Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Argonauts Against the Desert

Are Berber women in Morocco’s argan groves holding back the spreading Sahara by producing a first-world luxury?



Green Stick Note: The following is a article from The Globalist (www.theglobalist.com) on how community cooperatives can restore ancient agricultural practices and thereby help to heal the environment. This is a story of Berber women in Morocco who are bringing new life and economic purpose to the native argan tree (Argania spinosa).
 By John Mathews
Everyone knows that the world’s deserts — from the Sahara to the Gobi — are spreading their fingers of sand. The desert expands as lands are over-grazed and over-tilled. Trees are clear-felled for timber. The loss of vegetation and drought drives the process. The Sahara is expanding south at a rate of 48 km per year, as once-fertile lands become arid. 
But there is a good news story to set against this dreary narrative. In Morocco, there are strong counter-moves to stop the desert at the Atlas Mountains (see map). The story involves a native tree, the argan, but also the Berber women of the Atlas. They are organizing to save the tree, and their livelihoods, through village-based women’s cooperatives. 
For centuries, the Berber tribes of southwest Morocco have lived in villages with their crops, their herds of sheep and goats — and their argan trees. These semi-desert, spiky bush-like trees have deep roots and the capacity to survive even in the harshest conditions. They also provided villagers over those centuries with critical resources — fuel for cooking and heating, timber for building, fodder for goats and cattle — and oil, extracted laboriously from the dried fruits of the tree. 
Then Europe intervened. When the properties of argan oil were discovered by European chemists, a new industry sprang up. Argan oil was soon exploited both for cosmetic purposes (anti-aging, anti-wrinkling) and culinary uses (nutty tasting oil for cooking and salads). Argan oil became the most expensive table oil on the planet. And an argan boom was created in Morocco. 
Unlike past European interventions, though, this one was fortuitous. For through this process, unfolding in the 1980s and ’90s, the destruction of argan groves in Morocco was actually slowed. Reforestation programs have been started in an attempt to reverse the process. In effect, argan oil established a new line of defense against encroaching desertification with renewed support for argan groves. The Atlas Mountains, with their argan tree cover, now stand as the only protection against the encroaching Sahara.
 The argan oil phenomenon has three aspects that make it of global interest.
  • Its ecological properties stand as shield against desertification.
  • Its economic potential earns revenues for Berber communities and exports for Morocco.
  • Its social dimension is that much of the argan oil phenomenon has been driven by new women’s cooperatives. This gives them a source of independence and balancing gender roles in a largely Islamic country.
Ecological: The Moroccan argan groves cover an area of approximately one million hectares (2.47 million acres) in the country’s southwest, between the Atlas Mountains and the Atlantic coast.

It is a precious ecological resource — as recognized by UNESCO in granting it “Man and Biosphere Reserve” status in 1998. The argan tree, with its deep roots and capacity to withstand arid conditions, is indigenous to Morocco and provides an ideal buffer against desertification. It binds the soil and provides shelter for many other rural activities.
Without it, the Sahara would already have advanced beyond the Atlas Mountains to approach the Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts. This would have had devastating results for the countries concerned and the regional climate. Instead there is a light covering of argan trees across the Moroccan landscape today. But it is one that desperately needs to be strengthened — if desertification is to be stopped and (even) reversed.

Economic: Morocco’s argan grove was almost destroyed by willful deforestation. This was driven largely by pursuit of wood for fuel by fast-growing cities like Casablanca. It was the developed world’s (re)discovery of the argan nut’s wonderful properties that provided an alternative economic resource, in addition to destructive use of the tree for its wood.
The nut and its oil had been in traditional use for centuries, but it was only after its properties were further developed by European and Moroccan scientists that its distinctive, pure, nutty flavor and properties became known to a global market.

