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Scientists Find Method to Pinpoint Candidate Catalysts for Carbon Fixation

While gaseous carbon dioxide has been a harmful byproduct of human industry—it is the main greenhouse gas emitted through human activities, according to the Environmental Protection Agency—it is an essential ingredient for plant life. Artificially fixing carbon to use as an energy source, by converting carbon dioxide into liquid fuel, could not only provide power but could also cut carbon dioxide emissions and therefore help reduce the effects of global warming.


Does ‘The Martian’ Point Out NASA’s Risk-Averse Culture?

Ridley Scott’s “The Martian” is receiving both critical praise and commercial success, and deservedly so. Not only does Matt Damon get to redeem himself from his cowardly actions after being stranded on another planet in the Christopher Nolan film “Interstellar,” but it presents an emotionally lifting epic embedded in nail-biting hard-science fiction.

While others will debate the obvious, “Is that scientifically possible or feasible?” I was also curious about questions concerning the political and policy machinations involved in a manned mission to Mars gone wrong.

Matt Damon in "The Martian"
Matt Damon in a scene from “The Martian.” Credit: 20th Century Fox

For those unfamiliar with the plot, here’s a brief summary with only mild spoilers beyond what’s seen in the trailers. Wind from a storm on Mars’ surface threatens to tip over the lander module of a manned NASA mission. The lander is the crew’s only way back to the orbiter, and therefore its only way back to Earth. The commander (Jessica Chastain) decides not to risk such a possibility and orders an evacuation. During the scramble back to the lander, the botanist (Damon) is hit by a communications antenna and then presumed dead. The commander orders to abandon the mission and leave Mars, not knowing that the botanist survived the incident and is now stranded.

NOTE: Before I get into the discussion, I feel the obligation to counter the narrative that NASA would do such a mission on its own. NASA is not able to sustain a station orbiting Earth without the help of the European Space Agency and Russia’s Roscosmos space agency, and to a lesser extent the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency. So to believe that the U.S. could muster the necessary funding and political will to send a manned multi-mission to Mars is Hollywood magic indeed.

Getting that out of the way, I can discuss the objective here: Would NASA act like it did in trying to save its astronauts? So I asked Roger Launius, associate director for Collections and Curatorial Affairs at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum here in Washington, who has written several books about the history of the space program. I explained the movie scenario since he hadn’t yet seen it.

Roger thought the possibility of the lander tipping over during a storm seemed somewhat unrealistic considering how thoroughly NASA’s scientists and engineers consider environmental concerns when running through its mission scenarios. He thought the space agency would anticipate the dust storm’s plausible strength and then build a vehicle capable of withstanding it.

Although that was not one of my questions, it’s an excellent point. If the storm was not some freak occurrence, why would they not have been prepared for such a scenario? During the movie, the crew said the storm was bigger than they had anticipated, but is that likely? Even now, there are several probes orbiting the red planet, including the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter, Mars Odyssey, Mars Express, MAVEN and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission. So, weather events on Mars shouldn’t be too surprising.

If such a surprisingly strong Martian storm did threaten to topple the lander, however, what is NASA’s view of astronaut safety versus mission completion? In other words, is NASA risk averse?  Surely, with a manned mission to Mars there is a great deal of intrinsic risk. “I don’t think NASA’s risk averse,” Roger said. “Space is inherently dangerous.”

Steven Jones
Steven Jones, the alleged shooter who killed one student and wounded three others at Northern Arizona University Oct. 9, 2015. Credit: Northern Arizona University photo

Actually, Roger believes it’s U.S. society that is risk averse, “almost schizophrenic” about astronaut safety, especially when compared to more blasé attitudes concerning all-too-common dangers like mass shootings, vehicular safety or heart attacks. These more mundane dangers are seen as almost routine and inevitable, he said. Certain dangers are tolerable but others are not, he continued.

Then Roger went on to point out the great risks NASA astronauts have already met in sending humans to space and even training them to go there.  There have been 18 fatalities involving the U.S. and Soviet/Russian space programs during space missions (although none in space itself) and another 14 deaths during training and preparation for such missions. There have also been many other non-fatal accidents, including the heroic and successful return of the Apollo 13 astronauts after an in-flight explosion of one of its oxygen tanks and the fire on board Russia’s Mir space station after a docking accident with a Progress resupply craft.

But Roger acknowledged that leaving an astronaut stranded would prove an especially agonizing tragedy for the public to tolerate. He pointed out the 1999 revelation that Nixon speechwriter William Safire had written a speech for the then-president to deliver in case the Apollo 11 astronauts had not been able to return from the moon’s surface as planned.

Indeed it would seem NASA is not risk averse, as Roger so astutely pointed out, but simply careful. It’s sending women and men into the void and it just wants to do so as safely as possible. That’s just smart.

NIH Personalized Medicine Initative

The NIH will begin an effort to bring what has been called personalized medicine closer to reality in our health care system. The health organization has been charged with  starting enrollments  in 2016, hoping to reach a goal of million or more volunteers in three or four years.

