Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Understanding mRNA Vaccines - Webinar

 





As the COVID19 vaccine rolls out it is critical to understand how it works, its efficacy, as well as its risks and benefits.  Actively opposing disinformation will be key in achieving broad public compliance and ultimately ensuring public health.

  • What is the history of the mRNA vaccine?  
  • How does this approach differ from previous vaccination strategies? 
  • Is this really new technology? 

These questions and many more will be answered, along with your specific questions. 

Hosted by Dr. Kevin Folta, molecular biologist and host of the Talking Biotech Podcast.




Thursday, November 12, 2020

Dr. Don Huber's Mystery Organism - A Legacy of Disinformation

Back before calling out disinformation was fashionable, I was busting biotech charlatans for lying about science to satisfy their personal agendas. 
 
It was seven years ago today that Dr. Don Huber, Emeritus Professor of Purdue University, stood in front of a room of people and scared the hell out of them. I was in the room. His stream of disinformation was disgusting, deliberately and intentionally lying to an audience assembled to learn about food and new technology. 

You can read about the event in detail here

At the event he reiterated his claims of a new organism he had isolated from "GMO" crops-- a deadly "virus-like fungus" or "microfungus" that killed plants, caused disease in people and triggered spontaneous abortion in livestock.  The audience was aghast, with audible discomfort in the room. 


Not "scientists" but one unscrupulous scientist that intentionally fabricated a story to influence public perception and sway federal policy.



Long-story short, during the Q&A I asked him if I could obtain a sample, sequence its DNA, and reveal the nature of the organism and stop the crisis. 

After a long, rambling retreat, he said that he and his team in China (yes, China) were sequencing the genome and would release the results shortly.  He refused to accept my generous offer. 

Seven years later... crickets. 

This is the same deadly organism that Dr. Huber reported to US Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack.  He wrote it from his position of authority as a university professor, and noted his military service. He claimed that it was a "pathogen of high-risk status" and "should be treated as an emergency."


 From Cooking Up a Story - A synopsis of the Huber letter to Vilsack

This established expert attempts to mobilize the resources of the United States of America to address a problem that only he can see, a move motivated by his anti-biotech views and a vendetta against a company.  It also was claimed to be caused by glyphosate, making it an harbinger of the future false claims made against the compound.

Seven years after I offered to help him solve this national emergency, there is still no news of progress on the deadly pathogen. 

Because he made it up.  He lied to the US Ag Secretary and millions of people to scare them away from modern farm technology. 

He also went after me personally, sending a brutal letter to my university, condemning my audacity to ask him questions, and explaining that I was "aggressive" and off base how I treated him.  I was nothing other than polite, as was revealed to my boss on audio recordings. 

So this is personal.  I want to hold him accountable, I want the public to not forget his lies.  He intentionally provided false information to influence public perception and policy around agriculture. 

While he had a solid career as a scientist, his disinformation and hostility towards the scientists that held him accountable should be the centerpiece of his legacy.  


Sunday, November 1, 2020

Ending COVID19 - The Decision is Ours

One message that is not being shared about COVID19- It is 100% controllable with changes in our personal behavior. A virus is just a tiny collection of infectious chemistry that only spreads when we permit it to spread. This is why testing, tracing, staying home, washing hands, controlling your respiratory aerosols, and keeping distance are so important. We each, control its spread together.

Australia did an excellent job at this and yesterday logged zero new cases. Life there is normal; their businesses can thrive. Hospitals can go back to treating the involuntarily ill and health care workers can know they are not risking their lives by treating someone that perhaps elected to become infected via their own negligence. How can we do reach zero in the States when we are turning the corner into increasingly unprecedented infections?

If everyone were to assume they were infected and took their most extreme efforts to protect others, the numbers would plummet within weeks. Unfortunately the message that this is in our hands to control means our politicians and science deniers can't blame someone else.

This is literally on us, individually. A chain is only as strong as its weakest link, and any chain completely fails when it is actively being cut with bolt cutters by 30-some percent of the population.

The pandemic's grip ends with leadership, cohesive federal response, aggressive programs to test and trace, guidance from medical experts, and most of all, an attitude change across the population.

The problem is not a virus. The problem is an infection of national narcissism that puts individual belief, selfishness, and even disinformation ahead of the basic science of viral transmission. We control how long this pandemic will affect the nation. It can be beat without new vaccines and therapeutics, packed hospitals and lockdown orders. Other countries have done it. We have to all commit to being our brothers' keepers, and realize that if we want to be part of a healthy, happy, and prosperous nation, our most patriotic duty is to prevent the preventable.