Today, argan oil is one of the world’s most expensive, selling wholesale for €28 ($36) per liter. In retail markets such as European cosmetic shops the price can reach several hundred euros per liter. It is prized as culinary oil in Japanese, European and New York restaurants for its nutty, fresh flavor. But as an indigenous tree its productivity is limited. As much as 30kg of nuts are needed to produce one liter of oil. A single argan tree can produce only about one liter of oil per season — compared with 50 liters of oil from an olive tree. That explains the high price.
Social: The business of harvesting, processing and marketing the argan fruit and oil is almost entirely an activity of Berber village women. They increasingly organize themselves into women’s village cooperatives in order to have some extra market clout. Traditionally the women would perform these tasks in isolated households. Berber men would take the extra oil (beyond that needed for daily living) to market.
 Now increasingly, due to sustained efforts by NGOs and by village women themselves, the activities are dominated by women as a group, who increasingly control revenues from the sale of the cosmetic and edible versions of the argan oil. In a deeply conservative Islamic culture, this is no mean feat. In an eco-tour in the Atlas Mountains undertaken in April 2013, I met some of these women’s coop members.
 Lalla Nezha Aktir is President of the Coopérative Agricole Féminine Tifaout, organized for purposes of production and commercialization of argan oil and local agricultural products. She is a very forceful and dedicated protector of her coop’s interests. The picture shows the sign to the coop’s activities center. (No picture of Ms Aktir is provided at her own request.)
Coopérative Agricole Féminine Tifaout. Photo by John Mathews.
Of course, the benefits of argan oil are not fairly distributed. The retailers and intermediaries still pocket most of the funds generated. Only a small amount flows back to the village women. But the women’s coops are directly targeting this issue and are raising their share of the total revenues generated by the value chain as a result. There are several NGOs working with the women’s coops to help drive this process.

Industry associations have been created expressly to give the women a collective voice in maintaining quality control and their own employment possibilities, as well as facilitating access to the wider market. Such organizations include the Groupements d’Interets Economiques (e.g., the Taroudannt GIE), as well as the National Association of Argan Cooperatives (ANCA) and theUnion of Women’s Argan Cooperatives (UCFA), utilizing brands such as “Argan d’or.”
However, the gains women have made are precarious and could be undone by their own success. Fundamentally, it is the women organized in their cooperatives in Morocco, bringing argan oil to the world and generating alternative economic uses for the argan tree, who constitute the front line in halting the further northward spread of the Sahara in Morocco. Their efforts are bearing fruit in every sense of the term. It is time that the rest of the world recognized this fundamental contribution and rewarded them appropriately.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Is Mushroom Insulation the World's Greenest Insulation Material?

mushroom insulation tiny house ecovative design green smile

Rather than blowing agents, this insulation uses growing agents. It's natural. It's made with agricultural waste and fungi. You can grow it in place. No hydrocarbons are involved, and it yields little to no toxic waste. Compared to most other insulation materials, it takes little energy to make the stuff (low embodied energy). Indoor air quality is likely to be better, too.

Wow! If you're looking for a super green insulation, mushroom insulation could be for you...if you can wait a bit longer.

How mushroom materials science got its start

I first heard about this a while back when I saw a TED Talk by Eben Bayer,Are mushrooms the new plastic? While studying engineering at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, he and his classmate, Gavin McIntyre, came up with the idea of using mycelium, the white vegetative strands of fungus you find under logs, to grow materials that could replace plastics.

TED Talk: Are Mushrooms the New Plastic?

They've gotten a lot of great media coverage, and I recently read a nice article in the New Yorker about them. According to that piece, the two young engineers worked on developing their idea in their senior year at RPI and then took it full time into a business incubator upon graduation. The challenges were numerous, as they experimented with different varieties of mycelium and substrates. But they persisted and promoted and had some good help from advisers who saw the potential of their idea.

At first they used grants and the winnings from competitions to finance the company. One of those competitions was the Postcode Lottery Green Challenge, which gives a huge chunk of money (~$700,000) to the business with the best idea for reducing CO2 emissions. They entered in 2008 and won.

Mushroom insulation sprouts in New York

They decided that using their materials as a replacement for packaging was the most marketable direction to go, so insulation got put on hold for a while. They've since picked it back up, and their focus has been on building tiny houses and growing the insulation in the assemblies. They've got a nice blog about the project, and it's called—you guessed it—Mushroom Tiny House.

I recently spoke with Sam Harrington of Ecovative Design, the company started by Bayer and McIntyre, and got the scoop on where they're going with this. The plan at first is to grow insulation that can be used in board form and as structural insulated panels (SIPs). The mushroom tiny house is basically a grown-in-place SIP.

