Category Archives: public health

Modernize or Die: Bio-Engineered Food

China is betting that CRISP technology*can transform the country’s food supply.  China also expanded its efforts beyond its borders in 2017, when the state-owned company ChemChina bought Switzerland-based Syngenta—one of the world’s four largest agribusinesses, which has a large R&D team working with CRISPR—for $43 billion. That was the most China has ever spent on acquiring a foreign company, and it created an intimate relationship between government, industry, and academia—a “sort of a ménage à trois” that ultimately could funnel intellectual property from university labs into the company, says plant geneticist Zachary Lippman of Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory in New York.

Chinese leaders “want to strategically invest in genome editing, and [by that] I mean, catch up,” says Zhang Bei, who heads a team of 50 scientists at the Syngenta Beijing Innovation Center…China may one day need CRISPR-modified plants to provide enough food for its massive population….    China needs to resolve how it will regulate CRISPR-engineered crops—a divisive issue in many countries. In a 2018 decision that rocked big agriculture, a European court ruled that such crops are genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that need strict regulation. In contrast, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) exempts genome-edited plants from regulations covering GMOs as long as they were produced not by transferring DNA from other species, but by inducing mutations that could have occurred naturally or through conventional breeding.  Chinese consumers are wary of GM food. The country strictly limits the import of GM crops, and the only GM food it grows are papayas for domestic consumption. But for CRISPR, many plant researchers around assume China will follow in the United States’s footsteps…

For Corteva, Syngenta, and the other two big ag companies—BASF and Bayer (which acquired Monsanto last year)—the long game is to use CRISPR to develop better versions of their serious moneymakers, the “elite” varieties of a wide range of crops that have big commercial markets. They sell dozens of kinds of elite corn seeds—for example, inbred strains that consistently have high yields or reliable resistance to herbicides. Creating the genetic purity needed for an elite variety typically takes traditional breeding of many generations of plants, and CRISPR is seen as the cleanest way to improve them quickly. The earlier methods of engineering a plant can lead to unwanted genomic changes that must be laboriously culled…

Syngenta sees CRISPR-modified corn as a big opportunity in China, which grows more hectares of corn than any other crop. Yields per hectare are only 60% of those in the United States because corn ear worms often weaken Chinese crops. A fungus thrives in the weakened plants, producing a toxin that makes the resultant ears unfit for animal feed. As a result, China must import a great deal of corn. (According to USDA, 82% of U.S.-grown corn has been engineered to have a bacterial gene that makes it resistant to ear worms.)…“Syngenta is putting a lot of emphasis to grow in China to become the leading seed company. The China market as a whole, if it modernizes as the U.S. has modernized, can be as big as the U.S. market.”

Jon Cohen, To feed its 1.4 billion, China bets big on genome editing of crops, Science Magazine, Aug. 2, 2019

* Genome editing (also called gene editing) is a group of technologies that give scientists the ability to change an organism’s DNA. These technologies allow genetic material to be added, removed, or altered at particular locations in the genome. Several approaches to genome editing have been developed. A recent one is known as CRISPR-Cas9.

The Rolls Royce Nuclear Reactor

Small modular nuclear  reactors (SMRs) are relatively small and flexible: they have a power capacity of up to 300 MW(e) and their output can fluctuate in line with demand. This makes them particularly attractive for remote regions with less developed grids, but also for use as a complement to renewables and for non-electric applications of nuclear power. SMRs can be manufactured and then shipped and installed on site, so they are expected to be more affordable to build.

The Rolls Royce SMR is small enough to be transported by truck.

Globally, there are about 50 SMR designs and concepts at different stages of development. Three SMR plants are in advanced stages of construction or commissioning in Argentina, China and Russia, which are all scheduled to start operation between 2019 and 2022…Some SMR designs have features that could reduce the tasks associated with spent fuel management. Power plants based on these designs require less frequent refuelling, every 3 to 7 years, in comparison to between 1 and 2 years for conventional plants, and some are even designed to operate for up to 30 years without refuelling. Nevertheless, even in such cases, there will be some spent fuel left, which will have to be properly managed.

Excerpts from Small Modular Reactors: A Challenge for Spent Fuel Management? IAEA News, Aug. 8, 2019

Who Owns Your Voice? Grabbing Biometric Data

Increasingly sophisticated technology that detects nuances in sound inaudible to humans is capturing clues about people’s likely locations, medical conditions and even physical features.Law-enforcement agencies are turning to those clues from the human voice to help sketch the faces of suspects. Banks are using them to catch scammers trying to imitate their customers on the phone, and doctors are using such data to detect the onset of dementia or depression.  That has… raised fresh privacy concerns, as consumers’ biometric data is harnessed in novel ways.

