A is for Atom, an animated documentary short by Carl Urbano, 1953

A is for Atom, an animated documentary short by Carl Urbano, 1953

A is for Atom, 1953

An animated documentary short by Carl Urbano

For its time this animation is a well-presented, short documentary about atomic science, which explains how nuclear energy is harnessed for peace-time use. Though it briefly mentions the atomic bomb, it doesn’t cover the horrors of nuclear war or the environmental down-side of nuclear power, which was just in its infancy at that time.

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A Bold First: China Tries CRISPR/CAS9 Gene Editing in Humans

China Tries CRISPR/CAS9 Gene Editing in Humans

In a bold first, China has used the hot new genetic engineering technique, CRISPR/CAS9, on humans, to treat a particularly aggressive form of cancer. This may herald the start of a medical race between China and the United States, which could have profound, and potentially positive effects on modern medicine. But it’s not without risks.

CRISPR/CAS9 is a revolutionary gene editing technique, which scientists first learned about when studying the interaction between bacteria and the deadly viruses, called phages, which threaten them. With CRISPR, genes can be cheaply and quickly added and removed from the genomes of organisms. The method is very powerful, and has amazed the scientific community. But it’s not perfect.

The Chinese researchers used CRISPR to turn off a gene that inhibits the immune system in some cells extracted from a cancer patient. Then they cultured these genetically edited cells, and reintroduced them into the patient. The hope is that the genetically modified cells will fight the aggressive cancer and heal the patient. Preliminary results are encouraging but the trial is by no means complete, and the verdict is still out.

Harkening back to the early era of space exploration, in which competition between the United States and Soviet Union triggered a period of tremendous innovation and discovery, many hope that a similar spirit of competition may arise between the United States and China, two countries that lead in CRISPR/CAS9 research. Many positives, and a few negatives, may result from such a highly competitive environment between these two powerful and scientifically advanced nations.

Since CRISPR is a fast, efficient, and economical, way to edit genomes, medical researchers hope to cure a host of genetic ailments with the technique, including, but not limited to, many types of cancers. Of course, the prospect that this innovative technique could be used in the future to create designer babies, possessing desirable vanity traits, and the danger that an unexpected negative consequence might arise from CRISPR modifications, has generated concern among some. Therefore it’s wise to proceed with caution. However, the potential of this method to treat or even cure a host of serious diseases is high, and warrants further serious research.

Learn about China’s use of CRISPR/CAS9 in a human subject (Science Alert)



Photo: By David Goodsell – RCSB PDB Molecule of the Month, CC BY 3.0, Link


Small Bird can fly for 10 months without stopping!

Small Bird can fly for 10 months without stopping!

Swedish scientists studying the common swift have discovered a truly incredible thing: these small birds, with lifespans less than six years long, can spend up to 10 months flying, without touching down on the ground. Even birds that did land spent 99.5% of their migration (from Europe to Africa) in the air.

The birds that flew the entire duration may have slept while gliding, as other species are known to do. They also molted and grew new feathers while in the air, unlike their counterparts that spent some time on the ground.  The scientists fitted the birds with tiny backpacks, equipped with electronic sensors, to take their measurements.

Learn more about the common swift’s remarkable flight (Science Alert)



Photo: Wikipedia / CC BY-SA 2.0

Solar Plant kills thousands of birds

Solar Plant kills thousands of birds

The pursuit of alternative energy is a noble endeavor, but even clean solar energy methods can have serious environmental impacts, and sometimes they are quite negative. One solar power plant in California kills up to 6,000 birds annually. This is of course tragic, surprising, and unacceptable. But despite their best efforts, engineers haven’t been able to stop these deaths.

The plant uses mirrors to focus light on a boiler, converting water to steam, which powers a turbine and generates a substantial quantity of energy. It’s the same priniple as a kid using a magnifying glass to burn a hole in a leaf or piece of paper. Unfortunately, the highly concentrated light attracts large numbers of insects, which attract birds, seeking an easy meal. When the birds fly through the beams of concentrated light, they are incinerated within seconds. Counter measures haven’t stopped the carnage, and scientists and engineers are working to find a solution. Even the ground-based measures, like a huge fence to protect tortoises, have had unintended environmental consequences, like changing the relationship between coyotes and their prey, road runners.

This is very frustrating, since solar power is an excellent alternative to the burning of fossil fuels, like oil and natural gas. It’s completely carbon neutral, so it won’t contribute to the increasing global warming crisis. Most scientists believe that anthropogenic climate change is responsible for many serious environmental problems, including a greatly increased extinction rate of species world-wide, so carbon neutral alternatives to fossil fuels are essential.

Though arrays of solar panels wouldn’t kill birds, the method of solar capture used at this power plant is very efficient, and ideal for a desert environment with lots of sunlight and land to work with. Unfortunately the environmental impact in this case is considerable. If the experts can’t find a work-around that saves the birds from these horrific, fiery deaths, Californians will need to ask themselves some very difficult questions in the coming years.

Is this much-needed carbon neutral energy source worth the trade-off in animal lives, and negative environmental impacts? Or are the dangers of burning fossil fuels simply too great?

Learn more about the bird deaths at this solar energy plant (sciencealert.com)


Photo: Sbharris/WikiCommons