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
BY KAZUAKI NAGATA

Low Risk-High Rewards: Killing Endangered Species

The animals’ meat, hides and, above all, tusks are money-spinners. East Asia is the biggest market for ivory and for many illegally traded products, such as animal parts used in traditional Chinese medicine (TCM)—tiger bones, rhino horns, pangolin scales—or in its cuisine—pangolin meat, for example. In July,  2019 the authorities in Singapore seized 8.8 tonnes, about 300 elephants’-worth, of ivory, along with 11.9 tonnes of pangolin scales, from some 2,000 of the anteaters, the world’s most widely trafficked endangered mammal. The annual profits of the trade in illegal wildlife products are estimated at between $7bn at the low end and $23bn. This makes it the fourth-most profitable criminal trafficking business, with links to others—slavery, narcotics and the arms trade..

Athough China is trying to curb illegal trade, it is also promoting TCM as one of its civilisation’s great contributions to the world. It has indeed made breakthroughs, such as artemisinin, now a widely used defence against malaria. Artemisinin is isolated from the plant Artemisia annua, sweet wormwood, a herb employed in TCM….Conservationists are alarmed that in 2019 the World Health Organisation (WHO) gave TCM respectability by including diagnoses for 400 conditions in its influential International Classification of Disease. 

The WHO approved in June 2019 a new version of its International Classification of Diseases, a highly influential document that categorizes and assigns codes to medical conditions, and is used internationally to decide how doctors diagnose conditions and whether insurance companies will pay to treat them. The latest version, ICD-11, is the first to include a chapter, chapter 26, on TCM.

Excerpts from How to curb the trade in endangered species: On the Horns, Economist, Aug. 10, 2019; The World Health Organization’s decision about traditional Chinese medicine could backfire, Nature, June 5, 2019

How to Shh! a Nuclear Accident: the explosion of a nuclear-powered cruise missile on August 8, 2019, Russia

Two days after the explosion of a suspected nuclear-powered cruise missile undergoing testing on Aug. 8, 2010 near Nyonoksa Russia, two monitoring stations nearest the site of the accident stopped transmitting data, Lassina Zerbo, who heads the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty Organization, told The Wall Street Journal.  The Russian monitoring stations, called Dubna and Kirov after the places where they are located, were contacted immediately about the data disruptionl, and Russian officials responded that they were experiencing “communication & network issues.”

The missile test, on a platform in Dvinsk Bay on the White Sea in northwest Russia, has been the subject of considerable speculation. President Trump has said it involved an advanced nuclear-powered cruise missile, which has been dubbed Skyfall by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and which Russia calls Burevestnik.

The manned monitoring stations are part of an international network of hundreds of stations set up to verify compliance with the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty, which prohibits nuclear weapons tests globally. Participating nations are responsible for running the stations…The stations are designed to monitor everything from seismic shifts to sound waves for signs of nuclear activity. The two stations that went silent in Russia are designed to measure radioactive particles in the atmosphere…Arms-control experts said the monitoring problem appears to be a Russian effort to conceal information about the accident and not an effort to hide evidence of a prohibited nuclear weapons test.

Excerpts from Russian Nuclear Monitoring Stations Went Silent After Missile Blast, WSJ, Aug. 19, 2019

Mining the Ocean: the Fate of Sea Pangolin

A snail that lives near hydrothermal vents on the ocean floor east of Madagascar has become the first deep-sea animal to be declared endangered because of the threat of mining.  The International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) added the scaly-foot snail (Chrysomallon squamiferum) to its Red List of endangered species on 18 July, 2019 — amid a rush of companies applying for exploratory mining licenses…. The scaly-foot snail is found at only three hydrothermal vents in the Indian Ocean.  Two of those three vents are currently under mining exploration licences,…Even one exploratory mining foray into this habitat could destroy a population of these snails by damaging the vents or smothering the animals under clouds of sediment..

Full-scale mining of the deep seabed can’t begin in international waters until the International Seabed Authority (ISA) — a United Nations agency tasked with regulating sea-bed mining — finalizes a code of conduct, which it hopes to do by 2020….The biggest challenge to determining whether the scaly-foot snail warranted inclusion on the Red List was figuring out how to assess the extinction risk for animals that live in one of the weirdest habitats on Earth…

When the IUCN considers whether to include an organism on the Red List, researchers examine several factors that could contribute to its extinction. They include the size of a species’ range and how fragmented its habitat is…The IUCN settled on two criteria to assess the extinction risk for deep-sea species: the number of vents where they’re found, and the threat of mining.   In addition to the scaly-foot snail, the researchers are assessing at least 14 more hydrothermal vent species for possible inclusion on the Red List.

Excerpts from Ocean Snail is First Animal to be Officially Endangered by Deep-Sea Mining, Nature, July 22, 2019

On Sea Pangolins see YouTube video