Friday, August 7, 2020

The Chemistry of the Beirut Tragedy

 The use of ammonium nitrate in explosives is nothing new. It is a potent oxidizing agent that accelerates the combustion of fuels, instantaneously liberating the energy within their bonds. This is how explosives work. The Oklahoma City bombing in 1995 is an example of its devastating potential. A rental vehicle filled with about 4,000 pounds of ammonium nitrate fertilizer prills (1–2 mm soluble beads) treated with diesel fuel (47:1) was detonated in front of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building, destroying the adjacent building and damaging 325 others in a substantial radius of the blast.

Ammonium nitrate is a readily-available fertilizer, as plants thrive on the nitrogen present in both the ammonium and the nitrate moieties of the compound. Malicious use has decreased with stiffened regulations and availability.

The use of ammonium nitrate to accelerate the combustion of fuel is common in industrial applications such as mining. The mixture is referred to as ANFO for ammonium nitrate and fuel oil. The actual detonation is a result of instant release of the energy within the fuel’s bonds, driven by the presence of ammonium nitrate.

But ANFO is a relatively slow burn. The explosive power is generated from the rapid formation of gases in a confined space leading to release.

The violent reaction witnessed in the Beirut tragedy is at first difficult to reconcile. You can actually put out a fire with ammonium nitrate — it is a relatively stable compound that does not simply ignite on its own. So while here was 2750 tons (>2.5 million kg) of ammonium nitrate in the warehouse in Beirut, there was no “fuel” component. So how does negligent fertilizer storage translate to a massive tragedy?

Analysis of the video shows a burning fire nearby, and some reports indicate that this started because a welding crew was repairing a gap in the warehouse that set of fireworks adjacent to the ammonium nitrate. Insert question mark here.

In the video you can see the fire burning, with small aerial bursts consistent with fireworks on site.

While relatively stable at room temperature, ammonium nitrate decomposes with heat. It is the degree of heating that dictates the products of the reaction. Below ~300°C ammonium nitrate breaks down into nitrous oxide (N<sub>2</sub>O) and water (H<sub>2</sub>0), plus the reaction releases heat. Neither of these compounds has much consequence under slow decomposition.

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The low temperature decomposition of ammonium nitrate.

At high temperatures the reaction is much different. The reaction produces gaseous nitrogen (N2) and oxygen (O2) along with water in a massively exothermic (heat producing), rapid release. This is what likely happened in Beirut. The high heat from this preliminary fire led to the rapid chain reaction decomposition of ammonium nitrate that instantaneously ignited the entire load, an explosion 1/5 of Hiroshima. That rapid decomposition led to the tremendous shock wave that broke windows miles away and was heard as far away as Cyprus.

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The reaction above 291°C

The evidence of ammonium nitrate decomposition in Beirut is also noted by the signature red gas cloud, an indicator of NO2 (nitrogen dioxide) formation.

It is also possible that the stored ammonium nitrate was already decomposing from years of improper storage, and could very well have gone through other transformations from moisture or if it was contaminated with fuels or other combustible materials. The circumstances may have hastened the reaction from the initial fire.

Many of us grew up milling gunpowder or creating model rocket engines, and nitrate-based oxidation compounds were something we always understood and respected. However, their use as principle components of a violent explosion is not immediately clear. Hopefully this short article provided that clarity.

Beirut is no stranger to violent explosions, as decades of civil wars and bombing from Israel have left a lasting impact on the population and its infrastructure. As of this writing the death toll stands as 78. However, there is no chance that this number will remain constant, as the ultimate tragedy of this event will probably take weeks to realize.


Monday, July 20, 2020

Condoning Car Attacks on Protesters

The interesting thing about COVID19 times is that whenever I sense we have hit the lowest low, society always seems to find a level lower.  At a time when we admire the work of physicians, nurses and other folks on the front line of the pandemic, there are equal magnitudes of disappointment from some that represent a significant mindset within our nation.

Today someone I knew from high school posted this on Facebook:




A new low in counter-protest swag endorses the recent trend of using vehicular violence to quash social movements. 


Clearly the All Lives Splatter is a play off of Black Lives Matter, and the car plowing into protesters depicts the increasingly frequent use of vehicles weaponized by those aggressively opposed to the requested social change.  Since the death of George Floyd in late May, there have been 66 vehicle attacks on protesters.

The tactic typically employed by Islamic militant groups has now been adopted by those wishing to limit the American tradition of protest.  The most notable case in recent memory comes from Charlottesville, VA where a white supremacy rally conjured nonviolent resistance. James Alex Fields rammed the crowd of counter protesters killing 32-year-old Heather Heyer. Fields is now serving life in prison.  Analysis of his computer unveiled images of cars ramming protesters, indicating his actions were inspired and premeditated.

