quick, efficient, precise and ridiculously cheap. In other words, it has the potential to cut out undesirable segments of DNA, eradicate hereditary diseases and even guide humanity to a future where people can shape their body into whatever they want. It’s what discouraged many people from thinking that something like designer babies is “unlikely,” but rather as something “inevitable.”

One area of CRISPR research that has gained a lot of attention recently is the development of gene drive technology, which may give humans the power to modify or even exterminate entire species in the wild. According to evolutionary biologist and gene drive pioneer Kevin Esvelt, the purpose of a gene drive is to use CRISPR to override the traditional rules of Mendelian inheritance and introduce a genetic change in organisms that will be passed down to nearly all of its descendants.

In a typical situation, a parent organism can only pass down its genome to half of its offspring as per the rules of inheritance discovered by Gregor Mendel, the father of modern genetics. As a result, even if scientists were able to genetically modify organisms in the past, they would still encounter immense difficulty in forcing specific genetic changes across an entire population. With gene drive, however, that 50-50 chance of inheritance can skyrocket to as high as 99 percent. This, of course, has groundbreaking implications.

“The ability to edit populations of sexual species would offer substantial benefits to humanity and the environment. For example, RNA-guided gene drives could potentially prevent the spread of disease, support agriculture by reversing pesticide and herbicide resistance in insects and weeds, and control damaging invasive species… [G]ene drives will be capable of influencing entire ecosystems for good or for ill,” stated Esvelt when he first introduced the possibility of using CRISPR to develop gene drives.

We possess the technology to change the world’s ecosystems, but does that mean we should use it? Many people certainly seem to think so, and the proposed benefits seem irrefutable. For instance, one innovative project currently underway is the use of gene drives to eliminate malaria from mosquitoes. Scientists are working on genetically modifying the Anopheles gambiae mosquito, a species known for spreading the malaria parasite so that the female mosquitoes become sterile. That way, once these modified mosquitoes are released into the wild, they can breed with other members of their species and effectively die off. Other scientists are looking towards using gene drive to wipe out invasive species and save endangered native animals.

Esvelt himself has become heavily involved in gene drive technology. His current project aims to reduce the rate of Lyme disease on Nantucket Island in Massachusetts by genetically modifying the island’s white-footed mice to become immune to the disease. Then, ticks will be unable to transfer the bacteria that cause the disease, and the entire transmission cycle will collapse.

However, as promising as all this may sound, it’s doubtful that gene drives will provide a lasting, viable solution. In fact, it’s possible that this technology allows scientists to deal with these serious issues in the wrong way. We may have become too infatuated with how sleek and shiny CRISPR appears to consider better, less risky solutions.

For one thing, ecosystems aren’t so simple that we can just inject new variants of a species into the wild and expect everything to go exactly as we planned. There are too many nebulous factors involved for scientists to be able to correctly predict the outcome of every ecological experiment. One of the test subjects may escape into a different environment or a completely unrelated species may become caught in the crossfire. Most of the time, as Esvelt notes, the gene drive may have little to no effect on the ecosystem at all. Ultimately, it’s arrogant to treat the ecosystem like a math problem with a simple, clean answer.

Even Esvelt seems aware of these limitations, stating, “Let me be the first to say that we do not understand how ecosystems work. They are fantastically complex.”

As if affirming this admittance of ignorance, nature itself seems to have knocked gene drive down several pegs. According to a recent report by population geneticist Philipp Messer, the genetically modified mosquitoes that the team designed to pass down an infertility mutation to all their offspring started developing a resistance to the gene drive. In other words, gene drives may not be the permanent solution that many people claimed it to be. “In the long run, even with a gene drive, evolution wins in the end,” Esvelt commented in response to the news.

But that’s not even the worst part. Upon creating a detailed mathematical model that describes what happens when genetically modified organisms are released, Esvelt discovered that the chances of altered genes spreading to unintended parts of the ecosystem were much higher than he originally predicted.

“I [feel] like I’ve blown it … [Championing this idea was] an embarrassing mistake,” Esvelt admitted.

To be honest, the entire idea of gene drives seemed faulty to begin with, mainly because the desired population modifications were not introduced naturally. Instead of working hand-in-hand with evolution, gene drives attempt to solve ecological problems by simply creating more unsustainable arms races akin to the one we have between antibiotics and bacterial diseases. For instance, even if gene drives eradicated a species of mosquitoes that spread malaria, it wouldn’t be long before a different species of mosquitoes eventually emerged that can spread the bacteria to human hosts.

Instead of making sudden, irreversible changes to the ecosystem, a much more reasonable solution is the one offered by evolutionary biologist Dr. Sharon Moalem in his book The Survival of the Sickest. In it, Dr. Moalem describes how the best way to combat diseases like malaria is to change the conditions of the environment so that the nature of the disease evolves in a way that works in our favor. For example, consider how the widespread use of mosquito nets would not only stop mosquitoes from infecting humans but essentially invalidate mosquitoes in general as vectors for the disease. As a result, evolution may provide an alternative way for malaria to spread, perhaps one that wouldn’t cause the parasite to completely incapacitate the body and instead only slightly weaken it so that the disease can spread similarly to the common cold.

