Thursday, May 8, 2008

Evolution: what's the real controversy?

The scientific study of evolution is filled with controversies. That was one of the messages coming out of a two-day symposium on the latest in research from the field that was hosted by Rockefeller University last week. I'll discuss the scientific details of some of the talks separately, but it's worth analyzing these controversies in light of the "academic freedom" bills that are being considered by a number of states, which purport to protect teachers who discuss controversies regarding evolution.

Nationwide, nearly half a dozen states are considering variants of such bills, some of which throw in the origin of life and climate change for good measure. Legislators in Florida recently introduced such a bill in response to new educational standards that were the first to formalize the teaching of evolution. Althought two incompatible bills passed the state House and Senate, they died when the legislature went out of session; similar measures are still pending in other states. These bills appear to have originated at the pro-Intelligent Design thinktank the Discovery Institute, and constitute part of its latest effort towards reducing the teaching of evolution in public schools.

Manufacturing controversies

So, might Discovery actually be on to something here? It's worth doing a comparison of the controversies they'd like to see taught with the topics that are considered controversial within the actual scientific community. It's pretty easy to get a sense for what Discovery thinks is a controversy by looking at Explore Evolution, the textbook they have created in the hope of encouraging schools to teach it. Those ostensible controversies fall into three major groups: existence of common descent, power of natural selection, and the existence of proteinaceous machines.

Common Descent: Discovery presents common descent as controversial exclusively within the animal kingdom, as it focuses on embryology, anatomy, and the fossil record to raise questions about them. In the real world of science, common descent of animals is completely noncontroversial; any controversy resides in the microbial world. There, researchers argued over a variety of topics, starting with the very beginning, namely the relationship among the three main branches of life.

Russ Doolittle presented an analysis based on individual folds in proteins that clearly resolved the Bacteria, Archaea, and Eukaryotes, while a distant relative, Ford Doolittle, argued that the prevalence of horizontal gene transfer at the bacterial level made any such trees questionable, or at best uninformative. Meanwhile, Thomas Cavalier-Smith argued forcefully that gene-based trees miss out on significant evolutionary events, such as the transition that gave the Archaea a radically different membrane chemistry. Almost anyone who touched on the subject (and there were several speakers that did) gave a confused picture of what the genome of a Eukaryote looked like before it first took a mitochondrion on board.

These are areas of real controversy; Cavalier-Smith seemed to introduce half his slides by pointing how they showed where others had gone wrong. But it's worthwhile noting that there is essentially no overlap with the areas that Discovery would like to pretend are controversial. Ford Doolittle, in fact, made repeated reference to the fact that there were areas that phylogenetic trees made sense for tracing common descent, and that the animal kingdom was one of them.

Natural Selection: Explore Evolution seems to think a reply can be made to the arguments in favor of natural selection. Based on the symposium, the scientific community clearly doesn't. Selective pressure made appearances in nearly every session. Selection for self-replicating RNAs and for enclosing biochemical precursors within membranes were central to the origin of life work of Gerald Joyce and Jack Szostack, respectively. At the other end of the spectrum, the researchers exploring human evolution (Katherin Pollard, Bruce Lahn, and Svante Pääbo) spoke of the challenges of identifying signs of selection amidst the genetic drift that's occurred within the genomes of mammals in general and primates in particular.

Here, it was clear that there simply is no controversy. In contrast to the arguments over bacterial trees and the origin of eukaryotes, none of the researchers felt compelled to explain or justify their focus on the role of mutation and selective pressure. Concerns, when they arose, were simply focused on identifying the consequences of selection. As such, Discovery's focus on presenting a controversy here seems hallucinatory.

Molecular Machines: Michael Behe, a Discovery fellow, has advanced the argument that some aspects of cellular life are analogous to machinery, and thus must have required the same attentive design that a machine does. This proposal is flawed on a number of levels, and has not gained enough traction within the biological community to rise to the level of anything beyond a distraction. But items Behe might consider molecular machines did appear in the talks, and their role was informative.

