Genetic engineering

The History of a Public Controversy video that discussed the topic of genetic engineering reminded me about Gattaca, one of my favorite science fiction films, which also deals with this topic.  Gattaca tells the story of a normal man who attempts to compete with genetically engineered super-humans, and it attempts to portray the idea that there is more to a human being than our genetics.


I have always found this topic incredibly intriguing, and I believe that for better or for worse, genetic engineering is the future of the human race.  I believe that our foray into genetic engineering will likely begin with relatively uncontroversial issues, such as birth defects or genetic disorders.  Gradually, I believe that the extent of permissibility of genetic engineering will broaden, encompassing nearly every trait imaginable, from intelligence, to size, to physical appearance, to athleticism.  The human species will accelerate evolution at a pace that has likely never been seen on earth, gradually drawing our species towards perfection.  Many argue that our faults are part of our personality, and that they define us just as our strengths do.  Although I certainly see their perspective (most lessons that we learn in life can be attributed to faults that we have to overcome), I still think that genetic engineering is inevitable.

With every passing year, scientists bring us closer to the reality of genetic engineering.  For example, researchers at MIT, the Broad Institute, and Rockefeller University have found a way to alter the genomes of living cells, adding or deleting genes.  These researchers are able to target specific genes that they want to alter, precisely changing the cell’s genome.  Currently, the goal for this technology is to help treat diseases like Huntington’s disease, which is likely caused by a single abnormal gene.  This treatment may even be used to treat HIV by altering the receptor through which the virus enters.  Although this method is not currently being used with genetic engineering in mind, it isn’t difficult to see how it could potentially be implemented in that manner.

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In the shroud of devastation we have created, is there a glimmer of hope?

Hundreds of years ago, the fish in our oceans were so plentiful that sailors would joke that they could walk upon the surface of the water.  Rich ecosystems stretched to every corner of the earth, and life flourished in miraculous ways, from the highest mountains to the dimmest caverns.  Unfortunately, a blight has afflicted our planet, rendering nature’s supreme dominance and beauty a feature of the past.  If it continues at its current pace, the blight known as humanity will wreck more devastation upon the biosphere than any meteor or natural disaster possibly could.

Human activities have surpassed a harrowing threshold, now impacting more than half of the land surface of the planet.  In nearly every country, forests experienced a net loss in biodiversity.  Distressing research has found that if present trends continue, life on earth will enter another mass extinction.  This extinction will not be caused by natural phenomena like nearly every extinction in the past, but for the first time since the evolution of photosynthesis, its source will be organic.  The anthropomorphic extinction has already claimed countless species, reducing biodiversity to such a degree that 5-10 million years of evolution will be required to restore it.  According to some estimates, 30% of all plant and animal life is threatened by extinction in the next hundred years.

Due to human activities, storms have begun to intensify, devastating human settlements and the environment.  The small island nation of Tuvalu recently announced that rising sea levels will force them to abandon their country.  In the Philippines, an unprecedented typhoon recently struck the island of Mindanao, killing hundreds and leaving thousands homeless.  A delegate at the climate talks in Doha, Naderev Sano, pleaded to the world,

“As we sit here in these negotiations, even as we vacillate and procrastinate here, the death toll is rising. There is massive and widespread devastation. Hundreds of thousands of people have been rendered without homes. And the ordeal is far from over, as typhoon Bopha has regained some strength as it approaches another populated area in the western part of the Philippines.

“Madam chair, I speak on behalf of 100 million Filipinos, a quarter of a million of whom are eeking out a living working here in Qatar. And I am making an urgent appeal, not as a negotiator, not as a leader of my delegation, but as a Filipino …”

“I appeal to the whole world, I appeal to leaders from all over the world, to open our eyes to the stark reality that we face. I appeal to ministers. The outcome of our work is not about what our political masters want. It is about what is demanded of us by 7 billion people.

“I appeal to all, please, no more delays, no more excuses. Please, let Doha be remembered as the place where we found the political will to turn things around. Please, let 2012 be remembered as the year the world found the courage to find the will to take responsibility for the future we want. I ask of all of us here, if not us, then who? If not now, then when? If not here, then where?”

I sincerely hope that Mr. Sano’s passionate appeal sways the minds of some of the world’s leaders.  The urgency to invoke change mounts by the year; the World Bank, one of the most reputable sources worldwide, recently predicted that our planet will warm by 7.2 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century, provoking massive and abrupt shifts in the earth’s climate.

Slowly but surely, humanity is destroying the planet that it calls home.  If we continue down this path, the most depressing aspect of our demise will be the fact that we had the capability of preventing it.  We currently have the technology to solve this issue, but we lack the foresight to utilize it.  I hope that our species will remove the blindfold of ignorance from its eyes and finally begin to act in the best interests of its future, and the future of all it holds dear.