Harrington said they're benchmarking their product against extruded polystyrene (XPS). The advantages are that it uses natural materials, doesn't have the global warming issues associated with the blowing agents in foam insulation, and has much lower embodied energy. The main drawback is the lower R-value. XPS is about 5 per inch, and mushroom insulation ranges from 1.8 to 4 per inch, with the typical material coming in at about 3 per inch. So your walls are going to have to be thicker.

Mushroom insulation and indoor air quality

Their longer-term plans include using it to replace as many environmentally-harmful materials as possible: plastic foam, acoustical tiles, medium density fiberboard (MDF), particle board, adhesive, and engineered wood. One advantage of their materials is that the mycelium is their adhesive, so they don't have to use the stuff with nasty volatile organic compounds (VOCs). That means better indoor air quality.

But wait, I hear you asking, what about the IAQ problems of having fungus and spores and who knows what from the oat hulls and wheat chaff substrate? Ah, but there are no spores. They're using mycelium only. And although they call it mushroom insulation, you'll see no mushrooms sprouting from the walls. The substrates used as the filler material that the mycelium feeds on and weaves together are sterilized to prevent other organisms from growing. Then, once the mushroom insulation has finished growing, they hit it with steam to stop the growth.

Get ready for mushroom insulation

None of the mushroom insulation products is ready for market yet. If you're an early adopter, Ecovative Design is taking pre-orders. (According to their blog, the cost is about $0.66 per board foot.) To get shipments of mushroom board insulation, SIPs, or the other materials they're working on, you'll need to wait a while longer.

When their building products enter the market, I hope they can scale it up so that the cost is competitive with the other materials out there. It's also going to be important for them to do enough R&D to reduce the number and severity of problems that new products so often have.

Yeah, it's still fairly early in the development of mushroom insulation, but I'm excited to see this material getting ready to enter the building products market. When it does, it may well be the greenest insulation available.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Urban Trees Save Lives

A recent study by urban forestry guru David Nowak and other researchers at U.S. Forest Service and The Davey Institute found that urban trees save at least one life per year in most cities and up to 8 people per year in large metropolises like New York City.

“Trees growing in cities help clean the air of fine particulate air pollution — soot, smoke, dust, dirt — that can lodge in human lungs and cause health problems,” Grist explains. As an example, “trees clear 71 tons” of air particulate matter 2.5 micrometers in diameter (PM2.5) from Atlanta’s air each year.

Urban particulate air pollution kills as many as 2.5 million people each year. PM 2.5 has a drastic effect on human health, including premature mortality. Researchers noted that larger particles between particulates 2.5 to 10 micrometers in diameter—also called coarse dust particles or PM10—are removed by trees at a substantially higher rate. However, the health benefits of PM2.5 removal is 30 to 350 times more valuable.

What happens to our health when those trees die from natural causes en masse? Apparently, as another recent study claims, people die, too. This study showed that the “loss of trees to the emerald ash borer increased mortality related to cardiovascular and lower-respiratory-tract illness. This finding adds to the growing evidence that the natural environment provides major public health benefits.” Untrammeled development would then also have the same negative health impacts at the ash borer.

Of course, the health benefits are not restricted to our lungs and heart, but also our minds. As can be seen in a new UK-wide study, parks, gardens, and even street trees in urban areas improve the mood and mental well-being of the surrounding residents.

The value of trees goes well beyond their immediate air quality-reducing properties, too. According to one recent U.S. Forest Service study, “urban forests are responsible for storing 708 million tons of carbon—a service valued at $50 billion.”

Not to ignore the financial side of better health, the Nowak study also claims that “the average health benefits value per hectare of tree cover was about $1,600, but varied [from city to city].”
The study concludes that “trees can produce substantial health improvements and values in cities.” Although more research is needed to improve these estimates, this study also leaves room for new research that explores the local effects of tree-filled landscapes in cities.


Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Rumble in the Urban Jungle

New Urbanist Revives Battle with Landscape Urbanism.

By Michael Sorkin

The High Line in New York, designed by James Corner Field Operations with Diller Scofidio + Renfro, is criticized by Andres Duany for being too expensive and over-designed.

It's hard to keep up with the musical deck chairs in the disciplines these days. The boundaries of architecture, city planning, urban design, landscape architecture, sustainability, computation, and other fields are shifting like crazy, and one result is endless hybridization–green urbanism begets landscape urbanism, which begets ecological urbanism, which begets agrarian urbanism–each “ism” claiming to have gotten things in just the right balance. While this discussion of the possible weighting and bounding of design's expanded field does keep the juices flowing, it also maintains the fiction that there are still three fixed territories–buildings, cities, and landscapes–that must constantly negotiate their alignment.

