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Paternity test reveals father’s role in mystery shark birth

In January 2012, curators at the Steinhart Aquarium of the California Academy of Sciences got a surprise — the birth of a brownbanded bamboo shark in a tank that had no potential dads, only three possible moms. How did that happen? Moisés A. Bernal and other Academy scientists wanted to find out, so they began teasing out the female sharks’ history to figure out how the baby shark came to be. The results of their investigation were published December 28 in the Journal of Fish Biology.

The Steinhart Aquarium in San Francisco acquired the three female brownbanded bamboo sharks in September 2007 from the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach, Calif., where they had been kept with males of their species. For a year, the females lived in a temporary facility and produced eggs that were discarded. Then the three females were moved to new facilities at Golden Gate Park where their tankmates were female blacktip reef sharks and a lone male Javanese cownose ray. The brownbanded bamboo sharks again laid eggs and curators collected the egg cases in January 2011. In November, two of those egg cases showed signs of embryonic development. One hatched on January 21, 2012.

The researchers considered three potential scenarios for how this shark pup came to be: The shark was the result of a hybridization between one of the females and that lone Javanese cownose ray; the pup resulted from parthenogenesis — a type of reproduction in which offspring develops from an unfertilized egg; or mama shark stored dad’s sperm for a really, really long time.

The first option was dismissed outright — the two species are so distant that hybridization would be improbable, the scientists concluded. But the other two, they decided, were worthy of consideration. Parthenogenesis had been documented in a closely related species, the whitespotted bamboo shark. And several shark species are known to store sperm for periods of months to years. The strategy lets a female successfully mate even when her body isn’t yet ovulating and ready to start reproducing.

The team didn’t know which of the three female sharks had laid the egg, though, so they compared DNA markers from the pup and its three possible mothers. The analysis revealed that the pup was most closely related to a shark labeled “Female A” in the paper — its probable mom — but also had genetic material of unknown origin. The verdict: The pup has a dad.

Mating must have occurred back in 2007 when the mama shark was still at the Aquarium of the Pacific, meaning that she stored his sperm for at least 45 months — a record in sharks. But who dad was or where he is now is a mystery. “Unfortunately,” the researchers write, “there is no information on the whereabouts of the sharks that shared the enclosure with the three females from this study.”

French Muslim groups urge calm over new Charlie Hebdo cover

FRENCH Muslim groups have called for calm and respect for freedom of opinion ahead of the release of the “survivors issue” of Charlie Hebdo magazine which features a cartoon of the Prophet Mohammed.
The French Council of the Muslim Religion and the Union of French Islamic Organisations released a joint statement on Tuesday calling for the Muslim community to “stay calm and avoid emotive reactions that are incompatible with its dignity … while respecting freedom of opinion.”

The new issue of Charlie Hebdo is to be published on Wednesday, a week after two jihadist gunmen stormed the Paris offices of the satirical magazine, killing 12 people.
Its cover features the prophet with a tear in his eye, holding a “Je Suis Charlie” sign under the headline “All is forgiven”.
Three million copies will be printed, with the magazine be published in 16 languages in 25 countries.
Depictions of Mohammed are seen by many Muslims as sacrilegious and Charlie Hebdo became a target for extremists after repeatedly printing cartoons of the prophet.

 

Freedom of speech … demonstrators hold a copy of Charlie Hebdo and a picture of late French cartoonist Charb reading ‘together against barbarism’ during a gathering in Toulouse on January 7

Top 10 Genetically Modified Food Products

 

Like humans, all organisms have genetic material. When scientists alter genetic material, or DNA, it’s called genetic modification (GM). Genetically modifying foods or food crops can enhance taste and quality, increase nutrients or improve resistance to pests and disease. In some cases, GM foods help conserve natural resources, because the altered version might require less water or energy for processing.

The first genetically modified food to reach our tables was the Flavr Savr tomato. Grown in California, the Flavr Savr tomato received Food and Drug Administration approval in 1994, after two years of testing and assessment. Mounting costs made the crop unprofitable, however, and production ceased in 1997. Creation of the Flavr Savr opened the doors for other GM foods to make their way into our kitchens.