Rather than risk a high-stakes gamble on gene-editing technology, it may be wiser in the long run to contemplate less invasive methods to solve our ecological problems. Humans don’t have a great track record to begin with, after all.

Originally published on November 29, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Gene Drives Wrongfully Hailed as Biological Panacea


Our Infatuation with Solar, Wind Could Make Climate Change Worse

Picture Credit: Alamy | The Telegraph

During these troubling times of environmental turmoil, in which dangerous levels of carbon dioxide emissions threaten to destabilize the global climate, it’s no surprise that a lot of people are pushing vehemently for greater investment in renewable energy. In fact, despite the childish clamoring of several anti-science government officials, the idea of renewable energy, especially solar and wind energy, is incredibly popular among the vast majority of Americans.

In 2016, the Pew Research Center reported that 89 percent of Americans favor building more solar panel farms and 83 percent favor constructing more wind turbine farms. In contrast, only about 41 percent of Americans wanted to expand the coal mining sector, and these numbers aren’t meaningless, either. According to the Renewables 2016 Global Status Report (GSR), renewable energy saw its largest annual increase in energy contribution ever in 2015, despite low prices for fossil fuels.

It’s pretty clear that a large majority of people hold solar and wind energy in high regard. I’d even go as far to say that in this modern, socially conscious age, there isn’t a term more associated with pure good than renewable energy. However, this blind infatuation may just end up jeopardizing our entire fight against climate change. But how in the world can renewable energy possibly lead to a bad thing?

To better illustrate my point, consider the incredible amount of attention and fanfare that the Idaho-based startup company Solar Roadways Inc. got for its idea to replace all the roads in America with structurally engineered solar panels that could generate backup electricity while withstanding vehicle traffic. Founded in 2006, this startup presented a vision of a world in which solar panel roadways not only use LED lights to light up the streets and change the road design but also power entire cities to create a cleaner, greener world.

When people heard about this revolutionary new idea, they fell madly in love with the concept of solar roadways. During the crowdfunding drive at Indiegogo, more than 50,000 backers supported the project and the startup raised more than $2 million, making it the most popular Indiegogo campaign ever. But it wasn’t just green-energy enthusiasts who contributed financially to this enterprise. Even the Department of Transportation stepped in and invested more than $1.6 million into the project.

Unfortunately, all of it turned out to be a bust. When 30 solar roadway panels were finally installed on a public walkway in 2016, 25 of them broke down within a week, and more malfunctions appeared once it rained. But even more disappointing was that the highly anticipated solar roadway, even when fully operational, generated an average of 0.62-kilowatt hours of electricity per day—not even enough energy to power a hairdryer, much less an entire city.

But solar roadways aren’t the only inventions that took advantage of people’s infatuation with renewable energy. In February, a startup company raised more than $350,000 on Indiegogo when it promoted the Fontus water bottle, a self-filling water bottle that uses solar energy to extract water from the air. According to the campaign video, Fontus is designed to draw air into the bottle and capture moisture through condensation as the air cools. Not only that, the device would be powered by a small, mousepad-sized solar panel, making the Fontus perfect for backpackers and bikers going on a trip. Again, problems appeared when scientists pointed out that a solar panel that small is never going to produce the amount of energy needed to make the whole thing work. In fact, it would require a huge, 250-watt, 16-square-foot solar panel working at 100 percent efficiency under ideal circumstances for the Fontus to even come close to fulfilling its promise.

It’s not just solar energy, either. In 2016, the startup VICI Labs made headlines when it promoted the Waterseer, a device that used the wind to “provide up to 11 gallons of safe drinking water” from the air every day. Raising more than $330,000 on Indiegogo, the inventors behind the Waterseer made it seem as if their invention could end all water shortages thanks to the clean power of wind energy, managing to persuade UC Berkeley and the National Peace Corps Association to help contribute to its development. Once again, the power of green energy was overestimated and several thermodynamicists have pointed that the Waterseer wouldn’t work in dry, arid areas— places that need water the most.

The reason why all these bogus crowdfunding campaigns made so much money despite being scientifically dubious is that so many people were willing to believe that renewable energy sources could accomplish anything, even the impossible. They had such a positive outlook on solar panels and wind turbines that they didn’t even stop to consider the possible limitations of those technologies. Of course, this overly optimistic mindset is a natural product of today’s society, in which the increasingly alarming news of the humanity’s pollutant-ridden path towards ruin make it seem as if renewable energy is our only hope for survival. But no matter how beneficial it may be, renewable energy should not be placed on a pedestal. We can’t afford to treat it like some kind of magical energy source that provides unlimited free electricity without any restrictions or drawbacks.

For example, many people tend to think solar panels can provide unlimited energy because they get their power from the sunlight, which should be infinite, right? In reality, however, a typical solar panel can only absorb about 20 percent of the energy that the sun produces. In addition, unless it is specifically designed to track the movement of the sun, the solar panel can lose up to 60 percent of the sun’s energy on top of the lackluster 20 percent energy absorption. Not only that, the hotter the solar panel gets, the less energy it absorbs. It may sound counterintuitive, but for every degree above 25 degrees Celsius a typical solar panel becomes, its maximum power drops by about 0.5 percent.