This has several consequences. The first is that the theoretical autonomy of the individual disciplines remains fundamentally uninfringed. The second is that new forms of a much-needed transdisciplinary practice are stymied by rigid intellectual bureaucracy. And finally, the opportunities for turf warfare are multiplied. A tiny skirmish has just been unleashed by the New Urbanists in the form of a book edited by Andres Duany and Emily Talen–Landscape Urbanism and its Discontents: Dissimulating the Sustainable City–which singles out that inoffensive school of thought for withering opprobrium.

But why? And why now? In their preface, the editors wistfully suggest that this was a book that should have been compiled 15 years ago. They're right: the project is pervaded by the sense that the nag being flogged long since passed through the glue factory. Their critique is antique: Landscape Urbanism is just the continuation of CIAM and its misguided principles by other means. The collection thus winds up as another–and completely unnecessary–iteration of that beloved chestnut, New Urbanism vs. Modernism. The current screed is obsessively focused yet again on what is seen as the leadership role in urbanism of a powerful and invidious cabal at the Harvard Graduate School of Design (GSD), an effete elite that just doesn't get it. This weirdly fetishistic animus has gnawed at Duany's craw for years. What's up with that? Give it a rest!

The anti-intellectual schtick–that those academics are fey and fashionable compromisers without real values–plays repeatedly throughout the book. There's an especially puerile riff by James Howard Kunstler, which reaches the startling conclusion that Harvard is a bulwark of the status quo! Talen bemoans the Landscape Urbanists for their reversion to misconstructions of post-structuralist, Marxist, and ecological discourses as gauzy camouflage for their designs for world domination and weird, uninhabitable cities. That academics would speak in the lingua franca of their own community is hardly more surprising than the New Urbanists' adopting the language of developers. Their book is, indeed, full of hard-nosed whinging about the bottom line, which, in the end, is the only substantial riposte offered to actual “Landscape Urbanist” projects. Duany particularly reviles the High Line, which he thinks would have been better–and cheaper–with Adirondack chairs from Home Depot instead of all that “design.”

Because there's no real case, there are more straw men in this book than at a casting call for The Wizard of Oz. The most cited include GSD professor Charles Waldheim, landscape architects James Corner and the late Ian McHarg, Frederick Law Olmsted, the University of Pennsylvania, and various fellow travelers in the promotion of … what exactly? The foundational offense is clearly Waldheim's statement in his 2006 book The Landscape Urbanism Reader that “Landscape Urbanism describes a disciplinary realignment currently under way in which landscape replaces architecture as the basic building block of contemporary urbanism.” This is simply tendentious, another way of saying, “It's the environment, stupid.” But the Newbies rise to the bait. Let's get ready to rumble!

They've been preparing the battleground for years, insisting that they alone have found the one true condition of equipoise. New Urbanists defend their superior wisdom in three areas: the preferability of the “traditional” city of streets and squares to the universally discredited Corbusian model, a claim to special access to knowledge of sustainability, and a faux-populist derision of practices that are “avant-garde.” None of these arguments is interesting or particularly controversial. No designer of conscience (or consciousness) resists the idea of cities with streets built for people on foot or fails to pay at least lip service to a sustainable–even equitable–environment. Insisting otherwise is just disingenuous.

But there is something interesting going on in thinking about the design of cities, informed by questions of sea-level rise and climate change, massive pollution of air, earth, and water, and a broad realignment of public consciousness about the limited bearing capacity of the earth. Like virtually everyone in the disciplines, both Landscape Urbanists and New Urbanists recognize this and have produced projects that address it. It's the war over formulae that's a waste. The New Urbanists continue to dine out on the enervated notion of a regulating “transect,” a gradated wash of conditions from rural to urban, derived from Patrick Geddes, which they serve up with all the nuance of Creationism.