The proteasome is one complex of dozens of proteins that was mentioned in a couple of talks. Despite the enormous complexity and large number of specialized proteins in a proteasome, evolution readily explains its origins through gene duplication and specialization. Simplified forms, with fewer proteins, exist in Archaea and Bacteria. Not only are these simple versions of the proteasome an indication of its evolution, the gradual increase in its complexity allowed researchers to use it to infer evolutionary relationships among the three branches of life.

Similar analyses were performed with actin and tubulin, essential components of the complex skeletons that support Eukaryotic cells. Structural relatives of these genes appear in Bacteria and Archaea, where they appear to act to separate cell components even in the absence of a complex skeleton. An essential component of some Eukaryotic RNA interference systems also shows up in Archaea, where it does something completely unrelated to RNA interference. In all of these cases, parts of the supposedly designed machinery exist elsewhere, where they perform more limited but often related roles. Their use in determining evolutionary relationships didn't so much as elicit a blink from an audience of scientists.

Taking controversy to the classroom

Other controversies within the evolutionary field popped up in the discussion. Bruce Lahn reiterated his controversial proposal that an allele of a key gene in human brain development came via Neanderthals. Andrew Roger suggested that secondary and tertiary endosymbiosis may have scrambled parts of the eukaryotic family tree. Peter Holland, who works on amphioxus, described some confusion about the precise location of the base of the chordate tree, while Ulrich Technau mentioned that the single axis that exists in Cnidarians may not be equivalent to either of the two axes of bilaterians.

Evolution clearly has no shortage of controversies. But none of those controversies involve the basic principles of evolution, and all of them operate within a framework where random mutation and selection play a key role in creating diverse species that are related by common descent. It's clear that the Discovery Institute is trying to introduce controversies that don't exist, while ignoring those that do. That's why the academic freedom bills it's promoting are such dangerous things; while supposedly promoting intellectual analysis, they're actually an attempt to pave the way for misinformation to enter the scientific classroom.

Is there room for the real controversies in the classroom of public schools? Maybe, but I'm not in any way convinced. I would be pleasantly surprised if the average high school student left knowing what horizontal gene transfer is, what the proteasome does, or the significance of the Archaea. Understanding how those things play out within the current scientific understanding of evolution is going to be beyond all but the most advanced students. Teaching even the real controversies may simply be bad pedagogy.

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Physicists Create Universe Smaller Than a Marble

Image from Pingnews

At Lancaster University, they’re unraveling the secrets of how to build a universe. In fact, they have already formed one, or something very much like it. This scientific breakthrough lies in the bottom of a chamber no larger than your pinky finger, filled with helium and cooled to 0.0003 degrees Fahrenheit above absolute zero.

By placing helium in a state which most closely resembles the form it held at the beginning of the universe, scientists have created an opportunity for the gas to go through several low-energy evolutions. These defects in space-time, are represented by tiny whirlpools in the helium, which are created by the rapid expansion, and equally rapid slowing of the expansion; something that it’s believed our own universe did at the big bang and in the moments thereafter.

How, then, did our universe go from whirlpools that could fit in a thimble to galaxies larger than our imaginations can properly comprehend? Physicists, ever ready with their dry wit, have deemed these phenomena “inflation.” Nobody knows how this works or why, this happened; vast amounts of energy aren’t something you’d like to replicate in a lab. Black holes and supernovas aren’t pleasant lab partners. It’s quite evident to the researchers however, that inflation, or something very much like it took place and, lacking the ability to do field research of lab trials, they have built scale models. This is where the tiny galaxies come in.

The theory being presented by the physicists in Lancaster University is that inflation is the product of violent competition: a series of collisions between universes known as “3-branes;” a term related to string theory which I’m frankly not smart enough to explain to you. Suffice to say that our universe is one, because it exists in 3-5 dimensions.

