Oil and Water Don’t Mix: California Must Ban Fracking
Millions of years ago, shallow oceans covered big swaths of North America. The bottoms of these ancient seas became cemeteries for sea lilies, squid and diatoms. In this oxygen-poor environment, these creatures turned into drops of oil or bubbles of methane.
Time and pressure turned the silty layers of the seafloor into stony layers of shale, trapping the oily, gassy corpses within. These fossilized graveyards are now the bedrock that underlies much of our nation, including upstate New York, where I live, and the San Joaquin Basin of California. New York’s old ocean floor is named the Marcellus Shale. Here in California, it’s called the Monterey Shale, and it runs from Modesto to Bakersfield.
The question of our time is whether or not to shatter these layers of prehistoric rock, located thousands of feet below the sunlit surface, and exhume the scattered oil and gas they contain. Because shale does not give up its dead easily—drillers can’t just stick a straw down into the Earth and expect geysers to flow—“unconventional” techniques, such as fracking, are required.
Fracking uses water as a sledgehammer to break apart subterranean layers of shale and a slurry of sand and chemicals—many of them toxic—to prop the cracks open and allow the oil or gas to flow.
In a time of climate emergency, the wisdom of blowing up bedrock to keep the fossil fuel party going is questionable. And a growing body of evidence shows that fracking cannot be done, under any known regulatory framework, without risking public health. This conclusion, reached by New York’s Department of Health last December, became the foundation for Gov. Cuomo’s statewide ban on fracking.
Here in drought-stricken California, there is an additional consideration. Extracting oil, particularly oil locked in shale, imperils an increasingly scarce natural resource—water.
Last week, the U.S. Geological Survey delivered two pieces of news about the Monterey Shale. It contains far less oil and gas than previously thought. And its extraction largely depends on “unconventional” methods.
This is actionable intelligence and, for a governor who has already declared the drought a state of emergency, should be sufficient to ban fracking in California once and for all.
Oil drilling threatens the dwindling supplies of freshwater that California still possesses. This happens in one of three ways. First, much of the water used for fracking becomes permanently entombed in deep geological strata. It exits the water cycle and will never again fall as rain or fill a reservoir. It’s just gone.
Second, the chemicals used in fracking can migrate through unseen cracks and fissures and contaminate groundwater. We know for a fact that this has happened in other states. As the California Council on Science and Technology warned last summer, California is at particular risk for fracking-induced groundwater contamination because much of the oil-containing shale is located in shallow layers located close to aquifers.
As snowpacks disappear and rivers run dry, groundwater is increasingly eyed as California’s salvation. Is this really the moment to double down on oil drilling?
Third, the water that does return to the surface with the oil is, in California, not only toxic but especially briny. No technology exists to turn this wastewater into fresh drinkable water. Last summer, news broke that the Division of Oil, Gas and Geothermal Resources was negligent in its oversight of oil companies that were pumping fracking wastewater directly into protected aquifers. This wastewater contained high levels of carcinogenic benzene. Those aquifers are now ruined. It’s clear that oil and gas companies will continue to ignore water quality laws so long as they are allowed to drill. If they expand extraction deeper into the Monterey Shale, water will be the victim.
Meanwhile, students in the Central Valley’s Tulare County are told not to use drinking fountains because the water is unsafe. And people in East Porterville have already seen their wells go completely dry. As in, when they turn the spigot, nothing comes out.
Gov. Brown has a choice. He can allow outdated and dangerous energy practices to continue to threaten California’s limited water resources and public health. Or he can stop it. The world is watching.
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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>
How A. Latus Differs From its Parents.<p>Elucidating the identity of closely related fungal pathogens and how they differ from each other in infection-relevant characteristics is a key step toward reducing the burden of fungal disease. For example, we found that <em>A. latus</em> was three times more resistant than <em>A. nidulans</em>, the species it was originally identified as using microscopy-based methods, to one of the most common antifungal drugs, <a href="https://www.drugbank.ca/drugs/DB00520" target="_blank">caspofungin</a>. This result provides a clear example of the potential importance of accurate identification of the <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogen causing an infection.</p><p>We also examined how <em>A. latus</em> and <em>A. nidulans</em> interact with cells from our immune system. We found that immune cells were less efficient at combating <em>A. latus</em> compared to <em>A. nidulans</em>, suggesting the hybrid fungus may be trickier for our immune systems to identify and destroy.</p><p>In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, our quest to understand <em>Aspergillus</em> pathogens is becoming more urgent. Growing evidence suggests that <a href="https://doi.org/10.1111/myc.13096" target="_blank">a fraction of COVID-19 patients are also infected with <em>Aspergillus</em>.</a> More worrying is that these <a href="https://doi.org/10.3201/eid2607.201603" target="_blank">secondary <em>Aspergillus</em> infections</a> can worsen the clinical outcomes for those infected with the novel coronavirus. That being said, we stress that little is known about <em>Aspergillus</em> infections in COVID-19 patients due to a lack of systematic testing, and none of the infections identified so far appear to have been caused by hybrids.</p><p>So, when it comes to hybrids, some are fantastic (the minotaur), some are helpful (the mule) and some are dangerous (<em>Aspergillus latus</em>). Understanding more about the biology of <em>Aspergillus latus</em> may help in our understanding of how microbial pathogens arise and how to best prevent and combat their infections.</p>
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