I had a terrible nightmare: President Mitt Romney approved Shell Oil's drilling plans for the Chukchi Sea off the coast of Alaska. He did it even though his own Department of the Interior calculated that the odds of a large oil spill were 75 percent. He did it even though no proven method exists to respond to such a spill. He did it even though indigenous Alaskan culture has centered on traditional harvests of marine resources for thousands of years. He did it even though all known, extractable Arctic oil and gas reserves must remain undeveloped if the world wants to avoid the worst effects of climate disruption. He did it even though such a spill would affect fish, birds from around the globe and marine mammals such as polar bears, walruses, seals, and bowhead and beluga whales. He did it in spite of Shell's abysmal track record in the Arctic, which could inspire the next Dumb and Dumber sequel.
When I woke up and realized that Romney had lost the election, I was momentarily relieved. But then the nightmare started all over again. Because everything else really did happen—only it was President Barack Obama, the man we worked so hard to put in the White House, whose Interior Department decided it would be OK to spill oil in the Arctic.
How are we supposed to make sense of this?
Is it because Obama is worried about his next election? There isn't one. Is it because he's beholden to the petroleum industry? They never supported him. Is it because he thinks the U.S., as the new chair of the Arctic Council, should lead by some kind of perverse counterexample? Here's what Secretary of State John Kerry said at the council's annual meeting last month: "The Arctic Council can do more on climate change ... we all know the clock is ticking, and we actually don’t have a lot of time to waste." OK, so let's release millions more tons of greenhouse gases and melt the Arctic even faster.
If this is U.S. climate leadership, then I'd hate to see what climate irresponsibility looks like.
Why is it so hard for so many of our leaders to recognize what Martin Luther King, Jr., once called "the fierce urgency of now?" We really don't have time to waste, yet our government keeps promoting drilling, fracking and mining as if the laws of nature could be suspended at our convenience.
As for America's Arctic, President Obama, Secretary Kerry and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell will have long since left office when, as predicted by their own experts, disaster strikes on the dark, stormy waters of the Chukchi. The nearest Coast Guard station is more than 1,000 miles away. As strong currents and winds spread oil to the most sensitive marine areas and coastlines, all anyone will be able to do is watch and wish we had not been so reckless.
But it's still not too late to change the odds. The chances of a major spill are three-in-four, but only if Shell is allowed to go through with its crazy plans. Already, the idea that our government would take such an appalling risk is inspiring outraged citizens to rise up and say "no way!"
Even before the Obama administration's approval of Shell's drilling plans, "kayaktivists" in the Pacific Northwest were planning to protest the oil company's plans to lease a terminal in the Port of Seattle for its drilling fleet. This Saturday they'll stage a "sHell No Flotilla" and an accompanying rally on dry land. There will also be a solar and wind-powered, crowd-funded "People’s Platform" marine barge—with the message "Next Time Try Solar."
According to Seattle mayor Ed Murray, who supports denying Shell a permit to use his city's port, "We need to focus our port, our businesses, on the new economy, on things like clean energy of the future and not on the old economy that is dying out, such as oil." Exactly. But the resistance in Seattle needs to be just the beginning, because we cannot let this stand.
If Shell does end up drilling in the Arctic, much of the responsibility will rest with President Obama and his administration. But if we don't shout it from the rooftops (or our kayaks) that this is a terrible mistake, if we don't make the case that fossil fuels can and must stay in the ground—that tomorrow is today—then some of the blame must rest with us, too.
I'm not too worried about that, though. You can bet the Sierra Club won't give up this fight, nor will the millions of other people who want our leaders to match rhetoric with reality. When our leaders let us down, we have two choices: complain or raise hell. Which will it be? It's our obligation to do both.
If you're within driving distance of Seattle this weekend, come join the rally—by land or by sea. And if you want to take a stand against climate disruption and Arctic exploitation, and believe that clean energy would do a better job, throw in a few dollars for our friends in Seattle working to stop Shell before it starts.
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By Jacob L. Steenwyk and Antonis Rokas
From the mythical minotaur to the mule, creatures created from merging two or more distinct organisms – hybrids – have played defining roles in human history and culture. However, not all hybrids are as fantastic as the minotaur or as dependable as the mule; in fact, some of them cause human diseases.