This isn’t to say that renewable energy is terrible or that we should give up on it. While not entirely efficient, solar and wind power still produces electricity without consuming any limited resources. Yet we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that solving climate change is as simple as building more solar farms and wind turbines.

In fact, doing so without proper planning might do more harm than good. One major consequence of our infatuation with green energy is the rapid decline of nuclear power, the main source of zero-carbon electricity in the United States. Thanks to the popularity of solar and wind farms, nuclear power plants all across the world are on the verge of shutting down for good, which could severely damage our efforts in fighting climate change.

First of all, despite the negative press that it gets, nuclear energy remains quite possibly the cleanest and most viable form of energy that we currently possess. No matter what sort of Greenpeace propaganda you may have heard, nuclear energy is the safest way of producing reliable energy, a statement backed by the World Health Organization, the Centers for Disease Control and the National Academy of Science. In fact, a 2010 study by those three organizations has found that nuclear power is 40 percent less deadly than the next safest form of energy, wind power. Nuclear energy is also tied for having the lowest carbon footprint, and unlike solar and wind energy, nuclear energy actually stands a chance against the natural gas and coal industries. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, although solar and wind power made up a combined seven percent of U.S. electricity generation in 2016, nuclear energy provided 20 percent of the U.S.’s electricity.

But if the problem is that renewable energy isn’t contributing as much as nuclear energy, then can’t we solve this issue by building more solar and wind farms? No, it’s not that simple. One of the biggest problems with solar and wind energy is that they are entirely dependent on the current weather. When the sun doesn’t shine or the winds stop blowing, energy production plummets. Of course, this wouldn’t be an issue if one could store the excess energy generated on an especially sunny or windy day, but as of right now, a large-scale method of storing the electricity generated by solar and wind farms does not exist. As a result, whenever the weather is unfavorable, state governments must find an alternative energy source. What do they turn to now that many of the expensive nuclear plants are shut down? Answer: natural gas and fossil fuels.

This isn’t just a hypothetical scenario. In Southern Australia, a region in which wind energy makes up more than a quarter of its total energy, the government had to switch back on a gas-fired plant that had been shut down when prices of electricity spiked during a period of light wind. Meanwhile, despite investing heavily in green energy, the German government is supposedly paying billions to keep coal generators in reserve in case the weather suddenly becomes unfavorable. This could be why carbon emissions are still rising in Germany, even though Germans pay the most expensive electricity rates in Europe.

The loss of nuclear energy is serious. According to a Bloomberg New Energy Finance analysis, reactors that produce up to 56 percent of America’s nuclear power may shut down and eventually end up becoming replaced by the much cheaper gas-fired generators. If that were to happen, the report estimates, an additional 200 million tons of carbon dioxide would be spewed into the atmosphere annually.

But even if nuclear plants weren’t shutting down, we still lack the infrastructure required to actually utilize green energy generated in the first place. We may spend heavily on building countless wind and solar farms, but most of it is wasted if we don’t have a way to distribute that electricity, especially since most farms are hundreds of miles away from the nearest city. Even worse, some estimates posit that constructing all the high-voltage lines needed to transport the electricity could take several decades.

This is a huge problem with solar and wind farms right now. Since there is no infrastructure in place to distribute the power and no way to store the energy generated, solar farms and wind farms across the United States from Texas to California are often turned off or left idling by, leading to massive energy waste.

Again, despite everything that was mentioned, renewable energy is not a bad thing. It is much more favorable to take advantage of solar and wind energy as soon as possible than to wait and do nothing with it. But mindlessly building more and more solar and wind farms simply because solar and wind energy is “objectively good,” will only drag us further away from our goal of a cleaner future. It is undeniable that renewable energy can save the Earth, but that doesn’t mean we should worship it blindly.

Originally published on October 4, 2017, in The Miscellany News: Renewable energy, while urgent, necessitates skepticism

No Matter Matter What Trump Says, Coal Is Not Coming Back

Picture Credit: Declan Walsh | The New York Times

Like some ancient relic from the past, Donald Trump has written off the consequences of climate change numerous times and has instead vowed to bring back coal to America. Give America black lung again, I suppose. But while some believe that Trump’s mission would provide many well-needed jobs to lower-income, blue-collar workers in rural America, what they don’t know is that the coal industry is dying and no executive order from the White House can truly “revive” it. Those jobs that Trump promised to revive don’t exist anymore because the coal-mining process has largely become automated by new technology.

Already, countless different self-driving machines have taken over the business, such as autonomous long-distance haul trains, automated drilling and tunnel-boring systems, and automated long-wall plough and shearers. According to a recent report by the International Institute for Sustainable Development, fully autonomous equipment “would reduce the workforce of a typical open-cut, iron-ore mine by approximately 30 to 40 percent,” while automation could reduce the number of truck, dozer and drill operators in open pit mines by up to 75 percent. Why would coal companies bring back workers when they already have machines that can do their jobs better?