In the U.S., genetic modification has expanded into almost every area of food production. Scientists can introduce some sort of modification into the genes of crops, dairy products and animals. For example, ranchers and dairy farmers normally feed cattle a GM diet, which is in turn passed on to you when you drink milk or eat beef. Do you need to worry about what’s on your family’s dinner table? And are there some surprising benefits to GM foods? As you’ll see, this subject is one hot potato.

The sugar beet is one of the newest GM foods and one under severe scrutiny. Researchers produced an herbicide-resistant crop of GM sugar beets that was approved by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 2008 but banned in August 2010. The genetic modification was meant to improve production because beets grow slowly and tend to battle for light and nutrients with nearby weeds. In 2010, however, federal judge Jeffrey S. White revoked the USDA approval of genetically-modified sugar beets based on the USDA’s failure to present an Environmental Impact Statement (“EIS”). Until an EIS is conducted, planting, harvesting and processing of GM sugar beets has been halted.

In 1991, the World Health Organization challenged scientists to look for a way to make vaccines accessible to everyone. This would mean that children in impoverished areas of the world wouldn’t have to travel for hours to a nearby village to get a shot. The scientists succeeded faster than expected, creating a cholera vaccine-like component by injecting a series of genes into a potato. These genes prompt the human immune system to produce its own cholera antibodies or “vaccine.” [source: Biotech Institute]. The “anti-cholera potatoes” have not made it to the market yet; scientists need to figure out how to package the potatoes to easily distribute and market them.

Protecting potato crops is important too. Researchers are working on a way to produce potatoes that are resistant to disease caused by Phytophthora infestans. Phytophthora infestans can kill entire crops rapidly and was the cause of the Irish Potato Famine of the 1840s.

People eat only 25 percent of the potatoes grown around the world today. The rest are used to feed livestock and in the starch industry. Scientists also are trying to find ways to make the potato easier to process so it can be of more use in the production of glue and lubricants. These potatoes would not be available for human consumption.

Bt-corn (named after the Bacillus thuringiensis bacteria) is a form of sweet corn that has been genetically modified to include an insect-killing gene. This means the farmer doesn’t have to spray with pesticides, because the insects die from eating the corn. No spraying means less harm to the environment and the workers handling the toxic spray [source: Bionet]. The movie has caused debate, however. The same gene that attacks corn predators also appears to kill the Monarch butterfly.
According to the USDA, farmers in every state in the U.S. are growing at least some GM corn at any given time. The numbers are higher in the Southern and Midwestern regions, but South Dakota leads the pack, lending 47 percent of its corn crops to GM varieties. Because the U.S. is the largest producer of corn in the world, these numbers have a significant impact beyond the American borders.

Although tomatoes were the first genetically modified food to reach the market, they have since been altered for only one reason: to make them last longer. GM tomatoes don’t rot as quickly as regular tomatoes, so they can tolerate longer periods of transportation. GM tomatoes also can be left to mature on the plants, rather than being picked green. This results in a more tasty tomato that doesn’t need to be stored until ripening.

The original GM tomatoes were resistant to antibiotics. This raised concerns that the gene might be passed on to humans, making us more resistant to antibiotics and in turn less capable of fighting infectious diseases. New forms of GM tomatoes don’t contain these genes, however.

 

