On the eve of the U.S. National Academies of Sciences and Medicine International Summit on Human Gene Editing, Center for Genetics and Society and Friends of the Earth released a new report today, Extreme Genetic Engineering and the Human Future: Reclaiming Emerging Biotechnologies for the Common Good.
With the breakneck speed of recent developments in genetic engineering and synthetic biology that could be used to alter human DNA, the report examines health, regulatory, social and ethical questions.
The Center for Genetics and Society also released an open letter today, signed by more than 130 advocates and scholars, calling for a ban on heritable genetic modification of human beings.
“Genetic modification of children was recently the stuff of science fiction,” said lead author Pete Shanks, consulting researcher with the Center for Genetics and Society and author of "Human Genetic Engineering: A Guide for Activists, Skeptics, and the Very Perplexed." “But now, with new technology, the fantasy could become reality. Once the process begins, there will be no going back. This is a line we must not cross.”
Dana Perls, report co-author and food and technology campaigner with Friends of the Earth explains, “History has shown us that rushing new technologies to market before we understand their impacts on people, our society and our environment can result in negative unintended consequences. We have seen this with the first generation of genetically engineered crops—and the stakes are infinitely higher when it comes to the question of genetically engineering our children.”
Recent research in genetic engineering and synthetic biology has enabled scientists to artificially redesign life—everything from microbes to people. Powerful new techniques for gene editing bring the prospect of redesigning humans much closer. In April 2015, researchers from Sun Yat-sen University in China reported they had used gene editing techniques to alter human embryos for the first time in history. Those embryos were “nonviable” and could not have been used to initiate a pregnancy, but the attempt itself is a historically significant moment.
“The controversy about germline gene editing often downplays important points, including that we have other ways to avoid transmitting serious genetic diseases to future generations,” said Center for Genetics and Society Executive Director Marcy Darnovsky, PhD, who will present at the National Academies summit. “This technology will alter both human biology and human society. The scientists developing it cannot be the only ones making decisions that are so important for all of us. We need to invite discussion from thought leaders on ethics, disability rights, reproductive justice and other points of view, to inform best practices toward regulatory oversight.”
Stuart Newman, PhD, professor of cell biology and anatomy at New York Medical College, is a developmental biologist who previously filed a preemptive U.S. patent application to prevent the construction and commercialization of human-nonhuman chimeras. He shares these concerns: “Producing genetically modified human embryos is a first step toward making quasi-humans for spare parts. This will be followed by attempts to produce disease-free and other made-to-order children, with inevitable experimental errors. This is a technological move that will benefit the health of no living person, will harm some future ones and should be avoided at all cost.”
“These proposed applications raise social justice questions and put us at risk of reviving eugenics—controlled breeding to increase the occurrence of 'desirable' heritable characteristics,” said Emily Smith Beitiks, PhD, associate director of the Paul K. Longmore Institute on Disability at San Francisco State University. “Who gets to decide what diversity looks like and who is valued?”
“It is critical to not breach our scientific and moral integrity in the face of these rapid developments. Historically, research projects thought of as exciting research with no consideration for ethical or moral implications, were in fact egregious mistakes with unintended harmful consequences,” said Milton Reynolds, board chair of Literacy for Environmental Justice. “Only after the harm had been committed—witness the Tuskegee experiments on African American men and syphilis experiments on Guatemalans—was it clear to those researchers that scientific and moral integrity had been breached resulting in tragic consequences.”
The report puts human gene editing into the context of broader developments in synthetic biology. It examines the systemic and commercial incentives to rush newly discovered biotechnologies to market, regardless of their social utility and ahead of appropriate, transparent assessment and oversight.
The report calls for:
- National and international prohibitions on the use of gene editing and synthetic biology to alter human embryos or gametes for reproductive purposes. This call is especially relevant in those countries, like the U.S., that have not already enacted such a prohibition.
- Explicit and expansive public engagement on the human applications of synthetic biology, including and going beyond safety thresholds and addressing the social and ethical concerns.