“People think of coal mining as some 1890s, colorful, populous frontier activity, but it’s much better to think of it as a high-tech industry with far fewer miners and more engineers and coders. The regulatory changes are entirely outweighed by these technological changes … Even if you brought back demand for coal, you wouldn’t bring back the same number of workers,” stated Mark Muro, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. One other reason why the coal-mining industry is on its last legs is because it’s being overtaken and, quite frankly, smothered by a different energy industry–natural gas. Last year, the Energy Information Administration published a report that clearly showed the natural gas industry displacing coal: Over the past 60 years, the annual share of coal has slowly dropped from nearly 60 percent of the total U.S. electricity generation to 33 percent, while natural gas has climbed up from about 10 percent to 32 percent.

The explanation is simple: Natural gas is ridiculously cheap and abundant compared to coal. So while natural gas has been enjoying a tremendous boon, countless coal factories have been shut down not because of regulations, but because they simply can’t compete. Even if Trump were to succeed in reviving the coal industry, he would cause a decline in natural gas consumption instead since the two are in direct competition with each other. The result? Thousands of natural gas workers without a job. On a side note, environmentalists were eager to point out that renewable energy has been steadily growing as a reliable source of energy. According to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, renewable energy was “responsible for 64% of all new electrical generating capacity installed [in 2015].” Speaking of renewable energy, the Natural Resources Defense Council has stated that jobs related to clean energy and energy efficiency are projected to increase by as many as 274,000 through 2020 under the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan. That was, of course, before President Trump started to dismantle the Clean Power Plan piece by piece, from easing pollution restrictions to opening federal lands to coal companies for leasing. But even the leaders of the coal industry say that Trump’s efforts won’t be enough to make any real dent in the problem. At most, dismantling all these regulations would restore perhaps 10 percent of the coal companies’ market share.

Meanwhile, various other countries in the world are actively seeking to replace coal with alternative sources of energy. For instance, China has recently announced its plan to spend more than $360 billion on renewable power sources through 2020. In fact, China already surpassed Germany in 2015 as the world’s largest solar power market, boasting 43.2 gigawatts of solar capacity compared to Germany’s 38.4 gigawatts and America’s 27.8 gigawatts. Not only that, China already has plans to triple that amount by 2020, aiming for a total of 140 gigawatts. To put that into context, the world solar capacity is estimated to be 200 gigawatts in 2015. China is essentially turning into one giant sunflower.

Yes, China, formerly one of America’s biggest customers of coal, is hard at work in getting rid of its reputation as “the world’s largest polluter.” Maybe it’s because this plan would create 13 million new jobs in China’s renewable energy sector? Maybe it’s because China truly believes in the dangers of global warming? Or gee, maybe it’s because the air pollution in China is so deathly toxic that about 4,400 people die every day as a result of China’s infamous smog?

Of course, China isn’t alone in abandoning coal. Ambitious plans in renewable energy are currently in motion in countries like Australia, Brazil, Chile, Indonesia, Egypt, Pakistan and Vietnam. So not only is coal dying in the U.S., but every other country on the planet knows that it’s dying and is trying to expedite that process even further. With all that being said, I beg of you, Mr. Donald Trump, to just let this prehistoric behemoth die already. There’s no point in trying to save a collapsing coal industry, just like how there’s no point in trying to revive the VHS movie industry–the entire world has moved on, and quite frankly, it’s about time you stop living in the 1870s and start living in 2017.

Originally published on April 5, 2017, in The Miscellany NewsTrump couldn’t save coal industry if he tried

The Framing of Climate Change: Why We Must Emphasize Pollution Over Polar Bears

Picture Credit: Los Angeles Times

No matter what unqualified politicians may say, climate change is an undeniable fact. Scientists have confirmed that the Earth’s temperature has been rising rapidly over the past several decades, and more than 97% of active climate scientists agree that these trends “are extremely likely due to human activity.” Samples from ice cores collected in Greenland and Antarctica have clearly demonstrated that the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has shot up to a point that hasn’t been observed for thousands of years, and 2016 was recently declared the hottest year in human history, making last year the third consecutive record-breaking year. All this data points towards the conclusion that we are rushing headfirst into an anthropogenic nightmare.

And yet, a recent study by the Pew Research Center found that 51% of U.S. adults believe climate change is either not caused by humans or just doesn’t exist. The survey also found that only 39% of Americans have “a lot” of trust in what climate scientists say. Clearly, an enormous chasm is present between the scientific community and the general public, and people are wondering why. Why do so many people deny the evidence that experts present? Just what is going on?

Some have blamed radical, right-wing conservatives and the fossil fuel industry for spreading misinformation among the general public. Others choose to believe that the controversy stems from identity politics and how people would rather take sides than go against party politics. Several social scientists have attributed this behavior to natural human flaws such as confirmation bias and distrust of the media. I believe that we’re approaching this issue all wrong. The real source of this controversy is ultimately how the topic of climate change is framed. In order to make skeptics take climate change seriously, we have to link this concept with something immediately tangible, immediately life-threatening, and immediately alarming.