Squash is more prone than some crops to viral diseases, which is why it was genetically modified to ensure crop survival. The original purpose was achieved, but the modification backfires in an unexpected way. It seems cucumber beetles that carry bacterial wilt disease like to feed on healthy plants, like the GM squash. After visiting unhealthy plants, they land on the nice, healthy GM squash plant and pig out, wounding the leaves and leaving open holes on them. When the beetles’ feces fall on the leaves, they’re absorbed into the stem and cause bacterial wilt disease.
Experts also believe that the GM squash may have already found its way into the wild by accident. GM foods are meant to be grown under controlled environments, in well-tended fields. If they’re introduced and mixed with wild varieties of the same species, a number of unpredictable environmental issues could occur, such as gene transfer or the plants becoming more vulnerable to bacterial diseases.
Golden rice was first created to fight vitamin A deficiency, which affects 250 million people around the world and can cause blindness and even death. Rice is one of the most common foods on Earth. In fact, almost half of the world’s population survives on a single daily bowl of rice. Because getting vitamin supplements to every single person on the planet would be impossible, scientists believed that the answer was to create a grain of rice that already had vitamin A in it. And so golden rice was born. Its name came from the bright golden glow added beta-carotene causes. The body converts beta carotene into vitamin A
Scientists now are working on a new GM rice. This new variety would have an iron gene, causing the grain of rice to become an important source of iron. Iron-deficiency causes low-birth-weight babies and anemia, both of which can be fatal. It hasn’t been possible to combine both vitamin A and iron in the same grain, but scientists are hopeful that this will be possible at some point in the future.

 

As of 2004, 85 percent of the soybeans grown on U.S. soil have been genetically modified. Because soy is widely used in the production of other items (including cereal, baked products, chocolate and even ice cream), chances are everybody in the U.S. is eating GM soy. It might be worth noting, however, that tofu and soy sauce are usually made from non-GM soybeans, a variation from most other soy products, which likely are GM-based. The bulk of the soybean crop is not destined to human consumption but instead used for livestock feed. For those who aren’t vegetarians, this becomes another source of GM foods, as the gene is passed on through the meat.

We don’t normally think of oils as part of our food list, but the truth is that they’re not only for cooking and flavoring, but show up as an ingredient in a large number of prepackaged foods we eat on a regular basis.
The U.S., India and China are the world’s largest producers of GM cottonseed oil. As a result, it’s hard to avoid this GM food, even if you don’t buy it bottled. In the U.S., GM-modified oils are sold as cooking oils, but also commonly used for frying snacks such as potato chips and also used in the production of margarine . Canola or rapeseed oil became an important crop only after being genetically modified. Before that, the oil was too bitter to be used in foods. The modification did away with the bitterness and also increased rapeseed resistance to herbicides. This allows crops to be sprayed with weed-control products without running the risk of affecting the actual crops.

A large percentage of animal feed is made up of crops such as soybeans. The world’s three largest producers and exporters of soybeans, the U.S., Argentina and Brazil, all grow mostly GM soybeans. This means the chances of livestock eating GM feed is very high, no matter where in the world you live. While not all corn is genetically modified, it is simply cheaper and more efficient to feed livestock the crops that are GM. The same is true of GM rapeseed oil used in the production and processing of animal feed.

A large part of the GM presence in animal feed does not come from foodstuff but instead from additives aimed at making food more nutritious. Animal feed is commonly enhanced with vitamins, amino acids, enzymes and even coloring. These additives are passed on to the animal’s system and eventually make their way into your body when you consume meat, eggs or dairy products. Traces of GM cannot, however, be detected in animal by-products, so it’s impossible to know if an animal was raised on GM-enhanced feed. Unless you buy organic meat and dairy products, it might be impossible to determine what you’re eating.

 

Genetically engineered food from animals might not be on the market yet, but a few already have been approved. GM salmon is, as we speak, on its way to our dinner table. Wild salmon matures slowly, taking up to three years to reach its full size. GM salmon, on the other hand, not only will grow faster but also should reach about twice the size of its wild cousin. The creators of the GM salmon, a private company called AquaBounty, promises to harvest the salmon before it reaches its full size, thus preventing “giant” versions. The GM salmon, known as AquAdvantage, is meant to be grown in fish farms. According to proponents of the modification, this would reduce fishing of wild salmon, in turn protecting both the wild population of fish and the environment from human intrusion.

Ironically, the major concern in the production of GM salmon is its impact on the environment. Although the genetically engineered fish is supposed to be sterile, experts believe there’s no way this can be ensured, because DNA tends to mutate over time.

France, Israel mourn victims of Paris attacks

Senior officials joined crowds of mourners in France and Israel as the first victims of last week’s terrorist attacks were buried on Tuesday. Four people gunned down in a Paris kosher store on Friday have been laid to rest in Jerusalem.

