Monthly Archives: September 2022

Unbeatable Fusion: Big Tech and US Armed Forces

Big tech equips the armed forces and United States law enforcement with cloud storage, databases, app support, admin tools and logistics. Now it is moving closer to the battlefield. Alphabet, Amazon, Microsoft and Oracle are expected to divvy up the $9bn five-year contract to operate the Pentagon’s Joint Warfighting Cloud Capability (JWCC). In 2021 Microsoft was awarded a $22bn contract to supply its HoloLens augmented-reality headset to simulate battles for army training for up to ten years. It is also helping develop the air force’s battle-management system, which aims to integrate data sources from across the battlefield. In June 2022 Alphabet launched a new unit, Google Public Sector, which will compete for the DOD’s battle-networks contracts. In a departure from Google’s earlier wariness of the Pentagon, its cloud chief, Thomas Kurian, has insisted: “We wouldn’t be working on a programme like JWCC purely to do back-office work.”

Except from  Defense Technology: Can Tech Reshape the Pentagon, Economist, Aug. 13, 2022

The Power of Listening: when Indigenous People Win

 Indigenous traditional owners on Sept. 21, 2022 won a court challenge that prevents an energy company from drilling for gas off Australia’s north coast. The Federal Court decision against Australian oil and gas company Santos Ltd. was a major win for Indigenous rights in the nation. Dennis Murphy Tipakalippa, who was described in court documents as an elder, senior lawman and traditional owner of the Munupi clan on the Tiwi Islands, had challenged the regulator’s approval of Santos’ $3.6 billion plan to drill the Barossa Field beneath the Timor Sea. Justice Mordy Bromberg quashed the February decision by the regulator, the National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority, to allow the drilling.

Tipakalippa had argued that the regulator could not be “reasonably satisfied,” as required by law, that Santos had carried out necessary consultations with indigenous peoples about its drilling plans. Santos had not consulted with his clan, Tipakalippa said, and he feared the project would harm the ocean environment.

See Tipakalippa v National Offshore Petroleum Safety and Environmental Management Authority (No 2) [2022] FCA 1121    

Judge Bromberg went to the Tiwi Islands in August and took evidence about the Munupi people’s connection to the environment. According to indigenous peoples, the court’s willingness  to travel and listen to communities are signs that Australian institutions are increasingly taking  the concerns and heritage of indigenous peoples into account.

ROD McGUIRK, Australian Indigenous traditional owners halt gas drilling, AP, Sept. 21, 2022; Mike Cherney, In Australian Gas-Project Dispute, Sacred Dances Part of Court Hearing, WSJ, Sept. 8, 2022

New Drugs: Animals Stuck to the Seabed

Biologists are working with engineers to develop new tools to accelerate the development of medicines derived from marine animals, focusing on ocean-going robots with onboard DNA-sequencing gear. They foresee fleets of autonomous submersible robots trolling the ocean like electronic bloodhounds to sniff out snippets of the animals’ DNA in seawater—and then gathering and analyzing this so-called environmental DNA, or eDNA.

“The ultimate goal is an underwater vehicle that collects environmental DNA samples, sequences them and then sends the data back to the lab,” says Kobun Truelove, senior research technician at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “We would like to set up a network where you would have these autonomous vehicles out there sampling and then basically be getting the data back in real time.”

More than 1,000 marine-organism-derived compounds have shown anticancer, antiviral, antifungal or anti-inflammatory activity in medical assays, according to a database compiled by the Midwestern University Department of Marine Pharmacology. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved 15 drugs derived from marine organisms, including ones for chronic pain and high cholesterol. Another 29 marine animal-derived compounds are now in clinical trials, according to the database.

Marine invertebrates are a key target of biomedical research because the animals—mostly attached to the seabed and unable to move—have evolved sophisticated chemical defenses to fend off fish, turtles and other predators in their environment. Research has shown that the natural toxins that comprise these defenses can be toxic to cancer cells and human pathogens. These sea creatures “make a broad range of different chemistries, things that synthetic chemists never thought of making,” says Barry O’Keefe, who have also identified compounds produced by bacteria living symbiotically with marine invertebrates. Once scientists have a suitable sample of eDNA and it’s been sequenced, they say, they can identify compounds the organisms are capable of producing. Then researchers can synthesize the compounds and test them to see if they have medicinal properties…

Collection of eDNA promises to be faster and less costly than the complex method commonly used   collect marine specimens—one that Amy Wright, director of the natural products group at Florida Atlantic University’s Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institution, likens to a treasure hunt. Currently, research vessels on weekslong expeditions launch submersible vehicles equipped with clawlike grabbers and suction tubes for gathering specimens. Once the vehicles and their payload are back on the ships, researchers preserve them and deliver them to labs, where their genomes are sequenced. The entire process can take weeks and is expensive. Just paying the crew to operate a research vessel for a single day can cost $35,000, according to the National Science Foundation.