But “more or less urban” is only one of many ways in which the city can be discussed and the idealist structure of the transect has been thoroughly unpacked by many writers. One key deficit of the New Urbanists' model is that their picturesque conceit is both nonlinear on the ground and disrupted by exceptions in the form of special districts. Landscape Urbanists, though, are excited by such zones of difference, which include “traditional” parks, as well as the “dross-scape” of rail yards, industrial zones, edge-city squalor, and other areas not easily assimilated to the historic order of streets and squares. The recognition that such territories constitute a huge component of the built environment locates an urgent question for design.
While many of the usual New Urbanist suspects contribute to the book, there's a clear divide among them between the unabashed assailants and those with a more conciliatory position, who won't be provoked into a death match. It's entertaining to see how many of the book's essayists tiptoe away from the bluster. Duany wants the High Line and Freshkills Park in New York and Downsview Park in Toronto to be seen as pretentious, but his cohort is unconvinced. Dan Solomon wisely finds these projects not just praiseworthy as places but understands they are simply parks, not “urbanisms.”

Likewise, Jason Brody sees the valuable contribution of an evolving set of landscape practices, all of which are engaged in infusing city-making with our increased understanding of the planetary crisis.

If there's a bright spot in the schools and the professions nowadays, it rests in landscape architecture's ability to introduce the urgency of ecological analysis into design's atmosphere and to pioneer forms of representation and discourse that freshly depict territories and phenomena from microclimates to regions. While McHarg may have gotten it wrong in the end, with his overly anthropocentric schema, the ecological insights in his mappings were seminal. The beautiful work done by James Corner and others in bridging the gap between datascapes and landscapes has opened new approaches to planning and building, and been critical in establishing new forms of analysis. We all want to be the mother of the arts, but why can't we just get along?


Monday, August 12, 2013

Regulators Discover a Hidden Viral Gene in Commercial GMO Crops

by Jonathan Latham and Allison Wilson

Cauliflower Mosaic Virus
How should a regulatory agency announce they have discovered something potentially very important about the safety of products they have been approving for over twenty years?
In the course of analysis to identify potential allergens in GMO crops, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has belatedly discovered that the most common genetic regulatory sequence in commercial GMOs also encodes a significant fragment of a viral gene. This finding has serious ramifications for crop biotechnology and its regulation, but possibly even greater ones for consumers and farmers. This is because there are clear indications that this viral gene (called Gene VI) might not be safe for human consumption. It also may disturb the normal functioning of crops, including their natural pest resistance.

What Podevin and du Jardin discovered is that of the 86 different transgenic events (unique insertions of foreign DNA) commercialized to-date in the United States 54 contain portions of Gene VI within them. They include any with a widely used gene regulatory sequence called the CaMV 35S promoter (from the cauliflower mosaic virus; CaMV). Among the affected transgenic events are some of the most widely grown GMOs, including Roundup Ready soybeans (40-3-2) and MON810 maize. They include the controversial NK603 maize recently reported as causing tumors in rats (Seralini et al. 2012).

The researchers themselves concluded that the presence of segments of Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes”. They reached this conclusion because similar fragments of Gene VI have already been shown to be active on their own (e.g. De Tapia et al. 1993). In other words, the EFSA researchers were unable to rule out a hazard to public health or the environment.

In general, viral genes expressed in plants raise both agronomic and human health concerns (reviewed in Latham and Wilson 2008). This is because many viral genes function to disable their host in order to facilitate pathogen invasion. Often, this is achieved by incapacitating specific anti-pathogen defenses. Incorporating such genes could clearly lead to undesirable and unexpected outcomes in agriculture. Furthermore, viruses that infect plants are often not that different from viruses that infect humans. For example, sometimes the genes of human and plant viruses are interchangeable, while on other occasions inserting plant viral fragments as transgenes has caused the genetically altered plant to become susceptible to an animal virus (Dasgupta et al. 2001). Thus, in various ways, inserting viral genes accidentally into crop plants and the food supply confers a significant potential for harm.

The Choices for Regulators

The original discovery by Podevin and du Jardin (at EFSA) of Gene VI in commercial GMO crops must have presented regulators with sharply divergent procedural alternatives. They could 1) recall all CaMV Gene VI-containing crops (in Europe that would mean revoking importation and planting approvals) or, 2) undertake a retrospective risk assessment of the CaMV promoter and its Gene VI sequences and hope to give it a clean bill of health.