  • In Jerusalem, some 2,000 people attended the funerals of four Jewish victims slain at the kosher supermarket in eastern Paris last week. Their bodies were flown to Israel overnight.
  • The ceremony was attended by Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Reuven Rivlin, opposition leader Isaac Herzog and other public figures, including France’s Ecology Minister Ségolène Royal.
  • The Jewish victims, Yohav Hattab, Yohan Cohen, Philippe Braham and François-Michel Saada, were laid to rest in Jerusalem’s Givat Shaul cemetery, as requested by their families.
  • “Four new graves in Jerusalem, you’re the victims of the same crime, you were killed because you are Jews,” said the Israeli prime minister. Royal, who also addressed the crowd of mourners, said: “Anti-Semitism has no place in France.”
  • In Paris, President François Hollande led a ceremony to pay last respects to the three police officers, including one Muslim, who were killed in last week’s terror rampage.
  • Two of them, Franck Brinsolaro and Ahmed Merabet, were killed in the attack on the Paris offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo on Wednesday. The third officer, a young policewoman named Clarissa Jean-Philippe, was shot dead on Thursday in a suburb south of Paris.
  • Hollande posthumously decorated the officers with the Legion of Honour, France’s highest distinction.
  • Hailing the officers’ courage and bravery, Hollande said: “They died so we could live in freedom”.
  • Merabet coffin was later taken to the Muslim cemetery in Bobigny, northeast of Paris, where his funeral took place.

Death toll rises to 72 from contaminated beer in Mozambique

Mozambique government officials gather samples from a drum that was allegedly used to make local beer that made people sick in Tete province, Mozambique. Three more people have died from drinking contaminated beer, bringing the number of fatalities to 72, health authorities in Mozambique said on Tuesday. However, the number of victims hospitalized has decreased to 35 from 196, according Paula Bernardo, director of health, women and social welfare in the northeastern Tete province.

MAPUTO, Mozambique (AP) — Three more people have died from drinking contaminated beer, bringing the number of fatalities to 72, as the number hospitalized fell by more than 150, health authorities in Mozambique said on Tuesday.
About 35 victims are now hospitalized, down from 196, according Paula Bernardo, director of health, women and social welfare in the northeastern Tete province. At least seven people are still in critical condition in hospitals in the Chitima district, Bernardo told Radio Mozambique.
Dozens of people fell ill in Chitima and in the neighboring Songo district after drinking traditional beer, known as Pombe, at a funeral over the weekend. The beer, brewed from millet or corn flour, is believed to have been poisoned with crocodile bile, according to district health officials.
Police investigating the incident said the barrel in which the beer was originally brewed has since disappeared, hampering the investigation.
Police have no leads, police spokesman Zeferino Sande told Radio Mozambique. Medical and law enforcement reinforcements were sent to the region to assist with the disaster.
Blood and traditional beer samples were sent to the capital Maputo to be tested, said provincial health director Carle Mosse.
District health officials said Sunday that it was likely crocodile bile that poisoned the beer, a common practice in the region. The mother of the child whose funeral people attended, had brewed the beer and died.
One expert questioned the claim that crocodile bile is poisonous.
Johan Marais, a South African who has farmed crocodile for eight years, said he has tested many parts of the animal for consuming. He said that the animal’s bile, a greenish-brown liquid produced in the liver and stored in the gall bladder, was found not to be toxic.
However, some traditions demand that when a crocodile is killed, that the reptile’s bile be removed and buried in front of witnesses to ensure that it does not fall into the wrong hands, and used as poison.
Medical tests are yet to confirm the exact source of contamination.
Mozambique’s government on Sunday declared three days of mourning, from Monday to Wednesday.

 

NASA’s Curiosity Rover Finds Clues to How Water Helped Shape Martian Landscape

This illustration depicts a lake of water partially filling Mars’ Gale Crater, receiving runoff from snow melting on the crater’s northern rim.


 

This evenly layered rock photographed by the Mast Camera (Mastcam) on NASA’s Curiosity Mars Rover on Aug. 7, 2014, shows a pattern typical of a lake-floor sedimentary deposit not far from where flowing water entered a lake.