To better illustrate my point, let me use Obamacare as an example. On January 17, 2017, the TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live broadcasted a clip in which reporters asked people on the street whether they preferred Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act. The responses were disheartening, to say the least. When asked whether she supported Obamacare or the Affordable Care Act, one person chose the latter because she was “not the biggest fan of Obama.” Another person chose the Affordable Care Act over Obamacare because the Affordable Care Act is more affordable, which he said “is obvious based on the name.” The joke is that both terms refer to the exact same thing: Obamacare is just a nickname for the Affordable Care Act.

Language is a powerful weapon, and using it carelessly could undermine an entire campaign. In this instance, the Republican establishment understood the importance of branding and aggressively pushed to link universal healthcare with President Obama, by way of the name “Obamacare.” This way, the bill would prompt anger in people before they even learned about the healthcare initiative and how it would actually benefit them in the long run.

This same problem with framing applies to the entire debate surrounding climate change. For instance, what sort of imagery does the word “climate change” invoke? I’m willing to bet that for many people, they see polar bears on floating ice, the number on a thermometer going up a few notches, glacier chunks falling into the ocean, or similar images pushed by the media. For something as urgent and life-threatening as climate change, why is all the imagery typically associated with climate change so unthreatening to humans?

While it’s easy to categorize people who don’t care about climate change as stupid or uninformed, oftentimes that’s not the case. They just don’t see the importance of taking action because they don’t yet feel threatened by it. They have other things to worry about, like job security and the economy, so they fail to see why they should sacrifice their time, effort, and tax money for something they don’t think would directly affect humans for several thousand years. This is why so many politicians who oppose the notion of climate change keep emphasizing how they prioritize jobs over fluctuating temperatures. The lack of job security is a frightening and immediate threat that is tangible to these people. On the other hand, polar bears and melting ice caps aren’t so scary. Climate activist Tom Steyer sums up the situation nicely: “One side argues morality and polar bears, and the other side argues jobs. You’re never going to win with polar bears.

A convincing argument for climate change should focus on how human lives, including those of skeptics, would be directly harmed by not taking action, enough so that those consequences would override their concerns for the economy as a priority. Enough with the polar bears. We have to focus on the lives and well-being of people. If we don’t, we risk being viewed as detached from the struggles of working class Americans.

However, the issue of imagery is only one facet of the framing problem. In truth, the basic concept of climate change is much too weak for skeptics to register it as a legitimate, immediate threat. According to NASA, climate change is defined as “a change in the usual weather found in a place.” These changes could refer to changes in temperature or even a change in how much rain a place usually gets in a year. However, while all evidence indicates that the global climate is changing drastically, these changes are not readily noticeable by the average person. In fact, a 2014 study by the Public Religion Research Institute found that the most common reason behind climate change skepticism was that participants had not noticed any change in weather around them or that it was actually getting colder where they lived.

Understandably, skeptics find what climate scientists report hard to believe because their senses tell them otherwise. People like Donald Trump prey on this confusion and further their own agenda by providing an easy yet false solution to this contradiction: Climate change just doesn’t exist. During his presidential campaign, Trump would often jab at the notion of climate change because the weather outside was still cold.

Thus, despite the scientifically proven fact that the global temperature is changing, the focus on temperature seems like a dead end. Changes in temperature are not tangible enough to sway skeptics. But then what can we do? I suggest that we connect climate change with something everyone knows is real and dangerous: Air pollution.

According to an international study, black carbon, a major component in soot and car exhaust, was found to be responsible for both creating deadly smog in cities and acting as the second biggest contributor to global warming. Another study found that the warmer weather caused by climate change could worsen dangerous smog in the summer and the fall. Clearly, these two human threats are linked. However, unlike the idea of temperature changes, air pollution is a term that already has an extremely negative connotation. Not only is the term linked to asthma, lung cancer, and other respiratory diseases, but news reports have recently exposed the toxic living conditions in China, Mongolia, Britain, and even the United States due to the dense smog that blanket entire cities. Pictures of children wearing gas masks to school and gray smog blocking out the sunlight have already spread throughout the Internet like grim visions of a dystopian future. This frightening imagery provides extra incentive for people to strive for cleaner air.

Too few people associate climate change with air pollution and deadly smog, despite how both are caused by the use of fossil fuels. Without the horrifying implications of air pollution, the term “climate change” by itself lacks the sense of alarm that motivates people to act. While climate change may sound like an ordinary phenomenon to skeptics, air pollution has a more direct connection to the health and safety of every individual. It is a concept that everyone should be very familiar with. Even Donald Trump said it himself: “I believe in clean air. Immaculate air. But I don’t believe in climate change.” I’m sure he would have a much harder time convincing others to laugh at climate change once that term becomes synonymous with air pollution, a global hazard that is responsible for 7 million premature deaths every year.

Ultimately, we must bridge the gap between the scientific community and the general public. We must make the extra effort to not only promote scientific thought but also frame this knowledge so that anyone can understand its significance and gravity. While it may be frustrating to argue with climate deniers, science is useless if it’s isolated and shared only among experts. If skeptics of science refuse to reach out to the experts, the experts must find a way to reach out and connect to the skeptics.

Originally published on February 6, 2017, in Boilerplate Magazine: The Framing of Climate Change: Why We Must Emphasize Pollution Over Polar Bears

How Will Science Fare in Trump’s America?