It is easy to see the attraction for EFSA of option two. Recall would be a massive political and financial decision and would also be a huge embarrassment to the regulators themselves. It would leave very few GMO crops on the market and might even mean the end of crop biotechnology.

Regulators, in principle at least, also have a third option to gauge the seriousness of any potential GMO hazard. GMO monitoring, which is required by EU regulations, ought to allow them to find out if deaths, illnesses, or crop failures have been reported by farmers or health officials and can be correlated with the Gene VI sequence. Unfortunately, this particular avenue of enquiry is a scientific dead end. Not one country has carried through on promises to officially and scientifically monitor any hazardous consequences of GMOs (1).

Unsurprisingly, EFSA chose option two. However, their investigation resulted only in the vague and unreassuring conclusion that Gene VI “might result in unintended phenotypic changes” (Podevin and du Jardin 2012). This means literally, that changes of an unknown number, nature, or magnitude may (or may not) occur. It falls well short of the solid scientific reassurance of public safety needed to explain why EFSA has not ordered a recall.

Can the presence of a fragment of virus DNA really be that significant? Below is an independent analysis of Gene VI and its known properties and their safety implications. This analysis clearly illustrates the regulators’ dilemma.

The Many Functions of Gene VI

 Gene VI, like most plant viral genes, produces a protein that is multifunctional. It has four (so far) known roles in the viral infection cycle. The first is to participate in the assembly of virus particles. There is no current data to suggest this function has any implications for biosafety. The second known function is to suppress anti-pathogen defenses by inhibiting a general cellular system called RNA silencing (Haas et al. 2008). Thirdly, Gene VI has the highly unusual function of transactivating (described below) the long RNA (the 35S RNA) produced by CaMV (Park et al. 2001). Fourthly, unconnected to these other mechanisms, Gene VI has very recently been shown to make plants highly susceptible to a bacterial pathogen (Love et al. 2012). Gene VI does this by interfering with a common anti-pathogen defense mechanism possessed by plants. These latter three functions of Gene VI (and their risk implications) are explained further below:

1) Gene VI Is an Inhibitor of RNA Silencing

 RNA silencing is a mechanism for the control of gene expression at the level of RNA abundance (Bartel 2004). It is also an important antiviral defense mechanism in both plants and animals, and therefore most viruses have evolved genes (like Gene VI) that disable it (Dunoyer and Voinnet 2006).

Cauliflower mosaic virus genome
Gene VI (upper left) precedes the start of the 35S RNA

This attribute of Gene VI raises two obvious biosafety concerns: 1) Gene VI will lead to aberrant gene expression in GMO crop plants, with unknown consequences and, 2) Gene VI will interfere with the ability of plants to defend themselves against viral pathogens. There are numerous experiments showing that, in general, viral proteins that disable gene silencing enhance infection by a wide spectrum of viruses (Latham and Wilson 2008).

2) Gene VI Is a Unique Transactivator of Gene Expression

 Multicellular organisms make proteins by a mechanism in which only one protein is produced by each passage of a ribosome along a messenger RNA (mRNA). Once that protein is completed the ribosome dissociates from the mRNA. However, in a CaMV-infected plant cell, or as a transgene, Gene VI intervenes in this process and directs the ribosome to get back on an mRNA (reinitiate) and produce the next protein in line on the mRNA, if there is one. This property of Gene VI enables Cauliflower Mosaic Virus to produce multiple proteins from a single long RNA (the 35S RNA). Importantly, this function of Gene VI (which is called transactivation) is not limited to the 35S RNA. Gene VI seems able to transactivate any cellular mRNA (Futterer and Hohn 1991; Ryabova et al. 2002). There are likely to be thousands of mRNA molecules having a short or long protein coding sequence following the primary one. These secondary coding sequences could be expressed in cells where Gene VI is expressed. The result will presumably be production of numerous random proteins within cells. The biosafety implications of this are difficult to assess. These proteins could be allergens, plant or human toxins, or they could be harmless. Moreover, the answer will differ for each commercial crop species into which Gene VI has been inserted.

3) Gene VI Interferes with Host Defenses

 A very recent finding, not known by Podevin and du Jardin, is that Gene VI has a second mechanism by which it interferes with plant anti-pathogen defenses (Love et al. 2012). It is too early to be sure about the mechanistic details, but the result is to make plants carrying Gene VI more susceptible to certain pathogens, and less susceptible to others. Obviously, this could impact farmers, however the discovery of an entirely new function for gene VI while EFSA’s paper was in press, also makes clear that a full appraisal of all the likely effects of Gene VI is not currently achievable.