The latest attacks were in Bloomington, Indiana and Seattle. Twenty-four year old veterinary assistant Summer Taylor died when she was run over by Dawit Ketele, who now is being held awaiting trial.   

There are three levels of wrong here. 

1.  Using a vehicle to attack protesters. 

2.  Making memes and t-shirts to celebrate using a vehicle to attack protesters.

3.  Extolling the virtue of memes and t-shirts celebrating using a vehicle to attack protesters on social media. 

With each level the hate and pathology grow even deeper, from committing a violent act to promoting it as cute, funny, and in some cases necessary. 

And if you want to buy your protester-ramming shirt you can get it here for $23, right next to the "If You Don't Like America, There's the Door" shirt. 


The irony is that America's framers welcomed civil protest against injustice, and terrorist-level attacks on Americans by fellow citizens are about as un-American as it gets. Maybe their rejection of acceptable civility can help them find the door.

And therein lies the problem. People opposing protest for needed change feel they are somehow doing a patriotic duty. They will commit a crime as a presumably patriotic act, they will wear a shirt celebrating it, or emote about it on social media, even if it means killing other Americans.  

It shows the fragile state of our union, and the polarization of a significant portion of our population that feels neutralizing bothersome speech that provokes needed change is worthy of a deadly and violent response. 

Monday, June 1, 2020

The Joy of Growing Food for Others - What we can learn from a four-year-old farmer

Olivia is a tiny girl, probably somewhere between four and five, that doesn’t really walk from place to place as much as she bounces. Her hair is white-blonde from the sun, she always smiles, and she sings while she talks.

We met her at a Gainesville, Florida farmers market. My wife Natalia sells the fruits and vegetables she produces there, and Olivia and her parents are regular customers. One day last fall Olivia would fall in love with the cucamelon. Also known as the mouse melon or Mexican sour gherkin, the cucamelon is a fresh-market fruit that has the color and size that would be perfect as a watermelon for Barbie and Ken.

Cucamelons have a pickle-like quality and a hint of citrus, and they are a favorite at the market. We eat them in salads and on cheese boards, plucked by the dozens from long prolific vines.
And Oliva just loves them. During the early spring Florida growing season in January and February she’d come back week after week, searching for the fruit even when they were out of season.
“Just a few more weeks,” was always our answer.
Her enthusiasm was so infectious that one morning before the market I rushed out in the greenhouse and pulled a plant from the ground, placing its big white root and scraggly leaves into a pot with fresh soil. That sunny Saturday I’d present it to her at the market.
Her father wanted to pay for it, but there was no way it was going to happen. When you see a child so enthusiastic about a horticultural product, you lean into it.
Weeks went by and COVID19 kept the family away from the market. Each week more and more people returned, and this last Saturday they returned. Olivia carrying a tiny plastic sandwich bag.
“Cucamelons!” she said, as she shook the zip-seal bag with a bunch of the little pickle-grapes.
But her favorite snack was not for her own consumption. She wasn’t there to show off her success, searching for a compliment.
Instead they were a gift. She wanted to give them to Natalia. The food she produced was a gift for someone else. These little berries were something that Olivia produced, at her home, in her soil. With her care and watchful eye, the tiny girl watched a plant grow and produce before her harvest.
And she would share her work with someone special.
The funny part is, she gave a bag of a dozen cucamelons to Natalia, and then wanted her parents to buy more, as our table was filled with them stacked neatly in tiny cups.
This is the important point. It was not about the cucamelons — it was about producing something from a plant, by your hands, and wanting to share it with others. Such gestures satisfy something, an intense nurturing mission, deep in our DNA.
It is the same force that makes the farmer in Manitoba get out to feed and milk the cows on a -20° morning. It is the drive that sends Natalia to the field all day, every day, dawn past dusk, in brutal heat and humidity, only to load the truck on her days off and head to market. It is the satisfaction of having fresh food to share with a community.
And in this microcosm Olivia embodies the drive that every agricultural producer feels. A hard job, fighting against nature while working in concert with it, toiling at a pace the world decides you need to take — in the mission to produce something for others to eat.
I was extremely proud of Olivia and extremely touched. In a time when selfies and narcissistic behaviors are so common, a four-year-old girl wanted to share her limited and coveted resource with someone else. It is a testament to her parents I’m sure, but a behavior that will serve her well the rest of her life.
And yesterday I gave her pot of strawberry plants…

Thursday, April 16, 2020

Film Review: The Need to Grow

The recurring ads on Facebook pulled at me to watch The Need to Grow, a documentary film about food and farming.  As someone connected with these areas professionally and personally, I thought it would be worth a watch.  Here is a review.

First the good things.  The film is nicely shot and well written.  The majority of the work builds on themes such as nutritious diets healthy soils, and efficient energy. Those are the central underlying values of the film, and ones that I wholly endorse. 