CNBC Events - Season 2015
Picture Credit: Huffington Post

As much as people may absolutely hate the idea, it’s an inescapable fact of our reality: Donald Trump will be sworn in as the 45th pres­ident of the United States come January. Yes, the same man who talked about how vaccines gave a child autism and who claimed that climate change is a hoax created by the Chinese. Naturally, I imagine the world’s sci­entists feeling more than a bit upset after news of Trump’s victory was announced after Elec­tion Day. What will happen to the development of science and technology in Trump’s America during the next four years?

Nothing pretty, that’s for sure. While the fu­ture is now more unpredictable than ever, I’m willing to bet that scientific progress is not at the forefront of Trump’s plans as president. He once called the National Health Institute “terrible” on public radio and thought it would be a great idea to have conservative talk radio host Michael Savage bring “common sense” to the institution.

It’s important to note that Savage is infamous for saying that autism is just “a brat who hasn’t been told to cut the act out,” as well as “a racket” designed to let poorer families find new ways to be parasites of the government.

However, it remains unclear exactly how Trump will influence funding for the sciences as president. While he did state that Americans “must make the commitment to invest in science, engineering, healthcare and other areas that will make the lives of Americans better, safer and more prosperous,” he has yet to release any sort of plan on how he would accomplish that goal.

It is difficult to believe, however, that Trump will ever follow up on that promise to invest in science to improve the lives of others when he practically labeled himself as an anti-environ­mentalist throughout his campaign.

In fact, Trump made a rather hefty list of things he wanted to get rid of once he takes over the Oval Office. Items of the list include the Obama administration’s Clean Power Plan, the “Waters of the U.S.” rule that’s designed to protect Amer­ica’s waterways and wetlands, and the entirety of the Environmental Protection Agency. In addition, Trump vowed to pull the U.S. out of the historic Paris climate agreement, which had more than 190 countries agree to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to lessen the impact of global warming.

That last part about the Paris climate agree­ment is among the scientific community’s top concerns. Last September, more than 375 scien­tists from the U.S. National Academy of Sciences, including 30 Nobel Prize winners, wrote an open letter to Trump warning him that withdrawing from the Paris Accord would prove to be disas­trous. Now that he’s president-elect, Trump will likely work towards fulfilling his promise to promote oil drilling and coal mining in an effort to restore jobs in those fossil fuel industries.

“Regulations that shut down hundreds of coal-fired power plants and block the construction of new ones — how stupid is that? We’re going to bring back the coal industry, save the coal in­dustry,” Trump said to an arena full of cheering people. Just to keep things in check, the World Health Organization estimated that 7 million people died due to indoor and outdoor air pollution in 2012 and more than 600,000 chil­dren will die each year from breathing in toxic air.

But it’s not just Trump. The entire U.S. govern­ment will be controlled by several people with less-than-stellar track records on following sci­ence. Trump’s running mate, former Indiana gov­ernor Mike Pence, has resisted answering wheth­er he believes that evolution is real and once published an essay piece in 2001 that claimed, “Despite the hysteria from the political class and the media, smoking doesn’t kill.” The head of Trump’s EPA transition team, Myron Ebell, is known as “an oil industry mouthpiece” and has asserted that greenhouse gas pollution could be beneficial. It is also very possible that creationists Ben Carson and Sarah Palin may hold positions in Trump’s cabinet.

Based on what we’ve seen so far, it appears science will take a backseat in Trump’s America, and the entire nation will feel the rippling effects.

Can anything be done about this when the Senate, the House of Representatives and the Su­preme Court are all under his command?

There actually is. Place Donald Trump and his government under constant scrutiny and keep the protests alive. Of course, I wouldn’t be surprised if some people accused me of keeping the country divided and polarized, but that’s not what I’m asking for, either. I don’t see the ben­efit of shunning those who voted for the other party and refusing to communicate with them under any circumstances. As divided as we may be, we are all part of the same country, and thus the same boat.

On the other hand, protesting against poli­ticians is very different from yelling at fellow voters. We should absolutely not be complacent with whatever Trump does because it’s his job as president to listen to public outrage. Trump himself stated that the government should serve the people. If that’s the case, then he has no right to complain about angry protesters. It’s the presi­dent’s duty to change in accordance with the will of the people, not the other way around.

The protesters may never be satisfied with whatever compromise he makes, but that’s part of democracy, just like how many people refused to acknowledge President Obama. What is im­portant is that we always remind Trump that he will be held accountable for his rhetoric and actions. He must be subjected to a barrage of criticisms and opposition to let him know that people are upset at his presidency and that his entire reputation is at stake.

If that sounds arduous and stressful, that’s because being president is not supposed to be an easy job. It is vital to create that stressor so that Trump never gets the feeling that he can get away with anything he wants. Set the bar really, really high so that Trump has no choice but to either try to reach our expectations or go down in history as a failure. If he’s going to be America’s 45th president, then that is the burden he must carry.