What the string theorists claim is that in a collision of two 3-branes, or two different modes of pure helium like that containing the mini-galaxy, the universe will rapidly expand and stop instantly, mimicking the halting advance of the universe’s growth. Remarkably, when super cooled helium in different phases is mixed, it does exactly that: symmetries in the solution disappear, and aberrations form; the first step in several that lead to the forming of galaxies out of nothing. The secrets of the universe it seems, aren’t safe for long.
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Micro Fueler Is First Ethanol Kit for Brewing Backyard Biofuels on the Cheap

NEW YORK — This morning, the E-Fuel Corporation, a Silicon Valley startup, introduced the first ethanol refinery system designed for home use. The Micro Fueler, a backyard fueling station, can create pure E100 ethanol from sugar feed stock. “It’s third-grade science,” says Thomas Quinn, founder and CEO of E-Fuel. “You just mix together water, sugar and yeast, and in a few hours, you start getting ethanol.” The $9995 Micro Fueler has a can fill its own 35-gallon tank in about a week by fermenting the sugar, water and yeast internally, then separating out the water through a membrane filter.

E-Fuel representatives claim that the initial cost of the machine can be offset by up to 50 percent by federal, state and local credits, and the cost of raw sugar can be brought down to $1 or below through a system of carbon trading coupons. The Micro Fueler can produce a gallon of ethanol from about 10 gallons of sugar.

Quinn dismisses many of the preconceptions about ethanol—lower gas mileage, long-term damage to automotive fuel systems and the need for a “flex-fuel” car—as just myths. Quinn claims that the E100 from the Micro Fueler can be mixed with ordinary gasoline, or even water to a 70/30 ratio—and still maintain a high-enough octane level to provide plenty of power for ordinary vehicles.

The Micro Fueler is for sale now, with deliveries expected by the fourth quarter. Obviously, there are a lot of unknown variables—fuel prices, sugar supply and distribution, and, of course, the machine’s basic reliability—that will determine the potential success or failure of the Micro Fueler. But Quinn, who has a background in the PC business, sees the personal nature of the Micro Fueler as its main selling point. “Ethanol is really the people’s fuel,” he says. “Anybody can make it.” —Glenn Derene

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Screwed: World’s Most Evil Worm Invades Yemen

Screw Worm Larvae. Image by the US department of agriculture. Up until now the list of worms that has made men curse with fear has pretty much been limited to tape worms.

Well…add another one to that list: the screw worm.

Like something out of a horror movie, screw worm females go after the bare flesh, laying 250-300 eggs in a host. When you feel that itch, whatever you do, don’t scratch it. The reason why they’re called screw worms is that the maggots will only burrow deeper, causing tissue damage and even death.

Ok, so you might be thinking this environmental blog is exaggerating things a bit, right? Wrong.

Once hatched, the maggots feed off the live flesh and fall down to the ground, where they pupate. The pupae reach adulthood 7 days later. They can then mate and lay over 4,000 eggs. They can also fly 125 miles, bringing their offspring and the plague inland.

Yemen, which has experienced a huge coastal outbreak of the evil screw worm is desperate for international aid. A Ministerial delegation was at the IAEA in Vienna, Austria, to seek emergency assistance to fight the evil worm.

However in Yemen, humans being affected by the pests is not the biggest problem. The vast majority who turn into “living hosts” are usually very young, old or infirm. The main problem is livestock.

“There are about 20,000 cases of livestock affected. Most of these are sheep and goats,” says Mansoor AlQadasi, General Director of the Central Veterinarian Laboratory. With increasing food costs, and mouths to feed, this is a huge problem that threatens the traditional way of life.

It is hoped that like the outbreak in Libya in 1988, the international community will give aid and help eradicate the insects. One possible approach that worked successfully in Libya and South America is effectively to turn the insects against themselves: birth control on a massive scale. The approach entails using radiation to breed hundreds of thousands of sterile male screw worms, and reintroducing them into the wild.