“People have known that voice carries information for centuries,” said Rita Singh, a voice and machine-learning researcher at Carnegie Mellon University who receives funding from the Department of Homeland Security…Ms. Singh measures dozens of voice-quality features—such as raspiness or tremor—that relate to the inside of a person’s vocal tract and how an individual voice is produced. She detects so-called microvolumes of air that help create the sound waves that make up the human voice. The way they resonate in the vocal tract, along with other voice characteristics, provides clues on a person’s skull structure, height, weight and physical surroundings, she said.

Nuance’s voice-biometric and recognition software is designed to detect the gender, age and linguistic background of callers and whether a voice is synthetic or recorded. It helped one bank determine that a single person was responsible for tens of millions of dollars of theft, or 18% of the fraud the firm encountered in a year, said Brett Beranek, general manager of Nuance’s security and biometrics business.

Audio data from customer-service calls is also combined with information on how consumers typically interact with mobile apps and devices, said Howard Edelstein, chairman of behavioral biometric company Biocatch. The company can detect the cadence and pressure of swipes and taps on a smartphone.  How a person holds a smartphone gives clues about their age, for example, allowing a financial firm to compare the age of the normal account user to the age of the caller…

If such data collected by a company were improperly sold or hacked, some fear recovering from identity theft could be even harder because physical features are innate and irreplaceable.

Sarah Krouse, What Your Voice Reveals About You, WSJ, Aug. 13, 2019

Where to Go? 1 Million Tons Radioactive Water at Fukushima

In August 2019, Tepco projected that storage of radioactive water at the Fukushima nuclear plant would reach full capacity by around summer 2022 even after the expansion — the first time it has issued such a precise estimate.  According to Tepco, the Fukushima No. 1 plant had 960 massive tanks containing 1.15 million tons of treated water as of July 18, 2019. Water that has touched the highly radioactive melted fuel debris has been cleaned up through water treatment machines and is stored in the tanks, but the high-tech treatment machines are able to remove most radionuclides except tritium. The plant currently sees an increase of contaminated water by 170 tons a day, Tepco says.

Releasing tritium-tainted water into the sea in a controlled manner is common practice at nuclear power plants around the world, and it was generally considered the most viable option as it could be done quickly and would cost the least.  The head of the Nuclear Regulation Authority, Toyoshi Fuketa, has long said that releasing the treated water into the sea is the most reasonable option, but people in Fukushima, especially fishermen, fear it will damage the region’s reputation.

Addressing those concerns, the government panel, launched in November 2016, has been looking for the best option in terms of guarding against reputational damage. Injecting it into the ground, discharging it as steam or hydrogen, or solidification followed by underground burial have all been on the table. Under the current plan, Tepco is set to increase the tank space to store 1.37 million tons of water a total, but estimates show that will only last until summer 2022.  But the more space it creates, the bigger the decommissioning headache becomes.

Excerpts from KAZUAKI NAGAT, Fukushima nuclear plant to run out of tanks to store tritium-laced water in three years, Tepco says, Japan Times, Aug. 9, 2019

Forest Fires in Africa Feed the Amazon Rainforest

The world’s largest rainforest and a crucial store of carbon dioxide gets most of its phosphorous, an important nutrient, from an unexpected source: fires in Africa.  Strange as it may seem, we thought that the Amazon got much of its phosphorus from dust whipped up from the Sahara Desert and transported across the Atlantic on the wind.

Cassandra Gaston at the University of Miami, US, and her colleagues had set out to quantify the effect of the phosphorous in Saharan dust on the Amazon’s growth. To do this, they collected and analysed particles caught in filters from a hilltop in French Guiana, at the northern edge of the Amazon Basin. But at the same time, they used satellites to track smoke from fires in Africa — both people burning wood and natural forest fires — drifting Westwards across the ocean. It turned out that the arrival of patches of smoke coincided with high levels of phosphorous being detected in the filters.  Gaston and her team then estimated how much of the phosphorus deposited on the Amazon Basin comes from African biomass burning. They found that, in Spring, smoke from the fires was responsible for most of the nutrient entering the Amazon Basin. …The findings suggest that people burning wood and other materials in Africa might have an impact on how much the Amazon grows and therefore how much carbon it stores in future.