Excerpts from  Eric Niile, Finding New Drugs From the Deep Sea via ‘eDNA’, WSJ, Sept. 3, 2022

Bury It and Forget It: Nuclear Waste

The first nuclear burial site has been built in Finland, the Onkalo spent nuclear fuel repository]. Deep geological disposal of this sort is widely held to be the safest way to deal with the more than 260,000 tons of spent nuclear fuel which has accumulated in 33 countries since the first nuclear plants began churning out electricity in the mid-1950s, and the still large…. Spent fuel is a high-level nuclear waste. That means it is both physically hot (because of the energy released by radioactive decay) and metaphorically so—producing radiation of such intensity that it will kill a human being in short order. Yet unlike the most radioactive substances of all, which necessarily have short half-lives, spent fuel will remain hot for hundreds of thousands of years—as long, in fact, as Homo sapiens has walked Earth—before its radioactivity returns to roughly the same level as that of the ore it came from.

Once full, the waste repository will be backfilled with bentonite before their entrances are sealed with a reinforced-concrete cap. In 100 years’ time, Finland will fill the whole site in, remove all traces of buildings from the surface and hand responsibility over to the Finnish government. The thinking is that leaving no trace or indication of what lies below is preferable to signposting the repository for the curious to investigate.

[Unless someone decides to drill?]

Excerpt from Nuclear Waste: Oubliette, Economist, June 25, 2022

Military Uses of Dolphins

The U.S. NAVY MARINE MAMMAL PROGRAM: Since 1959, the U.S. Navy has trained dolphins and sea lions  to help guard against threats underwater….Dolphins naturally possess the most sophisticated sonar known to science. Mines and other potentially dangerous objects on the ocean floor that are difficult to detect with electronic sonar, especially in coastal shallows or cluttered harbors, are easily found by the dolphins. Both dolphins and sea lions have excellent low light vision and underwater directional hearing that allow them to detect and track undersea targets, even in dark or murky waters. They can also dive hundreds of feet below the surface, without risk of decompression sickness or “the bends” like human divers. Someday it may be possible to complete these missions with underwater drones, but for now technology is no match for the animals…Dolphins are trained to search for and mark the location of undersea mines that could threaten the safety of those on board military or civilian ships..
How do the animals travel to remote work sites? By airplanes and helicopters (yes!)

Excerpt from US Naval Information Warfare Center

Stopping the Bleeding of the Horseshoe Crab

Every April in South Carolina, fishermen catch hundreds of horseshoe crabs as they crawl onto shore to mate. The crabs are transported to labs owned by Charles River, an American pharmaceutical company, in Charleston. There they are strapped to steel countertops and, still alive, drained of about a third of their blue-colored blood. Then they are returned to the ocean. This liquid is vital for America’s biomedical industry. A liter of it goes for as much as $15,000. Bleeding is not without harm to the crabs. Conservationists estimate that between 5% and 30% of them die on release…In 2016 the International Union for Conservation of Nature listed them as “vulnerable” to extinction… 

Parts of modern medicine have been unusually reliant on the horseshoe crab. Its blood is the only known natural source of limulus amebocyte lysate (LAL), an extract that detects endotoxin, a nasty and sometimes fatal bacterium. Drug firms use it to ensure the safety of medicines and implanted devices, including antibiotics, anti-cancer drugs, heart stents, insulin and vaccines. The immune cells in the crab’s blood clot around toxic bacteria, giving a visual signal of unwanted contamination. As pharmaceutical companies ramped up production of the covid-19 jab, demand for the blue liquid soared. In 2020 nearly 650,000 crabs were bled in America, 36% more than in 2018.

As crab numbers fall and demand for LAL rises, America’s biomedical industry will face a crunch. Yet a synthetic alternative to LAL is already available and used in China and Europe.

Excerpt from In America, crab blood remains vital for drug- and vaccine-making, Economist, Sept. 3, 2022