Thursday, October 10, 2019

Faculty- You Are the Captain of Your Ship

My heart goes out to UC Berkeley researchers that literally had the plug pulled on their research.  Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) has initiated a series of power shut-downs to curtail  potential wildfires sparked by their power lines in the Bay Area.  A few years ago their equipment led to a massive wildfire where they were found liable, so this move attempts to limit their exposure-- by cutting off power to 2.5 million people for up to 6 days

This causes unbelievably hard problems for folks in need of power to run medical electrical equipment etc, so it there are significant issues here that reach beyond inconvenience.  That said, this is an important note to faculty (and postdocs and students) about the limits of a university to help with a major crisis-- no matter how good the facilities people are, you can't count on the system to save you. 

That reality as researchers proactively took charge to save their critical resources. I have a funny feeling that it is only a few of them too, and that most are waiting for the Power Fairy to help out.

Twitter showed a case where one UC Berkeley researcher was moving the lab's -80°C freezers to UCSF to keep them cold.  Frankly I would have gone for the super-long extension cord, but that's me and my obsession with comically large versions of stuff. 




Moving trucks haul precious cargo of fragile frozen cells and other materials to another campus thanks to PG&E power outages.  Hopefully they won't hit traffic. Good luck with that.


This hit many researchers especially hard, and Associate Professor Noah Whiteman took to Twitter to ping folks in the university-system hierarchy from the Governor to the Vice Chancellor.  That's a good move, and certainly illuminates the state of infrastructure in public universities, but it doesn't keep the cells cold. 


He's right, but universities are strapped for cash under the current federal science funding situation and backup power is probably pretty far down the list. 


My advice to faculty, when your name is on the lab door it must become your responsibility to ensure that the necessary resources for your lab are in place.  You can't count on a university when a massive catastrophe hits, and when you build universities on fault lines, tornado alleys and hurricane haunts you need to have a plan beyond the university's.  Yes, universities hire outstanding people (like we certainly do) to address these issues, but there are only a few of them, while there are hundreds of faculty watching the sand run through the hourglass as a career's worth of valuable cells slowly thaws to death. 



I live in hurricane land, and power can be interrupted for days.  While some rooms in my building have backup power from a local diesel generator, my lab has no backup outlets.  Knowing this, I own a giant generator and a 200 ft power cord with a 220 V plug -- just to run to my -80°C freezer if needed.  I keep about 20 gallons of gas on hand during hurricane season and a full tank in the car and truck when hurricanes are approaching. I also can run other cords to 110V freezers to protect tens of thousands of dollars worth of enzymes and other labile materials. 

In 18 years at the University of Florida I only had to get it on the truck and over to the lab one time, and as I was going to fire up, the power went back on.  

The point is this-- part of your lab's long-term success depends on 
your personal crisis plan to insulate your research program from disaster.  This is on us as faculty.  Yes we pay >50% of every grant dollar to the university for overhead, but that can't adequately fund a safety net for when catastrophe hits. 

The other reality is that our universities should be on the cutting edges of alternative power, and every building should be off grid and on solar, wind, and the on-campus nuclear plant. A man can dream. 

The take-home message is that if it is critical to your operation do not count on someone else to take care of it.  This is especially true in the crumbling infrastructure of our nation's public science enterprise. As the captain of the ship, develop a backup plan and a strategy to save the resources necessary for your program to succeed.

Wednesday, October 9, 2019

Talking Biotech 207 - Engineering Microbes to Fix Nitrogen


What if we could create microbes that would fix atmospheric nitrogen and deliver it directly to the roots of plants?  That's the idea of Joyn Bio's Dr. Michael Mille.  The company has set out to use genetic engineering to reprogram microbial "chassis" that can do the work in the field, limiting dependence on external nitrogen fertilizer.  The process would transform agriculture and decrease carbon and nitrogen pollution associated with agriculture. 

Saturday, September 28, 2019

TB206 - The Ugly Politics of Glyphosate Litigation


 A relatively safe agricultural chemical is demonized as a carcinogen, lobbyists pose as journalists and stoke fear, NGOs defy science to advance agenda, lawyers make a fortune, science suffers and farmers lose options.  A population lives in fear of its food.  This is the fallout of the IARC decision. 

In today's podcast I speak with Dr. David Zaruk, a professor that understands risk and has examined the IARC decisions and the internal politics and gyrations of vilifying an agricultural compound, straight from the tort law playbook.

Sunday, September 22, 2019

TB205 - The Oxitec GE Mosquito Situation

Sterile insect technique is the process of treating insects with radiation to damage their DNA to render them unable to reproduce, and then releasing them into populations of the same species. Within a generation the numbers plummet.  This is a great approach for A. egyptii mosquitoes, as a genetic solution can slow spread of Yellow Fever, Dengue, Malaria, Zika, West Nile and a host of other diseases. It is better to control insects with genetics rather than insecticides.

Oxitech takes this one further and produces sterile insects using a larval-lethal gene that they can turn off in the lab.  Lab grown mosquitoes grow just fine, adults are sorted into males and females, and males are released to mate and pass on the lethal gene to populations that spread disease. The next generation, well, isn't. 

But control is not complete and by definition, the engineered mosquitoes must mate with local populations. It is important to note that the local populations of A. egyptii are invasive and not native. 

A recent report monitored populations and described that the introduced GE mosquitoes were mating with local ones, and that the Oxitech genetic background decreased with time. As it should. 

But that didn't stop a few speculative statements from the paper to be blown out of proportion. 




GM Watch, always looking for a way to trash technology, notes that the GE mosquitoes are "out of control" and that "GM mosquitoes are spreading in Brazil."  Neither statement is true. 

The transgene was not detected, just some of the native genetics from the introduced population. The transgene is lethal.  Not all mosquitoes pass on the transgene, but do mate, so an invasive non-native strain was mating with another invasive non-native strain. As predicted. 

The numbers also crashed, as predicted.  And in several generations the introduced genetics decreased in abundance and as of today are not detected.  Things are not running amok.  They are not even walking amok. 


This week's Talking Biotech Podcast covers the story in detail.  Please listen and understand this important topic, as this technique may save millions of lives if fully implemented. 




Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Talking Biotech 204 - Image Manipulation, Plagiarism, and Misconduct

Dr. Elisabeth Bik is amazing, with an eagle eye on publication misconduct. She voluntarily scans the scientific literature, looking carefully at images of cells and gels. Sometimes she finds that data have been fabricated. She reports this to journal editors, and hopes that the journals take appropriate action. Sometimes they do. Sometimes they don't.  Sometimes there is fallout.  She is taking a huge risk to ensure the integrity of the literature, as careers can hang in the balance, and she sets herself up for professional and personal peril.  We owe her a great debt and need to know her story and stand behind her. Please listen to her story. 

This week's podcast. 

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

Guest on CanSurvivor

I had a most wonderful conversation with Kelsey Smith at CanSurvivor.  We discussed issues in health and nutrition, genetics and technology, along with some hints on the next-generation of new cancer therapies that are on the scientific horizon.  She was so much fun to talk to, and we share a forward-thinking and optimistic look at technology and the promises it holds for food and medicine. 



Saturday, September 7, 2019

Talking Biotech 203 - An HIV Preventative from Rice





Could a prophylactic powder from GMO rice stop HIV transmission in the Developing World? Dr. Evangelia Vamaka and her team have developed the technology, and it works well so far... This week's podcast with Lethbridge Alberta Canada high school student Michelle Wu.

Listen to the podcast here.