When Looking Through a Microscope Isn’t Close Enough.<p>For the last few years, <a href="http://www.rokaslab.org/" target="_blank">our team at Vanderbilt University</a>, <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/lab/Gustavo-Goldman-Lab" target="_blank">Gustavo Goldman's team at São Paulo University in Brazil</a> and many other collaborators around the world have been collecting samples of fungi from patients infected with different species of <em>Aspergillus</em> molds. One of the species we are particularly interested in is <a href="https://doi.org/10.1006/rwgn.2001.0082" target="_blank"><em>Aspergillus nidulans</em>, a relatively common and generally harmless fungus</a>. Clinical laboratories typically identify the species of <em>Aspergillus</em> causing the infection by examining cultures of the fungi under the microscope. The problem with this approach is that very closely related species of <em>Aspergillus</em> tend to look very similar in their broad morphology or physical appearance when viewing them through a microscope.</p><p>Interested in examining the varying abilities of different <em>A. nidulans</em> strains to cause disease, we decided to analyze their total genetic content, or genomes. What we saw came as a total surprise. We had not collected <em>A. nidulans</em> but <em>Aspergillus latus</em>, a close relative of <em>A. nidulans</em> and, as we were to soon find out, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.cub.2020.04.071" target="_blank">a hybrid species that evolved through the fusion of the genomes</a> of two other <em>Aspergillus</em> species: <em>Aspergillus spinulosporus</em> and an unknown close relative of <em>Aspergillus quadrilineatus</em>. Thus, we realized not only that these patients harbored infections from an entirely different species than we thought they were, but also that this species was the first ever <em>Aspergillus</em> hybrid known to cause human infections.</p>
Several Different Fungal Hybrids Cause Human Disease.<p>Hybrid fungi that can cause infections in humans are well known to occur in several different lineages of single-celled fungi known as yeasts. Notable examples include multiple different species of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/yea.3242" target="_blank">yeast hybrids</a> that cause the human diseases <a href="https://rarediseases.info.nih.gov/diseases/6218/cryptococcosis" target="_blank">cryptococcosis</a> and <a href="https://www.cdc.gov/fungal/diseases/candidiasis/index.html" target="_blank">candidiasis</a>. Although pathogenic yeast hybrids are well known, our discovery that the <em>A. latus</em> pathogen is a hybrid is a first for molds that cause disease in humans.</p>
(Left) Candida yeasts live on parts of the human body. Imbalance of microbes on the body can allow these yeasts, some of which are hybrids, to grow and cause infection. (Right) Cryptococcus yeasts, including ones that are hybrids, can cause life-threatening infections in primarily immunocompromised people. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention<p><a href="https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.ppat.1008315" target="_blank">Why certain <em>Aspergillus</em> species are so deadly</a> while others are harmless remains unknown. This may in part be because <a href="https://doi.org/10.1016/j.fbr.2007.02.007" target="_blank">combinations of traits, rather than individual traits</a>, underlie organisms' ability to cause disease. So why then are hybrids frequently associated with human disease? Hybrids inherit genetic material from both parents, which may result in new combinations of traits. This may make them more similar to one parent in some of their characteristics, reflect both parents in others or may differ from both in the rest. It is precisely this mix and match of traits that hybrids have inherited from their parental species that <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/14/science/14creatures.html" target="_blank">facilitates their evolutionary success</a>, including their ability to cause disease.</p>
The Evolutionary Origin of an Aspergillus Hybrid.<p>Multiple evolutionary paths can lead to the emergence of hybrids. One path is through mating, just as the horse and donkey mate to create a mule. Another path is through the merging or fusion of genetic material from cells of different species.</p><p>It is this second path that appears to have been taken by our fungus. <em>A. latus</em> appears to have two of almost everything compared to its parental species: twice the genome size, twice the total number of genes and so on. But unlike other hybrids, which are often sterile like the mule, we found that <em>A. latus</em> is capable of reproducing both asexually and sexually.</p><p>But how distinct were the parents of <em>A. latus</em>? By comparing the parts contributed by each parent in the <em>A. latus</em> genome, we estimate that its parents are approximately 93% genetically similar, which is about as related as we humans are with lemurs. In other words, <em>A. latus</em>, an agent of infectious disease, is the fungal equivalent of a human-lemur hybrid.</p>
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