Is There a Direct Human Toxicity Issue?

 When Gene VI is intentionally expressed in transgenic plants, it causes them to become chlorotic (yellow), to have growth deformities, and to have reduced fertility in a dose-dependent manner (Ziljstra et al 1996). Plants expressing Gene VI also show gene expression abnormalities. These results indicate that, not unexpectedly given its known functions, the protein produced by Gene VI is functioning as a toxin and is harmful to plants (Takahashi et al 1989). Since the known targets of Gene VI activity (ribosomes and gene silencing) are also found in human cells, a reasonable concern is that the protein produced by Gene VI might be a human toxin. This is a question that can only be answered by future experiments.

Is Gene VI Protein Produced in GMO Crops?

 Given that expression of Gene VI is likely to cause harm, a crucial issue is whether the actual inserted transgene sequences found in commercial GMO crops will produce any functional protein from the fragment of Gene VI present within the CaMV sequence.

There are two aspects to this question. One is the length of Gene VI accidentally introduced by developers. This appears to vary but most of the 54 approved transgenes contain the same 528 base pairs of the CaMV 35S promoter sequence. This corresponds to approximately the final third of Gene VI. Deleted fragments of Gene VI are active when expressed in plant cells and functions of Gene VI are believed to reside in this final third. Therefore, there is clear potential for unintended effects if this fragment is expressed (e.g. De Tapia et al. 1993; Ryabova et al. 2002; Kobayashi and Hohn 2003).

The second aspect of this question is what quantity of Gene VI could be produced in GMO crops? Once again, this can ultimately only be resolved by direct quantitative experiments. Nevertheless, we can theorize that the amount of Gene VI produced will be specific to each independent insertion event. This is because significant Gene VI expression probably would require specific sequences (such as the presence of a gene promoter and an ATG [a protein start codon]) to precede it and so is likely to be heavily dependent on variables such as the details of the inserted transgenic DNA and where in the plant genome the transgene inserted.

Commercial transgenic crop varieties can also contain superfluous copies of the transgene, including those that are incomplete or rearranged (Wilson et al 2006). These could be important additional sources of Gene VI protein. The decision of regulators to allow such multiple and complex insertion events was always highly questionable, but the realization that the CaMV 35S promoter contains Gene VI sequences provides yet another reason to believe that complex insertion events increase the likelihood of a biosafety problem.

Even direct quantitative measurements of Gene VI protein in individual crop authorizations would not fully resolve the scientific questions, however. No-one knows, for example, what quantity, location or timing of protein production would be of significance for risk assessment, and so answers necessary to perform science-based risk assessment are unlikely to emerge soon.

Big Lessons for Biotechnology

 It is perhaps the most basic assumption in all of risk assessment that the developer of a new product provides regulators with accurate information about what is being assessed. Perhaps the next most basic assumption is that regulators independently verify this information.  We now know, however, that for over twenty years neither of those simple expectations have been met. Major public universities, biotech multinationals, and government regulators everywhere, seemingly did not appreciate the relatively simple possibility that the DNA constructs they were responsible for encoded a viral gene.

This lapse occurred despite the fact that Gene VI was not truly hidden; the relevant information on the existence of Gene VI has been freely available in the scientific literature since well before the first biotech approval (Franck et al 1980). We ourselves have offered specific warnings that viral sequences could contain unsuspected genes (Latham and Wilson 2008). The inability of risk assessment processes to incorporate longstanding and repeated scientific findings is every bit as worrysome as the failure to intellectually anticipate the possibility of overlapping genes when manipulating viral sequences.

This sense of a generic failure is reinforced by the fact that this is not an isolated event. There exist other examples of commercially approved viral sequences having overlapping genes that were never subjected to risk assessment. These include numerous commercial GMOs containing promoter regions of the closely related virus figwort mosaic virus (FMV) which were not considered by Podevin and du Jardin. Inspection of commercial sequence data shows that the commonly used FMV promoter overlaps its own Gene VI (Richins et al 1987). A third example is the virus-resistant potato NewLeaf Plus (RBMT-22-82). This transgene contains approximately 90% of the P0 gene of potato leaf roll virus. The known function of this gene, whose existence was discovered only after US approval, is to inhibit the anti-pathogen defenses of its host (Pfeffer et al 2002). Fortunately, this potato variety was never actively marketed.

