The dark cloud of the past year may have silver linings sych as: A recent field trial demonstrated a 77% effective malaria vaccine. Good news! In addition, consider: Three spectacular advances in biological/medical science that either accelerated because of Covid-19 or came to the rescue and may change the future.
Alas, though. This is what I feared. A third of COVID survivors may suffer neurological or mental disorders, according to a recent study.
Of course the most incredible news – scientific or otherwise – from 2020 was the way that the covid emergency hastened introduction of mRNA vaccines and other therapeutics, which were ready for testing within a month of decipherment of the virus’s genetics. You can be sure that old-fashioned, 20th Century testing and vetting procedures will change after this and miracles will start to flow. There are many more good things on the near horizon.
And worries as well...“Viruses that infect bacteria – fittingly called bacteriophages - and their prey have been at war for eons, each side evolving more devilish tactics to infect or destroy each other. Eventually, some bacteriophages took this arms race to a new level by changing the way they code their DNA.” Some have replaced the “A” in that standard GATC coding with a “Z” nucleobase. Z for zounds.
Moving on. As climate change dries up or destroys arable land all over the globe, science rushes to find solutions to both feed a hungry world and lessen the environmental effects of agriculture. For example, the meat-substitute industry has taken off way earlier than I expected (I thought we’d reach the current level around 2028!) I know some folks in the rising algae industry who are working to combine over-fertilized agricultural runoff (of the sort that killed the Caspian and Black Seas and is harming the Mediterranean and Caribbean) with CO2 from local big-emitters, like cement plants, blending them to grow algae as both animal feed and bioreactors for industrial oils.
Now comes a joint venture between US and Chinese companies making a new “single-cell protein” substance called FeedKind that is manufactured by fermenting natural gas with naturally occurring bacteria. The resulting pellets are used to feed fish. Used instead of soy, it will free up huge quantities of land and fresh water.
Side note, when you shop at Costco, tilapia and catfish are the farm-raised fish with the lowest environmental footprint. One is vegetarian, feeding on grain, and the other eats… well, catfish recycle. Ocean caught fish should be an exception and the farmed salmon industry needs to continue making big adjustments.
== Dangers and Resilience ==
Pre-Covid I would give speeches annually in DC abut topics like near-future threats and overlooked, needed actions to foster resilience. Some of you have seen my interview on that topic, following my mini-course at the U.S. Naval Postgraduate School.
One of many areas where our civilization could have been far more robust, by now, had earlier small measures been taken, is that of EMP or the potential for crippling damage wrought by either natural or intentional ElectroMagnetic Pulses. This article is not very cheering about the current situation.
But we can still begin the long haul of securing the future! I would start by imposing a micro-tax… say 0.001%... on every chip set or piece of electronics that doesn’t meet voluntary industry standards for EMP resistance, tested by Underwriters’ Labs. A tiny tax will cause very little resistance, but a small, steady pressure for industry itself to just do it. Just solve it. (Even if our devices had old-fashioned replaceable fuses!)
Okay, this will sound familiar. Is it noteworthy that the state of Louisiana is planning to divert the mighty Mississippi River into new paths, to rebuild protective wetlands and to counter mistakes of the past… an event that I portrayed happening all at once, by terrible accident, in my 1990 novel EARTH? Of course it is better that such things happen in stages, by sapient care, than waiting for nature to have Her revenge on the unsapient. Still, I think many of you will agree that my depiction of the Father of Waters freed, rampant and un-vexed -- unleashed by an uber-feminist-eco-warrior -- was kinda cool?
== back to origins ==
In an earlier posting about Uplift, I remarked on how a good case is made that the most-rare event or fluke in Earth’s life story was the one-time joining of two separate genetic trees. “It’s the scientific consensus that a primordial eukaryote emerged 1.5 billion years ago when a less complex cell tried to ingest an anaerobic bacterium but was unable to digest it. The stalemate turned into a symbiotic relationship in which the bacterium became the power supply to the host cell, which provided a safe environment for it to thrive in return. Today we refer to the powerhouse of the cell as the Mitochondria.” The resulting eukaryotes proliferated and experimented with multi-cellulatity for 800 million years before suddenly getting the hang of it and bursting forth with the Cambrian explosion of complex forms, including us. Moreover, if that combination fluke truly was both necessary and hugely rare, well, when we descendants of that marriage forge across the galaxy, we may just find… life in the form of soup.
Let’s dive into this a little deeper. Comments a member of my communities, Peter Hug: “I think a pretty good case can be made that such an endosymbiotic event happened at least three times on Earth - the first being a merger of eubacteria with sulfidogenic archaebacteria to create amitochondriate mastigotes; these then engulfed some proteobacteria which turned into mitochondria and then evolved into the animals and fungi; one of these organisms then endosymbiosed (is that a word?) a cyanobacterium to create a plant lineage containing chloroplasts.
“Additionally, it's certainly possible that such an event could have occurred multiple times deep in the past and have been lost due to competition and eventual loss by the other candidates. I found an interesting article that discusses some aspects of this (linked below); nevertheless, I think it's clear that it's not a common event, at any rate. Endosymbiosis to create a eukaryote that then evolves into multicellular life that develops civilization certainly might not be the only path to a technological culture, if we posit a large number of candidate worlds upon which to test possibilities...” according to this research article.
A thought of the day: In a series of experiments published in Science in 2011, Sparrow, Liu and Wegner conclude:
“When people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.”
Um what were we talking about, again?