If aid can be generated we might be able to screw over the screw worm, before they screw us.

By the way, if you want to see some seriosly gross pics, try this link here. We warn you, its not for the faint hearted.

Via International Atomic Agency Press Release

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6 Stupidly Simple Steps to Saving Billions of Gallons of Gas

OK...gas prices are getting out of hand, and carbon emissions have been out of hand for a long time. So let's kill two birds with...well...five stones. We generally focus on high-technology here at EcoGeek, and how we can save energy with smart designs. But sometimes, there are simpler ways. In fact, an absolutely tremendous amount of gasoline could be saved in America with some very simple measures. We break it all down and figure out how much gas can be saved with some stupidly simple techniques.

1. Lose Some Weight - 900 M Gallons of Gas
Americans weigh about 24 more pounds per person than we did in the 1970s. That weight, when we're driving, has to be moved around with our cars. Multiplied over the three trillion miles driven in America each year, suddenly we need a lot of gas to move around our extra chub. If we could (preferably through walking and biking) lose those 24 lbs and reach 1970's sizes, America would used nearly one billion gallons of gas less than we currently do.

2. Intelligent Traffic Lights - 1000 M Gallons of Gas
Studies have shown that altering traffic lights to ensure maximum flow can reduce gasoline consumption in cities by between 10% and 20%. Already, lots of places have traffic light systems that use sensors to detect whether or not there are cars in certain lanes and when and how often to change lights. But a great deal of traffic infrastructure is still extremely primitive, and most of it is programmed by hand. Researchers have begun to attempt to create traffic lights that can make decisions for themselves. Stoplights might soon communicate with other nearby lights about when they plan on changing, how much traffic they've seen, and what's been working for them recently to keep traffic flowing. And they will even be able to remember what worked for maximizing flow in the past, and use those same techniques in the future.

3. More Expensive Gas - 450 M Gallons of Gas (so far)
OK, so this isn't necessarily the best solution to our problems. Especially since most people who really need to drive can't afford to pay much more for gas. But 2007 showed the first decrease in the number of miles traveled since the gas crisis of the 70s. As gas prices sored to upwards of $3.00 per gallon, people actually drove less. The amount driven dropped by about 10 billion miles. At the average fleet efficiency of 22 mpg, that's 450 million gallons of gas saved.

4. Drive a Little Slower - 600 M Gallons of Gas (just for semi trucks)
Recently, with diesel prices topping $4.00, Con-Way Freight, owner of one of the largest truck fleets in America, decided that they would decrease the maximum speed their drivers could drive from 65 mph to 62 mph. This will save the company 3.2 million gallons of fuel per year. And that's just ONE trucking company going 3 mph slower! If this was expanded to all 1.5 million semis on American roads, it would save 617 million gallons of fuel! And if it the national speed limit was lowered to 65 mph, the savings would be extreme. Already, the U.S. trucking industry is calling for a decrease in the national speed limit, first because the difference in speed between trucks and cars creates possible safety issues. And second, because it would, ultimately, decrease the price of fuel.

5. More People Per Car - 1500 M Gallons of Gas
If every car in America that transported one person instead transported two people, we'd save about 8 billion gallons of gas per year. But since, y'know, I guess that's unrealistic, we figure we'll aim lower. If just 20% of current drive-only trips became two-passenger carpools, we'd use 1.5 billion fewer gallons of gas per year.

6. Increase Mileage to 35 MPG - 55,000 M Gallons of Gas by 2015
This needs to be said. The current average fuel economy of an American car is 22 mpg. It would be lower if there was no law in place requiring that efficiency. The auto industry has been fighting any increase in that number for decades. We finally have a law on the books that will increase that number to 35 MPG by 2020. But if we, in America, had 35 MPG cars today, like the currently do in Europe, we would use 55 BILLION gallons of gas less. Yes, looking back through the rest of the list, this might seem to trivialize the rest of that work.