Originally published on November 16, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsScience community should continue to pressure Trump

The Ecological Gamble with Deep-Sea Mining

Picture Credit: AErchie | Diagram of Deep-Sea Mining | 2011 | The Curmudgeon’s Magazine

Thanks to our insatiable demand for Earth’s natural resources, science never fails to find new ways to take advantage of what the planet offers. From the sunlight to the bedrock, companies have been succeeding in extracting energy and materials from the Earth in the most creative and often destructive ways. This time, the Australian-Canadian company Nauti­lus Minerals Inc. claims that the next area of focus should be the bottom of the ocean.

The deep sea remains humankind’s last ex­plored frontier on Earth, given how we know more about the surface of Mars than the bot­tom of the ocean. Hidden in the depths of the dark sea floor is an abundance of priceless metals more valuable than any treasure one may read about in a pirate book.

The ocean not only contains huge nodules of manganese, nickel, and copper, but it also has rich deposits of high-grade zinc, gold, and silver beneath its hydrothermal vents and min­eral layers made out of cobalt and platinum.

With such an immense collection of rich­es right in front of us, it’s no surprise that companies are racing to claim rights to these seafloor territories. The first to do so is Nau­tilus Minerals, a pioneer in what experts are calling “deep-sea mining.” Using its new and revolutionary underwater mining machines, the company plans on cutting up parts of the seafloor and using a collection machine to send them up to a ship on the ocean surface.

There, the sediments are filtered to separate the precious minerals from seawater and other substances. Based on existing technology used to dig trenches for oil and gas pipelines, these 50-foot-long mining machines are remote-con­trolled, which allows the company to extract the ores without sending workers more than a mile below the ocean surface.

Unsurprisingly, the efforts of Nautilus Min­erals have caught the attention of several en­vironmental groups who denounced deep-sea mining as destructive to the entire marine eco­system. While it’s true that deep-sea mining may lead to massive habitat destruction and species extinction, the greatest concern is the fact that no one knows exactly what will happen as a consequence of extracting energy and minerals from deep in the ocean.

“The truth is that we don’t know what the true environmental impacts of deep seabed mining are as yet. We know little about the ecology of the deep sea and the resilience of the system, and the effectiveness of the pro­posed efforts to assist natural recovery are unknown,” stated GreenPeace Oceans Cam­paigner Richard Page.

The ocean is more than just an expansive body of water. It not only serves as one of the largest sinks for greenhouse gases on Earth, but it also holds some of the largest reservoirs of methane gas beneath the seafloor. If something went wrong with the carbon dioxide absorption or if the trapped methane escaped into the atmosphere, the effects of cli­mate change would rapidly worsen and cause unimaginable harm to the planet’s atmosphere.

The bottom line is that Nautilus Minerals’ efforts to extract precious metals from the ocean floor will no doubt damage the eco­system, but the scope of that damage remains frightfully unknown. Given the unique nature of the ocean floor, anything can happen in only a short amount of time.

Although deep-sea mining could potentially have a significant effect on the environment, Nautilus Minerals argues that the overall im­pact of deep-sea mining will not be as severe as that of a terrestrial mine. According to Chief Financial Officer Shontel Norgate, there won’t be issues involving community displacement, the use of freshwater supplies, erosion or loss of land. Not only is the procedure itself minimally disrup­tive, but the minerals that this project will collect, especially copper, are crucial for green energy technology like wind and solar energy and electric cars.

“If we’re saying no to fossil fuels, we’re ef­fectively saying yes to more copper. Where is that copper coming from?” asked Norgate.

In addition, Nautilus Minerals stated that it wanted to pave a responsible path towards deep-sea mining by setting an example for oth­er companies. The company asks for the global community and all the skeptics to give them a chance to prove themselves.

“I certainly believe that if we get this right…it does have the potential to start a new in­dustry and change the way we’ve been mining copper for decades. We have a clean piece of paper here to decide how we want to do this, how we want this industry to be,” stated Nor­gate in an interview on July 2015.

As well-intentioned as Nautilus Minerals might be, deep-sea mining just leaves open too many risks for unforeseen consequences. After obtaining permission from the country’s government in 2014, the company expects to begin their mining project off the coast of Pap­ua New Guinea in 2018. If the project is successful, the company may collect at least 80,000 tons of copper and 150,000 ounces of gold per year.

In our market-driven world, the success of Nautilus Minerals will only provide an incen­tive for numerous other companies to do the same. Nautilus Minerals may be the first to ex­periment with deep-sea mining, but it certain­ly won’t be the last. After all, with the ocean floor rich with precious minerals, it’s only natural for people to want to take advantage of them before anyone else does first.

Already, other corporations, such as Lock­heed Martin, are making plans to commercially explore the seafloor. So far, the International Seabed Authority, the United Nations body regulating this growing indus­try, has issued a total of 19 licenses to differ­ent organizations. While the benefits of deep-sea mining may outweigh the costs momentarily, those costs will grow exponentially as more and more firms join the bandwagon.

As the industry grows, the possibility of things going wrong, like a disastrous chemi­cal spill, will rapidly increase as well. Eventu­ally, it will be an entire swarm of underwater mining machines drilling into the ocean floor, which will ravage the planet at an astronomi­cal scale. Even Nautilus Minerals itself plans on expanding to other areas if the project is successful. What is to stop others from doing the same?