Excerpt from The Amazon rainforest depends on fires in Africa for a vital nutrient, New Scientist, July 29, 2019

From Streets into Drains into Seas: Cigarette Butts

Cigarette butts, the most littered items in the world, are posing an intractable trash problem for regulators and tobacco companies: Throwing them on the ground is a firmly entrenched habit for many smokers.  Regulators are taking a tougher stance on cigarette filter pollution amid concerns about the environmental impact of single-use plastic. Butts for decades have been made from cellulose acetate, a form of plastic, which takes years to break down. Studies show that butts—which often wash from sidewalks into drains and then waterways—can be toxic to fish.

About 65% of cigarettes smoked in the U.S. are littered, according to Keep America Beautiful, a nonprofit whose cigarette litter prevention program is funded by the tobacco industry.  “That whole habit is so ingrained it becomes part of the ritual of taking the cigarette out of the pack, lighting it, smoking it, putting it on the ground,” said Christopher Proctor, chief scientific officer at British American Tobacco (BAT), whose cigarette brands include Kent, Newport and Camel. “Changing ingrained behavior is a really difficult thing to do.”

The European Union in May adopted new rules under which members must pass laws within two years requiring tobacco companies to fund the cleanup of filter litter as part of a broader crackdown on single-use plastics. A bill proposing banning filters has made its way through the California Senate and will be heard by the lower house next year.  In response, BAT and Japan Tobacco Inc. are testing biodegradable filters, while Philip Morris International Inc. is assessing the appetite for portable ashtrays. Companies also are tapping behavioral psychologists to understand what propels smokers to litter, hoping to forestall stricter regulation…

he World Health Organization says that when filters do break down they leach out some of the 7,000 chemicals contained in cigarettes, many of which are environmentally toxic.

Excerpts from Saabira Chaudhuri, The World’s Most Littered Item Comes Under Fire, WSJ, July 31, 2019

What 200 Million Irradiated Mosquitoes Can Do

In July 2019, a combination of the nuclear sterile insect technique (SIT) with the incompatible insect technique (IIT) has led to the successful suppression of mosquito populations, a promising step in the control of mosquitoes that carry dengue, the Zika virus and many other devastating diseases. The results of the recent pilot trial in Guangzhou, China, carried out with the support of the IAEA in cooperation with the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), were published in Nature on 17 July 2019.

SIT is an environmentally-friendly insect pest control method involving the mass-rearing and sterilization of a target pest using radiation, followed by the systematic area-wide release of sterile males by air over defined areas. The sterile males mate with wild females, resulting in no offspring and a declining pest population over time. IIT involves exposing the mosquitoes to the Wolbachia bacteria. The bacteria partially sterilizes the mosquitoes, which means less radiation is needed for complete sterilization. This in turn better preserves the sterilized males’ competitiveness for mating.

The main obstacle in scaling up the use of SIT against various species of mosquitoes has been overcoming several technical challenges with producing and releasing enough sterile males to overwhelm the wild population. 

For example, the researchers used racks to rear over 500 000 mosquitoes per week that were constructed based on models developed at the Joint FAO/IAEA Division’s laboratories near Vienna, Austria. A specialized irradiator for treating batches of 150 000 mosquito pupae was also developed and validated with close collaboration between the Joint FAO/IAEA Division and the researchers…The results of this pilot trial, using SIT in combination with the IIT, demonstrate the successful near-elimination of field populations of the world’s most invasive mosquito species, Aedes albopictus (Asian tiger mosquito). The two-year trial (2016-2017) covered a 32.5-hectare area on two relatively isolated islands in the Pearl River in Guangzhou. It involved the release of about 200 million irradiated mass-reared adult male mosquitoes exposed to Wolbachia bacteria

Nei Lingding island, China (view from Hong Kong)

Experts in China plan to test the technology in larger urban areas in the near future using sterile male mosquitoes from a mass-rearing facility in Guangzhou, said Zhiyong Xi, Director of Sun Yat-sen University-Michigan State University’s Joint Center of Vector Control for Tropical Diseases and Professor at Michigan State University in the United States

Excerpts from Miklos Gaspar & Jeremy Bouye, Mosquito Population Successfully Suppressed Through Pilot Study Using Nuclear Technique in China, IAEA Press Release, July 18, 2019