But each of these measures will, without a doubt, help us deal with the supply shortages and environmental implications of our massive oil addiction. And while American still consumes roughly 400 million gallons of gasoline per day

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Earthrace Biodiesel Boat Circumnavigates Globe, Aims For World Speed Record

This 100% biodiesel-powered, 78 ft wave-piercing trimaran aims to set an around-the-world speed record while maintaining a net zero carbon footprint. The Earthrace left Sagunto, Spain, on April 27, and has already made excellent time across the Atlantic, landing in Panama just 8 days later.

Inspired by the desire to “connect with people about the need to get renewable fuels into our energy mix and to inspire them to do something,” the Earthrace has already generated a whirlwind of publicity. Much of this is due to the boat’s eco-technological appeal. It’s been described as “a rally car but for oceans”, with the ability to submerge up to 23 feet underwater while powering through the ocean. The “eco-” part doesn’t just include circling the globe on 100% biodiesel. Parts of the boat are made from a hemp-based composite, bedding foams are made from canola oil, and the operation’s total carbon footprint has been balanced by purchasing carbon credits.

The Earthrace also seems to have pretty good fuel economy for a powerboat. At 6 knots, it can go 24,000 km on one tank of biodiesel, which is over halfway around the world. 6 knots is pretty slow; at a more reasonable cruising speed of 25 knots (29 mph) the powerboat can go 3700 km (2300 miles) on a single tank.

Race rules state that the voyage passes through both the Suez and Panama canals, which makes the fastest route run close to the equator. The crew will make 12 refueling stops along the way in places where biodiesel is available, hoping to beat the previous circumnavigation record of 74 days, 23 hours and 53 minutes set by UK boat ‘Cable & Wireless Adventurer’ in 1998.

This will be Earthrace’s second attempt at breaking the speed record. The team left Barbados in March of last year, but ran into significant mechanical problems that prematurely ended their trip. Let’s hope they have better luck this time.

Check out the Earthrace blog where you can follow along with the voyage. Also check out the sponsorship video (sorry about the gratuitous corporate advertising pitch, just watch the first few minutes to see what the boat looks like):

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Sexy Dancing vs. Peak Oil: Oily Cassandra

We might file this one under 'missed opportunity'...

It may be sad but it's true - sex sells. We've seen this ourselves in the popularity of our guide on How to Green Your Sex Life, or Solar Powered Bikinis, so 'Oily Cassandra' might very well be on to something in her attempts to educate the masses on the threat of peak oil (imagine if Al Gore had donned lingerie!). Whether or not folks agree with the medium, the message that we need to pay attention to dwindling oil supplies, and fast, is hugely important. Nevertheless, we're dissapointed at how fast Cassandra swings from awareness raising to defeatism, at least where certain alternatives are concerned. Sure, peak oil is likely to bring us some very tough times ahead - as Jeremy Leggett recently argued, we need to be mobilising as if for war - but to simply say we blew our chance to invest in renewables is not helpful. We are hardly short of options, both technological and societal, when it comes to cutting down on oil use fast, and it would have been nice to see Cassandra inspiring action rather than despair in her video. Here's just a short list of what we might have included (maybe we'll make a video of our own to highlight them...):

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Fuel from Trash Will Power California Garbage Trucks

300 garbage collection trucks in California will soon be fueled by the same trash that they haul. Landfill gas will be purified and liquefied, producing up to 13,000 gallons of liquefied natural gas (LNG) daily.

This facility at Waste Management’s Altamont Landfill in Livermore, California will begin operation in 2009. It comes with a price tag of $15.5 million, with grants providing $1.4 million.

Cleaner Fuel

Waste Management is the largest waste management company in North America and operates the largest US fleet of heavy-duty collection trucks. The company has a goal to reduce fleet emissions by 15% by 2020.

The new facility will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by more than 30,000 tons per year, according to Linde North America. LNG is a cleaner burning transportation fuel that emits less nitrogen oxide, carbon dioxide and particulates than diesel-fueled vehicles.