 

Observations by NASA’s Curiosity Rover indicate Mars’ Mount Sharp was built by sediments deposited in a large lake bed over tens of millions of years.

This interpretation of Curiosity finds in Gale Crater suggests ancient Mars maintained a climate that could have produced long-lasting lakes at many locations on the Red Planet.
“If our hypothesis for Mount Sharp holds up, it challenges the notion that warm and wet conditions were transient, local, or only underground on Mars,” said Ashwin Vasavada, Curiosity deputy project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena. “A more radical explanation is that Mars’ ancient, thicker atmosphere raised temperatures above freezing globally, but so far we don’t know how the atmosphere did that.”

This image from Curiosity’s Mastcam shows inclined beds of sandstone interpreted as the deposits of small deltas fed by rivers flowing down from the Gale Crater rim and building out into a lake where Mount Sharp is now. It was taken March 13, 2014, just north of the “Kimberley” waypoint.

 

Why this layered mountain sits in a crater has been a challenging question for researchers. Mount Sharp stands about 3 miles (5 kilometers) tall, its lower flanks exposing hundreds of rock layers. The rock layers – alternating between lake, river and wind deposits — bear witness to the repeated filling and evaporation of a Martian lake much larger and longer-lasting than any previously examined close-up.
“We are making headway in solving the mystery of Mount Sharp,” said Curiosity Project Scientist John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, California. “Where there’s now a mountain, there may have once been a series of lakes.”

 

This March 25, 2014, view from the Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover looks southward at the Kimberley waypoint. In the foreground, multiple sandstone beds show systematic inclination to the south suggesting progressive build-out of delta sediments in that direction (toward Mount Sharp).

Curiosity currently is investigating the lowest sedimentary layers of Mount Sharp, a section of rock 500 feet (150 meters) high dubbed the Murray formation. Rivers carried sand and silt to the lake, depositing the sediments at the mouth of the river to form deltas similar to those found at river mouths on Earth. This cycle occurred over and over again.
“The great thing about a lake that occurs repeatedly, over and over, is that each time it comes back it is another experiment to tell you how the environment works,” Grotzinger said. “As Curiosity climbs higher on Mount Sharp, we will have a series of experiments to show patterns in how the atmosphere and the water and the sediments interact. We may see how the chemistry changed in the lakes over time. This is a hypothesis supported by what we have observed so far, providing a framework for testing in the coming year.”

 

This image shows inclined beds characteristic of delta deposits where a stream entered a lake, but at a higher elevation and farther south than other delta deposits north of Mount Sharp. This suggests multiple episodes of delta growth building southward. It is from Curiosity’s Mastcam.

After the crater filled to a height of at least a few hundred yards and the sediments hardened into rock, the accumulated layers of sediment were sculpted over time into a mountainous shaped by wind erosion that carved away the material between the crater perimeter and what is now the edge of the mountain.
On the 5-mile (8-kilometer) journey from Curiosity 2012 landing site to its current work site at the base of Mount Sharp, the rover uncovered clues about the changing shape of the crater floor during the era of lakes.
“We found sedimentary rocks suggestive of small, ancient deltas stacked on top of one another,” said Curiosity science team member Sanjeev Gupta of Imperial College in London. “Curiosity crossed a boundary from an environment dominated by rivers to an environment dominated by lakes.”

This image shows an example of a thin-laminated, evenly stratified rock type that occurs in the “Pahrump Hills” outcrop at the base of Mount Sharp on Mars. The Mastcam on NASA’s Curiosity Mars rover acquired this view on Oct. 28, 2014. This type of rock can form under a lake.

 

Despite earlier evidence from several Mars missions that pointed to wet environments on ancient Mars, modeling of the ancient climate has yet to identify the conditions that could have produced long periods warm enough for stable water on the surface.NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project uses Curiosity to assess ancient, potentially habitable environments and the significant changes the Martian environment has experienced over millions of years. This project is one element of NASA’s ongoing Mars research and preparation for a human mission to the planet in the 2030s.”Knowledge we’re gaining about Mars’ environmental evolution by deciphering how Mount Sharp formed will also help guide plans for future missions to seek signs of Martian life,” said Michael Meyer, lead scientist for NASA’s Mars Exploration Program at the agency’s headquarters in Washington.