“We have an incredible opportunity to advance research and make new medical breakthroughs through precision medicine, which tailors disease prevention and treatment to individuals based on genetics, environment and lifestyle,” Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Sylvia M. Burwell said in an NIH statement.

The initiative is part of the Precision Medicine Initiative, which President Obama introduced in January 2015. He allocated $215 million for the program in his 2016 budget, $130 million of which would go to the NIH of its part in the initiative.

The Precision Medicine Initiative is an effort to bring about what is called personalized, or precision, medicine to the U.S. health system. The FDA website describes personalized medicine as “tailoring of medical treatment to the individual characteristics, needs, and preferences of a patient during all stages of care, including prevention, diagnosis, treatment, and follow-up.”

According to the NIH website, the study is being conducted to:

  • develop quantitative estimates of risk for a range of diseases by integrating environmental exposures, genetic factors and gene-environment interactions;
  • identify the causes of individual variation in response to commonly used therapeutics (commonly referred to as pharmacogenomics);
  • discover biological markers that signal increased or decreased risk of developing common diseases;
  • use mobile health (mHealth) technologies to correlate activity, physiological measures and environmental exposures with health outcomes;
  • develop new disease classifications and relationships;
  • empower study participants with data and information to improve their own health; and
  • create a platform to enable trials of targeted therapies.

While the initiative is admirable in its goals to improve medical care to individuals, one has to consider how easily it will be to get one million volunteers for a study of this kind. There is a history of distrust, which is not always unfounded, between government medical research and the citizenry. One look no further than the infamous Tuskegee syphilis experiments of 1932 to 1972 in which the U.S. government conducted experiments with rural black men with the sexually transmitted disease. Despite having the ability to treat and cure the men, treatment was withheld to track the natural course of the disease.

Steps must be taken to educate the public of the potential benefits of the study, especially in traditionally exploited and undeserved communities.  Without the necessary diversity, the Precision Medicine Initiative  will merely continue the sorts of problems with genereicized medicine and health care our system currently faces.

UPDATE: Science & Enterprise creator and editor Alan Kotok  has a March  story about a push to involve more minorities in medical research and clinical trials.

Berkeley Scientists Create 3-D Invisibility Cloak

Xiang Zhang, director of UC Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, led a team of Berkeley and DOE  scientists that made an ultrathin “skin cloak.” The team used an irregular 3-D object the size of just a few biological cells to demonstrate the technique. When the 80-nm skin cloak, composed of blocks of gold nanoantennas, was activated it prevented lights waves from being reflected back, therefore making the 3-D object optically invisible.

Making 3D Objects Disappear

Now It has a Name: De-extinction

During the last few years, I’ve been hearing talk about reviving extinct animal species. Not a fantasy about resurrecting dinosaurs for kids to see in an amusement park. (Full disclosure: If that were real, I’d probably go bankrupt trying to be able to afford a trip to such a place.)

Not Michael Crichton or Steven Spielberg. But serious people.

Beth Shapiro
Beth Shapiro. Credit: MacArthur Foundation

People like Beth Shapiro, a 2009 MacArthur Fellow who heads up a team at the University of California, Santa Cruz, that looks at the pressures that lead animal populations to speciation and extinction. She’s also the author of How to Clone a Mammoth: The Science of De-Extinction.

Hendrik Poinar
Hendrik Poinar. Credit: Photo courtesy of McMaster University

And people like Hendrik Poinar, the principal investigator at the McMaster Ancient DNA Centre in Toronto and a professor of physical anthropology at McMaster University. His research involves finding new ways to extract DNA, RNA and protein sequences, and then and use that genetic information to look at evolution, phylogeny, selection and biogeography.

In the last few months, the topic of bringing back extinct animals has garnered enough attention for a TED conference and a National Geographic spread.

I’m not saying that I deserve royalties or that I even originated the idea but I remember being in eighth grade when a classmate lamented how extinct animals are gone forever.  It’s nothing I had thought about before that, but I replied: “Not necessarily.”

Dolly’s remains at the Royal Museum of Scotland. Credit: Colin and Sarah Northway

At the time, our understanding of genetic manipulation was rudimentary. Dolly — the first successful mammal to be cloned — was not born until eight years after I had that conversation.

And in 2003 there was the first attempt to clone an extinct mammal — a Pyrenean  ibex, also called a  bucardo. Extracted nuclei of the last known specimen were injected into goat eggs. Only seven of the 57 goats became pregnant. Only one of those six goats delivered, but the bucardo that was born died shortly after birth due to malformed lungs.

Also in 2003, Poinar sequenced genomic sequences taken from the waste, known as corpolites, of the Shasta sloth. The work showed ancient DNA can be retrieved at higher temperatures. It had been thought genetic material could only extracted from specimens like that of mammoths frozen in permafrost.

But is bringing back extinct animals a good thing? “Should it be done” is asked just as much as “Can it be done?” Whether you agree with the ethical repercussions concerning bringing back extinct animals, that the science will soon be viable is exciting.