Duane Woods, senior vice president, Western group of Waste Management, said, “This will be the largest plant of its kind and we hope to break new ground by producing commercial quantities. Natural gas is already the cleanest burning fuel available for our collection trucks, and the opportunity to use recovered landfill gas offers enormous environmental benefits to the communities we serve.”

Demand for Low-carbon Fuels

California passed a law to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 25% by 2020 and other states may follow. Demand for low-carbon fuels is expected to increase significantly in California as the state starts requiring a decrease in carbon emissions. Waste Management will be ahead of the curve by having plants like this in operation, creating lucrative business opportunities.

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First Time In World History, Killer Whales Filmed Hunting Dolphins

Image from The Herald. Let’s see how long until we get a cease-and-desist.

A tour operator in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, unwittingly stumbled into the history books this weekend when he, his boat captain, and four tourists were in the right place at the right time to make the first recording ever of Orca whales hunting dolphins.

Ranier Schimpf was leading a group of divers when they noticed that one dolphin had been separated from a pod by five of the killer whales then repeatedly rammed. The dolphin was sent flying through the air by the force of impact from whales that were several times its size. With the smaller creature finally left laying unconscious on the surface, the whales pulled it below.

The two 7m male, two 5m female, and a 3m calf whales were clearly working as a team against the dolphin, and it appeared it was also a hunting lesson for the calf. More than that, they exhibited very protective behavior after the hunt. Becoming aware of the boat, they slowed, and began to circle the craft, investigating it. At that point the divers, making a decision I’ll only characterize as daring here, got into the water with the whales and kept filming them. This paid off, however. The whales, recognizing the humans as non-threatening, began to interact in a friendly way. The mother even presented the calf to one of the tourists, shielding it carefully, but allowing it to take a look at the strange visitors.

Capturing the hunting process of orcas, and their behavior immediately after, gives man access to a previously un-captured behavior that’s key to understanding the group dynamics within the pod. Conservation efforts are traditionally most successful when animals are the most thoroughly understood, and we are now, thanks to a group of tourists that were in the right place at the right time, a great leap closer to understanding both the hunting and social behaviors of killer whales.

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VW Confirms 1L Concept Will Become Reality in 2010

mage source: Wikipedia

There’s been talk about the VW 1L concept for years. Since VW built the original, fuel economy, safety, price, and release date has been speculated upon and argued about, and I’d finally stopped thinking it was ever going to happen. However, according to VW’s CEO, it should hit the market in 2010.

The VW 1L is so named because, in theory, it only consumes one liter of fuel per 100 kilometers traveled. For those of us in the US, this translates into about 235 MPG. Definitely far and above anything on the market currently. The concept, developed in 2002, actually got better fuel economy, scoring a sweet .89L/100km in VW testing. It’s likely to use more fuel in real world use, but with that kind of mileage in testing it’s unlikely that anyone would complain about an “unsatisfactory 200 MPG.”

The thing is, that kinda of fuel economy comes at the price of riding in an extremely small two seater, with the two seats being one in front of the other, a la jet plane, rather than a standard side by side. The 1L also looks frighteningly close to the ground, which is part of how it pulls off a drag coefficient of .159, much better than any current production vehicle. While the final design isn’t done, VW will probably power the car with a 1 cyclinder diesel engine of displacement lower the .5 L, meaning the car’s speed will top out at 120 km/h.

The other obvious issue is the one I’m sure you’re all wondering about too. How safe is this thing? While I’m not usually one to complain about small cars, the 1L is extremely light and low to the ground. If it were released in the US I could easily see it being run over by any old F150 or Hummer. Nothing is out right now about safety, but as the production date nears, I’m sure VW will be doing lots of testing to reassure the public.

2010 isn’t that far off, in fact, it’s about the same time the Volt is supposed to be hitting the streets, so you’ll likely hear a lot more good and bad about this car in the coming months.

Posts Related to VW’s 1L and other Green Car Technology:

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