JPL, managed by the California Institute of Technology, built the rover and manages the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.

New Project Scientist for Mars Rover

 

Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, became the project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project in January 2015. Here he is with a full-scale model of the project’s Mars rover, Curiosity, at JPL. Curiosity landed in Mars’ Gale Crater in August 2012.


 

The new project scientist for Mars Rover Curiosity is Ashwin Vasavada of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. Vasavada had been deputy project scientist for NASA’s Mars Science Laboratory Project since 2004 — five years before the name Curiosity was chosen for the project’s rover.
The project scientist’s role is to coordinate efforts of an international team of nearly 500 scientists operating the rover’s 10 science instruments, planning rover investigations and assessing data from Curiosity. The project scientist also works closely with the JPL-based project manager and rover engineering team to maximize the science while using the rover efficiently and safely.
Vasavada succeeds John Grotzinger of the California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, who recently became chair of Caltech’s Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences and remains a member of Curiosity science team.
Vasavada has helped shepherd the project through development of the spacecraft, selection and integration of the science instruments, selection of the landing site in Mars’ Gale Crater, activities of Curiosity since its August 2012 landing, and publication of many research findings.
“John Grotzinger put his heart and soul into Curiosity for seven years, leaving a legacy of success and scientific achievement,” Vasavada said. “Now I look forward to continuing our expedition to Mars’ ancient past, with a healthy rover and a dedicated and passionate international team. And yes, this is all just incredibly cool.”
Researchers are currently using Curiosity to investigate the geological layers at the base of a mountain inside Gale Crater. Recent findings indicate that the lower portion of the mountain formed as sedimentary deposits in lakes and streams. During its two-year prime mission, Curiosity found evidence that Mars offered favorable conditions for microbial life about three billion years ago.
Vasavada has also worked on the science teams for NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter and for the Cassini mission to Saturn. He holds a 1998 doctorate in planetary science from Caltech and a 1992 bachelor of science degree in geophysics and space physics from the University of California, Los Angeles.
Vasavada resides in Los Angeles. Outside of work, he enjoys spending time with his niece, exploring California’s mountains, and volunteering to improve scientific education and literacy. He currently chairs the board of a non-profit that runs three science-focused, public schools in south Los Angeles.
JPL, a division of Caltech, manages the Mars Science Laboratory Project the project for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, and built the project’s Curiosity rover.

 

 

How Much Fossil Fuel Should Be Left in the Ground?

A new study pinpoints the type and location of fossil fuels that should remain unburned if the world is to meet its climate goal.

The planet still holds vast reserves of fossil fuel that could be extracted economically. However, according to a new analysis, a third of the world’s oil, half of its gas, and 80 percent of its coal reserves must remain unused if we are to have a good chance of avoiding potentially devastating climate change.

The study, authored by researchers at the University College of London, is the first to suggest which specific resources, and where, should be left in the ground. Importantly, it differentiates between the total amount of natural resources left in the ground and the amount of fuel it would be technologically and economically feasible to extract.

China’s Growing Bets on GMOs

New technology and large government research initiatives in ­genetically modified crops are giving China a storehouse for a more populous future.


How will China get enough to eat? More than 1.3 billion people live in the world’s most populous nation, and another 100 million will join them by 2030. China is already a net food importer, and people are eating more meat, putting further demands on land used to grow food. Meanwhile, climate change could cut yields of crucial crops—rice, wheat, and corn—by 13 percent over the next 35 years. Mindful of these trends, China’s government spends more than any other on research into genetically modified crops. It’s searching for varieties with higher yields and resistance to pests, disease, drought, and heat. The results are showing up in the nation’s hundreds of plant biotech labs.

 

At a test plot of transgenic soybean plants on Beijing’s outskirts, Fanyu Lin, site manager (left), stands with Caixia Gao, a leading GMO researcher and principal investigator at the State Key Laboratory of Plant Cell and Chromosome Engineering.