However, where the film falls apart is in its approaches to achieve those end points.  Two of the "experts" recruited for the film are none other than Jeffrey Smith and Vandana Shiva, two people with little training in science or farming (and no, Vandana Shiva is not a physicist as the film claims). 

The narrator is actress Rosario Dawson, who early in the film makes the proclamation, "Agriculture is the most destructive human activity on the planet."

It is clear where this is going. While agriculture can always do better, I'm not sure it rises to the level of "most destructive" human activities, especially when it quells famine, war, and malnutrition, which are real tragedies of the human existence.  

There also are statements about how "food has no nutrition".  

The film follows three interwoven stories.  All are tales of the well-meaning good guys being struck down by the stark fist of The Man, Big Ag, Big Energy, and Big Cookie.  It is the unappealing story of victims of the machine, yet all folks that took a stand on flimsy foundations. 

The first is that of Alicia Serratos and her mother.  Back in 2014 Alicia took on the mantle of collecting signatures to petition that the Girl Scouts of America make "GMO free cookies".  The film shows that she collects a lot of signatures, then she goes to New York City and GSA headquarters only to be snubbed by leadership and sent on her way. 

During the cries to remove "GMOs" from the cookies the GSA was very clear that they were going to follow the science and not the demands of a child. That was the correct position to take. 

Similarly, at the time I wrote a number of blogs on her campaign.  I was especially concerned that young women were being taught that (their parents') beliefs and bad science was superior to STEM-based conclusions.  My point was that young women like Alicia needed to carefully contrast their passions against the evidence science gives us. 

I got an angry letter from her mother for that. 

The second part is about Michael Smith, a software engineer and inventor that used a Montana Department of Environmental Quality grant to build a system to turn wood waste into energy, and then recapture the carbon dioxide with algae. All could then be could be used to generate electricity from methane.  His company was Algae Aqua Culture Technology (AACT), and it was essentially a demonstration site to show that wood waste could be converted to useful products for energy and farming. 

The crisis moment came when the steel and glass structure full of water burnt to the ground.  There was a curious lack of explanation for why or how a glass and metal structure would melt so completely, but plenty of those interviewed implied it was retribution for AACT creating a solution to end the stranglehold of Big Energy. 

Strange, while you can find documentation of the fire at AACT, there is no mention of how the fire was caused, even to this day.  There was no mention of arson or any investigation to the cause. 




A photo of the water, metal and concrete that burned to the ground in the documentary The Need to Grow.

The final story was about Alegria Farms, a 1.4 acre plot that implemented hydroponic and other production methods to grow local produce.  The story goes that the area was surrounded by development and was shut down by the county to turn it into something gross like a subdivision or something.  

What they didn't tell you was that this was a demonstration farm funded by local interests to show how urban farming could be taken to another level-- super cool.  I love this kind of thing and fully endorse making more of it.  Research in these areas and demonstration farms are needed to kindle the interest in food production with city folk. 

But the story line made this look like one man's life's work being crushed by Big Government, when it was really just a government finding (what they deem) better use for the property. It is Orange County, CA after all, and demonstration farms are probably pretty low on the priority list for land allocation.

In conclusion, the movie has a very positive underlying message-- how do we innovate and channel our passions into feeding more people more healthy food.  That's great. 

The problem is that instead of showing the innovations and how they create durable changes in community food supply, the heroes turn into victims of the villains, their missions thwarted because of of Big Evil _____.  That kind of conspiratorial thinking is not only boring, it is the kind of thing that only erodes the trust in science and in modern farming.  That's a dangerous place to go, and only increases disdain against conventional farming.

We know that conventional farming can do better and it has.  No-till and conservation tilling practices are common, there is a new emphasis on  crop rotations, and new genetics (including genetic engineering). These strategies are making large-acre strategies more sustainable. Variable rate fertilizer applications have cut application and runoff (and costs) based on aerial image data. Fungicides and antimicrobials have been cut due to integration with weather prediction data.  New chemistries, sensors, robots, and other technologies can help farmers do more with less.  


The way to satisfy the need to grow is not to trash what is here.  It is to use that as a starting point and continue to innovate. That's what we do in medicine. We don't go back to leeches and blood letting because we didn't have a vaccine ready for a global epidemic. Well, some people do, and that may include Dawson and the folks in the film.  The rest of us rely on the the best technology science can bring to address the questions as they arise. That may come from research in organic production, conventional methods, or even indoor plant factories. 

This is the positive message of agricultural innovation.  We need documentaries that make the call to all hands on deck, feed more people better food, and show the amazing new innovations in genetics and technology that can help us achieve our sustainability milestones.