Deep-sea mining presents itself as a glitter­ing, attractive new way to squeeze more nat­ural resources from the environment. But, as with similar past endeavors, once the industry gathers enough momentum, it becomes almost impossible to stop and leaves behind a trail of destruction in its wake.

Originally published on April 21, 2016, in The Miscellany NewsDeep sea mining potentially detrimental to environment

A Bright, Eco-Friendly Future: Bioluminescence as Our Next Light Source

Picture Credit: Lit by Bioluminescence | Glowee

Imagine a world where the streets glow with a dreamlike shade of blue as if you’re walking in the presence of ethereal spirits wandering the city. While that image sounds too mythical to be real, one start-up company is working to create this otherworldly environment for the future. Glowee, a French company planning on harnessing the power of bioluminescent bacteria, has officially debuted after successfully crowd-funding in May 2015. Their goal: to replace the electric street lamps of France with blue microbial lamps.

Bioluminescence is an organism’s ability to generate light in the dark. This is different from fluorescence, which involves absorbing light from an external source and immediately re-emitting a modified version of that light. While fluorescence is a physical process, bioluminescence is a chemical one that occurs due to an enzyme, luciferase. In the biochemical reaction, luciferase catalyzes the light-emitting pigment luciferin with oxygen in order to create light. For humans, bioluminescence has the potential to be­come a valuable source of renewable energy.

Consider the latest global push towards reduc­ing CO2 emissions and fighting climate change. At the 2015 UN Climate Change Conference, world leaders came to an agreement that everyone must do everything they can to cut down our energy consumption. While politicians can promise to limit emissions, real progress cannot occur with­out a viable green energy solution. Rather than an immediate transition to green energy, what if we tackled the problem one chunk at a time? This is where inspirations from nature and the creativity of science mesh together. For instance, biolumi­nescence doesn’t require any electricity to pro­duce light. Given this fact, researchers are investi­gating engineered bioluminescence as a possible alternative to regular street lighting.

Replacing electric lamps with bioluminescent ones may seem almost trivial in the face of cut­ting global energy consumption, but reducing the number of public street lamps is a very necessary first step. In truth, lighting up the streets every night is an incredibly expensive task. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the U.S. spent a total of $11 billion on outdoor lighting in 2012, 30 percent of which went to waste in areas that didn’t use or need that light. Furthermore, a recent research study determined that there are currently about 300 million total streetlights around the world and that num­ber will grow to 340 million by 2025. With such severe drawbacks that come with electrical lighting, the use of bioluminescent light is a way to alleviate some if not most of that cost.

Today, the race to find the best form of engi­neered bioluminescence continues to bring us various creative inventions and solutions. At Syr­acuse University, a small team of scientists led by Rabeka Alam discovered a way to chemically at­tach genetically-altered luciferase enzymes from fireflies directly onto the surface of nanorods to make them glow. In a process they called Bioluminescence Resonance Energy Transfer (BRET), the nanorod produces a bright light whenever the luciferase enzyme interacts with the fuel source and can produce different colors depending on the size of the rod. According to one scientist on the team, “It’s conceivable that someday firefly-coated nanorods could be in­serted into LED-type lights that you don’t have to plug in.”

On the other side of the world, Dutch designer Daan Roosegaarde has been working to­gether with the tech company Bioglow to create bioluminescent trees to light up the streets. Incorporating important re­search from the University of Cambridge, Roose­gaarde and his team spliced DNA containing the light-emitting properties from bioluminescent organisms into the chloroplasts of plants. As a re­sult, those plants can produce both luciferase and luciferin that allows them to glow at night.

For Glowee, the plan is to harness biolumines­cence by using Aliivibrio fischeri, a species of bioluminescent bacteria found in certain marine animals like the Hawaiian bobtail squid. They first produce a gel containing the bioluminescent bac­teria along with various nutrients that keep the bacteria alive. Then, the gel is used to fill small, transparent containers, allowing the light to glow through. This method not only makes the light source wireless but also customizable depending on its purpose and design. These bioluminescent lamps would certainly appeal to shop owners in France, especially since the French government recently passed a law that forces all businesses to turn off their lights at 1 a.m. to fight light pollution.

Unfortunately, despite countless efforts towards perfecting engineered bioluminescence, it may still be a long while before our streets are lit by genetically-altered plants or bacteria. The two main obstacles in this endeavor are the rel­atively dim nature of the lights as well as their short lifespan. Even with Glowee’s bio-lights, the company’s current prototype can only produce light up to three days. Some argue that the cost and production of these bioluminescent products greatly overshadow their benefits, saying that such eco-friendly alternatives can never catch up to electrical lighting. While there may be lim­itations, all these projects by businesses and in­stitutions signify the public’s growing desire for real change.

A lot of these projects were funded not by the government but by Kickstarter and other funding platforms. Perhaps many of the backers were just mesmerized by the aesthetic appeal, but the public nevertheless recognizes the potential behind engineered bioluminescence. With continuous effort and scientific innovation, a town or a neighbor­hood powered by living organisms instead of electricity can be a reality. By following the ghost­ly blue light ahead, we would take a tremendous first step towards a world where humans and na­ture can truly coexist.

Originally published on March 30, 2016, in The Miscellany News: Scientists note perks of bioluminescence