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China’s Green City

Many people are aware that China is insatiably consuming energy, constantly building new power plants.  Although they now emit more carbon dioxide than any other country, many people do not realize that China is also pursuing many alternative energy sources as well.  China is developing green communities, which are sustainable cities that are more eco-friendly than cities developed by any other country.  These cities contain many green areas, solar panels, “energy savings… non-toxic building and decorative materials, safe tap water and water-saving toilets.”  More than 200 Chinese cities have announced that they will attempt to reduce their emissions.

One city that is currently in development, Tianjin, will span 30 square kilometers, and be fully developed by 2020.  The city will house 350,000 people, and will feature a light rail system, varied eco-landscapes, a sun-powered solarscape, and a greenery-clad earthscape.

Conceptual image of Tianjin

Tianjin will utilize solar power, wind power, rainwater recycling, wastewater treatment, and desalination of sea water to make their city sustainable.  The developers of the city (Surbana Urban Planning Group) and China claim that 90% of the population of the city will use public transportation, greatly decreasing carbon emissions.

Another conceptual image

The city will consist of seven districts – a Lifescape, an Eco-Valley, a Solarscape, an Urbanscape, a Windscape, an Earthscape and Eco-Corridors.  The city will utilize any free space – whether between or on buildings – for greenery.  This city hopefully will act as a precursor for all future cities – not only in China, but around the planet.  If countries around the world realize the potential contained within Tianjin, hopefully the issue of climate change can finally be solved.

The green tip of the week is to car-pool whenever possible (only if biking isn’t an option!).  Not only will this have tremendous benefits for the environment, but you will save 50%-75% on your gas bills!

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Future Green Tech

Everyone agrees that we are in an energy crisis, and most people generally agree that renewable energy has to be at least part of the solution.  Unfortunately, at its current capabilities, renewable energies are not particularly feasible as a source for a majority of our energy.  For example, solar panels typically are 11-15% efficient, reducing the practicality of using them as a replacement for conventional energy sources.  Fortunately,  researchers are in the process of developing solar panels that are significantly more efficient, hopefully allowing us to eventually draw a majority of our energy from the sun.

Some of the most encouraging research into this field comes from a student our age, 19-year-old Eden Full of Princeton University.  Eden has developed a technology that efficiently allows a solar panel to track the sun, increasing its efficiency by 40%.  Eden’s genius device is able to turn because the metals that it is composed of expand at different rates, causing the machine to turn naturally with the sun.  This device is so simple that it is 1/60th as expensive as a conventional solar tracker, making the technology much more desirable.

Another interesting article that I have recently read was published by researchers at MIT, who were able to amazingly use genetically modified viruses to improve solar panel efficiency by nearly one-third.  Essentially, these viruses are able to hold carbon nanotubes together.  Carbon nanotubes have been proven to enhance the efficiency of electron collection from a solar cell’s surface.  Until this research was conducted, the structures of these carbon nanotubes were unstable, and thus were not a practical solution.  With a method of stabilizing the carbon nanotubes, hopefully this technology will soon be incorporated into our solar panels.

My environmental tip of the week is to try to be a green shopper.  Reuse bags rather than getting a plastic or paper bag every time you go shopping, and try to buy products that will last, rather than disposable products that will need to be replaced in a week.  More tips on how to be a green shopper can be found here.

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Overhunting: is our Second Amendment more important than biodiversity?

Humans have hunted species to extinction numerous times in the past – from the Dodo bird, to the Tasmanian tiger, to the Falkland Island wolf.  Even when their meat isn’t a necessity to survive, we persist in overhunting species until there are literally none of them left.  This is not an issue of the past; even with agencies tasked with protecting endangered species, humanity still manages to aggressively over hunt many species, even in the United States.  One recent example of this is the organized wolf hunt in Wisconsin. Even though there are only approximately 800 wolves living in Wisconsin, the state is allowing people to hunt the endangered animal, giving out 1,160 permits to kill the 800 animals.

Despite the occasional issue, America has become a relatively secure nation for endangered animals.  Some species located in other parts of the world have been less fortuitous.  Many species have become extinct in third world countries, where there are no laws protecting endangered species.  About a third of all animals that are endangered today are threatened by over hunting.

Our problem with over hunting also extends to the oceans.  Oceans contain a tremendous amount of biodiversity, but human activity is having serious and lasting impacts upon it.  Nearly 80% of all of the world’s fisheries are either “over-exploited, depleted, or in a state of collapse.”  Overfishing has had serious impacts upon many species’ populations, nearly wiping out all whales, cod, herring, and sardine by the mid-1900s.  Overfishing has become progressively worse over the years.  Fishing vessels are forced to go farther and farther from the coast to make their catch.  One recent study found that if fishing rates continue at their current pace, all of the world’s fisheries will have collapsed by the year 2048.