- An ongoing, transparent, democratic process with which to evaluate and appropriately regulate new, emerging and proposed human applications of synthetic biology.
- Increased investment in more socially just and less risky solutions to environmental, health and social problems.
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If weather is your mood, climate is your personality. That's an analogy some scientists use to help explain the difference between two words people often get mixed up.
Size Matters<p>Climates are a bit like woven tapestries. The big picture is important, no question. But so are all the seemingly minor details found inside the larger whole.</p><p><a href="https://research-information.bris.ac.uk/en/persons/tommaso-jucker" target="_blank">Tommaso Jucker</a> is an environmental scientist at the University of Bristol. In an email, Jucker says he'd define the term microclimate as "the suite of climatic conditions (temperature, rainfall, humidity, solar radiation) measured in localized areas, typically near the ground and at spatial scales that are directly relevant to ecological processes."</p><p>We'll talk about that last bit in a minute. But first, there's another criteria to discuss. According to some researchers, a microclimate — by definition — must differ from the larger area that surrounds it.</p><p><a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/research/paleoecologylab/publications/Davis_et_al_2019_Ecography.pdf" target="_blank">Forests</a> provide us with some great examples. "The climate near the ground in a tropical rainforest is dramatically different from the climate in the canopy 50 meters [164 feet] above," says University of Montana ecologist <a href="https://www.cfc.umt.edu/personnel/details.php?ID=1110" target="_blank">Solomon Dobrowski</a> in an email. "This vertical gradient among other factors allows for the staggering biodiversity we see in the tropics."</p><p>Likewise, scientists observed that a 2015 partial <a href="https://animals.howstuffworks.com/insects/bees-stopped-buzzing-during-2017-solar-eclipse.htm" target="_blank">solar eclipse</a> caused the air temperature of an Eastern European meadow to <a href="https://rmets.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1002/wea.2802" target="_blank">change more dramatically</a> than it did in a nearby forest. That's because trees provide not only shade, but their leaves also reflect solar radiation. At the same time, forests tend to reduce wind speeds.</p><p>All those factors add up. A 2019 review of 98 wooded places — spread out across five continents — found that forests are 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit (4 degrees Celsius) <a href="https://natureecoevocommunity.nature.com/posts/47363-forests-protect-animals-and-plants-against-warming" target="_blank">cooler on average</a> than the areas outside them.</p><p>Now if you hate the cold, don't worry; there's a cozy exception to the rule. According to that same study, forests are usually 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit (1 degree Celsius) warmer than the external environment during the wintertime. Pretty cool.</p>
A Bug's Life<p>When does a microclimate stop being, well, micro? In other words, is there a maximum size we should be aware of when discussing them?</p><p>Depends on who you ask. "In terms of horizontal scale, some have defined 'microclimate' as anything that is less than 100 meters [328 feet] in range," Jucker says. "I'm personally less prescriptive about this."</p><p>Instead, he says the "scale at which we want to measure [a particular] microclimate" ought to be "dictated" by the questions we're trying to answer.</p><p>"If I want to know how temperature affects the photosynthesis of a leaf, I should be measuring temperature at centimeter scale," Jucker explains. "If I want to know if and how temperature affects the habitat preference of a large, mobile mammal, it's probably more relevant to capture temperature variation across [tens to hundreds] of meters."</p><p>For instance, solitary plants have the power to generate itty-bitty microclimates. Just ask <a href="https://www.colorado.edu/geography/peter-blanken-0" target="_blank">Peter Blanken</a>, a geography professor at the University of Colorado, Boulder and the co-author of the 2016 book, "<a href="https://amzn.to/2XN6FT8" target="_blank">Microclimate and Local Climate</a>."</p>
The urban heat island effect is a good example of how microclimates work. NOAA