A further key point relates to the biotech industry and their campaign to secure public approval and a permissive regulatory environment. This has led them to repeatedly claim, firstly, that GMO technology is precise and predictable; and secondly, that their own competence and self-interest would prevent them from ever bringing potentially harmful products to the market; and thirdly, to assert that only well studied and fully understood transgenes are commercialized. It is hard to imagine a finding more damaging to these claims than the revelations surrounding Gene VI.

Biotechnology, it is often forgotten, is not just a technology. It is an experiment in the proposition that human institutions can perform adequate risk assessments on novel living organisms. Rather than treat that question as primarily a daunting scientific one, we should for now consider that the primary obstacle will be overcoming the much more mundane trap of human complacency and incompetence. We are not there yet, and therefore this incident will serve to reinforce the demands for GMO labeling in places where it is absent.

What Regulators Should Do Now

 This summary of the scientific risk issues shows that a segment of a poorly characterized viral gene never subjected to any risk assessment (until now) was allowed onto the market. This gene is currently present in commercial crops and growing on a large scale. It is also widespread in the food supply.

Even now that EFSA’s own researchers have belatedly considered the risk issues, no one can say whether the public has been harmed, though harm appears a clear scientific possibility. Considered from the perspective of professional and scientific risk assessment, this situation represents a complete and catastrophic system failure.

But the saga of Gene VI is not yet over. There is no certainty that further scientific analysis will resolve the remaining uncertainties, or provide reassurance. Future research may in fact increase the level of concern or uncertainty, and this is a possibility that regulators should weigh heavily in their deliberations.

To return to the original choices before EFSA, these were either to recall all CaMV 35S promoter-containing GMOs, or to perform a retrospective risk assessment. This retrospective risk assessment has now been carried out and the data clearly indicate a potential for significant harm. The only course of action consistent with protecting the public and respecting the science is for EFSA, and other jurisdictions, to order a total recall. This recall should also include GMOs containing the FMV promoter and its own overlapping Gene VI.


 1)  EFSA regulators might now be regretting their failure to implement meaningful GMO monitoring. It would be a good question for European politicians to ask EFSA and for the board of EFSA to ask the GMO panel, whose job it is to implement monitoring.


Monday, August 5, 2013

Pee Power: Charge Your Phone with Urine

Gross or practical? Soon you may be able to charge your phone by plugging it into the urinal.

On the off chance that your phone has ever inconveniently lost power while you were in the bathroom, you'll soon never have to worry about it happening again. Researchers from the University of the West of England have invented a way for you to charge your phone with urine,  reports USA Today. That's right, pee power has finally arrived.
The charger makes use of a microbial fuel cell, which relies on bacteria to break down organic matter and turn it into electricity. Although the organic matter doesn't have to come from pee, it just so happens that urine-- of all things-- seems to work best.
"Urine is chemically very active, rich in nitrogen and has compounds such as urea, chloride, potassium and bilirubin, which make it very good for the microbial fuel cells," said Dr. Ioannis Ieropoulos, team leader on the project.
In fact, urine is the only readily available substance that the researchers have tested for the device that outputs enough electricity for it to be commercially viable. Go figure.
The idea behind microbial fuel cells has been around for decades, but it wasn't until Ieropoulos' team tried out urine that they got one to generate enough power to operate a smartphone.
"So far the microbial fuel power stack that we have developed generates enough power to enable SMS messaging, web browsing and to make a brief phone call," said Ieropoulos. "Making a call on a mobile phone takes up the most energy but we will get to the place where we can charge a battery for longer periods. The concept has been tested and it works – it's now for us to develop and refine the process so that we can develop [microbial fuel cells] to fully charge a battery."
So there you have it. Though the idea of plugging your phone into a urinal may take a while to catch on, the charger could have more immediate applications in the developing world where power sources can be scarce and/or expensive. Of course, the charger could also be used to power things besides your phone. Perhaps a more sensible application would be for powering your various bathroom electronics: electric razors, hair dryers, lighting, etc. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has offered funding for the device with these kinds of applications in mind.