This soybean plant has been genetically modified in an effort to produce more and higher-quality soybean oil.


Left: At a government lab in Beijing, a technician cleans ears of corn in preparation for removing the seeds and subjecting them to genetic-modification technologies.
Right: In a tissue culture room, researcher Bing Wang works on seedlings of Arabidopsis, a fast-growing weed commonly used as a model organism by plant biotech researchers.
Bottom: This petri dish is full of nine-day-old Arabidopsis seedlings grown at 28 °C, a relatively high temperature. The goal of the experiment is to see how heat alters the plant’s hormonal behavior and growth patterns. Such experiments add to basic knowledge that can guide future approaches to GMOs, including varieties that can better withstand the hotter heat waves expected in the future.


 

 

Rows of rice seedlings in test tubes await the removal of their protoplasts, or living material in cells. It’s the first step toward systematic gene-editing experiments in pursuit of desirable traits such as high yield and disease resistance.

 


Caixia Gao shows off a strain of rice that has had genes removed so that it grows far shorter than typical rice, which can be seen to the left and right. Gao is investigating whether such diminutive rice strains devote more energy toward producing seeds—the food—and less toward leaf material.

Low Oil Prices Mean Keystone Pipeline Makes No Sense

New exploration on the bulk of Canada’s oil sands reserves can’t start unless prices are at least $60 per barrel, economists say.

The recent dramatic plunge in oil prices threatens to make the proposed Keystone XL pipeline something of a white elephant.
The proposed pipeline, which would transport crude oil from these sands to refineries along the U.S. Gulf of Mexico, is a flashpoint in U.S. politics. The Republican-led Congress wants to build it, and the House of Representatives is set to vote on this question. President Obama has pledged a veto.
But if prices stay so low over the coming year, Canada’s vast fossil fuel resource, called tar sands or oil sands, couldn’t fetch high enough prices to be mined in the first place.
If prices stay in the low $50 range, “the necessity for Keystone XL may disappear,” says Pete Howard, the president emeritus of the Canadian Energy Research Institute in Calgary, Alberta. “We’ve got rail [transportation] right now as a safety valve, and if we build up rail capacity to carry three-quarters of a million barrels, that pretty much takes up all the projects that are under construction right now.”
Last summer, rail capacity handled 240,000 barrels daily, and the Canadian Association of Petroleum Producers projects that rail capacity will grow to 700,000 barrels per day by 2016.
Oil prices today stand around $50 a barrel, a plunge of more than 50 percent since last summer due to a glut of production, including from the United States. Saudi Arabia’s recent decision to not scale back production has also softened demand.
Canada holds the world’s largest known reserves of bitumen, a tar-like form of petroleum, in underground sands in the province of Alberta. Recovering this oil is done in two basic ways: washing the sands with hot water and chemicals, or injecting steam through horizontal shafts underground. Both processes are more costly than traditional oil drilling, and emit more greenhouse gases (see “Canada’s Oil Sands on the Verge of a Boom Again”).
Right now there are at least 20 oil sands projects under construction in Alberta that are due to come online between now and the end of 2017. Regardless of oil prices, they will be finished because much of the capital expenditure is already sunk. However, Howard adds, “by this time next year, if the oil price hasn’t moved back upwards, the next stream of projects will start to be delayed.”
Last year, a London-based think tank, Carbon Tracker Initiative, issued a report carrying even more conservative predictions. It said oil prices would need to be at $95 per barrel or higher for 92 percent of Canada’s tar sands production to make economic sense.
That would leave much of the resource untouched. Even when existing construction projects come online, Alberta will produce around a million barrels per day. Canada is estimated to have the capacity to produce six million barrels, if fully developed.
Temporary dips in oil prices are no big deal because investment decisions involve long time horizons. Conventional tar sands mining projects have 40 or more years of lifetime; steam-assisted projects last 30 years. To make economic sense over the long term, the former requires an average cost of $85 a barrel; the latter, $60 or more a barrel.
President Obama has said he would approve the pipeline only if it did not “significantly exacerbate” climate change. A State Department study concluded Keystone would probably have no such impact because the oil would be mined anyway.

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