Microclimates on a Grand Scale<p>It's no secret that our planet is going through some rough times at the macro level. The global temperature is <a href="https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/global-temperature/" target="_blank">climbing</a>; nine out of the <a href="https://www.noaa.gov/news/2019-was-2nd-hottest-year-on-record-for-earth-say-noaa-nasa" target="_blank">10 hottest years on record</a> have occurred since 2005. And by one recent estimate, roughly 1 million species around the world are <a href="https://ipbes.net/sites/default/files/2020-02/ipbes_global_assessment_report_summary_for_policymakers_en.pdf" target="_blank">facing extinction</a> due to human activities.</p><p>"One of the big questions that ecologists and environmental scientists are trying to answer right now is how will individual species and whole ecosystems respond to rapid climate change and habitat loss," says Jucker. "...To me, [microclimates are] a key component of this research — if we don't measure and understand climate at the appropriate scale, then predicting how things will change in the future becomes a lot harder."</p><p>Developers have long understood the impact small-scale climates have on our daily lives. <a href="https://science.howstuffworks.com/environmental/green-science/urban-heat-island.htm#pt0" target="_blank">Urban heat islands</a> are cities that have higher temperatures than neighboring rural areas.</p><p>Plants release vapors that can moderate local climates. But in cities, natural greenery is often scarce. To make matters worse, plenty of our roads and buildings have a bad habit of absorbing or re-emitting heat from the sun. <a href="https://www.google.com/books/edition/Microclimate_and_Local_Climate/LHUZDAAAQBAJ?hl=en&gbpv=1&bsq=urban%20heat%20island" target="_blank">Vehicle emissions</a> don't exactly help the situation.</p><p>Still, it's not like Boston or Beijing are thermal monoliths. Sometimes, the documented temperatures <a href="https://e360.yale.edu/features/can-we-turn-down-the-temperature-on-urban-heat-islands" target="_blank">within a single city</a> vary by 15 to 20 degrees Fahrenheit (8.3 to 11.1 degrees Celsius).</p><p>That's where metro parks and city trees come in. They have nice cooling effects on nearby neighborhoods. "Several cities around the world have developed programs to increase urban green spaces," says Blanken. "Tree planting programs and green roof programs, have been shown to lower surface temperatures, decrease air pollution and decrease surface water runoff (urban flash-flooding) in urban areas."</p>
An "explosive" wildfire ignited in Los Angeles county Wednesday, growing to 10,000 acres in a little less than three hours.
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If asked to recall a hurricane, odds are you'd immediately invoke memorable names like Sandy, Katrina or Harvey. You'd probably even remember something specific about the impact of the storm. But if asked to recall a heat wave, a vague recollection that it was hot during your last summer vacation may be about as specific as you can get.
<div id="ecf36" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="c2dcc9d48a6cd61f247df1544539a783"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290959314132361216" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Naming heatwaves is a good idea—making the abstract concrete, the invisible visible. Why should hurricanes and wild… https://t.co/hDWgYb79Ob</div> — Ed Maibach (@Ed Maibach)<a href="https://twitter.com/MaibachEd/statuses/1290959314132361216">1596623660.0</a></blockquote></div>
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One of the challenges of renewable power is how to store clean energy from the sun, wind and geothermal sources. Now, a new study and advances in nanotechnology have found a method that may relieve the burden on supercapacitor storage. This method turns bricks into batteries, meaning that buildings themselves may one day be used to store and generate power, Science Times reported.
Bricks are a preferred building tool for their durability and resilience against heat and frost since they do not shrink, expand or warp in a way that compromises infrastructure. They are also reusable. What was unknown, until now, is that they can be altered to store electrical energy, according to a new study published in Nature Communications.
The scientists behind the study figured out a way to modify bricks in order to use their iconic red hue, which comes from hematite, an iron oxide, to store enough electricity to power devices, Gizmodo reported. To do that, the researchers filled bricks' pores with a nanofiber made from a conducting plastic that can store an electrical charge.
The first bricks they modified stored enough of a charge to power a small light. They can be charged in just 13 minutes and hold 10,000 charges, but the challenge is getting them to hold a much larger charge, making the technology a distant proposition.
If the capacity can be increased, researchers believe bricks can be used as a cheap alternative to lithium ion batteries — the same batteries used in laptops, phones and tablets.
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