The tip of the week this week addresses one of the concerns of this week’s blog.  To help solve to problem of overfishing, the American consumer must begin to take action.  I love fish, but I know that to help solve this problem, we must all make healthy and sustainable choices when we go out to eat.  If you are interested in finding out which seafood choices are sustainable and which are not, check out this site.

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Is Hurricane Sandy an omen for our future?

Considering the events of the past week, I decided that it would be appropriate to center my weekly blog around Hurricane Sandy.  Although we were relatively lucky here in central Pennsylvania, many other parts of the country were devastated.  Some of my family in New York were forced to evacuate, and face the crippling effect of water damage.  Infrastructure has been devastated, million have lost power, and dozens have tragically died.  In my opinion, the most frightening thing about Hurricane Sandy is that it is just the first of many devastating hurricanes that may become standard in our future.

Six years ago, scientists at NASA warned that global climate change may lead to more intense weather in areas of the country that may never have experienced that type of weather before, specifically mentioning New York City.  Hurricane Sandy caused an astounding 13.88-foot wall of water to consume the city.  Frighteningly, according to Ben Orlove, the director of the Master’s Program in Climate and Society at Columbia University, one foot of this wall is attributed to climate change.  This devastating occurrence, which has historically occurred about once every hundred years, could occur every other decade by the end of the century, according to a projection conducted by researchers at MIT and Princeton.

Although everyone in this country seems to be content with ignoring climate change – from the public to our presidential candidates – climate change will not simply ignore us. Our oceans will continue to rise – according to one estimate, by three feet by the end of this century – and we will continue to endure ever more severe storms.  If we choose not to act, we will deservedly suffer the repercussions.

The green tip of the week is also a health tip: try to walk and bike whenever you can.  I’m sure that you already abide by this in college, but try to incorporate it into your lifestyle at home too.  Using these methods of transportation will help combat climate change; in Copenhagen, where 58% of the population use a bike on a daily basis, more than one-third of all transportation fossil fuel use has been eliminated, reducing Copenhagen’s greenhouse gas emissions by 90,000 tons.

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Using algae to curb emissions

Looking back at the rest of my blogs on this site, I have realized that they are all quite depressing.  I would like to begin  discussing more optimistic topics in this blog, as although many environmental topics are rather dismal to think about, the solutions that our engineers and scientists are discovering to combat these issues are inspiring.  This week, I will discuss one encouraging idea that researchers are exploring, the idea of utilizing algae to cleanse carbon emissions.

If you’ve taken a course in biology, you probably know something about photosynthesis – the process that converts carbon dioxide into oxygen.  What you may not know is that algae contributes 90% of global photosynthetic activity, making them the number one source for atmospheric oxygen.  After realizing the tremendous photosynthetic potential of algae, some researchers decided to try and use it to cleanse our emissions of carbon dioxide.

One company, called OriginOil, is attempting to make a coal plant in Australia carbon neutral by using algae.  The idea of the technology is to run the emissions from the plant through tanks of algae, which can store up to 60% of their dry weight in oil.  OriginOil wants to then extract the algae oil from the tanks of algae and repackage it as the ingredients for cattle feed.

This innovative technology is also being applied in many other interesting ways.  For example, a building in Germany will be constructed of algae containing movable walls to generate heat, shade, and energy.  Since algae reproduce at a faster rate when they are exposed to sunlight, during a sunny day, they naturally provide more shade.  The algae is harvested by the building, generating the 10% of the building’s power.

Since I discussed a green building in this post, my green tip of the week is to make your house as green as you can.  Bringing green plants into your house will not only beautify it, but will also diminish your carbon footprint.  If possible, also try to plant one or two trees on your property.  Thanks for reading again, and have a great week!

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Protecting endangered species

Is the biosphere currently experiencing a mass extinction?  More harrowing, are humans the cause of this massive loss of life?  Unfortunately, new scientific studies reveal that the answers to both of these questions may be yes.  Based upon the fossil record, scientists have determined that the normal rate of extinction is about one species per million species per year, which is equivalent to between 10 and 100 species per year.  The current levels of extinction are frighteningly higher than this value: 27,000 species are lost every year in tropical rain forests alone.  Another study found that 41 percent of all amphibians, 33 percent of reef building corals, 25 percent of mammals, 13 percent of birds, and 30 percent of conifers are threatened with extinction.

What is the root cause for these numbers?  Unfortunately, the answer is likely humanity. Humans modify the environment, destroying the habitats of species, effectively killing them.  This mass extinction is not just detrimental for biodiversity, but also for humans themselves.  We rely upon the environment to survive and thrive, drawing resources from it to feed, shelter, and provide medication, along with numerous other benefits.  With each passing year, the decrease in biodiversity limits the potential boons that could be gained from these resources.

Must biodiversity continue to diminish at this astounding rate?  Fortunately, the answer is no.  Scientists have recently released a study at the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) finding that just 80 billion dollars per year is required to prevent future extinctions from occurring.  Unfortunately, just 12% of the funding required to reduce this mass extinction is currently being provided.

The green tip of the week is a very simple lifestyle modification: when washing clothing, use the cold setting.  Most loads don’t require hot water, and 90% of all energy used by a washing machine goes into heating water.  Therefore, decreasing the temperature of the water will decrease the negative impact upon the environment.

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Examining the environmental impact of fracking

Proponents of hydraulic fracturing (“fracking”) highlight the economic benefits that can be reaped by extracting natural gas from shale rock.  They point to the energy crisis that America faces, asserting that we must utilize every resource possible to attain energy independence.  To any who hold this belief, I ask: is energy independence worth the tremendous cost to public health and the environment?  In my opinion, these costs far outweigh any economic benefit.

Fracking is almost unimaginably wasteful.  Four hundred tanker trucks are required to carry supplies to each fracking site, and one to eight million gallons of water are wasted completing each fracking job.  780 million people have no access to clean drinking water, and we are wasting millions of gallons on something so comparatively insignificant.  Fracking also requires 600 chemicals, including known carcinogens and toxins.

These statistics may appear harrowing, but they become even more staggering when you realize that America has 500,000 active gas wells.  These wells combined waste 72 trillion gallons of water and 360 billion gallons of chemicals.  These chemicals have an acute effect upon the nearby environment and water sources; methane concentrations are sixteen times higher in drinking-wells near fracturing sites.

Effect of fracking upon clean water

Public health is also seriously impacted by fracking.  Over 1,000 documented cases of water contamination have been reported in areas near fracking facilities.  Sensory, respiratory, and neurological damage have also been attributed to the ingestion of contaminated water.

The waste fluid from fracking stations is left to evaporate, releasing harmful gases into the atmosphere, which contributed to contaminated air, acid rain, and ground level ozone.

Another disconcerting reason why America should think twice about fracking is because recent research has found that several earthquakes were likely man-made.  This study found that oil and natural gas drilling have likely caused several earthquakes in the Rockies and Alabama.

The environmental tip of the week is related to this blog’s topic, and should only take a few seconds of your time.  If you agree that we need to stop fracking, contact your local representative and ask him/her to support the FRAC Act by clicking this.

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Saving the Great Barrier Reef before it’s too late

As anyone who has ever visited Australia will testify, one of the most amazing sites on this planet in the Great Barrier Reef, one of the seven natural wonders.

The Reef contains one of the richest and most diverse sources for life on earth; 400 different kinds of coral, coral sponges, molluscs, rays, dolphins, over 1500 species of tropical fish, more than 200 types of birds, around 20 types of reptiles including sea turtles and giant clams over 120 years old inhabit the reef.

Unfortunately, the very existence of this natural wonder is uncertain.  A scientific study recently found that in the past 27 years, the Great Barrier Reef’s coral cover declined by 50%.  This figure is so staggering, it is difficult for me to comprehend.  This natural wonder, which stretches several thousand miles and is visible from space, has lost half of its area in less than three decades.  The Australian group that conducted this study stated that if trends continue, the Reef may half again by 2022.  While this drastic change isn’t entirely attributed to human activity (tropical storms are also a factor), these storms may have intensified recently due to climate change.  Rising ocean temperatures have also increased the frequency of coral bleaching.  Ocean acidification, overfishing, and coastal development – which all have detrimental effects – can also be attributed to humans.

Despite the beauty, fame, and popularity of the Reef, our society has turned a blind eye to this crucial issue (which seems to be a common occurrence in climate related issues).  Major media outlets have failed to cover this story, and political discourse (on both sides of the aisle) have neglected to even mention climate related issues.  These issues could not be more relavent, impactful, or crucial to our future; we must stop ignoring them, and we must begin seeking a solution.

The green tip of the week will focus on this blog’s theme of ocean protection.  Minimizing the amount of plastic that you use and waste will help protect aquatic life.  Wasted plastic contaminates our oceans, killing thousands of marine animals.  Try to use plastic bottles, store your food in nondisposable containers, bring your own cloth tote or other reusable bag when shopping, and to recycle.

If you’d like to learn more information about how to protect our oceans, click this link.

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